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)

Java Island: a True Story of (idiot) Tourists

If this was an exodus, then Tim Hayden was our Moses. In the manner of exodus the journey was turning out longer than expected, but although the promised land was not yet in sight, we held the faith and put our collars up against the wind.

‘Are we close?’

Tim didn’t look at the map but angled his face towards the sky, as if he might be checking our location against the position of the sun in a display of rugged outdoorsmanship, or receiving data from satellite navigation or possibly awaiting a message from god.

Tim’s a well-built guy, with the kind of thoughtful air and level tone that inspires confidence; it had been pure chance that the woman behind the counter of the hostel had passed the map to him rather than to me or Sam but, of the three of us, he was probably the one most likely to fall into the leadership role.

‘We’re getting closer,’ he said.

We stopped to roll cigarettes and stood together on a bridge, Sam and I looking down into the sluggish water below, Tim glancing around like someone sizing up the place’s potential for encampment. This far from the centre, Amsterdam had lost much of its charm, modern utilitarian suburbs replacing the ancient town houses that lean friendly towards the street, average, workaday Dutch citizens replacing the freaks and thieves and hookers.

We had been walking for about an hour since leaving our hostel that morning and hadn’t yet got anywhere worth being, but Tim’s confidence seemed firm and, in the absence of any better suggestions, Sam and I were resigned to follow him away from familiar ground and into uncharted territory.

It had occurred to us the night before, as we shared two microwave meals between the three of us, that we had not budgeted well for the trip. I was largely to blame for this, having assured the others, on the basis of my one previous trip to Amsterdam, that I would be able to track down a cheap place to stay by booking last-minute. I had once been able to upgrade to the first class compartment of a TGV Europe train by booking on the day, and it had become my habit of thought, against all subsequent evidence, to assume that anything booked last-minute would end up cheaper. On this basis I waited until the three of us were already in Amsterdam to find a hostel, my friends too much taken in by my brazen assurance to challenge the idea. But now that the ‘Flying Pig Uptown’ had most of our money we were having to adapt to a fiscal limitation, discreetly refilling our glasses from shop-bought beer cans and hopping on the back of moving trams to avoid the fare. Our biggest concern was recreation; we might be able to do the week on minimal food, and survive the odd miscalculated lunge towards the number 26 to Schipstikplatz, but if we weren’t going to have any fun, then we might as well have stayed in England.

Tim pinched his cigarette between thumb and middle finger and flicked, sending the butt spiralling over our heads and into the water below. Turning his back on us he unfolded the map, tapping it and nodding. Sam and I looked at each other and, dropping our cigarettes over the wall, joined him.

‘We’re about here,’ he said, indicating roughly three square miles of terrain, ‘so we need to head north-east for maybe another half hour, an hour at most. Definitely no more than an hour and a half.’ He pushed his fringe out of his eyes. ‘It’s going to be great.’

He set off and we followed after, both wondering if it was time for us to take a closer look at the map. Even the Israelites had their occasional doubts.

Our destination, far out from the usual tourist hotspots and enigmatically labelled ‘Java Island’ did not feature prominently on the map, edging off into the far right corner, half the island hanging off like depictions of America in medieval maps of the world. Unlike the cramped city centre, which was adorned with symbols representing restaurants, nightclubs and museums, the visible section of Java island had only one icon, a red trident over a green circle, repeated on every street.

The day remained cool, the broad Dutch sky scowling grey, but it didn’t dampen our enthusiasm so much as it increased our investment in the absurd promise that Java Island held. Over the previous few days we had entered several famous “coffee shops” and brought ourselves to various degrees of stupefaction with the controversial product they sold there. It was these exotic locations that had brought us to Amsterdam rather than any of the other famous European cities we might have visited. Like many twenty year old boys we were fans of cannabis and semi-regular users back in the UK, so the novelty of being able to smoke it openly was not lost on us, and we had a great many conversations, or possibly the same conversation a great many times, about the taboo that existed in our own country. It didn’t occur to us immediately that after the novelty wore off, smoking dope in The Netherlands would not differ widely from smoking it in our parent’s garages, so getting high was destined to be the touchstone for the trip, not just a single aspect of the time spent there but the logical accompaniment to every other activity. We got high to go to museums, to visit places of historical interest, to walk around the canals; naturally enough, when our financial situation became apparent to us, our chief concern was the continued consumption of world standard dope in comfortable, interesting surroundings, and our prerogative, expounded in the time-honoured vocabulary of the tourist  was to visit only the most ‘genuine’ and ‘traditional’ locations, experiencing the ‘real Amsterdam coffee shops’. There is a kind of tourist who identifies themself as a ‘traveller’, and who is forever engaged in a sort of existential quest for realness in the places they visit, anticipating a location which, though necesarily predicated on perfect continuity is nonetheless welcoming to the tourist, but crucially, not to tourism in general. It’s a big ask, and the search has driven more than a few backpackers to cynicism. Worse is the dilemma of those who do find what they are looking for, because it is too often torn away from them by some unforseen factor, an incongruous Irish Pub, a keen expatriate community, or heaven forbid, a McDonald’s.

Ours was not so lofty an ambition, but as we walked a grand theory of Java Island was being formed.

‘If there’s a coffee shop on every street,’ Sam asked, ‘how do they do enough business to stay open?’

Tim frowned. ‘They must be small,’ he said, ‘so their costs will be low. The rent will be next to nothing this far out. And maybe the other half of the island- the half that’s not on the map- is full of people, so there’s lots of business nearby.’

We all agreed with this obvious wisdom.

After another half hour of walking I had a sudden inspiration. ‘Doesn’t the word “Java”,’ I asked, ‘have something to do with coffee?’

‘I think so,’ said Sam. ‘What’s your point?’

‘Well, Java Island, has lots of coffee shops. Could this be where that name came from?’

We arrived at the bank of the river Amstel and began to cross the bridge, walking in profile along a narrow pedestrian footpath.

‘I don’t think so,’ said Sam eventually, raising his voice over the traffic noise, ‘I’m pretty sure the Java Island you’re thinking of is in Indonesia or someplace.’

‘Then perhaps it’s the other way around,’ I said looking back over my shoulder. ‘Perhaps they named this island that because of the number of coffee shops they have.’

We thought this was almost certainly the case and exited the bridge footpath, Tim spreading the map over a bin.

‘I thought,’ he began ponderously, ‘that we were crossing Dijkbracht.’ He pointed it out. ‘But the bridge we crossed was too long for that.’

‘So where are we?’ I asked.

He peered at he map, glancing occasionally at the small area of apartment buildings into which we had emerged.

‘Well, I guess that must have been… Jan Schaeferburg then.’ He stood and folded the map away, looking this way and that.

‘So, what does it mean?’ I asked, ‘Are we close?’

He raised a speculative eyebrow. ‘We’re here’

The three of us looked around. If this was a hub of urban cannabis culture it was hiding it remarkably well. At first glance the various apartment buildings that seemed to constitute the majority of the island were individual and quirky, but, looking further down the length of the island it became obvious that there was a repeated pattern of the same five or six designs.

‘Well,’ ventured Sam, ‘if this is the place let’s have a look around. Maybe there’s something further in.’

Walking a few paces it became clear that there was nothing further in the direction we were headed; the island, it transpired, was only about 100 feet across, apartment buildings shore to shore.

‘The map said there was a coffee shop on every street,’ said Tim. ‘You both saw it.’

We stood for a moment, each of us silently reaching for our tobacco pouches. The journey had at this point taken somewhere around three hours and it was dawning on me what it might mean to have to turn back now, without having achieved anything, and walk back another three hours.

‘Well maybe we need to head that way.’ I pointed down the length of the island. ‘It’s not deep but it’s quite long. Could be that what we’re looking for is that way.’

They turned and followed my finger. The same five or six apartment buildings repeated as far as we could see, without a single person in sight. They frowned over their cigarettes. Sam looked out towards the river, while Tim crumpled the map unconsciouly in his spare hand.

I binned my cigarette and left them both where they were standing. The skinny island was crossed by regular canals with apartment buildings on either side and I walked until I got to the middle, where there was a grassy area with some neat benches and a single lonely swing. I turned back and met the others walking my way.

‘No use,’ I said, ‘It’s the same that side as well.’

Tim hissed though his teeth.

‘I don’t get it,’ he muttered, brandishing the map. ‘There should be a coffee shop right there, right bloody there.’

Sam and I looked at the forlorn little bridge he was pointing towards.

Sam looked at us. ‘You don’t suppose that maybe there is one there? That it’s in one of the apartment buildings or something?’

‘I don’t see anything,’ I said, craning my neck. ‘Do you want to go and knock?’

He looked away.

I asked Tim if I could see the map. He narrowed his eyes suspiciously but held it out to me, standing away as I unfolded it.

I followed our path from the south, our hostel on Vondelpark, and along the circuitous route we had wound through the city. I only had a hazy idea of where we had been for most of the afternoon but I could track our recent progress from a nearby museum shaped like an old wooden ship and the very long bridge that had finally brought us here. There was no question that we were on Java Island; it was the end of the line and there was nowhere after here. I tried to pinpoint exactly where we were standing, just this side of the grassy area, the last possible place on the map, the very uppermost right-hand corner. I looked in the key for the symbol we had been following around the city for the entire trip, the little trident on the little circle. Only…

‘Tim?’ I tried to keep my voice as conciliatory as possible as I held the map out for him to see.

‘This symbol here, the green trident on the red circle? That means a coffee shop.’

He nodded vigorously.

‘And this other symbol, the one where we are now: the red  trident on the green circle? That means “interesting bridge”.’

This is a fictionalised version of a real event. Most of it is true, the largest change being that it was at least as much the authors fault as it was Tim’s. 

Remember kids: doing drugs doesn’t make you cool. It just makes people think you’re cool. Which is actually pretty cool. 

Cranking it out

Have I got the stuff? Have I got the stuff? Sugar, do you really want to be that way? Sugar, do you really want this to be a strictly business, no frills, no names, no smalltalk tradeoff? Sugar, do you want to know what I had to go through to get this for you? To bring this all the way uptown (me without an automobile by the way) and keep it warm on this nasty winter’s day (about body temperature or 37°c, don’t ask) and put together the whole shebang from production to delivery in less than an hour? All that and you can’t even say hi to a fella? Jesus.

No, don’t humour me. We’ve missed the oppurtunity to make this a civilised exchange. If you want all business, I can do all business. But Jesus.

Let me talk you through this. The product- it’s right here by the way, no, don’t take take it out the box, the cold will ruin it- the product is top notch, the producer being not only a sound worker but also a close personal friend. I’ve got ten guys, ten vendors, and this guy would be my first pick every time. I don’t offer guarantees as a rule, but I can tell you that his success rate is around 90%, so any failures are likely to be the result of human error. On the part of the customer I mean. So when you go about using it, Read the Frickin Instructions. They’re included with delivery, right there in the box, and you can’t go too far wrong if you just do Exactly what they say. Specifically: You may be tempted to use half of this supply and sell the rest on. You wouldn’t be the first. Do not do this. Aside from the risk of arrest, and the likelihood that what you sell will have deteriorated beyond use (it being an extremely perishable product), the amount you have bought is the amount that you will need. Using less than the full amount purchased will very likely result in failure.

You know, there was a time- not too long ago although I’ll bet you’re too young to remember- there was a time when half the planet was producing it. We were surfing a tidal wave of the stuff, blowing bubbles with it. People were giving it out for free. You could fill a bathtub, if you were so inclined. Nobody thought twice about it. Hell, people were going out of their way to avoid it. Now you’ve got to scour the country to find ten guys still making it. I know that you know this little lady, I want you to understand it. I’m ready to hand this over; it’s three milliliters give or take, and the price is six grand, so take a moment, be sure you want it, and then make the transfer.

You’ve made a smart choice. I know it’s tempting to go legit, pay five times as much at a government outlet. Their propaganda is the stuff of nightmares, I’ve seen it. Limbless babies, disease, miscarriages. Trying to scare custom away from the indepedent contractor. That won’t happen to you. I know this because I depend on referrals and repeat business. So if in the future you find yourself wanting to go again- or for that matter, if you’ve got any lady friends that might want to get fixed up- you give them my number. Like I said, I’ve got ten guys, ten fertile business contacts, producing well, producing more than I can sell even. Cranking it out. I’m open to doing discounts on bulk orders. You have my number.

Anyway. That’s that then. This is yours, be careful with it. Good luck, and remember what I said about reading the instructions. It’s going to be great, best thing you’ll ever do. Money well spent. Try not to think about it as two grand per milliliter. Think of it as two grand per 600 million sperm. See you around.


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.


It was a clammy night in Buenos Nerbes and I was at an alright party at El Grouch’s, a place that needed a refurb so badly it was fast becoming retro. There were girls doing jello shooter off other girls and I was watching this, drinking a beer, maybe posing a little too. At some point this guy walked right up and just stood next to me, also drinking a beer, and maybe he was posing as well. I couldn’t tell. Anyway, his being there kind of mirrored what I was doing in this unsavoury sort of way. It made me feel like a dork, both of us standing around and digging on these bikini chicks like watching sports, so I eyeballed him a bit and he toasted me with his beer. I think this is where Howard entered. Normally I would have kind of, ignored, Howard at a party. He’s a pretty good guy. Alright dude to get a beer with or hit a little surf, but a total bum at parties, with girls. So like, he starts jabbering and I don’t ignore him, even though this is Howard at a party, because that other guy with the beer was making it less cool to watch the bikinis.

‘Zack, I think I’m fading away man.’

Raised eyebrow from me. ‘Is it Xanax? I have told you.’

He was shaking his head and sweating, and his eyes were all over the room. ‘No Zack, I haven’t taken anything. I stopped taking things a while back.’ His eyes stopped cartwheeling and he looked at me straight. ‘I was on a fruit diet too.’

I snorted and patted his big belly, still getting some bikini shooter action in my peripherals but mainly watching him. ‘If you’re on a fruit diet you must want to fade away, a bit.’

‘It’s not right man,’ he mumbled with unsteady breath, ‘You don’t shoot the messenger.’ Right then he grabbed my arm, gripped it tight, and stared straight into me. ‘Where have you been, outside of Buenos Nerbes?’

‘Shit.’ I scratched my head. ‘My parents have the holiday place up in Banshire. So there’s that. Maybe day trips around Moloho.’

‘Those are just the extremities of Buenos Nerbes.’

I shrugged. ‘What’s your point? Are you any better travelled?’ He started shaking his head again and didn’t stop for a while. I watched the jello fun, covertly.

‘No, I’m not any better travelled than you,’ he said. ‘Is anyone?’ He swept his arm over the room and I noticed a few people in the crowd I was pretty sure I had met before. ‘Is anyone here likely to have left Beunos Nerbes, in their entire lives?’

I copied his sweeping gesture. ‘It’s clearly the place to be.’

That seemed to get to him. ‘It’s a place to not be.’

The rest of the party was pretty good. I went home with one of the bikini jello crew, I forget which, and she left before I got up which was cool.
The next morning I had a message on my phone from Howard that said, “I am not being.”


I think it was about two more days, or something, before I saw Howard again. He was standing at the clammy bar of an alright little Hawaiian place that served some pretty good punch, and he was staring at a half coconut nearly full of pink stuff that was next to him on a barstool.
I walked over. ‘If it’s that bad man, I’ll buy you a different one. Try the blue.’ He kept staring and I could see white all the way around his irises.

‘Pick it up.’ 

I looked at the half coconut. ‘What, this?’ I picked up the drink. ‘Is it yours or not?’

‘Put it down.’

I replaced it on the stool and he reached out his arm, gripping the drink but not moving it.

‘Are you going to move that Howard? I wanna sit down.’

‘I can’t. It won’t move. I’ve been trying for thirty minutes.’ He glanced around the bar, frowning. I saw some guy near the entrance that I knew from school or a party or something and waved. ‘You would have thought someone would have noticed.’

I picked up the drink and sipped it. ‘Pretty good,’ I said nodding, ‘Sure you don’t want it?’
He waved it off. ‘Don’t know what would happen if I tried to drink it anyway. Have you ever felt like a character in a story?’ The question caught me so off guard that I almost answered him honestly. 

‘Sure. Everybody fantasizes Howard. The thing to remember is…’

‘No that’s not what I’m talking about.’ He placed his palm on his forehead and rubbed his temples. I thought I heard him say that he couldn’t feel his hands but the Hawaiian place was kinda loud. ‘Let me put it another way,’ he said. ‘Say you were a character in a story, but something happened to you. Maybe you die. What happens with the story?’

I reached my arms out wide, grinning. ‘The story stops if I die. I’m the main character.’ 

He watched me sip his drink rheumy-eyed. ‘We should all be so optimistic. Pick someone else then. Say I died, in your story. What then?’

Howard was making me way nervous at this point so I took a big swig from the half- coconut and scoped the room again. There were drunk girls doing stuff with jello but I couldn’t tell if they were the same ones. At last I said, ‘Well it would make me mighty sad. How’s that?’

He smiled weakly and shrugged. ‘Alright, I guess.’



I tried to weigh my words carefully. ‘Are you gonna, like, kill yourself?’
His forehead creased, perplexed. ‘I think I might have already.’
More stuff happened in the next few days. A party I think. And maybe a graduation or a christening or something.

I don’t how long it had been after the night in the Hawaiian place when I found Howard, on the beach around noon. The tide was coming in deep and undermining children’s castles.

‘Kinda clammy today isn’t it?’ he asked over his shoulder as I walked up behind him.

‘Kinda,’ I replied. ‘What are you doing out here?’

He gazed out across the dull ocean. ‘I was wondering how far I would make it if I just swam straight out. If I’d get somewhere else.’ I opened my mouth to respond, closed my mouth again. He caught my look. ‘But not in a suicide kind of way. What are you doing out here?’

‘I wanted to ask you something. The stuff about being in a story.’

He smiled. He looked tired.  ‘Caught your imagination did it?’


He turned bodily towards me without stirring the sand. ‘Let’s forget about who the main character is. It’s probably a dumb question. Maybe I should ask what characters are?’

I shrugged and took the bait. ‘What are characters Howard?’

He sighed. ‘If I wrote down this conversation, straight up, just as we’re speaking it now, it still wouldn’t be us on the page. The moment you write it, it stops being something that’s happening and becomes something that happened. When you read it later on, you’re not the same you, I’m not the same me and that’s not us talking.’

‘Like the sand?’


I hesitated. ‘Well, if you took a photo of the sand, by the time you looked at it, there would be a slightly different beach there. People walk on it and there’s the tide and… Am I being dumb?’

He smiled softly. ‘No Zack. Top of the class.’ He stood up and started walking down the beach. ‘But what if a character realised that that’s all they are? What if they woke up to the story?’

Pacing behind Howard, I had to laugh at how insane he was becoming and I made a mental note to stick with drugs and avoid fruit. ‘Howard, if I was writing a story and a character starting taking over, I would write that sucker out of the damned story.’

‘Not easy though.’


‘Not if you’ve been working on the story for a while. You’d have to go back over what you’d written and kick over the traces right?’

‘Um, yeah?’

‘What’s your earliest memory?’

Again with the sneak attack.

‘Um… shit man, the life I lead I can’t always remember what I did the night before.’

‘Answer the question.’

I stopped to kick a deflated soccer ball into the sea. ‘School? I pretty much remember school I think.’

‘And what do you remember from school? What are your impressions?’


‘Remember any people from school?’

I snapped my fingers, excited. ‘Yeah, hey yeah, I saw this guy at the Hawaiian joint the other night and I’m pretty sure I knew him from school.’


I shrugged. 

‘Do you think if a character only knew what they absolutely needed to know, maybe just what had already come up in their story, do you think they would notice?’

‘Maybe. Probably not. If they did, I reckon they would be fucked.’

Howard turned his back on me and started walking away. ‘Zack, I reckon you are right.’

I called after him but he didn’t stop and I didn’t want to be chasing him around, so I sat on the beach for a while, maybe an hour or a few hours, thinking. I got up to go after him at one point but I couldn’t see any footprints in the sand.

I left Howard a voicemail asking where he had gone. I left one asking how he felt. I left another asking who else he had talked to about this. I called a fourth time to ask why I couldn’t pick up my knife at dinner and why people’s eyes kept glazing over when I spoke to them. I tried to call a fifth time but there was nobody called Howard in my address book.


Shut me up


So I have this thought, and maybe I’m walking down the street thinking this thought, (and maybe it’s your street, why not go to the window and check, I‘m wearing grey flares and spinning a yo-yo) and it seems like a pretty worthwhile thought, like it would stand under scrutiny, and as I’m considering its potential a guy strolls up beside me wearing what I think you would call a kaftan and holding a placard (and maybe this guy was you, because, if you saw me from your window, which was pretty unlikely, we probably live in the same area) and this guy starts agreeing with me saying,

“your idea is acute because if there’s one thing this financial crisis has shown us it’s that boom and bust is both endemic and fundamental to the system, and we’re the last to realise it, we the people, because our attention span is only just long enough to vaguely remember the last financial crisis and while we forget the details we understand that whatever happened can’t have been that bad because things were alright for a while and we all got new sofas so things will pick up again and someone must be handling it” and I think I followed what he was saying and I appreciated his support but I also kind of felt like he had missed my point so we kept walking and he stopped outside a wealthy looking building and wanted to wave his placard so I wished him luck and strolled on, and a young woman came with me because she liked my yo-yo and, golly it was such a nice day in the world and there was sunshine in her smile so I let her spin my yo-yo while she told me

“he doesn’t get you because you’re too earth-bound for characters like him, characters who want to focus on the human microcosm of ‘culture’ and pretend that our petty human fictions compare to the natural world that made us, the natural world that got leprosy as a gift from its children, we the people, the ones who pump things into the sea and into the sky and tear up the ground like we’re throwing the toys out of the pram even though we all know what we’re doing, but we don’t care so long as that microcosm still needs us, and we think we need it, we’ll do whatever we have to in order to keep it going even if we have to kill ourselves, even if we have to kill everything because we like to believe that it will all be okay if we promise, promise mind you, to recycle our cans as often as possible and carpool when practical and wish extra extra hard on Yahweh or the North Star or whatever” and at this point I became aware that it was now dusk on her face even though the day was still bright and when I left her she was lying down on a towel in a bikini trying to catch some rays while it was still safe so I kept moving because I wasn’t convinced that she was any closer to understanding my thought, my possibly great thought, than the first guy had been, but I could tell it was a day for being analysed when a child walked up to me, well, two children, well, twins, so one child walked up to me twice and started explaining that

“the first person was overly focused on a human expatriation from nature, while the second person was too much involved in the naïve constructionist delusion that we willingly manufactured our escape from nature, as it stands, rather than being led blindly and inevitably by what nature provided in the first place, the result of which is this, everything, but now ‘everything’ is changing and some are keen to rush in and plug the gaps but there is hope, there has to be hope in a world where Saddam got dropped and Kaddafi got popped and we never really looked for Bin Laden but we found him anyway and Kim Jong Ill’s heart burst under the pressure of his starving populace’s love for him so maybe Mugabe’s days are numbered and the Arab spring will keep on getting sprung and Egypt will end its military rule without NATO bombers and after all that, China might even decide that human rights in the 21st century could be a blast and maybe we’ll get too complex for war” and I didn’t want to comment because they were only kids and they didn’t need to know and I would have given them my yo-yo but the sunshine smiling lady still had it and she would be all cinders by now so I just nodded and smiled at the twins and they seemed satisfied and they went to the park and I wanted to walk on but now every few feet I was getting stopped by people who had a handle on my big thought, telling me that

“it’s more to do with the invasive digital age where Facebook didn’t need to buy my soul because I uploaded it with my profile pic’s and now there are illegal copies online” or that

“the previous terror of Global Nuclear War has been replaced by the fear that if we never get to fire a nuke it will have been a tremendous waste of money” or sometimes that

“advertising is the new arms race and its ground zeros’ are the minds of the young, soon monopoly laws will be repealed because that will be the easiest way to maintain control in the Orient and all shoes will be Nikes” and all of this is interesting, all of this could potentially warrant a thesis of its own but none of it is mine, none of it is what I was trying to say because my point was more to do with flux and the difficulty of trying to analyse your species from the outside because from the inside it seems like we’re speeding up, even in my brief wandering across the skin of the earth it feels like everything is accelerating and what I really want to know is,

Are we like learner drivers who should be going as slowly as possible, because with too much speed we’ll swerve off the road and crash, maybe not make it out in time, before the car goes up in a Hollywood ball of flames, Or are we like cyclists who need a certain amount of speed to maintain stability, momentum to keep us balanced, in which case, how will we find the upper limit, is there an upper limit, or will the graph that charts our ascent just get steeper and steeper until it’s a line that points at the sky and is there a peak and what’s at the peak and will we ever find out and why do we want to?