Friday, 4 April 2008

On going mad

It was when I realised that I stared at people’s faces on the train that I first realised I might be going mad.
The train was cramped. Sweat stuck bodies pushed up closer than they should ever be while clothed.
I moved down the carriage, away from the doors, just like the recorded voice of the polite and well-spoken women told me to. I stood and held myself against the swaying of the train by grabbing onto the top of someone’s seat.
They eyed me uncomfortably, uncertainly, but what could I do? I looked away.
Everyone tries to avoid eye contact on the train. You don’t want to be the one who is unfortunate enough to make eye contact with the stranger, the mad one who wants to make some sort of stilted, pointless conversation.
So people look elsewhere. At a book or newspaper if they’re lucky enough to have one. Otherwise, it’s the window for them. Safe, so long as you don’t find yourself looking past someone else, because that person might think you’re actually looking at them!
I think I noticed everyone was doing this at the same time I realised I was staring right at the head of a woman seated below me. I was looking at how her grey hair was thinning. I noticed the tight lines running into her eyes and the make-up she thought might hide them.
She may have noticed me out of the corner of one of these eyes, but thankfully she kept up the pretence of reading.
I thought this a quite strange thing for me to be doing. There’s no way I wanted to speak to the woman, no chance that I found her attractive, so why was I staring at her so intently?
I glanced around the carriage. Faces looked familiar. I realised that I’d stared at many of these people before. The colour of their blouse, the hair on their arms, the scar on their lip, the way they bent their knee.
Had they noticed me doing this, when it had barely registered with me? Did they think I was mad. “Oh no, there’s that mad staring guy. Hope he doesn’t sit… too late!”
I asked a girl about this, over dinner. I was lucky because I remembered her name, unlike the last time I went out. It was Samantha.
I told her all about it, about what goes on - on the train. Was I quite mad? I thought I was mad, I said. Have I been doing it tonight, to other patrons of the restaurant we were in? To her, even?
She shifted uncomfortably. She tried to change the subject. She could tell she wasn’t going to get away with it, so she offered a little of herself.
“Well, this might sound a little bit strange too, but I’ve never been on a first date before.” I looked at her, squinted a little and bit my bottom lip.
“You know,” she said, “like on a proper date with someone, before.” My squint faded and my lips changed shape so that it was impossible to bite them anymore. I started laughing, in quite a hearty manner. She had tickled me with that remark.
“You’re thirty-two aren’t you?” She nodded and looked at her lap. This made me laugh some more.
After ten more seconds she went over to the maitre d’, asked for her coat and left.
I don’t know whether it was the fact that she’d never been on a date before that made me lose it, or whether it was because she thought telling me about it would make me feel better.
I suppose, it could just be that I’m going mad. I might leave it a few days and then call her and see what she thinks.


If you liked the tale, have a look at this one: Stranger Tom.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

The carcass

“No, Heather. A Dunlin is another type of bird - not an Olympic event.”
Greg was taking a twenty-strong class of mostly ten year olds on a school nature trip.
“Now, there are lots of other birds we can see on the sands at low tide, so be on the lookout for curlews, oystercatchers, redshank and plovers.”
The school, Holy Trinity Primary, was within a five minute walk of the sea dunes. The dunes took only another five minutes to cross.
And then, there was the beach. A few miles of golden sand, leading north until the estuary turned it to mud.
“Anyone know how we would categorise these specific birds?” asked Greg. There came silence, and perhaps a giggle. “No? Well they’re all wading birds, okay everyone - they’re w-ay-ding birds.” Greg explained the pronunciation of this classification to the children as simply as he could, but he never thought to explain what the verb ‘to wade’ actually meant.
Greg wasn’t much of a teacher. He’d suggested this morning trip to the beach because it would get him out of the school for an hour. School was the place where he was monitored. School was the place where he could be exposed as a charlatan.
One thing he was sure he knew about, however, was birds. He had already dropped into staff room conversation his knowledge and love of nature and biology. If he could instil some knowledge about these winged creatures into the children then it could benefit him immensely. He couldn’t fail to look good if another teacher heard a member of this young class comment on the ringed plover or the grey heron they had spotted earlier.
“Mr Cedar taught us that.” That’s what they’d say…
The kids, meanwhile, listened and waited quietly, merely in eager anticipation of him turning around. When the tall man turned around they could continue their journey across the beach; continue to kick and shlump through the wet sand. They all had their wellies on.
One of the girls got her boot caught in the sand and started crying. Greg called: “Hang on,” and then went back to help her. He was thinking that maybe he should have brought another teacher along.
As he pulled the child up to her feet, he realised that some of the other children had continued to walk along the beach, unsupervised.
“Stop right there, all of you!” he shouted.
“Sorry Mr Cedar,” came the sing-song chorus of replies.
“Mr Cedar, Mr Cedar.” Two boys were calling him and pointing back towards the dunes.
“Look sir, look. There’s a dead thing on the beach.” Greg looked, and saw that indeed there was a strange mass of flesh about 150 yards away from them, on the drier sand.
Greg scanned around the beach but saw that it was deserted, at least on this stretch. The children had already cooed and yucked at the thing. The braver of the group were beginning to ask if they could go and see what it was.
“Yes, children. Now wait for me.” Greg had made up his mind to investigate, before the questions came.
The teacher slowly led the way to the fleshy mound, a line of children following after him in a snaky line, walking in pairs.
Part-covered with sand and receiving the attention of a number of flies, there lay a strange creature. The blobby shape before them did not have the appearance of any creature Greg had ever seen. It seemed to have been well stripped of flesh at some points, as if every fish in the ocean had had a nibble!
The children were suitably amazed, and they stood in silent awe long enough for Greg to circle the beast. There was no mouth or eyes. Just some grey-white skin, rank mounds of fat and what could once have been a tail.
“What is it, sir?”
“Is it a sea monster?”
“I think it’s a mermaid.”
It was difficult to tell how long this thing was. It really just looked like a blob. That’s all Greg could think it was. A blob.
The children were getting anxious for an answer. Some of them looked upset by the corpse before them and a couple of these children were often prone to tears. Greg eyed them with particular concern. He had to speak now, with reassurance and authority.
“What this is, children,” spoke Greg, with a degree of nonchalance that managed to surprise him, “is nothing more than a great gilled blobfish. It’s quite common, they wash up all the time on UK beaches.”
“A blobfish?” The name whispered around the group. Some, now reassured, fished mobile phones out of coat pockets and began snapping the strange dead animal on built-in cameras. Greg soon moved the children on, calm and collected, back to the shore and the wading birds.
Greg wondered if the children would tell anyone about this trip and the wonderful wildlife he’d shared with them.
Later that week there were photographs in the local paper of the strange creature that had washed up. Marine biologists (so said the article), had confirmed that the remains of a pilot whale had washed up there on the beach.
The paper had, apparently, first called in the experts after parents of local schoolchildren forwarded images from their children’s mobile phones, taken of a strange creature found on a school trip. This creature, according to their biology teacher, Mr Gregory Cedar, was called a blobfish.
There were many calls to the school after the article was published, and the name of Mr Cedar was mentioned often in the course of these conversations. Some calls suggested he be sacked, some calls just ridiculed him. A national newspaper even picked up the story, leading with the headline: “How can we trust what is taught to our children?” - it certainly made for an amusing morning read.
It was later decided, in a joint meeting between the headteacher and the school governors, that Mr Cedar should not be sacked. Rather, he should be supervised and monitored at all times over the course of the next six months. At the end of this period, a decision on his future would be made.
Mr Cedar received this notification by letter marked ‘Private and Confidential’. After a short period of consideration, Gregory Cedar decided it would be prudent for him not to attend school the following day, or any day after that.


If you liked this tale, have a look at this one: Stephen's Ward

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Benny and Selby

"Keep Kinging it!" That's what Benny said to me, right before Selby smacked him on the kisser.
Selby was a ringleader, a strongman, a fleece-artist. Benny was a joker, a heel, a coward. He'd tell anyone what to do, so long as he didn't have to do it too.
Several days later though, Jake gets word to me that Selby's in the hospital. Seems someone plucked up the nerve to take a 9-iron to his skull. That day, my view of Benny changed forever. He's still a snake, sure. But he's a snake that's stopped rattling and learned to bite. That's a dangerous combination.
I was going to go and visit Selby at the hospital. He was kind of my friend, at least he offered me work. But I had to visit my brother and pick up some dry-cleaning, so it kinda never happened.
When I get home the answer machine is flashing and beeping at me. It’s Selby on the message, giving it his best gangster shtick. It always makes me laugh when he does that, like he’s in The Untouchables or something…
“So, okay kid. Listen, do me a favour won’cha? Tell Slick Molinsky that Selby the Flangeman's been looking for him. And make sure Benny don’t find out about this!
“You know Slick owes me doubles for the downlow on the big Honoloolie shipment? Well, someone's been telling Pratelli about the move too. You know how it is in the import racket, and someone's been playing the game without a net, if you catch my meaning?
“If it’s Benny then we’ll deal with him but, for now, keep away from that goon.”
Then there’s a beep and the message is done. Click, and the tape stops rolling.
I fall asleep wondering if there was actually a job hidden in that message. Something in there that I was meant to do. I worry about it a little, but not enough to keep me up.
I wake in the night. The phone’s going - must be 2, maybe 3am. I don’t pick up and it’s Selby’s voice coming through the machine’s speaker, leaving his little message.
“If you do catch up with Slick, check out the flooze hanging off his sleeveolas. Hip Benny told Tosca the Grouch that the hot panini is some junkie he won in a dice game. Looks like he scrubbed her up well. Wouldn't mind injecting into that marrow, if you catch my meaning?
“Until whenever, comanche.”
That’s it. That’s all he says. I wonder if he’s lost it, gone crazy or something. But I’m more worried now because maybe there’s something I need to get done and I’m lying in bed, not doing it.
I make the decision that I’m going to go to the hospital, later in the morning, and speak to Selby face-to-face. Try and see if we can’t work out what’s to do here.
So I get to the hospital early, say around 10am. I’m tired ‘cos I’ve been woken up in the night. I ask at the nurse's station where Selby’s room is, and she tells me that Mr Selby is no longer to be found at this hospital. That Mr Selby has been moved to a location where he can be cared for and given the specific attention he needs.
I’m pretty stunned. I thought he was losing it a little, but I figured he had enough sway, enough friends to save himself from being sectioned - no matter how hard Benny hit him with that club. Then I see something that made me realise the whole town’s turned on its head.
The nurse sees I’m concerned and offers to show me Selby’s papers, releasing him to the institution. There, in black ink, scribbled crudely at the foot of the form is the signature of Benny Maroney.
I leave the hospital in a daze. I feel like the whole world has changed overnight and I sit in my car and wonder what the hell I’m going to do for a minute. Soon my mind beeps and flashes that it’s ready, that it knows what to do.
First, I punch the wheel and swear a few times. Second, I put her in gear and set off round to Benny’s, to ask him if there’s any work going.


If you got a kick out of this tale, try The Caveat.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008


I remember the dining room in my parents’ house.
Growing up, there had been a beautiful upright piano standing against the white wall. One had to pull the chairs away from the dining table in order to gain enough space to play the thing.
I remember the upholstery on the mahogany stool, covering the seat cushion. An ornate design, it was almost oriental in its floral pattern and, as a young girl, I would trace the stitching with my small fingers. I would do this while I looked at and learnt my scales.
My mother would sometimes come and watch me at the piano. This would last a short while, before she would idle to the window and stare at it all, that green world we’d cultivated.
I can see her now, a never quite finished cup of coffee hanging loosely from one of her fingers. On Sundays she may sit instead, with a glass of red wine.
I would watch her while my hands leafed through the sheets of music my teacher had set for me to learn. She would never stir unless I stopped making noise, so I always made sure to accentuate any rustling of papers, any shuffling of my bottom on the seat.
My father never came into the room while I played. I was never sure he heard me play yet, often, as I would retire to my room while the table was set for tea, he would call out to me upon opening the dining room door: “Bravo, Lizzie. Bravo.”
And that would be enough to send me racing upstairs to curl up on my bed, my smile beaming, my little heart dancing. To see my father was something rare and, to be acknowledged by him, rarer.
One summer, when I was just eight years old, I was taken ill with a fierce fever. I was aware of very little during those two weeks and mother told me, years later, how I had come close to death.
I had often thought I saw a dragon in those days. I remember, a dragon whose shadow blistered the walls. Whenever he came, the room choked in heat and I would perhaps see the black slither of his tail, or his nostrils blowing out arrogant trails of smoke.
It was after one such struggle with this dragon that my father came alone to sit by my bedside. My mind had cleared and I was quite lucid, though too weak to raise a hand or open my mouth.
He sat there, just staring. Staring at me for a long while. His poor eyes seemed to be tracing every inch of my blanched face, mapping the contours of my cheeks and the patterns of my freckles.
I raised my eyes to meet his gaze with recognition and saw plump tears slowly well there, then trickle across his face and drip down onto his lap.
He sat there, perfectly still and upright, as if he were attending an important speech, or meeting a client in his office. Every inch of him remained stoic and exact, except for the slow-filling pools of his eyes.
My little heart danced there again, and I longed for him to hold my hand and stroke my hair, and not to stop until I fell fast asleep.


Hope you enjoyed the tale. This one is not unrelated in subject: An unquiet

Monday, 31 March 2008

Broken bodies

Outside, the rain lashed against the window pane and Jacqui would not look out, not for anyone.
Some time ago, the last time the moon shone, she’d seen a beast at her door. She watched it snaffle around for half an hour in the dustbins below her apartment and destroy much of the communal garden.
Later, on an internet forum, she described it as a brown furred creature, about two feet tall, quite happy standing on either two or four legs. The thing was said to have grunted regularly and seemed to be scavenging for food. When on two legs it hopped. When on four, it crawled and scraped with its sharp front claws. Spotted - so the post said - on Reliant Drive, Greathays, LL57.
And, just over a fortnight later, it returned. Jacqui sat near to the window and drank whisky from a shaking hand, listening to it scraping around outside. She listened until listening made her vomit.
The next morning the rain sprinkled a lazy drizzle upon her scalp while she bravely ventured outside to check upon the damage. Fantastic paw prints marked the flower beds but the eternal rain had washed clean the blood she expected to find on the concrete paving.
It was the neighbour’s cat she sought. Jacqui expected to find its broken body somewhere in the garden, so she didn’t bother to call out for it. Her search proved fruitless.
What a noise it had made last night. What a noise! I’d heard it myself and I live just across the street. Not the frustrated and frankly annoying evening call of a cat in season, or even the screech of a fighting Tom. No, this was the sound of evisceration in action.
It is by no means unusual for unknown creatures to be spotted at night. Since the last time it stopped raining I’ve viewed over one hundred weird sightings of quite bizarre biological specimens, all sadly online, however!
I’ve never been lucky enough to see one of these creatures in the flesh but, it seems, they are now common to our suburban streets, perhaps as common as the fox once was.
Soon after witnessing the painful demise of Timmy (a small grey feline of no particular breed who resided, at least some of the time, at 52 Reliant Drive), I was online and messaging Jacqui. Alerted, over a week earlier, by a link to a strange sighting in the same postal area as myself, I had been amazed to find both the close encounter and the spotter based on my street. A few posts later and Jacqui and I were emailing. Several emails on and we had moved to correspondence via instant message.
Strangely, despite our easy textual relationship, Jacqui never suggested a meeting, despite our living so close to one another and the general lack of one-to-one contact enjoyed by most adults today.
That said, two evenings after the cat had unleashed its unearthly howl I found myself invited to supper with Jacqui and, later, to share her bed during the storm-broken night. She clung to me then, shaking.
I had blood on my hands, but the rain soon washed it away. Lucky she never dared peek to see me that night, standing there beneath her window, the lightning exposing my drenched face. Standing there with Timmy and a hunting knife, and a desire to meet someone. A desire just to touch someone else in this life.
Now, is that really so unforgivable?


Enjoyed the tale? Then try this one: The hands of Mitch Gregory