About

An introduction

This is a collection of often witty, insightful and informative musings, ponderings and epic grumbles. Each piece comes in at a snappy 1500 words or less and will, I think you’ll find, make your overall experience of life a little warmer, a little fuzzier and a tad more interesting. Recent results, carried out by professional result finders, have proven that individuals subjected to this blog, over long periods of time, are more likely to cry in public.

Is your life just one meaningless thread of associations, skipping from one random link to another? Do you search the net for quick thrills, for that two second buzz or for that funny photo of a dog smoking a pipe that you can share with your ‘friend’?  So why not take a break from your non-lineal, sensationalist, perhaps even lurid internet experience, it’s not too late, find sanctuary here in the temple of the Cage Writer.

Well I think that went well, punchy, to the point and the kind of tongue in cheek condescension people love.

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The spectrum of incredulity – part one – The abduction of truth.

The abduction of truth.

The armchair, Peter thought, reflected his present condition, tired, threadbare, unfashionable, unwanted and difficult to match with anything else. Not that he had much else to match it with other than a coffee table that seemed ashamed of its own existence. The coffee table loitered by the chair in a desperate attempt to fit in… it didn’t work. He also had, in the same poorly lit room, an empty aquarium (his wife had flushed the last inhabitants down the toilet: easier, she explained, to move the tank); a rug he hated; a poor excuse for a bookcase; a geriatric lamp that had developed a symbiotic relationship with the armchair. It would be, he thought, teetering on the edge of cruelty to separate them now as they were all so obviously advanced in their infirmity.

‘So this is what divorce looks like,’ Peter muttered to his roommates. Excusing himself he glanced momentarily at the crumpled spread sheet in his hand. When separation was the only option left on the table (not the coffee table, another table, pure oak, the one his wife still has), Peter made a list of their belongings and, by using a points based system, divided these belongings equitably. It now seemed quite apparent that this exercise was a complete waste of time as, slowly but surely, Annette got everything. She had it all, other than the few items that had, until now, spent the best part of their lives rotting away in the basement.

Peter and Annette had already independently accumulated some stuff of their own before they met. Then, over the course of twenty years, they got a lot of other stuff, nice stuff, together. Peter didn’t recognise any of the shambolic furniture in this room as his or Annette’s from before. It certainly wasn’t anything they had bought together. He surmised therefore, that this junk had been left in their house by the previous owners!

‘So to summarise,’ Peter said loudly addressing his new companions.

‘I have been well and truly shafted!’

The bookcase, never good with noise, lost a shelf and the lamp blew her bulb.

And then, in a more apologetic tone, ‘Nothing personal.’

Peter made his way up the narrow creaking stairs to his bedroom, with its promises of flannel pyjamas and maybe a little Geoffrey Archer to wrap up the fun.

The following day brought with it a bleak sense of foreboding. Gloom within and gloom without: his body heavy, due to the heavy heart he now carried with him. His heavy heart somehow felt heavier when it rained.

With resignation Peter crawled out of bed and drew the curtains back on another day. The curtains were apparently ‘Geranium Pale Floral’ and the antithesis to the shambolic collection gathered elsewhere in this two-up, two-down hovel he now called home. These curtains were shamelessly garish and he hated them, he’d always hated them and now, as some sort of final kick in the teeth Annette had, with a great show of charity, handed them to him as a house warming gift. He’d had half a mind not to hang the damn things up but, in the end he couldn’t be bothered with the consequences.

Peter had a chat with himself, ‘You can’t go on like this; you need to rebuild your life.’

‘Huh… life? What’s the point?’ he replied.

‘Come on, festering in self pity won’t get us anywhere Peter. We need to do something, anything, as long as it’s positive.’

And so it was that Peter came back several hours later with a nice throw for the chair, a new shelf for the bookcase, a light bulb, a handful of self-help books and a microwave lasagna for one.

After supper Peter lowered himself into the ragged armchair. The new throw smiled the false smile of an actor resigned to the role. The chair was surprisingly comfortable, sort of enveloped him in a warm embrace. It wasn’t long before ‘Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus’ slipped from his hands as Peter fell asleep.

All he could see to begin with was a bright white light. He sensed that he was in an operating theatre and had woken prematurely. Then the light split, dividing into several smaller lights. Now he felt like he was standing in a vast space and the lights were further away. One of the, until now stationary lights, began to move towards him, growing bigger as it approached until it was the size of a small family car: it hovered just above eye level. Its brightness intensified, so that Peter had to shield his eyes.

A clunking noise, footsteps, a tug on his shirtsleeve and someone pressed a pair of sunglasses into his hand. He put them on and looked into the almond shaped eyes of…what? The creature before him stood at about five feet tall, humanoid, biped, the right amount of heads and limbs and yet there was something alien about it. Peter couldn’t tell whether the creature was male or female, it was hairless, lithe, naked and without genitals. The creature’s head was large for its body, big forehead, two tiny holes for nostrils and a slice for a mouth.

When the creature spoke it did so without using its mouth; it used telepathy. Peter heard a voice in his head, it wasn’t deep but softly spoken, androgynous, neither male nor female.

‘Come, please, no harm here. Follow.’

Feeling a little prickly Peter said, ‘Well where I come from introductions are generally made first.’

‘Come, please, no harm here. Follow,’ repeated the creature’

Peter concluded that this ‘chap’ was merely the messenger and that the message was, ‘Come, please, no harm here. Follow’. He wasn’t going to get anymore out of it. The messenger raised its thin, long-fingered hand and beckoned for Peter to follow.

Peter followed the creature into what he could now see was a spherical, floating vehicle made of light. Once inside, the creature appeared to navigate the craft with its mind, weaving seamlessly amidst other vehicles.

The sphere had a transparent quality that was both off putting and fascinating at the same time. With the sunglasses on Peter could see out of the vehicle in all directions, with the sunglasses off he was just whizzing through space in a family-sized ball of bright light. He opted to keep them on.

Other than the countless similar spheres whizzing past, Peter could see much larger objects, stationary buildings in fact, and it was toward one of these buildings that the messenger now steered his craft. Peter concentrated on the building and as they grew ever closer he could make out a landing bay, then other creatures, just like his chauffeur, came into view. The craft landed, or rather came to a hover, and Peter was encouraged to walk down the steps onto the landing bay floor. Several of the figures approached him, but one in particular stood out from the rest, a woman, a real woman, and not from Venus. The woman extended a delicate hand and smiled at him with yearning lips. His heart lost a beat; his mouth went dry…

‘We were expecting you,’ said the woman.

‘You were?’ he managed meekly.

Peter felt himself recede, as if standing on the shoreline watching the tide go out.

The new light bulb atop the old lamp confirmed he was indeed awake. Pity, he thought the dream had seemed so real. Peter pulled himself up out of the chair and shuffled into the little kitchen where he poured himself a glass of water then looked accusingly at the empty plate of lasagna for one: he’d have salad tomorrow.

The following day was a workday. Peter went into the office and drank tea, looked at spreadsheets and dodged human interaction if at all possible. Peter sat on a bench in the park at lunchtime and fed the pigeons. Peter went back to his new home on the number 22 bus. The routine was the same: watching him as one would watch a rat in a lab, one would merely conclude that his behaviour was predictable, in keeping with previous assessments, ‘Nothing new to report’. But, despite this rat’s obvious physical presence, he wasn’t really there. Just as he had done for every day in the months following the separation, Peter went through the motions. But today was different: rather than be pre-occupied with his miserable life, his divorce, his loneliness he was thinking about the dream he’d had the night before, or more specifically the women in the dream he had the night before.

When he reached home, Peter’s routine continued its predictable pattern: shower, check for messages (none), microwave a meal for one (salad was never his thing), slump in the armchair and pretend to read how men and women are from different planets. Maybe, he thought, someone could write a book called, ‘Peter is from an isolated system and everyone else is from an open system’. He soon fell asleep…

Someone handed him his sunglasses and Peter put them on. He was no longer standing on the landing bay but sitting in a room, a white room with no windows. Two naked, androgynous creatures flanked the women.

‘Do you feel alarmed?’ she said, moving her lips, which was reassuring and pleasant.

‘Not at all,’ replied Peter.

‘Do you think this is a dream?’

‘Not sure… logically, it must be but it feels real.’

‘Logic and reason are often at odds with one another don’t you think?’

‘Yes, quite.’

‘We are currently sitting in a very large craft, it’s exact coordinates are classified. The craft is home to all that remains of an ancient species whose home planet became uninhabitable eons ago. A new planet is currently under construction but in the meantime its people are exploring the universe.’

‘Ok,’ said Peter. Simultaneously thinking that, if this was a dream, a product of his own imagination, then it was an imagination he was previously unacquainted with.

‘These people have evolved beyond human capabilities, but maintain certain constructs such as social order, language, obedience to the law and so forth. The technology that these people have is immense, they don’t need to work or strive for survival. They operate as a team and they strive only for knowledge. Isn’t it beautiful?’ asked the object of Peter’s desire.

‘Yes, very attractive indeed. But, if you don’t mind me asking, what do they want with me?’

‘Well Peter, they would like to carry out some tests, totally non-intrusive – forget turkey basters or latex gloves; none of that nonsense! They just want to observe you, and… erm… take a look inside your head. Your mind to be exact.’

‘My mind?’ Said Peter eying the two alien flanks with renewed interest.

‘Yes, you see humans are a long way behind in terms of evolution. These beings want to know how humans function, how we perceive the world and how belief maps our existence? Why we believe what we believe?’

‘You said we…’

‘Yes, I’m human. I have been helping these beings with their research, maybe you will too. I mean permanently one day?’

Peter thought that being the only two humans on a spacecraft, situated somewhere in the vastness of the universe, upped his chances of getting laid considerably. However attractive this thought may be, Peter was also aware that he might be going slightly mad. He pictured himself slumped in a chair, dribbling and shouting incoherent obscenities to no one in particular as the nurse rushed over to him with a loaded syringe. Other patients, more alert than he, shouted,
‘Its the spaceman, its the spaceman!’

‘I need to think about all of this. Can I go home?’

‘Yes, you take off the glasses and you’ll wake up in the portal.’

‘Portal?’

‘Yes the chair. It’s a kind of gateway. We had to use something unremarkable, something that doesn’t draw attention to itself, but is ultimately inviting.’

‘Oh,’ said Peter.

The women leaned over, her face close to his, her cleavage ever so slightly visible in his periphery vision, ‘You just have to go with the flow, it’ll be worth it Peter, you will never look back.’

‘Well, ok. Thanks for everything; I’ll be in touch,’ he removed his glasses.

He awoke in his chair.

Peter leapt up, startled and paraded the sunglasses around the room.

‘Bloody hell, I mean… well… bloody hell.’

He looked from the chair to the glasses in his hand and back again. How could this be true?

‘Well you all saw that didn’t you? You all saw me wake up with these sunglasses in my hand?’ Peter shouted to his inanimate roommates. The coffee table looked at its feet; the old lamp was hesitant to commit to anything, never sure if what it saw was real or not. The bookcase tried desperately to hold onto its new shelf and the chair whispered, ‘Yes’.

‘Ah hah!’ said Peter and left the living room. He stood in the kitchen staring at the fridge. He placed the sunglasses down on the small Formica table and poured a glass of water.

‘I’m going mad,’ he muttered, ‘Mad.’

The fridge, which was new to the job, decided to refrain from comment and maintained, what it hoped was, a frigid exterior.

The next morning Peter called in sick. He had never in his entire working life taken a sick day without actually being sick. His mind seemed, and indeed was, divided. Two Peters now: not one holistic, homogenous gloop as before, but two distinct versions of himself. One version, the skeptic, questioned his own sanity; the other wanted to desperately believe in what he’d seen, what he’d experienced. One part of him wanted to believe, based on empirical evidence but the other, more skeptical self, remained steadfast in his rationalism.
Peter avoided going into the living room for quite some time. He’d hurry past the open door on his way to the kitchen then hurry back again; loitering was out of the question. He made cups of tea and put them down, un-sipped in various places until he ran out of cups. He couldn’t sit still, he had to think, and like many a thinking man he had to pace out a problem. Walking from one room to the next and back again, all the while consciously avoiding the lure of the living room and the chair that beckoned from within.

Rationally none of what he’d experienced had actually happened. There was no evidence in the world to support the notion that aliens were among us. He conceded that statistically other intelligent life forms must exist somewhere in the universe, after all it was mind-bogglingly vast! But that is not to say that these life forms were more advanced than humankind or that they were anything like us.

Rationally wasn’t it more plausible to assume that he had been under an enormous amount of pressure recently? That his mental health was just a little bit strained? That the stress of separation and divorce combined with negative introspection had culminated in delusional dreams?

On the other hand why was it that these delusional episodes only ever happened whilst in that chair? He never had such dreams when asleep in his bed, or when occasionally he nodded off on the park bench at lunchtime. What’s more both Peters had to agree that the experience seemed pretty real. Normally in his dreams, which were always low budget affairs, there was a sense of detachment, a sense of… well… dreaming. The armchair experience was like an I-Max blockbuster in comparison! Total immersion. It was also difficult for either Peter to accept that he was even capable of such flights of fancy – he just didn’t have an imagination.

Eventually, after talking and walking himself in circles everyone agreed he should sit in the chair and see what happened. Now at least, if anything did happen, Peter had his inner rationalist on board. Together they could figure this whole thing out, get to the bottom of it and return to normal. Because if Peter liked anything, it was normality.

With the sunglasses clasped in one hand Peter lowered himself into the armchair. The tension caused by his predicament quickly drained. The chair was so comfortable, so soothing that his body and mind relaxed and before long Peter felt his eyes grow heavy and he did nothing to stop it.

He opened his eyes to bright light. He heard a door open and close, then soft footsteps approached.

‘Put your glasses on Peter,’ said a familiar voice, husky, seductive, feminine. Peter hastened to obey. And there she was, as before, flanked by her naked, intellectually advanced employers.

‘How are you Peter? We are so pleased that you decided to return.’

‘I’m ok, I guess.’

‘Having a little trouble with reality?’

‘I’m struggling to know what’s real anymore, if that’s what you mean. I don’t know what to believe.’

‘Excellent’ said the woman.

‘Excellent?’

‘Yes, you see the state you are in now, this indecision, this opposition between rationality and empiricism is exactly the human condition my colleagues wish to explore. What we would like to do, if you permit, is to analyse your mind during our conversation.’

‘How?’

‘You remember how the life form you first encountered here spoke to you using telepathy? Well with your permission my colleagues here would like to take it one stage further and telepathically analyse your thought patterns. They can un-intrusively collect data and relay it all back to a semi-organic quantum computer.’

‘I’m not sure I want anyone to know everything I’m thinking: some things are private,’ said Peter desperately trying to suppress an image of his interviewer writhing naked beneath him.

‘It’s not so much the thoughts themselves Peter… more the connections that are made and where they originate from. Sex, for example is a very complicated phenomenon. Your attitude, your likes and dislikes, your preferences, your guilty pleasures, your turn-ons and turn-offs are all products of your experience. How you were brought up, early sexual experiences, whether they were good or bad: it’s a minefield. How you feel about it has a lot to do with what you think you already know, what you believe. Millions of connections are being made, ultimately informing you on how you should respond to new developments.’

‘Are you going to ask me questions about sex?’ said Peter, a little hot under the collar.

‘No, at least not today. That was just an example. We are more interested in how you are dealing with this experience. You want to rationalise it, want to explain it in a way that makes sense to you and ultimately to others.’

‘Oh… ok. I guess as I’m here, and it’s probably only a lucid dream anyway…’

‘Is that a ‘yes’, Peter?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then we can start.’

‘My name is Maya. I was named after a Hindu Goddess. Maya keeps the illusion of the material world alive, preventing, or at least inhibiting us from seeing deeper spiritual truths. I was given the name to remind me that I must always look for those truths. It’s a kind of antitheses. We must, I believe, keep an open mind, gather information as we go, and challenge what we think we know… always challenge, keep asking questions. So Peter, you are, I’m guessing, in two minds as to what to believe right now. Can you tell us what you believe and why?’

Peter shifted in his chair, he felt like he’d been singled out in class to explain his thoughts on Beowulf. His thoughts on that topic were, simply put, that it was utter nonsense. Bloodthirsty Danes going around decapitating hags in swamps and butchering demons! What was there to say? None of it was forged in sense and he hated poetry at the best of times. Even so he was expected to give a constructive critique. Then, as now, the option of muttering ‘I don’t know miss,’ was not going to do him any favours.

‘Well there is a big part of me that thinks all of this…’ he waved his hands in an all encompassing manner, ‘… is not real. I mean it can’t be, can it?’

‘You are asking me?’

‘No, not really. Look I don’t have much of an imagination, I’m limited in that respect: it’s one of the reasons my wife became frustrated with me. For a while it was that very lack of imagination that led me to believe that this whole thing must be true, however bizarre that may (rationally) be. Of course there is a small part of me that wants it to be true – how incredible, how utterly fascinating! The fact that I couldn’t imagine my way out of a paper bag and yet here I am, in this richly layered reality. If it’s not of my doing and therefore it must, whatever I tell myself, be true.’

‘And now?’

‘Now I think that, as brilliant as this is…’ said Peter sounding a little deflated, ‘there is nothing that I don’t recognise.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean, you are human and everyone else here is of human form. I’m sitting on something that I recognise as a chair. Ok, I’m on a space station, although I haven’t seen it – only parts of the interior – the concept is still familiar to me. When we explain the world to ourselves or to others we use similes right? When more creative similes are employed they become fables, tales or fantasies but the point is we can only draw from what we already know. A fantasy is just an extension of reality, an extrapolation of the truth as we perceive it. Everything here is within the scope of human experience. Surely a truly alien encounter would be, or could be impossible to comprehend. A truly alien encounter may, for example, be only possible to experience though the employment of senses we humans do not posses.’

’So despite the clarity of your experience here, you believe it to be nothing more than an illusion? And your explanation for this illusion is that you are obviously having some kind of what?Breakdown?’

‘In a nutshell, yes.’

‘How do you know for sure that your whole life has not been part of the same illusion? That everything is an illusion? That in reality – whatever that might be – you are only a thought, one of billions of thoughts whizzing about in space? Or the only thought? One lonely thought generated by the universe. You are everything, you are nothing. You are clinging to a tiny raft bobbing about on a sea of doubt, saying, ‘Only this raft is real.’ Then one day you spot an island that bears such bountiful fruits and has space to roam and opportunity to learn and, ultimately be truly happy. Yet you pass it by; clinging to what you think you ‘know’ you watch it disappear over the horizon and you say to yourself, ‘That was a lucky escape.’

Reality is what you think you know and historically that can be very flawed. Rather than assume you know, why not assume you don’t?’

‘Anything is possible?

‘Anything is possible, yes.’

‘So, it is possible that I’m going completely mad and if I leave this madness untreated I’ll end my days jabbering nonsense, whilst having my food spoon fed and my arse wiped by a overbearing Nigerian nurse? But it is also possible that I’m not going mad at all, that all of this is as real as the tuna and egg sandwich I had for lunch; the fact that I could actually be that sandwich is neither here nor there. No brainer then?’

‘No, not when you think that whatever the objective reality might be, your subjective reality will be whatever you want it to be. Right now, for example, you may be slouched in an armchair having celery soup wiped from your chin by aforementioned Nigerian nurse. The nurse talks to you about her life but you don’t respond, you just gaze with glassy eyes into space. The doctors can detect brain activity but conclude that due to your acute misery in life you have entered a catatonic state. You may eventually return from Catatonia, have no memory of what happened during that period ‘the dream within a dream’ and build a new life from the relics of the old one… or not.
If I snap my fingers you can wake up and return to your previous reality, whatever it is, or you could stay here with me. Which one would you choose?’

‘Well I would like to chose this reality… I think. But I still want to know whether or not its actually happening.’

‘You want to have a belief to cling to?’

‘Yes, for my own sanity! Don’t you?’

Maya stood and leaned over the desk between them and said quietly, ‘I believe that anything is possible, I believe in you and I believe that one day you will believe in me too. And I believe in our love. I believe that we belong together.’

Peter stared in disbelief. Was this all part of his delusion or was it really happening? Because either way, his delusion or not, it was… unexpected. He could just about swallow everything else: the aliens, the ship, the portal but this? This was beyond his grasp.

Perhaps, conversely, it was all part of the alien experiment; the mind probe was presumably still operational. It was a test, a way of setting his belief mechanisms into over drive. How should he react to this? If this was self-delusion then presumably he could leap across the desk and gather her in his arms, kiss her, make love with her? It was his dream after all. On the other hand, instinct told him to just stay put. As crazy as it all seemed, Peter wasn’t completely convinced that this wasn’t actually happening and if so, he didn’t want to totally blow his chances of a possible romantic liaison with Maya in the future.

While Peter weighed up his options (a position of default for him, never really sure what to do in life or even how to go about it), he began to feel rather light-headed, even euphoric. He noticed fleetingly, but without concern, that the alien mind probers were becoming increasingly transparent until only a trace of their form remained. The room, with its white walls and bright light, disappeared slowly, like a dream on waking.

The weightlessness extended from head to body and gradually, without a care, Peter lost his sense of self. His past, the life he had lived, faded from view. Rather than mourning its loss, he felt as though he was emerging from the darkness and into the light. He’d leapt from the raft! Meanwhile all traces of his life vanished too, so that they had never existed. Annette, the coffee table, fish tank, lamp and bookcase had all disappeared. The armchair however merely stepped sideways, it benefited from having multiverse status.

Peter no longer had a physical presence in space, he was all things and nothing. He felt more like a concept, an idea, a thought. Floating freely without the constraints of body, of ego, of belief, he felt only hope.

 

‘Maya, Maya!’

And then, ‘Maya you done creeping me out for one night?’

 

Maya opened her eyes. The room was dim, the curtains drawn, the old shambolic armchair lurked in the shadows. The Nigerian nurse lent over the bed, studying her closely.

‘Peter?’ Said Maya in a whisper.

‘Peter who darling? There is no Peter, unless you talking about the Saint? He don’t want nothing to do with you dear, no nothing. Now listen up, if you promise not to pull any stunts I’m going to loosen the straps on the bed, just a little, just enough to let you feel more comfortable. Now, you going to be a good patient Maya?’

Maya nodded her agreement.

‘You got the devil in you young lady, but I’m going to get you fixed, don’t you worry about that, not a jot.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fuck it Barry

The car pulled off the road onto a lane that led to a picnic area in the forest. The driver cut the engine and relied on the lane’s slight gradient to take him and his cargo another few hundred yards towards his destination. Momentum exhausted, handbrake applied, the driver sighed with irritation; this was not how he had planned to spend his Friday night. Still, in his line of work one had to be prepared for the unforeseeable: there was always something that had to be cleaned up.

He’d had to cancel auditions; the agent wasn’t happy, but he’d get over it. The flesh monger would have to wait till later: first he had a body to get rid of. The flesh monger would give a good price for girls keen to get off the streets and dance naked instead. And Barry had the girls; they both knew that.

Barry opened the boot of his Mercedes, grabbed the naked corpse by the feet and manhandled her out onto the forest floor. It was dark beyond the dull glow of the trunk light but a torch would be foolhardy. Barry had no intention of burying the body – she was naked, had no name and no identity, no one would ever trace the body back to him. No, he’d just drag it into the forest and leave it there. It would be days before the obligatory dog walker stumbled upon the remains by which time the local wildlife would have already set to work on the body.

Earlier, as he was getting ready for the auditions, he’d received a panicked ‘phone call from one of his managers – an Armenian kid with broken English and a stammer. Barry couldn’t remember his name: it didn’t matter anyhow. Barry just called everyone ‘fella’ or ‘mate’. The kid was the younger brother of a business associate, whose name he did know: Erik. Erik was hard, really hard, and his stuttering brother was soft. ‘Stammer’ had panicked when he’d found the girl dead on the bed, but had enough sense to phone Barry immediately and to make sure that the client responsible for the death didn’t leave the room.

Barry resolved to make a bit of a fuss over Stammer next time he saw him: praise him, tease him a little, make him feel like he’s part of the family – soft kids like that sort of thing. Charisma wasn’t something Barry had in abundance, but the little he did posses he used intelligently. Sometimes being a little charismatic, a little playful, helped get him what he wanted. Other times, most times, threats and violence worked just as well. Being liked was not important to Barry. Great leaders, he thought, should be feared first, liked second. Besides it wasn’t in his nature to be likeable and he wasn’t fond of pretence. He was who he was and saw no need to pretend otherwise. It was also best, he believed, to be who you are unto others, lest they get the wrong impression. Yes, Barry was true to his nature, however loathsome that may be.

Stammer, despite his softness, or because of it, was who he was. Stammer wasn’t comfortable in his own skin, probably wished he were more like Erik: hard and unforgiving. As a result, Stammer wanted to prove himself: to show that he was up to the job. Stammer was scared, sometimes terrified, but he wasn’t a coward. He dealt with volatile situations, discomfort visible to all. He couldn’t hide it; wasn’t hard enough to mask the fear, not like Erik. Barry preferred to deal with the Stammers of this world because they were readable, ultimately pleasers, and pleasers would do anything to gain favour.

When Barry arrived at the massage parlour Stammer quickly led him to the room in question. On the bed, amongst the whore-red sheets, lay the dead girl. Barry didn’t know her name, didn’t want to know her name. Names gave identity. She hadn’t been a ‘some-one’: she had been a commodity.
A welt of bruised, broken skin formed, like a collar around her neck. Damaged goods.

In the next room, just beyond the thin partition wall, a father of three and church organist took some of life’s frustrations out on a nineteen year-old Romanian girl. The Romanian girl, Lavinia, thought of home and when that didn’t work she thought of revenge.

Standing by the window in the dead girl’s room was a young man smoking a cigarette. He looked like a weasel: lanky tall, greasy hair, shabby shirt. Weasel had a sly, furtive glint in his eye. But weasel was scared, backed into a corner scared, and all the sly in the world wouldn’t get him out of this situation.

‘What happened here?’ Barry asked still looking at the dead girl. He knew what had happened here, the evidence spoke for it self. Whore dead on the bed with strangulation marks could only mean that the punter, Weasel, had gone too far with his fantasy. Weasel watching porn, gets excited at the idea of strangulation, he tries it on his girlfriend, girlfriend thinks he’s weird. Weasel can’t stop thinking about it and so reasons that if he can’t get it for free he’ll pay for it.

‘It was an accident mate,’ said Weasel.

Barry didn’t like being called mate, not by Weasel. Not by a sneaky, wily prick who cost him money and time, not to mention the grief.

‘Barry turned to Stammer, ‘You got this on a recording?’

‘’Yes, w…w…we have it all,’ and with that Stammer produced a USB stick.

Barry took two steps towards Weasel and punched him hard in the face. The organist in the next room reached a crescendo. Weasel’s head hit the wall behind him before collapsing in a heap. Lavinia thought that the best way to revenge her captives was to take her own life.

‘When he comes around tell him that he will be hearing from me.’

Back in the forest Barry calculated the cost of his loss as he dragged the body into the woods. The girl had cost him ten thousand pounds, all in. She had still been in the process of working off the debt. Potentially she could have made him a lot of money; the whores worked constantly with no time to protest, plot or scheme. Their spirit had to be completely broken: they had only to only wake up and go to work, so that nothing else mattered. Hopes, dreams, aspirations, desires, personal space, sense of self… all stripped away until they were completely de-humanised… cloned. After two years without a day off they looked tired, haggard and numb and as their sell-by dates arrived, the girls were quickly replaced. Some were sent to ‘factories’, others sold as cheap labour. Occasionally, a girl would be trained to be a ‘groomer’ enabling the traffickers to trap more young girls.

Within that two-year period the dead girl could have earned Barry two hundred thousand pounds. He could replace her soon enough, but he wouldn’t get his ten thousand pounds back and no-one was going to compensate him for the loss of her earnings during the interim.

Barry stopped. He’d dragged the body far enough. By the light of the full moon he saw that he was in a small clearing. He left the body just inside the periphery of a perfectly formed circle of trees and walked towards the centre. The circle was not big, maybe five strides wide. Underfoot the ground was soft and nothing but dead leaves covered it. A perfect circle in nature was, he believed, impossible and so therefore something to be wary of. Barry took another stride towards the very centre. The ground gave way.

Barry began to sink very rapidly into what felt like sand. With nothing to grab hold of but handfuls of dead leaves Barry, now at chest height, tried digging his nails into the ground, but the ground was made of sand and as Barry sunk deeper into his hole, the sand around him fell in as well. Within seconds all that remained above the surface was Barry’s head and hands pointing up at the night sky.

Moon looked down but showed no sign of interest: best just observe and not get involved she thought.

What Barry thought in those desperate moments was a jumble of confusion – What was happening? Why was it happening? How could he stop it from happening? Expletives and snippets of a memory long suppressed returned…
What Barry felt was his usual numbness to the world except that… except … something to do with that snippet was causing him to feel uneasy, slightly panicked. He took his last breath, his last glance at the moon and went under. His sense of falling continued for a while longer, time to prepare for death, for oblivion.

The world was a cruel place; he knew that. He was a part of that cruelty; he knew that too. Others in his position would justify or even lie to themselves, blame circumstance, blame a lack of choice. Make out that they were fundamentally good, that they were loved, had created opportunities for others or some such rationale but Barry did none of that. He knew that he was part of something much bigger and now that something bigger had swallowed him whole. He continued to fall, struggling with the lack of oxygen in his lungs, with abstract visions, of childhood dreams. Then… nothing. Lots of nothing. Nothing at all. Nothing.

When Barry woke up it was pitch black, he was lying on a beach, he could hear the waves rushing ashore, feel the sand between his fingers, smell his father’s whisky-soured breath breathing down on him. His father’s hand on him, pushing him into the sand, his voice threatening, full of violence and shame.

When Barry woke up it was pitch black, he was lying in sand. He could hear only his own breathing, which he found reassuring. He tried to move; he felt heavy, cumbersome, but unhurt. He sat up and stretched out his hands, thin air and sand. He stood up clumsily and staggered, arms stretched out, reaching into the darkness. After a few steps he felt something solid, smooth – like glass. He slammed his hands against the surface, to no avail. Barry reached into his pocket and found his mobile phone; it had some charge left. The light it produced was enough for him to confirm that he stood in sand and that he was indeed surrounded by a glass wall. Barry decided to call Erik. No signal.

As a child Barry had, as part of a school trip, entered a maze with several other children. Barry didn’t take advice from others and was never part of a team. So, once in the maze, Barry chose a different path: he’d find his own way out. After several failed attempts Barry began to panic, just a little. The first wave of trepidation announced itself when he became aware of the quiet. The, until then, constant noise made by the other kids, laughing, running, shouting had stopped. It had actually faded away as the children gradually completed the maze and moved on but it was only now that Barry recognised the absence of something he hadn’t been aware of. As long as the other kids were around he hadn’t been truly alone and as much as he’d hate to admit it, Barry didn’t like being alone. Being alone always came just before something bad happened. He had been alone just before his mother killed herself. He was alone a lot after that; even when his father decided to stay at home he was alone. Now he was alone again.

Barry had begun to develop a ‘fuck it’ attitude to life. No one could ever hurt him more than his parents had already done. Nor would he allow anyone to get close to him or hurt him again. At the first sign of emotion, good or bad, entering his system he’d push it under a ton of hatred. Hatred was all he had. Hatred was heavy, hatred deadened, made everything numb.
Stuck in the maze, not being able to find his way out, he hated the stupid maze, he hated the trepidation, he hated the other children and he hated the rules of this game. Barry made his own rules. And so, with a muttered ‘fuck it’ and a ton of hate, Barry bulldozed his way through the hedges that made the maze walls. He went through them or over them if he had to. He just kept going until he reached the final hedge and popped out through the other side to find the others having a picnic on the lawn. Teachers and children alike looked on in bewilderment as ‘fuck it’ Barry barged his way back into existence, torn, scratched and bleeding.

Now that old sense of trepidation began to make a tactical bid for existence. Here, in this strange, seemingly isolated environment, a sense of trepidation could make something of himself, really flourish, and, eventually bloom into a much wilder, more aggressive form. Barry called on his life long companion hatred.
‘Fuck this,’ muttered Barry. He tried to take a run at the glass wall but the sand underfoot slowed him down. Undaunted, he continued launching himself in all directions and each time he met the wall, and each time he met the wall he gave it a hard shove, a kick, a punch until he was, for a while at least, defeated. Barry crumpled to his knees, exhausted; too tired to feel even his ubiquitous hatred.

One of the many things Barry had learnt about life was that, if you can’t beat it, literally, then calm the fuck down and use your head. Cunning had proven to be a vital ally in his life and had, he must admit, got him out of some very tricky scrapes. Logically, there must be a way out of… out of… a glass container with sand in it, buried underground, in a forest? Was it a trap? Of course it was. It was a trap placed there by forest wardens designed to catch a rare or dangerous animal. In the morning someone would come along and inspect the trap, find an irate Barry and probably die. Barry didn’t want to have to answer questions about why he was there and why there was a dead girl up on the surface.

Barry felt better: reason had prevailed. He propped himself up against the glass wall and closed his eyes…
He was lying face down on a beach, the sun caressing his young skin. The tide lapped against the shore, his cock was growing hard for no reason; erections were a pleasant and novel phenomenon for the young boy. This was the moment when everything had changed. The moment a vigilant, biographer could identify and say, with pinpoint accuracy,
“This is the moment ‘Fuck it Barry’ was born.” Barry’s father, drunk and full of shame, leaning over him, his breath putrid, his face wet with tears, his hands on Barry’s shoulders,
‘She’s dead.’

Outside of his dream Barry became aware of a rushing sound: it grew closer as his cock grew smaller. Just before he opened his eyes Barry saw his mother sitting on the shore line rocking back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. She was laughing, laughing at him, at the pain she’d caused, at the life she’d left for him.

‘BITCHHHH!’ he shouted.

And with that cry of distilled venom Barry opened his eyes and saw that there was light and then he saw the body of a naked girl fall from above and land in the sand in front of him.
‘Bitch,’ he said again, more as an incredulous remark this time.

How the hell did the body get here? Did someone throw it down? Had it been dragged by the aforementioned dangerous/rare animal? If someone had thrown the body down here, then who? The Forest Warden? Erik maybe? Well if he wasn’t going to be rescued by Erik or the warden then he’d have to rely on the obligatory dog walker.

Stuck underground with a corpse for company. Well at least he wasn’t alone any more.

The corpse coughed and spluttered. She opened her eyes, fixed Barry with a baleful stare and smiled.

‘What the fuck?’ exclaimed Barry trying to back further into the glass wall.

The corpse sat up and rubbed her neck where Weasel had throttled her.

‘Jesus, I thought you were dead! You WERE dead, definitely dead.’
‘I am dead,’ said the girl still smiling.

‘The passing away part was special, it was like nothing else.’ She continued, as Barry tried desperately to employ some cunning.

‘Up to the point where I knew I was going to die it wasn’t so good. This guys hands around my neck, squeezing harder as his cock got harder inside me, that bit was terrifying, as I’m sure you can imagine? But once I knew it was over, that moment, standing on the bridge between life, for what it was worth, and death with all its promise, that moment was pure bliss. I felt nothing but joy. If you had asked me what joy felt like before that moment, I would have only been able to offer an approximation of an elucidation. All the pain and the fear and the uncertainty disappeared. Hard to imagine isn’t it? When you think that I’d lived with those negative feelings every day since I was abducted. Poof! Gone! Like blowing on a dandelion clock in the breeze. And, bonus, I seem to be able to speak English like a bloody native!’

‘Shut the fuck up, I need to think!’ shouted Barry.

‘And how’s that working out for you? Thinking…? Not your strength is it Barry. Sooner punch me than have a conversation?

Barry, the ‘fuck it’ man had had enough. He scrambled to his feet and towered over the dead girl, his fists flailing about wildly and shouting,
‘Shut the fuck up…! One more word…!’

‘One more word,’ said the girl defiantly.

Barry brought his fist down hard on the girl but met only sand.

‘Look Barry, you can’t hurt me anymore, no one can. I’m dead, but I can explain where you are and how you get out of here. So, just say ‘Fuck it,’ and sit down. Try to find a calm place inside and keep it close.’

Barry had exhausted his options: he couldn’t punch her quiet and he was all out of cunning. He sat back down, put his head against the cool glass and breathed deeply.

‘OK Dead, where am I?’

‘A sort of court.’

Barry opened one eye, saying, ‘And how do I get out of this hole?’

‘It’s not a hole. Well… metaphorically you are in a hole, but actually you are in an hourglass. There are thousands upon thousands of them here. Each one contains a blackened soul like yours. Each soul must deal with its demons, ‘fess-up’. Strictly speaking it’s a twelve-hour glass. You have spent about six of your earth hours here already. You have six hours left to confront yourself, be honest, spill your guts and hopefully see where it all went wrong. If you don’t comply or you chose to lie, or hide the truth about Barry the ‘fuck it’ man then the glass turns and you get buried under all this sand,’ she said tapping the sand with her delicate dead hand.

‘This is crazy,’ said Barry.

‘Yes, it is and the best bit is that I get to judge your fate. Convince me that you should live and you get a second chance: fail and it’s all the way to hell with you.’

Barry took a handful of sand and let it run through his fingers.
‘I am who I am. I didn’t make me this way; the cards are dealt to us. I got my hand and you got yours. I have nothing to apologise for, nothing to confront. I don’t lie to myself or to others. I know what I am and I know who I am, which is more than can be said for a lot of people.’

‘Let’s talk about your mother.’

Barry gave Dead a cold stare.

‘What gives you the right to judge me? You’re just a whore.’

‘You made me a whore, Barry. Before I was kidnapped and taken away from my home and my family, I was a student. I played the piano, I went out with friends, walked in the park, dreamed impossible dreams but dreamed them nevertheless. I had a life and an identity. I was another human being. I knew that humanity had darker shades. I wasn’t totally naive. But I had no idea that men like you and that rat, Erik, existed. You aren’t men, you aren’t even animals, you are evil and evil creatures like you deserve to be destroyed.’

Barry laughed long and hard. He hadn’t laughed in a long time. Not much to laugh about. He said,
‘There is no evil, there is no good, there is only Life. Only the strong survive, red in tooth and claw. In the end we have little choice, we all just ride along the track until it ends.’

‘You want a bowl to mix those metaphors in, Barry?’

A growl grew stronger in Barry’s throat.

Dead continued, ’You mean to say that you believe in fate? That once you are on a trajectory, that’s it, you’re a passenger?’

‘Yes.’

‘What a cop-out, that’s absurd.’

Barry growled, ‘So what do you have planned for the next six hours Dead?’

‘You will never get out of here unless you open up. If you can see that you have become a negative force in the world and that you can, with that recognition, change for the better, then I can let you go. If not, you will perish.’

‘What’s wrong with negative; why does negative have such a bad reputation? Without the negative there would be no positive. Not everybody wants to be the good guy.’

Dead stood up, walked over to Barry and stood naked before him and with one hand on her hip and the other gesticulating in the fashion of her mother she bore down on him.

‘Ok Barry, you don’t want to talk about how Mummy killed herself, how Daddy beat you and blamed you? Blamed you for her suicide, blamed you for making him hit you, blamed you for his drinking, his weakness, his inability to keep a job, find another partner, just about everything. You don’t want to talk about how and when, ‘Fuck it Barry’ was born out of trauma, fear and shame, well fine but if you are not going to open up then I will tell you about what happened to me. Now Barry it’s important that you understand what I’m looking for, I’m looking for regret, for acknowledgement, for sorrow, for empathy. You demonstrate any of the above then we have a case for your emancipation, not just physically but spiritually. You got that Barry?’

‘What are you? The Ghost of Christmas Past?”

‘No, I’m Clara’ said Dead. ‘And right now I despise you. You make my dead skin crawl. You personify everything I believe to be evil in the world. You dumbfound me with your callous cruelty, your utter detachment, your misogyny and your sociopathic, controlling, centre-of-everything narcissism. And so, even if it makes your ears bleed to hear it, I’m going to tell you about my life, or, how you took it from me!
How fucking dare you?’ Clara continued, ‘Who the fuck do you think you are anyway? Sucking the life out of people, destroying people for your…what? Gain? Pleasure? Amusement? It’s just a game to you, isn’t it?’

‘Yes, fuck or get fucked!’ shouted Barry. ‘Jesus, Dead, if you were alive right now I’d fucking kill you, slowly … But not before having you raped by stinking tramps!’

‘But not you Barry, you won’t fuck me will you Barry? Here I am! I’m dead but down here, all alone in the half-light I must look like a pretty good proposition to you? But you don’t fuck whores do you Barry? Why is that Barry? Why don’t you fuck whores?

‘Shut the fuck up!’

‘Is it because…’

‘Shut up!’

‘Mummy was a…’

‘Shut up!’

‘Whore?’

Barry lost his cool. Incandescent rage erupted inside him. He couldn’t see anything through the volcanic lava pouring down and over the inside of his skull. The last time someone had eluded to his mother’s occupation, outside a pub in Gilford, Barry had beaten the man to a pulp. The man’s face was unrecognisable and yet the rage continued, as did the assault. He heard through the fog of his temper the screams of hysterical onlookers and someone say, ‘That’s enough Barry.’

Barry had stopped briefly from his labours and said coldly and clearly, ‘I’ll decide when it’s enough!’ The man was dead long before Barry had decided he’d ‘had enough’. Surprisingly no one witnessed the murder…apparently.

Now Barry was on his feet punching thin air but the air dodged his blows like a pro. The only solid thing he could hit was the smooth wall of the hourglass, and so, needing to make contact with something solid, Barry punched the glass. The glass didn’t give, ‘Didn’t feel a thing,’ it mumbled quietly.

‘Breathe Barry, breathe.’

Barry passed out.

He was lying in his childhood bed, wearing freshly laundered skin, wearing freshly-laundered pyjamas. His Mother sat on the bed next to him combing his hair; he’d rough it up once she left for work but for now it felt nice, cosy, safe.

‘Would you like me to tell you story Barry?’

Barry struggled for a moment with the concept, she’d never asked before. He plumped for a meek, ‘Yes.’

And so his mother began…

‘Clara grew up in a poor part of Eastern Europe. Clara, when she was a girl, didn’t know that she was poor. When everyone you know has roughly the same amount of nothing there’s no comparison. Clara and her friends all made their own toys and, if they had a bike, it was inherited or salvaged. Likewise clothes were hand made or hand-me-downs and no one batted an eye.

And you know what Barry? She was really happy.

Clara had a mum and dad just like you. Her dad mended cars and her mother was a part-time teaching assistant. Clara’s mother helped her with schoolwork and encouraged Clara to study. Clara had two younger sisters and plenty of family and friends.

When Clara became older, a teenager, she began to hear stories of ‘The West’. In The West the streets were not quite paved with gold, but rather something far more valuable: opportunity. No one went hungry and everyone could be, with a little application, anything that they wanted to be.

Clara soon began to dream of going to The West, of studying hard and getting a job in America or England or Germany or France. She would send money home to her parents and to her sisters. Dad could buy a half descent car of his own and the young ones could have all the books they needed to help them with their studies. Mum could buy a new dress and not, for once, have to ‘make do’.

One day Clara was walking through the woods, on her way to visit her grandmother. She carried a basket on her arm with bread and jam and fruits from the garden. Sounds idyllic doesn’t it, Barry? Clara was dreaming of The West, as she often did, when a wolf, which had been watching her for days, popped out from behind a tree and surprised her. The wolf, whose name was Erik, seemed very charming. He walked Clara to her grandmother’s. He wasn’t like the other young wolves, he was smart and worldly and very handsome. Erik had also been to The West, which impressed Clara greatly, and he promised to tell her all about it one day soon. Erik stopped short of grandma’s garden gate and said, ‘Probably not a good idea for your grandmother to see me’. And with that, he turned tail and fled.

At grandma’s the woodcutter stopped by to bid good day, as was his wont, and then proceeded to warn both the elder and the younger woman to be vigilant,
‘There are wolves in sheep’s clothing,’ he said and added, just to bring it home to them, ‘Don’t trust anyone apart from your kin…and even then be wary of Uncle Thomas.’

A few days later Erik popped up again, this time offering to take her to the local fair, buy her some candy-floss and drive her around in a dodgem. Men always drove the cars where Clara was from; it was a man’s world. Clara agreed to go. After all, it sounded so American. And Erik had been to The West so he could give her first-hand knowledge. But also, lets not forget, she thought he was very handsome.

It all sounds so lovely doesn’t Barry? Like a fairy tale?

They had a lovely time at the fair and, what’s more, Clara let Erik kiss her. She’d never kissed anyone before, not like that. When Erik dropped Clara off at her parents’ house Clara was on cloud nine. That’s a metaphor for ‘happy’ Barry. Did you know that?

Erik told her that he could arrange carriage to England and, what’s more, sort her out a job in a hospital. Clara so wanted to be a nurse, and a job in a hospital was her dream. She really loved caring for people; making other people happy was her magic.
All she had to do was to hand over all her official documents to Erik and he’d take care of the rest. What a fucking prince.

The very next day Erik met her in the woods. This time she knew he’d be there; it’s what they had arranged.

Clara was so excited! A new life in The West, an opportunity to help her parents financially and her sisters too.

It was almost too good to be true.

As soon as Clara handed over her paperwork Erik punched her hard in the face. For a while after that everything got a little blurry. You know, like when you spin around too many times in the playground?

She did remember being bundled into the boot of a car. She was there for so long she pissed herself, which isn’t very nice is it Barry? It’s the beginning of a long process of de-humanising someone.

After the car boot Clara was bundled into the back of a lorry with some water and some dried fruit. Clara was in the lorry for a very long time. It was dark, she was alone, cold and very frightened. She didn’t know what the fuck was happening to her. Why was she being treated this way? She thought that Erik was nice, that he wanted to help her, that he even might love her. How wrong she was Barry.

When the nightmare journey ended she woke up in her beloved West. But it wasn’t quite like she’d imagined. The opportunities were still there but not apparently for her.

On the first night she was delivered to a hovel somewhere in London where she was taken in by a strange woman. The woman was from The East like her, spoke her mother tongue, but that’s where the similarity ended.

Clara was bathed and dressed to look like a cheap Bavarian whore, then tied to a bed where she was raped by countless, faceless men. All through the nightmare Clara protested, screamed and struggled. The nasty women told the rapists that ‘she loved this kind of thing’. This was simply not true.

The next day, bright and early, she was sold like a piece of meat to a horrid, nasty man who put her to work on the streets. She was made to take drugs, to have sex with dirty old men, to take a man’s cock in her mouth, her arse, her pussy or all at once if the money was right.

Clara was told that if she questioned, complained, squealed to the police or in any other way upset ‘the management’ she would be hurt. What’s more, her sisters back home would be raped, her mother beaten, and her father dragged through the town, tied to the back of a pick-up truck!

Clara had no choice.

Clara was not alone; there were many girls like her, all of them kept doped, tired and too busy to think.

All of them terrified of what might happen to them or to their families. They had become slaves. Her dream had died. Her prince turned out to be a cunt and her slave-master a little boy too afraid to feel.

Then one day a young man turned up who was different to the others. He had a dream, a fantasy – a destiny to fulfil and, as it turned out, their destinies were entwined. The young man, who looked like a weasel, saw an opportunity. He wanted to strangle Clara while he fucked her, which he did… until she was dead.

The End.’

Barry stirred and he opened his eyes. Clara sat next to him, stroking his hair.

‘Get off me,’ mumbled Barry.

‘Did you like the story Barry?’

‘I liked the ending!’

‘Why do you hate me so much Barry?’

‘I don’t. I just don’t care.’

‘Do you want me to condemn you to an eternity of suffering?’

‘Go fuck yourself!’

‘Careful Barry: I’ll have you in contempt of court!’

‘This is no court. You are no judge. No one is. There is no Heaven, no Hell, no life after death. Just life. We are who we are. Look at you! You are dead. Why? I’ll tell you why. It’s because you are a victim. If you were more like me you wouldn’t be dead. Worried about other people all the time? Fuck them, fuck it, take care of YOURSELF – look after Number One. That’s what I do.’

Clara shrugged. ‘If I were you and you were me?’

CLUNK

‘’What was that noise?’ asked Barry.

‘It’s time. The hourglass is gearing up to turn. Shame… I really wanted to make you see what a nasty piece of work you are.’

‘I know what I am! I’m honest. I don’t pretend to be anything other than what I am.’

‘And what are you Barry?’

I am who I am and I carry out the responsibility of who I am very seriously. I’m not the ‘nicest’ person on the planet but I really don’t give a fuck. We don’t chose any of this,’ said Barry waving his arms in the air. ‘I couldn’t be anyone other than who I am any more than you could. Things happen, we react to those things and we always react to those things in a predictable way. Don’t you see?’ shouted Barry stabbing his chest with his finger,
‘I don’t have a fucking choice, this is me! Nothing can change that, its too late.’

CLUNK

Clara said, ‘Oh this is gonna be fun.’

‘You want redemption? You want some sort of vindication? It isn’t going to happen, bitch. You think that I am going to denounce myself rather than walk freely into the fire… that I’m going to fall to my knees and beg? Come on, we both know that’s bullshit?’

‘Barry, you turn good women into whores because it normalises the fact that your mother was a whore. Can’t you see? If you can accept it you can change, you can learn to love and not hate.’

JOLT

The hourglass began to tilt.

‘Shit’s going down Barry…’

‘So let it. I’m not afraid. I don’t feel much apart from hatred. Love’s for other people, not me. I’ll survive this, and when I do, I’ll come back and kill you again.’

JOLT

‘It’s stopped! Why’s it stopped?’ said Barry more to himself than to Clara.

‘I don’t know. Maybe to build up the tension, give you one last chance to see what a bastard you are?’

A blinding, bright light.

Barry tried to shield his eyes.

CLUNK

The hourglass turned.

Rushing noise, rushing sand.

‘I forgive you Barry!’

‘Fuck you!’ said Fuck It Barry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Earl Gray

Earl Gray

Father Mathew studied the group of mourners from the corner of one curious eye, the other eye concentrated on the lighting of candles with Godly intent. Eight people huddled in a ‘mutter’ around the coffin, around the deceased. He would join them soon; he was keen to hear what each one had to say about the man in the chipboard, elm veneered box.
Less than an hour ago Mathew had sat alone – but for a corpse and his ubiquitous God – on a pew wondering if anyone at all would turn up to this funeral. The small church and its adjoining graveyard sat way up on the moor, rarely attended at the best of times, but now, with a storm blowing in off the sea it was almost inaccessible too. Then as the church clock rang twelve pm the scarred, weather-beaten door, honed from a single oak five hundred years earlier, crashed open with vitality beyond its age. Wind, in her fury, dared to straddle the Lord’s threshold dumping her bounty of dead golden leaves in the nave like some pagan offering to the gods.
Autumn leaves fluttering like macabre butterflies in the turbulent wind announced the arrival of a man, a gloomy man with turned down face and turned up collar. He stood for a while in the doorway; unlike the wind he was hesitant to cross the threshold. Mathew came to greet the stranger, thinking he was probably a friend of the deceased. The man with the downturned face then, as if being booted from behind, staggered into the church and up the aisle. He teetered a while on his heels, hands in pockets, a look of confusion upon his face. The stranger looked at the dead man laid out in his Sunday best, he looked at him for a long while and then turned, with a slight stagger, and faced the rows of empty pews. Meanwhile Mathew closed the doors on the storm.
‘Am I too late?’ said the drunk.
’Not at all… And you are?’ asked Mathew.
‘Peregrine Elijah Vanderbilt, but people tend to call me Perry quite a lot these days, I blame the internet, no one can be bothered with the old lineal model of experience,’ said Peregrine soberly.
‘Sorry I don’t follow.’
Perry took a small metal flask from his Saville Row pocket, unscrewed the lid and peered inside; it was empty.
‘Well, before the Internet, one would experience life as it came at you; you would travel through existence in a straight line, learning this and that along the way. One never dipped in, got bored and fluttered off in search of something better, something less taxing. The Internet has given birth to a generation of flutter-byes, alighting for a moment upon something that, if it does not offer an immediate kick, gets de-alighted tout de suite. By the time people have got half way through my name they are too bored to continue and so Perry will have to suffice. I t demonstrates a complete lack of application in the young. There are greater riches to be found buried beneath the surface.’
‘Were you acquainted with the deceased?’ asked Mathew politely guiding the inebriated Peregrine to a nearby pew.
‘Yes, I was but it would be more accurate to say that he was a friend to me. Theodore was not, it must be said, a flutter by. Theodore called me Peregrine. ‘Theodore the Studious’; ‘Theodore the Thinker of Things’. Once alighted he never let go, he immersed himself, always looking for answers, always asking questions. Questions of course are two-a-penny Father, as well you know, but an accurately placed question can keep you chewing for days. You know when someone asks you a really simple question about yourself and you realise you have not got the foggiest idea what to think? Theodore was full of them.’
‘How did you know Theodore?’ Mathew probed.
Rather than answer the question Peregrine asked Mathew, ‘What happened to Theodore?’
Mathew sighed, ’I know very little of the deceased, I’m afraid. You see I only met him the day he died. I came into the church to retrieve my metal detector, I’m a keen detectorist you know, and although it would be sacrilegious to hunt in the graveyard, the surrounding area can throw up the odd gem. Anyhow it was early, about eight thirty in the morning when I opened the doors, they are never locked, and there he was, sitting at the back, just there with his head in his hands.’ Mathew turned and pointed to a pew at the back of the small church.
Peregrine turned to look but said nothing so Mathew continued.
‘He wanted to talk, but not about himself as such. It was all a bit abstract; it was personal but not in a way we are so familiar with these days. He never mentioned family or friends and he never told me about his history, his work, his loves and losses, where he came from or what he’d seen.
It became quite obvious that he’d prefer to speak of universal themes like the existence of God and the process of judgment, rather than his own life experience. He wanted to know how we will be judged and on what? What are the criteria exactly? Is it all down to making the right decisions? Should we have an impressive portfolio of unselfish, morally un-reprehensible deeds under our belts? How high are the stakes? Are there special dispensations for the young, mad, passionate or just plain stupid? Will all non-believers, despite their good deeds, be weeping and gnashing their teeth beyond the walls of the kingdom? And, above all, he wanted to know if we even really possess freedom of will to do right? Or is free will just an illusion and are we, as people, condemned from birth to be on a predetermined trajectory?
Mathew laughed, ‘All a bit heavy for that time of day.’
Peregrine smiled and asked, ‘Did he say anything else?’
‘Well we talked at length about free will but as I pointed out to him several times I happen to believe in the existence of God and I also believe that God gave us all free will so that we could choose to love him. I added that I could not speak objectively when talking about God; I cannot be impartial about God. I can speak subjectively because I can speak about my faith. I asked him to be more specific, generalizing would only get us so far.
He said that he was trying to decide whether he’d lived a good life, whether he’d made the right decisions based on compassion or purely self-preservation. Do any of us really have a choice? He wanted to believe that we are all morally accountable, that we are all responsible for our actions, but feared that, in the end, predetermination prevails.
I told him that if everything was predetermined then God would have made us all truly equal and incapable of doing wrong. But he didn’t, because he wanted us to find our own way.
Theodore then shot me a piercing look and said, ’Then evil is a by-product of man’s free will? Is that what you are saying?’
I, rather hastily, replied that, yes, that is what I’m saying. To which of course he said, ‘Like Father, like Son’.
I have to say I was getting a little bogged down with his train of thought but could see that he was truly struggling with something and the more he tried to unravel it the more convoluted it became. I’m afraid throughout my career I have only had to deal with those that have experienced a slight, not so much crisis, but more a hesitation of faith. This was different, I didn’t know him and because of that I didn’t know for sure if he’d ever had a faith to hesitate over. We were entering into the realm of philosophy for which I have the upmost respect but I’m afraid I can only reiterate what it is that I intrinsically believe. It was at this point, having learned nothing of the man himself but recognizing a fellow human being that needed help and guidance, I decided to make us a cup of tea.’
Peregrine looked at Father Mathew to see if he was joking.
‘What I mean is that I’d resigned myself to the long haul and considered tea to be in effect a sort of ceremonial offering, a way of saying you’re not alone. Also, tea would have the practical benefit of warming, the spiritual benefit of bonding, and give me time to think whilst making it. Tea, in short, seemed like a good idea.
Mathew became thoughtful for a moment, deciding what to say next.
‘What happened next, I mean once you’d made the tea that is?’
‘Well while I was making our tea I thought to myself, I need to dig a little deeper, I need to find out what has caused this man to come here in the first place? I need to find something out about the man, to help him I needed something tangible, a place to start. But when I came back with the tea he was slumped, doubled over in the pew.’
Both men instinctively turned to look at the now empty pew.
‘At first I thought he was praying, not such an odd position to adopt in a church after all. But he had suffered a heart attack. Oddly, it came from nowhere; he had no reason to be concerned for his health, he was, apparently, a healthy man.’
‘He must have known his time was coming Father, why else would he have been here?’ chipped in Peregrine.
‘Yes I think that must have been it; he just knew, instinctively. I’d be grateful to know more about him from you if that’s possible; after all I have been charged with his interment and have very little to say,’ said Mathew.
Peregrine nodded as if giving himself permission to speak.
‘You see that man there,’ he said pointing towards the coffin, ‘He comes from my past and yet he is with me every single day. He represents that moment in my life, that instant, that changed everything. That moment I must live with forever. He helped me decades ago but what happened to him after that I do not know. I could only imagine, knowing him as I did, that he would have done great things.
It all started with a drink as so many events in my life have, most of which I can no longer remember with any clarity but this one… this one sticks all too well. Funny isn’t it that one drinks to forget but ironically the only thing you remember is the one thing you try to forget?
I’m a sort of sleeping earl you know. My father was the twelfth Earl of St Teath and I’m the thirteenth. My grandfather inherited a pile of money, a title and the family Estate complete with its own chapel, woodland and farm cottages, quite a spread. Grandfather gambled, that was his poison; he gambled and lost. My father inherited the debts. Father sold the lot, keeping only a small cottage adjacent to the family graveyard, paid off the debtors, put me through school and financed a life for himself in India running a tea plantation with the profits. The country pile became a luxury hotel and spa. I had little to do with my father and my mother took off with a saffron-robed Californian hippy called Burt; I think they still live in a commune outside of Jaipur where they work the loom and grow their own weed.
I had no one close to me and so I had to carve out my own life, make my own emotional bonds with other young people. The one thing I did have was money; money came in regularly from a trust fund father had set up to support me. I wanted for nothing.
Theodore and I were at Oxford together: I was studying literature and Theodore, philosophy. One Friday lunchtime we bumped into one another in a pub, had a few drinks and discovered we were both at a loss for something to do over the weekend. So I put it to him that we could use my father’s cottage on the old estate, do a bit of fishing and generally mess about in the countryside for a couple of days. Theodore was keen so we polished off our drinks, went back to our digs, hastily packed overnight bags, jumped into my Vauxhall Victor and hit the road.
It was early December, cold but sunny and the heating in the car wasn’t working. Somewhere near Swindon we passed a hitchhiker, a young man with a rucksack. He looked to be about our age and as it was cold and with Christmas on the way, we felt charitable so pulled over. Theodore jumped out and helped him with his rucksack. Once we were all settled I ventured to ask where he was heading. The hitchhiker, whose name was Clifford, said he was just going wherever the day took him. Clifford was, according to him, on an odyssey of fortune, just putting his life in the hands of Fate; he thought that life would be more interesting that way. This, I could see straight away, was the kind of topic that Theodore would love to get his teeth into. Do we ever really make any decisions for ourselves or do we all follow a pre-determined trajectory from birth? Is free will an illusion or do we really make choices of our own volition?
Theodore suggested that as fate had conspired to bring us together we shouldn’t disappoint her and therefore Clifford should spend the weekend with us at the cottage. Clifford agreed as did I: in for a penny and all that.
Clifford seemed to be a likeable fellow, thoughtful and good company to boot and although I am not a deeply philosophical animal I do like to capitalize on opportunity, see where the wind takes me. We chatted en route to the cottage about ourselves, joked and jibed about sex and women – all normal young men’s behaviour really.
Along the way we passed a young women standing dejected beside her car, the bonnet was open and steam was pouring out into the cold December air. Clifford advised we leave her for some other knight to save. We had, after all, done our good deed for the day by picking him up. This didn’t sit too well with me, the poor thing needed help and I’m sure if it were down to Theodore and me we’d have stopped. Fate it seemed had other ideas. We made one stop later, though, at a convenience store to buy provisions somewhere near Barnstaple – mainly whisky, wine and sausages. We passed a fairground on the outskirts of town and toyed with the notion of coming back but never did. We arrived just before sunset at the cottage.
The cottage was a fair distance from the old manor house, had its own single-track road which was in a poor state of repair but still useable. The tree-lined track ran past the cottage and led to the old family graveyard about 500 yards further on. The lights of the old manor, by then a hotel, were visible in the distance and as the evening progressed we could hear music wafting over from the Christmas party going on.
Anyhow, we three got settled into the cottage and before long the wine began to flow. After a while the conversation turned to philosophical matters, as I thought they might. I removed myself slightly from my guests and went into the little kitchen to prepare the sausages. I can wax lyrical about Chaucer or Dante as well as the next man, I had quite an encyclopaedic memory back then and so to reel off facts or learned text was easy. Philosophy, however, required a different kind of mind, a mind I felt I did not posses. Philosophy requires one to climb out of the world you think you know and look back down upon it and ask yourself, ‘Is any of this true and if so what does it mean?’ It can make some of us feel a little unhinged, some of us like to cling to what we think we know and leave it at that.
From the kitchen, I could still hear Theodore and Clifford talking and was happy to just add the odd wry remark. The conversation had turned back to Clifford’s notion of giving into fate. He was adamant that free will is nothing more than ‘a castle in the air’, that everything we do is predetermined by our history, in fact could be causally traced back to the beginning of the Universe – a knock-on effect of the big bang. Here Clifford quoted Skinner, ‘It is only because we are not aware of the environmental causes of our own behaviour or other people’s that we are tricked into believing in our ability to choose.’
‘With this in mind,’ he continued, ‘an individual committing a crime is led there by circumstance, he may not, probably is not, aware of the accumulation of events leading to this moment. Whether or not he feels like he ever had a choice is irrelevant, he does not, never did. It was woven into the tapestry of his life before he was even born. The criminal is, like the rest of us, compelled to play his role in life.’
I left my bangers to sizzle alone for a moment and chipped in, ‘So Basically the criminal justice system is overrun with people who, according to you, can not be blamed for their behaviour. It wasn’t their fault after all? I mean if some one punches me in the face and steals my wallet, they can legitimately say, ‘It’s not my fault, my behaviour was determined by prior events that were out of my control Your Honour?’
We just have to except that some people are made that way? That my ability to tell right from wrong is inherited or is the result of positive reinforcement somewhere along the line? I’m conditioned to be a positive influence on society and others are conditioned otherwise?’
‘Yes, I could not have put it better myself.’ said Clifford with a smile.
Theodore then said, ‘I’m still of the opinion that I’m the arbitrator of my own decisions, that actually the universe is not so easily measured or so simply defined. Much as we want it all to be quantifiable, tagged and labelled, I don’t think it’s that easy. There has to be a little room for chaos, for random, unpredictable acts. Look at this notion of quantum physics. Totally unpredictable, nothing is what it seems. Perhaps if we consider that it was, at any given moment, possible for someone to have physically pursued the other option, say not punch Peregrine in the face and steal his wallet, then in some other reality that option was fulfilled. There is some logic to your argument of course, I can’t deny that, but sometimes one needs to operate outside of the logical world and open up to an empirical view, actually experience the world. I really feel, intrinsically, that I make decisions.
‘I’m going to actually eat sausages and I shall do so of my own free will,’ I piped up, a little drunkenly, a little in need of sustenance. Clifford stood up and said,
‘You know that events, seemingly random events, have brought us together today. If you trace backwards, from now, at which point in your lives do you think you were at a crossroads? A place where if you took the other decision your life would have played out differently? Or has everything led to this point in time? Were you meant to pick me up today? Were we destined to meet? Isn’t it all so very predictable? You can start anywhere in time, from any isolated event or, and I use this word cautiously, decision, and trace it all the way back to here. Look at you both, you are well educated, you come from ‘good stock’, from the moment you were conceived it was inevitably you would go to Oxford just as your fathers did. Private school has hammered a sense of decency into you and, as neither of you has a family life as such, not in the normal way, you bond with others like you. You have been moulded into good morale subjects, potential leaders, and strong, thoughtful individuals. It is, when you think about it, highly predictable that you would both end up spending time together. You understand that you are privileged; you have both had a religious, ‘Do unto others’ education hammered into you too. Oh you want to test the boundaries, push it a bit, that’s predictable too, but the essence of who you are is formed. You can never really change that now. Tell me Theodore how did it make you feel to leave that young girl by the side of the road today?’
Theodore answered, ‘Not to good, I have to say: I think normally I’d have stopped to help.’
‘What was different?’ inquired Clifford.
’Oh I don’t know…’ said Theodore. ‘You were quite persuasive I suppose, but on reflection I feel a little guilty.’
Clifford said. ’What if I told you that you can let go of the guilt? You can exist without it. What if I persuade you that you are just the type of person that has been conditioned to be a team player? Not unlikely is it? Considering your private education: play rugger did you? If it looks like the team, your peers, are going this way, then you are likely to follow, aren’t you? There’s nothing you can do about it, there is no wriggle room; the decision was made long ago. There can be no guilt if we, all of us, are not morally accountable: the universe decides, we are but pawns.’
Theodore took a long swig of wine before saying, ‘Guilt is not necessarily a bad thing, if used to reflect on one’s behaviour. Reflection can bring reform. There are certain moral criteria we wish to live by: if, on reflection, I think I could have behaved differently, then given another of similar opportunity, I will. It’s what makes us human after all.’
Clifford pounced on this idea, ‘What makes us human? Now that’s another question all together. Some would say, reflection and projection, the ability to reflect on the past and to project or to dream about tomorrow. Others would have it that empathy is the key to humanity; without empathy you are not humane. And yet Theodore, I have no empathy. I mean I look human, right? And yet I have no empathy. I do not feel your pain.’
These last words were said in a voice unlike the one we’d heard before: compassionless, cold, and from a very dark place. In a few strides Clifford moved towards the rucksack he’d left on the floor between himself and Theodore and, to our astonishment, pulled out a gun!
‘Was it meant to be that I kill you tonight? Take your money and your car and leave your bodies to rot?’ he said in the same disturbing low voice, pointing the gun at Theodore.
I had a second to look at Theodore; his face was that of a frightened, confused child, totally lost and yet still trying to figure out what the hell it was all about.
Under the sink in the kitchen I kept a pistol, loaded, just for this kind of unpredictable occasion. I smoked a lot of pot in my teens and became increasingly paranoid as a result. As a safeguard to a good night’s sleep I decided to keep a loaded gun in the kitchen. Thankfully it was still there; thankfully the paranoia had paid off. In the time it took me to retrieve the gun I had only enough time to hear Theodore register his disbelief and to hear Clifford cock his weapon with ill-intent, CLICK…
‘My fate is to kill you, your fate is to die…’ he said coolly.
‘Not on my watch,’ I said from the kitchen door.
Clifford spun round quickly: he was going to shoot me… I shot first. I’m a good shot… well, I was then, haven’t picked up a gun since. Shot him clean between the eyes. Clifford sort of crumpled up very slowly, his mouth still gaping open in disbelief; he hadn’t seen that one coming.’

‘Holy Mary…” whispered Mathew rapidly making the sign of the cross on his chest.
The lights flickered momentarily; the storm circled overhead looking for a way to uproot the old church. ‘Thou shalt have no other Gods but me!’ said the storm in her fury.

Peregrine continued, ‘I was having trouble computing what had just happened: I’d just killed a man! In that single moment our lives had changed forever. What was a single moment? In terms of time it was hardly measurable, the blink of an eye … and yet, nothing is ever the same. So many moments had passed before it, so many wasted moments and yet this one now overshadowed even the best of those moments. This one would define me.
‘We need to dispose of the body and the guns and clean up. We need to work fast and do it without detection,’ Theodore said opening the cottage door.
‘I don’t think anyone heard the gunshot from the hotel, the music’s still playing; if anything its getting louder. Nobody knows we are here so lets keep it that way, ok?
Peregrine we don’t have time to waste, we need to move,’ said Theodore firmly.
‘I feel sick, my life is over; I may as well have shot myself.’
‘No! Not at all … you did the right thing. You saved my life. I’m forever in your debt. Clifford, if that was his name, was a dangerous man: he’s more than likely killed before and would have gone on to kill again. You have terminated a cancer and in doing so saved the lives of others. People who will live their whole life never knowing what you did for them. You are a giver of life Peregrine. If everything is predetermined then, as Clifford argued, no one is to blame; Clifford can hardly blame you! If we have free will then your actions are commendable beyond reproach. What sort of person would stand and watch a murder without intervention had he the means to do so?
Now … we know what happened here tonight, we are the only witnesses and if you’d rather go to the police and explain it to them I will back you up, but what’s the point? What justice can be served now? If we make it public, innocent or not, our lives, our futures will be overshadowed by this moment. I say ‘bury it and forget it’.’
He was right of course. What would have been the point of prolonging the ordeal? So we set to work on removing all evidence of our time there. Theodore took charge of the situation; he seemed to be so calm, so confident, and so easy in his mind. I don’t really know how he felt inside of course or how he dealt with it afterwards. We found it easier afterwards to not see one another; it just brought it all back. I’d like to think that he went on to live a good life, a positive life, that he did some good in the world and that this whole business never played on his mind at all.
‘So what did you do with the body?’ asked Mathew intrigued despite himself.
‘Clifford had fallen neatly onto one of my father’s Persian carpets so we dragged his corpse to the graveyard still on the blood stained rug, like a sort of sledge I suppose. Clifford lay on the rug with a bullet hole in his forehead and surprise still registered on the remnants of his face. On top of him we put his rucksack and the guns. Theo took the front and pulled the rug and its contents towards the family graveyard. All I had to do was walk behind and watch to make sure nothing fell off. Five hundred yards of having to stare, with the aid of a full moon, at Clifford’s head bounce about on the rutted track.
Once we were inside the graveyard we were less exposed. The music from the hotel was in full swing. While the partygoers were dancing the Hokey-Cokey we were digging a fresh grave in the far western corner next to Great Uncle Mortimer the molester! No one ever talked about Mortimer and no one wanted to be buried next to him or wanted him buried next to anyone else, least his wandering hands were still tempted to pester.
We dug a grave by moonlight, taking turns to dig while the other kept watch but we were undisturbed and as far as I know unnoticed. Without a word, once the grave was sufficiently deep, we, as one, dragged the dead man into his resting place along with his belongings. The music had stopped and we could just make out the sounds of departure, car doors slamming, shouts and hoorahs, laughter on the horizon. It all seemed so detached, unreal. The carefree, drunken revelry of festive party goes was so incongruous to the reality we were now experiencing. It was one of those moments one stops to ask ‘Why me? Why is this happening to me, what did I do to deserve this?’ And then I saw my accomplice, without ceremony, shovel a heap of earth upon the startled waxen face of Clifford. Clifford the fatalist, Clifford the hitchhiker, Clifford the dead man. We filled in the grave next to uncle Mortimer as best we could, I doubt the graveyard had many visitors least of all in winter.’
Peregrine fell silent.

The thick stone walls of the church absorbed his pain from within whilst weathering the storm from without.
‘My goodness, that’s quite a story! Are you looking for absolution Peregrine?’ said Mathew.
‘But the story is not over yet Father. It gets worse. You see the following day we, Theo and I, were back in that convenience store in Barnstaple and splashed all over the local newspaper is the story of a young women that had gone missing the previous afternoon. You remember I told you that I had a good memory? Well the photo on the cover was the same girl we had passed with her car bonnet up. The one we didn’t stop to help. As the weeks rolled by her body was finally found dumped in some woodland near to where the fairground had been pitched. The story and subsequent manhunt filled the national news for several weeks.
Now you see Father, the thing I have been asking myself, torturing myself with over the past thirty years is, what if we had stopped to help, what then? What if we never picked up Clifford? What then? Why did life unfold this way?’
Mathew shrugged. ‘Well I don’t know the answer to that question Peregrine, I’m afraid. I put my faith in God’s wisdom.’
‘Faith? You are talking about faith? I can’t say I have any. Not anymore. You see I can’t help thinking that Clifford was right: we do not choose; we are dealt. But the dealer is not God or any of his incarnations; it is the Universe. We are all connected in a way, one giant, formidable, universal conscience, ever growing, ever expanding but without design or objective. From the second the Universe came into existence the causal nature of life began. One thing leads to another Father and we, as Shakespeare said, ‘are but players’. I’m blameless, we are all blameless: there is no forgiveness necessary because free will is a hoax, a confidence trick. We, in effect, hoodwink ourselves into believing that we have the capacity to decide our fate. Wrong.
Kathleen Harrington did not have a choice. That was her name, the girl on the side of the road. Kathleen’s fate was a cruel one and her killer, Terrence Hanzi was a cruel man.
Terrence Hanzi was a ‘showman’ he was born into a fairground family, he and his sister worked the stalls from a young age. They learnt the family trade, everything from fixing the rides when they were broken to making candyfloss. Most importantly they learnt the value of a smile, of making people feel good, it is an important part of the job. For them the fairground was their life and they loved it. For other kids it was a magical place full of treats and thrills and Terrence and his sister were groomed in playing their part in that dream. As adults their formative training lent them a certain charm, a charm that outsiders found irresistible. In most cases this charming demeanor is, I’m sure, heart felt. After all, a positive, sociability offers positive rewards. You know, it feels good to be kind, doesn’t it Father?
The point is this Father, when Terrence Hanzi stopped to help Kathleen Harrington she would have fallen for his easy manner and graceful charm. He would have offered practical help in getting her car fixed, he would have given her no real reason for concern. She had, I’m sure, no inclination that Terrence’s sincerity and kindness were a cleverly crafted mask, an illusion, an affectation, behind which lurked a psychopath. Unlike his sister, who is by all accounts a caring, warm and loving human being Terrence is, or was, nothing but a showman. He, I learnt later, offered to tow her car back to the fairground site where he had the parts she needed. At about the time I pulled the trigger on Clifford, Terrence brutally raped and then strangled Kathleen Harrington in woodland near the fairground site.
Kathleen’s parents said that their daughter was a supporter of women’s rights around the world and had plans to move to Calcutta. In Calcutta she wanted to set up health and social centres for women. Educating them about sexual health and family planning. She was opposed to Mother Teresa’s dogmatic approach to women’s rights. Kathleen wanted young women to have access to birth control and, if necessary, abortions. Kathleen wanted to empower women not enslave them to a life of servitude. She wanted women to have the choice, to have the same options as men, not be condemned to poverty and ill health because a young woman is raped by her uncle and made to have the child. Kathleen was the kind of person that would have made a real difference to people’s lives, a positive force in the world. And had I stopped to help her this may well have been the case.’
Mathew interjected now, warming to the theme. ‘You can’t think like that; you made your choice, you responded to reason, however fleeting, and you can’t play the ‘what if’ game now, it’s too late, it’s done, you must come to terms with it. You were hardly responsible for her murder! How many other people drove past that day? Are they all responsible too?’
‘What I’m driving at here Father, what I think Theodore was driving at too is, ‘Are we culpable, are we able to really choose or does it just feel that way? There is no end game Father only acceleration into chaos, into disorder. Entropy increases, and will continue to increase until there is nothing but carnage and we can’t do a thing about it.’
Mathew frowned, ‘Oh you make it all sound so bleak. But, you did what you had to do and you were both so young, unprepared for such things. What are the chances of finding two sociopaths on the same road, on the same day anyhow?’
Peregrine sighed and checked his watch. ‘I’ll be on my way now, just wanted to pay my respects, I won’t take up any more of your valuable time Father’
‘Are you not staying for the service Peregrine?’
‘No I think not’.
And with that Peregrine was on his feet. He stopped briefly to gaze upon the man in the box then strode up the aisle, a little less inebriated now, opened the doors and disappeared into the storm. The storm, losing against the stubbiness of the church, decided to go with him. Quiet fell with an audible bang.
Later Theodore’s widow Annette arrived with her two daughters. Mathew gave them a little space while he busied himself with rituals that had become nothing more than habits. Mathew wanted to find out more about Peregrine’s story but was hesitant, thinking that it wasn’t something he could just drop into a conversation.
Before any of the other mourners arrived Mathew spoke to Annette about her husband, trying to glean some insight into the man. At some point during these hushed exchanges he opted, in the end, to drop Peregrine’s name into the conversation.
‘If you don’t mind me asking, who was Peregrine Elijah Vanderbilt?’
Annette looked startled.
‘Peregrine Elijah Vanderbilt doesn’t exist Father!’ she exclaimed. ‘Peregrine Vanderbilt is a figment of the imagination of one of my husband’s patients, Terrence Hanzi. Terrence Hanzi is serving life imprisonment in a high security hospital. He abducted, raped and then murdered a young woman called Kathleen Harrington in 1974. He was also under suspicion for killing several hitchhikers around the same time.
When he’s interviewed he admits everything, shows no remorse and is in fact, proud of his actions.
But if it is not Terrence but his alter ego, Peregrine, ‘in residence’ that day, then he concocts another story. The other stories differ slightly but always have as a central theme, Peregrine killing someone else in self-defense. It’s as if Terrence Hanzi lived two lives in the same moment. In one he is himself, a charming, but calculating, ruthless psychopathic killer with zero remorse: a monster who, acting on impulse raped and murdered an innocent girl. In the other he is Peregrine, reflective, flawed and fragile, a man, like any other, that when put into an extraordinary situation, acts instinctively, then tortures himself over nuances of choice. A classic split personality. Only one of the stories is true, unfortunately.’
Father Mathew apologized for the question, said that he thought he’d overheard the name mentioned in connection with her husband.
The old church made a note of this lie.
Four weeks later Father Mathew stood in the graveyard on the grounds of the long deceased Earl of St Teath. In the far western corner, next to the resting place of Great Uncle Mortimer he passed his metal detector over the ground adjacent to the grave. Beep…beep…beep.

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The Hubris of Will

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 Note discovered by William in his bible…at church, last Sunday.

‘YOU Make mE SICK Will’

In the dark recesses of the mind, in the slightest crack, under dusty old crates filled with forgotten memories, lurks the beast.  The beast feeds on fear, on suppressed desire, on all the hidden, locked up longings and the succulent, ripe sugariness of veiled, lustful thoughts.

In an open explorative mind the beast is starved, flushed into the open with nowhere to hide.  Famished, shrunken to the bone, pleading, with leathery hands outstretched and head bowed in resignation, it falls to the ground like the last pathetic, withered fruit of a thirsty tree.

In a mind like Will’s where so much is prohibited, where so much is repressed and where desires are carted off to concentration camps in the hinterlands… the beast festers.  The beast grows and he gathers strength finding his way through the cracks, gathering up all the dirty filthy stuff, like tumbleweed.  After years of repression the beast in Will is strong, it can make demands, its voice grows louder, clamouring in his head,

‘Give me the dirty stuff; feed me the forbidden fruit.’  To appease it, Will throws titbits through the bars, slips top shelf fodder under the door.  But titbits aren’t enough anymore, they only serve to whet his appetite, and soon it’s demanding more.

But the more Will gives, the more it craves.  Beast gets a foothold, seduces him with delicious, succulent longings.   Beast, once he sees the potential for dominance, paces the corridors of mind, wanting, lusting, and whispering sensual, dirty, naughty thoughts. Thoughts that tantalise; thoughts that make Will weak at the knees, thoughts that become desires, desires that seep out from within and make themselves apparent in the real world.

Will must taste without gorging; he must take a soupcon of what is considered necessary to feed the beast without causing too much alarm to the victim. But with each bite of the apple the beast grows stronger. The beast always wants more; the beast would have Will running rampant through the boulevards of polite, middle-English society with his trousers down and his hard cock spitting in the face of normality,

‘Suck it, kiss it, touch it!’ the beast shouts.

Will is safe

Will wasn’t out of control, nowhere near it.  The risks he took were calculated and, with his upstanding reputation preceding him, it was hard for his victims to believe that he’d ‘meant’ anything by his behaviour.

‘Oh, it’s just Will,’ they would think. ‘He’s a harmless, friendly, compassionate man, with nothing but good intentions.’

Let us put Will into perspective, let’s not polarise him, black and white him, no one is that simple, that uncomplicated. Will’s intentions were as good as anyone’s, and like anyone else, if you were to place his intentions under a magnifying glass you would see that ultimately they were self serving, it paid to intend well. It is better to gain reward from intending well, to the mutual benefit of others, than intend nothing and get nothing.

So to clarify, Will’s intentions were as good as anyone’s and he knew how to disguise his own objectives, make himself appear to be innocuous.  Will was also, let us remember, a man of a certain age and a man who had sought out the security of institutions, institutions dominated, as they often are, by men like him…also of a certain age. Will was safe; he had plenty of havens, plenty of places to hide. Nothing could harm him.

Religion is safe.

Religion -Will’s religion- was safe. There were jamborees, fetes and garden parties, marriages, baptisms, confirmations and miracles aplenty.  Luckily of course he was a Catholic, born and bred, and couldn’t possibly imagine himself as anything else. Catholicism had, over the years, done him proud; a good, solid, commendable faith with a long and noble history and loads of traditions, Will loved traditions.

Sanctimonious, God-fearing men with cunning no longer in existence had answered all the difficult questions a long time ago. What to do and how to do it?  What to be and what not to be.  Religion offered him a ‘no brainer’ take it as read and get on with more important things. Things like planning your next colonic irrigation – you can never be too careful – or meticulously mapping next Saturday’s drive to view the abandoned nineteenth century tin mines of Bodmin.

All he really had to do was to follow the rules and he would be fine.  Or, as with most people, just look as though he’s following the rules, don’t get caught out. Best to keep up appearances, be slightly holier than the next person, give a little extra kindness because the rewards are so much greater, pride, envy, respect and trust… good old trust.

Everyone trusted Will… well sort of.

And yet….

The beast grows stronger every day; gets cocky, thinks it has rights, makes demands, impossible demands. The beast is facilitated by Will’s own inflated opinion of himself and his surety that nothing could touch him because, as we have discovered, Will is safe.

Here is Will now: he is stepping out of his car; it rained over night so just as a safeguard, Will is wearing his anorak and, as an added precaution against flash flood or hell fire, he has donned his bicycle clips.

As Will makes his way along the street, he stops to greet his fellow villagers. He is glib, he is slick, he is polished: frivolous with the light-hearted, sombre with the solemn, flirtatious with the unabashed.  Will gives people what they want; he’s smarmy like that.  Trouser hems safely guarded, Will is making his way over to the presbytery where he will meet the priest for tea.  Along with other members of the summer fete committee he will discuss the tombola prize-rigging accusations made by butcher, Jimmy Cleaver and then move on to ‘Hooking a duck for Jesus’.

On arrival at the presbytery, Will is greeted at the door by Father Mathew’s housekeeper, Ms Bennett, a withered looking woman for whom the weight of her shame has caused her to stoop, as if she were carrying a cross of her own.  Will has no interest in this woman; she has nothing to offer him and, he believes, is beyond ugly. He breezily passes her his clips and coat before entering the meeting.  Ms Bennett returns to the ever-laborious task of scrubbing the kitchen floor.  For some reason her results, however hard she tries, appear lacklustre, the linoleum seems to be indelibly sullied.

He greets his fellow committee members with his usual gushing platitudes and stifling warmth but says nothing about the note that was inside his newspaper that morning.

I know what you do, I see you Will

He wonders whether he should make the notes public, at least tell Susan, his wife.  Hiding things like this makes you look guilty. People would see that he is obviously the victim of a hoax or personal attack and that, despite this, he is holding up well, getting on with business in a manly fashion.

On reflection he thinks that it would have been a good idea to send himself the notes; his stoic conduct in the face of such misfortune would surely win him more esteem from his peers. Only he didn’t feel stoic right now, he felt a little queasy, a bit disorientated.

When he found the note placed in the business supplement this morning his mouth went dry, he gaped like the kipper upon his plate.  Then, with great effort Will brought himself back into Susan’s conversation; it was most definitely her conversation, not his.  Luckily, Will did not feel required to add much to the ‘chat’ other than the odd grunt, just as well really, as staying focused on his wife’s witterings, which was hard enough at the best of times, now proved to be a mammoth chore.

His mind wanted to run in all directions, the beast within cowered in his dark corner, he knew he had been seen, someone had spotted him prowling about; leering, letching, sneering, smirking, spilling sacred cum into cotton panties.

 

 

God I feel hot.

Calm down, take it easy, no one knows anything, how could they?  What was there to know? That you are demonstrative, that you hold an embrace a little longer than is sometimes appropriate? So what? It’s a calculated risk like his friendly squeeze of Miss Good’s thigh or a rub on the nape of Janet Pilkington’s neck or a gaze that lingers a fraction longer upon the bare wanton cleavage of the widow Mary Brown.  Ah, the scent upon the soft, nut-brown skin of secretary Georgia Cummins just below her ear, was enough to risk it all, so tantalising, so provocative, so ‘Come and fuck me now.’  To caress her neck; to nuzzle her ear, to bite her, spank her, stab her with his mighty weapon, to take her on his desk, knickers down, skirt up, tits out, his seed on her chin….

What an image, what a whore.

Will’s world was a man’s world where women rarely raised their heads above the parapet of servitude, from the bondage of subservience.  Will’s attitude towards women was one of benign guardian; they needed to be protected, guided, looked after and kept in their place. Women should be feminine, motherly and not sexually forthcoming; they should enjoy and probably swoon at a strong, decisive man’s attentions.

A powerful woman was an abomination, an affront to the natural order of things. Contribute by all means – God he wasn’t a bloody sexiest, let’s get that clear from the start- but leave the hard decision-making to men; to men like Will, men red in tooth and claw.

Will had an erection under his newspaper, stiff as hell, throbbing, twitching like a decapitated corpse.  Susan was looking at him expectantly; she was waiting for him to respond to her last vacuous question.  God she was ugly: plain, drab, beige and boring. Looking at her was enough to lose his hard-on.

‘Let’s pick this up later dear,’ he said dismissively. ‘I have a meeting with the fete committee this morning and some errands to run later, don’t expect me for lunch.’

Once the meeting had ground to a halt; tea sipped, bosoms devoured by greedy (don’t look) disobedient eyes, chest thumped, hands shaken, thighs groped, Will tarried a while longer. He wanted to speak with Father Mathew, show him the anonymous notes, sound him out.  But, in the end, he surrendered to his fears and said nothing.  Why?  Because anyone could have sent those notes:  someone did, someone had been watching him, sneaking, slithering on his or her belly through the tall grass spying on him.  It could have been Mathew; pompous oaf, with his judgmental ‘holier than the rest of you’ smirk.  Celibate prick.

‘I hear from Susan that you are off to Cornwall tomorrow?’

‘Yes a trip up onto the moor, abandoned mine shafts galore and plenty of old engines lying around: I’ll be in my element that’s for sure.’

‘You be careful up there, wouldn’t want any harm to come to you Will.’

‘Yes of course, you know me Father Mathew; safety first and all that.’

‘Well, excellent.  You’ll have the weather for it; I’m sailing on the south coast tomorrow and it looks positively balmy, a little breezy perhaps but good outdoorsy weather.’

There was a pause, both men toying with their consciences.

‘Is there something on your mind Will, something you would like to confess?’

The beast drew his dagger.

‘Me? No, nothing.  I’m fine, thanks for asking,’ said Will.

The night before

Two lovers lay side by side, in a state of semi-undress as the glow from their lovemaking faded: post orgasm, post deed, post sin.

The everyday world slowly came back into focus, a world full of stuff, most of which you didn’t need.  It also had other people; it had empathy and loathing and it had rules to abide by.

Some rules, like not killing your husband, are enforced by law but this is just an ethical principle, drawn up as a kind of guideline for the masses.  Morality, on the other hand, is where the crux of the matter lies.  Morality talks to you personally, keeps you in line but also judges others and often finds them wanting.  Is it morally right to kill your husband? Only you can answer that.  Then there is God’s law but it goes without saying that he’ll forgive your trespasses anyway.

The everyday world has appointments that have to be kept, people to be cared for (whether you care or not), taxes paid and bins put out on Mondays and Thursdays.  It has needy, sycophantic backslappers, greedy egocentrics, psychopathic groomers, bleeding hearts, delusional realists, fragile, timorous party poopers, nihilists, potheads, do-good junkies and dirty minded pompous pricks like Will.  It has victims and it has predators. The everyday world is red in tooth and claw just like Will.

The everyday world was hard on our lovers because of its realness; reality became their albatross and they wore it every day until it possessed them.  Neither was prone to flights of fancy, neither one could afford to wander from the harsh reality of their existence.

No, for Susan and for Mathew the real, every day world would never look the same again. The everyday world would never really apply to them anymore.  Something had shifted incontrovertibly, something had un- tethered itself from its anchorage in the bedrock of certainty.  They had been set adrift.

Two souls, both lost, met and danced together in the wilderness, by the edge of a bottomless ravine, on the verge of the unknown.  Stumbling out of their own fraught existences, momentarily putting down the sodden, heavy burden of the past they reached out to one-another and began to dance.  As they clung to one-another reason too was cast aside and the liberation felt by both was immeasurable.  Now, for a while, they were lighter than air, two insignificant specs of matter floating in a hidden corner of the universe, unseen, forgotten, pointless.  The burden of reason had been growing like a tumour inside them and both tipped the scales when it came to being ‘reasonable’.  Being reasonable meant not upsetting the apple cart, meant being whomsoever other people wanted you to be, and once you had given them that person it would be unreasonable to take it away.

In the moment, next to the ravine, Susan and Mathew let go and succumbed to the futility of life, gave in to their own irrelevance and left reason behind.  Now the dance had come to an end and the music had stopped.  Reason returned.  But reason was a different animal now, had a new outlook, walked with a purposeful gait and not a cumbersome limp.

For a moment, nothing else mattered but the dance; desire sated, the itch scratched, the appetite for lust fed. Neither lover thought about the consequences of their union or of the effect it might have on the ‘everyday world’ they had left behind.  Whilst caught up in the dance there was nothing but the dance.  The dance had been savage, tender and passionate while it lasted but once it had ended and the music faded, it appeared to be nothing more than a fuck on the kitchen floor.  They drifted apart, withdrawing to their respective thoughts.

It was from this point that Susan refused to look back: she would merely keep going.  She looked out across a calm and pleasant future, uncomplicated, unwritten, unknown, not at all like the past.  Past was messy, past had got itself all twisted up, so much so that it became aggressive, bitter with its own fruitless enterprise.  Will had been in charge of the past, she had merely chugged along in his wake, obedient, submissive, subjected to Will’s ever-growing lewd indecency.   Will had no desire to have sex with her, (which was a blessing) even so it did not stop him from being, shall we say, ‘overtly sociable’ towards other women.  Will was no lothario, he wouldn’t know a gang bang from a jamboree and had any of the women in question responded positively towards his rakish gestures, he’d have run a mile. It wasn’t about sexual conquest; it was about being in control and feeling superior. Will made his wife’s skin crawl, had done for a long time, but Susan had never known how to eradicate the irritation: until now.

For all those years Susan’s beast within had whispered unspeakable things: wicked unchristian things and she hid those things in a box marked ‘unreasonable’.

But those things, once whispered, had found a voice and the voice grew into a clamour, a cacophony of despair until the things called ‘unreasonable’ broke out of their captivity.  The once ‘unthinkable’ now seemed more than reasonable.

This spontaneous and totally unexpected romp with Mathew had served as a catalyst and was, she had no doubt, God’s doing.  God had thrown them together, intervening as a way of getting her to see, with absolute clarity, that killing Will was the only reasonable solution.

Beast rubbed her hands with glee, oh she had longed for this day.  How many times had she wanted to kill Will?  How many times had that creep been ‘this close’ to having his head staved in with a rolling pin?  She wanted to drown him in the bathtub, to catch him masturbating, to deny him his gratification, to hold him down while he struggled in vain, his wilful gaze no match for her wilful grip.  She watched Will clawing desperately at her hands, drawing blood, Will angry, Will desperate, Will’s flagging erection, Will’s flagging grasp, Will’s pleading eyes. She’d keep her grip as Will slowly began to fade towards whatever hell awaited him so he’d have something to remember her by.

Every time Will had made some oily sexist remark, every time he placed his grubby hands on another women’s knee or rubbed her arm or squeezed her, touched her, kissed her, held her too long,  Beast drew her dagger and pleaded with Susan to kill Will.  Nothing would satisfy Beast more than squeezing the life out of that hideous, obnoxious, egocentric, molester.

‘Do it with your bare hands,’ she whispered now.  ‘Feel his life force drain away, savour every moment.  Think of all the times he’s flaunted his contempt, demonstrating to the world that you mean nothing.  He mocked you, made fun of you, yelled at you as if you are nothing more than an inconvenience.  You have been too reasonable; being too reasonable has made you into a doormat.  Now it’s time to turn the tables. Now you take control and finish him.  Erase Will from your life, but do it slowly, laugh at him, tell him you fucked the priest, the bank manager and the Tory MP, but you couldn’t find a bigger prick than him.

Susan quietened the beast, biding her time.  Without her beast she would never have realised the exquisite ecstasy of anticipation.  She considered her plan.

She had decided to give the beast her wish but she needed to rein Beast in a little otherwise things would get really messy.  Her plan was all very neat and it was all very ordered, Will would be proud of her.

Susan had gone to see Mathew to confess her desire to kill her husband and to reason with her priest that this solution was indeed the only solution.  At that point she had still been susceptible to persuasion.   Now though, after the Lord’s intervention, she was not.

After forty years of celibacy, Mathew had just lost his virginity to another man’s wife and didn’t think he was ever going to get it back.  His piety, which sat aloft and only ever stared cruelly down at him over black rimmed spectacles, wheezed with the shock of Mathew’s betrayal.  Mathew had just demonstrated a shameful abuse of free will.  He’d have to confess of course but what sort of punishment should he receive?  Punishment would be pointless in any case; you can’t undo this sort of thing, the deed is done.

God had to witness it too, had to look on as Mathew gorged on pleasure like a hungry wolf with a lamb…. God didn’t give man free will so that he could go about fornicating and doing as he pleased!  No, it was bestowed so graciously upon him so that he could chose to do the right thing and love God!  Surrender to God’s love and bloody well do as he was told.  I mean, what should God think now?  After seeing one of his own disciples humping another man’s wife on the kitchen floor, a floor that the housekeeper had only just scrubbed this morning on her hands and knees; what next?  Will Mathew throw caution to the wind and mount Ms Bennett as she struggles to scrub his wickedness out of the linoleum?  Will he succumb to his beast, that dirty sacrilegious scoundrel, and go about debasing God’s name with ever growing wilful abandon?

Mathew shut down Piety and tuned into his conscience instead.

Conscience wrung his hands with indecision shifting from one foot to the other.  On the one hand, the ecclesiastical hand, he’d messed up, he’d succumbed to temptation and rather than let these things fester, which is what you were supposed to do in Mathews situation, he’d turned his back on Christ and had blatant sex with Will’s wife Susan on the kitchen floor!  He’d broken his oath, his promise to God.  He had forsworn his aspiration to walk amongst humanity, not as one of the flock, but as Jesus did… as an inspiration.

Sex served as a distraction from one’s devotion and let’s face it, he had not been thinking about the greater glory of God when he was fucking his neighbour’s wife.

On the other hand he had never felt closer to the universe, never before understood that so much pleasure could be wrapped up in a single orgasm. He had experienced something intrinsically natural, something magical and something real for an instant.  All concerns, all reflection and all speculation were suspended for a single glorious moment.  Nothing intruded upon his body or his mind; rather he, just for a second, stepped out into the glory of the cosmos and touched it, joined it.  He existed only in the now.  How could this act, consensual as it was, be in any way sinful?

Celibacy was a promise he’d made after much deliberation, preparation and guidance and it had only served to allow his beast to fester within.  Mathew’s conscience was divided because it felt it should stick to what he’d always known to be right; what his piety had told him was correct, but now having experienced this unforgivable sin he couldn’t really bring himself to believe that it was so wrong.

The beast had been a nefarious passenger, clinging to the inside of his skull, leading him towards depravity with his vulgar temptations.  The beast within his skull had grown more and more lascivious with every year that passed; not only that, he’d become increasingly perverse in his imaginings.  His beast was born out his own self-imposed abstinence. THIS is where the Devil gets in.  THIS is where the Devil flourishes – in man’s desire to be something other than human.

The sunlight, which had streamed in through the kitchen window bathing the lovers with warmth, retreated across the hard linoleum floor leaving them now feeling cold and exposed.  In its place a gloomy twilight and the sound of heavy raindrops hitting glass: the lovers stirred.

‘I’m not really sure what to say,’ said Mathew.

‘It’s OK Mathew.  You have done nothing wrong, nothing to apologise for.  God gave us this moment for a reason.  I for one can see very clearly what it is I have to do.’

‘Oh good, you have had a chance to reflect on your desire to … er … kill Will?’ whispered Mathew trying to casually put his underwear back on.

‘Yes and I know how I’m going to do it too,’

‘Oh,’ said Mathew.

Will’s list

In the sanctuary of his car, leather heated seats, walnut dash; tinted glass, Will seethed inwardly.

What did Father Mathew mean by that comment?

‘You be careful up there, wouldn’t want any harm to come to you Will.’  It seemed all too clear to Will that Mathew was as good as saying, ‘Watch your back mate, I’m after you.’

So it was Father Mathew, the only person more impervious to distrust than himself, the only person safer than he, the only one whose word was thought to be gospel.  God, he hated that self-serving sanctimonious, frock wearing, duplicitous, phoney, back stabbing dick-fucker.

Will needed to reel it in!  Take control and calm down; no rational solution could be found in this state of high anxiety.  He reached for the glove compartment: in amongst the maps, pens, torches, reflective vests, Swiss army knife and emergency mint-cake there was a notebook.  Will thought he might make a list of revenge strategies, a list he would later eat to hide the evidence, but for now he just needed to get something coherent down on paper.  He opened the pad and what he saw nearly made him reach for the mint-cake, for written in the same obscure manner as the other notes was yet another intimidating message.

Scared yet Will?

Will ripped the offensive note from the pad and put it in his pocket, evidence if needed – then started his list.  He smiled and felt calmer already.

 

Mathew makes the call

Father Mathew poured a glass of whiskey and gazed out of the kitchen window.  In the wake of last night’s rain a rear guard of grey tinged clouds moved swiftly southwards, their shadows, crawling like a malign cancer across the landscape, promised foreboding.

He dialled a number from heart; it rang twice,

‘Are you still going through with it?’ he asked.

The phone conversation was brief. Father Mathew put the phone down and drained his glass.  Last night he had listened to a confession, the penitent had disclosed a growing desire to kill Will.  Mathew had tried to persuade the penitent to seek professional help, to take other, less drastic actions, but not under any circumstances to go through with Will’s murder.  He then inadvertently made love to the penitent.  Now it seemed, in spite of his pleas and his well-constructed arguments against such a violent solution, he could do no more; it was in God’s hands.

And yet, despite his resignation, Father Mathew felt torn – torn between his loyalties to the church, to the sanctity of the seal of confession and his own conscience.  If he were to respect the sacred seal, the promise of confidentiality then Will may well die and his murderer walk freely amongst them.  If, on the other hand, he broke the code of conduct laid down by the church then he would be committing a sin perhaps far greater.  Logically -Mathew’s logic – dictated that God would deal with it, God would know what to do.  He, Mathew, a mere mortal after all had done all he could.  His heart on the other hand sat heavy in his chest; never in his life had he carried such a burden as this.

Outside, the remnants of cloud had finally parted; the sun bathed his garden with light and warmth, incongruous against the dark, cold misery of his soul.  He knew Will was a dick but also thought that he did not deserve to die.

Will’s List

1/Sabotage

Cut brake cable

2/ Murder…

Poison – lace his whiskey with arsenic

Hire a hit man (if so whom).

Accident at sea made to look like drowning

Knife in the back down a dark alleyway

Arse raped by a HIV positive bull queer in aforementioned dark alleyway

Burned to death in a house fire

3/ Maimed…

Acid in the font

Hit and run

Castration – if so who would do it, the hit man or the bull queer?

4/ Falsely accuse…

Child molestation, rape, dogging, or just sucking off strangers in public toilets, sexual deviancy, bestiality, incest, embezzlement, being a holocaust denier, a communist, peeping Tom, a flasher, gambling alcoholic with a penchant for dog fighting and fucking gypsies.

(If nothing else Will was thorough)

5/ All of the above.

 

Unlike Mathew, Will did not suffer from guilt.  Will, to his mind, had nothing to feel guilty for.  Guilt was a redundant concept to him; if your life is as well calculated as his was or had been then each decision you make is the right decision no matter the outcome.  It was all about survival, red in tooth and claw.

If these messages, with their portentous flavour were meant to make Will feel guilty or cause him to reflect on his behaviour, they didn’t.  They made him uncomfortable only because he felt violated, intruded upon, and this made him want to wrest back control.

While Will was occupied with this intrusive threat the beast fought for his own survival.  The beast wanted revenge on the world, wanted to rub himself up against pubescent school girls; ram his cock in Janet Thornberry’s arse, the trumped up feminist bitch; deep throat Shirley, his wife’s sister, until she gagged, opinionated whore.  He was going to shoot his load over every single (gagging for it) sexually frustrated member of the Catholic Women’s Lacrosse Team.  His throbbing cock would deal a mighty blow for team Will, make him feel masterful, manly and potent, then, once he’d fucked them all within an inch of their lives his victims would line up for more.

Will regarded his list of possible revenge strategies and realised that he would not pursue any of them because, as I’ve said before, Will was safe.  Safe people do not do risky things, they don’t take chances, mess with the law or dance with the Devil…ever.

Will smirked: in reality all he’d had was a couple of slightly menacing notes possibly alluding to very minor sexual misdemeanours.  Misdemeanours that were more than likely appreciated anyhow.  The fanatic behind the notes was a bloated, alcoholic, sex-starved priest with delusions of grandeur.  Like Will cared what Mathew thought!  Did Mathew seriously think that, by terrorising Will in this juvenile way he was somehow carrying out God’s bidding?  Or teaching him a lesson?  Pathetic, that’s what it was! And with that Will decided to think no more of it, pay no heed to the sad empty threats of a supercilious door to door salesman peddling God!

Will was back in control of his own life and God could take care of the rest.

 God wanted nothing to do with any of it.  He’d grown tired of man a long time ago, meddling only made things worse… in His omnipotent opinion.

Early on Saturday morning Father Mathew, having prepared his Sunday sermon on abstinence the night before with the aid of half a bottle of whiskey, left for the Cornish coast.

Early on Saturday morning after packing the Volvo with all necessary supplies and emergency backup supplies Will and Susan left for Bodmin Moor.

 

 

The judgement

It never occurred to Will that his wife would be culpable of, would even be capable of mounting a fear campaign against him.  The perfect devoted little women, timid, quiet, long-suffering and subservient.  Susan the wallflower: overlooked at parties preferring to just bath in the glow of his brilliance, rather that than embarrass Will.  Susan, Plain Jane that she was, unappealing, dull and frigid was hardly going to set the world on fire; was hardly going to betray him.

Without Will and his guidance Susan would probably just melt into a rather lacklustre pool of insipid dishwater.  Oh she had her hobbies it was true: she belonged to the book group, the knitting circle, played bridge and tennis but never really stood out, not like Will.  Will was enigmatic, charming, knowledgeable and funny.  What a guy Will was!

And so, when Susan coldly announced to Will that she had laced the tea in his Thermos with tranquilisers to make killing him easier, Will didn’t believe her.

They had arrived on Bodmin moor in good time and after surveying the various sites William strode off toward The Cheesewring, a stack of stones on top of the moor, to picnic.

‘What are you wittering about now? For goodness sake Susan sometimes I wonder if you are not losing the plot altogether.  It really is becoming an issue, and it’s not easy for me to say this, but I feel I must … You are developing signs of mental illness.’  Susan looked at him, incredulous.

‘Someone had to say it Susan,’ said Will yawning.

‘Feeling sleepy Will?’

‘I am a bit yes; I have had a rather stressful few days, not that you would know.’

‘You mean that you have been worried about the notes, the ones you found alluding to your … let’s say … unsavoury behaviour?’

Will blinked. ‘How do you know about the notes?  Did that weasel Mathew tell you?’

‘I sent them Will.  I wanted to see if you would reflect on your demons, have a really long look at that lump of deadwood you call a soul.  I wanted to see if you’d repent.  See if you are sorry.  Are you sorry Will?’

‘You really are losing the plot aren’t you?’ said Will irritably. ‘ Your mother was the same: mental illness runs in your family, one of the reasons we decided not to have children, too risky, it was a risk on my part to marry you in the first place.’

‘YOU decided not to have children Will, not me.  You couldn’t even give me that could you, you selfish, self-centred bastard.  I really have wasted the best years of my life on you.’

Will leaned against an outcrop of rock; he was so very tired.  If he could only sleep for a while, gather his strength, his thoughts then he could deal with this nonsense.  His eyelids drooped.

‘Will!’  Susan’s shout pierced the air, echoing off the rocks and bounding over the moorland like a shot from a riffle.  Will opened his eyes.

‘You have treated me without a shred of respect and to my own shame I‘ve allowed it to happen.  I sleepwalked through it all, deliberately not looking at what was right in front of me.  Not wanting to SEE what was in front of me.  You made me feel worthless Will.  You made me feel like I ought to be grateful for ANY attention, however small, however insincere that might have been.  You flaunted your brazen, flirtatious transgressions, right in front of me, right in my fucking face Will!’  Will cringed. Susan never used the ‘f’ word.  He wouldn’t allow it.

‘What did you think you were doing, Will?  Do you think that all those women are interested in you Will?  Did you stop to think how THEY might feel?  Or, how I might feel seeing you blatantly rub yourself up against my friends, my neighbours, even my fucking sister Will!?  What the hell!  Why didn’t you do what any normal man would have done and found yourself a lover?  Too risky, Will?  Why debase my friends and humiliate me?  You really make me sick!’

Will’s mind was numb; in fact, he felt pretty good right now, very relaxed.   He really didn’t give a damn about Susan or her tantrum.  Which was a mistake.

Will’s knees crumpled under him and he slumped to the ground, asleep.  Susan looked across the moor.  In the south, a line of thunder black clouds gathered on the horizon. Somewhere out at sea a storm was brewing.  No storm had been forecast.

God was on the move.

As Susan watched, the gathering storm crept with malevolent foreboding; brooding, dark and vengeful, an approaching army of the apocalypse.  The ebony, death black horses that carried riders into battle bore down upon the sinners with derision, grinding their souls into the dust rising in clouds billowing and bulging around them.  There would be no salvation for the weak of will, for the slothful, blasphemous, fornicators that festooned the planet in their droves.  Only the devout would survive, only the most zealous of God’s children would enter the kingdom of Heaven.  Susan looked down at her sleeping husband: let’s face it Will didn’t have a fucking chance!

Off the south coast of Cornwall fifty miles from Susan, much closer to the imminent storm, bobbed Mathew, in his dingy, drunk, asleep and oblivious.  The wind began to blow, the sea swelled, waves battered the side of Mathew’s dinghy until God’s emissary stirred from his stupor.   He had been dreaming, lying in Abraham’s lap, in purgatory awaiting the final judgement.  It had been ok there: not too uncomfortable, just like any other waiting room; nothing to do but wait your turn and listen to the whimpers of the damned.

Mathew looked at the approaching storm; black leaden mountainous clouds gathered on the horizon. The sun, now directly over him, lit the approaching apocalypse like Rembrandt’s Galilee.  Mathew had allowed himself to be carried much further out to sea than he would normally; he wanted to be alone.  He needed to think, to resolve his fears, to overcome his doubts and accept his betrayal of Will as yet another test.  But the whisky had slipped down too easily and now, although he was drunk, his conscience still wouldn’t let him drown his sorrows.  His conscience was insistent, trying to get Mathew to see reason.

Matthew was confused, ‘Why should there be a struggle between one’s faith and one’s conscience?  It made no sense to him.  How could that be?’  His head spun.  His faith, or by now, the torn remnant of the faith he once had, told him he was free from blame.  He had done the right thing by not warning Will of Susan’s intentions.

His conscience disagreed.  He took another swig and dozed, lulled by the gentle swell of the sea.

Coming to, hazy from too much alcohol and sleep, the realisation dawned on Matthew that his life was in danger. He urgently needed to get back to shore before the storm swallowed him whole.  He stood up, resolute, a man of action.  Swaying, he reached for his phone.  He’d call for help.

When the riders of the apocalypse drew close, the sea, no stranger to despair, saw her chance and sent a wave that slapped the priest from his boat.

In the belly of Sea, wretched souls who had perished at her whim and then driven mad by the passage of time swam towards the surface, arms outstretched ready to receive the new recruit.  They dragged his body down, down into the lair of the drowned.  It was a world with no other sensation than loss; a constant roaring of memories, of lives passed, lives that would no longer be lived: a cacophony of memories encapsulated, trapped forever, screaming silently into the abyss.  Some remorseful, others in denial; all longing, all crying at the bottom of the sea, outside God’s jurisdiction and the Devil didn’t dare go their either.

Mad fleshless freaks with empty stares and outstretched bony fingers clawed at Mathew’s capsized body. They had him now and held him tight. He thrashed against the pull, against the lure of oblivion and against the sea, the storm and God.

As the shoal of skeletal freaks clawed at Mathew, his mind replayed a single moment in his life – his first and only sexual experience before Susan.  Why of all the regrets did his fumbled attempt to make love to Greta Van Hansson come to the forefront?  If it wasn’t for God and guilt and shame he’d have fucked her so hard; like an animal.  Instead, there was a muttered apology, muttered theology and he left with his virginity intact.  His pride had patted him on the back, said, ‘Well done Mathew for you did not succumb to temptation.’  It was small consolation for a young man torn between the cloth and the unclothed.

Greta wanted it.  She’d begged him to stay, finish what he’d started, saying,

‘God will forgive you, you are a good man.’

But would he forgive himself?

Could he not have enjoyed the pleasures of the flesh and lived a good life, a life still devoted to God?  This, he had been told was not an option.  Sex was a distraction; a salubrious life was a life without sex, without succumbing to basic physical desires.  No, to love God completely was to forget about carnal lust, it only served to misplace ones devotion.

And so he’d led a chaste life, a life dedicated to God and his flock: a perverse life where one’s thoughts of sex led to guilt.

‘He knows you know,’ admonished his mother, a mother of six and a virgin to-boot.  And so the pleasure of the sin became more intense, ‘God sees you when you abuse yourself.  It’s a filthy habit Mathew and you will surely burn in hell.  You want to burn in hell Mathew?’

He was a man, made of flesh and blood and cum just like any other man and yet to look at a women and lust after her was a sin.  What does one do with all this desire?  Where does it go when one suppresses it, denies its very existence?

Oh he SO wanted to be a good man, a pious man…but it wasn’t easy.

Mathew’s beast stirred within now, bitter.  He’d lived a scant existence, relying on blissfully guilty wet dreams and fleeting, weak thoughts of molestation and rape.  Oh he could have done so much more, really pushed the boat out; after all he had matured into quite a monster.  He would have dipped Mathew’s cock into just about anything with a pulse by now. He could have had it stroked by prepubescent choirboys while they practiced their falsetto, stuffed it through drilled out holes in public toilets to be sucked by lorry drivers with three-day growths and calluses on their hands.  But Mathew just kept on suppressing the desires, his piety over-ruled.

The beast festered, hammered on the door, rampant, horny, mad with yearning.  And Mathew had begun to listen, if only to touch himself occasionally as a release, to let off some steam.  His mother’s warning ringing in his ears, ‘He knows you know.’  It wasn’t much but it was a chink in the armour, and a chink is all the beast needed. Then it’s just a few steps away from answering the door to the paperboy in a see through nightdress.

Then there was his union with Susan which had felt so right, so earthbound and yet celestial.  Years of yearning had culminated in something pure, a harmony between two souls lost in the wilderness that just for a moment danced together among the myriad of stars.

The storm and the sea were now one, Mathew didn’t know up from down and the forsaken freaks of the deep waters began to feel the priest weaken.  His life played out before him, emptied into Sea and joined all the other memories clambering, crying, weeping… regretting.

But Beast didn’t give in so easily.

The Storm left Sea behind, she calmed down, slept a bit.

As Will slept a calm came over Susan, clarity was a beautiful thing; despite the storm almost upon her she knew what to do.  She undressed her husband, leaving each item of clothing neatly folded on a rock, just as Will himself would have done.  The first few spots of rain splattered on the ground around them: big, bulbous, greedy drops lifted from the sea; within one drop Mathew’s beast did lie.

Susan needn’t dirty her hands; all she had to do was to leave Will here on the moor asleep and naked to the storm. The storm would do the rest.  God had intervened.

Susan diligently packed away the picnic items and, after one last glance at her husband’s now naked body, with his self righteous smirk still pasted on his sleeping face, she made her way back down to the car.

Storm roared in over the land like a juggernaut, this was its last stop, the riders and their horses would do battle here, on high ground, overlooking the moor. Their opponent stirred, felt confused and disorientated, he staggered to his bare feet and felt his nakedness.

What the hell was going on?

‘Susan!’ he yelled at the wind, into the murky air.

Will, not used to this level of adventure, this kind of chaos stood still, not being able to decide what to do next.  Storm mistook this paralysis for determination and resolve and redoubled its efforts, spoiling for a fight.

Will’s feet took the decision for him and stumbling as he went Will began to walk. He had no idea where to go, the moor was a big place: if he wandered in the wrong direction he would surely die; he needed to find the car. Bodmin Moor was a dangerous place to be in a storm, full of stone and rock and pits and abandoned mine shafts!  Someone, anyone could easily perish in a thousand different ways.

And yet, if you were to have watched Will’s descent from the Cheesewring you may have forgiven yourself for thinking that his path was aided by divine intervention.  Every step he made brought him closer to safety, each step was just shy of danger, of bringing Will to serious harm.  It was as if God himself was steering Will through the fog and fuddle of his drugged and addled condition.  God, it seemed, was looking out for Will. Will’s fortuitous descent to safety, naked and against all the odds would surely make him a legend, a man whom the world would not forget… a man that God would not forsake.

Will had no idea what he was doing.  Convinced that he must be in someone else’s dream he just kept following his feet.  Not ‘knowing’ was foreign territory to Will; he always knew. Confusion was a door he’d never opened, never so much as hovered on the threshold. Having never been there, he couldn’t identify it, couldn’t pin it down and slap a label on it. Will wasn’t totally convinced that any of this was real but being Will, real or not, his reality, his dream or somebody else’s, he’d control it.

Will was not an aggressive man.  If anything he seemed a passive man.  He found by employing a particular brand of passive resistance to unsavoury intrusions he could force, even shape the world to fit with his vision.  Basically, his tactic was to just ignore ‘it’ and it will get fed up and slither back to whatever cave it crawled out of.   A blinkered approach maybe, but above all, safe.  This attitude of blissful ignorance had served Will well over the years; his will had preceded him, like the bow of a ship cutting through turbulent waters, carving a narrow path towards the horizon.  Anything untoward, unsavoury or attempting to influence his predetermined view of the world was ignored into submission.  It worked mainly because Will was not alone; Will was part of a larger cluster of like-minded folk who helped each other maintain a certain status quo. They stuck together, a flotilla of harmonious wills bent on illusion.  Solidarity is not a word Will would use, it sounded too Red, too Socialist, he’d prefer the term fellowship.  Nevertheless, the Wills of this world were solid, not just solid individuals but solid collectively. Together they forged calmly on, no need to worry, no need to panic as long as you all keep your gaze fixed firmly upon the horizon.

But now Will felt adrift; his calm was under threat.  Someone was trying to tamper with his control and he wasn’t used to that.  Will, for the first time, did not feel safe, did not feel totally in control of his own destiny let alone his mind.  Anger welled up within, blurring his view of the horizon, making him feel vulnerable and under threat.

And yet Will’s hubris was a tough monkey, so his reality was a little askew right now.  So what?  One cannot abandon ship!  Unthinkable!  Just carry on and maintain a steady course.

Will’s will, his blind determination to cut through life like a razor, ignoring all of the peripheral goings on was to focus only on his end goal.  Nothing would kill Will, neither this day nor the next.  Will was a survivor, red in tooth and claw, undaunted by anything, a naked warrior savage.  He’d kick the hell out of this storm and when he got his corduroy trousers back he’d kick the hell out of Susan too.

Storm felt the force that was Will and trembled oh so slightly but Storm was cunning and looked around for help.  Under Will’s bare feet ran a labyrinth of abandoned tunnels once used by Cornish miners.  Enough water directed to a specific point would open up a sinkhole great enough to swallow a man.  And so, with the last of its strength Storm concentrated her reserves on that specific point and laid a trap for the enemy.

The cavity that had opened up in the moorland, had you the time to consider it, took on the unappealing look of a giant, gaping arsehole!  An arsehole that would not discriminate, but take all comers be they man or beast.  Will’s feet, now numb and torn and bleeding led him towards the sinkhole, a hole that led to the sea, to the icy depths of depravity, to the forgotten souls with their skeletal, bony, fish eaten faces.  And as he was about to blindly step into the abyss he, in his stupor, looked up and beheld a vision.

Shimmering in the haze of the abating storm, Will saw an apparition standing before him.  On the path to transgression, on the road to damnation, before he was about to step into the giant arsehole he saw before him The Blessed Virgin in all her glory.

Warrior Will fell to his knees.  The weight of this action caused a minor landslide and the sinkhole grew bigger still, to the point where a single raindrop would send Will to his death.

‘My lady, please forgive me my sins, for there are many.  I have been such a fool.  I’ve had impure thoughts and sought to sate my desires, well not all of them obviously.  There is an animal inside me, a devil no less that brings pressure upon me, that beseeches me to transgress, to do the bad things, the dirty things.  He torments me so.  Please forgive me and put me on the path to righteousness, on the road to salvation.  It’s not my fault, I’m but a man, a mere man and yet Beelzebub himself has chosen to reside within me.  These women, they need guidance, need to be reminded of their place, as God surely intended…

But before the goat, for which being mistaken for an apparition was becoming a bore, exonerated him, the aforementioned single raindrop, Mathew’s beast encapsulated within, lent itself to a final landslide.  Will, in his blindness, slipped very slowly into the giant arsehole.

Will’s nightmare, whether it was his or someone else’s ended slowly.  It took several days for his body to reach the sea; he lived for some of them.  During his gradual, naked fall into the bowels of the earth he saw the pleading outstretched hands of malnourished children, enslaved forever beneath the surface.  Their blackened, coal dust faces smeared with bloody tears, they begged for liberation, as if Will could somehow free their forsaken souls from eternal drudgery and despair.  Will had no compassion, only revulsion for idle vagrants.  And so, with mounting fury the star-crossed children fed on his pungent guts, his nauseating hubris, his dogged, blinkered will, chewing on his bitter contempt with puckered grimaces they made a meal of Will.

The storm vanished.

The sun reappeared.

Susan waited for the storm to pass before phoning the police to notify them of her missing husband.  After an extensive search, the police found only Will’s neatly folded clothes on a rock by the Cheesewring, and a goat with a trace of whimsy in her eye. Susan, satisfied that not only was her husband dead but apparently the only other person to know of her intent had perished at sea, walked anew into her unwritten future.  Her Beast came with her, as a chaperone.  Suffice to say they would kill again.

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Vending providence

EPSON MFP image

EPSON MFP image

Vending providence

 

The first time that death had come was on All Saints Eve and Cruikshank had welcomed him with a rasping cough, a rasping cough was all the salutation he could muster. Outside, winter’s advance was marked by a biting wind that blustered past his front door carrying a Jetsam of fallen leaves. The leaves danced in the golden light of a street lamp along with a hawk moth whose misguided attempts to reach the moon were lost on all but the wind.

Children dressed in macabre costumes held pumpkins carved with good intention or plastic caldrons half full with the bounty already collected from well meaning neighbours. The laughter and chatter of children who passed his door was, to him, sweet reprieve from the howling, bone chilling cry of the wind. The children rapped occasionally upon his door; he would have opened it of course but feared his progressed state of decay would scare them into next week. His oft dishevelled appearance, raggedy clothes, a white shock of unkempt hair, skin sallow and wrinkled beyond his years was, he thought, made worse by the blood that he had just vomited over his crumpled shirt.

Slumped in an armchair that was, ever so slightly better dressed than himself he thought how fleeting his life had been. Always a person of ill health he gravitated towards a peaceful life of observation, to watch and often appreciate rather than actually be! He had, when pushed, admitted to himself that there are those who live by acting out their dreams and then there are those who dream of acting out their lives. He dreamed and felt happy to do so, and never felt short changed by those others who acted. Those who are drawn to acting need an audience, people to applaud them and fill them with encouragement, which was his role in life, a witness to the lives of others.

But of course he did live and he breathed and he loved many things, he loved craftsmanship however it was presented to him. A well written book, a meal prepared by benevolent hands, a picture painted or poem read with conviction, all had the power to lift his spirit, but above all things, he loved the sound of a violin. So much so that he believed it was only possible to reach perfection as a violinist if you played upon a violin crafted to be an extension of yourself. So that’s what he did, he made violins for violinist who wished to reach perfection in their craft.

Despite his contribution to craftsmanship Cruikshank’s life had passed him in a hurry, he was never really ready for it, and now, it was too late.

Between the blustering wind and the carefree cries of children Cruikshank, too tired to move, listened to the music in his head. Lost in the expression of a symphony written to forget he forgot his pain, physical or otherwise, his discomfort and the rasping, desperate breaths.  His fingers tapped rhythmically upon the armchair, the grandfather clock, who had overseen many a mortal’s demise, ticked respectfully, counting down the seconds. In the corner of the room, a dank, dark, stale room, a row of sepia photographs were gathered on a walnut dresser, each one the portrait of a ghost. They leered at him in collective silence; anticipating, judging, disappointing, discouraging, pleading and sad. Soon he would join them: a sepia memory, a celluloid souvenir of the past clamped in a frame and frozen behind glass for someone to occasionally dust and perchance to wonder who this fellow was.

The three bar electric fire burned for all its worth in the small front room but its noble efforts could not keep Death’s icy benediction from touching Cruikshank’s heart.

The wind’s howl took on a deeper voice as the moments that passed between the pendulums swing slowed down. The music in his head began to fade and the tapping of his fingers came to rest.

The portraits glanced at one another…

‘I’m ready’ said Cruikshank to Death.

The clocks pendulum rested in Death’s bony grip like a set of old man’s testacies.

The clock faced away, tried to enjoy the moment.

‘Yeah, said Death to Cruikshank, ‘…about that.’

Cruikshank raised a curious eyebrow; it was all he could manage now. All he wanted was to be liberated from the pain his body had presented to him year after year, one painful, aching moment heaped upon another.

‘I have a proposition for you,’ said Death as he pulled up a chair and sat down next to Cruikshank. The pendulum stayed frozen in mid-swing; the old clock remembered the protocol and remained motionless. Time had stopped. Death was dressed in a pin-striped suit he’d acquired from a recently departed tailor. Incongruously, and at odds with his finely tailored threads he also wore a yellow florescent vest.

Once a year on Halloween, the dead, normally the recently departed can, if they wish to do so, visit their families. Death had to keep them in order and make sure that they all returned on time to their designated coaches. It was a rather busy night. On top of which he had to fulfil his regular duties and somehow find time to play a solo performance of ‘la danse macabre’ at the local cemetery! This year, to illustrate the impartiality of Death, the overall egality of dying, he thought he might summon a banker, a post suicide jihadist and a fourteen year old Brazilian rent boy.

The vest was part one of the ‘newer’ directives handed down from ‘them’ and even though he didn’t care for the vest at all, he saw the sense in it. He had managed to keep his entire group together and had not lost a single soul. It wasn’t all down to the vest though – the clipboard and whistle helped too.

‘I need a new violin,’ said Death.

Cruikshank wheezed.

‘Mine is getting rather tired you see and I feel the need of an upgrade. You make the best violins and it wouldn’t do for you to die just yet, not until I have been furnished with a bono-fide Cruikshank. In return for a violin I will grant you an extension of… let’s say, a year; a year where you will have nothing but the best of health. I’ll have to pull some strings; I have a few favours to cash in especially in administration. Those pen-pushers and archivists owe me a blind eye or two. How’s that for a deal?’ said Death smiling.

Sepia photos looked aghast…

‘Play for me,’ wheezed Cruikshank.

‘Well I wasn’t expecting to have to audition, but very well; the last request of a dying man and all that.’

Death conjured up a rather battered violin from the air. After taking great pains to tune it, he played a rendition of a concerto composed by an impoverished Russian Jew written for the Tsar’s coronation. The Concerto had been deemed too miserable for a coronation, rather than make obvious the majesty and overall benevolence of the Tsar it instead reflected the hunger and desperation of his subjects.

Death, having known a thing or two about misery, played the piece with such passion that the hawk moth outside redoubled his effort to reach the moon; a glorious sensation of the futility and brevity of life with all its despondency and sorrow, piercing wretchedness, lethargy in the face of acceptance, a brief reflection on the pathos of it all and finally death. The hawk moth lay dead on the pavement, leaving his family to grieve the loss of a spirited fellow who pursued his dream until the end.

Cruikshank was suitably impressed with The Reaper’s fervour and so raised a weary hand to signify his agreement and desire to enter into the covenant with Death.

Death, not used to pleasantries vanished.

Clock lost no time in righting his pendulum.

The collection of sepia portraits reserved the right to reserve judgement as the fire burned with a vigour renewed.

Cruikshank slept a dreamless sleep and, as promised awoke to full health. More health than he had ever had in fact!

In the year that followed Cruikshank lived! He crammed more life into one year than he had experienced in the forty nine that had preceded it. Within three months he’d met, fallen in love with and married a young soprano called Dorothy Trent who’s, until now barren belly, soon carried the consequence of their devotion. Woven between the living he kept up his side of the bargain and, based on the accomplished demonstration given by Death, Cruikshank crafted a violin to suit the personification’s requirements.

In that year Cruikshank never once lingered upon his inevitable demise, nor did he look back over all the seemingly wasted years; years that stretched behind him, fallow, uncultivated, fruitless and overrun with inertia. No, he lived in every moment! When Cruikshank ate a pear, he ate a pear: he tasted its sweet succulent flavour and witnessed every bite. No moment was wasted, given over to ignorance or dropped due to mishandling. Nope. Every sense, every sensation, every experience had his full attention. Cruikshank’s year of living became legendary to all those souls that had pursued happiness before him. Many had sought refuge in the temples of spirituality or worshipped at the altars of monitory wealth, power or gluttony only to find nothing but the conspicuous and acrid stench of bullshit lay there within.

Cruikshank’s approach to his one year of life was different in that he not only had the foresight to live it but also to just… well… be himself. This revolutionary approach to living had serious reverberations in the afterlife where billions of sheep and several wolves smacked their heads in recognition of the bloody obvious,

‘Duh! Why didn’t I think of that?’ became a common phrase amongst the dead.

 

Time marched on. Death finally arrived with a flourish (albeit a little out of breath).

‘That was cutting it fine,’ said Cruikshank. Death shot him a withering look,

‘It’s murder out there tonight. Bloody murder! I’m busy enough without having to play ‘catch-up’ with you. Come on. Time to go.’

Moments before Deaths arrival Cruikshank had stood holding his wife’s hand as she squeezed their baby out into the capable hands of midwife Henrietta Clod. Both parents glanced briefly upon the face of their daughter before Death, in his florescent jacket swept them both up and carried them off to be demobbed; consoled, counselled and initiated into the every growing body of the dead.

 

Fate rarely gets it wrong and is therefore not used to surprises. She does little weaving herself these days because of the ever growing number of lives that need to be woven. Therefore she oversees an ever growing number of trained minions to do it for her. But as all personifications of immortality know, the buck stops with them, and so, therefore one must keep a vigilant eye upon the happenings of the universe.

Imagine fate’s surprise when she caught sight of a thread that had been woven into the fabric of time that had no place being there! She had not ordered its existence, nor had a minion sewn it there, it had appeared seemingly of its own free will! And yet as Fate, more than anyone can tell you, free will does not exist. Just think of the chaos it would cause if we all just did whatever we liked? A life cannot just track its own course; a life is woven before the person living it is born! Mahatma Ghandi may have thought that he had control over his destiny, but really, as with all people, his fate had been written before he was even aware of it. Ghandi, as with all people was but a pawn. Free will cannot be tolerated…but you try telling free will that!

And yet here was a thread, a life that should not exist, should not be weaving itself and therefore interacting and influencing other threads, the whole thing could be thrown into utter disarray, a complete nightmare, a code red.

The thread was called Henrietta Cruikshank; given the name of the midwife that delivered her. Henrietta should never have existed, and would not have existed if Death hadn’t meddled with her father’s fate.

Eighty years, a blink of an eye to an immortal, is still enough time to cause some damage on Earth. Eighty years had passed since Cruikshank had handed Death his new violin, since he and his young wife had both tragically died, since Henrietta muscled her way into the world without prior consent.

A gusty, prevailing wind blew a squall from the sea over the land in waves. No childish imps dressed like ghouls haunted the streets tonight, only the dead dared to venture out. Impressive elm trees formed the first line of defence around the perimeter of the graveyard, shoulders slightly slumped and heads bowed like a row of messiahs pinned to a cross. The elms dug in their heels, well rooted beneath the rotting corpses; they held sway to no one.

A low murmuring hubbub ebbed and flowed, whistled and moaned through the graveyard as the headstones for the poor, tombstones for the rich endlessly recited the epitaphs bestowed upon them. Here lies Beloved. She walks in beauty like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. Blessed sleep to which we all return. To un-pathed waters, undreamed shores. Life is not forever love is. Today she dances with angels. Tis not the whole of life to live, nor all of death to die. Now twilight lets her curtain down and pins it with a star.  I told you I was ill.

Rain lashed against the grey stone of the stoic church like arrows shot from Beelzebub’s bow, but the church was impenetrable to attack, had withstood years of abuse. Now was not the time to give in to defeat, to the molestations of nature and all her wickedness. Now was the time to stand tall, look menacing and convey a certain arrogance and authority. Now was the time to see out the storm and show some respect, now was the time to…

‘What the hell was Death up to?’

From the eastern most corner of the graveyard Death stepped out from the protection of the Yew, rosined up his bow with aplomb and then tucked his violin under his chin. The gravestone gracing the grave he stood upon was devoted to Sally Winkleman: human rights lawyer, charity fundraiser, school fete cake-baker and psychopathic child killer.

Over the crash and clamour of the storm’s seemingly inexhaustible attack the sound of music rose on the night air. The dead began to stir, the elms swayed to the rhythm of the ‘Dance Macabre’ and the house of God, pious and loyal turned his back to the noise.

Sally stood by her gravestone, ‘Sally Winkleman. The final judgement is upon you’ and regarded Death with contempt.

‘You again?’

Death ignored her and moved to the next gravestone to summon his next dancer, Ludwig Percival, considered to be a crippled orphan but was in fact only a cripple. Bastard child of Sir William Higgins, high court judge and member of the House of Lords, Ludwig died of malnutrition in a poor house on Christmas Eve, aged ten. Ludwig’s mother, a chambermaid, left him swaddled in a greyhound’s blanket on the steps of Smirk and Smirk solicitors. Neither parent looked back, neither parent cared.

Death thought that the child and the killer would make a good juxtaposition. His bow was poised, the wind took a breath, the elms stood frozen in anticipation, the church of God sighed just a little in resignation; Sally regarded her finger nails and…

‘Thanatos!’ came a cry from across the graveyard.

Death ignored the cry and attempted to continue. His concentration renewed he once again poised his bow in ready-ment.   After all, this was his only performance of the year. He began to play slowly at first, picking up the pace once the child had arrived from his eternal slumber. Together the crippled boy and the child-killer began to dance to the tune of Deaths violin…

 

‘Thanatos!’ came the call again; closer this time.

Death lay down his bow in resignation and addressed the figure now standing before him.

‘Well what is it? What is so important that you feel the need to interrupt an inspired performance?’

‘That good eh?’

‘Have you not read the reviews?’

‘Can’t say I have.’

‘Well, shame on you!’ said Death trying to muster a little self-respect in the presence of such an old myth.

Themis,- Greek God of order had come out of retirement to…well… restore order. And she had every intention of revelling in her renewed capacity.

‘I have been requested to address you on a rather sensitive matter that seems to be of your own making.’ Death looked blank. Themis continued, ‘If you will humour me with your attention I think I can bring you up to speed. Then perhaps you can furnish me with a solution to the problem and we can all return to business as usual?’

Death suppressed his desire to retaliate with superior rhetoric in favour of an expediant nod of agreement.

And so Themis, wasting no time, began addressing her audience as if she were a lawyer stating the case:

Frederick Smith Howard landed at Gatwick Airport in a state of high anxiety and had every intention of remaining so. He thrived on pressure and needed the stress to combat the ever growing need to stop for a moment and actually think about the meaning of his existence. To keep himself sharp and edgy he drank copious amounts of coffee. This day was going to be a bumper cup day if he had any intention of winning the case for culpability against war-monger Timothy Greystone, Editor in Chief of the tabloid newspaper, ‘The Messenger’. The billionaire media mogul had, thought Smith Howard, bought and paid for the latest in a long line of foreign ‘interventions’ in the Middle East.

Today was the beginning of a long public inquiry that would, he hoped, lead to the collapse of a corrupt government and Greystone’s empire. Smith Howard’s evidence was a huge media bombshell about to go off, and today was the day he had been asked to present his allegations to the inquiry.

On his way through arrivals he passes a vending machine, he stops to give himself a shot of coffee. But the machine decides to give him ‘Cream of Chicken Soup’ because the machine can see that her customer is stressed and, in her opinion, needs something a little more wholesome than Arabica beans. Smith Howard takes a sip of the cream of chicken soup and is instantly transported back to his mother’s kitchen in Cambridgeshire; the hearth, the Aga, the family Dog Joseph curled up by his feet while mother sewed and Father dozed.

All of a sudden standing in front of the vending machine, empty plastic cup in hand, nothing mattered more to Smith Howard than finding the meaning of his existence. All the baggage- the cumbersome, superfluous distractions- faded away, oozed into the ether and dissolved. He felt renewed, reborn and afloat on a vast sea of exploration and discovery. It was up to him which way his life went from here. It was for him to decide on his own fate, to not succumb to the old seducers that had so craftily manoeuvred him from his first day in the cradle. It was almost as if his life had been planned out before he was even born!

Thus, Frederick, thanks to the intervention of a certain vending machine, inadvertently started World War III by capitulating to the evocative power of cream of chicken soup. Rather than attending the hearing that had taken him months of preparation Smith Howard took the first flight out of London. Six months later he bought an Alpaca farm in Patagonia where he made his own shirts, on a loom by the light of the Argentinean moon. He completely removed himself from his former life and never drank coffee again.

 

Susan Felicity Fulcrum landed at Gatwick airport with her new tits firmly in place and made it through customs without anyone finding the six grams of cocaine secreted in her anus. Her day should have presented to her a middle aged, German businessman who would snort the cocaine (once removed from its hiding place) while his companion, Wolfgang, fucked her for thirty minutes in a jacuzzi. But, rather than following Fate’s plan, essential to the equilibrium of the universe one should add, Susan took a detour. On passing a vending machine in arrivals she thought she might like a healthy snack; the vending machine thought she needed feeding up and dispensed a king sized confectionary bar.

Susan ate it all and then, riddled with the guilt that comes with indulgence, threw it back up into a toilet bowl. It was while she knelt on the bathroom floor staring at the contents of her stomach in the pan that Susan ruminated on her pointless, meaningless life. Her shallow existence had been built on the assumption that her physical beauty and her willingness to sell her body and soul would bring her happiness. She didn’t feel happy at all.

More important for the thread of fate however, was the missed rendezvous with Wolfgang; this liaison with Susan should have led to Wolfgang’s divorce, a peccadillo too far for Mrs Wolfgang.   Mrs –was -Wolfgang should have gone on to invest her divorce settlement in stocks that would flourish, giving Wolfgang Junior the chance to pursue his dream of entering into the sphere of biotechnology.

Instead, when it finally dawned on him that Susan was a ‘no-show’ Wolfgang wasted no time in boarding an earlier plane to Saudi Arabia; a plane that was targeted by one of Timothy Greystone’s Missiles and promptly brought down somewhere over the red sea. Mrs Wolfgang was subsequently left penniless after spending everything she had on a corrupt lawyer whom she had employed to win a case for compensation against the airline. Wolfgang Junior ended up cooking meth in a Bulgarian slum before successfully blowing himself up and taking a dozen or more slum dwellers with him.

If, as planned, Wolfgang Junior’s father had had sex with an anorexic prostitute in a Jacuzzi in a swanky London hotel, Junior would have gone on to develop a biological breakthrough in cellular manipulation. This discovery would eventually lead to the first peace keeping mutant army, built from the orphans of refugees fleeing various Middle Eastern war zones.

Susan, rather than meeting her clients decided to go for a stroll in Hyde Park where she met Malcolm Bentweather, a liberal Quaker protesting against his country’s involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts. Malcolm was wealthy, single and charismatic and so when he invited Susan to a prayer meeting she thought, ‘Why the hell not?’

It was during this rather sombre meeting in the back room of a snooker hall that Susan had her spiritual awakening. The Hallelujah Moment coincided coincidentally with the moment that the Clingfilm containing the contraband narcotic gave in and the cocaine in her arse seeped into her blood stream. Devine intervention must have played a hand in her survival, because Fate certainly had no part in Susan’s miraculous escape from what should have been a fatal overdose.

Susan Felicity Fulcrum went on to become a poster girl for Quakerism and was responsible for a resurgence of the faith. The ever-growing numbers of pacifist Quakers led to the defeat of democracy in The West as no one wanted to fight for it.

Then there is Mr Oluwamakinde a student of economics at Oxford University. He landed at Gatwick airport after two months spent at home listening to theories of how Satanism was prevalent in The West: the elite ruling classes were in bed with the Devil and made blood sacrifices to their lord by bombing and killing Muslims around the world. That his own blood had been poisoned with the HIV virus was testimony to how far reaching and sinister the rulers were: the fact that he’d had unprotected sex with a prostitute in Lagos was over looked by all the harbingers of doom.

His position was clear: he had to finish his degree, keep his head down, avoid anyone but the most pious of people and get out before the Devil took him for a concubine.

On leaving the terminal he passed the vending machine and felt a great thirst so paused to buy water but the vending machine refused to vend. The vending machine didn’t like the look of Mr Oluwamakinde and reserved the right not to trade with those of whom she disapproved; she spat his money out.

Mr Oluwamakinde took the vending machine’s refusal to accommodate his request for water as a sign from God. He left the airport and made his way to Cromwell Green near Parliament. Here he calmly doused himself with lighter fuel and offered tourists the opportunity to set him on fire. Mrs Fengfang Fung visiting from Beijing said in her statement to the Metropolitan Police that she had thought Mr Oluwamakinde was a street performer doing a trick, which is why she not only obliged him in his request to set him on fire but also took a selfie standing beside the burning body of Mr Oluwamakinde.

Fate had originally made other plans for Mr Oluwamakinde! He was not meant to end up a chard piece of meat on a patch of grass covered in dog shit and fag ends. No, he had a destiny to fulfil, as did everyone. The very fact that his role had not been fulfilled caused great distress to Fate.

Of course Fate is a great believer in herself, and seldom has cause for doubt. But the very fact that these individuals, and more, were seemingly going off plan made her wonder what was going on? Free Will is like a virus – once it starts to spread it becomes exponential and then nothing but chaos rules. So in an attempt to quash it, to stamp it out before it’s too late, we found the source of the problem… which happens to be a vending machine in the arrivals hall in Gatwick airport.

At that point we came unstuck.

Having come to the end of her(somewhat lengthy) explanation, Themis the God of order, paused and looked Death in the eye,

‘Whatever inhabits that vending machine, whatever intelligence resides there within is not quite of this world! And as it turns out it has something to do with you, doesn’t it Thanatos? ‘It goes by the name of Henrietta Cruikshank – ring any bells?’

 

Death thought for a moment and then whipped out his clipboard. He thumbed through an eternity of parchment.

‘Now let me see… Henrietta Cruikshank you say?’

Sally Winkleman, now lounging on a churchyard bench dedicated to a Deacon of good repute, had been listening to Themis with a curious ear. Detached as she often was from the questionable activities of ordinary people this eloquent account stimulated her otherwise apathetic interest.

‘Are you saying that there is no such thing as free will?’ demanded Sally.

‘No. That’s not what she’s saying,’ said Death not glancing up from his clipboard. ‘They believe it shouldn’t exist. That’s not quite the same thing is it?’

‘It’s a virus we have to eradicate whenever it gets into the system that’s all’ said Themis smugly.

‘So,’ reasoned Sally ‘I’m not to blame for my own behaviour then? I was born to be a killer, a peddler of misery, a cold hearted bitch bereft of compassion and love?’

‘Yep,’ uttered Death.

‘So we have no authority over our own lives, no autonomy, no way of changing our fortunes? So there is no good and bad, no Heaven and Hell, no sin, there’s just puppetry and puppets?’ Sally looked to Death for an answer.

‘Apparently,’ he sighed contining to scroll though his records.

‘Seems a bit arbitrary! I mean what is the point of that? Is life just a whimsy, a game played for the amusement of Fate and her cronies? It all seems a bit futile doesn’t it? I mean if I have no sovereignty over my own fate then great I’m not to blame for my actions and I’m just doing whatever it is that I’m programmed to do. But to be honest, I’d prefer to believe that my actions were born of my own desire. OK I was a despicable person in life- or at least that’s how I will be remembered- but to think that I was obliged to kill, was indeed programmed to do so, seems even more despicable! Why?’

‘Hard to believe isn’t it? But what about this little fellow here?’ said Death pointing at the crippled boy, ‘No way could he overcome the circumstances of his birth. His fate was signed, sealed and delivered the moment he was conceived wasn’t it young man?’

‘Yes Mr Death sir; they was with no mistake’

‘But then one must beg the question, What’s the fucking point?’

‘Indeed,’ said Death.

Themis was getting fidgety, ‘To get back to the matter at hand Thanatos…what of this Henrietta Cruikshank?’

Death raised his eyes from the clipboard, ‘I don’t seem to have her on my list. But, yes of course I remember now she was born to the violin-maker and his wife. Her parents both died the moment she was born. She lived her life in shadows, barely registered at all until she took her own life about two years ago. She threw herself off a bridge suspended over an estuary while the tide was out. She got stuck in the mud, head first; only her boots were visible, very undignified. The fire brigade had to winch her corpse out during low tide with a crane, there was an audible pop as her body finally came free. She wasn’t on my list, had no exit visa, so I didn’t know what to do with her. I ended up stashing her soul in a vending machine until I could figure out how to get her to the other side…then promptly forgot about her. Truth is she was never really meant to be. I can only assume that her existence has torn enough of a rent in the fabric of reality to allow freewill to crawl in.

‘But if free will takes a hold on reality then what of Fate’s fate?’

Death consulted his list again. ‘You better tell her to pack her things, I’m on my way’.

‘But that’s ridiculous, Fate can’t die! What will happen? We need order; we need to follow the plan and avoid deviation!’ Themis said frantically clutching her heart. She was feeling a little faint, a tad disorientated as is the wont of ordered folk when Uncertainty rears his ugly head.

‘Yes well I’m afraid things will just carry on as if Fate never happened. I’m sure the mortals will adapt in time.’

‘But what will govern their lives, if not Fate? Free will doesn’t really exist, no matter what the mortals want to believe – it’s just an illusion. It’s nothing more than memes and genes and self delusion.’

‘Self delusion would imply a ‘self’ to delude would it not?’ asked Sally with aplomb.

No one answered.

Fate had foreseen her potential demise of course.

To avoid Death, she found a way back in. Fate would be reborn…as the child of a violin-maker (who had struck a bargain with Death) and his soprano wife. After many years of struggling with the burden of mortality she would kill herself in a spectacular way. Then, not knowing what to do with her soul Death would hide her from herself in a vending machine in Gatwick airport. From the vending machine she would start once more to govern the lives of mortals, but by doing so would introduce free will… or at least the illusion of free will… to the lives of those she touched.

Death continued to look everywhere for Fate but never found her.

 

 

 

 

 

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Raindrop

A desert flowers after long-awaited rain.

A retired Peruvian miner stands in the desert regarding the floral phenomenon with his wife. Looking over the endless sea of colourful blooms he sheds the only tear he will ever shed in his adult life. The teardrop evaporates on contact with the old man’s steal capped boot.

Widow-black sky, grieving, miserable, drunk on sorrow hung in wait above the parched and brittle land. During the night watch, a flotilla of heavily pregnant, slightly incontinent rain clouds had blown in on a westerly breeze. A single raindrop seeped out and began its odyssey towards the earth far below.

‘What sort of raindrop am I?’ he thought.

Before his descent, raindrop had been part of a collective consciousness known as ‘cloud’ with no autonomy of his own – lots of smaller droplets that, for whatever reason, felt attracted to one another.

‘Ah the birds and the bees,’ muttered the wind as she gently wafted our raindrop eastward.

He fancied he was probably of the brave and fearless variety and as the sun broke the night with a strange sepia glow he thought he might also be ambitious. After all he had been the first drop to fall; yes he was undoubtedly the heaviest that went without question, but ambition played its part too, surely. Perhaps his character owed a debt to one or more of his component parts, the smaller droplets that had made their way up from the evaporating waters far away to help make cloud to begin with?

Yes, thought the drop of rain. Yes, he came from good stock, pure H2O with no artificial additives or flavourings. Not like some other drops he could mention with their performance-enhancing chemicals or corrosive acidic value; too many hydrogen ions for his liking. No, he was pure unadulterated, top of the range, life-giving water.

Below him in the early morning light a vallenar toad crawled out from its once brimming pond and inspected the sky. One drop would be good; a downpour would be better. It had been a while since rain had been seen in this arid landscape. In fact, the toad hadn’t seen rain in his lifetime but had been left instructions by his grandmother on what to expect and what to do when it did finally arrive.

He looked at the muddy hole in the desert floor where he’d grown up and wondered if he could ever bring a lady home to this hovel. Would a potential mate ever be impressed with tales of what it had once been? A virtual palace teaming with toads, his father, a most exemplary amphibian, had the pick of the knab. Oh yes his family had been well regarded and considered to be extremely hospitable. They were the backbone of the choral ensemble, lending gravitas to the baritone and indeed tenor sections. The choir that once sang here made sweet and seductive music filling the desert with sound, but now he sang alone.

Oh if only it could rain enough to fill his muddy hole with water life would soon follow. The desert fox himself might wander over and sample the miracle, and then perhaps others would follow making his pond the most popular watering hole in the land. Then of course he would have the problem of which lady toad to settle for.

He ventured a little further out into the dawn and peered up into the sky, but the sky had gone, replaced by a black mass tinged red by the rising sun. What was this anomaly: could it possibly be the rain cloud Grandmother had foreseen?

His grandmother had made a lot of predictions; rarely did any of them come true. She also reckoned that she could, through magic, cure warts! What a wart was or, indeed what it should be cured of, was a mystery to Toad. Grandmother imagined she could communicate with the dead too and did this whenever scorn was required,

‘Uncle Flaxin disapproves of your indulgence very much! The word ‘shame’ is teetering on the very tip of his long tongue.’

She could see the future by studying the movement of tadpoles and heal the sick with a combination of bizarre incantations and a peculiar trancelike dance consisting of hopping ridiculously on one leg. And yet, he had to admit that this dark presence looming above him matched her description of a rain cloud. Grandmother may not have been as mad as a box of armadillos after all.

Despite raindrop’s close affinity to his kin he wondered to himself as he fell,

‘If I do not own a sense of self, am I not an individual?’

Furthermore, wasn’t it possible that he could, despite his current trajectory make his own choices? He had to accept that there were powerful forces at work here – wind and gravity, for example, relieved him of certain decisions. Even so within these fixed parameters was he not a free spirit?

Of course it did occur to him that he didn’t exist at all and was nothing more than a figment of some deranged author’s imagination. But where would that lead him? He had to think in subjective terms otherwise what was the point?

When all was said and done, he didn’t see himself as a nihilist or a philosophical pessimist nor did he think, based on his short existence and what he had learned of himself, that he was an absurdist either. No, he believed that he had a destiny and once that destiny was fulfilled he would be reincarnated, but not before returning to cloud and belonging once more to the collective consciousness.

Yes all of existence was inexplicably linked; strange forces were at work here. It’s true that despite his intrinsic sense of connectedness, of being special in his own right and of belonging to a bigger picture, he had to admit that many questions would remain unanswered. That didn’t however make existence absurd or pointless or rob him of his feelings, his sensations and his thoughts. Was it not he, raindrop, and he alone that felt the wind move him in this way? It was his interpretation of warmth bestowed by the rising sun that mattered, how he experienced it and how life, however short, exhilarated his senses.

Raindrop, after being in existence for three seconds took a second to feel the moment, to live in the now, to merge with his environment, to feel at one with nature. He cleared his mind of all contemplation, reflection and projection and felt the beat of life radiating all around.

Below the raindrop, below the toad, deep in the ground a dormant seed dared to dream. Within the seed coat, tough and hard lay the embryonic plant, warm, safe and protected. The embryo stirred, fancied she felt moisture in the air above her. Oh could it be true? Should she allow herself hope? To think that her slumber may end, that her love would come and, with one kiss, soften her otherwise impenetrable shell. Perhaps one drop of rain, if he was big enough, pure enough and strong enough to penetrate the hard surface above, could find his way to her. Should one such drop of rain exist? Dare she hope that, as she laid here dormant and wanting, he was fighting against unimaginable resistance to find her? Battling with rivals, struggling against hindrance from wind and the inevitable evaporation of sun and friction?

‘Whoopeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!’ yelled the raindrop as he fell closer and closer to the ground. Above him his fellow drops poured from cloud, billions of drops all coming from the same mother, born into the same world, screaming towards their fate. Each drop connected and yet isolated by its own experience, its own understanding of the world, its own bubble. A bubble filled with questions, angst and insecurity; with meaning and fractured moments that together built an overall impression of consciousness and a life spent.

Now, as the end of the journey approached for our raindrop, Toad saw with his own eyes the coming downpour. His tiny toad heart leapt in his chest, this was a game-changer, this rain came with promise, this rain came with life! Toad hopped from the dried up hole he was born in to the desert floor and back, not knowing where to put himself, not having lived through such times as these before. Toad allowed himself to fancy he would actually meet a mate, have tadpoles of his own and grow fat well into his dotage.

Beneath the toad, lying dormant for so long the seed quivered with anticipation. She would be born again, rising from the ashes, her roots would dig deep and her flower would open to the sun and be beautiful to behold.

Raindrop reflected on his own existence and thought that this episode of consciousness was only a fraction of his journey. In truth the existence of consciousness was merely a vehicle that enabled one to make the transitional journey from collective realisation – belonging to the cloud – and feeding the planet with much needed nourishment. He would eventually be recycled, vaporised, condensed and turned back into a raindrop, not the same raindrop, another raindrop and so the story continues.

As for self? During the journey, despite the limitations nature will impose, you have the freedom to consider life, the universe and anything else. You have the freedom to love and be loved, to hope, to dream and to live in the moment whenever you wish. Life is a circle, know that, accept it and embrace it. You do your bit, make your contribution whether you like it or not and go from this blink-of-an-eye existence into the next phase of the journey. Crashing and thrashing as you go, no doubt, but go you will.

Millions of raindrops fell head-first onto the parched and brittle ground, each one shattering into hundreds of smaller water particles, making their way through cracks and canyons towards millions of dormant seeds lying in wait beneath the surface.

In a one hundred mile radius several vallenar lady toads instantly gave up on spinsterhood and set out to ‘knab’ themselves a man.

A desert flowers after long-awaited rain.

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The Habit of delusion

EPSON MFP image

EPSON MFP image

Brother Antoine had a mono-brow. The mono-brow demanded attention, refused to give any recognition to the other features on Antoine’s face, which were, had they been graced by any other face, crowd pleasers in their own right. To say that brother Antoine was unattractive would be an understatement, even so to conjure up such adjectives as revolting, hideous or ugly would be rather uncharitable; the features themselves were just doing their job after all. Many of Antoine’s fellow monks who could be described as rotund, jolly, flatulent, boisterous and pious each to a man would, if asked, describe Antoine as ‘beautiful’ because it was, indeed, his nature to be so.

Antoine’s duties, other than rigorous prayer and devotion, were to tend to the monastery’s livestock and beehives. Indeed his reputation as an apiarist was legendary throughout Christendom as was, albeit to a lesser degree, his handling of poultry; cocks in particular. He also tended to the lambs, goats and ‘those blessed cats’ that ran amok through the hallowed cloisters, vestibules, scriptoriums and, to the annoyance of Brother Peter the cook and cheese maker, the kitchen too.

Antoine despite his horrific, some would say ungodly features, was a gentle man; a pious, God-fearing giant with a special penchant for animals and their husbandry. To Antoine, animals were predictable creatures, uncomplicated in a way that people were not. Unlike people, animals are automated biological life-forms, ‘wind them up and watch them go’. They have no sense of identity, no consciousness to speak of and are, as a result, blameless and completely innocent.

People have free will, given by God. God crafts animals to have no will of their own. People squander their free will, extravagant and liberal with is proliferation they spread it about carelessly. When, rather than use it to live a meaningless life of constant stimulation and greed, they should in fact be using it for what God intended: loving Him.

God tested man by giving him free will (Adam fell at the first hurdle). God willed that man should be left in the hands of his own counsel, so that he might of his own accord seek his creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him … or so it goes. Antoine had floundered off the coast of God’s love. For many years he had refused to come ashore but occasionally drifting into the shallow waters, he would stop to consider the price of such devotion. Antoine felt that should he go to God willingly he might be somehow missing out on life.

Yet, in the end (or the beginning as Antoine would see it), he utilised his gift of free will to abandon his life of vice and iniquity, of violence, drama, drunkenness and sexual perversion in favour of God’s love.

Some would argue that God knows how our lives will pan out. In which case a life is plotted and its fate can be seen by any number of omniscient beings! If our lives are predetermined in such a way then predestination leaves no room for free will … but that’s neither here nor there.

Now that his old life was in the past Antoine felt satisfied with his choices: his life of devotion, brotherhood, abstinence and prayer. His role within the monastery of stockman and animal welfare administrator filled him with love and admiration for God’s divine genius.

Nothing could tempt Antoine away from the work he adored other than, that is, an opportunity to squander a few hours blessing the inhabitants of the village nearby in exchange for cash. The monks of his order lived, in part, by the old tradition of begging for alms, in fact it was this very tradition that persuaded Antoine to slope off one sunny afternoon and collect what he could for the pot.

And so it is here that we catch up with Antoine, entering the small village that sits by the seat of its pants on the edge of the land that rolls into the sea from the Pyrenean Mountains. Its stone walls and terracotta roofs lay languorous and sleepy, so relaxed were the houses that they gave the appearance of melting into the landscape, pouring slowly into the somnolent waters ever lapping at its heels. The inhabitants of these homes were, in the heat of the summer, as sluggish and unenergetic as could be without actually falling over. In through the shuttered windows, dozing was afoot as was idleness and sloth with the occasional burst of gluttony.

So it is with great haste that they reach for the purse to pay God’s witness a princely ransom for a prayer or two of forgiveness. God’s own protection racket: sins are, no matter the magnitude, forgivable for a price – hush money or, as some more cynical than I would see it, paying for sin from a door-to-door salesman. Antoine made good time and good money which pleased both the dammed and the reckoner.

Brother Antoine draped in hessian cloth moved silently over sunburst flagstones, cracked and worn by winter frost and summer sun. He, to those that stole a glance from within or passed him on the road, looked virtuous and morally intact which was both reassuring and humbling in equal measure. However, despite appearances, Brother Antoine struggled behind the hood, behind the eyes of petulant dark blue-bottle green, for, despite himself he still longed for some of the finer sins of his past. Oh, he had no hankering for illicit sexual liaisons with strangers in the backrooms of iniquitous bars or harsh, cutthroat liquor served in cheap shot glasses. Nor did he truly miss the fighting, the wannabe heroes out to prove that they were more than their nylon shirts and over-gelled hair implied. Pick on the big ugly guy sipping whisky by the pool table, make a name for yourself, earn respect from your peers and admiration from the leopard-skinned, shag-anything barmaid of your dreams. Yes the feeling of his fist smashing into another man’s face, the sound of broken bones, the blood and spit arching through the stale, smoky, badly lit air was a tantalising memory but firmly in the past, where it belonged. No the sin, if it was a sin at all, that he missed the most was the indulgence of tobacco. A cigarette gave a man time to reflect, to ponder his life, the meaning of it and his purpose, indeed his reason for being.

It was while smoking a cigarette, after flooring another cocksure bawdy contender outside under a shepherd’s cautionary sky, that God became impatient with him.

‘Look, I’m not one to interfere Antoine, as well you know but, well really, how long will it take for you to find me?’ said God, quite reasonably.

‘I’m on my way’ replied Antoine. And that he was.

Now, pockets full of crumpled bank notes donated to him by the shamefaced in good faith, he made his way towards the tobacconist situated on the main square. One packet of filter-less Gauloises would, in theory, bring him closer to God that much sooner.

It was at this moment that he could have decided to forget the Gauloises and return to the monastery in time for mid-afternoon prayer and a slice of freshly baked bread with his own bee’s honey. But fate had other plans. Fate chuckled indulgently to herself at the notion of free will. She knew that life was mapped out and executed with precision, down to the final detail, but granted the notion of sovereignty over ones destiny, otherwise where would be the fun?

Antoine seemingly by the grace of his own will pushed open the door and entered into the tobacconist, intent on the purchase of Gauloises. Fate watched on, she loved this bit, the bit where someone thinks that life will go this way when in fact it goes that way … takes them by surprise every time.

Inside the small tobacconist, which was also a boulangerie; newsagent and peddler of gossip, piffle and tripe, chaos had apparently arrived. The floor was scattered with debris including magazines, baguettes, cash and the old tobacconist himself Monsieur Philip Goudan. Antoine knelt by Goudan’s bony, nicotine yellow, tweed-festooned body and looked for signs of life.   Goudan’s eyes fluttered open and stared back at the unattractive monk with the thrice broken nose; bloated, tea-bagged eyes and formidable mono-brow.

‘Goodness me, you are a sight for sore eyes,’ said the tobacconist in earnest.

‘I’ll call for the doctor – what the hell happened, were you robbed?’ inquired the monk.

‘No need for a doctor, I’m fine. Yes I was robbed, no money mind you, just all the Gauloises and Woodbines, nothing left but menthol.’

‘That’s terrible!’ said the monk thinking of the pleasure he’d miss out on. ‘Who robbed you, how many and which way did they go?’ The shopkeeper looked a bit shifty, went to speak and then didn’t, couldn’t seem to get the words out.

‘What is it my son? Why are you so hesitant? Whatever you say I will not judge nor condemn you. You must tell me, do not protect these villains, justice will be done, God will see to that.’

Goudan opened his mouth to speak, looked sceptical and promptly shut it again. But then he seemed to resign himself to the ridicule he expected and said, with as much conviction and dignity as a man in his position could muster, ‘Are chimpanzees within God’s jurisdiction, does God’s justice apply to chimpanzees?’

Antoine blinked, ‘Chimpanzees?’

Antoine thought for a moment. God did not give animals free will. Their love for him is inconsequential, they do not seek it, nor are they meant to, he’s not interested in their love. If they are acting without free will then they cannot be blamed for their actions, animals are free from the burden of sin and therefore cannot be held accountable.

‘Are you saying that you were robbed by chimpanzees?’ asked Antoine cautiously.

‘I was robbed by a chimpanzee, he had a jackdaw on his shoulder but I’m not sure how culpable the bird is, he may have just been hoodwinked by the chimp. He came in, all brazen, chest out, teeth bared and just jumped up onto the counter, flung me to the floor, grabbed the cigarettes and left. It was all over in no time at all.’

‘Which way did this chimp go, did you see?’

‘He turned right out of the village. My guess is that he belongs to Monsieur Perin, the old veterinarian up on the hill. He has all sorts living up there.’

Monsieur Perin lay gasping for breath on the kitchen floor, blood gurgled in his throat. Blood, black, crawled like lava, pooled on the terracotta tiles oxidising, spent. The extent of his wounds was severe: the gash in his head would prove to be fatal; the opening in his abdomen would have been fatal had his head wound not got there first. Perin knew that his time was up, that the ferryman was mooring his vessel in anticipation of death’s arrival. Death, unsympathetic to creed or dogma keeps impeccable time, always punctual, never late, comes to collect us all in the end. Death stood above him, took the pocket watch from his dog toothed, velvet lined Armani waste coat, given to him by Cronus, and tapped the watch face with a bonny finger.

‘Sorry about this, dammed thing seems to have stopped, all rather annoying really. I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a Rolex or a Tag Heuer – something Swiss anyhow. What do you think?’

‘Gurgle…’

‘Can I use your landline, long distance, I’ll reverse the charges?’

Perin gurgled again, fixed Death and with a defiant stare and thought inwardly, ‘So you come at last, I’m almost done, just got to try and wrap something up.’

Perin, despite his readiness to go was nevertheless happy with this rather unusual altercation, this extension of life, it gave him a moment to think. He felt no discomfort, no pain, just the obligatory cold; the iciness that Death bestows on those that he comes close to. Life for Perin was nothing precious to hold onto. Release was welcome; release from social ineptitude, crippling shyness, loneliness, an overall dismay and finally loathing at man’s evolution towards an apparent detachment from reality. He’d run his course and now felt, more than ever, expendable and unnecessary, superfluous to requirements. Despite this Perin needed some clarification, needed answers.

Why had Arnold attacked him, the chimpanzee that he, Perin, had liberated from a life of experimentation along with a whole raft of other unfortunate creatures? Together they had lived in relative harmony; Arnold was cared for, fed and, despite attempts to wean him off tobacco, kept in cigarettes. Then, this morning, the chimp turned on him, near beat him to death in a frenzied and uncharacteristic attack.

Now, as death spoke to Cronus in hushed but deliberate tones, Arnold ambled into the kitchen, the jackdaw, as ever, perched on his shoulder. Perin looked for any signs of remorse. Nothing but indifference was returned. The chimp pulled on a cigarette, wandered over to the fridge and grabbed a soda. Perin watched on as his simian companion turned and left him. He heard the TV go on in the next room, time for Arnold’s daily dose of ‘Sesame Street’,

Never refer to me as an item. I’m a bird,’ said big bird…

Perin was not a religious man, had no time for superstition or wild departures into fantasy. He believed that consciousness was a human construct, a notion developed by man’s evolution, it acted as a safeguard to insanity. Consciousness was a tool or weapon designed to help you get on in the world and interact with others. The realisation that consciousness is an illusion dreamt up by your subconscious would fell most people. Indeed what would be the point in living if we, as individuals, had no real identity? Are we in fact nothing but complex zombies who have convinced ourselves that we are somehow more than that?

As for free will? It didn’t exist and nor is life predetermined by a deity or some immortal personification such as fate. Your fate is however predetermined by your genes and your formative experience. We are all slaves to our genes and memes, impossible to escape, impossible to reprogram, try as you might. Some people are indeed born great, given the right conditions; others wallow in mediocrity believing that they have control, a choice in which direction their life can go. No one breaks the mould – the cast has set. The same applies to animals but without the delusions of grandeur; animals are not capable of imagination, of planning, scheming or predicting the future. Being able to look forward and plan for tomorrow and indeed remember the past deceives us into believing the illusion that we have free will, that we are uninhibited by exterior or interior boundaries and can exercise our will with abandon. Perin, or the assembled complex cell structure that was named Perin, had resigned himself to the illusion long ago and in doing so found solace in his resignation. He could not be blamed for anything: Perin, like everyone else, was no more than a clockwork pre-programmed biological machine with a shelf life. His cell-by date had all but expired; time to make way for another generation of evolutionary weaponry ready to fight for domination and survival.

Now, with his last lurching breaths struggling to fuel his thoughts Perin fancied he might have made an error in his philosophical departures. Perhaps Arnold had indeed acted of his own volition, taken matters into his own hands and exercised his, until now, unapparent will. If this was the case then what of Perin’s own will?

‘There’s just one you Nobody like you Take a look, it’s true Just one you The smile on your face is like no smile that I’ve seen You’re one special person if you know what I mean,’ said Big Bird.

Meanwhile Death brought his conversation with Cronus to an abrupt end. ‘If Time himself can’t forge a superior and reliable timepiece then I’m afraid I will take my business elsewhere. Good day to you sir!’

‘Look here dear chap,’ Death continued turning his attention back to Perin’s withered, bloody mass. ‘I need to record your time of death; it’s the rules I’m afraid. Bloody bureaucracy, no getting away from it, I swear I spend more time filling out forms and signing paperwork than I ever did before. It’s all gone private now you see, bloody corporation runs it, no real quality time with the client anymore; no sir it’s all about number crunching and targets. Takes the fun out of the job really, I used to love the fieldwork, still do, getting out and meeting people, offering an excellent, if not unique service. After all without clients there would be no death and then where would we be?’

Perin groaned inwardly, not sure now if he wanted to stay or go if Death was any indication of what waited for him in the afterlife.

Antoine stood by the old gnarled front door; blackened, weathered, cracked and worn. To his right, in the shade given by a vine, its black fruits plump and unkempt lay a sleeping beagle. Twitching, it drifted into dreams of confinement – of green-smocked bodies and green surgical masks under robotic, clinical, unsympathetic green eyes. Scentless rooms without texture, sanitised stainless steel tables covered in disinfected, scentless surgical tools that glinted with cruelty under sharp painful, unrelenting strip lights. Then came the needle pregnant with LSD dripping its hallucinogenic contents into his eyes. Carrying him into another world where sound was colour and colour was scent and everything became very fucked up. Distant howls of rage: toxic violet, hostile red and death black permeated the thick walls painting an image of suffering and cruelty.

The beagle began to run, through long polished corridors, past doors that kept the cruelty contained. Out onto tarmac roads under a warm and compassionate sun he ran until his paws felt grass. Now he stopped and breathed in the aroma of the natural world around him and his head revelled in the cacophony of scent.

Now, rising though the mire of his sleep, through the dark sludge of half-remembered memories he smelt honey and baked bread, a whiff of goat and a soupcon of feral feline with an overriding odour of religious certitude.

The beagle blinked with sentient eyes as the monk stepped over the threshold and into the gloom of the vet’s house-cum-menagerie.

Fate smiled to herself … as she often did. Conceit came with the job; in fact she was rather proud of her smugness.

The chimpanzee sat on a ragged sofa, its guts long-spilt. The jackdaw on the chimp’s shoulder squawked a warning; the beagle saw orange. Monk and chimp eyed one another with suspicion. Brother Antoine saw the cigarette packets scattered on the threadbare carpet before him, ‘Caught you,’ he said quietly, before calling out, ‘Hello, is there anyone at home?’

‘Who the hell is that?’ asked Death still tampering with his watch. Then, addressing Perin he said,

‘You know what? I think I’ll just give an approximation and let them sort it out; after all it’s hardly fair is it? There you are trying to make sense of the world in your last remaining moments, when, well really there is no sense in it.

I have spent millennia thinking about man’s spirit, his purpose, his ‘will’ if you like. I narrowed it down to a quantum level – thought that consciousness was a universal fluid force that runs though all things, all matter. A bit like me really, without sounding too big headed. Even a stone has some small amount of consciousness; if nothing else, it knows that it is a stone! You can’t pin it down to a region of the brain; look if you like but you won’t find it. Free will exists in the sense that multiple, but not infinite, options are made available to you by your environment, your genes and the width and breadth of your imagination. Truth be told not even the corporation knows what it is, the whys and wherefores. At the end of the day – no pun intended – it’s for each of us to decide upon.

It gives us something to think about doesn’t it? In the meantime be kind to strangers, avoid coveting other people’s wives and goats, care for children and don’t take things that are not yours to take. And for goodness sake enjoy life, live, love and avoid celery. That’s the bottom line.

Right let’s be having you! Time – whatever it is – to go.’

Perin let go … Let go of the struggle to understand, to know, to live … and succumb to death. He reached up.

Just at that moment a monk came into the kitchen; he seemed to be smoking a Woodbine. The monk rushed over to Perin’s almost dead body and started to pray over him.

‘Oh for goodness sake, did you order a monk?’ said Death. ‘I hate it when this happens. He’ll have to carry on without us I’m afraid. We are late enough as it is…’ He trailed off as a one hundred-pound male chimpanzee came crashing into the room throwing himself at the monk as he knelt, lost in prayer, on the bloodied floor.

‘Now, on the other hand, I do like it when this happens!’ said Death with a smile.

Perrin wondered if this strange circus going on all around him was some post-life entertainment or a hallucination triggered by a dying mind. If it was for real then it had to be one of the more interesting days he’d passed in recent memory.

Perin passed away at three thirty-two, post meridian time, according to the official report and what happened to him after that is no one’s business but his own.

At the very moment Perin slipped away Antoine was sent sprawling over his corpse, sliding across the kitchen floor leaving blood smears in his wake. The jackdaw fluttered over-head screaming boisterously, spoiling for a fight.

Instinct kicked in – all those bar brawls of yesteryear had left Antoine with an innate ability to fight on demand and he loved it. The chimp launched into another attack and was flying across the room, mid-air at a fair old clip. Antoine lifted his sandaled foot and caught the chimp square on the chest. The chimp went flying backwards, landed, turned and came in for more. Antoine was on his feet and met the approaching ape with a powerful punch to the jaw leaving Arnold on the back foot. Antoine wasted no time; he came towards his opponent, caught him twice consecutively with his right and followed up with a left hook that knocked the chimp into the middle of next week.

Antoine made the sign of the cross over the deceased vet and made for the door. Arnold, not to be underestimated, made a grab for the passing monk’s ankle and successfully pulled him to the floor. Antoine kicked out but couldn’t shake off the chimp’s iron grip. Arnold pulled the man closer to him through a pool of congealed blood. Straddling the monk, the chimp punched him for all he was worth – until his bronchitis became a dash cantankerous. Antoine bucked and kicked in an attempt to dislodge the asthmatic chimp. The jackdaw, no longer interested in the fight, plucked greedily at one of the dead vet’s opaque eyes.

Antoine looked around in desperation for a weapon.

Just then a sunbeam came in through the kitchen window, not wishing to intrude, only to illuminate. The sunbeam alighted upon Antoine’s rosary beads which lay nearby; detached and cold upon the floor. Leaving one hand to defend himself against the mad monkey, Antoine, in one fluid movement, made a grab for the beads, wrapped them around Arnold’s throat and tightened them until the chimp went limp. The chimp fell once more to the floor.

Antoine staggered to his feet and stumbled into the living room, grabbed a packet of cigarettes and made his way to the open door. Once outside he collapsed under an elm tree. The beagle came and curled up at his feet. Antoine stayed there for a while, smoking, unable to move and wondering what God was up to now. Eventually he found the strength to get to his feet and started the long walk home. After a while he sensed that he was being followed, he turned warily to see the chimp limping behind him, his jackdaw reinstated upon his shoulder. Antoine carried on walking, the chimp carried on following him. Antoine stopped once more and kept his back to the chimp, then felt a leathery hand slip into his. They walked together hand in hand for a while longer then when they reached the road sat down on the verge and shared a cigarette.

‘Sally, you’ve never seen a street like Sesame Street before. Everything happens here. You’re gonna love it!’

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