slave states

writer person’s note – these are re-edited versions of stories which appeared a year or so ago on themalcontent.rocks

The hall was hot, the queue was long and the smell, although it would have been better described as a stink, was overpowering. The sign which had been printed then pinned to the entrance – the one he had come in through, at least – read ‘Heaven’ but underneath someone had added, in small, bold type, ‘although this term is only a suggestion’.

‘Ticket number thirty four,’ said the Tannoy, ‘Ticket number thirty four to reception.’ Eldritch looked down once more at his own ticket, which was marked four hundred and seventeen, and realised that his wait, which had already seemed like an eternity, had only just begun.

‘Can’t someone switch on the air conditioning?’ said a man, sat across the aisle from him. 

Eldritch smiled. ‘I don’t know if they care about air conditioning in the afterlife,’ he said, 

‘And you do I suppose?’

‘Yes. I’m sweating like a pig.’

There was a cough. ‘Do you mind?’ said a small woman who sat next to the man, her eyes emerging from underneath her burka. ‘It is bad enough to be trapped in here without hearing of the pigs. Please, show some sensitivity.’

‘Too right. And stop staring at my legs,’ said the man.

‘You … you don’t have any legs.’

‘Exactly. Now ask me why.’

‘Why?’

‘Guess.’

‘Alright, I will.’ His pride had been awakened. ‘A landmine?’

‘You stupid racist,’ said the man, who was white but spoke with an accent that Eldritch could not quite place. ‘Yes, all injuries in Muslim countries are due to war and terrorism. You stupid fucking racist.’

‘Was it polio?’ said a voice.

‘Precisely,’ said the man. ‘Five points to you, madam, and none to the racist.’

‘I am not a racist.’

‘So you say.’

‘So I mean. You are white.’

‘Race is not just colour,’ said the man.

‘Too right,’ said the woman to his right, shaking her cloth’d head.

He had not been dead long but he was already sick of it.

‘Ticket number thirty-seven to reception,’ said the Tannoy. Eldritch looked at his ticket, which was still marked four hundred and seventeen. He sighed, and looked longingly at the frosted window which the recently notified ticket-holder was approaching, his tired limbs dragging across the tiled floor of the hall. ‘I suppose this must be purgatory,’ he said, to no-one in particular.

‘As I understand it,’ said the man across the aisle, wrinkling his considerable nose in displeasure, ‘purgatory is an almost entirely Christian concept.’

‘Catholic, specifically,’ said a old fellow, who lay with his body stretched out over a couple of seats down the aisle, ‘but don’t ask me how I know.’ They did not, but he told them anyway. ‘I was one of them, once, a good Catholic boy, and then my Susan – my beautiful Susan – died. Oh, the guilt they attributed to her! I told them – she has nothing to feel guilty about. She loved, she cooked, she laughed. Ah, but she was born, they said, and was guilty of original sin! I told them to fuck off. They didn’t like that. Still, I wonder if I will see her again. I hope she has bathed since the last time we met.’

‘I am neither Catholic or Christian,’ said the man across the aisle, his eyebrows dark and serious, ‘although in truth I do not know the difference. Besides friend, you should not have spoken with holy men in such a way.’

‘There is no such thing as a holy man,’ said the old fellow, who had not opened his eyes, ‘in the same way that there is no such thing as good luck.’ He coughed, but only as punctuation. ‘There is only the absence of bad luck,’ he said, ‘and a new day with which to hopefully repair the effects.’

‘There is indeed a great tradition of philosophical thought in the West,’ said the man across the aisle, dipping his severe head to address the woman in the burka, and although Eldritch could not see her mouth, or indeed much of her anything, he could tell that she was smiling.

‘You cannot speak English?’

‘No. Why would I? I can say Coca-Cola, Manchester United and smartphone. That’s it. I have no use for anything else.’

‘But I cannot speak anything other than English,’ said Eldritch, who was too embarrassed by the standard of his conversational French to admit to it, ‘yet I am perfectly able to understand you – the words at least, if not the madness which lies behind them.’

‘How curious,’ said the woman. ‘To me – to us – it appears as if you are speaking perfect Arabic.’

‘God works in mysterious ways,’ said the man across the aisle, unaware that this was a cliche in all cultures and languages.

‘Well,’ said Eldritch, who had decided to make an effort to get on with everybody, however objectionable they may appear, ‘at least we’ve established that this isn’t purgatory, at least in an official sense. That’s something, I expect.’

‘A shame,’ said the old fellow, who had still not opened his eyes.

‘I thought you said you were no longer a Catholic?’

‘I am not,’ he said, ‘but it would be nice to see some old friends, most of whom would be sure to be resident in purgatory, flawed but essentially good individuals as they were. For years now there has been nobody to talk to except grandchildren and – no offence – immigrants. I do not mind the immigrants, truth be told, but I must admit to having little in common with them.’

‘This is your fault,’ said the man across the aisle.

‘Hasan,’ said the woman, ‘behave yourself. It is his fault as much as it is the immigrant’s fault, most likely. It is the responsibility of everybody to make an effort, that is what our mother taught us.’

‘Our mother was mad.’

‘You do not mean that.’

‘I do not.’ He smiled.

‘You are related?’ said Eldritch.

‘Yes, because all Muslims are related,’ said Hasan, who Eldritch was sure was attempting a John Cleese impression.

‘Please excuse my brother,’ said the woman. ‘Thousands have before you.’

Eldritch smiled for the first time that day, or week, or month, however long it had been. It was not an unpleasant experience.

‘Ticket number 38,’ announced the Tannoy. ‘And please, switch off your cell-phones.’

‘Cellphones?’ said a young girl, who had sat slumped and unresponsive in the chair next to Eldritch since he had walked into the hall, ‘they have cellphones here?’

‘I think,’ said Eldritch, ‘that is a joke.’

‘These seats are a joke,’ said the man across the aisle looking down at his legs, which weren’t there.

‘Has anybody been here before?’ said Hasan, raising his voice to be heard over the staggering silence.

There was no answer.

‘Well, that rules out Buddhism,’ he said, and his sister laughed, a delightful sound that reminded Eldritch of a bubbling pot of stew, a meal that he did not particularly enjoy but nonetheless missed terribly, like all human tastes. ‘And Hinduism, possibly. I do not know. In truth, it is difficult to follow the precise details of everybody’s fantastical ideas.’

‘You both died at the same time?’ said Eldritch.

‘A car accident,’ said Hasan’s sister, who still did not have a name.

‘Bloody Hondas,’ said Hasan.

‘It is a common way to go in our country,’ she said, ‘what with the state of the roads and the madness and all. That is one cliche even Hasan will allow you.’

‘There is not a war?’

She shrugged. ‘War is one way to put it,’ she said. ‘Most people are just hungry.’

‘And thirsty,’ said Hasan. ‘Do not forget thirsty.’

‘I have not, brother. It is very much in the same category, don’t you think?’

‘You cannot eat a glass of water.’

‘Do you remember way back in the mists of time,’ she said, turning to Eldritch, ‘when my brother spoke dismissively of Western philosophical thought?’

Hasan snorted. ‘Some inconsistencies are to be expected,’ he said, ‘from a man who has no legs.’

‘Ticket number one hundred and thirty eight,’ said the Tannoy. ‘And please, do come forward to the window one at a time. Family groups are not to be admitted on one ticket unless there are accessibility issues.’

‘It’s actually quite tense, waiting to find out the truth,’ said Eldritch, unsure if the sentence was a question, a statement, or both.

‘Emphasis on the word ‘waiting’,’ said Hasan, checking his watch. ‘Besides, you are clearly not a man of faith. Beyond those double doors waits my God, I have no doubt.’

‘What is the time?’ said Eldritch, choosing to focus on the watch rather than the man’s words. There was a slither of doubt, he could see it, and more than that, it had brought along some friends.

’That thing,’ said his sister, ’has not worked for years.’

‘Like your husband,’ said Hasan. He blinked. ‘Sorry,’ he said.

‘That’s okay. He is a lazy man. It is known.’

‘I like him.’

‘Everybody likes him, which is why he is so successful at being lazy.’

‘Did he treat you well, your husband?’ said Eldritch.

‘If you mean, did he hit me, then no, he did not,’ said the sister. ‘He existed, I think. That is the main thing I can say about him.’

‘A worthy epitaph,’ said the old fellow, who had not spoken for some time, ‘or at least it will be, when his time comes.’

‘You are drunk,’ said Hasan, not trying to hide his disgust.

‘Damn right I am,’ said the old fellow. ‘And why not? God invented booze as he invented hangovers, and the fried breakfast industry thanks him for that every Sunday morning.’

‘Ticket number forty four,’ said the Tannoy, a little chirpily now, ‘four-four. Please take any rubbish with you and use the antiseptic wipes provided to clean up any blood or gore from your seat.’

‘If he seems excited,’ said Hasan’s sister, ‘it’s only because of the virgins.’

‘Nonsense,’ said Hasan.

‘Whatever you say.’

He blushed. ‘As a matter of fact I was speaking with my cousin, Aadheen, about this only the other week. Seventy two Virgins, I said, this does not seem feasible. Of course, he admonished me.’

His sister laughed. ‘This is a joke,’ she said. ‘Aadheen means obedient.’

‘He was well named,’ said Hasan. ‘I asked him – where are these virgins to come from, exactly? Hell, he said, although he did not sound sure. Aadheen, I said, why would I want to stick my penis in a woman who has been sent to hell? He only shook his head. Myself I would prefer one experienced, non-evil lover rather than any number of virgins – the Qur’an does not give a number, incidentally, and is remarkably vague on the whole matter. One would be too many, in my opinion.’

‘But you died in a car crash,’ said Eldritch. ‘Do you qualify?’

‘It is not just for martyrs, this fiction’ said Hasan. ‘That is something of a distortion, a form of propaganda for two audiences, both mine and yours. The hadith are confusing, though. You are forgiven.’

‘Virgins get very emotional,’ said the old fellow, who had still not moved or opened his eyes. ‘I have slept with five. Never again.’

‘They would not want you now, old man,’ said Hasan.

‘And I would not want them either.’

Hasan sniffed. ‘Although it would seem that it took five shots of your cock to come to that conclusion.’

‘It was a good mistake to make, I think. Healthier than smoking, by a hair.’

‘What do women get in paradise?’ said Eldritch.

‘One man,’ said Hasan’s sister. ‘Just the one. And I hope he is no virgin.’

‘Ticket number fifty seven,’ said the Tannoy.

‘That’s us,’ said Hasan. ‘Well, me at least. Obviously, my sister, I will require some help.’

‘I will lift you,’ said Eldritch, who had been working out enthusiastically for the last six months of his life, unaware that his efforts would only be rewarded by a pulmonary embolism as he cycled to the gym one dry summer’s day, his mind filled with nothing more than the possibility of changing banks for ethical reasons.

‘Thank you. I did not wish to … slither.’

‘It will be my pleasure.’

‘You are a nice man,’ said Hasan, ‘obviously with the usual caveats for Western Imperialist Scum, and white privilege.’

‘They still apply,’ said the old fellow, as still as a rock. ‘As they do to me, as they do to many in this room.’

‘This is very confusing,’ said Eldritch.

‘What is not?’ said Hasan, nerves beginning to show on his face as sudden, tiny ticks. He looked towards the frosted window of the reception area, behind which a dark figure stood, its features indistinct, staring out expectantly into the hall.

Advertisements

panic baton (garage memories)

Since we’ve been editing the live recording / video which was shot at The Garage, Highbury, I thought I’d give you some history about us/me and that venue, a place I’ve played so often I once left a packet of rolling tobacco under a sofa in the dressing room and found it, untouched, several months later.

(1) There are two venues (or were, at least) at the Garage. The smaller one, upstairs, used to have a load-in which would have challenged shape-shifting hobbits with webbed feet and the upper body strength of a prop forward. They used to make you carry your gear through the main venue so you could stare at it in wonder and disbelief. ‘Who the hell plays here?’ I would say to myself. ‘They must be MASSIVE.’ Well, we’ve sold the same room out on several occasions, and I can guarantee that we’re not.

(2) We played the downstairs room supporting – of all bands – Nashville Pussy on the day we mastered ‘mclusky do dallas’, getting to the venue a whole four minutes late for soundcheck in the process, to find that the opening band (Sum 41, playing their first ever British hair-styling opportunity) had all of their gear already on stage and – and I’m not exaggerating here – bodily prevented us from taking the stage. Well, the band didn’t, their crew did. That was dead nice. Round of applause for them, then.

(3) One of only three times I’ve ever seen a tout for one of our shows was outside the Garage in 2004. He was a Scouse guy with a forehead so big I almost felt normal by comparison. I asked him for directions to the Wine Warehouse and he told me to fuck off. Scousers. Great sense of humour.

(4) The Fall’s ‘Manager’ once told me (2003, I think) that if we didn’t give him the drugs we’d promised then we wouldn’t be taking the stage, so I pretended I knew karate. It was pretty cool. Turned out that the opening band were in fact playing because they’d promised the Fall drugs. I suppose that’s a normal playing-with-the-Fall story.

nb. This story has been hugely compressed.

(5) The dance-floor is the perfect size for inter-band badminton tournaments. Might even be on the DVD extras. *might*

(6) We played the Garage on Kelson’s last tour supporting Future of the Left’s OHMYGODITSEASILYTHEBESTYOULLNEVERGETCLOSETOIT record, ‘travels with myself and another’, and it was easily the worst attended show we’ve ever played in the venue. The moral of the story – nostalgia is for liars. Pick up your weapons and crack on.

(7) in 2002, just after getting back from our first tour (with someone helping us out with driving and sound!) we were asked to play the Garage supporting Liars, who were/probably still are decent guys, with a band called the Yeah Yeah Yeahs supporting. On the way there, whilst driving, Matt (Harding, drums) had, for the first time on record, a panic attack and had to pull over, only for Jon (Chapple, bass) to take over and ALSO HAVE A PANIC ATTACK LIKE IT WAS A RELAY EVENT OR SOMETHING. We ended up at Membury Services (I don’t drive, I’m a *cough* artist *end cough*) wishing we weren’t until Liars driver, a lovely guy called Veg (that’s right, Veg) bombed it down the motorway to fetch us and throw our pathetic bodies into the venue 4 minutes before stage-time, a two hour round trip undertaken at what seemed to be the speed of light.

Ah yes, the show was good and the singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs wasn’t happy with us, for some reason or other.

nb. this story has also been hugely compressed for sanity and/or libel.

(8) Two years ago the mclusky* show we did for Cancer Research at the Garage sold out in a few hours. That was nice.

(9) best ever Garage fan – the bearded guy wrapped in the Welsh flag who went into a state of shock when he found out that I was English. Later on he was seen, head pressed against the PA, crying his eyes out.

I fucking love rock and roll.

falco

ps. the recorded show – which we hope to releasing in the next couple of weeks – sounds better than I would have ever imagined – we’re just trimming some of the gaps between songs to keep it manageable, but it’s still somewhere over an hour and 20 minutes long.

 

all is quiet, send no-one

There are a thousand stories about where, why and how the reckoning began. As many stories as there are people, some said, in the way that the wannabe wise often do, hoping that we won’t listen to the actual words and attempt to divine some meaning from them. More stories than people? Nonsense. Trust me, nobody’s original. Everything’s been done.

My dad says – well no, he fucking insists – that it was a riot at Sports Direct warehouse just outside Cheltenham that started it all, which is a place (the warehouse and the town) I otherwise know nothing about, and that he watched it all kick off on television with his brother, my Uncle Ken, in the old house at Mulder Street, the otherworldly aroma of their mother’s sausage and mash flooding through from the kitchen to promise delight at the end of what had been, as per usual, a miserable bloody day.

‘Look at those fucking monkeys,’ said Ken, who, although fond of an occasional racial epithet, had intended the insult to be more inclusive, ‘swinging around on the rafters like the animals that they are.’

As he tells it my dad was more patient at the time so he sat back and waited for the news – and then Ken – to move onto the next topic, all the better to spill his rage onto, but the story continued to build and the cameras, relieved and then excited to be following breaking news which for once was both of those things kept filming, as the warehouse caught fire and then the crowd of men – it was mostly men, he thought, although it was difficult to tell in the confusion – charged the police lines and carried the hour through determination and sheer weight of numbers, if not quite the day.

Ken cheered and clapped when the presenter said that the Army had been called in.

‘You think this is a game of football?’ said my dad.

‘I think,’ said Ken, ‘that the importance of law and order has been lost in this country. It disgusts me.’

‘Maybe they’ve just had enough?’

‘Enough of what?’

‘Everything. Of being treated like arseholes, for one.’

Somebody on the television said ‘microcosm’.

‘You see?’ said Ken. ‘They’re already blaming the internet.’

The internet was key, of course. If you read about it now you’d think the internet back in those days had been a breeding ground for nothing except pictures of cats and arguments about privilege on discussion forums which sometimes went on for so long that the only people able to follow them had to be specifically employed to do so, often forgetting to perform simple day-to-day tasks as they typed their invective, jabbing and counter-jabbing in the search for a victory so pure, so complete, that only a blank space below their final message would confirm it. Yeah? You know it, brister. But back then, as my dad tells it, people used it to communicate, to reach out across towns and countries – even continents. They had a thing called the Arab Spring, he says, in Egypt and all around there, and they overthrew their dictators and got new ones instead. Different ones. New hats. He sighed when he told me that. ‘Revolution,’ he said, ‘sometimes happens for the lack of anything better to do. People get bored, Look at the Romans, for example – they got so bored that they invented Latin. ‘

So yeah, it went ‘viral’. My dad always laughs when he says that, and I get the feeling he’s half-remembering something that he won’t ever let me in on, probably because it involves some woman he would have been messing around with when he was still with my mum. ‘Viral’. Some pricks in masks attacked a police station in Birmingham, but they were pricks in masks so nobody took any notice except to wonder what time their parents were picking them up from mask-school. ‘Viral’. Some art students on stopped their cars near a busy exit on the M4 motorway, got out and walked down the slip road backwards in an act so deeply symbolic that nobody could quite work out what it meant. A seventy two year-old woman entered a Pets At Home store near Brighton and set almost fifty rabbits and guinea pigs free, the whole time shouting ‘Free the Sports Direct Five!’, which was viewed as a great insurrectionist act until it was discovered that she was protesting on behalf of the warehouse management, who had been trapped inside the building when the riot began.

‘Viral’. The image they always show is of the huge Sports Direct logo – the one that sat over the warehouse carpark gates (‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ said my dad, though I didn’t know what that meant until recently) burning up in the dusk, framing the line of police who were moving in on the rioters with the slow inevitability of tooth decay. What they don’t show you now, my dad insists, is how long it took to catch fire. Symbols come easily, he used to say, unless you’re the one tasked with making them.

I was only six when it all happened and never that into sport, playing or watching, so the death of low-price sportswear chain meant very little to me, especially at the time, although the TV pictures were dramatic and, I guess, fun to watch for a kid. It was a death, too, because it turned out that the company weren’t properly insured, that the corners cut in the production of their training shoes and barely luminous running tops had extended to the accounts department, who were as badly paid as the poor bastards who were there in the car-park facing off with the army and police.

‘They look so proud,’ said my dad. ‘Totally fucked of course, but proud.’

‘Cometh before a fall,’ said Ken.

‘They’ve already fallen,’ said my dad. ‘They know that, I think. Pride is all they have left.’

‘Bollocks. Don’t they have families to go home to?’

‘That’s probably the point,’ said my dad, and as he tells it he could see the hope forming in their eyes on his TV screen as the younger men in the crowd pulled their jackets tightly around them and began to thrust their arms towards the sky, as much in celebration of their own existence as defiance.

And that’s when the army went in. All in.

There were a lot of think pieces over the next few days, as my dad tells it (he printed some off at the time to show us when we were older, but ended up using them as impromptu Christmas decorations during the paper famine of 2025). What were think pieces? Well, they were torturously assembled articles in which the writer would select pieces of evidence which suited his or her pre-ordained viewpoint and proceed to ignore or belittle everything else. There would usually be a photograph of the author sitting atop the piece doing their best to look wise which often meant spectacles and a tight beard (in both men and women) or the kind of giddy all-inclusive smile which could, in the right weather conditions, bring down aircraft on a starless night.

‘Like bodybuilders,’ said my dad, ‘holding their pints at right angles to accentuate the bicep.’ This was one of his favourite sayings, although I cannot deny the veracity of it. Truth is a complicated beast, though – it’s entirely possible that he was just jealous. He had little arms, after all, and had never been asked to write a think-piece by a national newspaper or the Huffington Post, which was a (little) better than it sounds.

What did these think pieces say? They apportioned blame which, although fun (who doesn’t like to blame somebody else for your problems?) ultimately changed nothing, least of all anyone’s mind. Big business and their representatives, Sports Direct amongst them, stuck to a party line of decrying the culture of entitlement which had led to, by 2019, sixty-three per cent of the UK workforce declaring themselves mentally unfit for work despite owning large televisions and drinking imported lager, most of which tasted like warm disappointment. The left quoted the same statistics but placed them in the context of a wider cultural war being waged on the poor by Prime Ministerial candidate David Beckham, who by that time had so much writing inked onto his body that he had actually begun to develop sentient thoughts, some of which were hawkish in the extreme.

‘It all burned the same,’ said my dad. ‘Fire doesn’t understand ideas.’

He was right. He usually was, the old bastard.

Ken still comes over now, from time to time, traipsing over from the other side of town with his wheelbarrow and an airgun, which isn’t ever loaded but looks as though it might be. They’re still brothers, of course, him and my dad, even though they’ll never be friends which is fine because friends are hard work, especially nowadays what with the apocalypse and everything.

Sorry! I’m not meant to say that word. Anna will sigh and look over her glasses and tell me that there can be no such state as ‘post-apocalyptic’, and although I think she might be wrong (we’re living in it, whatever she wants to call it) I am tired most days and can’t be arsed to shake my head, let alone argue with her.

The television that they watched the riot on, a fine flatscreen specimen some 58 inches across, still sits in the house at Mulder Street although it hasn’t worked now for over twenty five years, the last TV channel having stopped broadcasting around about the same time that a national ordinance limited the use of electricity to hospitals and other essential services. Ordinance – listen to me! I sound like a lawyer. Well, what I imagine one would sound like, if I could watch one on TV.

‘You could have been one too,’ says my dad, ‘if it wasn’t for the … well, y’know,’ but he doesn’t sound unhappy, just interested. He was never too tied to the modern world, I think, interrupting as it often did his favourite pastimes of sitting down and talking. ‘Listen to the night,’ he says sometimes, and he’ll describe the cars which used to race past the house like they were monsters or ska-bands (I do not know what these are, but he laughs about them anyway) distractions sent from another planet to remove man, this arrogant arsehole, from the pleasures which lie in wait for him within his own mind.

hardly getting over it

Original writing person’s note – I wrote this story (and it is a story, I’ve checked my diary) without having seen / being unaware of the basic premise of an apparently dead famous Hollywood film which stars rubber-faced comedian Jim Carey. That’s a shame because (a)effort expended can never be reclaimed, like smiles given to a (now) dead relative and (b)Jim Carey. Still, there’s only a similarity with the premise as opposed to the actual story and, since I had fun writing it and all art* is theft (i.e Jimmy Page stealing everything but the socks from old bluesmen) I present it to you anyway, mainly because the other story I wrote this week is too long for this site and I’m too fucking lazy to edit it right now. I hope you enjoy. If you don’t, imagine explosions. They’re cool.

Oh yeah, the title is from a husker du song, my favourite version of which is on the live record ‘the living end’.

*I said art. I didn’t quite mean it, but I said it nonetheless.

‘Welcome back.’ That’s the first voice I hear, the nurse’s.

I sit up, rubbing my eyes in the way that I probably haven’t done since I was a kid. ‘Hey,’ I say, ‘how long did that take?’

‘The standard amount of time, twenty four hours. That’s all it ever takes.’

‘I feel as though I’ve been asleep for a week.’ I look at her, seeing her properly for the first time. She is a beautiful woman, blonde and smooth, no rough edges, no inconvenient asymmetries. Suspiciously so, I think. Was she finished with a spirit level or something?

‘Welcome back to a world of love and possibility,’ she says, without drama. ‘Can I offer you a drink?’

‘A water.’

‘Done.’ She passes me a plastic cup and I drink it as if it were my last.

‘Careful,’ she says. ‘You’ll drown.’

The door slides open and the Doctor walks in. He is a small man, but I don’t think that anybody ever notices, least of all him. ’How are you feeling?’ he asks.

‘Hungry.’

‘Aside from that. How are you really feeling?’

For a moment I don’t understand the question, like I’ve forgotten why I am here in the first place, rising in instalments from that small bed in the hospital bedroom. ‘Oh,’ I say, running a series of rudimentary checks on my internal organs, checking for pains, fractures and splints, ‘yes, that.’ I physically check my heart, and my brain, massaging the area of my chest and then skull in a series of careful circular motions.

‘Is she still there?’ asks the Doctor.

‘I remember her, if that’s what you mean.’

‘It isn’t – we’re not engaged in the business of erasing an entire memory of a person, remember. I’m asking if you still love her.’

‘I don’t – I don’t quite know.’ I feel different, that’s for sure, as if I shed half a stone in my sleep.

‘I think you’re fine,’ he says, almost, I think, winking at me, ‘but we’ll run some tests to check. As you probably remember from our literature we guarantee a one hundred per cent success rate – if there’s been some kind of distortion or incomplete cycle then we’ll simply run the procedure again.’

The nurse is smiling at me, although not to the extent that I think she might be interested, her brown eyes flashing with little more than sympathy. ‘I can’t help feeling,’ I say to the Doctor after she leaves the room, ‘that the beautiful and not unkind woman being present at my bedside when I awoke was not some kind of coincidence. Do you keep similarly attractive males on the premises for clients of other persuasions?’

‘I couldn’t possibly comment on all of the features of our Platinum Package,’ says the Doctor, not meeting my eye, ’as my duties are strictly clinical – but yes, that does sound like a good idea – a likely scenario – to me. After all people come to us to be cured of what they feel is a debilitating heartbreak, the kind from which they feel they cannot otherwise move on, so it makes perfect sense to show them that there is reason to do precisely that. An immediate reason, in the case of Lorraine.’

‘Lorraine?’

‘Not the sexiest name, I concede,’ he says. ‘But in a way, that makes her even more disarming.’

‘This is the machine we’ll be using to scan your brain today,’ says the Doctor, showing me to my seat. ‘Impressive, isn’t it?’ I nod. ‘We call it Kevin,’ he says, ‘after …’ he checks himself. ‘I can’t quite remember who,’ he says. ‘Some fat guy, I think.’

I make myself comfortable and, with the help of a different nurse, this one several degrees less attractive than Lorraine (fat ankles, if I’m being honest) he pulls the scanning equipment over the top of my head, taking a moment or two to make sure that I look as ridiculous as is humanly possible while he hums some song under his breath, something in an odd time signature.

‘It looks like a bee hive,’ I say.

‘Yes,’ he says, ‘you’re not the first person to say that. In fact, you said it yourself just one week ago when we first gave you this test – the procedure you’ve just undergone plays havoc with short-term memory. Now, I’m going to show you several photographs and measure the responses of your brain to them – it’s as simple as that. The good news is that other than staying conscious there’s nothing else I can demand of you, so just relax.’

‘And what’s the bad news?’

‘There is no bad news,’ he says. ‘That’s the bad news. Now, let’s begin.’

The first picture is of a flower.

‘Flower,’ I say. ‘A … begonia, I think.’

‘You don’t have to say anything,’ he says, ‘I’m measuring your brain.’

‘Well – Is it okay if I talk?’

‘You can sing if you want, although quietly if you don’t mind. We’re on a ward after all, and some people less fortunate than us are asleep.’

‘Or worse. Hey, where did you get that picture of my dad?’ He has shown me the second picture.

‘You would have included it in your application pack, along with thousands of other images.’

‘Right. Are you measuring right now, in real time?’

‘Absolutely. All standard so far.’

‘And I just sit here?’

‘You just sit there.’

The third picture is of a tall woman who I do not recognise.

‘No idea,’ I say.

‘This isn’t a quiz. They’re aren’t any right or wrong answers. Please, just relax.’

The fourth picture is of her.

‘Now,’ I say, ‘I do know that one. That’s not a great picture to be honest, it makes her face look too shiny, like she’s bad at putting on make-up. Do you have any others?’

A fifth picture appears, and it is her again. Spectacular.

A sixth. Even better.

A seventh. Wait …

‘Well,’ he says, ‘I think we should stop right there.’ There is something about his tone I don’t like, as if he has just noticed a pile of dog shit on the floor and needs to talk to a man with a bucket, who he feels uncomfortable around, about cleaning it up.

‘We should?’

‘Yes.’ He turns to the second nurse. ‘Get Lorraine,’ he says, and passes me a tissue for the blood which it turns out has leaked from my nose.

‘The Ventral Tegmental Area of your brain is showing some incredibly unusual activity,’ says the Doctor, doing his best, I think, not to look too concerned. ‘It’s like nothing I’ve seen before, frankly.’

‘What does that mean?’

‘I’m not entirely sure. Also, there was the growling, which is a little out of left field.’

‘The growling?’

‘Yes. When I showed you the pictures of your ex – sorry, the subject of unengagement – you growled. Pretty loudly, too.’

‘No – I didn’t.’

‘Apparently you did,’ says Lorraine in her kind, reassuring voice. ‘Kath said you growled like a tiger.’

‘Kath?’

‘The … the other nurse.’

‘Fat ankles?’ I had no idea I was about to say that out loud. ‘Sorry.’

‘I’ve heard her called worse,’ says the Doctor, considering the floor. ‘Now, I really need to ask you about the nose-bleed. Do you get a lot of those?’

‘Only when I was little.’

‘How little, exactly?’

‘About 4 foot 2.’

He smiles, but not with his eyes. ‘This is not the time for joking around,’ he says. ‘There may be something seriously wrong with you.’ He stops smiling.

‘This is the level 3 scanner,’ he says. ‘We don’t use this one a lot – we don’t have to usually.’

‘What happened to the level 2 scanner?’

‘We skipped that step. We need a level 3 here, at least.’

‘At least? How far does it go?’

‘What have you got? We’re at an exciting time for this technology and new levels of access and analysis of the brain are opening up for us everyday. It costs more, sure, but your insurer will pay. They have to.’

The level 3 scanner looks just like the level 1 scanner, but has a slightly different finish, being glossier, although that may just be the light in the room.

‘You know the process by now,’ he says, pulling out the photographs, Lorraine lurking just behind his shoulder as if waiting for a bus.

The flower again. I do not speak, or bleed or – roar.

My dad. ‘Hi dad,’ I almost say, but do not, and continue to concentrate on the activity of my face.

The nameless, tall woman. She has good, strong legs, I notice. I wish – I wish I had legs like that.

‘All good,’ says the Doctor.

Now – there she is again, and this time I see more of the picture, rather than just the fact she is in it. Her hair is swept back – never my favourite look for her, as she could doubtless tell you – and her face still looks a little shiny, as if she had recently emerged from a dark tunnel. ‘Did I give you that photograph as well?’ I say, but do not receive an answer.

The second picture of her I remember being taken – although whether I took it myself or not I cannot recall – on a boat at a party about three years ago, as we held our champagne flutes hard against the pounding wind and did our best not to be shat on by seagulls, who were numerous and persistent. She looks great in it, I think, innocent yet worthy, someone who knows little of life but is not scared of it, prepared to see the best in every moment, even the boring ones.

We had a lot of those, I fear. A lot.

I wake up feeling groggy, like four hangovers decided to get together and form a supergroup. I am in another Brain Scanning Machine.

‘Which level is this?’ I say, although only barely.

‘You don’t want to know.’

‘Oh, I do,’ I whisper. ‘Hence the question.’

‘Twelve,’ he says, ‘level Twelve. You’ll have to give me a minute, actually, because we’ve never had to switch the Level 12 Machine on before. I need to check that it’s working okay.’

‘Was there more roaring? I don’t remember.’

’There was I’m afraid, and it was louder this time. You’ve got quite the pair of lungs on you, it would seem.’

’Thank you. Blood?’

‘We cleaned that up for you,’ he says, ‘what with you being unconscious and all.’

‘How much was there?’ I feel weak, so the question seems appropriate.

‘Enough to necessitate a small transfusion, nothing more.’

‘Oh dear.’

‘Don’t worry, your insurer will pay for it.’

‘I’m not worried about the price.’

‘Too right,’ says Lorraine, or at least, I assume it is her, my vision blurred and otherwise restricted as it is. ‘You concentrate on getting better. That’s all that matters at the moment.’

I am in a wheelchair being pushed down a street – my old street – by Lorraine, who looks so happy in her work that she may as well be at a celebratory family dinner or walking arm-in-arm with her childhood sweetheart through an autumnal park. She is a consummate professional this girl, and I hope they pay her well.

‘I think that this is a great idea. It’ll be really good for you, meeting up with her,’ she says.

‘You think?’

‘Well, Doctor Carsley certainly seems to think so, and if anybody would know then it would be him.’

‘I never appreciated how badly maintained our pavements were until I was forced to use a wheelchair,’ I say, which I suppose might pass for flirting.

She laughs. It is delightful. ‘Perhaps you should go into politics?’ she says. Really, she is too much. I know I like her – and I mean really like her – because I have no idea how large her breasts are. That always happens to me, although I have no idea why.

‘I checked,’ she says, ‘and Bagley’s Cafe does have wheelchair access. Good news all round, then.’ Even the banal sounds like honey when it slips from her throat.

‘Great,’ I say. ‘I wouldn’t want to crawl inside or have you lift me.’ I feel perky today, almost, secretly, brilliant, as if every sentence contains a nugget of gold. ‘Besides, the kids around here would probably nick the wheelchair before you’d as much as ordered a panini.’

‘Kids,’ says Lorraine, sadly, in the same way that some people say ‘this country’ when they mean ‘everything is different now’.

Lorraine is sat a couple of booths behind us, pretending to read a copy of GQ.

‘Hello,’ says my wife again (it is the third time she has said it and previously I have chosen not to answer, but to simply stare straight ahead). We are not married, but I call her my wife – at least throughout my internal monologue – because it is simpler that way. We were together long enough, after all. House. Dog. Resentment. All of the things.

‘You look … a little weighty,’ I say and I know, I know I sound insensitive, rude even, but it is true, and the woman I know – or knew, whatever – would appreciate me being candid on such a topic.

‘Yes,’ she says, flashing a resentful look at some unknown memory. ‘Yes, I suppose that I do.’ She literally bites her lip.

‘And what’s with the mascara?’ Red. It doesn’t suit her, as any fool seeing those cheeks, those red apples, could tell her. It wouldn’t suit me, either.

‘As you know,’ she says, ‘I have a history of bad choices lined up behind me, waiting for their turn.’ That hurts I think, or is at least supposed to. She looks away. ‘How are you feeling?’ she says.

‘Fine. Better than ever.’

‘Like a new person entirely.

‘A new person, yes.’

‘This – operation you had.’

‘It wasn’t an operation, not really. More of a procedure.’

‘What did it involve?’

‘I was lucky enough to be unconscious, so I couldn’t tell you. Poking and probing around I would guess, fixing my messed up head with skill, I would hope, and not little precision.’

‘And you feel okay?’

‘I said I did, didn’t I? I feel fantastic. How about yourself?’

‘I lost my job,’ she said. ‘Cutbacks, the usual. And then Jon …’ Her new man is called Jon.

‘Yes?’ I say.

‘Jon is ill, I’m afraid. We’re waiting on the full prognosis, but it doesn’t look good.’

‘Ah,’ I say, my sympathy genuine but neutered, like I’m fighting back a yawn or speaking a foreign language or something, ‘it’ll probably get worse before it gets better.’

Just then Lorraine puts her hand on my shoulder. ‘We should go,’ she says, and I am delighted to hear her voice if not by the action that she suggests, which I find odd and confusing.

‘Why?’ I look at my wife and she is sat as far back in the booth as she can go, a look of pure astonishment written across her pretty face.

‘There was some roaring again,’ says Lorraine, making sure that her look pacifies as much as it condemns, presenting the wheelchair to me as she might a pudding, ‘and I’m afraid that it was much, much louder this time.’ I look about the cafe, and I notice that it is deserted.

‘Ah,’ I say, ‘so you had me wired up when I met with my wife.’

‘We felt it would be instructive,’ says the Doctor, peering at me over his glasses, which I haven’t noticed him wearing before.

‘Nice glasses,’ I say.

‘Thanks. They’re new. Some voucher my wife had.’

‘Ah, wives and their vouchers,’ I say.

‘I didn’t mean it like that, exactly. Men have access to vouchers too, of course. I didn’t mean to be …’

‘I know very little about men,’ I say. This is true, for obvious reasons.

‘I should expect that was the case,’ he says, threatening to continue the sentence for a moment then returning to his charts, the volume of which is hugely impressive to a layman like me. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘it looks as if we’ve run into a small problem. It seems as if the primary aim of the procedure was a success. You no longer love your wife, am I correct?’

‘Absolutely.’

‘Well, the actual procedure, in most cases at least, has two stages. Firstly, a series of precisely targeted electrostatic shocks are administered to the Ventral Tegmental Area, the dopamine mine of your whole operation, and then, after it has been made susceptible to the writing – and indeed, rewriting – of both new and deeply ingrained information, the patient is exposed to twenty-four hours of medicated hypnosis, during which time she is subjected to a barrage of hugely negative imagery and information on the subject of disengagement, everything from unflattering photos to bank statements, to analysis of excrement…’

‘How do you analyse excrement?’ I ask.

“How do you do anything?’ he says. ‘By doing it properly. Anyway, by the end of this process, the client is usually fully cured and able to move on with the rest of his or her life. No worries whatsoever.’

‘In most cases, you said. What went wrong with me, then?’

‘We have a feeling that the brainwashing took a little too well, with you, I’m afraid, which is why we set up the meeting with your wife. It looks as if we may have tapped into something primal in your system, something which causes you to lose control when you see her.’

‘It’s not love, I know that.’

‘We thought, in fact, that it may be the opposite,’ says the Doctor, ‘in fact – we’re pretty sure of it. Operatives were dispatched to your wife and over the couple of weeks – yes, you’ve been here for almost a month – leading up to your meeting she was encouraged to put on over eighteen pounds in weight and instructed in the dark arts of how precisely not to put on makeup and style her hair. It was quite a success for our team, that make-under, what with her beginning as a beautiful, willowy sort and ending it looking like a distraught fisherman.’

‘I did wonder about her weight,’ I say. ’She was always incredibly vain.’

‘I know,’ says the Doctor, not quite meeting my eye, ‘we have both a recording and transcript of the conversation. Did you … did you ever consider that perhaps one of the reasons she left you was because of the way you talked to her?’

‘I did,’ I say, not without sadness, ‘but it was also why she was there in the first place. Also, I know of no other ways to speak, despite my best efforts to learn some.’

‘Our theory – or rather, our hope – was that perhaps you’d feel sorry for her, especially when she informed you about her new partner’s health problems.’

‘Wait – was that all made up?’

‘I have no idea. I’d have to check the file.’

‘No,’ says Lorraine, who has just entered the room and is standing next to the Doctor. ‘That bit is true. They don’t expect him to last the year.’ God, she looks good that woman. Every minute that passes by she grows more in my estimation. I nod and smile at her and she smiles back, although differently, keeping a distance between us with the sharp focus of her deep brown eyes.

‘So this is goodbye,’ says the Doctor, shaking my hand. He has a gentle handshake for a man, but not so soft as to seem weak or creepy. I am stood on the street outside the clinic listening to the traffic, noting happily the contrast with my last journey around this area, strapped to that clumsy chair as Lorraine guided me about the obstacles of the world, the smell of her perfume stinging my eyes as we went.

‘I can’t believe that she agreed to move,’ I say.

‘I very much got the impression that she was over Britain altogether and the circumstances simply provided her with a pretext to make the change.’

‘And the insurers will pay for everything – the whole move to Australia?’

‘Every last penny, which is why we advise our clients to take out such a policy. When it was clear that no amount of targeted therapy would reverse the effects of the original procedure, it seemed the only way to go. We have to be careful, of course but at this stage – and we’ll be monitoring you extensively, as we’ve already discussed – it looks as if this primal, almost unconscious hatred of your wife was the only real, and very particular, side effect. Hopefully this provides everybody – including your wife – with an appropriate solution.’ I look at Lorraine, who as usual is standing just behind him, and I wonder if they are lovers, and I know that he is wrong, about the side effects at least.

‘The roaring and bleeding?’

‘Happens when exposed to images of your wife and at no other time,’ says the Doctor. ‘I’m happy to confirm that, and have done so under clinical conditions. You lost a lot of blood that time in the cafe, when you were in actual physical contact with her – I only thank God that there was nobody there to witness it.’

‘Yes,’ I say, remembering what Lorraine told me about the staff and the patrons picking up their bags and coats and running for the door when I began to roar, my head, according to her, tilted back, and my eyes wide with fury.

‘You should be fine,’ he says. ‘She’s in Brisbane now, you’re here, and neither of you has any desire to contact the other unless a bout of roaring and bleeding is on the agenda. It’s all worked out for the best, really, unless you’re the insurance company.’

‘And when can you say that?’ says Lorraine, who is genuinely excited to be be alive at the moment this thought occurs to her.

‘Goodbye then,’ I say, pulling my jacket about me and turning to head off down the street.

‘Goodbye Mary,’ says the Doctor, and he gives me a small wave, the kind he might give to a memory.

Featured

update n’shake 21/02/17

G’day. In the event of having finished a novel and wanting to share all kinds of things – words, music, love poems about pesto and cat pictures (not really, these will be strictly rationed) I decided to get this thing going, in much the way one would try out an old bicycle you found in a haunted shed. I’ll be putting up new and older, edited short stories along with the few opinions I can get past the censors (again, the cats).

In the nearly future I can promise a new Christian fitness record in the next month and a half (get the others at https://christianfitness.bandcamp.com) and the future of the left live vid/recording, which’ll be out before that (we’re thinking of keeping that to a digital release because of blah and blah and etc.).

All comments which i don’t like I’ll simply delete, or edit with crazy misspellings.

I look forward to typing at you / being typed at.

falco x

ways to make the day go faster

Richard was shaving when she came up behind him and wrapped her tiny arms around his waist, feeling her cold skin push against the relative warmth of his own, her goose bumped forearms on his stomach and her breasts against his back, which tensed then relaxed to the touch.

‘Don’t go,’ she said, in a way that was intended to be seductive but was mostly just sweet, her face hidden from his view.

‘The very nature of work demands that I go,’ he said, not pausing the careful movements of his razor, eyes fixed securely on his own reflection. ‘If I don’t then they stop paying me. It’s a simple, contractual thing.’

‘Rubbish.’

‘It’s the Western Way, my darling.’

‘But what if I die today and this is the last time you see me?’

‘Then I will speak at your funeral and tell everybody how beautiful you were in your last hours. So beautiful – and brave.’

Her head appeared from behind his shoulder. ‘I am brave,’ she said, considering the evidence, ‘and my beauty is not ever in question.’ She squeezed him gently around the waist. ‘I am used to you being behind me now,’ she said, and winked.

‘Is that sexy talk?’ said Richard. ‘Are you doing sexy talk just before I walk out of the door?’

‘Maybe I am.’

‘An erection is no use to a man on a bus.’

‘That’s not what perverts think.’

‘I am no pervert.’

‘Perversion is in the eye of the beholder,’ she said. ‘The things you say in bed I think a lot of girls would find offputting.’

‘Offputting?’

‘Not me, of course.’ She winked again. ‘I positively encourage it.’

It was difficult to shave with her wrapped around him, but he managed it.

‘Toast?’

‘That’s the rumour.’ She held out the plate to him as if offering a dead animal for inspection.

‘I prefer mine with butter.’

‘Supermodels don’t have butter.’

‘What?’

‘I read it in an interview with one of them.’

‘Which one?’

‘I don’t know. One of the American ones.’

It had been one month since they had met and it was the most exciting time that either of them could remember, although they both had terrible memories. On the previous evening Richard had almost said ‘I love you’, but managed to stop himself just in time, completely unaware that Dana had gone through the exact same process a full week earlier, being a little quicker to fall in love as she was, as she had always been. He walked towards the door.

‘Don’t go,’ she said again, her eyes big enough to sink into.

‘If I don’t -‘

‘I’m a witch,’ she said, ‘and if you leave then I’ll place a curse on the whole company.’

He kissed her cheek. ‘Curse away,’ he said, imagining a plague of frogs infesting the gigantic printer which occupied the centre of his office, ‘in fact, I positively encourage it – but I still have to go in.’

‘A bomb threat.’

‘Sorry?’ He had not heard her clearly.

‘I’ll call in a bomb threat.’

‘Feel free.’ He smiled. ‘Before or after lunch, though. Don’t break up the break, as the wise men of accounting say.’

‘I will do an accent,’ she said, as much to herself as him. ‘Yes. I will do an accent when I call, to make it more convincing.’

‘Which one?’

‘Arab … or Irish. I’ll see how I’m feeling and just go with it. I’m good at accents.’

‘You do that.’ He kissed her again. ‘I’ll see you later.’

‘You’ll see me in a bit,’ she said. ‘Not later. Not much later at all.’

He did not mind the bus journey to work now he was happy, which had been, for the most part, his mental state since he had met her at that party, the one where the host had said ‘hummus’ so often that Richard assumed it had been for a bet. He had heard that love could be like this, so wild and all-consuming, but had not really believed it until she had barged into his life with her effortless heft of ceaseless intensity, becoming the first woman he had encountered who wasn’t simply a vaguely pleasing combination of hips, tits, lips and smells, all the better to converse with then fall asleep near, when she would let him.

His phone rang and although he hated answering it on the bus, he made an exception for her.

‘Yeah?’

‘Yeah!’ He could see her smile even from a distance, even through walls. ‘I was hoping to get the postcode of your building.’

‘The postcode?’

‘Y’know, for the bomb threat.’

‘Oh, that. Of course.’ He gave it to her, as deadpan as he could. ‘All good?’

‘All good and ready to go. Oh, and I decided to do an Irish accent. Old school terrorism. Nothing weird and otherworldly. Islamophobia is a big enough deal at the moment without me adding to it.’

‘Great idea. Eighties nostalgia is big with the terrorised – you’ll kill it, I’m sure.’ He yawned.

‘Is my baby tired?’ she said, singing the words tunelessly.

‘Spectacularly. I’ll be dreaming of bed all day.’

‘Me too.’

‘Not in that way.’ He smiled, and his words smiled with him. ‘Well, maybe a little. I just wish there really was a way to make the day go faster.’

She sighed. ‘There is, you idiot. The bomb threat. Remember?’

‘Ah yes, that. Well, I look forward to it.’

‘You should,’ she said. ‘It’s going to be great.’

‘Sleep okay?’ said Chris, making absolutely no effort to hide a grin, which appeared on his round face as a huge, red half-moon.

‘Fine.’

‘I think,’ said Rosie, ‘that we can most accurately assess the amount of sleep that the subject has obtained – or not obtained, as the case may be – by a full and thorough analysis of the frequency of his yawns.’

‘I’ve picked up on six so far,’ said Chris.

‘Seven,’ corrected Rosie, ‘and that’s only while he was at his desk. I strongly suspect that he may have saved up a particularly intense burst for when he went to the toilet.’

‘Not to draw too much attention to himself,’ said Chris. ‘Cunning.’

‘Hiding the truth from from us,’ said Rosie.

‘I’m not hiding anything,’ said Richard, ‘least of all from you two.’

‘Well, there’s one thing,’ said Chris.

‘Oh yes,’ said Rosie, ‘keep that hidden, by all means.’

‘I’m not about to get my cock out in the office,’ said Richard.

Rosie laughed. She turned to Chris. ‘Remember when Olly Hammond got sacked for that?’

‘Yes. That was .. particularly weird.’

‘What happened?’ said Richard.

‘They caught him wanking at his desk on CCTV,’ said Chris, looking at the offending workstation thoughtfully, as if regarding the scene of a particularly vicious battle. ‘At seven o’clock in the morning. Imagine that.’

‘No,’ said Rosie, ‘I simply won’t,’ although her face gave evidence to the lie.

’Seven AM,’ said Chris, shaking his head, ‘who the hell wanks in the office at Seven AM?’

‘The time of the act isn’t the point at all,’ said Rosie. ‘At. All.’

‘It is to me.’

‘Wanking in the office,’ said Rosie, ‘is the story, not the time of the wank. Don’t bury the lead.’

‘That’s what she said.’

‘Makes no sense.’

‘It’s innuendo, Ro. Doesn’t have to.’

Richard yawned.

‘Still,’ said Rosie, ‘we can rest assured that Richard won’t be getting his bits out and flapping his seed around the cubicles, whatever the time.’

‘That’s right. No will, no way. I dare say his balls are going through something of a drought at the moment.’

‘I dare say.’

‘Can we change the subject?’ said Richard.

‘We can,’ said Chris, ‘of course we can, But we won’t, loverboy.’

‘What are you having for lunch?’ said Rosie, who was searching for conversation topics with the kind of desperation which only comes to the office worker in the depths of mid-morning, the day slipping beneath her as if through a thick, unpleasant soup.

‘I brought sandwiches,’ said Richard, ‘and they were all gone by nine thirty.’

‘Standard.’

‘What’s the time now?’

‘Ten thirty.’

‘Shit. Today is really dragging.’ He tapped at the keyboard. ‘If only there was a way to make the day go faster.’ He yawned again, this time so powerfully that it almost dislocated his jaw. ‘Dana said she was going to call in a bomb threat.’

‘That would be incredibly useful today,’ said Chris, returning from the kitchen with a cup of coffee and his sixth shortbread biscuit of the day. ‘I’ve got to pick some presents for my nephew’s birthday.’

‘How old?’

‘I don’t know – child age. Ten?’

‘Get him a gun,’ said Richard. ‘Or some Lego.’

Rosie yawned. ‘See – it’s caught on,’ she said, not unhappily. ‘Now, if Dana could get that bomb threat phoned in within the next half hour or so, I could be home and happily snoozing by midday. Bonus. You couldn’t text her, could you, encourage her to get a move on?’

‘Sure, I’m an old hand at this – a real terrorist mastermind. I’ll do it right this minute, just after I check the semtex in the fridge.’

‘If you could. I’ve had enough of typing, and adding, then typing again. It just occurred to me that …’

In the centre of the office, just behind their small annexe, a man who was unused to public speaking cleared his throat.

‘Everybody?’

Everybody turned around, except for Chris, who had dropped his biscuit and was searching for it on the floor next to the printer.

‘I’m going need you all to stay calm,’ said Mr.Krilly, the office manager, ‘collect whatever is to hand, and follow me from the building, from where we will all assemble in the car-park at the designated for your work group. Understood?’

There was a murmur of ascent.

‘Told you they couldn’t afford the rent on this place,’ said Chris, ‘told you.’

Richard stood. ‘I don’t think this is about rent,’ he said. A strange, sickly feeling had appeared in the base of his stomach, the kind that you don’t get from two rounds of cheese and Branston Pickle sandwiches and four and a half hours of sleep. He picked up his bag. ‘We should go,’ he said.

‘Looks like Dana came through with the bomb threat,’ said Rosie, who looked delighted, her red cheeks glowing even more fervently than usual. ‘Good bloody girl. Remind me to buy her a drink the next time – well, the first time – that I see her.’

‘I will,’ said Richard, but he was not thinking about drinks.

‘Hey, zombie-tits,’ said Chris.

‘Mmmmm?’

‘You haven’t made as much as a squeak for five minutes. What’s up?’

‘Nothing,’ said Richard. They were stood outside the building in the carpark, waiting for information. ‘It’s cold.’

‘It’s December,’ said Rosie, who had just lit her second cigarette. ‘Of course it’s fucking cold.’

‘Where are the fire engines?’ said Chris.

‘The fire engines?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Why would there be fire engines?’

‘For the fire drill.’

‘I don’t think it’s a fire drill,’ said Richard.

‘If it was a bomb threat they would have told us,’ said Rosie.

‘Really. Do you remember hearing an alarm?’

‘The landlords have been cutting back for ages,’ said Chris. ‘They probably took the batteries out of the smoke alarms. They let Murray go, didn’t they?’

‘It wasn’t cutbacks – he’s in prison. Parking tickets.’

‘You can go to prison for parking tickets?’

‘Yeah, if you stab the bailiff who tries to serve you with them.’

‘Ladies and gentlemen …’ Their attention turned once again to Mr.Krilly, who had finished counting the assembled group of refugees, once, twice, and then a third time, his thin voice now even slighter than usual, as if events were conspiring to push it out of existence altogether. ’It’s only fair that I inform you as to the circumstances of our dramatic flight,’ he said, his forehead creased with the weight of the knowledge.

‘Bomb threat?’ said Rosie, grinning, looking at Richard.

‘Yes, as a matter of fact. How did you know?’

‘A … a guess.’

‘A good one,’ said Krilly, frowning.

‘Richard,’ said Chris, from behind a gloved hand. ‘Do you think?’

‘I don’t think,’ he said. He gulped, a proper cartoonish, Enid Blyton-style gulp. ‘I can’t even begin to.’

‘Call her.’

He reached into his pocket for his phone, but found only tissues and travel cards. ‘I must have left it in the office,’ he said. ‘Fuck.’

‘Use mine,’ said Rosie, edging over to join them as Mr.Krilly lumbered around and about the other employees, reassuring them as best as his essentially unreassuring frame could manage. ‘What’s her number?’

‘I have no idea. It’s there on my phone under her name. Does anybody remember numbers these days?’

‘I know my mother’s,’ said Chris, ‘but only because there’s a 666 in it. Okay, whatever. Get her on Facebook.’

‘She doesn’t have it.’

‘Doesn’t have Facebook?’

Richard realised that he may as well have revealed that she didn’t have a head. ‘Claims she doesn’t photograph well,’ he added shrugging and shivering at the same time, ‘says it’s against her religion.’

‘You said she was beautiful?’

‘She is. It’s just a thing for her.’

‘Sure. Are bomb threats a thing for her too?’

‘At this stage, I couldn’t really say,’ said Richard. ‘Which is a strange thing to admit about the woman you live with.’

‘She moved in already?’ Chris shook his head. ‘Well, you kept that one quiet.’

‘He knew we would call him a twat, that’s why,’ said Rosie. ‘One month and moving in together? Get a life.’ She shook her head, more disappointed at the news of premature cohabitation than bewildered by the bomb threat, which was only the second of two that she would encounter in her life.

‘I’m going to say it,’ said Chris, the three of them having wandered off to the corner of the car-park for a little privacy.

‘Say it, then.’

‘Okay.’ He took a deep breath, and composed himself. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, Rich, but calling in a bomb-threat is … I can hardly bring myself to say it …’ He blushed. ‘Incredibly sexy. It’s amazing, Rich, seriously. I mean, who hasn’t fantasised about phoning in a bomb-threat?’

‘Absolutely,’ said Rosie, who had stopped smoking in punctuation. ‘Sexy as fuck. Amount of rules respected? Zero. Consider me thoroughly de-pantsed.’

‘I’m not sure that it is,’ said Richard.

‘Don’t be daft,’ said Chris, shaking his head. ‘Spontaneity is the new well-hung. Everybody wants some.’

‘I want some,’ said Rosie, ‘God, I want some. For example, I want Ade to beat the shit of those arsehole kids next door, but he just keeps bloody talking to them.’

‘New man,’ said Chris, shrugging, as if that did for an explanation.

Richard raised a hand. ‘I hardly think that calling in bomb threats counts at spontaneity,’ he said. ‘It’s a criminal offence, for a start.’

‘Everything’s a criminal offence if you want it to be, mate’ said Chris, his exasperation by now clear. ‘She sounds like a diamond, this one, a keeper. Cherish her mate, cherish her. Don’t worry, we won’t tell anyone.’

‘Yeah,’ said Rosie, ‘if anything, we should be giving her a Duke of Edinburgh award for initiative,’ and with that they wandered back over to the main group, there the better to borrow a light and shelter from the dirty wind that had only then begun to whip up around them.

When the bomb exploded Chris was half-way through an anecdote about his mother which he was telling in a voice just loud enough to be heard by the new secretary, Lindsay, who he had decided might take pity and sleep with him if only she was aware of how much he loved his family. ‘She tries so hard …’ he was saying, his large head bobbing along with every word, when a piece of shrapnel pierced his eye, burst through his brain and exited the back of his head at a speed so great that by the time he had heard the explosion he was already dying, his feet twitching on the cold concrete, his final thoughts being of stale cigarettes and then, darkness.

There was a scream.

Before he knew what was happening Richard was running, his legs like lead but his stomach a butterfly, and Mr.Krilly, who had been a champion junior athlete streaked past him, his long strides fuelled by the same panic and fear but stronger, more adept. Richard bundled to a halt. Where was he running to, he thought? What about his friends? He turned. About thirty metres behind him he saw, or thought he saw, Rosie crouched over what appeared to be Chris, his chubby frame lying motionless, beached, the huge blackness of the flames rising above them in triumph. Bodies lay to either side of them, five, he saw at first, then, six, seven. He staggered forward, any urge to yawn now long forgotten, feeling the heat of the fire on his cheeks and then, after blinking, his eyelids too. There was a ringing in his right ear but it was the smell, more than anything, which sickened him, a combination of burnt hair, rubber and fresh, barbecued person that would have shamed a Pot Noodle.

Something stopped him moving forward then but he could not say what – a tiny, cold arm perhaps, or a shadow, a sense of dread at what would happen to him if he even thought about approaching such heat, such blinding chaos and confusion. ‘Rosie …’ he began to say, but he could not hear himself so he gave up on words and settled on retreat instead, shuffling backwards whilst shielding his eyes from the tranche of smoke which was now spilling out over the car-park, filling his lungs and making the sun, who was a reluctant enough visitor to the borough at the best of times, disappear completely from the sky.

He could not hear any sirens, although he assumed they were there.

By the time he came too, or rather, came back to himself, he was halfway between the office and home, the ringing in his ears now a soft flutter, a sweet, unearthly confessional song. He was walking on legs which, on first appearance, appeared to be controlled by another being altogether, a playful spirit who was entertained by the thought of its host colliding with bus-shelters and scrambling along pavements as if they were obstacle courses, as the suspicious eyes of the general public watched on, daring him to fall face down into the street.

As days go it had been ….

He remembered her words. ‘I’ll call in a bomb threat.’ Bomb threat, that’d been the key word. No, he thought, not even in jest, of which the possibilities were wide and commonly explored, had she spoken of actually detonating a real-life fucking bomb. Besides, how would she have made it over town in time to have planted it? Much earlier, perhaps, or in the middle of the night? No, no, no. The thoughts themselves were proof of a madness, he was sure. Dana was capable of largely motiveless jealousy, it was true, and was a bad tipper, but apart from that she was fine, dandy, normal. Shit, she’d cried at the end of Karate Kid 2. A psychopath wouldn’t …

‘Are you okay, honey?’ said a woman.

‘No. No, I’m not.’ His vision had become blurred so he sat down, heavily, on the pavement.

‘What’s wrong?’

‘There was a bomb.’

‘I heard about that. You were in that?’

‘Yes.’

‘Oh. I’ll get someone, honey. You stay right there.’

‘I’ll stay right here.’

‘Yes,’ said the woman, and helped him fall to the pavement with as much dignity as was possible.

It was four o’clock in the afternoon by the time Richard got home, a police officer walking him up to the front door and only leaving him there, fidgeting for his keys, when he insisted that he would be okay. Memories of the afternoon were a blur, a sodden mess of sound and primary colours. ’I’ve lost my phone,’ he kept saying to the nurses, and they would nod and ask him if he could be quiet, and oh, what was the name of the Prime Minister again?

‘David Icke,’ he said, smiling, and everybody laughed. ‘I’ve lost my phone,’ he said again, and everybody stopped laughing.

‘Did he hit his head?’ said The Doctor, who it appeared did not have the time to talk directly to his patients.

’Shock,’ said all of the Nurses at the same time, ‘shock, shock, shock,’ in the kind of mad chorus that made him think that he may have hallucinated it, although he considered that they may have been rehearsing for a musical.

The lights were off.

‘Dana?’ nothing. He pushed his way into the flat. He called again, but found only the echo of his voice. He switched on the kitchen light and saw the unwashed dishes lying on the counter. Dishes? What the hell had she been doing all … and then he remembered. Bombs. Threats, for one, and then … actual fucking explosions. He shivered. No, of course not, the very thought was absolutely  preposterous. ‘Dana?’ The silence screamed back at him. He washed the dishes, because it seemed like the most normal thing to do. Was that the door? He stopped, still against the sink. No, no, a car, a gust of wind, a ghost, a pigeon’s wish. Nothing. No-one.

He made his way to the bedroom and, because he had the capacity to do nothing else, fell asleep on the unmade bed.

She was all over him before he knew what was happening, eyes wide and garishly painted fingernails dancing in the lamp-light as he came too, his heart jumping in time with her thrusts against the mattress.

‘You’re home!’ she was screaming, and he tried to scream back but only found dust where terror was expected, reading her face as he might a menu of torture. She was hugging him now, her cheek pushed against his chest. ‘I missed you,’ she said. ‘I missed you so much! I got you a present.’

‘A present?’ he managed.

‘Yes, a present. You sound surprised. Do I not get you many presents?’

He gasped. ‘I…’

‘Well from now on you can expect the very best from me,’ she said, a little huffily. ‘Nobody will say that I am anything less than incredibly generous to you. An absolute inspiration.’

‘You are,’ said Richard, as some breath returned to him. He turned to look at the clock, and saw her watch him do it. Twenty five past four, it read.

‘Yes, you’re back early.’ She winked. ‘Suspiciously early, a girl might say. Did you want to see me so badly?’

‘There was a …’

’Shhhh,’ she said, and pressed an index finger softly against his lips. ‘Don’t spoil it. Let’s pretend you made a special effort to get out early to come out and see me, your favourite girl.’

He nodded.

‘Do you want to see your present?’ she said.