Home Alone

It’s been four days. I’ve stayed in the flat on my own before, but now I think maybe the whole building is empty. I haven’t passed anyone on the stairs. Nobody smoking in the doorway. The couple of inches of snow that fell last week has been trodden to black slush in town but up here, around my building, I can still see my lonely footprints in the whiteness.

There have been a string of murders in the news, which I’ve enjoyed. They break up the cycle of civil unrest, economic woes and child molestation that usually fills the headlines. Things too big or complex or dark to really follow. A good old-fashioned serial killer is timeless. This one leaves a note written in each victim’s blood, always the same: No Regrets. Nice touch.

There’s a damp patch by the fireplace in my room. Not blood but musty smelling water carrying strings of rust down to the skirting boards. I called the maintenance number and the phone rang and rang and rang…

I’ve started talking to myself throughout the day. More than is normal perhaps, although I don’t know what the norm would be. I have the same kind of discussions mostly, in repeat. I explain things to myself, like the principle of convection, as if there was someone else in the room who didn’t understand it well. I debate atheism with a version of me who is Christian. I don’t always convert him, but I do have him try to explain the presence of marine fossils on mountains tops. I deliver famous pieces of stand-up comedy as if I wrote them, to a small audience that can’t get enough of me. Are these the kinds of things I want to be doing for real, with other real people? Sometimes, especially when I’m cooking, I speak nonsense, saying words and phrases just to be making noise. In the last few days one phrase keeps coming back to me, and I say it over and over: No Regrets.

…and rang and rang and rang…

If there’s a crime in your house you have to clean it up yourself. Even if there’s a murder, you have to get rid of the blood and gore on you own, or call a specialist cleaning company. Most people assume that the police take care of it. I did. But if you think about it, no, of course they don’t.

…and rang and rang and rang…

I don’t think blood would wash out of wallpaper very easily. I bet they just paper over it. You could have pints and pints of blood splashed all over your walls under a layer of paint and you wouldn’t know. You could have all kinds of messages written on the wall right behind you. You don’t know. I’ve been thinking about that a lot. One loose corner of wallpaper, one little flap that you grab and, leaning back, peel from the wall with that tearing suction sound; and beneath? No Regrets? I want to find out if there have ever been any violent crimes in my building but the library is closed for the holidays. So I don’t know.

…and rang and rang and rang…

When I was at University we found a door-sized panel in the wall of our shared kitchen. It wasn’t hidden exactly, but we’d never noticed it because it was behind the fridge. We thought the panel might let us get into the girl’s flat next door, without alerting the warden. It took an hour to get all the old screws out of the wall, using a butter knife because none of us owned a screwdriver. The panel led to a small compartment. There was some wiring in there and a crisp packet from the 1980’s. It was fascinating. We gave up on the idea of sneaking next door and decided to close the compartment back up. I think we were humbled by the crisp packet. It was older than we were. It had been present for twenty years of academic study. We left it were it was, and added a canned pie. I don’t really know why we did that. It felt necessary. And now some new students are in that flat, ignorant of the crisp packet and the canned pie that are just a few inches behind their fridge. I don’t know why that makes me uneasy.

…and rang and rang and rang…

He struck again this week, but the mainstream media are losing interest. He hasn’t killed anyone very noteworthy or especially innocent or vulnerable. If he’s after attention he’ll have to up his game.

…and rang and rang and rang…

Oyster shells are the most common unexpected thing you find in old houses, under the floorboards and in the walls. The shells were once used to make Tabby, a kind of cement. If there are any ghosts haunting your house, they’re the ghosts of oysters. The shells would be crushed and burnt to release lime, but any that weren’t used would be left on the premises. That’s the story anyway; maybe an ancient global flood deposited them there.

and rang.

I’ve taken the matter into my own hands. The damp patch has been spreading outwards from its centre, swelling and darkening the surrounding plaster. The whole area bulges slightly as is something larval is gestating in there, oozing ruddy secretions down to the floor. The carpet came up easily enough, revealing broad fibreboard panels beneath. Every metre in every direction there’s the word ‘Masterson’. Not a message from a killer I don’t think- just the name of the manufacturer. I estimate that every day I’ve been walking over the word Masterson eighty times without realising. I don’t know why that makes me uneasy.

Under the fibreboard there were regular floor boards which I levered out with a crowbar and some sawing until half the room was a ribcage of running beams. No molluscs. It seems the damp hasn’t spread this far. I tried to look between the runners under the floorboards with a pocket torch, but my hands were slick with exertion and as I knelt down the torch slid from my hand and rolled beneath and away out of sight. I’ve decided to take up all the floor boards in order to retrieve it.

When I was about eleven years old something must have changed for my family and we started buying bigger things. There was a built-in cupboard in my new bedroom, still with the original wallpaper inside, 1960’s, broad petalled flowers in faded autumnal colours. The encroaching edges of wallpaper and paint from decades of redecoration were visible too, layers of it, a stratification. It was like an architectural archeology. My parents decorated the place in millennial shades of optimistic modernity, but I knew its true colours.

There’s been another killing but forensic experts are saying that neither the method nor the handwriting of the blood-scrawled note match. It seems there’s a copy-cat about, a producer of fan-fiction.

The torch had only rolled a few feet, but once immersed in the rhythm of the work I decided to persevere. Now all the boards are gone from this room and the first few feet of the hall, pitched from the kitchen window into the street, but I’ve stopped there so I can focus on the wall. Occasionally, when a glistening droplet squeezes from an unseen opening in the paper, the shimmering slide of its descent gives the impression of a pulse in the wall, or of something rolling in its sleep. I need to peel the wallpaper off to see the damage, but I’ve started at the opposite wall to have something to compare against. There were a few layers and I found messages almost immediately, pencil markings from a labourer writing measurements straight on to the plaster board.
The damp is probably from a leak in the flat above, a tap left running or a pipe burst in the cold. It’s hard to gauge what the upstairs flat will be like, maybe a few inches of water, maybe just a puddle. I imagine the flat to be flooded floor to ceiling, linen and kitchen ware floating free, rehydrated oyster shells eddying in a thin stream of bubbles issuing from the crack in the floor that leads down to here. Now that I’ve thought of it I can sense the weight of all that water above me. At night I imagine the ceiling collapsing in one crucial moment, a biblical deluge bursting in on me. I’ll have to tread carefully.
There was some light snow last night. My footsteps have been erased.
I took out all the floorboards everywhere and put them out the window. There was quite a bit of furniture that had to go first, my tv, bed, sofa, recliner, kitchen table, coffee table, shelving, book cases, night stand, desk, hamper, and wardrobe. That freed up some space and once I had them all out the window, the pile was nearly level with me. Under the bathroom floorboards I found a forty-year-old shred of newspaper. Forty years sitting there unknown. I shudder. To get at the bathroom boards I had to lever out the bath, shower, sink and toilet. All you really need to get by is one pipe for water and a bucket.
Two dead in Kilmersdon, No Regrets, one was the local mp. Back on the radar. Kilmersdon’s just down the road from here.
Bathroom tiles, kitchen tiles, wainscoting, skirting boards, fireplace (Benson and Benson moulded onto the dexter side of the fireplace mount), radiators, plug outlets, light fittings and switches. Unseen channels for wiring and pipes. Non-loading bearing walls that relinquish their status under force. Piles and piles of wallpaper. Plaster, plasterboard. The pile now towers over me and resembles some kind of Mayan pyramid. You just wouldn’t believe how much stuff is in the room with you. I’m going to keep looking.

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.

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.

Waiting for the man

I used to buy my pot from an enterprising teenager called Ian. I suppose any self-employed teenager is enterprising really, but Ian was different to the other teenaged dope-slingers I patronised, in that he cleverly tried to franchise me. After a few months of meeting him in a parking lot between the nice side of town and his side of town he came to understand that, unless I was a particularly high-functioning drug addict, I must be supplying a small group of friends and acquaintances. I’m sure this is the norm everywhere; every group of pot smoking friends includes at least one person who knows what number to call, what password to use, which parking lot to wait in. For my group of friends that person was me, and so once or twice a week I’d receive a few of calls, I’d make a few of calls, and I’d head across town to meet some guy, usually Ian, and buy everyone’s pot. I would often arrive home after one of these jaunts to find my extended friendship group in my living room, waiting for me to distribute wrapped presents like an unseasonal Santa Claus.

‘Ho ho ho. For you Jasper, an effective sedative for your chronic back pain. For Nathan, a temporary escape from a life you didn’t choose. For Sarah, the only means by which you can sleep! Ho ho ho, merry Wednesday!’

Over three years of concentrated activity I estimate that I walked back and forth from that parking lot two hundred times- about one hundred and fifty miles- carrying a kilo and a half of Cannabis. When another dealer I used, a guy from school called Tom, ditched his moped for a used Fiat Punto, my flatmate and I did the maths and realised that between us we’d paid for the upgrade.

None of this made me any money of course. Aside from the occasional courtesy joint it scored me, my wanderings were strictly pro bono and it was this fact that Ian picked up on when he attempted to make me an outlet for his brand.

‘All you’d have to do is what you’re doing already,’ he’d tell me, seemingly reasonable, ‘only, you’d be making money out of it.’

When I asked him how this was possible I felt like the wide eyed patsy you see in infomercials on late night TV.

“Gee sir,” some hopeless schlub says to a pastel suited presenter with shockingly white teeth, “I’ve heard of people earning good money, working from home while they sleep, but I don’t know how it works”.

“Well,” says the presenter, adjusting his mask which slipped momentarily to reveal the poisonous lizard beneath, “all you need is a cellphone and a pragmatic attitude to your colon”.

I wasn’t earning great money in my legitimate job back then, so the idea of becoming a freelance drug dealer on the side held some appeal. I was working at a local supermarket, where I held the illustrious title of ‘Chief Dressing Agent’. This mostly involved putting toys and sweets at child-eye height so they’d bug their parents to buy them, or hiding the toilet paper at the back of the store so you have to walk past every other product before you can buy it. We put smaller tiles on the floor in the meat section so the clacking of the wheels of your trolley seems faster and you slow down. That fresh bread smell near the bakery? Are they baking bread all day or did some clever person bottle the smell so we could pump it out? I was sent on biannual training days where, after the name tags and the ice-breaker questions, we had to declare how often we completely changed the layout of our store.

‘Disorient them,’ we were told, ‘spin them round until the only thing they can remember is the word “buy”.’

 The deceptions were manifold.

All of which is to say, there was no moral component to my descision making process at the time. I figured that if it was permissable for me to double the price of selected items and then half them the following week in order to honestly advertise them as ‘half price’, then selling pot to those that wanted it was, at worst, morally grey.

I don’t know what Ian does these days. If this was a dramatic story, he’d have worked to the top of a cocaine empire by now, and if there was going to be a moral he’d be dead or in jail. Probably it’s neither. Probably he quit when the clientele in that small town got too much younger than him. At least one dealer I knew went to University, leaving the business in the hands of his younger brother. Another put her profits towards a little coffee place where you can get a free latte if you intimate darkly what you know about her past.

I didn’t start selling pot on Ian’s behalf, because I didn’t like the hours or the idea of having a quota. It was a hobby that I didn’t particularly want to monetise, and I’m glad I kept it that way. I was strictly pro bono.

We’re not done.

…………………b..t……can’t………………………..pro..is..e………………….to……………………………..tell………………..literally……..all..we..have…………………………………………………suspect..thrill…is…………….wh..t………to……..raging…round………….in..what..we..see…….drive..down..to……inghim..shi.the..weekend..once..you’re……………and..about..desire..next..year…..mouth……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..Hel..o? He….o? ……lo?

I thought I saw you move for a moment there. Like your cheek twitched or something. Maybe. The doctor’s said not to rule it out. Well, one of them did, the nice one I told you about, the young lady doctor. That other one you had, the older gent, he said- well, he didn’t mind pissing on our parade let’s say.

Are you in there John? Did you twitch or not? Can you feel my hand on yours now? I so want you to. I so want you to feel it. I bet if you can hear me then you can feel my hand as well. I choose to believe that you can. But if you can feel my hand then you can feel the restraints too and I need to apologise for that; I wish they weren’t necessary John, but there might be some involuntary movement. It can be dangerous, according to my research. There are all kinds of online forums for coma carers, people looking after catatonics or persistent vegetative states. I’m learning all the lingo. It helps.  You’re not done John. We’re not done.

Who knows what you’ll think when you open your eyes one day, try to sit, and find yourself tied to a hospital bed in your own basement. Sorry about that too, but this is the only place I could fit your equipment. You’ve got all kinds of machines keeping you going John, pumping stuff in, pumping stuff out. Wouldn’t want to get those two the wrong way round. If you can hear my voice then you can hear the little whirrings and beeps they make. Delicate things they are, but bulky. I have your room now. I must say, from the way you spoke about the house I imagined it bigger than this. I hardly had space for all my things when your stuff was still here.

Let’s not sugarcoat the situation John; I’m having to do everything for you, stuff a person’s own mother would shrink from doing. I don’t mind it though John, I don’t mind it at all. I’ve learnt all about the machines and how to maintain them, how to repair them if I need to. What would help you, what would hurt. When I checked you out from the hospital I told them we were going private from now on- my little white lie. I just didn’t want them intruding John, didn’t want doctor’s crawling all about the place, telling me how to care for you, telling me what’s in your best interests. They weren’t sorry to see the back of you John; caring for someone in your situation isn’t glamorous work, but when they didn’t find any living relatives, I think they assumed you’d be there forever. When I went in to, to ‘claim’ you as it were, they were overjoyed. They asked how we were related of course. I decided to say cousins in the end, which made the documents less trouble to produce. Another little white lie John, but I couldn’t leave you languishing there could I? Because we’re not done, are we John? No. Not for you to see out your days in a hospital bed when we could just as easily be here together.

And after all you’ve been through, well. Left for dead, but here you are. I had to come and find you after that. They talked me through your injuries John, as kindly as they could. That ugly word, torture. They had their own guesses as to what was used on you John, soldering irons, needles, hammers, knotted rope. Knotted rope? They didn’t need to tell me of course, I don’t think they even wanted to. It just spilled out of them, excrementally. I think it was a bit overwhelming for them, poor sensitive little dears. They even told the interns that you’d been in a car accident, to spare them. Can you imagine it?

Knotted rope though, now, I can’t imagine where they got that idea. I suppose the bull whip leaves a similar mark, but the lines aren’t as clear with rope. Are you in there John? Can you feel my hand on yours? I so want you to. I so want you to feel it.

(I would love comments on whether this piece works as a short horror story, if you think it is original, or any thoughts you have on the form- J Patrick Barton)

No Tarantino

‘Fifty quid? Really?’

‘Best price around.’

‘You sure about that pal?’

‘Do I look like a man who suffers from uncertainty?’ Detch leaned a half step towards the ratty little man addressing him, shadowing the guy with his own quarter-back physique. ‘Do I seem unsure of myself?’

The rat-man seemed to have some sort of twitch about the left eye, which Detch liked to think he himself was causing.

‘No,’ he said , looking each way up the dark street as he spoke. ‘You seem to know what you’re about.’ 

‘So I don’t strike you as somebody who forgets the price of what he’s selling?’

‘No man, of course…’

‘Do you see any potatoes here? Any organically grown, winter garden essentials? Do you see a fuckin’ courgette?’

‘I… what?

‘I just want to make sure you haven’t confused me with the vegetable stand at your yuppie-fuckin farmer’s market.’

‘No man, I… c’mon dude…’

‘So you don’t think I’m likely to haggle?’

‘Oh. No, I guess not.’

‘You guess not? Bitch, this ain’t twenty questions, and you don’t get any guesses. I asked you if you’re at a farmer’s market, and if we’re gonna negotiate a price. Do either of those scenarios seem very likely to you at this juncture?’

Rat-man shrank into himself a little. ‘No.’

‘Then it’s fifty quid in my hand, or walk the fuck away from my block.’

A fumbled wallet materialized and the rat-man counted the notes into Detch’s hand. A figure emerged from the shadows behind Detch and passed a small bag of powder to the rat-man. Deal done, he scurried away with a muttered ‘thanks’ and the dark figure in the shadows chuckled.

‘Detch- question. When did you last watch a Tarantino movie?’

Detch turned around to face his partner and grinned. ‘Movie marathon last night with Amy. That obvious?’

‘You’re speaking like you swallowed half a dictionary and you using the F word as punctuation. Yeah, it’s pretty obvious.’

‘I like it. I think it makes me sound real.’

‘If anything it makes you sound fictional. I don’t know what kind of dope-slingers Tarantino hangs out with, but the real ones don’t jive-talk everyone they meet.’

‘Well I do.’ Detch banged a fist against his chest. ‘It’s life imitating art.’

Detch heard his partner’s laughter from the shadows.

‘You really want to imitate the characters in those movies? It never ends well.’ A match flared briefly, underlighting Jasper’s face as he lit a cigarette. ‘And I don’t want to get shot, or tortured, or raped by hillbillies, or any of the weird shit that goes on in Tarantino’s underworld.’

‘Me neither mate.’ There was a pause, and Detch rubbed his cold hands together, watching out for police or punters. ‘But you hear stuff sometimes.’

‘Yeah?’

‘Yeah. You know, messed up stuff happens in this city man, movie stuff. I heard this one thing… doesn’t matter. Point is, it happens.’

Jasper leaned fractionally from the darkness, only his face visible.

‘Doesn’t matter? Now you’ve got to tell me.’

Detch shifted his weight from one foot to another, and ran a hand over his shaved head.

‘Alright, I’ll tell you a story, but it ain’t my fault if you lose sleep over this.’

Jasper laughed. ‘Let’s see.’

‘Ok. It was August- you know, the riots were going on, the whole city was out looting?’

Jasper grinned and pulled an expensive mobile phone out of his pocket. ‘Yeah, I remember that.’

‘Well there’s this guy I knew, a friend of Amy’s, low-life little shit really, called Dean. So he hears what’s going down, figures he’ll see what he can get. He heads over to Portland Street, where they’ve got all those electrical goods stores, there’s a JVC, and an Argos, erm, a Currys on the corner I think…’

‘It’s a Comet.’

‘Yeah, whatever, so he goes down that way, and that was one of the worst areas. Like, a bunch of the stores are already on fire, and a couple of cars, but the fire engines can’t make it into the city, so they’re burning away- but mainly people aren’t freaking out, except the people in the burning buildings, and it’s more like a carnival atmosphere you know? There’s not even that much violence at first cos’ most of the gangs are working together to haul as much shit out of the shops as they can. So Dean just lights up a joint right there on the street cos’, like, why the hell not, and he wanders into Argos, where the crowds have pulled up the metal shutters, and he starts browsing. And he’s doing that for a while, not even in a hurry cos’ the cops are nowhere to be seen, and he eventually decides that designer watches are his best bet, cos’ they’re small and worth good money. So, Dean’s got a rucksack with him, and he starts stuffing in a whole bunch of watches, when this guy walks up to him.’

‘Dean?’  Dean turns, seeing someone he knows but can’t quite place.

‘Erm, hi buddy. How goes it?’

They shake hands and the new guy takes a look in Dean’s bag.

‘Damn man, nice haul. And you brought a rucksack, holy shit you’re prepared huh?’

They both laugh, and Dean asks the guy if he’s got hold of anything good. 

‘Oh man, a whole load of stuff, seriously like five TV’s alone man, flatscreen beauts.’

‘Shit, are you hiding this stuff at your house? What are even gonna do with five TV’s?’

There’s an explosion outside and Dean ducks, covering his head with his arms, watches spilling out across the floor. The nameless friend is laughing as he drags Dean back up off the ground. ‘Don’t worry about it man, after the first hour you get used to the explosions.’

Wide-eyed, Dean blinks, tries to focus on the guy’s face.

‘You cool? Dean, you’re alright man, just breathe yeah?’

Unable to hear clearly through the ringing in his ears, Dean is nonetheless consoled, glad that he has a friend here.

‘You wanna get out of here, Dean? Maybe stash the loot somewhere?’ Dean nods and is led through the store by his elbow. They climb through the smashed window and, once outside, breathing evening-cool, petrol fumed air, his head feels a little clearer. He looks up into the concerned face of his anonymous friend.

‘What’s your name?’

The friend barks a laugh. ‘I’m Jez. From school yeah? You hit your head or something?’

‘I’m fine. Where shall we go?’

‘Wanna see how I got rid of all the stuff I grabbed tonight?’

Dean does want to see, and they’re moving fast through the streets, almost jogging, as Jez explains his scheme.

‘So there’s these guys, and they don’t want to get their hands dirty or something, so they’re not out tonight. But if you take them what you’ve got, it’s cash in hand.’

Dean likes the sound of this. He’s been having some trouble recently, and he knows he’s made some dumb mistakes; a little money in his pocket could only be a good thing, might be enough enough to make amends with his mother, and he doesn’t really have a plan for selling fifty or sixty watches. He follows Jez, who he still can’t really place, through the city and away from the riot zones.

‘It’s down here,’ Jez is saying, as the two of them turn down a blind alley. At the far end is a garage, just a regular single car garage set off the street. When they reach it, Jez taps lightly on the metal door, and the whole thing reverberates like a gong.

‘Yeah?’ The voice on the other side is deep, neutral.

‘It’s Jez- I’ve got one hot to trot.’

The two boys back away from the door as it opens slowly upwards and outwards, harsh halogen light casting long shadows behind them. They are ushered in and the door closes quietly behind them. Jez is immediately at the desk in the middle of the floor, speaking in hushed tones to an ashen forty-something who’s casually studying diamond bracelets, price tags still attached. Dean takes a moment to eye up the stacked televisions, stereos, electric razors, ipods, something for everyone, and carefully avoids making eye contact with the looming troll who guards the entrance.

Jez seems to have concluded whatever business he had with the man at the desk and is waving Dean over. Taking the rucksack from him, he empties the watches out.

‘Well?’ he says.

The man picks up a watch, stares intently at its face.

‘Time.’ His voice is hollow.

‘Yep. That’s what watches are for,’ says Dean, grinning at Jez. Jez doesn’t look at him.

‘Time. That’s what you’ve brought me. Not watches, which are the physical manifestation of time, time incarnate. People think that watches are just an observational tool, a measurement of time as it passes, but without measurement, without observation, is there any movement of time at all? How could we tell?’

His level stare brings a few beads of prespiration to Dean’s forehead.

‘No, watches don’t display time, they measure and create time, the accumulation of it or, as you might see it, its escape from you.’ He makes a small gesture and the door troll is at Dean’s back, locking his arms in a crushing embrace around his torso.

‘I hope you enjoyed the bit you were given, friend.’

Jez was already looking away, always looking away, but he is bending over the table now, stooping to collect the money for the watches, for his time.

Dean’s legs thrash impotently and knock aside some premium Japanese electronic goods, before he is thrown into an adjoining room, a very different room with a a wrong smell about it. The troll is entering too, and closing the door behind them.

‘Can I get a couple of grams lads?’

Detch flinched slightly; he didn’t see the punter approach, and his surprise manifested in the squeaky pitch of his voice.

‘What?’

The punter was leather bound, relaxed, but a slight frown passed over his face.

‘I hope I haven’t misread the situation but…’

‘…No,’

‘Look, can I just…’

‘…But you want some gear right? Sure, sorry, I was chatting away, erm…Two grams?’

Detch collected the cash and Jasper leaned out of the shadows, slipping two bags into the punters breast pocket. ‘Thanks very much boys,’ he said over his shoulder as he left.

‘Any time,’ said Detch.

They watched him disappear around the corner.

‘What’s the name of that smooth-talking Pulp Fiction character you like so much?’ asked Jasper.

‘Shut up.’

‘Vincent something, wasn’t it? Vincent Vegas?’

‘Vega. Vincent Vega.’

‘Well Vincent, I thought that was a very sharp exchange.’

‘Shut up man.’

‘Life imitating art,’ murmured Jasper, leaning back into the shadows. ‘Or are you taking your cues from the “yuppie-fuckin farmers market” now?’

Detch was silent.

‘You gonna finish your story then? I think you were getting to the bit I would lose sleep over.’  Silence. ‘Or are you gonna sulk?’

‘Ain’t sulking.’

‘Ok.’

‘I’m not.’

‘Cool. I am glad.’

‘Good.’

‘Good.’

Jasper’s expensive mobile phone buzzed and he flipped it open.

‘We’re nearly done; Jamal and Nathan will be here in five minutes to take over. Got plans for this evening?’

‘Probably gonna go to Amy’s. She said she might cook. You?’

‘Takeaway and some TV I guess. It’s a Monday.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Yeah.’