Thursday, 1 July 2010

Panda Slippers (#fridayflash)

And then there was that time when we were late for church and Dad said everyone had to get in the car now, and Melody was still doing her hair because she fancied James the organist, but Dad said no, we're going now, and he made Melody get in the car wearing her Sunday best and her fluffy panda slippers. And she shouted at Dad all the way to church, and when we got there Dad told her she could stay in the car if she wanted, but no, she got out and strode into church ahead of us. "I'm sitting on my own," she shouted as she went in the church door, and she did, she walked up the aisle and sat on the front pew so Reverend Crawley could get the full benefit of seeing our father's cruelty. Mum was so embarrassed, but Dad said we all had to go in and act normal, which we tried our best, but then once we sat down Janie started crying because Melody wasn't sat with us, and Mum told her to hush, and then Reverend Crawley stood up at the front and welcomed everyone and said how nice it was that people nowadays feel comfortable coming to church just as they are, panda slippers and all. Mum blushed and Dad grinned, and we all knew that after church he'd get a good telling off. And he did, and that evening when we'd gone to bed there must have been a discussion because after that if Melody was late getting ready for church we'd just leave her behind at home.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Fallen Angels (#fridayflash)

I once heard a story from a homeless man. He was raw with life and seemed believable. He said once a year fallen angels are forced to have their wings clipped or otherwise lose their immortality. Most of those who remember choose the operation on their wings. They all line up outside the surgery, some glugging bottles of whisky, others with prostitutes in tow to comfort them while their wings are cut to stubs. For miles you can hear the screams.

"I thought they could tell me what heaven is like," the homeless man said. "But none of them could remember."

Friday, 11 June 2010

Mark 10:22b ff. (apocryphal)


Ruth wakes to buzzing - her cellphone vibrating on her bedside table.

It's Alfred J. Mackenzie Jr., her most profitable account holder, and the most demanding. He'd warned her he'd do this. She'd hoped he'd been joking. She picks up the phone.

"You woke me." No effort needed to sound pissed.

"Listen, Ruth," he says. "About that money transfer. I've changed my mind. You need to call it off."

Even at 2am, she can't resist a smug grin.

"You told me you'd do this," she says, "and you told me what to say: No."

She cuts the line and switches off her cell.

Immediately the house phone rings. She lets it ring off and listens to him speaking to her answering machine in the hallway.

"Ruth, pick up. I don't need this right now. Listen, I'll give you half the money. That's twenty billion, Ruth. You can keep twenty billion if you call off the transfer. You'll never need to work again..."

She waits to see what he'll say next.

"Look, bitch, just pick up the phone."

She climbs out of bed to cut the power to the phone. He's still talking.

"Ruth if you don't pick up right now I'll call all your clients. I'll make sure you never step foot in a bank again."

She picks up.

"Will you shut up, Mackenzie."

"No, now listen."

"No I'm not going to fucking listen. You listen. I don't know what that guru guy said to you, but ever since you met him you've lost the plot."

"I told you what he said. He said if I wanted to live forever, I should sell everything I owned and give the money to the poor."

"And instead of asking him if he needed a shrink, you actually decided to do it."

"Well, not exactly. I've changed my mind."

"Now you've sold everything and seen all those zeros in your bank account, you've changed your mind?"

"Look, Ruth, the intention was there."

"Right. And if I call it off for you, you meant what you said about the twenty billion?"

"Not exactly. I wanted you to come to the phone."

"And stupid me, I did."

Ruth slams the receiver down and pulls out the socket. She will not do his bidding any more. She will not call it off. She'd planned it all too well. Mackenzie had told her to be creative, and she had.

Tomorrow at 10am Eastern Time the amassed fortune of the illustrious Mackenzie family -- all forty two billion of it in single dollar bills -- would flutter from helicopters over the slums of Brazil and India, the hovels of China and Russia, and the plains of Africa.

She'd make sure it happened, especially now Mackenzie wanted to call it off. She'd give away all his money, every penny, even though he'd changed his mind. Did that mean he'd forfeited the reward of eternal life? She wasn't about to chase up the crazy guru to find out, but she hoped so. She'd tell Mackenzie that he had.

He could rot in hell.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Butterfly (#fridayflash)

Last night I dreamed I was a butterfly. I danced awkward on the breeze to a distant, fragile music, as delicate as my wings. I chased it, knowing it to be my destiny, knowing it could never be caught. When I awoke, I held the dream in my mind, but I could not recall the music. I only knew it had been sung by the voice that sings all things into being.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Breakfast Storm (#fridayflash)

He’d left her sitting legs crossed at the dining table in her pink silk dressing gown, sipping a glass of orange juice, staring at his cold cup of coffee and wondering about the future of their marriage.

Leanne and Damien usually breakfasted together early, before the kids were up, because he had to leave for work by seven. It was an opportunity to spend time together. This morning had been no different, except he’d left earlier than usual, at her demand. They hadn’t argued, although now she wished they had. She’d been baiting him for an argument, she knew that, but instead he’d given her what she said she really wanted: the truth. He’d told his story, and now she understood him. Now she wished she hadn’t asked.

She’d gone upstairs to her bedroom, and was furiously applying her make-up. She told her self she was glad he was gone, glad she’d spoilt his happy mood

“Would you like some toast, love?” he’d asked. He even buttered it for her, and added her favourite, raspberry jam. He’d kissed her on the head as he placed the plate in front of her.

He was happy, so it seemed the right time to ask.

“Can we go on holiday by the sea this year?” she’d said.

He’d looked at her with his azure eyes, with his sad gentle eyes that were always bloodshot because he never slept well, and seeing the hurt, she knew she’d asked the wrong question. If she was honest with herself, she’d known it was the wrong question before she’d asked it. But living by the sea was her dream, and they had the money to do it. Damien had his own business. He could work from almost anywhere. But when she’d asked if they could move by the sea he’d snapped no, he liked the city. She decided then she’d at least try to live her dream for two weeks a year. She’d been pressing for them to holiday by the sea, instead of the Cotswolds. The Cotswolds made the other school mums jealous. But it didn’t have a beach.

Damien shook his head, not like he was saying no, but despairing, like he wanted to say “why did you have to ask again?”

She felt guilty for upsetting him, but she wouldn’t admit it. She folded her arms.

“Why not?” she asked.

“I’d prefer not to. Please don’t ask why.”

This was what she expected. He’d done this before, then started a story of a haunted cottage by the sea. It sounded like a bad dream to her, but he’d never finished the story. He’d mention the cottage, then he couldn’t go on.

She watched him stir his coffee in a swirling pattern, gripping the teaspoon too tight. She waited. Usually she’d nag him to tell her. But this time she waited. Her patience paid off.

“I shouldn’t have let her go,” he said.

Leanne tensed. Under the table, her foot was shaking. This was a new story. There was another woman. He’d never mentioned her before. He was holding his forehead in his hand, rubbing his temples, staring down at the table.

“You told me you were single,” she said. “You never said you were divorced. Is that why you don’t like holidays by the sea? They remind you of her?” Leanne was seething.

“Yes,” he said. “I mean, no. Yes, they remind me, yes, I was single when I met you.” He was nearly crying. “Will you listen Leanne? Will you let me finish?”

Leanne sat silent, her eyes glaring. It meant he could continue.

“She was called Hannah. When we were on holiday, we’d go swimming together in the sea everyday. It was our special thing. We both loved the sea. We’d go every year. We stayed in my favourite cottage, near the village where I grew up. Hannah liked me taking her there.

“One evening on our last holiday we were woken by the thunder. The rain was coming down in torrents. She wanted to go swimming in the storm.

“I said no, it was too late, I wanted to sleep. So she said she’d go on her own. I said no, she mustn’t.

“I should have insisted. I knew the legends, I’d learnt them as a child. There’s wisdom in the old legends. I told Hannah the legend: ‘On the day of the storm, one day a year, the sea spirits come to claim a human life. They come for a sacrifice.’ She laughed. She laughed, so I didn’t insist. Every day since I ask myself: Why didn’t I insist?”

Damien was crying now, but Leanne wouldn’t touch him. Her arms were still folded and she’d crossed her legs. He’d loved another woman. He still loved another woman.

He was too upset to stop. He needed to tell the story.

“She looked like a goddess as she stood on the beach, naked in the rain, her sodden hair blown wild by the violent winds. She looked fierce, ready for battle, ready to slaughter.

“When she dived into the waves, the winds roared with malevolent laughter, and I knew she was gone, I knew she’d never be back. But I didn’t believe my feelings. ‘Stop being so superstitious,’ I told myself.

“I watched at the window. I watched for an hour. Then I called the coastguard. They wouldn’t go out searching in the storm.

“She never returned. They searched for her body, but they never found it.”

“I was single when I met you Leanne. Widowed, single. Not divorced.”

Leanne was crying too now. Damien reached for her hand across the table, but she flinched and pulled away.

“Leanne?” he asked.

“Just go,” she said.

He reached for her hand again. “Leanne, please.”

“Just go.”

He’d left his coffee and his toast and gone upstairs to kiss the kids goodbye before he left.

“Goodbye Leanne,” he said after he’d put on his coat. The car keys jangled in his hand. His eyes were still moist and puffy.

She didn’t reply. She didn’t know how to. She stared at her orange juice, waiting for him to go.

Eventually, he gave up waiting for her to speak. The front door clicked shut. She wasn’t sure if he’d be back. She wasn’t sure if she wanted him back.

She checked the clock. In five minutes the kids would be up. She gulped her orange juice, slammed the empty glass down on the table, and stomped upstairs to put on her make-up.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Mid-life Reality (#fridayflash)

Jason's dream of being famous didn't shatter in an instant.  It crept away slowly through the years of performing in cheap taverns, meat-market nightclubs, and at friends' weddings.  One particular night, not long after Jason's forty-seventh birthday, the final remnants of his dream slunk away as he slept, without fanfare.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Bibliophilia (#fridayflash)

He slams the book down onto his desk and stares out the arched window, clasping a wrinkled hand over his forehead. The hum of cars driving past agitates him, like the wasps that buzz in his garden when he's trying to enjoy a tankard of cool beer. He'll need a beer soon. But first he grabs the book and throws it at the wall. Its pages crumple on impact, and it crashes to the floor.

"Bloody rubbish," he says.

He walks across to his kitchen, and takes a can of beer from the fridge, pouring it into his tankard.  He swears to himself as he sips it.  The beer calms him down.

When he's finished he picks up his wallet and walks out onto the street towards the bookshop.  As always he goes the the secondhand section - a book that's been read must be worth reading - and chooses a title that attracts his attention.  Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

The girl at the counter never lets him pay full price.

"That's two-fifty," she says.

He hands over a fiver, and tells the shop assistant she must take the full three pounds.  She gives him too much change, and he pretends not to notice.

Back at his flat, he scuttles upstairs, goes to straight to his study and sits at the desk.  He holds the book tight to his chest, feeling its energy.

"This is the one," he tells himself.

He lifts the book to his face, breathing its aroma.

This is the one.

He flicks the pages with his fingertips, listening to their gentle click.

This will be the one.

With trembling hands he places the book on his desk and opens the cover.

As he begins to read, he stops shaking.  The words meet his eyes and hold him, enchanted.

Friday, 7 May 2010

The Snarky Tree: A Parable (#fridayflash)

No one knows who made the first snide remark, whether it was the roots or the trunk or the branches or the leaves.  Common consensus blames it on the soil, although the soil vehemently denies this assertion.

The soil, it is said, grew weary of its lowly station, beneath all other things. In its insecurity, it began to assert its superiority.  The soil, it is true, is intimate with the internal rhythms of the earth.  Most soils in the world find delight in this intimacy.  But the soil beneath the tree began to wonder what it was missing out on by being mere soil.

"Tsk," it whispered to itself one autumn.   "I don't know why I waste my time beneath this tree listening to the noisy rustle of falling leaves, things of little consequence, when I could be beneath a great city, hearing the deeds of great men."

Thus the soil came to the  conclusion that it was superior to the tree, and it began to pass its time thinking about how it could arrange a move to the city.

Roots, you may know, are sensitive, gentle beings, and when they overheard the musings of the soil, they were much affronted.

"What's the soil getting so high and mighty about?" the roots said to one another.  "It may know the rhythm of the earth better than we can, but it certainly cannot sense the mood of things like we do.  And it puts the nutrients it creates into such awkward places for us to reach, so we are forced to keep growing."

The roots became angry with the soil, and began to waste their days gossiping with one another about the soil’s rudeness.

The trunk, being connected with the roots, overheard their gossiping, and though it was slow of mind, it gradually understood that they were dissatisfied.

"Why are the roots complaining?" the trunk said.  "They live in a warm bed of soil, and they are only there because they are weak and could not stand firm in the mighty winter winds as I do. They have no toughness or strength."

The branches overheard the words of the trunk and, understandably, they became annoyed.

"Why does the trunk think itself better because it is strong?” they asked one another.  “We may not be strong but we have learned to taste the winds and to dance to their wishes.  No one dances quite like us."

The leaves begged to differ.  Not only did they believe themselves to be better dancers than the branches, but they were also the ones who had made friends with the light.

"Who do the branches think they are?" the leaves asked one another.  "If we had not made friends with the light, we wouldn't be able to share with them the life light gives to us."

Eventually, after a year of bickering between the soil and the roots and the trunk and the branches and the leaves, autumn came again, and the leaves fell, as they did every year.  And the soil complained again about the noisy inconsequential rustle the leaves made.

Winter passed and spring came, but no leaves grew on the tree.

Later that year, it died, and  when the mighty winter winds arrived it fell to the ground of the forest with an empty thud.

Friday, 30 April 2010

Palimpsest (#fridayflash)

He is standing in the sea, holding his sailing boat on a string, and jumping the waves of the incoming tide. He ignores his mother's shouts to come and join her on the promenade to have the sand washed off his feet .

I’m in my beach hut, knitting a christening gown for my granddaughter in Australia. Ann, my daughter, has lived there nearly fifteen years.

The sailing boat is wooden, painted blue, with a white sail. My son Danny had a red boat like that.

The boy lets go of the string. Despite the incoming tide, the boat floats away from him. He calls to his Mum, and she shouts for him to run after it.

I want to scream, but my throat tenses up. I can only see Danny. I see his body floating on the waves, and I hear Ann’s final words to me on the day she left.

“You’ve always blamed me for Danny’s death,” she said. “You always blamed me and hated me. So now I’m leaving you in peace.”

I was sat in this beach hut when Danny drowned, distracted by Ann crying. He let go of the string of his sailing boat, and followed it out to sea.

Ann refuses to come home, no matter how much I ask her to.

Suddenly the boy screams, a horrific scream, and he runs up the beach.

"Mummy, Mummy," he howls. "I'm burning, Mummy."

I hear her soothing him on the promenade behind the beach hut.

"It was a ghost," he says, "a swimming ghost. It burnt my leg"

"Let me see," she says, and "Ooh, that's red," and "Now, let's wash that under the tap."

She says it must have been a jellyfish. "Let's get you in the car," she says. He's still crying.

When they're gone, I walk down to the edge of sea. There are hundreds of jellyfish bobbing in the waves.

"Danny," I whisper, looking out for his swimming ghost. I know he is listening. "Good boy, Danny."

Friday, 23 April 2010

Maternal Instinct (#fridayflash)

Katie sat with her head in her arms, weeping.

"It's not meant to be like this," she said.

"Like what?" Doreen asked.

"Like this!  For God's sake, Mum, look at me."

"You'll be okay. You just need some sleep to clear your head. Tomorrow you'll be fine with it."

Katie's sobs were louder than usual, but Doreen knew to stay calm. Katie often got like this immediately after sell-out gigs.

"Remember, Katie," she said, "it's your last chance."

"That's what you've always say.  'It's your last chance,' or, 'Just this one, to get on his good side,' or, 'It'll get you in the papers.'  It's always just one, just one more, then I'll be there, you say.  But every time, a few months later, there's another, and another."

"We don't always get what we want, you know."

"Well maybe I don't, but these men always do - and all because you tell me I should let them have it."

"You give them what they want, they give you what you want."

"But I don't want to be famous!"

"Yes you do.  Katie, you do." Doreen kept her voice soft, like when she'd sing Katie to sleep as a baby.  "You asked me to make you famous."

Katie shook her head.

"Only because you told me I should be," she said.

"Because I knew where it would take you.  Look at what you've got Katie. A beautiful house - just like the one you always dreamed of. And Adam, such a gorgeous, faithful boyfriend.  And millions of adoring fans."

"And I hate it all."

"Don't say that, Katie."

"I'll say what I like.  I hate it.  I feel so empty all the time.  And it's all your fault."

"That's not fair.  I've only ever done what you've asked me."

"What I've asked you?  What have I asked of you?  It's me whose only ever done what you've told me.  And I'm not doing it any more.  I will not cheat on Adam again.  I don't even need a new record deal."

"You do, sweetie.  You've got momentum.  You've got the ride the wave.  Keep soaring while you're flying high."

Katie stormed out of the dressing room slamming the door behind her.

Doreen smiled.  It was nice to get a moment's peace.  She knew Katie would listen in the end. Just like she always did.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Cadences of Grief (#fridayflash)

No one had asked me before, not even Bettie, my wife, but when David, my grandson, said he wanted to know about the war for a school project, I could only remember one thing, and I began to cry.  David apologised, and said not to worry.  He'd find out what he needed from a textbook, or from Grandma.  He went to see Grandma in the kitchen.

All I could remember was your limp and bloody body in my arms, and the music I heard as I held you. 

I have heard it in my dreams all these years, and have woken up many mornings, knowing I have heard it, but forgetting its melody.

I hold you as you scream, raging against death, who is coming to take you.  Blood is streaming from your body.  You have no legs.  Machine guns rattle, shell fire booms through the air.  But as I hold you, all I can hear is music, the symphony we planned to write together.  I see the melody in your contorted face.

After we buried you, dumping your body beside hundreds of others as a uniformed priest murmured a blessing, I tried to recall the music, but it was gone.  The smell of rotting bodies and the twisted harmonies of men laughing and swearing in the trenches while a few of us stood solemn in the rain pushed it from my memory.  The harder I tried to remember, the more the music faded.

Now I hear the music, our beautiful music. I see its streams of bright colours dancing in the air.  You have come alongside death in his mission to call me home.

You are calling me to forsake this life, and I will not rage, as you did.  You are calling me home, and I am coming, I am coming.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Even the Terrorists Go Christmas Shopping (#fridayflash)

Leanne waited until the guard was across the other side of the visiting room to ask the question.

"Tell me why you did it, Tommy."

"Keep your voice down, okay?"  He let go of her hands under the table.  "As far as these lot are concerned, I'm pleading not guilty."

"I don't care what they're concerned.  Tell me why you did it."

"I had no choice.  It was my first operation.  I needed to prove myself."

"No choice?  No choice? You mean they told you to lay down our baby on a mattress stuffed with explosives?"

"Not as such, no."

"What then?"

"'Use your ingenuity, Tommy,' they said.  I thought it was fucking ingenious.  If only you hadn't told the squaddie to piss off when he asked to search the pram.

"I wanted to get on, for our one day together Christmas shopping.  I didn't want to wake Jimmy up, to set him off crying."

"So you told the squaddie to piss off. Full marks to you for how to charm the British Army."

"How was I to know you were hiding anything?"

"How were you to know I wasn't?  If you'd just have let him look in the pram, he'd have glanced inside to see if we were hiding an AK-47, and it would have all been great.  He'd have let us go.  You know that."

"If you hadn't been using our day out to smuggle your mate's bomb-making-kit into the city centre it wouldn't have mattered."

"Are you deaf? Watch my lips.  I. Had. No. Choice.  I joined up for you. 'Protect our community,' you said. 'Be a real man.'  This was my first operation.  No one gets caught on their first operation.  I was a clean pair of hands.  That's why they chose me."

"Well they could've chose someone else.  I'm the one who's left to pick up the pieces.  To do our son's first Christmas without his father."

"Boo hoo.  And you think it's going to be all joy-to-the-world for me banged up in here?"

"I'm going now Tommy. Here's hoping you have a very Merry Christmas."

Her heels clicked as she walked towards the door.

He shouted as she left: "Will I see you in the New Year?"

She ignored him.

The guard walked back to Tommy's side of the visiting room and stood beside the table.

"Merry Christmas, mate," he said.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Why Wizards Need Therapy (#fridayflash)

Extract from Pathos in Magickal Spells by H. R. White (London: Society for Alchemistic Researches, 1721 [censored 1722-1951])


XXI. We have established, dear reader, that Pathos, in addition to Rhetoric, Mineral, and Fire, is essential to the successful binding of any Magickal spell.

XXII. As a magician, you must learn to control Pathos, storing it inside yourself ready to channel into Magickal spells.

XXIII.Pathos should be stored discreetly and should not be shared with other magicians, nor with faeries.

XXIV. Spells cast at the moment Pathos first strikes are always more powerful.

XXV. Casting spells on the spur of the moment, however, is not to be advised, as you may regret the spell, thus necessitating you to wastefully expend Magickal energy reversing its enchantment.

XXVI. Beware, dear reader, of casting a spell in anger. Magickal spells cast in anger are the most powerful of all. Enchantments energised by freshly stoked anger can never be reversed or repelled.

XXVII. Magicians who persistently cast spells in anger are liable to be expelled from all Magickal Societies and to have their license to practice Magick revoked.


XLII. The powers of forgiveness hold no sway in the realm of Magick.

XLIII. Recall the 89th law of the Book of Magick: “The Council of Wizards knows neither mercy nor graciousness. Their memory is everlasting.”

XLIV. Therefore, spells cast with the Pathos of pity almost invariably fail. In the unlikely event of the Magick being successful, the binding of the enchantment will be weak.

XLV. Magicians who persistently cast spells out of pity will soon find their Magickal powers diminishing.


Saturday, 27 March 2010

Living Hell 2 (#fridayflash)

Offered: You will be the object of all desire. The love of any woman, of all women, will be yours.  Any woman you choose will love you completely, will desire you with all her being.  Any woman you bid into your company will be fully yours, to do everything you want with her.  Each one of them will fulfill your every whim and fantasy. You will enjoy their bodies, their company, and their charm. Your magnetism and attractiveness to women will earn you great fame and riches. You will know, more than any man has ever known, what it is to be loved.

In return, I demand only your love.  Every ounce of your love you must to surrender to me in perpetuity.

You will never be able to love, nurture, or cherish.  You will never love any of the women who give you their full devotion.  You will only be able to destroy, demolish, and break.  You will hold all women in disdain.  Every woman who keeps your company will depart from you wounded and broken.  Vengeance, pain and misery will be yours to give in abundance.

Small price to pay, methinks, for all the women of your dreams.

Now, do we have a deal?

Friday, 19 March 2010

War Widow (#fridayflash)

How dare you call me beautiful? Here I am, pregnant with a child I will only ever hate. His eyes will always remind me of his father's, of the man who shot my husband in the back as I watched, then pinned me to the floor, gun to my head. I hoped he'd pull the trigger once he'd taken his pleasure from me. Instead, he stood, zipped up his trousers and laughed, then howled and whooped as I screamed on the floor.

How dare you speak of lessons in suffering? Suffering has only one lesson: Those, like you, who speak of the "redemptive potential" of pain are morons. Did you hear that? Morons. Heartless, soulless, shallow morons.

How dare you say that God is on my side? What did God do for me? I, the vanquished foe, have no honour. Yes, I am vanquished. Yes, I am disgraced. You can keep your God of the oppressed.

How dare you say it was barbarous, what he did? Did you see his eyes? Did you? You do not know barbarity. How dare you speak of what you do not know.

How dare you take my voice? I have my own voice. I am not voiceless. Can you not hear me? I can speak for myself.

How dare you speak of making peace, as though you have a special calling? Let me tell you this: Without me, without my dead husband, without my bastard child, you would have no peace to make. We are the conflict, the raw materials you use to create peace. We do not want your peace. I will spit it in your face. It is too late for me, for us, for all of us that you pity, for all of us that inspire you.

Yes, you look at me with pity. You see me on your TV screen, and you look at me with pity. You philosophise with your friends as to how you might help. You feel bad for me. "That's terrible," you say. You, whose colleagues are researching how to improve upon the gun that killed my husband. "Mechanical Engineering," they call it. You, whose elected officials ensure the guns are sold. "Diplomacy" and "ensuring economic stability", they call it. You, who do not speak to judge.

How dare you speak of me? How dare you speak?

Friday, 12 March 2010

Bottled Tears (#fridayflash)

Translated from the Elvish original by Professor S.C. Nieklot and Dr R. J. Siwel.

I am surrendering my love for you to the ocean. Through my tears, captured in this bottle, I have purged it from my soul. I hold it in my hands.  It weighs heavy.  My hands and arms ache as my soul ached. 

The bottle, like me, is fragile.  It could be smashed on the rocks at this very shore tomorrow.  Sea water could leak in, taking it to the ocean's depths.  It could wash up on an empty beach to be discovered by a human child.  I know the risks. I know the tears will force their escape somehow. I am tempted to swallow them.  Still, I will be strong.  I will throw the bottle to the sea.

I know not where they will find release, nor whose heart shall be haunted with my sadness.  I know I am not the only one to have done this, to have broken faery law and polluted the sea with my sorrow.  Do you remember how you told me once you heard the anguish of the ocean in the waves crashing on the shore?  Then, I pretended to listen to the waves as you told me to, I pretended to understand.  Now, I hear it too.  The sea only mourns.

I am placing  my tears in the ocean for you to hear. All the energy we created and bound up within ourselves.  Each wave of the ocean will be tinged with this darkness.

The only grief I feel is that this bitter liquid sparkles in the sunlight.  You have torn my spirit into fragments.  Some of them will always be yours.  I am gifting these parts to the sea.

I am letting you go, but you will never, never be free.  I have spoken the spell that ensures this is so.  Should you return, you will be forever bound to the ocean.  You will stand, despairing, on the shore, smelling heartache on the breeze, and listening for redemption songs in the desolate waves.     

Should destiny dictate that this reaches you, you will know who I am.


Friday, 5 March 2010

Living Hell (#fridayflash)

Wanted: One human soul, to be held in perpetuity.  Preferably male.  Must desire wealth.  Must blame the poor for their poverty.  Must deny climate change.  Must live in the suburbs and drive an SUV. Must demonstrate love for family by being the sole breadwinner.  "Bread" in this case to include (for example) 42-inch plasma screen TV, three family cars, two iPhones, four MacBooks, an annual trip to Disney World, a Nintendo Wii, a kitchen and bathroom refurb every five years, and weekly shopping binges. Must send kids to college. Must spend at least 80 hours a week at work.  Must take a maximum of three days vacation per year, all of them at Christmas.  Must not demonstrate despair of this lifestyle by wasting money on golf, prostitutes, alcohol addiction, gambling, or fast cars.  Preferably reads the Wall Street Journal.  Must support the US military.  Must oppose gun control.  Preferably Republican, though Democrats will be considered.  Must attend church every Sunday.  Preferably believes in God.  Must believe in America.

Will exchange for: Ignorant bliss, self-righteous attitude or early promotion.  May consider trading all three for an immaculate example of the specifications.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Strange Kind of Friend (#fridayflash)

During the winter of storms, the night came when Mimi couldn't cope any longer.

Every night it rained, and every night it kept Mimi awake. The wind pounded her bedroom window with torrents of water. Thunder shuddered in the skies. And when the rain stopped, the dripping started. Drip, drip, drip, from the branches of the tree in her garden. Drip, drip, drip, from her leaky gutter, down the side of her house.

This soft dripping sound was the one that made her most angry. She'd fall to sleep once the storm was over, but the moment she lost consciousness, the dripping called her back.

Tonight, Mimi's anger takes control. Before the rain stops and the dripping starts, her body tenses with the thought of how it will keep her awake. Anger explodes inside her, and she finds herself stomping downstairs, then outside, slamming the front door behind her.

She forgets her dressing gown and coat. Her anger has pushed her beyond these. She runs out across the grass, slips in the mud, and lands forward on her knees. She wants to scream, to rage, but at first all she can do is flinch at the cool touch of the rain on her skin, over her shoulders, down her back.

Though it is a shock, it also soothes her. She stands up again, letting the rain wash the mud off her legs. The water, running down her body and dripping from her hair, feels peaceful and cold.

Inside, she wraps herself in a warm, soft towel, gently stroking the raindrops off her legs.

Back in bed, sleep comes easily. She hears the rain as a friend now, singing her a lullaby, calling her to sleep.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Tortured Silence (#fridayflash)

The sell-out, his face twisted with scars, risked his life to tell me of you.

He said, when he saw you last, my son, you had no fingernails.  He said they'd taken them from you with pliers, one each day, except on the Sabbath.

He said when you slept beside him in the prison cell you shared, you yelped and convulsed.

He said your left arm was broken, snapped backwards at the elbow.

He said he could not tell me of your face.

I asked him how he knew, how he'd escaped. He shrugged. They'd let him go. He didn't know why.

"Sell-out," I hissed. He met the accusation with silence.

I asked about your eyes, your beautiful eyes, your father's eyes.

His shoulder slumped, defeated. He had risked his life to find me and tell me all he could, and he could not tell me this. Instead, he wept.

"Tell me," I screamed.

I had searched and waited years for news of you. But now the sell-out came with news, I was offended at his presence. Why was he here? Why not you?

I slapped him, and he took it. He stood and let me slap him and scream in his face how worthless he was to have given in while you, my son, held silence, while you remained broken and strong.

I slapped him with all the energy of my pain and worry, pent up with years of not knowing. I slapped him because I cannot hold your splintered body. I slapped him and punched him until I collapsed, sobbing.

With each slap I struck across his scarred cheeks I betrayed you. With each slap, I wanted him to explain. Why did you, my son, believe so fiercely? Where did you find such faith? Why couldn't you have sold-out too?

Friday, 12 February 2010

Samurai (#fridayflash)

Sitting beside me, you say you feel alive.  You say I am radiant. You ask me the secret to this energy.

It is no secret.  You have this phrase already in English, "To take a man's life".  But you say it in disgust, as though taking life were a bad thing.

You forget, in your Christian piety, that you kneel before the altar each Sunday and you take the life of your god.  "Christ's body, given for you," the preacher says, and you take it.  Greedily, you take it.

You forget, in your Christian piety, there is no morality.  Only Yin and Yang.  Only enemy and friend.  Let me tell you this: I have taken the lives of many men.  Their bodies given to me by the enemy.  We are alike, you and I, we only take the life that is given to us.

This is why I am radiant.  This is why you see life in my eyes.

I have taken it.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Digging Mud (3WW)

I am here, digging mud, to salvage myself.

I think back to when I stood on the threshold of manhood, gazing into the horizons of possibility. I understood possibility then, and that is why I surrendered the opportunity to be fully alive. That is why I was afraid to stare death down. I wanted to hold on to possibility, not to look death in the eyes.

Instead of fighting in the war, I went undercover, ignored the draft letters. Dad helped me find a new home in the countryside as a farm-hand.

I ran from death, driven by thoughts of possibility, of all the paths my life could take, of everything I could be. But the moment I ran - it was an irreversible decision - I realised I had, by running, sabotaged possibility forever. My life would be dictated by fear.

Years later, whilst reading, my condemnation haunted me. It was not in the Bible, but in a tome of theology that I saw the truth of my decision, of what I had surrendered:

"A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine."[1]

I trembled as I read those words. I would never know that moment, a moment I have since craved with all my being. To numb the craving, I drink. I drink to forget this: The one chance I had, young enough to fight, the one chance I had to be righteous, to face death with furious indifference and thus to know the lucid effervesence of life compacted into a single, abundant moment, I squandered.

In secret, on my computer, I watch the videos uploaded by suicide bombers, and I understand. Yes, I understand. I want to be them. I watch their eyes, absorbing their eager hunger for life, for a righteous death. They, on the threshold of manhood, know all the possibilities of life, and they have made their choice.

We have dug deep enough now. It is time to use our hands, the sensitive touch of our fingertips and gentle brushes to feel the skeleton and remove the dirt from its skull, its axe, and its warrior helmet with Viking horns.

They believe this was an ancient battlefield. I am here, digging mud with them, as a volunteer. I'm retired, I've got little else to do. They appreciate the help.

One day soon, I will be rotting in the ground too, in a church yard. Died in his sleep, they'll say.

Before I go, I had to see this warrior, to salvage him from the death I wish I had. There is life in him yet - I can feel it - how lucid and righteous he was when he died, stabbed through the heart.

[1] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908).

Friday, 5 February 2010

Amichi the Thoughtful Monkey (#fridayflash)

Amichi is a thinker.  Snakes, he's figured out, turn on the charm and act like your best pal until you let them close enough to snap at you with their poisonous fangs.  Elephants, Uzura the wise one aside, are boring conversationalists, but are good for a ride when your arms are tired from swinging branch to branch.  Trees without leaves are vengeful, their branches liable to snap anytime you sit on them.  Parrots, especially the blue and yellow ones, speak mostly nonsense. And monkeys, of course he knows this best, they live for the good times, and most days, for Amichi at least, is good times.

Sometimes, Amichi feels he isn't like the other monkeys.  Yes, bananas are his favourite food, he finds tasteless jokes hilarious, and he loves treetop parties.  But he also likes spending time alone, thinking.

"Monkeys don't think," Imja, his mother, always chides when she catches him staring into space.  "Monkeys live."

Uzura the wise one is more encouraging.  "A good thought is better than a good lunch," he says wisely, "and a good deed is best of all."

Also, Amichi is different because he feels bad when his monkey friends bully the smaller monkeys.  He'd felt especially guilty when they'd played a practical joke on blind Dimitri, the most ancient elephant in the jungle, telling him to follow them because they had a special treat lined up, then ran away, leaving Dimitri lost and miles from his herd.  He joins in when they throw stones at the hummingbirds because he doesn't want to be called a wussy, but he hates when a bird is hit, especially when it moans and struggles before it dies.

Today, Amichi is sitting alone in a tree by the river, watching the water and thinking.  Under the water he notices a small fish struggling to swim against the flow of the river.  He feels sorry for the little fish, and he works out that if he can climb onto the low branch, hold on with his tail, and reach down into the river, maybe he can help.

This is precarious.  The branch over the river is leafless, and Amichi doesn't have the best balance when he dangles from his tail. 

Amichi tries anyway, and he succeeds.  He grabs the fish in his paw, climbs back along the branch, then puts the fish on the ground beside the river.  At first it wriggles in grateful excitement, then it goes still.  Amichi watches it sleep peacefully after its exhausting day of swimming against the current.

Amichi is delighted.  Inside he feels glowing and proud.  He has done a good deed, he has helped another animal, and not at small risk to himself.  He is not like the other monkeys: rude, self-centred, obnoxious.  He is a helpful monkey.  Tonight, he will find Uzura and tell him what he did, and how good it feels.

Friday, 29 January 2010

The Tiger (#fridayflash)

The workers at his factory call him the Tiger.  He is proud they have chosen this name.  It shows they fear him.  It shows his methods work.

He prowls the factory floor with silent stealth, always taking his prey by surprise.  Workers trapped in the vicious claws of his gaze know it is finished for them.  He stands erect before his prey as they thrust themselves at his feet.  "I have a family, another child on the way." The most desperate always say this - a new baby - as if mention of a child should arouse pity in him.

He laughs, a wicked rumble of a laugh that he knows is the reason for his nickname.

"I sleep only four hours a night so I can keep this factory running," he says.  "And you have the audacity to feign tiredness in my presence."

He lets security do the real Tiger's work, to drag the workers away.  Some are limp and resigned, some scream and kick. All are defeated.  He serenades their exit with his savage laughter, making sure he is the one to bolt the factory door behind them.

These women and men whose livelihoods are destroyed - who, because they needed a moment's rest, must face the wrath of a jilted landlord, must hear their sleeping children moan in hunger - are left only with impotent power to curse the factory owner, invoking the demons and the saints to bring upon him misery and despair.

Unknown to them, their curses are fulfilled.  The Tiger, divorced and childless, lives alone.  His parents are dead.  He is despised by his peers.  His vices, prostitutes and whisky, augment his emptiness.

Most of all he hates the night-time. 

In his dreams he is a boy.  His friends have caught a kitten.  With them, he ties a tin can to the kitten's tail.  In the tin can, they secure a firecracker, then light it as they place the kitten on the ground.

The kitten looks at the tin can, fascinated by the hissing noise it makes.  Then booming white light blinds the boy.  When the light fades he is no longer a boy, but the kitten, fleeing.  Terror pulses through his body. His friends are chasing him.  "Run 'til you die, pussy!" they shout, then stop at the side of the road, laughing and whooping.   He wants to stop too, to rest, but a dreadful noise chases him, the rattling that exploded earlier. He must run.

He spasms, collapsing in the road.  The tarmac is cold against his body.  He cannot sleep and he cannot move.  The ground rumbles, bringing with it a roaring, monstrous white light. He knows it is a car. He knows he must get off the road.  His body clenches.

In that moment he wakes.  When the terror subsides enough for him to move, he sits up and checks the clock. It's quarter to two.  Four hours he must lie awake now. Four hours until morning.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Night Work (#fridayflash)

Benji slipped silently out of the bed. 

She couldn't fault his attempt at stealth.  He hadn't lifted the duvet and let in the draught of cold night air that used to make her shiver.  He'd trodden carefully as he moved to the door, avoiding the creaking floorboard.

She listened for his next movements.  He was making his way down the stairs, slowly, gripping the banister to support his weight and lighten his step.

"Just sleep," she told herself.  "Sleep."  She stole back her share of the duvet, flipped her pillow to the cool side, and focused on the white stars she saw when she closed her eyes, as the doctor had taught her.

It wasn't enough.

Her body tensed as she heard the water pipes rumble, a soft hiss, barely piercing the silence.  Had she imagined it?  She chewed on her lip as she listened to the darkness.

The kitchen door clicked shut.  He was coming back up.  She pretended to be sleeping.

He slid back into bed, shaping his body to match hers, cautiously wrapping an arm around her stomach.  His hand was cold, but she refused to flinch.  He mustn't know he'd woken her.

Within moments she felt his warm, slow, sleeping breath on the nape of her neck.  The tap downstairs dripped.  Hadn't it?

She shut her eyes again, watched the white stars, matched her breathing to Benji's.


She waited, minutes, to be sure she wouldn't wake him.  She slipped silently out of bed, down to the kitchen.

No light needed.  She watched the tap. No drip.  But, yes, he'd left his mess.  He'd left his water glass by the sink.  Left it for the morning.  He always did that.

She bit her lip again.  "Freak," she told herself. 

As she filled the washing up bowl with hot bubbles, then placed her hands in the water to clean the glass, the tension in her body began to calm. Once she'd washed, dried, and put away the glass, emptied the bowl, and wiped the sink, she'd be able to sleep.

Back upstairs, Benji was still sleeping. She held him, trying to take the relaxed energy of his sleep into her own body.  Her eyes closed themselves.  She saw the stars.  The stars made shapes.  She was dreaming. Wasn't she? She opened her eyes to check.

The tap downstairs dripped.

Hadn't it?

Friday, 15 January 2010

The Street Philosopher (#fridayflash)

(The old people I work with tell me all kinds of stories.  With Alf, when I mentioned I study philosophy, the conversation got round to the meaning of life. 

"The only man I ever met who knew it was a homeless beggar," Alf said.

"What did he say it was?" I asked.

"Oh," said Alf, "he never got round to telling me."  Alf's eyes sparkled.  "But I'll tell you the story anyway.")


I saw him on my walk to school, standing on the street corner behind an empty table.  It was his eyes I noticed first. Icy blue, cold like the winter air.  He was staring blankly into space.  Billows of steamy breath puffed out from his nostrils.  His red knitted hat was fraying at the edges, his blue coat dirty and torn, a pocket falling off.  He shuffled from foot to foot to keep warm.

On my way home from school he was still there. 

"What're you staring at?" Mother asked, then looked over to see the man.  "Come on," she said, trying to hurry me along. I stood there, transfixed. 

"Alright, alright," Mother said.  "Here, give him this."  She opened her purse and handed me a thrupenny bit.

As the man saw me approach, his face broke out into a kindly smile.  "You're my first customer of the day," he said.  "What can I do you for?"

I held out the coin.  He shook his head.  "You couldn't buy nothing here with that," he said.

"What're you selling?" I asked, looking up and down the empty table.

He leaned forward.  "Here, I'll tell you a secret."  He looked around to check no-one was listening.  "I'm selling the meaning of life. To one patron only."

He looked at me expectantly, then he gave me a wink.

"How much is it?" I asked.

"To you young sir, two pounds."

Two pounds would take me weeks of pocket money.  I'd never managed to save that much. 

But the meaning of life.  I'd asked Dad about it before.  "Tell me when you find out," he'd said, laughing.  Mother had scolded me and told me to focus on more important things.  "Like what?" I'd asked.  "Like school, your education," she'd replied.  So I took the question to school.  Mrs. Walker said I would get out of the habit of asking such awkward questions in a decade or so.  Then she had put "decade" into next week's spelling test because I'd asked what it meant.  It seemed to me grown-ups didn't much care about the meaning of life.  And yet here was a man offering it for sale.

As I stood there thinking, Mother came over and dragged me away. 

"What took you so long?" she scolded.  "I told you not to talk with him, just to give him the coin."

"But he knows the meaning of life."

"Oh does he now?  Very good."  She said "very good" in the same way she did when Dad said he was going out to the pub.  She hated him going out, I could tell, but all she said was "very good".

The next day the man was gone.  I asked Mother why.

"The police must have asked him to move on.  They like to keep the town centre clean of beggars," she said.

I knew better.  They must've moved him on, yes.  But it wasn't because he was homeless.  It was because grown-ups couldn't cope with having someone in their midst who threatened, at any moment, to explain the meaning of life.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Anyone Can Draw a Saltpot

28th December 2009
Alan called me up yesterday. He invited me to L'Etoile, a swanky French place I've never been able to afford.  "Only if you're paying," I said.  He'd always been a rich bastard.

He was waiting for me when I arrived. "I'm Alain now," he said. I asked him to spell it.  The waiter showed us to our table.  Alain explained the menu to me and chose the wine.

With old friends, school friends especially, you always talk about the past. Then about girls.  Occasionally the conversation turns to what you're up to now.

Alain's an artist. A world-travelling artist.  Has been for two years.  "You should show me your paintings sometime," I said. I was half-serious.

He looked confused. Offended. His tone was patronising.  "I haven't painted anything yet," he said. 

I tried to react as if this is normal.  "Oh, why's that?" I asked.

"I haven't found anyone worthy of my effort to study and paint them," he said. "No one I have seen on this earth is beautiful or flawless enough."

What a weirdo.

2nd January 2010
Met Wes today at Harry's Tea Chest.  He was already there when I turned up.  "Coffee please," he said when I arrived. "Eight sugars." Some people never change.

Turns out he's an artist too.

As I sat down with my coffee - sugar free - and handed him his dentist's nightmare, he grabbed the salt pot from the side of the table and thumped it down in front of me.

"Draw it," he said. He took a biro and a sketch pad from his bag, and placed them next to the salt pot.

"I can't," I said.  I pushed the pen back towards him.

He laughed. "Anyone can draw a salt pot."

"I can't."

"You can," he said. "Look."

I opened his notebook. Inside was page upon page of scribbled portraits. Before the last blank page was a sketch of me queuing to buy the coffees.  The portraits were profoundly simple. They were all scrawled line drawings, yet in every portrait you could see something of the soul of the person being drawn.

Everyone Wes had drawn, he'd asked to draw a salt pot next to their portrait.  I had to admit, all the drawings were alright. And all of them were as unique as the person who'd drawn them.

"Draw the salt," he said.

"Alright." I took the pen.

As I contemplated the outline of the salt pot, Wes explained his philosophy, the philosophy of his notebook.

"I draw everyone," he said.  "Every cafĂ© I visit, I buy a coffee and I draw someone."

"What if there's no one to draw?"

"There's always someone to draw.  Even if it's the bored waitress.  Everywhere I look, in everyone's face, there's art happening."

"Even the ugly bastards?"

"Especially the ugly bastards," he said. "They're the most beautiful."