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Colt '84

 

 

Colt ’84

Claude Vicent

short stories

 

 

 

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

 

 

Copyright © Claude Vicent 2017

Published by Claude Vicent at Shakespir

Cover illustration by Claude Vicent. Copyright © 2017

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

 

Previously published © Claude Vicent 2014.

All the stories in Colt ’84, apart from Cold Pie and Mayday were previously published in the short story collections ‘A gentleman never lies’ and ‘Grass fever’.

© Claude Vicent 2013

 

 

claudevicent.com

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to the voices inside my head,

that keep telling me i can’t.

to my heart and soul,

whose ambitions and hopes have no limits,

 

and of course to you,

there’d be no point otherwise…

 

 

c.v.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shit for brains

“And what is it you do?” one of the judges asked.

“Aren’t you going to ask me what my name is first?” the contestant replied with a cheeky smile on his face.

“Of course, what’s your name son?”

“Gary, the name’s Gary.”

“Hi Gary, so what are you going to perform for us tonight?”

“Well it’s all a bit of a surprise, I guess you’ll all just have to wait and see.”

The crowd cheered and rose to their feet as of routine before they were ordered to shut the hell up and return their cheap bums to their seats.

The judges looked at each other a little perplexed at Gary’s answer. He looked like so many others before him. Young, mid-thirties, pale and skinny, about six feet tall.

There was something about him though, perhaps his attitude. It struck a couple of the judges as rather different, even original.

One of the judges wondered whether this guy might be the one. The one they’d been looking for all along.

“Whenever you’re ready Gary.”

“I was born ready,” was the young man’s answer.

The music began to pick up volume in the background as the first notes to ‘Requiem for a Dream’ began to play. The judges tried to relax and slid back into their big leather chairs, reluctantly, a little unimpressed perhaps. It was early days and they still had over a hundred more nut jobs to view and review before the day was over. It was going to be one hell of a long day.

Gary jumped to attention the moment the music began to play and progressed into a loose type of tribal looking dance, moving senselessly around the stage like a drunk. Again the judges looked at each other and back over their shoulders to the crowd. People sat on the edge of their seats in anticipation. A thumbs up from the producer signalled it was still a go ahead.

After much milling around the stage he eventually found his spot and came to a halt.

Standing there, gazing into the distant spotlights, he pointed confidently to the crowd like a presidential campaign candidate waving to his supporters, pretending to have recognised some of them.

The crowd responded with cries and cheers, much to the judges’ curiosity. Note after note the music grew to a crescendo, quicker and louder before a sudden silence shrouded the stage as the music came to an abrupt stop.

The lights went off and a lonesome spotlight moved carefully across the stage to where Gary stood quietly with his back to the audience. You could hear a pin drop.

A few fans cried out to their new found hero, “We love you Gary!”

He held his fist up to them, acknowledging them like a rock ‘n’ roll star.

 

As the seconds ticked on something in the back of everyone’s brain started to wonder what Gary’s act might actually consist of. Their questions and doubts were soon to be answered in style.

Gary began to unzip his trousers. He had practiced the act for weeks on end. In order for it to work well it would all have to fall into place instantly, like clockwork.

It sure did, all the hours of practice sessions paying off.

He dropped his trousers to the floor in one quick sweep, pulling his pants down to his ankles to join his socks. Before anyone in the room had the chance to make sense of what was going on Gary got down into a deep squat, his back still turned to the audience and judges. Still no one dared break the silence.

The crowd sat frozen in their seats. It was Gary who broke the awkward silence as he pushed with all his might. A couple of deep manly grunts were soon followed by a sustained sound of relief, as he did just that.

 

Years later people would recall the moment, telling all sorts of colourful tales.

The truth is time stood still that afternoon. For a few eternal moments, everyone in the St. James’ music hall stood gobsmacked before the most outrageous act of public indecency. It went something like this.

The steam rose off the piece of fresh warm shit as it made contact with the cold stage floor. For a moment it looked like it might go on for ever but it eventually came to an end and dropped off, coiling up like a rattlesnake resting in the warm corn fields of Western Indiana.

There was another brief moment of silence before the crowd rose to its feet and burst out into a cry of admiration and applause. It was an explosion of enthusiasm. They clapped and cheered and howled and hollered. The roar went on uncontrollably for the best part of a few minutes.

The judges looked at each other and all around them with incredulous looks. Not one of the so-called professional talent scouts could make sense of what had just happened. They had never seen anything so disgusting and demeaning to human society before, and yet, the crowd couldn’t seem to get enough of it.

Some even cried out for an encore. Gary had to be held back by security as he went to squat for a second time. The live TV coverage had to be cut.

 

“Well…” one of the judges found the courage to speak out.

“Gary, I wouldn’t know what to say. I… mmm, well.., the crowd sure seemed to like it.”

The people went up into another fireball of ecstasy. The judge couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of his mouth. For a moment he swore he was having some kind of outer body experience, watching the whole scene unfold from a distance, but he knew what he had to do.

Just keep that good old crowd happy.

The second judge from the left, a young professional dancer, kept her head low behind the panel desk, her face deep inside a bucket. She was still being sick. They had to skip her as they moved on to the next judge.

“Listen Gary, you’re a great fellow, there’s definitely something about you, the way you stir the people up, it’s quite amazing, but I don’t think this kind of act is suitable for a TV audience.”

The crowd went up in arms as the sounds of howling and deep, sustained booing filled the auditorium. How dare he.

“But they sure seemed to like you,” he quickly corrected himself winning a dubious applause from the stands. The judge smiled satisfied with his own performance. He still had the crowd on his side, and that was all that mattered.

The last judge was a young, up and coming rap star, new to the scene and still not very knowledgeable of the subtle skills involved in being a TV judge entertainer. The poor thing still believed there was something genuine left in the whole thing. He couldn’t believe his eyes, ears, or nose.

“Gary,” he said pulling his cap to the side and sitting up confidently in his chair, “That was absolute shit, if you’ll pardon the pun!”

The crowd loved the joke, alas not grasping the true meaning of the words. The young rapper sat there incredulous, watching two of his colleagues go along with the crowd, clapping and all smiles.

The female judge had to be removed from the hall. The smell of fresh dump was starting to make its way steadily around the auditorium. The air was becoming unbreathable.

 

“I’m sorry, I just didn’t get it Gary. What were you trying to say, if anything?”

“Why, he’s expressing himself freely,” said the first judge. The crowd loved him for the comment and they let him know it.

“You have to admit,” added the second judge, “it sure was out there. As far as originality goes, it was quite unique.”

The young rapper couldn’t believe his ears. He turned round to the audience to see if they were all for real. They were. He looked over to one of the producers to the side of the stage. He was also in on it, the cameras were rolling again. Rock’n‘roll.

 

“Gary,” cried one of the judges, “It’s a big fat YES from me.”

The young rapper smacked his fists on the desk and got up to the leave. The crowd booed him off. Within seconds he re-thought it through and returned to his seat flicking his middle fingers to a few members of the crowd.

The second judge went along with the flow and it was two YESes for Gary.

The rapper ripped his cap off and ran his fingers through his hair trying to gather his thoughts. Had he really witnessed a grown man defecate on stage in front of a live audience of thousands and possibly millions at home? Yes, he sure had. Was it just him or had everyone in the room gone completely mad?

“I am afraid I’m going to have to push you on this one mate,” one of the judges butted in pressuring him for time.

The sweat grew heavier and dripped like rain off his young, tanned face. His hands too, shook nervously under the desk. Then, suddenly, as something shifted inside his mind he thought of his career, and had a vision. There it was, the path. Laid all so clearly before him, illuminated by a bright light, the light of glamour and fame. He knew at once what was best for him, there was no doubting that anymore.

“I’m going to have to go with my gut instinct on this one Gary,” the crowd loved his predictable humour, “it’s a big YES from me!”

 

The crowd went barmy. Some even broke onto stage in a desperate attempt to hug their newfound hero.

Gary became an overnight success. He was hailed as the man who had succeeded in pushing the boundaries of decency further than had ever been thought possible.

The sky was really the limit. Few could ever have foreseen the success that good old Gary was to experience.

For a brief few weeks his star shone as bright as the light of a thousand suns.

The TV people wanted him, the radio wanted him, the magazines wanted him. An acclaimed artist even went as far as to reproduced a bronze version of Gary’s famous stage turd and sold it for 1.7 million pounds at auction. The buyer, an anonymous Japanese investment firm.

A national museum, which shall remain unnamed, even offered to freeze the very first dump Gary took on stage that evening and exhibit it as part of their modern art exhibition. It was hailed as the piece of the century. Contemporary art would have to find new distant boundaries to consider itself outrageous.

 

But, like many others before him, Gary fell victim to his own success, blinded by the very light his bright star emitted.

He was indeed admitted to the next round of the famous talent show. An event which had kept the whole country waiting on the edge of their sofas. Live coverage had been organised to capture Gary’s next moment of genius.

“What could he possibly have up his sleeve this time?” some papers wrote.

True to himself, Gary produced a second outstanding performance. It was very similar to his first. This time round though, the crowd were not half as understanding as they had previously been. They had stood by him and cheered him on only a few weeks earlier. He was old news now.

They’d obviously all expected a lot more of him.

And just as easily as he came, he went. Booed off stage like an impostor. Forgotten, but by a few loyal supporters who to this day still thrill at the opportunity to tell the amazing story of Gary’s exhilarating rise and fall from fame. From the biggest stage an entertainer could wish for, to the shabby afternoon entertainment events in Conservative clubs around the country where Gary can occasionally still be seen performing.

One drag of a queen

I don’t think I’d been down to the Pen and Wig for some time. Grangetown had never been a favourite destination of mine, but at times it’s just nice to step out of one’s comfort zone and live a little.

I wasn’t in the habit of going out on the town, especially alone, but something told me I would end up finding someone, a drinking companion perhaps. The night was young.

And as I sat there munching away at a bunch of stale pork scratchings, contemplating the essence of love, who should ever come to sit down next to me at the bar but one hell of a beautiful looking human being. A drag queen to be more precise. She wasn’t all that beautiful when I eventually got a better look at her.

At well over six foot four, her big blonde wig and glossy eyelashes towered over me, her bright pink dress overwhelming the room. She went by the name of Henrietta. I guess she was probably a Henry but it was all the same to me. I kept it friendly, I wasn’t looking for trouble.

 

“You look down in the dumps boyo,” she said looking straight at me.

“What ever gave that away?” I asked with a certain sarcasm, sipping at my scotch with a certain Marlon Brando je ne sais quoi.

“Ahh, you earthlings,” she said, “you’re really something.” I was probably drunker than anticipated, but yes, that is exactly what she said.

“Ye…” she went on, “I mean, you’ve got it all sorted out down here, proper nice, but all you ever do is complain and get down and depressed about stuff. You’ve got it all, more than you could ever imagine, but all you ever want is more, more and bloody more. Beats me how all you’re ever concerned with is money and that depressingly, compulsive pursuit for happiness.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more Henrietta,” I said holding up my glass and gulping the remaining warm scotch down my throat. “To us,” I said slamming the glass down on the bar violently.

“I mean it,” she went on, “I really don’t get you people. I’ve been posted down here for nearly eleven decades now and you’re still all a mystery to me.”

Henrietta’s voice was starting to show the first audible signs of serious inebriation. She was well hammered.

“But,” she said taking another swing at her gin & tonic, “my time has finally come. I’m done. Finito. It’s the end, my friend. I’m going home tonight. I’ve completed my mission and review. My job down here is done and after all this time I have to say, I can’t bloody wait to finally get going.”

We made eye contact for a brief instant. Her bloodshot eyes looked straight at me and deep into my soul. She had that serious look that only the drunkest of story tellers have whilst in the midst of telling a seriously drunken story.

“Do you want to know what I’ve concluded? What I’m going to be taking back with me after my experience down here?” she asked, “do you?”

“Sure,” I said holding up my hand to the barman for another drink. I couldn’t give a rat’s arse, but ye, why not.

“You’re all damned. There’s no future for you all. You’re all damn crazy. That’s the truth. Damn fucking crazy, but interesting!”

She burped halfway through the last word and then went on.

“Of course my official statement is somewhat different but it kind of boils down to that. You’re all crazy.”

“Long day Henrietta?” I asked smiling politely. I sure was drunk but boy was she well out of it. It couldn’t be easy being a fifty year old transvestite down those ways. I wondered what kind of market there was for that kind of entertainment. Then I looked across the pub and noticed a group of overweight sales executives in shabby suits, stained shoes and purple ties and thought, why not.

“It’s been a long couple of decades,” she said. “it makes me sick to the core to see that your potentially magnificent race hasn’t really learnt anything over all this time apart from how to find all manner of crazy ways to blow yourselves to bits. I take my hat off to you all, I really do. You’re damn good at blowing the hell out of each other. I’ve never seen anything like it before!”

She stumbled to her feet and ordered two shots of Sambuca from the barman then squinted her eyes and looked down at her watch and whispered something to herself.

“To earth,” she suddenly cried out holding up the two shot glasses, “may it live long and prosper!” Looking down at her wrist watch again she said, “I think my ride’s due any second now love.”

Then, as she mumbled something else to herself, two middle aged men in colourful, tropical yellow, palm infested shirts and green bermudas walked into the pub and approached us with menacing demeanour. The flipping and flopping of their flip-flops echoing through the pub as they walked across the sticky floor. You could hear a pin drop in the place.

“Agent Vermillion Suns, codex 1-84-b2?” one of them asked staring her straight in the face, obviously unimpressed with the state she was in.

“That’s me alrightee,” she giggled back nearly falling head over arse off the tall bar stool.

“Mission?” the other bloke asked her with a deep voice and a look that could kill, his eyes hidden behind a dark pair of black sunglasses. Bewildered, I sat there and listened to their peculiar conversation.

“Complete,” she answered, taking one last swing at her gin & tonic.

“Report?” he went on.

“Complete.”

“Samples?”

“Just the one,” she answered.

The two men looked at each other with curiously confused looks before staring back at Henrietta.

“Just this one,” she said again nodding and pointing at me with her long nose.

 

The next thing I remember is waking up in bed some two days later. No recollection of the events apart from a massive head ache and a tedious pain in the back of my neck. Nothing had been taken. My wallet and keys were neatly placed on my bed side table, my boots aligned symmetrically on the floor, and lying on the corner of my bed was a signed photo of the colourful drag queen whose image, voice and smell I seemed to remember all so vividly.

And as I held it up into the light to admire it, I couldn’t help wondering where the last forty-eight hours had gone.

Written across the photograph, in a stylish scribble, was:

Veritas vos liberabit,

To my good friend.

[_ Henrietta”._]

Once my beloved

The strange words which those anonymous voices spoke sounded all so familiar. Like something I had come across sometime before, perhaps in my sleep or perhaps some many years before my own existence ever happened. Words so strong and convincing that they could push even the bravest and most honourable of men to commit outrageous acts of folly. Who will ever know?

The important thing being, that I am alive and well as I write these few words, if else, to remind me of how gracious and beautiful it is to be alive on such a lovely afternoon. The birds are out whistling in the trees, the children play joyfully in the park across the street. The milk man delivers the milk and the baker bakes his morning bread, and my dear Delilah hangs, tied upside down by her ankles, in the wardrobe in the furthest corner of our sleeping chamber.

 

As to how she ever came to be that way is still a mystery to me. I sit here puffing away at my half smoked cigarette, sipping away at the cheap gin which I have managed to get my shaky hands on. The taste of it is making me increasingly ill. And I wonder, where it might all have gone wrong?

I sit here thinking about her soft pale white skin. The way it smelt and felt when the warm blood still ran through her veins, as did life. The red hair, which now hangs down past her hands, hovers over the cupboard floor like an old broom.

Her eyes rolled back into her head are a far cry from the blue, velvety pearls which once made my soul leap with joy every time I was lucky enough to look into them. And her smile, turned upside down like the rest of her body, now grim and lifeless, like a ventriloquist’s doll.

Pouring myself another glass of sickening gin I crouch down over the table top and hold my head in my hands, trying to remember how poor Delilah ended up in the state I found her. When indeed did I find her, I wonder?

What dark forces have been to work in our beloved house? Could I, for one, have fallen victim to another of the devil’s evil tricks? To those voices, which so many times before I am sure have visited the chambers of my mind. For I recall only vaguely coming to and then rather faintly crawling out of a long dream which I forget ever having entered. My hands, stained with the blood of my dear Delilah, clotting between my fingers.

 

Perhaps my surroundings might hold a clue, something as to the nature of the grim situation which I find myself in.

So as I walk about the house in nothing but my manhood, I discover the kitchen to be not as I had left it, but in a manner more resembling a workshop. Dare I say the back of a butcher’s shop. For the kitchen knifes and utensils are neatly laid across the wooden bench with logical order, and the jars which once held freshly delivered milk are now but overflowing with ghastly volumes of human blood. And in the corner lies a white cloth, stained unequivocally with blood. It lies there as if to cover something.

I have not the strength of mind or heart to dare to look, but something in my hand snatches at the cloth and pulls it back to reveal a sight as barbaric and grotesque as humanly conceivable.

A canvass, on which some devilish being, making use of pints of human blood, has depicted a frightful portrait of my beloved Delilah.

 

Alas, I make my way back to our sleeping quarters where my beloved one hangs. Her hair, still dangling in the slight breeze which sweeps across the room. I wish I could kiss her just one more time.

But for my suit coat, all my clothes are covered in blood. I make a bleak attempt to rid the stains but fail miserably. Unable to find both socks I slip my naked feet into my shoes and fold my coat neatly across my arm. A wet hand across the forehead and back over my hair to at least try to appear presentable before I quietly lock the front door behind me.

And as the fresh morning air hits my face, I remember, with much joy, that there’s a wonderful bistro just around the corner. Only a five minute walk. I think I’ll pop round there for a quick breather. A strong cup of coffee and a good English breakfast followed by a sherry should bring back a few memories. It might hopefully shed a little light on the events of last night.

 

Or so I thought. For some few hours later I sit here still. My hands in my hair, the gin still causing me to convulse, and the veins in my eyeballs fluttering in the darkness which is my basement. Lit only by the feeble light of a single candle as my eyes are desperately glued to the severed torso and the hanging limbs of she, who was once, my dear sweet Louise.

 

The curious case of a northern village

Taken from “The Wacky memories of Lord

Bradbury of Canteburry’s Ale”.

Somewhere in Denmark,

2. June, 1902

 

Just another Danish country road village I probably would have ridden through and not thought much of, had I not come across the incredible story of the one young master Andreas Skovgaard, also known as the ‘Poelsegutten’.

I was made aware of the existence of the poor boy much by accident whilst riding a carriage through the bumpy roads on my way to the beautiful city of Copenhagen whence we stopped to take water and feed the horses. I wandered aimlessly into a local tavern and much to my satisfaction ordered a glass of their finest Danish beer.

It was as I stood there wiping the fresh, tasty foam from off my face that I noticed a parade of people making their way hectically down the streets. The banter and chanter and sounds of the laughing and screaming, for a moment I thought I might have been so lucky as to have stumbled in on a local pagan festival. So it was, that with beer in hand, I too made out into the streets hoping to join in with the festivities.

 

The horrid smell of pig’s excrement which had accompanied my trip so far, now strangely appeared to complement the raw taste of my locally brewed beer in a manner quite remarkable, so much as to cause me to smile and take in a breath of ‘fresh’ Danish air. The people walked with pride and glory in their steps and they chanted in all manner of ways.

Poking a young lad on the shoulder I inquired as to what all the fuss was about. His answer came in the form of an undecipherable northern dialect. Not yet accustomed to the local language, I squinted my eyes forcefully as if to try and make better sense of the words the young boy was pronouncing, and it wasn’t until he had made his third attempt to communicate with me that, amid the throat groggling, I heard, “I dag’ar den andre juni. Vi loeper for o ze Andreas, poelsegutten.”

Still not able to make sense of his words I thanked him politely, smiled, guzzled down the rest of my amber beer and rightly followed the crowds down the winding roads. Thus laughing and cheering, I followed gayly in pursuit, alas not still understanding the true nature of the festivities but doing my best to blend in.

Craft men, butchers, tailors and all manners of beings lined the sides of the streets as we wound like a human river graciously round the corners, covered in the effervescing scent of beer. Such smells were soon replaced by the unmistakable odour of cooking meat and the cozy, nauseating fumes of burning charcoal.

As we turned into what appeared to be the main square I heard all manner of folk music and the voices of joyous singing and screeching. Before me I admired the greatest sight I had seen since leaving my great country. Grill after grill after grill filled the square beyond recognition, so much so that it resembled a battle field in which the victorious had thrown their winnings thoughtlessly over the burning fires.

I was readily handed a generously sized sausage on a stick and invited to sit at a table where the beer glasses by far outnumbered the people sat around it.

Skaal, Skaal!” I joined in joyously raising my glass of beer in the air at every chance I got.

Once again I was allowing myself to fall victim to my circumstances. The carriage to Copenhagen had no doubt left without me by then, taking with it my newly acquired suitcase and tailored suit. Again I would find myself penniless and without a possession to call my own but for the pennies in my pocket and the clothes on my back. Alas, I accepted the loss quickly and moved on, allowing myself to fully enjoy the unfolding events.

My lack of knowledge for the local tongue did not play against my enjoyment of the day, although it might have played a part in me taking so long to truly grasp the nature of the day’s celebrations.

It was not before a few more jars of beer and more sausages than I care to remember that I finally learned about the reason for all the celebrations. Whence again I heard the name mentioned a few times I began to catch onto the fact.

When some of my generous hosts noticed my perplexed looks they pointed out across the square and red in the faces called out “Der kommer han, poelsegutten.”

Just then the whole parade came to a frightening halt, as the music stopped, the beer glasses were quickly emptied and a disturbing silence fell upon the the whole square. Not a whisper, only the sizzling of the sausages in the distance.

The rest of us stood up on our feet, our eyes fixed on a wooden stage which had been erected on the other side of the square. When I tried to enquire as to what was going on, I was met with a stern “ssshh!” and a gesture to pay close attention to what was about to occur but a stone throw away from us.

Beyond the stage a chubby looking figure of a middle aged man struggled to pull his heavy frame up onto the stage. With much effort he finally made it, removed a white handkerchief from his colourful waistcoat and wiped the sweat from his face. He carefully folded the garment up and returned it neatly to his pocket before finally addressing the masses. And the people loved him for it. For as he held out the palms of his hands to them like a messiah they exploded in a hysteric cry. He gestured the folks to sit down in their seats and they all acquiesced with despicable obedience. Beer glasses back in hand they sat on the edges of their chairs, waiting attentively for something. What exactly, I still could not tell.

Meanwhile the chubby man, dressed in colourful frocks and high heels, went on to make some sort of presentation. Again I was lost in the throbbing and guggling which the local language caused the poor man’s throat, and very little did I understand of the words he spoke but for “Andreas Skovgaard.” By then it had become obvious to me that this person should play a major role in the day’s celebrations for I had already heard his name mentioned a few times.

He sure did play a central role in the proceedings, but never would I have expected in the manner which was soon to be revealed to me.

Suddenly, as the boy’s name was called out yet again, there opened in the distance a pathway through the people, along which a small procession of men carried what looked like a wooden cradle of sorts. Again, the silence fell all around, and I could only sit and sip at my beer waiting patiently to see what oddity this small corner of the world had reserved for me.

The cradle was carried quite abruptly through the square – hundreds of eyes peeking – and up the side of the wooden stage. It was lifted up onto the platform and placed at the centre of the stage floor. Two sets of ropes, two on each side, were tied to parts of the cradle and fed into a separate mechanism made up of a complicated set of gears and pulleys.

Again the chubby host raised his voice and with it the mood of all those present. The feeling of excitement boiled below the surface like molten lava waiting to erupt. A few hideous beings squeaking with anticipation, I noticed the chubby host protrude his lizard like tongue out of his hideously moist mouth and lick his lips in delight.

I guess a few shivers did run down my back when the crowd started to erupt, like a raising tide, as tug after tug the ropes attached to the cradle were pulled at, causing the small object to slowly lift before us.

The hype turned to hysteria, and the hysteria to feverish madness as the cradle reached its vertical resting position and its contents was finally revealed to us all.

I don’t know what disturbed me most, perhaps the people, as a wave of schizophrenic rabies-like fever took over them all.

The sweat poured from their red, plump faces as their bodies contorted in all sorts of demonic ways. On the stage, the fat man licked his own fingers with possessed manner as if licking the juices off a readily grilled piece of meat. All had succumbed to the hysteria caused by the vision of the creature which they had come to see as somewhat of a deity.

Beyond the sea of madness and feverish orgy of beer, sweat and meat I focused in on the cradle and had to rub my eyes numerous times before I could rationalise that which I was seeing. But still I could not believe my own eyes, so with much distraught I got out of my seat and pushed my way across the crowd of bodies. Trampling on many feet and causing more than a few glasses to overturn I finally made it to where I was within arms reach of the stage, and there before me, in a handcrafted beautiful specimen of a wooden cradle lay Andreas, ‘Poelsegutten’.

My amazement was hard to disguise as I stood there, flabbergasted, my mouth hanging from my face like dead meat. I could not believe what dark sorcery could ever have caused such a horrid thing to be. And as I stood there staring, frozen in my step, I suddenly saw what it was that was so horridly wrong with the poor boy.

Little was there left of anything that might resemble a limb. The skin under his arms had grown tough down from his armpits all the way to the tip of his fingers, and his head and shoulders had seemingly become one. Similarly his legs had become attached at his crotch and his feet were barely visible. Were it not for his facial features and the wiggly toes which protruded at the bottom of his frame I might have mistaken the creature for a sea lion, such was the fat and blubber that made up his tender frame.

It was only when I turned to face the crowd that I made sense of the whole picture. Hesitating at first, I forced myself to face poor Andreas a second time. When I did so, I saw him for what he was, or had so unfortunately become, a gigantic man sized sausage.

Still, and I mean still unable to believe my senses I crawled even closer to the stage to ascertain whether I was victim of some mysterious hallucination or just some cheap joke. It was neither. By the side of the stage I saw the crying parents of the poor boy whose fate had been so irreversibly decided. The crowds were having to be held back as more and more of them made their way towards the stage to get a closer look at the prodigy boy and possibly even touch him.

 

Stepping back from the masses, I took refuge on a quiet stool on the outskirts of the square watching the debauchery unfolding before me. It was then that I was approached by a vicar. Having noticed my discomfort, he proceeded to explain to me in my very own tongue the meaning behind the curious event.

The boy, he explained had shown the first signs of the mysterious illness with which he was ‘blessed’ some years earlier. Having initially been diagnosed as some form of leprosy, the boy had spent most of his childhood as an outcast, locked away from the world. It wasn’t until years later when a local medicine man noticed that the young boy’s diet, which consisted mainly of sausages, might have something to do with his condition. He was diagnosed as slowly turning into that which he was so greedily consuming, a sausage. Once the word took to the streets, it wasn’t long before the sausage crazed community began to venerate the young boy as some kind of a God, and so the tale turned to legend.

As the vicar spoke I could not help feeling a deep sense of pity for the boy. There he lay before us, sweating profusely in the summer sun, his chubby frame sizzling in the heat. All eyes on him and the people still surging and contorting as if under the spell of some mystic drug. What demonic hell had I come to?

It iz all zo very awful,” the vicar continued. “Zey’ve been stuffing him like a kameloso. All zey’ve been feeding him is sausagez for five years straight. Poor creature, zey spoon feed him like a beast, fether he liked it or not.”

I can only hope Ze Lord grant him a better life wance ze child joins him in hiz kingdom.”

I could not help noticing the odd choice of words spoken by the old vicar but yet I felt comfort in finding a fellow man who expressed the same sort of empathy I had been accustomed to.

Feeling the weight of the vicar’s hand on my shoulders I sensed a little relief and looked up to him in the hope of making some sort of human connection that might help me withstand the madness which surrounded us both.

As I did, I caught a glimpse of his lizard like tongue gliding ever so slightly across his lips and a vicious look of rage fill his eyes.

One odd evening

He couldn’t remember how long he’d been speaking to the sweet old lady, it sure felt like a long time, but a pleasantly long time.

His odd behaviour and his all too cumbersome look gave him an odd kind of vibe. He was tall and skinny, short thinning black hair, a long and pointy face and a pare of black framed reading glasses. He wore a shoulder strap bag over his left shoulder and kept his right hand suspiciously tucked into his trouser pocket at all times.

He looked around the empty bar as if to check that no one had followed him in there. There was no one in the bar apart from himself, the barman and a sweet, old looking lady.

Outside it snowed, like it did, not a person about.

“Coffee!” he called out awkwardly to the barman. Then he sat down by the sweet old lady.

They talked about all things odd. Things other people wouldn’t normally talk about as far as the barman was concerned.

The barman tuned in to the conversation a few times. It was hard for him to avoid doing so.

He couldn’t help thinking how boring it sounded. He damned them for being there so late on such a cold, winter’s Sunday afternoon. He sooner would have wanted to shut the place down and go home to his wife but the two went on for a while longer.

It was the odd looking man who did most of the talking. The sweet old lady was too old and sweet to say anything. A little too tired, perhaps of life. She replied politely now and then with a nod of the head.

The odd looking man’s monologue continued indefinitely.

The barman kept to himself and polished away at the tables, occasionally pretending not to hear what was being said. The radio was broken, had been for a while, there was nothing else to listen to. The streets were deserted. Just the empty footprints in the snow trailing the pavements outside. The snow still falling silently.

The odd looking man looked so happy. The barman couldn’t remember ever having seen him smile before. Not once in the three years he’d been visiting the cafe. Had he finally found someone willing to lend him an ear? To listen to all the odd things he had to say.

He wasn’t lonely anymore, that was for sure. He had a friend in the world, someone who thought he had interesting things to share. Someone who listened. It made the barman sick in the stomach.

He talked some more and then some more again. The barman noticed the old lady nod off a couple of times. Her head falling ever so slightly forward, before suddenly waking up again and jolting her chin back up, hoping her new friend hadn’t noticed.

She probably wants to get back home to her warm bloody bed, the barman thought to himself.

She was just being polite. The odd looking man was miserably failing to notice her subtle warning signs. He was literally talking the sweet old lady to sleep.

Despite that, he was getting noticeably exited about his new friend. He called over to the barman and ordered another coffee. Again, rather awkwardly.

“I’ll have a double. No wait, a single. No what the hell, make it a double.”

He didn’t bother asking his new friend if she fancied anything to drink, he was overwhelmed with too much of his own happiness to care.

She sat there smiling at him politely. Her head still nodding up and down as the odd looking man continued to talk about strange and wonderful things. She tried hard to look ever so interested.

And time flew by as the odd looking man enjoyed himself. Finding it hard to believe how exciting it was to finally have someone to talk to. He had so much to say.

He lectured to her about his theories on politics, the universe, the theories of sound, classical music, opera, his favourite composers, authors, religion, philosophy. All with such passion.

The barman wasn’t in the least impressed.

The sweet old lady sat there smiling. The barman couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there.

 

Closing time finally came. The barman breathed a sigh of relief.

Thank fuck, he thought to himself. He thought he would never see the end of it. He walked over to the table where the two were sitting and told them the bar was about to shut.

The odd looking man thanked his new friend for the wonderful afternoon but the sweet old lady failed to react. Instead she sat there smiling, content, within her sweet, old, dry skin.

The odd looking man smiled back.

The barman walked over to the old lady and took a closer look at her. There was something awfully cold and stiff about her. He nudged her on the shoulder and tapped her a few times. The smile slowly disappeared off the face of the odd looking man and for the first time that evening he was lost for words.

“I think she’s dead mate,” the barman said.

The odd looking man didn’t know what to say. He wondered how long he’d been talking to the sweet old lady while she sat there before him, stiff and dead.

The same thought ran through the barman’s head. Like a draught, the thought entered his head and soon made its way out of the hollow capsule and returned to the ether from which it had come.

The ambulance turned up eight minutes later and took the sweet old lady away. The smile still imprinted on her face.

The odd looking man left the bar a friend short. Is it really possible to talk someone to death, he thought to himself.

He walked the snowy streets, one slow step into the snow after the other.

“Alone and afraid in a world he never made.”

He continued for a few blocks, eventually turning into his local brothel. The bright lights offered him some sort of comfort.

He nodded politely to the middle aged woman sitting at the front desk. She smiled to him but he avoided all eye contact.

“Jannet is waiting for you love. You know your way up,” she implied with tongue in cheek.

She took his credit card and gave him a wave as he stepped up the first flight of steps. The memories of his lost friend still vivid in his mind.

He knocked on Jannet’s door and let himself in. A whiff of old cologne welcomed him.

She sat before a large mirror fixing her wig, scratching away at the itchy bald scalp. He noticed the ruins of an ageing tattoo on the back of her right shoulder. She turned back to face him and smiled, the dents in her cheeks revealing the cavities within her mouth.

“I’ll be with you in a second,” she said with a muffled tone. Her voice aged by the smoke of a million cigarettes.

“I’ve just got to finish putting my teeth in love, then I’m all yours.”

Twisted indulgence

It beats me to think how long I must have been standing in that queue. It beats me even more how, after so many years, I still have trouble spelling the word queue… but anyways, time has since taken on a different shape, a different form and a role all of its own and it mattered not the least when I opened my eyes and took in the blindingly bright surroundings. Where was I?

The shoes I was wearing were the whitest I had ever seen, as were my socks, trousers, waist coat, tie and suit. I had never seen so many white clothes before in my life. Funnily enough I never remembered ever having purchased a white suit before. I was quite bewildered.

The queue I so apparently stood in seemed to stretch for miles behind me, off, far into a distant landscape of white, foamy clouds and not a shade of any other colour known to be.

The sound of whispering was all about, but when I looked around I could not single out anyone involved in any kind of conversation. On the contrary, they seemed to be under some subtle spell, a little sedated by the whole event.

Time, as I mentioned, had since ceased to have any significance or relevance so I don’t know how long it was before I started to sense a frighteningly escalating sense of dread building up in my stomach. The only memory I had previous to my arrival was of lying on my death bed, sickened and weakened by disease. Whatever curious transformation had occurred, all that mattered to me was my immediate situation. I was unequivocally stuck in the present moment.

 

Tapping an elderly gentleman on the shoulder he turned to face me, his face as pale as the clothes he was wearing. To little avail I tried to ask him if he had any idea where we were but he did little to converse with me, turned back to face the front of the queue and returned to his daydream-like coma. For an eternal breath of a moment, or however long it was, it felt as if I might be the only conscious soul present who seemed the least concerned with what was going on.

Alas, my prayers were soon answered when a most tenderly young looking woman appeared out of the thin air cloud that enveloped us on all sides and began to graciously hand out what seemed to be paper leaflets. Finally, I thought to myself, some answers.

The odours were the most peculiarly appealing and mind boggling. For any odour I wished for or thought about seemed to instantly fill my nostrils the second the thought struck a switch in my mind. It was then that I noticed the sweet tulip scent which surrounded the young lady who was gently holding out her hand to me with the leaflet and smiling kindly. I took the leaflet from her gentle fingers and politely returned the pleasantry.

“Well thank you very much,” I said, “if you wouldn’t mind I’ve just got a couple of questions…” but that was all I managed to slip in. With her sweet, tender smile stamped on her face she moved on nonchalantly down the queue, soul after “white dressed” soul taking the leaflets from her without batting an eye lid. And as I reached into my inside suit pocket to fetch my reading glasses as by a strange sense of reflex, I noticed with a certain shock that I was able to read the words on the paper unaided by the spectacles I had so relied upon for so many years until then.

 

In a manner most uncomplicated and a little condescending, the leaflet informed myself, and the other countless souls queued up behind me, that we were indeed dead and that we were graciously approaching the pearly gates of heaven. It called for a calm spirit and a clear sense of duty in this time of hardship and change. We would all soon be seen to and debriefed individually. Signed, the Welcome Committee.

The news didn’t go down too well with a gentleman a decade or so my younger, for instants after reading through the very same leaflet he succumbed to a hysteric attack of rage and desperation from which he seemed unable to recover. The new reality was hitting him hard.

Within a couple of heartbeats a swat team of serious looking men in turquoise suits and matching ties appeared out of nowhere. One of them put his hand on the man’s shoulder causing him to pass out suavely before them. They let him drop onto a soft sheet of hovering linen which proceeded to carry him away unaided before disappearing forever from sight.

I, on the other hand, was well aware of the fact that I was on my way. I had been for a couple of months, and I welcomed the news as a breath of fresh air, something to break the monotony of the long hours spent lying awake in hospital beds, slowly rotting away in my own sweat and shit.

I was rather starting to enjoy the idea of finally having passed on to a better place. It sure didn’t look too bad.

I wouldn’t be able to say if it was an hour or an eternity but I eventually began to see the end of the queue approaching. In the near distance, a white desk, a couple of perky looking young ladies holding big writing pads up to their breasts, and an older looking gentleman sitting behind an imposing desk. The look and frown on his face looked troublesome but still there seemed little for me to fear. The time had finally come for me to meet my maker. I was rather excited.

One by one the poor souls were ushered up to the big white desk where they were greeted by the old man with the stern frown. He barked all manner of orders and remarks to them before they were ushered off into the distance, disappearing into a thick mist of white cloud. I looked forward to my turn and sure enough I was standing at the white desk looking down on the elderly man in his bright white suit.

“Please sit,” I heard a soft voice whisper behind my left ear.

“We’ve been expecting you Dan,” the gentleman said in a similarly low but decisive voice.

“Well, thank you,” I answered, “I must say I have quite been looking forward to the whole thing myself if I may say so.”

The gentleman kept his eyes fixed on a piece of paper that lay before him on the desk.

“Indeed,” he said quietly with an unimpressed tone in his voice.

“As a matter of fact,” I continued, “I have always been a devout religious person myself, and on that note I’m sure you’ll be happy to know I decided to part with my life savings a short while before moving on. I left it all to a church charity run by a local community priest. It was the least I could do.”

“I see,” he said again.

“I took father Riley’s advice and cleared my soul of any burden and signed it all away, the money I mean. All off to the sick and needy. I must say, it did miracles for my state of mind those last few days.”

“Yes,” he added yet again seemingly unimpressed, “that seems to be exactly the issue at the moment.”

“Issue?” I asked a little baffled.

“It seems, according to the documentation that I have here before me, that you indeed do not seem to have a single penny to your name, not a dime to show for your time on earth.”

With that he lifted his head up from the paper and removed his reading spectacles before fixing me with a menacingly peculiar glare.

“I don’t really need these,” he said smiling and holding up his glasses, “I just like the way they look.”

“I don’t seem to understand what you’re trying to say,” I said.

“What I’m saying,” he went on, “is that according to these bank statements I have before me, there doesn’t seem to be any money left in any of your bank accounts. You’re literally skint.”

I could not believe what I was hearing.

“That is just the way things work like round here,” he said with a content tone.

I slammed my hand down, hard onto the desk.

“You must be pulling my bloody leg. Let me get this straight,” I said, “I spent a lifetime working hard and building a solid Christian household with my wife and children. I worked hard all my life and lived a good honest life, then I get sick. Damn bloody sick.

Doctors telling me I’m doing better but I can tell from the look on their faces that there ain’t a chance in hell I’m gonna make it out of the hospital alive.

So there I am, on my death bed. A couple of days left in me when this local priest, Father Riley, comes over to grant me my last confession. He talks me into leaving all my money to his church and his damn bloody charity.

I never liked the man, but I figured it was better than leaving it all to my ex-wife and kids. So I did it. I signed it all away to him as a sign of good will. Something to set me up for my travels into the next world. And now here you are, telling me that I did wrong?”

The old man stroked his white beard calmly with one hand, taking soft, long strokes at it, like one would with a horse’s mane, before putting his spectacles back on and speaking.

“Father Riley is a protestant. We’ve been onto him for a while now. It’s not the first time he talks a soul into parting with a lifetime of savings. He’s been at the old trick for sometime now, but I am glad to say that we’ve got a few people working on the matter as we speak.”

“It was unfortunate that we couldn’t get to him before he got to you and rid you of that fortune you’d worked all those years for.”

“However, the fact remains, that up here in the white stuff, money talks. And from where I’m sat, I can’t see how we could possibly let you in without a dime to your name. It just wouldn’t work. The man wouldn’t allow it.”

 

And that was it. Without lifting his head or acknowledging me further he ushered me off with a slight move of the hand, as if brushing me off his page like some unfortunate particle of dust.

I felt the soft embrace of one of the young women lifting me up to my feet. It was then that I noticed the golden tag on the left corner of the desk and the golden key laying there next to it.

I should have known.

Written across it in plane black letters was Pietro.

“Pietro?” I exclaimed aloud. “What sort of a name is…”

“I like the way it sounds in Italian,” he interrupted with a certain zeal. “The Italians sure know how to squeeze the juice out of a word. Now carry on.”

That was the last I heard of him. His head went back down into his desk as he called forward another lost soul.

Uncertain what destiny had in stall for me, I asked the young lady that walked along my side what would be of me.

“Don’t worry,” she said softly, “just make your way through that gate over there and you’ll be just fine.”

“Now hold on just a minute,” I said, “I’m sure there must be something we can do to sort this out. I mean, what kind of outrageous treatment is this anyway. I gave my life savings to the church, damn it, I gave everything I had to your people. I didn’t know Riley was a protestant, what difference does that make anyway?”

My words had little effect. She gave me a stern but comfortable shove across a rusty old gate. When I turned round to face her there was nothing there. No desk, no lovely looking lady and no infinite queue of lost souls.

Then, all of a sudden I heard a voice calling from the distance. A deep crackling kind of voice. It reminded me of a chain smoking New York cab driver.

“Ladies and gents,” the voice cried out, “please make ya’ way over here, the bus will be leaving soon. Come on y’all! No needless wandering about now. That’s it, nice and easy, now watch your step.”

A bit dumbfounded by the way I’d been treated, I joined the rest of the flock and walked towards the old, red coloured bus that was in desperate need of servicing.

The driver saluted us all very formally, tipping his hat at the ladies and nodding his head cordially to the gents. And when the last ones had boarded the bus, he too hopped on, closed the doors behind him and got ready to depart.

The moment I sat my poor arse down on the hard seat I felt the warm air burn at my skin. I huffed and I puffed in an attempt to get a full breath of air but that only made things worse. My lungs burnt and my limbs began to swell as I felt the salty sweat dripping down from my forehead.

The driver jolted the stick into gear and revved the engine, then he turned to address us over his shoulder.

“Don’t worry about the heat,” he said revealing his blood shot eyes and putrid gums as he smiled, the sweat running down the side of his face.

“You’ll get used to it once you’ve settled in. Now sit back and enjoy the ride, we’ll be there before you know it.”

The barber of Sevillano

He’d heard about it once or twice before but never given it too much thought. There was always chatter, underground news and spicy information concerning one celebrity or another. Most of the time it turned out to be total bullshit, but like all good stories there was always some degree of truth to them. That’s how urban legends took shape, over drinks at any one of Valencia’s many bars.

He recognised the name when he heard it again that warm afternoon. “El Sevillano”.

He was out enjoying a cold beer in the dry summer heat on an otherwise pointless Friday afternoon with a bunch of acquaintances. The offices were shutting, the annoying sound of mopeds approaching grew louder as anyone who was anyone began to flock to the tapas bars around the city. It was time to relax, to forget the shortcomings of the week and look forward to a night of fun, chatter, cigarettes, pot, delicious food and girls in short skirts.

He was starting to grow a little bored of the daily routines. At that time of year the heat was exhausting and anything more than two beers would cause him an immediate headache. He was in his late thirties and, although he kept himself in good shape, he felt like he was getting too old for that shit. He still liked the flashy girls and the banter though.

It was his inborn curiosity and life long passion for gossip that kept him coming back to the same places time and time again. He was a relatively successful freelance journalist and had slowly but surely built up a strong portfolio of original pieces over the years.

Although he travelled up and down the country, most of his best work found its inspiration from the gossip that he picked up on at his local tapas bar. It never ceased to amaze him how some of the funniest stories made their way round town.

The conversations generally included talk of fast cars, women and football. The latter subject causing the biggest rows and disputes to emerge. Insults would fly around gratuitously but in a friendly manner and with a passion unique to fiery latin cultures.

He tapped in and out of conversations as he took the first sip of his ice cold beer. There was talk of Real Madrid’s latest defeat, Barcelona’s incredible style of play and still Valencia’s slim chances of winning the cup. Taxes. Money. Holidays. Jokes. Yet nothing that really aroused his curiosity, until he heard that name again in the middle of a sentence. El Sevillano.

“This Sevillano?” he asked one of his mates, “It ain’t the first time I’ve heard him mentioned over the last couple of months. What’s the deal with this guy?”

A couple of the boys began to get animated as different explanations arose regarding El Sevillano. Ricky sat back and enjoyed the show until Juan, one of the group’s older individuals, ordered everyone back to their places.

“This is the way it is,” he said staring Ricky straight in the eyes. “Like every good Spanish tale it has its true side and its more colourful side.”

“Down by the beach front, on Calle Constitución, just on the corner opposite the newsagent is a little barber’s shop. It’s one of the oldest in Valencia. They still give you a shave old style, with a razor blade, like in the western movies. The guy who does the shaving is known as El Sevillano. That is how far the truth in this story goes.”

The crowd of friends exploded into a sound of dissent.

“Tell it like it is,” they mobbed him, jokingly.

Again, he signalled them to sit down and be quiet.

“The slightly more colourful side of the story, which has given rise to the legend is this…” He lit a cigarette and took one deep breath, building the suspense.

“People say El Sevillano has something about him. Some kind of power. Some say it’s black magic. They say he can enter your mind.”

“You book an appointment to get a shave and you ask for El Sevillano. He chats to you, and you chat back. You have a pleasant conversation. In the meanwhile he gives you the cleanest shave you’ve ever had. Then, just as he’s about to finish he flips the seat back up right and you see yourself in the mirror. They say you see your true self. They say that depending on what you see in the mirror, you either live or die.”

“If you’ve lived a straight life of generosity, peace and respect, you see yourself for what you are and you walk out of there feeling like a million dollars. If you’ve lived a selfish life of cheap pleasures, cheating, and stealing, well, then it’s the devil in you that you see and once you walk out of there you’re doomed. That’s it.”

Reactions were different around the table. Some sat back in their seats in silence never having heard that particular version of the tale before. Others enjoyed it and raised their glasses to Juan’s account of the famous urban legend, toasting to El Sevillano. The sound of clapping and laughter soon followed.

Instinctively, Ricky felt there was something worth pursuing. However outrageous Juan’s account might have been there was something in it that he could use to write a piece on. After all, it was a society of decaying moral values that he was living in. How divine and comic, he thought, that there should be an individual who could truly make people see themselves for what they were. He wasn’t sure how he would coin it, but he knew it was something he would have to follow up.

It was futile to pursue the subject any further that evening. Friday night was a time for fun, and some of the guys were already starting to show signs of deterioration due to the beer. He decided he would take a trip down to that part of town the very next afternoon for a closer look.

He woke up the next day, the rays of light shining through the wooden blinds. He stretched in bed and enjoyed the cool sensation that the marble floored room gave him. He wished he could lie in all day, but he had things to do.

The heat of the morning sun struck him as he opened the windows, as did the bustling of the traffic below. The hooting of horns and the buzzing of mopeds. He put on some clothes, grabbed his phone, his notebook and his cigarillos and made his way downstairs for his usual coffee. Then, after strolling into town for a quick lunch and a cold beer, he caught a taxi down to the sea front.

The warm sea air brushed against his face as he stepped out of the yellow cab. A five minute walk later, he was standing on the opposite side of the road from the infamous barber’s shop. It struck him how mundane and uneventful a place it was. The sun shining onto the glass windows made it hard to see what was going on inside. He’d have to do some digging around. The small bar down the road looked like just the place.

He sat at one of the small round tables on the pavement outside the bar, picking the spot carefully so as to keep an eye on the barber’s shop. He ordered himself a cold beer and sat back, mesmerised by the urban legend that surrounded the place. Could there really be some truth to it all, he pondered. He let his thoughts wander as he relaxed in the shade, the silence of the street interrupted only by the sounds of elderly men arguing over a game of cards.

As he went to order a second beer, a gentleman in white trousers and matching hat asked if he could join him at his table.

“This is my normal spot, you see.” Ricky apologised and made to get up and leave, but the old man asked him to keep him company.

“You aren’t from this part of town are you my friend,” he asked smiling politely.

Ricky made up a quick tale of how he was a photographer travelling the country looking for shots to immortalise the spirit of Spain. He told him how there was something about the barber’s shop that attracted him and asked the man if he knew anything about the history of the place. He dropped his journalistic bait and waited.

The old man sipped at his cortado, removed his hat and undid his neck tie.

“Forgot your camera?” the old man pointed out.

Ricky smiled back without saying a word. The old man wiped the sweat off his forehead with a handkerchief and looked around as if to check that no one was listening.

“That place, you know… it has a history all of its own,” he whispered. “A lot of strange things going on in there.”

The man looked visibly shaken as he spoke. Noticing the change, Ricky offered to buy him a drink. As he stepped into the bar he made it a point to fish for some more info.

“Is it true what that señor out there has been telling me about the barber’s place across the street?” he asked.

The barman and some of the locals zoned in on Ricky.

“Depends,” answered one of them.

“Depends what Don Miguel has been telling you,” said a voice.

“Listen kid,” said the barman with a friendly voice, “there’s been a lot said about that place. You have to be careful to distinguish between facts and what people go ‘round saying.”

The place was run by three brothers. Originally from Andalucía, the southern most region of Spain. They had opened the shop twenty five years earlier and had run a successful little business until a few years ago when another member of the family joined the team. A cousin of their’s from Sevilla.

He was a big, tall ugly figure of a man whose sole job it was to take care of particular customers that were wanting a shave. Apparently word on the street was that he was the most skilled barber in town, capable of perfect shaves.

Two of the founding brothers had, during the last six years, sadly passed away, leaving only the senior brother, Sergio, and his cousin, known as El Sevillano, to pick up the bits and continue to make a living of a dying profession. Most of the local residents still visited the place for the odd hair cut, but few ever dared allow El Sevillano near them. It was a known fact that some people were believed to have committed suicides after having visited the place. People, who until the very same morning of their deaths had been healthy, law abiding citizens, inexplicably met their death before sunset.

Those were the facts as described by the barman and some of the locals. As for the legend, it was based on tales told by some of the few that had survived their encounter with the famous barber.

They described the man as being of a very kind and gentle disposition. Hands like silk, they said. His skills as a barber were unprecedented as were, apparently, his skills as a conversationalist.

All of the survivors talked of long conversations with the man. All of them had left the place feeling relaxed and vitalised with a new sense of purpose and peace. It was as if the shave had removed from them all doubts regarding their inner self, allowing them to awaken from what had until then felt like a long dream. It all seemed quite ridiculous to Ricky. Crazy enough to be worth writing something about though.

Don Miguel had not moved an inch when Ricky returned to him with drinks. His eyes completely fixed on something across the street, ignoring Ricky as he sat down next to him. The old man sat on the edge of his seat with a cigarette firmly clenched in his right hand. He butted off the ash nervously without taking his eyes off the place. The sun had since moved in the sky and it was now possible to see clearly in through the shop window. As Ricky looked over he saw an elegantly dressed, middle aged man sitting down in one of the big barber chairs. Behind him, the tall, bear-like, hairy figure whom he guessed to be El Sevillano.

The old man spat on the floor and nodded calmly to Ricky.

“He went in while you were busy back there, playing around. He’s about to sit down for a shave and a chat with the guy.”

They sat there without uttering a word to each other, paying close attention to everything that was happening in the shop across the road. There was nothing unusual. They were, after all, witnessing an event that they had both seen hundreds of times before.

El Sevillano whipped out a white towel and delicately placed it across his customer’s chest, carefully tucking in the edges behind the man’s neck. He sprayed something on to his hands and massaged it into the man’s face for a good minute. The man’s head looked small and defenceless in El Sevillano’s big hairy hands. Then he began to apply the shaving cream with his brush. He took his time with it and appeared meticulous in his actions. A couple of times he stood back from the man to check he hadn’t left any portion of his face untouched, like an artist before his canvass. Then he wet the man’s hair and combed it straight back. It was time for the shave.

For half an hour they sat there, hardly breathing, watching every move the big man made before El Sevillano eventually pulled the white sheet off the man’s face and jerked the barber’s chair back to the up-right position.

The man struggled out of the chair. Don Miguel turned around and knocked Ricky across the knee, “See there!” he cried. “Look at the guy, he doesn’t know whether he’s coming or going.”

The poor man across the street looked well shaken, emotionally drained. It took him a few minutes to put on his coat. They held the door open for him as he left. In the background El Sevillano waved him solemnly goodbye. The pale looking man stepped onto the pavement and looked around the place as if lost. He looked worried and tense.

“Do you know the guy?” Ricky asked Don Miguel.

“Nope, but he don’t look in too good a shape. I’d be surprised if he made it through the night.”

Ricky giggled at such nonsense. Surely not.

“You don’t mean to say that he might actually commit suicide?”

“You can be the judge of that,” said Don Miguel. Ricky decided he’d try to talk to the man. He grabbed his stuff, thanked Don Miguel for his hospitality and sprinted across the street.

“Excuse me sir,” he called out politely. “Caballero!”

There was no response. No sign of acknowledgement. He continued to walk slowly, steadily down the road.

“I just wondered if I might ask you a few questions sir.” Nothing.

The man nearly bumped into him as he made a sudden turn to the right down towards the sea. Annoyed and a little perplexed Ricky dropped back a couple of steps but continued to follow him. The man came to a stop by the side of the busy seaside road, by far the busiest street in that part of town.

Ricky leaned up against a lamp post, pulled out his notepad and started to jot down some ideas for the article. He kept writing, occasionally lifting his head to make sure the man was still there. The next time he looked up he saw the man stepping into the street. Instinctively he knew what was about to happen and yelled at him not to do it as he ran, in a desperate attempt, to pull him back onto the pavement. It was too late. The man was hit hard by a speeding car.

There was a thump and the sound of glass crushing before his body was catapulted up into the air. It swirled about like a rag doll before landing violently about fifty metres down the road.

The sound of car tyres squealing to a halt, and car horns tooting, the traffic quickly coming to a halt.

He ran over to where the man’s body had landed some twenty metres further down the road. A little crowd gathered around. A man was checking his pulse.

The screams of “call and ambulance!” echoed in the streets as the scene took on a surreal feeling. Ricky felt faint and walked away from the crowd.

Turning into a back street he sat himself down on the curb. His hands trembled as he reached into his shirt pocket to grab a cigarillo. It took him a few attempts before he could light it properly.

The sound of ambulance and police sirens soon filled the streets.

The man was declared dead on the spot. Ricky re-lived the event in his mind. He eventually closed his eyes and shook his head violently from side to side as if to cleanse his thoughts. When he finally made it to his feet he felt the instant urge to rush away from the place. He ran down the back streets and onto a main road where he stopped a cab.

He spent the rest of the evening sitting on his balcony, a packet of cigarillos and a bottle of whisky. He drank himself slowly to sleep. The sounds of the city below helping him forget.

The next couple of days felt like a dream. He’d been deeply affected by the events of the barber’s shop and the man dying just metres away from him. It got his mind thinking of all different kind of things.

He kept going back over the events he’d witnessed, questioning what he’d seen, felt, heard and done, like a detective, over and over again. As far as he could tell there was nothing irrational about what he’d seen. He could account for everything. Everything but for the words that had been exchanged between El Sevillano and his unfortunate customer.

Thinking back to what the old men in the bar had told him, he wondered about El Sevillano’s uncanny ability to make people see themselves for what they really were.

 

Two full days, three hours of sleep, three bottles of whisky and five packets of cigarillos later, Ricky awoke from his period of deep inner soul searching. He decided there was only one thing he could do. He would have to experience it for himself.

There was no way El Sevillano had any sort of mystical powers, that was a fact. He might, however, be able to hypnotise his victims. Hypnosis, he knew, was something that generally worked on individuals who wanted to be hypnotised. He figured that as long as he remained aware and attentive there would be no danger of that happening.

The decision both excited and scared him, but he knew that either way it would make for one hell of an article.

When he woke up the next morning he took his time showering and getting dressed, as if something inside him was letting him know that this was the last time he would do so. He tidied his room up and lined his shirts in his drawers before heading downstairs for a cold beer and a quick snack. His room hadn’t looked that tidy in years.

The summer heat was beating down hard on the streets of Valencia as he left his apartment block. The clock hadn’t struck ten yet but the thermometer was already in the low thirties.

The temperature did little to dissuade him though. He’d walk the five or six kilometres across town to the barber’s.

For the first time in years he realised how beautiful the city actually was. The purple oranges hanging heavy off the branches at every other street corner. The delicious whiffs of food from the many tapas bars, and sounds of glasses clinking – even that early in the morning. The smells of the fresh fish market and the flower stalls that seemed to be everywhere. The old men sat at bar tables playing cards. The sounds of the city, the cars flying by, mothers crying out at their kids, the arguing and fighting, the discussing, the couples kissing and children playing.

A quiet sense of peace came over him as, one traffic light after the other, he came closer and closer to his destination. Unnerved by it all he allowed himself to bathe in the peace which had overcome him. He was moved by it, regretting never really having appreciated the treasures that surrounded him until then.

When he made it down to Calle Constitución, he decided to stop at the local bar for one last beer before stepping across the street for a shave. The barman recognised him and had a cold beer ready for him as he approached the bar.

He sipped at his glass and quietly inquired as to a car accident that, he had heard, had occurred the same day he had last visited the bar. The barman confirmed the events, it was no dream. The unfortunate soul had indeed been run over and killed by a speeding car. The barman’s words sent a shiver down his spine. He’d been trying to keep reality at bay, but it hit back with a vengeance.

When he’d taken the glass for every drop he could, he payed for his beer and walked out of the bar, stopping to admire the barber’s shop.

He inhaled hard on his cigarillo before putting it out and walking across the street. With the heat of the midday sun shining hard on his forehead he looked around to take one last view at the world before reaching for the knob and pulling back on the heavy glass door to the shop.

The cold air from the air conditioning struck his face as he entered the room. He was greeted by a chubby old man in his late sixties that welcomed him with grim demeanour. Ricky warily inquired about a shave. The man asked him to take a seat on the last bench to the right and told him that his colleague would be out in a minute. He then disappeared behind a curtain into the back room where Ricky heard him holler something in a peculiar dialect. Sitting back into the chair he tried to relax as he looked at himself in the mirror.

The big figure of El Sevillano emerged minutes later from the back room. He spoke at once with a deep, but rather seductive and tranquil voice.

“A pleasure to meet you señor. Are you here for a shave or just a chat señor?” he asked with a smile on his face.

Ricky hesitated to answer at first before finally getting the words out.

“A bit of both I guess,” he said reluctantly.

He felt the white sheet come flying around his torso and gently being tied behind his neck. El Sevillano clapped his hands together as if to prepare himself for the ritual, and reached for a cream that he smudged calmly into his hands. He applied it to Ricky’s face with small circular movements using the palm of his hands.

It caused his neck to relax and he allowed his head to fall back into the head rest. A warm moist towel was placed over his eyes and they soon began to exchange small talk.

Once the cream had been rubbed in, El Sevillano reached for a bottle of cologne and sprayed it twice, from a distance, onto his face. It smelt of roses, a mix of arab rose water.

When the first brush of shaving cream touched his skin he felt a mellow heaviness fall across all of his body. His limbs felt heavy and warm. A cozy feeling began to take over. He wondered whether he had been drugged, but soon realised that he was thinking quite straight. It was only his physical state that was affected.

The conversation evolved rather quickly. From football they soon got talking about all that was right and wrong. They talked passionately and truthfully, Ricky doing most of the talking and the other posing most of the questions.

He felt like he hadn’t had a proper chat like that in years.

You don’t really have any true friends to talk too, he heard a voice deep inside his head say.

The more they talked the better he felt, but there was still an intense sadness lingering inside him. They began to tackle more intimate issues, El Sevillano posing deeper and more personal questions.

 

Time seemed to slow down as Ricky dug further and further into his memories to answer the questions. His senses became sharper as they talked, the sound of the blade as it glided across his face becoming vividly louder in his head. For a second he thought he could feel the individual hairs being torn from his face. The smell of rose water was still strong in the air.

Ricky went on to tell El Sevillano about his recent divorce and his drinking. How his successful career had eventually come between him and his wife.

But it was the money you were after, he heard the voice say again.

He had began to cheat on his wife and before he knew it he was all over the place, out of control. Thinking back to that time he started to feel some of the pain he had caused his wife. A pain so strong that it had driven the poor woman to despair and a life of medicated misery.

El Sevillano listened attentively. Asking more demanding questions that pushed Ricky deeper and deeper into his true self. Into his darkest corners.

In a brief moment of silence he tried to calculate how long he had been sitting there. He couldn’t say. Had it been ten minutes, two hours?

He began to question some of the decisions he’d made over the years. His morality and his doing bad to people that loved him. He wasn’t such a bad person after all. Or was he?

Of course you fucking are!

He was charitable, a devoted catholic, had an honest job.

You call journalism an honest job? What a load of shit!

The voice in his head went into a never ending spiral of contradicting statements which he could only be witness to. He was defenceless against the ego which he had built on for the best part of thirty years. A prisoner of his weak and selfish mind.

Soon he began to answer some of the questions El Sevillano was putting to him with other questions.

Who are we really? When we pull back the skin, flesh and bones. What remains of us? What good are we to this world and others if we don’t allow ourselves to love?

He was getting lost in a thread of useless emotions and thoughts but continued to talk, his mind light years away.

“The ultimate question,” El Sevillano said flicking the chair straight back up all of a sudden, “is this my friend… What do you see when you look at yourself in the mirror? And can you live with what you see?”

His words echoed endlessly in Ricky’s head as he was slung back up to the sitting position. He felt the knot untie itself from behind his head and the cloth being removed. When the warm towel came off his eyes a sudden feeling of panic took over.

Staring into the mirror he saw, looking at him from deep within the glass, a stranger. Withered skin and white hair hanging like old draperies over a balding head. A dying figure of a man, with a disturbingly green, yellowish complexion. Sickened by years of tobacco and alcohol abuse. A few teeth left dangling in the rotting gums resembling crumbling coral rocks.

He jumped up in the chair with the fear of God in him. Who the fuck was that?

The sick looking figure stared at him from within the mirror. He looked straight into the stranger’s eyes and fell victim to an unexplainable magnetism that began to drag him down into a dreadful pit of despair.

He rubbed his eyes in disbelief as the panic grew stronger within his chest and then, as he looked to the mirror a second time, sitting there with his eyes wide open, he saw his own healthy reflection. The sun tanned face and the gelled, dark black hair. He looked down to his hands to check if they were indeed his own. He recognised them, he was back.

Could it be?

Surely not, he thought. Had he just witnessed Ricky Solér like he had never seen him before? All the colour, the happiness and life sucked out of the morbid reflection.

He felt the sudden urge to vomit as he looked up into the mirror and met El Sevillano’s eyes.

“One should not judge a book by its cover,” El Sevillano said as he lay one of his heavy hands on Ricky’s shoulder.

“Please my friend,” he said kindly, “it is time. My work is done.”

As he stood up from the chair he felt the full force of the emotional trip he had been on. His hands trembled and sweated heavily as he reached into his back pocket for his wallet. El Sevillano thanked him for the chat.

“I hope you have learned something about yourself, I certainly have.”

Ricky pulled back at the glass door and rushed out into the warm city air. It all looked so real. He ran his right hand across his newly shaved face and wondered what would be of him now. Where would he go from there? Indeed, where had he come from?

There was no thought of articles, work, career, or divorce. Just a strong presence, and a need to be in the moment. Without a thought in his head he began to walk.

For the second time that day he couldn’t help noticing how beautiful everything around him was.

A Lord’s memories

Taken from “The Wacky memories of Lord

Bradbury of Canteburry’s Ale”.

Somewhere in Paris,

3. April, 1902

 

Impaired by it all, the weather and the heaviness of the clouds, I wandered the streets looking for something to take my fancy. Something to make me feel alive.

Alas, giving up I found refuge from the rain under the extended curtain of a small Parisian café.

My day made miserable and dull by the weather, and the knowledge that there was nothing exciting awaiting me for the foreseeable future, I gave in to my destiny and ordered a cognac, a warm one, so that I may at least find some form of comfort and perhaps a rare moment of clarity.

And it might just have continued that way, indefinitely uninterrupted, had I not spotted in the distance the figure of a peculiar looking man. A short figure of a man to be more precise.

He walked comically along the pavement across the cobbled square from where I sat in the chilling wind and rain, only the comfort of my cognac to keep me from despairing.

His left hip and leg relied heavily on a dark wooden cane which was topped with a bright golden knob, the exact shape of which I could not quite make out. He wore a bright red top hat and a dark green suit.

His face remained in the shadows cast down across his side by his hat, which appeared to be at least a few measures too big for the man. All I saw was the silhouette of his big pointy nose that stuck out before him, pointing ahead like a compass in the direction of his walk.

Little would I have thought of the man had it not been for his noticeable size. Top hat included I judged him to be little over three foot small.

You can therefore imagine my surprise when, quite unexpectedly, he took one long step off the pavement and down into the street, his bright shiny leather boot splashing into a dark puddle right before him.

I leaped to my feet, sending my cognac glass smashing into the ground as I noticed his left leg disappear into the misty dark water. Not a second later had the rest of his body followed suit and, as if walking calmly down a set of stairs, he moved nonchalantly into the ground.

But for the pigeons sitting about on sheltered window seals, it was only I about the place that misty Sunday afternoon. The blood ran cold in my veins when the small gentleman turned his chest and body to face me and, bringing his hand up to his hat, he saluted me graciously before disappearing forever into the darkness of the road, leaving me to ponder worriedly about the curious incident.

Unable to bring my unsettled mind to rest, I begged the waiter to bring me another cognac, and during his absence made my way across the cobbled square to inspect the puddle for myself. Picking frantically into my left pocket I pulled out a shilling coin among the clutter of foreign currency in my possession, and dropped it with a slight flip of the finger into the puddle.

The water being so dark it hid from me the coin which most surely lay within reach less than an inch beneath the murky surface of the puddle.

Not content with the result I found a rock lying near by, around the size of my fist. Kicking and rolling it along with my feet I judged it to be considerably bigger than the depth of the puddle. Thus my disbelief was multiplied when I kicked the rock into the putrid water and watched it vanish before my very own eyes.

Incensed at the impossibility of my undertakings I issued to the waiter from the café to drain the puddle dry.

Resisting at first, and writing me off as another delirious, syphilis infested English gentleman, he was easily convinced when I explained that he could lay claim to the coin I had dropped into the puddle, and an extra franc to that, if he only proceeded to drain the puddle dry so as to satisfy a personal curiosity of mine.

 

So it was, that with the aid of a ceramic jug, a few towels and much sweat, he eventually removed every last drop of the lurid water.

And as he knelt there, patiently looking up at me and rubbing the sweat away from across his forehead, I stood incredulous before the dry depression in the street that had once been a puddle. Not a sign of the shilling. Nor the rock which I had kicked into it.

A gentleman never tells

I can’t stand this place. I bloody hate it. Ever since they dumped me in here and left me here to rot. I used to tell them, as kids, “don’t you ever go letting me rot in one of those old people’s homes.” That’s exactly what they ended up doing. Selfish ungrateful little swines.

And so my days are spent staring out of the windows over the fields. The food tastes like snot. The air is stale, like the bread. And when I’m not playing scrabble with a bunch of retarded senile housemates I get my kicks from feeling up some of the nurses’ arses or puffing away on some contraband cigar.

Keith fetches them for me. I give him a tenner and he gets me my weekly batch. I tell him to keep the change. He does, and he buys himself a couple of cans. We’re both happy that way.

Erections are a thing of the past, my legs don’t even work that well and I have to get about with a fucking wheelchair. I just about manage to get up on my own two feet to take a slash. Thank God for cuban cigars and firm, young, female buttocks.

 

So we’re sitting in one of our afternoon group activities. I blinking hate them. The guy taking the class is a guy called Rob. Mid thirties. A right dick.

I call him Dick. He doesn’t like it.

I tell him it’s short for Richard. He smiles and says, his name’s Robert. What a prick.

I’m not allowed to smoke my cigars indoors so I puff on them dry. I like the feeling of the moist cigars rolling around in my mouth.

“You know, those cigars ain’t too good for your health,” Dick tells me.

I smile at him, puff on my cigar and tell him to fuck off.

He’s forever coming up with bloody group activities to keep our brains active and firing away. I just want my cigars and a good feel at someone.

I like that Lucy best. If I were a couple decades younger I’d show her a good time. I think she likes it when I grab her firm butt. Sometimes she’ll bend over right in front of me. She’s a dirty one she is.

So Dick’s got us doing another one of his group activities. He wants us to share some stories. Something from our past. He says it’ll help refresh our memories. He’s looking around for volunteers. That damn bloody smile of his is starting to piss me off.

Old Gerome eventually gets us started with the first story of the afternoon. By God, he could make a priest swear. He’s been at it for ten minutes and he’s only managed to put two sentences together. Dick starts a round of applause and smiles.

“And now Joan, if you wouldn’t mind. Do you have a good story to share?”

Joan’s another rotten prick. Right up her own arse, a right attention seeker. The staff here love her. They’re all right up her arse too. God only knows for what. Some of the nurses come over to join us in our little circle. They can’t wait for Joan’s story.

She bores the fuck out of us for the next half an hour. Some rubbish about her joining the royal ballet before travelling to Milan and falling in love with some fancy royal prince or something. Everyone’s loved the story. They’re all clapping. What a load of piss. I can’t keep it in any longer.

“What a load of piss!”

“I beg your pardon.” Dick looks real upset.

“I said, what a load of piss! Ballet, Milan, fucking royals. What a load of piss! I’m too old for this stuff. What kind of a story was that.”

Crazy Jack is going crazy. He loves it when I start shit stirring. Crazy Jack is up on his chair. He’s started screaming something about Napoleon and revolution. Some male nurses have to pull him down and sedate him a little. I point to Jack with my cigar. I wink my eye at him. Now that was entertaining.

Dick isn’t the least impressed. “That wasn’t funny,” he says “it’s not polite to put other people down like that…”

“I’m just saying,” I interrupt, “no offence to you Joan.” She appreciates my remark and smiles.

“I just felt like that was one hell of a shit-boring, ball sagging story.”

Joan’s outraged. She has to be seen to by one of the nurses. She’s in tears.

Some of the male staff are giggling in the corner. I guess they agree.

Dick barks something over at them and they stop giggling at once. He composes himself.

“Perhaps you’d like to share a story with us all,” he says looking me straight in the eyes.

“Sure,” I say, “I’ve got a couple of stories that’ll blow you all out of your chairs.”

Dick looks amused. Guess he’s happy I’m finally complying with his daft little game.

“I’m looking forward to this.”

“Of course you are Dick, you ain’t never heard anything like this before.”

 

The year was 1949. I was about thirteen. I was a frail picture of a boy. The lack of food during the war had turned me into a skeleton-like figure. It would take years before I could put on enough body mass to call myself a man.

My father worked as a bank clerk at the time. It provided just enough money for him to take care of us all. However, when the time came I too was expected to do my part for the good of the family.

My father hoped I would follow in his footsteps and perhaps become some rich banker someday. The hell with that. My ability with numbers was non existent. I wasn’t made for banking. They soon figured that out.

For weeks my poor father searched in vain for someone to take me on as an apprentice. He eventually came across an old friend of his whom he’d known from the war. Old Gasparre LeClerc.

Gasparre was a french immigrant who’d moved over for good during the war and had never really looked back since. He was a tailor by trade and had set up a small successful shop in town. It was located just across the street from where my father’s men’s club was. That is where I was first introduced to the enigmatic Frenchman. My father had to plead with him to take me on.

I did not have a say in the matter.

 

“And what kind of man was this Gasparre like then?” Dick interrupts with a condescending smile on his face.

“Shut the hell up Dick! This is my story.”

 

He was a short figure of a man. No taller than five foot four. Skinny but tough, like a strong corpse. A walking corpse, with the pale skin to go with it. He had a short, thin mustache across his face. He kept his hair impeccably waxed back and always wore a suit and neck tie with matching waistcoat. He would seldom wear, but instead carry a bowler hat and always had a dark wooden cane with him. A look quite natural for it’s time.

He’d keep his shoes so perfectly polished you could mirror yourself in them if you ever dared to. He was extremely well spoken. Soft spoken. Mid forties. A right gentleman if ever there was one. That, however, could all change at the drop of a hat.

On one occasion, whilst out for a drink at the local men’s club, some boys put it to him that he might be a foreign spy. He grabbed one of them by his belt and held the dangerously pointed end of his cane to the guy’s jugular. The message was clear to all. He was not one to be messed with.

He took me on a week later. I met him by his shop at six o’clock sharp.

My very first job that spring was to scrub the place clean. I mean bloody sparkling clean. It would take me hours to get the place done. Then he’d come and check how I’d gotten on. He’d run his finger along a window frame and look at me in disappointment.

“Dust,” he’d said, “ is unacceptable.”

The crazy frog made me clean the bloody place up until it was perfect. My lesson being, that perfection demanded hard work.

“A tailor’s job,” he’d say, “begins and ends with the small details.” Gasparre would never settle for anything less than perfect. He would make that clear to me over the course of the next few years.

His reputation had grown steadily across the south since the end of the war. His name was associated with the best suits on the market at the time. Many prestigious London bankers and barristers were clients of ours and they would send their junior employees down from the City on the train to fetch the handmade suits for them.

I’d travel with him, on occasions, up to London on one of his measuring trips. We’d leave on the early train and be in Paddington by eight. We’d be ushered into some bank manager’s office where Gasparre would boss the poor men around and take all the measurements he’d need for the suit.

The precision and speed with which he worked were remarkable. He’d call out numbers randomly, my job being to jot them all down. Any mistakes on my behalf would result in a sleeve being too short or trousers that wouldn’t fit. I messed up once and by God did I pay for it. Six weeks no pay. I got a beating from my father and another one from Gasparre.

I spent the best part of ten years working for the bloody frog. Ten long years, working every day from six in the morning to late into the night.

My first year with him I learnt how to keep the shop and tools of the trade clean. He was a perfectionist. A bit of a maniac to say the least. It was my trial period. He wanted to see what I was made of. I was his personal slave.

“Get me this! Do that! Run here! Don’t forget that! Cut this! Remove that!”

He never ceased to boss me around, as if he owned my very soul, let alone my body.

As time moved on, he allowed me to take further part in some of the projects. He had me sewing buttons and doing sleeves for a long time. Eventually he had me dealing with customers.

When a young entrepreneur would walk in straight off the train from London, he’d call me in from the back shop and let me get on with it. Then, later that evening, he’d stand behind me in the candle light, sipping away at his sherry, watching my every move.

“No, no, no! Not like ‘zat you bloody imbecile,” he’d say with his sharp French accent, slapping me across the back of the head violently before correcting my mistakes.

Every day at around a quarter to eleven we would close the shop for a half an hour and make the short trip across the street to the men’s club for a dry sherry and a smoke. I neither drank nor smoked but he wouldn’t have any of that. I was soon keeping him company and puffing away. It was him that got me started on cigars.

During those mid morning breaks he would perform long monologues for me about the Do’s and Don’t‘s of tailoring. He would tell me stories about his past life and how he had travelled the world before the war, tailoring for some of the world’s richest people.

He always talked about perfection, how it was something he longed for in every suit he made. He would give his sweat and blood to achieve perfection. It was a kind of sick philosophy of life to him. Nothing less than perfect would do. That was his perpetual message to me. And I respected him for it. I admired his lifelong desire to achieve perfection in everything he did. That same perfection, however, always seemed to elude him.

The perfect suit, he claimed, should fit the body of a man like a second skin. It should feel as if God himself had tailored it to fit the body like a silk glove. Only then would body and suit become one in the perfect outfit.

He could be such a charmer on occasions. He could also be a brute. A bloody violent one too. A brutish, violent, perfectionist.

Many a time he would lock us both in the shop after dark insisting that we should not leave until I had completed the job at hand to the best of my abilities. On one occasion I made the cardinal mistake of crying out aloud after poking myself with a needle.

“Will you let something as piteous as pain put you off your work?” he screamed incensed.

He held out my hand and with his free one reached out to the mannequin and pulled out a needle. With a vicious gesture and a heart of ice he poked it into the palm of my hand. I cried out so loud I think they heard us across the street.

“Pain,” he would repeat every time he tortured me, “is nothing more than a feeling. Remember that!”

To this day I don’t know why I stuck with the psychopath. I guess I was hypnotised by his pursuit for perfection and his unequivocal skills as a tailor. He’d sold me on the idea. His madness was dangerous and at the same time contagious. I was hooked.

His violence and anguish towards me went on for years. It was part of the training. The cane strikes to the back of hands and fingers. The ruler lashes across my neck. The needles he’d poke me with. The long nights spent in the back of the shop with nothing to eat nor drink. To this day I still wonder whether there was method to his twisted madness?

 

I felt a change in the tide when he began to send me up to London alone. I was becoming my own person. My own man.

Soon after my twentieth birthday customers began to ask for my services personally. My suits and I were starting to become recognisable household names. I knew he resented the fact deeply. He abhorred the fact that people were responding to my British surname rather than to his foreign one.

He never shied away from showing his resentment to me. Outside of the shop he was pleasant and generous. He would treat me to lavish dinners and the best cigars. Once back in the shop though, he’d unleash hell on me. Insulting me and putting me down at any chance. It was torture of the worst kind. A kind of Dr. Jekyll, Mr Hyde syndrome.

For years I endured the shit he threw at me without posing any kind of resistance. He was moulding me into his own little perverted creation.

His perpetual search for perfection that was slowly driving him insane was also starting to get to me. I was becoming cold and detached from my work. The passion which I had until then believed in so deep heartedly had started to fade away. I found myself behaving more and more like him. A sort of charming individual towards clients and fellow gentlemen and a brute against young clerks and women. I started to question the kind of person I was becoming. A monster in the making.

 

It came to me like lightning on a summer’s day. Peace descended upon me the moment the idea materialised. Realising that the perfect suit was indeed within reach. All one had to do was find the person willing to pay the highest of prices for it.

It was a Friday evening. Gasparre was due to return from London on the nine-twenty train that very same night.

I waited for him in the back room, coldly anticipating the moment I would brake the news to him. I had finally cracked the holy grail of tailoring. I had overtaken my master in matters of skill and potential. I was indeed the greatest. A genius.

I heard the key turn in the door at around ten to ten. I poured two glasses of sherry and added the morphine into one of them. I met him by the front desk, waited for him to lock the door and handed him the glass.

“I have news for you Gasparre. Good news, let us drink to it!”

He was a little taken aback by my joyous welcome but acquiesced.

“Here is to us and the creation of the perfect suit,” I said. We toasted a second time, I helped him gulp down the last drops. He let out a gasp and demanded to know what was the matter.

“I’ve cracked it,” I said, “the conundrum. I’ve done it. My dear friend Gasparre, all these years you’ve been torturing yourself over the pursuit for perfection and all along it was just starring us right in the eyes. How naive of you, poor Gasparre.”

He was enraged at my overly friendly tone. I had never dared talk to him in such a manner before.

“How dare you,” he cried, “what is this all about?”

“My dear Gasparre, the student has finally overtaken the master.”

He went to slap me with his glove but just then the first signs of the morphine started to kick in.

“Here, take a seat my friend,” I said helping him into the back room where I had prepared my working space.

“I have a surprise for you tonight,” I said.

His eyelids struggled to stay open.

“Now, now dear Gasparre, don’t leave me just yet. I’ve reserved front seats for you for my greatest piece of work yet. My friend, you’re going to witness the making of the world’s greatest suit, the perfect suit!”

He looked at me confused and dumbfounded.

“You always talked about the perfect suit fitting a man like a second skin. That got me thinking you see. The answer was staring me right in the face. The question was, who would be so willing to pay the ultimate price for such a piece of work?”

“Well, my dear Gasparre, I could only come up with one person, and your name was at the top of the list.”

I poured myself another glass of sherry then carried him over to the working table. I measured out a doze of morphine and injected it into his arm. Within seconds he dozed off into a deep, painless coma. I added a few drops of morphine to my own glass and went to work on him.

 

I worked on him all night. Meticulously. He would have been proud of the effort and precision I put into every cut and incision I made. I spoke to him as I worked. I told him I was dedicating it all to him.

It took me four long hours to remove the skin from his muscle layer. The bleeding kept to a minimum thanks to a powerful blood coagulant that I had come across via an unnamed client of ours.

I began at his ankles and worked my way up his legs. Fine, decisive strokes, just as he had taught me over all those years. Then I moved onto his back, chest and arms, the armpits causing me the greatest problems.

When I was done I arranged my new cloth on the table top and moved Gasparre over to the chair. His head dropped to his side. He was still in a deep sleep. According to my calculations he was to regain consciousness within a couple of hours. I got to work on the mannequin.

I worked like I had never done before. My heart beating heavily as I pierced through the warm skin with my needles. Stitch after stitch bringing that one piece of tailoring closer to completion.

A certain peace took over me for I knew that I was fulfilling myself as a tailor and as a person. It was the Mt. Everest of tailoring and I was climbing it effortlessly. I was doing something that was greater than myself and I was doing it for the one person that would truly appreciate it, my own great teacher, Gasparre.

He began to show signs of consciousness some two hours later. I put down my utensils and walked over to him.

“My dear Gasparre, I’m so glad you could join me. You’re minutes away from witnessing my greatest piece.”

I slapped him hard across the face. I didn’t want him to miss a single bit.

He started to look around the room, confused. The horror of what had taken place was taking some time to sink in. Only the skin on his feet and hands was visible to him. The rest was a mess of exposed muscles and cartilage.

He began to make deep humming noises. The panic soon taking over and the humming turning to a high pitched scream of desperation. I hushed him quiet.

“Don’t worry Gasparre, it won’t hurt. Not for a while anyway. And I’ll be finished with it by then.” I went back to work, enjoying my work for the first time in a long time.

The hours flew by like summer clouds in the wind. Gasparre’s cries growing louder and louder by the hour until they were so loud I had to sedate him a little to allow me to finish the last touches undisturbed by his laments.

It was dawn, and the sun shone in the blue skies, when I threaded my last needle and stood back to admire my piece in all its perfection. I asked Gasparre what he thought about it. I couldn’t quite make out the words among all the cries.

“Now, now Gasparre, that’s no way to behave before the world’s greatest piece of tailoring. Here, I’m dedicating this to you, my teacher. It should fit you like a second skin I think you’ll find. As light as a feather.”

The morphine was starting to wear off fast.

“Remember what you told me about pain all that time ago my friend!”

I moved the model mannequin across the room so that it stood upright before him. I tied his arms and legs down, gagged his mouth and left him there to admire the best piece of tailoring since man first stitched two pieces of fabric together.

I gave him one last sip of sherry before I left him screaming and mumbling. I hung the sign on the door as I locked it behind me. Closed until Monday.

I was on a boat for Uruguay two days later.

 

I still think of Gasparre. About the look he gave me as he sat there before my greatest piece of work. His eyes.

I’m sure that amongst all the pain and suffering I sensed a little admiration, a thank you. I think that deep down he was grateful and proud that he had created the world’s best tailor.

Well, that’s how it went down before I changed identity and moved to the West coast. The Californian climate suites me best I figured. I haven’t done much tailoring since. My hands still shake a little whenever I see a needle. But such is life.

 

So that’s my story.

Dick’s face looks terrified. One of the nurses has had to leave the room. Another is in a frozen state of shock.

Dick doesn’t know what to say. He’s lost for words for once. Silly bugger. He gets out of his chair, excuses himself and leaves the room.

I pull out a matchbox from my inner pocket and light my cigar. Fuck this place. I bloody hate it. It’s sucked all the fun out of us.

Half the folks sitting around the circle are either too senile or too demented to have even understood, let alone appreciated, half of what I’ve just said. What a waste of a good story.

Thomas isn’t though. He’s smiling at me. I guess he liked the story. He winks at me.

Mind you, they say he’s a little crazy.

Ice cold

Bjørn was a lovely average young man. He had a beautifully standard looking face. An averagely built body, perfectly normal blonde hair and blue eyes. He wore thoroughly mediocre blue jeans and a white shirt to work every day.

He woke up at 7.10 sharp. Ate a stale piece of crackerbread with cheese and ham, poured himself a decaf cup of instant coffee and got dressed just in time to catch the 7.58 tram to work every morning. He never missed.

He had a desperately regular job at the ministry of education, and although that sounded all so very good on paper, in reality it was nothing to write home about. Quite mundane actually, and painfully normal. Customary for a young man of his age.

Bjørn lived on the third floor of an ordinary looking grey building in the centre of the dullest city in the north. The cold, dull north. The cold was so dull it made the city dull and with it the people. The people had become cold and indifferent to one another and they had only the dull cold to thank for it.

He shared his plain two room flat with his girlfriend Melkorka. Not your average name, but she was most definitely a regular kind of girl, in every sense.

They’d met at a book sale three years earlier. They kissed on their second date. Their first date was at a night time opening of the botanical gardens. They figured living together made financial sense so they moved in together. Melkorka wore big thick glasses and had big dark eyebrows sticking out above the spectacles. Bjørn had been trying to grow a mustache recently but was failing miserably.

Winter felt like it would never end. People thought they would not live to see the light of day again. February was at its coldest and homeless people froze in the streets as the population rushed past them, all too busy, on their way to work.

Bjørn was on his way back from work. It was a Thursday. The stodgiest of weekdays. Nothing exciting ever seems to happen on Thursdays. Perhaps it’s just coincidence.

The streets were frozen, as were the beggars. He stopped by the wine monopoly to buy a bottle of burgundy wine. On his way out he walked straight past the frozen beggar sitting outside the shop doors. He thought he might try smiling to him today but when he looked down to him he felt a sudden sense of embarrassment and looked away. He’d forgotten all about the beggar by the time he put his key into the door.

Melkorka was sitting alone in their living room. The lights were all off. Only a candle flickered away on the fireplace. She was sat at the window, staring out, down onto the streets, watching the people coming off the tram on their way home from work. They hardly greeted each other anymore.

Bjørn took off his jacket and looked into the dark room. He noticed how dull the whole apartment felt and looked. The grey walls made him feel a little nauseous.

“It’s surprising how miserable people look when you’re out and about,” he said out aloud to her. She pretended not to hear.

“They kind of struggle to smile at you when you cross looks.”

He genuinely felt that way.

She just sat there pretending to be daydreaming. She wasn’t. She was depressed, or something like it. She wondered whether there were other places around the world that were as dull as the one they lived in. Surely some people somewhere must be happy, she thought to herself.

The room was bitterly cold.

“Shall I turn the heating up or put the fire on dear?”

She didn’t answer. He answered himself.

“I’ll go fetch some wood downstairs then.”

As he bent down to put on his boots she turned round to look at him. She noticed how ordinary and mundane he looked in his plain looking working clothes.

When was the last time they had shared a laugh? A funny story? She couldn’t remember. Had sex? It was too long to be honest.

Bjørn locked the door behind him and walked down the cold marble stairs to the cellars down below where they kept their stash of chopped wood.

Holding onto the banister he looked back up to the floors above him and thought to himself how grey the building looked. Where had all the colour gone? He swore he remembered the building being a lot more picturesque when they’d first moved in. The place reminded him of the Soviet Union. Funny. He’d never been to the Soviet Union but that was how he imagined it.

He turned on the light and stepped through the heavy, metal door into the corridor which led into the individual cellars.

He didn’t enjoy being down there. Not in the winter. There was something deeply menacing about it. Something that reminded him of all the scary movies he had ever watched.

The shadows and the smell of old, damp wood freaked him out. He pulled up the sleeves of his shirt unlocked the chain to his cellar door. He wished she too might get off her backside and fetch the wood herself sometimes.

The old wooden door creaked as he jarred it open. He noted to himself that it would need some oiling.

He stood before his working tools with pride. They’d be needing some dusting too soon. He liked manly manual jobs. He just wished he didn’t always have to be in the cellar all alone. It reminded him of medieval dungeons. The thought alone shook something deep inside his core. The quicker he could get this done with, the better.

He flung a couple of big logs of chopped wood into a wooden box he’d taken along with him. Then, as he bent down to pick another one up, he heard something creak behind him.

He stood up instantly as if to confront the strange sound face first. Standing up straight in the shadows he waited, quietly, for an instance, listening, but when he failed to hear anything more he got back to work.

He worked extra fast and was done within minutes. He was glad to get the hell out of there. He locked the door and made for the big metal door which led back into the safety of the main building.

When he was just steps away from safety, something made him freeze in his step. A noise. A sound. Something. It sounded like a distant echo. Was he hearing things again?

He held onto his box full of chopped wood with determined strength. Then he perched his head against a cellar door to try and locate the source of the sound his brain claimed his ears had heard seconds earlier.

His nervous system was in full tilt. The sweat started to run under his warm, woollen jumper. He felt the droplets falling from under his armpits and landing on the side of his stomach. He heard it again, this time it was as clear as a message could be.

“Is anyone there? Hello?”

He nearly dropped the box with the wooden logs. It banged against another cellar door and made a loud thump. Whoever was calling him heard it.

“Hello, is somebody there? Help! For the love of god, somebody help me! Please…My name is…”

He never did catch the name.

The sweat poured from his forehead as he ran through the thick, metal door into the grim light of the main building. He slammed it hard behind him. He was safe. He had enough wood to last them a week, and the weather was supposed to get warmer soon.

Composing himself he made his way calmly back up the cold, marble staircase.

Melkorka was still sitting at the window when he came in. She didn’t acknowledge him. She was light years away. Bjørn took off his shoes and kneeled down in front of the fire place.

“I can’t wait to get this fire going,” he said. “It sure is cold in here.”

When in Rome

The immigration problem had given most of Europe enough of a headache during the first two decades of the twenty first century. And now, after another continental war and a further influx of desperate souls, Italy of all countries claimed to have found a reasonable solution. That is how they defined it.

Of course the rest of the world had been swift to condemn it as an incredible act of barbarism. Funny that the world should say so. After all we’d just come out of another massively destructive war. I guess politicians were feeling moralistic again.

Criticism over Italy’s latest internal policy had poured in from all around the globe. The mediterranean country was threatening to send modern civilisation back to the times of Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate.

I was on a plane to Rome to cover the first ever organised gladiatorial games since the fall of the great Roman empire. And as I watched the eternal city appear before us on the horizon outside my little, round, plane window I recalled the day I’d been to see the bullfighting in Barcelona, Spain, some thirty years earlier.

I remembered sitting down on the stone terrace at la ‘Plaza de los Toros’, waiting anxiously for the corrida to begin, hoping I wouldn’t faint at the first sign of blood.

Hours later, whilst walking home amongst the crowds, I reflected on the afternoon events and was ashamed to admit that I had had a very different reaction to the one I had been expecting. Perhaps it had been the sun, the smell of blood, or just maybe the feeling of witnessing death so vividly, that had caused me to fall victim to a vicious impulse unknown to me before then. A sort of primordial thirst for blood that one would usually associate with medieval barbarism.

Nevertheless, we all cheered the colourful matadors on in their beautiful outfits. And we whistled in disdain at the poor bulls sweating, bleeding and slowly dying in the boiling summer sun. An extremely primitive and visceral instinct had been awoken deep within me. It had scared me to the core.

Three decades later, on my way to Rome as an experience wartime journalist I wondered, as I sipped my fourth gin and tonic, whether that same awful feeling would take hold of me again like it had done all that time ago at the bullfighting.

 

The destruction from the war was everywhere to be seen. As the unmanned, humanoid driven taxi swirled through the streets of the city I thought about the hundreds of millions of lives that had been lost on yet another war. Some estimates were as high as a billion, but it was still early to know exactly. How many more, I wondered, would be savagely deprived of their right to live now that the new law had been passed in the newly reassembled Italian parliament.

The latest of a series of controversial laws, it was just a few weeks old. It had been hailed by the Italian government propaganda monster as a quick and agreeable solution to deal with the overwhelming influx of international refugees which had unfortunately been created because of the war. In Europe alone they were estimated to be around two hundred million.

The “Caesar” law, as it had been nicknamed by the international press, was as simple as it was ruthless. Any illegal immigrant caught on Italian soil as of the 1. April 2037 would be subject to an immediate and on the spot trial. They would then be presented with two options to pick from. Either to be cast into the wilderness of the eastern deserts, which had been created after the annihilation of Eastern Europe by means of a never ending deployment of H-bombs. The second option being, to take part in a tournament. A gladiatorial knock out cup. Each man for himself. Last man standing. The winner would be granted Italian citizenship and permission to bring over any close family members, if any of them were still alive.

This was to be the inaugural opening tournament. A sort of dress rehearsal for better things to come. Talks were already being held about the possibility of extending the events in order to have them run on a monthly, weekly and even daily basis.

The reassertion of a long lost fascist tradition within Italian politics meant the new immigration policy was applauded as their very best ever since Mussolini’s Lateran Pacts with the now extinct Vatican state over a hundred years ago.

So there I was, in Rome, on another journalistic trip. My girlfriend at the time had refused to come with me to the bullfighting on account of the animal cruelty. My current wife certainly didn’t feel like joining me on this particular job either. The argument we had before I left for Italy had done little to help me prepare mentally for what was setting out to be an awful, once in a lifetime event, at least for me.

I checked into my hotel. A luxurious newly built building located less than ten minutes walk from the timeless colosseum. Incredibly enough it had managed to see out yet another war. Little or nothing was left around the ancient structure but gravel. However, the new regime had seen it fit to invest a hefty amount of money on a special refurbishment program.

With the “Caesar” law in mind, they’d set out to turn the old ruins into a stylishly modern events arena. Shops, bars, restaurants, giant screens, the lot. Lightyears away from anything I’d witnessed on my previous visit to Rome before the great war. Looking out of my window that night, down the stretch of newly built tarmac road leading to the colosseum I tried to imagine some of the scenes to come. I was also curious to see what the locals would make of it all.

 

The day of the gladiators, as it came to be known, came and went like a sand storm in the desert. A Tuesday like many others. Just another Tuesday in history. However, I wish to make it known that on the 5. July 2037, over two thousand honest men lost their lives in as many violent and gruesome ways imaginable.

History books will tell of a certain Abdul Mascatt. An Albanian refugee who made the cut and won the tournament. In a later interview he’d confess to not having any surviving family. The city he’d grown up in didn’t even show up in satellite pictures, such was the total destruction and erasing of civilisation that had taken place.

I woke up on that warm July morning with a feeling of cold anticipation. The morning drizzles were drying up, and by ten o’clock the warm Mediterranean sun began to shine upon the eternal city. The same warm sun that had warmed the foreheads of so many of us watching the corrida in Barcelona so many years before.

I walked down the bustling streets of the capital to a small piazza. English had officially been outlawed in Italy since the beginning of the war, however foreigners were still free to visit. I made due with my two weeks of intense colloquial Italian and ventured into a small cafe for an espresso and a croissant. I had to try a couple of times before the automated waitress understood my order but it worked in the end. I eventually got an espresso and a croissant which looked suspiciously like a ham and cheese sandwich. Perhaps my Italian wasn’t that good after all.

Out in the streets rivers of people began to make their way down towards the colosseum. Sitting at a table in the morning sun I had a quick read though one of the local papers and picked up on the fact that it would be a full house. Over a hundred thousand spectators were expected to attend. In a dark and twisted way I began to see how the games had brought a new light to the aftermath of war stricken Italy.

There was certainly a palpable sense of energy and excitement in the air. Families were out in force with toddlers, old grandmothers and all. The postwar, newly adopted, black Italian flags flew proudly outside countless shop windows. Stores had been set up at every other corner. There were flags for sale, t-shirts, horns, magazines, programs the lot. For a second I felt as if I’d travelled to Rome to watch Liverpool in a European cup tie. Even the smell of grilled meat was the same.

I would have lost myself in the moment if I hadn’t bumped into a fellow American colleague of mine whom I knew from his time in London. We kept our conversation low key on account of the ban on all anglophone languages.

“So Roger, I said, what you make of this one then?”

“Sure is going to be one hell of a spectacle, I can tell you so much,” he said.

“You brought yourself a plastic bag to throw up in when the going gets tough?” he said smiling and patting me condescendingly on the back.

“Ye I guess so,” I replied a little fazed out by it all. As I picked up a program pamphlet I still found it hard to believe what we were there for. It was going to be one long day. The games were set to start at noon and run late into the night.

 

I stepped quietly into the colosseum. The colosseum was anything but quiet. Reminiscence of the footballing days, prewar Italy and its famous footballing traditions with its colossal football stadiums. I had to remind myself again that I was not about to witness a football game but something a lot more macabre.

The international press had officially not been invited to the games due to the amount of incredibly negative coverage the event had received in the build up to July. That had however not stopped hundreds of foreign journalists, some of them recognisable figures, from buying their tickets on the black market. My ticket had been arranged in similar fashion via a dodgy third party contact.

In the confusion of it all I eventually managed to find my seat. Six rows up from the so called field of play. In sports terms I was located in the hot seats. Considering the settings, however, I wondered about the negative implications of being so close to the action.

As I took my place amongst the endless crowd I smiled to the gentleman sitting to my left. He spoke to me in Italian, of course. The speed with which he fired out the words was such that I struggled to recognise a single word. Judging on his body language I translated roughly to:

“Well it sure looks like it’s going to be one hell of a show.”

I shrugged my shoulders in agreement and mumbled something to the tune of:

“Si, si, lo so.” Yes, yes, I guess so.

Due to the ban I’d been forced to leave my laptop behind at the hotel, as had most of my international colleagues. And because of the language ban, a voice recorder was also out of the question. The sanction for breaking that law could land me in jail over night with a hefty fine in the morning if I was only so lucky.

Pen and paper were also not an option so I decided to go old style. I would just have to type it all up when I got back to the hotel later that evening. That was unless the local authorities hadn’t already ransacked and seized most of the property from my room.

 

Some things sure never change, not even after a war. In true traditional Italian style, the games got underway with a good forty five minutes delay.

All of a sudden a deep, menacing voice came on over the loud speakers inviting everyone to stand for the national anthem. A hundred thousand people stood up all at once. When the music started I too held my hand up to my heart and pretended to mumble along. It made the man to my left very proud. I guess I stood out like a sore thumb, like the rest of all the pale foreigners.

When the singing was over, the voice on the speakers took over. In my attempt to make sense of what was being said, I lost myself in the words. Everyone looked up to the giant screen which had been erected for the event. The live images were being aired across the country. The crowd cheered when the cameras rolled across the stands. People waved joyously to the cameras.

The volume went through the roof when the images switched to the underground dungeons where a smily TV presenter stirred emotions even further as pictures of the soon to be gladiators were shown.

A loud countdown began to echo around the stands and before I knew it a group of so called gladiators was poked and pushed out of their cages and into the dusty oval shaped ring of the colosseum. I counted over a hundred of them on the centre stage all at once. Suddenly I felt an exhausting weight on my chest as the full force of reality hit me like a tone of rocks. This was no joke. There was nothing cheerful or sportingly heroic about the whole thing. And yet, looking about the place one would have thought otherwise.

The people rose to their feet in a wave like fashion. An unstoppable wave which swirled around the stadium countless times. The whistling became a painfully piercing sound which forced its way deep inside my head and refused to leave for many hours later. The women, the children, the elderly, they were all on their feet, cheering and waving their beloved black flags. How naïve had I been about the whole thing? What could I possibly have been expecting?

The first few minutes were life changing, to say the least. Surely, I thought, no modern government in the civilized world would be as crazy as to allow such barbaric acts to take place. Surely not.

But this wasn’t the world as I knew it. The war had devastated huge portions of the planet and made more victims than any other war before it. Italy wasn’t the same country of course. People weren’t the same and the world wasn’t either. I wondered to what extent we could all still call ourselves human.

The UN had long been dissolved. There was little or no international relations or laws anymore. Only under the table handshakes and gentlemen’s agreements. Just being in the country as a foreigner could have been enough of an excuse for them to arrest me on charges of being a spy.

The poor victims moved around like scared, wild rabbits. They scrambled hysterically around the floor of the colosseum, desperately trying to grab a weapon or something to defend themselves with. from It became immediately apparent to the spectators and then to the defenceless gladiators, that there were less weapons than there were contestants.

First blood was spilt within seconds of them appearing before our eyes. At first, most of the gladiators seemed unwilling to take part in the awful proceedings. They were soon convinced to do otherwise when a troop of armed military police officers opened fire on the group.

They showered the floor with bullets, dropping a good dozen of the poor men to the ground in one quick sweep. A sudden sense of urgency took over the surviving lot that remained.

The sight of blood sent the paying crowds into a frenzy. The roar rose up, and up and up and out into the sunny morning sky.

The gladiators scattered randomly around the ground. Packing themselves naturally into smaller groups. They swarmed carefully across the sandy floor, watching each other’s every move.

Another quick firing of bullets sent them into battle mode and they began to charge at each other uncontrollably. They battered at each other’s heads like one would a coconut and knifed one another viciously. Arteries were split and guts torn. Soon the whole place was ablaze with the screams of the dying.

They died slowly, painfully and loudly. Their screams of pain cut through the loud roar of the crowd, and pierced my ears and my mind. Within minutes there were but a few victorious men left standing, panting for breath after the first battle. Half a dozen of them at most. All armed with an array of sharp and pointed weapons, blood dripping off them like rain.

There was a brief few seconds of tranquility before the crowd again succumbed to total hysteria. The convulsions spread across the terraces like wild fire. Frightening.

It came down to the the two last men. They squared each other off as bodies were being removed all around them, pacing in circles for what felt like an eternity, never taking their eyes off each other. A single bullet from an armed guard was the signal that it was enough. The mob in the stands went quiet for the first time since it had started. We sat there waiting. The sound of the blades clashing echoed in the arena.

One of them lost his footing and dropped to the ground. A hundred thousand souls ejaculated simultaneously as one man slashed the other man’s throat with a quick gash to the side of the neck. He made it look like he’d done it hundreds of times before. Then he dropped his weapon and, exhausted, collapsed to his knees, his head held up to the sky.

I had to stop myself from rising to my feet with the wave. I nearly caught myself clapping along with all the others. The old man sitting to my left gave me a peculiar look as if to say, well what the hell were you expecting.

I sat there thinking how the war had been over now for over two years. And yet, there was still such deep instilled anger and violence among the people. Hadn’t the war provided enough blood? How could it all be allowed to happen, again?

Small bulldozers continued to carry off the bodies. I’m sure some of them were still alive, and I swear I heard their cries of pain surge through the background noise. My doubts were confirmed. A quick few rounds of machine gun fire put them all to rest for good before they were taken away and dumped god knows where.

The one survivor was ushered across the ground and made to stand before the Emperor.

Known as Caesar, General Advocat was in fact considered at an international level to be a despotic tyrant who had taken control of the country with the aid of his forces shortly before the end of the war. Hailed as the man who had brought peace back to the streets of Italy, he was the same man who prided himself on having organised the games. There was still a few, I guess, that were willing to return to the barbaric acts of the ancient Roman Empire.

As the gladiator stood shaking before the imperial terrace, the general rose to his feet and saluted the poor fellow. His gesture was saluted by the hundred thousand in Latin.

“Ave Imperator.”

The poor soul had to be helped. They held up his hand for him in salute to the leader before he was carried away by two security men. He was through to the grand final which would take place later that night.

A ten minute break took place before the next live stock were sent up through a trap door to the pavilion. Their faces appeared on the giant screens to be as pale and as frightened as the ones of the unfortunate souls who’d just preceded them.

They looked about themselves in confusion as there were no weapons to pick up. A chilling silence fell across the stadium. We heard the creaking of metal chains being pulled back. Big metal gates began to rise from four sides of the ground. The crowd rose to their feet in an attempt to get a glimpse of what was about to occur. The seconds felt like an infinity. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to the men on the ground.

Mayhem broke out as a herd of wild lions was let loose into the arena grounds. Carnage began to unfold before us.

People in the stands began to laugh and cheer as the big cats, one by one, began to tear human bodies to shreds. They were scenes which I care not to go into in further detail. Details which I am sure you can imagine yourself.

By the time the lions had had enough there were about two dozen men left standing. A few hand knifes were tossed into the death pit. The wild cats had had more than enough meat for one day and went to lie down in the little patch of shade available. The remaining gladiators struggled to get a hold of a weapon. Each man for himself, they fought, and fought for their lives. I got a message on my phone from a colleague.

How’s Rome? :)

 

Slashing at each other it went on. Pulling, tugging, screaming, crying. Wrists cut, aortas torn. I swear I started to smell the blood in the air. Litres of it had been spilt.

The second act ended similarly to the first one. As did the third and fourth and so on.

During the breaks, fascist propaganda ran across the giant screens. Every so often the General would stand to his feet and salute the admiring crowd. On a number of occasions I sat there helplessly and watched as he aimed his double barrelled, old style shotgun down at some of the gladiators. He was indeed a Roman Emperor and that was his show. His entourage enjoyed themselves just as much.

Looking over to the Imperial terrace where the General and his people sat through the night I watched them with disdain from a safe distance. They had it all. The wine, the white powder, the guns, the under the table fellatios. It felt as if I’d travelled back in time. The people would forgive him everything as long as he gave them what they wanted. An entertaining distraction from the surrounding devastation of the aftermath.

I guess I still feel very ashamed of the fact that I did not leave earlier, but it was not a logistical option until later into the day. By then I had become cold and detached from the devastation that was taking place just metres away and I floated helplessly on the sea of madness that surrounded me.

When enough alcohol and amphetamine drugs had been passed around, the overall scene within the sacred colosseum began to take on a much darker tone. People began to lose inhibition and control as the caressing turned into petting, petting into full flown public sex and eventually into a mass scene of debauchery and depravity. It became obvious that there was something within the people that just couldn’t cope with what was happening around them. Their subconscious response being to let themselves go to whatever act of depravity they saw fit. I was witnessing the degradation of postwar, modern human society as we knew it. I was watching history repeat itself right before my eyes.

The show went on late into the night. The last event ended around one am but the festivities went on late into the early hours of the morning. Over the course of that dark Tuesday evening I saw all manners of killings. By knife, sword, bayonet, gun, rifle, machine gun, wild animal, strangulation, impaling, hanging. Some I doubt would even have a term to describe them. Throughout it all I had to maintain a composed demeanour. I even stood up to cheer on the final winner and I cried like a child as I did.

Abdul Mascatt, the man who had overcome all odds, could hardly stand and had to be held up on his legs when at around two am he was presented with an Italian passport and a handshake by a very inebriated and semi dressed General Advocat.

Italy’s latest citizen smiled timidly into the TV cameras and we watched him on the screens, as did millions more across the country. There was no greater hero in the fascist propaganda machine than a man who had killed his way to freedom. He would become an instant celebrity. A puppet of the regime.

I couldn’t help feeling for the guy. After murdering his way through fellow Albanians, Hungarians, Nigerians, Australians and more he was now expected to get on with his life and enjoy a new beginning in post war Italy.

I followed the crowds into the streets of Rome that night. Dazed and confused I downed my sorrows in litres of red wine and cried like a baby on the lap of an Italian prostitute, still trying to wipe away the smell of blood and flesh from my skin.

 

Two years have past since my trip to the eternal city. I never did write the piece for the paper. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I quit the paper the day I got back and I retired to the countryside.

I haven’t been able to make it through a single day without a drink to help me steady the shake in my left hand. They started that night in Rome over two years ago and haven’t stopped since. Just like the screams of the poor men being massacred to death. They come to me at night as soon as I close my eyes.

I haven’t had a proper night sleep in over six months. Not ever since I received news that Abdul Mascatt, the fellow who’d killed his way to freedom was found dead. Official reports talked of suicide. I wondered. To this day, I still cannot stand the smell and sight of meat. Flesh.

I feel for him, Abdul. For all of them. I’ve built a little shrine in my garden next to where I grow my carrots and potatoes. It reads: “To those who died fighting. May their bravery never be forgotten.

When I sit out on my back porch I look at the memorial and think back to that day in Rome. I still wonder whether it really happened or whether it was all just a bad dream.

Then my hand shakes.

Say cheeese!

I have always been a bit of a showman. From a young age I’ve found dark and twisted ways of keeping myself and those around me entertained. I guess it was only natural then, that whilst at my niece’s eighth birthday party, I should be asked to do a couple of party tricks to keep the energy high among the small guests present.

Having exhausted most of my traditional tricks at a work christmas party too many I decided to try something a little different with the kids on that occasion.

It was two days before halloween and as by tradition it was a fancy dress party. I figured, why not go with the flow and bring some halloween excitement to the place.

 

Unnoticed I proceeded to take a snap shot of an empty red leather chair that was lying in a quiet corner of the main living room. It was a matter of seconds before I’d taken the photo on my phone and saved it away for later use.

“You all ready then?” my sister asked crying out across the house. “The kids can’t wait.”

“All set,” I said confidently. I was looking forward to it myself.

The kids gathered round uncle James, that’s me, for his annual party trick. I was somewhat of a party celebrity among the eight year old community and I was positive I was going blow their little pear shaped heads to pieces with what I had in stall for them.

“Right then,” I began, “who wants to go first?”

Surely enough they all jumped to their feet screaming, me, me, me. Jumping up and down uncontrollably they resembled a bunch of hooligan crazed monkeys on cheap “alchopop” drinks rather than a bunch of innocent eight year olds.

I picked the birthday girl, it was expected of me. Little Lucy was turning eight. She deserved to go first.

“There you are little Lucy,” I said helping her up onto the big chair, her little legs hanging a foot off the ground. I pulled out my phone and began to explain the party trick.

“Right now, uncle James is going to play a fancy trick on you all. Have you all heard of vampires?” I asked them, crouching down over them in a menacing and vampire like manner.

“Yes,” they all screeched back in chorus.

“Excellent, well then I guess you all know that there’s one good way to find out if someone is indeed a vampire. Real vampires can’t look themselves in the mirror. Did you know that?”

A few shy faces nodded a little overwhelmed. Without overcomplicating the proceedings I went on.

“So why don’t we have a little fun now and see if this pretty little girl is in fact a vampire or if she’s only pretending to be one.”

I saw a couple of the kids dressed in vampire outfits yawning at the back of the room.

“That’s right,” I said, “let’s see those sharp teeth.”

I sat Lucy in place and got her ready to pose for the picture. I held my phone up in front of my face and pretended to snap a photo.

“And cheeese.”

 

“Right then,” I said, “here’s the point. If the party girl is indeed a vampire then there’s no way I’d be able to take a photo of her because she’d be invisible to the camera. Does that make sense?” Some of the elder kids nodded with excitement. The parents looked to be enjoying it all more than the kids. Anticipation in their eyes. I opened the photo file with the picture of the empty chair I’d saved minutes earlier and locked it onto my screen.

“Shall we all have a look then and see whether Lucy’s a vampire or not?” I asked with a tone of suspense.

They couldn’t wait.

“Here we go,” I said slowly turning the screen towards my little crowd.

 

The mood changed at once.

The few kids who had managed to follow my overly complicated explanation were now in total shock and began to freak out, big time. When they saw the photo of the empty chair, the penny dropped. Lucy had not appeared in the photo, she was indeed a vampire.

The screaming escalated in a matter of seconds. By some unfortunate domino effect, some of the children who hadn’t really understood the trick also began unexpectedly to scream and cry. It was mayhem. There were kids running left, right and centre.

One kid, five year old Benjamin, even managed to let himself out of the house and was only retrieved some hours later with the aid of the police and canine unit. Another one unfortunately panicked and ran face first into the glass door which gave into the garden. He got six stitches across the forehead. It was an eruption of frenzy which I had, until then, only experienced whilst running with bulls in the streets of Pamplona.

The most besieged and possessed of them all was my poor little niece Lucy. Being uncovered as a vampire in front of all her friends was too much for her to handle. She started to run circles uncontrollably around the living room like a wild horse at a rodeo. My sister and some of the other parents were unable to calm the stampede down for a good twenty minutes.

“What the hell were you thinking,” I heard her screeching at me across the room.

My brother in law didn’t spare me either.

“Nice one James,” he said, “I doubt we’ll ever forget this one.”

 

I picked up my glass of bourbon and sat down on the red leathered chair. Kids were everywhere, out of control.

A vase went flying off a small table in the corner. It did little to faze out the overall commotion. Had I gone too far? I sat there thinking how I’d probably ruined the poor girl’s life. At least for the forthcoming few years. Surely no one would want to be friends with Lucy Spencer anymore. Not now. Not now that they knew she was a vampire. They’d seen it proved to them before their very own little eyes.

Good luck convincing them otherwise.

Need a hand?

The sun was shining right into our living room this morning as we sat down for a quick breakfast. I couldn’t wait get out of the house and feel the breeze of the fresh open air on my face. It isn’t very often, you see, that I get to relax and I was looking to make the most of it. The perfect kind of day to spend down by the sea front. What’s more, it’s the first chance my girlfriend Jane and I have had to spend some lone time together since I got started with my new job down at the library. She works in this pet shop just round the corner. The hours don’t match so we don’t get all that much time together.

I opened the windows to let in the fresh early spring air. A warm cup of coffee and a chocolate muffin, perfect. I eventually got her moving and by ten o’clock we were about to leave the apartment. I remember it was ten cos I called out to her, “come on love, it’s already bloody ten o’clock.”

She was rummaging her way through the mountain of shoes by the entrance to our place so I picked up the bin bags and headed down stairs ahead of her. When she eventually got down we crossed the paved area in front of our apartment block and headed for the street to catch a tram into town. It was about ten minutes past by then.

There were only a few people waiting around at the stop. We crossed the road to the other side and I looked down the hill and caught a glimpse of the city and the sea shore beneath us. Beautiful. Sometime it feels like we’re in San Francisco, doesn’t it? Like bloody movie stars.

For the first time in months the birds were out singing away in the branches. Little kids on skate boards rolled out from behind the corners of buildings. It felt like summer was finally on its way. Could have done with an ice cream if I’m honest.

Anyways, we’re standing at the tram stop and I’m looking into the distance down the street and I notice this one elderly lady on her bicycle heading straight for us. She don’t look too steady on it.

I’d say she was probably in her late forties but the look on her face told a different story. She looked more like she was in her mid sixties. A tiresome look, of someone who’s seen it all, or seen too much. Or perhaps not seen enough. A bit of a recluse. Overall, a little odd I’d say. ‘Bout five foot four, red rusty hair. A stained yellow t-shirt. Big, bright, red reading glasses. Blue worn-out jeans. Brown shoes. She was wearing green nail varnish. Skinny looking type. Probably smoked.

 

Anyhow, she swerved across the pavement like a drunk on roller-skates. I put my hand behind Jane’s back to push her out of the way. She wasn’t impressed with the way I man handled her but she soon realised why I’d pushed her aside. The woman nearly took us both out, swerved past us and went on her way, closely missing another pare of bystanders. What a twirp. I don’t recall her smelling of alcohol. Awful body odour though.

I kept my eye on her as she continued to pedal up the hill and away from the tram stop. It was quite steep from there on up and I wondered how she’d manage with the rest of the hill on her old bike. A grey, single gear bike with rusted rims. Damaged white basket hanging off the handlebars.

She went on for another fifty yards before she suddenly stopped pedalling. She let the bike free roll a bit and hopped off it. Then she rolled the bike back down the hill, ‘bout ten yards I’d say. Something must have caught her attention.

She pulled her bike up against the side of the building and reached for her hand bag and pulled out a camera. An old one. Nikkon, 1985, 86 model perhaps. I might have to check. She looked concerned about something. She was fixed on something lying in the street in front of her. She squatted down slightly, in a professional manner as if to improve her stability, and began to click at her camera. Tick tick tick tick, a good dozen I’d say. She hadn’t struck me as the pro photographer kind, but who am I to judge but an unemployed freelance writer. Well technically, I’m not unemployed anymore cos I’m working at the library now but I still do quite a bit of freelancing. But thereagain, I have seen a lot of strange things in this city.

I was sat next to a bloke on the bus this one time, he had a bloody pig on a leash with him. Some bloody mad people around I tell you. And this other time, there was this one fellow picking up old cigarette butts off the floor and chewing them like they were going out of fashion. There must be something in the air. I’ll tell you what it is. Jane agrees with me on this, it’s all the salt in those dam ready made meals. It is. That’s why they feed them to pensioners. I mean, just think about it.

Ok well anyways, she must have taken a good dozen pictures when she stood back and put the camera back in its case. Then she did this odd thing with her neck. She looked up and down the street like a pigeon. Like this, like a submarine periscope, you get what I’m saying. So she’s looking down the street and all of a sudden she looks straight into my eyes. She had this smirk of achievement on her face. That’s when I knew something was out of place. She stood out like a sore thumb. I’ve got a sixth sense for things that stand out. It’s like with jigsaw pieces, I can tell if there’s a piece missing the moment I spread the bits across the table. Jane thinks it’s crazy. Just one of those things.

So then she looks back away from me and just moves on. She looked pretty happy with her work, reached for her bicycle and continued up the street. I remember telling Jane how odd it looked.

“Oh, so you’re talking now, are you,” she said unimpressed.

“The woman up the road,” I said, “did you see what she was up to?”

“What woman?”

“The one that nearly ran you over a few seconds ago. Come on that one. Up there,” I cried out at her pointing up the street.

“She was taking photographs of something up there in the street,” I said. “It looked really odd, the whole thing.”

“Don’t worry about it love,” she said. I had to worry about it though. There was something so awfully odd and out of place about it all. So I decided to check it out and that’s when I began to walk up the street towards where she’d been standing. It pissed Jane off a bit cos the tram was on its way, but what the hell.

I looked down into the street and the gutter. There was nothing but chewed up bubble gums, old cigarette butts and fallen leaves. What the hell could she have been so obsessed with, I thought to myself.

It must have been lying right there in front of my nose all along ‘cos when Jane walked up over to me she let off one of those bloody high pitched murder scene screams. You know, like in one of those Poirot movies when the girl finds the dead butler and it’s ahhhhhhh. Bloody annoying.

So I crouched down to get a better look and there it was, in the gutter. Soaked in muck and dirt, rotten. Smelling like an orange left out in the sun to dry for a week. It had turned green like one. It was a bloody, human hand with a missing finger and a big golden ring still hanging onto one of them. Severed at the wrist. Nasty job. Must have hurt like a bitch. Didn’t look too good.

I let out a scream of my own.

“What the fuck,” I said falling back onto the pavement, that’s when I cut my hand just here. So I start looking around for the woman. Where the hell is she, I thought.

I stand up and look to the street behind me trying to find her. What the hell was she doing taking pictures of missing body parts in the street, ain’t it?

It must was about two hundred yards up the road, up there by that row of houses. I saw a bike parked up against the building and the figure of someone small and frail crouching down by the side of the pavement. The head was hidden away behind the back of a pickup truck. She can’t be taking more pictures, I thought to myself. Surely not.

Then, as she stood up slowly in the sunshine I recognised the figure of the old woman, with her camera clenched firmly in her hands. She held up something into the sun. It looked like a plastic bag. A see through one. I couldn’t tell what was in it but she admired it for a a good couple of seconds before she put it away into her bag and hopped back onto her damn bike.

Bloody hell, I’ll tell you, I doubt I’ll ever forget the smell of that rotten hand, but ye, unless you got any other questions,

 

I think that’s all officer.

Cold pie

I’d been working in the local caffe of the little village that I was proud to call my own for little over two years when things took a turn for the worse.

God knows we served some of the oddest people this great country had to offer. The cafe’s vicinity to the local retirement home for the hopeless and elderly might well have had something to do with it.

My father always claimed it had something to do with all the lead floating around in the atmosphere.

“What’s that got to do with lead John?” people used to ask him all the time.

“Everything,” he used to say. “That’s why everyone is going fucking barmy nowadays. It’s because of all the lead we breathe. Either that or there’s something in the water. Either way, you can thank those bloody politicians for it.”

He knew what he was talking about.

 

It was a nice little cosy cafe I used to work in. The sun would shine in through the large windows where half a dozen tables were spread across the room. A spartan like cafe bar, with a kettle, a pre-world war two coffee machine and a big white cake cabinet where one could chose from all sorts of wonderful things. On warm days we’d pull out two or three tables and have them outside the front and the lucky ones would bask in the sun.

Opened a couple of years ago. Lovely couple, they’d moved down from London. The village took to them well. Fat Jeff and Gina.

 

It was the only place for miles for a decent cup of tea. The place was always full. There’d be people banging on the glass door waiting for us to open up in the morning, whilst inside we rushed around like wild foxes trying to get the place ready for them.

Bunch of nutters. Mainly elderly folk. On the nutty side. By nutty I mean crazy of course. Some people say it’s hard to define the word crazy. I guess it’s just as hard as defining the word normal. I’ll meet the problem half way and say they weren’t all that normal.

Not all of them were that bad though. A few of them were quite entertaining. I guess the word is colourful. I like that word. Says a lot about folk.

 

Martin and his dog. He was alright. He used to buy himself a meal and order one for his dog as well. He’d have the second meal served on the floor by him so that his dog, Stanny, could tuck in and enjoy the merits of a hard day’s work just the way his master would. I swears I saw him adding salt and pepper to the poor thing’s dish.

Paul Tucker. He was another strange one. He would happily order a coffee, walk outside for a quick puff at his fag and then toss his coffee in the rose bushes before coming back in and asking for his coffee. I remember him going hay-wall at me when I accused him of harming the roses with all the hot coffee he was pouring over them, but there was no getting through to him.

What a guy.

The list goes on and on.

Theresa talked to the dead. At least that is what I would claim. She’d never admit to it.

Thomas used to insist on talking Italian to me although I never got a word of what he’s saying.

Andrew would ask me for the time about six times an hour. On average every ten minutes.

I guess one could say they all had a good heart and meant no harm. A the end of the day they were bums on seats, and when you’re in the restaurant business, that’s all that counts.

 

For little under two comfortable years I worked at the cosy quiet place, trying to make the most of a life which to many might have seemed boring. And so I went, floating happily along life, enjoying it as much as I could until something most dramatic happened. Something which I, to this day, still have difficulty accepting and making any rational sense of.

I have struggled immensely with the mysterious occurring. I only write about it now, as part of a healing process, or as my general practitioner, Doctor Lumpthorn might put it, a step in the right direction. I was appointed Dr. Lumpthorn as my counsellor after the subsequent mental collapse and apparent mental sickness I underwent after the horrendous incident which haunts me to this day.

 

The events that unfolded began about 14 months ago and I have only recently found the inner strength to write about them.

It all started with a new member of the community being introduced to our little piece of heaven. Her name was Elyse Franklin, of Somerset.

The social worker rolled her in on her wheelchair and said Elyse would, from that day forth, be residing at the local St. Augustine retirement home for the sick, poorly and off their heads, about two hundred yards down the road.

She was greeted with fond kindness and interest by all of the locals present at the little cafe, apart from one. A portuguese retired, world renowned hustler and womaniser known throughout the small village only by his first name, Tony.

Tony confessed to me on numerous occasions his distrust for the “old hag”, as he referred to her, from the moment they first rolled her into the joint.

“Der iz a someting you justa kana trast about her,” he claimed.

 

We offered her the customary first timer’s Welsh cakes and tea, as a welcoming gift. Fat Jeff, the owner of the cafe, made her most welcome and told her he looked forward to having her over as often as she liked.

Within two days I was made the unofficial go-for-er. Any time she felt like coming down the cafe for a cuppa all she’d have to do was pick up the bloody phone and ring. I’d be sent to fetch the thing and roll her down the hill, across the village, past the post office, butcher’s, bakery, veterinary surgery and round the corner to the little white cottage that hosted the cafe. There was little I could do to voice my concern about this little extra piece of unpleasantness that I was forced, without choice, to endure on a daily basis.

 

It wasn’t too bad in the beginning. Elyse was, after all, a pleasant distraction. A little life blew through the otherwise stale, cardboard, piss old smell of death and elderly body functions that normally filled the place.

She had stories. Plenty of them. Sitting in her little wheelchair, with a warm cup of tea in her little hands, she would spend afternoons on end talking about her travels. All the places she’d been to. Here, there and bloody everywhere. The famous people she’d met. The crazy, drug assed rock stars she’d partied with and popped all sorts of colourful pills with. At times I struggled to believe the words that came out of her sweet little dry mouth, but she told them with such passion and resolution that all I could do was sit back, enjoy and believe every word she said. It was entertaining to say the very least.

 

The trips to and from the old people’s homes became part of my daily working routine. Not that I particularly enjoyed it, but that is what I was being payed to do after all.

We would hardly talk most of the time, Elyse and I. And on the few occasions when we we did, it was more of a monologue on her behalf rather than a conversation.

“You this and that. Me this and that. When I was here and when I met him, and did her and flew there.”

It was hard to keep up with everything she said. They were endless tales of her long lost, seemingly never ending youth. At times it felt like she’d lived for ever. The things she spoke of. It made no sense, so I paid little attention. All in all she was a sweet lady. Tending a little to the crazy side, like most of them from the home. Nothing unusual there.

At times I’d catch her out on some of her stories. Dates wouldn’t make sense, and she’d start talking about weird encounters she’d had with the likes of Napoleon, Pope Benedict the Third, and on one occasion Julius Caesar. She never really seemed to bother though. Whenever I caught her out on something, she would sit back in her wheelchair, think about something in the back of her mind’s eye, and then brush me off to the side like I’d never existed. That was as much as I meant to her. I tried to never let it get to me. I just let her get on with her show, trying not to cramp her style. She was a sweet little lady, that’s what they all used to say. Not Tony though. He thought otherwise.

 

And so it went for a fortnight or so. And just as I thought I was starting to like old little Elyse things suddenly took a turn for the worse. It was on one of our trips back from the cafe when I experienced a side of her that had until then been kept hidden from us all.

I shrieked with fright and my body froze when a couple of kids, who were out playing with a leather ball on the side of the street, unexpectedly came rushing across, one of them bumping into the side of Elyse’s old wheelchair. The poor kid nearly lost a couple of fingers in the fluke accident as his hand got caught in one of the wheels. Then it happened.

As I bent down to help the kid I felt an incredibly strong force pushing back against my chest. Stuck, I looked down to Elyse and witnessed her red gleaming eyes staring straight at me, her wrinkly hand on my chest holding me back with worrying strength.

“I’ll deal with this little brat!” she said with a terrifyingly sombre voice.

And so, with the strength of a toughened collier, she lifted the little boy up to his feet by the scuff of his neck and held him there so that the poor thing had to balance on the tip of his toes.

“Look here, you little shit,” she said with a tone that could have frightened a Roman legionnaire.

“You better look where you’re going next time. Now listen here, if I catch you or any of your other little brat friends playing ball round here, I’ll see to it myself that no one ever sees the likes of you ever again. Now have I made myself clear?” she asked the poor thing, looking it dead in the eyes.

He was too frightened to answer, and so without much more thought, she cast him off to the side of the road like a rag doll and cursed at him in a language I had until then never heard before. A foreign mumble of some sort which was soon followed by a much clearer plain English phrase which sent the shivers crawling down the back of my spine.

“Burn in hell you little fucks!” she shrieked at them.

 

Fat Jeff, from the cafe, wasn’t having any of it.

“Enough with this talk,” he said turning his back to me, “get round the back and sort those black bags out before the rats get to them.”

What else could I do. Bowing my head low I made for the back garden to sort out the black bags. And as I did I felt a hand pull lightly on my arm. I turned to face old Tony, the Portuguese womaniser, squaring me face on.

“I believe in a you,” he said talking slowly and confidently.

“I have a been watching the old ‘caralho’, dat bitch. I seen some of the strange things she do. You know, old Tony, he sees a everything. Beware my friend, beware of dat a old bitch.”

 

That was only the first of a series of events which I was unfortunate enough to witness. On another occasion she lost the plot. This time a cute little toddler making a bit of a racket whilst pouncing around the little cafe and pulling at table cloths. And there, in front of everyone, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, she told the little thing to go and burn in hell as she held it by the hair. Remarkably, it was only me who seemed to notice what was going on. The others all appeared to be under some sort of spell. Succumbing to her charm, they continued to chatter as if nothing was happening. And as I stood there in shock, she turned to me, knowing full well that I was watching, and smiled straight at me, the poor toddler still trying to escape her violent clench on its blonde hair. Again, the red colour of blood and fire, burned in her eyes, as her face contorted into the most vicious smile I have ever seen.

 

With hindsight, I can sort of see why no one ever seemed to suspect something was the matter with sweet old Elyse. She was a sweet old lady. Hardly five feet tall, and that was a rough estimate, because we never saw her out of her wheelchair. Her hair, or what was left of it hung to her scalp by thin threads, as did the wrinkly skin to her skeleton. When the sun shone on her I thought I could see right though her pale coloured skin. I remember her long nails, the way she used to scratch at the newspaper as she turned over the pages. And yet, the more time went on, the more people seemed to appreciate her presence. It was only I and my buddy, old Portuguese Tony who thought otherwise.

Tony swore he had, on one occasion, seen her get up and out of her wheelchair and make her way across the street. On another occasion, he claimed he had seen her draw a young teenage girl in close to her before headbutting her straight in the forehead.

However curious the stories and sightings, there was no one willing to hear us out, so we continued, in secret to exchange stories, always keeping an eye out for each other. The others might have thought the world about old Elyse, but we knew full well there was something quite hideous hiding behind that smile and those rotten teeth.

 

I tried to keep my distance from the old hag as much as possible. During our rolls to and from the old people’s home and the cafe, I would let her talk her monologues, only answering with a yes, no, I see, how very true. There was however, no escaping her wrath.

On one happening, she lost her cool and literally flipped at me, when I accidentally served her a coffee instead of her customary earl grey tea.

“You fucking incompetent Welsh freak,” she screamed at me across the cafe from her wheelchair. Again, no one in the premisses seemed to notice, as she turned to face a young lady with baby in arm and smiled to them both.

I remember noticing how sharp her teeth looked from up close. And how horrible her breath smelt. The colour of her rotting gums and the green looking saliva that bubbled away in her mouth whenever she smiled.

 

I must confess that she soon started to get into my frail mind. Haunting me in my sleep at night, and my thoughts during every waking moment of the day. I would hear her dreadful voice in my head at night, and see her walk the streets at dawn, sprinting around like a teenage girl, literally bouncing from one side of the street to the other. I wondered if stress might be to blame for the hallucinations which were starting to haunt me.

Things got even freakier when a young local girl, Amy Davis, went missing one October morning. She had last been spotted strolling the streets on her way to the local corner shop. She was never to been seen again. Old Tony had his own theories about what happened.

 

As time went on, I started to question my own sanity. For I began to notice a strange energy fill the small cafe whenever old Elyse entered the place. A dark cloud, which I believe was visible to myself, and myself alone, would follow the old thing into the place and would leave the very second she vacated the premises. Old Tony claimed it had something to do with energies of the universe.

“The olda bitch got dark, bad energy,” he said. “It no good, no good.”

 

The day which has since changed the course of my adult life came about not long after poor Amy Davis went missing. It was a frosty cold November morning. I was sent, as per usual, to pick old Elyse up from the old people’s home.

I felt there was something the matter the moment I opened the door and held onto her old wheelchair. She was talking gibberish. Mumbling to herself. It sounded like the rats had gotten into her mouth and were trying to make their way out via her intestine. It is not a sound I like to recall too often. The familiar green foam was oozing out from the side of her mouth. She was paler than usual. At one point her head spun round, in a manner one would think impossible, and she grinned at me, showing off her horrible sharp front teeth and the awful smell of her dark rotting gums.

Holding my hand up above my nose, as to protect myself from the stench of rotten meat coming from her mouth, I asked if everything was alright. Without a hint, she grabbed my arm and pulled me down so that my face was within an inch of hers.

“Just fucking do your job and get me down to that rat infested place, you little shit!”

 

Within minutes she had re composed herself and she was all smiles and waves as I held the door open and rolled her into the cafe.

Sickened. That is how I felt. Sickened to the stomach by what I had witnessed. I rolled her over to her usual place and walked, miserably, across the room to prepare her bloody tea.

It was then, whilst I had my back turned to the whole room, and deep in my thoughts, that I suddenly noticed something that made my heart stop for a very short burst of a second.

As I reached up to one of the shelves behind the bar, along the glass jars holding all manner of teas, I, by chance, happened to look into the big mirror, and instantly noticed, to my dismay, that there was one figure missing from the reflection of the room that lay behind me.

Curious as to how she had made such a quick escape, I turned to face the room, and to my horror realised she was sitting right there where I had left her but a few seconds earlier. The tea mug nearly dropped straight out of my hand as I closed my eyes before taking one more look, just to make sure.

I let out a scream, one that still haunts me to this day, when I noticed that there was indeed no reflection of the old lady to be had.

Terrified to the bone I walked over to Elyse and served her the last cup of tea I was ever to make her. And as I did, she looked up to me and smiled, sensing there was something the matter. Her eyes, as ever, red, like the blood that runs in my veins.

As for her veins, I wasn’t quite sure what was running through them.

“Thanks for nothing, you miserable fuck,” she commented smiling to another client as she spoke.

“I’ve got my eye on you,” she added, turning to face me all of a sudden.

 

I quit my job the very same afternoon, claiming I had always had plans to move. I packed my bags and left the village, heading East for the city. It’s been some time now, but Elyse still haunts my dreams.

Now more than ever.

For just the other day, whilst sitting on the bus, I looked over to my side and met the eyes of a beautiful blonde girl.

Her smile filled my heart with warmth and as I went to say something to her but she anticipated my move and hunched towards me. Her young plump breasts in full view and her beautiful blonde hair dropping to the sides of her face, I noticed how awkwardly sharp her teeth looked, just as a familiar and terrifying voice said,

“Don’t go thinking I’ve forgotten about you. You Welsh fucker!”

 

 

Mayday

As I bent down to pick up the post off the floor, one morning, just a few weeks ago, I noticed one of the envelopes and thought I recognised the handwriting. Then, turning to check the sender’s address, I called out to my wife.

“There’s a letter here from Owain and Diane,” I cried out. She was in bed sipping at her morning coffee when I joined her in our bedroom.

“It must be a thank you card to thank us for the other day,” she said. “I can’t imagine what else it could be.” It was a Tuesday. It rained. It always rained on Tuesdays. It still does.

We’d organised a nice little get together the previous Saturday and had been blessed with a few hours of dim sunlight. Just enough to freeze the white wine, start the barbecue and invite a couple of good friends over.

Owain was one of my old buddies from university. I considered him one of my best mates back then. We kind of lost touch and drifted our own ways for a few years after graduation but had, since moving back home, found the time to reconnect. Things were swell. The beer was cold, the meat sizzled on the grill and the girls small talked. Some thing never changed.

He’d married Diane whilst I was posted in the Far East, which made it impossible for me to get back for the wedding. I sent a card. My wife Katherine made it to the big day. I don’t think my absence went down too well, but that’s the way it was.

He met her whilst on one of his archeological excavations in South America. She was a fellow academic and they shared a rare passion for everything antique, smelly and rough. They kicked it off and before long were making plans to seal the deal. So it goes.

I remember the first time I met her after returning from my time abroad. I’d longed to meet the woman who’d swept my longtime buddy off his feet and onto the straight road of married life.

I can’t say she was half as excited to meet me as I was to make her acquaintance. I was introduced to her as one of his best friends. We shook hands and shared a quick, cold stare. As I recall the way we looked into each other’s eyes I remember thinking how beautiful she looked, but couldn’t help feeling there was something hiding behind the apparent spark in her eye and that forced smirk of hers. It was the way her eyebrows never connected with her smile. However uncomfortable I might have felt back then, I dismissed it as futile and embraced her as a new friend.

Our friendship with Owain and Diane began to pick up not long after my return home and it flourished over the next couple of years.

On Wednesdays we’d have drinks down the King’s with the boys from the rugby club. Golf on Saturday and the occasional holiday away with the girls. It was swell. However, I admit I never felt like we ever connected with Diane. My wife shared the same sentiment.

 

I tore the envelope open and pulled out the letter.

“It’s not a card love,” I said to my wife, “it’s a letter. Handwritten and signed by Owain.”

“Read it out to me will ya,” she said, slurping at her coffee and wiggling herself up straight in bed.

I mumbled most of it to myself, remembering occasionally to read it out aloud. It was a long letter. Longer than anything I had ever received. We’d only seen each other the other day. What could it possibly be about?

“He must be getting emotional in his old age,” I joked, “mid life crisis material this sounds like.”

How all very odd, I thought to myself handing the letter over to Kath. She picked up where I had left off and continued to read aloud.

It was great getting to see you both over the weekend. Judy and I were so chuffed about it. The food was great as was your company. We are so grateful to be able to call you friends, and we will always cerish your friendship. Looking forward to being with you both again.

Love,

Owain and Diane.”

 

“That’s funny,” my wife pointed out at once looking at the letter with a perplexed look on her face. “He’s misspelt ‘cherish’. Wrote it without a ‘h’. Oh and there again.”

“He probably wrote it late last night over a couple glassed of wine. I can’t imagine Owain getting all emotional on us without resorting to some good old dutch courage,” I pointed out.

We smiled to each other and laughed over the letter and the peculiarity of it all.

“You have to admit she’s a bit of a loner that Diane.” My wife was getting ready to go on one of her famous people-bashing rants. I stood with my back to her, fixing my tie in the mirror, hoping to escape the pending monologue.

“Did you know she hardly uttered a word when they were over on the weekend. Oh, and there was a moment when she asked KerryAnn to pass her the bottle of tomato sauce and ended up snatching it right out of her hand without saying a word. It got a bit tense.”

“Really? When did that happen?” I enquired trying to appear interested.

“Just when you were fetching the last things from the barbecue. When we all sat down for lunch. Right there in front of everyone. Didn’t you notice? I thought to myself, what a spoilt bitch.”

“I mean, alright, maybe I’m over reacting. It’s just, gosh, she’s always like it. What in the world did Owain see in her?”

The rant showed no signs of stopping.

“Do you know what the gossip is? Do you?”

“Carla Tucker was down with the girls from the bowling club the other night. Apparently the word on the street is that Diane’s a bit of a psycho. She’s only gone and attacked one of the girls down at the bingo hall. Poor thing got a battering, just ‘cos she looked at her the wrong way. I don’t know what to think.”

She took a brief pause, allowing a moment of silence for me to comment. I said I had also began to suspect there was something the matter with her. Something going on behind the closed doors of their little terraced house. For some weeks now, Owain had started to make lame excuses about not being able to make it out for our regular drinks. His wrist was either too sore for golf, or he was either too tired for anything else. When I came to think about it, I’d hardly spoken to him in the weeks leading up to the barbecue get-together. That’s just the way it was though. Grown men will be boys, and I was late for work. I was sure things would sort themselves out eventually.

 

It wasn’t until about six o’clock the same evening that I received the news from Katherine that something terrible had happened to Owain. There was shock and confusion in her words, and the facts were still to be confirmed.

Owain had supposedly surprised a burglar who’d broken into their house in the early afternoon, and been severely injured in the altercation. He’d been transported by ambulance to the St.Moriston accident and emergency and was in a critical condition.

I read the note lying on the kitchen table as I walked into the house from work. Kath was already on her way there. At once I jumped back into the car and made for the hospital.

The trip there I hardly remember. A mix of feelings rushed though my veins and nerve endings as something in the back of my head drove me across town, through the rush hour traffic and delivered me, in a state of shock, at the multi-storey car park across the street from the emergency unit.

The scene in the waiting room was an emotional one. Owain’s parents were there too. His mother held on to her husband, tears running down her face. Two common friends of ours, Roy Aston and Ben Robson were also there.

Katherine was in a right state, and it was obvious she had been crying for a while. And then, brushing the mascara back across from under her eyelashes, she dropped a bomb shell. The doctors didn’t think he was going to make it.

“What you mean he isn’t going to make?” I cried out incredulous. We had to talk to a doctor. The boys and I made for the other end of the corridor with the intention of finding out what was going on when we were suddenly approached by two police officers. A tall male officer, with a skinny long miserable face and dark, black hair and a female officer, half his height.

“Are you at all acquainted with Mr. Crowley?” the short female officer with a tattoo crawling up and out from her shirt collar asked.

“Ye,” I said, “we all do. We’re all good mates.”

Then she asked if they could have a word with us in private and they took us into an adjacent room.

The tall male officer informed us, with serious and emotionless tone, that Owain had been violently assaulted with a kitchen knife and had suffered serious injuries to the abdomen, thighs and neck. No one had yet been apprehended, and the police were still in the vicinity of the house in pursuit of a suspect which, as reported by Owain’s wife Diane, was a young, white male wearing dark brown trousers and a navy blue hoody.

“The thing is,” the male officer went on, “that first reports from the scene of the crime don’t seem to point to a break in.”

“So what does that mean,” Roy questioned them, understandably quite aggravated.

“It means, that at this early stage of the investigation there does not seem to be any evidence to suggest that there was ever a brake in. We are also assuming the possibility that there might not even have been a burglar in the house at the time of the attack.”

“So what are you trying to say?” I added.

The short female officer, looked straight into Roy’s eyes whilst she spoke to us all.

“Do any of you have any knowledge of any prior incidents involving Mr. Crowley? Any violent related incidents. Domestic abuse, anger management issues, anything?” Roy lost his cool and nearly went to smack the little officer. He had to be held back by Ben.

“Now who d’you think you’re talking about there lady?” he cried out, the blood rushing to his pepper red face.

The male officer stepped in and called us all to calm. They were just doing their job. Then, just as that small fire was put out, another scuffle broke out back in the corridor leading to the waiting room. As we made our way back there I saw my wife Kath being held back by Owain’s father as she yelled and reached out to Diane with an infernal force which took us all by surprise.

“You psychotic bitch,” she was crying out, “You mad fucking cow. You did this to him. I know you did.” I tried to calm her down but to little avail.

“I’m telling you,” she said talking straight at me, “look at her. Just look at her. Look at her and tell me she didn’t do it!”

Diane stood there cold and stiff as the day her damned soul was brought into this world and smirked in a manner most disturbing, as if she was taking some sort of satisfaction out of the whole affair. Kath had to be removed by force.

I exchanged looks with Diane one last time before following my wife outside. And as I did, I felt a sense of dread and fear run through my body, as if I had known all along that she had had something sinister to do with it all.

 

The police dropped us off back home later that evening. I gave Kath a valium and put her to bed. When the shaking mellowed down she eventually passed out. Around eleven o’clock that night I received a phone call from the boys to let me know that Owain was going to be ok. The doctor’s had managed to stabilise his condition. The worst was over. It was a relieving piece of news. Sobering, to say the least.

I had to pour myself a big glass of whiskey to take the edge off and sat down at my writing desk across the living room, Owain’s handwritten letter lying there before me. I took one big slurp from my glass and picked up the paper to have a read.

I read through every word, slowly. I was tired. Stressed and shaken. I squinted my eyes a couple of times in the dim light. I read over some sentences a few times and to my surprise picked out another few spelling mistakes. It was all very odd. Kath had been so quick to point out a few mistakes, and there I was reading it again and finding a few more myself. I had to start again from the beginning just to make sure I wasn’t going mad.

He’d misspelt the word ‘summer’ with three m’s instead of two. It was one of the harder ones to pick out because of his rough handwriting. It looked like he’d tried to cover up the mistake with a scribble but I was positive that is what he’d written.

As by intuition I reached over to the envelope I’d ripped up and skimmed for any other clues and noticed, after reading through it a few times, that he had completely misspelt our address and had written Timophy street instead of Timothy Street.

I sat back in amazement and wondered within myself. What could it possibly mean, if anything. Was I in desperate need of sleep or was there something lurking in the misspelt words of the hand written letter Owain had so mysteriously decided to write to us.

Standing up and back from the big mahogany writing desk, I picked up my glass and pondered from a distance for a few long minutes. And again, by an unexplained urge I felt the need to write down the letters of the words he had misspelt. Unaware of what I was doing and for what reason, I took the first pen I came across and made a careful note of the letters, one by one.

 

L E P E H M

 

Gazing at them, I sat there again, contemplating and meditating on something which I still could not make much sense of when all of a sudden, a big fucking apple dropped from the heavens and hit me on the head. And as I picked up the apple from beside my foot, I questioned not where it might have come from, but instead took a big bite of satisfaction from the juicy fruit and lingered at my discovery.

 

The cow, I thought to myself. She must have been there, watching and checking every word as he wrote the thing out by hand.

The bitch. He must have been scared shitless.

The nerve it must have taken him to do it the way he did.

Right under her nose.

How bad could it have been, for him to have to resort to such drastic measures?

“Kath!” I cried out across the house. “Kath!”

There was no point, she was out cold.

I took another sip at my whiskey and held the glass between my hands to warm it ever so slightly. Then a tear came to my eye. One of morbid realisation, or perhaps just one of sadness, as I sat there before the re-arranged letters which unequivocally spelt the enigmatic message:

 

H E L P M E.

A reservation for two

For my first job abroad I was sent, a little unwillingly, to Valencia, Spain.

I visited the beautiful medieval city alone and lodged at an affordable yet comfortable pension on the northern side of the old river Turia, quite the perfect spot. In the evenings after the business meetings were over I left the small hostel and walked calmly into town for something to eat.

An old friend of mine, Alan Morris, a colleague more than a true friend, was onto me the second he heard I was due to fly to Valencia on a business trip.

“You lucky bastard,” he said. “Let me tell you one thing, when you’re down there just you make sure you check out this one restaurant. It’s just one of those places, unbelievable. Propa’ Spanish.”

When the time came I figured I couldn’t face the idea of coming home to Britain to face Alan and confess to him that I hadn’t made the effort to visit the, apparently well known ‘La Cocinera’ restaurant.

 

So there I was, on my first night in Valencia. I made my way across the old river bed which had recently been converted into a never ending row of beautiful gardens flowing all the way down to the sea. I crossed into the ciudad vieja and over towards the Plaza de la Ayuntamiento. As I walked up towards the city hall I caught my first glimpse of the notorious bullfighting ring. The restaurant Alan had recommended was just around the corner from the arena.

Deceivingly centrally located, the joint was situated in a back alley and could easily have been mistaken for a cobblers or a hardware store if it weren’t for a small sign above the door where the words ‘La Cocinera’ dangled on a wooden sign that blew in the breeze.

The speciality of the house was a selection of entries made from the muscles and flesh of bulls which had met their end only a few hours earlier, less than a minute’s walk down the road at the bullfighting arena.

Alan had warned me of the notoriety of the place among local celebrities. He suggested I mention his name on arrival in order to insure myself a table and a more favourable service. Luckily there was no need for it. I cringed at the idea of having to mention the name of a pale, white Englishman in order to get a friendlier reception at a restaurant in the pulsating heart of Spain. It just wasn’t done. The staff at ‘La Cocinera’ were polite enough without having to mention Alan’s name. Just as well.

With the little Spanish I’d picked up since my arrival I got myself a lovely little table in a corner of the bustling restaurant. It was a spartan little hole, but with character, loads of it. Serrano hams hung from the ceiling above the small army of waiters. The cheap tablecloths and dirty floors only added to the unique atmosphere. Everywhere I looked, the place cried out Spain.

Sipping on my glass of Rioja wine I noticed the clientele around me. Most of patrons present were extremely well presented. I was probably the worst dressed person in the establishment, hadn’t it been for a couple of Australian tourists sitting in their shorts and Hawaiian shirts across the room from me. I imagined an Australian Alan Morris telling his mates to get down to this one particular restaurant the moment they got off the plane. We smiled at each other with slight embarrassment as we lingered in our awkwardness.

I tried to make sense of the menu to little avail. Alan had mentioned the one dish he said just had to be tried. I struggled to recall the exact name but there was no forgetting the nature of the dish, freshly cooked bull’s testicles.

Checking down the price list I attempted to pick out the particular dish when the waiter finally came to my rescue. Pointing to the most expensive article on the menu I looked up to him for advice.

“Are these…mmm?” I asked mumbling. A big question mark stamped on my face.

By the joys of body language he peeked over at the menu, stood back and held out his thumb and index finger on both hands. Together they formed two little circles which he proceeded, unashamed, to lower down towards his groin area. There was no misunderstanding him when he went on to hold up his right hand to his head to impersonate the horns of a bull before again showing me the two large testicles hanging between his legs. He smiled kindly as he did so. Oh the beauty of body language, I thought to myself.

With a certain look of the eyes and a mediterranean gesticulation of the hands I asked him what he thought of my choice. He kissed his clenched fingers in delight, and the decision was taken for me. I sat back in my chair and rejoiced at my beautiful surroundings and allowed myself to enjoy the transcendental Flamenco music coming from the live band playing in the bar across the narrow street.

Some twenty minutes later I was getting stuck into my red wine when I finally spotted my waiter dashing out of the steamy kitchen doors.

“Señor,” he called out to me as he walked across the busy restaurant. He mumbled something in Spanish and smiled as he served a set of two appetizing dishes.

The meal consisted of a side dish, a little brown terracotta plate filled with deep fried potatoes covered in fresh, vividly green, chopped parsley. On the second, bigger plate, were the bull’s testicles, cooked in a delicious and slightly spicy tomato sauce. I couldn’t help laugh at the two meat balls in the dish. They were astonishingly bigger than my fists and had probably shrunk a little during the cooking process. Quite impressed, I dug into them at once.

 

Alan Morris couldn’t wait to hear from me the moment I walked into the office the following Monday morning. I had to calm him down a little so I poured him a cup of tea and we took ten minutes off so I could tell him all about my experience at ‘La Cocinera’.

I had to give it to him. The place was indeed a hidden gem and had lived up to its reputation. The restaurant had turned out to be the highlight of an otherwise disastrous weekend, in terms of business. The meetings had equated to nothing and the whole deal had ended up going nowhere. I told Alan how, on my second night, I had decided to head downtown for a another serving at the famous restaurant.

Again, I was treated like royalty and served the most delicious pair of meat balls one could imagine. This time rarely cooked, sitting ever so lightly on a few salad leaves, with a little salt and peeper and a generous squeeze of lemon juice sprinkled over them. I dug into them slowly, enjoying every bite. Sipping away at my Rioja and not knowing when I would get another chance to visit the place.

Sitting there, I promised myself that should I ever return to Valencia I would make it my prerogative to take my wife along with me.

“And my name? Did you mention my name?” Alan asked sitting on the edge of his seat in anticipation. “I told you to mention my name. No wonder they treated you like royalty, I knew it.”

“Calm down Alan,” I said, “I didn’t have to.”

“What!” he cried.

“I said I didn’t have to. I just turned up at the place and they put me to sit at once.”

He looked a little disappointed and dropped his shoulders, then he tried to make up for it by sitting up straight and smiled.

“Oh well,” he said, “next time I guess.”

“Yes, next time Alan, and I’ll tell you something,” I said. “The moment I got on the plane back home I just couldn’t stop thinking about how nice it would be for Linda and I to take sometime off, just for the two of us you know.”

“So guess what. The first thing I did when I landed at Heathrow was to purchase two first class tickets to Valencia. A romantic weekend for the two of us. You can bet your arse I’ll mention your name if I can’t get us a table when we head down there in a fortnight.”

“Brilliant, he said as we parted. “Remember, if there’s any trouble, just drop my name, Alan Morris, just like that. They know me well. Trust me, they’ll take good care of you. We go back a long time you know. Just you do it and you’ll see.”

 

It was a great feeling getting back to Valencia. We couldn’t believe we’d finally managed to dump the kids off at her mother’s and escape to the warmth and sun of the South Mediterranean. It was going to be a trip to remember. I was a man on a mission. I pretended to know my way around the place and babbled away a few words in Spanish. Linda was well impressed.

After a quick stop at the hotel we made our way straight for the Plaza de los Toros. The crowds were out in mass that evening. It was the last weekend of the bullfighting season. I’d planned it all with care. The only detail I hadn’t been able to secure was a table at the damn restaurant.

There was no way of getting hold of them, not even a phone number. I figured we’d just have to play it by ear and go with the flow. It was a punt. Worst case scenario I would just have to play my joker card and drop Alan’s name in there.

Surely enough the place was jam packed when we got there. We stood at the entrance to the restaurant like a pair of idiots before I managed to hold down one of the stressed-out waiters just before he ran over my feet. The place was buzzing.

The waiter mumbled something at me in light-speed Spanish. He figured we weren’t getting much of what he was saying so he gestured to us with his hands that there was nowhere for us to sit. They were full up to their necks in it. I figured so much, but I hadn’t flown my wife down all the way from Slough to get brushed off like that though, so we stood our ground, politely but firmly. I’d just have to slip Alan’s name in at the right time.

“Cuando? A que ora? When a free table?” I asked him pointing to my watch. The waiter waved his arms in front of his body as if to say there was no chance. I took a quick peek around the restaurant and realised there wasn’t a single foreigner in sight. It felt like the whole of Valencia had descended onto the place. When I turned round the waiter had disappeared.

I hauled down another young boy, he too gestured to us that they were up to their necks in it and politely apologised, bowing before us.

“Porfavor, el jefe,” I called out after him. He smiled and walked off into one of the kitchens.

“What you say?” Linda asked.

“I told him to go get the manager.”

Minutes later, another sweet faced young man with heavily gelled, pitch black hair approached us. He talked just enough English to get by.

“Señor,” he said, “so sorry bat we ar’eh full tonight. You see. La corrida, important night today, mucha gente. Lo siento señor. I ama sorry.” There was no convincing him otherwise. His politeness was unmovable. I had to resort to some other method.

I made a big fuss about pulling out my wallet from my back trouser pocket and handed the young man a twenty euro note. He smiled again very politely and disappeared with the note soon after. He was back a few minutes later with a gentleman who looked like he was running the show.

“Lo siento Señores, we are fully booked. You will understand, it is the last night of las corridas, a very important night in Valencia. Many famous people are a coming here for ze spesial platos. I am sure you will be able to find a god restaurant in Valencia tonight, but ‘ere we are full, lo siento señor. I am sorry.”

“Of course,” I said, bowing in as best a Spanish manner possible.

“I understand,” I followed on confidently.

“But, you see, I am a good friend of Alan Morris. El señor Morris de Inglaterra. He recommended your restaurant personally to me. I am a good friend.” I smiled, and allowed for the awful silence, waiting for them to give in.

Something sure did give in. The moment they heard Alan’s name I noticed a sudden change in their body language. Their faces lighted up and they all began to mumble among themselves in spanish. Morris, Inglaterra, Morris this and that.

They mumbled his name a couple of times. The manager explained to some of his waiters and all of a sudden they seemed to recall the gentleman he was on about. They smiled to us as they did so.

“Los amigos de el señor Morris son nuestros amigos. Please, most welcome. Por favor, follow me.” The manager called three waiters to him, he took Linda by the hand and ushered us on. A table was cleared for us at the very centre of the restaurant. A reserved card was lifted off the table and ripped to shreds. All eyes in the place were on us.

For a moment we couldn’t believe what was happening. We felt like A list celebrities. People stared and wondered who the hell these two pale foreigners were to be getting such a special treatment and a central table on such a special night. A little embarrassed we sat down and dug into our freshly poured glasses of vino tinto. As we sipped at our drinks I looked about the room and smiled at some of the more curious faces. I even waved to one couple who couldn’t stop staring. We laughed and tried to enjoy the attention. It felt good to feel special for once.

When the manager himself came to take the orders I gestured to Linda in true Spanish style that I would be taking the initiative and ordering for the both of us.

“I think we’ll both go for the bull’s testicles. Las pelotas de toro,” I said in pigeon Spanish.

The manager smiled politely, unimpressed with my effort at the local language, snapped the two menus shut and disappeared into the distance.

“I can’t believe this is happening to us,” I said to Linda. “All this time there I was thinking Alan Morris was losing his marbles. They must know him pretty well round here.”

Linda struggled to hide her excitement. The glass shook in her hand as she pointed to a fine looking chap sat at a big round table to our side.

“I think that’s Alejandro from strictly cum dancing,” she said. We were surrounded by celebrities.

Not too long later I spotted a waiter rushing through the room bound for our table. I noticed people follow him across the restaurant with their looks, their eyes glued to one of the dishes they were holding. The volume all around us grew louder as folks began to mumble and whisper to each other. A few even began to giggle.

The waiters rushed across the floor and came to a sweet halt at the side of our table. The sounds of cheering erupted out of the kitchen.

Por favor,” one of them said, gently serving Linda a dish containing a single pale-looking specimen of a meatball lying flat on an iceberg lettuce leaf. The fat dripping off it and the steam still rising from its sad, wrinkly surface. A second dish was thrown across my lap and landed frighteningly close to the edge of the table. The candle sticks and glasses shook as the plate came to a violent halt. The waiter mumbled something else and smiled at me viscously. One of his colleagues made the sign of the cross and kissed the golden necklace round his neck as they returned to the kitchen.

“What’s wrong love?” Linda asked, a little perplexed. “Are you alright?”

“I guess so,” I said cutting into the hard meat. “It’s just that… Well, I guess I just remembered it all so differently.”

Definitely a whole lot juicier, I thought to myself, as I bit into the leather. I chewed away at the meat like a dog on football before I managed to swallow the first portion. Across the room from us, an elderly couple began to giggle uncontrollably. They sipped at their wine glasses to hide their hysteria. A few others soon followed suit.

When I eventually found the will power to swallow the last portion of meat I sat back and looked at my empty plate in disgust. I took a big gulp of wine hoping it would wash away the awful bitter aftertaste. Then I sat there in silence, contemplating before I let out a cry of pure frustration.

“This just won’t bloody do,” I said out aloud, tossing my plate across the table. I waved down every bloody waiter I could get a hold of until the manager finally found the time to come over. He too looked like he’d just had a giggle of his own.

“Si señor?” he inquired politely, rubbing the tears from his eye. “Is there a problema?”

“These meatballs,” I said pointing down to the dish and wiping my mouth with my napkin.

“Last time I was here a couple of weeks ago, they were this big.” I held my hands out and curled my fingers around two imaginary big bull’s testicles.

“I mean, they were at least this big. But the ones I was served this evening weren’t half the size. And to be frank they tasted rather horrid. I mean, this just won’t do. Not at these prices. And just the two, between us? Surely!”

“Si señor,” he said again politely with a smirk across his face. A creepy silence descended on the whole restaurant.

“So why were these ones so much smaller this time,” I asked aggressively. “Is this a bloody joke?” I asked. “‘Cos I’m not laughing. I’m telling you. I demand an explanation!”

No one was laughing now.

I gathered they’d been having a giggle at our expense and I was beginning to get a little aggravated. I removed the napkin from my lap and slammed it, incensed, on the table in front of me and waited for an answer.

With quite impeccable touch of politeness the manager bowed before us apologetically, then proceeded to explain with a smirk on his face.

“Señor,” he said solemnly, “unfortunately it is not always el matador that wins the bullfight.”

Grass fever

I love the smell of grass. I love the way it feels on my skin when I lie down and roll around on it.

I love it now, to this day, just like I did over twenty years ago when I used to play on it as a kid. I still enjoy sitting down on a newly mowed lawn and looking across the surface of the grass, trying to pick out individual straws among the vastness. The stillness of it all is captivating. Add some white chalk lines to the warm green colour of the grass and you’ve got yourself a master piece.

That’s what I and another ten thousand folks used to think of the old football ground back when my grandfather would take me down to the game religiously every Sunday afternoon after morning mass and a Sunday roast.

It was a Patterson tradition, had been for some generations. And now, just like then, the excitement of leaving home for a day at the football ground is an overwhelming experience. The long walk down to the field, the fans chanting and signing, the colours, the smell of beer and hotdogs burning and the anticipation of better things to come. The chance to witness the art of the beautiful game at work.

Standing behind the goal, in the home supporters end, the chanting of the fans is a mid way between a perfect melody and a total musical disaster. But it serves its purpose. Together with the colours it helps create the great spectacle which is modern day football.

As I look all around me and into the distance I feel mesmerised by the ocean of colours. An infinite number of arms and heads and eyes, all following the action and moving in unison like a stormy sea.

Every so often I’ll focus in on someone. No one in particular, just some random folk in the distance. It’s fascinating to observe people when they don’t know they’re being watched. I find myself doing it a lot at football games.

Staring into the distance across the stands I pick out an overweight middle aged man eating away at a burger and singing his heart out.

The sounds and singing fade away as I focus in further. He’s dropped ketchup all over his denim jacket. He doesn’t care. It’s going to take more than that to put him off.

 

It’s quite magical how it all happens. One second you’re standing there captivated by the thunderous noises all around, losing yourself in the atmosphere. The next, you’re totally focused in on the game. Following the ball with such vigour you swear you can hear the sound of the players’ boots thumping against the slick leather surface of the ball.

The sound of a whistle. A roar. The whole place explodes into an eruption of curses and insults. Among all the noise, the swearing is all so clear.

“You fucking cheat! You arse! Ref, you bastard! The referee’s a wanka, the referee’s a wanka!”

People never used to swear when I used to go to games with my grandfather. Of course we’d catch him swearing at times, but he used to do it quietly and under the shade of his big mustache. He’d look down at me and smile apologetically afterwards.

“A gentleman shouldn’t swear,” he’d say.

I guess they call it the beautiful game for a number of reasons. It’s something to do with the way the teams move as a unit. That’s only the best teams mind you. A solid 4-4-2 formation, moving up and down the field like ten crosses drawn on a blackboard. In perfect unison.

As I stand here behind the goal, watching 21 men out there on the field, I feel great. A little cold maybe, round the knees. A little perplexed as to why I’ve decided to wear shorts on a cold December afternoon, but it’s all good. It’s worth it. After the match we’ll be in the pub enjoying a pint and a warm steak and kidney pie and getting into all sorts of footy banter.

 

The ball’s on the left side of the field. They’ve got it. Their right centre field jumps one of our guys, I think it’s Robbins. He’s lying on the floor rolling around in pain but their guy is still running strong down our left flank. I look down the centre of the field and see a whole bunch of players, ours and theirs. Soon they’ll all be cramping into our area.

All around me fans are shouting and barking orders at our defenders. One fan in particular is screaming his lungs off, telling a certain Paul to get his “bloody arse back into defence.”

For a moment I think he’s shouting at me. The tone in his voice is so aggressive. It shakes me a little, pierces my ears but I’m back in on the game, focused and enjoying it. Soaking it in.

I can’t help it though. I just have to take a look into the distance again. I want to see how the fans are reacting to the action. I love it. Seeing a couple of thousand people on the edge of their seats. There’s a middle aged man, he’s shouting so hard he’s gone all red. Looks like his head might just blow off. The young boy standing next to him tries to imitate his gestures and screams along with the rest of the fans.

 

Their number 11 shimmies our left back, leaves him for dead. He lifts his head up ever so slightly. Takes a quick look across the field and wallops the ball.

The cross ball comes flying in. A roar grows around the stands with a steady crescendo, up, up and then the silence. A long silence. Just the sound of a solid forehead thumping the leather ball towards our goal.

Time slows down, perhaps it even stops. I see the ball go flying by, about a foot to the left of my head. I see it spinning freely in the air, like a planet. It’s all so perfect and still. Then the sudden roar of the stands is again. It erupts into a frenzy.

“He’s missed!” I think to myself.

“Fucking hell Patterson. Pull you’re head out of ya bloody arse!” I hear someone scream out in an angry voice from the stands. I wonder if he’s talking to me.

I’m thumped in the chest by someone, something. I’ve been knocked over. God it hurts. I think I’ve been winded. I can’t breathe.

I’m lifted to my feet by a helping hand. I feel a pat on my back.

 

All of a sudden I realise what’s just happened. I turn to go pick the ball out of the back of the net. I look up to the crowd of howling supporters. The so called fans. They’re going ape shit. One of them is flicking his fingers at me. I can just about lip read what he’s saying. I’m pretty sure its intended for me. We’re down one nil. It’s all my fault. Shame, I was enjoying it.

I can’t help it. Looking up at the stands and smiling. A kaleidoscopic ocean of overweight, colourfully dressed, white trash, bald baboons, the lot of them.

I’d happily pay a ticket to see them dancing and singing any day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Colt '84

A drag queen from another planet, a mysterious whispering barber, a man who dares turn up at the gates of heaven without a dime to his name, a post war colosseum of gladiators, a day dreaming goal keeper, and a psychotic old aged pensioner with a distressing history of violence. Colt '84 is humour, horror and witty critique are all packed nicely into a kaleidoscopic compilation of 17 short stories.

  • Author: Claude Vicent
  • Published: 2017-06-08 21:35:15
  • Words: 38998
Colt '84 Colt '84