Sunday, August 30, 2009

Viking Blood

"Hello Sven, what's that you're at?" Lars asked, as he stepped over Father Peter, Sven's mangy old dog, and entered his best friend's house.

Sven was holding the wide, open end of a drinking horn to the side of his polished iron helmet. He held it out for Lars to inspect. "It's something I'm working on. Imagine a horn on either side."

"It's certainly a look." Lars said, sceptically.

"You really need to see it with both horns in place. It'll make me look like a bull, it will."

"A bull?" Lars asked. "Why?"

"It's ferocious!" Sven exclaimed, shaking the helmet and horn in Lars' direction. "Watch out, I'm charging, see?"

"They're only going to get stuck on things. Suppose you were ducking through a doorway and they got tangled in the frame. You could get a nasty neck strain. You don't want to go raiding and come back hurt, do you?"

"No, I suppose not," Sven said, crestfallen.

"You could put ears on the helmet," Lars said. "Like a wolf. Make them floppy so they don't catch."

Sven tried to picture this in his head. "Floppy ears? That's not very frightening is it?"

"Wolves are scary," Lars assured him. "And they're carnivores, not like bulls. Bulls eat grass for Odin's sake."

"With a pair of floppy ears on my helmet, people might think I'm a dog." Father Peter perked up and fixed his sole rheumy eye on Sven, waiting to see where this was going. "Which is fine," Sven added. "Dogs can be tremendously ferocious, but if I was going with ears, I'd want to be sure people knew I was a wolf."

"You could write 'wolf' on the front of the helmet. People'd know then."

"Now, you didn't think that through, did you, Lars? We're up and down the coasts of Ireland, Britain, Europe. All with their different languages. I'd be having to keep track of where we're going to be and what the local translation for 'wolf' is. Managing that would be a perfect nightmare."

Lars nodded. "It's always the paperwork that catches you out," he said, forlornly. "What if you drew a pic-"

"You've put me right off the idea now, to be honest," Sven said, setting the helmet and horn aside. "So, you ready for the raid tomorrow?"

"You bet," said Lars. "Plenty of pillaging, eh?"

"Oh, yes. But not just the pillaging. We don't just go for the pillaging, do we? I mean specifically, I'm not there for the pillaging so much as for the-"

"That's actually, why I'm here," Lars interrupted. "The pillaging? The pillaging, I'm comfortable with. But the other... suppose it was your sister, what then?"

"I don't have a sister," Sven said, confused.

"Your mother then."

"My mother? What, doing it?"

"No!" Lars said. "Having it done to-"

"MY MOTHER?" Sven shouted. His whole body began to shake, his eyes bulged and his fists bunched, as he worked himself into a frenzy.

Lars frantically searched for a shield his berserking friend could chew on, but stopped when he realised the truth. "Quit laughing," he said. "I'm serious."

"Oh, come on, Lars." Sven said, having regained control. "I mean... my mother? I love her dearly but, can you imagine? Now Sigursen's mother, that I could imagine."

"Sigursen's mother?" Lars asked, wistfully. "I think we could all imagine that."

"Imagining that got me through puberty," Sven said. "In the nicest possible way, she's a very easy woman."

The pair allowed their thoughts to drift a while, then Lars took another tack. "Remember when Ulrich borrowed Bo's massive boar to cover his sow? That year his piglets were twice the size they were the year before. Do you see what I'm getting at?"

"Oh, I do," Sven said. "And you're going too far. Not with pigs, Lars. Never with pigs... remember the time we landed in France and all the women had gone? Big Alfrik had his way with the goat, remember? We made terrible fun of him about that."

"That's not what I mean," Lars said. "And we wouldn't have given Alfrik such a hard time if the goat hadn't looked so bored. Quite frankly I don't know which of them I was more embarrassed for."

"We didn't eat Alfrik, so he probably had the best of it."

"The point I was trying to make," Lars persevered, "was that by spreading our Viking seed to all the peasants we're raiding, we're going to make them bigger and stronger. What are we going to do in the future when boatloads of huge peasants, harbouring years of anger, turn up on our shores?"

Sven rose from his seat and took his battle-axe from where it hung on the wall. "I don't know about that," Sven said, running his thumb along the edge of the blade, "I don't know about enormous boars, or Viking seed, but do you know what I do know? I'll tell you, shall I?"

Sven slapped the flat of the axe into his huge hand. Lars said nothing, waiting for him to continue.

"If those boatloads of giant peasants come to my land, all fired up with Viking blood surging through their veins and intent on paying us back for years of honest raiding, do you know who will be waiting on the beach, ready to deal with them?"

Lars nodded and, together, they said:

"Sigursen's mother!"

Monday, August 24, 2009

Bad Things Happen At Midnight.

Two fingers and a thumb was all he could fit around the half inch nub of coarse threaded bolt. The other end of the bolt fastened the handle onto the opposite side of the cupboard door, behind which he, and his sister, were hiding. The tips of his numb fingers, and the skin under his nails, were white, and the small ball of muscle between thumb and forefinger beat with a regular jagged spasm.

His sister had been making low, gutteral, animal sounds for the last hour, only just audible but gradually rising in volume. After the latest incident he had reached up his free hand to shake her shoulder. Gently, more warning than rebuke. At his touch the cupboard filled with light. His sister had switched on the tiny, pink, wand-like torch that he had allowed her to bring with her. It was little more than a toy, the light a dim flicker, but after so long in the dark it was like an explosion in both sets of eyes.

He didn’t, couldn’t, bring himself to speak, could barely make her out through the spots dancing before his eyes. The torch in one hand, her free hand clutching her lips, knuckles white with effort, she was fighting to hold her voice in check. The way his eyes widened in shock, and the curt shake of his head was enough for her to extinguish the light. The boy reached around her with his free arm and hugged her tight to his side.

A few minutes later they both heard the first chime from the clock over the fireplace. The girl, startled by the sound, squirmed in her brother’s grasp, her foot struck the side of the cupboard and, momentarily, the boy’s attention was diverted between restraining his sister, and counting the chimes. With her settled, he thought he had picked up the count... nine... ten... eleven.

The twelfth chime sounded, and both exhaled, sharply. Cautiously the boy released his grip on the stub of bolt, and the cupboard door swung open. He pushed it fully open, and massaging his throbbing hand, stepped from the cupboard into the room. He had to be sure. He motioned for his sister to stay where she was, and slowly, carefully, made his way to the fireplace where the clock was. He looked at the face.

Midnight. They had made it without being discovered. He turned to give his sister the signal to come out, but she was already standing behind him. He returned the smile on her face with a broad grin of his own. He reached for an ornament that was next to the clock, and handed it down to his sister. It had a heavy, square base, and she was barely able to hold it in her two hands. The boy then took a hook-backed poker from the stand by the fireplace. Together, they silently left the room and climbed the stairs to where a family slept, unaware what time it was.

Danse D'écarlate

Arnaud Devaney swept into the dingy room, distracted by the bundle of papers he was shuffling through. He stood briefly just inside the doorway, until he had found the sheet he was looking for, whereupon he tugged it slightly out of place to mark the spot, then deposited the lot on top of a precarious stack of crates.

"Monsieur Foulis," he said, now able to give his full attention to the man tied to a chair, by a table in the middle of the room. "So good of you to spare me a moment of your precious time." He looked askance at Foulis. "May I?"

Arnaud strode over and reached for the wig perched unevenly on Foulis' head. The bound man shied away as best he could, attempting to pull his head into his shoulders like a tortoise, but with scant success. Arnaud let his hands drop instead to the other man's shoulders and gave them a gentle squeeze, married to a sympathetic nod. His right hand rose to Foulis's cheek and rested gently upon it, his thumb lightly rubbing where the tracks of tears had met the frothy mix of blood and saliva that had leaked from the corner of his mouth when Foulis had been frantically chewing on his gag. Foulis' bloodshot eyes gaped at Devaney, but he appeared to become calmer. Deftly, Arnaud adjusted the wig. "Much better. Gentlemen, such as ourselves, must attend to our appearances if we are to be treated with respect. Yes?" He took a seat at the other side of the table.

Arnaud motioned for his servant, and the giant, Gustav, placed a parcel, wrapped in brown paper and bound with twine, on the table.

"Respect," said Arnaud, "Respect is something which has been lacking in our relationship up to this point. I blame myself, of course, for I had obviously failed to impress upon you the critical importance of meeting my terms of business to the letter. But, I hope we can now put that behind us."

He made as though to push the parcel across the table, but something about it caught his eye, and his brow crinkled in consternation.

"But no, this is too awful. Monsieur Foulis." Arnaud said. "Please excuse Gustav's shoddy wrapping. He is a barbarian." He shrugged his shoulders extravagantly, clearly at the limits of his patience with his massive servant's parcelling abilities. "Ah, but no matter, eh? You will take this in the spirit intended, and when the time comes for your other daughter,young Celeste, to marry, you will come again to your dear old friend Arnaud for a loan." He leaned forward and stared intently at Foulis. "And, most importantly, you will pay me back promptly." He shoved the parcel to Foulis' side of the table.

Arnaud, leaned back in his chair, and let his gaze un-focus. "It will be magnificent. The elegant dress, as beautiful as your dear daughter. The Comte de Pevensey's summer house hired for the reception. The finest food and wine from that rascal Gaston. Monsieur Perry and his orchestra in the ballroom, playing jaunty tunes while the newly-wed couple dance..."

He stretched his arm across the table and, daintily, tapped on the yellowed toenail protruding from the brown paper wrapping.

"Alas, no more dancing for you."

In Judgement

Galen strode across the rough, timber drawbridge, certain he was ready for whatever trap was about to spring. He leapt across the yawning outer gateway, mindful of the massive portcullis which might come crashing down at any moment, dashed past the arrow slits that lined the passage and threw himself into the courtyard across the inner opening, with its equally massive portcullis poised to fall . Even as he entered the courtyard his eyes scanned the towering walls for archers, but he could detect no threat. The castle's outer defences had been abandoned.

An un-hitched ox-cart with a broken wheel, lay lopsidedly near the gate, and next to it was a jumble of rotten barrel staves shoved into freshly woven baskets that had not yet been properly trimmed. All about the outer ward were the signs of sudden departure; upset stalls, storeroom doors still gently flapping, chests lying open amidst disgorged contents, and the scuffed signs of many feet pressed close together and funnelled through the great gate that now lay behind him. Just what had they been expecting? Surely not a single righteous man on a quest for justice.

He studied the gatehouse that bulwarked the inner ward. It's sloping roof was designed to channel rocks or boiling oil from above, but the very doorway this was designed to secure gaped wide to the world. The looming doors had been wedged open with lumps of wood.

Had the tyrant fled, or was he, even now, luring Galen into a deadly encounter on his own terms. Surely he didn't care enough for his cowed minions to send them to safety, or did the monster fear his population would turn on him when the true King's champion presented himself to them.

Regardless of his normally reckless bravery, Galen was cautious as he entered the gatehouse. This was a cramped and darkened maze of passages twisting back upon itself again and again before it reached the inner ward, the way lined with yet more arrow slits which could also be served with a thrusting spear. Only tight beams of light from the ominous murder holes dotting the ceiling granted any illumination in the suffocating darkness. And yet he passed through this treacherous tunnel without incident.

The inner ward consisted of a small yard, enclosed by high walls all about with empty platforms reserved for archers, and, of course, the great hall proper, whose door hung open, just as Galen had expected. He marched through this entrance, into his enemy's lair. Past empty rooms and echoing corridors he went, the way now lit by a few guttering torches, until he reached the great hall, and there upon his throne, on a stepped dais, at the back of the deserted chamber, his nemesis.

"Leroi Deguerre where are your lackeys?" Galen demanded. "For I know you are not so foolish as to face me alone."

The usurper king was still a young man but his handsome face had become hard, and old, before its time. "You know I will always face you man to man, Galen," he said. "But, please, Leroi is the name my people gave me. Call me by my true name. Let me hear you call me, 'Samuel'. Call me 'Uel', as you did when we were boys together."

"I will call you 'dog' and sink your decimated remains in a plague pit." Galen spat the words. "You have no name, and no heritage either. You are scum. Lying, cheating scum, and I will end you this day."

"You forget. I saved your life once, but I would save it anew," Leroi said. "Turn away, sweet Galen. Turn about and return to your petty province and your broken king. I will not harm you. You will be at peace for the rest of your days. I swear it will be so. Turn away. Please, turn away."

Galen drew his longsword. "You saved MY life? And how many times did this hand, and this sword, stay death from your own crooked neck? How many?"

Leroi smiled a sad smile. "Many times. When we fought side by-"

"Many times!" Galen exclaimed. "And if I was not so sure, so absolutely sure, that today I will cut you down and make you pay for your crimes, then I would hack off my own strong right hand, and then break this fine blade, rather than suffer the shame of owing you even so paltry a debt."

Leroi began, "Brother-"

"Brother?" Galen laughed. A harsh noise. "You are no kin to me, nor ever were you. I love your father, my king, as though he were my own flesh, but you were never worthy of him, and never worthy of me either."

"I will avow your final word, and discard the rest." Leroi said. "I had no choice but to correct the mistakes of my father. The mistakes of the heritage which I, like you, wish I could disown."

"I will listen to no more of your lies," Galen said. "Stay and be cut down where you sit, or come face me and die like a man."

Leroi reached for his helmet, which sat upon the broad arm of his throne, but he no more than touched it, than he thought better of it and left it where it was. He drew his own sword as he trudged step by reluctant step down the dais and to the centre of the hall.

Galen snatched his own helmet off his head and threw it far away to his side. "I will make this quick," he said, "and it will be certain."

Leroi barely murmured. "It was certain the moment you took your first step upon this foolish quest, my brother."

Galen screamed his war-cry and, sword held high, charged his target.

There was a ferocious clash of metal on metal, followed by the awkward rattle of a collapsing armoured figure. The ringing clatter of a sword sent skidding across tiles. And a heart-wrenching, keening wail that finally broke down into hard, body-wracking sobs. Honest despair, of which there was no single other soul present to witness.

Different Eyes

It had been very different seven years earlier, on their honeymoon. There had been no long mirror, no fine art hung on the walls, and the floor had been scuffed and dusty. Now the wooden floor was stained and polished. Even the rough timbers of the ceiling joists were hidden by broad, over-lapping streamers of crimson fabric that fanned out from the curtains framing the windows over-looking the lake, gathering to a beaded hollow in the centre of the ceiling, from which hung a tear-drop of dazzling crystals.

Marcel discretely waved a fingertip at the latest patron to enter the restaurant. "What about him?" he said. Engaged in conversation with the host, the old man who had just arrived was Caucasian, tall, straight backed, with intense eyes and a cropped haircut. Behind him, was a woman of comparable age, both hands clasped to her shoulder purse, her eyes flitted around the room, hardly daring to alight on any of the diners for more than an instant.

Inès cocked her head for just a moment as she thought. "Leftover from the military. He has a wife here, Cambodia, and Thailand too, but he's never forgotten his high-school sweetheart. It breaks his heart, but he could never go back to the U.S.A." She made a subtle motion with her head towards the old man's companion. "So, her?"

Marcel grinned. "His brother," he said. "They have a lot of catching up to do tonight."

Inès laughed, attracting bemused glances from some of the nearer tables.

"Him?" Marcel motioned with a nod.

Inès, eyes narrowed, studied the room but shook her head, unable to see who Marcel meant.

"Him!" Marcel reiterated. "The couple, right there, taré."

"Oh," Inès said. "He's on holiday but he can't stop thinking about his job. His career. Acts so very alpha-male, but impotent." She cocked the little finger of her left hand. "Has a limp noodle. Her, the one with him?"

Marcel chuckled. "Having an affair with his best friend."

Inès joined his laughter. She gently rapped a knuckle on the table to get his attention. "Those two. Locals? The one on the left with the hair."

The two men were engaged in a vigorous discussion, though it was hard to tell if they were excited, angry, or some combination of the two.

"Big Vietnamese television star. The housewives all adore him and want their husbands to be just like him. He comes here with his young male friends because it's so very discrete. And because it takes an Austrian chef to make the best ca kho. His friend?"

"The cousin of the latest young friend," she said. "He's telling your star that if he doesn't leave his cousin alone then he will kill him. And he would like an autograph for his mother."

They were quiet for a while. Marcel toyed with his bowl of pho bo, chasing strips of beef with his chopsticks but his appetite had gone. "What about the host?" he said. "He was here the first time, wasn't he?"

"His hair was grey then, and he called himself Giang, not John. Perhaps he's the owner. The owner's father?" She shrugged.

"But what's his story?" Marcel asked. "What's he thinking?"

"That's easy," Inès said. "He's been watching you. He's wondering why you looked so sad when you were staring at my reflection in that mirror."

After a little while she gathered up her things and left. Some time later, he followed her.

Reflections on Fiona

None of her lovers lasted past a first visit to the warm hospital room. They forced joviality and suppressed disgust, where before there had merely been contempt.
To their credit her female friends did not abandon her. They treated her, after the initial tears, as they had always treated her, as she treated them. They were shallow creatures, but occasionally well-meaning, despite their natures.

It was weeks after her accident that he found the courage to visit her, his hand still wrapped and bleeding. Through no fault of his own he had stumbled upon one of her coterie at a midnight booze shop. He, there to buy the tools of his trade, she to be loud and obvious.
"Don't you?..." she'd said. He'd nodded curtly, focussing on her chin. Avoiding eyes and cleavage.
"You've heard?..." Again he nodded, this time slowly. He fisted a drop of blood from the sodden bandage and turned away.
He tensed as a hand touched his shoulder and she said, "I'm sure she'd like you to..."
"I'll go tomorrow."

He took another pill in the car-park, on top of the two earlier that morning. He counted his pulse and mentally checked for signs of panic, but there was nothing but an emptiness. Too many closed doors.

There had been times when she'd phoned to say she'd be over. To visit his liquor cabinet and feel good about herself. There had been times when he felt momentary fear. Trepidation. Invariably he was drunk when she arrived. If she arrived. He was such a silly boy, she said.
Fingers touched as they passed cigarettes back and forth. She smiled, cooed and stroked his arm. Admired the tan muscles. He counted her eyes, her nose and her lips, relished the intangible.
And sometimes...sometimes there came a point when something almost happened. Perhaps one time in ten she would say nothing as she left, but in such a way that he eagerly anticipated her next visit. Nothing ever came of it.
When he was young there had been even less, so this was heaven. She was still young. a special friend inherited from his departed sister. Departed to a better job in a city far from home. He had never lived away from familiar landmarks, though he did not feel the less for it. It doesn't take travel to die slowly.
There was no-one else, had never been anyone else. Even the family was gone now. They had never been close. Why she remained he did not know. In her way she was as dysfunctional as he was. He prided himself on his strength, some aspects of which he was at pains to hide from her.

He got directions at reception, then wandered through corridor and stairwell until he found a window and a view to lose himself in. What was he to say? Moments earlier someone had described in clinical detail her reactions when the bandages came off. She hadn't cried or become hysterical. They seemed surprised, but he expected no less of her. He was sure she would have resigned herself to something much worse. No. She would barely have registered the change. One more injustice heaped upon the rest. Constant whining complaints. One after another. Nothing was ever right. Nothing rarely is. He had enjoyed the sound of her voice without troubling his brain with details. Here the alcohol helped. She had such a pretty way of forming words with her skinny lips.
He pressed his hands against the thick pane of glass and tensed. Comforted that he could push through if necessary, he set off for her room.

So there had come a night when he pushed his fist through the mirror in the hall that greeted him each workday's end and he remembered the offer made him. He carried a jagged shard and vodka to his bed.
In the morning there was blood and an empty bottle. The blood mostly from the diagonal slash he had sawn into the palm of his hand without noticing, but also from the wish he had carved down his belly and along his left leg.

Almost he turned back at the door. He stood, swaying, shivering, wishing for another pill. Eventually he recaptured his look and entered. She was asleep. Blood smeared where he steadied himself against the wall. Again he thought of leaving now, while he could. Most of her body would heal. There was much they could do but the blaze had eaten her.
He brushed aside the chair by the bed and crouched down so his nose was inches from her face. He counted her eyes until she woke. Her face contorted. A smile? Moments passed until he was afraid she would speak. He pressed his lips to the coarse skin where her lips had been. Her mouth opened, their tongues touched and they kissed.



I am blessed to be the sole guardian of the entire human race. It could be a wearisome burden for a simple man, such as I am, but I can not help but feel exalted, and I am gratified to know that from that first and only instant at the birth of creation, an inexorable path of circumstance and situation has led to where we all are today. I am the most important man on Earth and all humanity looks to me for leadership. Except for Glen Reilly, whose truculence is becoming a problem.

Glen will say, “Slide the shutters up a little, so we can take a look.”

And then the others will get restless and mutter, “Do it, Kevin. Glen Reilly is right. Slide the shutters up. Throw them wide open so we can all get ourselves killed.”

Then, emboldened by the bleating of my treacherous flock, Glen will move for the shutters, and I must suffer the indignity of chasing him away, shaking my staff of justice.

I made my staff of justice from a good length of gas piping, beaten down to an edge at one end, and curled into a hefty lump at the other. Thus, I may deal retribution either severe or merciful. I have not yet had occasion to whack Glen Reilly with my trusty staff, for I am made weary by the exertions of the chase, and he is uncommonly swift for such a large fellow.

Glen Reilly is becoming a problem, but what are problems to the sole guardian of the human race? No more than nails are, to a man with a hammer.


I wish to visit the basement, but Glen Reilly can read my thoughts. He comes over, showing me the palms of his big hands, a twisted grin painted on his lying face, hiding his evil nature behind a facade which is intended to placate me. I catch him stealing a shifty glance at my staff of justice, and I tighten my grip upon it. He is no longer laughing the way he did before the predicament, when I spent my lunch breaks fashioning this mighty weapon. He can no longer threaten me with Mr Billingham.

“How may I help you?” I ask, adopting a tone of cultured civility and understanding, though I imagine this will be wasted upon the great lunk.

“Maryam West is near to dying,” he says. “If you have anything to eat in the basement, you must share.”

If you were to pay a jot of attention to Maryam West, she would have you believe she has been close to dying for most of her sorry life. And yet to my eye, Maryam always had a healthy rosy glow to her fat face, and sufficient energy to avoid whatever work would otherwise have distracted her prattling. But now, last time I saw her, slumped against a wall, barely wheezing, she looks deflated, a shade of herself wrapped in a bag of wrinkles.

“There’s nothing in the basement, Glen Reilly,” I say.

“Then why do you go down there several times each day?” Glen asks.

“I am making sure it is secure, Glen Reilly,” I say.

“Secure from what?” he asks. “I took a look outside last time you were down there,and there’s nothing moving. I think they’re all dead... again. If you have something to eat in the basement, then you must share.” He lowered his voice. “If you don’t share, Maryam might be the next to go, but she won’t be the last.”

“I grow weary of your accusations, Glen Reilly,” I say. “There is no food in the basement.” How I wish there were, for I am fiercely hungry.

“Then give me the key and I will see for myself.”

The fool is obviously deluded.

I say, “This key is for use by the manager, or the assistant manager, only. You are not the assistant manager. I am the assistant manager.” And the sole guardian of the entire human race. So many hats.

“Please Kevin,” he wheedles. “Give me the key.” When I look at Glen Reilly I can sense movement at the periphery of my vision. Could he have swayed my subjects to his bidding. Are his cohorts closing on me?

“Very well, Glen Reilly,” I say. “I will grant your humble wish.”

In truth, I am famished. There is no food in the basement, but perhaps it is time for Glen Reilly to find out exactly what is down there.


It is obvious how this will end.

Eventually Glen Reilly and his followers, will strike against my loyal people. For the sake of mankind I must act decisively to quell this rebellion before it is too late.

I throw the basement key in Glen Reilly’s direction, and he snaps it from the air, curling his giant fist about it. He unwraps his hand and stares at the key suspiciously. His devious nature leads him to suspect me of trickery, but I have no reason to resort to such low practices. I am a righteous man.

“There is the key you were so determined to acquire, Glen Reilly,” I say. He does not wish to turn his back to me, but from fear and not respect, as it should be. I slide along the wall, mindful of his troops poised for any show of weakness on my part, so he has free access to the basement door.

He creeps to the door, glaring sidelong at me the whole while. He fumbles at the lock and opens the door.

“Kevin, I hope you’re lying to me,” he says. “I hope you’ve been hiding food down there, because if you haven’t then we’re going to have to leave.”

“I do not lie, Glen Reilly,” I say. “And we can not leave. We are all that remains of humanity, and this is where we must make our stand.”

“It’s been days, Kevin. There’s nothing moving outside. I told you, I looked.” He dares to dismiss our conversation with a surly shake of his head, and descends the stars into the basement. “I’ll be back up, shortly. Keep watch over Maryam.”

Glen Reilly does not lock the basement door, as I have always done these past days. He is not meticulous in his planning, but I am. I follow him down the stairs.

He is already standing on the basement floor, and turns to face me as I tread upon the steps. His face is white, and his mouth hangs open. “What have you done?” he asks. There is whimpering, but it is not Glen Reilly’s doing. I take the finals steps at a rush and raise my staff of justice high.

When I emerge, much later, I am no longer famished.


I have not forgotten Maryam. It would not be right, for even though she betrayed me by siding with the traitor, Glen Reilly, I will be magnanimous and forgive her. Glen Reilly’s other lickspittles have faded away, too ashamed to be seen by their rightful lord, or chased away by my devoted followers. I am alone with Maryam, crumpled upon the ground, her great chest heaving infrequently as she fights for breath.

I offer her something to eat, but she twists her head left and right, and moans in a most discourteous fashion. She must eat, so I press it hard against her mouth, and pull and push at her jaw to encourage her chewing, but it is to no avail and I achieve nothing but a crimson decoration of her saggy face. She lapses even further into herself, tries rolling away from me, but I am determined to be merciful.

She turns her back, buries her face under her arm, so I must hook my arm about her and try to heave her over. She has shed a good deal of weight lately, but she is still a most challenging handful. At my third attempt, I set her right upon her back, with myself all atop her. She flips and bucks feebly under me, but without success. Her tiny hands and flabby arms wave at me, moths against a windshield. The heat from her considerable bulk and the friction from her struggle warms my loin in a most uncomfortable fashion. I anchor myself on her with the palm of my hand upon her chin, forcing her mouth into an unlikely gape. Like a mommy bird I thrust the meat down her throat, holding her nose that she may be encouraged to swallow.

I am devastated. My efforts have come too late to save poor Maryam. In her weakened condition, her stricken body has rejected the food. With a twitch and a final stifled groan, she expires. I feel partially to blame, but the real criminal is the tyrant Glen Reilly. He might as well have choked the life from her himself.

I can not allow sweet Maryam to moulder away like spoilt food. I will drag her over by the shutters, where there is only steel and conrete, and make of her a funeral pyre. She never gave the slightest hint that she hankered for a Viking burial rite, but sometimes you just know. There is wood from broken pallets scattered all about, and we keep a can of gasoline by the generator in the basement.

First though, I have had a wicked thought. Surely, Maryam would not begrudge her protector a tiny parting gift. I hesitate, but I am certain I know what she would say. She would say, “Do it, Kevin. It’s right here if you want to take it.”

It is a struggle, but with much lifting, twisting, tugging and pulling, I have the dress off her. I gaze upon Maryam, hardly able to drag my eyes away, but eventually with a shudder I put the thought of her sallow bloated flesh from my mind. I drag her body over by the shutter, and prepare to fetch the gasoline from near the generator. But first I will give the dress to my sweetheart in the basement. It has been an arduous while, and I am certain this will come as a pleasant surprise.


The fiend, Glen Reilly, defies me even when he should be wholly expired. He has risen from his deathbed and is having his way with my sweet baby. Nor is my darling making so much as a tepid attempt to fend off his advances, though, to be fair, the chains provide something of a deterrent to fending.

I have the strength of ten men and haul him almost a full half turn about to face me. Some small gobbet which might be cheek dribbles from his mouth, and a glance at my sweetheart explains where his ear has gone, as it is coughed up unto the floor by my feet. The scatter of brain and gore about his head is my own handiwork, and I realise I no longer have my staff of justice with me, but it matters not a lick, for I will tear this heinous lecher to pieces with my bare hands.

I deal Glen Reilly a might punch straight to his bulbous white nose, and the shock of pain shooting up my wrist attests to the raw power of my blow. Barely seconds later I follow this strike with a vicious hook to the side of his lumpy face. My fist bites sickeningly into his already mashed head, and shattered bone grates against my knuckles. Now I have his attention. He stumbles for me, throwing his hands out simultaneously to snare me in a hug, but I am in no mood for his advances, and deftly back-peddle, screaming my warcry near uncontrollably.

We whirl and twirl the length and breadth of the basement, dancing a grim tango to the accompaniment of rough slaps and the chatter of snapping teeth. I rock him with blow after blow, but Glen Reilly’s ludicrous pride, even in death, means he refuses to acknowledge the dreadful extent to which I have wounded him. But now we are by the generator and I have in my hands an almost full jerrycan of gasoline, weighing close to forty pounds. Using this at once as shield, and then as bludgeon, I drive back Glen Reilly with impunity.

Finally he trips, lays on the ground, his idiot expression unchanged, masking his furiously racing brain, or what’s left of it. If I allow him any respite he will formulate some way to trick me. I bring the can down on his head, then again, now putting all my weight behind it. Again, and again, yelling my victory and with tears of triumph rolling down my cheeks, I slam the jerrycan into his face until his head is a bloody ruin of blood, brains, flesh and spilled gasoline from the crumpled can.

I am finished with Glen Reilly, and need never trouble myself with him again. His corpse is finally at peace, and soon the victory tremors I feel will abate.

But what is this? The dress, meant for my love, discarded on the floor, mired in gore and filth, tread upon and kicked about. I see red. Would it have been too much for the ninny, ensconced in the safety of a chain cocoon, to have shown the slightest concern for a gift? I am furious.

We will have words.


I march to my honey, my vision tinted red as the vile blood of Glen Reilly that covers me from head to toe. I jerk at the hanging chains and, attention gained, reach down and grab a double handful of short, curly hair and wrench it upwards. I am rewarded with a deafening squeal. With my head tilted slightly forward, so we are eye to eye, my hands twined tight into his beard, I let my gaze linger on my sweetheart’s face. He is a mess. Repulsive. Glen Reilly has done his awful work, and bit tremendous chunks from my baby’s face.

Betrayed. There is no other word for it.While I have been struggling to shepherd what little is left of beleaguered mankind, this foolish strumpet has done nothing, barely even attempted to defend himself. Perhaps I happened upon this tryst too soon, perhaps in time I would have faced a merry pair of corpses, groaning and moaning, and laughing behind my back at me. Me, the sole guardian of the entire human race. Ungrateful harpy. And now, it dares to speak?

“Let me go, Kevin,” he says. “Please, let me go. I’m hurt.”

He is hurt? I am positively indignant. What of MY feelings? I untangle my hands from his greasy beard. This relationship is not working out the way I had imagined.

“Please, Kevin, let me go. I won’t tell anyone. Nobody needs to know. I can protect you. I’m manag-”

The craven whore insists on riling me. “You’re what?” I ask, my voice a razored chill. “What are you?” I grab the chains and rattle them furiously, causing his captured arms and body to dance. “Tell me what you are.”

He will not look at me. My fists are sore, so I search about for inspiration, something heavy, but finally he speaks.

“I am your little princess, Kevin.”

“You are my little princess,” I say. “And what is your name?”

He sobs. An ugly sound. “My name is Tina,” he says.

I am triumphant. “That’s right, Mr Billingham, your name is Tina.” I wince, embarrassed by my faux pas, but in a way the situation may have sped to a point where a slip of the tongue is not the end of the world, particularly as it is, apparently, the end of the world.

The dress is still lying by my feet. It would have ruined poor Maryam’s day to see it mistreated so. I fetch it up, shake the worst from it, and go back to Glen Reilly’s body. The jerrycan next to him has seeped a pool of gasoline about him, but I reckon it to still be about half full. I soak the dress in fuel and return to Tina. He can smell the gasoline and becomes frantic. The noises he makes are no longer language, but I am beyond compassion, and feel nothing but aching loneliness inside. I squat in front of him, and bring the sodden dress to his quaking face. I steady him, hand upon his gnawed cheek, and use the dress to wipe the blood away. When I am finished, he appears calmer.

I remove the padlock which fastens the chain about his right arm to the pipe overhead. His arm drops like a dead weight, and another, softer, groan escapes his lips.

“Thank you, Kevin,” he says.

I kiss the fingers of my right hand and let them momentarily drift, like a passing notion, across his forehead. I drop the gasoline soaked dress over his head, wrap it tight about with the chain, binding his arm there too, and secure it firmly with the padlock. How he jerks on the single chain now, his voice a keening, desperate thing, but it is too late to beg forgiveness.

I need a lighter, a match, some purifying fire to cleanse myself, but more importantly to burn the bitch. My eagle eye returns to the loathsome body of Glen Reilly. Filty smoker, Glen Reilly. He draws me back, once again entangles me in his nefarious web.

Will I ever, truly, be done with him?


My sweetheart screams, and coughs, and chokes. The cacophony is quite distracting.

Glen Reilly has a lighter. A shiny, chromed clickety-clack, he flipped and slapped in a most extravagant manner when he was lighting his grubby cigarettes.

“Those horrible things will kill you, Glen Reilly,” I had said to him on many occasions, but he had laughed in my face, blowing smoke in my eyes, and then laughing all the harder as I fanned the air and retreated, my lungs attempting to disgorge themselves. Well I hope it gives Glen Reilly some satisfaction in the pit of whatever hell that houses him now to know that he was right and I was wrong. Glen Reilly may have dodged cancer, but he did not dodge the jerrycan that flattened his stupid head.

I feel an odd sense of trepidation as I approach Glen Reilly’s body, knowing I will have to search through his pockets in an intimate manner. The thought of running my hands over his burly, muscular corpse fills me with abject disgust. Imagining that I need to paw and grope about his person sends a lingering shiver of abhorrence tingling down my spine, but I must harden myself and just get on with it.

Standing beside Glen now, I kick at his feet just in case. There is no reaction, of course, and I laugh at my foolish fears. I bend myself to the task at hand and working from his shirt pocket down, I search through his clothes. I find the lighter, but I find a folded slip of paper too. It is a crime to read another person’s mail, and I wrestle with my conscience before deciding that since he is no longer a person, but a dead thing, Glen Reilly’s protection under the law is tenuous at best. I unfurl the sheet of paper and read it.

The letter falls from my hand, tears well up in my eyes, but at least I now know for sure. My deepest fears have been confirmed. The bitch, Billingham, had offered Glen Reilly an internship in the management program. How they both would have lorded it over me then. This is my darkest hour. I snatch up the letter, flip open the lighter, and set fire to the offending paper.

This is a mistake.

Having fallen on a stray puddle of gasoline, the paper all but vanishes in a whoosh. My steely nerves desert me, and I drop the flaming letter, but even as I do so I know what must happen next and turn to run. I have hardly taken a pace before the room is lit by a great orange ball of flame and billowing night black smog has rolled right across the ceiling, and is filling the basement moment by moment. Some blazing fragment has fallen upon Tina and he screams as his hooded head becomes a torch. I know my back is aflame, and the hair on my head smoulders, but now is not the time to let that stay my flight. I belt headlong for the stairs, and take them three and four at a time in my rush to quit the inferno.

I slam into something soft at the top of the stairs. Maryam wraps her flabby arms about me, and we tumble backwards down the steps. My head is rocked in the fall and for a while there is darkness.

When my eyes open I see I am at the foot of the stairs, the basement lit by yellow flame and all about burns fiercely. The foam lagging on the pipes overhead has taken light and there is a rain of dancing blue driplets. Maryam is atop me, her arms trapped under me, and her mouth gnaws upon my exposed face. I thank my good fortune that she has misplaced her false teeth somewhere upon the way down, and all she succeeds in doing is heaping sloppy kisses on me.

I take stock of my situation and a calm descends upon me. This has been a test. I have defeated the tyrant, Glen Reilly, I have exposed the perfidy of my true love, and I have consumed all their evil in sanctifying fire. I who have been the sole guardian of the entire human race have been challenged so many times, but each challenge I have overcome. Now it is the time for my followers to rescue me from this, ostensibly, hopeless situation. I cease my struggle with Maryam, and I will wait. Soon my followers will pour down the stairs and free me. We will throw open the shutters and spread like vengeful locusts to the far corners of the globe, burning away the dark stench of undeath wherever it yet lingers. The Earth will be our paradise, with me its benevolent patron.

All I have to do is lie here and wait.


The Underground (version one)

“We should get started.” I said.

Mole looked at me as though I was crazy.

“We can’t start, boy,” Mole said. “Site manager isn’t here yet.”

Mole, real name Mike Burrows, had been with London Underground through a lot of re-shuffles and changes in management. Like most labourers his age, he’d embraced the metaphysical concept that a job only existed when someone in authority was observing it.

I’d never meant to still be working here, two years on, but I knew one thing for sure, and that was when I was Mole’s age I’d have a job I wanted to do. I headed down the tunnel, shining my torch to see what the damage was like. The Tube is riddled with disused passages, some dating back to the early 19th century when the massive undertaking was started. There are a lot of routine inspections carried out and often work needs to be done to keep things safe.

We had word there was a large crack in one of the tunnel walls.

“Best be careful down here, boy,” Mole said. “When I was about your age, my crew was working down here and two men went missing. Never found them. Ghouls took them.”

“Ghouls? Talk sense, Mole.”

“It’s true, some of these tunnels cross next to their warrens. They’re ancient beasts that serve the old gods. They only surface to snatch stray men to eat, or grab a woman, if they can get one, for some you-know-what. You’ll be all right with me boy. I’ve got ghoul blood in me, on my father’s side.” He lurched at me, shining the torch up at his face, cackling like a madman.

That was when the crack in the tunnel wall crashed open in a shower of masonry and rock. A fist sized lump struck my head, dazing me, but a large section of the wall had fallen across Mole. I crawled to him on hands and knees, shining my torch off to one side of his face to check on him. He was breathing in short bursts and his eyes were glazed. A dark reflection in his eyes made me glance behind me, and the torch fell from my nerveless fingers and my whole body went rigid.

The thing emerged from the hole in the wall on all fours, like an animal, but stood once in the open. It had a body about the size of a man’s but it’s limbs were longer, with stringy muscles and spindly hands that ended in wicked claws. There was nothing about it to suggest reticence, or caution, as it regarded us with it black saucer eyes, it showed no more fear than any hunter has for his prey.

I was powerless to move as it leaned its face into mine and I could clearly see the ugly slash of a mouth settled in mottled brown-green flesh. It opened this terrible maw, and my face was bathed in a sickly sweet stench. Impossible thoughts of flight hammered in my head, as it drew its warty tongue along the side of my cheek. Then it turned, casually grasping Mole by the head as it returned to its dismal burrow, pausing only long enough to snap off one of his legs at the knee where it was lodged in the rubble.

It was many months later before I could think clearly again, and when I did I dwelt long and hard on Mole’s fallacious claim to a ghoul ancestor. But more insidiously than that, I kept returning to my own mother and her persistent refusal to ever speak to me about my own absent father.

The Reserve

Lucy backed up the truck, keeping a close eye on Godfrey’s hand signals as he directed her through the opening in the massive stockade. A brief clatter told her she wasn’t steering true and had brushed one of the tall thorn bushes to either side of the entrance. She slammed on the brakes, causing the cage in back to oscillate slightly as it slid a fraction and then a fraction back, the heavy cables holding it in place drawn taut.

“She’ll take it. Keep going,” Godfrey shouted. Lucy resumed her cautious navigation of the entrance, ignoring the scrape of long needles on the sides of the vehicle.

Finally Godfrey gave a double-handed signal to stop and called, “Whoa!” With the truck positioned firmly within the gap, there was no way to get out of the reserve, except over the wicked hedge, or over the truck. Godfrey hopped onto the bed of the truck, shimmied along the edge a little, and finally hauled himself up onto the top of the cage, being careful not to push any fingers through the thick steel mesh.

The old man surveyed the area within the stockade, all one hundred acres of it. The land hereabouts was good, but he’d taken particular care to make his cargo’s temporary home properly lush, transplanting a selection of some of the finest plants for them to graze on. “Are you coming up here to watch the show?”

“I can see from here where it’s safe,” Lucy said. “I don’t want to fall into those damn thorns again.” Besides, I might be back to play later, she thought.

“Your loss,” Godfrey replied. He threw a couple of catches, then stood, a little unsteadily, on the roof of the cage. With a grunt he pulled up the cage door. Seconds passed, ten... twenty... then the pair in the cage shot out, legs and arms pummelling frantically as they flew directly away from the truck. Godfrey couldn't help but let loose a throaty laugh. “Go on!” he shouted after them, “Away Adam! Away Eve! And don’t make a bloody mess of it this time.”

So Far So Good

Colin sank back into the sofa, and let his hands curl around the cushions to either side, mashing their softness between his fingers. He shut his eyes, drew a deep breath, then deeper still, and finally let the air seep from his lungs in a low moan.

It was time to take stock. He had no job, no prospects of getting a job, and any day now he would hear that he was losing the house. Karen would be furious when she found out about their home, but it would be less of a wrench for Colin, who hadn’t been allowed back there since she had thrown him out.

At least, the bank was relatively civilized. They’d sent letters, pestered him with phone calls and would only throw him into the street as a last resort. Murph the bookie had been more direct about what would happen if he didn’t get his money this afternoon. He’d throw Colin into the street, but only if there was a bus coming in the other direction.

“What do you think?” the saleman asked. “Comfortable, isn’t it?”

Colin opened his eyes and looked up at the smartly dressed young man. It was comfortable, just like the shop itself. Comfortable, and warm, and safe away from his worries.

“Once we do the paperwork, you can take one right out of the shop, and nothing to pay for six months.”

Nothing to pay for six months? Now there was an attractive thought. Colin knew he had to make a decision.

“So, what’ll it be?” the salesman asked.

Colin shrugged. Decisions. There was the river, cold and dark. The roof of the library, and a tangle of burst flesh and broken bones. Or the railway line... perhaps not. He got up from the sofa and walked to the door.

“If you change your mind, “ the salesman said, “I’ll be here if you come back.”

Colin left the shop, saying nothing.

The Other Fourth Wall

Something flew past the taller of the room’s two windows, sending a swift black pulse across the bands of light that blanketed the space below. At either end of a chipped and threadbare wooden cot, two men lay tightly curled, arms wrapped around their knees, quotation marks with nothing to say. The sudden shift in light as, what was most likely, a bird had disturbed the early morning’s grudging sunlight through the bars of the high window, caused one of the men to raise himself from his half slumber.

He rolled softly off the bed, not wishing to disturb his companion, and stretched almost to his full height, but barely able to raise his head much above downcast. He walked slowly and carefully across the damp greasy floor, one leg dragging stiffly, to the second low window, idly scratching through thin brown fabric at his hollow chest and empty belly. On reaching the lower window, he pushed one hand past the bars and inched it alongside the coarse, dried-blood coloured bricks that had blocked out the view for many years. When he had almost three quarters of his forearm squeezed between bars and brick, he was able to wrap his fist around the third bar along, and with his good leg planted against the wall allow himself to hang, freely.

He hung there for less than a minute. eyes closed, feeling his shoulders, neck, and upper back loosen, before letting slip a low moan that startled him from his reverie. Hurriedly, he pulled himself upright, untangled his arm, and turning, saw that his companion was awake. A big, squat creature with barrel chest, and a cannonball head, his room-mate aimed an angry, disgruntled look at the smaller man. His broad jaw worked behind closed lips, loose skinned jowls flapping slightly, as though he was thoroughly masticating whatever curt phrase he was about to throw at the fool who had woken him.

The smaller man, turned back to the window, his left hand pushing through his thinning nest of ginger hair, his right arm raised to rest upon the narrow sill before the dewy bars. He gazed at the bricks for just a moment. “Devilish warm, Lady Hottersmith, what?” he said, his breath misting the air. He was motionless, the silence dragging for several seconds.

“My physician demands that we come here. He insists it’s good for me, as though he knows what he’s talking about.” The big man’s voice was high and reedy, but loud and with a rough rumble he could not quite disguise. “I would much prefer to winter in Brighton. We keep a cottage there, little more than a rabbit hutch. There’s barely room for me, several acquaintances and fewer than a dozen staff. And my niece, of course.”

The small, red-haired, man turned and looked at his large companion. He cocked his head slightly. “Ah, and how is your beautiful young niece this afternoon?”

“I’ll thank you not to take an interest in my niece, Branham! It’s bad enough that the fool girl is chasing around after that miserable painter.” The big man swung his legs off the bed, his abnormally short legs just touching the floor, his feet wrapped in layer after layer of dirty gray bandages. “What sort of man seeks to make a living as a painter? A living? Ridiculous.”

“A living appears to be sufficient for many men, Lady Hottersmith.”

“Geese and goats make a living, Lord Branham. The foolish child should allow that a man of breeding and substance takes a fancy to her, not some pauper that has to make a living. Tell me, do you know this painter? His name is-”

A loud clang, followed by a screeching metallic skirl came from beyond the great green door that bulwarked the room. The ginger-haired man bee-lined for the door, with a shuffling, lop-sided gait, and pressed his head against the cold painted steel. After a moment, he lifted his head away and pressed both hands against the door, but it would not budge. Again, he pressed the side of his face against the metal, listening intently. The big man started to speak but the smaller shushed him to silence with frantic waving of his hand, not even turning to look. The small man held himself there for several minutes, until his ear was numb, then with a slight shake of his head and a final half-hearted test of the doors obstinacy, he turned back in to the room.

He could see his big companion’s eyes screwed up and his jaw clamped. Both his meaty fists were buried in the tattered mattress on which he sat, and his powerful upper body quivered with barely restrained rage.

"Branham, Lady Hottersmith, my ears are positively aflame." a third voice drifted from the shadowed corner of the cell, and the two men stiffened convulsively.


Sophie squeezed his hand. Murray forced a smile, and squeezed back. Gradually his head drifted down into place and once again he was staring at the rich dark oak floorboards, the match of the heavy panelling lining the walls of the exclusive waiting room. This was like no other hospital he had ever visited. Being a Government employee wasn’t always a drawback.

A soft murmur of alarm from Sophie reminded Murray that he was still squeezing and he dropped her hand.

“Sorry, love,” Murray said, a thin smile on his lips. “I’m... I’m.” He shrugged.

Sophie grabbed his hand and wrapped it in both of hers. “It’s okay, pickle. You mustn’t worry. The doctor is going to tell you. Wait and see. There’s nothing wrong with you. You mustn’t worry. I expect all you need are some vitamins. Please, don’t wor-”

Murray cut her off. “Now, who’s worrying?” he asked, leaning into her until his forehead was resting against her own. She could feel how hot his brow was, but forced herself to silence.

“The doctor will see you now.” The nurse had appeared without either of them noticing.

The pair rose from their seats together.

“Doctor Jessop is only expecting Mr. Law,” the nurse said.

Murray gently pressed his wife back into her seat. “You stay here, babe. You don’t know what embarrassing things the doc is going to do to me.”

Sophie managed a weak laugh.

The nurse led Murray into the doctor’s office. After the classic elegance of the waiting room, Murray was relieved to see that the doctor had managed to stamp his own personality on the place, giving it a more informal air. There was even a fishing rod and tackle box leaning against a table in the far corner.

“Sorry, doc,” said Murray, “am I keeping you from something?” He nodded towards the fishing gear.

A wistful look played across the doctor’s face. “Milton Booth was here six months ago. You knew Milt? Of course you did. We called him in for a check-up and he forgot to take them with him. I haven’t had the heart to move them.”

“It was a real shock,” Murray said, his voice drifting away as he spoke. He looked at the doctor expectantly.

“So I’ve seen your notes, what do you think is wrong with you?” the doctor asked.

Murray shrugged. “I don’t really know I... I just feel... it’s like I’m off my game, you know?”

The doctor nodded, jutting out his lower lip. “Can you be more specific? Did you do that little thing we spoke about on the phone?”

“Oh sure, doc,” Murray said, fishing a piece of paper out of his pocket. “I had to ask Sofe to help me. She’s right outside, if you want to bring her in. You know, if you think it’ll help.”

“You tell me what you’ve got first and we’ll see if we need to bother her.”

Murray flattened out the piece of paper and studied it. “This is probably stupid...”

“Go on, son,” the doctor said, nodding his head encouragingly.

“Well, my eyes aren’t right.” Murray leaned forward to let the doctor look into his face.

“Blue.” the doctor said. He got out of his chair, walked around the desk and indicated that Murray should stand. Murray rose out of his chair and the doctor realised his mistake as Murray towered above him. He motioned Murray back into his chair and perched on the edge of the desk so he was looking directly into Murray’s eyes. The doctor produced an ophthalmoscope from a coat pocket and used it to examine Murray’s eyes, first the left, then the right. Finally he put away the scope and gave a small sigh. “Definitely blue.” He moved back around his desk to take his seat.

Murray ran a finger along his piece of paper. “This is what Sophie said in a letter she sent me after our first date. I copied what she wrote exactly. I wanted to bring the letter but she has them all packed away in my memories box.” Murray raised his eyebrows at the doctor, who acknowledged the look with a knowing nod. Murray continued, “She said she- well she said a lot of stuff but she said my eyes were ‘piercing blue, so strong and masculine’. Here, there’s more.” Murray reached into his pocket again and produced a much re-folded newspaper clipping. “This is from my first mention in the local paper.” Murray scanned through the text, before jabbing at the faded paper with his finger. “Here! ‘his honest blue eyes, once they have you, have you at his command’. Boy, that journalist.” Murray glanced back towards the door, then turned back to the doctor and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “She had a thing for me, but nothing happened. I’d never, you know... don’t say nothing to Sofe, okay?”

The doctor winked at Murray, then turned his attention to scribbling notes in his journal. When he’d finished he said, “I’ve been going over your own doctor’s notes from your last visit, and some of the casework from your unscheduled trips to casualty. Would you mind standing for a moment.”

Murray assented and got out of his chair and allowed the doctor to direct him to stand just so.

“Now, just turn your head to the side for me, son.... that’s it. Now lean your head back a touch.” Murray hesitated for a second before complying.

The doctor sucked in a little air. “Tell me, Murray, have you noticed your chin isn’t jutting and determined?”

Murray blinked slowly, then nodded. After a couple of seconds, he added, “And my chest doesn’t seem to be swelling with manly pride.”

“I see,” the doctor said.

“At first I thought it was my new jersey but it’s definitely my chest.”

“At least your shoulders are still broad, brave and brawny.” the doctor said.

Murray tapped his left shoulder. “Naw, doc, I’ve always used pads. It’s for the look. So, do you need to examine me now? Find out what’s wrong.”

“That’s not going to be necessary, Murray. I’ve already seen a lot of this. I can’t give examples, obviously, but it’s more common than you’d think.” The doctor waved a crooked finger at the fishing rod and tackle leaning against the table in the corner of his office. “Ever since then, you’ve all been grounded, right?”

“Is this something to do with what happened to Milt?” Murray said, his voice rising.

“No, of course not, son. But the agency has had you boys sitting in the office for the six months now while the investigation is carried out. You’ve gotten rusty, in short, you’ve lost your heroic sheen.”

Murray snorted, but then he screwed up his eyes and his lips tightened. After a moment's thought, he said. “Is there anything you can do for me?”

“I’m afraid not, Murray.” Murray’s jaw dropped, but the doctor continued, “but there’s plenty you can do to help yourself. You’re not allowed to do anything officially, but there’s plenty an ordinary Joe can do around his neighbourhood to make a difference.”

“I have old neighbours, doc. Seriously decrepit, some of them. I never even thought to ask them if they needed anything. I mean, I was busy, you know?”

“Sure, son, but now’s your chance. Help your neighbours, fetch cats down from trees, that sort of thing. I’ll be honest, the differences won’t be dramatic but it’ll stop your symptoms from getting worse and once you’re back to work you should recover fully in no time.”

Murray got out of his chair and moved round to pump the doctor’s hand. The doctor escorted him back to the waiting room where he let Murray give his wife the good news.

As Sophie and Murray were leaving she asked him, “Do you really think that’s all it was?”

“Pardon my French, babe,” Murray said, “but damn right I do. Did you get a load of that guy’s eyes? I never seen nothing so wise.”

Sophie’s face crinkled in a smile and she pulled herself tight beside her husband as they walked into the sunset.

Oink the Pig.

When the men from the ministry paid their second visit to old man Macdonald’s farm, they didn’t just bring along their briefcases and forms. The first time they’d come to visit they’d shaken their briefcases and waved their forms, but old man MacDonald wouldn’t let them in. He’d shaken his fist and waved his shotgun, and when the visit was over nobody was smiling. The second time they came to visit, they came prepared.

The second time the men from the ministry visited old man MacDonald’s farm, they brought their briefcases and they brought their forms, but they also brought camera crews and cops. When old man MacDonald tried to shake his fist and wave his shotgun, some policemen hugged and tugged him into the back of their van. Now the men from the ministry could do their job.

First they rounded up all the ragged grey sheep and put them in a high sided lorry. Next they loaded cages full of scrawny hens into the back of a van. Finally they gathered up all the crops old man MacDonald had growing in his attic and handed them over to the police. With everything taken care of, the men from the ministry went home, and this time they were all smiling because of a job well done.

Alone and overlooked in a shabby wooden shed was Oink the pig. He had never left the shed and the only light he’d ever seen was whatever managed to squeeze through the rust holes in the roof when the sun shone bright. Eventually, driven by curiosity and hunger, he nosed open the door of his shed and immediately retreated back inside. His eyes blazed from the brilliance outside, and fat pig tears rolled down his dirty pig face, leaving pink tracks in the grime.

With the sunlight now spilling into the shed through the open door, Oink’s eyes slowly adjusted and he cautiously ventured out once more. Unfamiliar heat warmed his snout, as Oink inched into the yard beyond his shed.

“They’ve all gone, Oink,” said a voice from above.

Oink looked up to see his only friend in the world, Charlie the crow. Charlie sometimes perched on the roof of Oink’s shed and told him what was happening in the outside world. Charlie’s stories were often very frightening and there were many nights Oink couldn’t get to sleep because of them.

“Men came and took everything away,” said Charlie. “I’ve seen it happen before, and they won’t be back. You’d better clear off, Oink. There’s nothing for you here, now.”

“Why didn’t the men take me away too?” Oink asked.

“Why would they bother with a stupid little pig like you, Oink?” Charlie said, ruffling the feathers round his neck. “Just clear off, and don’t come back.”

“But-” Oink began to say, but Charlie hopped and fluttered down from the roof of the shed, landing on Oink’s head.

“Tough love! Tough love!” squawked Charlie, pecking encouragingly at Oink’s eyes. “Run away, stupid pig. Run away!”

Oink ran for all he was worth, tossing his head from left to right to dislodge Charlie. Luckily, Oink found the open gate out of the yard and was soon on the road outside. As he left the yard, Charlie flew off his head and perched on the chain link fence.

“Keep running, stupid pig,” Charlie called after the galloping figure dissapearing into the distance.

Oink ran until he could run no more. He didn’t like the game his pal, Charlie, was playing. Why did Charlie always have to act so funny, he wondered.

It was time for Oink to take stock of his situation. He was a clever and resourceful pig, and he would not let this situation get him down.

“I am a clever and resourceful pig!” Oink declared, “and I will not let this situation get me down.”

When he had recovered his breath, Oink set off down the road, determined to find himself a new home and lots of new friends. Within just a few hundred yards he caught sight of a mommy dog stretched out by the side of the road with her puppies playing around her.

“Here’s the perfect opportunity for me to make some new friends,” Oink said to himself. He trotted over excitely to speak to the doggies.

The mommy dog stood up and walked stiffly in front of her pups. She had a great big grin on her face and was rumbling a greeting to Oink as he approached.

“Oink! Oink! I’m a pig,” Oink said. “What are you?”

With lightning speed the mommy dog leapt forward and clamped her jaws around Oink’s nose. She clung onto his nose as Oink squealed and squirmed, and didn’t let go until Oink ran away and was far from her puppies.

“Well, that could have gone better,” Oink said to no-one in particular. “I wonder what I did wrong?”

Oink continued on down the road and soon saw a chestnut coloured horse, grazing on the tall grass that grew nearby.

“Now there is somebody looking for a new amigo,” Oink said confidently. Without a second thought, and brimming with optimism, Oink gayly went to greet the horse.

“Oink! Oink! I’m a pig,” Oink said. “What are you?”

The horse regarded him out of one eye and slowly began to turn.

“That’s a little rude,” Oink thought, as the horse had turned its back on him. He was quite surprised when it lashed out with its two back legs and sent Oink tumbling end over end back up the street.

Oink picked himself up and continued on his way, quickly hurrying past the horse, on the opposite side of the road. A little further along he saw a placid cow, lost in thought.

“In for a penny...” mumbled Oink, as he slowly sidled over beside the cow.

“Oink! Oink! I’m a pig,” Oink said. “What are you?”

A series of dark days and darker nights flashed through Oink’s mind as he flew through the air.

When he hit the ground where the bull had tossed him, Oink said, “That wasn’t so bad.” Then the bull was on top of him again, dancing up and down Oink’s spine until he got tired and wandered back to his thinking spot.

Oink lay on the ground for a long time, going over in his head what he had done wrong. Eventually he picked himself up, dusted himself down and set off down the road again, whistling a merry tune about how things have to get worse before they can get better. A few minutes later he spied a pretty lady pig, rolling about in a pig puddle of mud. Oink had never seen another pig before, all he could see was a friend he hadn’t made yet.

Recent events had made Oink a little cautious, so he watched the lady pig for a long time before going over to say hello.

“Oink! Oink!” Oink began, but he couldn’t help but think about the mommy dog, and the horse, and the bull, and he thought he knew why they’d been less than glad to meet him. So he said, “Oink! Oink! I’m a cat. What are you?”

Now the lady pig was full of hormones, and she didn’t like it when people tried to make fun of her. She beat Oink around the head with her trotters, she bit him along his back and finally she reached down his throat until her trotter popped out of his butt, and grabbed hold of his curly tail. With a tremendous jerk she pulled poor Oink inside out and left him a blubbering blubbery mess by the side of the road.

As she went away, Oink thought to himself, “F*ck me, and I thought it was rough being a pig.”


Suzie Mathers’ mother had too much make up and not enough buttons but when she scooped up Suzie in a hug I didn’t see the cleavage and slap, all I saw was a loving mother and child. I certainly never noticed her trashy dark roots, her stripper nails or, depending on the skirt she was wearing, I didn’t notice anything else. All I saw was a mother who loved her daughter very much. I didn’t have a mother.

One time Suzie’s mother caught me looking at her with such adoration that, right after letting go of Suzie, she embarrassed me by giving me a big hug. I was so ashamed that I hugged her back ever so tightly from sheer mortification. Suzie was my best friend back then, before the juice incident ruined things.

When daddy lifted me from school I never saw a look of joy like Suzie's mother had. I always had to be the one that took his hand, or grabbed his leg. I couldn’t even look him in the face as his people covered our retreat back into the cavernous car.

Graham Luce’s family were dirt poor and sent him to school in patched trousers and scuffed shoes. He was forever telling dirty jokes but I never understood them, and I’m sure everyone else who was laughing didn’t understand them either. Graham smelt a little like sour milk and a lot like an ashtray but sometimes his whole family turned up to fetch him after school. Even when they were hiding behind signs or crouched in bushes, you could still smell them before you saw them. When they surprised little Graham, falling on him like a zombie mob, hugging and kissing him to death, I would have given anything to smell a little sour, a little bitter, just like Graham.

Daddy didn’t hide or joke, he didn’t crease his face with any smile I ever saw, he didn’t so much as bend a knee to greet me. Then he started to work with Bernie and everything changed. Bernie was the love of my life back then and to this day I still put flowers on his grave every year. I don’t care what the new people say.

It didn’t happen at once but after a couple of days with my dad, Bernie would give him subtle signals. A verbal cue, a slight tug on his arm. Something to let him know he should greet me like a real father and not like a shop front mannequin. Daddy wasn’t a bad man, he just never knew to show me he cared. Not until Bernie.

The first time I left school and saw my father smile it almost broke my heart from a rush of joy. He hunkered down and threw his arms wide so I could grab his neck and hang from him as he stood and spun me about. We both laughed and one of us cried a little.

For his part, Bernie never showed me the slightest affection. He was my daddy’s man and totally dedicated to him. He did lick me on the face once, but that was the only time. Guide dogs are such professionals.