One enchanted evening in Whites: so let us start honestly, without indulging in faux ideological one-upmanship, nor casually pretending that back-in-the-day I sat in snug splendour upon a warm seat of influence as a committee member in the Comintern; or even gigged as junior editor of Lotta Continua. I did, but that’s a whole new scandal, a cast of thousands etc. Today I remain a gentleman, albeit one of diminished means, with precious few foolish accoutrements to declare bar my congenital masculine geniuses- these lamentably on occasion will entrance me into forgetting that discretion is indeed, more often than not, the better part of valour (as so happened recently).
you know those times? We’ve all likely had them- in your local
enjoying a quiet drink most probably after having watched a Chelsea
game; quietly & unobtrusively discussing sedulous thoughts with a
few select spars prior to sensing someone parked up at an adjacent
table, prattling inanely to silly pals, spouting immature
observations based solely on their own two-bob myopic ignorant
blinkered opinions. As the night passes you’ve maybe had marginally
more pints than you’d originally planned or accounted for- slowly
yet ever so surely becoming increasingly pissed. Still you can’t
help hearing that obstreperous background persona non grata making
reckless-imbecilic comments, repeatedly getting louder, noisier,
darker- lazily, carelessly playing to a crass gallery of unkempt
dummies. Forebodingly you gradually become a soupçon over bothered.
Still convincing yourself that you’re more mature than him, you let
it pass: no dramas. Urbane anger management clicks in but tellingly
your mate actually revisits the bar- when you thought he’d
disappeared for a well earned leak- hence unknown to you he offers up
yet another unexpected pint of Punk IPA (one of over the eight) &
indebted you honourably, albeit reluctantly, accept his generosity
(loosely thinking ‘I really must bemeandering home to attend to Mother’)
whilst also imagining this prophetic pint could figuratively tip one
over a rocky precipice. However those stellar Whites ‘homies’
easily assure & flatter you otherwise, as they always seem to do,
so obediently one stays put- temporally muzzled.
eating away at your customary happy chemically charged mood swing is
a frigging stale banana, sat at an enormous adjoining walnut dining
table, that you’re now certain is looking for trouble. Still you’re
a refined cultured European, a fully-grown renaissance adult- in
stark contrast to this giant wank*r
& tableau vivant of associated gimps. You like to think that
you’re well above gratuitous childish friction, but no, you just
can’t handle it any longer. Full of drunk-wired-bravado, you
suddenly turn around snarling, hot sang
noble arises, adrenalin pumping- a
visceral grievance evident in both expression & body language.
Each moment seems to flow in slow motion: friends cautionary voices
faintly distant- inaudible, as if you’ve cotton wool stuffed into
both cauliflower ears. Clenching fists, you alter states, as if some
chap’s randomly flicked an emergency switch: you flip! Not only
ready but determined to have a right royal tear up & your primary
target’s that Berkshire sat in the VIP reservation. In milliseconds
you abruptly stand, erect, spiritedly up-out from a deep leather
Chesterfield, approaching the targeted ugly boor (multiple frit
knob-jockeys dotted around him) who senses a legitimate anger &
unadvisedly jerks up in quasi self-defence: ultra violence erupts,
loud voices, screams, tears- but noticeably no tiaras.
Diamond cut crystal glasses get smashed, antique teak tables knocked over. You deal with it, delivering a proper straightener- a real one sided row. That annoying unprepared twat’s suddenly on the wrong end of numerous hard knuckled blows; aristocratic blood is spilled, staining your newly tailored clothes, it’s all across his newly decorated boat race too & his pink, possibly Hollister, or similarly inappropriate branded t-shirt’s now claret-red. His fair weather entourage swiftly departed, melting away from one’s testosterone, clearly flustered now meekly mincing, simultaneously with style, into Boodle’s. He alone remains cowering upon a rich Axminstered floor- his effete spindly legs instructed by his brain to no longer support him due to a barrage of vicious heavy punches rained down upon his battered canister. He winces, peeking up submissively to seek mercy. You glare back admiringly down upon your handiwork, declaring yourself victor as nothing’s coming back. And then finally, post-carnage, you make a swift exit. Heading home, strolling down St. James’s with senses heightened, still shaking slightly with rage cum fear, & feeling as if one’s head needs a fucking enema. Piece by piece one truly considers what’s just happened & whom one’s just totally mullered: only the bleeding Duke of Westminster. MOTHER!
Evan Hay exists in Britain & rather than follow spurious leaders- over the years he’s intermittently found it therapeutic to write out various thoughts, feelings & ideas as short stories to be examined, considered, & interpreted by clinical practitioners who may be able to offer him professional psychological assistance.
Of all the people Ollie had wanted to avoid as he trekked across the schoolyard, Darren Malone was sitting not so pretty at the top of a lengthy list. Dazza, as he insisted on being called, (the daft twat), was the year’s resident big-mouthed bully. Like most bullies, Dazza liked to harass people based on his own insecurities – Dazza’s being his looks. A head shaped like an oversized rugby ball, and his features all curiously clustered around his bulbous nose. It gave him a cartoonist cast that would have been amusing if his cranium wasn’t the size of Sputnik and built like the proverbial you know what. Their paths had crossed occasionally. Being good at sports meant Ollie spent time in the company of people he’d rather ignore. Ollie liked his sports but would rather talk about books, movies or video games with the “geeks”. His tactic was to keep his head down, do what he had to do and get out. Not because he was afraid. Because he’d rather not interact with the preening cocks and their gushing teenage testosterone at the best of times.
was not the best of times.
Ollie had missed the first month of what was his final year at high school. The big one. The one where it all counts. Or so Principle Fink had droned at an assembly before summer break. Fink was an all right principle, all things considered, but was incapable of anything other than boring students out of any thought of the teaching profession. Thankfully Ollie had missed that too, but had Ted, a kindred spirit, gave him the jist of it during the holidays. He had kept Ollie up to date with all the gossip that usually swirled around any place populated by teenagers. A natural storyteller, even he couldn’t make Finks proclamations anymore exciting than they were.
had been in hospital. It hadn’t been a surprise to him, in fact
he’d been waiting for this operation since he was ten. Five years
of dentist appointments, jaw moulds, braces, removed teeth and
anxiety had led him to an operating theatre on a sweltering May
morning in 1998. Never operated on before, Ollie had left his
underwear on under his gown. The last thing he remembered, as the
nurse had counted down from ten whilst they mixed the anesthetic into
his bloodstream, was why did he have to be naked under a flimsy gown
that revealed too much if they were working on his face?
Ollie had a recessive jaw. It’s common. What wasn’t so normal was just how recessive it was. If someone had a gap greater than two centimetres, an operation loomed. Ollie’s was 3.5cm and getting wider because of his developing body. He had been told at one of his many consultations that some parents insisted on the procedure if their child had a gap of a measly centimetre. For cosmetic reasons. ‘Eating’ through a straw, and having a bedpan for company on waking six hours later, Ollie had wanted to hunt down every one of those pitiful excuses for parents and do some reconstructive work of his own.
jaw had been pulled forward as much as it could. Placed like the
final piece of a demented jigsaw into the gaps where braces had
manipulated Ollie’s teeth to accommodate the foreign invader. This
meant that the jawbone needed breaking. With a hammer and chisel. In
two places. Then bolted together with metal plates, wired up to
resemble Fort Knox. There were two gaps at either side of Ollie’s
bulldog grin so he could ‘eat’ liquid food. They hooked his left
arm up to a drip that made sure he didn’t dehydrate, while the
nurses attached his right arm to a machine that gave him sweet pain
relief. His visitors asked him how he’d felt, but Ollie couldn’t
say. He really couldn’t as it’s difficult to talk when you’re
physically incapable of moving your mouth.
be told, it wasn’t the best way to spend an unusually warm summer.
Ollie had been one of the shorter lads in the year, though years of playing football, rugby and Judo had lent him a sturdy physique. He looked like a dwarf from TheLord of the Rings, but less hairy. As fate would have it, puberty had decided that this was the summer to hit Ollie with everything it had. On top of the constant agony from his reconstructed face, downy hair had sprung out on his chin and top lip. As if the position his jaw had been in had held off the onset of fluffy manhood. He grew half a foot too. This would have been a very welcome change, as what boy doesn’t want to be taller? Unfortunately Ollie wasn’t able to eat solid food during his recovery, so what he gained in height, he lost in weight. He now resembled the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. With a jaw like Buzz Lightyear.
jaw was unwired at the end of September, a few weeks earlier than
planned, and for two good reasons. First, the smell. Ollie was in
real danger of gagging on the putrid taste of it. Brushing his teeth
was tricky, what with the sheet of metal and rubber bands covering
them. Ollie could quite understand why people had stopped coming up
to his stifling bedroom to visit him. Plus, he wasn’t much of a
was the weight loss. It had been four months since Ollie had eaten
real food. Had he known the wait would have been as long and tortuous
as it had been, he would have had something more luxurious than a
medium chicken McNugget meal with a banana milkshake on the afternoon
before his operation. Post-op, his weight clocked in at just under
seven stone. Now, this wouldn’t have as much of a problem if Ollie
was still a tippy-toe over five foot tall. It was a problem because
Ollie was now five foot eight and had been three and a half stone
heavier. Ollie could think of a few people that would welcome that
kind of weight loss, but for his consultants it was quite the drama.
had avoided mirrors over the summer. He bit the bullet the morning of
his return to school. He only recognised his eyes glowering back.
People had always said his eyes were pretty. At least he had them to
fall back on. A summer in bed had turned him into a milk bottle. His
dark hair, curling down to his shoulders and across his brow,
exaggerated the pallor. Cheekbones so sharp they could have their own
set at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The facial hair, that Ollie
thought rather cool as teenage boys do, looked like someone had stuck
the cuttings from a hairdressers floor haphazardly around his jawline
to fool a weary liquor seller into selling eager teens some cheap
jawline. His eyes kept falling back to it. Buzz fucking Lightyear.
Ollie had dreaded that first day back. It was hard enough returning to school late, all the questions, the guarded looks, the open stares, the glorious rumours. He felt like a newborn horse, leggy and feeble, thrust into a world he didn’t want to be in. Unsure of what his new body could do. He looked like a different person, a strung-out Brit-pop reject desperately needing several hot dinners. It made a hard task even tougher. Ollie wasn’t sure he was up to the test.
the fucking hell happened to you?” cried Dazza, the daft twat,
spotting him like an owl spying a scurrying mouse across a vast
distance. Voice dripping with glee at the prospect of a fresh target.
Someone to pour his teenage angst on. To burn the whole fucking thing
Ollie’s jaw ached.
He was conscious of all the eyes on him. The whispers, the giggles,
the pointing. It was hot. So fucking hot. He hadn’t been cool for
what felt like eons. He thought about doing what he always did around
Dazza. Keep his head down. Don’t engage. Ollie gave it great
consideration, as empires rose and crumbled between the seconds.
“Go fuck yourself, you daft twat!” he screamed. Months of pent up aggression and fury unleashed, Ollie’s fist landed squarely on Dazza’s crunching, formerly bulbous nose.
David Green is a fiction writer based in Co Galway, Ireland, and has been published in North West Words, Nymphs, and will appear in forthcoming anthologies from Black Hare Press, Nocturnal Sirens and Iron Faerie. David is the host of ‘Off The Page’ a monthly open mic designed for aspiring writers to showcase their work.
I never wanted to be a retailer. It was one of those things other people just fell into. For me, it was a means to an end – some much-needed money to pay for my university course. My parents were right behind my academic endeavours. Well, right until they needed to give me some money so I could continue them. Since I was young, film had enraptured me, so naturally that’s the path I wanted to travel on; directing, screenwriting, set design, acting – I just wanted to be a part of it.
Happily, a rather
prestigious film school in London had taken a shine to my college
portfolio and had offered me a spot. Not being able to rely on any
wealthy benefactors, I calculated that I’d have to work at least 2
and a half full-time jobs to cover the tuition fees and the dreaded
London rent, and this was before other trivial matters such as food,
clothes and utility bills.
So, I did an art
degree while working a full-time job in a video game store. I found
the job to be fun, and I seemed rather good at it. So much so they
offered me a store manager’s position by the age of nineteen, with
a decent wage for a working-class northern lad. I figured I could
easily juggle the job, the degree and a healthy amount of social
time, which really means drinking. I was wrong.
My art degree wound
up where most art degrees do; stuck in the retail job with no idea of
what to do next. I was twenty-four, burnt out and on my second
mortgage because of the urgent advice of friendly bankers for the
need to be on the market ladder. I’d become a little too fond of
the old drink, too. My loving parents had moved back to Ireland a few
years previous. With no real family around to anchor me or to dole
out what I needed; an arm around the shoulder and a bit of advice. I
drifted through life instead. Drawing upon the vast well of knowledge
my twenty-four years afforded me, I surmised a new challenge was in
Now, in retail, a new challenge means ‘getting a new job’. It’s a buzz phrase that recruiters absolutely fucking love and amusingly means fuck all. An actual new challenge would have been to do something with my studies, to travel the world or to do a new, worthwhile degree. Anything else than to find another management job in retail. This is how I found myself, at almost twenty-five, being the only male member of staff managing a team of teenage girls at a rather well-known, create your own teddy bear, establishment.
As the name would suggest, my day-to-day involved building bears for little children. The wee ones arrive in store and select what the more macabre side of my brain delights in referring to as “the skin” – an empty animal husk. Next, we attach the lifeless sack to an enormous tube that breathes life into it. I say life, but fluff would be a more accurate description, and we can make it as rigid or limp as anyone would like. We call these workers the “fluffers”, which is also a title for a person in a certain section of the film industry, but means something rather different. The job description is similar.
It doesn’t end
there. The next task is to place a heart, filled with love and
wishes, into the bear and to brush its polyester exterior with a
tatty old comb. We can’t allow our newly created minions to escape
the workshop naked, so we’re driven to sell a plethora of clothing
accessories to these eager kiddies and their soon-to-be out-of-pocket
parents. Last but not least, they create a birth certificate. I’ve
seen some wild and fanciful names. Also, Ben. A thousand times, Ben.
I used to like that name.
I barely care about
any of this. Ironically, I find it quite a challenge to inspire my
colleagues who, to a person, would rather be anywhere else on a
Saturday than having created forty-odd teddy bears before noon. We
have to be happy. It isn’t a choice. We’re rated on exit surveys
on how happy we were whilst making the cuddly little bastards, and
anything less than an eight isn’t good enough. Personally, I find a
day where I’m a six to be quite the splendid achievement.
My life is far from
ideal, and my work offers no escape. I’m going out with a girl who
doesn’t believe me when I tell her I’m not happy. She says it’s
just a phase I’m going through. I’ve tried to break up with her
occasionally. The last time she told me that redecorating my house
would make me feel better. I consider telling her I’m gay, just to
see if that will end things.
I don’t want to
think about my house. There’s this thing happening that people in
the know are calling a ‘recession.’ All I know is that my
mortgage payments have gone through the roof. I was cheerfully told
to take out a variable interest rate as I would save myself plenty of
money in the long run. My £250 a month fee has now turned into £600.
I’m told by the advisors at my northern England-based lender to
just sit it out and that “At least you’ll be chipping away at the
interest!” Where would the world be if the banks weren’t so
honest and helpful?
I find myself trapped at home and literally trapped at work. More often than not inside the shell of a six-foot-tall female bunny named Dot. I am the only person able to fit the suit properly, and so it has become my burden and nemesis. On a weekend, I wear the suit for at least six, forty-five-minute stints, and some days I’m encased for the entire day. My only relief is escaping into the storeroom to remove my rabbit head for some blessed fresh air, only for an eager seventeen-year-old to ask me what’s the best way to ensure a customer takes a pair of shoes and wig for their new best friend.
On one occasion, I’m
told to carry out a disciplinary meeting with a
seventeen-year-old-girl who I’d caught stealing bear clothes. I
could understand if it were money, or even the teddies themselves,
but I found myself bewildered at this amateur thief’s idea of a big
score. Unfortunately, the interview ended up being scheduled
in-between parties, and timing forced me to conduct the disciplinary
in the suit, minus the head. I can only imagine what she thought.
Inevitably, she became unemployed, and I escorted her off the
premises, as protocol dictates. This meant walking on to the shop
floor, in the full mascot outfit; the customers cannot see a bunny
with a human head in any instance. I frog marched the guilty party
away from the store forever, a solemn six-foot tall bunny hanging its
head in regret and shame at the doorway.
It is another busy Saturday and the heat inside the mascot suit is unbearable. My nose tells me that our petty cash budget doesn’t cover dry cleaning. I take comfort because it is my sweat, as I stand in just my underwear so I don’t pass out. Then I realise I’ve only worked here for six months and that someone else must have perspired just as profusely as me inside this monstrosity. We use the mascot suit for children’s parties, which we hold in store, and is a most desirable bit of business for us. Dot is a big attraction for the partygoers. I could feel the love emanating from the kiddies if I wasn’t so numbed to basic human emotion. There’s dancing but no singing, as my voice would shatter the illusion that I am not in fact a giant female bunny. I entertain myself between hugs and photos with the image of whipping my rabbit’s head away to reveal the horrifying, sweaty reality beneath. A more rational thought takes hold. Perhaps I just need a new challenge.
David Green is a fiction writer based in Co Galway, Ireland, and has been published in North West Words, Nymphs, and will appear in forthcoming anthologies from Black Hare Press, Nocturnal Sirens and Iron Faerie. David is the host of ‘Off The Page’ a monthly open mic designed for aspiring writers to showcase their work.
seven days of intolerable confinement, Izzy decided that this foggy
afternoon was the right time to free herself. And, if she could
She had been testing
her crippled body since the morning darkness, inundating her
extremities with signals to flex, and, with any hard-earned luck,
Her weak arms appeared up to the task; she guessed her weight to be
just shy of one-hundred pounds. Her legs, however, remained stubborn,
anchoring her to the bed. For all the training she had subscribed to
these counterparts, none was more rigorous, more vital than her
relationship with oxygen had always been of a toxic nature. A
university athlete who had relied upon her immaculate lungs for
victory, it had been an unreliable ankle that decided ten metres from
an important finish line was the time to snap, end her career, sink
her into the depths of depression, and enrol her in a new, lifelong
sport: smoking. Three packs a day, four when she was feeling
particularly good (or bad), for fifty years.
now the ghosts of cigarettes past were preventing her, in spite of
her cooperative arms, from liberating herself, and, more importantly,
exhaled a laboured breath, painfully inhaled another. She should have
been accustomed to it by now, but the air filtering throughout her
sanctuary still tasted as artificial as it smelled. She felt the
rather stale intake race through her mouth and nostrils, hoping to
reach the pair of black bags that kept her going for no real purpose.
clean dose of oxygen reached her ashen lungs, then exited her mouth
and nose in another laboured exhalation. Izzy imagined the polluted
molecules warning the new wave of respiration about what corruption
lay within her.
looked to her right, locked eyes with the never-blinking Clara, and,
with a look that said “Don’t you dare move now”—she couldn’t
risk precious breaths on her roommate’s deaf ears—began the arduous
watched as she willed her right arm across the centimetres that felt
like kilometres of bed. The feeble limb made pitiful progress before
stopping entirely so she may regain what energy she could.
surge of anger propelled her arm against the plastic sheet dividing
her and Clara. Her hand slid down the thick material until it landed
in the crevice between the sheet and edge of the bed. Using this
newfound leverage, Izzy began pulling her weight with her right arm,
while pushing against the mattress with her left. The juicy idea of
giving up had crossed her mind, just as it had when her former
severely fit self, besieged by physical and psychological cramps, had
desired to slow her run to a crawl at the three-thousand-metre mark.
Her conditioned lungs had burned then. Now they were volcanic.
the agony and certain death would be worth it. Not only for herself,
but Clara, who had never felt a pang in her endless life.
now found herself at a ninety-degree angle: the top half of her body
sprawled laterally across the bed; the bottom half remained affixed
to where it had been since she embarked upon this suicide mission of
sorts. After a quick mental team huddle with her barely-working
parts, she used her right hand to push against the plastic sheet. The
damn thing was like a wall of concrete. Her reluctant body threatened
to pull the plug on the whole operation, but a little bit of that
wholesome anger, and a lot of thinking about what would happen to
Clara if she failed, helped free the bottom of the plastic sheet from
between the mattresses. Izzy exhaled so deeply, the fog outside of
her only window found its way to her eyes.
felt her old nemesis oxygen assisting her rushing blood to restore
her vision. But she knew better; death had brushed past her.
she urged herself.
hadn’t intended to escape by falling on her head, but as she shimmied
herself closer… closer… closer, then over… over… over the
edge of the bed, it seemed the only way. Her head free of the plastic
sheet, the faint aroma of cooking bombarded her olfactory. She
couldn’t help but sacrifice a valuable breath to take in the recipe
she had shared with her daughter long ago. You’re
using too much garlic powder,
she thought, the seasoning burning her sinuses. But that was
Isabelle: too much or too little of everything.
shoulders hanging over the edge of the bed, thinned blood rushing to
her head, Izzy wondered—not for the first time—what Isabelle
would think when the time came to trudge upstairs, check on her dying
mother, and find her however she ended up. Hopefully,
with Clara in my arms,
wondered if her daughter would even care.
pair of Izzy’s had lived a life of few kisses and plenty of bites.
Izzy had made the cliche attempts to live via her namesake
(Isabelle’s ankles were still intact, after all). Her daughter had
indeed run; not on the track, but away from home, turning the typical
one-off act of rebellion into a quarterly sport. When she was home,
Isabelle would blame Izzy for all of her life’s unwanted biographic
details: the casting out of her father, the selfish act of naming her
after herself (never mind the tradition), the reason for her
isolating unattractiveness, the asthma and other varieties of
respiratory ailments courtesy of her chain-smoking. That her only
child had decided to punish her by never marrying, never having
children, was not lost on Izzy. Still, when Izzy had become too ill
to breathe on her own, it was Isabelle who rushed her to the
hospital; and it was Isabelle who brought her home, tucked her into
bed, and made sure the oxygen tent kept her alive.
after seven days of intolerable confinement, seven days of
embarrassing baths and changes, seven days of no words exchanged save
for begrudged greetings and farewells, Izzy had decided that this
foggy afternoon was the right time to free herself. And, if she could
could no longer see her only friend, but knew she was right where she
had left her. I’m
she thought, hoping the suffocating air out here wouldn’t render her
in the old days, when slower competitors somehow cruised past her,
good old-fashioned anger fuelled her cause, and she writhed her
dangling body further over the edge of the bed like a fish out of
fish that wants out of her damn bowl!
she goaded herself, and grew angrier at her handicap. The fingertips
on her right hand touched something cold, hard. It took her a moment
to realize she had touched the floor. Her left hand, still pushing
against the bunched-up comforter, worked alone to send her over the
rest of the way.
the space of seconds, Izzy saw the ceiling, then her abdomen, then
her legs, the latter two crashing down on her. Within the same
seconds, she had felt emptiness beneath her, then the same cold, hard
floor forcing itself into her neck and spine. Precious breaths were
knocked out of her, and the fog returned, this time most certainly
accompanied by death.
took her a few moments to realize that death smelled an awful lot
like garlic. A few more moments, and Izzy understood she hadn’t
died… and that her daughter wouldn’t have heard a thing if she had.
She remained alone. On the floor. Alive. For now.
enough to save Clara.
surely, Izzy wriggled away from the bed until her dumb legs hit the
floor. Still, her daughter remained downstairs, oblivious, or
willfully so. But in case obliviousness turned to awareness, Izzy
needed to move as quickly as her lame body would allow at this late
stage in the race. Last
sitting herself up was impossible, she needed to figure out how to
get Clara to come down to her level. Could’ve
just grabbed her, and brought her into the tent,
she scolded herself, save
yourself this stupidity.
But she knew it wouldn’t have been fair to Clara, to have her
lifelong companion go from breathing one brand of plastic air to
another. No. She wanted Clara’s first breath to be
one-hundred-percent, certifiable oxygen… even if it was tinged with
flexed the fingers on her left hand, expecting to feel a break, akin
to that long-ago ankle, that would prevent her from crossing this
finish line. Everything felt in working order. Hand shaped like a
spider, the fingers crawled along the floor until they found the
nightstand’s feet. They climbed past the bottom drawer, then the
stopped, having reached as high as she could go. She looked at the
progress her hand had made, and was angered and disappointed to see
the tips of her fingers so close to the top. So close to Clara.
longer able to uphold itself, her arm fell to the floor for her
daughter not to hear. Her shallow, disparate breathing became
shallower, more disparate. The retinal fog grew thicker. And she was
certain the last time she would see Clara was in the memories she had
very limited time to relive:
into her late mother’s bedroom—this very same bedroom—to sneak a
peek at Clara, high on her shelf.
Clara on the eve of her mother’s passing—in this very same
bedroom—on the condition that she pass Clara on to her
daughter, should she have one, when her own end was near.
Isabelle to take Clara off the shelf, and sit her on the nightstand;
the plan to release Clara had been confirmed, all the more so by her
daughter’s routine sneer and remark: “Ugly thing.” Even had
Isabelle loved Clara as much as she had, Izzy felt it her
duty to finally free her.
on, you useless cigarette-holder. Last fifty metres.
nicotine-stained spider-hand rediscovered the nightstand’s feet, and,
once more, began its ascent.
the bottom drawer.
the middle drawer.
the bottom of the top drawer.
the top drawer’s knob…
hand sprang back, the drawer with it.
the heavy piece abruptly stopped, having reached its limit. The
nightstand leaned slightly forward, and Izzy glimpsed her legacy as
the dead meat filling of a floor-and-nightstand sandwich. But the
nightstand had other plans; before it settled back into place, it
made sure to shake free the tall, glossy box.
impact was painful, a sharp corner hitting her perfectly in the eye,
but nothing compared to the torture her lungs were putting her
through. Instead of fog, there was rain. Izzy blinked the burning
tears away, bringing not the nightstand into focus, but a face.
what a beautiful face it was. Skin made of meringue. A faint smile on
pink lips barely formed. Rosy cheeks forever pinched into dimples.
Black eyebrows arching over a pair of unblinking bejewelled eyes. Had
they seen Izzy? All
the Izzy’s? From Grandma Izzy to this sorry-excuse-for-an-Izzy?
stared at each other for some time, Izzy refusing to blink, like her
little friend, lest she slip into death during one of those slivers
of blackness. The smell of garlic was fading. She couldn’t tell if
her daughter was altering the recipe in some way, or if her senses
were gradually shutting down.
she thought. Perhaps her final thought.
Izzy used the left hand that made this final reunion possible to locate the pristine cardboard flap above Clara’s head. Not with anger, but love, Izzy tore open the lid that had sealed the doll in her prison for three generations, and watched as Clara took in her first-ever breath of fresh air.
Alfredo Salvatore Arcilesi spent a decade penning an eclectic bibliography of award-winning short and feature-length screenplays, before transitioning into the world of prose.
His work often explores the lives of everyday people who find themselves trapped in the complex labyrinth of physical, mental, and emotional illness and isolation, self-doubt and self-reflection, and must find a way–if any–to confront themselves and the world around them, in real and surreal settings.
Currently, several of his short fiction pieces are enjoying stays in multiple publications.
Mark my words, apart from being a seminal thinker & slimy foreign art monger, Vas Pretorius DeFerens was something of an enigma to friends, enemies, & medical science alike. Allegedly he was a proud possessor of either three or four perfectly formed testicles, which tourist coach parties of the incurably bi-curious & naive were regularly welcomed to examine (upon a reasonable payment of corkage), just so long as they proceeded slowly through Vas’s open fly- at which point invariably he brutally resynthesised those tiny teeth into a sudden playful biting unity, normally after drawing a groper’s attention to some trivial detail of architraving, weather, etc. (as advertised, I‘ve completed my memoirs as a short story; a quite draining & frankly illegal process which necessitated breaking all 37 of the past Labour government’s Police & Criminal Justice Acts. But in the name of Mammon, what can you do?) So it’s all quite fascinating, & whilst I have no obvious quarrel to pick with any man’s physique (with the sole exception of Eric Pickles), I mention these positively material facts to warn that you’ve unadvisedly strayed from the path, & night must fall. Keep up. You youngsters could learn a lot if only you paid heed.
me confess without duress: I really can’t legitimately claim to
understand Vas’ nature, despite the fact (& source of endless
gossip) that we spent multiple lunar months engaged in a perfervid
co-habitation in a Hoxton studio; such was his delightful mastery of
disinformation, dark propaganda & intoxication that, I never
managed to arrive at a final figure for his testes (fleeting glances,
all from dangerous angles, tentatively recall they were jet black &
vulcanized like his durable character). Whatever ginger evidence I
have I lay freely before you; they’re only crumbs I spare, each
liable to be snaffled up by a myriad of nocturnal beasts coming to
life in bracken & furze, but follow them as best you can- it’s
too late to turn back now. Alas, there are no garnished spicy
vol-au-vents to sustain you. You’re in way over your head I fear.
Vas’ legendary libido was immune to entropy or ennui. His grinding demands were a continual worry, unconcerned with tradition, expense, or, to be frank, practicality- I’d often discover Dutch gentlemen’s magazines (of a kind featuring photography of undraped women) squirreled away in the oddest of places. I knew they were his as Superintendent McGregor, my old Vice Squad pal (since gone freelance), verified his inimitable paw prints. These were good old days of covert cash transactions, my boy. Investigation also found disturbing designs & working prototypes for- shall we say gadgets, in many more than one of the two-hundred & thirty-six secret compartments of his secretary. Now, I don’t think for a moment Vas’ ‘preferences’ particularly interest you- you’ve got enough on your plate as it is, looking at those dreadful holes in your old worn boots (are they hand-me-downs?) & the sheer depth of snow round here. But they do cast a slanted light on a brilliant criminal mind, & whilst it may be the case that you maintain law is crime- I make no excuses, offer no apologies. Vas will always be a veritable villain. Not in business practice, where all’s fair & little love guaranteed, but in his damnable lack of honour regarding aesthetic criticism. Vas’ self-promotion, remarkable before he met me, became nothing less than lupine afterwards- for goodness sake no, I wouldn’t climb that tree if I were you; it’s the first place they’ll sniff out silly. Do get a grip & take some responsibility for your plight! I digress: so I woke up one morning, a little after noon, to find an estate agent’s clerk staring at me with undissembled fear. Back in the glory days of the Great Boom, you understand, when any property vacated before teatime would be occupied & fully furnished by vespers, at a sixty percent mark up. On reflection, that stunt had many of Vassily Perestroika Deferenovitch’s hallmarks- handcuffs, treacle, an anaconda, a mousetrap in the first aid box; but how long had he been planning it? Before he met me? After I said what I did on demand about his precious book lionising Andy Warhol? Maybe it was thin skin or sheer caprice- it scarcely matters does it? Pardon me? Oh, howling? I don’t think so. No, my mistake, yes there it is, right behind you.
I reliably heard a week later, through McGregor, that he’d shackled up with Sir Hugh Corduroy in Belgravia. Nice but dim, a remarkable chap, Sir Hugh, could stammer incoherently in no fewer than eight Arabian dialects. Gosh! Hottentot, Farsi, Yiddish, take your pick: he was incomprehensible in it. Anyway, as you may know, previously he was respected as a patron of the arts, pillock of the church, & former director of the V&A etc. Tolerated by peers, trusted by subordinates, feared by staff, a great Englishman – before you could say ‘Duchess of Gloucester’ he’d pen a more brainless Times diary than Sir Roy Strong. No, trust me, I have clippings. In retrospect it seems accumulatively predictable that a lifetime of total emotional deprivation should have led him into Vas’ gingerbread parlour. OK, pipe down, I’m telling my stories have patience, but yes, now you mention it, they’re all around you. Man up. Where was I? Of course, what followed was contemporary folklore- how Sir Hugh, through Vas’ ‘Caliban Arts’, traded the Elgin marbles for Andean wood carvings of doubtful provenance, his Rembrandt sketches for an acrylic tennis racquet pixillage- cats & umbrellas also featured, if memory serves, that’s right- created by a second year arts student, some sordid strumpet of no good breeding- his Vermeer for a breeze block & tarpaulin ‘installation’, his entire portfolio of primary shares for a chance to wrap the outside of Acton in back issues of The World of Interiors: such insatiable insanity. Destruction ensued, as night follows day. I fondly recollect running into him behind King’s Cross one wintry evening, in the company of a young Wandervögel; that such a renowned member of Blighty’s Establishment should fall into rank disrepair, honestly one shouldn’t laugh. I can still picture his ragged silhouette hunched against a brooding February sky, insipid light shining through his fallen arches, rain that spluttered from his choked guttering, & a colony of zoonotic bats hanging around uncomfortably in his cracked façade. He was totally spent, utterly ruined. Died later next spring, ulcerative colitis returned the post-mortem, although the cruel whisper in Whites opined he was burgled to death. No! Don’t start running, that’s what they want, they’re simply waiting for it. Have you learned nothing? That’s better. Anyhow, after inheriting Corduroy’s estate, Vincent Pietro DiFerrari consolidated his much heralded renaissance by leading a popular national crusade to recapture & repatriate all those treasures he himself had shop soiled to sell abroad. Amazingly, or rather inevitably, he once again came up trumps (turned out clauses written in invisible ink were legally binding after all, on the principle of caveat emptor & tuff-titty). There never was any lawful chance to stop the bounder (he was consistently one step ahead), but after that carnival of criminality nobody else even tried. He branched out; diversified, pretty soon there wasn’t a pie in the proverbial pantry innocent of his thumbprint. His Tavistock Square pied a terre became a swinging hot spot, precisely the placed to discuss perspectives in post-structuralist criticism, have one’s nipples pierced, take a heroin overdose, play the Cocoa Futures’ market; swaggeroos & mountebanks from five continents perched there. Arbitrageurs, faith healers, nihilistic young rock stars, depraved heiresses with thousand pound orchids in their hair & many faces of Satan tattooed across the length & breadth of their inner thighs. All these were nothing more than local colour, background noise to VPD’s glaring blaring bray. Well whistle if you must, by all means, & respect for trying, but do you really, even in your wildest dreams, think they appreciate Mozart?
Oh, Vas, I’ve met a few genuinely great men, but only one colossus: he became a cultural reference point, the zeitgeist incarnate. He was the opinion former’s opinion former, intellectual fashion leader, international trendsetter, pathfinder & trailblazer. The New Man- one of his wheezes, the New Woman too, for that matter, the New World Order for all I know (he hasn’t written me recently). Rottweilers, eco-friendly washing powder, Porsches & red braces! You’ve never thought about it, have you? But red braces! Like unavoidable diamond bullets of truth! The genius of the man, the anti-mensch, the monster! At his peak, countless leading institutions from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons to the Bilderberg Group accredited him. He’d grab a canapé & a glass of Moet at the Soviet ambassador’s daughter’s sixteenth birthday party (Order of Lenin First Class on his ample bosom), before dashing off to a debriefing with some CIA Head of Station behind Victoria Coach Station. Crikey! A wanky conceited cunt he may’ve been, but Vas was paid a sum not unadjacent to thirty thousand pounds sterling by a British Broadcasting Corpse to propagate his philosophy for one hour every Monday morning on Radio 4’s Today Programme: the horror. I recall the last time I saw Vlad Perrier Difference: live on ITV evening news, barrelling through Heathrow, reporters armed with the sacred light of truth cowering before bodyguards licensed to kill & armed with electric cattle goads. It was only a week after the Crash I believe- he wasn’t the sort of Johnny to hang round waiting for women or children, no sir. Everything created has a sell-by date, he remarked, almost to himself, before turning triumphantly to face down his inquisitors. I’ll be back, he said.
Meaningful pointed questions were being asked by then, OPERATION SCAT came to light, & fifty fat middle-aged merchant bankers woke with headaches to discover their virginities defiled. We, willy-nilly his disciples, awoke with hang-overs to discover our palettes no longer smeared with the actual colours our eyes beheld; in order to have fun one must retain at least a memory of youth. The rest you should know, & here we are. Well, anyway, those were the end of days my friend- when the scary forest was just a distant line on the horizon, & many & sweet were the birds that sang. Well, I haven’t time to stand out here with you chattering all night. Excuse me, but I’m a busy man. Yes I’m sure I’d feel the same if I were as poor as you. I still maintain it’s a lifestyle choice, so own it. Oh, come now, don’t take on so- here, you can have my handkerchief, you cannot see in this light but it’s a red spotted jobbie. Is there a safe route out of here for you? Not really, I made an effort to assist with directions but they’re just breadcrumbs. I wouldn’t pin too much hope on crumbs. Listen, if you’d stop crying for a moment. And let go of my hand. What’s that? Yes indeed, they’ve got big eyes haven’t they? Don’t let them see that you’re afraid, it excites them! Look here, I don’t mean to be unkind, but sadly it’s your own fault, really. In any case, I’m truly sorry, but it’s sauve qui peut nowadays. Well, goodbye sonny. And yes, bonne chance to you, too. Bye. I beg your pardon?
Oh, suppertime, I guess.
Hay exists in
Britain & rather than follow spurious leaders- over the years
he’s intermittently found it therapeutic to write out various
thoughts, feelings & ideas as short stories to be examined,
considered, & interpreted by clinical practitioners who may be
able to offer him professional psychological assistance.
The killer was about to strike the unsuspecting victim, the gleaming dagger raised in his right hairy hand, cold eyes fixed and remorseless…
check the water-level in the storage tank. Fast.”
killer was about to strike…
must get up, when residents of the housing society come out of the
lift or go to the lift.”
always complain. Say you sit in the chair, buried in a fat Hindi
thriller. Never get up. Never look up. Just that. Reading. Sitting in
the chair only.”
it is a good habit.”
are not paid to read on duty here.”
always remain in the lobby of the building. As there is nothing much
to do, I read a novel.”
not argue, moron. I am the secretary. I can fire you immediately.”
Saab, I just explained. I read in the afternoons. It is better than
sleeping in the chair, during hot humid afternoons of Mumbai.”
said do not argue. If you do that again, you are out. You guys! Very
rude and lazy.”
young watchman said nothing. The thin secretary glowered and then
pay only six thousands for a twelve-hour duty. Even that amount is
not paid on time,” said the older watchman.
think they own us. Call us rude. Say all guards are rogues,” said
the younger one.
“Do not worry. Things will change. Do your duty.”
“Do not think too much. We are poor folks. We have to be tolerant of these rich rascals. They have money. Power. We have none.”
“OK. I always do that. But it hurts.”
“But it does not mean they should insult us. Hurt us. We have no money. But we are human beings, like them only. We too have respect. Our Izzat.”
man, be patient and calm. You have not seen the brutal side of the
world yet. Treat yourself as lucky. You have got a job. A uniform of
a private security guard. An I-D. In Mumbai, an I-D is gold. At
least, you earn money. Other migrants are not that lucky.”
hurt easily. Change. This is a jungle. Predators roam here…freely.”
young security guard said nothing.
I feel restless. They scold me, too. Once a drunk resident slapped me
very hard. They openly abuse and curse those who watch their
other day, a woman shouted at me. They make me run for errands. Some
of the men fight on any excuse. Humiliating!”
I went through all this. This is my fifth year. Guarding these rich
were you earlier?”
worker in a textile mill. It closed down 20 years ago. Did odd jobs.
Got a family.”
know. You have to survive somehow.”
am school drop-out. Cannot do the office job. This one is easy.”
were others. Many drifted away.”
Crime is the other side of the story of a megacity.”
“Temptingly simple and fast. Good money in it. Sense of power, also.”
“The crime bosses recruit the discontented ones from the mushrooming slums. Life stinks there for these half-animals. They are all a disillusioned, bitter lot. Desperate to do anything for money. Life is a big hell.”
“Yes. No power. No water. A 10×10 feet room of sheets and ropes. You go out to relieve. Long queues outside the three public toilets. Three toilets for more than a hundred people. Hell!”
offers easy money.”
a lot of women and drinks and good food.”
And lot of cash.”
of my close friends became a hired killer.”
“Who?” asked the younger guard, the reader of the thrillers.
“Lal Chand. LC we called him.”
“How did it happen?”
was small and thin. A weakling. One day he got beaten by a person in
That goon always taunted his younger sister. LC objected. The local
goon beat him black and blue.”
morning, LC killed him before the neighbours.”
that so easy?”
older one was quiet for long.
“In fact, LC had called one of his cousins, a sharp shooter for a dreaded gang. He hovered in the background. The goon was surprised to see a quiet LC and grew more aggressive. LC took out his revolver and with a shaky hand and goaded by the accompanying professional killer, his cousin, shot him three times. The surprised goon went down in a heap.”
became a local hero! That puny man! Once a timid who could not swat a
mosquito, swiftly turned into a fearless hero.”
“The police were relieved at this elimination. LC did their dirty job. No witnesses. Nothing. But LC became the new goon. He terrorized. Drunk a lot. Went to bars and splurged money on bar-girls there.”
older guard looked hard at the younger one in his twenties. “The
end was not that cheerful.”
cops killed him in a staged encounter.”
was a threat to a powerful older don operating from Africa. That don
paid the cops who killed him in broad daylight. Before hundreds of
people. Killed him in cold blood.”
the younger guard could say something, a harsh voice called out:
younger one ran towards the A-Wing of his housing society.
That same night, a drunken resident abused him and hit him in the belly, for not standing up from his plastic chair. “Who has torn my bike’s cover seat? You blind? Bastard, can’t you keep an eye on the strangers coming into our society? You useless shit! Getting paid for not doing your job. Stinking idler. Bastard.”
The older one rushed out and pacified the drunk in his early 20s. The young guard cried in pain, doubled up on the cold marble floor of the well-lit lobby of the high-rise. The man shouted and stamped his feet and then left, cursing.
night, in his troubled dream, Raj Kumar Kurmi, 22, from a remote
village, turned into a gleeful killer, going on a spree of killing
and shouting hoarsely at the dead in a thin and piping voice.
action took place in slow motion:
First: stabbing the landlord of the tiny village in the bloated belly five times. Long dagger, in the moonlight, dripping with fresh blood. He shouting: “This one for insulting my elder sister and raping my wife of thirty days.” Then, in a fast motion: Stabbing the money-lender for cheating him out of his one-acre land, at the edge of the village nestling in the region of the brooding Himalayas, near the border with Nepal; followed by the killing of a local politician who spread caste-hatred among the folks there, and then, fleeing from a stunned village, arriving in Mumbai and then, enraged and foaming at mouth, killing the rich of the high-rise and the young drunk resident, laughing manically, in the moon-lit night, while fresh blood dripped from his long curved dagger, a wolf, surprisingly, howling in a far-of forest, on that cold night; then, he, becoming that wolf in the jungle…
had been in some sort of daze, oblivious to everything but the end
goal of escape from reality on the work of a favoured author. Even
the news that an old classmate had been arrested for subversion
barely impinged on my consciousness. The Christmas melancholy with
all the memories of past missed opportunities overwhelmed me.
Depression had eclipsed my senses.
had no idea how I’d got in. The Derry Central library had been
closed to the public for this hour. Perhaps it was the haircut, I
told myself, recently trimmed as a concession to my lazy approach to
hair care. Then again, it could have been the generic blue-green coat
I had bought from an army surplus store in an effort to eke out my
paltry finances; or something about my bleak demeanour. Maybe it was
even an honest to goodness act of God.
the unexpected sequence of events which allowed me access, there I
was: snuffling through an array of books which failed to pique my
interest; an oddity in itself, for I have always been an avid reader
and love books of all sorts.
saying ‘all sorts’, I’m excluding ‘pass-offs’ unimaginative
authors insist as being their own creation and, of course, the
assembly-line titillating trash identifying themselves as romance
novels: the sort worshipped by some women and most shadow-hugging
teenagers. I was considering re-reading an Asimov when I felt a tap
on the shoulder.
police sergeant and I shared an awkward moment: he; surprised and
offended that an unauthorized civilian should be present; I, offended
and surprised that a cop should not only materialize in my local
library, but have the effrontery of laying a hand upon me. What I
actually verbalised was:
cop’s eyes shrank to their normal suspicious little slits, as he
gave a non-committal shrug.
there was a tragic and macabre example of alliteration. The political
party elected by Carson’s peers, one of the more intransigent
schisms of republicanism, had been refused their mandate by the
the ‘occupying’ bit was less of a physical presence than a
financial miasma and a briar patch of governmental procedures choking
independent decision-making like a drawstring on a medieval purse.
the futility of their situation, the more established republicans had
pursued diplomatic avenues to block the reintroduction of the death
penalty. However, paranoia and egocentric ruthlessness had brought
the death squads in from the cold, the same cold which gripped me as
I recognised their insignia as they blocked the exits.
artiste had designed a new coat of arms for them: sable hound rampant
on a maroon and chevron gules background – or something along those
lines. I was concentrating more on being invisible than accurately
memorising their silly badge.
civilians remained within the building, save for one tremulous
desk-clerk. I had been so absorbed in my private thoughts that I had
either blithely walked through or entirely missed the silent
evacuation; my unheeding wandering from aisle to aisle frustrating
detection until now.
you see him?” The civility was uncharacteristic. I grimaced,
nodded, and followed the uniform up the central aisle to where Carson
sat, unfettered, in the middle of the library. The placement was
equidistant from any potential escape route. I knew him well. My legs
made the decision for me. Without transition I found myself sitting
opposite him, four eagle-eyed assassins looming over us.
I offered by way of greeting.
for saying yes,” he acknowledged. He was giving nothing away. Big
Brother could do his own dirty work.
“Don’t even know how I got here,” I assured him hastily;
nightmare scenarios racing through my brain. Why me? Had he somehow
assumed it was I who informed? Don’t
I scoffed at myself. What
do you know? You haven’t seen him since he joined.
not …” I sought to explain.
know,” he reassuringly waved away my denial. “I spotted you on
the way in and asked Beaky to let you stay. The Managing Director is
here as a witness that you come to no harm.”
I grinned weakly. “I thought she was a clerk.” The relief I felt
was belied by the constriction I felt in my ribs.
she wanted to leave a representative in her place. She said she had a
meeting to attend.” He grinned maliciously. “I insisted it be the
top boss. I remember how it was.”
not too happy.”
we laughed. It petered out into an uncomfortable silence.
“How long?” I asked to break the eggshell moment.
two minutes,” Beaky interposed. Identification wasn’t difficult.
was some movement at the entrance and a wild-eyed delivery boy thrust
a piping hot tray into the hands of one of the squad, before turning
on his heel and beetling off back to the relative safety of the
“Hey,” the squad member began, “you forgot…”
“No charge,” came the incrementally distant whimper.
took the special constable’s place as he bore the tray to the
table. He waved his Sniffer around the dish and plastic bottles
before and after carefully removing the foil.
and eggs, Spaghetti Bolognese and two bottles of mineral water. Enjoy
your last meal, Carson.” Some people have a knack of vocalising
burly form of Beaky positioned itself between them as the squaddie
sought to vent his displeasure. Sullenly, he returned to his post.
Carson chowed down as if nothing had happened.
other bottle’s for you.” He gestured towards the unopened
“No thanks,” I croaked nervously, but determinedly, “but I’ll
take a swig of yours.” The dead man smiled gratefully.
I’m innocent, you know?”
that ever make a difference?”
“Asking the wrong guy. Tell my father the evidence was dismissed.
My solicitor had all the guff, but they got to him.”
still have it?”
disgust, Carson spat a bit of gristle at one of the guards, not
Beaky. His eyes told me that finding the solicitor would be an
exercise in futility. Worm food.
“Still,” he feigned a yawn, leaning back in his chair to stretch
his gangly limbs, “you know me.”
“Kerr-ching,” he uttered in imitation of an old till drawer as
confirmation, and finished his meal. His eyes misted, yet an urgency
played around the irises. “Tell Caroline and the kids I’m not
going anywhere, you get me?” He lifted my shaking hand and pulled
it to his heart.
probs,” I promised, dry-mouthed at the salute of old comrades.
I don’t remember what we talked about for the remaining half hour,
only that he smiled and cried, laughed and lied as I strove to fill
his remaining time. When he left he merely shook my hand and blew a
raspberry at the Managing Director on the way out. It had always been
an ambition of his, he had confided during those final minutes, to
make at least one pompous ass soil their underwear. From the
insidious odour oozing from behind the desk, I think he’d achieved
I wasn’t allowed to move from my place until plates, utensils and
bottles had been counted and removed; the tables and chairs checked
top and bottom; and I had been frisked and searched. This duty fell
to the one Carson had dubbed pig-face. Obviously disappointed,
despite having the sadistic pleasure of subjecting me to a
humiliatingly thorough search, the pig grunted, chucked the tin-foil
into the nearest bin and stormed out of the building.
after the Land rovers and assorted armoured escorts had cleared the
block, their engines fading into the distance, the public begun to
timidly filter back into the library, and the terrifying stink of
well lubricated weaponry been drained by extractor fans, did I dare
shadows, which had slumped across the aisle as Carson and I had
talked, sprang to attention as the sun shouldered its way through the
cloud cover. Cautiously glancing about me, I retrieved the tin-foil
from its resting place and read the electrolysed print: a combination
number to a safe.
pass his message on to his wife and family, but first I had documents
to relay to the International Court of Human Rights. He never called
his wife by her first name, opting instead for Morf
– an affectionate rendering of her maiden name, Murphy.
else would have used ‘Murf’, but Carson had always loved Tony
Hart’s creation. I suppose he’d reckoned he would lump the two
together. The quirks of sentiment, eh?
barge which bore the Christian name Jimmy had so subtly stressed,
was moored next to mine on the Shannon. I couldn’t imagine how he
had arranged it all, or how I was going to manage turning up on the
Carson doorstep after so long.
definitely didn’t know what I was going to say about his execution.
I didn’t know a lot of things, but I knew that when I finally
visited his family, I wanted to be able to look them in the eye and
promise that his name would be cleared.
Irish writer, Perry McDaid, lives in Derry under the brooding brows of Donegal hills which he occasionally hikes in search of druidic inspiration. His writing appears internationally in the Bookends Review, Red Fez, 13 o’clock Press, Curiosity Quills, Aurora Wolf Literary Magazine, Amsterdam Quarterly, SWAMP and many others.
1636 saw the Netherlands in the grip of an enormous and unlikely
demand for all things tulip bulbs! So great was the demand, that
people were making fortunes on the stock market; the rarest of bulbs
could fetch as much as the cost of a house, each. Every day the stock
market was bursting at the seams with brokers and buyers all
shouting, pushing and shoving in the fight for tulip bulbs. A number
of people believed they would make their fortunes overnight. Hubert
van Meissen was one of them. Now middle aged, he had been born an
opportunist and was convinced that tulips would be his future, the
gateway to the aristocratic lifestyle he had always dreamed of
had already purchased a large, airy, spacious house in one of
Amsterdam’s most exclusive areas; now to complete his show of new
found status in the world, he needed a wife. It was after another
hectic morning in the stock exchange and while in a coffee house with
some of his friends that he noticed an attractive and very young
woman preparing to leave the coffee house with two older women, her
chaperones. Before leaving the coffee house himself, Hubert made
enquiries regarding the young woman, and the proprietor informed
Hubert the young woman’s name was Anna-Marie Helzing, a frequent
visitor to the coffee house. Van Meissen decided he would like to
meet this Anna-Marie Helzing and planned to frequent the coffee house
more often and find a way to contrive an introduction.
About a week
later Hubert van Meissen’s luck was in while walking down the
strasse heading for the stock exchange, when he spotted Anna-Marie
Helzing and her chaperones entering the coffee house. He hesitated
for a moment then made for the coffee house. A little brass bell
above the entrance tinkled as van Meissen opened the door and stepped
inside. Then, seating himself at a small circular table covered in a
bright red, chequered cloth close to the three women, he ordered
time Hubert sat sipping his coffee and eavesdropping on the
conversation of the three women until it became obvious that they
were preparing to leave. Then, he suddenly moved his chair backwards
as if to stand up and bumped into the back of one of the elderly
ladies. As Hubert had planned, her coffee cup from which she was
about to drink the final drop tipped forward and spilled down the
bodice of her gown.
goodness,’ gasped the surprised elderly woman as a small brown
stain began to spread over her bodice. Pretending concern, Hubert
began apologising profusely and quickly produced a handkerchief for
the lady to dap at the stain with.
introducing himself and offered to purchase cakes for the ladies by
way of an apology for his clumsy, foolish behaviour.
replied the second older woman. ‘I’m afraid, Meneer van Meissen,
that is out of the question, although kind of you to offer, but we
are about to leave as miin man has business associates arriving for
luncheon and we are expected to attend.’
insist,’ pressed Hubert. ‘We are yet to be properly acquainted
and I will also pay for a cab for you ladies. Now, how does that
well. I suppose one little cake won’t hurt,’ replied the woman
who now introduced herself as the young woman’s Moeder and her
dochter as Anna-Marie. The second older woman was the young woman’s
Tante. Hubert pulled up a chair and sat down. Indicating for a
waiter, he ordered cakes and soon found he had the two older women
eating out of the palm of his hand, particularly when he emphasised
his wealth and status in the community. The dochter, Anna-Marie,
seemed a little less interested at this stage.
of this meeting was a number of accidental brief encounters, and
before long Hubert had asked permission of Anna-Marie’s parents if
he may ask her to go walking through the parks and along the canals
with him, which were soon added to by way of dining out, theatre and
By the time
Anna-Marie’s birthday came around, Hubert had discussed marriage
with her parents, who had agreed with enthusiasm as van Meissen was
clearly wealthy and had a more than suitable home for a bride. So
Anna-Marie was not only delighted with the gift of a puppy, but acted
surprised as young ladies were expected to at the marriage proposal
and engagement ring purchased at great expense from Amsterdam’s
were hastily made and the couple were married within the month, with
Anna-Marie moving into the beautiful spacious house with a servant to
do the cooking and chores. On arrival Hubert surprised her with a
gift of a beautiful green and blue parrot in a cage, which had been
suspended from the ceiling in the hall of the great house.
after Hubert and Anna-Marie had settled down to married life, Hubert
invited a friend to dinner who was familiar with the thriving art
community in Amsterdam to discuss with the couple Hubert’s wedding
gift to Anna-Marie. She was to have her portrait painted, and the
three of them sat round the table discussing this intention while
waiting for the artist to arrive.
was the first to notice a tall young man approaching the house, and
shortly afterwards a knock was heard.
will be Matteo,’ laughed Hubert’s jovial friend as the servant
opened the door. The moment their eyes met, Matteo and Anna-Marie
were attracted and could barely keep their eyes off each other
throughout the discussion to arrange for Anna-Marie’s portrait to
be painted, and a considerable sum was agreed. Almost simultaneously
as the young couple met for the first time, the parrot flew from his
cage, which had been carelessly left open, and disappeared through an
open window. Matteo, who couldn’t wait to be alone with Anna-Marie
and get to know her better, wanted to begin immediately and suggested
the following morning; Hubert having noticed nothing agreed.
At ten am
the following morning, Matteo arrived with his artistic accoutrements
in a cart and was shown to an upstairs room that had been prepared
for use as a studio and he began setting out his materials. First the
easel, then one or two canvases were propped against one wall and a
table beside the easel was spread with paints and brushes. Then he
set about a nervous wait for his subject to arrive.
minutes later two pairs of footsteps were heard on the stairs, and
both Hubert and Anna-Marie entered the room. Matteo’s eyes lit up
at the sight of Anna-Marie, as did her eyes at the sight of him. The
sight of the lovely Anna-Marie this morning, a little more scantily
clad than the previous day, excited him, and as he indicated for her
to sit down on a chaise longue, then picking up charcoal and paper,
he asked her to lower her pink silk dressing gown to reveal her
slender long neck and sculpted shoulders. He felt the merest trickle
of perspiration slide down his torso. Feverishly he began to sketch,
trying hard not to spend too much time gazing at the way her neat,
small, pert breast swelled slightly while resting on the weight of
her arm, as the silk dressing gown slipped a little lower causing her
white cotton chemise to fall from her shoulder.
Anna-Marie raised her dark smouldering eyes towards Matteo, her lips
parting slightly, Hubert gave a short cough and dropped his watch
back into his pocket, which brought the couple back into reality with
a sudden start.
that will be enough for today. We have a ball to attend this evening
and I do not want my wife to tire herself. Anna-Marie, get dressed,
please. I want you to rest now so you will enjoy the evening more.’
Meneer van Messien, you would care to inspect the sketches before I
transfer them to a canvas?’ gushed Matteo.
well,’ replied Hubert. ‘You go ahead, my dear. I’ll ask the
servant to bring lunch to your room and to you here,’ instructed
Hubert turning to Matteo.
wish, miin man,’ replied Anna Marie, pulling both her chemise and
dressing gown up around her shoulders as she moved towards the door
and left the room.
very good drawings,’ murmured Hubert thoughtfully. ‘Yes, begin
work. My wife will sit for you again tomorrow.’ And with that van
Meissen left the young artist to his work.
A short time
later van Messien was heard leaving the house. Moments later a note
slid under the studio door. Matteo left his work, picked up the note
down to the lower floor
boudoir is the third door on the left.
moment’s hesitation, Matteo left the studio and descended the
stairs only to be met by the servant on her way up with his lunch.
Meneer Matteo, I was just bringing you your lunch. Don’t you want
it?’ questioned the surprised servant.
course,’ replied Matteo, ‘but I need some air first so I thought
a short walk. Please leave the meal in the studio for me.’
replied the servant who continued on her way upstairs.
to attract attention Matteo knocked softly on Anna-Marie’s door.
a soft female voice bid.
opened the door and stepped into the room, closing the door behind
him and locking it. Anna-Marie was stood beside the dressing table
still wearing what she had worn for the sketches.
she gasped and a moment later they were in each other’s arms, each
searching for each other’s mouths, kissing passionately, exploring
each other with their tongues. Matteo’s hands moved towards
Anna-Marie’s waist and untied her dressing gown, which slid down to
the floor; then, with arms raised, her chemise came off revealing her
naked body. Matteo began caressing her small perfect breasts while
Anna-Marie tore at Matteo’s shirt, which he quickly pulled off.
Turning Anna-Marie around, he lifted her onto the bed and, still
kissing and caressing her body, teased her legs gently apart and slid
his hand between them. Anna-Marie gasped and tore at the lacing on
Matteo’s pants, aware of the stiffness beneath the fabric. At last
her hand caressed his cock and she guided him inside her. Their skin
glistened with sweat as they moved together in perfect
synchronisation, both enfolded in ecstasy. Peaking at the same time,
they then lay breathlessly entwined and fell into a deep slumber.
It was late
afternoon when they both woke. For a few moments they lay still,
listening to the patter of rain drops on the window pane. Then a
clock chimed five pm from somewhere in the house.
gave a start. ‘We must part, my love, for now. Miin man will be
home soon and I must be ready for the evening.’ With a lingering
kiss, Matteo reluctantly left.
love-making afternoons began to take place, meaning the portrait did
not come along as quickly as expected, and the servant began to grow
suspicious, then so did van Messins. With Matteo making feeble
excuses, such as the paint being a problem, it was taking longer than
expected to mix it to the right colour and consistency he would often
claim, but van Messiens kept life normal.
Then, as the
weeks passed, the air grew cooler as the seasons began to change,
leaves changed from green to brown and began falling from the trees.
Then came the day van Messeins returned home to find the servant
standing waiting in the hall for his return.
packed her things and left with that artist this morning,’ the
servant sniffed. Van Messiens just shrugged, poured a glass of wine
and waited for supper. This would be the start of his downfall,
although he did not yet realise it.
following February 1637 just one year after van Messiens dream
appeared to have become a reality, the mania for tulip bulbs came to
a dramatic end. Overnight the stock market crashed, leaving a number
of newly wealthy people destitute. Shattered and numb with shock, van
Messiens returned to his beautiful house, which would soon be lost to
him in a daze.
As when his
wife left, the servant was standing in the hall waiting for his
return. When he walked in, he looked straight at her and said, ‘I’m
the whole of Amsterdam knows,’ the servant replied solemnly. ‘It
was the least I could do to wait for your return.’
in his eyes van Messiens gazed about him at the large spacious rooms
and antiques, then he looked at the servant. ‘I’m sorry I can’t
pay you, I’ve nothing left to give.’
Master. It will be fine,’ she gently answered.
you go, you know the silver chocolate pot?’
course,’ replied the servant.
something to wrap it in. Don’t let anyone see you with it. Take it.
You should get something for it to feed your family,’ instructed
van Meissens. ‘Then go before the bailiff’s arrive.’
van Meissens took a bottle of wine from a cupboard. He sat at the
table and drank until the bottle was empty. He then left the house,
leaving the door open for the bailiffs, and walked dazedly down first
one strasse then another, gradually filling his pockets with stones.
When he reached the canal he stood for a few moments looking at the
gently rippling water reflecting the blackness of the night sky;
then, sitting on the canal wall, his feet dangling in the water, he
gradually eased himself down further and further into the dark water,
feeling the weight of the stones pulling him beneath the water’s
surface, until only one or two air bubbles could be seen. Then
nothing but calmness.
days later a farm labourer walking along the canal noticed a body
floating face down in the water and raised the alarm. Several people
came hurrying to the scene and with some effort pulled the bloated
body of van Meissens free of his watery demise.
It’s hard work
being a king. At least, that’s what kings would have you believe.
All those heavy crowns and the repetitive strain injury from all that
royal waving. I imagine at least one king must have met his end after
toppling from a balcony, too (though it’s quite plausible that some
assassin gave him a push).
Yet, somehow, I
think kings have it easier than they make out.
Kings are lazy.
That’s all there is to it.
Even on the chess
board, the king is the laziest of the bunch. Those bishops and rooks
are zipping all over the board. The knights are the champions of
jumping. The queen – well, she’s the busiest of them all. Even
those slow moving pawns can be forgiven, as they march slowly into
the jaws of certain death. But the king? Not him. He’s skulking at
the back, hiding behind his army, never moving more than one square
at a time except for darting into the shelter of his castle.
No. The average
king is only interested in doing the least he can get away with.
Work? That’s for the peasants. The occasional gala event, perhaps
opening the odd library or hospital, and spend the rest of the time
on hunts and at balls and feasts. No sense doing anything that might
upset the people.
Once in a while,
however, a king breaks the mould. A king takes power with energy and
enthusiasm and some downright bizarre hobbies. They inspire their
subjects, terrify their enemies and put all the other kings to shame.
They don’t tend to last long. Regal duties soon crush their
outgoing spirits and leave them as bitter, twisted old men, if they
don’t get assassinated in the meantime. That balcony is looking
particularly tempting tonight, your majesty…
cruel irony alone is enough to bring them down.
go-getting, unusual king went by the name of Melvin. I know, I know.
You can’t believe there could ever be a King Melvin. The history
books do tend to overlook him, it’s true. They tend to skip over
the gap between Henry XVIII and his uncle’s wife’s grandson,
Henry XVII (what can I say? I think the scribes lost count – it was
a confusing century) and declare that either one Henry ruled longer
or the other started earlier, or even that the kingdom spent three
years in anarchy. Perhaps historians prefer it that way. Trying to
explain King Melvin is… difficult.
For one thing,
Melvin refused to wear a crown. He had the most magnificent hair,
which he kept on a stand by his bed at night so he wouldn’t crush
it in his sleep, or vice versa; a bouffant wig some six feet high and
home to three birds, a family of dormice and a small butler that
could attend to his every whim should the regular butler be off on
holiday. A crown, he said, would be taking things too far. On royal
occasions when a crown was demanded, the royal potato wore the crown
instead. (Sorry to disappoint you, but the potato was a Maris Piper,
and not the King Edward you might expect. That would just be silly.)
King Melvin was a
kind and friendly king, often throwing gold from his castle windows
to the starving peasants below. This went a lot better after the
first attempt, when he started first taking the coins out of the
sacks that held them in his vault. Three peasants were crushed in
that first deadly display of generosity.
He also had a
fondness for nature. At the start of his reign, it was not uncommon
for King Melvin to be seen going for a gentle jog in the forests
around the castle. This was brought to an equally gentle end after
three bears, two wolves and a confused badger had to be executed for
threatening the life of the king. Melvin was sad about all of these,
especially the badger, and he proposed an alternative – he would
live in a brand new castle, made entirely from nature, and he could
smell the fresh grass and the woodland flowers without ever leaving
It took two years,
but the finest architects, weavers, forestry experts and farmers
found a way. The new castle was not so much built as grown. The walls
were a light frame of saplings strung with ivy, the carpets were the
freshest of spongy forest moss and the walls were clad with tall
reeds and grasses from the river banks. The entire castle was a
living sculpture, every blade and petal still living and growing.
Birds nested in the parapets and insects buzzed happily over the
canopy of leaves that formed the roof. The people were immensely
proud of the Green Castle. Even Versailles could not compare to the
grandeur of this bold undertaking.
And perhaps all
would have been well, if it were not for King Melvin’s unfortunate
I said before that
these more… active rulers pursued pastimes that were a little
strange. King Terence III held yodelling contests during his reign.
Queen Alfreda was so fond of cake that she ate six cakes for
breakfast every day. When she finally died of her outrageous obesity,
collapsing with simultaneous liver failure and heart failure just as
she was walking down the aisle to marry the Duke of Pembrokeshire,
even the wedding cake was in tiers. Compared to the knife juggling
King Michael IV or the Elvis memorabilia so loved by King Phillip IX
(not the singer Elvis – this was long before his time – but Elvis
Cooper, the bawdy jester), King Melvin’s obsession was positively
King Melvin loved
to collect thrones.
large thrones, gold thrones, silver thrones, bone thrones, lone
thrones, twin thrones, trombone thrones, moaning thrones, groaning
thrones, home thrones, work thrones, thrown thrones, lost thrones,
found thrones, thrones of swords, thrones of skulls, thrones of
games… he didn’t care. Whenever he found a new throne, he had to
Soon every visiting
dignitary or merchant looking for a favour knew what to do. Buy the
king a new throne, and he’d shower you with gold, and he’d even
take it out of the sack first. The floor of Green Castle was packed
full of royal seating. The annual festival’s game of musical chairs
could last for days as there were far more chairs to take than people
to sit in them.
As the throne count
went up, Green Castle grew ever more cramped. Finally, something had
to be done. The king summoned the architects, the forestry experts,
the farmers, the weavers, the thatchers and told them that the castle
needed expanding. They needed more throne room.
A quick survey of
the surrounding area ruled out the land to the north (too rough, too
rocky) and the south (arable farmland, vital to the kingdom). The
western expanse was no use – that’s where the old castle still
stood, and several armies over the last three centuries had failed to
take it down, so demolition seemed unlikely. To the east, the old
forest still called Melvin for a last jog. He didn’t have the heart
to cut it down.
There was only one
direction left to build, and that was straight up.
began that very day. An old weeping willow, spiralling up from the
floor, served as a staircase to the upper level, where two lines of
young oak trees provided a second floor via a network of branches. A
carpet of foliage covered these branches. With space to move at last,
King Melvin ordered his collection of thrones moved to the upper
level. Downstairs, the business of ruling the kingdom could finally
proceed – and the next game of musical chairs would be over in less
than four hours.
hindsight, they should have known. The King of Monaco, on a flying
visit from his homeland, was so impressed by Green Castle that he
gifted King Melvin with the largest, most extravagant throne that had
ever been built. Mahogany framed, lined with gold and jewels,
cushioned with the finest down from the fluffiest of pipistrelle
bats, it was a dazzling and irresistible gift. Twelve footmen were
needed to drag it up the curving willow to the upper level, where it
was given pride of place in the very centre of the upper floor.
There was a lot of
ominous creaking, and then came a mighty crash. The new throne had
proved too much for the delicate natural timbers of the castle. As it
came crashing down, so too did dozens more thrones of all kinds. The
castle groaned and shivered, and then the sapling walls and the grass
cladding folded in on itself. To the horror of all who watched, Green
Castle collapsed inwards. King Melvin, along with his retinue, was
crushed to death beneath his own throne collection.
King Henry XVII
took over the kingdom, moving back into the main castle. He didn’t
collect thrones, or indeed collect anything – aside from dust, and
taxes. He lived another fifty years before falling off his balcony,
but he was one of those boring kings that never did anything special
beyond that. He’d learned a valuable lesson from his predecessor.
People living in
grass houses shouldn’t stow thrones.
there was a slip of paper, folded into four. It sat in the pocket of
a heavy green overcoat.
Dorothy hurriedly fastens the large buttons on her heavy green overcoat. The click of the lock signals a release. She slams the front door of the detached house.
flinches as she eases the white turtle neck jumper over her head, and
down the contours of her shoulders and back. She picks up the black
stirrup pants from the bedroom floor and sits back onto the bed. He
turns towards her; opens his eyes before drifting back to sleep.
The kitchen welcomes him with the smell of freshly cooked: eggs, bacon, baked beans, and fried bread. One place set; one napkin, Daily Mirror, one cup and saucer.
is on her knees scrapping a mixture of smashed plate, eggs, bacon,
baked beans, fried bread and blood into a dustpan.
She holds her breath as he dips the fried bread into the yolk of the egg, he pauses: “Perfect, now why couldn’t you do that the first time?”
She pours the tea as he swallows his last mouthful of breakfast; removes the plate and places the cup and saucer before him. Her grip intense on the plate – as he slurps the tea she closes her eyes – waiting “Spot on.”
A silent sigh as the plate sinks beneath the Fairy bubbles. She watches as the grease floats to the top. If allowed to smile, she would at this image, as it impersonates her underlying feelings.
chink of his china cup alerts her to be swift. A neatly wrapped
package swops places with the china cup and saucer. He picks up the
greaseproof paper package, held together with string and smells it:
Dorothy nods. She hands him his flask of tea. He places the flask on the table; unwraps the neat package to reveal two perfect white triangles. In silence he selects one triangle; peels the bread apart, exposing the pink flesh. He rises to his feet; takes four deliberate steps towards Dorothy. He throws the triangles at the toes of her suede boots and places the heel of his black Oxford shoe onto the pink flesh and twists: hissing through clenched teeth; “It’s Monday.” A fine shower of spittle shocks her eyes. He turns around hesitates glances at the clock, puts on his collar and leaves.
it gives me great pleasure to introduce you to Mrs Darby our speaker
this evening and judge for the best scones competition.” Dorothy
stands up. “Thank you, madam chair…my talk this evening; ‘Life
as a vicar’s wife.’
third place Mrs Blackburn, in second place Mrs Smith’s cherry
scones and in first place Mrs Green.”
“Thank you, Mrs Darby, a delightful talk and I hope you will join us for tea and scones.”
closes the front door and leans against it. A shard of light glows
under the parlour door, her body is frozen with dread, a moment to
realise. She hangs her green coat next to the black overcoat with the
velvet collar and goes to make a pot of tea.
grabs her wrist as she sets the tray down, his eyes seeking what is
not there. Once released she sits down and drinks her tea. The mantle
clock chimes ten, Dorothy clears away the cups and goes to bed to
waits in the Little Blue Café on the high street staring out of the
window, she thinks to herself, what secrets are the people that pass
by hiding. Gentlemen hurrying along in their over coats and trilbies;
are they kind to their girlfriends or wives? Young ladies laughing
and chatting rushing to work; are they truly happy?
The waitress brings, her toasted
teacake and milky coffee. “I thought it was you, it is isn’t
it…Mrs Darby?…you probably don’t remember me, I bet you meet
loads of real ladies being married to a vicar and all…”
Dorothy recalls that evening of course she remembers her, it’s the cherry scone lady; Mrs Smith who should have won first prize if she wasn’t the vicar’s wife and it wasn’t the WI.
She remembers, she remembers him coming up the stairs, his dark shadow over her and then she felt the heaviness of his darkness.
Smith orders herself tea and toast and tells Dorothy about little
Billy and his verrucas and Nellie and her nits.
Then she stops and asks: “So, how are you?” No one has asked
Dorothy this for so long it takes her breath away. She finishes her
coffee and starts to talk.
Mrs Smith listens, she does not try to make Dorothy feel better, she is not shocked. Dorothy knows she is not alone. Mrs Smith has lived the same life. She understands the fear that stops her fighting back, keeps her in check. Mrs Smith does not question; she writes her name and address on a slip of paper and carefully folds it into four. She takes hold of Dorothy’s hand; pressing the paper into her palm. Mrs Smith pays her bill and leaves.
hurriedly fastens the large buttons on her heavy green overcoat. The
click of the lock signals a release. She slams the front door of the
detached house; hesitates, then runs towards the Underground Station.
She takes the Northern Line not knowing where she is going.
She slides her hand into her coat pocket; pulls out the slip of paper – unfolds it and reads the address. Dorothy steps from the train at Warren Street.
Sally Shaw is a full-time MA Creative Writing student at the University of Leicester. She writes short stories and poetry, gains inspiration from old photographs, history, and is inspired by writers Sandra Cisneros and Liz Berry. Her short prose, A School Photograph, has been published online by NEWMAG. She worked as a nurse for 33 years and lives in North Warwickshire with her partner, three Pekin Bantams and Bob the dog.