February 16, 2010

Telling Tales

At first, Cathy McAle would seem a likeable child,

Her parents were honest, and her white smile beguiled.

But lurking behind Cathy’s kind and sweet guise,

Lay the mind of a girl who pathologically lies.

Broken objects and vanished sweets

Were only the start of her mischievous feats

And expertly hiding her impish glee

She’d firmly object: ‘It wasn’t me.’

But she quickly moved on from normal childish behaviour,

Telling tales to animals and even to strangers.

She gave shortcuts to hedgehogs who didn’t know

That soon they’d be flattened like tyre-tracked dough.

And when paramedics had gone astray

She sent their sirens the exact wrong way.

But in Winter, Cathy reached her very worst

Her morals in a black, metaphorical hearse.

White with thick snow and frost most hoary

Her town had become the news’ top story

And passing a reporter frozen and static

Cathy chose to do something dramatic.

She yanked away the reporter’s microphone

And with the face of a piteous peasant

Screamed on live T.V. in a burst of tears:

‘I didn’t get a single Christmas present!’

The world filled with pity,

And flooded Cathy McAle with gifts and treats;

But then her parents exposed her presents,

And their respective receipts.

From then on, nobody talked to Cathy; she received no post,

She existed like a lonely, invisible ghost.

Sat amongst her now worthless gifts, Cathy McAle softly cried,

And to the only person who would still listen, she lied:

‘It’s not my fault… I don’t miss anyone…

‘It’s not my fault… I don’t miss anyone…’

So whenever someone lies or begins to tell a tale,

They would do well to remember the story of Cathy McAle.


November 26, 2009

First and Last Warning

Don’t be late. If there is a morning assembly, arrive earlier than usual. If you are late for morning assembly, do not run in the corridors. Do not talk when a teacher is talking. Do not talk back to a teacher. If you are given detention, you must go. Do your punishment. Do your lines. Always do your homework. Do not exit your classroom when the bell rings. Your teacher decides when you leave.

           Do not go home at lunch without special permission. Dinner ladies posted at the gates will stop you. If you eat in the food hall, leave as soon as your lunch is finished. Do not litter. If I find any more litter in the food hall, everyone will be banned from the food hall. Enjoy the school meals. If you have food poisoning, do not attribute it to the school meals. If you find a hair in your food, it is your own.

           During the holiday seasons, there will be no decorations. Do not dress yourself in tinsel. During exams, revise. Ten hours of revision a day is necessary. On the final day, do not set off the fire alarm as a joke. We will find out who did it. Do not forget why you are here. You are here to study.

           Do not disobey any of these rules. Appreciate what we are giving you.


Lethal Language

The doctor gave me the results today. In his sterile room, in his sterile voice. I’m afraid the tests came back positive. You haven’t long left. Just try to make the most of the time you have, and remember not to panic. That’ll only make it worse.

           Don’t panic. Don’t. Panic. But they’re just words my body doesn’t understand. How am I supposed to not panic?

He called it lingualethalitis. It’s a degenerative condition, of the brain. Over time, it loses the ability to process images. As a sort of reflex-reaction to its own decay, it transmutes them into words instead, so the mind can still comprehend. But the mind wasn’t designed to work like that; not with the huge amount of information it intakes. It can’t cope. And as a result, it begins to crack, lapsing into bouts of hysteria, and eventually, insanity.

I can feel it even now, as I walk down the hospital, creeping up my spine and into my skull. Can feel the eyes watching me: the nurses’, the doctors’, the patients’. Everyone.

But there’s a part of me, the tiny, dwindling, rational part, that knows they’re not. No-one’s out to get me. It’s the disease. Toying with my mind, playing its tricks. The fear-driven blood racing out of my chest round my body, the cold sweat on my brow: they reveal the truth. I’m panicking.

Don’t. Panic.

But it’s so hard, when I can actually see the questions. My questions, about what I’m going to do, the people’s, about why I look so terrified. ? hanging in the air, like large hooks, waiting, ready to gouge me apart from head to heart, and tear the remnants to ribbon. The doctor shouldn’t have even let me go. He was going to make some phone calls, arrangements for the necessary care. But I lied to him. On the tests. I don’t want to be looked after, till I become so comfortable I forget to deal with the things that matter. The disease is further along than he thinks; much further. But I just need a bit of time. It’ll be okay.

It keeps mounting, though, like an avalanche. And the ? loom, enticed by the quickening drum beat of my heart. At least the exit’s near. I can get out of here. Away from prying eyes. Away from deadly ?.

I reach the door. My grandfather had a maxim: ‘There are two types of Hell: the one you escape from, and the one you learn to live with.’ I can’t live with this. But I can escape it. On my own terms.

I’m on the subway, cramped between a knot of people. I feel calmer, though. No-one cares about you on the subway. Everyone just keeps to themselves, waiting for their journey to end. You become anonymous, and right now, that suits me.

Four bodies press against mine, two men and two women. Their bodies add to the swelter, and the air tastes stale, regurgitated. I glance around, for any form of distraction.

My eyes alight on a subway map, plastered in one of the many niches that line the walls. Its coloured bands twine across the white, overlapping, each one informing travellers of how to reach their destination. How easy life would be if it came with a map.

The map sparks a recollection. I’m sitting on the tube, my Dad on one side, my younger brother the other. We would take it home every Sunday, after we’d been to the park and had a game of football. I was about six, and Dan was four. The football was great, but the return trip was boring. Me and Dan were desperate to get home. Our favourite show, Only Fools and Horses, was on at six fifteen. So we used to moan and whinge about the length of the journey, every journey, driving Dad mad.

Then one day, in the middle of the trip, Dad stood up, looking worried. ‘Oh no, lads,’ he said, staring at the subway map. ‘I think I’ve taken a wrong turn. We’re off to Mexico.’

‘No no,’ we protested, bolt upright. ‘What about our show? Dad, we don’t want to go to Mexico. Turn it around.’

‘Sorry boys,’ Dad responded, with a grimace of mock-helplessness. ‘Can’t. Guess we’ve got no choice.’

Me and Dan pleaded, frantic, while Dad settled back into his seat, a resigned look on his face. Then, when our consternation reached its crescendo, the doors opened, and he said, ‘Oops, my mistake. Here we are.’ And we’d have no choice but to follow, filled to the brim with anxiety we didn’t know what to do with. But we were so happy to be back, we didn’t complain. Years later, I asked Dad why he did it.

‘Well, made the journey go by quicker, didn’t it?’

Funny guy. I wonder if I should tell him, or Mum or Dan, or anyone about the disease. I don’t think I will. I don’t think I have the courage. Besides, they’ve all been so good to me. It would feel cruel if the last thing I did for them was break their hearts.

I still remember vividly the day Dad brought me the painting. I wasn’t very old (younger than in the subway story). He came into the living room, a big smile on his lips, a wrapped package in his hand. ‘Here, son. This is for you,’ he’d said, handing it over. It wasn’t my birthday, and it wasn’t Christmas. He’d got me it just because. I ripped the wrapping off with glee.

Beneath, in an ornate brass frame, was an illustration from Peter Pan. In black and white, it depicted a wondrous fairytale landscape which has been etched in my adult mind: a cherubic Peter Pan, lying on top of a grassy outcrop, playing a flute which drew man and animal alike towards him up a winding path, while two eager squirrels crouched at his feet; a ship with its sails down floating on a still lake, its large captain resting against masts of thick timbre, its pure twin rippling underneath; three slender trees, heads decorated with fresh spring leaves, bearing colourful fruit in which lay the seeds of Summer; a hut huddled at the base of distant, colossal mountains, whose snow-capped peaks sat in the sky; and at these summits, dragons flew, their expansive wings threshing against huge billows that blew with the wind.

My child mind had gazed at that picture in awe. At the bottom of the frame was an intaglio which read:

Don’t stop dreaming,

Dad

          

It was an amazing gift. The illustration itself had been done by a neighbour, Mr. Peterson, but imitated an original by Arthur Rackham. I never cared that it was a copy. Every day since I was given that painting, it’s smiled at me in the morning, and watched over me at night. And, when I leave, I want it smiling over me then as well.

             ‘Sorry,’ a voice said. It was one of the women next to me. She had blonde hair, and a small red handbag was slung over her coat. ‘Um, could you tell me which tube I should get next if I want to get to

Highbury Road?’

           ‘Yeah, sure. You get the tube at-’ I faltered. I’d spied a word, for a second, in her eyes: Distract. I glanced down, keeping my head upright. Her hand was drifting to my wallet pocket. I twisted my own hand free of the crush, and shielded my wallet. Her hand touched mine. Her eyes flicked to the impediment, and then she stared at me, intense, and I stared back, my whole body frozen and deadlocked.

           The tension glared, and its touch flushed my skin. Oh please, don’t do anything…

Then I sensed it. I glimpsed it in my peripheral vision. … hovering in the air, boulders ready to tumble and pound me into oblivion. Not yet. I’m not ready yet.

My heart was raging against my chest. The … teetered, as if they clung to a precipice. No. No no no no…

The weight of gravity pressed down on me, trying to squash me like an insect. No…

Then there was the sound of sliding, and people pushing me aside as they made their way forward. I snapped back to reality. I scanned the whole carriage. The … … gone. I looked back toward the door. So too was the woman.

I slumped in one of the seats, my breaths long and deep, and waited for my stop.

About twenty minutes later, I emerged from the underground. Sharp wind clawed at my face, and I raised the collar of my coat for protection. Overhead, a shroud of black cloud crowed the coming storm.

           I advanced through the mostly deserted streets under a blanket of shop awnings, the soft luminescence from the windows redolent of a midnight lamp glowing by my side. For the most part, I was alone; any fellow travellers hurried by, often with an umbrella in tow.

           I was only a couple of minutes from my house when something in the distance caught my eye. As I neared, I recognised it as a small flame, which appeared to burn in mid-air. Intrigued, I stepped up my pace, making my way toward the light.

           As I reached the flame’s source, it became apparent that my first impression had been wrong: the flame did not hang upon the air like a spectre, but was bound to the lip of a long, thick stick, which must have been durable, as it seemed to defy the flame’s intense hunger. And, holding the flame aloft, a black man with his legs crossed, his back resting against a pane of glass.

           ‘Would you like to see a trick?’ the stranger enquired. I noticed a small open case at his feet, littered with bronze and silver coins, which gleamed and darkened in rhythm with the flame’s dance.

           ‘Yeah. Why not.’

           The stranger smiled, tipped his head back, and raised the flame to his lips. The flame burned bright in the night, illuminating his face and igniting his dark eyes. It reminded me of when I peered into the heart of a fire, on those family camping trips in Dorset, when we huddled round crackling logs for warmth, roasting marshmallows and telling stories in hushed voices. That was when I realised I wanted to tell stories for a living, no matter the hours or pay.

           The flame disappeared, swallowed down the stranger’s throat. He closed his mouth round the stick, and gave a gentle blow. All was silent. Then he started to extend his arm, withdrawing the flame, up and up, until it seemed to glide out of his mouth, and settle back onto the cold air. It guttered, as if weakened by the voyage into the private and unknown. But soon it appeared to reacquaint itself with its identity, and fanned and blazed, stretching its lustful arms out into the dead night.

           And in that instant, the fire also proffered a truth: that things could survive the deep, and come out the other side, pure and incandescent. It was as if a fresh, rising breeze of hope suffused my mind, which swept away the smoke and detritus that had clogged my thoughts. What I had to do hadn’t changed, but perhaps it wouldn’t be the last thing I’d do.

           ‘You like?’ the stranger interjected into my epiphany. He nodded toward the open case.

           ‘Yeah. I liked.’ I took the leather wallet from my pocket that had nearly been stolen from me half an hour before, and tossed it into the case. The stranger looked down, then up at me, then down, then back up. His face had slackened somewhat.

           He whispered: ‘Thank you.’

           I waved his gratitude away, and headed back to my house, leaving the stranger to goggle at his reward. The clouds rumbled above, ready to break under their burden.

Streaks of rain pelted my head as I dashed through the galvanic downpour, my coat to my skin sodden and weighing me down. But it wasn’t the rain I was desperate to escape. It was what the disease had made it.

           Millions of ! descended upon and around me, sheet after sheet, hemming me in, building a wall that touched the Heavens. It was relentless. !!!!!!!!!!!!. And even though I knew it wasn’t real, that it was all in my head, the claustrophobia wouldn’t be assuaged; its grip tightened round my throat like a cigar cutter. There were too many words; too much information. It felt like my heart was trapped inside my brain, pounding against its soft tissue. My body felt unnaturally light, and bizarrely numb, so that I had to keep checking it was doing as I ordered.

           Just get in the house…

           I stumbled to the door, fumbled for the keys, dropped them, picked them up, shoved them in the lock, twisted, and threw the door open. I flung myself through its frame and slammed it shut behind me.

           The hallway was pitch-black. All the lights were out, and there were no windows in the vicinity. Even if there had been, it would have made little difference: the sun and stars had been barred from this region.

           The darkness brought a nothing. And with that nothing came a reprieve from the bombardment of information. The ! were gone, at least for now. I exhaled a breath I didn’t even know I’d been holding, and let my lungs rediscover there cadence. My heart still hammered against my chest, but the strength of its blows was waning, like a worker who had overexerted himself. I decided to push on, the sky responding with thunderclaps of approval.

           I groped for the wall to my left and, finding it, made my way with unsteady steps down the corridor. As my feet seemed to drag me onward, I realised I had been confined to the position of a hostage: blind, and unsure of what was going to happen next. My breathing mimicked their shallow intakes as they trembled, waiting for the gun to go click.

           I entered the living room, where the painting hung above the mantelpiece. My hand found the light switch, and hovered above it. It felt like a constricting shudder squeezed my muscles, rendering them inert.

           But I’ve chosen this path. Which means I’m not a hostage; I’m in control.

           My hand moved down and I, flick, cast the blindfold aside.

           The room that came into being wasn’t my room. It was broken. Words were everywhere, dangerous words, splitting the walls, supplanting possessions, and smothering the air. They deteriorated reality, and were taking with them all tangible evidence of my existence. The painting…

           Was gone. Lost in letters and words, in a tangle of lines and meaning. Words. Just words. But…

           Beautiful words. Beautiful. More beautiful than anything I’d ever dreamed of writing, or dreamed was possible of writing. I was wrong when I assumed they were a random tangle of shapes; they were a map, to the lands of the imagination. My painting, my stories, my dreams, were being told in perfect truth.

           I felt lips break free into beatific smile. Spurred by adrenaline, heart galloping, hooves of chariot racing cross desert to new destination. I sense ?...! mustering,                                           ……………                 

!                !

!                !

!                !

???????????

assault.

           Droplet slides cheek.

           ‘Yes! Now’???????????!

                     ………………….


You Won't Believe It

‘I know what you’re thinking: here comes the disgusting anecdote about anal probing. Wrong! See, that’s just what the conspiracy theorists, storytellers, make up. But I was abducted for something far more understandable: they wanted to experiment on me, to study my existence.’

           ‘James, time’s already running short. We should -’

           ‘This is important! I’m telling you what you want to know; why I’m so messed up. Uh… you’ve made me forget where I was now… Oh yeah. After the aliens had taken me, they hooked me up to this machine in this sterile white room (they were tall? Did I mention that?) and used this machine to fire something down into my psyche: a white burning, which lodged in my mind; like an alien plant rooted in Earthly soil. It ran a sort of interference, absorbing my reason out of me, swelling with every piece it took away from me, until everything was loaded with a sublime oblivion. It’s weird, I can’t describe it except with other things you can’t have experienced. It felt as if the memories that incessantly pile upon your soul like grave dirt were being shovelled aside, and I was regressing, sleepily, through time, back to clean infancy.

           My reason was down, and truth became a reflex. A lifetime’s trivial details scrambled from my mind. After that they –‘

‘What were the details, James?’

‘Just little things. They’re not important to the story, and they’re boring. Even when I only think about them, I’m like, “C’mon, get on with it”.’

           ‘James, I’m your psychiatrist. I wouldn’t find them boring.’

           ‘… Well… if you want them. But it’ll just sound stupid if I say them out loud. It’s not the same as experience.’

‘Go on.’

‘… Impressing crescents on my palms with my nails, people who don’t go out, distant but closest to sister, argued with Dad Mum said nothing, blond and small, bony and resentful, growing up, purple blue, no-one, I.T. consultant, normal, twenty-two, aberrant, nothing, Claire, middling, male, low, nothing. Add infinity.’

           ‘Mm-hmm. And why do you think you chose these details?’

           ‘Chose? I don’t follow.’

           ‘Why are you telling me this? We both know it’s not true. This pretence of alien abduction is a means of self-analysis. Which shows you’re aware that you have a problem. But you’re not confronting it. Instead, you choose to fabricate these lies.’

           ‘You’re getting it all wrong! I didn’t choose any of this – it really happened. I’m telling you what you want to hear!’

           ‘What were you trying to say, James? You mentioned your Dad…’

           ‘It’s not about my Dad! Or my family, or my upbringing, or any of that! There’s no secret key behind the words that will open me up to you. It’s just a story – stop looking for things that aren’t there!’

           ‘…We’ll have a break, and continue this session in a bit.’


Bad Hair Day

Two floors up, one to go. He tugged the tight collar of his suit; it was barely giving him enough space to breathe. He leant toward the mirror: his purple hair looked faded under the strong artificial light. Shadows had slunk in under his eyes, making his cheeks appear more jowly than he’d anticipated. He ran his hand though his hair, and lightly flicked the gelled tips.

           The lift doors opened; his hair wasn’t quite right, but it would do.

           The board of directions had indicated that the interview room was down the other end of the corridor. He could feel his stomach clenching more defiantly with every step he took. He ran his recent mantra through his mind, which always spoke in the voice of his parents: You’re not quitting your dreams of being a rock star; you’re hiring yourself out to greater opportunities. Giving himself a safety net. Growing up.

           How was it 2009 already? It still felt like the nineties. It should still be the nineties. He used to rave every night; now, he just sat at home, on his own, going mad. His friends had all either settled down or got respectable jobs, and now it was his turn for a life sentence. Society was so ageist: if you’re a child, feel free to do what you want, it’s cute; if you’re a teenager, go off the rails a bit, it’s only natural; if you’re a student, party and do drugs, people have come to expect it; if you’re an adult, bury your soul in a dull job.

           The plaque on the door read: MANDY SUMMERS, HEAD OF I.T. DEPARTMENT. He inhaled; time to exchange techno for technology. Three times, he knocked.

           What was so bad about partying anyway? If you said you were throwing a party, people usually smiled. But change that noun to a verb, as in, ‘I regularly party’, and people are suddenly looking down on you. They’ve forgotten, or never knew, what it feels like: the reverberation in the floors and walls of a pulsing, primal beat; the coloured, strobing lasers that shoot through gushes of grey smoke; the fast-flickering white light that lets you experience slow time; the sense of communal freedom; the freedom of self oblivion; all held together within an untiring drone…

           ‘Come in,’ a voice from inside called.

           He opened the door: a smartly dressed woman sat, perfectly upright, behind a wide desk. She nodded toward a seat opposite her. He took it. Her formal smile was filled with a firm and patronising authority.

           ‘You’re here for the I.T. job?’

           ‘Yes.’

           ‘I’m Mandy Summers. Now…’ She rifled through some pieces of paper. ‘There was a small problem with your application.’

           ‘Oh… really?’

           ‘Yes.’ She withdrew and studied one of the pieces of paper. ‘Here it is. You gave your name as James Jonbert, a.k.a, Kurtz.’ She gazed at him intently.

           ‘Um, well, Kurtz is my band name. I’m the guitarist, and I help write some of the songs. The other name is uh, my real name.’

           ‘Yes, well…’ She took a pen and scored a line through his stage name. ‘Only your real name will be necessary here.’

           He tried to raise a smile. Why was he even doing this? Kerouac, Epicurus, Slash – none of them would. He was basically putting himself forward to be another mindless, faceless slave, in a mindless, faceless company of them.

           ‘Now, we have a strict chain of command here…’

           Great. This was where the interview was really going to drag on…

           ‘… and your superior will be a couple of years younger than you. Are you okay with that?’

           ‘… Yeah. Sure.’

           ‘It would be beneficial for you to remember that your superior is one in a long line of young people to have entered the company, which demonstrates the scale of development it is possible to make here.’

           She paused, her formal smile stamped upon her face.

           ‘Um, yeah… that’s part of what attracted me to the job.’ He smiled to match his interviewer’s.

           ‘Well it is a very sought after job, and we look forward to you joining the company. However, there’s just one more item we have to which we have to attend.’

           He ran his hand through his hair. What now?

           ‘Your hair. It’s not really in keeping with our company’s image. We would ask that you stop dying it, and make it a little more… presentable.’

           ‘Presentable? But I’ll be working in the I.T. department. No-one’s going to see me.’

           ‘Even so… it’s a necessity if you want the job.’

           ‘But…’

He ran his hand through his hair.


Notes on a Phenomenon

Once there was a man and on his shoulders he had, instead of a pumpkin, a head. Nobody ever discovered why he thought this was wrong; everybody they ever saw had on their shoulders a head, and the world never offered the faintest suggestion that this should be otherwise.

           Constantly the man would persist:

           “Why have I been cursed with this human head? Why couldn’t I be born with the alluring orange of a pumpkin?”

Then he would retire for days on end, and so a routine developed between the small village and its eccentric mascot. Indeed, as every year progressed, the man would seem to be overcoming his pumpkin preoccupation; but then Halloween would strike. Everywhere the man went, grinning pumpkins haunted him, silently exalting in their possession of what was most dear to his heart, yet far from his genetic reach. His predictable torment would begin again.

           Then one day, the small village began to comment: the man had been gone, not for days, but weeks now. Later, some neighbours claimed to have frequently heard from the man’s house an interminable trickling of water; some claimed that, night and day, all his rooms were constantly lit. Regardless of what was said, nothing was done.

           On a snowy 2nd of December, what was left of the man emerged; and on the shoulders of what was left of the man, there rode the head of a pumpkin. The villagers couldn’t make any sense of it: like a pumpkin, the man remained mute; like a pumpkin, the man didn’t listen to what people said. Gradually, the small village’s hesitance toward the hybrid yielded to reluctant acceptance. It wasn’t until shortly after a group of children were heard screaming that anyone gave a thought to the original head.

           Playing in the field, racing over furrows, between corn stalks, and onto the pumpkin patch, the children had been ebullient. But amongst the pumpkins, one of the children had nervously approached something unusual; his nervousness plunged into terror, when a planted head said, ‘hello’.

           Immediately, the people attempted to inform, interrogate, and complain to, the body last seen with the head; but the pumpkin-pate, motionless and placid, continued its stare into the distance. Seeing no other course of action, it was decided that the obscene eyesore must be uprooted. The seven strongest men in the village heaved: up came the human head: then its unanticipated vegetable body.

           And this is where the biographer’s duty grows most fraught; for which story do you follow, the head, or the heart? I remain undecided.


You have been reading: The Despair of Normality, or Wouldn’t Life Be Better With A Pumpkin For A Head?


August 18, 2009

Do Storms Ever Bring Good News?

‘Arrgh,’ Captain Ballast snarled, into the chill night. He and his shouldered parrot stood on the beach’s lip, and surveyed the moonlit shipwreck sprawled before them. The large, curved prow of his (relatively) newly christened The Gold Retriever was half-sunk in a dune of sand, formed when banshee winds and demented, frothing waves had crashed her and her crew against the island. By the time Ballast had recovered from the initial shock, the storm had retreated, leaving Ballast with a hull snapped and splintered in several areas, and several hours’ repair work until she would again be seaworthy. Her plain white sail drooped sullenly.

          ‘What’s to be done, then, O captain?’ Jonson said, as he bowed and gave a patronising flourish with his hand. As always, he seemed to have manifested from the crew’s surrounding mutters of discontent. He had a head too thin for his wide, royal blue hat, and so it always slanted foolishly over either eyebrow.

          ‘The plan, cur, is to get The Gold Retriever shipshape soon as possible.’

          ‘In this light, my glorious guide?’ Jonson held out his hand, as if trying to catch a fragment of starlight.

Ballast felt the sting of Jonson’s last two words, which was exacerbated by his parrot’s squawk: ‘What’s to be done, what’s to be done.’

          ‘Hold your tongue,’ Ballast growled. ‘Don’t forget, we were coming to this island anyway. Most places, the only rest we’d get would be dangling on the noose of a rope. No. We have to wait till morning, but it’ll only take a couple of days to fix her up. In any case, we should remain on ship tonight.’

          Jonson bent his head: his eyes searched the island, scrutinising foreign shapes hidden in shadow. His voice was a knowing whisper: ‘Enchantments?’

          Ballast pointed to a cave high above, towering on rugged, weather-beaten rock. ‘If that’s anything to go by,’ he said, referring to its decoration. Spread across the cave’s opening was a black awning, and islanded upon it was the ivory whiteness of a single skull. The hollow eye sockets seemed to house a darkness you could drown in with a stare. Beneath the skull, two bones crossed, like cutlasses.

‘And you can feel it.’ Ballast bent down, scooped up a handful of the night’s grey sand, then stood up: ‘Tingling in the sand.’ He let the grains pour between his fingers, and gazed at their swift descent.

          ‘Relinquish our treasure,’ a hushed voice announced, as if riding on a soft wind that evaded the senses. Ballast spun to the side (a difficult movement when one leg is a wooden stump) as did Jonson and the rest of the crew. ‘Who the bleeding hell’s -’

          A cool response cut his speech: ‘Witches.’

They were all so similar and so still, that at first they appeared to be macabre mannequins, all dressed in the same ritualistic emblems. But then the silver light would strike one of their eyes, and in the emerald glint Ballast would catch the reflection of a deadened soul. Necklaces of what appeared to be sharks’ teeth circled their throats, and milk white animal skulls lay on their breasts. Examining their pale flesh, Ballast wondered if they had been born bloodless. There were at least thirty of them, and their speaker, though furthest from the inland jungle and therefore most exposed, marshalled all authority. Each of them gripped a dagger at their side.

          ‘Bleedin’ hell! Bleedin’ hell!’ the parrot squawked, flapping its wings and blowing a small gust into Ballast’s good eye. Ballast pressed the back of his hand towards the parrot’s chest, blocking its flailing wings, and kept pressing and cursing ‘stupid wretch!’ till the parrot, who would have fallen off his shoulder were it not for his clenched talons, settled down.

          ‘Well?’ the witch repeated. Her face was impassive, but Ballast sensed that a stir of emotion bubbled beneath the surface.

          ‘What?’ Ballast growled.

          The witch’s tone became timorous: ‘“What?” the oaf complains.’ She tilted her head, slipping the act. ‘The jewel. The one you stole in Turkey. You now have the choice of giving it us freely.’

          Ballast paused. To give himself time, he said, ‘The storm was your creation?’

          ‘Yes.’

          Hurriedly Ballast found another question. ‘And how can you be certain that we have this jewel?’

          ‘Because you do. End your questions; relinquish our jewel.’

          Ballast heard the metallic scrapes behind him as several of his crew began to draw their swords. He raised an open palm above his shoulder. The scrapes stopped.

          ‘As you can see, my men are eager to brutalise your women, and I,’ Ballast gestured to his chest with open palms, ‘am but a single leash. The slightest sharp word can make me snap. So drown your “ours”. We do have a jewel from Turkey; and what we steal, we keep. Either you scurry from any thought of “our”, or my men carve their thoughts on the issue into your yielding flesh.’ Across Ballast’s face, pride dug a malicious smile.

          ‘No,’ the witch said. Her impassive façade showed the smallest crack, which some spirit must have entered by, for her pallid form now glowed with a faint terror. ‘The storm was ours. The jewel is ours. This island is ours. You are trespassers, isolated in a foreign land intolerant of disturbance. Should you withhold the jewel, a single incantation will boil your blood, so that your veins twist and writhe, and you cannot take any air for the swell of crimson foam that is trapped in your throat and dribbles down your fitful mouths. Attempt escape, and our lunar mother will drench you in celestial wrath. And, if you raise a blade against us, your legacy will be hacked: all your future infants’ souls will squeal, wither, and cease, before chance ever offered them a body. Do not say another word that does not hasten the jewel to us; I am sick of your tongue, and the slightest misjudged word will loose our blades, whose silver tongues tremor in anticipation.’

          Ballast’s mouth opened, hung for a moment, then drew shut. He heard his crew’s swords slink back into the protection of their sheaths. With a knot in his gut, he turned to his men, and admitted the inevitable sentence: ‘Bring out the jewel.’ Presently, a glass case was placed in his hand, and inside shone the starry jewel. Ballast gazed at it longingly, and felt the rest of his crew do the same. It would have bought his men the finest food for the next month. He held it out to the witch.

          She came over, and, delicately, plucked it from his hand. Ballast knew his cheeks had turned red and, as he watched the witch stride away, cradling the precious jewel, he thought how all unjust sentences seemed to strike down upon him.

          ‘Oh,’ said the witch, looking over her shoulder. ‘By the time we next awaken, I expect you to be gone. You have till tomorrow’s sun begins its decline.’ Then she and her coven disappeared into the forest.

‘Idiots!’ Ballast screamed, trembling. ‘You didn’t need to shipwreck us! We were coming here anyway!’

          Breathing in to diminish his potbelly and expand his chest, Ballast faced his crew. Their hate and disgust needled his self-assurance. Several of them, either unconsciously or not, had their hands on the hilt of their swords.

          ‘Chop-chop!’ Ballast shouted with conjured vigour. ‘We need to get off this island, double time!’ Warily, the men looked at each other. ‘Move to it!’

          Grudgingly, the crew skulked towards The Gold Retriever, talking in mutinous tones. Many spat in Ballast’s direction. Even his usually immovable parrot fled back to the ship.

          ‘Thank goodness we came to this island for our rest,’ Jonson said, bowing obsequiously before he departed.

          ‘Piss-poor twat!’ came the gratingly familiar squawk. ‘Gutless bastard! He bends over for her again, I’ll ram my sword up his -’

          ‘Enough,’ Ballast said, between clenched teeth. ‘I’ve heard it all myself, I don’t need you repeating it.’ The parrot stopped squawking, but its tiny head kept darting round, as if looking for something, anything, to talk to.

          Ballast grumbled, put the pint of beer from his desk to his lips, poured back a mouthful, swilled, then swallowed. ‘Argh,’ he breathed, trying to exorcise the acrid taste from his mouth, and his ill feelings with it. He stared out the window, as the sun peeked over the calm and endless sea, bejewelling it with innumerable silver sparkles. He felt that sea was leaving him behind.

          ‘Y’know wha’ really bites, parrot? Eh?’

          The parrot did its usual whenever it was inclined to speak: it looked the other way.

          ‘The thing that really bites, more than a forever-mutinous crew, my treasure being stolen, and being a captain without a seaworthy ship – is that no-one, not one lousy sod, is generous enough to spare me some sympathy. I do my darned best, but blast it all if I didn’t piss all over Mother Fortune in the nurse’s arms, cause she’s not looked kindly at me since. If this infernal crash had happened a month ago, the crew might have taken it differently. “Oh sure,” they’d say, “we’ve got a raw deal. But look at poor Captain Ballast – his brand new ship’s been wrecked through no fault of his own, and we all know how he loved her.” And do they ever, for a moment, think of my disabilities? Course not! I run this ship, with one eye, and one leg, twice as well as any other man could do. And not one of those treacherous wretches have ever asked me how I lost ‘em. They treat it as if it were some sort of – tradition!’ He took another hefty gulp. ‘I’m blessed if they don’t slit my throat while I sleep -’

          Ballast paused; his lips seemed to twist into a shape they didn’t know.

          ‘Said he had a silver tongue!’ The parrot perked up, immediately latching on to the open silence. ‘Claimed he had -’

          With the speed of an adder, Ballast’s arm shot up and locked around the parrot’s throat. From within his grip, he felt the falling bulge of a muffled: ‘Gulp.’ Ballast brought the parrot before him, nose to beak, and his eyes must have looked immense and threatening to the black dots that were the parrot’s pupils.

          ‘You used to croon, parrot,’ Ballast whispered, letting his warm breath sweep over the parrot’s green feathers. The parrot tried to look away, but due to the naturally wide breadth of its vision, couldn’t escape Ballast’s judgement. ‘You used to awaken me with the sweetest tunes. Now you never croon, all you do is complain! There’s no loyalty! But I’ll show you. Maybe I have lost my silver tongue, but this is a promise: I will get back my treasure. And I won’t do it with your insolent revolting chatter breaking in my ear. Now: piss off!’ And Ballast slung the parrot out the window. Being wrong side up, at first the parrot fell, but she twisted round and, flapping frantically, managed to gain some height. Then she arced her flight, and Ballast thought the parrot was coming back to claw him; instead, she sailed upward and over the ship, heading inland.

Puzzled, Ballast gazed out the window, mesmerised by the sense that some profound answers lay beneath the sea’s tireless movement. Then he noticed that the sun had discernibly risen since he’d last looked, and with haste, made his way to O.

          The door was already ajar, and Ballast had known the room’s resident for nearly twenty years. Therefore, he had no compunction about flinging the door back and bursting inside.

          Sotty, so named by the crew, was slumped against the far wall, his slack features lolling on one shoulder, and his eyelids limply closed. His right arm cuddled a stout keg with yellow liquid still trickling down its side, and his bloated belly expanded and contracted in a strained rhythm; a thin length of dribble clung to his chin. At least there was no vomit.

          The room was nicknamed O as a rough reference to its shape: it was a hexagonal room, with a sturdy wooden support running down its centre. Originally, the room had been useless, its angled shape making it too awkward to even install some beds there. Then Sotty had come up with his magnificent idea: he would brew the ship’s beer. The initial enthusiasm died away, though, when the beer became less and less the ship’s, more and more Sotty’s. This trend continued to such an extent that, if ever you wanted to find Sotty, you did not head to his quarters; you headed to O.

          ‘Sotty!’ Ballast yelled. His voice may have echoed in the hollow of Sotty’s skull for all the response it got. Ballast looked around for something hard and blunt to smack Sotty with. Just as he alighted upon a broom handle, Sotty’s croaky voice halted his hand.

          ‘Wha-! Uh?’ Sotty squinted. ‘Oh, it’s you,’ and he let his eyelids fall shut.

          ‘Yes, it’s me!’ Ballast thundered, panicking that such a lack of respect would become the ship’s habit. He had been undermined enough recently. ‘Get off your backside! You’re gonna help me.’

          Sotty’s eyelids fluttered open, and his eyes stared bleakly at the floor. Because his head was on its side, and the pupils lay in the corners of his irises, it looked as though gravity itself had pushed them downwards. He sighed. ‘What’s the point?’

          ‘What’s the point of what?’ Ballast said irritably.

          ‘Everything. Life. The universe. What’s it all mean? I’ve achieved nothing in my life; I’ve got no child to do something meaningful in my name; and I’ve got nothing to look forward to, except an endless, empty sea. Steal a bit of treasure, then sell it, steal a bit of treasure, then sell it. Neptune knows why, sometimes we bury it. Why? None of us has any wives, so what descendants are we thinking’ll go pick it up?’

          Ballast stumped across the room, and slid down the wall so that he sat next to Sotty. He said loudly and cheerfully: ‘Course we’ve not got any wives; we’re pirates! And you know full well we bury the treasure so we’ve got something to go back to, in case we’re ever looted.’ Ballast turned aside, and exhaled. ‘Like now.’

          ‘And they all laugh at me, at their own insults. Even if we get the jewel back, it’ll be the same story it’s always been. We’ve got no end purpose. Nothing’s changed in twenty years, and we’re damned to this changeless…ness, whether we do or we don’t. I’m sick of it.’

          Ballast looked hard at his friend, who still stared at the floor. ‘This isn’t a mid-life crisis, is it?’

          ‘Look what I made today,’ Sotty said, heaving the keg up and tilting it close to Ballast’s nose. Ballast took the slightest involuntary sniff, and snapped his head away. Even though Ballast hadn’t slept during the night, whatever that stuff was, it wasn’t meant for mornings.

          In some amazement, Ballast asked, ‘Have you bin drinking that stuff?’

          ‘Arrgh. I’ve named it the Eliminator, cause it’s going to eliminate all these bloody thoughts.’ He took a swig.

          Ballast grabbed the keg, and dragged it from Sotty’s lips. ‘No, it’s not. What is going to eliminate your thoughts is helping me out. Us two are going to get back my jewel.’

          ‘Yeah? Damned if we do, is it? You heard that witch. She’ll kill our sons before they’re born if she catches us, and then I’ll have no hope. I ain’t coming.’ He began to lift the keg back to his lips.

          ‘Yer son’s hiding at the bottom of that drink, is he?’ The keg slowed to a stop. ‘Or perhaps he’s in your long spells of unconsciousness, or on the stale breath you reek when you awake?’ The keg lowered. Ballast leaned forward, so that he was eye-to-eye with Sotty. He motioned toward the sea and the island. ‘The only future for you exists out there. We don’t need no wives and no children, because we’re gonna have something greater: a legacy, that’ll outlive our blood. After we’re dead, people will make stories of our swashbuckling exploits, and children will follow our example. Our names will never die.’

          Sotty seemed to sober slightly. ‘Really?’

          ‘Course!’ Ballast slapped Sotty on the back, and Sotty had to swallow something down that was trying to make its way back up. ‘Men great as us, why wouldn’t they? What they’re not gonna follow are bums who sit around drinking so much it feels like a cannon’s gone off in their head. Now, you gonna help me?’

          ‘Well… yeah. Sure, Ballast, anything for you,’ Sotty said, raising himself so that he sat up straight and wiping the spittle from below his lip. ‘But aren’t I a bit… drunk to go now?’

          ‘We’re not going yet,’ Ballast stated, getting to his feet. ‘But be ready about an hour before the sun reaches its height. This is gonna be something to remember.’ With that, he stumped towards the door.

          ‘Where are you going?’ Sotty called.

          Ballast turned with a wry smile. ‘To get help,’ and turned away again.

          ‘James,’ Sotty called tremulously.

          Ballast froze: was this another mark of insubordination? ‘Yeah?’

          ‘I’m not just a big fat drunk, am I?’

          Ballast smiled, and turned to face his friend. ‘No,’ Ballast said, as he looked at the bit of spittle Sotty had missed, at his huge, slouched belly, and his big, appealing eyes. ‘Your not just a big fat drunk.’

          Sotty smiled weakly, and Ballast exited the room. Despite Sotty’s depression and the fierce concoction he’d been downing. Ballast knew he’d be fine. Sotty was one of those guys Life looked out for.

          Ballast found her with a stick of broken wood between her dusky, knobbly fingers, scoring runes in the sand. Her hound panted at her shoulder, engrossed in her work.

          ‘Maggie?’ Ballast called as he approached. He thought he saw her eyes flit his way, but her posture didn’t change. She was old, and continually reminded Ballast that she did not waste her time with the young. Ballast didn’t understand the relevance of this; he was in his mid-40s. After she drew one last curve, Maggie dropped the stick.

          ‘What the problem now?’ she said, her accent tinged with her Mediterranean roots.

          ‘Nothing that ain’t public,’ Ballast said, and lowered himself so that he sat next to her, facing seaward. The sun was now two-thirds above the sea, cleansed and brought to its golden shine after its nightly bathe in the ocean. Ballast looked at Maggie’s pattern in the sand: there were lots of incidental grooves and spots, but the centrepiece was one long, snaking line, whose head was finished with the slightest dash, reminiscent of a tongue. The hound barked at it, sniffed it cautiously, then lay on his stomach, apparently contented that any threat was minimal.

          The silence weighed down the words in Ballast’s throat. Still, he levered them up: ‘Can I borrow your pets?’

          ‘What!’ Maggie exclaimed, snapping her head round as if she’d heard Ballast say, could he snap their necks? ‘No no, not after last time. Poor Seguro. If you hadn’t shaken him off, he’d be here still. Now you want another of my hounds and my cat? Never let us speak of this again.’ She turned back to her drawing, but didn’t pick up her stick.

          ‘That was an accident, as you full know. I told you a thousand times to stop him using my leg as his dinner.’

          ‘He thought he was playing fetch,’ Maggie cried indignantly. ‘And why did you have to shake him off while facing the edge of the cliff?’

          Ballast’s mouth opened a fraction, but nothing came out. For a moment, the conversation fell flat.

‘I named my new ship after him, didn’t I? The Gold Retriever, my pride and beauty who I sweated months for. What more do you want?’

          ‘Seguro,’ she sulked.

          ‘Never mind him,’ and Ballast’s tone noticeably altered. ‘Those witches are gonna come kill us all if we don’t get off this island. And my crew are gonna kill me if I get off this island without my treasure. So if you want yer precious pets, or yer even-more-precious captain who lets you keep ‘em, to survive, you need to lend ‘em to me.’

          ‘Oh ok!’ Maggie conceded, weakly throwing up her hands. ‘But,’ and she leaned in with her accusing eyes and wrinkled brow, and pressed her pointed finger squarely on his chest with every word: ‘Take. Care. Of. ’Em.’

          ‘Long as they take care of me,’ Ballast said, matching Maggie’s intensity and brushing her finger aside. He looked around. ‘Where’s the cat?’

          ‘Hmm?’ Maggie answered, as if the conversation had never interested her at all. She was staring again at her pattern. ‘Near the cliffs. She’s been circling there all morning.’

          ‘Has she? Well, keep an eye on her. Cats and witches are hardly strangers.’

          ‘She wouldn’t do anything. But someone will. Who else is going with you?’

          Ballast hesitated for a second, though he was sure of Maggie’s loyalty. ‘Sotty. Why?’

          She nodded to the snake-like drawing. ‘Because you will be betrayed.’

          ‘Don’t be stupid. It’s only me, Sotty, and a couple of animals going, and I’ve known Sotty over half my life – who’s there to betray me?’

          ‘Someone will,’ Maggie said, with a clouded certainty.

          ‘Aargh. You’re always making up this sort of thing. And if I’m going to be betrayed, why risk your pets by giving ‘em to me?’

          ‘Cause if you don’t go,’ she smiled with a hint of gleeful madness, ‘your crew definitely will kill you, and then where would we be!’ She tittered, savouring her little reversal. ‘So what’s the cunning plan? What subtle trick’s going to rob the witches of their prize, keep my pets with all the limbs their accustomed to, and get us off this island?’

          The corner of Ballast’s mouth broadened, revealing his crooked teeth. ‘We’re gonna catch them while they sleep; and, if one of them so much as twitches, we’ll slit their bleedin’ throats!’

          Ballast’s boot skidded down the steep slope, and some gravel flew off the rocky path in a puff of dust, freefalling hundreds of feet. He only just managed to anchor himself with his wooden leg, and had instinctively put a futile hand to the parrot’s beak to prevent any squawk revealing their position. But surprisingly, the parrot held her tongue. Having returned shortly after Ballast had left Maggie, she had then inexplicably gone on another flight before returning once more. This new unreliability was making her more hassle than she was worth.

          ‘Is this it, then?’ Sotty whispered, nodding to the huge skull that loomed from its black awning, with its encompassing, inscrutable leer. Ballast nodded, the way he always did when Sotty guessed the obvious. Although the sunlight was pure and unobstructed, and the night looked to have retreated behind the awning, no sunlight dared encroach upon it.

          ‘Ready?’

          Sotty glanced at the eager hound whom he steadied at the collar with white knuckles, then at the cat on his other side. Both of their expressions were fierce, as if scenting the threat within. ‘Argh.’

          Ballast nodded, and carefully parted the awning. Inside was a thick darkness, and only a slit of external light entered past Ballast’s frame. They hadn’t brought any torches, for fear of waking the witches.

          Once the awning had fallen back into its natural disposition of occluding all external light, their noses became aware of the stale trapped air, and their eyes began adjusting to the darkness. All along the craggy corners of the cave were silent silhouettes, which appeared not to even breathe. All magical terror seemed to have deserted the witches; now they were sleeping and oblivious to the world, as vulnerable as when they were in their cots.

          ‘Sir!’ Sotty whispered excitedly, indicating something with his eyes. Ballast followed his gaze, and revealed his rotting teeth in pleasure. At the far end of the cave, next to one of the slumbering silhouettes, rested the jewel. Its light had become incredibly dim, as it always did during the day. Ballast grew so intent upon it, that the entire world shrunk to what could be seen in its radiance. With the quietest steps he could manage, he stumped straight to it.

          If Ballast had not been so spellbound by the jewel, he may have noticed the cave around him was changing. As if by the will of one long, indolent creature, from the top of the cave to its deepest recesses, emerald slits burst into existence. All were focussed upon the trespassers.

          ‘Uh, captain,’ Sotty whispered urgently, his voice trembling. The effects of his concoction had not completely worn off, and he couldn’t be sure if what he saw was real.

          ‘Not now,’ Ballast dismissed. His outstretched fingers inched forward, engrossed in making the quietest contact with the jewel’s glass case, so as not to disturb the witches. The moment was so delicate, so painfully in the balance. When he placed his fingers around the glass, it was without the slightest noise. Its solid form felt like the firmness of assured success.

          Something warm and precise touched Ballast’s throat. He looked down, into two emerald eyes, and immediately assumed the object touching his throat to be a dagger. Without needing to be told, his hands fled from the glass container.

          The witch traced the blade over Ballast’s throat, up to the underside of his chin, and applied a subtle pressure. He and the witch rose to their full height. When she turned Ballast around, he discerned from the guiding lights of emerald and gleaming silver spread before him that every witch was on her feet, and that one of their numerous blades was pressed against Sotty’s neck.

          ‘This is real, isn’t it?’ Sotty said timidly.

          ‘Well captain,’ the cool and familiar voice said. ‘If we had known you were going to make a last visit, we would have prepared.’ The voice’s source tipped her head, and Ballast got the impression that her sharp humour was grinning, but there wasn’t enough light to check.

          ‘You knew?’ he asked, unable to read her expression.

          ‘We weren’t meant to? One of your own came and told us.’ An underlying malice crept into her voice. ‘And you’ve even brought her back.’

          Ballast’s vision swung to Sotty’s side; he’d had suspicions. ‘The cat!’ he snarled, and took a step towards her, before the resistance of a blade reminded him of his predicament. The cat hissed in the dark.

          ‘Typical man,’ the witch said, as if it were all too predictable. A weight Ballast had quite forgotten about alighted; it flapped across the room, and settled on the witch’s shoulder.

‘You!’ Ballast exclaimed from the gutter of his throat. The parrot gave a brief, but triumphant, squawk.

‘She came and told us your plan, word for word,’ the witch said, caressing the parrot. ‘If you always look out for yourself, captain, those around you learn to do the same.’ Ballast clenched his fist, to give himself some sense of power. Someone had to bleed.

The cat’s hissing broke into a cry, and Ballast saw its outline leap toward the parrot, pictured its curved claws and four large fangs. The parrot gave a shrill squawk. Then something swift moved in the dark, and the cat’s vengeful cry was cut by an anguished mewl, which was deadened with a weighty thump. In the confusion, Ballast spun around and away from the blade at his throat (a risky move for someone with a wooden leg) drew his own sword, stopped behind the witch that had held him, brought his arm over her head, and drew his blade to her throat. He pressed his forearm against the back of her neck, and whispered forcefully: ‘Drop yer weapon.’ The witch hesitated.

‘Do it,’ the lead witch ordered. Her subject complied.

Ballast still felt disorientated in the gloom, and wasn’t sure of the outcome of the fray. ‘Draw back the awning,’ he said. Again, the witches waited for their leader’s confirmation, then pulled back the awning. The light made Ballast squint, and he was conscious to keep his hostage firmly in his grip. The hound was barking ferociously. Gradually, the scene came into focus.

The hound was still under Sotty’s control, but he was scrambling for something nearby. Ballast spotted it: a small silhouette, she staggered, side to side, back and forth. Dark, wet blood stained the fur around her shoulders. There was a light patter as her paws went in and out of a red liquid pooling beneath them. Then, as if she were too dazed to maintain any hold on the material world, her footing went, and the cat toppled onto her flank.

‘We’re moving outside,’ Ballast said sternly, and marched his captive into the searing light. Sotty and the hound appeared a moment later, the hound cradling the cat in its mouth. The witches followed, and their white skin and ivory skulls seemed less substantial in the overwhelming brightness.

As Ballast’s eyes adjusted, he looked over his shoulder, towards the sea. ‘Blast it!’ he spat. The Gold Retriever had obviously been repaired, because its crew were slowly sailing her away from the island. Ballast confirmed the sun’s position – still midday; just. ‘Bastards!’ Ballast muttered. ‘They won’t escape me on a technicality.’ The parrot gave a mirthful squawk.

Ballast faced the lead witch. ‘Give me the jewel.’

‘It is not yours.’

‘This girl’s neck is.’ Ballast shook his captive, and her throat flailed dangerously close to his sword’s edge.

The witch maintained her self-control. ‘I can just as easily murder your friend and your two pets.’

‘Murder!’ the parrot squawked enthusiastically. ‘Murder!’

‘You won’t,’ Ballast said evenly. ‘In your eyes, this girl’s blood is worth far more than theirs.’ Ballast held his ground, and blockaded all anxiety from his features. The amount of people crowded onto the small outcrop had forced him precariously close to the cliff’s edge. 

The witch exhaled through her nose, but kept her thin lips pressed together. ‘Bring him the jewel.’

‘And the awning,’ Ballast added.

The witch looked at him, perplexed. ‘To what purpose? You cannot even escape with the jewel. Your heels are over the edges of your graves, and you have no followers left to pull you back from the brink. This island is your end.’

‘Then we will die with dignity,’ Ballast retorted. He glanced over his shoulder: he was lucky; the wind was very mild, and his ship was still close to the shore. ‘As a captain, I deserve to die with my treasure. And this beautiful cat,’ he said solemnly, looking at the lifeless cat with saccharine sympathy, ‘deserves a worthy shroud. She and I were very close.’

Imitating the captain’s voice, the parrot squawked, ‘Stupid cat!’

‘Arrrgh! Underneath, underneath we was close. Unlike you, yer traitorous rot.’

The parrot didn’t shrink, but did seem somewhat cowed.

‘Now. Give ‘em to us.’

As her subjects retrieved the items, the head-witch said: ‘That jewel is our heritage; it was passed from mother to daughter as a symbol of initiation and acceptance, for centuries. Then it was stolen by a sailor. You outsiders are all the same - marauders.’

‘That’s rich, seeing as we’re the ones who’ve been robbed.’

Several witches handed the jewel and the skull-emblazoned awning to Sotty.

Ballast said, ‘Let him come over here.’

Uneasily, Sotty lumbered over to Ballast’s side.

‘I am going to hand my sword over to Sotty, and bury my cat,’ Ballast declared. He took one last glance at the ship; they might just make it. As he passed his sword and his captive witch over to Sotty in exchange for the awning, Ballast whispered: ‘Get ready to grab the animals and jump.’

‘Jezzebellah!’ the captive witch got out, but it was too late: Ballast swung the awning over his head and jumped off the cliff’s edge, while Sotty simultaneously relinquished the prisoner and scooped the animals up in his free hand, and dived after; then they were lost from view. The witches dashed to the cliff’s edge, and their fierce expressions were undone with wonder.

With both hands above his head, Ballast was clutching the four corners of the awning, whose wide, arched shape hung on the island’s thermals, and was parachuting away. The huge upturned skull and its bones shone in the sunlight, and Ballast would have looked glorious and free, if Sotty had not been clinging to his wooden leg with one hand, and holding the jar and the hound in the other; the hound, in turn, held the cat.

‘Get off, ya bleedin’ landlubber!’ Ballast shouted. They were falling too quickly, and the uneven distribution of their weight meant that they were curving away from their target.

‘How?’ Sotty pleaded, frantically glancing from the hand wrapped round the hound, to the hand clinging to Ballast’s wooden leg, back again, then up to Ballast. ‘I ‘aven’t got any more hands!’ A combination of the rushing wind, vertigo, and the alcohol drenching his system, was making him very sick.

‘I dunno! But get off my leg – it’s coming loose!’ Ballast stared at the departing ship, then looked down and shook his wooden leg frantically. ‘Aargh! Let go!’

‘I can’t, I- AAaaaaaaaah!’

The massive loss of weight rocked Ballast’s flight, and he watched his jewel, Sotty, and the animals crash through the jungle canopy. But he didn’t stop to mourn (Metaphorically; he couldn’t have stopped if he’d wanted to). Gritting his teeth, he steered his parachute back on course, and headed toward his ship.

So close was Ballast to losing everything, that his foot clipped the ship’s side as he sailed onto the deck, throwing him off balance. He toppled onto his backside.

‘Captain,’ Jonson said curtly, customarily manifesting out of the crew’s mutterings. ‘I feared we’d never see you.’

‘Arrgh, I bet,’ Ballast retorted, as the awning drifted to the floor. He turned his attention back to the cave. The witches were hurrying down its rocky slope, and would quickly reach the shore. Ballast dragged himself to the ship’s side, and peered over. The ship was still close enough to be boarded.

‘We should make haste then,’ Jonson announced, almost as an order.

‘No,’ Ballast rapped. ‘Not yet. Sotty’s still in there, with my jewel.’

‘Captain,’ Johnson said, tugging at his collar and looking rather flushed, ‘you can’t be serious, those witches will -’

‘We’ll wait.’

An awful tension pervaded the ship, and Ballast knew that there wasn’t long before he must concede to retreat. But without the jewel…

Suddenly, the thick spread of foliage broke, and the rotund frame of Sotty came bounding down the bank. He still clutched the jewel, and the hound carried the cat.

‘Come on!’ Ballast roared, raising his fist. ‘You can make it!’

Sotty was gasping for air, and he had a stitch that felt like his bloated gut twisted inside out. Years of drink were taking their toll. But the drink, he would tell Ballast later, was what had saved him: for, when he fell, his intoxicated body had been so relaxed that he hadn’t even tensed, and so not a single bone had been broken. Nonetheless, the cuts grimacing all over his body and face stung, and as the pain mounted higher, and the stitch twisted deeper, Sotty began to slow.

‘Come on! Keep going!’ Ballast encouraged.

But Sotty couldn’t do it, he didn’t have the energy, he was so-

A stampede of witches charged through the foliage, bearing straight for Sotty.

‘Sotty! Quick!’

Sotty looked behind him, and suddenly, though scientists would later claim it impossible, created energy from nothing. Onward, he bumbled, closer and closer to the ship, but always the witches were gaining. He splashed through the water; with great exertion, Sotty jumped, and a shipmate’s hand grabbed his. The hound hurdled the ship’s side in one graceful leap, and Sotty was hauled overboard by several groaning men.

But the escape had been too narrow. Numerous white hands clamped onto the ship’s side, and the pirates rushed forward, unsheathing their swords, and hacked at the clinging limbs. Ballast was unable to assist, due to his one-legged state (as he explained later). One after another, the witches fell, unable to defend themselves. The frenzy tired; the ship was free of the islands’ reach.

A huddle of witches gazed out wistfully from the shore, their pale skin becoming more feeble and insubstantial in the light of the distance; only the parrot remained distinct. Many severed hands still gripped the ship’s side, their fresh stumps dripping down into The Gold Retriever’s wake a bloody trail.

‘Ha ha!’ one of Ballast’s men shouted. ‘We did it! Three cheers for the captain!’ And three mighty cheers went up. But the effects of the captain’s exploit were not to last merely one day: so proud was he of his daring, that the bland, white sail of The Gold Retriever was discarded in favour of the huge awning he had so artfully stolen. A skull and crossbones became The Gold Retriever’s flag, a design that fast caught on (Ballast had neglected to patent it, which rankled him for years to come).

‘Haha!’ Ballast shouted, revelling in his own (unaccustomed) success. Sotty was slumped on the deck, but the cuts gathered upon his cheeks were contorted by a serene smile. The hound, meanwhile, had shaken the water off itself, and was solicitously peering over the unconscious cat.

‘Oy, Sotty!’ Ballast called upon realisation. ‘Where’s my bloody leg?’

Without a chink in his self-satisfaction, Sotty nodded back to the forest. ‘It was weighing me down.’

Ballast almost cursed Sotty, then checked himself. This was about him, and he would enjoy it. Quickly becoming the main source of gusto in his own celebrations, Ballast cried for what felt like the hundredth time: ‘Ha-’

‘What have you done to my cat!’ a Mediterranean voice shrilled. Ballast spun round. Stood glaring at him with an implacable anger, was Maggie. Hesitantly, Ballast began to draw his sword. He never could trust his crew.


July 07, 2009

Art of the Kill

‘It’s beautiful,’ Oliver concluded, as they gazed upon the sprawled corpse illuminated before the large furnace of snaking flames. ‘Like a soldier from those old Greek war paintings.’ A gentle exhale escaped his lips. ‘Beautiful.’
   ‘Not to me’ Jim replied. ‘Just looks like a mess. And its eyes creep me out – we should’ve closed ‘em. They were fixed on me all the way down.’ He looked back up the stairwell. ‘Come on, I need my money.’
   A moment passed, and then Oliver moved forward. Standing by the head, he tucked his hands under the corpse’s armpits, and Jim wrapped his arms around its weighty knees. ‘One,’ Oliver warned. ‘Two. Three!’ With a groan, they heaved up the corpse, staggered to the furnace door and, straining, were able to tip it over the threshold. It landed with a dull thump. Panting, they stepped back from the burning heat and squinted into the blaze. The frenzied flames converged upon the body, as though each flame were a caged animal, desperately struggling against the others for the long-awaited morsel of sustenance. In seconds, all flesh was lost behind the ravenous horde. Jim shut the furnace’s iron door with a resounding clang, and turned the screeching wheel on its front until it locked.  Oliver closed his eyes, inhaled the warm air, and listened to the soft hiss coming from behind the door: he imagined the corpse’s cold body devoured in the fire, its congealed blood licked up by hundreds of hungry tongues.
   ‘Did you know,’ Oliver said, ‘that in some cultures, by burning him, we would be freeing his soul for passage into the next life.’
   ‘Perhaps in exchange,’ Jim said, ‘for our own.’ He gave Oliver an insistent look, and Oliver collected from the floor the small wooden box.
   Outside, the air was noticeably fresh, and the cars and people seemed unsettlingly loud after the heavy silence below. In the pure sunlight, every detail appeared precise and sharp. After several minutes’ speechless walk, they arrived at a little shop, which seemed to be pressed in by the two newer shops either side of it. The worn brown print across the window read: ‘Miller’s Pawn Shop’.
   ‘Morning,’ the owner welcomed with a husky voice, peering over the thin bronze rims that circled his small glasses.
   ‘Morning,’ the two men responded, and they made their way toward the owner. Oliver placed on the counter the small wooden box, and removed the lid. Inside lay a gold signet ring. ‘How much can we get for this?’ Jim asked.
   The owner gave a hushed whistle as he stooped to inspect the ring. He picked it up between his forefinger and thumb, and twisted it in the light, while rotating his head around it for different perspectives and smiling. ‘You didn’t bump anyone off for this, did you?’
   ‘Of course not,’ Oliver said. ‘Do we look the type?’ The owner gave an appreciative chuckle.
   ‘Obviously,’ the owner said, ‘I can’t offer you a great deal, but if you’re after a quick sale, I can pay you eighteen-hundred pounds.’
   Oliver looked at Jim. Jim gave a slight nod. ‘That sounds fine,’ Oliver said. The owner’s face brightened, and he turned aside to draw the money from the antiquated till. As he did this, the solemn ring drew Oliver’s attention. The sight of it conjured vague thoughts that gradually sharpened with clarity: meeting Penny for the first time in the deep-blue evening of the park: sitting at his desk in the Civil Service Department, agitatedly checking the defiant clock above: holding the gun, desperate and prepared to do what was necessary, sensing the moment of action stalk toward him inexorably.
   ‘Here you go,’ the owner said, holding out a wad of mostly purple notes. Oliver shook the reverie aside, and Jim took the money. 
   In the street outside, Oliver said, ‘That should clear your debts.’ Jim just stared: something inconsolable lurked in his glazed eyes.
‘What are you going to do now?’ Jim asked.
‘I have an appointment I’ve got to keep.’
As nothing in the world engaged Oliver during the fifteen minute walk, he withdrew to the event that at the time had seemed a blur, but, as he mulled over it, seemed more vivid than the present. There was something quite intoxicating about losing oneself in the past. With surprise, he realised that his feet had taken him to the door of his destination.
The waiting room’s walls were coated with a drab green. The colour reminded Oliver of the back wall of Penny’s garden, but he thought that would look very pretty in the sunshine, when they would eat there in the summer, free and together. But this room faced away from the sun, and therefore was tarnished with gloom. Penny should never have contact with it.
The door opened, and a woman emerged, seemingly in contemplation. ‘You may come in now, Mr. Lawrence,’ the voice inside the room said. Oliver entered. Dr. Holloway, seated behind her desk with the familiar plaque on top, studied him as he made his way to the leather couch, then stared at the file in front of her, presumably his, gravely; tiredness, perhaps. Not till he had settled against the headrest did she speak.
For an hour they discussed his recurring and vivid hallucinations. Oliver liked to view their sessions as an intricate spar between two seasoned acquaintances: both knew what to expect, and while there was always the chance of a mistake, the possibility of injury never felt plausible. Today, the adrenaline coursing through his blood allowed him to mislead her probes for the truth with a joyful ease. She would never pry open the common clam to reveal the hidden pearl within. Yet, intermittently, Dr. Holloway would spy Oliver rubbing his wedding finger while he talked, apparently unaware of what he was doing. But she chose not to pursue it. She pushed it from her thoughts, and continued the routine.


June 16, 2009

A Slice of Life

The London Chronicle

No. 20, 236                                                        Friday, July 11, 1834                                 Price 7d

CENTRAL CRIMINAL COURT – THURSDAY

{Before Mr Baron Geoffrey}

BURGLARY

         

MUTE CONFESSION. – Joseph Brooks, 26, stood charged on the indictment of burglariously breaking and entering a dwelling house, at Southwark, and stealing 37s. and five silver spoons, the property of Judge Hathaway.

          Mr. Clarence conducted the prosecution.

          The prisoner was defended by Mr. Elleman.

          The prisoner has been convicted of being drunk and incapable, of gambling, and within the past two years, larceny, resulting in one month’s imprisonment. His life has been a wretched one. Penurious and homeless from childhood, he is thought to have been involved in numerous illicit activities for which he was never arrested.

          Henry Dartfield, the arresting officer, said: About quarter-past ten o’clock on Wednesday, the 9th inst., while patrolling the Borough-road, I heard a crash which seemed to come from a nearby alleyway. When I arrived at the apparent source, I identified a broken window, and the sound of footsteps from within the violated premises. Prisoner attempted to elude me as I peered inside, but revealed himself to be at the far end of the alleyway when he stepped on a shard of a discarded bottle and yelped. (Laughter.) I fast pursued him, and then there was another crash. A cracked

lanthorn was later discovered in the vicinity. I apprehended the prisoner shortly, and abstracted the stolen booty from his person.

          Two witnesses corroborated the testimony of Mr. Dartfield. The learned counsel then imputed the prisoner with being obtuse to the law, and stated that the one month served in gaol had been insufficient to improvement in his character. He requested that the prisoner be punished with a more severe sentence than is usual in consequence of his continual disregard for authority and degenerative morality. The bench appeared grave when listening to these remarks, and the prisoner gave the impression of being resigned.

          The defendant merely reiterated the prisoner’s apology, and represented that the prisoner’s crimes were of a petty nature. Addressing the bench, he recommended the prisoner to mercy. The learned judge said: It has been determined to make an example of persons convicted of such felonious crime, in response to its lamentable increase. The accused was asked if he had anything to say.-As throughout the trial, he held his silence.

          Prisoner sentenced to gallows.

♦♦♦

Half her washing remained in its wicker basket. Her apron was draped over the dining room chair. The window welcomed the mounting noise, and Catherine’s elbows perched on its warm metal frame.

          From the flat, she viewed the gallows. At its mid-day vantage, the sun’s glaring light made every detail precise. It shone upon the hundreds lost to a Sunday’s drunken mirth; heated the reek of festering filth, and lit the emptied streets. The city square held the masses with the promise of an isolated snap.

          A cheer broke through the stench of alcohol and sweat. The convict, his eyes turned from the raucous throng, was being led by two burly guards up the gallows steps.    

Catherine studied the thief, as he stumbled across the wooden floorboards. His upper body slumped onto his bent knees, and his limp arms were trussed at the small of his back. A gaunt, pale little man declared the crime, while the convict stood submissive before the crowd. Catherine gazed on the convict’s features, and as at every hanging, imposed her memories.

There was no set order to the memories; only the routine that they would come. Often, Catherine thought of Albert. Her recollection of his face had become cloudy, but her sense of him was sharp. He was strong, rich, and adventurous. She liked to remember her walk home from the water pump, where she would eye him in his royal blue coat declaiming to his peers. Every night before the walk, and every morning as she made her way, she had attempted to martial the courage necessary to draw his interest. And always, if they took the time to notice, her neighbours saw her return to the flat with a disappointed step.

One morning, Albert wasn’t there. Catherine tried to steel herself, to deceive her instincts. She never saw Albert again.

Sometimes Catherine wondered absently: would he have made a good husband? Would their children have flourished? But she never sought an answer. She was without husband, without children. Her love had been snatched from her, so she clung to her melancholy.

Today though, Catherine thought of her landlord. He had harangued her parents for over a fortnight, after raising the rent unfairly. Her parents couldn’t pay. It is not an immediate concern, her father had said. Food, drink and fuel cannot be bargained. Another night in this poxy pit can. Without any evidence, she knew her father was in ‘The King’s Head’, quaffing the last drops of her mother’s affection.

A black cap was placed over the convict, extinguishing his sight. The crowd jeered, from the street and the rooftops. In the convict’s pitch mask, Catherine instilled her resentment. She envisaged her landlord under the hood, imagined him trembling as his head was threaded through the noose… which transmuted into her father, slouched in the pub, insensible to his tiny world… and to mother, who avoided her fears by attending to father’s demands…

The convict was ushered toward the noose. The crowd seemed to rear, scenting exultation. Catherine inspired. Bloodlust was in the air; the Devil had come to collect his due. The noose was laid on top of the convict’s shoulders. His body was rigid, his fists clenched. As expected, Catherine felt her thoughts contract and focus, until they were dominated by one vision: her father, in the pub, squandering their money: an image still and eternal. The throng roared abuse at the criminal, hurled taunts and damnations; furious music, its sly hand breached and manipulated Catherine’s emotions, raising her mind beyond reason. Eternal. Always. Forever.

Which meant it worked. A crack pricked her anger, and the prospect of climax began to trickle away. Her first memory of the landlord was him harassing her parents; and her father had never been rich, never tried to better his standing. Yet they’d never been cast into the street. And when Catherine searched herself, she could muster no belief that they would be now.

The screams for justice rushed past as she floated down to reality, seemed trivial in their fleetingness. Her cheeks cooled. On inspection, everything she knew seemed trivial.

Catherine’s sight fell to the street that forged past the flat. Albert’s absence from it had once conjured a nostalgic yearning. It had been wrong for Albert and the street to be separate. Now, it looked right. Catherine considered the pub: three doors down, in half an hour it would be packed full of young, working bachelors. But they were lewd, lecherous men, who couldn’t eliminate dreams of Albert. She had missed her moment.

The crowd’s intensity willed the death knell of a broken neck. The Devil was positioned to pluck the final chord. But Catherine had been severed from that world. The ritual had failed her. The masses, craving an impersonal thrill, would be satisfied. Murder’s a young man’s sport, her father had said.

Slowly, Catherine turned away, to her washing and her apron. She left the window open, but paid no attention to its news.

♦♦♦

Jasper sounded exasperated. ‘Why have you convened this meeting, Randall?’

          At the opposite end of the round table, Randall rose to his feet. He seemed to be shaking slightly, but he had enough of a grip on his composure to keep his expression stern. ‘Fellow heretics,’ he said. ‘A grievous act has been… thrust upon me. Another discovered our clan.’

          There were no gasps from the six other men seated around the table, but their eyes became those of reptiles.

Randall continued, but a small part of his nervousness had infiltrated his tongue. ‘Do not fear. He is no longer a threat. And for what occurred, I take full responsibility. We were exposed by negligence: a letter that you sent me, Christopher, I was slow to burn. A servant of mine chanced upon it; he threatened to blackmail me, and if I refused, to turn me over to the authorities. We were the only two people in the household. So I killed him. The poker made bloody work of the affair, but I am content that all incriminating stains have been scrubbed from existence. However, I have been unable to dispose of the body because of the day…’ Randall swallowed. ‘The daylight and the accompanying liveliness of the streets. It is unfortunate that tonight I have been requested at a party, one which it would be gravely suspicious if I did not attend. The body has been secreted in my cellar. Therefore, with my deepest regret, I humbly entreat one of you to take care of the matter.’ Randall hesitated, then seated himself. The focus of the room shifted from him, and his stifled sigh staggered past his lips like a tortured man escaping his prison.

          Jasper rose. ‘We will deal with this problem immediately. Our cult cannot be implicated in unlawful murder. We are the wind that steals the final breath, the

mystics who suffocate despair in rage, catalysts of the dormant poison which saturates everyone’s blood. The distance to our reward is unknowable. All we know is that it will come, and that we are made ecstatic in our labours to soothe us while we wait. But our magic cannot function without our guises. They are our most precious instrument.’

          Jasper turned to Corrigan, a pallid, gaunt individual. ‘Your next hanging is at mid-day tomorrow, isn’t it?’

          ‘That is correct.’

‘Then you shall be the one to deal with the matter. Not only will you have the most time, but of our houses, yours is the closest to Randall’s.’ Jasper’s eyes flitted in Randall’s direction, as if they were hot pokers meant to sear Randall with contempt. Randall visibly withered. Corrigan nodded his assent, and Randall handed him a key.

          Jasper said, ‘How do you think you will dispose of the body?’

          ‘The Thames.’

          Jasper considered the idea. ‘Yes. That seems suitable. Then we will reconvene tomorrow evening, to verify your success.’ He glanced at the filthy window, and the parasitic dust which clung to the glass. ‘The sun has surrendered to the army of stars, who are sheathed in darkness. You should go now.’

          Corrigan swept out of the room, fixated upon his detailed imagining of a severally punctured corpse.

The body had been evident the moment Corrigan opened the cellar door; the reek had stung his nose, as sharp and sudden as a wasp’s final aggression. Corrigan had ploughed forward, though, tricking his mind into savouring the stink. He had brought a sack with him, along with four bricks dropped inside. He had wrapped his bare hands around the corpse’s stiff flesh, occasionally brushed its icy fluids and yielding insides, and heaved the body into the sack. Then he had tied the neck of the sack, pulled it over his shoulder, and walked out into the balmy night.

          Now he was on the Thames bank, away from the hushed streets and comfortable families. The river was temperate, and the snaked scales of its rippling chest swayed in a warm slumber. Corrigan undid the sack, and wistfully stared at the rotting flesh that less than twenty-four hours ago had been a life. In his mind, he saw the corpse as something new: a nest for writhing maggots, its wet intestines tunnels between the shelters provided by its spacious organs, its soulless eyes eternally on guard to an attack. This is what Corrigan did, what the cult inculcated: the transformation of one thing into another, through the manipulation of the mind: Magic; and it could influence others too. Corrigan anticipated the coming hanging where, like a poet, he would create a spectacle that would shape reality.

          A cheery, lilting whistle shattered his reverie. Straining his limbs, Corrigan quickly dragged the sack behind a nearby shipping crate. The whistling grew louder; Corrigan peeped in its direction, and spied a pot-bellied officer sauntering toward the bank, veiled in spectral moonlight. Corrigan stilled his breathing. The officer stopped, gazed over the river. This situation persisted for half a minute. Time had been petrified by the moonlight. Then, like a statue awakened from the musings of millennia, the officer turned. He did not head for Corrigan, but his route would make him aware of Corrigan’s location. The sack, which had seemed a gift, now weighed as a burden. He needed to lighten the load. Despite the corpse, who slept upon the bricks as a man sleeps upon his sole possession, Corrigan snatched a brick out of the sack. If he rushed the officer…

          A dog barked on the other side of the road. Now Corrigan was the statue.

          ‘Cease that racket!’ the officer shouted.

          Impudently, the dog barked again.

          ‘I said cease that– oh, I’ll do it myself,’ the officer said. He stormed to the other side of the street.

          Even after the officer had left, Corrigan remained dumbstruck. Then, he placed the brick back in the sack and, checking his path before he went, hauled the body down to the river.

          At first, the sack seemed to float, as if passed on the hands of the sea. But the hands grew claws, and dragged the sack down, down, to be feasted upon by their sunken pets.

          As Corrigan walked home, free of incrimination and urging the sun to reach its zenith, he encountered the pot-bellied police officer. ‘Ev’ning, officer. Ah, the Thames has a stink even water won’t wash, don’t you agree? Perhaps you could distract your mind from this filth with the thought of witnessing tomorrow’s execution of justice.’

          The officer drew back, as if Corrigan were the source of the smell. ‘No thanks, sir. Not very agreeable to me.’

          Glee stretched Corrigan’s lips. ‘Oh well, never mind. There will always be another day.’ And he walked on to London’s heart, away from the officer, who felt relief at his departure.

Corrigan observed sensuous words float and twine around his mind, delivering him into a mystic trance. The wooden steps he ascended had been carved from great oaks, whose ringed trunks signified their pledge to be Time’s companion. Viperous thoughts slithered behind the crowd’s appearance, and with the rhythm of his words he would entice them to the fore. He stood before them, and with a raised open palm, oppressed their noise.

          ‘Citizens of London’, Corrigan announced. ‘Today, we bear witness to an act of absolute justice. The one punishment from which no criminal can sin again. Joseph Brooks, a sore upon our beautiful city, has been condemned of theft, irrevocably and irredeemably. He will be an example to all sinners, proof that the judge’s hammer is more swift and severe than any lie can defend against.’ The crowd seemed to press forward, their parched souls craning for the purity of his words.

         ‘Bring forth the prisoner,’ Corrigan said without turning. The sound of padding footsteps travelled up the stairs, which Corrigan interpreted as softly approaching war drums. The prisoner was positioned near the edge of the platform, ahead of Corrigan. Tendrils of fever probed the crowd, inflaming those most susceptible to their touch. What a wonderful prop, Corrigan thought, as he witnessed the prisoner’s effect.

          ‘This miscreant,’ Corrigan declaimed, ‘was charged with the robbery of the house of Judge Hathaway. ‘The People’ unanimously convicted him of this crime. Like a weed, he must be wrenched from his corporeal roots, so that this country, our country, may thrive.’

Some sections of the crowd roared assent. Those who didn’t, seethed. The tendrils had woven into a net of poison ivy, cast over the whole audience. Emotion ruled thought.

          Corrigan nodded to a man at his left. The black cap was carried to the centre of the platform, and the last vestiges of the prisoner’s humanity were swallowed in its maw. They jeered, the crowd in the square and those on the rooftops, screamed in rage. This is the power of death, Corrigan thought, to transform reason into chaos.

Corrigan admired the prisoner’s characterless body; it was clay from which anything could be shaped. But the gallows had its own rules, and time was running short.

          The prisoner was led to the noose. The tightly-wound hemp was a leash, slipped over the prisoner’s head to prevent him straying from his path. Waves of expectation rolled off the crowd, heralds of the tide to come. The noise was too great for Corrigan to speak. Instead, he stepped aside, and indicated the noose with the raised hand of an exhibitor. Then, at the same moment as Corrigan’s hand swept downwards as a magician’s does when he rips aside the curtain to reveal the disappearance behind, the panel collapsed.

          Snap!

          A tidal wave of vocalised exultation cleansed Corrigan’s mind. He had guided them to this point. Like a released man, he savoured it all. Meanwhile, the prisoner swayed pendular in the sunlight, timing the cheer that greeted his death.

♦♦♦

A man stood defeated on the gallows, in the countryside, with a rope looping over its frame and round his neck. A legion of royal guards, some cavalrymen, awaited the hanging. Two banners were held aloft. It was all in monochrome. I had tuned out the guide’s speech about James E. Taylor. It was the weekend, and my one chosen leisure activity brought my mind back to the job. Perfect.

          Everyone else in the tour group was fascinated by the painting. Everyone always seemed to have a fascination with the macabre. It was the only explanation for the unending series of headlines.

          The media’s coverage of the ‘Thames Murder’ had been sensational. The Daily Mail ran the headline, ‘NO-ONE IS SAFE’, for goodness’ sake. But that was to be expected. The worst of it was the oblique glamorisation of the killer. Phrases like, ‘continues to evade police’, really grate. They make the killer the hero, someone to root for, like a man on the run. Also, ‘continues’ makes the killer sound smarter than the police, as if he were toying with us. In reality, he’s probably holed up in some dive, biding his time till the media attention dies down. Why not, ‘police are still searching’? Whatever happened to good journalism?

          I’ve seen death, up close. Seen what it does. I sat there, while the mother of the victim wept, absolutely useless. And the whole time, all I could see was a school photo of her daughter, a picture of youth and innocence. There is nothing glamorous about murder; murder, and its wake, is cold, cruel, and hollow.

          There was a vibration in my pocket. I took out my phone, and detached myself from the tour group. It was a text message from Rose, giving me the date and time of our next counselling session: Tuesday, 12-1 p.m. Tomorrow was going to be a busy day.

I’ve been in this job twenty-seven years, and every time it astonishes me how wrong they manage to get it. It can’t be by accident. They must be trying.

          I held the press conference yesterday. I told them the facts: that we have every available resource working to find out who the killer is; that we cannot reveal suspects at this time; and that we are confident the killer will be caught. What do they print? That we do not have enough men assigned to the case; that our suspects are the result of desperation; and that you should make certain to lock your doors, because the police certainly won’t be able to protect you. And typically, I’m surprised.

But there is some news worth hearing. At 5:00am this morning, the phone yanked me out of my sleep. Kelly, a new P.C., rang to inform me that a vagrant had walked into the station, claiming he could provide a description of the killer. I was at the station by 5:40; the job’s trained me to be a light sleeper.

Sergeant Anderson conducted the interview with me. The vagrant was the embodiment of a stereotypical drifter. He even had a lone gold tooth to accentuate his crazed look. Beneath his fraying hair, his face was difficult to read; I guessed him to be in his mid-thirties.

          ‘You claim to have seen the killer as he dumped the bin bag containing his victim into the Thames. Is this true?’ Anderson asked.

          ‘Yes,’ the vagrant responded. His voice was coarse.

          ‘Can you please describe him?’

          ‘Sure. He was a tall, thin man, with blonde hair. It were curly, I think. He was dressed in a smart suit, wearing black gloves. I don’t know where he was from, but I reckon he was English.’ All the while an artist rendered a sketch from the description provided. ‘He had cufflinks, yeah, I’m pretty sure about that. Nice gold cufflinks in the shape of an elephant or summin’. I remember finking, ‘They’re –

          ‘Mr. Leonard,’ I interjected. ‘Did the man have a bright blue tie?’

          Mr. Leonard paused. ‘Yeah… yeah, I fink he did.’

          ‘And was his suit pin-striped, mostly dark green?’

          ‘Yeah,’ he said, as if I had some psychic ability. ‘It was.’

          ‘And the cufflinks, is it possible they were in fact whale-shaped?’

          Mr. Leonard looked puzzled, and glanced from side to side. ‘I…I…’

          I shot to my feet. ‘Interview terminated at 7:49 a.m.’ I switched off the tape. ‘Come on, Anderson, this guy doesn’t know anything.’ I could feel my fury bubbling over. When we were outside the interview room, me and Anderson didn’t discuss it. We both knew he’d only come for the reward.

Afterwards, I fumed in my office, pretending to myself that I would reread the case files. But I just couldn’t focus. We were getting nowhere. The press may have twisted my words, but they weren’t far from the truth: we didn’t have any worthwhile leads, and the case was becoming cold.

Eventually, after my anger had ebbed, I reasoned that I had to do what I was paid for, regardless of whether it was useful or not. So I put my head back into my work, desperate for that crucial clue I had doubtless missed.

          At 1:17 p.m., my mobile went off. When I read the caller I.D., I swore. I’d forgotten the counselling, and the building was on the other side of town. I rang Rose up and kept repeating that I was sorry. I blamed the stress of the job.

          ‘It’s always the job,’ she sneered. I could tell she’d been crying.

          ‘I know I know, and I’ll change, it’s just we had a lead, and I don’t know what happened, I’m really sorry, I -’

          She hung up. An hour later, after she’d had time to calm down, I called again. I repeated what I’d said in the first phone call, with as much emotion as possible. I told her I loved her. Reluctantly, she agreed to give the counselling another go.

          For a short time, I returned to rereading the case files, but it was obvious no revelation would come. At 4:53 p.m., long out of ideas or hope, I shut the folder, and headed to my one-room bed-sit, to a dinner of microwaved pasta and meatballs.

          The bed-sit depresses me profoundly. I can only bear to be there when I’m asleep. There’s nothing to do, and the air is thick with decay. Normally, I manage to get an early night, but my problems kept pressing on my mind. So I went for a walk in the crisp night air.

          At first, I wandered aimlessly round the block. Then, for some reason, I thought of the Thames bank. I went and sat on the pebbly shore, near to where the girl’s body had been discovered. A lot of things went through my mind. When did I start begging for counselling just to keep my marriage alive? Why was I so stupid that I forgot to do the one thing Rose asked of me? I’d been married to Rose for seventeen years, to the job for another decade. Which did I really love more?

          Then I thought about murder, how it wasn’t just a single act, but a disease with many symptoms. It tears through family and friends. It makes society fearful and suspicious. And throughout history, it had been a constant addiction. James E. Taylor dedicated ten months of his life to illustrating that gallows picture, and for what? Then there were all the Agatha Christie books, all the Hitchcock films, all the endless documentaries – everything seemed wrapped up in death. Murder was an artist, and he’d made himself acceptable through his creations. Society didn’t believe the world could exist without murder, and any attempt to single-handedly end it was futile. So what was the point?

          I thought about that for a long time, watching the Thames drift by, and gradually realised that for twenty-seven years I’d been the wrong type of police officer. Being a policeman wasn’t about justice or convictions; it was about lessening the suffering of others. Catching the killer was not the end; it was the means of making people feel secure, of showing that the good guy did come out on top; that

humanity couldn’t be stabbed, drowned, or pummelled into oblivion. An image of the girl’s mother lodged itself in my mind. My logic sounded insufficient, but felt solid enough to soothe me. Stretching my stiff muscles, I staggered to my feet.

          My eyes were tired and unsteady, but a smooth, oval pebble caught my eye. Vaguely, I decided to pick it up. The pebble felt hard and enduring, having survived through millennia; it was a symbol of humanity. Careful of the loose pebbles, I trod down to the water’s edge. The pebble’s invincibility seemed certain to me. As an act of faith, I drew back my arm, and whipped the pebble over the Thames’ dappled surface. The pebble skimmed across the water, leaping and falling, bouncing and toppling, a clumsy object caught in a majestic dance; then it made a clear plop, and sank toward the unknowable river bed, where, despite the continuous tide, I was confident it would persist.


June 15, 2009

Fix

6:27 p.m.: That’s what the clock says. His clock. He’s still not here. Five more minutes.

           6:42 p.m.: Bastard. He promised he’d be here. He promised he’d give it to me. But all he gave me was an open door. And now I’m stuck, in this miserable, poky flat, which stinks of dirt and rot, and the lights throw out this sickly yellow. I took some of his milk, and ate some of his Jaffa cakes. I should walk out, never give him any money again.

But he could appear in that doorway any second. Five more minutes.

Four years ago: I was slumped in that bar, sealed off from the midday activity. I hadn’t been to one class that week, but you could get away with it. And the people here were much more exciting. Not like the people at college; everyone trapped in their insignificant prescriptive lives, doing what they they’d been taught to do, never pushing their experiences.

Not everyone. Some were special. Four of them were here, talking. They had ideas, plans, you could tell just by the passion on their faces.

Later, they came and sat by me. They were cool. They were people you could just sit with, do nothing, and still come away on a high. They told me about all these anarchic concepts: that everything, every building, every skyscraper, is birthed in the mind; that ideologies outlive their makers; that most of society’s become so desensitised, it’s forgotten how to love and to live. After that, I saw them regularly.

I’d expected it, but one time they offered me a tablet. Two of them had downed theirs already. They represented the exhilaration in my life. So I took it.

For a while, I was close to them; then we drifted apart. It wasn’t deliberate; we’d long since relinquished any deliberateness. We lived in the moment.

7:17 p.m.: I scrounged around his fridge. It was almost bare, littered with scraps of food long gone off. Then I spotted it, at the back, in a scrunched-up plastic wrapper. I drew it toward me, and peeled it open. Acid. Jackpot.

To be at the back of that fridge, it had to be at least a couple of months old. But it was still a drug. And he wasn’t turning up anytime soon.

They were coming; the wolves. Everywhere, watching, waiting, poised, fangs dripping, on the horizon. And no matter how quickly I ran down the street, they were always the same distance away, playing with me.

I hailed a taxi, it stopped, I got in, ordered the driver ‘Take me to Kensel Rise!’, and then hid behind the seat, my sweat sticking to the leather, occasionally peering over the edge. The red eyes were relentless.

When the taxi halted, I leapt out, shoving a fistful of change in the groove between the glass, and ran, my heart in overdrive, down the street, over the gate, stabbing like a sewing machine’s needle on the buzzer. They were coming they were coming where was she why wasn’t she –

The door drew back, and I nearly fell through. I bolted in, and slammed the door shut. She looked tired and irritated. ‘What have you done now?’

8:52 p.m.: She made me sleep in the living room, on the couch, threw a thin blanket on top of me, and put on some dull T.V. Then she left, back to our bed upstairs. I squeezed my eyelids tight, so that I wouldn’t see the wolves.

Over a year ago: My life was timeless. Then a friend introduced her to me. And she became this fixed point; something I could remember, that marked the passing of the weeks. She’d accepted my addiction; she didn’t like it, but she’d accepted it. And now she kept urging me to quit.

I lived with her. I slept with her. But sometimes, she seemed so vague, something on the fringe. She understood me, though, saw completely my self-made lifestyle; that was important.

But she acted as if we were bound together, locked in some serious commitment. I couldn’t even remember how we’d got to this point. But she’d stay with me. Because she knew I was going places. Because it was only a matter of time.

9:31 p.m.: The wolves were coming up a ladder! I was in a flat, I should’ve been safe, I only had a few seconds. I banged my fist on the carpet, I was so petrified I couldn’t shout, I needed help.

The door burst open, and there she stood. ‘What the hell’s wrong with you!’

I was curled underneath our low glass table, for protection. Her scowl combined with her large, loose pyjamas to make her look absurd.

‘You promised you wouldn’t do anything today. We’re having a baby!’

She whipped the door back round. Its slam hurt my ears.

There was a heavy silence. Even the wolves had gone.

I slept.


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