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.

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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.

The Everyday Trials of the Clairvoyant

Oh Lord, here he is,’ Mrs Benheim was thinking, as I crossed the threshold of her pub. ‘I don’t have any quarrel with his sort, but if he ever brought a boyfriend in here I wouldn’t know where to look.’

I nodded to the uncles playing cribbage at the card table as I strolled up to the bar, and they nodded back, squinting through their spectacles to see if I was one of their more obscure male relatives.

‘Evening Mrs Benheim,’ I said, with a cheeriness I had been practising moments before, outside the pub.

‘Evening Glenn.’ Her smile was fixed and calculating, weighing my appearance now against the teenage version she had last seen five or six years ago.

‘You look, erm, well…’ she hesitated, taking in my neatly trimmed goatee and gelled hair. ‘You look well.’

I ordered a gin and tonic, which seemed to confirm something with her, and we fell into an inane chat that carried across the cosy pub and into the conversation topics of every quietly inebriated local. Sensing the bar patrons hanging on my description of the drive down from London, I mused that being back in the countryside after so long was a bit like being a celebrity.

‘Six hours in the car?’ Mrs Benheim was saying, ‘Poor love, you must be tired.’

I could hear her thinking about her own journey to London a few years previous; her late husband Paul had done the trip in just under four and a half hours. ‘But then, he was a proper man,’ she thought. I fastened my affected grin more firmly. ‘You’ll be meeting your father then?’ she asked.

I consulted my watch in an unnecessary gesture.

‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘In a little while.’

Stock still, this shrivelled woman briefly searched my eyes.

‘Small wonder you’re in here,’ she was thinking, ‘I imagine you’ll need a few drinks to brace yourself for that meeting.’

I was tempted to ask her if she had done something different with her hair, knowing that it had not changed style in my lifetime.

‘Evening Fred,’ hailed one of the uncles, approaching the bar and shaking my hand.

‘It’s Glenn.’

He stared along his narrow nose at me, under his glasses.

‘I haven’t got a bloody clue,’ he was thinking, ‘Is this one of my Ilsa’s lot?’

‘Ah, Glenn,’ he said, clapping me on the shoulder, ‘Good to see you lad. How’s your mother?’

I blushed and Mrs Benheim’s wart girdled eye gleamed maleficently.

‘Glenn is Tom Watkins boy,’ she announced.

The old uncles eyes glazed over and I could hear him quickly revisiting my family history to try to place me in his past experience. At the cards table the other miscellaneous uncles looked away as this one among them struggled through my entire genealogy, to arrive at the faux pas he was currently making.

‘Ah, I’m sorry lad,’ he said, slapping his forehead. ‘You’ll be here to see your father I suppose?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, repeating the artificial watch check. ‘In a little while.’

We stood through a miasmic silence before he remembered why he was there.

‘Pint of the dark tower please Betty,’ he said, fishing a fiver from his breast pocket. I wondered why I still couldn’t bring myself to call Mrs Benheim “Betty”.

While Mrs Benheim was pouring the dark goop into a pint mug, I listened in to this awkward uncle’s thoughts as he searched for a way to breach the dead air between us. Mental images of the Britain in bloom committee, the prayer group and the summer grain harvest flicked through his mind but he dismissed them. When Amy settled on the forefront of his thoughts I was so intrigued that I accidently turned to listen before he started talking.

‘Ere,’ he said, ‘you knew my Amy didn’t you?’

I feigned a dim recollection as my extremities tingled with charged nostalgia.

‘Amy…’ I murmured, speculatively stroking my goatee. ‘Oh yes, Amy. She moved away, no?’

‘That’s right,’ the uncle said roundly, warming to his topic, ‘her folks took her off Bristol way when she were a teen. You were quite keen on her, the story goes?’

Along the bar I heard Mrs Benheim thinking, ‘Quite a little tomboy that Amy.’ Then, with a glance at me, ‘That was a foreshadowing. I wonder if it was the big city that queered him.’ I ignored her and let my nerves ache at the ascendant cognizance of all the things that I nearly did with Amy. A memory surfaced, more sensation than image; a smooth crease of inner thigh and short, rapid breaths that drew in the intertwined scents of her juvenile perfume and the hay which carpeted the floor of the barn where we were to make our tryst; the unconquered perimeters of cotton underwear, once mysterious but in that moment yielding; a keen advance by millimetres, the slim chasm that remained and oh, oh the proximity. That most crucial moment had been obliterated by her father’s voice from the house, her quick departure from the barn and soon after, her complete departure from my life.

‘I had quite forgotten,’ I breathed.

‘Well, she’s back in town,’ the uncle wheezed, collecting his change from Mrs Benheim, who added, ‘Because of the divorce.’

‘Old hag,’ thought the uncle, with a rheumy glare. ‘Thanking you,‘ he said, raising his mug to her with a flourish. ‘I’m sure you’ll see her about,’ he continued sheepishly, ‘she’s often… she’s often about.’ He walked back to the cards table with a slight stagger and I turned to Mrs Benheim.

‘Has Amy been back long?’ I asked with a practised nonchalance, knowing that if the old crone could have read my mind, all her doubts about me would have been alleviated.

‘Oh, about a month I believe,’ she replied, polishing a glass and holding it up to light. ‘I suppose you heard about the divorce?’

I felt an unreasoning jealousy stir in my stomach.

‘Actually I had no idea she had got married.’

Outwardly Mrs Benheim remained unmoved, but in the cramped recesses of her mind a narrative was shaping: Amy’s story and how best to tell it.

‘She was married not quite two years ago,‘ she said , leaning closer to me with a glance at the uncle over at the cards table, ‘to a fellar she had known for six months.’ Her eyebrows lifted with the significance of the statement and I nodded to encourage her on. ‘Course, it didn’t work; he wasn’t “mature enough” apparently, and they had their difficulties, all told.’

Still had some of the bruises when she turned up here,’ Mrs Benhiem was thinking. ‘She never did know when to keep her mouth shut.’

I balked at this odious matron’s pitilessness but asked her where Amy was staying.

‘Why, in your father’s guest house as it happens. Funny he didn’t mention it to you.’

I thought back to the terse telephone conversation with my father which had prompted the visit; it had been strictly no frills and completely devoid of gossip.

‘Perhaps he was keeping it as a surprise.’

Mrs Benheim nodded as she inexpertly sliced a lemon for my second gin and tonic.

‘Perhaps.’‘Or perhaps he’s keeping his cards close to his chest, as always. Never did have much occasion to talk to you.’

I excused myself, hiding my balled fists and made for the restroom.

While I was standing at the urinal, relieving myself and trying to calm down, a cubicle door swung open and a portly figure stumbled out over the slippery off-white tiles.

I saw him out the corner of my eye, washing his hands and doing a double take when he recognised me.

‘Evening Glenn!’ he said, turning to face me.

‘Evening, mate,’ I replied, with the twin embarrassments of failing to recognise him and having him watch me piss.

‘You don’t remember me, do you?’ he said accusingly.

I did a quick tour of his memories and saw the two of us, still in short trousers, collaborating on mother’s day cards in primary school.

I finished, shook and zipped.

‘Don’t start with me Harold,’ I said, grinning, ‘of course I remember you.’

He chortled and slapped me hard on the back as I rinsed my hands.

‘So what brings you back to rural life?’ he asked.

‘I’m meeting with my father.’

Harold was a little too drunk to hide the surprise from his face. ‘Meeting him in the pub? Do it in a public place I suppose, less fuss.’

‘Well that’s nice.’ He paused. ‘Did you know Amy’s back?’ he asked as we left the bathroom together.

‘That’s what they tell me.’

‘She’s all grown up now.’ He made an hourglass motion with his hands and pulled a rapturous face.

I nodded meekly. ‘Quite.’

‘Yeah well,’ I could hear him thinking, ‘can’t expect you to be too interested in the women folk can we?’

‘Have you seen much of her?’ I asked, through gritted teeth.

‘Not nearly enough,’ he said roguishly, swigging at his pint, ‘I should like to see more.’

I sipped my gin and tonic without comment. The pub door swung open behind us and I glanced over my shoulder reflexively.

‘Keen to see her are you?’ Harold asked, catching my look.

‘Now you leave him be,’ interjected Mrs Benheim, ‘I’m sure he’s just looking forward to seeing his father.’ The two of them looked at each other conspiratorially, without saying or thinking anything.

Harold took his leave and joined his table, leaving me to tune into the background chatter of the pub. Across the room I saw an old neighbour of mine and I waved with genuine warmth.

He returned the wave, thinking ‘Poor lad doesn’t deserve this.’

Acquaintances from school were huddled around a long table with Harold; they looked away when I spotted them and I received a mishmash of thoughts from the group.

‘…and do we really want to be in here when…’

‘…old enough to be her…’

‘…heard the son’s gay but will that make any…’

‘…could have just said over the phone…’

I felt a tap at my elbow and turned to see Mrs Benheim sliding another drink across to me.

‘Have this, love,’ she said, leaning slightly over the bar as Amy and my father entered.

And please don’t make a scene.’

Nonentity

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.’

‘Howard?’

‘Yeah?’

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?’

‘Maybe.’

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?’

‘What?’

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.’

‘No?’

‘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?’

‘Um…’

‘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.’

‘Name?’

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?

Bitter like a Native

I still have some of Rupel’s early recordings but listening to them now makes my wrists itch.

He played unpretentious ragtime for his own pleasure, on an old baby grand with the varnish worn off, and nodded sadly when I told him I didn’t listen to the ethnic stuff. He told me he could play classical, only he didn’t want to, and I said it was fine if he couldn’t. He shrugged, because Rupel didn’t need to impress me, and when his mother showed me a tape of him, four years old, playing Tchaikovsky at a recital, he shrugged again.

I was a regular at an old music shop on Bayerbrent street where the proprietor smoked thin yellow roll-ups and gave credit to students. The place sold knock-down sheet music with the middle pages missing and I met Rupel there on his first visit. He was talking Clapton with the owner as I went up to the till and he asked me to settle their argument.

‘Little Wing, better than Layla right?’

I could have told him that I didn’t know, that I was a serious student of music, that I didn’t listen to the charts and then never spoken to him again.

‘Absolutely.’

He laughed and slapped my back, the first time a person had touched me since hugging my parents on the train platform before the start of the semester.

It was his hands that made me lie and I told him so a while later, the two of us splaylegged on the floor of his dank bedsit, Clapton turning, piano looming, half-filling the room. He looked at me sideways and opened his mouth, moving his lower jaw without making words. I knew he had luck with women, had seen them leaving sometimes when I went round in the morning, mascara streaked and enviably sated. I told him it wasn’t like that, that I appreciated the perfection of his hands for musical reasons. I told him he was lucky, that his dimensions, his digit span, was ideal. Showing him my own, I explained how they didn’t measure up. I could practice my entire life and he would still have the edge of 2mm length, 0.5mm width, 26mm reach. He choked on his drink and held up his hand to mine, his dark skin against my light, and said it couldn’t make a difference in the end. But for the rest of the night he kept glancing at his digits, flexing.

He played at a bar, for free drinks and tips that were folded into a pint glass on the piano lid, and he would always try to get me up to play a duet at the end of the night. We’d walk home tipsy and he’d list all the albums he needed to introduce to me, always more than we could get through, enough for a lifetime. After the first A side he’d fall asleep where he was sitting and I would lift the needle from the turntable, breaking the hiss into a more complete silence, and settle back down to watch the nocturnal shadow of his character twitch across his resting face.

His father was still alive but I never saw him at recitals. All Rupel would say about it was that his father was a practical man, a labourer, and he was busy a lot of the time. He wanted Rupel to be practical too, to work hard and get some callouses.

‘If you do,’ I told him, ‘give me your hands first. They’re beautiful hands, only good for art. They’re perfect. It would be a crime to waste them.’

He volunteered for the drama department’s christmas production so I did too, and throughout November our weekends were spent with sleeves rolled up, fitting together flimsy pieces of scenery, pausing occasionally so he could exchange flirtations with the cheap actresses. Lorlanny Linne slowed down work whenever she passed, and after she left Rupel would looked at me and winked.

‘Drama department: where the girls are all goers and the guys are all gay. This is the place to be.’

He was staring after her, watching her tidal hips, and his perfect hand was like a basking reptile on the plywood frame before me. He didn’t see me increase my grip on the hammer, and raise it.

I went to the show alone and left early. Rupel played from the orchestra pit and didn’t really expect me at the after-party.

I next saw him in January of the new year, his arm around Lorlanny Linne’s waist, their fingers entwined. They were heading out and would I like to go with them? He drank bitter like a native and explained his next project, she drank vodka tonic and couldn’t taste what I was adding. When she got ill he apologised, said we should try this again sometime. I said I’d like to get to know her, and smiled.

A few days later I saw him playing at the bar. She was there, and saw me before I could leave.

‘Isn’t he good?’ she said.

‘He has very perfect hands.’ I ordered her another drink.

‘That he does,’ she told me, showing teeth. ‘You don’t know the half of it.’

Rupel was chopping through an old showtune while Lorlanny sang tonelessly to herself. He looked over and grinned as she sang louder, but I don’t think he saw me.

These days I mostly do studio work on a session basis and I’m starting to get a name for myself in the industry. I never play to an audience, except Rupel’s mother, who I still visit as promised. I’m not much for ragtime myself but she likes to hear me play his old favourites, and I owe her so much. Him too of course. Whenever I visit she tells me the same stories about him, and she holds tight to my hands, so similar to her own, so dark. They’re beautiful hands, only good for art. They’re perfect. It would have been a crime to waste them.