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Smiling Exercises, and Other Stories

 

SMILING EXERCISES,

AND OTHER STORIES

Dan Malakin

  • Table of Contents *

Plugs

At Least It Could Get No Worse

Smiling Exercises

Finally Free

A Beautiful Girl, Decomposing

Brian’s Secret Vagina

Morning of the Friendly Dead

The Office Door Fiasco

All the Animals, and Me

Calculations

A Dream About My Wife

Celestial Fondue

Lilies

Seconds Away

Second Coming

A Good Kicking is Hard to Find

Long Tongue, Twisted

The Good Doctor

Dairy Queen

Brain Parasite

Contributions

Deeelish!

The Great Laundry Mystery

Donald, My Favourite Onion plant

Frances, Harry, Language, Love

My Brother, My Kidney

End Of? An interview with Harold Salt

Secret Agent Fountain Pen

Mirror

Waiting for Nothing

About the Author

The Vaccine Slaves

Chapter 1: A Captive Audience

Chapter 2: Should I Get The Crap Kicked Out Of Me Standing Up, Or Kneeling Down?

Chapter 3: A Glassy Surface Of Revulsion

Chapter 4: Back To The Blow Job

Smiling Exercises, and Other Stories is a collection of thirty hilarious, shocking, and heartbreaking pieces of flash fiction. It includes two pieces shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, twenty five more published in places like Litro, Word Riot and decomP, and three brand new stories.

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Copyright © 2015 Dan Malakin

Plugs

Shortlisted for the Bridport Prize 2012

All of this happened in a single exchange:

It was the way Debbie responded to his comments about American plugs that killed it for Andy, how she derided his view of the English plug, that steady and sturdy device, that paradigm of Britishness with its trident of strong legs, legs which could stand the plug upright, unlike those other flimsy plugs, the mainland European plugs with their sad cylindrical arms, the even more pathetic American plugs with their weedy breakable legs, about as dependable as the country itself, or so Andy had said, a comment that had riled Debbie, a meat-and-threes Yank who wore a stars and stripes bandana when cycling, who believed she was from a special and serendipitous land, and who reacted to Andy’s comment with broadsides of her own, proclaiming Andy a product of his country in the same way as the plug, fussy and frumpy, clunky and cumbersome, too self-assured for such a minor product, too pleased with itself in the same way that a dog yelps gleefully at its own farts, comparisons which, to Andy, who was only buying Debbie dinner in the belief American women put out on the first date, seemed as pathetic and insubstantial as the plug attached to Debbie’s mobile phone charger, which had fallen out of her handbag and he had picked up from the floor.

“You know,” Andy said as Debbie reached for the charger. “I don’t think this is going to work.”

At Least It Could Get No Worse

Published by Litro, 2012

One day, the flies multiplied. Flies were everywhere. People blamed the government, then global warming, then cities, then humans, the way we destroyed the balance of nature. Words didn’t matter. Buildings vibrated with flies. They covered pavements and lampposts and shopping malls, skyscrapers and stadiums and hospitals. We said this was as bad as it could get. We thought the world was irreparable. And yet, in time, we took to wearing earplugs and goggles, jumpsuits and surgical masks, and life came near to normal.

But then, from nowhere, clouds smothered the sky and everything went dark, so dark, charcoal grey by daytime, and black as a pit at night. Darkness slicked surfaces already obscured by and shaking with flies. In a big city, what could we do? The drain on energy to power lights every minute of every day was astounding. And yet, we still had heart. There was still some glory to life. We bred glowworms and fed them through tiny clear tubes that wove around our jumpsuits. Life glimmered in phantom green.

At least, we said, at least it could get no worse.

Then there came a huge surge and rumble, as though someone had pressed the doomsday button.

Where the fish came from, nobody knows.

Thrumming with flies, coloured radioactive by the worms flowing around our bodies, the fish slapped and flopped and shimmied over everything. The world consisted of fish and flies, glowing green.

We begged for peace.

We took a breath and rallied. At least it could get no worse.

Smiling Exercises

Published by Cricket Online Review, 2013

First thing, I log into Psyche Assistant.

In a query form I write: Bad night, no sleep, suggestions?

Seconds later I get a chat box reply from a Mental Health Sentinel called Melissa. Her avatar is cute, Disneyish. It reads: How about a smiling exercise to start the day?

So, I smile for fifteen seconds. Anything less than fifteen seconds and the endorphins don't release. When I stop smiling the webcam takes my photo. The analysis comes back – I'm .002% happier than the same time yesterday. I check a graph. Everyday, for the last month, I've been getting incrementally happier, which is odd, because if anything I thought it was the opposite. But who am I to argue? You can't argue with a graph.

At the office, everyone is playing bingo. It’s a new thing on Monday mornings – half an hour of bingo to put everyone in the right frame of mind for the week. My take is, all it does is put you in a bingo state of mind, that is, where you listen for numbers and cross then off with a big red marker. But who am I to argue? So, I don’t argue. Instead I go to the bathroom and sit in a cubicle with a pencil between my teeth. Keeping a pencil between your teeth is a great way to make sure you hold a smile, because just smiling by yourself is hard to maintain, and without the smiling there are no endorphins, and without those endorphins there’s no way I’m going to be happy.

When I come of the cubicle, Pepperman is washing his hands. He says to me, “I now have a minor addiction to bingo.”

I reply, “How’d you get to be such an addict?” which I know, straight away, is a big mistake, because Pepperman is a gambling addict, who, due to said addiction, now lives in a rat-infested bedsit in Moss Side next door to a Yardie crack house. Pepperman just smiles at me. I picture all the endorphins in his head like tiny cartoon love hearts.

At my desk, I log onto Psyche Assistant. In my journal I write that I feel like screaming and send it off for analysis.

Seconds later I get a reply from a Mental Health Sentinel called Bobby whose avatar depicts a geeky guy cradling an armful of books. He suggests a visualisation exercise – think of the person you love the most and imagine the two of you strolling hand in hand down a beautiful beach beside a sparkling sea.

So, I sit back in my chair, close my eyes, and visualise the beach, the sea, the sun, but when I get to the person I love the most, I get nothing. No ex-girlfriends. No movie stars. No models. Not even a friend. Then I hear these sirens in my mind and the beach swarms with police brandishing batons. I open my eyes. I see Pepperman talking to Jenkins. And then both Pepperman and Jenkins are looking at me.

Later, Jenkins calls me over. After explaining why he has to fire me, for the Pepperman episode, on top of being late most days and generally unproductive, he says, “Don’t think of this as losing a job so much as gaining an opportunity.”

I ask, “An opportunity for what?”

“Well,” says Jenkins, trying to frown and smile at the same time. “Life is full of opportunities.”

“Can’t you just let me keep my job?”

“I’m sorry,” says Jenkins. “You can’t go around mocking people’s addictions.”

Back home, I log into Psyche Assistant and ask what I should do.

Seconds later I get a reply from Ian whose avatar of a happy gnome sitting on a giant mushroom with his legs kicking out makes me want to punch the wall until my knuckles break. He suggests I write a gratitude list.

I reply that I have nothing to be grateful for.

Ian writes in his chat box, “Sure you do. Everyone has things to be grateful for.”

I ask for examples. He says I have food in the fridge, and friends on the phone. I tell him all my friends are smug bastards – and as for food, seeing as I’ve lost my job the fridge will soon be empty.

The chat box pauses. I stare at the flickering cursor, the gnome avatar, and pray that the next words to appear will give me something, anything, because right now I really need something.

The following words appear: How about a smiling exercise?

I flip. I hammer out on the keyboard that I’m sick of fucking smiling exercises. Smiling won’t get me my job back. Smiling won’t pay the bills. Smiling won’t make the hair grow back on my bald spot. Smiling won’t make the woman of my dreams sashay into the lounge, take me by the hand, and whisper to me that it’s okay, everything is okay, because we’re in love. Smiling won’t help me see my life as anything other than one huge, fucking disappointment.

I hurl the laptop across the room. It cracks off the wall and lands face down. I sit there, glaring at it. I can’t move. I look at the blank space where my laptop used to be and the blank space looks back.

What am I supposed to do now?

What the fuck am I supposed to do?

I already know the answer.

Fifteen seconds, I tell myself. That’s all it takes for the endorphins to release…

Finally Free

Published by Daily Science Fiction, 2015

Veterans are most in demand. The rawest memories, brutal and blood-sticky, they’re what people want.

The movie studio found Josh through the veteran’s register, then did research. No friends, no family, an old alcoholic living on disability. His life lost to the pain of the past. They’re the ones with the best stories to tell.

On the operating table, preparing to receive his anaesthetic, the veteran stares into the doctor’s grey-blue eyes, the same color as the sea he ran screaming into in ’67, and says, “Biloxi. Let me remember Biloxi, the guys I trained with. Don’t let me forget them.” His mind floods with memories of poker hands won and lost, night push-ups in the mud, the faces of friends who would later die. He needs a drink.

“That’s not part of it,” the doctor replies. He’s only doing his job, the veteran knows that, but it’s the blankness in his face, the coldness of those grey-blue eyes. He doesn’t care either way. It’s all just money to him.

“Four of them were tortured in front of me,” says the veteran. “Bamboo under the nails, eyelids cut off, but they left them alive. Willians was next and they just sliced him across the throat.” He pulls a finger across his neck and makes a noise like shhhup. “Gone.”

The doctor flicks the end of his needle and watches clear droplets spray out of the end.

“Please,” the veteran says, “what will they do with my memories?”

The doctor smiles with his mouth and his cheeks, but not his eyes. “That’s of no real concern to you.”

“Will I even recognize myself? In the film?”

After the war, the veteran became a clam digger, then a salmon fisher, then a shrimper, anything that brought him food and bed, as long as it was by the water. He was a hard worker, but a drinker. His dreams always ended with him running out of the jungle, across the wide yellow sand and into a churning sea that sucked him under, stole the air from his lungs and the life from his body. Upon waking, he wished it had happened that way.

The needle poised, the doctor asks, “Anything else before we begin?”

“I had an affair with a beautiful girl called Rosie,” says the veteran. “A guy in my platoon claimed he could fix the World Series with his mind.” He starts to cry. “The first time I saw the Queensboro Bridge after the war it was gleaming and it was sunny, and I was so glad to be home. I wanted that feeling to last, but it didn’t.”

Eventually, the veteran settled in his hometown of Newton and became a barber. He cut kids’ hair, mainly. Some color and sets for the older women. Every night, over the swept up piles, he wept and remembered the boys. He drank bourbon, alone. Sometimes he drank all night. Eventually he lost his barbershop. The studios found him in the line at the soup kitchen, greasy grey bowl in hand, a bourbon-soaked beard festooned to his face.

“Ready?” asks the doctor.

The veteran shoots up, face clenched. “Who will keep their vigil?”

He sinks back down, and the doctor injects him.

When Josh wakes up he remembers only to the end of his childhood. He has a new sea-view apartment and a bank account with enough money to live on for the rest of his life. He doesn’t realize he’s an alcoholic, so despite the strange gnawing in his gut he doesn’t buy a drink. He wakes up every day with a smile and throws the curtains open to let in the sun, to stare at the sea. Its endless churning means nothing to him now.

Josh starts to jog. He feels strong, alive. One morning he stops to chat to a lady straining with an English Bulldog that slobbers over his face when he bends to pet it. They walk for a while, Josh holding the dog with ease. Her name is Gladys. Soon they are meeting every day.

Later in the year they go and see a film together called Valley of Ashes. It’s about war, atrocities, despair, and pain. Josh is riveted. How he suffered, thinks Josh about the man in the film, the soldier, the hero, who at the end runs into the ocean, screaming, but free. Finally free.

A Beautiful Girl, Decomposing

Published by decomP, 2011

There were five of us left, Ron, Lillian, Nina, Gordon, and me.

Days after we secured the empty house, Ron called us over to a spy hole at the back. A girl’s head had been placed on the patio. She was beautiful, with silky hair the colour of embers, and her open eyes gazed at the house, at us. Nina suggested one of us go out the skylight, climb down and get the head, that it would be the respectful thing to do. Ron replied that anyone going on a suicide mission to save someone already dead was too stupid to survive for much longer. Everyone stayed quiet. Later we found Nina’s body in the bath. Her slashed wrist hung over the side. Gordon sobbed and begged us to say something, but instead we lit cigarettes and stared.

They attacked at night, shrieking and slapping the sides of the house, their feet like pounding rain. By candlelight, Lillian drew circles and squares on the kitchen floor until Ron asked if she was playing some kind of game. Lillian replied that she liked geometric shapes, and what did it matter to him what she was doing, because if she wanted to see some perfection in the world, even if it was just some shapes drawn on the floor then maybe people should stay out of her way and let her draw her damn shapes. Ron told her she was acting crazy. Lillian reared up and said, you want crazy, I’ll show you crazy, and stabbed her leg with the pencil. After that, we left her alone.

When we looked out of the spy hole, the girl’s face was swampy green, her flesh slipping from her skull, her open eyes staring right at us.

By the next week, we were out of food. Water came from the taps, but we worried about being poisoned. Gordon said he’d maybe be prepared to go on a mission, and then looked around, waiting for someone to say, don’t go, it’s too dangerous, but we stayed silent. We watched as he suited up. We followed him to the loft. His foot on the bottom rung of the skylight ladder, he turned to us and said, “Will you pray for me?” Lillian said she would. Ron smirked. Gordon smiled at Lillian and said thanks. Halfway up the ladder, his torso already outside, he stopped. We waited for him to come back down, to tell us one final, vital thing, but he changed his mind and scampered the rest of the way out.

In the back garden, the girl’s head was rotting, the skin grey and abscessed, as if her face were not made of real flesh but prosthetic rubber, like a mask.

A few days after Gordon left, Lillian went to the bedroom to pray. She prayed all through the next day. Ron shook her. He slapped her face. He told her to snap out of it.

Lillian started screaming. She clawed at Ron’s eyes.

They took their fight onto the landing. Ron tried to push her down the stairs, but lost his footing and tumbled backwards. We heard his neck snap. We heard his last low emptying breath.

Lillian carried on praying. She refused water. After forty-eight hours, she slipped into a coma.

I went to the spy hole and looked out.

Despite everything, the girl’s head was still there.

Brian’s Secret Vagina

Published by Space Squid, 2010

Brian found the tiny vagina in the morning, when he went to spray deodorant under his left arm and saw a slit of pink, an inch across, half-hidden by hair. He touched it and pulled his hand away. Brian wasn’t a vagina connoisseur – his experience amounted to his wife, Deirdre, still in bed, a couple of girlfriends in his early twenties, and some girl called Angie who let him ram his hand down her panties outside Holloway underground station when he was sixteen. However, not only did this feel like a vagina, it also felt like one too, as in, pretty damn good. He had another poke around. Yep, pretty damn good! In fact, the more examined it, the better it felt, until his cheeks flushed, his legs turned to rubber, and he had to stop. 

Well, what now? Go and show Deirdre? Go to the doctor? The hospital? Maybe he’d become a celebrity, famous for showing his armpit genitalia on national TV, stumbling out of clubs with a beautiful woman on each arm, except they’d have to be lesbians wouldn’t they? Maybe he’ll stumble out with a man on each arm. Shit. He didn’t want that. Brian dressed and ran to the spare room. The Internet! He was sure to find the answer there. He googled ‘armpit vagina’ and clicked on the first few links. Pornographic pop-ups filled the screen. He tried to shut them down, but more opened. His armpit tingled. He unbuttoned his shirt, reached inside, leant back in his chair—

“Brian!”

He clamped his arm and looked round.

Deirdre was at the door. “Are you watching porn? In the morning? While I’m in the next room?”

Brian smiled. A strange calm came over him. “Of course not, dear,” he said, scratching his armpit, just scratching away at an itchy armpit. “It’s this damn firewall software. Load of rubbish. I was just checking my email.”

“Oh…oh, right, sorry,” said Deirdre. She came over and kissed him on the head. “You want a cup of tea, love?”

“Sure,” said Brian. “A cup of tea would be great.” When she was gone he patted his armpit. He knew no one could ever find out about it, because if they found out they would try and take it away from him.

“It’s just me and you,” he whispered to his secret vagina. “Just me and you forever.”

Morning of the Friendly Dead

Published by Mad Swirl, 2012

That morning, I felt as miserable as a vampire with a toothache. Sure, no one forced me to watch an Evil Dead triple-header until four a.m., but equally the world had to be at fault for making me get out of bed, let alone go to work. I crawled into yesterday’s shirt and trousers, ate toast and stared vacantly at the grouting between the kitchen floor tiles. On my way out, I glanced in the mirror and shuddered. I looked like an extra from Day of the Undead Office Drone.

Late, I cut through the cemetery to get to the subway. It was already autumn, the air damp, the sky like old dishwater, and as I hurried between the graves I got a bit spooked out, imagining mouldy hands sprouting from the muddy ground and half-eaten vicars lurching from the rectory doors. I always liked to think, if I were ever to encounter such horror movie tropes, that I’d react calmly, as if I’d known it was only ever a matter of time before I took arms against the demon hoards of hell. However that theory was squelched like a little boy’s brain beneath a zombie Nazi’s jackboot when a melancholy voice went, “Hey… Mister.”

I squealed like a teenage fangirl and jumped two foot in the air.

The voice came again from behind a slouching gravestone greened with moss.

“Hey… hey… over here.”

Chatting to weirdoes loitering in graveyards did not fit in with my usual schedule of racing breathless into work, grabbing a coffee-like substance from the machine, and logging on seven minutes past nine, but maybe because of my late night Evil Dead-athon, or maybe because I just had an intuition that something odd was happening – his voice sounded so unlike your typical drunk – I found myself edging over and peering around the gravestone.

What I saw made me gag.

It was a corpse, as in a real corpse – the decomposing body of a dead man – half-climbed out of the soil.

The top of his head had sloughed to the side, and his straggly black hair covered one shoulder of his dirty suit. Beneath that – inside his rotted-out skull! – maggots writhed around a puttyish mush that I vaguely registered as his brain. When he looked at me and smiled, mouth open, a long slug slimed over his lip and started down his chin. It took the clenching of every muscle in my face and chest to not spray him with half-digested toast.

“Ahh… thank you,” he groaned. “I am just a bit stuck.”

“A bit stuck?”

“Yes. Would you… mind? A hand?”

“A hand?”

“Please?”

I knew at this point I should have sped to the nearest airport, booked a flight to the farthest country, and hid in a cave until the zombie apocalypse was over. At the very least I shouldn’t have helped this particular zombie, who no doubt, upon being helped, would feast on my brain. But the reality of the situation – his feeble attempts to wriggle out of the hole, the white worm curling questioningly from his eye as he said please, the very fact he was so polite! – implied anything but danger.

Grimacing, I reached down, and he took my hand. It felt like a raw chicken carcass. He asked me to pull, gently. The dirt fell away as he shimmied out of the hole.

Then he was standing beside me, brushing down his suit. As he lifted his hand, I flinched, thinking he was making a play for my brain, but he was just holding it out for me to shake.

So, we shook hands.

Meanwhile my head filled with deranged laughter.

“Thank you,” he said, and hobbled away.

I thought about going after him, but my feet wouldn’t move. I thought about screaming, but by the time I was able the feeling had passed. Some time later, I carried on walking, got onto the subway, and went to work. When I arrived at my desk, I apologised for being late and said something about delays – someone else commented about how the trains were getting worse, and everyone nodded. Then I stared at my monitor for eight hours and tried not to think.

Later on, after I got home, after I showered and ate some dinner, I went to my DVD collection. Usually I’d look for something good to pass the time, but the zombies and vampires, the demons and psychos, the mad scientists and giant monsters, they washed over me.

None of it felt real anymore.

The Office Door Fiasco

Published in the Nation Flash Fiction Jawbreakers anthology, 2011

Ed works in an office where everyone knows his face, but, he is sure, nobody knows his personality! He is certain his oddities, such as sharing a bed with an army of giant stuffed ants,  or his nightly snack of cold fish fingers dipped in strawberry yoghurt, would cause his colleagues to do that cocked-head, confused smile thing. In fact, if they could overhear his thoughts right now they may even do the wide-eyed, slow step back common to actors in slapstick comedy.

Ed is thinking: I’m sick of the ‘holding the door open for people’ politics in the office.

He hates the delay if the door is held open too far in advance, which makes people do this gimpy little trot to get there in time, as if he’ll let go and leave the door to slam in their face. The worst is when he does the trot, kind of sideways, elbows jutting out, like a line-dancing chicken. And then – then – when you get to the door, some people do this swivelling bow as you walk through, like they’re some kind of butler. And, to his dismay, Ed has found himself doing the same bow!

Well, no more.

He is no one’s butler.

If it is the last thing I do, thinks Ed, I resolve never again to partake in the office door fiasco.  And with that, he marches towards the kitchen to make a coffee, overjoyed to be finally free from such a ridiculous social ordeal.

The kitchen door swings open. Coming out is Sonya from accounts. Ed has always enjoyed a fine relationship with Sonya from accounts, fine meaning he likes how she signs her emails to him with a little smiley face.

Wait. What’s this? Why is she holding the door for him? He’s still thirty paces away!

If he ignores her, she’ll think him arrogant and never again sign an email with that little smiley face.

If he does the gimpy little trot then he will have recounted on his resolution, which he is loathed to consider.

Ed walks slower, taking shorter steps.

Sonya’s smile falters.

It comes to Ed in a flash. He digs his fingers into his ribs, winces, and staggers to the nearest chair. Frowning, he breathes in and out, then shakes his head, glancing up, preparing to smile and say what the hell was that, but Sonya is running to him, shouting, “Someone call an ambulance!”

Then Ed is surrounded. Gary from marketing forces him to the floor as Debbie from HR removes his tie, her long blond hair smothering his face. When Ed tries to stand, Gary pushes him down. Medics rush in, roll him onto a stretcher, attach an oxygen mask.

“Grab the door!” cries someone. Gary sprints to hold it open.

The medics lift the stretcher. They start to stroll.

Ed leans forward from the stretcher and looks at them in disbelief – why aren’t they hurrying? Can’t they see Gary’s holding open the door!

All the Animals, and Me

Published by Everyday Fiction, 2014

It started with the chicken. Soon after came the rabbit, the pig, the goat, another chicken, another pig, two baby lambs — whom I would rock to sleep after feeding, one cradled in the crook of each arm as though I were holding the twins — followed by another pig, a couple more rabbits, which soon became a family, and then, finally, a horse. All of us in the two-story terrace in Wood Green that had once been my family home.

I was happy for a while. Well, happy is probably too strong a word, but at least I was still alive, which felt like a win. I couldn’t help but smile at the chickens bobbing and pecking around the lounge, the pigs snuffling away in the fridge, the goat giving birth on my bed. Sure the house stank of manure and rotting hay, but I showered before going to work and vacuum sealed my suit as soon as I got home. And sure, I thought about Susan and the twins pretty much all the time, but at least by thinking about them they were in some way still alive. And sure, I wept through every night and started each day with a vodka martini — [_sans _]olives after one of the pigs worked out how to open the jar; surprisingly dextrous, trotters — but the animals made me smile through it all.

And isn’t that what life’s all about? Smiling through the pain?

Unfortunately, the good times couldn’t last. One blurry-eyed slip of a finger at work and I deleted the database for the PRT project. That wouldn’t have been too bad if I’d been doing my job properly and backing up said database at the end of each day. But I hadn’t and nearly two month’s work was gone. Along with the client. Along with my job.

The thing about animals is that they can sense your pain; they know when one of the herd is hurting. In their own way they tried to make me feel better: the chickens by pecking the sofa to pieces; the horse by whinnying and rubbing its big bony face on my shoulder; the rabbits by taking turns to mate with my shin. But nothing worked. I slipped deep into a funk and was in danger of drowning.

At that point, I thought things could get no worse.

I was wrong.

Animals need to eat. And when they don’t have any food… well, you can’t imagine the noise. My life became a waking hell of squeals and squawks. Neighbours complained. The police visited. I barricaded the front door. The animals devoured everything inside of the house — the carpets, the furniture, the television. I thought, this is it, Gary, your time is done. You have no family, no job, no possessions, just a house full of animals — and what good are animals? They’re no good, Gary. No good at all!

Soon enough autumn came to an end and winter pushed its chilly face into my smashed-up home. I felt saturated with despair. I considered ending it all, but it was so bloody cold in the house that there didn’t seem much point. I’d soon freeze to death.

Unable to take any more, I trooped up to my bedroom, where one of the lambs was lazily chewing the last of the underlay, its face fuzzy with fragments of felt. I shoved it out, lay on the bare floorboards, and waited to die.

The bedroom door crept open. I didn’t even have the energy to sit up. One by one, the animals entered the room and quietly surrounded me.

I presumed they had come to eat me, so closed my eyes and prayed for it to be over quick.

But instead, they began to lie down. One of the pig snuggled in front, pressing its broad warm back into my chest. The rabbits lay on my hands and ankles, the mother flopping like a stole over my neck. A chicken sat on my face, snuggling down, clucking softly, as though preparing to lay an egg. Even the horse clambered behind, placed a leg over my shoulder and huffed warm air onto the back of my head. I was suddenly warmer and cosier and more loved than I could ever recall.  And in that moment, I knew, for the first time in a long time, that I would be okay, that everything would be okay, that I would get up in the morning and stop hating myself. After all, if these animals could love me so much, I couldn’t be that bad.

Calculations

Published by Incubator Journal, 2015

I’m on toothbrush number thirteen, but only toothpaste number ten. I do the calculations, dividing days by number of brushes, allowing for an average squeeze size. Eventually I work out that for every ninety-two brushes I go through a new toothbrush, but only two-thirds of a tube of paste. That wastes ten minutes.

(…three minutes to brush his teeth by six years and two months and three days, which is two thousand, two hundred and fifty two days, twice per day, which is six thousand seven hundred and sixty two minutes brushing his teeth…)

I go downstairs, defrost some cheese and eat these weird freeze-dried crackers that taste of sweet powder. I have to open a new barrel of coffee, but that’s ok as I still have three left. Taking into account flat spoons of fake milk, cup size and average daily consumption, I work out that I have enough coffee for another two hundred and twenty eight days. That wastes another thirteen minutes.

(…five cups of coffee a day by six years and two months and three days, which is two thousand, two hundred and fifty two days, which is eleven thousand two hundred and sixty…)

On TV I watch this thing about surveys. Apparently eight out of ten cats prefer some food or other. I remember this statistic that there are eight hundred thousand cats in England. I don’t care, but I do the calculations anyway. I divide the number of meals per day, size of cat food tins, and work out that the country’s cats go through three point eight two tonnes of fucking cat food a day. Another twenty-two minutes gone.

(…three meals a day by six years and two months and three days, which is…)

I switch off the TV, pace the room. A man’s average stride length is two point five feet. The circumference of the world is twelve thousand seven hundred and forty two kilometres. I do the calculations and worked out that it would take sixteen million eight hundred and nineteen thousand, four hundred and forty strides to walk around the earth. (How many steps did he take into the road?). It would take over twelve and a half billion strides to get to the moon. Three hundred and fifty billion to get to the sun.

(…how many steps did he take…)

It takes five hundred and seventy two billion gallons of crude oil to produce tires for all the cars in the country. I just can’t help myself. Seven gallons per tyre. At fifty miles per hour your braking speed will be about 140 feet. How many steps did he take? A child’s reaction time is three hundred milliseconds in response to an approaching object. It always comes down to this. The human eye can see a hundred frames per second.

Once again, I do the calculations.

A Dream About My Wife

Published by Boston Lit, 2012

Last night I dreamt I left my wife. I went to London and hung around with old friends. I had an amazing time! We went out every night, to bars and gigs, to clubs. In a car full of girls, I said witty things. They found me erudite and mysterious. When I arrived back at my brother’s flat my wife was waiting with her suitcase. She told me she was getting the train and said it was my last chance to come. I said, fine! I said, go right ahead! I told her I’d already met another girl, and I had, a beautiful girl who, when she removed the bandages from her face revealed only a few issues, a scabby chin, her nose maybe too close to her mouth. But I thought I could get used to such things. So I said to my wife, go! Have fun! And when I woke up, I found her side of the bed empty. Although I knew she had just gone to work, I panicked. I called her and called her until she answered her phone. At the sound of her voice, I felt a sudden despair.

Celestial Fondue

New story

I was strolling along a riverbank lined with cafes when curls of smoke appeared above the setting sun. The air took on a pungent tang. A sturdy man in a green Alpine hat was by the water, gazing at the smoking sun with glee. I asked him if he knew what was happening.

‘This is cheese,’ he said in a Germanic accent. Closing his eyes, he languished over a breath. ‘This is the wonderful smell of melting cheese.’

‘What cheese?’ I replied. “Where?”

The man lifted a slim two-pronged fork that was, perhaps, a hundred million miles long.

‘It is a fondue,’ he said, jabbing his fork into the dusky blue sky, spearing the ghostly moon. ‘In Switzerland, we eat fondue all the time.’

The Swiss man manoeuvred the moon and dunked it into the sun. With a tug of the fork he pulled back the cheese-smothered sphere so its surface curved across the sky.

Gravity went berserk. People chased after their bags and coats. Water from the river rose as a shimmering sheet into the air. A droplet of yellow goo the size of a small town fell through the atmosphere, hit the ground, and shook the planet.

Arms wrapped around a lamppost, I shouted to the Swiss man, ‘Seems like more trouble than it’s worth!’

‘That is what everyone says when I make fondue!’ he cried. ‘But just wait until you taste it!’

Lilies

Published by Southern Fried Weirdness, 2008

It was a soft April night. The candle spluttered as a cool wind oozed through the open window. Barefoot on the chair stood Albert, a lonely man with thin hair, wearing a short-sleeved shirt. A noose hung around his neck. It was three minutes past nine.

“For my angel,” he said, “I’m coming to fly with you.”

With one final look at the snapped lilies sprinkled over the floor, he kicked the chair back with his heel. As everything faded he thought he saw a flock of bluebirds take off and fly out of the window. Then he was in the long white corridor. He asked Nurse Samuel, “Is it ok if Milly has tea and toast?”

When the light returned, Albert was still on the chair, the noose slack around his neck. ‘I’m dreaming,’ he thought, and then he looked at his watch. It was three minutes past nine. Outside it was still a hot dreary September night.

“I don’t understand,” he muttered. “Oh, what difference does it make?”

He kicked the back of the chair once more. The gentle breeze in the room died as the noose tightened and everything became hot and airless.

‘She was weeping again,’ thought Albert as he opened his eyes. “Nurse,” he said. “Do you think she’ll come out of it?”

And then he realised. Same noose. Same chair.

“Is this it?” he cried. “Are we having fun yet?”

He took the noose from his neck and swung it away. Outside it was still a chilly autumn evening. On a chest of drawers in the corner was a vase full of lilies, Milly’s favourites. He took them out, snapped them in two and scattered them over the floor.

“See that,” said Albert and climbed back on the chair. He slipped the noose around his neck, and then quickly stood down. He gathered the broken flowers up. “I’m sorry Milly,” he said. “I know how you loved lilies.” Placing them on the drawers beside the vase, he said, “It will do, it will do.”

It was three minutes past nine. Noose around his neck, he kicked the back of the chair. As the blackness folded over him he heard the pounding feet running down the long white corridor. He felt the hand on his shoulder. “Stay here,” said Nurse Samuel. “We’ll come and get you as soon as she’s okay.”

Albert remembered walking through a park. Milly’s peach pink lipstick. The bluebirds cascading behind her head as the winter evening settled in. A smell of smoke, and in the trees a yellowish fog. Her green Wellingtons boots. The way she took his hand in hers as she said yes.

Albert opened his eyes. Snakes of frost patterned the window, and he shivered. From his place on the chair he looked around the room, at the filthy, sheet-less bed, the piles of dirty clothes, his life tipped out all over the floor, and there in the corner, her vase, and the long slender lilies inside.

Seconds Away

Published by Word Riot, 2008

Look at him there. He shucks his shoulders and rolls his head as she slowly strides up to the aisle in time to her organ fanfare. They stand toe-to-toe at the alter.

Ding-ding. Round one

“Do you Lester Robert Bastard take this woman Jane Ann Pitiful to be your awfully wedded wife, to have and to hold-”

-In bigamy and poor-you, though his sick fantasies and your sagging breasts, ‘til cholesterol kills his heart.

“She always was the runt of the litter,” says Auntie Alice, leaning close. Her breath smells like dog food.

“That so, Auntie,” I reply. People, they just love digging the knife in. Makes them feel better about their own pain.

These poor lovebirds, they can’t wait to stand before the world and declare their eternal love, as if saying it in public will make it so. Surrounded by her bestest friends, whom, for some reason she has forced into sick-green satin dresses so they look more like mutant cucumbers than bridesmaids, the bride gives herself to him, the man of her dreams, who in twenty years time will give anything not to pump that same dry hole.

Bam!

You’re a bride for a day but a wife for the rest of your life.

Just for once I’d like to see some honesty in this world. Get off the ropes people!

Sir, repeat after me: “Look, I’ll do my best, but in a few years time, once I’m tired of your body, probably after we’ve had kids, I’m going to really struggle not to have an affair. I’m weak. I can’t help it. However, if you don’t moan too much I’ll stay fond of you. When I’m old, and my libido’s gone, I’ll even be grateful to have you.”

And she’ll reply: “Fine. I’ll devote myself to the children. When they’re gone, I’ll make the last twenty years of your life a misery.”

Bam! Bam!

“You’ll be glad to die in the end,” she says.

Vows exchanged, we move outside the church. The bride and groom stand in the sun and pose for the cameras. They capture the moment, the photo that will be her crucifix in years to come.

“How could you?” Jane will ask as she weeps over it. She’ll stare at her ghost of happiness past, draped in white, surrounded by her swamp green friends, and she’ll see her life as a small boat, forever tugging against the tide. And as the space between them grows wider than the gap between the detached houses of her suburban grave, as he uppercuts her with another lie, slams in that left hook of lost dreams, then one day she’ll sit down for lunch and wonder whether to have a soup, a sandwich, or suicide.

Even then there’ll be some bitch like Auntie Alice waiting to say, “Well I always saw it coming.”

So, what?

Give us happily ever after. Give us lust that lasts forever. Let us not stumble from crisis to crisis, waiting for that knockout blow.

More, give us more.

But really, there isn’t any more.

All we can do is collapse into an embrace, hold each other tight, and wait for the bell.

Second Coming

Published by Neon Magazine, 2007

Hyde Park is mined. There’s barbed wire on The Strand. Snipers line up on London Bridge and watch the Underground.

Through the miracle of modern genetics Christ the Redeemer is back on Earth to save us from ourselves. From the brown curly lock, locked around the Papal neck, we managed to grow Jesus in a tube. His beard and sandals are way out of date.

Down the escalator, London Bridge station, Jesus addresses the crowds – Christianity the underground movement, now in the Underground. No more temptations, girls in black leather, politicians flip-flopping with broken words. Begone foul heathens (yes you I mean), here’s some glue, a sticky Saviour, to bind our broken souls. He addresses the moon-men, the mad-men, the new-meek, the bowing, kow-towing, where once there were millions all over the land now there’s five hundred thousand. All armed to the teeth with middle-class values and Ford Mondeos, with cups and doilies and Moroccan rugs.

Over the Tannoy, Jesus calls out: “Life is an overhanging cloud. I am the rain that’s come.” He swigs from a bottle of fine red wine (a gift from the Smiths at the last dinner party). “I came in from the planting,” he says. “Now it’s time to reap.”

A new gospel fresh from the fancy glass cabinet where you keep your (unread) bible.

What did we want? A change from the usual bills, circulars, life as junk mail? Isn’t it enough being free to catch a train, sit your wife on your lap; be a bird to flutter in and out of the open window of life?

“I had a trial once,” says Jesus, jabbing his chest with his finger. “Now I’m in the driving seat.”

What we have is never enough. If it wasn’t this it would be something else, a new bomb, a death-law, a James Bond villain in power. We’re bound to destroy everything in the end.

We just can’t help ourselves.

“I rose once, now I’m back again!” cries Jesus, arms V-ed up, the original zombie, now twice-removed from his grave.

And his followers, the Christians, the original bearers of sin, they rise from their status of ‘deserted religion’, they come with their purpose once more; they lift their middle-class gardening weapons, their hoes and rakes and outmoded ethics, and they take to the streets to burn London down.

A Good Kicking is Hard to Find

Published by Flashquake, 2007

I like to say of myself that I am well educated both in terms of schooling and in terms of manners, and so it is always with amusement that I find myself hollering insults towards some shaven headed thug or other. A bully boy, that’s what my father would call him. With their knuckles dragged low, their mean expressions and chunky black boots.

Just like this one here.

Standing here, outside The Wayward Man pub, on this lovely cobbled street corner in Soho, I call out to the perm-haired, orange-tanned girl I can only assume is his good lady, “One, two, piss on your shoe, three-four shoot the whore!”

I’m not surprised he is annoyed. I would be too.

There is nothing harder for a man to admit to oneself than the fact that he is a coward. I’m in prime shape for a man of my age, with oarsman shoulders and rugby thighs, just over the thirty hill this March. I met Julienna, my wife, in St Tropez, on a boy’s bash following university. I always remembered her pretty smile, her white teeth gleaming at me, as we lay kissing on the sand.

On the off chance my bully boy is thinking about turning back around and leaving me be, on the off chance he’s thinking that violence is not the answer, I yell at his lady, “You have a weeping pile, halitosis and dandruff, an unfaithful husband and druggie kids!”

That should resolve the situation in my favour.

So here we were, my lovely Julianne and I, loitering outside The Wayward Man on a Sunday, enjoying the end of summer. Friends came and we ate a Sunday lunch. The afternoon blended into the evening. I’d drunk too many pints, probably, I never could take my ales, and as sunlight became streetlights we were joshing about outside, kissing and frolicking like any frisky young couple.

And then it happened. I remember the exact moment it did. The moment I opened my mouth and decided to ruin our lives.

The voice that called out was rough, common. “Go on son, get in there.”

Without looking up I replied, with simple charm, “Fuck off.”

And then Julianne was yanked away from me and I, for my utterance, was pushed hard in the chest. Two of them, prime bully boys, grasped my girl and stared me down.  One had a shaved head and big sovereign rings, and the other a blur of blue ink tattoos running up his arms.

Sovereign rings called me a queer boy and asked me if Julienne was actually a man. At first I froze, not able to breathe or even to make words in my mouth. Suddenly the streets seemed so quiet.

He said, “Not so fucking lippy now are you?”

Tattoos slapped Julianne round the cheek and said to me, “Come on, come get your little slut.” When I did nothing he slapped her harder. I remember the red mark on Julianne’s cheek. She started to cry and pleaded at me to make them stop.

Fortunately for me my instincts kicked in there and then. I wasn’t going to let them get the better of me! In an act of pure manliness that I will forever carry with me, to the grave and beyond, I sprung into action.

Holding my hands up, with my palms out, I backed away from them and pressed up against the wall.

That’s right, I backed away.

Sovereign ring drove a punch into her face, just below her right eye. I heard cracking.

I did want to protect her. I know I did.

He punched her again. Tattoos held her and chortled like we were all stood around sharing the funniest joke in the world. One final punch and then Tattoos threw her to the pavement. They sauntered away, laughing and backslapping.

Julianne was unconscious. I knelt down, wrung my hands, and shouted for help. Blood was streaming from her nose. Her mouth was open, her white teeth stained with crimson. Her jaw looked knocked out of place and she had a rude gash on her cheekbone. My manly tears spilled onto her face.

She never really woke up from her coma.

My bully boy’s only a metre in front on of me now and closing in fast. On the off chance he’s thinking of not giving me the damn good kicking I deserve, and they all do pause when they see my face, which I keep as hidden as I can with low pulled baseball cap for I am quite a sight these days, I tell him most sincerely, “You must thank your good lady slut for the ride last week.”

Long Tongue, Twisted

Published by Hiss Quarterly, 2006

After school, in the fields behind, they circle round him the same as everyday. The biggest boy, Richard Wilkes, pushes him on the shoulder. “Go on, say it.” The other boys, white shirts, grey shorts, skewed ties, crowd and jeer.

In his head he’s the sheriff in a dusty Western film, standing outside the OK Corral. Surrounded by bandits. He tenses his mouth, shakes his head.

Richard Wilkes grabs his tie and slaps him. “Say it.”

He holds back tears, pulls his tongue in, wishes it smaller. It’ll make no difference. “Pthether Thiper…,” he says.

Saliva sprays. The boys laugh.

“Retard!” They lift their shoulders, cripple their arms, thrust their tongues into their chins “Spazmaster!”

He hates his tongue, his long fat tongue that twists and turns round words. Eyes blurred, he turns to run, is pushed in the back and stumbles away.

Across the field, the long nettled grass scratching his legs. Breathless. Back home and knees high, feet slapping up the stairs to his room. His room with a sheriff’s hat hung on a nail on the wall. Lined across the windowsill are a plastic cactus, toy horses, cowboys with guns. There’s a sink and a mirror in the corner and he stands by it and pulls out his tongue. Looks at his tongue. It’s bigger than his nose, almost as big as the palm of his hand. He hates it. In his bottom drawer, under his clothes, is a pair of garden shears stolen from the shed. In one shaking hand he lifts the shears and watches the sharp edges in the mirror as he snip-snips, open and shut. With his left hand he’s holding the wetness of his big slug tongue. Saliva dribbles out the corner of his mouth.

Everyday, after school, he stands here holding the shears. Snipping the shears. Waiting for the day he’s strong enough to make himself right.

His tongue is too big. All of the badness is because his tongue is too big.

He brings the shears to his tongue, a fingernail length from the end, and closes it slowly until the cool metal is touching, trembling. He shuts his eyes. Takes a deep breath. Holds it. Holds his tongue between finger and thumb.

The old lawman, face lined and wise, puts a hand on his shoulders. “Be a man, son. Be a man.”

He tenses his hand.

“Be a man, son. Be a man.”

He snaps the shears shut. And for a second there’s nothing. No breath. No pain.

No sadness inside.

The pain floods over him. Knocks him to the floor. His mouth is filling, spilling, saliva and blood. A lump of flesh tight in one hand; the shears tight in his other hand. On the floor and his head’s jerking, his face aching and throbbing, and there’s a joy in his heart, a sickly sweet, terrible joy. And he’s not in his room but in the Old West, and he’s not holding a piece of his tongue and a pair of shears but a pair of pistols, and he’s standing over the body of Richard Wilkes and firing both barrels into his body but the sound isn’t gunfire it’s a roaring wave crashing through his head and rushing out of his mouth.

The Good Doctor

Published in the Children in Need anthology, 2006

It’s no fun being a doctor and hating people, but what am I going to do after working so hard? Give it up? How would I explain that to my mother!

“Why bubbeleh?” she’d ask. “Do you want to hurt me?”

And yet, you could say, and you’d be right to say it – it’s my life.

So what am I going to do?

Become a builder, that’s what. Not in real life, of course. I mean, c’mon, I must still owe thirty thousand in student fees. How much can a builder earn? How much does it pay to carry bricks?

Instead I’ve applied to go on a TV show called Career Swap. I’m a builder for a month, and some goon pretends he understands the human anatomy.

But what of the sick?!

Relax, this is television, none of it is real. I’m sure they’ll consult afterward with a genuine doctor. Honest. I’m sure. Yeah, I don’t really care.

#

My first day on set and I’m not expecting it to go well. All week I’ve fielded phone calls from nosy relatives saying the same thing: Jewish men aren’t handy. They can do open heart surgery, but can’t put up shelves.

Let’s think about that for a minute.

(The world is populated with idiots)

Okay, minute over.

So, first day, they hand me a trowel, or a diggle, or whatever and film me at the customer’s house. I’m doing a spot of plastering apparently. Uneven, lumpy plastering. At the bottom of the ladder, the builder’s ‘mate’ – a squat, red-faced lump – is scratching his scalp while looking bemused. That’s right, mate. Maybe tomorrow you can insert a stent into someone’s artery and I’ll stand there pulling faces.

Meanwhile I hear that my doctor-cum-builder-swap-buddy came on to a young lady with breast cancer this morning. Nice.

The month goes on and I am making great television. I’m just so bad as to defy belief. A blind chimp with paving slabs for hands would be a better builder than me. The early starts, working outside, I’m simply not designed for this! Bring back my warm office, my languid working day! Through the production grapevine I hear my opposite number is hardly stretching the borders of science. Apparently, he’s been bullying the other doctors and stealing their stethoscopes. The show’s going to be a hit, or so I’m told.

By the final day’s filming, I’ve given up. But the show must go on! There are gutters to be fixed! I refuse to go up the ladder, but my mate manfully steps in. Or up, I suppose.

Just hold the ladder, the director says. As long as we’ve got you in shot.

Now that’s something I can do. I can hold things all day if you ask nicely enough – and threaten to sue me if I don’t.

Except, I’m not really holding the ladder, more holding my hand to it. Nor am I watching what’s going on up the ladder, which is a shame, because if I had I would have seen my mate stretch too far. The ladder slips sideways. I look up to see him snatching for the gutter and missing. I try and grab the ladder, but it’s too late. On his way down he cracks the back of his head on a wall. He’s lying on the floor, his neck bent at a bad angle, gurgling, eyelids fluttering. On my knees, I probe the wound. He can’t breathe. He has a broken neck and the angle is stopping him from breathing. I scream, ‘Pen! Pen!’ A biro is pushed in my hand. I snap it, push the ink out. With the jagged end in my fist I stab the plastic into his trachea below the cricoid cartilage.

I’m still puffing into it when the ambulance arrives.

So, I’m back at the surgery, and I’m happy now, I guess. Well, not really. But I’m a star, and that helps. I get extra female attention, if you know what I mean. Sex, if you don’t. But, you know, in that moment… in that moment I wasn’t really there. It was incredible. So incredible that it got me thinking. Thinking maybe the problem isn’t with me being a doctor.

Maybe the problem is just with me.

Dairy Queen

New story

When my brother Roger won the lottery the first thing he did was buy a wig. It was of biblical proportions, a corn-yellow Moses mane flowing past his rounded shoulders and down his chubby back. He looked like a fat Hulk Hogan, without the moustache. When I suggested this, he said, “I take it you don’t want your handout,” and looked at me as though I were a disease. I told him I’ve got enough cash for chicken and rum, so he and his fortune could walk. And they did.

Some time later he met a girl, a real beauty with orange-flecked eyes and a brutish bod. She was the model for Dairy Queen. On their wedding day, Roger sang her a song he wrote filled with the soft lyrics and quaint solutions of a poor man’s mind. She gazed at him rapturously, but I saw through it.

I confronted her later, in the cloakroom. I rested my hand on her hip during the accusations. When I said I’d see her divorced for her future deceptions, she slid her French-manicured fingers onto my crotch and began to plea bargain. She looked like a real queen in her billowed white dress. I felt like a king.

Brain Parasite

Published by Dogplotz , 2012

Last week a parasite took residence in my brain. He apologised for being a slow starter in life, and told me one day he’d do someone proud, because his life was a joke and he was tired of dragging around baggage that kept falling open and spilling the gore of his past decisions over everything. “A real milestone,” he said. I considered stabbing myself in the temple. The parasite asked me if I ever wondered about metaphysics, or how gravity worked. He suggested I get the eczema on my elbow looked at. He told me to visit my grandmother more often. In the end, just to shut the damn thing up, I told him to go ahead and eat my fucking brain.

Contributions

Published by Write This, 2012

Morning light filtered through the filthy basement window, illuminating the vicar at his desk of stacked crates topped with a plank of wood.  By the fervent jerking of his elbow, by his raspy breaths and pained mumbles, I knew he was writing more bible stories. I tried to sleep again, to get back my dream of cramming juicy corn ears into my mouth before they morphed into crusty black buds, but it was gone. Not for the first time I regretted bringing him here – all the suffering I’d witnessed and the one person I rescued was an insane vicar. I found him a month ago, staggering among the smoke and cinders of a burning church, a long dirty cut stretching from his eye to his jaw. The years of church services, nightly prayers, my mother’s devoted worship, all bubbled to the surface. Say what you like about religion, but it’s durable. 

I got up from my blankets and went to piss in the sink.

The vicar looked around, startled. “You’re UP! You’re UP!” he cried. “Good, good, they’re NEARLY ready.”

I told him the only thing ready was me – for more sleep.

“YOU!” he cried, pointing his pencil stump, his eyes unfocused. “You contribute NOTHING!”

To that I replied he could be a bit more pleasant, especially as he expected me to risk my neck handing out his crappy stories when I should be concentrating on finding food.

“Crappy? CRAPPY? You need to learn some RESPECT, young man. Some RESPECT for The LORD!”

To that I said maybe I’d have more respect for The Lord if The Lord could see it within his oh so mighty powers to perhaps call time on this apocalypse and return some peace on earth. Because isn’t that what He says, peace on earth and goodwill towards all men?

“We are stained with the blood of the Son,” mumbled the vicar, wiping a shaking hand over his saliva-crusted beard. He turned back to his page.

Mostly to myself, I replied, “Not surprising, what with all the people being ripped open.”

“What was that?”

“Nothing.”

I couldn’t get back to sleep. Besides, we needed food. I found some blackberries and a rabbit a few days ago, and we’d finished crunching the bones last night. While dressing in my battle suit, a knocked-up armour of saucepans and string, and sharpening my hunting knife on a concrete ledge, I tried not to think about the next few hours. The screams and madness and blood.

Before I left, the vicar shoved his stories into my hand. “I’ve told them,” he hissed. “They will KNOW how our lips are shaped for SIN. They will KNOW the dance of GREED, how it advances, retreats, drawing us to our KNEES!”

I rubbed my eyes and asked if he had something a bit more upbeat, perhaps about virtue, love, or kindness. The vicar grinned, his head quivering. I shoved his stories in my rucksack.

The day was brutal. A middle-aged woman outside a burnt out Toyota dealership tried to sell me the dead boy in her arms – by his pale complexion, I surmised it wasn’t her son. I didn’t know if this was better or worse. Later I fought a man with blackened skin for a bag of flour. After I pried it from his fingers, the fire went from his eyes, and when I tried to remove my knee from his neck he pulled it back down, willing me to kill him. I refused.

In the afternoon, I swapped the flour for a bag of mouldy apples with an old woman in a dark alley. She went to stab me in the back, but on instinct I spun around and put my hunting knife through her right eye. She shuddered and her legs gave way. When I lowered the knife she slid off and crumpled to the filthy floor.

By the time I got home, darkness was falling. I remembered the vicar’s stories and took them from the rucksack. They were illegible anyway, scrawled and dirty, on pieces of scrap. I threw them away then crept down to our basement. The vicar was kneeling in the centre of the room, the last light of day shining on him through the window’s dirt.

“Did they read the stories?” he asked.

I dropped the bag of apples and then collapsed in the corner, tiredly tugging off my battle suit. My head was bursting with horror.

“Did they feel the LORD inside them?”

I shut my eyes and tried to clear my head. I tried to concentrate on just breathing.

The vicar cried, “Did you SHARE the WISDOM of the LORD?”

Some time later, I might have slept.

Deeelish!

Published by The Journal of Micro Literature, 2010

It’s not the word itself. How could it be? It’s not a rude word, or a derogatory word. It does not insult his manhood, his place in the world, his abilities. In fact, the word has nothing to do with him and everything to do with her. It’s a foible. An idiosyncrasy.

And if Paul hears it again he’s going to tear his own ears off.

The word in question is this: Delish.

Or, as Nikki says it, “Deeee-lish.”

She says it all the time – over delicate restaurant cuisine, chowing down a street-side hotdog, even, on one occasion, after sex, which made Paul stiffen in such a way that Nikki grabbed his shoulders and asked in a small, terrified voice, “Are you having a heart attack?”

Why is Paul so bothered by this word? He cannot say. He’s tried to analyze it – perhaps he subconsciously hates his wife? After all, they’ve been married five years already. But most of the time her presence brings warmth to his heart and a smile to his face. Maybe he’s a real linguistic stickler? Maybe it’s the brutalization of the word ‘delicious’ that causes his fingers to curl, his jaw to crunch, the dark images to flood his mind? But didn’t Janice at the office pull him up only this week for his entry in Brian’s ‘Get Well Soon’ card? Wasn’t it he, Paul, who had written, ‘See you in two week’s time’, when of course he should have written weeks’? Did that slip of the pen bother Paul? Did he care about such a grievous apostrophal error? No, he could not have given flying finger puppet for his mistake.

Still, whatever the reason, Paul has had enough. She must be told. And so he resolves to mention to Nikki the root of his ire the next time she says it, which fortunately, he knows, will be this evening, because they are going for dinner at Zelda’s, a place where her repeated ‘Deeee-lish’es make him want to reach for one of the green peppercorn salamis hanging from the wall and bludgeon her to death.

Zelda’s is a rustic Italian place designed to look and feel like a Tuscan village, complete with straw covering the flagstoned floor and earthenware jugs leaning from every alcove. Paul and Nikki order a bottle of Chianti and a selection of antipasti, which they eat in surprising silence, surprising because they usually chit-chat with ease. But tonight Paul is finding it hard to chit-chat. He is finding it hard to do anything but watch his wife’s mouth and wait for the word he both longs for and dreads to hear. When their pizzas come, Nikki asks Paul if he is feeling okay. Paul replies with a tight, “Fine”. Nikki shrugs, demolishes her ham and mushroom, slumps back in her chair, exhales an extravagant sigh, touches her napkin to her lips, and says…

‘That was deeee…’

(Paul grips the sides of the chair, throat tight, breath held)

…vine.’

Divine? Divine? Ha! He could live with that! Maybe the ‘Deeee-lish’ phase is over? Yes, she is still extending the deeee, but least when she said it he didn’t feel the need to exact some terrible cruelty. Paul relaxes and starts to laugh. They order coffee. He takes Nikki’s hand and tells her funny stories from work until the coffee comes. By the side of each cup is a small, dark chocolate.

“You know, Nikki,” says Paul. “I love you. I don’t tell you often enough.”

“I love you too,” says Nikki, and then pops the chocolate in her mouth. She closes her eyes, falls back, and lets out a tiny, orgasmic moan. “Mmmm…that chocolate is just so deeee-lish”

Deeee-lish?

Deeee-lish!

Paul’s right eye twitches. He throws a hand over his mouth. He exhorts himself to stay calm, stay calm, stay calm, stay– “That’s it! I can’t take it any more. The word’s delicious, okay? Delicious. Not delish. Not deeee-lish. Have you got that?”

Nikki looks at Paul, then over his shoulder, as if searching for a hidden camera. Then, gently, she asks, “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Paul falls back in his chair. He’d done it. Thank god he’d done it. It was out in the open now. No more deeee-lish. He felt ten stone lighter, ten years younger. “I’m sorry darling, I really am, but I had to say it. Please tell me you understand.”

Nikki pauses. She smiles sweetly. “Well Paul, seeing as we’re discussing pet peeves, I guess it’s only fair for me to mention one or two of mine. Is that okay? I’ve kept some notes of them over the years. Is it okay if we go through them?”

“Anything darling! Anything you want.”

Nikki takes from her handbag a dog-eared and bursting A4 notepad held closed with an industrial elastic band. Paul’s eyes widen. She removes the band and creaks open the notepad. She looks up and smiles again, and then clears her throat.

“Room number one, the bathroom. Item number one, towels: From now on can you fold your towels neatly after use and place them on the radiator. Do not sling your towel over the nearest door. Also, can you dry yourself on the bathroom mat and not tread wet footprints through the house…”

Paul sinks down in his seat.

“…Put the top back on the toothpaste when you’ve finished. And maybe you could wipe the crusted toothpaste off the rim…”

He covers his face with his hands…

“…And would it hurt you to clean the toilet after you’ve used it? It’s not me who wees on the rim, is it?”

This was going to be a loooooooooong night…

The Great Laundry Mystery

Published by Pygmy Giant, 2011

I noticed the laundry hanging from my washing line one Friday morning as I took my usual stroll around the grounds. Immediately, I was on my guard, for my cleaning lady did laundry on Tuesdays. Besides, this was not my smattering of jumpers and slacks, but rather a whole family’s attire: jeans and t-shirts, dresses and bras, underwear and socks. A closer examination revealed them worn out, and I imagined a dishevelled, rag-tag bunch. The cleaning lady knew nothing. In the end, I left them there – I didn’t want any trouble – and the following morning, they were gone.

The next Monday I found the washing line filled with the same clothes. I considered removing them, perhaps with a stern note attached to the man’s shirt, but when I questioned my annoyance I found it insubstantial. Yes they were trespassing, but without harm, and as long as their clothes were gone come morning so my own could be hung out, then why should I complain?

This pattern continued for months. I formed quite an attachment to the family hanging their clothes on my line. I imagined them as gypsy folk, huddled around a fire, singing old songs, telling ghost stories. The father, a big man with a penchant for sweating, I called Earnest; the mother was slight and liked to make her own long fleece skirts, and I impressed her with a Celtic name, Rhonwen; the children comprised a boy and girl, aged maybe ten and six respectively, who I called Oeife and Brian. I would examine their clothes and say, young Brian, playing in the mud again, or dear Rhonwen, what a way she has with embroidery!

Soon it struck me that I wanted to put faces to the names. I devised a plan to wait up for them one night, hiding in a back bedroom until they arrived. Perhaps I would go down and meet them. Perhaps Earnest and young Brian – for I was sure it was them sneaking into my grounds – would invite me to sit with them around the fire. I could almost feel the warmth of the flames, almost hear Rhonwen’s Irish lilt as she sang some wonderful old ballad. We would say goodnight to the children, then Earnest and I would settle down with a bottle of homemade whisky and talk about the world, the fracturing of decent society, and the way it makes people so isolated.

I waited until a fresh batch of laundry arrived on my line, and that evening set up camp by the bedroom window, buzzing with excitement, unable to concentrate on the book in my hand or the music on the radio. The hours ticked away, and still the washing hung on the line. My thermos of coffee ran dry. By morning, they had not come.

This turn of events left me bemused, for not once had they failed to remove their clothes. I returned to the bedroom and waited for the whole day.

As dusk spread violet and blue across the sky, I struggled to keep my eyes ajar. I made more coffee. I blared Tchaikovsky’s No.4 through the speakers. But it was to no avail, and come three a.m. I slipped to the side and fell asleep, my face pressed to the cold glass.

I woke with a start at dawn. My eyes searched the lawn, the washing line.

The clothes were gone.

I ran downstairs, outside, and scanned the grounds. It was useless. They were nowhere to be seen.

That was over a week ago now, and they have not yet been back, but I know they will. Little Brian is too fond of the rough and tumble, and dear, sweet Oeife is quite the keen painter, a real talent I’m sure, but her pretty tunics are forever stained. Earnest only has one decent shirt, and that’s always in need of a good wash. Rhonwen, the mother that she is, would never see her family without clean, dry clothes. So as another night falls, I prepare a thermos, and take my place by the window.

Donald, My Favourite Onion Plant

Published by American Drivel Review, 2010

Onions are friendly plants. They have to be. I mean, how many people love their onion plant? How many say it’s their favourite? They all prefer cheese shrubs laden with Brie leaves, or pretzel plants and their salty flowers. 

Not me. I love Donald, my onion plant.

Which is why come the morning of the Breakfast for the Dead – an annual feast for our dearly departed – I head to the kitchen having not slept a second, dreading what has to be done. All my food plants are lined on the work surface, straining towards the sunshine filtering through the clouds. The organic plants, tomato, mushroom, and of course dear Donald, are most aware of what’s happening and so carry themselves with sombre dignity, while some of the others – the pork chop plant, the little sausage tree – are less comfortable, bringing their meaty goodness close to their stalks, protecting them with their leaves. When I call a cheery hello, the fried egg fern freaks out, slapping its greasy white fronds together until its yolks explode and splatter the window with yellow goo.

Sighing, I take Donald in my arms. He curls into my chest, sending a creeper into my dressing gown pocket, finding the Ferto-Yum I put there for him, his trust in me so comforting it’s all I can do not to weep on his scaly brown heads.

“I’ll miss you, old pal,” I say, stroking his leaves. It’s not that I begrudge my deceased relatives their Breakfast for the Dead, but what is galling is how we have to give them all the food in the house before they dematerialise back to the afterlife. Aside from sacrificing my friends, some of the meat plants take months to regenerate – it’ll be next year before I have a fresh crop of bacon!

As usual, the guests will be my parents, killed when a mutant sheep the size of a lorry trampled them on a country lane, and my Auntie Fawcett – inventor, explorer, and winner of the Hardest-Working Woman in the World award. She died during her attempt to prove femininity as the strongest known force in the universe by climbing Everest alone. Unfortunately, she slipped off a ledge and fell five hundred feet. Guess gravity won that one, eh Auntie?

Feeling desperately sad, I start with the meat, plucking off chicken legs and pork chops, the plants shrivelling to the size of a peanut once relieved of their food. Next, the egg plants – both fried and hard boiled. By the time I get to the toast tree, I’m in tears. Soon, all that’s left is Donald.

One by one, while stroking his leaves and hushing him, I remove his bulbs. He knows what’s coming and wraps his shivering creepers around my chest.

At the last bulb, I hesitate.

The doorbell chimes, and from the other side comes the hungry moans of the dead. Donald fastens tighter to me. In my head, I hear Auntie Fawcett saying to my mother, I’m not surprised, you know. Thinks life is one lark after another, this one. Couldn’t even kill an onion plant!

Outside, they start to clamour.

I can’t do it.

I shove Donald into a cupboard under the stairs and then open the door.

“What took you so long!” cries Mum, placing a maggoty kiss on my cheek. “We’re famished!”

“Say hello to your Auntie, dear.”

“Good to see you, son,” says Dad and goes to give me a hug, but then remembers the sheep ate his arms. Same every year.

When everyone has settled around the table, I cook the breakfast. As always, the occasion is joyous…until the food runs low.

I think of Donald, cowering in the cupboard. What am I going to do when everything is finished and they don’t dematerialise?

“Lovely, son,” says Dad, his face smeared with grease. He dips his head to the plate and comes up holding a sausage in his mouth like a cigar. “I’m proud of you. Keep it coming.”

“More mushrooms, please!” Mum sings. When I say there are none, her rotting lips form a girly pout.

Soon we’re down to a limp piece of toast and a grilled tomato.

What difference would an extra onion make? If only they how I felt about Donald, the comfort and joy he brings to my life.

“You never make enough,” says Mum.

“I’m not surprised, you know,” says Auntie Fawcett. “Thinks life is one lark after another, this one. Couldn’t even provide a proper Breakfast for the Dead!”

“You’re a disappointment, son,” says Dad, waggling his shoulder at me before bowing to snap up the last tomato.

When the food has gone, they all sit back and wait to dematerialise.

Nothing happens.

“You little sneak!” Auntie Fawcett cries. “You’re holding out on us.”

Mum starts to bawl, maggots flowing from her eyes, while Auntie Fawcett checks the cupboards, clicking African curses with her tongue.

“Oh, I am sorry,” I say, standing. “I forgot. There’s a nice cherry pie tree upstairs. I’ll just get it.”

I slip out of the kitchen and grab Donald from the cupboard. He strokes my cheek with his creepers and makes wafting sounds with his leaves. What is it about being dead that makes people so ungrateful? Well, I’m not murdering my best friend for them!

Quietly opening the front door, I whisper, “It’s just you and me now, pal,” and then take off down the street, sprinting, with Donald, my favourite onion plant, clinging to my neck.

Frances, Harry, Language, Love

Published by Red Fez, 2011

Although Harry had been married to Francis for less than a year, he worried about their relationship. He still enjoyed Francis’s company, their Sunday strolls in the nearby woods, her funny quips through the bad movies they both liked; he still caught her wistful face in profile and thought her as pretty and intriguing as a Hopper heroine. Yet, these days, they seemed to have so little to say. Gone were their long phone chats from work, their tipsy prattles over pints in the pub, their deep and precious heart-to-hearts at four a.m. when one woke the other because they could not sleep. Now, if Harry was restless he crept to the spare bedroom, and their daily chat – a bite-sized yak at lunch, usually to agree what telly to watch that night – lacked emotion. 

When they said I love you at the end of a call, it sounded like just another way of saying goodbye.

Things had to change.

So, Harry scoured the Internet for topics to discuss. He prepared notes on the political upheavals in West Africa, the continuing nuclear fallout in Japan, as well as more esoteric subjects, such as the ethical implications of the leather trade, the media’s representation of climate change, and the deterioration of fair play in sports. On the train, he studied the topics, planning thrusts and counters to his arguments, picturing the two of them caught in a whirl of words, each banging their hand on the table and talking ever louder to get their point across, their views as sharp and satirical as a column in Private Eye.

When Harry arrived home, Francis was in the bath. He hung his coat and hurried upstairs. Sitting on the toilet lid, he asked his startled, foam-covered wife what she thought about the noise pollution caused by church bells.

“Not much,” replied Francis. “We don’t live near any churches. Why do you want to know?”

Harry tried to think of an answer, but nothing came. His brain was blank. He pictured the train home, the notes he had studied, but in his mind the lines were illegible, the words meaningless.

“Satellites!” cried Harry.

“Satellites?” asked Francis.

“Do they contribute to global warming?”

Francis seemed to ponder this. “I don’t know. Do they?”

Harry shook his head. “I don’t know.”

“Oh… and did you think I would?”

“No.”

“So why are you asking me?”

“I don’t know!”

Francis slid down the bath, submerging her face. When she came back up, she pushed her hands through her long, wet hair and smiled seductively. “Any more daft questions?”

Forlorn, Harry shrugged.

Francis reached forward and snatched his tie. “I think you just need to relax,” she said, drawing his face close.

“Farm animals are forced to eat the ground up bones of their friends!”

“Shhhh,” said Francis, kissing him. “Let’s talk later.”

My Brother, My Kidney

Published by nthposition, 2010

I hate Brian. I hate his comfortable gut and his unblemished skin. I hate his neo-classical mansion in Chiswick. I hate how he rolls his eyes when I speak. I hate his jokes to mum about the milkman, said in front of the whole family, as if one day he expects her to say, yes, your brother is a bastard, and then they can all finally understand why I am how I am. He even has more hair than me. So when, during the once-in-a-millennium occasion of him buying me dinner, he asks for my kidney, you can guess my response.

“My kidneys may be damaged,” I say, and take a slow draw on my pint.

Brian pushes his curry away. He must be sick. “My kidneys are damaged.”

“Why don’t you buy one?”

His eyes narrow, as if he’s caught me out. “Okay. Name your price.”

I take a forkful of madras and chew until I don’t even need to swallow.  “It’s not about money. Everything my body’s been through, I don’t know if it’ll take major surgery. I need all the kidneys I can get.”

“Please, brother,” says Brian, his fat face creasing up. “I need you.”

Next day, Mum says there’s nothing to discuss – if Brian needs my kidney then he can have my kidney. When I try to correct her, she reminds me how in kindergarten Brian stopped three kids bullying me in the sandpit. “Remember how he shielded you,” she says. “He used his body to protect you.”

On the other side of the kidney fence is Melissa, who only ever has swear words for Brian. She’s a husky blond who my family hate, mainly because of her previous addiction to crack, although those days are long gone. “Would that cunt give you his kidney?” she says. “I’ll tell you the answer. No, he wouldn’t.”

Mum wins the first battle, and I agree to go to the hospital to check if I’m a donor match. Brian’s hair has thinned, and his tailored suit is as loose as if he chose it off the rack. When I suggest the family resemblance between us is remarkable he forces a laugh, which I like, because we all laugh at the jokes of someone in a superior position. The doctor says we’re a six-for-six match and asks about scheduling the operation. When I say I’m still unsure, Brian gasps. The doctor agrees it’s a huge thing to do. Next morning Brian calls and suggests I think it over at his villa in Lake Como.

I tell him that’s very kind, but we don’t have the money for the flights.

“We?” asks Brian.

“Well, I can hardly go on holiday without Melissa.”

“Don’t worry,” he says. “All expenses.”

But despite a glorious few weeks frolicking around the pool with Melissa, I can’t relax. I try to picture Brian’s [_oh well _]expression before I was sentenced to six months for the car misunderstanding, or his [_no surprises there _]smirk the last time I went into rehab, but neither makes me feel as uncaring about Brian dying as I hoped. And when he flies out for a few days, when I see how skeletal he looks, like some movie zombie taking a break from set, I know what I have to do.

“This would even be a blessing for you,” says Brian, huddled under the sun umbrella, a blanket around his shoulders despite the tropical heat. “I mean, you’ve had no luck stopping with the drugs yourself. So perhaps this is just what you need?”

Unbelievable.

I get up, go through to the kitchen, and mix a large Bloody Mary. When I get back, Brian nervously eyes my drink.

“I thought you had something to tell me,” he says.

“I did. Cheers!”

Mum calls the day before Brian goes into hospital to start dialysis. Between desperate moans, she says, “Would you give your kidney if it was for me?”

“Definitely,” I reply. It seems the easiest thing to say.

“So why not for your brother?”

“They’ll find a donor and then he won’t feel beholden to me. You know how much Brian hates being beholden to people.”

“Please,” she says. “I don’t want to lose both sons.”

I relate this to Melissa.

“Motherfucker’s brainwashed the bitch,” she says.

Despite Melissa’s support, I can’t sleep. I keep picturing Brian at the villa, his grey face and jutting bones. Would he give his kidney to me? Probably. If only so he could remind me of the sacrifice at every opportunity. For days I go over the arguments, but always end at the same point – in their own way my family have stuck by me, and despite how annoying Brian is, it’s time to return the favour.

Brian has checked into a classy private hospital in Hammersmith. When I enter his room, he drags himself upright. He looks worse than me after a week-long binge.

“Well?” he groans, somewhat expectantly. “What have you decided?”

I smile. “What kind of brother do you think I am?”

Brian closes his eyes and grins. He presses a button on the side of the bed and summons a doctor through a little speaker.

And that’s it.

Just that.

I can’t believe it.

“So,” I say, “what [_is _]the going rate for a kidney?”

Brian laughs. “Good one,” he says.

I tell him I’m not joking.

Brian gives me a disbelieving shake of the head, as if, after all these years, he still can’t believe he’s related to such a cunt.

But the fact is, he never even said thank you.

End Of? An interview with Harold Salt

Published by Everyday Fiction, 2008

End Of? An interview with Harold Salt By Annealing Wright

Ever since the VGRP (Valter Gene Resurrection Program) came into existence we, the people, have become a nation obsessed. For those few who do not know, the VGRP works by extracting cells from the brain within a few minutes of death. These cells are sent to the labs where the whitecoat bods do their genetic thing. Once the cells are ‘ready’ (whatever that highly secretive process entails) they are linked into a VGRU (Valter Gene Resurrection Unit), an imposing black box the size of a filing cabinet, from which comes the voice of the recently deceased, speaking from beyond the grave. At first it was thought that this miracle of modern mankind would remove the mystery from death, but that is far from the case. We are now more curious than ever.

And this is because every afterlife story is different; no two experiences are alike. We all know the account of Tommy Liddle, the serial killer, who says death is like an oiled path that he has to run along — he is always falling over painfully. I’m sure the families of his victims are happy to know he is suffering. We also all, I’m sure, know about the Rev. Jessie Noyan, who did so much for the starving children of Africa. He claims to experience every moment of death as if he is a bright flash of sunlight.

But what of the ordinary man? The restrictive cost of the VGRP means the treatment has never been applied to an everyday person, someone like you and me. That is until now.

Harold Salt lived an uneventful life. For thirty years he worked as a milkman in the Yorkshire town of Bingley. In 1972 he married Nettie, and they were together for over fifty years before his death. He fathered two children — Alice and John.

According to his friends and family, he was a man of simple pleasures and few vices.

This is his first newspaper interview since completing the Program.

AW: So Harold, welcome back. How are you feeling?

HS: Okay, I guess. Bit strange this, though. Like I’ve got a spring in my head.

AW: Do you still have a head then? A physical body?

HS: Aye, I do. I think.

AW: So, what is death like for you?

HS: In a word, boring.

AW: Boring? No one else who has been through the Valter Gene ResurrectionProgram has said that death is boring. Please, tell us about it.

HS: What’s to tell? I’m here with all the other dead lot. It’s like the city of the dead. It’s a pretty dull place, could do with a bit of life.

AW: How is it dull? Can you elaborate, please?

HS: Dull, you know, boring. I can go to the pub, drink two, four, or four thousand pints, but it does nothing. They taste of nothing. Same with a cup of tea — it’s like drinking water, but without the flavour. Pies and all. I can get pies everywhere, but they taste of nothing in my mouth. Same for everyone.

AW: So you are with other people, then. Until now everyone has claimed their afterlife experience to be solitary and unique.

HS: Poppycock. Everyone’s down here and there’s nowt to do.

AW: But we’ve spoken to others. We’ve spoken to Tommy Liddle, the Rev —

HS: They must be lying then.

AW: So what you’re saying is that everyone’s experience of death is the same, and it amounts to a very dull version of life.

HS: That’s right. That’s exactly right.

AW: But I’ve read the transcript of every person who has been through the Program. No one else describes it as you do. Are you saying that they are all lying? What would they achieve by that?

HS: People are always saying, “I did this” and “I did that” to make themselves sound more interesting.

AW: Well, maybe they are interesting.

HS: Rubbish. We’re all the same, aren’t we? We all get up in the morning, we eat, we go to the loo, we go to work, then we go to bed. End of.

AW: Did you never think of doing something exciting? Going skydiving? Or flying an aeroplane?

HS: I never went in for any of that nonsense. Waste of time.

AW: How about this, Harold. What was the most exciting moment of your life?

HS: That’s quite a question. I’ll have to think on that one.

(pause)

AW: Take as long as you want.

HS: I’m thinking.

(pause)

AW: How about getting married? Or when your children were born?

HS: They were good days.

AW: Is that it? Just good days?

HS: Okay, they were great days. I don’t see what you’re getting at.

AW: Tell me about a typical day in your life. What did you look forward to most of all?

HS: Look, I don’t get what you’re saying. My day was a typical day. My life was a typical life. I had no hidden lives. I got up, did my job, came home. End of.

AW: Do you not think how you lived your life may have something to do with how you are experiencing death?

HS: But everyone’s here. We’re all experiencing the same! 

(the connection becomes fuzzy)

AW: I think I’m losing you, Harold. One last question — what do miss most about life? Your wife? Your children?

HS: They’ll all be here soon enough. You live. You die. End o–

***

Annealing Wright left The Daily News after filing this article. The last we at the paper heard from her was after she finished a successful climb of Mount Kilimanjaro. She was preparing to embark on a solo mission down the Amazon.

Secret Agent Fountain Pen

Published by Metazen, 2012

My father once had a fountain pen called a Quink. I’d stolen it from his desk and was using it for homework when it began writing of its own accord. It claimed to be a spy sent back in time to stop the Jemima Pedalo episode. She was a girl in my class I had a crush on, although I’d told no one. Not that I had many people to tell, back then.

Maybe I’ve said too much, wrote the pen.

“Or not enough,” I replied.

Can you be trusted?

“Sure.”

Using my hand, the pen scribbled out two pages explaining how rogue CIA operatives re-animated the corpse of Marilyn Monroe, shaved off her hair, and pelted her with salmon while screaming, ‘Die whore! Die!’

When it finished, I asked what that had to do with Jemima Pedalo.

The fountain pen replied that I was a bloody idiot. It sounded so much like my father that I threw it out of the window, hoping it would land in his beloved koi pond. He always loved those damn fish so much more than me.

But as it turned end over end in the autumn evening, a parachute popped from its nib. I watched the wind lift the fountain pen high into the air and carry it far away, until it became nothing more than the faintest of dots amid the white banks of clouds that seemed to go on and on forever.

Mirror

New Story

I don’t think she can be English. Her skin is too tanned, her eyes too black. There’s a Mediterranean air about her, in the way she moves, sensuous somehow, even though she’s only changing the toilet rolls, or filling the dispensers with pink liquid soap. Every day I wait for her, stand behind her, letting her perfume fill me, something like apples or pears, and under that a deeper musk, her animal scent. Sometimes she turns suddenly, looks to the air where I am, and I think she sees me, sees something, perhaps feels the charge of my particles as they interact with her own. But her face shows only the tense expression of someone who thinks they are being watched. I know she’ll see me, one day, and when does she’ll smile. I’ll be beside her. We’ll be together.

The toilets are down a narrow stairwell beside King’s Cross Station. She starts at six o’clock, before the commuter rush. Today, as always, I’m waiting for her when she comes in, her plimsolled feet padding on the tiles, her silky black hair smoothed into a loose ponytail so that some strands hang down each side of her face. She starts at the sinks, wiping the taps and the bowls with a yellow cloth. I stand beside her, lean into her. I can feel her energy, the force of her being, her gravity drawing me close.

She stands upright and looks to where I am, her face confused. Then she turns to the mirror and there we are, standing beside each other. Slowly, she takes off a blue rubber glove and pushes a stray strand of hair behind her ear.

She smiles.

There, in the mirror, we could be a couple, lovers, side by side, seeing how we look together, how we match each other, trying to view ourselves as others would view us, so that they would say, don’t they look good together. Aren’t they just a perfect match. And in that moment I want to say something to her, to let her know I’m there. I want to put my arm around her shoulder, bring her in to me, say to her, you’re too beautiful to be cleaning toilets in King’s Cross. You should be a model. You should be dressed in cool designer clothes with big Italian sunglasses and lounging on the deck of a yacht. You should be with someone rich and handsome who’ll take care of you. You shouldn’t be here, in drab overalls, wiping away dirt.

In the mirror, she frowns. She puts on her gloves again and carries on cleaning.

I step back.

Waiting for Nothing

Shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, 2015

The sky outside of the airplane window is jaundice yellow, coward yellow, the yellow of dying skin. Beside him is a stranger instead of her, some man he doesn’t want to know, digging in the crinkling bag of complimentary pretzels as though they hold the secret to happiness, or maybe eternal life.

Like anyone would want this to go forever…

What else could he have done? Share cheese and wine on her narrow, mechanical bed? Stare forever at the things she had touched – pencils, cutlery, her soiled underwear in the laundry basket? Was he to fish her rotting tissues from the bin and clutch them to his chest, search the dark secrets of their home for scraps of memories he would rather forget, wait for the astringent, skeletal end to wallow in tears and guilt at some empty ceremony?

It’s hard to realise you are not the man you wanted to be, noble, principled, facing every circumstance as though it were a choice you have made.

“Promise me,” she’d said. “Promise me, when all of this is over…”

“I promise,” he’d replied.

It’s not as though he’d left her all alone…

Florida will be warm this time of year, a limbo between summer and winter. He will hole up in an oubliette close to the beach and spend the endless days beneath the insipid sun writing blank pages in his book of the future, waiting for nothing.

About the Author

Originally hailing from Manchester, that grim city of rain and pies, Dan now lives in the beautiful village of Holloway in North London, next to the prison, with his wife, daughter, and Boddington the PBGV. In the ten years he’s been writing seriously, he’s had over a hundred stories published, and been shortlisted twice for both the Bridport Prize and science fiction’s prestigious Aeon Award. He is also an editor at The Forge literary magazine. In 2013, he completed an MA in Creative Writing at Brunel University, and since then has been working on a novel, a thriller called The Vaccine Slaves.

Picture courtesy of Levilily Photography

(http://www.levililyphotography.com/

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Now read the beginning to The Vaccine Slaves, the new novel by Dan Malakin. Out in autumn 2016.

The Vaccine Slaves

Five years ago, the Medusa virus castrated civilization; the only cure is a hormone passed through the placenta during pregnancy. Women are being kidnapped and kept pregnant by force.

[_ _]

Welcome to the age of the vaccine slaves.

Josh Abraham, a reclusive survivalist, is infected with Medusa. The only place he can get vaccine is from the notorious Blades gang, but the deal goes bad and he kills one of them. While fleeing, he helps a mysterious young girl, Cea, to escape.

Now Josh and Cea are on the run – from the Blades and pretty much everyone else. Girls are worth more than gold.

[_ _]

And Cea is not just any girl.

Turn over to read the first four chapters…

Chapter 1: A Captive Audience

If I were to take the gag out of your mouth, what would you say to me?

What would you offer me for your freedom?

Money, of course, because even now money equals power, and power is an end in itself when you have nothing else to believe in. I’ve often wondered whether this is the secret purpose of religion: to divert man’s attention from the destructive drive for power by offering him something elusive to aim for, like giving a bored child an immersive puzzle that’s impossible to complete.

How about women? Without doubt you’d offer women, whatever my proclivity, no questions asked, as though they were a commodity, a concept, something that might be traded on the stock exchange — if such a thing were still to exist. You’d offer me whole warehouses of your caged, skeletal creatures just to cut the cable ties trapping your ankles to the chair and binding your wrists behind your back.

Sorry, I’m not on the look out for a harem at the moment.

I wouldn’t say I’m unimpeachable, but you have no peaches that are of interest to me.

Isn’t it ironic that I’m holding you captive here, in the very same room as her? Okay, you made an effort to keep it nice — it’s been a while since I’ve seen walls in a room not cracked, peeling, or smeared in mildew. Although bubblegum pink is not really my thing. And what is that? A little fucking chandelier? Made of crystal? Where would you even get something like that? Even so, can you imagine being stuck in here for five years? Five years! You’d get less than that selling vaccine from a cool box on the street.

Her crime?

Knowing you.

You’ve really done well out of the virus, haven’t you? And the other men like you. But that’s the thing, isn’t it? Medusa has shown that sexual equality was a lie, a myth, a placebo, something that suited all men and some women, primarily those in Western countries who could go through their lives without being raped, beaten, and treated like a slave. In reality, the relationship between men and women was like the old ‘special relationship’ between America and Britain: they pretended to share power, but in reality one was violent and overbearing and the other pandered to this in the hope of being protected when it all went to shit.

Well it’s all gone to shit now, and there ain’t much going on by way of protection.

You really should stop struggling. The way your wrists are pressed together, not even Samson could snap those ties. You’re just going to rub your skin raw. We’ve got a couple of hours, I’d say, before they arrive. How do you want to pass the time? Game of cards? Charades? Perhaps I should torture you — you might even find it cathartic, considering what you’ve done.

See these shivs. I made them from old bed springs. I’ve skewered more worthless flesh with these than a rat kebab seller in Trafalgar Square. I could prise off your kneecap with the sharpened point, ease it into your ear until the drum goes pop, stab you a second hole at the base of your throat and watch your eyes go wild as the air you breath seeps out before it can get to your lungs. See, I have ideas! Living as I do, I’ve become resourceful. I may look like I’ve just crawled out of the cockroach pit, but don’t underestimate me.

All she asked is that I keep you alive.

She didn’t specify the condition you need to be in.

But I’m not going to do all that. You see, I think this is the end for me too. I don’t know who’s coming tonight; I don’t know if we won or lost. Even if we won, they’ll probably rip the flesh from my bones, like they did to that kid in the storage rooms. And I’m fine with that. I’ve made my peace with Angela. She’s forgiven me too, I know she has. So if I die tonight, then that’s okay.

I was only really staying alive for her.

Sorry, I’m prone to maudlin moments. I hold onto them, because it’s only by holding onto them that I can remember to be different.

So I won’t torture you. I don’t want your screams to be the soundtrack to my last few hours of life. Instead, I’m going to tell you how we got to this point, you tied to this chair, mouth stuffed with a rotting sock, some derelict holding a sharpened bedspring to your throat.

In a perverse way, you may even be proud.

Chapter 2: Should I Get The Crap Kicked Out Of Me Standing Up, Or Kneeling Down?

I was infected with Medusa, again, and running out of options.

Why else would I be heading to Finn’s Farms? It was home to The Blades, an organised crime gang so notorious you could recognize its members from a glimpse of a gory tattoo — blood bubbling from a dagger plunged to the hilt in the hollow of the throat, or a forearm sliced from wrist to elbow to reveal the bones hiding beneath the parted pink flesh. These were not nice people to visit. But where else was I going to get vaccine? The latest round of crackdowns meant the black market had gone dry, and it’s not as if I could go to a government office to get some like any respectable person. Not unless I wanted to spend the next thirty years on the Jersey penal colony.

Still, I like to make a good impression. So I slicked back my washrag of filthy hair, picked the larger bugs out of my beard, and wore this mint-condition Armani blazer, cocoa brown with pale blue pinstripes, scavenged only a month ago from a deserted mansion near Maldon. Unfortunately, beneath the blazer, I had little in the way of decent threads, just layers of dirty rags leading down to a pair of old jogging bottoms that, judging by the size of the waistband, belonged to Elvis, the Vegas years, bought after a peanut butter and bacon binge. It was a humid day, late September, the low clouds trapping the heat. I turned my go-cart off the A12 and onto the freshly tarmacked slip road leading to the farm. As I slowed down, the vapour trail of sweaty armpits and stewed groin I’d been leaving in my wake settled around me. At least I had my fancy blazer.

There was another reason why I was dressed that way, but I’ll come to that.

The farm was not how I’d imagined. I’d pictured a rundown barn in a weed-choked field populated by mobsters in leather jackets pretending to be farmers by chewing on wheat, but instead I came around the last bend and found myself pootling into a car park thick with military jeeps, sports cars, four-by-fours with polished paintwork and gleaming chrome bull bars. At the end, a pristine shop fronted with high plate glass appeared to be selling tyres, hardware, paint, while beside it,the cast of a particularly brutal prison drama – all wearing navy polo shirts with a suspiciously Nike-esque tick on their chest – milled around the forecourt of an open-fronted warehouse crowded with plastic-wrapped palettes of electronics, televisions, iPads, all kinds of stuff you never see these days. I parked beside a Lotus Eliza in such good condition it looked straight from the factory floor. The price of petrol these days, if you can buy it at all, no one is driving their brand spanking new sports cars to the countryside to buy tyres.

That meant one thing: vaccine.

“Speak to any of the guys outside the warehouse,” Smokes had said to me back at The Herb. “Ask for Mike.”

Usually Smokes is about as reliable as a politician’s expense claims, but like I said, I was desperate. Medusa flu was already seeping lead through my limbs. Within days, the pustules in the webbing of my fingers and on the soles of my feet were going to appear on my forehead, and after that, it’d be hard to even leave my cottage let alone scratch around for vaccine. The fact I was infected would be literally written on my face.

I hung around the edge of the forecourt, watching the men unload palettes, waiting for the right moment to ask someone for Mike. Fortunately, my appearance did the hard work, and some scrawny guy gangster-limped towards me. What he lacked in stature he made up for in face mutilations. Silver studs lined his cheekbones, and tattoos of blood-smeared barbed wire curled down beside his ears. A viral fissure ran from the left side of his lips. His nose, however, was something else. And by else, I mean horrible. Wooden rings, an inch diameter, widened each nostril, so from every angle you got a view of pink sinewy cartilage. It was smeared with crusted snot and a grey grime that soon became clear by his speedy sales patter was the residue of too much amphetamine.

“What you need, pal? You need drugs? Bitches? Vaccine? We got the lot here. You stick with me and I’ll sort you out. You’ve come to the right place, pal. We’ve got everything here.”

“Mike,” I replied, feeling a bit daft for using the code word. “I’ve come to see Mike.”

“You’ve come to the right place, pal. The right place.” His fingernails were filed sharp as daggers. As he spoke he slid the point of one round and round the wooden ring in his right nostril. “British girls only. Scouts honour. Ha ha ha ha. None of that coon shit here. You don’t want none of that coon vaccine. Only good for monkeys.” He swung his arms low and went ooh-ooh-ooh.

This I did not need. But you can’t say, excuse me, do you mind if I speak to someone else about buying illegal vaccine? So I put up with his racist bullshit, smiling and laughing along, while fantasising about stamping his head into the forecourt floor.

“Come,” he said, beckoning me with a sharpened nail.

When he turned to lead the way, I made surreptitious checks to my weapons — a touch to the razor blades sown into the lapel of my jacket, to the spring-loaded blade strapped to my arm beneath the sleeve, a tap of my heel to the hunting knife sheathed to the ankle beneath my baggy jogging bottoms.

I was far from a ruthless killer, not back then. But I wasn’t a complete idiot.

In this world, you need to know how to protect yourself.

“Who told you about Mike?” asked Nostrils as he led me through the warehouse.

I was following, eyes wide and mouth dropped open, unable to comprehend this Aladdin’s Cave of consumer goods crammed on metal racks, many of which I hadn’t seen for years – Heinz Tomato Ketchup, Dove face wash, boxes of Glenfiddich whiskey.

“Guy I know,” I replied.

“Which guy.”

“Some guy.”

Nostrils stopped, spun round. His expression was tight as he clawed at the side of his groin. “Tell me, or fuck off.”

I figured I owed Smokes nothing. He was someone at The Herb, barely a friend. So I told him.

He shrugged. “Never heard of the cunt.”

As we passed a shaven-headed slab who, aside from his blue polo shirt, was indistinguishable from the concrete he’d been leaning against, I caught a slight nod from Nostrils. Slab shoved from the wall and followed up the rear.

The sweat under my rags turned to frost.

This was trouble.

Nostrils had ascertained I was a nobody, and now he and this extra muscle would extract all my money before making me into the paste. I touched my chest. Nestling in the inside pocket was a nugget of gold worth at least twenty pounds, pretty much all the profits from the turpentine I should have run. No excuses, legged it. Back then I was grinding out about two hours of exercise every morning, an hour of strength work followed by a jog around the entire perimeter of The Herb. Without doubt, I could have made it back to my cart. That’s even if they would have given chase. Most likely they would have just pissed themselves laughing as I sprinted away.

The thing is, I needed vaccine.

That over-ruled everything, even my intuition, which right then had its arms around my ankle, pleading with me to get the fuck out of there.

Instead, I followed Nostrils though a door at the back of the warehouse. We went down a dingy service corridor and through another door that opened into a narrow store room containing a couple of rickety chairs, an abandoned dominoes game on an upturned crate, and some bulging garbage bags oozing brown sludge and a vegetable stench that only a fly could love. The kind of place you take someone when you want to kill them with a little privacy.

Nostrils turned to me. “All right then, okay. Okay, okay, okay. Let’s do this. What you need? How much you want?”

Behind me, the big goon locked the door.

“Just some vaccine,” I said.

“Yeah, nice one, nice one,” he went on “I could give you the shit, but man like you, wants the best. Right? You want the best?”

“Sure,” I said. “The best.”

I wasn’t getting the best.

Nostrils was jumping around like the floor was electrified, his jaw sliding this way and that, his eyes like black holes. “You want the best, you got to pay for the best, you get me?”

He was way too excited for this. Something else was going on – but I was too far in. I offered him two unused ration books, one for meat, the other for clothes. His snort and shake of the head told me I was way off. I made a snap decision – if they were going to mug me, they’d find it anyway – and fished around my inside pocket for the gold. When I held it out, Nostril’s bombsite of a face exploded with glee.

“Get the fuck in,” he said, snatching it from my hand.

I groaned inside. Months of tapping trees, boiling the sap, scalding myself a hundred times, gone in a second.

A quick root around the shelves near the garbage bags, and Nostrils returned with a grubby white tub. I didn’t need to look hard at the pulpy liverish mash reeking of a backstreet butcher’s shop to know it was not vaccine. Fresh vaccine needs to be refrigerated, otherwise the proteins die. Plus it looks exactly as it is: a segment of placenta, thick as tripe, the blood on it crimson fresh.

“Get stuck in.” he said, holding out the tub.

As calmly as possible, I told him that wasn’t vaccine.

He shook the tub, like he was offering peanuts at a party. “Use it or lose it.”

“Thanks but no thanks, okay?”

“What’s the problem?”

“Please,” I said. “I don’t want any trouble.”

Nostrils glanced over my shoulder. I felt Slab’s presence right behind me. “No trouble for us.”

“Just give me back my gold, and—”

“I got you vaccine.”

“That’s not vaccine.”

Nostrils bounced on his heels, grinning viciously. “You calling me a liar?”

So that was it. I was sport, entertainment, a way to pass a dull work day.

In other words, I was fucked.

“Why don’t you…,” he said. “Get on your knees and beg.”

This was going bad, fast. I weighed up my options: should I get the crap kicked out of me standing up, or kneeling down?

Kneeling would buy me more time, so I eased myself down.

From below, I saw way into the cavernous depths of his nose. “Please can I have my gold back,” I said.

“What you gonna do for us first?”

By the garbage bags, a couple of roaches were lovingly brushing antennas. From behind came the sound of many knuckles cracking.

“Please,” I said. “Can I have my gold back?”

With dismay, I saw Nostrils go for the zipper of his paint-stained jeans.

Hoping my voice carried a fortitude I did not feel, I told him that I would not make this easy for them. I’ll fight back. I’ll hurt them too.

“I love the feisty ones,” he said.

The zip came down. Twitching with excitement, he fished around inside, presumably for his penis, although the rotting stink wafting out suggested perhaps his pet ferret died in there. Some time last year.

“This is not happening,” I said.

“Here we are,” he replied, pulling out his cock. He pincered the end with those daggered nails, like it was too disgusting even for him to hold. It was half erect and Medusa grey, a fissure slick with pus the colour of custard running like a burst vein along the underside. “I’m going to hatefuck your mouth until I burst out the back of your throat.” He stepped towards me. “Come on, bitch. Take it.”

I braced myself and took his dick in my hand, shuddering as he made it twitch. I clenched my fist.

“Go easy, bitch.”

I lifted my other hand, letting the sleeve of my jacket fall back to reveal the spring-loaded knife. He looked down, and for the first time since approaching me outside stopped moving.

“So,” I said, pressing the blade against his balls. “Still want that blow job?”

Chapter 3: A Glassy Surface Of Revulsion

Of all the awful things I’ve seen in the five years since the Medusa virus ripped apart the world, do you want to know the worst?

Angela and I were on the run. Disemboweled women, pregnant or otherwise, were being found daily. The curfews, the army in the street, not even the rushed return of capital punishment could stem the violence. She wasn’t yet three months pregnant, barely showing, but I didn’t want to take any risks. Not after our flat was broken into. I chased the men out with a hammer.

Angela wanted us to go to the refugee centre in Kentish Town, but I didn’t want us to be trapped. My uncle had a log cabin in the woods near High Wycombe we used to stay at when I was a kid. If you were generous, you’d call it rustic. I, however, am a realist: it was a damp, derelict shithole. I hated going there. Too many of my summer memories recall miserably swinging on a tree tyre, hoping the rope would snap so I could spend the rest of the holiday in the warm comfort of a hospital. But if we could hole up there for a few months…

We’d already found the vaccine — we just needed to find a way to synthesise a version of it before society collapsed.

I still ask myself whether if we’d gone to the refugee centre Angela would be alive today. That’s the thing about regret, isn’t it? It fills the soul like the stink of rot in a damp house. No matter how many windows you open, it never goes completely. You just get used to the smell.

With the tube reduced to hourly trains packed tighter than atoms in a neutron star, and the roads so snarled you needed a Panzer tank to make any progress, we loaded our bikes and headed out the minute the curfew ended at five in the morning. We made good progress, hitting Oxford by midday, but Angela was exhausted. Even before the pregnancy, she wasn’t into fitness, preferring cosmopolitans over calisthenics, throwing shapes in clubs instead of the medicine ball at the gym. Plus my day job was as a personal trainer. So when we stopped, I’d barely broken sweat. Angela lay on her back, lifted her feet onto a fallen bough, crossed her arms and grimaced like she was trying to win a grimacing contest. I knew the signs. Neither of us wanted a row, so I said I’d give her five and went for a wander.

I didn’t go far before I saw the girl.

It looked like she was sitting up against a tree. I saw her from behind, her bare leg sticking out, her hand lying palm up. You could tell she was young, ten at the most. I didn’t want to scare her, so softly as possible I said, “Hey? You okay?”

She didn’t respond, so I crept round the tree to get a better look.

Like I say, I’ve seen more terrible things than tourists on a bus through hell, but the worst is what they did to that girl. At first, I couldn’t even compute the scene – the slimy pile of purple rope curling between her legs, the glistening burgundy mound on her thigh, the long red finger marks stretching from her pelvis to her shin. The limp, pink curtains where her stomach should have been.

From sternum to groin she had been literally ripped up the middle.

Not cut with a knife, but torn with hands.

Ants were moving in lines over her pale skin, up her arms and neck, like veins pulsing with black blood.

She was too young to be pregnant, but they killed her anyway. They rummaged through her like she was a kitchen cupboard – and then wiped their hands clean on her legs. My mind became a glassy surface of revulsion that sanity couldn’t grip. When Angela found me, I was on my knees, hands pressed to cheeks, hypnotised by the horror of what I was seeing.

That girl still makes a regular cameo in my nightmares.

Perhaps that explains why, five years later, I helped Cea to escape.

Chapter 4: Back To The Blow Job

Back when I was failing to get vaccine from the Blades, I cared about one thing: survival. My survival. If you needed help, I was not your man. I was the altruistic equivalent of a miser asked to donate to a charity devoted to spreading the wealth. As far as I was concerned, damsels in distress could stay in distress — and could you keep your wails of anguish down a bit, please?

Me and Daisy, my dog. That was my life.

All the rest, to a greater or lesser degree, could go fry.

I was thinking about Daisy while Nostril’s cock deflated in my hand. If I died here, who’d feed her? Who’d look after her? There was Roach, of course, my neighbour at The Herb – pretty much the only person in the world I called a friend – but since his accident last year, he could barely forage enough food to feed himself. For both of their sakes as well as my own, I needed to extricate myself from this situation. I pressed the tip of the blade into the raw fissure running along the underside of his shaft. He let out an agonised groan.

I spun on a heel, side on, so I could see the big guy. “Back up,” I said. “Or I start doling out free castrations.”

“Easy G,” said Nostrils, giving him the eyes.

“Like I give a fuck,” he replied.

Oh shit.

Slab lunged for me. I pushed Nostrils, swung my arm, dropped my wrist to fire the blade. It slipped from the mechanism and clattered to the floor.

Double shit.

I launched myself, jabbing twice, which he blocked, but that opened up the side. I swung and landed a right hook by his ear that reverberated up to my shoulder. I may as well have been a makeup artist dabbing him with rouge. He swung, I ducked. Nostrils was advancing, claws out. Slab grabbed at me, getting my razor-lined lapels. He reared back, face wide with pain, grabbing the wrist of his slashed hand. Blood sluiced from his fingers. In a second I had my hunting knife free. I sliced it at his neck. I must have nicked his carotid artery because blood glugged from the wound, forming a gory bib on his polo shirt. Like I said, back then I wasn’t the cold-eyed executioner standing over you now. I knew how to defend myself, but I mainly carried weapons so I could wave them at assailants in the hope they’d leave me alone. So when the big guy staggered back, clutching his throat, the narrow room filling with the stench of shit as his bowels gave way, I didn’t do what I should have done. I didn’t kill Nostrils.

To be honest, it was all I could do not to throw up.

I aimed the knife at Nostrils, aware that my hand was shaking, but unable to do anything about it. I told him to get down on his knees. He sneered, like he was thinking that among this fug of blood and shit I was getting him to suck me off. He started to say something, but I stepped in fast and sucker punched him in the solar plexus. He dropped, breathless. I shucked off my jacket, stood on it and ripped off a sleeve, pulled his arms behind his back and used it to tie his wrists. Goodbye Armani. I tied his legs with the other sleeve. He was gasping in air now. I snatched a rag from my armpit and tried to shove it in his mouth, but he bucked and snapped his teeth.

“I’ll find you,” he hissed. “I’ll gouge out your eye and skull fuck your brain!”

“Well, it’s nice to have things to look forward to,” I replied, and bounced his head off the concrete floor.

I stuffed his mouth with the armpit rag, tied another round his head to keep it in place. How the fuck was I going to get out of there? The forecourt was too busy. I remembered we passed some stairs leading down in the corridor. Quietly, I unlocked the door, edged it open, peered round. All clear. I darted into the corridor, to the stairs, into a large, desolate basement. Flickering strip lights, graffitied pillars, broken furniture scattered around. At first I was relieved – there must be another exit – but within minutes this relief faded into despair. The loading bay door was locked, same for the fire exit.

I was about to head back, look for another way, when I heard a sound that rolled my guts in broken glass.

An alarm, like a fire alarm, shrill and insistent.

Either Nostrils had got free, or someone had found him. Either way I was trapped. I scanned for hiding places, saw a couple of garbage bags against a pillar. Maybe I could hide in the darkest corner, tip the contents over myself, pretend to be a pile of trash. As far as plans go, it was about as good as performing a vasectomy with a couple of spoons, blindfolded. Then I saw it – the air vent – my mind flashed with images of getting lost or trapped in the dark, the dread growing louder and louder as I very slowly starved to death. The sound of the alarm was a power drill burrowing through my brain. What choice did I have? I found an unbroken chair, stood on it, slid my fingers between the metal slats, pulled with all my strength while trying not to topple backwards. Screws pinged from the worm-infested wood. I hoist myself in and start crawling, sweltering with the exertion, the light in the tunnel extinguishing as I bang and scrape and swear my way along, fighting claustrophobia while my scared whimpers echo through the pitch black. The tunnel goes uphill. I drag myself up it with raised screw heads and the friction from the worn soles of my shoes. The alarm’s fading into the distance, but that does nothing to rein in my panic. My hand finds a turn. I stop, dripping sweat, breathless. Should I take it? How much more lost can I get? I take it. A bit later I take another. Downhill, round a bend. Then I saw it — a slight granulation of the dark. I slowed, inched forward, found a turn on my right where further down the light had a definite charcoal hue. I shuffled along it until I got to a meshed ceiling panel above a desk. I waited, breath held, ear pressed to the mesh. Silence. I pushed with my elbows until it popped off and clattered onto the desk.

I dropped down. The office was small, four desks, couple of filing cabinets, some computers that would have been retro even before the collapse. No one around. I guess they didn’t do much paperwork here. I was filthier than ever, my rags so covered with dirt it looked as though I’d been working for a chimney sweep — as the broom. A nasty gash up my bicep was an easy lay for any passing tetanus microbes, and as for my back, which already had more bad discs than Justin Beiber’s back catalogue, I was pretty sure I’d never walk upright again. On the plus side, the alarm was now only a few decibels loud.

Cracking a gap in the dusty venetian blinds, I figured I’d gone over the top of the shop. The edge of the car park was to the right. Get outside, to the cart, speed the hell out of there. Actually, sod the cart. The tree line was closer. Also, less chance of being seen.

I crept into the corridor. The sign for the fire escape was at one end. I rushed towards it, through the open doorway, down the stairs three at a time, into the basement, where I whooped with relief at the sight of the silver door and those glorious four words: Push bar to open. I took a second. Breathed in and out. That was way, way, way too close.

I pushed the bar. The mechanism clicked, but the door didn’t open. I crouched by the lock, pushed the bar, saw the metal tongue slide in. It should just open. What the fuck? What the fucking fuck? What if there was a fucking fire? I mean, seriously, what’s the fucking point of a fire door that doesn’t fucking open?

The adrenaline gushed out of my body, puddling into pointlessness on the floor. The whole farm would be after me by now. I didn’t know much about criminal gangs, but I had a pretty good idea you didn’t kill one of their own then saunter away in your own good time. I cycled through every curse I knew, and some I invented on the spot, while clanging the side of my fist against the door.

“If want them to know we’re here,” went a young girl’s voice from the shadows under the stairs, “then keep on banging.”


Smiling Exercises, and Other Stories

An apocalypse of fish. A veteran's memories taken to make movies. A man wakes to find a secret vagina in his armpit. All this and more in SMILING EXERCISES, AND OTHER STORIES! Each story is 1000 words or less, perfect to start the day/end the day/enjoy on the toilet/put off that suicide for another three minutes. This collection includes two stories shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, as well as others first published by Litro, decomP, Daily Science Fiction, Word Riot, Mad Swirl, Cricket Online Review, Everyday Fiction, Metazen, Space Squid, nthposition and many more great magazines!

  • ISBN: 9781311866110
  • Author: Dan Malakin
  • Published: 2016-04-19 13:50:14
  • Words: 23472
Smiling Exercises, and Other Stories Smiling Exercises, and Other Stories