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

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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.’

Stourhead

Stour: Archaic, armed combat; battle

            British Dialect, a time of tumult/confusion

The surface of the lake ripples slightly with the unhurried activities of the ducks, and the reflections of autumnal trees tremble into indistinct shades, golds and reds without form. The grass bends under a breeze that does not quite have the strength to lift the fallen leaves from the lawn, and the treetops barely sway.

It is from the gift-shop side of the Gardens that he emerges, issuing from the dense treeline before crouching, stock still, his eyes wide as he scans the open space before him. Even approaching from the west, from the high ground, he couldn’t get a good view of Stourhead until he was within this perimeter of trees.

He grips the thin parcel tightly in his left hand; the other is flat to the ground, keeping him balanced as he struggles to moderate the volume of his breathing and keep the tension in his legs, ready to run.

Across the lake he can see the ducks meandering over the water. He exhales and stands.

The midday sun casts an inverse spotlight of shadow under his feet and he moves in short, energetic bursts, pausing every few feet to squat and glance around. When a flock of starlings erupts from the trees ahead of him he hits the ground, clutching the parcel to his chest and staring into the woods. He lies like that for a long time, panting and blinking until he is confident that he is alone. 

‘Always wait,’ is what he’s been told, ‘because it’s always too soon to assume you’re safe.’ He marks the advice well, but then, he’s also been told him not to venture out alone, and here he is.

He doesn’t stand upright now, inching across the lawn in a military crouch, always pirouetting to take in his surroundings. He’s exposed, and he knows it should worry him, but he’s too relieved to be out of the forest to think about it rationally.

Near the edge of the lake, passing the mock Temple which he circles twice, checking it’s empty. The lake laps at its own borders, oscillating with a dream of tides, and he scoops bowled handfuls of it to wash the sweat from his neck and to slick back his hair. Somehow he wants to look his best for this.

Most of the flowers in the bed have been fully choked by weeds and others have shrivelled without the ministrations of the staff, but still there are a few late butterflies attending what remains, wings beating the air with foppish persistence. He doesn’t know a thing about gardening save for what he can or can’t eat, but he recognises the plush honeysuckle by its hated smell. She had always wanted them in the house, before, and he had denied her that. He raked up a few rough bundles now, grinning morbidly at the small rusted sign beside them: ‘Do NOT pick the flowers.’

Clutching this gift under one arm, and the package under the other, he begins to move along the shore of the lake. Across the water he can see another of the estate’s anomalous buildings, a grotto set into a natural outcrop of rock. When they had come to this place together she had read the guidebook cover to cover before they even found the path, pointing out every eccentricity. It’s a blur now, the history lesson, a small detail in the memory of the day, the memory of the experience. She had explained the building’s foundation in Greek myth as they held hands, so he recollects exactly the texture of her palm, and the lilt of her voice, and nothing of what was said. Squinting, shielding his eyes from the glare, he can make out a family of squirrels scampering over the surface of the grotto.

He has nearly arrived, and finds himself checking that his laces are firmly tied, that his small backpack is sealed and that there is enough water in it for the return journey. He is taking an unconscious inventory of the contents of his pockets when he scolds himself for delaying; juggling the parcel and flowers, he frees up a hand to run through his hair, and strides towards the place where she is waiting.

The mound of loose earth is not adorned, no headstone or wooden cross. He had rushed the job, racing against the setting sun with a tiny hand-held shovel, smearing mud over his face as he fought with his own streaming eyes. Bringing her here had been a huge exertion, and in the rush he had fallen short of the traditional six feet. He had laid her to rest in this place she loved, just like she said on their one previous visit, before everything, before the world had fallen apart. Now he stands at the foot of her grave, suddenly heedless of his surroundings.

‘Hello Hen. Can you hear me?’ He lays the parcel on the ground, suddenly embarrassed by it.

‘I didn’t have time to say anything when I… when I was last here.’ He gestures towards the lake behind him, the trees on the hill, the gardens.

‘I hope you weren’t joking about being buried here,’ he says, ‘I had a hell of a time bringing you.’ His face flushes. ‘Not that I minded, I… I’d do it again.’

He puts the parcel and the flowers on the ground, and runs a hand through his wiry hair.

‘That was a bloody silly thing to say wasn’t it?’ He chuckles. ‘You wouldn’t have let that one go would you? “I’d do it again.” Jesus.’

He kicks his toe against the grass and stays silent for a while.

‘I brought you flowers. I got them myself- no service stations open.’ He grins. ‘Honeysuckle. I still think they stink. Like locker-rooms, I always used to say, right? They stink of sweaty locker-rooms, but, well, they’re for you, and you don’t mind. I’ll put them here for you.’

He places them on her grave, which looks the better for having them, and lights one of his precious cigarettes.

‘Not many of these left about Hen,’ he says, exhaling. ‘Not nearly enough for a lifetime- it looks like you might finally get your wish. I’ll have to quit if I smoke the last cigarettes in the world.’ He twirls it about his fingertips. ‘Not much of much really. Canned food’s gone so far as we can tell. People I’m with now have a few farmers. They’re teaching us, keeping the knowledge alive. Keeping us alive.’

He hears a thudding behind him and the parcel is in his hands, wrapping torn off faster than thought; the stock sits in his shoulder, a finger on the trigger in a fluid reflex born of long nights, unexpected screams, running; he is looking down the barrel at a deer, a doe, not fifty feet away. The doe watches him watch her and neither moves. In this moment he considers shooting it, weighing up the meal against the attention the sound might attract. No. He didn’t come here to kill anything today, so he slowly eases the hammer down and exhales.

‘Beautiful, isn’t it Hen? I don’t remember seeing deer when we were here. Maybe they’re doing better without people around.’ He doesn’t look around at the grave, but keeps talking aloud to her, to himself, whichever, and he feels as if the two of them are sharing a moment. The doe paws a hoof at the grass but doesn’t leave.

‘I wanted to bring something of yours from the old house,’ he says, ‘but there’s no way into the city now. They’re everywhere. There are more of them than there are of us, millions of them, billions. So maybe it belongs to them now, the world. ‘ The end of his cigarette is still smouldering in the grass next to him and he reaches towards it. The doe shifts it weight between legs but doesn’t bolt, so he drags out the last few puffs before sending the butt arcing into the lake. Still the doe gazes at him.

‘We used to say it was the end of the world, didn’t we Hen, when the trouble first started up? But look around- world seems to be getting on without us.’

The doe turns away in a sudden, wild scattering of hooves, and glides across the wide lawn, disappearing into the cover of hedges. He sighs, and scans the treeline around the lake.

‘Well that was nice while it lasted.’ He frowns at the stillness a minute longer before getting up from the ground and turning towards the grave; the earth there is shifting in molehill sized mounds, the movement creating the illusion of growth as two hands push their way upwards. He doesn’t flinch as the arms, ragged, exposed to the elbow, make clumsy progress into the open air; he’s seen too many of the creatures up close to be genuinely shocked. The smell is a factor though; after three weeks in a shallow grave, she is shedding flesh in broad strips, with the small pressure of roots and stones tearing sections of the ruined face that is beginning to emerge.

He gags a little, feeling impolite, and puts a hand over his mouth, smelling honeysuckle.

‘I’m sorry Hen. I didn’t know. They didn’t get you, so I didn’t…I thought you’d just rest. I didn’t know it could…I didn’t know.’ As he talks he is checking the cartridges, dry, the action on the trigger,oiled. ‘Maybe if I had buried you deeper…’ He backs up a few feet, levelling the shotgun at her face. A robin lands on the lawn just a few feet away, digging for worms.

‘I hope you won’t mind if I don’t bury you a second time,’ he says, ‘but I’m going to have run. More will come.’ Her head is fully out now, unrecognisable against the paragon of youth and beauty he holds in his mind. There are two deep pits in her face, sunken and dry, with thin trails of pus weeping from either side. To her left, the robin is shaking an unearthed worm into its gullet.

He’s waiting for a clear shot, needing the entirety of her head to rise up before he’ll risk a valuable shell. Her emergence is slow, like a birth, and the sun is low over the trees when the shotgun’s first report finally echoes around the grounds, scattering birds in every direction, but the second one has less impact.