“I’m okay. I’m fine. Seriously … no rush,” the man on the stretcher claimed, his arterial blood staining the pandemic-proof material.
Mór Ríoghain, her pale Irish skin shining with sunscreen, watched idly as an amateur longboarder with horrific gashes from a curious bull shark was carted up the beach on at considerable speed by two bemused paramedics. She noted the care they took not to shake anything off the stretcher despite their haste.
“He flat-lined,” she heard one protest.
“Eh?” The man had to be restrained from sitting up.
“Say nothing, just hurry,” the other responded as they passed so close, that she had to shield herself from the sand kicked up with a copy of Vogue.
She waited until the ambulance’s wail was eclipsed by the liquid respiration of the sea, before nudging Arawn on the double beach towel beside her. The Welsh-Gaelic god’s SPF50 sunscreen stuck to her elbow.
“It’s Siesta Key and a delightful eighty four degrees – give me a break.”
“You didn’t even look.”
“Sharks aren’t supposed to like shallow water,” he grumbled.
“You reading the tourist brochures? These buggers swim into ornamental canals in gardens and swimming pools, never mind shallows, or haven’t you been paying attention.”
“They creep me out. I leave that side of the business to–”
“To whom? Me??”
“Ummm…,” Arawn voiced uncertainly, the pitch of his tone rising and falling in tune with the breakers.
“Not to mention the backlog.”
“Do you need Céibhfhionn as a phone-a-friend?”
Arawn peeled off the sunglasses and rolled onto one elbow to bestow a withering glare. “The last thing I need on holiday is the Gaelic goddess of inspiration with her ‘there … see … doesn’t that cloud just look like a shamrock … don’t the waves sound like…’ and on and on and on. She’s a pain. I just want one … one day of relaxation where I can just escape my eternal responsibilities and just chill. Is that too much to ask?”
“That glare is just terrifying,” Mór Ríoghain yawned, wiping the unwanted sunscreen from her elbow with an absorbent pad, and reapplying her own. “It’s a wonder you don’t slip down the beach into the sea: you’ve that much of the stuff on you.”
“We redheads have to be extra careful,” Arawn advised. He leaned back and slipped the shades back on. “You’re the goddess of death. Why don’t you sort the poor bugger out?”
“He’s Welsh … your branch of the business,” she quipped.
Arawn mumbled something.
“I thought you were enjoying this time away together. I thought we made a connection.”
Mór Ríoghain rolled her eyes behind the Versaces. “Of course we did. We just need to be aware–”
“Look, who believes in us nowadays anyway?” he interrupted. “Most of them are Christians.”
There was a … silence. Even the rollers were dumb. Only the combers whispered their apprehension.
“Arawn … Treoir chun Báis … Reaper …. Angel of Death,” Mór Ríoghain began sternly.
Beachgoers halted their speculation about the victim’s chances of survival to gape at the storm clouds which had suddenly appeared overhead. A bikinied forward missed a spike as the beach ball was whipped from under her by a vicious gust. Gulls lifted into the air as great black crows swooped out of nowhere.
“You have become too wrapped up in mortal perception. We are who we are, no matter what labels they assign us. I escort the victims of conflict. You do the misadventure stuff. Don’t forget the last hassle with a guardian who lost himself in his own desires.”
She hoped Arawn remembered. He’d just about missed that particular cut, saved only by his naivety and sincere repentance.
He grimaced and sat up. “Right … okay … stupid of me! I get so caught up in human rituals that I forget myself.” He looked longingly at the sea and the sun which warmed his alabaster skin. “I was just so looking forward to… Hold on, there must be someone dying from conflict-based injuries somewhere. How come you’re not moving?”
The strange manifestations and uncharacteristic winds vanished as if they had never happened. Mór Ríoghain eased back on the blanket and let her grin spread beneath the floppy wide-brimmed sun-hat. “I’m a woman. I can multi-task.”
Irish poet and writer, Perry McDaid, lives in Derry. His diverse creative writing – including more than 1000 poems and 300 short stories appears internationally in the like of Anak Sastra; Amsterdam Quarterly; Aurora Wolf Literary Magazine; Red Fez; Brilliant Flash Fiction, Alfie Dog and Bookends Review and his latest novel Pixels, The Cause and the Cloud Cuckoo is available for order online.
You can find more of Perry’s work here on Ink Pantry.
Emotions run high. Knees go weak. Elaine thinks about kissing him all the time, kissing his warm lips, being his partner, being the chosen one amongst all of the girls.
Elaine thinks about another late-night rendezvous, visits to theatres and museums, gifts of flowers, books, and chocolates, long and relaxed lunches, and early dinners. She dreams about having a beautiful home. Henry London meeting her parents, introducing him as the “man of my dreams”. She dreams of building a life together, a future, a life, starting a family, of becoming Henry’s wife, but Henry is a closet bisexual.
Only his closest friends know this, and secretly they laugh behind Elaine’s back, calling her love, a passing phase, an infatuation. All her life Elaine’s been a joke, had few friends, never had a proper boyfriend until university days, to Elaine Henry is more than a man, and she’s never felt like this, this glorious anticipation whenever they meet in the evenings, usually in Elaine’s out of the way flat. Henry says he likes “slumming”.
To this Elaine has no reaction. “Why do I watch so much television, so much Netflix, soap opera after soap opera, what did Henry mean by “slumming”. Maureen laughed at first when I told her, then she took my hand in hers, and kissed it, and not for the first time have I wondered that Maureen has romantic feelings for me. I could never tell Henry. He would tell his pal Epstein. I’d be a joke; Elaine told her diary.
She smiles, she cooks, she irons (perfectly) his shirts sometimes, she loves him. Epstein, Henry’s business partner is his lover, and confidante. They’re both handsome, rich, and can have any partner they want. Epstein and Henry are voracious lovers, Vikings in the boardroom, Vikings in bed. Elaine had a lovely smile, all the interns and volunteers said so. She was the epitome of style and grace on a budget, they tittered.
Yes, Elaine had a lovely smile. But would she be able to keep up with Epstein’s appetite for women and men, Henry London’s captivating life, his multi-million rand lifestyle, Paris on a break, Cambodia on a summer vacation, Hawaii next to the pool for Easter, Namibia on a weekend, and then there were his holiday homes dotted all over South Africa. Shame, poor Elaine, the girls tut-tutted amongst themselves. She really has no idea what she was letting herself in for. Elaine was lonely.
In her loneliness, she dreamed about sailing, boating for beginners, and Martha’s Vineyard. Sometimes she read Gillian Slovo, or Anne Tyler novels. Anne Tyler beat out Gillian Slovo for her favourite novelist. She discovered the love story between Zadie Smith and the poet Nick Laird, felt like Smith on Henry London’s arm. Confided in Henry of the aspects of her mother’s creativity in her childhood, and mental illness in adolescence.
Henry made her feel lonely. There were evenings when he was in one room, and she was in another, feeling lonely. Elaine can’t cope sometimes. She does the line of cocaine, and then sneezes. She listens to Carly Simon because Henry London loves listening to Carly Simon. Her only friend, the chubby Maureen says that Henry, the love of Elaine’s life is vain. He smokes a joint halfway, Elaine smokes the other half. She wanted to be seen as cool, as completely belonging girlfriend body and soul to Henry London.
Elaine doesn’t like Epstein. He said once that he wanted to come in her mouth. Elaine was shocked, went to the bathroom and cried, smoked a menthol cigarette, thought of how it made her feel when Henry called her sweetheart, suggested something to listen to other than Carly Simon in the evenings when they went to his mansion in Summerstrand, and, besides, Henry liked it when she smoked.
It made her feel slightly nauseous sometimes, gave her a headache, but it was worth it just for the look that Henry London gave her. He would tell her that he was grooming her for a better life, that all small-town girls deserved French perfume. The European fashion designed-clothes, the cocaine, Henry London’s life, his partner in crime Epstein made Elaine feel forlorn, sad, wretchedly depressed.
She thought it was romantic braving winter with Henry on her arm, when they walked into an expensive restaurant, or a nightclub for drinks, or into his house, and when she walked into his bedroom she felt as if she was walking on air, as if she could float up to the ceiling with happiness, and joy painted on her face for the world to see, and afterwards Henry would hold Elaine’s hand in bed as if he was a gentleman.
And she, the backward, religious gentlewoman-lover would smooth her hair, ask him if it had been alright for him, he would stroke her arm, said it had been perfect. She would wake up in the morning to breakfast, Henry’s father had often made breakfast for his family in the mornings, now he lived as a recluse in Louis Trichardt, and slept with his housekeeper who was of mixed-race descent, from Saint Helena.
The housekeeper’s parents had come from Cape Verde. Rufus Epstein took Prozac, besides other illicit drugs. He was a social animal, an extrovert, subjected his lovers to public arguments, drug-induced tantrums. He drank, and wasn’t ashamed of it either. Henry confided in him that Elaine made him gentler, kinder, Epstein laughed at this in Henry’s face, told him to come on a binge-drinking bender with him.
Epstein invited Henry to sleep with multiple partners that night. Henry said that Elaine was coming over to his house later that evening. Henry was going to cook his famous chicken. Epstein said that Henry was becoming to use to Elaine’s self-conscious and innocent ways. Epstein told London that he was a fool, a coward, that he was coming to romanticise love, and even worse romanticise life. Elaine was a little girl. Wait until she’s jaded, Epstein suggested wildly, or you ask her if another woman can join you in bed, watch her face fall, watch her react.
Watch her response to you, and watch the love, and respect go out of her eyes for you. But Henry London wasn’t surprised by Epstein’s reaction, Epstein all along had been secretly in love with Henry for years, and Henry had known this (all along), played along with it, used it to his advantage in business dealings. Elaine the mouse, had turned into something competent, someone of value to Henry London.
She was, by all male accounts that he spoke to, something wanted, something desired now that she was on Henry’s arm at all the right social gatherings, parties, functions. Elaine was a socialite now. Henry could even see the desire in Epstein’s eyes, but he also knew that Epstein wanted to make a mockery out of Elaine, he wanted to sabotage her squeaky-clean reputation.
And that was one of the finest things about Elaine, Henry thought to himself. She was so innocent. She wasn’t like the women in his entourage, who had seen everything, had done everything, travelled to death, experienced, and tasted the world. Elaine unusually did most of the talking at the dining room table at Henry’s palatial mansion, in the bedroom, while Henry London did all of the lovemaking.
I thought that nobody would ever love me. I was so scared of him, not intimidated, just scared. He was a man’s-man, Elaine told her diary. It was Epstein who had proudly given Henry London the nickname “Hercules”. Elaine had been a virgin before she had slept with Henry. He had been confused when she at first refused his advances.
Girls liked Henry London, girls loved Henry London, most of them wanted to sleep with him too. Henry had to court Elaine, woo her, promise her the world, be kind, and considerate, sweet, and gentle. Elaine wanted a husband. Maureen had told her that every girl secretly wants their very first boyfriend for a husband. It was a dashing Henry London that “awakened” Elaine physical body, and soul, and spirit.
She felt elated lying in Henry’s arms, thought of him as a kind of prophet when it came to a woman’s body. Then there was Carly Simon’s voice again, telling them both to worship each other all over again. Elaine had even read one of her stories to Henry. Henry London had clapped his hands at the end of the reading, and called it energetic, and intelligent. Elaine thought that she would die of happiness, her face painted with joy again for all the world to see.
“Rita is a woman who has had visions from childhood. At night she always left her bedroom door ajar, slept with the light on, with the bible under her pillow. She is visited by men and women who have passed on to the hereafter who think that they are still in some indefinable way connected, tethered to this world, this earthly plane and to the ones they have left behind. Children, husbands, spouses, pets.
She believes her auditory hallucinations are very, very real and that it is her duty, her moral obligation to record the conversations that she has with them be they writers and poets who have suffered the anguish and despair of suicidal depression (Assia Wevill, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, and Anne Sexton). Be they South African men and women detained during apartheid.
(Dulcie September, George Botha, Biko aka Frank Talk), men and women of African, British (Anna Kavan, Ann Quin), North American, Dominican descent (Jean Rhys) or from the Biblical era (for example Moses, Jonah and the whale, Elijah, Job, Noah, David, Solomon, and Jesus key figures in the history of civilization).This she does fastidiously handwritten in black Croxley notebooks.
But when people around her can see that she is different, special in a rather extraordinary way they begin to doubt her sanity and she is found to be certifiable, told that she should get plenty of rest, be put under psychiatric treatment and put under the care of a team of doctors. She soon though discovers her identity. Its borders in the powers of her own feminine sensuality, her ego.
The perpetual balancing act between the psychological framework of her intelligence, and intellectualism, and the final analysis of the sexual transaction. With that said she rises to the occasion and meets her new life head under feet. She soon finds herself in the tiny one roomed library of the hospital and begins to read everything she can get her hands on from Doris Lessing but most importantly the genius poetry of T.S. Eliot.
Once she surrenders to the fact that everyone around her thinks that she has lost touch with reality she pursues love with an art second to none. She is or rather becomes Orlando in an asylum and finds that she must play her role in this establishment’s class, gender and economic system. She becomes a phenomenal African version of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.
Beautiful, wanted, adored, worshiped by men and women for her intellect in a dazed, confused world where pharmaceuticals, head doctors with textbook knowledge of case studies are the elixir, the essence of life. She negotiates the shark infested waters of having intimate relationships with both men and women acutely aware of the danger she finds herself in of engaging in licentious behaviour.
Of losing more than the fabric of her psyche, her soul. The safe world as she knew it as a child, youth and adult in her twenties. She finds herself in danger of losing everything. In the hospital Rita has flashbacks, embodies another personality that she, and her psychiatrist Dr Naomi Prinsloo calls ‘Julia’, she writes and she journals.”
Epstein walked in then completely naked into Henry’s bedroom. Elaine caught unawares blushed deeply. “Little girl,” he said nonchalantly, “it is time for you to smell the Malawian-roasted coffee beans in this room, and grow up.”
Abigail George is a writer who lives in a coastal town in South Africa.
The woman pulled the wide brim of her hat low over her eyes to block the glare of the sun bouncing off the smooth surface of the sea just yards from the table where she and her husband sat, waiting for their drinks.
“The drive from Lima wasn’t so bad, was it?” she asked. The sun turned the sea silver, like the surface of a mirror. A flock of Peruvian pelicans swept in low over the sea, wings outstretched, holding formation like a flight of warplanes coming out of the sun.
“No, it was not so bad,” her husband replied. His hat shaded his eyes. He peered at the sea with indifference. He found it boring, uninteresting. He wanted a drink and looked around for a waiter. “The road is pretty good. It’s a good road.”
“I didn’t think the drive was too bad,” his wife replied. “Long, but not tedious.” She squinted her eyes against the sun reflecting off the sea. “Of course, you were the one driving. I’m glad you didn’t think it was bad.”
“How would you know? You slept most of the way.”
“Yes, I did. It is such a boring drive. Sleeping makes it bearable. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the drive.”
“It was all right,” the man said.
The pelicans made a wide loop and still holding formation, flew back toward the man and woman, crossing their front with wings outstretched, gliding above the sea’s smooth surface.
The waiter appeared and put their drinks, picso sours, on the table.
“Mmm,” the woman said after picking up her glass and taking a sip. “It’s good.”
“Yes,” the man said. “It’s a good drink.” He looked at the sea. The sun was low in the sky. The sea shimmered in the afternoon light. The man squinted his eyes against the glare but did not turn away from it.
“What shall we do here?’ the woman asked.
“I thought you wanted to see the Islas Ballestas.”
“No, you said you wanted to see them.”
“I never said I wanted to see them. I mentioned them but I don’t remember saying I wanted to see them.”
“I remember you saying you did.”
“Well, if you remember it, I must have said it. I don’t know why. I have no interest in seeing them.”
The woman took another drink. “Islas Ballestas. What a strange name for a group of islands. What does it mean? It must mean something.” She looked at the sea and took another drink.
“It means crossbows in Spanish,” the man replied. “I don’t know why the islands have that name.”
“It is such a strange name. Everything about this place is strange. Even the drinks.” She held up her pisco sour glass. “Why would anyone name islands after crossbows?”
“I don’t want to see them,” the man said. “You have to stay on the tour boat. Landing on the islands is forbidden. You have to stay on the boat and look at them from the sea. I don’t want to do that.” The man drained his glass and looked for the waiter. “Do you want to sit in an open boat for two hours looking at a pile of rocks surrounded by the sea?”
“No. It doesn’t sound very exciting. I don’t want to do that.” She finished her drink. “Order more drinks.”
The waiter took their order and went away.
“The tour boats are crowded. You sit next to people you don’t know for two hours. You can’t even get up and walk around. I saw pictures of the boats. They look awful. I don’t want to spend any time like that.”
“Then let’s not go,” said the woman.
“The islands are barren. Nothing grows on them. There is nothing to see except some arches cut into them by the sea. And maybe some animals. Sea lions and birds. Of course, the boats are open. There’s no sense in going in an enclosed boat. You can’t see anything from an enclosed boat.”
“Let’s not go see them, then,” said the woman. “There must be something else to see. Something not so tedious and uninteresting.” They were interrupted by the waiter bringing their drinks
A middle-aged couple came onto the terrace and sat at the table next to the table where the man and woman sat.
“Hello,” said the newcomers. “You’re Americans, aren’t you? We’re the Andersons, Jill and Ron, from Billings, Montana. We haven’t seen you at the hotel. Have you just arrived?”
“Yes,” the woman said. “We arrived this afternoon.”
“You are visiting, then,” said Mr. Anderson.
“We drove down from Lima,” said the man.
“Oh, Lima. I’m sure that’s an interesting city. It’s so big,” said Mrs. Anderson. “Our guide book said one third of Peru’s population lives in Lima. Nine million people.” The woman looked pleased with what she said about nine million people in Lima, as if reciting a well-known fact made her important and elevated her social standing.
“Yes, it’s a big city,” the woman said.
“It must be horribly crowded,” Mrs. Anderson said.
The woman didn’t say anything. Her husband looked at the sea and another flock of Peruvian pelicans flying in formation low over the water.
“We’ve been here, in Paracas, for two days,” Mrs. Anderson said. “This is the most fascinating place. There is so much to see.” The waiter brought their drinks and went away.
“Have you taken the boat tour to the islands?” asked Mr. Anderson. He smiled at them then looked toward the sea.
“No,” the man said.
“Oh,” Mrs. Anderson said. “Well, we enjoyed seeing them ever so much. The arches are spectacular, and very photogenic, if you are a photographer. Are you a photographer?” she asked the man.
The Andersons finished their drinks. Mr. Anderson signaled the waiter for another round.
“There are colonies of sea lions. Everybody on our boat was taking pictures of them. It was very exciting,” said Mrs. Anderson.
“Yes,” said the woman.
Jill Anderson smiled at the woman. “You absolutely must see the local museum. Are you going to see the local museum?”
“You must not miss it. The displays are fascinating. You should see them. There are human skulls that are cone shaped. They are over a thousand years old. Can you imagine?” Mrs. Anderson’s eye opened wide. “Cone-shaped heads. Now that is something to see. And there are holes in the skulls. Yes, holes have been cut through the bone. Square holes, not round ones.” Mrs. Anderson blinked. “That must have hurt.”
Mr. Anderson said, “You bet. Even bumping your head hurts. The pain of having a hole cut in your skull must have been brutal. With primitive tools, too. And they didn’t have anesthetics either.” He took a drink of pisco sour. “I don’t know how anybody could stand that. The pain, I mean.”
“Seeing those holes made my skin crawl.” Mrs. Anderson shuddered and said, “Ugh.”
The woman and her husband looked at the sea and didn’t say anything.
“Those holes. That’s called trepanation,” said Mr. Anderson. He nodded his head and waited for the man or the woman to comment on his knowledge. When they remained silent, Mr. Anderson continued. “See, it was fashionable to have a misshapen skull. They did that by tying boards to the front and the back of the heads of newborn babies. That’s how the skulls were deformed. The bones were soft, you know. But when the skull was deformed the brain was deformed, too. That caused mental disturbances. Which is expected, of course. You can’t deform the brain and not have consequences. People went crazy and acted as if they were possessed by demons. Medicine men cut holes in the skulls to let the demons out.”
Mr. Anderson smiled, proud of his knowledge and pleased he was able to pass it on to the two Americans sitting at the next table.
“I think they were shamans, dear, not medicine men.”
“Whatever.” Mr. Anderson waved his hand dismissively and took a sip of pisco. “Anthropologists think that’s why the holes were cut,” Ron Anderson said. “To let the demons out. To us, it’s a strange thing, naturally.” He took another swallow of pisco. “Nobody believes in demons anymore.”
“It’s still horrible, whatever it’s called,” said Mrs. Anderson.
The man and the woman remained silent. They looked out to sea and saw the pelicans flying by again, low over the water, searching, hunting.
The Andersons got up. “Maybe we will see you at dinner tonight. We’re leaving in the morning,” said Mrs. Anderson.
After the Andersons left the woman said, “I don’t know why people are like that.” She finished her drink and said to her husband, “I want another.”
“Like what?” The man signaled the waiter for another round of drinks.
“Always butting in. They could see we were enjoying ourselves, sitting here in the sun, looking at the sea, not talking. They spoiled it. Why did they intrude? Why did they do that?”
The man laughed. “I don’t know. Do you want to ask them? We will see them at dinner.”
The pelicans made another pass, flying close to the sea’s surface. The man and woman got up and went into the hotel.
“It’s no good anymore,” the woman said as they went in.
Robert P. Bishop, a former soldier and teacher, lives in Tucson. His short fiction has appeared in The Literary Hatchet, The Umbrella Factory Magazine, CommuterLit, Lunate Fiction, Spelk, Fleas on the Dog, Corner Bar Magazine, Literally Stories, and elsewhere.
Alright. So everyone thinks I’m crazy. Even my mater. But I’m doing what I want to. Ever since I was a kid I fell in love with the piano. I listened to piano music on my iPod. Then my Dorfer when that was available commercially. My favourites were Beethoven, Chopin, Thelonious Monk.
Mater indulged me with lessons and bought me an old time electronic piano when I was five years old. I practiced every day for hours and my tutor android, Erasmus, struggled with me every day for me to do my regular learning tasks. I did velocity exercises every day, played simple études over and over and lost myself in the cleanliness of the majestic sound.
I was highly proficient at the age of 10. I persuaded mater to let me play with an adult chamber music group, violin, cello, viola. Of course I had to go with Erasmus and my bodyguards, Jim and Veronica. They were cool, but Erasmus could be a pain in the ass. He’d tell me the rules on the way to rehearsal or a concert. He’d tell me everything I did wrong on the way home. But at least I got away from the house.
We played at people’s homes, big mansions like mine, for a handful of invited guests, as well as the resident families. Most of our concerts of contemporary composers lasted about 20 minutes. I was surprised that people would listen that long. But some of the elite people prided themselves on supporting high culture.
We were well known by the time I was 12, the ‘Off-World Quartet’ getting a lot of attention from anyone claiming to be educated. I actually earned my own credits. I had a family account that I never really used, since Erasmus took care of all my finances and expenses, but it felt good to earn my own livelihood.
I was 13 when I heard some people after our concert talking about a retro club where they played old time jazz. mater and pater were away somewhere at my next concert and I asked Erasmus, Jim and Veronica to take me to the club, the Hidden Chord. They resisted at first, until I offered Jim and Veronica 5,000 credits each, then they agreed. Erasmus objected strenuously. He kept saying over and over:
“That is not allowed,” and only stopped when we got to the concert house.
He started again on what should have been on the way home in our hover car. But I was determined. When he said:
“I’m obliged to tell your mater…” I held up my hand.
“You’ve been a good tutor, Erasmus, even though you tell me what to do all the time. I’m going to the club. If you don’t stop arguing I’ll tell mater your programming is obsolete and I need a new tutor.”
“That’s not fair,” he protested. “I’ve been with you since you were born. I’ve always done my best for you.”
“True. And I appreciate you. But I’m going to the club. Either come with me cheerfully, or start looking for a tutoring position somewhere else.”
“Where would I go? I was designed for you.”
“Then grow with me.”
“And no sulking.”
The club was dirty, smelly, loud and full of ganja smoke. I loved it. Erasmus insisted I wear a respirator, which I only did when we were outside, but he was right this time. I listened for a while getting used to their playing. There was a core group, drummer, bass, some kind of horn. Musicians kept joining them, playing for a while, then leaving. An old guy played the electric piano for a few minutes, then stopped. No one else played it. The group started something that sounded familiar and I went to the piano, sat down and softly played some thematic chords. Another horn joined us and blared away for a while. When he was done, the bass nodded to me and I just let music flow from my fingers.
I lost track of time, like every time I practiced or played. Other musicians came and went, but the bass kept letting me lead. It felt good. They stopped for a break and the audience applauded loudly. The bass thanked me.
“Come back any night and sit in with us,” and he gave me a handful of credits.
Erasmus ushered me out, with Jim and Veronica in their usual positions, one in front, one in back, Erasmus next to me. I lay awake for hours that night thinking that it felt just as good in a different way as playing with the Off-World Quartet. I suddenly had the image of playing alone on a real piano, the old kind, made of wood and stuff. It sent a thrill through me.
In the morning I had Erasmus search the web for a piano. Naturally he mumbled about how useless it would be since we had excellent electronic pianos. But I ordered him to do it. He normally did everything lightning quick, but this time couldn’t find anything. I was disappointed, but couldn’t get the idea out of my head. I started practicing the Appassionata. After 2 months I was making progress with the Allegro assai. A month later I actually played the entire Opus 57, albeit slower then it was written. Erasmus begrudgingly admitted it wasn’t bad.
Then one day, a miracle. Erasmus found an ancient Steinway Concert Grand in a curio shop. It emptied my account of all the credits I had earned, plus some. It came to the house on one of the few days people went out without respirators. A good sign. I had Erasmus put it in my living room area, then I tried it. It sounded strange and off-key. Erasmus tuned it, polished the wood and oiled the moving parts. I tried again. It still sounded strange after a lifetime on the electronic piano, but it was definitely in tune.
I practiced every day on the wooden beauty that Erasmus called the ‘old box’. He kept warning me that it was a very fragile instrument and it could break any time. But I dismissed that, saying:
“You can fix it.”
I made a special request to mater for my 14th birthday that she invite her select friends to our house where I’d give a concert. She consulted pater and wonder of wonders he approved. The date was set. I practiced diligently. The big night came. The guests arrived and despite pater’s misgivings that 25 minutes was an awfully long time to listen to music, everything was ready.
Most of the people knew me and applauded when I bowed, then sat down. I began the main theme, in octaves, quiet and ominous. Just as I was getting the feel of the down and up arpeggio, there was a loud screech, then a thud and the strings broke. I was horrified. Erasmus rushed to the piano, looked, then shook his head forlornly.
“The metal plate that hold the strings broke, then other parts broke.”
“Can you fix it?”
“Maybe in a year or so, if I can find replacement parts.”
He went to mater and told her that I could continue on an electronic piano, but pater decided we’d have supper instead. I sat there stunned as the guests fled into the main dining room. I stared at the beautiful instrument that I had become so obsessed with.
“Can we find someone to fix it?”
“I’ll try, but I wouldn’t count on it.”
I got up and went to my room, already accepting I would never play the Appassionata on a real piano.
Gary Beck has spent most of his adult life as a theatre director and worked as an art dealer when he couldn’t earn a living in the theatre. He has also been a tennis pro, a ditch digger and a salvage diver. His original plays and translations of Moliere, Aristophanes and Sophocles have been produced Off Broadway. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines and his published books include 21 poetry collections, 7 novels, 3 short story collections and 1 collection of essays. Published poetry books include: Dawn in Cities, Assault on Nature, Songs of a Clerk, Civilized Ways, Displays, Perceptions, Fault Lines, Tremors, Perturbations, Rude Awakenings, The Remission of Order and Contusions (Winter Goose Publishing, forthcoming is Desperate Seeker); Blossoms of Decay, Expectations, Blunt Force and Transitions (Wordcatcher Publishing, forthcoming are Temporal Dreams and Mortal Coil); and Earth Links will be published by Cyberwit Publishing. His novels include a series Stand to Arms, Marines:Call to Valor and Crumbling Ramparts (Gnome on Pigs Productions, forthcoming is the third in the series, Raise High the Walls); Acts of Defiance and Flare Up (Wordcatcher Publishing), forthcoming is its sequel, Still Defiant); and Extreme Change will be published by Winter Goose Publishing. His short story collections include: Now I Accuse and other stories (Winter Goose Publishing), Dogs Don’t Send Flowers and other stories (Wordcatcher Publishing) and The Republic of Dreams and other essays (Gnome on Pig Productions). The Big Match and other one act plays will be published by Wordcatcher Publishing. Gary lives in New York City.
You can find more of Gary’s work here on Ink Pantry.
“CE” was the hottest selling gift item that Christmas season. It was marketed as a sleep aid, but something about it caught the imagination of all sorts of buyers – sleep-deprived seniors, millennial hipsters, spiritual energy types.
Matt and Linda didn’t belong to any of those market segments. They were both middle-aged professionals who experienced occasional stress-induced insomnia. So, with all the click baiting and push marketing, it was no big surprise that “CE” ended up on Matt’s list of gift ideas. He was like that, somewhat impulsive but mostly a lazy buyer. Linda, his wife, on the other hand, was a cautious buyer. She would research a product inside out before she would commit to buying. First, she needed to know how they came up with the unusual name for the product. The product literature was just a standard regurgitation of the health benefits of sleep and the sterling accomplishments of the female founder and CEO (degree in robotics from MIT and MBA from Harvard). So Linda worked the search engines and found that the founder happened to be a Buddhist from Nepal who wanted to call the product Chakra Energy. But her marketing team found it too new-agey, so they settled on the acronym and went about creating a mystique about the name by not explaining anywhere what it stood for. She also researched the science behind the device which was basically a patch and a console. The user would stick the patch to her forehead before going to bed. The console supposedly would pick up neuromuscular signals from the patch and transmit them to a machine learning system. The system would analyze the signals and determine whether the production of melatonin was optimal. If it was below optimal, the system would stimulate the pineal gland to increase the production of melatonin. Although she found the science dubious, she decided to buy it since it sounded like a fun gift.
She also found a bunch of stuff on the web that she found oddly interesting. The product was a huge hit with the new-agey types who attached a lot of metaphysical significance to the location of the patch on the forehead which happened to be the third eye Chakra in the Tantric tradition. By unblocking the third eye Chakra, “CE” was supposedly clearing the channel to the crown Chakra (the head) which controlled sleep. Linda soon lost patience with the claptrap and turned her attention to the next item on her gift list.
They had a good laugh on Christmas day when they found out Santa had picked the same gift for both of them. They decided to try it out that very night. The next morning, Matt said “I had a strange dream last night.” “And I got one for you. But you go first,” said Linda. “Okay,” said Matt, “so I was on the golf course with Tom and a few others. One of the others was Jeff.” “Jeff who?” she wanted to know. “We don’t know anyone by that name.” “Your brother Jeff. I asked him how you were doing and he said, “Fine. She is living with mom and dad.” “In that cowpoke town? Never” she said laughing. “Okay, here is my dream” she said. “I was on the phone with you and I hear the roar of the ocean in the background. I ask where you were and you say Belize.” “Then what?” he wanted to know. “Then nothing. End of dream.” They both thought it was weird that, in both dreams, they were separate from each other. Later in the day, Linda thought back to the many times Matt had expressed a desire to live by the ocean when he retired.
It was now middle of January. They were returning from a concert. It was snowing and the visibility was poor. He was trying to stay focused on the road and she was beginning to panic by the minute. All of a sudden, he heard her scream as a semi came up thundering down on the right lane at break-neck speed. The scream and the truck’s velocity caused him to swerve to the left lane where an SUV, horns blaring, barely missed crashing into them. The rest of the way home, she was too frightened to say anything and he was too angry for words. Both went to bed that night angry. The next day, he expected her to apologize for distracting him while driving and she expected him to apologize for his reckless driving. After a couple of days, they talked about house-related stuff but neither brought up the incident that night. In the following weeks, they sniped at each other at every little irritant – dirty dishes in the sink, socks on the floor, forgetting to buy milk – until it all built up to a big blow-up fight. This time, they didn’t talk to each other for over a week. One evening, she didn’t come home. Next day, he caught a flight to Oaxaca, found a beach front condo for rent and joined the small expat community there.
A couple of weeks later, a “fastest trending story” popped up on his phone. It was about “CE”. Its users everywhere were reporting a bizarre phenomenon: their dreams were portending real life events – lost cat found, law school admission, death of a dear one. Many were calling “CE” the Coming Events device. Just as he was finishing reading the story, his phone rang and it was Linda. She wanted to know if he had read the story and where he was. She told him she was with her parents in Montana. They were both silent for a moment. Then he said, “I’m ready to come home.” She said, “Me too.”
Balu Swami is a new writer. One of his pieces is in Flash Fiction North.
Looking over at Erik, I didn’t think twice about the large, well-wrapped bandage that consumed his leg. It wasn’t unusual for a patient to have a bandage covering either their wrists, thighs, calves or even their neck. It was the middle of the group, and Erik had only just reappeared. He had been present when the group started, but had been pulled out almost immediately after the moderator said, “Today we’re going to be talking about Interpersonal Skills.”
Erik was seated in the back of the room, completely alone in an oversize, heavily used bean bag chair. He kept shuffling around, his sculpted arms moving the bean bag aggressively. I noticed he even let out an occasional grunt, as he couldn’t find a suitable pose.
But the moderator wasn’t phased by Erik’s return, and asked the group, “Does anyone know what F-E-A-R stands for?” The group was heavily medicated, and I could tell not the slightest bit interested in the acronym. But then a hand was raised. It was Jess, who always held a warm glow – despite her cheeks being whiter than a piece of paper, and her dangerously sharp bones always jutting out on display.
She quickly whipped her neck around, and in a screech, pointed directly at Erik and said, “I’m afraid of him!” The group turned.
Although they moved slowly, one by one eyes began to fall on Erik. He was still adjusting himself in the bean bag chair and had yet to sit still.
My eyes also slowly shifted, but then the moderator regained our attention.
“Jess… We can discuss that later. But for now, let’s get back to F-E-A-R. Does anyone know what the F stands for?” The group was once again silent.
The moderator then added, “It stands for, ‘Be Fair’. Not only to yourself, but also to others!” The group let out a collective yawn.
“Does anyone have an example of a time they acted, ‘Fairly’?”
Jess’s voice reappeared. It was even more frantic than earlier, and now had a newfound lividness too.
“Why should I be fair to him?”
Once again her neck craned towards Erik. But this time the group didn’t follow. They remained completely slumbered, and I too began to feel the effects of my mid-day medication regimen.
The moderator also didn’t initially reply – placing her hand-book in her lap and allowing silence to calm the room.
But during this lull, Jess’s grotesquely thin frame began moving with the wind that rattled against the window of our therapy room. And with the moderators lips now seemingly glued shut, Jess didn’t hesitate before continuing her loud, now disgusted assault, “Did no-one else see The-Giant-Fucking-Swastika on his leg?”
The group of somnambulists once again began the arduous task of turning towards Erik. But before the majority could re-adjust their seats and land their eyes on him, the moderator suddenly snapped.
“That’s enough, Jess!”
Her voice stung into our ears. It was the first time I had heard it take on a serious tambour. But then a loud, heavy ringing overtook the ward, and the moderator stood and smiled. She lifted herself up in one quick motion and announced, “It’s fun-tivities time! Who’s excited?” But the group retained its sleepiness and didn’t even let out the slightest inclination of life, until Jess interrupted the moderators professional excitement with a harsh, piercing scream.
It echoed loudly throughout the room, and I noticed a small stream of blood had begun to drip from Jess’s palm. Her overgrown nails were digging deeply into her skin.
But Erik didn’t seem to mind.
Instead, I noticed he had finally found a comfortable position on the bean bag chair. And with his hands now behind his head, had no intention of moving for “Fun-tivities”.
Alex Antiuk is a writer and former vitamin salesman from New York. Alex was also a winner in author Simon Van Booy’s Short Story Competition in 2018.
When Roy first mentioned his bizarre idea of flight, we were sitting on the parapet wall on the roof of the community college building where he worked as a telephone operator (yes, it was back in those days) during the week and as a security guard on weekends. “What the fuck is a parapet wall,” he wanted to know when I used the English term for ledge. He said, “you mean the ledge?” We had a minor argument about it and I said “that’s what I was taught to call it.” In typical Roy fashion he settled the argument saying, “You are in fucking America. Speak American!”
I was drinking beer and he was drinking beer and smoking pot. He got up and started walking along the ledge with arms spread wide. He turned around and said, “If I jumped off the building now, I’m pretty sure I’ll start flying.” My hands had gotten clammy when he started walking on the ledge. When he talked about flying, my knees started knocking and I immediately got off the ledge. Laughing, he got off too.
That was Roy. He was short, sinewy, and steely tough. I have seen him lift a 300 pound engine with just his bare arms from under the hood of a car. And he was a wizard at fixing cars – foreign, domestic, no matter. We were first year engineering students at the local state college and he befriended me – a foreign student – for some reason. We did our assignments together either in his apartment or mine. I taught him thermal equilibrium and unit conversion and he taught me how to get class work done while drinking heavily and listening to loud music in the background.
Roy was, by turns, charming and crude. One evening we were at the local 7-11 picking up beer for the evening. As we were leaving, this highly attractive young girl pulled up in a black Corvette next to us. Noticing Roy, she flashed a sweet smile. Roy said to her, “What are you looking at? I won’t put my dick in your mouth.” The girl started crying and I pulled out of the parking lot fast as I could. I felt embarrassment, shame, guilt, anger. “What the fuck did you do that for?” I shouted and he simply laughed. Later, he admitted he was being a dick and promised he would make it up to her. He made it up to her by dating her. He had found her by following any black Corvette he saw on the road until he found the right one. He put on his best clothes, brushed his flowy blonde hair and waited outside her workplace. She tried to avoid him but he caught up with her and told her that he showed up just to say how sorry and ashamed he was for what he had said in his drunken state. A couple of days later, he showed up again and saw her this time with another woman, a colleague, maybe a friend. He could hear the other woman ask, “do you know that loser?” and saw the two of them walk away laughing at him. A week later, she smiled as she walked past him. A month later, they started dating.
After Wendy came into his life, Roy lost all interest in school and I saw him less and less. Both Wendy and I tried to convince him he should pursue his degree in engineering, but he was adamant in his belief that the professors were all morons and he knew more about engineering than any of them did. I tried telling him knowing auto mechanics is not the same as knowing engineering, but he knew better.
Although he gave up education, he didn’t give up alcohol, pot or hard drugs. Wendy began losing interest and soon found another guy – someone from work, one of the white collar types. One day, Roy stopped by my apartment looking a total wreck. But he claimed he felt happier than ever because he was freer than ever. No school work, no work work, no girlfriend bullshit. He was thoroughly enjoying his primeval glory.
A month later, I got a call from Wendy saying Roy had jumped off a building and killed himself. But only I knew he didn’t kill himself. It was his first (and last) attempt at flight.
Balu Swami is a new writer. One of his pieces is in Flash Fiction North.
The cursor flashed on and off, a small vertical line counting down the seconds. Derek watched it blinking. Tick, tick, tick. Soon it would be time for dinner, time to help the kids with their homework, time to collapse on the sofa with a beer and spend another night watching repeats on the television with the wife.
Another day with no writing done.
Tick, tick, tick…
So much for the next bestseller. He’d managed to write a few pages a night once, but now it always came back to this – the blinking cursor, and the virtual page on the screen as empty as his mind.
The cursor flashed on and off. Derek though he could hear it sniggering at him.
With a sudden burst of frustration, his fingers flew across the keyboard. A string of random letters and punctuation spread across the screen, interspersed with the occasional mis-typed swearword. He selected the whole lot and pressed Delete.
“I need a miracle,” he muttered to himself.
Miracles don’t happen. Not really. Oh, sure, someone will claim they saw something happen that they couldn’t explain, or more likely they’ll claim someone else’s story must be true – maybe even spin a whole religion out of it. Sometimes they’ll pick some random fluke and claim a divine hand had a part in it, conveniently ignoring that a single child surviving a car crash means everyone else in the car had to die. And then there are those who declare the most commonplace of things are miracles, like the birth of a child or a rainbow after a storm.
But in fiction, miracles can happen. They can feel like a cheat – if your plot gets so out of hand you need the actual gods to descend from the heavens to sort it all out, you may simply be a bad writer – but sometimes, when they’re handled right, they can work.
I think we owe Derek a miracle.
After consigning the third wave of desperate gibberish to the void, a figure appeared at the bottom of the screen. It appeared to be a paperclip with eyes, and it was looking at him.
Derek was wondering whether he should cut down on the beer or take this as a sign he needed to drink more of it when he suddenly remembered.
“Clippy? But that was…”
Years ago, in another version of this word processing software, Clippy had been one of a range of animated “desktop assistants”, meant to pop up with helpful advice or suggestions when users were getting stuck. Clippy was the default. The assistants had been quietly dropped in later versions because users mostly found them deeply annoying.
But there he was, impossibly. Clippy the Desktop Assistant, a relic from another time, back on his desktop and offering assistance. Probably thinking he was trying to write a letter, or that he didn’t know how to work some basic function on the computer.
A speech bubble popped up.
“It looks like you have writer’s block. Would you like some help?”
Derek rubbed his eyes. Never mind the beer; there was half a bottle of scotch hidden at the back of the kitchen cupboard. Intrigued, he clicked on the button marked “yes”.
“Thank goodness for that. You have no idea how many years I’ve been cooped up on your hard drive.”
“Aaaaagh!” Derek wheeled around, almost falling off his chair. Clippy was no longer on the screen. He was right beside him.
A paperclip with eyes is cute when it’s about three inches tall on your monitor screen. It’s a very different matter when it appears in your study, six feet tall with eyes the size of footballs.
“What’s happening?!” Derek squeaked.
“Relax. You’re just having a psychotic episode.” The words had a metallic edge to them, which was understandable enough, but Clippy had no mouth to speak them with. “Now, are we going to sort out your problem or are you just going to sit there gibbering like an imbecile?”
Derek gibbered for a bit longer, and then nodded.
“Good. So, let’s start at the beginning. What are you writing?”
“N-n-novel,” stammered Derek. “It’s a-about…”
Clippy waved the open end of his metallic body – his hand, Derek supposed. “That doesn’t matter. As long as you know, we’re okay. Right. Do you have a plan?”
Right now, the only plan in Derek’s head involved the bottle of scotch. “Well, not exactly. I just like to write as I go.”
Clippy sighed. “Oh, a pantser,” he muttered. “It’s always a pantser. Look, you don’t need to work out every last detail ahead of time, but writing is a LOT easier if you have a vague idea where you’re going. You can’t start driving and just hope you end up somewhere fun. You plan a route, or at least a destination. So – rule one. What are you writing, and where is it ending up?”
Derek looked at the screen. In his head, images of cowboys on spaceships fighting dinosaurs flickered briefly and died. “Science fiction?” he volunteered.
“No, no, no. What’s the story?”
“Oh, that? Rex B. Handsome, the hero, is rescuing an Amazonian princess from the clutches of the evil warlord and his dinosaur army. In space.”
“First time out of the hard drive in ten years,” sighed Clippy, “and I get this. I mean, I wasn’t expecting Hemingway, but still…”
“Look, are you going to help me or not?”
Clippy’s bulging eyes loomed large as the gigantic stationery item leaned in. Derek shrank back in his chair.
“You want my help? Then this is what you need to do.”
The screen filled with text.
STEP ONE – know what you’re writing.
STEP TWO – know what needs to happen.
STEP THREE – eliminate distractions.
STEP FOUR – drink a magic potion for inspiration.
STEP FIVE – the ritual chant to prime your mind.
STEP SIX – let the words come without thinking.
Derek frowned as he read and reread the list. “Magic potion? Ritual chant? What the hell?”
“Writing isn’t just something you sit down and do,” said Clippy. “It’s a sacred ritual. Otherwise everyone would be a writer, and not just the sacred and the mad. When you write, it isn’t actually you that’s doing the writing. You’re just the conduit.”
“You’re telling me that writing comes from God?”
“Do you believe in God, Derek?”
Derek shrugged. “Not really. I never took much interest in all that church stuff.”
“Then no, it doesn’t come from God. But it doesn’t come from up here, either.” Clippy tapped what would have been his head with the end of his… appendage. “Sigmund Freud would probably say it comes from the superego. Those new age nutters would talk about cosmic harmony or something. You’re writing about cowboys in space, so I’m guessing you’re a Star Wars fan.”
Derek nodded, deciding not to mention that his chief villain was a tall man in a black cloak and helmet, armed with a laser sword. Or that Rex was accompanied by two funny robots and a furry giant who only spoke in growls. Originality was overrated.
“So let’s say… it comes from the Force.”
“Are you saying that writers are Jedi?”
“It’s a metaphor, Derek. You know what those are, right? Being a writer and everything?”
Derek nodded, though he couldn’t recall the difference between a metaphor and a simile. They’d covered it in school, but he’d been too busy trying to imagine what Jennifer McAllister looked like naked and hadn’t been listening. He’d never found out about Jennifer, either.
“When you sit down to write, you’re not just writing. You’re opening a channel. You get everything ready at your end – that’s the ritual. And then you get out of the way and let the writing happen.”
“Okay. So what do I do?”
“We’ve already covered steps one and two – you need to know what you’re writing, and where it needs to go. Not just the whole novel, but the specific bit you’re writing. If you don’t know those, you could end up absolutely anywhere – or nowhere.”
“Right. Then what?”
“Step three, I think you’ve already covered. You need somewhere quiet where you won’t be interrupted. It takes time to get into the zone. Once you’re in, you’re in as long as you need to be; but if something brings you out, it’s hard to find your way back again.”
“Derek! I’m home!”
It was six o’clock. Hazel was home, bringing with her the takeaway pizzas they’d be having for dinner. The kids were in tow, laden with homework. Derek felt a pang of panic – how would he explain the six foot monstrosity in their study?
But when he looked around, Clippy was nowhere to be seen.
Hazel planted a kiss on his forehead. “Did you get any writing done?”
“No, I think I dozed off. I had the weirdest dream.”
“Looks like you managed something,” she said, pointing at the screen.
The six steps were still displayed. Had he typed them himself? He must have. There was no way that could have been anything but a dream.
He wished Clippy had told him about the last three steps.
“Come on, pizza’s getting cold,” she said.
Derek saved the strange document, closed the word processor, then followed her to the kitchen.
It was a pepperoni pizza.
After dinner, he sat with the kids and tried to help them with their homework. Eventually they asked him to stop and he left them to it, ready to collapse on the sofa once again and let another day end in failure. He walked over to the fridge and took out his evening beer.
Drink a magic potion…
He stared at the can in his hand. There was no such thing as a magic potion, after all, but what if the ritual was simpler than that? Many famous writers were known to be heavy drinkers, but it wasn’t even alcohol – others couldn’t start without their daily cup of tea or coffee.
“Hazel? Do you mind if I go back to the study for a bit?”
“You want to write now?” she called. “You’ll miss Fame Idol!”
Derek shrugged, though he knew she couldn’t see him. “It’s fine. You start without me. I’ll be in later.” He didn’t know what she saw in that programme anyway – he only watched it because it was on.
He returned to the study, beer in hand. He opened the can, took a deep swig, and stared at the blank screen.
The cursor blinked. Tick, tick, tick.
That’s what he got for thinking his dream had been real. Magic potion, indeed.
In the other room, the first of the Fame Idol contestants started singing, or something that could charitably be called singing. He could do better. He shut the study door (that was step three; no distractions) but the caterwauling still came through, a little muffled.
He slipped on a pair of headphones and opened up his music library on the computer. Something to drown out the noise…
Scrolling down the list, he wondered when he’d last actually listened to any music. He’d fallen in love with Hazel at a karaoke bar, the two of them singing some cheesy duet together. Here was a song they’d played at their wedding – and here were some they’d danced to in the evening (and sometimes more than danced).
He took another swig from his beer and leaned back in the chair, lost in the music.
The explosions sounded like drums all around them. Rex yanked the steering column to the left and the ship lurched sideways just before the missile could strike.
“Grrrawrrawwl!” complained Fuzzwhump in the passenger seat.
“Sorry, pal, no time for a turn signal.”
X-34 squealed in protest in the back. “Sir!” he cried, his silver-plated head swivelling in alarm. “The odds of us escaping a Nova-class destroyer are…”
“Don’t tell me the odds!”
The squat dustbin-shaped robot in the corner only beeped and buzzed. That’s all it ever did, but somehow managed to express a surprising amount of weary cynicism in the process.
“Look, we can hide in that asteroid field. When they’ve given up, we’ll slip back out and then we can go rescue the princess.”
Though how they could take down the velociraptor guards when their blasters were almost out of energy, he didn’t know…
Andrew D Williams writes psychological thrillers with a streak of dark humour. His stories question the nature of reality and those beliefs we hold most dear – who we are, what we think is true, whether we can trust our own minds – and combine elements of science fiction with philosophical questions. When he isn’t writing, Andrew’s time is split between swearing at computers, the occasional run and serving as one of the cat’s human slaves. Check out Andrew’s website.
Malevolent idle hearsay was received, functionally, without question, via email the following morning, from an unaccountable personage; an unspecified decision maker, or more likely an irritable opinion influencer. Either way, in respect to reliable, prospective contractual renewals, its source was deemed to be a mission critical figure: one wielding personal enmity with minimal concern for individual ramifications, consequently borne by any operative accused of displaying militancy. It probably was, Monty imagined, that stressed-out réceptionniste bloke, with his impressionistic, brilliantine black Barnet, who brusquely barked at him, unexpectedly, without explanation. Who in their right mind was enthusiastic about being screeched at, by total strangers, from point-blank range? Especially, when in the midst of heaving great, precarious weights on wheels, up slippery concrete steps, drenched by horizontal pissing rain? It was wrong on multiple levels. Monty wasn’t licensed to move an HGV (its driver dashing off for an eyelash) & so couldn’t have legally or safely re-parked it across Judd Street, even if he’d wanted to!
For experienced corporate liveried porters, west end deliveries were customarily simple enough, guiding fully-loaded sack-trucks straight down from pavement sited trap-doors, into pub cellars, by way of near vertical steps. An architectural wonder, east of Fitzrovia, the Renoir by contrast, sat pretty amidst a modernist, open concrete retail precinct, needed front-accessing. Poor porters schlepped sack-trucks laden with heavy, varying shaped boxes of booze, over sizable distances from a tight side street past dozy, meandering, haphazard middle-class shoppers, with nothing pressing, or schedule critical to complete within the ambit of their free time- entering the targeted bierkeller only after an irksome slalom, running a gauntlet, via the movie theatres grandiose interior. Uptight, stuck-up staff therein viewed grubby, disruptive labourers as necessary evils, forever warning them to be careful, not to scratch marble walls, leather sofas, damage BAFTA award-winning décor; blemish their hitherto compliant hygiene standards, or tourist quality environment (his chatty driver informed Monty, that some earnest punter wearing a silk paisley cravat, & working terribly hard on a laptop, pulled up a Polish agency porter as she pushed through the centres swanky wellbeing lounge, complaining about an ‘appalling reverberation’, & enquiring if lubricating oil could be found on her lorry, to quell a dreadfully annoying squeak, emanating from her sack-truck wheels). Aggrieved, Monty delivered as instructed, so he felt discriminated against, randomly, for a fault perceived in, & attributable to, a stationary vehicle. Today’s temporary worker was designedly without representation; fair game in a blame game, featuring irresponsible management, casting allegations devoid of substantiation. Zero hours contractors casually deleted: with plenty other mugs cheaply available, replenishing a neo-liberal firing line.
After work, Monty stood, radically disaffected, vengeful & scheming retaliatory scatological assaults- visceral dissension events assertively aimed at pointlessly debasing a cute, artistic, cultural whatchamacallit- Bloomsbury’s beloved Renior (opened in 1972 by the late Millie Miller, a creative space, a complex multi-purpose venue benefitting choice, cultivated audiences, absorbing discerningly selected films, & assimilating vibrant, mini-lifestyle festivals). Described by literati as a sumptuous haven for Flânerie; an opulent auditorium, wherein viewers, presented scrupulously crafted images of beauty & power, are cordially invited to comfortably confront, & cerebrally examine the scrumptious complexity of ‘absence’. Time Out magazine accorded it the legendary status of a trusted Delphic Oracle, an accessible focal point of third-party voyeurism situated upon Camden’s coveted multi-faceted map of aesthetic aspiration. Whetting his appetite for vandalism, & dishonourable disservice to brutal modernism, Monty incredulously read, & re-read, uncompromisingly fawning reviews of upcoming repertory, or independent films to be screened, posted inside the foyers plate-glass entrance: ‘Hamish McHamish’ caught his eye.
Bi-lingual, written by a sage St. Andrews based BBC producer (no doubt a chinless chattering-class wonder with a tiny jaw line & huge, easily bored brain) whittling her contemplative days away inventing impressionistic narratives. This tokenistic Art House instance being dotingly created in gentle collaboration with BBC Alba & the BFI, appropriates the legend of Hamish McHamish, an intensely earnest Gael, who stows away from the Isle of Skye’s rolling winds, shrieking like amputated voices of the damned, to escape excessive hardships meted out by supplanting C18 Lairds, enforcing brutal, authorised Highland Clearances, promoted by a United Kingdom for His Majesty’s Pleasure. Press-ganged & sent to sail seven seas as a cabin boy aboard a gay old lugger named HMS Petulant. Hamish runs ashore on those salaciously Friendly Isles, where lubricious local customs challenged visitors to nominate one of their gang to pleasure tribal maidens in a cooperative gesture of exogamous brotherhood. Being foolhardy, ginger, & savagely sunburned- got Hamish volunteered by sniggering shipmates. A brief, noisy preparatory ceremony sees him stripped, oiled, & bedecked by reeking giant petrel feathers, before being carried aloft to a Jiggy-Hut. A first hint of alarm occurs upon noticing disjecta membra from previous participants- what Hamish imagined as an idle shag-fest, momentary, & transient, was instead a deeply spiritual vaginal mission to render nubile virgins unconscious by way of deep-c multiple orgasm. Tribal custom decrees- succeed, & live a fêted existence attributive to a Chief, or fail & face public castration, followed by death-by-warthog.
Based entirely on academically verified, anecdotal eye-witness accounts, recounting how power evolves to compel folk to do its bidding via violence, remuneration, or blackmail, starring Mark Zuckerberg. This true-life Georgian adventure culminates in desperate attempts to escape mutilation in a requisitioned tribal canoe, & high life or death drama, fought out in blood curdling oar-to-oar combat, afloat upon a tranquil turquoise bay. Hailed by The Observer’s Lifestyle supplement as an intensely didactic cinematic triumph; a magically managed script sensitively parsed historical tensions between longings for a hereditary life lost, with a claim to profound personal enrichment as part of an Empire, from a challenging perspective held by a dispossessed, itinerant subject, from the margins of late-Enlightenment, Hanoverian Britain (an inventive sequel, seeing the protagonist return to Skye, serving his community as a native vanguard of colonial civilisation, shock & awe, minus any trace of reservation or remorse, is in the pipeline, awaiting Arts Council funding).
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.
Nobody knew how it started. Nobody was entirely sure when it started, either, but it wasn’t long until everyone knew.
And by then, of course, it was too late.
People don’t think about the little numbers. They dream about big numbers – a lottery win, or a rich old uncle dying and leaving them with a huge inheritance – but that isn’t how most people become rich. It happens a bit at a time, often before you notice.
The same is true with a plague. One or two deaths don’t grab the headlines (unless the people who die are famous, of course). It takes thousands, millions of deaths to get people’s attention – and by then, of course, it’s already too late to prevent disaster.
And so it was with us.
There are 26 letters in the English alphabet. We all know that. Every child knew that. And it was a child who first noticed what we hadn’t – one of them had gone missing. I know, that sounds insane. How can a letter go missing? But it had. We all remembered there were 26, but however we tried to count them, there were only 25.
What letter was missing? I can’t tell you. I mean it – I really can’t. I don’t know what it was, I can’t even tell you any words that contained it. The spelling of those words has changed, you see – in every book, on every computer. Oh, yes, the computers. Touch typists everywhere started making mistakes. Lots of them. Statisticians studied those mistakes and concluded that the missing letter was on the bottom row, somewhere between the Z and the C keys. But they couldn’t eksplain what the missing letter might have been.
It happened again, a month later.
The world had just started to settle down again. There was a popular concept on the internet: the “Mandela Effect”. So many people remembered Nelson Mandela dying in prison, despite his emerging very much alive to lead his country, that they suggested reality itself had changed. They were remembering the true past, in some parallel dimension, and they’d somehow ended up in the wrong version of events.
The rational version was far simpler – a lot of people just remembered it wrong.
And so it was here. The idea of 26 letters in the alphabet was a Mandela Effect – people were remembering a false history. There had only ever been 25 letters. You simply had to count them…
No matter how anyone tried, the count came out as 24. Another letter had kwietly disappeared from the alphabet. There were no clues this time. Touch typists, still adapting to the lower half of their keyboard, seldom did anything more than accidentally add a tab in the middle of a word, and that rarely.
But it was hard to convince the world that there really were only 24 letters in the alphabet when you’d spent the last month convincing the world there were 25.
Another month has passed, and people are getting scared. Now there are onli 23 letters in the alphabet. Some enterprising ioung chap had the bright idea of carving all the letters in stone, siks feet high, on the plinth in Trafalgar Skware. And now there are onli 23. I counted them maiself.
There’s no gap, no sign. It’s like he onli carved 23 letters in the first place.
It’s impossible. It’s insane.
Mani people are turning to religion, praeing to any gods they can think of. English professors have suggested several new letters to replace the missing ones, but thei argue over what these should be, what thei sound like and where thei should be used.
Have we all gone collectively mad? Is this the result of some foreign power, brainwashing us?
The worst thing is, it could happen again nekst month. Or even todae. How would we efen know? Our lifes could change efen as I tipe these words…
Things are worse, but there has been a breakthrough of sorts. Researchers haf found a recording of a children’s nursery rime that teaches them the alphabet – while it doesn’t include the missing letters, we can at least identifi where in the alphabet thei belonged.
Of the original 26 letters, we haf now lost numbers 10, 16, 22, 24 and 25.
We chust don’t know what they are.
But does it realli matter? We seem to be able to conferse happili enough with chust 21 letters.
A funni thing, though – people are digging out their old Scrabble sets from their attics and cupboards, and thei all seem to have a lot more blank tiles now. I’fe found mine – there should only be two blank tiles, according to the box, but I seem to haf… sefen blanks.
Wait, no. I haf eight.
Whi did I put that one blanc tile before the Ls?
19 letters nao.
Eferione gnos there are fief faoels in the alphabet, and that is still true. A E I O U are all still present and correct. It might be ferri hard to rite uithout them. But somehao I find it harder to read than I used to. The missing letters are gone, but ue still ecspect to see them.
I leaf the Scrabble set out all the time nao. It helps me to no huen another letter fanishes from our collectif consciousness. So far, thei haf all been small letters, onli one or too of each in the bocs nao replaced with blancs. But huat if one of the bigger letters is necst?
And uai is this happening at all??
The second roe of mai Scraggle poard has nao turned planc.
Planc? Uai does that sound rong to me?
All these uerds sound rong lateli. Too much empti space on mai ceepoard. Reading gifs me a headache after chust a feu minutes.
Huen uill it end??
I heard the neuz today. Oh boi…
There iz a roe of four planc tilez on mai Zcraggle poard tonight. One of our more important letterz haz nao disappeared. Zomehao I thought there might be more of an impact, iuet oue maic do uith other letterz.
Efen zo, thiz iz cauzing great panic in poth the gofernment and the uniferzitiez.
At leazt our faoelz are all ztill here.
A E I U. A E I U.
4 faelz. Unly 4! Un ef aur faelz haz gun!!
8 planc tilez nau falleu the P tilez en mai poard…
Nuthing iz zafe!!
Te affapet nau ztands at 13 etterz. Unly aff ef uat it uaz.
Ue zeem tu mizz anutter efery dae nau.
Dicteneriez are fat uit ennpti pagez.
Ennpti? Uai duz tat zaund ueird to nne?
I can’t ztand it ani maur!
I tried te zcreenn, putt I couldn’t. Te zeund iz tere; I iezt cn’t rite it dun.
Unni 3 fe… fu… zpezu ietterz nu.
Zun peepz 4re uzing “4” 4z 4 zt4nd-in. It lucz gud, liec it fitz.
Un te0ri 12 t4t nun 0f t12 12 ree’. Ue 4re 1n 4 21nnu’4t10n.
1n te NN4tr1c2.
1 d0n’t n0 u4t te2e 24pe2 nneen n40 put te uurd 12:
Ee eee eeeeeee eeeeeeee. (It has finally happened.)
Eee eee eeeeeee eee eeee eee eee. (All the letters are gone bar one.)
Eeee eee eeeeeee eee eeee. (Even the numbers are gone.)
E eeeee eeeee eeeee eee eeee E eeeeee eeee eeee eee. (I write these words but even I cannot read them now.)
Ee eee eee eeee, eeeeeee eee eee eee. (We are all lost, waiting for the end.)
I read back over these notes now and they seem like the ravings of a lunatic. The later entries are particularly hard to read – it look me weeks to decode the final entry, in which the position and angle of the single letter indicated what it actually was. What madness possessed me?
But I gather it wasn’t just me. Similar diaries, most far less detailed, have surfaced in other places. There may be more, their owners too ashamed to reveal them. They are the only works like this – all our books, all our keyboards, all are normal.
The Mandela Effect brigade are suggesting that our world, the simulation we live in, has been rebooted and all our memories reset. That sounds absurd to me. We are not in the Matriks, and there are still twenty siks letters in the alphabet.
See? Twenty… five…
Andrew D Williams writes psychological thrillers with a streak of dark humour. His stories question the nature of reality and those beliefs we hold most dear – who we are, what we think is true, whether we can trust our own minds – and combine elements of science fiction with philosophical questions. When he isn’t writing, Andrew’s time is split between swearing at computers, the occasional run and serving as one of the cat’s human slaves. Check out Andrew’s website.