#LockdownLit: The Therapist

Lonely chairShe said, it had been traumatic.

She said, not traumatic like explosions or being in a war.  She hadn’t been buried alive or anything. It wasn’t that sort of traumatic.

She said, if she didn’t talk about it she’d go mad. Not literally mad, of course. She meant she would… crack. Like glass.

She said, look, she knew there were people worse off, but maybe what was traumatic for one person was… more… or less… for someone else. Some people might like being buried alive. Look at moles.

She said, cancel that. Moles had nothing to do with it. Moles were equipped with forepaws and preferred a subterranean lifestyle. Obviously she wasn’t a mole. Obviously she hadn’t been buried alive.  Not physically.

She said, sorry, that sounded pathetic. She said, the truth is… the truth is… She said the truth is she didn’t know why she’d come in the first place.

She said, she was sorry about the crying. She must have sprung a leak. Why was crying supposed to be good? Wasn’t the whole purpose of life to come out of it happy? Maybe not happy in a ha-ha, cartwheeling sort of way…  But just to come out of it not crying.

She said, it must be nice to be a therapist.  Sit back and say, oh yes, that’s good, very cathartic, keep crying. That’ll be a hundred pounds, please.

Nobody really cares. Not really. Other people’s problems don’t interest other people. It’s depressing. Sweep it under the carpet. Forget about it. Man up. Have a drink; have a laugh; have a Kit Kat.

Does talking ever help? Really? Everyone says it does, but does it?

It’s funny, isn’t it? All this… stuff.

She said, thanks for listening.

THE END


Published:

  • Rattle Tales 4. June, 2016. (ISBN: 978-0-9932080-2-7).
  • No One Should Have To Care Alone. March, 2016. (ISBN: 978-1-873747-53-7).
  • The Pygmy Giant. September, 2015.
  • Artwork: the author.

#LockdownLit: One Hell of an Evening

HeadlightsMax thumped his steering wheel. “Come on.” In the distance, the traffic lights changed from red to amber to green but the line of cars barely moved. They were backed up as far as he could see, in front and behind, a procession of lights snaking through the dark.

On his passenger seat was a flyer. Join us at Abbey Down’s hyperstore Christmas opening and put the YOU into Yule, the SHOP into shopping and the BUY into buying.

“And the EFF into off,” Max shouted at the cars.

At the bottom of the card, it said: Exchange this invitation for a complimentary serving of biscuits and champagne. Max had drawn a circle around those words.

Half an hour later, he was only four cars from the front. “Move,” he shouted when the lights turned green. Too slowly for Max’s liking, the first car, then the second and then the third passed through. The lights turned amber and Max stamped on his accelerator and shot forwards just as they turned red.

The car in front stopped and Max swerved onto the other side of the road. It seemed as if the headlights of the oncoming lorry were sitting on his bonnet. He pulled his steering wheel hard to the right and heard a blasting horn and shrieking brakes. He squeezed his eyes shut and hoped for the best.

When he opened them the lorry was gone and he was in a single-track lane. He slowed the car and came to a stop, looking in his mirror to see if anyone had followed. No-one had. He took a deep breath.

“Oops,” he said and laughed. “That was close.”

He thought about turning around but the lane was dark and narrow, and he couldn’t be bothered. He followed the twisting, hedge-lined road until, at last, he came to a junction. There were no signposts so he turned left and came to a fork in the road. He turned left again and followed the road down a steep hill to a roundabout. The hedges fell away and he saw an oasis of bright light in the blackness. It was the back of Abbey Down’s hyperstore. Max could even see the entrance to the car park.

“Ha. Put the CHAMP into champagne!” he crowed.

He crossed the roundabout and turned into the car park where marshals guided the arriving cars to empty parking bays. Max was shown to a bay a long way from the store. “Isn’t there anywhere closer?” he called.

The marshal, caught in Max’s headlights, grinned. “You should have stayed at home, mate.” In the artificial light, his teeth looked shiny and brown as if he were wearing a toffee-coated gum-shield.

Max nodded. “Thanks for your help.” The marshal laughed and walked away. “Idiot,” Max said.

He got out of his car and walked towards the hyperstore’s glass entrance with the letters AD’s hovering twenty feet above the ground. He found the pedestrian walkway and joined the crowd of people shuffling through the great glass doors. It was bright and very, very busy. He was greeted by a woman wearing an elf costume. There was something wrong with her face but he couldn’t work out what.

“Where’s the free champagne?”

She laughed and pointed at a counter of free servings. Not that there was much left: a few shortbread biscuits on a paper plate and some plastic thimbles half-filled with sparkling wine. Max took two of each and looked around.

It was a crush. He squeezed through to the drinks section, craning his neck to see the clarets and burgundies; the great wines, the not-so-great wines and the marked down bargain buys. Put the HANG into hangover, a sign read.

“What a rubbish slogan,” he said to a man pushing past. The man looked at him in confusion and moved on.

Max checked his watch: eight-thirty. He would go soon. He’d only come for the free booze and there wasn’t much of that. He let the plastic thimbles fall onto the floor. The tips of his fingers felt large and painful and anything he touched seemed too small for them.

He left the drinks section and threaded his way through the crowd, past the women’s clothes, into the men’s sock emporium and then through to the children’s outerwear department.

“Coming through,” he muttered. Where had those glass doors gone?

He found an alcove off to the right in which an upright bicycle with a stiff leather saddle and a heavy iron frame was on display. It was made by a company called Pluck & Cruiskeen. A sign said, Put the SAD into the Saddle.

Max stopped to catch his breath. He looked at his watch: it was now almost nine-forty-five. How had that happened? A salesman with a weeping sore on his lip appeared on Max’s shoulder and said, “Isn’t it just perfect? The bicycle? Very sturdy in an impact. No crumple zones on a Pluck & Cruiskeen.”

Max studied the bicycle. “Which way is the exit?” he said. But the salesman had gone.

The store was filling up with more and more people. Max felt hemmed in; a tiny ant in an ever-expanding colony. It was exhausting. In soft furnishings he found a sofa and sat down. His feet ached and his head was hot and the earlier wine had left his mouth sticky and arid. He sat back and let the people flow around him, their voices picking away at his mind.

“Stop pushing.”
“There’s no space.”
“I can’t breathe.”
“Does anyone know how to get out of here? Please. Anybody? Anybody?”

Max jumped up. Who had said that? But the shifting mass of shoppers moved on and whoever had cried out was swept away.

“Christ.”

He set off again, head down, watching his feet: left-right, left-right, left-right. They began to move faster and he realised that he was running, pushing past shoppers and ignoring their startled, frightened faces. He ran until he came to an untidy, shuddering halt in front of a mirror in the shoe department. He stood, breathing deeply, and saw there was blood on his shirt and his jacket was torn.

“You ought to watch where you’re going,” a sad-faced woman said. She was holding her son’s hand.

Max sat down on a stool and stared at the floor. His head ached and something had happened to his jaw. He couldn’t move it. He looked at his watch: the glass was broken.

“I want to go home,” he said. But nothing came out.

He got up and walked, stiff-legged, away from the shoes, and was carried off by the tide of people moving relentlessly onwards, rotating around the store in an endless, repetitive cycle through the different departments.

In the drinks section a man looked at him and said, “What a rubbish slogan.” Max turned away and hurried on. What did he care about slogans? He was lost. Lost and tired and thirsty. He heard himself shout, “Does anyone know how to get out of here? Please. Anybody? Anybody?”

And then by chance, or fate, or plain cruelty, he was washed up by the free servings counter. The wine and biscuits were all gone; only plates of crumbs and empty used plastic thimbles lying on their sides were left. He turned and there, just a few metres away, were the giant glass entrance doors. A sign said, Don’t Say Goodbye, Say Great Buy. He limped to the threshold, pressed his head against the glass and opened the doors.

“Jesus God,” he said.

“Who?”

A woman in an elf costume took his arm and guided him back inside. She had something stuck in her teeth that moved. Max tried to talk but he couldn’t. His face was all smashed up.

“Oh dear,” she said, laughing. “You are a mess. Still, you should see the other driver.”

Outside the air crackled with electricity and the sky had a reddish hue as if distant fires burned beyond the horizon. The car park had gone. It had all gone. Max heard an announcer calling the Christmas draw. Ladies and Gentlemen. It’s time to put the HELL into hello, the SLAY into sleigh bells and the MANGE into the manger.

The elf gave Max a little push and the crowd took him.

THE END


Artwork: Pexels / Louis.

#LockdownLit: Early Days

TabletsAndrea said to me, our life is too shallow.
I said, define shallow.
She said, when you wake up what do you think about?
I said, what shirt to put on.
She laughed. See?

I said, okay, let’s talk deep.
She said, fine, where do you stand on abortion?
I said, not that deep.
She said, seriously, do you have a view?
I said, why do you ask?
She said, in order to find out.

I went away for two days, working. When I came back Andrea was lying on the floor. She couldn’t move.
I said, Andrea, what happened?
She said, I knew you’d rescue me.
I said, holy shit, how long have you been there?
She said, he couldn’t hurt us because he knew you were coming.
I said, who couldn’t hurt you?
She said, the toilet man.
I said, what toilet man? Who is ‘us’?

In A&E I stayed with Andrea while they carried out tests and took her for a CT scan and then asked her questions about who she was and what day it was and who the prime minister was.
They said, she’s had a stroke.
I said, she’s only twenty-seven.
They said, but the baby is okay.
I said, what baby?

I phoned my sister.
I said, Andrea’s had a stroke and she’s pregnant.
My sister said, what?
I said, which bit is ‘what’?
She said, oh my God.

Andrea was sitting up in bed.
I said, how are you feeling?
She said, he was going to drown me in the toilet. The toilet man.
I said, there is no toilet man. You had a stroke and then you had a bad dream. Why didn’t you tell me you were pregnant?
She said, I don’t want to drown in a toilet. If he comes back tell him I’m not here.
I said, you’re not going to drown in a toilet.

I phoned my work and told them about Andrea.
I said, I need some time off.
They said, well, you can take annual leave if you like. How much do you have left?
I said, a week.
They said, okay you can take that.
I said, that might not be enough. She’s in hospital and she’s all confused and she can’t walk and her left arm doesn’t work. There’s a lot going on. They use a hoist to get her in and out of bed.  She can’t swallow properly. And she’s pregnant. What happens after a week?
They said, is she a blood relative?
I said, I have a blood relative inside her.
They said, take the week off and then we’ll review the situation.
I said, all I’m saying is, I’ll need more than a week.

I said to Andrea, I’ve brought you clothes, toiletries, magazines, your phone and some make-up.
She just looked at me.
I said, Andrea, do you remember the conversation we had about the A-word? Was that to do with you being pregnant? Are you happy you’re pregnant? Is it what you want?
She said, the nurses put little dogs in their pockets.
I said, they don’t, Andrea. Why would they do that?

My sister said, she’s bound to be confused. She’s had a stroke. Her brain is all bruised. She’ll get better. What’s going to happen to the baby?
I said, it’s going to be born.
She said, I mean will Andrea be able to look after it?
I said, I’m here too.

I went to the ward each day.
Andrea said, I can’t feel my legs.
I said, they’re there, see? Two lovely legs.
She said, what’s this thing?
I said, that’s your lovely left arm.
She said, cut it off, it’s not mine.
I said, you’ll need it to hold the baby.
She said, you hold the baby.

I called my work again.
They said, what’s the situation?
I said, the situation is ongoing. She’s in hospital and her parents are dead and she has no siblings and there’s only me. I read her the news and help her eat and drink, and I massage her arm and legs and clean out her nails and brush her hair. I need more time off, is that possible?
They said, how long have you been with us?
I said, six months.
They said, you need something more flexible.
I said, in what way?
They said, in a job way.
I said, is that an opinion or a policy?
They said, we’ll pay you to the end of the month.

I phoned my sister.
I’ve lost my job.
She said, oh my God.
I said, exactly.
She said, you need to claim support and welfare and allowances and stuff.
I said, this is where it begins, isn’t it? With forms.
She said, hang in there, big brother. You’re going to be a dad.

After six weeks a social worker, four therapists and an obstetrician came to Andrea’s bed.
The social worker said, so Andrea, how do you feel?
She said, I’ve been better.
He said, let’s talk about your discharge.
She said, I can’t help it.
He said, I mean from hospital.

The speech therapist said, you’ve been on normal food for over a week now.
The occupational therapist said, your legs and left arm are unresponsive but you can move your right arm and turn your head.
The physiotherapist said, you can sit upright unaided for fifteen seconds.
The neurotherapist said, there is some minor impairment but your judgement and reasoning are normal.
The obstetrician said, we’ll need to monitor progress but the baby is developing well.
The social worker said, so, that’s all good. Would you like to go home Andrea?
Andrea said, I want my life back.

The council’s finance department sent us a form.
I said, they want to know how much money you have saved.
She said, draw it all out and hide it in the attic.
I said, we don’t have an attic.

Andrea came home in an ambulance. They gave us a bed that could raise, lower, tilt and recline; an inflating mattress; a hoist; a sling; a commode; a wheelchair; and a panic alarm. But the catheter bag was too small and overflowed and we had no pads and Andrea fouled the sheets and I had no bags or wipes or cream.
She said, I’m environmentally disgusting.
I said, it doesn’t matter.
She said, I can’t help it.
I said, it’s okay. It’s all okay.
She said, this is the opposite of okay.

A week later the carers said, we think she has a urinary infection.
I said, what should I do?
They said, call 111.

I called 111 and they said we’re going to call an ambulance.
The paramedics said, we’re going to call your GP.
Our GP said, I’m going to prescribe antibiotics.
I said, good news Andrea. Instead of twelve tablets a day you now have fourteen.

When the urinary infection had gone Andrea said, I want you to give me something to make this stop.
I said, what do you mean?
She said, you know what I mean.
I said, I can’t do that. I’ll go to prison.
She said, I’ll write a note to say it’s okay.
I said, you have our baby inside you.
She said, well give me something afterwards.

I phoned the Samaritans.
I said, I’m drowning here.
I said, I feel like my life is on hold. I don’t socialise, I don’t exercise, I’ve lost my job, Andrea gets food all over her face and all I can do is keep smiling and talk about how good it’s going to be one day. We’re going to have a baby and everyone is excited and wants to know what we’re going to call it and have I painted the nursery yet.
I said, she dreams she can walk but she’ll never walk again.
I said, do you know what happened to me this morning? I hit my head on the car boot getting the shopping out. What sort of God makes that happen? And then all this?
I said, my life is piling up around me.
I said, I can’t breathe.

Andrea said, soon you’ll have two of us to look after. We’ll have to get an au pair to help you. Someone pretty with long legs that you can go out with.
I said, you’re pretty with long legs.
She said, I’m a head in a bed.
I said, you’re not a head in a bed, you’re an expectant mother.
She said, how can I be a mother? I can’t even feed myself.
I said, we’ll find a way.
She said, it will have to be an unbelievably amazingly wonderfully miraculous way. Can you find one of those?

She said, is this what you wanted? This pregnancy? This life? This me?
I said, yes.
She said, liar.
I said, you remember when I found you? You said you knew I’d rescue you. You bet on me. You put your faith in me.
She said, that’s not a reason.
I said, yes it is.

A month later I phoned my sister.
I said, you’re an auntie.
She said, oh my God.
I said, mother and daughter are doing well.
She said, and you? Are you okay? Are you doing well?
I said, I’m fine. I really am. Really. Really really really.
She said, get some sleep.

I said to Andrea, I think our life is deep enough now, don’t you?
She said, yes, we over-performed in that category.
I said, once my biggest worry was what shirt to put on. And now…
She said, and now you wish I’d been flushed down the toilet.
I said, that was a dream.
She said, isn’t this?
I said, it’s still early days.
She said, don’t say that.

THE END


Published:

  • Stories From Rattle Tales Brighton Prize 2017. April 2018. (ISBN: 978-0-9932080-6-5).
  • Not In The Plan. Carers UK. November, 2017. (ISBN: 978-1-5272-1729-4).
  • Artwork: the author.

#LockdownLit: The Beast

machine-mill-industry-steam-633850Before dishwashers became a standard feature in most people’s kitchens, every town had at least one crockery cleaning kiosk located near a car-park or taxi rank, or within easy reach of public transport. In those days it was common during the week and at weekends, and on Mondays in particular, to see people carrying their dirty dishes in cardboard boxes and plastic bags to a kiosk to be washed, rinsed, and dried.

Shona MacColl ran the While-U-Wait Wash ’n’ Wipe crockery cleaning kiosk in the coastal town of Falfrieth. The kiosk was situated by the up-escalator on the first floor of Falfrieth shopping centre. Twice a day Shona loaded her customers’ tableware into her industrial dishwasher which was housed out of sight in the back of the kiosk. She stoked the boiler, ignited the engines and climbed into a protective cage while the colossal machine roared and bellowed.

The Beast, she called it.

If The Beast was active anyone travelling up the escalator vibrated so much that the shopping centre owners put up warning signs not to carry milk in case it curdled. Teenagers travelled up the escalator during those times in order to experience a sexual frisson – the owners put up signs about that too. Carbonated drinks were banned.

The shopping centre was a place to buy greetings cards, remaindered books and cheap shoes. There was also a coffee shop called the Kwikuppa and a party planning shop called Weekend Whoop It Up. People who wanted to buy food and domestic supplies shopped elsewhere.

Weekend Whoop It Up was owned by Oliver Ballantyne. Perhaps the time was not right for party planning in Falfrieth because after six months of trading Oliver had yet to whoop it up for a single weekend. So he was closing down.

He was reflecting on this when a young man carrying a cardboard box came into his shop even though the sign on the door said Closed. The young man was Rudy Morris, grandson of Beaver Morris. Everybody in Falfrieth knew the Morris family. Beaver Morris was serving twenty years for robbing an oil-rig: technically an act of piracy. Beaver’s daughter, Verity, was a local councillor, and her son, Rudy, took care of the family’s ‘heavy lifting’.

People still talked about the day Beaver was arrested. He had returned from the North Sea in time to take his position as buckshee back for the Falfrieth Shinty Club. But the opposing team had been replaced by twelve policemen. As the game began they pounced and a young Rudy, holding his mother’s hand, saw his hero pushed to the ground and carried away, struggling and shouting.

Rudy put the box on the floor and took a note from his pocket and read it. “So,” he said. “Councillor Morris, my mum, says to tell you that my grandad is being released from prison on Friday and we are going to have a party to celebrate. You will arrange it.”

Rudy gestured at the box. “This is our family china. It is of great sentimental value. Keep it safe and on the day of the party lay it out on the top table.” Rudy checked the other side of the paper. “Mum says, write out some party fun ideas and details and I’ll pick them up in the morning. All right?”

Oliver said, “The thing is -”

“I’ll be back tomorrow.”

Rudy left, slamming the door so hard the bell rang for several seconds afterwards. Oliver sighed. He opened the box and looked at the crockery. It was dusty and old. Why hadn’t he said he’d quit? What was wrong with him? He decided to have it washed as a goodwill gesture before returning it to Rudy the following day, when he would explain that he wasn’t a whoop-it-upper any more. He picked up the box, locked his shop door and carried the Morris family china across the ground floor of the shopping centre and up the escalator to the While-U-Wait Wash ’n’ Wipe crockery cleaning kiosk.

He put the box on the counter and rang the bell. Shona appeared with suds in her hair.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hi. I’m from the party shop downstairs. I’d like this crockery to have a party pre-clean, please.”

“Is it dishwasher safe?” Shona opened the box and held up a saucer to the light. “It looks fragile,” she said. “Too fragile for The Beast.” Shona flicked her head towards the back of the kiosk. Oliver tried to see what was behind her but she didn’t move.

“So your crockery cleaning kiosk won’t clean this crockery?” he said.

“Correct.”

“I see.”

“You could wipe it with a damp cloth.”

Oliver took the saucer and put it back. “Thank you.” He took the box, turned to walk away, tripped, and accidentally threw the Morris’s family china down the up-escalator.

He looked at Shona. “I just threw the crockery down the up-escalator,” he said.

“I saw.”

Shona watched him walk round to the opposite side of the shopping centre and go down the down-escalator. She stepped out of her kiosk and leaned over the glass barrier and watched him retrieve the box from the bottom of the up-escalator. He looked inside it and then came back up. Shona stepped into her kiosk and waited. Oliver came over to the counter.

“It’s all smashed to pieces,” he said.

“That’s what happens.”

Oliver put the box back on the counter and they both looked at the fragments of cups and saucers and plates and milk jugs and sugar bowls and other less obvious items.

“Do you have any crockery-fixing equipment? Like a machine that puts crockery back together?”

“No.”

“Nothing like that? How long would it take to glue it all together?”

“How many people?”

“Say one.”

“About five days, allowing for nature breaks and sleep and things. But there would be a lot of cracks. Probably some gluey bits. Maybe some fluff sticking to the glue. It would probably be mostly glue. I doubt you could use it. Maybe if you spent a year, being really really careful, it might look okay.”

“Do you know anybody, anybody in the entire world, who might be able to fix this?”

“No.”

“Do you know who Beaver Morris is?”

“Is he the pirate? The one in prison? The one who got arrested playing tennis?”

“Shinty. Yes. He’s coming out this week. This is the Morris family china.”

They looked at each other, both thinking about Beaver Morris coming out of prison and how he’d once tried to rob an oil-rig with speed-boats and machine guns and rockets, and about all the villains he must know, and about all the tiny bits of Morris family china that were lying in the bottom of the box.

Oliver carried the box of smashed crockery back to his shop. He locked it in a cupboard and went for a walk to think about things.

While he did that Shona loaded The Beast with the final wash of the day. She turned the dials, checked the readouts, pulled the levers and set the launch sequence for twenty-five seconds. She laid her hands on the metal for a moment, feeling the power within, and then stepped into the protective cage.

The Beast prepared itself for washing. Superheated water laced with a chemical mix of detergents and noble gases formed, ready to be squirted at high pressure from pre-positioned nozzles. The tunnels and chambers and whirring brushes ran through their self-clean procedures and expunged any foreign contaminants.

With fifteen seconds to go Shona heard the bell ring at the front of the kiosk. She ignored it. It rang again. And again. At ten seconds she threw open the cage door, slipped past the already expanding pipes and hissing valves, and went to the front of the kiosk, slamming the safety hatch behind her.

Standing at the counter was Rudy Morris.

“You’ve missed the last wash,” Shona said.

Behind her The Beast ignited. Four teenagers and a retired accountant who had been waiting downstairs now boarded the up-escalator.

“I’m Rudy Morris.”

Shona wondered if he knew that his family china had been smashed to pieces.

“Do you want any dishes washed?” she said.

Rudy laughed. “No way. Look, I’ve seen you around and I was thinking…”

“Is this a question about dishes? I can only talk about dishes when I’m on duty.”

“No, it’s not about dishes. So, anyway… I’ve seen you around and I thought…”

“Can you come back later?”

“I’ve seen you around and I thought…”

“I’ve got a boyfriend.”

Rudy frowned. He’d been watching her for over a month and had seen no sign of a boyfriend.

“Who?”

Shona saw Oliver on the opposite side of the shopping centre coming back from his walk. She said, “Him.”

Rudy turned and looked at Oliver. “Him? The Whoop It Up guy?”

“Yes.”

Rudy stepped back from the counter and took a closer look at Oliver. “Really?”

Something large exploded behind Shona. Rudy ducked down. The kiosk shook and a cloud of rubber-smelling gas rose from its roof. The engines stopped and only the rattling of shattered crockery remained. The teenagers ran away fearing their sexual frissons had caused the explosion.

Rudy stood up. “What was that?” But Shona was gone, leaving him alone at the counter.


Oliver was sitting in a darkened room when his phone rang. He thought it might be Rudy but it wasn’t.

“It’s Shona,” said Shona. “From the kiosk. Guess who came to see me?”

“I -”

“Rudy Morris.”

“Did you tell him I smashed all his crockery?”

“No. I told him you were my boyfriend.”

“You told him I was your boyfriend?”

“Yes. I thought I’d better tell you because you’ll probably be seeing Rudy again and he might say something. Not that it’s any of his business, but he might. So if he says anything, just say, ‘oh yes’ or something like that. Do you have a girlfriend?”

“No, I don’t.”

“So she wouldn’t mind.”

“No. I shouldn’t imagine.”

“That’s all right, then. What are you going to do about the broken crockery?”

“I’m trying not to think about it.”

“You could wear a false moustache.”

“I suppose I could. Did you hear that explosion just now?”

“Yes. That was The Beast. He blew up. It’s going to take me all night to fix him.”

“He’s a him?”

“Yes.”

“Why did he explode?”

“He just did. He’s The Beast. Hey, I don’t suppose you could bring me a coffee. And maybe a sandwich? I’m covered in oil.”

“What sort of sandwich?”

“Any.”

“Cheese?”

“No.”

“Ham?”

“No.”

“Salad?”

“Something adventurous.”

Oliver queued in the Kwikuppa coffee shop. He bought a coffee, a tea and two sandwiches: cheese for himself and one with halloumi, chorizo, raisins, beetroot, cauliflower and apricot for Shona. The shopping centre was closing and the security guards were rounding up the last of the shoppers as he made his way up the up-escalator. He rang the bell and Shona came to the counter. She was covered in oil.

“Hi,” she said. “Come in.”

She lifted up a section of the counter and Oliver squeezed in. He followed Shona through the safety hatch and into the back of the kiosk.

The Beast was enormous. Bright lights pointed at ruptured pipes from which steam blew and thick drops of chemical liquid dripped; a gaping gate revealing bent brushes and twisted shelving and burned-out electrics; walls studded with sheered-off nuts and bolts; and everywhere shards of crockery and oil – oil on the walls, oil on the floor, oil on Shona and now, oil on Oliver.

They sat next to each other in the semi-darkness on bits of the wrecked machinery and ate the sandwiches and drank the tea and coffee. Their oily hands stained the bread and the crumbs that fell from their lips mingled with the fragments of ruined plates and cups and saucers, and their drips of tea and coffee made patterns in the puddles of oil.

“This is nice, isn’t it?” said Shona.

They finished their food and looked at each other in the strange light of the kiosk’s back room, while, outside, cleaners polished the floors with large machines and switched off the escalators and closed down the lighting and pulled metal shutters across the exits and entrances.

“They’re closing up,” said Shona. “You might get locked in.”

“I get locked in every night. I live in the back of my shop.”

“I didn’t think that was allowed.”

“It’s not. What about you? Won’t you get locked in?”

“It doesn’t matter. I have to stay here all night to fix The Beast.”

After the cleaners had gone a silence spread across the shopping centre like an invisible gas: from floor to ceiling, from shop-front to shop-front, down stairwells, through heating ducts, in toilets, against doors, in lifts, on escalators, across children’s play areas. The silence crept up to the security office and looked in on the two kindly security guards who were ignoring the unauthorised maintenance work taking place on the first floor.

Shona ran her hand along the dishwasher’s still-warm metal casing. “I used to hate this thing,” she said. “When I went to university I thought I’d escaped Falfrieth for good. But my mother fell ill so I came back. And then Dad became ill too, and there was nobody to run the business.” She rubbed her forehead with her oily hand. “Anyway, now there’s just me and The Beast.”

Oliver stood up and peered through the gaping gate. He picked up a piece of metal from the floor. It was a cog. “This takes me back,” he said.

Shona stood up and looked over his shoulder. “To what?”

“To college. I did a horology course.”

“Stars?”

“Timepieces. There are a lot of cogs in timepieces.”

He could feel her breath on his neck. She smelled of halloumi and chorizo and raisins and beetroot and cauliflower and apricot and coffee. He turned round.

“And now you’re a party planning guy,” she said. “The best parties are the ones that just happen. Did you know that?”

They stood amongst the ventilation pipes that ran up to the top of the shopping centre and released hot white steam into the atmosphere. Below them exhaust chutes and drainage channels fed down through internal runaways and connected to Falfrieth’s underground water systems.

Oliver cleared his throat. “I could get my tools,” he said.

“Oh?”

“My horology tools. I still have them. I could help out. Tonight. Here. They’re very small, though. My tools. But if you have any tiny cogs I could help.”

Shona smiled. “That would be nice.”

It took them nearly all night to repair The Beast. During that time Oliver told Shona all about horology and she told him all about detergents. He explained the mechanics of an oscillating counter-spring and she explained why non-scratch scourers had changed the face of dishwashing.

Oliver worked inside The Beast’s cavernous interior, re-constructing the intricate cleaning mechanisms; Shona refitted the pipes, calibrated the gears, reset timing gauges, de-coked the cold-gas thrusters, switched over the propulsion jets, filled up the combustion chambers and welded together a new launch cradle. Together they wiped down the bottles of coolant and chemical cleaning agents and re-installed the vacuum nozzles.

At four o’clock in the morning it was finished.

“We’ll have to give him a test run,” Shona said. “That will clean out the insides too. Then we can hose down the kiosk and everything is done.”

“Except us,” said Oliver. “We’re filthy.”

It was true. Oil and grime had infiltrated every pore and crevice of their bodies. Their clothes were soaked in oil. Their hair was thick and sticky with oil. They blinked oil, breathed oil and dripped oil.

“We can’t use the shopping centre toilets. We’d leave a trail of oil everywhere.”

“There is another way,” said Shona.

Oliver looked at her. He looked around the kiosk. He looked at The Beast. He looked at Shona again.

“Not…?”

She nodded. “I’ve done it before. There’s a setting.”

“A setting?”

“It’s quite nice, actually. But it might… damage our clothes.” She glanced at him. “And they clog up the pipes. So… you know.”

Oliver looked at her. It was impossible to make out any features other than her eyes and teeth.

“You mean…?”

“Yes.”

“In the…”

“Yes.”

“Together?” Oliver stared again at The Beast.

“We don’t have to,” said Shona. “Only if you want… Do you want?”

“I don’t know. Are we dishwasher safe?”

At half-past four in the morning the security guards noted a vibration on the first floor of the shopping centre and correctly inferred that it was a maintenance test run coming from the While-U-Wait Wash ’n’ Wipe crockery cleaning kiosk. The cycle lasted for fifteen minutes. They were surprised when the vibrations launched again, indicating a second test cycle, which took place at four-forty-six. This time it lasted for thirty minutes. Just after five in the morning, as the first of the cleaners came back on duty, the dishwasher launched again – for a full forty-five minutes this time.


The following morning Rudy came into Oliver’s shop. He took a step back when he saw that Oliver’s hair was now a massive ball of fluff.

“What happened?”

“To what?”

Rudy stared some more at the hair. “Right, anyway, change of plan. Grandad’s coming out today. They do that sometimes. Mix it up. And he’s vetoed a big do. He wants a small family gathering instead. We’ll have something to eat in the Kwikuppa and then go home. Mum’s there now, getting things ready. I’m going to pick him up and bring him here. So, I’ll take the china.”

“You’ll take the china?”

“Yeah, I’m going to surprise him and put it out at the Kwikuppa. It was the last thing he ate off before he went to rob the oil rig. It’s like a genuine antique. He used to say it was worth hundreds of pounds and that was twenty years ago. So anyway, hand it over.”

“I don’t have it,” Oliver said. “It’s being prepared. Cleaned.”

Rudy gave him a hard look. “At the kiosk? I’ll get it. And don’t expect me to pay for it.”

He left, slamming the door.

Oliver picked up the phone and called the kiosk. Shona answered.

“It’s Oliver,” said Oliver. Rudy’s coming to get the Morris family china.”

“I haven’t got the Morris family china.”

“I know. When he arrives, tell him it’s in The Beast and can’t be removed yet.”

“He’s coming up the escalator.”

Rudy bounded up the up-escalator and banged the bell on Shona’s counter. When she appeared he took a step backwards. Her hair was also a massive ball of fluff.

“You too?” he said. “Anyway, I’ve come to collect my china.”

“Do you have a receipt? Without a receipt I can’t give it to you.”

“It’s the Morris family china. I’m a Morris family member. Give me the china.”

“Not without a receipt.”

“Give me the china.”

“No.”

“Right!” Rudy turned and ran down the up-escalator. “I’ll get the receipt.” He sprinted across the ground floor to the Weekend Whoop It Up but the door was locked. “Open up,” he shouted. “Open up.” Rudy looked at his watch. He had to go and meet his grandad. “You are so dead,” he said.

Oliver was walking towards the Kwikuppa. He had with him the cardboard box filled with shattered crockery. He had decided it would be safer to own up to Verity Morris rather than to Rudy.

Shona met him on the way. “Hello,” she said. “Has Rudy caught up with you yet?”

“Not yet. I have to go to the Kwikuppa.”

“I was thinking about putting on a rinse cycle…”

Oliver looked at his watch. “Okay.”


The Kwikuppa coffee shop was on the ground floor. It had a large indoor space and seating in the shopping centre’s main concourse. Part of the outside area had been roped off and a tall, slim woman, with close-cropped grey hair, large glasses and an earnest expression was talking to a local reporter who had come along with a news photographer.

Shona and Oliver arrived just in time. “Is that her?” said Shona. “She looks nice. Did you bring your false moustache?”

“I didn’t.”

Shona nudged him. “Here comes the pirate.”

Through the glass entrance doors at the far end of the shopping centre walked Rudy and his grandad. Beaver Morris at eighty was a still big man and it was possible to imagine him as a daring young criminal planning and executing an oil-rig heist, travelling fast through the night on a high-speed boat and raising boarding ladders while the cold North Sea waves drove the boats hard against the rig’s stilts.

He walked slowly with a stick, his arm curled around Rudy’s arm, and Rudy walked alongside with the pride of a bride’s father. His sight failing, Beaver looked this way and that.

The news photographer stepped to one side and started taking pictures. Verity Morris kicked off her shoes and ran down the concourse to greet her father and hold him as tightly as she could. Then the three of them walked back towards the Kwikuppa in order to enjoy some light refreshments.

“Right,” said Oliver.

“I’m not sure now is the right time,” said Shona.

“I have to.” Oliver stepped forwards, holding the box in front of him.

Rudy looked up and saw him. “Oh no you don’t.” He left his grandad and mother to be photographed, ran over and snatched the box from Oliver’s hands. “You’re not muscling in on my party,” he hissed. He turned to run back but Shona lifted the rope used to cordon off the Morris reunion, and Rudy tripped. For the second time in two days the Morris family china flew through the air.

Perhaps it was just muscle memory from many games of shinty; or perhaps through his failing eyesight Beaver perceived a danger bigger than a cardboard box; but whatever the reason, Beaver stepped forward, swung his walking stick like a caman, and smashed the box as hard as he could. It lifted high into the air and a thousand tiny pieces of blue and white china fell to the ground like hailstones.

“That’s the Morris family china you’ve just smashed to pieces,” Rudy said.

“No it’s not,” said Beaver. “Sold it ages ago. That’s just tat – and bad luck tat at that. That was the last thing I ate off before I was nicked. Good riddance to it.”

The Kwikuppa staff swept it up and threw it in the bin.


Later, while they shared a coffee at the kiosk, Shona on one side of the counter and Oliver on the other, he said, “Thank you for tripping up Rudy.”

“That’s all right. I thought if he broke the broken bits, nobody would know which bits you’d broken.”

“Clever. Hey, I was thinking. I might open a horology kiosk. Set up by the down-escalator. I could call it Clocks ‘n’ Cogs.”

Shona laughed. “Or Watch ‘n’ Wind’.”

“We could look at each other.”

“I’d like that.”

They finished their sandwiches and then Oliver left. Shona watched him go down the down-escalator. She watched him until he’d gone and then she watched the other people who passed by her kiosk. Her parents used to say that everyone was different but dishes always needed cleaning. She went into the back of her kiosk and locked the safety hatch. She stoked the boiler and ignited the engines, and then she curled up inside the protective cage and closed her eyes while The Beast came to life and roared and bellowed and surrounded her with its warmth.

THE END


Published:

  • BFS Horizons 6. The British Fantasy Society. March 2018.
  • Artwork: Pexels / Skitterphoto.

#LockdownLit: The Fire-Diver’s Assistant

The Fire Diver's Assistant by James EllisThe fire-diver was called Gregory, and I assisted him by chalking arrows on the walls of seaside towns; writing things like This Way To See The Great Fire-Diver – Three OClock, or, It’s The Greatest Show On Earth – Don’t Miss It.

The arrows and notices always led to a pier or a jetty, or anything that stuck out into the sea, and if children followed me, which they often did, I’d tell them to keep an eye out for the police and to shout if they saw any – and also to collect up fag-butts and bring them to me. Being a girl they were more likely to do it than if Gregory asked them. If Gregory asked them they’d run away and have nightmares.

After I’d chalked on the walls, my job was to collect him from the pub and take him to the pier. Depending on how boozed he was, Gregory would either climb or stumble up the stepladder and then stand at the top, swaying in the wind, waiting for me to pour petrol on the water and add a flaming rag to set a patch of sea alight.

Then, he’d raise his arms and throw himself into the flames.

The most important part of my job, ‘the most important thing’, was to pass the purse around while Gregory waded ashore. I’d collect what money I could from whatever on-lookers there were and then he’d take it all and squelch back to the pub leaving me to pack up the ladder and retrace my steps and wipe away each fading notice of our passing.

I first met Gregory when I tripped over him under a pier. I was a runaway and I had run and run until there was no more land to run on. I was thirteen and he could have been any age between forty and eighty because he looked mummified, like all the moisture had been sucked from his face. I assumed he was dead when I fell over him, and I was all right with that, but then he woke up and saw me and scrambled away.

He thought I was a demon of death come to take him down to hell. I told him I wasn’t a demon of death come to take him down to hell. I told him I’d never even heard of a demon of death. I also told him he didn’t need to worry because there wasn’t any hell anyway, it was all a con – and even if there was a hell, then this was probably it. So he didn’t need to worry because he was already there. Then he told me he was a fire-diver; a great fire-diver; the Greatest Fire-Diver That Had Ever Lived. And he said if I had any money I could be his assistant.

I said I’d pay him back when I did.

We travelled from one seaside town to another, in season and out, bumming lifts from anyone who would take us. I was in charge of the ladder and the chalk; Gregory was in charge of the money and the drinking. He used to be in charge of the petrol too, but he tried to drink some of it one night while I was asleep and almost set us alight, so I took on that job too. I got the petrol by syphoning it out of old cars or begging from garages. The chalk I stole from toy shops which was a mean thing to do, but I always left an IOU with Gregory’s name on it.

We slept under piers. I liked hostels but Gregory thought they’d steal our ladder and anyway, he said he preferred the outdoor life. I didn’t mind. Lots of people sleep under piers and I usually tied the ladder to me just in case.

One day we arrived at a seaside town whose pier was just a piece of wood jutting into the waves. We had enough money for one bottle of beer. Gregory found an empty pub down a side-street and I left the ladder and the petrol on the floor beside him and went out with my chalk. It wasn’t much of a town and no-one was around so it wasn’t long before I was back.

We sat in silence and I’d almost fallen asleep when the barman came over. He shook me and said, “This ain’t a refuge.”

“I’m with him,” I said.

“Not in here you’re not.”

He held my arm and pulled me up but I stumbled against the ladder and fell over. Something stirred in the corner: it was Gregory, surfacing, rising from the deep. I think he was coming to save me but he wasn’t very steady and he was getting his words mixed up and even I couldn’t understand what he was saying, and the barman probably thought he was about to be sick, so he said to him,

“You can get out too.”

At this Gregory reared up like that old prime minister during the war, taking on the world, and said, “Never!” and then he sat down and missed his chair and landed on the floor beside me. I got up and helped him up too, and together we left. The barman threw the ladder and the bottle of petrol onto the road and it smashed, and we sat on the pavement and huddled together like two monkeys who’d had a fright.

“Here you are,” I said. I’d smuggled out his bottle of beer. He drank it and then I said,

“Come on, it’s time.”

He looked at me with fear and wonder on his face and whispered, “What time?”

“Time for the show,” I said. And then I looked at the smashed bottle. “I have to get more petrol first.”

But Gregory said, “It doesn’t matter.” And his voice made me feel sad.

At the pier, only an old lady with a little white dog was waiting for us. I set up the ladder but before I’d finished Gregory just ran straight up it and raised his arms to the wind.

“Not yet,” I said. “I haven’t checked the position.”

But he didn’t wait and dived over the side of the pier, diagonally, almost missing the sea completely and landing in shallow water.

“You silly idiot,” I shouted.

I ran down to where he was lying in the sand. He looked like a pile of discarded clothes. He was quite still. I lifted his head and pushed my cheek against his. His face was like a cold slab of stubbly, sandy stone.

“Oh no,” I said. “Gregory.”

We lay together in the cold, foamy water while the waves washed around us. The old lady’s little dog ran onto the beach and licked our heads and waited for us to move.

We didn’t move for ages.

And then a wet muffled voice said to me, “Have you passed that purse around yet?”

THE END


Published:

  • Rattle Tales 4. June, 2016. (ISBN: 978-0-9932080-2-7).
  • London Journal of Fiction. March, 2016.
  • Artwork: London Journal of Fiction.

Book launch deferred

bookshelfDarn – Happy Family‘s book launch can’t happen on April 25th. But it’s not cancelled, just deferred. We’re moving it to when we can all gather and mingle in safety. Details to follow.

In the meantime, keep buying books (especially mine), support your indie bookseller and most importantly #staysafe and #stayathome.

Happy Family: bloggers’ reviews

Screen Shot 2020-01-27 at 18.07.26Happy Family has completed its blog tour and the results are in. Huge thanks to all of the book bloggers, and to Anne Cater who arranged the tour.

Blog tour reviews:

You can read other reviews of Happy Family on Goodreads and Amazon – and if you have read the book, please leave a review too. They all help.

Happy reading.

 

Facebook school friends: let’s move on

Version 3I am in contact with only two of my schoolfriends. By contact, I mean we actually meet face to face – until the UK’s COVID-19 lockdown, that is. Now we Zoom/Houseparty/WhatsApp or whatever other App has become a verb.

Anyway, two out of about a hundred isn’t exactly a good social record, and I can’t say I haven’t sometimes wondered what happened to everyone else. Having more past than future can make one twitchy, like being the last one at a party and wondering where everyone else has gone.

And then, while I was swiping through newsfeeds and TikTok videos and articles on why I shouldn’t stare at my phone, I stumbled upon a Facebook group dedicated to my school’s alumni – and there they all were (well, most of them), my classmates: the good, the bad and the extremely naughty; all grown-up.

Judging by their posts, they haven’t aged at all – but the Facebook photographs suggest otherwise. We look like our parents and some of us look like our grandparents. Especially me. Gravity takes its toll and the weight of years has led to dodgy knees and bald heads – or is that just me again?

DEQIE7754I found myself reflecting on what life may have thrown at these once young, hopeful, excited people, some of whom I knew when I was five. Joining the dots between then and now is a sobering exercise in existentialism. Too sobering for a Friday evening. Hence the Gargle Blaster.

Not everyone in my year has joined the group and most of those who have, dip in and out. I didn’t join and I can’t explain why. Perhaps it’s the same reason we lost contact in the first place: the bonds aren’t strong enough. Or perhaps I’m just plain antisocial – which seems more likely. Interestingly, those with whom I have kept in touch don’t appear in the group either. I’m not sure what that says but I think it says something. Perhaps we died and no-one told us.

There are, however, a few who post comments all the time, feeding discussions of school memories with an enthusiastic regularity. The irony is I remember these people as being the keenest to leave school. I have a sneaking suspicion that a few might prefer who they once were to who they are now – or perhaps it’s vice-versa, they see a chance to rewrite history by replacing their old self with a modern version. Time, the great leveler. Be nice now and people might forget what an awful shit you once were. Top tip: that doesn’t work.

That’s a bit mean, but certainly friends I remember being pushed to the fringes of playground society are now in cheerful discourse with those who pushed them there. That’s good and long may it continue, but I wonder if this social re-balancing would last were we all to be physically reunited for more than a day or two. It’s hard to imagine Piggy sharing rose-tinted memories with Roger and Jack on their post-apocalyptic Lord of the Flies Friends’ page. ‘Do you remember that lovely time you stole my glasses and then dropped a boulder on my head?’

Talking of Piggy, I was hoping to find some posts about me but disappointingly my name seldom crops up. I am so absent I had to check I actually went to that school. It seems I left little or no impression on anybody which is odd because I have a clear recollection of being extraordinarily popular. Too bad that’s a memory nobody else shares. Not even my friends.

However, other, darker, memories are posted. Complaints of casual racism, chronic bullying and punitive abuse by teachers. But just as casually, any attempt to discuss these traumas are closed down with comments such as ‘that was then and this is now’ and ‘it’s best to move on.’ Best for whom, one wonders? And move on to what? Voices unheard all those years ago remain unheard; the idyll is not to be broken. I am reminded that it is dangerous to be different. That is true now and it certainly was then.Screen Shot 2020-05-17 at 12.24.37

And so the posts return to safer ground with questions such as ‘who was your favourite teacher’ and ‘what music did you dance to’. I liked to head-bang to progressive rock but that’s not something I’d want to share with the group. Or should. We all have our murky secrets.

I have a platonic relationship with the past. I don’t want to forget it but I also don’t want to relive it. I would jump at the chance to be sixteen again (knees permitting), but only if I could take my current mind with me. I suppose like most people I am trying to walk up Time’s down escalator.

And being social media migrants means we should be careful about getting too carried away in an online world. We might forget this jaunt down memory lane is in reality a public and open forum. Feelings can be hurt, confidences broken, libel laws breached. Worse still, we might encourage each other to wear cheesecloth again.

One day we will all know everything about everyone. There will be no secrets and the past will sit side-by-side with the present. Only the future will remain unknown and unknowable, as COVID-19 has demonstrated. But that’s how it should be. ‘That was then and this is now’ is indisputably true, but it’s tomorrow that interests me. Especially as I hope to be in it.

A few comments on your response to my complaint

From: James Ellis
To: <Customer Care>
Subject: Re:
Complaint – unused deposit taken [ref:_99DFT6200_gtDDS529:ref]
Date: 10 Mar 2020, at 08:27

Dear <Customer Care> – a few comments on your response to my complaint. From one writer to another.

Best,
James.
—————————–

From: <Customer Care>
To: James Ellis
Subject: Re:
Complaint – unused deposit taken [ref:_99DFT6200_gtDDS529:ref]

On 9 Mar 2020, at 15:03, <Customer Care>  wrote:

Hello James Ellis !

JE – An exclamation mark! Did you just leap out from somewhere? It does make it look as if my name has been automatically inserted, though. And seriously, neither of us are that excited. Go for a comma, or a full stop (period). Or even (heaven help us) a semicolon. Anything but an !

Thank you for contacting <Customer Care>.

JE – Well, that’s okay. But I would have preferred not to have had to. This is where you need to insert your apology.

The inconveniences you experienced are not acceptable to our standards.

JE – Nor mine. This is going really well. But it would have been better if you actually referred to my complaint here. Can you automate that in some way?

I want you to know that the comments and suggestions we receive are taken seriously.

JE – And I want you to know I expect nothing less. But strictly speaking, it’s neither a comment nor a suggestion. It’s a complaint because you have taken my money unnecessarily. And, in my opinion, the ‘I want you to know’ is too intense.

They tell us what we’re doing right, what we’re doing wrong and how we can improve.

JE – Yes, but it’s not all about you. It should also tell you I am dissatisfied. See above comment. This is now revealing itself as a generic response and the initial goodwill I had is receding. No mention of my specific complaint yet.

Your willingness to share your recent experience is genuinely appreciated.

JE – If you’re trying to mollify me, it’s coming across as me being patronised.

Please accept my sincere apologies.

JE – Hey, there it is. But it’s buried. This should be at the top of the email.

Be assured that any and all of the issues you’ve raised will be addressed, and that appropriate action will be taken. I have opened a Customer Service file, to document your comments, which will be reviewed by the department in charge to ensure that such incidents do not occur in the future.

JE – Great. This is what we want – some action. Please can I see your Customer Service File after it’s been reviewed so I can see how you will ensure this doesn’t happen again. That is, taking my money unnecessarily and the 5-10 working days to repay it. If I can’t see it, then you need to rethink the purpose of this paragraph. And I’d be careful using the word ‘ensure’. Someone might hold you to that.

If you should need any further assistance, please feel free to reach out to us again by replying to this email.

JE – See comments above. Hope they are of some help.

Kind regards,
eye