Prahahaha

The city, oh the city lights are shining. The people-noise of life is through-the-looking-glass inverted here compared to home; in Britain we’re composed, moderate throughout the day, librarian hushed, people are trying to work. Then at night we uncork the bottles, release the spitting, spewing pressure valves and whistle shrilly like hobtop kettles boiling. We spill over the sides. But here they live during the day, morning’s unsticking of both their eyelids and their eyes, not buttoning anything down, touching cawing chewing their way through the sunlight hours. They flee before the moon, modest in the dark. In Prague all blackness is funeral solemn.

I followed the tram tracks for hours, hours, the routes spiralling, retracing sometimes, but moving away from the starting point. Which was a hostel, fourteen to a room, choices being cereal or toast in the morning, fruit tea or coffee in the afternoon, window open ice box or window closed skin breath sweat at night. Fourteen to a room.

You can’t follow tram routes, as it turns out. The lines diverge, converge, duck and weave. Anachronistic in the ankle-breaker cobbled roadways of the old city, a place of horse shoes and hay carts. More like tram roots, breaking through the ground, feeding an ancient iron tree somewhere in the middle, keep following and you’ll get there, you’ll get there eventually. But someone dropped breadcrumbs on your breadcrumbs.

prague foot

Should have ridden a tram, that’s the system, the system works. Get on at a, get off at b, people do it every day but now it’s too late; missed the opportunity, they’re all turned in for the night, all back in storage, turned into pumpkins to save space. Could have hopped on hours ago, hours, but the language, oh the language. Coming through Europe, Spain Italy France Germany Netherlands, a smooth transition, gradient speech, only ever slightly changed, the same friend in a lot of different pictures, always possible to pick up just enough, to recognise just enough words on a sign. Then, Welcome to the Czech Republic, or Vítejte v České republice and what is that? Not the Europe I know, practically a foreign country.

Will I ever get out? Is the maze fair or are the walls moving behind me? I crossed three bridges that all looked the same, same tarry river beneath, the slick fat slug that runs the city. Same beggar on either side, lying fully prostrate, face down, hands cupped before him. All you see are hands and coins, the rest is rags and fiction. He looked to be praying and now I’m praying too, a stranger in the house of god, a fairweather friend, let me out.

I’m looking everywhere for a word, letiste, meaning ‘freedom’, or ‘escape’ or ‘home’ or ‘airport’. It’s my way out but there are no people around to speak it, no light by which to see it written. I think I’ll die here, or no, I’ll rest, sit, stretch out, knees tucked in beneath me, face to the earth, hands out palms cupped skyward, and I’ll feel the tarmac grip me, clench, as I’m consumed, dissolved, claimed, until I’m just hands, a pair of hands overflowing with coins, a bundle of ragged clothes and an unused airline ticket.

hands

Extremely Dramatic Events

There’s a little frost on the highway this morning so they case along slowly, the older man setting the cruise control around thirty-five and leaning back into the seat. First light just about creeps over the ridge of the distant mountains. A gritting truck looms far ahead.

‘Late this morning.’

‘What’s that?’

Flannery juts his chin towards the truck. ‘Gritting truck. Late start don’t you think?’

The driver looks over his glasses. ‘Fairly.’

They put some more road hissing beneath them.

‘So, Chief. You er, you do anything at the weekend?’

A fox noses out from the edge of the fields, darts back when it sights them. The chief watches in the rearview as it crosses the highway behind them.

‘Saw my son Friday night. Had lasagne. Mostly worked other than that.’

‘Work eh? Downside to being Chief I guess.’

‘I guess.’ They can just about make out a dark figure in the cab of the gritting truck now. Looks to be the older Twain boy, back for the holidays.

‘We went to that new department store at Hoxton, me and Bren. It’s a big place, you been?’

‘Haven’t been yet. No.’

They draw level with the truck, driver waving from the cab. It’s the younger Twain, grown up some little bit though. The chief returns the greeting.

‘Oh you should go. They got just about everything I’ll say. Got myself a worlds sharpest knife.’

The chief glances over. ‘How’s that?’

‘How’s what Chief?’

‘You got yourself a knife?’

‘Oh right, yeah.’ Flannery nods. ‘Worlds sharpest knife, so they say. For the kitchen. TV set right there next to the display, showing what it’ll do. Had a woman cut up a pineapple no problem. Then a tin can.’

‘A tin can?’

‘Oh yeah. An empty one. Can’t say I’ll need to do that, but it underlines their point don’t you think?’

‘Well, I suppose it does.’

They pull off the Highway and enter the suburbs. Early risers scrape car windows or run their engines for a while before setting off. Here and there the streetlights blink and flicker out.

‘You got that address?’

‘Oh yeah.’ Flannery flips open his notebook. ‘It’s 225 Maple. Old couple, name of Harris.’

The chief nods. ‘I know the one.’

They drift past the building, pulling up further along where there’s a space and killing the engine.

‘It’ll go blunt though?’

‘What’s that Chief?’

‘I’m just saying, world’s sharpest or not, you cut up a tin can, your knife will go blunt.’

‘Well I suppose so Chief. I don’t intend to do any such thing though.’

‘No.’

‘No sir. Plain foolish that would be.’

‘Right. Shall we.’

The son answers the door, shows them through.

‘Mother went over to my aunt’s place after calling you folks,’ he explains. ‘Then she called me. In a bit of a state, you can imagine. He’s through here.’ They go through to the kitchen, where the old man lies stiff on the lino. Flannery kneels down, checks for a pulse just in case.

‘Got up for a glass of milk most likely,’ the son continues. ‘Mother said the fridge door was open when she found him.’

‘Was anything else moved?’

‘How do you mean?’

Flannery stands. ‘You say she closed the fridge door- was anything else on the scene disturbed?’

He shrugs. ‘Well I don’t suppose she stopped to make a casserole. But no point letting the fridge motor burn out right?’

The chief nods. ‘Fair enough. Flannery, impressions?’

‘It’s looking like natural causes Chief. Heart maybe, or a stroke.’ He looks to the son. ‘Real quick I would have thought.’

‘Oh yeah? Well, that’s something.’ They can hear the cooing of pigeons roosting in the chimney. ‘Well then, what’s next?’

‘The coroner will come by and take the body. Probably you’ll be his first stop when he gets in this morning.’ Flannery checks his watch. ‘That won’t be for another couple of hours though. Have you got somewhere else you can wait?’

‘Oh yeah. I’ll head on over to my aunt’s, let them know what’s going on.’

‘Well alright then.’

‘Ok.’

‘Well, we’re sorry for you loss. Be seeing you.’

They get back in the car, wait for an SUV to reverse slowly out of a driveway.

‘Not a good start to their week huh chief?’

‘Say again?’

‘I said, not a good start to the week, for Mrs Harris, or Mr Harris junior.’

‘Surely is not. Worse for the Harris senior though.’

‘Yep.’

‘Depending on your beliefs.’

‘Yep.’

They follow the SUV back to the highway. The sun’s full over the mountains now and starting to give a shape to the day. They cruise a little faster back over the fresh-gritted road making long-morning shadows in the tarmac.

Save the Date!

Save the Date!

Announcing the Wedding of John Aspell Jr to Mary Therese Lansley-Hamptonburg

Dear Friend,

You are cordially invited to attend the joyous union of my beautiful daughter Mary Therese Lansley-Hamptonburg and John Aspell Jr on April the 19th 2015 at 2.15 pm. Black tie only (of course!)

As you all know this day has been a long time coming, to say the least! John and Mary were first an item at University, for three wonderful weeks, and although fate led them in different directions then, it was only to bring them back together years later, in the luxurious retreat that John owns and where Mary has occasionally stayed. (and where celebrity residents have included such stars as Pete Doherty, Lindsey Lohn, and Amy Winehouse!)

I’ll have to be honest with you and say that, within the family, we weren’t entirely sure at first that John’s responsible asset management and Mary’s bohemian artist lifestyle would gel, but boy are we happy they did! John is truly the tether to my daughter’s balloon, keeping her firmly on the ground, no matter how hard she might try to float away!

Those of you who know this charming couple best will of course remember how supportive John was during a tough time in Mary’s life; over Christmas she was the victim of a terrible crime, her penthouse looted of every item of value and all her accounts plundered. Poor Mary was reduced to sleeping on a mattress, hardly eating, and all the while too proud to tell her mama and papa what had happened to her! I shudder to think what might have become of her if not for the sensible presence of John, who gladly put her up in his convalescence resort while he refurbished her home. It warms my heart to think of her so well cared for, especially as she has such terrible luck with this sort of thing. My husband sometimes reminds me of the number of times we’ve needed to replace our little girls television or laptop, although I do have to remind him of the number of valuable items that have gone missing from our humble abode over the years! What a world!

But now our Mary has a shining knight to guard over her, and she cries with anticipation for the Big Day! Almost around the clock! I would be lying if I said I hadn’t been a little emotional myself over the last week, the suddenness of it all being quite, quite overwhelming. But, ask John and Mary, and you’ll sense the urgency of the desire to marry; that’s their word urgent and I think it’s beautiful in these days of long engagements.

So, we’ll see you on April 19th, please RSVP. The couple have asked that instead of gifts, donations be made to the charity Action on Addiction.

Sincerely,

Mother of the Bride

Arcadia

Sometimes, but not often, I get to work on the counter. I like it. I like to sit. If you’re not on the counter you’re expected to keep busy, and if there’s nothing to do, you’re expected to walk around. Just walk around, round and round, waiting for somebody to a have a problem for you to solve. People get coins stuck in the machines, that’s quite a common one. Quite often people think a machine should have paid out when it didn’t, and I have to give the thing a shake to see if anything falls out. I try to do it in a way that customers won’t notice though. We can’t have them shaking the machines to see if anything falls out.

Sometimes that doesn’t work and I have to go behind the counter and get keys, like, twelve keys, because over the years different machines have turned up with different locks, or locks have been replaced. I must waste ten hours a week trying out keys to get machines open, while a stranger stands by, and watches. If I ran this place I would order one huge batch of locks that all had the same key. I keep saying that I’m going to colour code them some day but so far, no.

If a punter says they’re owed a payout it could just mean the hopper’s empty, and once refilled, it will give them what they’re owed. Most often the coins are stuck in the pipe, or just fell into the wiring because the machines are old as hell, and I have to root around. Pro-tip: always ask them exactly how much they’re owed, because then if you find more, you can keep the extra. That’s not arcade policy of course. Just something I do.

If a regular says that a machine owes them money I give them the benefit of the doubt, and I just hand it over, even if I can’t find any evidence. I really have no reason to think that they would lie to me. I don’t believe they would cheat, because they’re not addicted to money; they’re addicted to gambling. If they were addicted to money, they wouldn’t be here.

Sometimes the regulars want a tip, what machines have paid out recently, which have been popular, that sort of thing. They like to think there’s a pattern to follow, or some kind of code. There’s really no useful information I could give them, even if I wanted to, partly because I’m not paying that much attention, but mainly because it’s arcade policy. Come to think of it, I don’t suppose it is a pattern or a code they’re after; more like a superstition. When they ask me for a good tip, I always say the best tip is at the counter, and it’s flashing right before their eyes. Nobody’s figured out what that means just yet, but I like to be enigmatic.

Mostly the regulars aren’t too bright. Easy to sound judgemental, me a student at the University and all, but it’s the fair truth. The regulars are all addicts to some degree, mostly unemployed, some with real and noticeable learning difficulties. Some have young children who’ll get bored over three or four hours in a pushchair while the parent plays the slots. If they cry or fidget they get told off, or, if the parent’s doing ok, they’ll give the kid some money to go and play one of the kid machines. That’s the next generation of customers I suppose. In business terms.

People say it’s rigged, and I hear the phrase ‘daylight robbery’ a lot. It is rigged of course, it’s all rigged, but not in the way they seem to think. The house always wins right? That’s how gambling works. The idea that we fiddle with the machines, or that… well, suffice to say, we just don’t need to. Why would you rob somebody who’s already giving you their wallet? When someone gets angry, gets convinced that there’s something dishonest going on, I take them to the counter, and I point to the gambling license nailed on the wall. We’d lose that, I tell them, if we were ever caught breaking the law. We’d lose that and we’d never get it back. I’d be out of a job to boot. And that license, that costs £80,000 per year. They usually widen their eyes then, whistle through their teeth. They have a better idea of what they’re dealing with, and they feel more comfortable in the arcade. They go back quietly to their gambling. Which confounds me. Didn’t I just tell you, I think to myself, that this dingy little place makes over £80,000 per year? What else do you need to know?

I just stand there, by the counter, right next to the best tip in the place. A neon sign flashes:

CHANGE

CHANGE

CHANGE

CHANGE

CHANGE

CHANGE

Juggernaut

2:35 am

Hedge mazes don’t ever occur naturally- on this at least, we can agree. And a good thing too. What kind of creator god would be implied by a world featuring self-forming labyrinths? What sorts of religious worship would have developed around a Yaweh that made no efforts to hide his intention to mislead and waylay the human animal? And how would my own atheism have been challenged by such compelling evidence of intelligent design? Would atheism even be a legitimate stance in such a world? I briefly imagine Richard Dawkins indicating the looping course of the recurrent laryngeal nerve on a blackboard as clear evidence of evolution, and an archbishop shrugging in response. “But what about the mazes?”

Goddam, goddam, goddam, what was I just thinking? I’ve lost my thread, my… I’ve lost it. What about the mazes?

11 pm

‘…so we’ll head back to Jake’s cos he lives closest, that’s cool with you Jake right, I don’t want to like fffp assume, you know, I don’t want to just assume that we can, fffp that we can go back to yours but it’s just that your place is closest and fffp we’ve gotta get a bottle of water or something, we’ve just gotta, because this fffp is fffp giving me cotton mouth like a bitch fffp fffp and speaking of which I’m totally hogging it sorry, just fffp one more fffp there you go, shit I shouldn’t be smoking, I’m so dry, my mouth has that feeling like, like it’s so dry, and I don’t know I don’t think it’s even doing anything anyway, but anyway, plan, we were making a plan, we’ll head back to Jake’s place if that’s still cool Jake, and we’ll get some water and- is that a police car, guys hold up, seriously though, is it a… no, ha, it’s just a cab, shit I thought, well anyway, water, you know it’s annoying because when we were at Jake’s place earlier I thought “I’d better get some water if we’re gonna be smoking” and I grabbed, oh thanks, fffp, I grabbed an empty bottle and fffp  I went to the bathroom before we left cos I wasn’t sure how long we’d be out here and fffp and I took the bottle with me and fffp I was gonna fill it up from the tap, you know cos I almost always keep a bottle of water right here in my rucksack and… Oh shit. Ha ha, you guys won’t believe this.

9 pm

How are you doing?

Alright. Are your palms sweating?

Your palms are sweating?

Yours aren’t?

No.

Mine are a little bit actually. I hadn’t noticed.

I’m starting to feel a bit twitchy though.

Yeah.

Yeah, hella fucking twitchy.

You ok?

Yeah fine, just a bit like… I always get like this. Anxious.

But you have done it before?

Yeah, both us had some last summer.

It was about this time of year wasn’t it?

Pretty much yeah.

I don’t remember much about that night.

I’ve seen some photos.

Yeah. Fucking facebook.

We’re not going to get like that tonight though?

Have you not done it before?

Not exactly.

We’ll be fine if we don’t drink too much.

Best not to drink at all.

Ah.

You’ve already been drinking?

I had a few with dinner. Will that…

Shouldn’t make too much difference.

I’d stop now though.

Ok. I actually brought some beers with me though. You want one?

What do you reckon?

One won’t hurt.

21 Quotes From My Boss: A Found Poem

Love it

nihilisticle

My work anniversary is this week, and it’s the most melancholy of all anniversaries. It raises so many big questions: What am I still doing here? What am I doing with MY LIFE? Are these fuckers just going to give me a raise already, or are they seriously going to make me beg?

And speaking of “big questions,” which do you think is more pathetic: (a) buying lottery tickets with the sincere hope/desperate wish that you might one day manage to win your way out of this cubicle-dotted hellscape, or (b) finally giving up on that hope? JUST ASKING FOR A FRIEND.

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Man of Mystery

I once went into the corner shop outlet of a national chain and tried to buy a four pack of brand lager. I was twenty-two, but a young looking twenty-two, the kind who usually gets asked for ID when buying alcohol. The woman behind the counter, an older lady, probably nearing retirement, squinted at me through inch thick glasses and asked me how old I was. I said I was eighteen, as I’d been briefed to, and she smiled and said that was fine, and bagged up the beer for me. Not much of a story in itself, but that old lady probably got a severe reprimand from some pimply area manager the same age as me, once I reported her. They paid me £5 for that job, and I got to keep the beer. This is what it is to be a mystery shopper.

Another time I had to attend the regional office of a building society and go through the motions of setting up a high interest savings account with a recording device taped to my chest. The practicalities of the assignment meant that I had to pretend to be rich, so I wore my cleanest suit, styled my hair to look designer casual and practiced an air of unconcerned prosperity. All of which turned out to be unnecessary, as the manager of building society was disappointingly willing to believe whatever I told him, presumably on the basis that nobody would wander into a building society and go through all the rigmarole of documenting their previous five addresses, just for the fun of it. Pretty soon I forgot all about wearing the wire, and I got quite invested in the role, expanding my story beyond the requirements of the brief.

‘My fiance is in Lebanon at the moment,’ I told the manager, studying my nails and sipping at the macchiato they’d brought me, ‘doing lord knows what to my credit cards. But that’s what you get for dating a…’ I searched for an appropriate role for my fake future wife. ‘…a Kardashian.’

He smiled and nodded.

‘We spent last winter in Versailles, teaching English to the natives and helping them erect crude housing,’ I continued. ‘You’ve got to give back what you can, am I right?’

He continued nodding as I finished my macchiato, and asked if I’d like another.

‘Please,’ I said, passing my mug to his secretary, ‘and a biscotti if you have it.’

I got £30 for that one, a good haul for an hours work, although the tape marks on my chest took about a week to heal. I sent the recording device back to head office with a detailed report, knowing full well that I was James-Goddamned-Bond.

Most of the work was small-time stuff and I didn’t get to use an alias or wear a false moustache as often as I would have liked. The last job I did before cutting the whole industry loose was an investigation into the practices of a driving school, where a dozen or so people per day would go to take their driving theory examination. My mission was to be one of those people, and take my driving theory test- to take the test, and to cheat.

I was pretty excited- this represented a step up in my play-acting job, taking on a role where I was not only lying, but lying about cheating. Thrillingly, I didn’t hold a driving license at the time and hadn’t even taken any lessons; I had no business whatsoever being in this sparse waiting room with these poor anxious people cramming last minute from the The Bumper Book of Traffic Law and Driving for Dummies. There were nine of us there, most about my age or younger, all sick looking beneath the dim strip lighting. When a door opened at the end of the hall, real, natural light blinded us and a figure, invisible in the doorway, invited us to enter. The group moved sluggishly and looked like captives being shepherded between cells, but I sprang up and strolled to the front of the crowd and into the room, settling in a front-row seat where I’d be clearly visible.
The examiner went between tables making sure we all had enough pencils and that nobody needed to use the bathroom, before standing at the front of the room, palms outward in a moment of silent contemplation. He was about two feet in front of me so I had the choice of craning my neck uncomfortably skyward or staring directly at his crotch.

‘Before we begin,’ he said, ‘a few things to run by you.’

He introduces himself as Ian and explains how long we have to complete the test, how to make corrections on the paper, what to do if any of us need to use the bathroom. He makes a joke relating to stopping distances that gets a nervous rumble of laughter from the room but which I don’t understand.

Finally, he tells us we’ll begin exactly on the hour, and all eyes turn to the clock; forty seconds.

‘Oh,’ he adds, ‘and if any of you forgot to leave your phones at the front desk today, please turn them off and hand them to me now.’
I feel for the secret phone in my pocket and get a prickling sensation under my arms.

‘No?’ Ian waits a long moment, making eye contact which each of us in turn. I smile toothily. ‘Then you may begin.’

I wait for my moment, feeling the conspicuous bulge of the wire I’m once again wearing. I’d complained to my handler at the agency about the tape marks, and she asked me why I’d thought it necessary to tape it to my chest in the first place. I didn’t have a good answer to this, besides saying that I’d never seen a crime movie where the narc didn’t have the wire taped to his chest. She advised that I simply put the device in the breast pocket of my shirt, so I’d compromised by hanging it around my neck on a chain.

After five minutes it’s time for me to make my move, but I choke, seemingly unable to do what I’d been sent here to do. Maybe it’s fear of drawing attention to myself during an exam, like all those dreams where you can’t read the paper and then soil yourself. Maybe it was that Ian seemed like a nice guy who didn’t need this kind of hassle. Another five minutes passed and I started to picture the people from the agency sitting outside in a van, listening through headphones and sweating through their wife-beaters, revolvers hanging loose at their sides.

‘Now look, what’s your guy playing at?’ the one who looks like Bogart in Key Largo asks, ‘I thought this rat would squeak?’

‘Jeez I dunno,’ replies the other, played by Robert Mitchum, ‘let’s cut him loose before he brings the heat down on us.’

As their imaginary van tears away, my skin starts to tingle and I stare into the wood grain of my desk. If Ian has noticed, he probably thinks I’m stressed out on account of having so little knowledge of UK transit law. I look up but he’s engrossed in a paperback. According to the clock we’ve had half of our allotted time- half- and I know that it’s now or never. I reach into my pocket very, very slowly, and take out the phone. Ian immediately looks up from his book, like he’s been waiting for this, and he frowns with his head set on one side like a faithful dog that doesn’t understand why you’re shouting at it.

He stands up, crossing over to me in a single stride. The movement distracts the other students and they stop working as Ian hunches to speak softly in my ear. They can’t hear what he’s saying to me. They just see me nod, and put my phone back in my pocket. They see gestures of explanation from him, restrained to reflect the solemnity of the room. They think he looks almost apologetic, confused too and more than a little angry. They see me blink away inexplicable tears, and those who didn’t notice me get the phone out wonder what the hell is going on as I silently pack away my belongings and leave the room.