Steve Trevelyan eyed the English Heritage inspector nervously, trying to keep in step as they walked around the building. Being a head teacher seemed to involve a lot of walking, thus far. You had to tour people around the school, pointing out bits of leaky roof where tiles had fallen off, peeling paint, patched-up walls, and grey artex-coated prefab huts where students steamed the windows and vandalised the desks . A lot of walking. The man from English Heritage was peering at a joist and scribbling something on his clipboard. Steve strained to see what it was, but then felt he might be being too obvious and straightened up, clearing his throat nervously. He hovered, hands behind his back. He didn’t feel like he was in charge of the situation. He was supposed to be the head- no, sorry, the principal, of this school. He would have to take control.
“So, what do you think?”
The man from English Heritage squeezed his lips together and nodded, rather like a plumber about to give the bad news about a boiler. A tweedy, bespectacled plumber.
“It’s certainly an interesting building. It would have been very innovative, at the time”
“In the 50s?” Steve asked, keen to appear in the know.
“Mm, exactly. The sad thing is that- as with a lot of modernist pieces of the time- it was done rather inexpensively. They used materials that wouldn’t last. Compounded by a complete lack of proper, planned maintenance”- there Steve felt the man’s tone to be rather accusatory- “you’ve got a building that’s just not fit for purpose”.
“Right”, Steve said excitedly. All he needed was for the man to give permission, and it would be showtime. Raze-it-to-the-ground-time. Shiny new academy time.
“Considering the poor quality of the original materials, and the damage to the structure, I shan’t be recommending that we attempt any preservation.”
Steve grinned broadly, and went to shake his hand. The man smiled and said,
“Of course I will have to contact the DCMS to say that we won’t be listing the building, and get three counter-signatories…”
But Steve was already imagining the glassy, sparkling new school, with his name on a gold plaque at the front gate: Steve Trevelyan: PRINCIPAL.
Unless you’ve been to a war zone, you simply can’t imagine how deafening the noise is. The same could be said, Steve mused, of lunchtime in a secondary school in East London. As he strolled importantly around the playground, students who were standing right next to each other spoke at mega-decibel. Girls jabbed fingers, spat words and kissed teeth. Boys over-reacted to cusses with an exaggerated roar. The pneumatic drill juddered skull-splittingly. The diggers hummed. It was almost unbearable. Still, it would all be worth it.
Later, as they crammed into the grubby old assembly hall for the last time, Steve gave his students what he felt to be inspirational messages to see them through the summer. Just a few years ago they’d had the riots, and he worried about what some of them got up to over the long, hot stretch. He spoke a lot about the new building, and how it would be a new start for the school, a new start for all of them. As the students streamed out of the front gates, ties off, shirts untucked, he felt a swell of love and pride for every single one of them. Except Tarelle Tucker, he frowned, as said student smirked past, arm slung round a year 9 girl.
Finally, it was all coming together. Steve was in school every day of that first week of holiday, signing off this and that, supervising the works. His wife was annoyed, but Steve secretly just enjoyed seeing it all happen. Talking to the workmen and hearing their plans. They were currently digging up the old foundations so they could lay brand new ones. Then, on the Friday afternoon, the foreman rapped on his office door. Steve beckoned him in.
“I think you’d better come and see this.” The man said, rather breathlessly.
No way. No sodding way, Steve thought. You’ve got to be kidding.
He was standing over a pit, underneath the wooden foundations of the old school building. Inside the pit was a pile of human bones. They were a tawny colour, blackened in places. He could clearly see skulls, ribs, feet, shinbones. How many there were, Steve could only guess. They were muddled together. He tried to count how many skulls he could see. Bits of jawbone poked through the muddy pile. There must have been at least twenty. God knows how deep it went.
“What should we do?” the foreman asked.
Steve knew what he was expecting him to say. Or rather, do. Call English Heritage. Call environmental health. Call someone. Hand this over to someone. But the thought of archaeologists and “experts” poring over these bones, dusting and bagging and photographing, filled him with anger. It would slow down the whole process. They definitely wouldn’t be ready in time for start of term. And what if they declared it a heritage site or something? Stopped the building work? No. He had promised those students. They deserved a new school. Years of leaking roofs, dingy, flickering lights, rotten beams-
He looked around.
“Who knows about this?”
The foreman looked surprised.
“Well, just- me. And Jay, and Kasper”, he said, gesturing to the other two workmen. “They’re the ones what found it”.
Steve looked down for a second. Then he said “can you get rid of all this?”
“Get rid of it. Take it all away.” Sensing a protest, he said more quietly, “I’ll make it worth your while”.
The foreman sniffed. “Well… How much?”
Steve thought for a minute.
“a hundred pounds each”?
The foreman looked across at the other two. Kacper shook his head. He started to mutter in another language.
“He’s Polish, innit?”
“Well, you know- religious an that. ‘E don’t want to disturb it”.
Steve thought again. He addressed Kacper in a clear, slow voice.
“If we call the heritage people they will come and put these bones in bags. They will do tests on them. They will put them in a museum. But if you take them, you can give them a proper, Christian burial. Hmm?”
Kacper frowned, then said in a perfect English accent,
“a hundred and fifty”.
They had a deal.
Steve’s mobile was buzzing in his suit pocket. He slipped it out and answered it.
“Where are you? It’s almost dark.”
“Just finishing off something”, he told his wife, as he watched Kasper and Jay lifting a sheet of blue tarpaulin into the back of a truck.
As Steve climbed into his BMW and shut the door with a satisfying thunk, it was starting to rain. Great. Now he’d have to listen to his wife say for the forty-eighth time that they should have gone away somewhere. Maybe they should, he mused, putting key in ignition. They could at least get a week somewhere sunny. The engine purred. He could stay in touch via email on his blackberry. He put the car into reverse, and as he glanced in his wing mirror he yelled, and spun around. There was no-one there. The back seat was empty. His hands gripped the steering wheel tight. He had seen a face. A pair of eyes, haunted and full of hate. And the face around them- it had been…he shuddered as he tried to picture it again. Cratered, disfigured… He shivered. He definitely needed a holiday.
Laura took a deep breath, and continued to write the learning objective on the board.
She knew exactly who was speaking. Davontae Brown. She had hoped this year he might be in someone else’s English class. No such luck.
“Ah man, this teacher…” he moaned, to no-one in particular. She took her time, doing a full stop. Be calm; be the adult, she told herself, and turned, saying in an even voice,
“Yes Davontae, what is it?”
“I need the toilet”.
He stared at her, challengingly. They both knew he had just come from a half-hour break-time. They both knew the rules said you couldn’t leave a lesson. They both knew. But if she refused, he would destroy her carefully planned lesson. How could she save face?
“Well, I am going to assume that you have chronic diarrhoea, Davontae, or you wouldn’t possibly ask to leave the learning environment.” She started to find the laminated hall pass.
He shrugged. “Need to go piss fam.”
There was a titter. Laura had lost the battle. On the first day back.
“Hurry up” she said, unconvincingly, as he sloped out, clutching the pass.
Steve caught sight of his tanned reflection in the glassy walls of his new office. He smiled. That fortnight in Mauritius had done him a world of good. He was looking great. The school was looking great. The staff were happy, and motivated. The students were happy and motivated. He smiled again, and opened his diary. Then he heard the scream.
They were working. Actually getting on with the task. Laura was amazed. She surveyed the room full of students- learning, engaged, abuzz- and nodded to herself, pleased. Perhaps this new building really was making a-
There was a furious, metallic scrambling sound. Davontae, at the door. This child, she thought. Even something as innocuous as opening a door he can turn into an act of disruption. The door swung open, and he threw himself into the room. She opened her mouth to rebuke him, when she saw the boy’s face. Something was very wrong. She had seen plenty of expressions pass over Davontae Brown’s face- defiance, boredom, disinterest, a sneer- but never this. Davontae Brown looked utterly terrified.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, stunned.
The boy just stood, rooted to the spot, trembling, staring, his breathing ragged. Then it was as if both of them suddenly became aware of the rest of the class, watching, dumbstruck. He visibly tried to shrug it off.
“Let’s step outside” said Laura, and started to usher him out.
“No!” he said, his voice suddenly a child’s, full of panic. There was a murmur of amusement in the class.
“What is it, Davontae? What happened?”
He shook his head. “Some ju-ju shit, man”, and kissed his teeth. The class laughed.
Laura angered. It had been perfect before he got back.
“Outside” she said, and this time she meant it.
“I just found her like this”, the PE teacher said to Steve, as they crouched next to the girl’s body.
“Have you called an ambulance?”
The PE teacher nodded. “ and Janet’s called her mum.”
“Has she fainted before?” Steve asked the group of girls standing around. They shook their heads and shrugged. He stood up.
“So what happened?”
A tall girl stepped forward.
“She just looked in the mirror, and then she screamed”.
An unkind-sounding murmur came from the back of the group. Steve ignored it.
“Did she say anything, or..?”
“She just started screaming, then she dropped.”
Suddenly, the girl started shaking violently. A spume of foamy spit started to bubble at her lips.
“She’s fitting”, said the PE teacher. “Get this lot away”.
The girls were crowding round, craning their necks and shrieking in fear and disgust. Steve swept them backwards. A siren wailed outside.
“What happened, Davontae?”
The boy looked around him, agitated, frowning.
“I went toilet.” He said sulkily.
“And?” Laura demanded.
“I had a piss, an’ then”- he took an unsteady breath- “I was just walking out, and I saw it, in the mirror”.
“Well, me. But…” he winced “my face, was all fucked up. Sorry”
She waved away the swear word. “How?”
“I don’t know, like- messed up- my eyes were red, man, like just red, it was nasty. And my skin was all”-
His fingers touched his cheek. For a moment, Laura thought he might cry. Gently, she said :
“Davontae, have you taken anything? Smoked anything?”
He looked at her sharply.
“Nah, man. Swear down”.
“Alright. It was probably just a trick of the light.”
Laura opened the door, and pointed to his seat.
What a week it had been.
Two girls in the hospital with mysterious hysterical disorders (that was what the doctor had said. “Hysterical”. Like this was a Victorian asylum or something.) Whispers in the corridors, and the staffroom. A year seven boy had wet himself rather than visit the toilets. The phones were ringing off the hook every morning with calls from worried parents. This was not how it should be. It made no sense to Steve. The psychological effect of the new building should be motivating, energising, calming. The architects had specifically made it light and airy. It was a beautiful school. Why was this happening? He rested his head in his hands.
There was a knock at the door.
It was a humanities teacher. A very religious African lady. He couldn’t be doing with-
She had popped her head round the door.
“I’ve actually got a meeting in a minute, so”-
“Some of the children are speaking in tongues Sah.”
Steve’s head went back to his hands.
Laura sat at her desk, refreshing her email. Nothing. Well, not from him, anyway. She sighed and dragged the pile of exercise books closer to her, then popped the lid off her red pen. The sun was sinking outside.
Steve quietly shut the door to the facilities office. He looked around. The school seemed pretty empty now. It was half past six.
He skimmed through the papers in the filing cabinet until he found what he was after. Spreading the map out on the desk, he pulled a pen out of his pocket. Where had it been? Roughly… here. He drew a blue X. Then he laid the acetate over the top.
His mouth suddenly felt dry, and he struggled for breath.
Just by the sports hall. That was where he’d found it. Right underneath the new toilets.
Laura frowned as she corrected “there” to “they’re”. She glanced at the clock. It was almost seven. How come everyone else seemed to have gone home? Did they do their marking in front of the telly? Laura couldn’t do that. Her housemates always distracted her, or spilt wine on the books. She clicked refresh on her emails. Nothing. Then she heard an almighty commotion.
What the hell was going on?
One of the cleaners had gone mad.
That much Steve could ascertain.
She was wailing and screaming and hitting one of the male cleaning staff. She was shouting. Steve couldn’t understand.
“Woah- woah- calm down, please”, he said, trying to step in. She was flailing wildly. Her eyes were wide and white, like a spooked horse.
“What’s she saying?” he said to the man.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. She not speaking Yoruba.”
One of the English department appeared. What was she called? Lucy? She was watching uncertainly.
“What happened to her?” Steve asked, as the woman rocked back and forth, clutching her tabard, moaning.
“She went to clean the toilet and then”-
The man held his hands up.
“Ok”, said Steve, rather nervously. “Can we call someone to come and get her?”
The man nodded. Steve felt suddenly rather sick. He needed to go home.
The English teacher was following him.
“If you don’t mind me asking- what the hell is going on?”
“I don’t know. Just- a few teething problems I guess.”
She wasn’t buying it.
“Why these toilets though? I mean- I can believe that the kids are winding each other up about it- but surely she doesn’t know? She’s from an agency, no?”
“Yes”, Steve said, irascibly.
“So she couldn’t have heard anything?”
“People talk”, Steve said dismissively, and started to walk off.
He stopped. “What?”
“She was speaking in medieval English.”
“I did my MA in Middle English. I’m pretty sure she was saying ‘qualm’. It means, well, death, sickness… plague. We still use the word now, though its sense has softened over time, so it…”
She trailed off. The head teacher was staring at her, with the same sweaty terror Devontae Brown had.
“What happened, Sir?”
“I didn’t know this would happen”, he said, his voice pricked and panicky. “I just- I knew if we reported it they’d…”
“The builders found some human remains.”
“They looked really old. I told them to take them away because I knew it would hold up the school. You have to understand, I was acting… I was trying to do the best for the kids…”
Whilst Steve jabbered on, Laura was thinking.
“How many were there?”
Steve swallowed. “Lots.”
“It was a plague pit.”
Steve looked at her uncomprehendingly.
“Every time there was a big outbreak, the Churches ran out of room to bury the dead. They dug huge pits and just flung people in. Well, the people who couldn’t afford to go elsewhere.”
“This is ridiculous,” Steve laughed grimly.
“There are accounts from the black death where families just rolled their sick relatives up in rugs or blankets and dumped them in the graves to die. Imagine that- lying there amongst a pile of rotting corpses.”
“Enough”. Steve started to walk away. “Go home; I’ll see you in the morning.”
Laura watched him depart, then shivered, and did as she was told.
An emergency assembly had been called. Steve needed to put a stop to all this. He stood on the stage, his plexiglass lectern gleaming.
Row by row, the students filed in. It was eerily hushed.
“Now I am sure you’ve all heard some of the rumours that are flying around, and I’d like to categorically state”-
He stopped. Looked at the faces in the front row. They seemed sweaty, blanched; like boiled sausages. He tugged at his collar, which was suddenly tight.
“To categorically state…”
Now the rest of the hall seemed pale, seemed bathed in a glistening sheen of sweat. The head of art, standing at the wall, had dark rings under the eyes, and was shaking. He looked like a crack addict.
“That there is nothing…”
A year seven started to splutter a bright spool of blood. It slowly dribbled to the floor. Steve pulled at his shirt. He looked around. Chairs scraped the floor as students trembled and rocked.
“Nothing at all…”
Every face he could see was changing. Huge blood-boils inflated and burst. Sores wept. Fingers and toes spotted, blackened. Sweat and blood ran rivers through the legs of plastic chairs.
Steve gave up on his speech. He looked around for a way out. Every exit was blocked. He glanced up at the high, green windows. If he could just clamber up…
The front row started to shuffle out of their seats. With blistered arms outstretched, they moved towards him. The next row followed, and the row after that, til they were closing in on him. He closed his eyes, and there was only blackness.
“What happened?” said Laura, watching the stretcher slide into the ambulance.
“He was giving a speech, and he just- freaked out” said the head of art, shrugging. “Started gibbering and staring at everyone, backing away. Then he got to the back of the stage and collapsed. It was so weird.”
“Is everyone else ok?”
“Well, it’s caused a bit of a ripple. Don’t expect he’ll be back as head now.”
“Well, yeah… having a breakdown like that, in front of all the kids? He’d never live that down. I expect they’ll let him go off on long-term sick, get Sheila to cover for him til they find someone else.”
“hmm” Laura said, “well. I’d better set up for next lesson.”
Somewhere under the ground a deep, guttural laughter rose through the earth, shaking the first leaves from the trees.
We have grown;
Our waistline ballooning as
buttons ping from our pinstripes
Like some obscene planet
darkening smaller worlds
Growth is God
Not growth for all,
But we who sit at the table fattening
Whilst the third-world workhouse
Grinds away beneath us
We have evolved,
Our bread is now a triple-layered tower burger
Rubber cheese dripping onto golden hash brown
Nestled on juicy chicken-fillet
Smothered in mayonnaise,
Gently licked by a wet tongue of wilted green lettuce
Our circuses beamed in 24 -7
Glossy weeklies/ tabloid rags
Discuss and summarise
TOWIE MARK’S SAUCY TEXTS
CHANTELLE WARNS ALEX’S CAGE FIGHTING RIVAL: MY BABY IS NOT FOR SALE
Follow Tulisa’s tweets
Every waking minute a shiny blur of distraction
Meanwhile, the gamblers re-mortgage us
Create debt upon debt upon overblown debt which will never be paid
They don’t care, they’re safe
Millions neatly tied up
On offshore tax havens
We don’t care, we’re safe
Watching CBB on flatscreen TVs
Whilst the world burns
Whilst the world starves
Whilst the world riots
We sleep through the alarm-clock,
From the Read Horse issue 12. Topics were Cider, Trains and Skeletons.
To view on the website: http://readhorse.morekasia.co.uk/?p=944
One day I’ll be a pile of bones
And so, indeed, will you
And so will he and she and him
(and her over there too)
And if they dig them up
And if they scan and label
Will they know who I was?
Will they one day be able
to carbon-date and know my fate
to scrape my DNA away
and know I had green eyes and freckles
and was a redhead, will they say,
“A rare specimen. You don’t often see this”?
Will they lean in closer, peer some more?
And measure my long-leggedness by slender taping femurs?
…I’m not sure.
But when they dig our bones up
The things they’ll never know:
they’ll never know they way you held my face
and kissed me, fierce and slow;
they’ll never know the dizzying details of a moment
a life like a flick book of a million photographs;
they’ll never know the dreams and disappointments
the way we loved and lived; what made us laugh;
they’ll never know the great swell sea of it; our secret hearts.
http://readhorse.morekasia.co.uk/?p=944 to see Annika’s brilliant accompanying illustration.
For the Read Horse’s 11th issue. Topics were Alarms, Statues and Cheating.
This started laid out as a poem but Paula felt it worked best as punchy prose.
See it online at http://readhorse.morekasia.co.uk/?p=915
He’s a skinny little rat-faced man in double denim, squirming in the chair under the studio lights. The audience have only heard her side; they boo and jeer and he looks sullen, charmless as a damp little denim spunk-rag. How controlling he is. Not letting her go out. He tells her she’s fat, she’s ugly, constantly accuses her of cheating; casts doubt as to Jayden’s paternity. “You have. To trust her!” – You tell him, Jeremy. He sulkily mutters a reply from the side of his mouth. This never goes down well with Jeremy. “Oh grow up!” he snaps. More cheers. Then it turns out Ratface was a cheat himself. The booing reaches fever pitch, as his conquest is paraded before us all. The women scream at one another, jab jewel-encrusted fingers. Jeremy admonishes them all. For the children they must sort this out. He must trust her. Sort his life out, Jeremy says. Sort your life out.
Jeremy gets into the back seat of his car and his driver takes them smoothly, quietly, back to leafy Surrey and his pebbled driveway. He opens a bottle of Chablis. Greets his wife, kisses his daughters and wishes them goodnight. The Nanny, smiling, sweeps them upstairs, and he and Carla go for tapas, somewhere local. He smiles at those who stare. They return home and he sleeps soundly, proudly. He’s done a good job. Let’s not forget- these are the dregs. They need some cold. Hard. Truths. This woolly, namby-pamby, bleeding heart, Trisha Goddard approach won’t help. They need to sort their life out.
What he doesn’t see: the love that grows between the cracks of all these broken lives. The love that, fed on nothing but hardship and neglect, sunk its fingernails in, hard.
I dream tonight. As he sleeps soundly I am fitful, fevered. I dream of a Second Coming. I dream the whitest brightest flash blinds everyone and the rafters burn with holy fire and the studio roof is opened and heaven is right above. Furls of white cloud and gold and shafts of sunlight. And Jesus looks into the hearts of every person and in the darkest hearts he finds some pity. Tenderness. Mercy. Hope. And he feels their sorrow and their wretchedness and he forgives them. All know peace. He cradles Ratface in his arms, who suddenly looks beatific, and he fills his heart with such utter love that Ratface melts into tiny particles of light and rises up to heaven with the angels. Then Jesus turns to Jeremy. Darkness clouds his face. The winds of the earth sing with fury And Jeremy darkens. Hardens. Cracks.
He is stone. A pillar. A Statue.
For whole issue (and beautiful accompanying illustration by Emily Grundy) see:
For The Read Horse’s 10th issue. Topics were White/ Gypsies/ Tunbridge Wells
Once we went on holiday to France. To a campsite. Everyone hated it except me. I joined in with the moaning, reporting back how the showers had been left with hairs clogging the drains, that sort of thing. But really I liked it- for one reason. Every day when I woke up, I could hear
And mainly because none of those sounds were my dad crapping.
Every morning back home in Chatham I’d wake up to the sound of my dad taking a shit. My room was right next to the bathroom, and my dad was very regular. The more you try and ignore that kind of thing, the worse it is. I could hear every detail, down to his straining noises and the echoed porcelain splatter of him pebbledashing the bowl after a curry or a few too many beers.
Once we had a hamster. Then it died. But we were allowed to get another one, so me and my sister both saved up our pocket money and went down the pet shop. We decided to get one each. I called mine Giggs cause Ryan Giggs was my favourite player in them days. She called hers hammy or something boring. Anyway we stuck them in together. In this one cage, which used to be a house for a single hamster, they were gonna share. And we put them loads of food, and bedding, everything.
The next day after school we found it. The sawdust was all brown with blood. Giggs had killed the other hamster and was eating it. The sick little fuck. I didn’t let my sister see but when she found out she went mad at me, like it was my fault. We took him back to the pet shop, and the woman said it happened sometimes when two were in a cage together. They had a fight and then the winner would eat its enemy. My sister cried again.
The reason I’m telling you all this is cause I think it’s all about sharing space. That’s what dad always says. “It’s not the race, it’s the space”. He gets called a racist all the time, but he says he doesn’t give a shit what colour people are. Just thinks that Britain should be for the British. It’s about culture, not colour. He loves little catchphrases like that.
Dad used to work for Connex Southeastern but he’s given it up now to do this councillor thing full time. It’s a lot of work. Mum is still a cook up at St. Hilda’s (it’s an Old people’s home), but there’s definitely less money. I wanted to do that football academy in the summer holidays last year and Dad just said we couldn’t afford it. Then he done what Mum calls his beetroot face. He stares and he gets redder and redder, and clenches his fists like the incredible hulk or something. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so fucking scary. Once he done it just cause the shop had run out of bacon and he had to just have eggs for breakfast. Mum cried then, and all. I went into the kitchen and she was standing there in silence, and I just passed her a bit of kitchen roll. You know you can’t say anything. He done it when he asked the chip shop if he could have a chicken burger that wasn’t halal (and they said no.) He done it when we got lost driving to Bluewater. He done it when someone threw that fruit machine through the window of the Brickmaker’s Arms, and Bob next door told him it was them gypsies from the caravan site. Thing is, he’s never once yet flipped out. He looks like he’s going to. He looks like he’s gonna throw something, or smash someone’s head in, but he never does. “I’m channelling my anger, boy. Into making a better Britain”. Once I had a fight with Lee Hickmott at school cause he was being a dickhead, and dad looked really worried when he come in. He was well quiet in the car, and then he told me about when he was young, and how he could’ve ended up in prison, for assault. He said this guy was looking at mum, and he’d snapped, and got a pool cue and beat this bloke with it. I said, was he hurt? And dad looked all pale. He said, yeah, and run his thumbs over the steering wheel.
Yeah, badly. Dad said.
How come you didn’t go prison then?
Dad looked right at me and he said, cause that was my pub. That was where we used to drink every week. And not one person is gonna grass me up over some-
And then he stopped himself.
The point is, I lost my temper. And a real man can keep calm. D’you know what I mean?
And then he gave me some lecture about not beating people up, even if they’re being dickheads, which obviously I ignored, cause everyone knows that if you let people get away with things at school you’ll get called a pussy. I don’t know why teachers and parents always say that “just ignore it”, “just tell a teacher”. They must have forgotten what it’s like. If someone started on you and you went and told a teacher…! You’ve got to give as good as you get. We’re only small, me and Dad. But it’s not the size of the dog in the fight. It’s the size of the fight in the dog.
Anyway dad was always busy with all this BNP stuff now so it was quite good. I could get away with anything at school. Me and Jamie started bunking off every Wednesday (double maths and double science) and going down to the arcades. He nicked his Mum’s fags (superkings. Black- she’s a bit rough. Don’t tell him I said that). And I brought a football. And we’d go down to that little row of shops, with a baker’s, a laundrette, the arcades and the paki shop. We’d divide our time like this:
-talking about buying a sausage roll and a doughnut- 10 minutes
-buying a sausage roll and a doughnut- 2 minutes
-eating the sausage roll and the doughnut- 1 minute
-kicking the ball about -3 hours
-playing the penny slot machines-1 hour
-checking all the payout slots of the fruities in case anyone had missed a pound- 2 minutes
- talking about nicking stuff from the paki shop- 20 minutes
-going in there and bottling it- 5 minutes
-smoking a horrible superking- 5 minutes
That sort of thing. Anyway this was like the third Wednesday in a row, and I’d already decided that it was way better than being at school. The only slight worry was that they’d start to wonder why were both always ill on a Wednesday. But Jamie’s little sister had written the notes really well. (In return for her being allowed to watch us play Xbox. Not even play it. Just watch us. What a begfriend.)
So anyway this Wednesday we was doing the usual and this girl comes out the paki shop. She’s wearing one of them things… you know, what they wear. Like a little skirt and trousers in one. With a scarf the same colour, round her face. It was kind of a peach colour, with little flowers around the edge.
Jamie just kind of nodded at her, and goes “Alright?”
But she didn’t say anything back to him. She looked straight at me. And says:
“You was gonna nick something”.
I felt all kind of tingly, electric. Pumped, like before a fight, where you can feel your blood pulsing. She stared at me and her dark eyes glittered. I started to feel myself getting a hard on. This was not good. I didn’t know what to say, but luckily Jamie answered her.
“What? No we weren’t.”
She was still looking at me.
“What were you gonna nick?”
Neither of us said anything.
Then she folded her arms and said:
“I can get you stuff”.
Then she went in her pockets and pulled out a packet of B&H. She looked up at me.
My hard on got harder.
Anyway that was how it started. Me and Nasmin. She didn’t go to our school, so we used to meet down by the gasworks under the bridge every Wednesday. Jamie was kind of fucked off, and kept moaning about it, but I just ignored him.
We’d walk along, and just talk. I know it sounds weird but I’d never done that before. All the girls I’d got off with, we hardly talked at all. But me and Nasmin talked about everything. Stupid stuff, you know, like pigeons and aliens and all sorts of stuff. Sometimes I annoyed her, like when I was surprised she only had one sister. My dad said they breed like rabbits, sleep ten to a room. But I kind of liked making her angry cause when we got to our tree she’d kiss me even harder and dig her nails into my back. So I said stuff just to wind her up. One day I went too far. I was just kind of repeating what dad said, about protecting English culture and that. And she slapped me round the face. I just stood there, proper shocked, feeling my cheek get hot. And then she started crying. “Is that what you really think?” she kept saying.
I hate it when people cry. Like with Mum, I never know what to do. But somehow, I dunno, she was in my arms, and I was kissing her, and then…
It was amazing.
And as soon as we’d done it, I just lay there, feeling all the sticky bits of wood and grass on my bare arse. And I started thinking about Dad. And I started thinking: I’m gonna tell him.
And that night when I went home I was puffing myself up outside the front door, ready to say it. Just come out with it, like that. Dad, I’ve got a girlfriend. And she’s Asian. I wouldn’t even call her a Paki. Asian, I was gonna say, cause that’d really piss him off. And I took a big breath and put my key in the door, and walked right in.
But then I saw him, sitting at the table, with his face bright red. He had a piece of paper in his hand, and he was clenching it so tight it had crumpled into a folded tube. He didn’t even look up. Mum was hovering by the kitchen door, looking worried.
“Sit down”, he said. I started to feel less and less sure. Felt my insides go all quivery.
It was a letter. From school. Telling him I had missed every Wednesday for three months. I’d not even bothered with the forged notes or phone calls. Got careless. I silently cursed myself. Stupid, stupid prick.
“You know how busy I’ve been canvassing. There’s literally a few week- two weeks! ‘Til the election”.
He paused for effect.
“Do you think I need this kind of shit?”
“Sorry”, I mumbled, knowing it wasn’t enough.
And then they demanded explanations. As I lied, made up stories about Jamie, and maths, and the arcades, and said sorry about fifty times, and hung my head, Nasmin’s face kept sort of swimming across my eyes. But they bought it. I lay in bed, my stomach growling, and listened to them arguing and shouting. But I’d got away with it.
That was a fortnight ago.
Two things happened today.
The first was that Dad got elected as Councillor for the Medway Council Chatham central ward. The paper came round and took a picture of us standing in our front garden.
The second: I got a text from Nasmin. It just said: Need 2 speak 2u. Im pregnant.
Written for issue 9. Topics were Pawn Shops, Abandonment, Japan.
See it on the website: http://readhorse.morekasia.co.uk/?p=848
First time I saw them looking at me,
I wasn’t surprised by what I could see
(What you’d expect in my price range.)
Him: Next jeans and short back and sides
Her clutching copy of beautiful brides,
Both flushed and asking if they could try me
I glint and I gleam, I shimmer with “Buy me!”
And somehow it works.
She holds me up to the light,
On her splayed hand, fitting just right
(size N- bit on the sausagey side)
Soon I am safe in my velveteen darkness
Awaiting my moment sat next to my partner
On some silk cushion, held pageboy aloft
Then nervously squeezed onto her soft
(bridal manicure, moisturised)
Fingers. Then for a second his hand lingers
Squeezing hers, his eyes certain, fixed
They’re so sure this is it, this is it
I am the symbol of all that sureness
I’m the declaration right before this
Fascinated Fascinatored audience
I’m the investment, testament
To their mutual adoration
The sun shines thru the stained glass in a glorious affirmation
Of God’s approval of their legal annexation
I catch the sunlight, for a sec
They see me glint and I reflect
The hopes of all, that love can rule
Then I’m on honeymoon
Mid-range double room
(Seychelles- quite a nice buffet)
And back home to look at the snaps
Where she carefully unpacks
The toasted sandwich maker and George foreman grill
Promises are intact, still
She gets a new job
They get a dog
Years pass, and her arse
Takes up slightly more
Of the sofa cushions
(nasty orange ones from DFS)
So long since she’s touched his skin
So long since he held me in
His hand and kissed
Her fingers, wrists, and palms
Held her in his arms
The last time he said the words “I love you”
Was slurred in her ear
After six pints of beer
And his pickled tongue
Sought only the pillows in the end
I am grimy and she cleans me at the kitchen table
I feel her sadness. I am almost able
To hear the wind sighing inside
My fidgeting fat-fingered bride
For now her skin is drowning me
I am a manacle, she’s a chained animal
A dancing bear who moves from sink to sofa
In a daze of disappointment, oh for
Things to be as full of promise as they seemed
When she and he had dreamed
Seeing me shining in my case
Now he can’t read the lines upon her face
The lines upon her brow
Like a piece of sheet music, doesn’t know how.
Then one day I feel her spirits lift
As she picks up a small wrapped gift
That somebody has left on her desk
(maltesers- cruel when she’s a stone overweight)
Then I feel her start to perk
Up when she is off to work
Wear more make-up, shave her legs
Cut down on the trips to Greggs
Smile when she takes spreadsheets in
Leave his office with a grin
Go for after-work drinks Fridays
Slug her wine and then find sly ways
She can let me graze his thigh
And I see her catch his eye
Feed her some of his spaghetti
Months of this and I grow sweaty
(and loose, like I could slip…off)
Til the company AGM
Where I must accompany them
To some nasty naff hotel
Of the kind she knows so well
Patterned carpets, plastic petals
Custard creams and small beige kettle
Yet this time it so excites her
And that night when he invites her
To his room -nine six two three-
She has the cheek to pull me free
From her left hand, and leave me stranded
In the front of her vanity case
Nestled against imitation lace
In the dark, in this strangest place
I fear what is to come.
Next day begins a tacky charade
Of placing me on-off- really it’s hard
Being wedged in a handbag, a glove compartment
Listening to her grunting ardent
Passion in his Astra
This is a disaster
Nights in Bella Pasta
Her Nokia buzzing next to me
Every text vexing me
But nothing could prepare me
For what happened next to me.
I sit in the window
In the jewellery section
Next to such a sad selection
Handwritten price on dirty card
Feel so tarnished, tawdry, tarred
None of us gleam or glisten
The air is full of sadness
Desperation, and this
Price devalues me.
I am love. I am promise
Wasn’t made to sit here on this
Tatty threadbare throne
Half a pair, now all alone
Three globes swinging through the sky.
See the whole issue online here: http://readhorse.morekasia.co.uk/?cat=42
From Issue 8. Topics were Landlords, Mist and Victorian London.
View it on the website: http://readhorse.morekasia.co.uk/?p=620
“Hoy! I ought ter put yer lights out for that!”
As any visitor to London knows, the simple act of walking along the streets is a perilous activity, fraught with opportunities to be pushed, shoved, jostled and knocked to the ground without so much as a backwards glance from your assailant. One can spot the Londoner immediately. London ladies lift their skirts, aware they will be thoughtlessly trampled by the crowds. Men walk purposefully, barging and elbowing, or hopping and weaving to avoid the juddering carriages and cabs.
The young man hollering at such a furious volume, named by his mother Master Gideon Black, but known to all others as Stick (on account of his having a frame like little matchsticks, and a temper what went up like tinder), was most definitely a Londoner. However, he was a little way from the filthy slums of St Giles, where he’d arrived seventeen years ago, a screaming and wretched thing that seemed destined even then to be a very scrawny specimen. As he walked down Borough High Street, a Brougham had clattered past most speedily, spraying the contents of the gutter over Gideon’s worn black coat. He waved his fist and shouted his futile threats at the rear of the departing carriage. Looking down, he saw that he now had one foot in the gutter- a small trickling river of effluvia- the sewage, slaughter-house swill, and alehouse slops, all flowing merrily to Father Thames. Gideon cursed, and then felt a brief sense of relief when he realised it was not his shilling shoe. Like most residents of St Giles, the young man had grown up with a street-sharpness, and kept all his money safely where robbers rarely went- in the bottom of his shoe. He’ d dippers and hooks in the family, and knew how to relieve a person of their wallet if the opportunity presented itself, or his personal finances reached a point of sorry abjection.
He felt for the sixpence and wondered whether he should save it for bread in the morning. His stomach churned excitably at the thought of food. But it was getting awful chilly, and even drawing his overcoat around his bony shoulders brought no warmth. The fog was getting darker, its yellow acrid smoke setting into a thick black smog which seemed to cloak everything. There was only one place to go. Well, thousands of ‘em, and the dirtier the area, the grander and more glittering they are, but only one choice, if you see what I mean.
Stick pushed past the crowds hanging out of the doorways and into the public house. At once he felt warmer, a flush creeping up his scraggy neck and making his hollow cheeks glow. The gas-lamps burnt brightly and everything in the room seemed to twinkle softly, the plate glass and gilded edges glittering in the light. No wonder they call ‘em gin palaces; they’re beautifully resplendent. He elbowed his way to the bar and the Landlord, a thick-set, ruddy chap with arms like Christmas hams, raised his brows in enquiry.
“A pot of Old Tom”, says our boy, and dropped his sixpence into the bung’s expansive hand. Slowly, slowly, he nursed each drink, sipping, letting the warmth of the liquor burn its way down his gullet. The crowds began to thin, the red-faced noise-makers stumbling out in happy packs, cheering and fighting and shouting, arm in arm with those sort of girls with whom a good time might cost a few bob. Soon only the last few sad stragglers are left. Stick, sitting on a stool, counted his last few pennies and decided on another.
“Got lodgings tonight then?” The Landlord sniffed. Stick glowered at him blackly.
“I’ll make do.”
“Suit yourself”, he shrugged, and set the drink down on the bar. As he watched Stick miserably counting out his final coins, a thought seemed to pass across his whiskery, well-fed face.
“Ere… what if I told you there’s a job you’d be just about perfect for?”
Stick looked at him suspiciously and pushed his coins across the wet wooden bar-top.
“You ‘eard of the Necropolis?”
Stick thought it rang a few bells, but people talked so much these days about grand things; diamonds the size of your head, and tribes of savages in far-flung places, that he could hardly keep up with it all. He shook his head.
“You know a few years back, when the Cholera was really bad?”
Stick had lost two sisters to it, and the little baby had followed. Between the workhouse, the typhus, cholera and the gallows, most of his family had gawn. He nodded now, rather too vigorously.
“Well, they was worried, see? About the graves… no-where to bury ‘em all. And the more bodies there are lying about… well”.
Stick remembered how the man from the Sanitary Department had visited his tenement, and pronounced that the bodies of his sisters and the little baby should be taken away at once. And they’d slung them on the back of that cart, their hair and fingers trailing in the mud. He’d hobbled along behind, all the way to the pits where they’d been rolled in with a pitifully soft thud.
“So they decided to build a new cemetery. There’s no room left in London, is there?”
The Landlord shrugged rhetorically, splaying sausage fingers.
“Now the thing is… if your graveyard ain’t in London”, he went on, “but your dearly departed are… how are you gonna get ‘em from one place t’other?”
Gideon Black frowned. It couldn’t be a boat. It would take too long by carriage. That only left…
“Train?” he said, his voice a ragged whisper.
“Exactly!” said the landlord, smacking his hands together with relish. “Now every day, the trains go up to Woking! Right around the corner, they go from- just next to Waterloo.”
Gideon must have looked puzzled, for the landlord now leaned in conspiratorially and said,
“Now you’re probably wondering what this has got to do with you. Well. Just like any other train, you’ve got your folks as want to travel first class, and ‘ave the shillings to do so. Now that’s a lovely journey. Nice an’ slow, respectful like, with velvet-lining in yer coffin, and all your relatives on board sipping drinks and dabbing ‘ankies.”
“What about them as can’t afford first class?” Stick frowned, only to have his question waved away.
“Sling ‘em in and pile ‘em ‘igh! Full steam ahead til they can roll em into a big ‘ole! But that doesn’t matter. Only ones you’ve to worry about is the Nobs. Cause part of the service is the attendants”.
Gideon’s brow furrowed even further in a vain effort to recollect the meaning of the word. As ever, the landlord was prompt to put him out of his misery.
“When you get there, you walk along beside the train. Nice and slow, respectful. Carry a black flag, wearing a hat, part of the procession.”
“I don’t have a hat”.
“They’ll give you a hat, my boy! For a cut o’ wages, o’ course… but don’t you worry!” He spread his thick arms wide on the bar, trapping Gideon on either side. “What d’you say then?”
Gideon’s naturally downturned expression took a further plunge into dark suspicion.
“What’s in it for you then?” he asked, draining the last of his drink.
The landlord affected an air of wounded indignance.
“Nothing! Nothing! I just like to see my customers don’t starve. But if that’s how you like it-”
And as part of his sham he turned his back, and went about as if to polish glasses. Gideon shifted in his seat. He certainly wasn’t one to look a gift horse in the mouth, and at present his options were hardly plentiful.
“Sorry Mister”, he croaked pathetically. The Landlord turned round, beaming.
“Quite alright. I understand. Folks is on the make these days, no doubt about that. Now,” he leaned in once more, so that Gideon could smell his sour sloe-berry breath, “if there were to be a little… favour you could do me every once in a while, I’d be ever so grateful. Nothing- nothing dramatic!”
“What sort of favour?” Stick’s grey eyes were full of mistrust.
“Well,” and now the Landlord leaned in so near that Stick could almost feel the bristles of his gingery moustache, “I do ‘appen, now an’ again, to find myself in possession of…” he paused to lick his lips. “some rather quiet friends, looking for a final resting place. And these friends don’t much like the attentions of the law.” He raised his brows, searching for Gideon’s comprehension and complicity.
Gideon thought and pursed his lips, weighing up the proposition. Finally he looked up at the Landlord and nodded an agreement.
“Good, my boy. Excellent! You shall make an excellent wraith. There’s barely a scrap of flesh on you!” The Landlord laughed and gestured to the hearth. “You can sleep in there with the dog. I shall wake you first light.”
Gideon curled up, pulling his filthy coat across him, and pressed his self against the stone.
At first light, as kindly promised, the landlord woke him by shaking him roughly by the shoulders, which I may have earlier mentioned were of a kind extraordinarily bony. Though the smell of the landlord’s pikelets toasting threatened to send Gideon mad with lustful hunger, and gladly he’d have spiked him with the toasting fork just to taste one, he followed the directions and crossed the cold streets to Waterloo.
When he reached the place it was awful quiet. A few stray cats and some men unloading boxes and pallets.
“Yes?” An officious looking, red-faced man enquired, drawing himself up to full height to do so.
“I’ve… come about the attendance”.
“For the train. For first class.” Gideon began to panic now at the man’s blank reception. “They said you’d give me an ‘at.”
“Oh, you mean the attendant’s job. Right.” The man sniffed, looking Gideon up and down with an affected carelessness. “Well, I shall ‘ave to ask the boss, but I should say you’ll do.”
By ten o’clock, he was all kitted out, with a shabby black topper and a fraying black flag. The ladies and gents started to arrive, and as instructed, Stick looked terrible mournful, and kept his eyes on the ground. He helped to load in the coffins, and then took up his place at the back of the goods carriage, with the other boys, as the locomotive hissed and chugged its way to life. The noise was deafening, and the motion rattled his knobbly and obtrusive skeleton. He was hungry and his behind was hurting sitting on the splintered wooden boards, so he was quite glad when the train seemed to slow, and quieten, and the boys all began to jump up.
“Ere!” one of them exclaimed, “look at this!”
And at once, Gideon knew the cause of his excitement and alarm, for the whole of the outside world was shrouded in a dense white mist. The boys went crashing through the door, on to the small balcony, and their fear seemed to mount then.
“It’s a proper pea-souper and no mistake!” one soul bravely exclaimed, as the white swirling air trailed slowly past them. And Gideon knew he was wrong, for they all knew a pea-souper, that yellow, lamplight, London fog. This felt different. The train seemed to be sliding along the tracks now, almost silently, its brakes hissing and its chugs slowing til they sounded like an old man breathing. The boys went quiet too. The same thought was troubling them, but not one dared speak it aloud, for fear of making it true. Finally, the liveliest of the lot piped up,
“Well, we’d better find the driver, see what’s to do.”
Well, this caused an awful stir. There was much pushing and shoving, and muttered not likelies. Then Gideon said angrily,
“I’ll do it, if it’ll shut you lot’s yammering.”
And to the amazement of the others, he slipped over the edge as lightly as a bird, and disappeared into the vapour.
As Gideon’s feet hit the ground he knew something queer was going on. The ground felt wet and marshy, and he could feel the water starting to seep into his shoes. Holding up his hand in front of him, he confirmed that he could not see more than a few inches beyond his nose. But Gideon was used to slipping through pitch-black alleyways and, undeterred, he gripped the side of the train and started to feel his way along.
As his spindly fingers crawled like white spiders on the windows, they cleared the condensation, leaving little wet tracks. He peered into one of the carriages, and could only make out the bulk of three coffins, one atop t’other. He crept squelchily onwards. Just whiteness, as far as he could see, and if white had a sound, it would be this eerie still silence that filled his ears. Gideon was not afraid of the dead. He had seen many bodies in his short life, and they held no horror for him. Still he could not help but feel that he was now the only living thing- the only sounds were his shoes swishing through the bog, and his fingers squeaking along the carriages, and this made him a little disconcerted. He continued, thinking he would reach the locomotive and the driver and crew soon. However, the swamp beneath him was getting deeper and deeper, until he was up to his knees in water. He started to feel the beginnings of panic needling him, blindly thrashing through the stream.
“Ello?” he called out, into the mist. “Ello?!”
His voice seemed to be swallowed, as if by a large wet mouth.
Soon the water was up to his chest, and it was all he could do to keep wading blindly. He could not swim, but there was no point turning back. He tried to keep his feet on the boggy bottom, gasping for air in the white shroud that enveloped everything.
Then it was helpless, and the tide seemed to rush over his head. He shut his eyes and fiercely urged things to change, for this was a situation most desperate. Just as he was about to float up goggle-eyed, lungs full of water and hair across his face, two firm and pinching arms pulled him from the river. Stick felt himself heaved onto something hard (the roof of the train?)He spluttered and gasped great bucketfuls of air, before opening up his eyes to see just where on earth he was.
An old man, dressed in sort of swaddling rags, was looking down at him. One hand grasped a long pole, and the other he held out at Stick, like a beggar down the backstreets of Bermondsey. He looked expectant, and Stick saw that his flashing eyes were the same grey as his own, and his thin frame creaked just like his own, and he didn’t understand one little bit. The old man’s hand trembled violently, and he held it nearer, cupped, waiting.
“I don’t have no money” Stick said miserably, and at that, the old man turned and walked away. The mist seemed to part for him. Stick watched him for a minute, shivering, and saw him lean into the windows of first class. He pulled a body up from the silk-lined coffin, heaving it on top of the train. It was a lady, buttoned up in a black lace dress. He knelt down, causing Stick to crane his neck to see what would happen next. Then he reached inside her mouth and pulled out- was that? Gideon Black had eyes that were sharp for a shilling wherever he might be. And that was most definitely a shilling shining in the old man’s hand.
This was repeated several times, and then the old man picked them Ladies and Gents up as if they were old sacks, slinging them dead-eyed into his boat which bobbed in the water beside them.
Gideon Black finally understood. But was he to make this crossing? He didn’t have the pennies, and besides… he wasn’t dead. Was he? He clutched at his scrawny limbs and they felt like (not much) flesh and (mostly) bone.
“I’m not going” he said aloud, to no-one in particular, and at once the mist all seemed to rush away, and he felt himself falling, falling into the depths of the river, reeds and grasses smothering his face. His face. His face was hot and wet and being licked. Licked? Gideon opened his eyes and felt the warm breath of a dog on him. He pushed the creature off, weakly. He was in the hearth in the Star and Eagle.
The Landlord’s guttural laughter echoed round the eaves.
“Dream you was with a nice young lady, did yer?”
Gideon stared at him, his grey eyes almost black with fear and anger.
“What’s up with you my boy? Look like you’ve seen a ghost. Well, they do say this place is- ere! Where you going? I ain’t told you the address yet! Oi! Come back!”
And as the waif clattered out of the door, he turned and spoke to the dog.
“Some folks eh? You try an’ set them right, set them up a nice little- well. That’s gratitude for you, in’t’it?”
And he sighed, watching Stick disappear into the dawn.
To view the whole issue: http://readhorse.morekasia.co.uk/?cat=41
From Issue 7. Topics were Silence, Obsession and Daytime TV.
To view it on the website:http://readhorse.morekasia.co.uk/?p=570
Three Act Play
February 16th, 1994.
My heart is thumping.
I can hear the blood singing in my ears.
I take a deep breath. My mouth silently frames the words that I can hear onstage. I time it. Three, two, one- and then I take that first step- and the lights flood me warmly, temporarily blinding after the darkness of the wings.
And then that’s it. I’m in. The greatest high is not in the shouting, but the silence. Not in the physical back-and-forth of fight scenes or dances, but the stillness. The feeling like you have the whole audience hanging on your ragged breath, every single one in the moment with your character. The audience are yours, gasping at a gunshot, thrilling at a kiss. Out there in the hushed velveteen darkness.
From my first school play I was hooked. I wondered how anyone could ever want to do anything else. The intensity of being in a cast. The feeling of complete and utter elation taking a bow, sweaty hand clasped in my co-lead’s sweaty hand, applause rippling through the school hall. Then University, and avant-garde student productions playing to five people. But the moving sight of five people giving a standing ovation. Drama School and the nail-biting terror of playing to an audience who know every word of Shakespeare, and have seen it umpteen times before- bringing a truth, a freshness, a life into the role.
I live, breathe, sleep it. The theatre is a magical world. The Narnia-like experience of going through the Stage Door, into damp Green Rooms and threadbare dressing rooms fills me with delight. The Ghosts of productions past, the legends, the bitching and the artfully self-applied pancake make-up. The drinks in the bar afterwards, realising that a packet of sweating salted peanuts is pretty much all you’ve eaten today. Feeling young. Filling your pockets with triangular sandwiches at buffets. Piles of well-thumbed books on your bedside- An Actor Prepares, Voice and The Actor.
Twelve glorious weeks. Twelve weeks of this- not the hugest part, and not the greatest production of what’s rarely considered the playwright’s best work- but I’m in it! Every night! I’m living, breathing, swimming in it, and the magic hasn’t worn off. Just when I start to feel exhausted, dizzy, spent, I go onstage and it renews me- fills me to the marrow with that special kind of energy you can only get from doing what you love.
June 12th, 1999
The phone sits in its cradle. I stare. There is no pain as acute of the pain of what is missing.
I stare at it. I curse myself and pull myself away, to do something, anything. Washing up. A crossword. My worst habit is imagining the future. As soon as I meet a partner I start to do it. It starts off small. I see us in Paris, in some candle-softened cellar bar where wine glows in our glasses. Then I see us with family all gathered around a huge table, laughing and joking. I see a wedding. I re-play, re-frame, add details- a firework display here, a spray of flowers there. Sometimes I re-shoot the scene entirely- it’s a village square in Tuscany, and then it’s a cliff-top overlooking a Cornish bay. And when we split up, with the loss of the relationship goes not just the reality, but the imaginings too. All of it- the beautiful holidays we never went on, the wedding we never even talked about- it all seems to disappear.
I do it at auditions as well. Every time it goes well I tell myself the same thing: don’t get your hopes up! Don’t start to believe! But I can’t seem to help it. I do. I see myself playing the part. I see the curtain rising and the lights hitting. I see me storming tempestuously, smouldering, pouting, emoting, shivering, sighing, seducing, crying, breaking down… whatever the role requires. And I see me bowing, and I see the blurred faces of the audience on their feet, smashing their hands together and weeping. I see the reviews. I see the photographs outside the box office- the taglines, the 5 stars. I try to black it out, to stop myself, but I can’t.
And then the disappointment is that much keener. It feels like I lost the best thing I ever had.
Five hours of torturous silence later and the phone finally rings. It seems to scream through the bedsit.
“Hello?” I say, transparently desperate in my breathlessness.
“It’s Frances. Just heard from the Theatre Royal.”
I can already hear what’s coming next, but I shut my eyes tight, bracing myself.
“They really liked you. They’d definitely like you to read for them again next time. But they didn’t feel you were quite right for Nora.”
I nod, furiously.
“Are you alright? Did you hear me? They loved you, but you weren’t what they were looking for.”
“Anyway, never mind. Better keep trying eh? I’ve not got anything at the moment but I’ll be in touch, ok?”
I put the phone back in its receiver. Then I sit on the floor, cradling myself, and make two dark, wet patches on the knees of my jeans.
October 28th, 2002
The casting director, Mel, has stuck her head out of the door.
“Do you want to come through?”
I follow dutifully and sit on a canvas director’s chair. The director himself does not even look up, sheafing through his notes.
“So we’ve had a chat… erm.” Mel pauses to pour herself a glass of water from the jug in front of her. She takes her time. I squirm.
“We’ve seen quite a few people for that part today. Erm… what we’d quiiiite liiiiiike,” she looks down at my headshots and CV, tapping her fingers on the desk (dikkity-dik-dik-dik), “is for you to read for a different part. So this is similar to the battered wife, in a way- I mean, well- the character’s quiiiite…”
“submissive”, the director sighs, his eyes still on his papers.
“Yeah… she’s caring for her husband, who’s wheelchair bound. We’ve had a storyline before where the carer was actually being quite abusive, but we’re gonna…”
Mel makes a circular motion with her hands.
“Turn that issue around. So the guy in the wheelchair is actually a bit of a bully, a bit controlling. And this all kind of, comes out in the open, when they visit the surgery”.
They both look at me. I nod, silent.
“Okay, great. Can we get…” Mel looks down at her notes. “…Stephen… in?”
Summoned, Stephen appears. Oh god, it’s him. His face breaks into recognition when he sees me, and he smiles warmly.
We read through the scene. The script is awful. Clunky exposition into cringeworthy cliché, ending with some naked didacticism. Afterwards he looks at me rather sheepishly, like we’ve just had bad sex.
“Great guys. Thanks.” Mel says, before ushering us out and glibly delivering that old favourite: “We’ll be in touch”.
Stephen and I get in the lift.
“Wow”, he laughs, “Yeah.”
I am staring at the number pad, trying to remember which floor was street level.
He leans across and presses 1.
“Was it one? Not G?”
He looks at me and then raises his fist.
“Don’t talk back, you stupid woman!”
A joke. He’s being the abusive wheelchair-bound husband again. I smile weakly.
“Have you done any more of those corporate training days?”
I shake my head.
“Guess what my agent offered me the other day?”
I look at him.
“Go on, guess”.
He’s one of those people. That actually make you guess, whether you are interested or not.
“Halloween Murder Mystery Party?” I venture.
“Close” he says, impressed. “London Dungeons.”
There is an awkward silence.
The thing is that I have no real reason to hate him. Those few drinks after the Health and Safety in the Workplace Role-Play and Discussion Session… that fumbled, gropey snog on the station platform… that’s nothing to do with it. I know he thinks it’s that. He thinks I’m being cold as I’m embarrassed to have kissed him. He’s wrong. It’s so much more than that. It’s a cold, deep well of shame and fear. He is a living, breathing reminder of everything I hate about my life. He’s like a magnifying mirror, reflecting me in horrifying close-up. The pantos. The corporate training events. The in-school drugs education plays. The office Christmas party murder mysteries. The bad daytime TV soaps. He makes me feel like I do when I look at my CV. Sick and inside-out.
The doors open and a woman’s voice breaks the silence.
“Floor One”, she says. “Doors closing”.
To view the whole issue: http://readhorse.morekasia.co.uk/?cat=40
From Issue 6. The themes were Queer, Carnival and Spectacles.
See it on the website at: http://readhorse.morekasia.co.uk/?p=496
Eamonn stuffed the pillow deeper into his mouth and began the serious and solemn act of masturbation. It was never the boys at school he thought about- those spotty, brace-faced thugs stinking of lynx, hair rock-hard with gel, eyebrows in shaven stripes, ears throbbing with infected piercings. It was never his teachers, those sweaty and balding men, adam’s apples bobbing in angry red necks. It was never anyone real, because to Eamonn real life seemed repulsive in its ugliness.
Eamonn pictured Jason Priestley, eyes as blue as his double denim outfit. Eamonn pictured James Dean, Rudolph Valentino, Jean-Paul Belmondo, all smouldering and shirtless, cigarettes dangling from perfect lips. Perfect eyes, perfect skin. As he brought himself to a climax, exhaling hard through his nose, a shining white light seemed to fill his whole head, his eyes, the room. And then it suddenly grew dark, and he felt the sticky sordidness of what he’d done, and the world seemed to shrink back to an ugly little nothing.
Eamonn hated every day that passed. He hated the row of shops on his way to school, with Sudz laundrette and Lucky Noodle Chinese, and the corner shop the kids at school all casually called the Paki shop. The wind tossed litter across the grey pavements, stuccoed with dirty gum. He hated the ugly car parks, and the huge shopping centre, and the hiss of buses arriving in the station. He hated school, with its insistence upon ovine obedience and drab uniformity. He hated his grey school trousers. He hated his parents’ boxy semi. He hated Saturday nights watching the Generation Game and eating Lucky noodle’s greasy cartons as a ‘treat’. Why did people settle for this, when films showed you how beautiful life could be? Eamonn shut his eyes and pictured apartments on the Paris left bank, its high shuttered windows rippling with red geraniums. He pictured New York loft apartments with huge fridges and polished floors, and king sized beds with crisp white sheets. He pictured beautiful friends, and even more beautiful lovers, who left, leather-clad, into the night on a motorbike. Eamonn hated his life, but he fervently felt there was more.
One day he sat at the bus stop after school. It was dark already and his breath whitened the cold air. The sky looked pregnant, the colour of a bruise. He drew his hood up and wondered if it would snow. No sooner had this thought come to him than a snowflake fluttered gently in front of his eyes. Eamonn looked up and the sky was suddenly dancing and alive. It was beautiful, and he held his face up to it, laughing with surprise.
Within minutes the whole street was empty, and thick with snow. Eamonn felt something he had never felt before. Rather than the magic being in his head, or in a film, it was here, in the world. In his world. There was a hushed wondrousness in this perfect carpet of white, growing ever thicker as the snow continued to fall. Each flake seemed to glow, and was more delicate than anything in the universe. It seemed like this stillness was the centre of everything, and he imagined the vast and dizzying spinning of the world flying out from this, its pinpoint white axis. He felt utterly alone, and utterly free. Then he heard shoes softly sinking through the compacted powder, and turned to see who had disturbed him. He blinked. He squinted, trying to see through the snow flurries. Surely this was a dream? He couldn’t really be seeing…?
For walking towards Eamonn was a giant. The giant wore seven inch heels, a sequinned bodysuit, and a red feather boa. The giant wore a beehive wig, with three feathers protruding from a headband. The giant had the longest lashes and the reddest lips Eamonn had ever seen. The giant’s brown skin glowed, and the giant was beautiful. Stunning. Amazing. Gorgeous. Eamonn stood, completely awe-struck. The giant stopped in front of him, as if he too were waiting for the bus. Then he turned and said,
“Darling, I theenk you have been waiting for me?”
He spoke with an accent, Eamonn thought from South America somewhere.
“I was… just waiting for the 175…”
The giant smiled, and reached inside the sequinned body suit between some large, cushioned breasts. Out came a pair of dimante-studded yellow sunglasses, the kind Edna Everage might wear. To Eamonn’s surprise, he proffered them, in a gold-lame-gloved hand.
“For you, my darling. Now,” the giant touched his wig with his fingertips, in an ever-so-slight adjustment, “I muss be off.” He pressed his fingers to his crimson lips, and touched them to Eamonn’s cheek. “Adeus”. Then he walked off into the snow, under the orange street lamps, until Eamonn could barely make him out.
For a long time Eamonn stood, unable to make sense of what had happened. Then he realised that the 175 was pulling up at the bus stop, and dazedly got on board. When he looked down the glasses were still in his hand. In the black bus windows he saw his cheeks had a smudge of red, and he rubbed with a wet sleeve til it disappeared. After dinner he went straight to his bedroom and fell into a deep slumber, dreaming vivid dreams of a snowstorm sweeping up his school and planting it, Wizard-of-Oz-like, in a glittering city.
The next morning Eamonn awoke to find the glasses on his bedside table. He dressed for school and then, about to thunder down the stairs to breakfast, he paused, drawn in by the object from another world. They seemed outlined by a faint glow. He picked them up, looked at them, and then he tried them on. Immediately his box room swam with colour. The clothes hanging on his rail were suddenly carnival costumes. Feather boas, satin, sequins, high heels and glitter. The magnolia walls were deep cerise, and his yellowing paper lampshade became a giant disco ball, throwing tiny circles of light in brilliant spots around the room. He looked in the mirror. His school trousers were thigh-high turquoise PVC boots, and gold hotpants. His shirt was a peacock-feathered corset, and his short-back and sides had become a headdress, grazing the ceiling with gold and blue adornments. His eyes were shimmering and long-lashed, underlined with confident kohl. His lips were painted metallic blue. He looked amazing. Everything was amazing. Eamonn slowly started to pull down the glasses, scared of what he might see when he removed them.
It was like cleaning a painter’s palette and seeing the colours all slither down the drain, fading to nothing. The hues all grew fainter until the room was as it had been. Grey, magnolia and dull. Eamonn shook his head. He put the glasses in his pocket and went down to breakfast. At the table he played with his rice krispies, unable to think about anything except wearing the glasses. His left hand grew sweaty around them. Then he did it. Right in front of his parents and his sister. He put them on.
He was deaf to their cries, their protests. He knew their tone had changed from surprise to bafflement and then to anger, but he didn’t care. All he could see was his dad, suddenly transformed into a beauty-spotted, lipsticked Carnival Queen; his sister, no longer fat and spiteful, but voluptuous and holding maracas. His Mum’s apron had become a swirling bikini, and she danced on tottering heels. Magic FM’s muted easy listening was now sexy salsa, blaring out and enriched with horns and whistles, drums and catcalls. The living room was a crepe-papered float, filled with balloons and streamers. He rose from the table, and wiggled his hips, snaking all the way to the front door.
The journey to school was a love parade. On the bus he removed them as his classmates started pouring on. He dared not wear them in school, for fear of confiscation, but he longed to see what geography or assembly would look like. He clutched them, clammy in his blazer pocket, and smiled at the secret he had been given.
It was not time yet. He hadn’t got the air fare, or his GCSEs. He would bide his time, and as soon as he had saved enough for a one-way ticket, he knew where he was headed. Until then Eamonn had the glasses. Life could be a treadmill, or a carnival. It was up to you, he thought.
See the whole issue at: http://readhorse.morekasia.co.uk/?cat=39
Written for issue 5: Mountains, Whispers and Betrayal. Work in progress- as yet unfinished.
Let me know if you want to know the ending!
As always, Sonia woke up a few minutes before the alarm clock. She turned towards its face, though, as always, its numbers were a fuzzy haze that bled glowingly. As always, she reached for her glasses, which, once in place, magnified her eyes to alarming proportions. 5:56, it showed obligingly.
For four minutes Sonia lay staring ahead, thinking, waiting. Then, as 5:59 flicked to 6:00, her hovering index finger pressed down, cutting it off before it had finished the first bleep. She closed her eyes and, as always, pressed her hands together.
Her prayers were always the same, give or take a few topical additions. Earthquake victims or people off work sick. Sometimes Pastor Neil would urge them to pray for something, and she’d add that to the list. But mostly it went:
Jesus, please look after Mum… and let her ankles go down.
Please watch over me and protect me
Please help me to do the right thing and keep me in your grace, Lord
Then she would wash her hands, dress from the clothes she had laid out the night before, go downstairs and make a cup of milky tea. She would cradle it with both hands, and blow on it very thoroughly. There was nothing worse than a burnt mouth- Sonia knew from experience. Finally she would make sure Mum was comfortable, wash her hands again, and wait for Sue.
As she shut the door, the familiar sound of Mum greeting the paid carer with a list of complaints and ailments faded to nothing. Sonia walked the same way up the same path to the same station she did every day. She stood on the platform for the same train, and took a Kleenex out of the packet in her handbag, as always, pinching it between finger and thumb..
When the train pulled in, Sonia made herself as small and thin as she could, bony-shouldering her way between the suited commuters, and gripping the pole with her tissued fingers. She always shuddered when she remembered the time she’d dropped the tissue. As the train lurched forwards, and the little patch of cleanliness slipped into the abyss, she’d been forced to grasp the pole with her bare fingers. Immediately she’d felt its greasy germs starting to ooze into every pore. She could see it, a grey sludge, leaving oleaginous stains on everything it touched. She tried to wipe her hands but could not wipe them on her clothes, lest she spread wriggling germs everywhere. She daren’t touch anyone or anything else for fear of picking up more and more of that dirty, gelatinous slime that others smeared liberally around. Instead she had walked to work with her right arm outstretched, keeping it quarantined from the rest of her body.
Sonia’s workplace was both a calming safehaven and a snake’s nest of danger.
She loved the handwash, the gel dispensers at every gleaming turn. She loved the alcohol wipes, the swabs, and hearing the squeak of the surgeons’ shoes as they walked past in their scrubs.
But germs were all around. She took care to use her elbow when turning off the tap.
She avoided breathing too near any patients. And when handling the patients’ notes, which were so often grimed with dirt just waiting to bury itself under your fingernails, Sonia took care to put on a pair of surgical gloves. Better safe than sorry was her mantra. And if she were to be part of Jesus’ army, tending to the poor and sick, she could not afford to be struck down by a superbug. She should care for herself- after all, God had blessed her with a healthy body, unlike poor Mum- and make every effort to keep it that way.
So every day Sonia wiped down the entrance buzzer, telephones, mouse, keyboard, monitor, printer and desk with an alcohol wipe. Every day she washed her hands before and after most jobs. Every day she pulled a cardigan over her fingers, clutched a tissue, or pulled on the latex with a snap. Every day Sonia went home on the same train, and walked down the same path, and every night she relieved Sue. Then she’d talk to Mum about what they would watch that evening, and massage her ankles. Then she’d cook some tea, and wash up, and they’d watch a programme. Then Sonia would make Mum comfortable, and take herself off up to bed. She would shower, and wash her hair if it was a hair-washing night. Teeth cleaned, flossed, mouthwashed. Talc. Nightie.
She would wait, every night, until 10:00. The red digits changing, hauntingly slow. Then she would clasp her hands together and pray. The same three prayers, as always, perhaps with a few little topical additions.
On Thursdays she would clean the bathroom, scrubbing the sink and scouring the shower.
On Saturdays she’d hoover, dust and mop the kitchen floor.
On Sundays it was church, and Sonia would walk the two miles uphill to the New Life Church.
Coffee beforehand, and then the service. Pastor Neil was a fantastic speaker, Sonia thought. If there were ever any new people milling about at coffeetime, she never found it hard to summon enthusiasm for the Pastor. In fact, she’d often gush, and then catch herself and blush, smiling shyly at the parquet floor.
Sonia’s life could be measured out in minutes. It was as timetabled as the trains that ran from her suburban station. It could be counted in coffees, and tracked and ticked as each week passed, as always, the same.
But Sonia was not boring. Deep in Sonia lay a yearning that terrified her.
One Sunday, an exciting announcement came. And with it, that yearning seemed to leap from its depths straight into her heart, and fill it up so that she felt like a gasping fish in the top of a net.
“We are truly blessed”, said Pastor Neil, “to be able to take this wonderful opportunity. To walk in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus. To climb the Mountain where Moses delivered the ten commandments. To see the ruins of Hazor, that Joshua and his army burned to the ground as they entered the promised land. To be close to God”- he leaned towards the front row, and Sonia felt he was looking right at her, and burned- “…perhaps as close as we can get.”
He went on to talk about other things, but all Sonia could think about was the pilgrimage. At the end of the service, she found the sign-up sheet and the payment plan and wrote her name without a shiver of hesitation. It was only later, making Mum’s Light Options Chicken Korma, that Sonia started to worry about the costs. Still, she would do it. Scrimp here, save there. The bigger worry was Mum herself.
Sonia prayed that Mum would understand, and for Jesus to watch over her whilst Sonia was away. Sonia prayed for Mum’s ankles to give her some relief. For the man next door to stop drilling in the daytime, as it ruined Mum’s dose of Diagnosis Murder. She prayed and prayed but she knew what she was doing was trying to shift some of the responsibility onto God, when, really, she was the one who’d have to tell her.
She chose her time carefully. Mum was settled with a packet of Rich Tea and the Puzzler.
In her most gentle, soothing voice (the one she reserved for angry relatives of patients who’d been left sitting in a wheelchair for hours), she explained to Mum where she would be going. How fantastic an opportunity it was. What she’d be seeing. How she’d arranged for Paula from number 12 to drop in every evening. How she’d cook dinners in advance. As she went on and on, hoping she was covering every possible objection her mother might make, Sonia noticed that her mother was completely silent. This was extremely unusual.
“And I can label them for each night, so all Paula has to do is heat them up in the microwave…”
Sonia trailed off and was forced to confront her Mother’s expression.
It was one of complete and utter bewilderment. She looked as if Sonia had told her she was flying to Venus on the back of an egg.
Silence filled the living room, and seemed to swell, plump as the cushions.
Eventually Mum spoke.
“But why, Sonia?”
Sonia slowly and carefully explained again the significance of the Holy Lands, and how important it was to her.
“Well, I don’t understand it. But if you want to leave your invalid mother to go and visit a few old bits of wood and rock, and a load of dirty old dust…”
Shivering slightly at the mention of dirt, Sonia supposed that was the best she’d get.
When the calendar had finally flipped round and the numbered boxes were all crossed through, Sonia sat on the end of her bed and stared at her list again. In small, neat and laboured letters the blue biroed list spelt out the numbers of pairs of socks, knickers, trousers and shoes, as well as tops, suncream, scarves, a first aid kit that was better-stocked than a regional branch of Boots, various anti-bacterial sprays and gels, a bathroom bag, bumbag, passport, money and bible. Here Sonia ticked- small, neat, laboured ticks next to each important item. She was ready. Her first time abroad since the day trip to Boulogne with Paula. And that had been- no, it couldn’t have been? Twelve years ago. She zipped up her bag, and sat, and stared. The yearning was starting to leap into her chest and make her heart pound so hard it hurt.
That night she barely slept.
Bleeeeep. Pray. Dress. Ablutions. Tea. Mum- who pretended to have forgotten and affected a casual air with Sonia- suitcase- how its wheels grundling along the road gave her a thrill! Train- antibacterial gel- tube- tissue and antibacterial gel- airport- meeting point- and there was her group, all be-socked and sandalled, luggage be-ribboned, with backpacks and bumbags and oh! There was Pastor Neil, talking to the lady at the desk. He turned round and greeted her with a generous smile.
Sonia felt so excited she didn’t quite know what to say. She was nervous that if she opened her mouth she might start babbling, so she smiled, and nodded furiously whenever she was asked a question. She felt like she might burst with happiness.
When they finally touched down at Ben Gurion airport, Sonia stood on the first step down to the runway and marvelled at the thick blanket of heat that hit her. She stared out of the windows of the coach,
From the third issue of The Read Horse. The topics were Love, Balloons and Communism.
See it on the website at http://readhorse.morekasia.co.uk/?p=308
The Shadowy Waters
In the rolling fields of Kent lie several exquisitely wealthy commuter towns. White-tipped with picturesque Oast-houses, brimming with deer, overflowing with trailing flowers and riven with cobbled streets, they are what English Nationalists get hard-ons for. The houses are listed buildings. The fields are lush and verdant. People go for Sunday walks, with golden retriever, green wellies, and a blue rosette. Alright, so they don’t actually wear the blue rosette. But to eyes such as mine, or my fifteen-year-old self’s, it was there, clear as day.
I was an anarcho-syndicalist Marxist who went to a girls’ grammar school in a leafy Georgian spa-town. The small flash of red in my parent’s window (signifying a doomed intention to vote Labour in the local election) was echoed by the huge red Che Guevara flag that adorned my woodchip walls upstairs. I’d created a socialist republic in my bedroom. I hated the Tories that surrounded me, and everything they stood for…or stood on, I would have added with feeling.
Passionate beliefs. But I had no experience of anything. It was like I’d grown up looking out at the world, through not just rose-tinted, but red-tinted glass. The world’s poor looked to me like the cast of Les Miserables, and the bloody, muddy struggle for a decent wage was beautiful to me. I was a hopeless romantic.
Love was a huge, looming presence in my life. Like my political beliefs, it was idealised, and I had no real experience of it. I longed to fall in love. But as Forgael bemoaned in my well-thumbed and ornately annotated copy of W.B Yeats’ poems, “…it is love that I am seeking for/ But of a beautiful, unheard-of kind/ That is not in the world”. The boys at the local grammar school were good for brief encounters, on benches and the bathroom floors of parties. But kissing them, even in the hazy early nudgings of desire, never felt like love. They either licked you wetly, like dogs, or thrust their tongues so far you felt you’d choke. Their probing fingers were exciting, but they did not feel like love. Their conversation was immature, flippant. I enjoyed being with them, but nothing felt like love. Not love in the grand narratives of my imagination. Railway platforms and hands pulled apart. Desperate kisses of adulterous impossibility. A dream, that life could never live up to. And nor could fifteen year old boys.
But when I finally fell, the world changed irrevocably. The red panes shattered and the great glass palace came tumbling down.
It was the street party that started it.
We lived at the edges of the town, on an estate where the houses were little boxy ones. Small parades of shops, little patches of grass, with generous smatterings of dogshit. Most people had bought their boxes from the Council, but the stigma remained. I was proud of our house because it gave me a ridiculous sense that I was on one side of the barricades, lobbing Molotov cocktails over to the Tory pigs on the other side. There was, as rich people always like to say when making themselves feel better about poverty, a sense of community. At the centre of this community was a grocery shop- metal baskets, and cards in the window. Ageing veg and dusty tins. The little grocery shop on the hill worked 365 days a year, going beyond the call of duty- visiting the homes of the isolated elderly, letting you put food ‘in the book’ until payday. It was decided by my mother and a small committee of women that we should hold a street party in honour of the couple who owned the shop, to say thank you.
One day she came bustling in from the shop. “I’ve just met the man who’s moved into Dave and Julie’s,” she breezed, putting tins into the cupboard. “He seems lovely. And he’s really excited about the street party and wants to help.” Her eyes glittered with the prospect of a new recruit. As I started to slope off upstairs, her sudden “ooh!” called me back. “AND!” she said, “he’s got a daughter your age. She’s at St. Dunstan’s”.
St Dunstan’s was the bad school. Most places have a bad school, but where I lived, and the 11 plus persisted, the bad schools were even more blighted with failure. The very nature of their existence meant they were full of the not-good-enoughs, who never got to do the test (or worse, took it and failed).
I thought no more about this daughter until I was suddenly confronted with her one afternoon. “Leila‘s coming round” my mother notified me as she tended to my brother. “I thought you could do the banners and balloons. Don’t kick, Tom.”
My brother hated having his laces tied. He hated being dressed generally, and was given to tearing off clothing in public. I was always torn between glowering protectively at anyone who dared stare, and reddening in shame ten paces behind. Everyone has ways of coping. Mum’s was to throw herself into everything, so there were the parent support groups, the fundraisers, the lobbying of the local education authority. As a result, everything felt like it was done in a mad whirlwind. Before I had time to ask for more details about this girl, she was at the door.
“Can you get it? I’ve left the balloons and materials in the shed” Mum said over her shoulder. I opened the door to her face. Straight away what struck me was not her beauty but her sullenness. The attitude like a stinging forcefield all around her. Her black eyeliner was barbed wire. Her folded arms were brick walls.
“Hi, you must be Leila” I said, smiling. She did not exactly return the smile, but raised her eyebrows as a sort of acknowledgement. I made some remark about our parents roping us into things, and this seemed to thaw her a little. She walked down the path with me to the shed, answering all my questions defensively. St. Dunstan’s was shit, she said, but she wouldn’t want to go to the grammar school. Full of bitches. She looked me in the eye, daring me to contradict her.
They say teenage girls are the most likely group of people to see ghosts. You can venture your own explanation, according to your beliefs, but the way I see it is this: teenage girls are tuned into life at a frequency few others are. They can be arch manipulators because they pick up on the tiniest signs. Not always consciously, but instinctively, and that is what makes them so dangerous. As Leila and I sat in the shed, reluctantly blowing up balloons, I knew that although all she did suggested she wanted to keep me out, what she really wanted- no, needed- was to let me in. I say I knew this, but it’s more that I felt it, keenly. We knotted the balloons, stretching the rubber tightly round trapped pink fingers. I unknotted her, bit by bit, as she started to laugh at my impressions of fusty old teachers, and share confidences. We laid out the banner; a blank canvas onto which we could make our design. Chatter filled the dusty shed, each conversation a little trellis of friendship, waiting for time to grow over it. The afternoon turned twilight, and we tied the banner to an apple tree to dry.
By the time of the street party one week later we had become inseparable. I knew she was vulnerable. I knew her teenage rebellion was in-your-face obvious, right down to her shiny new tongue stud. I knew she was beautiful, but that didn’t mean much to me until it happened.
The street looked great, bright with bunting. Crowds of people listened to speeches and music. Leila nudged me. “Look”. I followed her eyebrows to a table where people were setting down bottles of wine. I watched as people went and topped-up, helped themselves. We looked at one another in a silent agreement before going over to the table. I picked up a plastic cup. She picked up a bottle.
“Come on!” she breathed excitedly. I grabbed another before running in the same direction.
One hour later the room was spinning. Her room was so different from mine. No black and white postcards of Tony Benn smoking his pipe. No silky Che Guevara frowning out from under his hat. No cluttered mess of adidas gazelles and corduroy flares. Her room was female, glassy. Three dressing-tables swam before my eyes. Her pictures were in frames. I squinted to make them out. We were talking, but what about? It was nonsense. My throat stang and I was hiccupping vinegar. Then she was closer to me. She felt hot, her breath in my ear.
“Have you ever kissed a girl?”
I whispered no.
She said she had. Then she kissed me.
Every part of me sang with desire. My lips on her lips were the centre of the universe, and whole worlds pivoted from this, this connection. This was the only thing in existence. This was it. The railway platform and the hands pulled apart. This was strong enough to batten down the riot shields. Big enough to topple the palaces of Tsars. This would rise up and free us from our chains, and I held her face and kissed her again and again and again.
What happened that next week was puzzling. She carried on as usual. Like nothing had happened. In fact, worse than that, she seemed frosty. Brisk, a little business-like. She didn’t use our in-jokes, or poke me in the ribs, or do any of her usual teasing. Many would not notice it, but I was scrutinising every look, word and touch. I felt I would go mad. Had she not felt it? Did she not know? I burnt to be next to her. I shivered when she passed me. Every single atom of me felt like it was pulling towards her, and I didn’t know how I stopped myself from kissing her every second that I was with her.
Eventually I burst.
“Leila, can I talk to you about something?”
She looked at me. Her face was hard to read. It was open and approachable, but in a way that someone might do an open and approachable face for a job interview. There was something false about it.
“You know what happened… after the street party?”
She seemed to wince, a tiny amount, almost imperceptibly.
“What- I mean- why do you think that… that that happened?”
“It was just experimentation” she said, all airily dismissive, before changing the subject and sweeping me along in a new conversation. I was crushed. Confused. That night I wept into my pillow under the black-browed gaze of Che.
Over the months I spent more and more time at her and her father’s. I knew that mum would be busy with Tom, and although I felt guilty for not being around to help with bath-time or read Percy the Small Engine for the fifteen millionth time, it felt good to escape. I had a new family. A grown-up, adult family. We drank wine and watched gameshows, and time grew over the trellis. I loved her, even though the comments she made about contestants were undeniably cruel, and the stories she told changed and shifted until I was sure they were thick webs of lies. I felt that would never get tired of her face. I would never be disloyal, never leave her. Not like her mother had. Her face darkened when she spoke of this evil, callous woman.
She only had her Dad. We’d joke that he and I were husband and wife. “Would you like to wash or dry, wife?” he’d enquire. I knew he looked at me with more than fatherly affection. It didn’t alarm me. I felt so grown up that it seemed natural for him to be attracted to me. He’d pat my behind as I went upstairs to bed. I was a child, but I felt like an adult, and didn’t see the wolfish hunger.
One day I called for her after school and she wasn’t there. He invited me in. I stepped into the living room with a strange empty feeling in my stomach. He stood in front of me, and then suddenly he was leaning in to hug me. He felt stifling, and his jumper bristled like horsehair. I moved and he pressed his mouth on to mine. His lips were dry, but his tongue slithered through. I recoiled; backed away.
“I’m the same age as Leila” I said.
“I know. I’m sorry.” He looked pathetic. Not the big bad wolf but a sad old man. I felt a sudden desire to be at home. To be a little girl again, safe in my mother’s embrace. When I got there I burst open. No longer could I be the stoical older sibling. Thomas was sent to the living room to play with his namesake whilst I told the story calmly, and my Mum called the police.
She was found three days later. It wasn’t clear in the newspaper, but the rumours flew around like leaves. I heard them talking in the shop, punctuated by the rattling of the price gun. Face down in Horbury Lake- taken a load of pills- what pills?- anti-depressants- terrible, isn’t it?- they’ve taken him off- really? Why…? Then they saw me and fell into guilty silence.
I dreamt of her, in the shadowy waters, with leaves collecting round her poor limp body. Slowly, over the next few months, life returned to some kind of normality. I buried myself in lessons and assemblies. Sometimes I’d have to give another statement to a social worker. See a counsellor. But on the whole she disappeared as fast as she had come. Kissing her had been the most alive I’d ever felt. Now she was faded. A ghost in the photograph. One by one the posters came down. Che was folded and slipped in a drawer. For political rhetoric felt empty now. The struggle of the workers seemed abstracted, now that I had tasted the everyday struggle of being human- the everyday struggle of loving.
See the whole issue at http://readhorse.morekasia.co.uk/?cat=26
For the second issue of The Read Horse. The topics were Seahorses, Herding Cats and War.
See it on the website: http://readhorse.morekasia.co.uk/?p=192
Rosco! Come ‘ere man!” Tafari yanked the dog’s chain, pulling its squat, wriggling little body nearer to him. The dog heaved, panting, before making another lunge towards the edge of the building. The boy was jolted forward from his makeshift seat of upturned crates, and he responded by jerking the dog fiercely towards him. He kissed his teeth loudly.
“Fuck’s sake.” It was too hot for this. He tied the dog to the TV aerial on the roof. It looked at him, quizzically, swallowing hard. Tafari looked out across the South London skyline. There was a shimmering haze of heat, like Vaseline on the lens, but you could still make out the Skyscraper-supergroup of the City, with Canary Wharf blinking in the afternoon heat, and the Gherkin’s glass walls flashing in the sun. The Peckham towerblock where Tafari sat looked back, chaotic with laundry, satellite dishes, bicycles propped up against walls. The City ignored it.
He squinted and sipped a supermalt, leaning to spit over the roof’s edge. Something felt weird. As if feeling it too, Rosco let out a whiny yelp. Prickly with heat, Tafari span around and threw his glass bottle at the ground next to the dog. “Shut UP!” The dog began to bark. Short, panicked alarm calls. Across the rooftops other dogs began to bark too, until the air was filled with the chaos of the sound.
“Hello, this is Cleo Hamill from the South London Press. I understand you have a story for me about the silver birch trees on Half Moon Lane?”
She wrote notes, prompting with an encouraging noise here and there. She continued to question Mr. Allan, keeping her tone inquisitive and positive. Only her closest friends would have been able to tell you that she was actually not really that interested. And even then they would not have guessed that she was desperately, achingly, deeply bored. So bored that whilst she was asking the questions she had actually entered into a detailed sexual daydream about a middle-aged reporter on the News Desk. So bored that afterwards she wanted to bang her head on the desk, but instead let out a long sigh and stared at the newspaper’s title banner scrolling across her screen.
She’d been working at the newspaper for three years. At first she’d loved it. Coming from the wine bars of Islington, to Cleo South London seemed raw as halal chickens strung up and bleeding. She was enthralled by the babble of different languages, the vibrancy of African dress, the clutter of shops selling meat, mobile phone accessories and international calling cards, the noise, the hubbub. But after a while her job started to become routine. PR companies pushing stories for the department of health, urging over-60s to get a flu jab. Photo opportunities at local primaries. Stories which were either depressing reports of knife crime amongst deprived, hopeless youths, or tedious chronicles of hospital ward closures and party wall disputes. She longed to write something she felt passionate about. Or at least interested in. She started to type up the trees story, making cursory glances at her notepad as she went. Then, to her faint embarrassment, Tim arrived at her desk, perching a tweedy bumcheek on her papers. She blinked, trying to erase the memory of her sexual fantasy.
“Cleo, can you do me a cat story?”
“Sorry?” she said, still horrified by visions.
“God, are we stooping that low?” she said. “This is South London, not…” she searched in her mind for a suitably quiet backwater of rural tedium. “Cornwall”.
Have you been to Cornwall?” said Tim, before committing his second most annoying habit- interrupting before she had time to answer. “Anyway, there’s been about five people ring up and say their cats have gone missing. Thought it might make a nice little story. ”
“Don’t you want to write it then?” she said, with only the faintest trace of sarcasm in her voice.
“I’m up to here with this hospital piece” he sighed. “So- all yours”. He then indulged himself in a little of his first most annoying habit- patronising pats on the knee- before walking off, a smile playing on his lips.
Great, Cleo thought. He thinks he’s doing me a favour. God, what a piece of investigative journalism! Lost cats in Sydenham. This could be her Watergate, she noted ironically. Still, at least it wasn’t re-wording something sent out by a PR company. She looked at the names and numbers on the list and began to dial.
This had been the hottest August in years. On Nunhead high street, Old men with red faces rolling with perspiration mopped their brows with knotted hankies. As the sun finally started to sink, the young, drunk and sunburnt began to stagger along. Their day had been sticky with spilt lager and their skin was as tight as sausages starting to cook. Tafari scowled. “White people” he said quietly. He looked up. Where was the bus? Rosco lay on the pavement, exhausted, panting. Then his ears pricked up. The air was alive with a strange sound. Tafari too strained to understand what he was hearing. At first he thought it was a steel band or drums… but it was too arrhythmic, too tinny. Tink- tink-tink-tink-tink! Came from every direction. Further away, he could hear what sounded like maracas- sand or beads, shaking, shaking. Then human voices joined in this strange percussion.
“Jack! Jack! Here puss!”
“Ginger! Come on ginger!”
Tafari suddenly understood what was going on. The hot and darkening air was filled with people calling for their cats, hitting tins with forks, and rattling boxes of dried food. He shrugged, puzzled, and stuck a hand out for the bus.
Cleo strode into the office with renewed purpose. She pulled her chair up to her computer screen and began to type at double speed. Her colleagues craned their necks in curiosity, swivelling their chairs around. She felt their eyes on her back but she burnt with a sudden determination, and didn’t care. Her computer desktop was crowded with web pages, and her mind buzzed with ideas. Dangerous Dogs- she typed- Animal Rights Activists- Eastern European Fur Trade- Aylesbury Estate Demolition- and her fingers clicked and tapped mouse and keyboard with such fury that the sound was almost constant.
“What’s wrong with Nana?” Kayleigh’s mother ignored her, focusing on her younger brother, who was intent on pushing himself out of the buggy altogether.
“Mum, what’s wrong with Nana? Why do we have to go see her?”
Dawn sighed. “Her cats’ve both gone missing, Kayleigh. ‘Member I told you?”
Kayleigh hopped down from the wall she had been perched on to study her mother. “Both of them?”
“Yes, both of them. Now get your brother strapped in properly.” Dawn stood up to light a cigarette, tactically ignoring the hitting game her children played. She held her hand up to her brow to shield her eyes from the mid-morning sun.
“Right, here’s the bus. Come on Kayleigh. Where’s his bottle?” They heaved the buggy up onto the bus and jammed it into its allotted place. Dawn sat down and her daughter joined her, pausing only to fish something off the floor. It was a copy of the South London Press.
“Kayleigh! That’s dirty! Put it down!” The last instruction was rendered unnecessary by Dawn snatching the paper herself, and dashing it back down to the floor. However, as she did so, the front page story caught her eye. She craned forward to read.
MISSING CATS HAVE POLICE BAFFLED
By Cleo Hamill.
In the last three weeks, more than 170 cats are said to have gone missing from various homes across South London. Despite the Metropolitan police’s best efforts, cats continue to disappear, with the total growing daily.
Elsie Brooks, 83, of Forest Hill, discovered her beloved moggie Alfred was missing on Monday. “He’s a beautiful cat”, she told us. “I’m worried people have taken him for his coat.” The South London Press has now spoken to over sixty cat owners who have similar fears. This has led police to believe that a fur-gang may be operating in the area, although there are no signs of break-in at any of the victims’ properties.
“We are following a number of leads”, confirmed Sgt. Paul Daxtable, “and yes, there have been many concerns about Eastern European fur gangs, such as those operating in Northern England recently. However, this does not seem to fit their modus operandi. We will continue to investigate until we get to the bottom of who is taking these cats, and how.” Many South London residents expressed concerns over the rise in dangerous dog breeds in the last few years, and feel that the ‘status dogs’ bred to attack could be..
Dawn felt the bus turn a corner and looked up. They were almost at her mother’s estate. “Press the bell, Kayleigh”, she said, moving toward the buggy. She frowned at the men with plaster dust on their shoes. Polish, or one of them countries. You could tell- it was the little things, like their haircuts. She’d slept with a Polish man once, and he’d cupped her breasts so tenderly, and kissed every one of her tattoos so lovingly, that she’d dismissed him as a weirdo. Dawn was not used to affection. She bet they were something to do with this cat thing, like it said in the paper.
“Meiow!” Cleo knew they were just doing this out of jealousy but that didn’t make it any less annoying. She smiled wearily at the joker in question, before sitting down to clear her desk of the now-daily collection of amusing cat-themed items. What was there today? A post-it-note with some scrawled stick-cats, with a speech bubble saying “HERE WE ARE!” A card with ‘I LOVE PUSSY’ framing a small ginger cat’s face which looked out helplessly. A tin of cat food.
“Rabbit and turkey today Cleo!” She ignored them and tipped the things into her desk drawer. She would bin them later, but didn’t want to look like a complete bitch. She had to play along a little. After all, this was the biggest story to break in the SLP for years. It was national now. Reporters from the BBC… The Guardian! -were ringing her for quotes! No wonder her workmates resented it.
“Hello, Cleo Hamill?”
“Hi Cleo, it’s Max. Guy on the line says he wants to speak to the cat reporter. So… guess that’s you.”
“What’s the story?”
“Same as all of them, probably. I couldn’t really.. he’s got a really strong accent.”
“Ok, put him through”, she said, raking through her e-mails. The line clicked. “Hello, Cleo Hamill speaking”.
“Aahl righ? Dis de cat lady?”
She allowed herself to smile at both the broad Jamaican accent, and the name for her. “Yes, that’s me. How can I help?”
“Ah knaw tings. Y’unnerstan?” Great. This was their revenge then, was it? Put the crazies through to her.
“Do you want to tell me what you ‘know’ then?” There was a silence. Perhaps he had heard the inverted commas in her voice.
“I knaaaw wuss ‘appnin to de cats. Me watch me likkle Benji las night….” Cleo strained to listen. He had stopped, and she could hear him… sniffing? Sobbing, even?
“Ah’m sorry fi de baaalin’… iss jus….” He trailed off again, and a muffled sobbing came from the other end of the phone.
“What happened?” Cleo asked, preparing for the same replies as everyone else had given. Didn’t come home for his tea… No signs of a break in… Cat flap intact…
“Ah saw it ‘appen”. The voice said, clear and urgent, “ah saw him disappear.”
Cleo frowned. She weighed up the options. Well, there were no more leads. “Sorry, what did you say your name was?”
The door opened and the unmistakeable pungency of skunk-weed drifted through the beaded curtain. Delroy shuffled into the living room, beckoning Cleo to follow him. She regarded him with a mixture of amusement and respect. He must have been in his 70s, but his body was still impressively firm, which she could see as he was wearing a string vest. Not a bad idea in this heatwave, she mused. His grey dreadlocks hung down his back, and his even greyer beard almost met his chest. He stopped, and gestured with 2 hands pointed straight down at the carpet. “Dis is where it appen.” “This is where you saw…”? “One minute ‘e ere… den ‘e start to disappear.” Delroy shrugged, and sat down on the sofa. He nodded that she should do likewise. She perched on an arm, leaning towards him slightly. “What exactly do you mean? I mean… was it like… a ghost?” she said, feeling faintly ridiculous but enjoying herself.
Delroy’s brow furrowed as he tried to re-create the scene. “Nah, it was more like… more like… e was turning into duts.”
“Dots”? Cleo’s voice was almost a whisper.
“Duts.” Delroy nodded. “An dey get smaaaller and smaaaller until ‘e…” There was a pause as they both stared at the patch of carpet where Benji had been. Then Delroy made a florid vanishing gesture with his hands. A magician disappearing rabbits. Steam evaporating.
Cleo didn’t know what to ask next. Her rational mind was pulling the shutters down. Things don’t disappear, it said firmly. Things don’t become dots. But doubts were creeping in under the shutters. Could it be… what was that thing called? The Hadron Collider? Could it be something like…? But why cats?
As her mind was forcing her through this furious, blind maze, Delroy leant forward to light a spliff. “Yuh dun mind if I..?”
Her mind came to an abrupt halt. Of course. He’d just been stoned off his box. He’d been hallucinating. She shook her head and stood up. The old man began to shake with silent laughter. He waved his index finger at Cleo. “Yu tink mi buzzin. Yu tink me jus…” he puffed hard on the browned, wilting roach as if to demonstrate. Then he looked at her with bloodshot yellow eyes and, exhaling, said “Dass aalright. I know what ah saw.”
She fished in her handbag, and gave him a business card. “If you see anything else” she smiled.
It had been three weeks. August Bank Holiday was approaching, and the London papers were focusing on that. Carnival was set to be a scorcher. The cat story was slowly drifting to higher page numbers, day by day. Cleo was baffled and weary of it. 1500 cats, or roundabouts. A huge number. Scotland Yard’s initial advice, to keep pets inside, proved useless. The RSPCA wading in, after it came to light that people were actually caging their pets. Even this did not stop the disappearances, until Cleo felt sure that every last cat would be gone.
The story was bigger than ever. However, the news dictates that a constant is not a story. Children starve, and dictators slowly wipe out whole ethnic groups, and wars rage across the ravaged earth, but we don’t want to be constantly reminded of the misery. And likewise the cat story became just a depressing mystery, relegated to the back pages as a humming commentary.
Cleo looked out the window. The red-bricked buildings of Streatham looked beautiful, washed with sunlight. People went about their business. Two men squabbled over the price of a cabbage outside a shop. She turned back, bored. Everything had sunk back into a dull kind of normality. Nothing would prepare her for what happened next. There was no sign, no feeling in the air, no omen. In fact it was with mild irritation that Cleo answered her blackberry. An 0208 number.
“Hello! Hello! Dis de cat lady?” Delroy was shouting, and his voice was bubbling with panic.
“Yu need come now. Come now! Ah’m in Catforrrd. Dey ere! Dey aaaalll ere! Sumtin beeeeg gun appen!”
“Who’s there Delroy?” “De cats, man! Ah cyan’t see ma likkel Benji bwoy. But dere’s sumtin wrong. Y’unnerstan? Dey all jus… lookin… dey”- and the line went dead. His thirty pence must have run out, thought Cleo. Then she moved with such crazy speed that everyone in the office stood up to watch her, like meerkats. Some called after her. She ignored them all, and within seconds was in a cab, her knee jiggling impatiently as they zoomed towards SE6.
As she jumped out of the cab, slamming the door and handing the driver a note, her eyes remained transfixed on the scene before her. The whole of Rushey green was a mass of little furry bodies. They stretched along the whole street. She ran across the road. They were a stream of brown, grey, black, white… tabbies, gingers, Siamese, tortoiseshell… mottled and mixed like a busy artist’s palette, and filling every inch of the pavement. They stretched up Catford Broadway as far as she could see. The traffic had stopped to a halt. The sound of horns was all she could hear.
The people of Catford looked on in amazement. Schoolgirls in Hijabs nudged one another. Shopkeepers stood in their doorways, arms folded. No-one touched the cats, or petted them, because, Cleo realised with a chill, they were not behaving like normal cats. They weren’t meiowing. They weren’t purring. They weren’t making a sound. They weren’t rubbing against strangers, or sniffing, or washing, or any graceful, flirtatious feline activity. They were just sat, staring. She followed their gaze. They were all looking intently toward the Catford Centre.
As she looked up, a terrible, wrenching sound caused everyone to cover their ears in pain. It was metal, scraping on metal. It was nuts and bolts clattering onto the pavement. It was fibreglass shattering, and dislodged bricks falling to earth. Cleo stared, hands over ears, unable to believe what she saw. But it was real. The giant cat sculpture was really pulling itself free from its height. It was really starting to clamber, stiff as Godzilla, down the walls. Screaming people ran in all directions. Sirens wailed. Cameraphones winked at the horror unfolding. Cleo stood mesmerized, buffeted on all sides by people running away. Then the giant cat began to lift one creaking leg at a time, and bring them down onto the shuddering tarmac with a clang. It was walking. Walking awkwardly, and robotically, but walking nonetheless. It had gone maybe six steps before the furry bodies stretched up onto padded paws, and like a small stream, began to follow.
Cleo felt her someone pulling on her elbows, gently tugging her away from where she stood rooted to the spot. In a daze she turned, to be face to face with Delroy. “Come on. Let’s go”, he said firmly, leading her away.
“Wait!” she said, freeing her arm from his grip. “I have to- I want to see where they’re going!”
“Well then,” he smiled, and even in his weary red eyes she saw a definite twinkle- “We’d better take de wheels!” Cleo blinked at the car keys he was dangling in front of her.
Three hours of horns, brakes, sudden U-turns and illegal diversions later, and with police tape flying merrily from the aerial like party streamers, helicopters purring overhead and several dents in the bumper, Delroy’s maroon transit van was finally hot on the tails of two thousand cats. Cleo tapped furiously into her blackberry, sending e-mails, twitter updates and texts in a flurry of desperate words. Her eyebrow had an attractive cut through it, and the small beads of blood were hardening into shiny precious gemstones. That had been way back at Sidcup, as they’d careered across a roundabout and her head had bumped into the windscreen.
She felt Delroy slow down, and looked up. They were here. The destination, she supposed. She felt strangely calm now, after the excitement and madness of the last few hours. The green stretched either side, and boats bobbed on the sea. The ferry ports stretched greyly. And they were watching an army of cats, led by a giant monstrosity, head straight towards the white face of England. She had never seen anything so beautiful. As they reached the edge, and settled as one mass, they suddenly seemed small. Everything seemed to hold its breath as the sun set. Then the great cat moved cripplingly slowly towards the precipice. It swayed for several moments before toppling forwards. The air seemed to swallow it in a gulp. Then every cat began to rush forwards, devotedly, and disappear. Cleo gasped. Delroy touched his lips, breathing his pet’s name imperceptibly.
They sat for what seemed like a cliff-eroding ice age, even after the last one had long disappeared, before the Police moved them on, and they began the long journey back through Dover. Cleo looked over her shoulder. You are now leaving Kent, the sign warned her.
See the whole issue: http://readhorse.morekasia.co.uk/?cat=9