Friday, 28 March 2008

No refunds

He was practically having to drag his heavy limbs up the old staircase that led from the station platform to the high street.
Lucas’ body didn’t seem to work anymore. Occasionally, he fantasised about returning it. He would demand to see the manager in order to request an explanation as to why he’d been given faulty goods.
Sometimes the poor shop assistant would shrug and shake her head, confusedly asking how she could possibly help him with the problem of his failing limbs. Other times she would grow angry and threaten to call the police or, worse, extract an axe from behind the counter and offer to remove the offending extremities herself.
This last fantasy would always bring him out of his bitterness with a wry grin. “Lucas,” he’d say to himself, “it’s high time you got over yourself and learnt to be happy again.” After such reflection, he might smack his shin with his cane and continue the difficult walk to wherever it is life had dictated he needed to be going.
The staircase at the station was always a struggle. Of course there was a ramp to the side, for women with pushchairs and cripples in wheelchairs. But Lucas would always forego the leisurely stroll that took one under the high street and then slowly up a sheltered ramp to reach the town’s bus terminal.
His friend, Elizabeth, told him that he was just a stubborn man, a stubborn man who wouldn’t accept the help that society was prepared to offer him. But, to Lucas, the prospect of the long walk up the gloomy concrete ramp was a pointless exercise - a waste of his valuable time. Why should he go out of his way like that only to have to double back, practically right back to the station entrance, so that he could then begin his journey home in earnest?
No, better to take the shortest route, the route any other clear-minded individual would surely opt for. Expert use of his cane, the hand rail, and his legs would soon see him to street level.
All this week, the road outside the station’s ticket office was being resurfaced. For this reason, orange plastic fencing had been set up along the edge of the road, beyond the head of the stairs, where Lucas usually crossed the road.
He usually crossed the road where it was safe to do so - at a designated pedestrian crossing - the only one on the long high street. Without this aid, crossing the road had become more of a climb for Lucas than the old staircase.
Lucas was a man, a grown man, with 35 years’ experience on this planet. Surely he could cross a road, without the assistance of lights that stopped the traffic for him.
The station entrance had an ornate shelter extending out from it that might have dated to before the Second World War. Lucas hovered at the edge of this awning and allowed the many shoppers and commuters to brush and bump him. He regarded the plain grey sky. He regarded the dark tarmac road. He watched the puddles still drying from yesterday.
This man, Lucas, then strolled out into the late afternoon and followed the flow of life as best he could, wending its way down the street.
He stopped, every now and again, to examine the traffic and the chances offered to cross the tarmac river before him. Here a young boy darted between the stop-start cars, there a lone woman stepped out into the street and put her hand up against the movement of the wheels and metal, parting them Moses-like. Lucas shook his head and coughed into his cupped hand.
A bald man shunted by Lucas with two young girls on his arms, dragging behind him. He was eager to cross, and they were dallying, fearful of the road and the bald man’s need to reach the other side. Lucas saw that these children knew this just wasn’t the way to cross a road.
So he sat down. Sat down on the kerb and waited. He picked up a twig and drew patterns across his reflection in the puddle he found there in the road.
A homeless man tapped Lucas on the shoulder and asked if he was okay. He said that he was. That he was just waiting.
So that’s what he did. He waited, and he thought damn hard about how he might go about the difficult process of one day returning his body.


If you liked the tale, you might just enjoy this one too:
The downpour

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Turning the girl

I went to a party the other day.
As a party it was a failure because nobody turned up except, that is, for the hosts and an unusual couple. One was a fat guy with a shaved head, the other an attractive woman with nice breasts.
Did I mention that she was a lesbian? Well she was, apparently, gay as they come and yet it still came as quite a surprise to me when I found out that she wasn't actually going out with the fat boy on the couch next to her.
Well, as the night went on, the girl and I drank and ate and grew warmer towards each other. We sang songs on a karaoke machine. It was fun; we duetted, we duelled.
She pulled me up and demanded I dance with her. She wanted us both to spin round in a certain way. I wanted to grab her and waltz. We did both.
Later, in the kitchen, that male friend of hers was trying to flirt with her as he had surely tried every day since he met her, thinking: "one day, one day I'll turn her!"
But she picked me out again, came close and whispered how we were the best singers in the room, and how we both knew it. I agreed, though I hadn't paid much attention to her voice.
She came to me again, complimenting me on my singing, asking after a band she'd heard I was in. I said I just did a bit of backing vocals - nothing much. At this she scorned me, complimented, castigated and cajoled me. Sought me to go further, to do more, to fight my way to the front and really perform.
She asked me to show confidence. How she knew I lacked this I'm not sure. I mean, I showed no reticence at singing in front of these strangers earlier.
"And no drinking!" she exclaimed. Dutch courage, it seemed, was not a part of her plans.
Yet all I was thinking was how close she came, how she touched me, how she regarded me. Like there was no-one else in the room.
Ah, I see, you say she was drunk - and so she was. Of course, you're right! That's all it was.
She asked me if we could sing one more song together - Unchained Melody. We didn't need to read the prompting words, we simply looked and sang into each other's eyes. It was beautiful and we were rightly applauded.
When it was time for me to leave, I said my goodbyes and sought her out. She was in the garden, smoking. I said goodbye to her, bent to her face and kissed her slowly, gently, on the lips. She smiled, told me I'd be famous when next we met.
I left the house thinking: one day, one day I'll turn her.


If you enjoyed the tale, have a look at this one: Silver.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Spring awakens

It was to be a happy day for our family, a joyous morning. In the night, my mother had given birth and I found my baby sister sleeping soundly in my father’s arms as I descended the stairs for breakfast.
Such a beautiful and pure sight, this nameless gift bestowed upon our family. As a young girl I stood in silence, my face inches from where both babe and father slept, and allowed my senses to drink deep the new life before me.
Just as my nose was about to brush the forehead of my tiny sibling I realised my father had stirred. His stern, sad eyes told me to return to my room and let the household rest, for now.
It was spring today. I could tell from the buds forming on my favourite tree, which snaked across the window of my bedroom. Looking out onto the fields to the front of the cottage I noticed that the furrows of the soil, often crisp with morning frost, were clear and brown today.
Some way north of the cottage, perhaps a quarter of a mile into the vast network of fields was a drainage ditch. This was somewhere father told us never to play near because it was a dangerous place, a place that could suck you down forever. I stared hard today at that ditch, because slowly clambering forth from the hollow was the body of a small girl, about my own age.
It was difficult to see if she was clothed, but even from this distance it seemed her body was tinted green, like the summer grasses. With childhood wonder I pinched at my skin and rubbed at my eyes: two more children, two boys, were following her from the ditch. Each carried the same strange green hue.
I planned to watch their antics some more but froze and tingled with juddering spine as I noticed the girl staring at the cottage, at the window, at me.
I remember now, that stare seemed to bore right into me, encouraging my pulse to pump the blood faster throughout my entire body. Adrenaline flooded my brain and thoughts and sounds pulsed in my mind, strange enticing thoughts. I opened my bedroom window and stepped onto the ledge.
The spring breeze of morning seemed to whisper to me to hop onto the friendly bark of my tree. Though I was no climber, I managed the difficult clamber along and among the branches and down to the dewy ground. Through the main window of the house I saw my father and sister asleep, but they seemed very far away now and getting farther by the second.
I was skipping at first, joyously bouncing towards the murky ditch in the middle of the crumbly fields. Running, with joy in my heart, to meet the green children.
“It is spring, run, jump to us,” came their voices, clear now in my head. “We awake unto new life. We hunger. We are sorry.”
When I cleared the last of the sparse hedgerows I came upon them, standing in a line, expressionless. I found that I knew their names. Petandral, the oldest boy; Leanlo, his sister; Gerrent, the young brother.
Without sound, I was instructed to lay myself in the soil before them. They placed their green hands upon me. The cold flame of winter that passed through me then saw me howl like a soul in the pit.
Slowly my eyes readied to close for the last time as the children stripped the life from me. As peace descended upon my body, the blooming scent of lilies and white daffodils filled my nostrils. The ice chill at once departed and the warmth of summer filled my bones. I saw my mother stood next to me and she offered me her hand. The green ones had retreated and were waiting patiently at the edge of the ditch, their eyes fixed only on me.
“Go home Sophie, quickly now,” said my mother, and I nodded. As I ran home a thick fog descended from the moors to the west of the fields and the rooks cawed their approval.
It soon engulfed the fields behind and our own small cottage ahead, but I knew the way home and the cries of Leanlo bidding me return to her were easy to ignore.
As I passed through our front door I was at last able to scream. The thick fog had dared to pass a little into the parlour with me, but dissipated as my newborn sibling woke and shrieked.
My screams only subsided when I dived onto my bed and bit the pillow hard. I shed such tears, tears for my dead mother that day. Such fearful tears of the cold she had passed into.
Father and I never spoke about the night my mother died in childbirth. There was an understanding that nothing would be said between us.
But it is a horror unknown to children that I endured every day of my adolescence. To know the temperature of the hollow hand of death, and understand how it would all have felt to my mother, at her last moment and perhaps ever after...
It is an almost unbearable knowledge that Leanlo and her brothers cursed me with on that first day of spring.


This tale is a sequel, of sorts, to my very first tale... Winter Quakes

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Dinner with Dean

I picked Dean up from work today. I figured I owed him that much for how he’d been with me and, besides, him and Angie had just split up and I knew he could do with the company.
I emailed him in the day and said I’d buy him dinner later. Would pick him up around 5:15pm. Don’t be late, I said.
He wasn’t late. There he was, standing in the cold without a coat on. He didn’t recognise the car and I realised I’d never driven him anywhere in it before. We’d always met up on the train or in bars, never needed a car before.
I pulled up close to the kerb, facing the oncoming traffic, and wound down the window. It was still light, but the sky was a dishwater grey and the rain had begun to fizz down. Dean said later that the raindrops felt pretty cold on his face.
He seemed surprised to see me, did old Dean. Said he imagined I’d have a bigger car, a silver one. I replied that I only needed a small one, and the colour didn’t matter to me. He sloped round the back and got in the front passenger seat. I didn’t know how he’d be, and I suddenly worried I wouldn’t know what to say.
He saw that we were facing the wrong way. “Has this thing got full airbags?” That’s the first thing he said and I cracked up, just like if we were at a bar, or on the train going out to meet our girls. He started laughing too and I turned the car around when the road was clear enough.
“You want to come back to mine?” I asked him. “There’s not much in, but we could order a pizza, watch TV, hit the Playstation maybe?”
He shook his head. “Mind if we drive for a bit, drive up to Southport?” I didn’t know what there was to do in Southport, but it was only half an hour away, so I agreed.
On the way I tried to talk to him a bit, asked him what he was up to in work, did he see the game on Sunday? He answered but he could barely tear himself away from the side window. I don’t know what was so interesting out of that window.
When we got to Southport the rain had eased off and the sun was doing that thing with the clouds that makes it look like heaven’s coming through. I parked by the seafront.
The tide was out, but it was coming back in. We both got out and held onto the red metal rails in front of the beach and braced ourselves against the wind.
Gulls were weaving and filling their wings like sails so that it seemed at times they were flying backwards. We pointed things like this out to each other and then wandered along the front to where the van selling burgers was parked. We asked the man there for extra onions and mustard, to give the food some taste. Then we strolled back to exactly where we were before but braced ourselves with one hand now, ’cos we were eating.
The heavens opened as I was finishing the last of my burger. We had to scramble back into the car. We got extra wet because I couldn’t find the button which opens all the doors.
Inside the car I could see that Dean was crying. It took me a few seconds, but I heard him sniffing the tears back. I asked him if he was okay and he said he was, but he kept crying. I looked at the steering wheel and thought about putting the keys in the ignition. I put them in, but I didn’t start the car.
Instead, I turned to Dean and hugged him for as long as he wanted me to.
He said some things in that time, some of which I heard, some I didn’t. Then, when he was ready, he somehow made it clear that I could break off.
On the way back we listened to the radio. I dropped him off at his mother’s house. As he got out he looked back in and thanked me for dinner.
“It was only a burger,” I called back, but he’d turned round already and gone on into the house.


If you enjoyed the tale, you might like this one... The Kraken Sleeps

Monday, 24 March 2008

We sinister saviours

On a fully thick and glutinous night, I set out to find Him.
The college needed a specimen of such importance that I was charged with accompanying the resurrectionists this time.
They were the darkest of thieves. I’d paid them before for their finds; spied them huddled in doorways and crouching under the city’s many shadows, their bodies covered always in long coats and reeking.
Boldly would they drag their wares through the finest of London’s streets - past properties whose residents would shudder and turn green should they guess what was carried on their backs - and visit myself or like-minded colleagues under the pitchest cover of night.
These people were fairly despised, but they were efficient workers and would be paid handsomely for the best specimens. We’d take whatever they offered though, and children would be paid for by the foot.
This night I walked down St John’s Street until I reached Islington Back Road. Here the gang seeped from a side passage, death enshrouding their furrowed brows and cursed hands, and swept me southwards across the river to the parish graveyard of St Saviour’s.
“My old woman’s been at the church today. Seen the funeral of the baker’s lad, James Reed. Just dropped yesterday, so he still looks right. Should be what you want.”
I nodded and they creaked open the great rusting doors guarding the cemetery. As the metal hinge whined we winced as one. Our group then poured through the gate, into blasphemy.
I followed close by the leader and as we neared the burial mound I saw the flash of blades drawn by two of the gang who circled some bushes and met the grave from the side. “Sometimes there’s resistance,” said the leader, who was perhaps a father, working with his sons and their friends.
“A loved one might wait and guard the grave against the likes of us, and the likes of you, I suppose, sir. Don’t want damnation for their husband or wife, see, by you chopping ‘em up and seeing how they work.”
I tried to fix him with a poisonous glare for the affront, but this was his kingdom and I wilted as he smiled.
The skilled gang set to work on the fresh grave with wooden spades. While toilsome, these tools were silent and wouldn’t alert a watchman or local. They worked without noise for five minutes until one of the number whispered: “There’s straw in the ground here, Jack. Damn them.”
“Keep at it lad, nearly there,” came the leader’s reply. Business must have been poor for this baker, or else his father cared little for him, because his grave was laid little over one foot deep. The body snatchers dug a tunnel down to the head of the coffin, deftly hooked their implements under its lid and snapped it back to reveal the corpse.
At once splendid and awful, this man was revealed to us in all the power of death, with all the beauty of life. He was soon hauled from his tomb and stripped of his burial garments. A wedding ring was also removed and the pile of worldly goods dumped back into the coffin.
It may seem surprising to you that such vile criminals as these would show the respect of returning a wedding ring to the grave, while not flinching from extracting the flesh which wore it. But rest assured, the act is merely one which governs the safety of the gang from the full weight of the courts, for as long as they do not remove a man’s possessions or property from his person, then no laws have been broken by this robbery!
With the tunnelled earth recovered and replaced, it barely looked as though we had been there. The body snatchers wrapped the corpse in sacking and spread the weight between them, throughout the long journey to the college.
We stole through the narrowest, the dankest and the fetid-most streets. I swear, that night, I walked through regions of the city that never before existed. What netherworld we’d stumbled upon I dreaded to contemplate, but often I shivered to expect a confrontation with the foulest of demons or the devil himself.
But perhaps we had protection that night, for we had business with the divine.
On arrival at the college I paid the men the sum of £50, with the promise of a further £150, should the specimen prove as useful as they had suggested.
A servant rang the bell, which called the senior physicians to the operating theatre. We surgeon anatomists have a grisly reputation, as dealers in death, but we are merely in the business of saving lives. Firstly, however, we need to understand. To understand every one of you - every one of God’s dear creations - by opening you up to see how you work!
This body, though, was different. He had been acquired for a quite singular purpose and no analysis of his tissues and organs would be attempted. He must appear perfection.
On the floor beside the bench lay a six foot wooden cross. The body was immediately lain upon this structure. His arms and legs were arranged in the manner of crucifixion while I was handed the dreadful nails and the crushing mallet…
We raised the structure together, set it in place and stepped back to view the scene. Some were open mouthed in awe, their eyes shuddering; others simply shook their heads and returned to their beds.
After rigor mortis had fully set in, I understand the body was removed from the cross, boiled and the skin flayed. It was later transferred to another cross, which was erected in the drawing room of the Royal College of Art.
And here the body of James Reed has remained for forty years. A still-life study in the anatomy of a crucifixion. The model of utter realism for the finest painters of the 18th century to depict an anatomically precise image of the passion and death of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.
The baker’s son. He was a perfect specimen.