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Ephemera

...writing as it happens

Love is a Game
Roger May started this week with his computer at full speed. Outside, February's crew cut lawns filled the university quadrangle with vivid green, young men and the ever-delightful young women. .. His large glass office window aanother piece on his pandora bracelet of journal articles, permanent tenure, travel, board positions and research grants. He moved the mouse into research mode. It was Monday morning tea time and his life was a full tank. He had so much to offer. Love is a game and he liked a challenge. Time. It was time to put a systematic evidence based approach to attracting the right partner. A partner for him. Not the bloody al gorrr ithm . If love was a game then dating site algorithms made it like a nuclear war – and he needed code breaking skills or advanced intelligence to get anywhere.
In silence his keys started to recraft his profile.
Fifteen years of blissful independent living had healed what the profiles called ‘baggage’.
One woman had said she carried her own baggage. Perhaps he’d borrow this phrase. ‘Lets see I could say I only have light carry on baggage’.
A rather satisfying set of images and descriptions flew up and into his face. The two sided match making worked well today.
He gazed. Nigella the tax accountants profile spoke of fun and an active lifestyle. And then despite all his optic confidence his mood slipped. His baggage burst open showing its stuffed dirty contents. Did he? could he? Could he have been the cause of his divorce? Was it some monster home movie that he shone on to his ex wife, that caused him to run away and leave her? Had he, in some way, distorted who she was? And then he caught himself. No, impossible, it was the ex not him. She was just so quiet, such a homebody,onstantly wanting to stay in and cuddle or watch a movie. The womans favourite place was under a blanket in bed with a cup of tea and her favourite book. She hated talking on the phone, writing texts, and attending university events. The time he had bought her a Christian Dior dress to wear to the annual university staff dinner, hoping she might put it on out of guilt she jus said
‘forget it’.
'If you wear your beige polyester suit one more time, I'll cut it up and burn it on the balcony!'. Yes, he had shouted these words quite loudly.
And she did wear the Dior, but later he realised that it was not to please him but because she hated wasting money—the day after, she donated the blue Dior to the local animal shelter for fundraising.
Ok well 'fun'. He was a fun person. Most nights he worked and perhaps his life was a little empty and maybe every now and then he felt a little lonely. His children did worry about it . But what did he do that was fun? The best laugh he’d had recently was with his online therapist who said
‘Machine learning only gets to know your surface optics’
‘So?
‘ Well human truth and daily feelings are like a type of reality incontinence, they seep out into conversations and so people start to not trust.’
Fun Ok. He wrote ‘enjoy being a family man and having fun with the kids’. Last week he had spoken to both of them after a two year period of not speaking.

Active. Lets see active lifestyle. At this point he stopped. This really was going to far out of who he was or is. At ten he’d been thrown out of the basketball team for ducking when the ball came to him
Good commicator tactile and affectionate. That finished the profile and then lovely Nigella sent a message.
Please check out my profile; would love to hear from you …
She: Roger, lovely to connect here. I am wondering what you do. .
I was hoping you would get in touch. You can find out more about me here: [link]
She: I am not able to find that on google. I keep getting that the page does not exist. You will have chat here about what you do.
Strange.
She: I have had another look and its not coming up for me.
The address seems correct, just checked
You can also check this. There’s a couple of more pictures there…
She: Pictures are fine but don’t tell me about you. So what is it that you do?
Its in the link
She: You are getting me to chase up everything on the internet instead of chatting on here. The purpose of this site is to chat here which you don’t want to do. Sorry but you don’t want to talk on this site and you are making me work to find out about you. Good luck.

He closed the computer, groaned and then cancelled his subscription to Elite singles. Perhaps he was better off just staying at home. Maybe he’d call his ex wife.

John almost didn't see it at first. He was walking, thinking about life and how he should spend the rest of his when he realised Rosie was no longer by his side. Looking back, he saw her sniffing at the base of an old oak, lightly pawing at the dead leaves and earth beneath.

"Here girl." He called, but she didn't hear him. Almost twelve years old, too old for a Lab really, she needed a surgery he could not afford. The vets had suggested euthanasia, and so he had had to stop taking her.

"What is it, eh? Leave the poor thing alone."

But there was no squirrel, or mouse, as was her customary victim. Instead, half hidden amongst the debris of the forest, he found what looked like an ivory chess set. The board glowed in the evening sun, and upon it sat thirty-two intricately carved pieces. They were all in their starting positions, as if waiting patiently for the game to begin.

"Well I'll be damned." He said to Rosie, who had since lost interest and was rolling gleefully in a nearby puddle. "Do you think someone left it here by mistake? Seems an awfully strange place to be having a game of chess."

Rosie, satisfied with her new look, did not respond.

For a moment he considered taking it back home with him. It was a small village and surely before long he would have been able to find the owner. Then he remembered something his wife had shown him many years ago. Little trinkets hidden around the countryside. Geocaches, she called them, where hunters would replace what they found in little boxes with items of their own. They had even found a few themselves, he seemed to recall; a fridge magnet depicting the mountains of India, and a marble figurine that looked remarkably like Rosie.

And so, rather than taking it away, he carefully moved the white's F pawn forward two squares and left.

At home, he gave Rosie a bath, cooked a meal of fried eggs and beans, and tried to settle down to read a book. Each time he tried, however, he couldn't get through more than half a dozen words when thoughts of what he had found distracted him. He'd never been much of a chess player over the years, assuming that he had little skill in this regard, and that to develop any would require a level of attention he could not afford. Still, the mystery intrigued him. Had it been placed there intentionally, and if so, who by? Was there perhaps a prize to be won, or something to be lost if luck did not go his way?

If only his wife had been there. She would have loved this. He remembered when she had tried to teach him chess strategy not long after they'd got together. Even then he hadn't cared for the game, enjoying the lessons not for their intellectual challenge but for the chance to spend time with her. To hear her talk passionately and get caught up in a world he did not understand. It was too late now, of course, and he wished he had paid more attention. Maybe then, he would have been able to make her proud.

The next day John returned with Rosie to the forest at the crack of dawn, and sure enough, the game had progressed. On the opposing side, glistening with dew, a black knight stood before its row of pawns. Glancing around to see if the perpetrator had hung back to watch, he played his counter-move. Keep it simple. A bishop came to protect the queen. Then, taking the note he had written late the night before from his pocket, he placed it jutting out from one side of the board.

It was a long shot, he knew, but grief had instilled in him an element of desire that went beyond the rational. In life he had had little time for her superstitious beliefs. Whenever she had come to him with horoscopes or psychic premonitions he had dismissed them as childish illusions. Now, he was trying to make amends for his actions. As he returned home he recounted the note he had written.

"To my darling Steph,

I doubt you will ever read this. You are in a grave not far from here. You are returning to the earth, as they say, and it is foolish of me to try and reach you. Still, I thought I should try. Do you hate me now? I still remember the last argument we had, and how your face looked when I said I was leaving. It was such a terrible thing to say. If I could take it back, I would. If you are angry with me, I understand that, too. I would be angry with me. So, if by some miracle you are reading this, and if even more you do not wish to forget all about me, I would like to propose a deal. We will carry on the game I believe you have started. I will return here every morning as early as I can. I will not come looking for you. I will not try to trick you in any way. If I win, you will allow me a chance to explain myself. You will come to me in whatever form you are able to take and we will talk. That is all I ask. On the contrary, if you win, I will leave you alone. As much as it will pain me, you will not hear from me again, and I will have to learnt to live with the damage I have done."

Over the course of the next few days, John emersed himself in the world of professional chess. At the local library he used the computers to research certain strategies and moves. Using the sketches he made of the board in the forest each morning, he would play out possible sequences on a board back home. The stakes had been raised. Despite his philosophical beliefs, he was now playing for much more than mystery or ego. He was playing - nay fighting - for the closure he'd dreamt of through two years of mourning. What he had said to his wife was inexcusable, but part of him believed that this alone was a path to possible redemption.

After two weeks of the same routine; rising early, leaving with Rosie for the forest, assessing the position of the board and carefully deciding on his next move, then, dropping Rosie at home, spending the rest of the day hunched over at the library computers, the game was coming to a close. The note remained under the board, now half disintegrated by rain and insects. Each move was taking immense concentration. It seemed that each time the sophistication of his play increased, it was rebuffed by an even more advanced mind. White than black raising the level of the game, always leaving him on the back foot.

On his penultimate visit to the forest, John saw that he was doomed. With one more move his king would be cornered, and he would have to admit defeat. It was over. For almost an hour he sat beside the board, trying to think of a move that could avoid the inevitable, but it never came. In the end, he left without making a play. One more day, he thought. One more day before he was ready to handle the truth.

It was with great reluctance that he returned the next morning. In one hand he held a note. The words of farewell he had never got the chance to utter while his wife was alive. When he reached the board, however, something was clearly off. Where the day before each black piece had stood precisely in its dedicated square, they were now laying on their sides, some having rolled off into the foliage. As he neared, John saw the second unexpected change that sent a coldness snaking down his spine.

There, tucked nearly under one corner of the board, was a white envelope. With shaking hands he tore it open.

"I'm sorry." It read. "I am not your wife. Or if I am, it was so long ago I do not remember. Time works differently here. We do not have mornings and evenings, days and nights. Nor do we have the same identities as we held in life. Forgive me, but I fear I have allowed you to believe something truly harmful to the conscious world, and only now do I see the truth. This game was intended simply as a way to pass the time. I wish I could give you the answers you need. I wish I could come to you as you ask and listen to your story, but alas our time is over. The game, as you must have seen on your last visit, is over. I hope you will accept my meagre offerings of apology. Under the board you will find enough money to cover poor Rosie's treatment.

Until we meet again.

Yours sincerely,
The Player."

No one smokes at ball games anymore


As a kid my best memories were of my dad and me and the ball game. My dad was blue collar, wore jeans and a work shirt most days but on Sundays, ball game days, he always dressed smart.

We'd sit on wooden benches, me in my Dodgers shirt and him in his jacket and blue check shirt, newly pressed with a polka dot bow tie. He wore slacks that I thought were sacred as I only ever saw him wear on Sundays and a little white sun shade hat that come rain or shine he would always wear. In this picture of tailored perfection he would add his own eccentricity and wear red baseball sneakers. He said they were comfortable. Dad never smoked except on ball game days, three cigars, one before, one during and one after the game.

Our games against the Yankees were always the best although we hardly ever won. We'd made four World Series in the late forties and early fifties and lost them all to the Yankees. I remember the second time, in 1953 when we lost, Dad was distraught. He locked himself in his den that afternoon and didn'€™t come out until next day.

The first words he said when he opened the door were "Next year kid."€

Next time came two years later. 1955. The Dodgers had a great season and won their division with ease. We had great hopes going into the World Series again to face our nemesis, the Yankees. We lost the first two games and it seemed we'd be forever the bridesmaids. Then things clicked. We won three straight with the Duke of Flatbush, the great Duke Snider giving the Yankees hell. Dad puffed his way through his three cigars and screamed and hollered louder than most. The Yankees won game 6 and it was all set for the final showdown. Yankee Stadium. October 4 1955.

I was eleven years old and I'd never seen so many people in my life. We took the subway to 125th Street and started walking. Dad had checked his wallet at least ten times that afternoon, making certain the tickets were safe. He began looking around at the thousands making their way to the game.

"We'€™re gonna be late,kid, " he said then grabbing my hand, he started to run. I never knew Dad could run so fast. We made it with half an hour to go. Dad was sweating and blowing and started his second cigar early, a sure sign of nerves.

"This is next year son,"€ he muttered, " this is it."

He rocked in his seat all the way through the game, mulling over bad decisions, softly cussing so I couldn't hear. I did of course but I never let on. Johnny Podres shut the Yankees out. We won 2-0. Game over. Our first World Series!

Dad never left his seat. They said it was a heart attack brought on by the excitement but I guess he had nothing left to live for. A policeman took me home to my mom. She cried a lot. I told her we'd won the World Series but she still cried.

Brooklyn never won another World Series although we came close and a few years later the Brooklyn Dodgers upped and left for the sunshine of LA. It was never the same after that.

Nobody smokes at ball games anymore of course but I still carry three cigars in my pocket just for dad. I watch the Mets now, not every game though but when I do, I walk.

I always walk.

Jigsaw

Finding the scrap of paper was the missing piece of the puzzle. Written on years earlier, when Pat was still alive, and I sat with her whilst we dug into my history, it was like a message from the afterlife. I stared at her handwriting, remembering birthday and Christmas cards, letters to me when I was a student, postcards from her travels. Then I switched on my computer, and used the information to fill in a very large gap in my life.

***

It began as a bit of a laugh, a game. For Christmas I'd bought us both Ancestry DNA tests, out of curiosity and a sense of fun: Who was the most Scottish? Who was the most English? Where did our traits come from?

The results took weeks to come back but when they did they confirmed what I'd already guessed - I was a mongrel, a mish-mash of seven different areas. And the lands that had called to me in the past were indeed a part of my story. There was a reason I felt a connection to Scottish hills and Welsh valleys and Yorkshire accents. My husband's results were just as interesting.

I clicked on 'DNA matches' and up came a list of names and possible relationships. Many were 5th or 6th cousins; 7th or 8th cousins. That was to be expected - go back far enough and we are all linked, after all, but to see my shared DNA in over 10,000 other lives was powerful. I loved connecting people - one of my biggest joys is introducing two of my best friends and watching them get on well. I love meeting new people and often discover coincidences that join us.

However, games aside, one of my reasons for getting the DNA testing done was to fill a great big hole in my life. My father and I are estranged but before we stopped being in touch I'd learned there was no family (according to him) on his side. There was an aunt long ago (I thought) but my father is an only child, there are no cousins and a great big space where family should have been. My father showed no interest when I asked questions and I'd accepted I may never know where he/I came from.

So when my own surname popped up in my list of closer DNA matches, I felt a surge of excitement. Could be a coincidence but my surname isn't very common. The link was 2nd/3rd cousin. I messaged her immediately and she messaged right back. I knew straight away here was someone like me: someone open and friendly, keen to make connections, keen to know more. We messaged back and forth on Ancestry, moved to whatsapp and after a few days we video chatted. The click was there; we just got on and it was as if we'd known each other forever! It turned out our birthdays were a day apart although she's much younger. We went digging and found the connection - my great-grandfather's half brother was her great grandfather. It sounds tenuous, but it made our dads second cousins and when we compared photos there is a resemblance - for me it was a missing piece of my puzzle. We now message every few days and video chat every week or so, and are digging into our shared pasts together. Later this year we're going to meet in person (she is as far away from me as it's possible to be in the British Isles!)

Through our conversations I discovered where some of my health issues came from, that she has my dad's distinct earlobes, that there are certain traits that run down the families. What started as a bit of a game turned into an event that made me feel complete. I'd grown up knowing everyone on my mum's side of the family; now I had people to meet on my dad's.

Whenever I have a spare hour I go onto Ancestry, find a gap in my tree and work on filling it out. I've made connections all over the UK, Australia and Europe. My distant relations pop up on their trees and they are happy to share information. I haven't clicked as much with anyone as much as I have with C, and I just cannot wait to meet her.

As I was digging, there was one gap I just couldn't fill. This was my paternal grandmother's side so C couldn't help as she's on my grandfather's side. No matter how much I tried I just didn't have enough information. I vaguely remembered doing some digging into my grandmother's side with my aunt but had no idea where this information had gone.

Until last week. I've begun a project to deal with all the random pieces of 'important' paper in my house. Piles of documents that lurk in corners, disorganised. We have lost passports, car ownership documents, medical letters and certificates. I bought a filing cabinet and took a deep breath.

It was on day three that the piece of paper appeared from the middle of a messy pile of sheets of A4. As if a message from wherever Pat's soul had gone, there was the missing information I needed - some birthdates and places; and a name. With slightly shaking hands I did a search, and there appeared an ancestor I could add to my tree. Pat was a real gamer - not a video gamer but an everything-else gamer. Her side of the family played cards, board games, did quizzes, jigsaws and puzzles. It felt as if this was a treasure hunt, and here was a clue she'd left me, a last gift. It took me back to that afternoon digging into old records, searching for connections, playing at being detectives. Like yesterday.

Pat is gone. My ancestors are names on old documents but reading them starts to reveal the stories behind them. Joining the dots between censuses shows who has left, who has moved in, who has died. Children disappear all too regularly - whole family trees felled before they have taken root.

The story that brings C and I together is this: My great-great grandfather had four children in quick succession with a woman called Mary-Ann, who died when she was 31. Her widower then got together with their lodger, a woman called Sarah, who became pregnant, took his name but never married. It's from Sarah that C's line begins, and links with mine.

I try to imagine what their lives were like, what Sarah was like, how it was taking on four young children and pretending to be married to their father. I think about what she took on in terms of work - how hard everything was back then. How survival was literally that. We joke about surviving the winter; they lived with no modern luxuries to make life easier. I want to go back in time and visit them because there is precious little information and a lot of gaps to be filled. C and I would like to go to where we are from - Staffordshire, about halfway between our present addresses.

I imagine us looking around churchyards, finding our ancestors, completing the puzzle. And I don't have to imagine how I will treasure the time with this new lovely relative; I know we will enjoy it and I know how much fun we will have.

What began as a bit of fun has changed my life, made me feel whole and reminded me that we really are all connected. The joy is in putting the jigsaw pieces together.

Choking on a Chevalier Sandwich


The Maurice Chevalier playful song lyric, "I’m glad I’m not young anymore" comes back to me. Ah, if only it was true. Why it should come to mind now, after all these years, I have no idea. Anyway, I think back to a time when youth and inexperience conspired against me…..

"Ah, yes, I remember ‘eet’ well." It’s not something I really want to remember but if my unfortunate experience goes some way to helping anyone else, then I might as well express it here and now, in the form of a confessional, if you like….

Suddenly I am student again, on my way to the bus stop, in the pouring rain. I turn the corner and face a dilemma. I am puzzled, faced with an awkward choice…..

Carry on walking and hope the bus will wait. The driver can see me coming although, to me, his face is little more than a pink blob behind a smeared windscreen. But I know his little game. We’ve played it before. He’s bored and probably jealous of those who travel with the freedom to go where the mood takes them. At least, that’s what he thinks.

I think he has too much time to dwell on his miserable life, trapped in a goldfish bowl and wedded to a steering wheel, always on the move but going round in endless circles, day after day; the mindless drudgery of the number 38 bus.

He can think what he likes, but I need to take the bus as a part of my regular routine, five days a week. But in his mind, I am a free spirit, a dilettante, one of those long haired students with nothing better to do than smoke pot and enjoy another endless ‘summer of love’. (I wish – but this bus goes to Macclesfield not San Francisco!)

He, on the other hand, has nothing better to do than humiliate his paying customers. I know this to be true. I’ve met him before. One might almost say that he is imbued with evil intent. Okay, that might be an exaggeration, but he is mischievous to say the least.

This is probably how it will pan out….

I’ll approach the bus. He knows my intent. He’ll wait, looking like butter wouldn’t melt, then pull away just before I get there, leaving me stranded on the wet pavement in a plume of blue exhaust, a row of smirking faces looking at me from the windows as the bus gathers speed, leaving me stranded.

But, if I run? Oh, yes, if I run! That could be even worse and extend the agony. I’ll clamber aboard like some desperado with St Vitus dance, fumbling for my change, dropping half of it on the floor, take my ticket and then stumble down the aisle looking for a seat and collapse in an embarrassed heap. The driver will then deliberately take his time, filling out his pools coupon or writing his memoirs or whatever else he can think of to cause a delay and have us all sitting there indefinitely and I’ll feel a fool, perched like ‘piffy on a rock bun’, hot and breathless.

And he will have won…. Again!

Yes, the game, if it was boxed and marketed, would be known as ‘Humiliation’. It would be in bold letters and probably have my photograph on the lid and I don’t think I would be smiling.

I’ve got to concentrate, puzzle this out. Play him at his own game. Try a new strategy. Something he won’t expect. Something new.

So, it’s ‘GAME ON’…..

I put on my game face and lengthen my stride and lower my centre of gravity. My gait might look a little unusual but my speed increases. I hope I don’t look like a geek or someone who needs the toilet. But it’s a risk worth taking.

I try not to look stupid.

I look stupid, a loser at a game I could never hope to win. He’s played it so many more times before, against so many other players. I’m just an amateur, an ingénue, innocently drawn in to his dark world of deception and practical jokery. He’s a professional, been at it for years. It’s probably an integral part of bus driver training, lifted straight out of the manual, something to boast about over a cup of tea in the staff canteen. It’s probably in the chapter headed ‘Alleviation of Boredom’ found just after the chapter headed, ‘How to make passengers wish they had walked instead’.

I don’t stand a chance. He’s taken on all-comers and chalked up victory after bloody victory.

It’s no good. I blink first. My will crumbles and I break into a run. I try to pretend that I’m running straight past, on my way somewhere else. Then, as soon as I’m parallel with the open door, I lunge sideways, tripping up the steps, missing my footing and spilling my fare over the floor. (Deja vu!)

The driver looks at me as if I’m some kind of idiot as I scrabble around on my hands and knees trying to rescue loose change. I find most of it but the longer I look, the more self-conscious I become. An elderly lady sitting on the front seat, wearing a knitted tea-cosy for a hat, points helpfully with her umbrella to a corner and nods. I smile and salvage a penny from the grime, black dirt forcing its way under my fingernails.

“Park Green,” I stammer as I deposit eight ‘new pence’, a ring-pull and a cigarette butt on the driver's little oval dish.

He hands me a ticket along with the ring-pull and the cigarette butt and says, “Your change.”

The elderly lady smiles at me as I pass and I feel my cheeks burning.

I grope my way down the crowded bus, my ruck-sack swinging dangerously from side to side, close to unprotected faces, making passengers take avoiding action. I apologise automatically as my bag rebounds from shoulders bordering the aisle. I avoid eye contact, hoping I don’t know anybody.

I stumble into the only empty seat I can find but it’s next to a girl. I’d rather it wasn’t.

I glance across. Oh, God, it’s Louise!

"Every ‘leetle’ breeze seems to ‘whispair’ Louise." That Louise!….

The Louise I’ve been trying to impress since last September when I joined the extra-curricular art group and found the most beautiful girl in the world.

I had hopes. I had dreams. Well, not any more.

‘GAME OVER!’

A mountain of tasks lies before you as you lie in bed. Puzzles and games, remember. It's only a day, REMEMBER, it can't be that hard. The email, a puzzle, make it fun. Don't be afraid. Clean the kitchen, make it a game. Don't forget the cheese for dinner. DON'T FORGET.

Now sit down and work. Mind flits around the room, catch it and point it at this puzzle. Make it work. Set a timer if you need, change places, move around. But come back to this. DO THE DAMN THING.

This isn't fun, this isn't working. A mind that won't stand still, one that won't get moving when you need it. Four letters like puzzle pieces. This is the hand you've been dealt, now play the game. MAKE IT WORK.

Shit... Forgot the cheese.

PARTY GAMES

'Where's the blooming thing?' Santa searched the shed's spidery shelves, stacking boxes, then restacking them, shifting tools, and balancing tins and items that may be useful one day.

Not the real Santa, but a good likeness. Rotund, with a flowing white beard and a fondness for wearing red, he earned the nickname when he moved into the street.

However, he swiftly became a red devil, terrifying kids and irritating adults, constantly complaining about the most insignificant matters and reporting all and sundry to the local council, the police, and the newspaper.

Wielding rusty bolt cutters, Santa returned to his bicycle that was chained to the lamp post outside his house.

'When I find out who—′ The cutters slipped on the chain, grazing his knuckles. He swore as he wrapped a hanky around the wound. Tried again. Failed. Swore some more.

Jim, and his miniature chihuahua Tyson, watched from behind number eight's curtains. Jim toyed with the padlock key, and the dog expressed his approval with a broad grin.

A bag of dog poo, massive turds almost the size of Tyson, had been deposited on Jim's doorstep during the night. Not the first time Santa had wrongly accused Tyson of fouling the pavements.

Jim transferred the package to the doorstep of number fourteen. The Doberman living there was more likely the dumper of the massive doggie-do.

Santa's face was scarlet. Not the rosy glow of the gentleman who resides at the North Pole, and Santa's Grotto had never echoed with the blasphemy spilling from the lips of the white-haired soul maniacally attacking the chain.

He stood back, glowering. Why would someone do such an idiotic thing? Yes, he'd recently had 'words' with certain individuals regarding various issues. Litter, dog poo, loud music, slamming doors, drunken behaviour, undisciplined kids and empty bins left on the pavement for hours, sometimes several days, after the refuse collectors had called.

This, however, was downright petty, and he reckoned it was to do with the recent bag of dog excrement he had scooped up; he shuddered at the memory. He'd left it on ... whose doorstep was it this time? He couldn't remember and decided to create a spreadsheet once he had freed his perishing bike.

Patrick and his retriever, Tiny, watched the pantomime from behind the blinds of number eleven. Jim had accused Patrick's dog of being 'overly friendly' with Tyson. Tiny's amorous advances had traumatised poor Tyson, and the vet had prescribed an expensive tranquilliser. So, for a lark, Patrick had transferred the poo bag that had been left on his doorstep, to Jim's.

'Good game this, isn't it, Tiny?' Patrick sniggered. He had seen Jim nip along to Dobbie's house with the offending article. Tiny wasn't impressed. His nose was pressed against the window painting the glass with sticky, wet smears as he lustfully eyed Tiny sitting at the window across the road, deliberately ignoring him.

The Doberman's door opened.

The owner of number fourteen stepped out onto the poo bag.

Her spiked heel pierced the plastic.

Her weight squished the whoopsie across the step.

'Oopsie,' chorused Jim, Patrick and several other dog owners who had been involved in this game of Pass-the-parcel.

Sometimes – when you look at me funny – I imagine we’re game pieces.
Like you’re a dark blue plastic disk
Small enough to fit on my tongue,
And I’ve got dice in my hands covered in sixes.

I stand still as your mouth bleeds black paint.

I squeeze my fists so hard they fuse,
Your breath tastes like tar and I’m covered in it.

Pawn.

I don’t like the way you smile – with those licorice teeth.
Make me the iron to your battleship,
smoothing out all these creases,
turning this ocean into

A little plastic disk, dark blue.

PAWN!

blank canvas turned oil spill
from your bubbling saliva.
file me down
into a little cardboard square
so I don’t quite fit the way I used to.
into my own clothes,
into this bed,
flat – like a paper doll,
my words just sound like
letters, in the wrong order.

my throat full
of black paint
my stomach full
of black paint

And you look straight through me.
With those dark blue discs.
Like being swallowed by the ocean.

a Puzzle it be;
a Conundrum as it were.
Not intentioned to solve; per no answer to be heard.
As woven of conglomerated design should we tee,
the bases to run at the behest of herd.
A pickle, a pear, shall shin splints tear;
for caught between intentioned adversaries to tire, maim, and hare.
Shall we falter of fate; to the dark recesses of hate, to a life merely resigned to that of pin and pate.
To the contest they say; that game of which at play.
For delights and desires pursued tamed long of gray.
Who will stand to let a victor be seen; none say thye for sake of humanly inane humanities way.

Beatty stared at Erica sleepily, his eyes still drowsy from the effects of the anaesthetic. Erica stared back at Beatty, studying his face, his head, his body. He was perfect. Beatty’s eyes were perfect, focusing first at Erica, then, slightly hazily, beyond her. His little nostrils flared slightly as he breathed, his fine whiskers stood out like fine needles from his cheeks. Erica couldn’t believe the quality of his fur: every detail was perfect, the colouring, the texture. Erica tentatively put her hand out and gently stroked Beatty’s fur. Beatty purred and put his head down to stroke his cheek against Erica’s hand. Not only did he look perfect, even his behaviour was perfect. He sat on the table like some sort of fine sculpture. Only he was for real.

Erica could not believe it.

She turned and looked at Alfie. He was pretending to be asleep, lying curled up near the radiator, but she knew that he was watching herself and Beatty closely. Erica was interested to see his reaction to Beatty, his identical twin.

The three of them sat close together in her studio, as she called it. It was actually more than a studio: it was more a laboratory, maybe more a workshop. For here, Erica had worked on 3d printing for the last decade, first of all producing models of things in three dimensions using printers she had bought. Then, being frustrated with their shortcomings, she used her skills as an engineer to develop them further. She increased their quality, increased their accuracy. Early printers she had bought could print items to resolution of 1600dpi. Erica could now scan and print at molecular level. This of course required incredible computer capacity, but Erica had formulated software which simplified the structure even of living tissue. The printer itself, similarly, was impossibly complicated, with tiny needles extruding matter of a size that could not be seen with the naked eye. But she had found a way of producing mass extrusions of differing materials from banks of tiny needles which enabled much faster production times.

Erica had started off small with inanimate objects, had then tried her hand at simple living forms, and now she was confident enough to reproduce living creatures. Alpha – Alfie – was her first cat to be copied. She liked the name Alfie – A Life, if you swopped things around a bit. Beta, the copy, was Beatty – that meant “voyager through life”. He was her latest living copy: he was a perfect copy of Alfie. She couldn’t help smiling proudly as she admired her work.
She would change the medical world, revolutionise it, producing tissues, organs, complete limbs, complete bodies even. As she sat and mused, she could perhaps even – goodness – give people eternal life by reforming them into younger bodies. Now that would be interesting.

Alfie also thought Beatty was interesting. Very interesting. He had been watching Erica and Alfie out of the corner of his eye, pretending to be not at all interested. He didn’t like this new cat on the scene. He didn’t like the way that his beloved Erica paid such close attention to him. Even stroking him! And looking him in the eye like that! This was too much. He waited his opportunity and he didn’t have to wait long: he saw Erica’s eyes glaze as she thought of her strange dreamy thoughts: so he pounced.

Beatty scarcely saw what was coming: he scarcely had time to widen his eyes before Alfie was upon him, a solid missile of teeth and spit and hair and claws, scrabbling sharply for a hold on him as they tumbled together onto the floor together. Beatty managed to recall from his reproduced brain the basic instinct to defend himself and together the two cats became one screaming, hissing bundle of fur writhing on the floor, locked together by their identical sharp claws. Alfie of course had the advantage, with Beatty scarcely awake and still getting used to using a body that felt slightly strange because even at molecular level there were always going to be microscopic manufacturing tolerances which would make him slightly different to the original.

Somehow Beatty managed to tear himself free from Alfie and ran frantically around the room trying vainly to escape, but no matter how he leaped up onto tables, hid behind chairs, ran behind Erica’s legs, he could barely escape Alfie’s snapping teeth and scratching claws.

Erica meanwhile screamed in hysteria as she saw her masterpiece being torn to shreds. Then, as she watched, Alfie caught Beatty again and together they rolled on the floor again, just one big mass of fur and legs and hissing and claws. Erica couldn’t even tell them apart.

Then, there was an agonised scream, and the explosion blew Alfie across the floor to hit the filing cabinets at the end of the room with an impact that knocked the breath out of him. Erica was knocked off her chair by the explosion and now she too sat dazed on the floor, covered in blood and teeth and lungs and liver. The walls were grossly sprayed with internal organs and part of Beatty’s fur hung limply from the door handle.

Alfie and Erica exchanged dazed glances.

Erica swore under her breath. She needed to do more work: her printouts were still proving to be unstable.

The Cats of Christmas Present

The cat’s been getting in the crib again
and she sits there with aplomb.
She’s making a mess and the crib looks like
it’s been hit by an atom bomb.

There’s shepherds scattered across the floor,
the kings are on their backs,
the cat is beaming; then, licking her lips,
resumes her wild attacks.

The cat’s been climbing the Christmas tree,
assaulting it day and night,
there’s baubles rolling around the tiles;
she’s swallowed a fairy light.

The toddler is taking tips,
delighted by the clamour,
she’s eyeing up the Christmas cake
and looking for the hammer.

We know the cat’s a Christmas fan
in fact, she is devout,
but a look at the crib or the Christmas tree
and common sense is out.

So, here I am in my new room. Finally. I am warm, dry, safe. No longer will I be cold, perpetually damp – if not wet – and in danger. The plague on the seawall at Burnham on Sea should have warned me, but instead I ignored it, instead I seemed to have taken it as a personal challenge.
The plaque stated that centuries before, in the 1600s, the sea had inundated not only Burnham on Sea but had flowed inland, far inland, five leagues in fact, as it would probably have been measured in those days. It had reached as far inland as the very foot of Glastonbury Tor. Nowadays it would be called 23km, 14 miles. This was a distance difficult for me to comprehend as a kid, until the following day when Dad drove me and the rest of kids and our Mum to Cheddar Gorge, which is around half way to the Tor. We climbed slowly up Jacob’s Ladder, which led us to the top of the gorge at its lower end. Then followed an interminable trek up the hill, following the unseen frightening drop just metres away, until we reached the top. The undergrowth which had concealed the yawning gap had become bare grassland and we stood on the very edge and admired the crags and buttresses, the birds wheeling lazily in the depths below us. Then, turning around, we gazed in awe at the incredible view, with field and hedge and field and hedge disappearing endlessly into the horizon, the horizon itself with a fainter horizon beyond it, now just the grey outlines of trees in the distance, followed by further silhouetted outlines beyond until they merged with the sky. Over to the right in the distance the sun glinted on the sea, then over to the left, inland, one of us spotted a tiny hill with a stumpy matchstick standing erect on the top, so small you could barely see it: Glastonbury Tor. Dad said that at the seaside here you had to be careful on the sand and mudflats when the tide was out, not to hang around and be caught by the tide. There were other places in the country, he said, where the tide came in faster than a galloping horse. When the sea came in to the Tor, 20,000 people died, or so he said. We were all silent as we imagined the awful, unexpected fate of those folks. In those days the sea had barely left the land, it being low lying, some areas we now knew even being below the level of the sea.
That was forty-odd years ago in 2022, when I was a kid and now the sea was returning to the land. There was a race to protect some low lying towns, but in the country parts the expense could simply not be justified.
Nevertheless I loved the area, so I found myself buying a house at a crazy low price and accepting that it would sometimes flood. Over the years though this became more frequent, I ended up living upstairs and venturing downstairs only at the end of the summer when the place had dried out a bit. In addition, being near to the dunes, as these were worn away by the steadily rising sea levels, the sand itself inundated the land, so in the end my little house was engulfed not only by sea but by the beach itself.
Finally I had to accept defeat, so here I am in my lovely new room. It is certainly smaller than my house, but it is all I can afford. It’s the same with countless other folks around here. We have all moved into the accommodation provided for us, though it is not cheap to rent or buy. The reasoning was that while they were building a massive concrete wall to keep the waters away from Weston Super Mare, just up the road from Burnham on Sea, they may as well make use of the structure to make it multi-purpose.
So here I am, looking out across the countryside from my small patio, admiring the view towards Sand Point, one of several random ridges which suddenly erupt from the land like a pod of giant whales coming up for air. They are all aligned west to east and in fact the structure in which I live is built as a continuation of Worlebury Hill, just to the north of Weston. I live atop this large sea wall between the hill and the M5, which has been rebuilt higher and protects the eastern flank of the town. The south of the town is protected by a third whale, which reaches nearly to the sea but stops abruptly with cliffs which denote where the original shoreline must have been millennia ago. From there, another basic sea wall circles round towards the north and runs up the shoreline in front of the town, to meet up at its northern part with Worlbury Hill. Protests were made about it blocking the view but I suspect that in due course there will be protests about it should have been made higher.
I am the equivalent of ten stories up from ground level, although the building itself is considerably higher, about twenty stories worth. It’s not what used to be called a high rise building – in fact they had to invent a name for it. Vertical structures were abandoned a while back, the norm now being with new builds that they have a sloping face angled back to catch the sun as best it can, for the benefit of the solar panels which cover the south face and in fact much of other faces too. The solar panels are incorporated in the glass of the windows, so I have a large window at a shallow angle leaning back into the room. It slides upwards if I wish to walk out onto the patio. Below my patio is the rear part of the room below, the rest of it projecting forward as part of the sloped façade of the building. Similarly, the rear part of my room has the patio of the flat on the next floor up above it.
Behind and below are offices. They don’t have windows. Personally I’ve never had a problem with the lack of windows in an office – I have usually worked at the inner part of the office so I couldn’t see out, and on the occasions when I could, the view was not worth viewing. However, now there are the large screens as big as window which show whatever view the occupants of the room wish. It might be the view outside, the view I am looking at, to see what the weather is doing, or it might be some exotic far off scene. Inevitably there are always arguments about where we are going to look today.
Below the offices are shops and below them are the entertainment areas for conferences and theatre performances and the like. There has been quite a significant amount of space allocated for that.
Below those areas are the car parks, for those that need them. I don’t possess one, I don’t find it necessary and just cycle into town, or if it is raining use one of the autonomous cabs on the tramway into the centre. The route also takes me to the new railway station, the main line to London, which is at the end of the building, adjacent to where the existing railway into Weston crosses it. We’re very well connected here, you know. I forgot to mention – the building is about four and a half kilometres long, between the M5 and Worlebury Hill, so needless to say it even has its own transport system, connecting the various areas.
Standing here musing about my lovely new room, I’ve suddenly felt a chill in the air. The clouds to the north are changing to an ominous darkness and so I turn away from the view. It’s dinner time anyway.
I shut the window, and turn to the cooker. I select my meal, its cooked for me. Although it is made up from some sort of mushroomy mush which originates from large vats in the darkness somewhere in the deep depths of the building, it does actually taste like real food. When the cooker has finished gurgling and hissing I sit down to look at the window now streaming with the rain and as I tuck in, the room becomes dark as the steel shutters roll down to protect the glass from the dangers of the storm, with the high winds we now have being another reason for the building being on the slope, a hill in fact, mimicking the contours of the nearby ridge. The building is streamlined.
I am glad that I am warm, dry, safe in my new room.

Michelle had never considered therapy - thought it was for beings lesser than herself. It was a sort of snobbery - this idea that she was better than everyone else, could cope with whatever life threw at her, was strong. And she felt she was, right up until the moment she found herself on the bridge, looking down at the river far - so far - below, wondering if it would hurt. She didn't remember getting there, only that she'd walked, was alone and had lost her phone.

Just two days previously, her life had been perfect. She was respected at work, she had a fiance, she owned a property and felt she had succeeded. And so what if she didn't always feel 'happy'? She was a success; she'd transcended her beginnings and she was going places. Going places - it was an Americanism she hated but her boss had told her that's where she was headed just two months ago when he offered her a promotion.

He used another Americanism when he sacked her, too. 'Life can spin on a dime', he'd said, as he explained why she had been chosen to go. Michelle protested - showed her boss her stats for the month, explained that the company couldn't do without her and he shook his head and made a flicking motion with his fingers, possibly to show a dime being spun in mid-air.

'Ok,' Michelle had said to herself. 'I can cope. I am strong, I am successful, sod him, I'll rise again.' And she left with her head held high, before lunch, waving away his insistence that she stay for a final meeting.

She headed home to her fiance, Ed and found him poetically in bed (it was strange what her mind did, to protect her) with the cleaner - until now a sign of her success. She had a cleaner. Ed had a cleaner. Ed was having the cleaner, in their bed. Ed in bed.... all this raced through her mind as she stood in the doorway and watched him bury his head between her ample thighs. Ed likes me skinny, was the next thought she had, as the cleaner screamed and tried to cover her similarly ample stomach.

Ed must've watched too many films about indiscretion because he tried cliches and platitudes. Michelle watched him squirm, then turned (on a dime) and left, texting him as she did.

Get Out Of My House

And,

NOW

She kept walking until she was in her favourite bar, with two drinks lines up in front of her, telling herself she would get through this, tat she was strong, that Ed wasn't worth her, that she'd find another job and another man and she'd carry on.

But it was strange - the more drinks she drank, sank, drunk, the more she felt stunted, stopped in her life, stuck at a red light...

'What happened?' she said, out loud and the whole awful day played itself out to her again. If she couldn't get another job, she'd lose her house and her car. The house and car were part of her success. Her job and fiancee were who she was.

Jesus.

Michelle lined up another three drinks, waving away Alberto's concern, even as she tripped on the way back to her table.

It went blurry then, and then later, when it was dark, and cold, she was on the bridge, looking at the floodlit water, so far below.

A sign she'd passed urged her to call the Samaritans, but she knew she didn't need them. She could pick herself up, right?

She was a success.

She was

a.....

'I'm nobody,' she whispered, and knew it was true. In a flash she'd disproved everything she thought about herself.

She gripped the railings, and looked down.

Behind her, a car stopped. She dimly heard the door slam and footsteps grow larger until they brought somebody to her side.

'Hello,' said a female voice.

Michelle turned and saw a woman about her age in a warm hat and gloves. It made her realise she was cold.

'You're a s'maritan,' Michelle said.

The woman shook her head. 'No. Just a concerned passer-by. I stopped in case you needed help.'

'I'm fine,' said Michelle, and then burst into tears. She didn't remember crying but by the ache in her head and the burn in her eyes this obviously wasn't the first time today. She stumbled out the story.

'Oh. Is that all?' said the woman.

'?'

Michelle couldn't speak. Then she yelled, 'Is that ALL?'

'Ah. Spirit. That's better. No, you're not a jumper. Good. Here, take this, go home, sleep off this self-indulgent stupor, and call me in the morning.'

And with that, the woman turned (on a dime) and was gone.

Michelle watched her go, then looked down at the card. It was too dark to see properly so she shoved it in a back pocket. before anyone else had cause to stop and meddle in her life, she walked home.

Ed was gone. The house was in darkness. Fully dressed, Michelle crawled into the spare bed (she'd burn her own bedding) and closed her eyes.



In the morning, reality hit her bit by bit in a series of stomach-lurching inner clenches, as she remembered.

She got up, groaning, dealt with her hangover with a practised succession of remedies, and looked at the card.

Need a new room? Call Amber Trevil on 07653 330998

was all that was printed on there.

A new room?

Michelle shrugged, and used her landline to dial the number, her phone still being absent.

In a few minutes she'd been cornered into an afternoon appointment she didn't want with a woman she didn't know to do goodness knows what. A new room?

Amber answered the door in the same sort of practical attire she'd worn the previous night.

'I'm glad you called,' she said. 'Business usually finds me. Not the other way around.'

'What sort of business?'

'I'm a sort of ... consultant. I help people find new places.'

'Like a recruitment consultant?'

'Yes. And no. Close your eyes.'

'But I haven't agreed to...'

'No? Then why are you here? Close your eyes.'

Michelle did so, more than anything else because her eyes stung from dehydration and crying. She sighed.

'Now. I'm just going to... hang on...' Michelle heard Amber grunting slightly with effort as she edged her chair closer. She jumped as Amber's hands manifested on her head.

'Um, I'm not...' Michelle tried to edge away.

'Keep still,' said Amber and dug her fingers into Michelle's hair, prodding against her skull.

'What are you...?'

'Shhh.'

Then,

'Ah. Oh. Ummm... yeah. Right. Ok, that makes sense. Ouch. Yes. Right.'

With each word she pushed one of her fingers harder until it felt to Michelle as if Amber was digging into her very mind. She was strong, Michelle discovered as she tried to pull away. She was about to push at Amber with her hands when the woman stopped touching Michelle's head and said, 'Ok, eyes open. Feel anything?'

Michelle shook her head.

Amber sighed. 'Damn horses to water, make them drink as well,' she muttered.

'I'm sorry?'

'Don't be. Listen to my voice.'

And in a dreamy, soft yet certain voice, Amber began to speak.

'You're a classic case of perceived success. You've perceived it but it was never there. You entire life is an illusion. You built your life on a floodplain. The rains come and whoosh, no umbrella. I've made you a new room. Inside. Look into your brain now. New bit is open. New space. Inside it are tools and things. Now we go in. Close your eyes again. Walk. Past all the success. past all the unsuccess. Into the dark bit nobody wants to go, the bit between. Look. You see doors?'

Michelle, to her surprise, nodded.

'They all have names. Most will be shut, yes?'

Again, Michelle nodded.

'Good. Best not to open just yet. But you can read them.'

Michelle muttered, 'Mum and dad. Gran. Cancer. Fear. Teddy. Ed. Thumb. Peas. Dad. School. Mrs Stevenson. Sick. Oh my god. Are these all memories?'

'Hmmm, sort of. Keep walking.'

Michelle stopped. 'It's the end. No, wait. There's a door.'

'Ahah. There it is. Right, open it.'

Michelle imagined herself opening the door.

'What do you see?'

Michelle felt herself squinting - into her own mind (?). The room was empty.

'Nothing.'

'Perfect!' cried Amber. 'It worked. Sometimes there's a little too much resistance. But despite all that prickliness, you really needed and wanted help.'

'Prickliness?' Michelle opened her eyes.

Amber waved her words away.

'We only use a small percentage of our minds. My job is to open up new rooms. A room is as good analogy as any. That's fifty quid please, discount.'

'Eh? But I didn't...'

'Cash or cheque.'

'Wait a minute-'

'I have another appointment. Cash or cheque.'

Michelle got up. 'I'm not paying you anything until you explain.'

Amber sighed. 'Fair enough. Thought you were clever.'

'I am.'

'Then work it out. What did the door say on it?'

'I... I don't remember.'

'Sure you do. Think.'

Michelle closed her eyes. Imagined herself walking up to the door. Looked at it. Opened her eyes.

'"The Future,"' she said.

Amber smiled. 'That's it, love. The future. That room can be filled with whatever you choose. Keep the other doors firmly shut, and fill that one. Easy. Fill it with promises to yourself and optimism and cake and soft chairs and a new career - everything you like. It's yours.'

'Shouldn't we sort of talk this through?' Michelle said.

'Thought you didn't want therapy?'

'How did you...?'

'Off you go. This session is free. Go and move into the new room. If it works, I'll create another for you. Then you can pay me.'

'How many rooms can you make?'

Amber smiled.

'As many as you want,' she said. 'An infinite number. You just need to open the doors. Remember, life can turn...'

The End





























The old room, repurposed
from some deposed
principal, will not
suffice.

No place for tools,
and narrow stairs; hard
to manoeuvre a dead
weight.

And cleaning.
The carpets are
a nightmare to wash
each time.

Not to mention
the noise. When
the men are
off shift the can
hardly sleep.

The new room
is much improved;
Ground floor. Right
beside the forest.
Tiled walls, floor
and ceiling.
Good drainage.
Sound-proofed to 125 decibels.


She sat on the bus and watched the greenery slowly turn into grey city buildings. She was caught in the middle of contrary needs. She didn’t know if it was possessiveness or what but she was really excited at the prospect of having the room all to herself.
But she also really didn’t want to be alone.
She wanted to burrow into a space that was hers, hers, hers but when the silence came he filled it and she was left with a worrying gnawing need for noise. For all the noise that had always been there. Step one would be to buy a clock radio or something similar.
She didn’t want to share her wardrobe and let her jumper and socks mix and match with someone else’s. Now that they were hers and hers alone they took up an almost comically small space. She didn’t want books that didn’t belong to her sitting on a shelf next to the three she’d been given on the ward.
But she also didn’t want the responsibility of looking after all of it. She’d never had that before. She’d never had things that were only hers. The psychologist said it was okay. These conflicting thoughts were a reasonable reaction to not having her own space growing up. To moving around a lot. To being with the group for so long. “You’re searching for home” he’d said, lowering his glasses and giving her the thinly veiled pity smile they all gave her.
“You’re trying to figure out what that means for you”
She pressed the button and stood up to get off the bus with her two bags, one full of clean clothes that one of the nurses had washed for her this morning and left in a neat, folded pile at the end of her bed. And one that was empty except for a notebook, a letter telling her when to come back for her next appointment and a card that said “Good Luck” on the outside. She hadn’t read the inside yet. She’d save that for in a few hours when the gnawing started.
“You’re looking for yourself” she repeated under her breath. She stepped off the bus onto the pavement, it was raining, she didn’t have an umbrella. Another new thing she’d need to get for herself.
“Loads of people are looking for themselves at this age”. That’s what they’d told her.
That thought satisfied her for a while, it felt like a reasonable excuse to not knowing the answers to questions like “What is your favourite colour?” “do you like the monarchy?” and “what are you going to do now?”
At first, on the ward, in occupational therapy, helped by staff and meds and the police, it had felt like a game. Fitting new square blocks into the old square holes in herself. They loved it when she got one right, she’d pick a topping for her jacket potato at lunch and they’d smile. Cheese please, grin. Beans please, smile. They wanted timelines to things she didn’t remember. I was there that night, gentle smile. I don’t remember where they took him when they took him off me, no smile. I don’t remember where they took him, no smile.
After a while though, it stopped feeling like a colour in children’s book, the choice of pastels, bright blues, dark reds, oranges to fill in the lines got overwhelming she didn’t even know if she cared anymore whether she preferred beans or coleslaw or cheese or nothing or all of them or if she thought a man had been on the moon or if she’d see him and his little hands again or if there was even a point to any of these opinions.
Even though she was apparently entitled to all of them, just like she was entitled to space. That’s what they’d been telling her. This is what she needed, what she was allowed. Her own space. To fill with all these thoughts and opinions. Theories. Needs. Colour them all into the black and white templates on every single page, a dog, a cat, a couple holding hands, a barn. A pool of blood. A baby. It was all a lot of work.
You’re allowed it. You’re entitled to it.
Entitlement could be such a negative word, you’re so entitled, you think you can have things just handed to you. She thought of the rows and rows of women sitting side by side listening intently. You have to be grateful for what you have. And she had been grateful. She had always tried to be grateful.
And she had had some things handed to her. And other people didn’t, and that was bad.
But what about what they’d taken? She didn’t want to think about it.
She pushed the door open of the new flat, one room. The bottom of the bed touched the sink. The window was covered in a dusty net curtain.
“My room.”
She put the bags on the floor and sat on the bed wincing slightly, it still hurt to sit.
She pulled her appointment letter out of the bag and smoothed it out in her lap. 14th of November. 2pm. That was exactly 3 days away. 3 days to fill with whatever she decided to fill them with. She’d clean the room. Get it ready for him. She’d fill the fridge with all the good jacket potato toppings. She’d get some new bedding, get rid of those dusty curtains.
“My room” she thought, “my new room, our new room.”

The New Room

Having come through the door
To the space her heart knew
Like the map of her skin
She paused
For something had changed
A door never seen before beckoned
Drawing her in
Hesitating for a moment
She wondered at what was beyond
A flutter in her throat
Led her to believe she had found
The missing piece
The one she had been waiting for
For such a long time
Turning the handle, she gently pushed
And there it was
A new expanse of whitest wood
Stretching towards the greenest trees
Tall outside a wall of glass
How her heart danced!

All the years of reckoning
Now bearing fruit
Her heart and mind balanced out
As she worked her way through
Pain and hurt
From a lifetime spent doing the best she could
Here it was
This precious space
Hers to own and grace
With whatever pleased her hearts desire
For the space was an expansion of her skin
A blossoming which had been
Internal in its manifestation
Now surrounding her
As a new space to live in

Opening her eyes
She knew she'd arrived
Floating
Through the corridors of sleep
To the new room
The room of a thousand
As yet unmade, memories

The New Room
Marion Foreman

You were so delighted at first, weren’t you?
‘A baby? We’re having a baby?’ you said. ‘A little human being that we have made? You and me?’
Well it would hardly be an elephant would it? But I didn’t say that. You were so excited. Like all first time fathers, you thought you were superman. You thought that no man had ever done so well before. No man had sperm like yours.
But they did and they had. I was sweating. When should I say that this wasn’t my first? When should I mention the one you didn’t know about? The one that should never have been, that never was? Could I persuade every doctor and midwife that I met to never ask and to never mention – to call me a primigravida? I knew you would find out and I also knew that I had to tell you.
My first little baby hadn’t been yours. My first baby didn’t have a dad in the real sense. Of course I wasn’t a virgin Mary – don’t be silly – it’s just that I didn’t want that man to be her daddy. It might have been one of many, but it was his. But I can’t tell you that can I?
You have only ever seen the one side of me. To you I am a clever and ‘together’ sort of woman. I have a decent job, a good figure and dress well. But there is another side. The slut. The woman who hangs out in bars, chats up men. Leaves the bars with them, fucks them hard then gets out. I rarely know their names. Except for this one – this one had been different – he had class and with class he had money.
‘Darling’, my eyes full of tears, ‘darling, I didn’t want to have to tell you this and please promise you won’t do anything in a rage?’
You looked at me, surprised, trusting. Ready to do the right thing.
‘What is it honey? You can tell me anything. ‘What’s happened?’
I gulped, ‘five years ago I was out and decided to go home before my friends. I walked back to my house. They said to take a taxi and I told them I would. But I didn’t. I will regret that forever’.
I turned to him, eyes brimming with tears. ‘I got raped. He attacked me and left me. It was hideous. I can’t talk about it. I couldn’t identify him. The police couldn’t prosecute’.
He looked at me, full of love and understanding. I didn’t miss a beat.
‘But that wasn’t the end. 8 weeks later I knew I was pregnant. I had his baby. I’m so sorry. I should have told you before. I am so ashamed’.
‘What happened to the baby? You have to tell me’ he looked so conflicted.
‘She was adopted. I knew I couldn’t manage. I haven’t seen her since she was two weeks old. I missed her for months. But I have put it all behind me. But I need your help. Being pregnant again has stirred those memories’.
I waited – he was a kind and gentle man. Open and honest and naïve. It wouldn’t occur to him that my story was anything but accurate.
‘You told me that all you have ever wanted is to have a family, to be a mother. That you wanted that more than anything. But you are a mother, you’ve already had a baby. That somewhere in this world is a little girl who looks a bit like you – a little girl that you gave away.’ He practically spat these words at me.
‘You gave her away because through absolutely no fault of her own – you were damaged. You rejected her. You deprived her of your love. And now you think you can put that right with our baby. Doesn’t say much for your maternal instincts does it?’
I was flabbergasted. I had been so confident that he would be understanding and kind, surely my story was plausible?
‘None of it is true is it? You see, I know you and who you are. My mates knew you, they knew you were a tart. They warned me. But no, fool that I am, I reckoned that you had changed. That you were really a great woman. So you want me to wonder whose baby it was? You weren’t raped were you? It was one of those ‘causal sex’ things, wasn’t it? Do you think I’m stupid? Do you really think that I don’t know enough about a woman’s body to see that she has had a baby? But I wanted to love you, to have a baby together. I bought into your whole ‘family’ plan. More fool me. ‘
I turned my tear stained face up to him. Surely he wasn’t this cross? Surely I could make it alright?
‘Wipe your face, you look a mess’ he said. ‘Well, I’m keeping this one. This one is mine, and I’m not giving it away’.
Still that naivety, still that boyish acceptance. ‘Of course its yours and of course we are keeping it.’ I whispered, head hung now.
‘There’s no ‘we’ in this. The only ‘we’ is that baby and me – you’re not part of this. You will give this little one to me and move on – just like you did before.’
I gasped. ‘I can’t do that. You can’t make me.’
An expression that I had never seen crossed his face – scorn, anger, derision – I didn’t know. ‘Oh I can and I will. If you don’t I will make sure you get a new room – a prison cell. That’s where they put blackmailers isn’t it? ‘
‘Blackmail? What are you talking about? ‘
‘I’m talking about the poor man who made one mistake and has been paying you ever since. The married man that you told was the father of your little girl. The man who, month after month bought your silence and paid maintenance for a baby you gave away. ‘
‘That’s not true’ I cried. ‘Whatever are you talking about?’
‘I’m talking about my brother. The one that never comes to any family events. That’s what I’m talking about. I’m talking about our baby’s uncle. You’ve made his life hell. So what’s it to be? Hand over our little baby and walk free or your new room? The choice, you bitch, is yours.’
I turned my head away, I turned my body away. I felt the first gripping pains, felt the first smear of blood between my legs. My heart bled as I lost another little bit of me.


Where Monsters cannot Touch

“And this is your room,” my mother said, when we first moved into the small end-terrace, upstairs flat, above the ‘Bamboo Coffee Bar’.

Had I been and adult, I’d have been able to touch both sides of the room at once but I was only four years old, if that, and found myself slotted in a narrow bed with barely room to shimmy down the side. In fact, very soon, I had no memory of any other room.

The fact that I was an only child prepared me for my nights of solitude within those walls, subjected to hours of perforated silence, serenaded by a muffled juke box and the counterpoint of kerbside motorbikes coughing their metal guts. And then there was my father’s drunken rage as he beat my mother to a pulp, at midnight, on the landing outside my bedroom door.

Each night, this was the cage of my existence, the exit barred by monsters hiding in the wardrobe by the door. I dared not extend my naked foot beyond the bed’s cliff-edge for fear it would be bitten off.

Fear always lurked somewhere in those shadows, though perhaps less so when my father wasn’t there.

My room was always dark, even in the summer, as the mean window behind my bed looked out upon a crumbling wall and a narrow passage like a canyon, separating gable-ends.

I couldn’t see the sky from there but it couldn’t stop my flights of fancy. As dusk fell, I’d kneel upon my bed with my elbows on the windowsill inventing stories suggested by pictures hidden in the withered faces of the old red bricks.

From there, they’d follow me to sleep, chase my dreams and open up another world where monsters couldn’t touch me.

Congratulations! You won the race to run the country
into the ground (even further).
The previous resident of Number 11’s been Trussed up by her own incompetence and sent packing.

The new room you’re moving into, well over a hundred Tories high, could do with a makeover, apparently.
Here’s thirty grand from the taxpayer to change the drapes.
Maybe spring for a decent cabinet instead?
The one you use most, next door at Number 10, isn’t fit for purpose.
Not now, and not when you used to sit in it and act on the whims
of your Johnson.

It was always going to be you, wasn’t it.
You just had to wait for the Penny to drop, for your Mordaunted opponent to concede.
You’re no stranger to dropping pennies though, albeit from the wealth of the nation.

But hey, it’s fine! (A £50 one if I remember correctly.)
Enjoy your success for a bit, teeter there at the top.
Ignore the calls from the electorate for a say, but know
you’re doing it out of fear.
An election tomorrow would lead to some great headlines.
Risky Soon-axed! would be my favourite.

So sit up there in the new room for now, the one my tax money decorated.
You know, and I know,
you’re only delaying your downfall.
Change *is* coming to sweep you out of office,
and Keir away your mistakes.

I am clearing out some papers when I find them. Letters from twenty years ago, in your unfinished cursive. Schoolgirl spelling mistakes: defiantly for definitely; only one m in commitment. It’s the handwriting that transports me straight back to your old, teenage bedroom (do you remember how we taught ourselves French up there, writing and rewriting je suis, tu es, nous sommes and je serai, tu seras, nous serons).

Your teenage bedroom is a large, bright room in your parents’ tall, terraced house. There is a wall of white wardrobes in which your salwar kameez are permanently on show, radiating with primary colours, sparkling in the sunshine. In the other half of the wardrobe, behind the closed doors, tower stacks of art materials: stretched canvases, colours, geometric designs. You’re going to continue with your painting, you say, no matter what.

We sit in a pool of sunlight on the carpet and swap books. You give me Of Mice and Men – I still have the copy with your inscription penned on the inside front cover: 'I’m giving this book to you because of its important message about friendship.' Even at sixteen you give the impression of looking back over your life, as if you’ve already had all your experiences.

Another time, perhaps a year later, just before you are about to go off, you hand me Pride and Prejudice and say if I want to understand what you’re going through, I should read it. I have no idea what you’re talking about, having never read any Austen and knowing nothing, really, of your culture. Still, we go on for a time, swapping A Level essays and imagining our futures. When it comes to your turn, you speak with excitement about what your parents have arranged for you. Perhaps you have decided you’re going to have the Elizabeth Bennett experience. I am too naïve to think you might have doubts; they are buried deep, away from your parents’ gaze. They’re eager for you to be happy and, being a dutiful daughter, you will grant their wish. We sit together in that first bedroom of yours eating chocolate oranges and drinking cups of tea and deciding on our futures, as if we can engineer our own fates.

Not long after and still at your house, we sit in the living room, this time in a circle of aunties. What I am trying to avoid looking at is the startling vision of you without your hijab. All those afternoons lying on your sunlit carpet, all those sisterly secrets between us, and I have never seen your hair. Until now. The room is filled with all sorts of women whom you’ve never once spoken about, and here you are, just casually wearing your hair. As if you wear it and show it every day of your life. Have they seen your hair before, I begin to wonder, and feel at once a distance between us that has been signalled in the weeks preceding, but that we ignored like an accidental splotch of paint on the carpet. Your hair is black and full and gives your face an entirely new shape. You sit across from me. We don’t speak but I watch you nod and obediently hold out your hands for henna patterns.

The room is noisy with advice and warnings and sudden shouts across the circle. Your mum brings in a platter of brown rice and chicken and chapattis, and she kneels down next to me to ask if I would like my hands decorated too.

These memories are prompted by the letters in my hand. You wrote them twenty years ago: hurried scribbles made during lectures whilst you are trying to get an education; sealed and posted before you exit the building to be met by your husband who has been waiting outside all that time, fretful of you bettering yourself above him. Don’t write back, you scrawl. His parents don’t like you sending letters. And don’t keep calling the house. I’ll write again.

Another letter, three months later, is longer and written apparently in the library. He is waiting outside, you write. But I don’t care. He can wait all day, I have an essay to finish. In it, you detail the meals you are expected to cook for his family, but say there is hope of getting your own place soon, just the two of you where it will be much easier. He won’t be influenced by his parents so much; it is really only his parents who are the problem. They are the ones who say you would be pregnant by now if you weren’t going off to the university all the time.

The last letter in the pile is brief. There has been a big family blow up. Ultimatums have been delivered and your parents are called in to make you submit to your husband’s will. They see how sick you’ve become, how reduced by the bullying. They wonder where their daughter has gone because you sit in the middle of the room, empty eyes staring blankly ahead, whilst his family fight over the scraps of your life.

The next time I see you is back at your family’s terraced house. You are tucked away in the small box room at the back. It seems dark in here: the curtains are always drawn. Did it once belong to your brother? It is a teenage boy’s bedroom - a halfway house; a twilight. You lie in the single bed.

I am away at university, and in my final year I don’t come home much. I write to you: long letters about the books I’m reading, the plays I’m in. I wonder if you have kept those. There are no more letters from you.

After graduation, I return to our small home town before catapulting my way out into the world. I knock on your door. I find you in your final bedroom of your parents’ tall, terraced house. It is only with hindsight that I know it is your final bedroom and that two years later you will meet him, your second husband, when you’ve broken free of our small home town.

There is light again in this new room. It is forward-facing, bright and airy. Your sketches are blu-tacked to the walls, the wardrobe, the desk. You talk of your plans. You say there is a scholarship, a housing scheme, a relocation programme; you have a contact, there’s a community, you know of a group…

You make it to London before I do, and by the time I get there you are already set up in a new-build flat overlooking Victoria park. There is an empty room in the flat below, you tell me in a letter, and won’t it be nice to live so close to each other?

I put this post-script letter with the rest of the bundle and return them to their box. Perhaps in twenty years time I’ll find them again and be reminded of that first room where we sat in pools of sunlight and swapped stories across the carpet.

At last the message is getting through. People are starting to realise how important it is to save power. But how effective are their actions?

I’ve just popped upstairs. It is dark, so the light has come on automatically and will switch off when I am not on the stairs. This is not a mains light, it is a small battery-operated light which cost £5 in a DIY shop I visited in passing. I use used AA batteries which do not have enough power for the old camera I sometimes use, but which have enough power left over for a torch. Or sometimes I use rechargeable batteries. This is instead of paying an electrician to drive out specially and use power to fit a more sophisticated light which has no doubt cost more to manufacture than my little £5 light. However, how long will my little £5 lamp last? Probably not so long as the proper light, so maybe I will spend more in £5 lamps in the long run than fitting a proper one. Does it cost more to the environment manufacturing several batteries than making a proper fitting and using a bit of electricity? Maybe electrical items need to indicate just how much energy was used in creating them, same way as food now contains comprehensive information on its ingredients.

At last the government is encouraging us and the industries involved to explore alternative energy sources. But why didn’t they do that back in the 1970s, or even earlier, when the warnings first started of what would happen if we continued with our pays of creating power and moving transport. Are they doing the right thing now? A decade ago they encouraged us to buy diesel cars, but now frown upon them. A decade ago they encouraged drivers to scrap perfectly good cars, some of them classic, in order to buy new, less polluting cars. But how much more pollution was caused in dragging the raw materials out of the ground, forging and moulding and assembling them to create new cars, compared to saving probably a smaller amount of pollution caused by keeping the old cars running? They are encouraging us to buy new, electric, cars, but the materials to produce them are scarce and cause their own pollution in their creation.

But things may be looking up. “Alternative” power sources such as wind and solar energy have been sneered at by many quarters and they certainly need improvement – had we started serious development years ago the technology would have been a lot more advanced by now. It is acknowledged that their main disadvantage is their unreliability – it is not always sunny or windy. And sometimes they produce so much electricity the energy they produce goes to waste.

The answer is to find a way of storing this excess energy for use when the energy source reduces. In some geographic areas this can be achieved with hydro-electricity, where water flowing downhill from one lake to another generates power, then when there is excess power – at night for example when the demands on the grid are minimal - that can be used to pump the water back to the higher lake. The lakes basically act like a rechargeable battery.
But hydro-electricity is not possible everywhere, so alternative “rechargeable battery” systems are needed. And here it gets exciting.

Although exotic materials are commonly used at the moment for battery systems, there are other far more common materials that can be used. Iron-air batteries are being developed. Yes – that is iron, not ion as in lithium-ion. Iron, clearly, is far more easily available than the current exotic materials: used in a similar way to conventional batteries, passing an electric current creates or disperses rust on the iron, causing an electro-chemical reaction. Too heavy for use in transport, it could however be useful for stationery applications, at source in the vicinity of solar or wind farms.

Another contender for battery applications could be sodium. Sodium (that is, common salt) is very similar to lithium: they are immediate neighbours on the periodic table and they can be handled with very similar technology and behave in similar ways. Sodium is less effective than lithium but in many ways would be far more suitable, not only because it is so prolific. The mines where it is obtained can themselves also be used for other purposes, such as storing other materials which could be used for storing potential energy.

When an excess of electricity from wind or solar can be used to create “green” hydrogen, for example, that can be stored in the salt caverns. The hydrogen itself is versatile enough to be used not only to create electricity for the grid when required but also to power vehicles – that is already in progress. Of the alternatives available at the moment that looks the most viable.

There are exciting times ahead and there is a race between the various technologies. Which one will win? The information I have seen is at a basic level – videos on Youtube – so maybe I too am making incorrect assumptions – like the government has done at times. It is an interesting discussion. Judge for yourself, as a start checking out the links to the videos below.

However: the best action is: to Cut Energy Use.

References:

Iron-air batteries
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UDjgSSO98VI

Sodium-ion batteries
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cHNELRnJ_4Y
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vobMl5ldOs

Green hydrogen
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYBGSfzaa4c
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f6_OVfrc_5A

Normally, I would enter this contest with a poem, a short story or a fragment or outtake. Today I'm writing a short manifesto, a minifesto if you will. I'll try to be honest and objective, and to cite a few sources.

Why am I doing this? Well, I'm an Energy Auditor, Consultant and Engineer, and my job is reducing non-renewable energy usage for businesses, communities and regions.

First, why do we care? There's a couple of reasons for this.

Firstly, the humanitarian: in 2021, according to Forbes, the EU spent $296m per day on Russian fossil fuels. [https://tinyurl.com/bdd6687f]
That's more gas from Russia than from anyone else (about 40%), more solid fuels from Russia than from anyone else (nearly half),
more crude oil from Russia than from anyone else (about a quarter).
When you account for domestic production, that means we (Europe) import about a quarter of all of our energy usage from Russia. [https://tinyurl.com/y6vdte66]
The inclusion or exclusion of the UK (post-brexit) doesn't materially alter those figures.

The "rents" (essentially profit) from exporting oil and gas amount to nearly 40% of the total Russian federal budget, or 14% of the entire GDP. [https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20211115-climate-change-can-russia-leave-fossil-fuels-behind]
Where did Russia get all the money for tanks and cruise missiles and precision strikes on Ukrainian cities?
Well a lot of it came from us, propping up the faltering Russian economy for decades by buying their fossil fuels.

And cutting back supply didn't really help actually. Supply-and-demand is a pretty basic response mechanism.
Supply dropped, demand went up, and in early 2022, Russia doubled its monthly revenues exporting fossils. [https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/apr/27/russia-doubles-fossil-fuel-revenues-since-invasion-of-ukraine-began]

The only way to really hurt oil and gas economies is to stop using oil and gas. That's the long and the short of it.
Accounting tricks don't work, and sanctions will be a bit toothless while we still need, in abundance, what they are selling us.

Let's remember here, that these revenues represent hundreds of millions of metric tonnes of CO2 emissions. Hundreds of millions. [https://www.statista.com/statistics/1241828/ghg-emission-european-union-eu-by-country/]
Anyone who isn't convinced by the reality of the climate crisis, I encourage you to read the IPCC special report, or Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, or look out your window at the storms and fires. It's not in the future. It's now.

This is the second reason to cut our usage, because the climate crisis is not like a dictator who we may one day defeat.
It's not a question of whether we can win, but how much of our collective home we can save from the ravages of fires, floods, hurricanes, plastic, chemical pollution, and the chain-reaction impact of biodiversity collapse.
We lose 200 species a day.
Let's rephrase that: as early as 2010, the UN Environment Programme estimated that we humans are extincting 200 species of animals every day, or a thousand times the background rate. The biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis are horrifically closely linked, with each driving the other (and us driving both).

There's a lot of facets to the climate crisis, but the biggest one is energy (followed by agriculture). [https://ourworldindata.org/emissions-by-sector]

So what do we mean when we say energy? Most people think of electricity, but that's actually only a small part of the puzzle.
The system is insanely complex [https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/indicators/overview-of-the-european-energy-system-3/assessment] so we'll have to simplify a bit.

A rule of thumb for most European countries is that we use about 20% of energy for electricity production, 40% for transport and 40% for heating.
It varies a lot country-to-country, but electricity is not really the problem, as its the smaller share and the only bit we're sort of doing okay decarbonising.
Transport is much harder, and heating is harder again for a lot of countries.

The third reason to cut our usage is the cost to us as individuals and businesses. They. Have. Soared.
You may be paying four times as much per unit for energy as you did a year ago. That's enough to put some businesses under entirely.
I won't smugly note that if we had a renewable electricity system and electrified heating and transport we wouldn't give a fuck about gas or oil prices,
and our operating costs would be a tiny fraction of what they are.
Okay that was a little smug, but it doesn't really help us.
I put the cost issue last because everyone puts it first.

When can we act? Honestly, it's a bit late for this winter. There's things we can do, but when a client calls me asking if we can prepare their facility for the winter of high prices my answer is "sure, just call me six months ago".
I'm being flippant, but for buildings the time for assessment, system design, the necessary planning permissions, regulations and grid supply changes, procurement, testing, commissioning etc. of equipment is quite lengthy, not to mention any attempts to obtain grant aid for projects.

For transport, you can make changes much more immediately at an individual level- by taking public transport or jumping on your bike.
Many people can't or won't though, and solutions like electric cars are facing huge supply issues, largely I believe due to semiconductor supplies.

What we can do it to stop fucking around and get started. It will help us a little for this winter, but it won't save us.
What it will do is help us a lot for next winter, when the gas reserves that we've been storing up all year this year are gone, and we're really staring down the barrel.

So, what to do straightaway? It's a how-long-is-a-piece-of-string question, because every individual is different and every facility, community and region is different.

Some things we should all do:
-Plan and measure (upload meter readings, keep records, make little graphs).
-Work on the obvious (if I could make people do one thing it would be to close the doors in buildings. This is so laughably obvious I honestly despair at businesses who leave their doors open as though this will magically bring customers and wilfully run oil-fired heating systems to heat up the mainstreet).
-Make it a priority. It's now necessary for our pockets as well as the survival of the human race, so we can finally act.
-Engage with professionals where possible. Every euro/pound/dollar/generic-currency-unit spent in the planning phase saves many multiples down the line, it's like early childhood education.
-Focus on the routine. Fixing something you do every day is much more effective than something occasional. Need to make a one-off trip across the country to visit a relative? Of course, go for it. Have the option of working from home 4 days a week and not-commuting? That's where you can make a big impact.
-Lower the Temperature. We've gotten used to 21C+ inside buildings. Wear a jumper. People shouldn't be able to wear t-shirts in December, even indoors. It makes a huge difference.
-Look out for inefficiencies. There's no reason to have a single bulb that's non-LED in your building in 2022 (be a bit more careful with outdoor fittings, because of insect life). Only boil the water you need. Don't waste stuff.
-Make dedicated plans for removing fossil-fuel using equipment. Not everyone can get rid of their petrol car or oil boiler this year or even next year, but plan now for how you will get rid of them, what the replacement will be and how you will finance it. Green tech is cheaper in the long run but has an investment cost. Look for grants. Put aside savings.
-Don't expect miracles. A solar PV system on your roof is not going to take you off the grid. It takes time, planning and hard work to make significant change.
-Don't virtue signal. Don't greenwash. We don't need this. Nobody needs this.
-Educate yourself and others. We don't need to re-invent the wheel here.

Energy runs our lives. It gets us from A-B. It heats our homes, makes our goods, helps grow our food, pumps our water and waste.
Energy is, in a very real sense, the lifeblood of society.

Reducing it is hard. Nobody is saying it's not hard.

But staying with fossil fuels leads to only one path- a burning world in which dictators use force to via for the remaining limited resources available as the biosphere crumbles around us and people at every level of society suffer very rapid decline of quality of life, followed by mass displacement, terror and chaos as the scrabble to survive kicks in.

For me, it's worth the effort.

Cut Energy Use

This is how I remember it:

When I was a student at Swansea University in the 1990s, one of my courses was a green politics course, run by Clive Ponting. The lecture material was his notes on his book, 'A Green History of the World' - a bleak view of how we got to where we got and where we were going to end up (not in a good place.) As an idealistic student I'd read the book, walked the walk, got endlessly frustrated at the then disbelief that climate change actually existed, made my small contributions to save the planet, talked and talked and talked and got hideously depressed by the fact that we were doomed and nobody cared, or did care but understood that everybody was essentially powerless.

Then Mr Ponting gave us a light at the end of the tunnel of doom we were all travelling in, during his lectures. He told us the final two hour lecture of the year would be a message of hope. It would be a lesson in what was being done, how we were going to save ourselves. I looked forward to this with all my being. My boyfriend at the time and I turned up to that final lecture ready to be hopeful. To lay our arms at the door of a cause and to do something. We turned up knowing we'd be saved from feeling there was no hope, no future.

As we approached the lecture theatre we could see a board propped up outside.

'Lecture cancelled due to lack of material.'

He made his point, and it was brutal.

Quite possibly, we cried. Undoubtedly we went to the student union bar and drowned what remained of our hope.

Fast forward 30 years.

Pretty much everything we were told during those lectures has come true. My boyfriend worked for a better future and has stuck to his convictions and helped to change the world; I became a teacher. We are still friends, went to each other's weddings, catch up every year or two. When we were together we used to get mind-boggled at the very idea of the internet - the world has changed immeasurably since then.

For the worse.

I don't know what became of Clive Ponting - I will google him right after this.

We are overwhelmed now in information, and most of it bad. As a teacher I am faced by students' lassitude on a daily basis. I try my best to live a good life but by moving to the country we are now car-dependent - buses, what buses? - and although we have made our house as eco friendly as we can it's not enough. I try to stay upbeat for my children but feel constantly overwhelmed. There's a sense of helplessness - just as I felt when I was a student. The problems are too big, too far reaching, just too overwhelming.

(There is a message of hope coming, I promise. I'm not a Clive.)

I don't know what the answer is. As individuals we look around and see the world spinning and everybody singing to their own tunes and doing their own thing and being wasteful and using lights when they don't need them and buying plastic bottles and switching off the news because it is easier not to know and mostly, people are just trying to survive, especially at the moment. We are going to be forced to cut our energy use this winter, whilst large corporations and the rich carry on exactly as they were, thank you very much. So as individuals we look around and feel overwhelmed and think, well, everyone else is doing it, I might as well join them - which then feeds into itself and the whole
damn
thing
starts
all
over
again, as Matt Johnson said.

However.

I am still an optimist. I will nurture my children, grow my veg and keep my bees and support the politicians who get it. I live in Scotland and the country is investing in renewables - that all feels very hopeful. I'll switch off my lights and use the wood pellet boiler sparingly. I'll try not to be overwhelmed and I'll cut as much energy use as I can.

I'm not going to be a Clive Ponting and leave this with a note of hopelessness. I think there is hope.

The student I was had a poster on her wall with the slogan Think Global, Act Local. I think that's never been truer than it is today.

Make whatever changes you can make, right now
Support anyone in power who works for the future, not the present
Sign petitions
Eat seasonally and support local shops
We can all use less power. Switch it off
Help those in need
Plant things wherever you can
Find the good news stories
Join with others - togetherness is the way forward, not the trend towards isolation
Re energise if you're feeling overwhelmed.

I could add to this list indefinitely but my hour is nearly up. There is much we can - and must - do.

If there is any message it's this, that you and I are alive, and while we are alive, there IS hope. I have made a conscious decision to stay hopeful, just as Clive made a conscious decision to take the hope away. We are alive. We are alive. Find and cherish the beauty, and do whatever small things you can.

Heading into Winter is a difficult time to stay positive, I know. But brighter days are coming. It's been an avalanche of bad news but this MUST be balanced out by an upswing eventually. It must be. Life is a balance. The sun will rise again.

There is hope.


PS

I have just checked on Clive whilst writing this - he died in 2020. I hope he found some hope. Going to go and read about him now.

Happy Monday, whoever and wherever you are and may your week have some brightness in it, however dark it may seem. Hold on.


Every little helps.

Looking at the ‘Ephemera’ section of Hour of Writes with just twelve hours to go until the deadline for submissions, the lack of entries would seem to indicate that the subject of Energy Use is regarded as rather dry. After all, we are up to our eyes in the subject as if forms just another part of the general malaise that grips us as we are confronted by crisis after crisis, domestic and international.

I am sure that we are all well aware of what we as individuals can do to cut our energy costs and I have no need to list them here. Indeed most of us are trying hard, either out of need or desire to do the right thing. But we are still left with the feeling that whatever we do will make no difference to the overall situation. We feel helpless in the face of events we cannot control.

There is a theory called ‘learned helplessness’ that describes this and it is something we need to be aware of. Because we are bombarded with news of external problems that we as mere individuals have no power to influence, we simply ignore them saying that there is obviously nothing we can do and so we must just try to look after ourselves. We will hunker down and try to ride out the storm. This produces inertia, a reduction of self-worth and can even open the door to mental health issues.

All this is reinforced by the ‘Nanny State’, health and safety regulations, threats of litigation for negligence, unnecessary rules and advisory information, etc, which abound to dull our senses. I have only got to visit my local Sainsbury supermarket that has a moving walkway from the ground floor entrance to the first floor shop area to witness an example of this. As soon as you step on the walkway a recorded voice commands you to ‘stand still and hold the handrail’ and this is constantly repeated as you ascend. Not wishing to be controlled by a mindless recording, I always walk at that point and there is no way on earth that I am going to grip that bloody handrail! I am happy to make my own judgement and take the risk of tripping over my own feet. Then, going down I am berated with the same banal voice again stating the obvious, ‘be prepared to push your trolley off the walkway’. I am tempted to wonder what the alternative would be.

And what about the sign that tells us not to stand too close to the cliff edge. Are we not aware of the possible consequences?

Then again, about roadwork traffic lights on empty county roads where you can see that there’s nothing coming the other way. I make no comment on the legality or otherwise of such portable and temporary lights but, do you stop out of obedience to a mindless machine or do you assess the situation using the most brilliant computer that has ever existed and just happens to reside within your skull and proceed if it is safe to do so? In this case there is a fairly compelling argument that rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of the wise.

However, I cannot blame anyone for obeying such commands as we have been conditioned for years to do just that, regardless of their efficacy.

An interesting experiment took place in a small town near me where all traffic signs, markings and proper pavements were removed and a single sign declares the area (including a very busy large roundabout) as ‘shared space’. Suddenly, motorists and pedestrians alike are forced to wake up and look around and make decisions for themselves. This was instigated a few years ago and is still in place so, presumably, it is working.

Is this a glimmer of hope I wonder?

So, let’s all pull together, be alert, don’t overfill that kettle, switch off that light and believe that every little helps.

Sectioned



This is what happened before then.

-------

The white stuff fell and muffled the streets for a while before it turned to grey slush.

And then the big freeze happened, in the coldest winter I could remember.

There were seven of us burning with potential in that frigid three tier house across the river.

Surviving usually by congregating in the poverty kitchen with the ancient open oven, providing heat of sorts.

Bubble wrap on the windows and frost on the walls.

We all got on OK though, the rent was low and no-one marked the milk in this student garret.

There was a fair degree of bed swapping too but on those nights alone, I slept in my clothes with a bonus layer of coats.

On the coldest weekend in January, we all decided to decamp to our respective parents, for the warmth of it.

Except for Nick, the would-be genius art student whose mission had been to stay stoned for three years of studentship. It was year two now and he was doing pretty well so far, nodding out in the attic skunk room of this Victorian pile.

So we decided to go and left Nick behind as guardian.
I went too on the Friday night, reluctant but hoping relationships would thaw with the folks back home perhaps.

It turned out that things were still frosty - the dad still not forgiving me for quitting the building trade in the name of art. His world view was that the sole life path was to leave school, get a job and work until it was time to keel over.

Which would be exactly his own journey ending with a heart attack some years later at the age of 63.

Before that and not for the last time, the mother asked, ‘What is it exactly that you are doing now?’

At least the house was warm but after an awkward couple of days, I left early on the Sunday with some hard feelings but without regret. And thinking rightly, that it would be the last time I would visit the place I grew up in, which was no longer my home.

And some hours later, arriving back at the cold house to find that those drugs had taken the toll that drugs do, that Nick had finally crashed, smashed up our ice palace and all the furniture. Which was now piled up in the middle of that oven ready kitchen.

I said, ‘What the fuck have you done Nick?’

‘I got cold’, he said. ‘Got a match to light my bonfire?’

You know the saying. That you go out of this world as you come into it. Alone. It's not true.

My memories are with me, some of them complete, some of them misshapen, haphazard. Fragments. Some soft like pillows, some jagged like broken glass but they surround me and keep me company.

I remember my school, the smell of polish and plimsolls and ink spills. The bell at the end of lessons, the bell at the end of the day. It's ringing now. Time to go home.

I always loved 3:30. Would hold hands with my best friend, Rachel. We'd skip to the gates to meet our mums, promising each other eternal friendship. My first love.

Home. The garden. Hollyhocks, sweet honeysuckle growing to hide the ugly concrete post securing the washing line. The bees buzzing in the warmth of the summer sun. Trying to make perfume from rose petals. Snapdragons. Squeezing their bases so the flowers moved like jaws.

There's a gate I cannot enter. No matter how many times I approach. Again and again. I want to go through it. Loved ones are there. I keep trying but an invisible force pushes me back to where I began. I want to scream: either let me through or leave me be. It feels like torture.

I'm in the kitchen. The pressure cooker is hissing and there's a steamy smell of stewing beef and suet. I hope we've got crumble. Just apple. Not with blackberries. The pips stick in my teeth.

Mum is upstairs but I can't get into her room. She's crying. Let me in mum. Please.

And then you're there. On the beach, in the dark. A party, with a bonfire and lots of cider. Students home for the summer with some or other reason to celebrate. It didn't matter. Any reason would do. Sitting on the shingle with a good friend, two boys sitting behind. A boy we knew and you. My best love. The one.

A party for us. A car with tin cans and ribbons, balloons tied to the bumper. I don't remember who caught the bouquet. Nothing mattered. Only us.

A tiny fist. Our only child. Reading Winnie the Pooh out loud while legs and arms kicked and waved. The first crawl from one room to the next. Pride at every step, at every stage. The growing of roots, spreading of branches. The knotty mass of emotions. Gut filling. Love, hope, fear, anger, forgiveness, love, love and love again. Beautiful. Honest. Ours.

Here's the gate again. Still can't get through. I don't want to be out here any more. I'm cold and afraid. The memories are fading. I don't want to be alone.

I can hear mum's voice. Time to go home now. Time to sleep. It's been a long, long day. I'm so tired.

Is that my brother? He sounds annoyed. Always late. Always keeping us waiting. I say, I'm trying. I want to come through but I can't.

A voice says, it's not time. You can't go through. A warm voice, your voice. I feel a hand in mine, squeezing gently. An urgency. Can I open my eyes? Can I wake up?

There are tubes everywhere. An oxygen mask. And you, smiling.


Hour Glass

Our love’s trapped in an hour glass,
an hour here
an hour there
an hour in true loves arms.

Let not love be trapped
shatter the glass
let the hour spill over
& keep it roiling
until hours become dawn
and dawn becomes dusk,
day after day,
year after year.

Love is natural after all,
not dark and seedy.
So break the glass
or break my heart.

Break the glass!
Break the glass!


Patricia

Aunt, second Gran who partly brought up my mother, advice-giver, sometimes-lecturer (you're not very organised, are you, Dear?) who bought me things to help organise me. Who listened. Who sat up late to drink a whisky with me. Who loved my husband - 'My favourite Scotsman!' Who danced. Patricia who lived a life that included being a land girl in the war, working in a borstal, purchasing and running a magazine in her 60s, taking up golf at 78, visiting me in Malaysia at the same age, breaking a foot dancing on NYE with my husband and wandering around the golf course with it not knowing it was broken, who lived countless dramatic days with her unusual family. Pat, who lived in the same house for nearly 70 years, a time capsule where nothing had changed my entire life and where I as a nomad could go to touch my roots. Fragments of time in her company; always loved, always secure. Never changing.

When the call comes all I can think of is I'm glad I wrote the letter. When the call comes I'm in a tent in Somerset, and I pack up and get a train to Leeds in under an hour. We hadn't spoken properly for two years, bar one or two awkward phone calls where she told me I needed to apologise to the man who sexually harrassed me, who of course didn't harrass me, or any of the other women or friends of mine. Of course he didn't. He wasn't creepy, not the reason I left home. Why would I hurt my mother like this. Why would I break up the family like this. Why, why, why. She didn't mince her words, didn't Patricia. Told it as she saw it. Was unmovable. Full of pure Yorkshire stubbornness. I was clearly in the wrong; she was angry.

I missed her 90th birthday party week away. I wanted to go - it broke my heart, and still does, that I missed it. But he was going to be there. I wanted to go, but I'd vowed never to put my daughter in his path again. I said to my mother if it would be possible for him to go out for one of the days during that week of the 90th party, we would come, of course we would. But he wouldn't. Of course he wouldn't. I'm still not sure if she was told of this conversation, because it was easier to put everything at my door, but it's a moot point now.

The last time I could have seen her was in my neck of the woods. They were up playing golf, all of them. Mother, Aunt, Cousin, Predator. I met up with my mother, alone, for another awkward visit in which she begged me to put the past to bed and when we dropped her off at the place they were staying, I knew my aunt was inside. She didn't come out. By this point it had been a year since we'd spoken and as we were driving away I felt the pull of my roots.

'Stop,' I said to my husband. We pulled over and I phoned my mum and asked if she and Pat would come to the cafe where they were staying and meet us all. The children, in the back, were silent and bewildered. Why can't we see Pat? they kept saying. The answer given was that if I wanted to see Pat, I could come to the apartment and see them all.

We drove away. I cursed him - my stepfather, the predator, my mother's husband, all over again. And I was angry with Pat - but her loyalty to my mother was stronger than any bond I had with any of them.

We drove home.

Fragments of time at Pat's, all through my childhood, my teenagehood, my adult life. My children. All of it in the time capsule that was her house. Fragments of my life in her house that smelled of smoke, until she gave up smoking in her 70s. Still the smell of cigarettes takes me straight back there.

When the call comes I think of the letter, and I think of the letter all the way to Leeds, just thankful that for once, I was organised and posted it before I went away. Thankful that her lectures about me being organised maybe sank in, and she will have received the letter in which I've tried to explain, that asks if we can go and visit her in the coming school holidays. I wrote it because I had one of those impending doom feelings, the ones that have always preceded a death. But it's September and we can visit her in October, if she agrees. It's almost a year since the missed party - we can still have a small celebration. It's still her birthday year. She will have read it and know I am sorry for everything and that I miss her and love her. I read it from memory in my head.

In Leeds General Infirmary she's attached to machines and her face is all wrong. Her hand is blue where she was lying on it before she was found. Nobody knows how long she was there. I know my mother and the predator are in the cafe downstairs so I don't know how long I will have alone with her. I speak in a gabble of apologies and rushed tearful sentences. But I repeat what I said in the letter - that we wanted to come and see her in just over a month, and it is possible to regain some life after a stroke. And I ask her to fight with some of that stubbornness.

She doesn't open her eyes. Nobody knows if she will survive for more than a few days.

I hold her hand and I lay my head on her bed and I listen to the beeps and watch the machine making mountain ranges out of her heartbeats.

*
When I get home I hug my family close on the doorstep and I go inside.

'Just thank God,' I begin, before I see what's on the kitchen table, propped up against the fruit bowl, ready to post.

*
When she dies six months later it is a blessing. She never recovered and spent months in limbo-life, seeming to beg one of us with her eyes to put an end to it. It's 2020; nobody is allowed to her funeral.

There are fragments of time during which I completely forget she is dead. Like the queen, she was always there. There are fragments of time during which I imagine we can still make up, talk, meet in the middle.

And the letter? I still posted it, hoping somebody would read it to her. I don't know if they did, but I can almost see her shaking her head and smiling a little. 'You're not terribly organised, are you?'

In my kitchen hangs a weekly planner blackboard she bought me one Christmas. Every Sunday I fill it in. I still forget things. I'm still pretty forgetful. But her present is there as a reminder. Don't put things off. Remember the important things. Make that phone call. Post that letter. Tell that person you love them.

There are fragments of time in which I still forget. She was Constant, and I catch myself thinking about her house - long ago sold and changed, the contents of the time capsule mostly chucked into a skip (it's covid, nobody can travel to help; no charity shops are open) as if the house is still there. Fragments in which I imagine bundling us into the car, disorganised and chaotic and driving to Yorkshire, seven hours away, to my roots and to her. She'll open the door, forever unchanged, and my children will rush into her arms, just as I used to, and run inside to play with the same toys on the same carpet in the same house with the same smells.

Fragments of time.

Snapshot memories.

Patricia 1928 - 2020

The first thing they said to my mother after I was born was that President Roosevelt had died. A historic event, like the death of a president, fixes my birth in time, but...
The new pictures from the James Webb telescope remind us that cosmic time is a bi-product of the speed of light. The telescope has shown us images of an ancient galaxy, apparently formed three hundred million years ago. The James Webb has only looked at it for a few hours, a tiny fragment of the time that galaxy may have existed. Those images have led us to fill in a gap of three hundred million years. Very clever guesswork no doubt, but...
Imagine the disappointment of a team of plucky space travellers setting out to go to this galaxy. Assuming they could travel faster than the speed of light, they might get halfway there, only to find that the whole galaxy had vaporised millions of years previously. A lot can happen in three hundred million years.
When we look at the sky at night, what we see is no more real than watching a Hollywood movie. We see images formed by mysterious processes some time ago, and we connect the dots and draw conclusions.
We see images whose interpretation and meaning depends entirely on man-made theories that have changed in many ways over recorded history. The Greeks thought those lights in the sky were something to do with the gods, but how were they to know — the telescope was centuries away from being invented.
To go back to my birth, for a moment, not that I can, but just imagine. Somewhere in deep space, way beyond Pluto, there is no evidence of my birth.
If, and we are talking science fiction here, if, you happened to be on Kappa Phoenicis, for example, which is a single star in the southern constellation of Phoenix, and you happened to be looking this way, and you had extraordinarily good eyesight, then, with luck, sometime in mid-April next year, you could see me being born.
If you watched for a few more days, you’d see me catch pneumonia. My grandmother was convinced I would die, and told my mother so on the second night. Looking back now, that sounds heartless, especially as I was her first grandchild. In some respects though, her cynicism is understandable. We are all prisoners of our times. When my grandmother had my mother, child mortality was a hundred and fifty in a thousand, when I was born it was half that. Throw in five years of war and Grandma’s pessimism can be understood, even if not forgiven.
Fortunately, my mother had more faith in my recuperative qualities. I recovered but the tough times didn’t end there. A week later, my dad was shot down over Denmark. Five weeks after that he escaped and made it home. In the middle of all that, Hitler died. It seems that in the time before I remember anything, my life was very eventful. If only I could get myself to Kappa Phoenicis by next April, I could see it all, seemingly as it happened, rather than hearing it second hand and connecting the dots.
There are fifty-nine star systems close enough for them to be able, theoretically, to know that I exist. Beyond that, no one has a clue, because my time, or more precisely, light that left earth when I was born, has not got to them yet. There are another two hundred billion trillion stars waiting to know about my birth. On those stars, and any associated planets, there are no dots to connect, no fragments of time to interpret. I don’t exist — yet. I don’t dwell on this because it can make one feel insignificant.
On some of those stars, the ones in the next concentric sphere beyond evidence of my birth, assuming they care a damn about such things, and have a suitable telescope, Roosevelt is still alive — along with Hitler, of course.
If we connect all the dots, all the knowledge that we have accumulated from the fragments of time that have been observed, we conclude that when we look out at the universe, we are in the centre of concentric spheres of time, but it’s more complicated than that, because every other celestial body has its own set of time spheres, and they all overlap and cut across each other.
If we met some traveller from a different zone, you can bet it would be hard to communicate, starting from their time telling them it’s Tuesday, when we know for sure it’s Saturday.
If I had a suitable space ship, and by that, I mean some device that could get me to a spot light-years away, then I could put myself on some elliptical orbit around the earth, cutting across those time spheres, so that I could watch myself be born, live and submit this story, twice each time around, and, I could not change a word of it.
I don’t know if you have ever had a spell of deja-vu, that phenomenon where you have a strong feeling that you have been somewhere, or done something before? It can be quite disturbing. If it happens, don’t let it bother you. Be excited by it. Think of it as like my imaginary space travel, only without the funny suit and some nerd from Houston telling you when to breathe.

Fragments of Time
-----------------------

Are fragments what we throw away
Or shards that pierce us in the heart?
I gather all my torn scraps up
From my long-held , unwatched basket...

And, all at once, they show me to a life,
A part in many scenes, each one unfilled,
A kind of every-moment in- now note-
All distant now, but which I know by rote.

Am I that girl, who made her arrows fly,
Or sought for silence? These don’t reconcile
To one clear shape, a shape that might be I,
Through chinks of time, that flow erratically.

It took an age to tease
Apart those moments of an age
Where every second must gain equal weight
With every other one: child’s vision...

An orange segment shared
Glowing sunset hands;
A sweetness on the tongue
As vital as a teacher’s praise, to me.
I hold a piece like this, indefinitely.

That dreaming child who could not tell
Her dreary, lonely moment of long hell:
I stood before the pale school clock.
I dared not share my inability.

Its tick was brutal. Its dark arms
Meant only ill to such a child.
The time itself was split
In stabbing me.

The cruel hands turned
The time I could not tell
Relentlessly, the minutes ticked.
And as the minutes ticked, I cried.

Fragments of Time

“Just a minute”. “Could you just………” Before you go can you……….”
“It will only take a minute”. “It won’t take you long.” “I’m sure you can fit it in.”
“It’s not difficult.” “Can I have a minute of your time.” “You haven’t even got a minute to listen to me?” “Can you just stop talking for one minute?”

Take five. It will only take you five minutes.
After that we'll reconvene with a plan. A plan - what plan? They are expecting me to deliver a plan in five minutes? How can I do that?

I’ve got to be there in half an hour. My train leaves in half an hour and I’ve not packed yet.
The taxi will be here and I've gone into a spin, forgetting where I put my keys.

He said he’d ring me today but I’ve heard nothing.
He said soon – what does that even mean. In my mind it means the same day, or certainly by the next evening. Soon – it doesn’t mean soon – it translates as "I don’t want to talk any more now, I might never want to talk to you again but I don’t know how to tell you. I want to keep you hanging on in hope so that when and if I decide I have got time for you, you will be so bloody grateful that you will do whatever I want, wherever I want, whenever I want".

All this worrying it’s such a waste of time. Can time be wasted? Of course when that minute is gone, it’s gone. Even as I write this for an hour, once the 60 minutes have gone they are never NEVER going to be here again. Not unless someone invents a reliable time travel device which won’t fry brains or send me back to a century when I could be burnt or ducked or hanged for daring to speak at all.

I have read about the Babylonians’ sexagesimal systems for mathematics and astronomy.
And the Egyptians who invented shadow clocks. I’ve blown dandelion clocks. I’ve counted steps, my own and up and down the 108 steps from the station to the market place in varying degrees of exhaustion.

It is still confusing to me – all the different times in different countries and remembering when it’s possible to ring someone in Australia that’s so huge that there’s more than one time zone.

Then there’s the bell – specifically the school bell, although there’s also timers on cookers,
alarm clocks, sleep timers, stopwatches, and of course the times prescribed in recipes which are, in my opinion, never reliable, depending as they do on temperatures of oven, temperature of room and action of raising agents.

School – bells for waking, going to breakfast, lesson bells, end of day bells, lights out bells,
and so many more. It’s no wonder that I’m always punctual – well actually I’m always early and hang around a bit because I’m so scared of being late. On April 1st one year we put socks in the clappers of all the bells on the landing at school so that there would only be a thud. Then we got shouted at, maybe I can hear that shouting “hurry up, don’t be late” ringing like an echo in my head.

But there are other fragments, precious minutes when I can be halted in my steps by a bee on a sedum, dragonflies over the pond, the way grass makes shadows, a hundred white feathers on a beach but no skeletal bird shape, the patterns of waves in the sand. These can halt my walk as I study the colours and forms with all my senses and as I concentrate on being in a time bubble which seems to stretch deliciously like the taste of new baked bread on the tongue, I am stilled in appreciation of one sense at a time. The sight of rock and weed, water and sand, scuttling creatures, feathers on the ground and flight above me. The taste of salt on my lips more delicious than any savoury snack. The sound of the sea licking the shore, then a slap and tumbling of water. The smell of the clear salt air all around me. If I glance at my watch after a period of concentration, ten minutes has passed in which my senses have been stimulated and energised. Ten minutes is all it takes.

A favourite path over the golf course and between two sand hills and the first sight of the sea for months does in fact take away my breath. Comforting and familiar, yet always a ten second surprise, living as I do over a hundred miles from the coast.

And then there is the sixty second experiment.
Try it. Maybe hug a loved one, maybe sit in your living room, lie down, walk, look at a painting. And count the seconds to sixty. What might arise? Think about this tiny fragment of time and the possibility of stillness for sixty seconds. We all have sixty seconds. Go on. Try it. Then clock how you feel after allowing yourself sixty whole seconds to be.

CAMERA OBSCURA
Not the usual memory film of life recalled.
No – these are the retina burned conscious visons cognisant with the perceptions of my soul. Fragments of time, slipping through the pinhole of light, reframed and replayed, in the Camera Obscura of my mind’s eye .
Not very old at the top of the road she stands watching the back of the figure walk away. Diminished in stature to the point of disappearance. Longing for him to look back even, then eventually to return. He never belonged to them their father as his had not to him. Abandoned young with no explanation, or so he thought until letters found 70 years too late saying “sorry son”. Too late to remove his remoteness from that created “absent” memories that aren’t forgiven.
A teen dipping her toe into adulthood. Saturday working, finished early. Eager happy enthused with youth, rushes in, rushes out. Saw what a child shouldn’t see. Traumatic, secret never spoken of, messed up her early adult relationships until cried out in a shared bath of trust with a lover.
Standing on Nevsky prospect on a white night holding hands tight with a lover married to another. Pretending to be Anna Karenina. She was Anna Karenina, surrendered to love, wrenched apart when they left Russia in love. An extra marital affair that lasted a lifetime.
The Crystal Horizon of the Himalaya and the wonder of Sagamartha, the highest crystal tip. A vision that beckoned, to reach high to the bottom of the top of the world. Pushing personal physical boundaries, stopping smoking, achieving fitness, breathe in deeply, breathing slowly in the so thin air. A different world, a changed life connecting with nature and aliveness. Inspired by the ghosts of those that went before to that mountain.
A backward look at the top of the track . Uncle Jacob’s sheep track. The view up to Snaefell and down to the sea. Before I’d even gone in the house she knew it was her new home to be. Peace and tranquility on this small independent nation standing proud in the Irish sea, on its legs of three. “Quocunque Jeceris Stabit” a foot to land and always stand whichever way you throw it – the epitome of resilience.
And then her face as she left us. A profound privilege, being there, that moment, that death did us part. And whilst grief happens when a loved one departs, the unpreparedness for the visceral painful recoil of the umbilical connectedness of a daughter to her mother, of birth and death.
And the stopping of the world in 2020. Isolation panic and fear, and the end of world as we knew it was near. She gloried in her aloneness, not loneliness on that Christmas day she now holds dear, when a small sea became an ocean between family and her.
Camera obscura replaying fragments of time that have made me, me, reframed me, and replayed me .


The girls

I was sorting through some photos from our childhood the other day and I noticed something which hadn’t occurred to me before. There are hardly any photos of just me on my own, or you on your own. It's always the two of us. You and I sitting on the sofa, our legs so short they didn’t even reach the edge of it, you and I on the first day of school in our navy uniforms, you and I at a birthday party with cake smeared all over our faces. We were always together, to the point where everyone- mom, our grandmother, the rest of the family, teachers at school, just referred to us as ‘the girls.’

Even when mom (to our embarrassment) put us in matching outfits, complete with matching hair ribbons, we always looked so different. I had dark, frizzy hair escaping out of its ponytail, and yours was long, nearly down to the ground, white blonde. It used to shine so brilliantly in the sun- still does. I was scared of everything. The dentist, the doctor, climbing trees, roller coasters. You would always say ‘I’m not afraid' and run ahead of me, even though you were half my size. One time I had a bad dream and I tiptoed into your room to sleep in your bed. When the light from the hallway fell across your face, I saw that you still sucked your thumb while you slept. I never told anyone.

I was there beside you when the drama teacher called out who would be playing the roles of the orphans in Annie, and one of them was you. They made programmes and everything and printed your name in it. I told anyone who would listen. ‘My sisters in a play!’ I remember your voice ringing out through the auditorium as you said your lines, with not a hint of nervousness. I was so proud that the world got to see you like I’d seen you my whole life.
Last year, I sat near the front of the theatre and cheered too loudly while I watched you play a leading role, and okay fine, maybe a few tears slipped out when you first walked out on stage. You were a young woman now, you weren’t the tiny child with a crooked fringe and no front teeth. When you took your bows at the end I saw your eyes scanning the room, until they met mine. You smiled.
‘Did you cry?’ you asked me after, a glint in your eye, already preparing to make fun of me.
‘No I didn’t. Shut up.’

There are some memories I have that you don't remember at all. Most of them are insignificant- the stray cat near our old house that we used to feed ham to, the old video store that used to smell like popcorn before it became a supermarket.

There was one night when the fighting between mom and her boyfriend got really bad and I covered both your ears with my hands while shutting my eyes really tight trying not to listen. I remember the feeling of your hair, it was like silk. We were both scared that time. I hope that's another one of the memories you forgot.

We never hugged each other much or brushed each other's hair, like you'd expect sisters to. We didn't need to. We knew we loved each other without having to say it. Even when I was going to the airport to go abroad for four months, the longest we’d gone without seeing each other, we didn't hug each other goodbye. We waved at each other until the bus turned the corner and I couldn't see you anymore. That was enough.

I’m not sure what the point of this letter is. Maybe one day I'll actually give this to you. I’ll wait for an important day like your wedding, or some kind of milestone birthday like your 30th. It would be a bit strange to randomly give you an envelope, like I’m handing in my two weeks' notice to my boss. You might get your hopes up and think I'm giving you some money, and then you see that instead it's just me reminiscing for a page and a half, and you’ll probably leave it aside, telling yourself you’ll read it later. It's okay, I’d do the same.

I know we don't say this often, but I love you, and as Claire said in episode six season two of Fleabag, ‘the only person I'd run through an airport for is you.’

Love, your big sister.

P.S. I want my shirt back.

Well before Wells had water

I’m in a well
But I have not fallen
I’m plastered to the side
Constantly crawling

From my first blink
I’ve been trying to get free
From these cold floors
Trying to claim me

Something’s above
It’s all brighter than before
But my bones are lead
My fingers ache and my hope is sore

I haven’t looked down
Not once since I was born
The bottom isn’t near
But it’s loud and calls

I made it out the well
And I looked up to see
An empty space, no floors or face
Except a voice that spoke to me

“You fought too long against yourself
Never considering below,
If you had just looked around
You would’ve seen it’s the bottom that glowed”

I screamed at the well
Shouted that it knew for years
Now the walls were different
But I drowned them with my tears

I dove back in
The water salty and warm
But there was no way down
So I stayed trapped between the walls

“I won’t let you sink
You thought yourself so clever
Now all to do is
Float in your regret forever.”

Forever and a day and to the moon
Remnants of promises made, broken, recast, broken
Again leaving shattered slivers
Glowing as fire, dancing across
Moments puddling on a kitchenfloor
Entire lifetimes melt into the sad
Notes of a fading
Song sung as

f
r
a
g men
Ts of
a

p
oe

M





First Born
(A father’s lament)

Almost a stillbirth,
twenty-eight weeks, then
just an hour of life.
So, not quite still, but still
long enough to live and die.

I rushed to the hospital,
but by the time I arrived
and had a chance
to hold him,
he had already gone.

It was just his hand I held,
though I still remember
a little wrinkled face,
lined with a wisdom
I couldn’t comprehend.

As if he held his breath,
his mouth was closed,
as were his eyes.
I never saw his eyes and
he never saw my guilty tears.

Then, registering
a birth and death
together,
arrival and departure
at a single stroke.

I followed her efficient eyes
behind bi-focals as
she wrote in black ink
the details and date
in duplicate.

Then to an undertaker
near the hospital
where I signed away
those precious remnants
with an ancient face.

At the crem’ they
simply slipped him in
with another funeral,
I don’t know when,
they never said.

That’s just the way
they did things then
with those
that barely lived
then died,

no earth to earth,
no dust,
no cries,
no ashes,
no goodbyes.

I can only hope his tiny hand
was held and guided by another
as they rose together
in the balmy evening air.

Now, all I see are
fragments,
bright summer days
stitched together by
threads of darkness,

a mosaic of
broken memories
scattered upon
the stony ground
of recollection.

PART 1

When I was eighteen, my Mother asked me to visit Mr Kovalev. “It might be your last chance love” she said, with a powerfully earnest tone. He was a kindly old man who had lived next door to the family home my entire life. Although we didn’t speak often, he was a constant in my life, and Mum always encouraged me to call him Uncle Walter. She said it was a kindness to give him some sense of the family he didn’t have.

Uncle Walter had been a widower since before I was born, before my parents had even moved to the house next door, some thirty odd years ago. If he had children, he never mention them, but he was full of stories about his late wife, Vanya. When he spoke of her, his eyes glistened like a child recalling Disney Land, or perhaps like treasure twinkling in the lustful gaze of a pirate.

I knocked on the peeling front door and it creaked open a little. “Please come in” he called out, in a faded Belarusian accent.

He was sat in the usual spot; a brown corduroy chair angled slightly towards the window. More often than not, you would find him ignoring the view completely and staring intently at the old photographs placed in his lap. He seemed to be utterly transfixed by them.

“Beautiful Kelly!” he exclaimed when he saw me. You could tell from his energy that he wanted to spring from his chair and hug me, but it was no use. He channeled it into his smile instead.

He gestured for me to sit on the old settee he kept for visitors and we talked for what seemed like hours. I told him about my new life at university and the things I was learning. We talked about romance and food and music and travel. He regaled me with tall tales about his escape through Poland and we laughed until his voice was giving out. We always talked about photography.

Eventually, when it was time for me to leave, I went over to give him a customary kiss on the cheek.

“I want you to have something” he said. He leant, with some difficulty, over the arm of his chair and grabbed a vintage Kodak SX-70 camera. “Don’t worry, it still works” he smiled. I thanked him profusely for the unexpected gift, and as I went to take the camera, he placed his hand on mine.

“There are two shots left in this camera Kelly. It is a very special film, the only film of its kind left in the world. I wish there were more. Please… promise me you will use it carefully.”

I looked in his eyes and I could tell how much it meant to him. I promised. I said my goodbyes once more and moved through the kitchen to make my exit. As I pushed the door open, it’s wailing reminded me of Mum’s grave words. I quietly crept back through the kitchen to see Uncle Walter, once again, engrossed by his photographs. I quietly unfolded the camera and readied it for the shot. I lifted the viewfinder to my face and carefully framed the scene.

The camera clicked and it’s old mechanism gave birth to the photo with an urgent, whirring noise. Mr Kovalev looked up with a start. “Kelly? I told you that film was very special! Why would you do that?”

“Because you’re very special, Uncle Walter” I said, wearing the smile that he had taught me. He blinked a tear from his eyes.

“Promise me you will visit whenever you can” he asked.

“You know I will” I replied.

PART 2

My mother’s words turned out to be prophetic and Uncle Walter passed away in his chair a few weeks later. I think it may have been the same day I used the last photo to capture the setting sun over Lake Windermere.

I think he would’ve liked it; such a broad, romantic scene. The hills cloaked in rose and amber. The lake, glowing like a pool of fire against the ebony shore.

Uncle Walter was right, the film was very special indeed. Every detail was rendered with exquisite precision. The colours are so vibrant, so perfect I can feel the fading sun on my face.

I swear, some days I spend hours looking at that single frame. In my mind I can walk through the frozen landscape right to the shoreline. I can trace the tree bark with my fingers and pluck the falling leaves from the air. Sometimes I will kick off my shoes and paddle through the water. I am always surprised by how cold it is.

They say the lake is polluted now, with toxic blue green algae, but I will always have the lake of fire and the gentle scent of citrus and moss.

I visit Uncle Walter like this too.

It is a strange feeling. He always felt like a giant to me, even in his last years. Such a strong and burley man with a tendency to dress like a lumberjack, almost always clad in plaid. His presence seemed to grow beyond his frame as though he had too much life for his body to contain. When you spoke to Walter, it felt as though the centre of the universe was located in his breast.

But in this stillness he seems so small. Delicate like porcelain. His paper thin skin reveals the map of veins that cling to the scaffolding of his bones. He is almost a husk.

I talk to him anyway, and somehow I always know what he would say. How he would always counsel love and bravery. I regale him with stories of my own adventures, and, when it’s time to leave, I kiss him on the cheek. I am always surprised that it is warm. I look at the photos on his lap:

A candid photo of Vanya by the sink.

My Father pushing me on a swing in the front yard.

A dog without a name.

THIS WAS THEN


In the end it’s the legal drugs that get his reformed heroin addict right hand man.

Turned now into the model citizen but then handed a Hep B death sentence diagnosis.

Unless he agrees to this drug cocktail trial.

Which turned the right hand man suicidal.

As he pulls up to the house she runs out. Hysterical screaming. Screaming.

He exits the car but thinking about the dog in the back seat, wastes seconds opening the window to let in air that is little use to the right hand man.

Inside she is still screaming. ‘I cut him down!’

He kneels by the figure in the hallway, beginning urgent CPR. Or what he thinks is CPR.

She screams.

He shouts, ‘Call the fucking ambulance!’

She does and through the snot and tears begs for help.

He shouts ‘Put the phone to my ear!’

He explains in a sentence. ‘This man has hung himself, I’m trying to do CPR and please send medics now!’

The calm voice at the other end says they are on the way and meantime counts him through the technique.

The dog is howling now. The screaming continues.

And the calm voice counting him through this madness.

And the images which stay in his mind are the red washing line thick neck welts and how peaceful his right hand man looks.

A look he has never seen before in the face of this ex-druggie.

Fifteen minutes spent to exhaustion when the paras arrive. He knew it was too late.

‘Get her out!’ One orders.

He gets her out and says it’s going to be OK. When he knows it isn’t.
The dog still howling.

The cops arrive. Questions, questions.

And then a police woman takes him to tell his wife that her brother is dead.

"Fragments of Time"
by
Donald L. Vasicek

We met on a blind date.
We talked like we'd known each other for years.
We held hands.
We hugged.
I kissed you.
You kissed me.
We got married.
We had kids.
Our marriage glowed with love.
Then, you bolted.
And now, I cannot find you anywhere.

Nothing, Nowhere, No one


If this were a story it would be about nothing. You would find yourself nowhere, where no one was calling you.

Desperately calling you.

Euphoria and Me.

Sometimes, Euphoria is all I need.
At quarter to midnight, I wait for her in my dressing room. My nerves are shot but luckily, she arrives sooner than expected. She is bright, confident, and raring to go.
“Just one last time.” I tell myself, as Euphoria tries to calm me. She then helps me change into the last part of my costume — a well-practiced smile.
At midnight, we step on stage together. We’re surrounding by glittering curtains and shining eyes and I feel the panic in me rise once more, but Euphoria holds my hand, and I slowly feel myself lulled into something like composure.
The audience is hidden behind a sea of coral chiffon as we move with the music. The bangles on my wrist help to hide deeply etched scars layered with concealer, while their jingling dulls the noise from the crowd. I forget where I am and who is watching and soon, I remember why I enjoy it so much. I am entranced by the melody, by myself, and by Euphoria. Nothing and no one else matters and I think to myself, maybe this won’t be the last time after all.
Hours feel like minutes and before I know it the show is over, and the spell is broken. As we take our last bow, I feel part of me shrink as I begin to awaken from the trance, but Euphoria is still there, by my side. She holds my hand again and quashes my fear, helping me to bow with grace and confidence to a standing ovation.

It's the early hours of the morning, and I am walking home barefoot; I stagger a little even though I’m carrying my heals. Euphoria is struggling as well, and though I’m tempted to ask her for more help, I think better of it. The scent of alcohol breezes past me as I flip my hair behind my shoulders. I wrinkle my nose and tell myself, again, that tonight was the last night.
“Just one more time,” says Euphoria quietly, as if she were reading my mind, “come on, it could be so much fun!” I try to ignore her, but her voice is unparalleled in its seductive tenor.

After almost an hour, we finally reach the neon lined windows of The Epicure, a club across the street from my flat. I stop outside the window and try to peer through the tinted glass. Euphoria urges me to go inside.
“Come on, I’ll cheer you up.” she says, but her voice is now quieter, and I can almost ignore her.
We take a step closer to the window and a woman with a curious and confused expression looks back at me. She looks pained; her face is haggard and pale with a large, dark shadow covering one eye. I move as close as I can get without bumping my head, and I can just about see Euphoria, or what’s left of her. My pupils have somewhat constricted and are almost at their usual size, but there’s still some redness in the whites of my eyes — Euphoria is still clinging on.

There was once a time when I could barely leave my bed in a morning, let alone step foot on stage in front of a crowd, but then Euphoria came along. She is everything I want to be. She is mood-altering and she is vibrant. She is confident and always happy, and sometimes, only when I’m with her, I’m happy too.
She is there for me when no one else is, lulling a deep sadness in me that no other worldly pleasure can quell.
Sometimes people need a hug, sometimes people need alcohol, but sometimes, all I need is Euphoria.

"It's none of your business , Mum. But, even if it was, HAPPY is a really stupid word.Mr Greave said it's super vague .No content.There are REAL words that SAY real things. So-Mum. LEAVE ME ALONE ."

--------------------------------------
Martha:
My heart feels as if it is cut in two. My darling daughter KNOWS what I mean by the word , happy.
I remember what it was to be fifteen . But I really don't believe I was as cruel as she is -to my parents. I wish I knew if, at least, sometimes, she is happy. My thoughts are, all over the place , I know."

--------------------------------------
Matty:
I wish Mum would just leave me alone. I would be a lot happier if she would. She has no idea, no idea AT ALL.That word, "happy", is so STUPID. it doesn't convey anything, Mum must think I am idiotic.
Sure, I am "happy", sometimes, but I can't get a handle on what this word might really mean.It is too vague.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------
Martha:
I get what Matty means, finally.
Yes, it is an over simplistic word. When I am making the dog's dinner, I hold so many emotions. When I think about it, I am bored=out of my skull. I am happy-that dear Sorley survived his kidney episode and is doing well.I just get cutting and cooking and listen to music. The wine helps.But i cannot pretend this repetitive action is exactly enjoyable. Up to a point, this is , however, pleasurable, since the wine is gently thrilling . I am not happy at the thought Matty might catch me drinking it.
-----------------------------------------------------------

At ten past ten, Martha heads up the stairs, to clean her teeth, content that this ritual will prevent her drinking more.

At twenty past ten, Matty slips out of the kitchen door, and runs down the lane till she spots Keith in the shadow of the hedge .

TONIGHT, she has decided, will be THE night.She tries to describe to herself how she feels. "Happy" is too SMALL a word, Excited?NO-she is terrified.and flattered. Simultaneously.
You can never have just one feeling at a time, in a kind of linear sequence. No-feelings crowd in, one meshed with another, in the kind of way plastics meld into kelp.The best feelings can't be confined to words anyway.

Keith smiles.His hands tremble.
"Are you ready, my darling?"
Matty breathes deeply. She nods. She holds his collar.
"Happy?"
"Oh yes, always with you", she whispers.


SMILE

“Good morning, you’re through to the UK Business Helpline. My name is Josh, how can I help?”

There was a slight pause, then a nervous cough.

“Hi, my name is Rangeev, I am from India. I am thinking of starting a business .”

“Would this be in the UK, Rangeev?”

“This will be worldwide. I can base it in the UK. It will employ thousands of people and solve many problems.”

Josh smiled to himself. “Right, okay so tell me about it,”

“I have drawn up a plan for a flying car.”

“Sorry, did you say a flying car?” Several of Josh’s colleagues turned their heads. Josh arched his eyebrows.

“Yes. It would revolutionize transport across the globe. As you know road networks everywhere are congested…”

“Sorry, flying car,” Josh interrupted, “isn’t that a plane really,”

Some of his colleagues giggled.

“Well, perhaps it can be thought of like that,”

“And when did you come up with this idea, Rangeev?”

“I was watching a James Bond movie. There was a flying car in one of them. I have drawn a plan of my version.”

“James Bond.”

“Yes, The man with the Golden Gun. It is very good.”

“Don’t think I’ve seen it. A bit before my time. Okay then, a flying car. Let me take some details and we’ll see what we can do,” said Josh although he knew this would be a waste of time. Oh, do you have a business plan?”

“No.”

“We will need to see a business plan before anything can be processed. Do you have investment?”

“No. I was going to ask for Investment from you.”

“Well we do provide some investment, Rangeev but only if you have money to invest also. Look on our website. There are business plan templates and ideas on where you can source finance for your start-up.”

“That is a good idea. When I have everything in place, I can call you back, yes?”

“Of course. You can ask to speak to me if you like. My name is Josh.”

“Thank you, Josh. I will speak to you soon.

Josh turned to Mary, his colleague. “A flying plane! Going to be one of those days.”

Josh smiled. He loves his job.



The next day, Josh’s phone rang again.

“Hi you’re through to the UK Business Helpline, my name is Josh…”

“Hello Josh, it is Rangeev.”

“Rangeev? Oh, Rangeev hello. How can I help? Did you go onto our website?”

“Yes, it is very good.”

“So do you need any help with your business plan?”

“No. I have changed my mind?”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Any reason?”

“Well, I could be sued if the flying car crashes. I would not want that. It would not be good.”

“I guess not. Such a shame. It was a good idea.” Josh tried to sound sympathetic.

“I have another idea, though.”

“Okay, tell me about it,”

“Well, I was watching a film last night…”

“Another Bond film?”

“No, no, no. They are so far-fetched, wouldn’t you agree?” Rangeev said

“I guess so.”

“I was watching a film called Back to the Future,”

“Oh, I haven’t seen that for years,”

“Yes, it is very good. Anyway, my idea is to build a time machine…”

Josh smiled again…





Wake Sleep Repeat

Spread these wings of crimson red,
Behold my image through dreams of dread.

This white glow is blinding,
Forever my surrounding.
Binding,
So tiring.

My silver frame absorbs the white light.
It is my friend,
Companion,
Protector.

Do not anger me,
I forgive no man, pardon nor plead.
My crime was faith,
Punishment eternity.

Do not forget me,
I can shout no louder in this space,
No cry has pierced its thick skin to the ears of a soul,
Nor returned a hope of liberty.

Within these lines I shall stay,
So for longer I shall bask.
Stretch my wings in these glorious rays,
For in these beautiful lines of creation I am at peace,
And for a moment,
I forget.

At the end of my appointment, the man explains why I cannot see a future. I've gone in to the room black, grey and dark, dark brown. I've lost my shine. I've cried at him and tried to explain.

'You have the blue sickness,' he says. He doesn't say this, but I can't admit to depression, not even in my head.

I cry again, even though for most of the appointment I have cried on and off as I've explained that every morning, I wish for the night and an end to the relentless day, even though I am accompanied at every step by two tiny people to whom I am Goddess and know that I should be happy. All I can think of is that they deserve better.

I don't feel like a goddess. I spend my days wishing for bedtime; I spend my time trying to go backwards into my life when I took a different turning, knowing it means I am not present, but not caring, only wishing for it to be over. And the guilt that comes with that is horrendous. It is a constant cycle and I don't know how to stop it.

Do I wish for it to end? Not in those words, but I cannot see the future; it is as simple as that. The shaman says: What do you see in the future? And I open my mouth to speak and nothing comes out. No future. So, he tells me what is wrong with me and that I need help and that there is no shame, no shame in it.

The man's words resonate within me and suddenly I see it is simple. I have not asked for help because in my family there are countless Amazonian women who have dealt with far more than I, so therefore I don't need help either.

The man - my doctor, a shaman, a healer - writes me a prescription and off I go with a crutch, red-eyed and feeling small and weak.

Within a week, I start to feel more like myself. The only way I can describe it is that I am a sponge, full of holes, and suddenly the holes are being filled in, and I start to feel more solid. Another week passes and more holes are filled, then more, and I rediscover elements of myself I thought were lost. I look at the two tiny people with eyes of wonder and I take more joy in them than I thought possible.

In a few months I am a different person. I have stopped crying every day; I sleep better; I can make plans. Best of all, a path stretches out before me again. My home is more peaceful; my relationship better. I'm followed up by the doctor and it's decided I stay on the magic pills for the blue disease. For my depression.

Fast forward seven years and it is summer 2022. My shaman has long since left the local practice and the world has changed beyond recognition. More LIFE has happened, which means inevitability, death, loss, events unforseen, disease - mine and others, a return to work, a house move, a new business venture, two tiny people growing up. They are remarkable - and I wonder how on Earth they are so, only that I always knew what I SHOULD be doing, and I did it, even when I cried at the same time.

There has been plenty of joy, plenty of grief.

But this summer, I decided the tiny white magic pills had done their job. I couldn't stay on them forever. There had been attempt to stop using the crutch twice, but each time I had a breakdown of sorts and ended up in Winter, when I struggled the most, pill-less and lost. So I'd planned ahead this time and started cutting the dose in Winter, knowing I'd struggle but that brighter days were coming - literally.

I took the last pill on my Summery 50th birthday, grabbed hold of the handrails and held on tight. For a few weeks, I bobbed along in the wake of my hectic and joyous life. But I noticed I was snappier. Anger, mostly absent for the past few years, crept back in on padded feet, clawing me when I least expected it. Old habits raised their ugly heads and I thought many times: I can't do this.

However there was a balance.

I realised I hadn't grieved for the awful and untimely loss of one of the best people I'd ever known. Suddenly I was crying for her every day, and grieving as if from the start. To balance this out though, I found myself laughing more than I had in years. I found myself having days that were dark and grim and full of the old demons, but I was able to ride them out and the gift for this was days of joy, better, bigger joy.

I googled 'bipolar', just in case, but no. What I was experiencing was simply undiluted emotion, and I was stronger and able to deal with it. Back when I went to the doctor I'd been in a strange place, for a variety of reasons too long to dwell on here.

Whilst using the crutch I'd also done some serious therapy and explored the issues that had made me feel so utterly unable to deal with life. The biggest of these was self-hate. Lack of self-belief. A cold and deadly inner voice, that gave me an incredible ability to self-sabotage.

So, fast forward to this summer and I'm half a century old. I've been on anti-depressants for years. I've spoken to more shamans - for that is what these healer are, these healers of the mind and body - and I am better. Better in the sense I am fixed, or as fixed as I can be at this point in time.

On the happy pills I was a muted and safe version of myself. I could cope with anything and I did - loss of loved ones, family issues, a cancer diagnosis, going back to work as a lion-tamer (secondary school teacher) - to name a few of the things that constitute a normal, full life. On the happy pills I was able to face my inner demon, the one who told me I couldn't do any of it. And I put her in her place.

For a few weeks this summer I rode the roller-coaster of emotion. I worked through every emotion at speed and it was frightening. I understood my journey is still only just beginning, but that I could walk it without the aid of a stick.

As I sit here typing this the rain is pelting my window. I am safe inside. My life is busier and fuller than I could ever have imagined, back when I was deep in post-natal depression and trying to cope without any help. I could never have seen this woman I have become.

The pills had their place and I'm not saying I will never need that crutch again - life has been kind in so many ways and I am blessed. You never know what wickedness this way comes, so you can never say never and you can never say always. Maybe one day I will need that crutch.

In my story I know that at 50, I have reached a place of inner peace. It's not a perfect place, but I am no longer scared to feel sad, because I know it will pass. The fact that it didn't pass, not for years, was the frightening thing. Now it is a few days, and I am back. Just a bad day. Days are like this, a wise friend told me when I told her how I was feeling. I had forgotten that, that there can be bad days and that's OK. You can be angry and it's not the end of the world. You can cry, and you'll stop. You can feel sad, and it'll pass. It's all just a colour.

Sometimes now I am happy; sometimes not. On balance I am happier more often and it is a brighter happiness, cerise instead of baby pink; verdant emerald instead of pastel green. It's frightening, almost like learning a language again, but I like who I am now, and that is the difference. I like who I am and I trust that I will wake up again seeing different colours.

I'm a paint pallet that has had colour mixed all over it for years and years and years. I have relearned to use those shades with stronger stokes and I am living once again a life undiluted. I needed the extra water in those paints and I'm now painting with more abandon.

Thank you, Healers. Thank you for helping me heal so I can in turn help others learn to paint their own picture with confidence.

Red, Orange, Yellow; Green, Blue Violet.
And Indigo.

These are my colours, and I'm a rainbow.




Sometimes I’m Happy

sometimes
out of boredom
a vast jumble of unfiltered thoughts
come ambling along others follow racing by with furrowed brow

some images appear assuaging others torment

meanwhile the wind and rain make music on the house that shelters and makes me happy
the feline couple arc and stretch and purr and rest

while the young blast loud music disturbing my equilibrium and restoring the chaos and electricity bills

a nap may still be on the cards otherwise I may have to work

Mr Aqil will hack open my body next Friday and insert a ceramic knee replacement. I'll be fine china.

I once knew someone else with that name. Except he spelled it A-K-E-E-L. He came from Iraq and he was nineteen.

It was when I was married to Saleh and we were living in Amman. Saleh wasn't the name he was going by then. It was his real name but since to leave Iraq he'd needed a passport and he wasn't eligible for one because he hadn't done his military service, he'd assumed a different identity. Having older brothers, always an irritation, suddenly became an advantage and one who'd done his time and had two kids loaned his name. Don't ask why Saleh had to leave Iraq. This story is about Akeel.

We had a flat in Sweileh. For two people to occupy a whole two bedroom flat was practically unheard of. The rent took most of my wages. I worked at the Conservatory, writing textbooks, teaching. Saleh wasn't allowed to work as a doctor. He was paid to translate what I wrote into Arabic. It was a symbiotic relationship: I wrote, he translated more exactly than anyone else could have and the Conservatory got two for the price of one and a few extra dinars.

We celebrated Christmas with my British friend and her two kids. I roasted a chicken in our useless oven. I'm not sure why I chose to do that because it took ours and the shop on the corner had chickens permanently spit roasting in a rotisserie cabinet outside. Tradition, I guess. I'd made a pudding a couple of weeks earlier. Saleh went with me to the butcher to buy suet. He was embarrassed because they usually threw the suet in the bin, so he asked for kidneys with the suet as an extra. I could tell from the way he prepared the kidneys, cutting out all the nasty bits, that he'd be a brilliant surgeon. The mixture had looked very white, so I put some of his mum's date syrup in it, jumped in a taxi an went over to Julie's house so the kids could stir it and make a wish. The chicken was pretty underdone, but the pudding made up for it. Afterwards we went to the cinema, a rare expensive treat.

For New Year, Saleh invited his friends, eight of them, all Iraqi men. He wanted a traditional roast dinner, so I bought some chickens and stashed them in the oven, served them up with mash, carrots and frozen peas. No roasties but nobody was any the wiser.

After dinner, without warning, Saleh announced that I would read tarot for everyone. They all had glowing futures, asylum, wives and families, money, fancy cars. Of course. But one man did have a bright future: that man was Akeel. We saw the New Year in with a Michael Jackson concert. Everyone, except me, danced.

The next day Saleh quizzed me about the readings and after teasing him a bit I confessed it was Akeel who was going to have a good life; he was the lucky one.

Akeel began to come to our flat regularly, usually when I was at work. Sometimes he'd still be there when I got home, more often there'd be a couple of istikhans, thickly coated with sugar, in the sink or on the coffee table. Once I came home early and found Akeel putting his shirt on, strange marks on his back, Saleh screwing the top back on a jar of antiseptic cream. When I asked Saleh later he eventually told me that Akeel had been tortured with hot screwdrivers in his back. When they released him, he fled, like so many, to Jordan. I didn't need to ask why. I'd lived in Iraq and seen the fear on people's faces. I knew something of the abuse of power, how the police would arrest young men to augment their pathetic wages and demand money from the families for their release. Akeel's family obviously didn't pay up in time.

One day in February Saleh told me Akeel had gone to the UN High Commission for Refugees, the UNHCR. I'd seen the queues outside their building and didn't hold out much hope for Akeel, but we learned they had put him in their hostel while they investigated his case.

Everyone thinks of the Middle East as being hot all the time. It isn't. If Jesus was born in a stable, it was most likely freezing, draughty and it might have been snowing. Somehow in our heads, our Christmas is a Victorian snow scene and in the Middle East it is a balmy haven of sunshine. In Iraq, Jordan and Israel, when I spent Christmases there, it rained most of the winter. My birthday is in February and Saleh sold his leather jacket to buy me a present and a cake, and went around shivering.

We needed a treat and on 27th I knew I'd be paid the next day, so I spent all but the busfare to work on some fruit and a tin of Heinz baked beans.

Around 4pm there was a knock at the door. I answered it and there was Akeel, smiling. No words were needed. I was looking at a man about to start a new life. How do you welcome someone like that into your home? With tea, and food, lots of food. Akeel said he was fasting in gratitude to Allah for granting his wish.

When the athan sounded, Saleh and Akeel went to wash and pray; I knew what would be needed afterwards. I ran down to the chicken shop and I'm quite sure they never expected me to say:

Ureed dejarge.
Markoo felooz.
Bukra.
Felooz bukra.
Shukran.

I need chicken.
No money.
Tomorrow.
Money tomorrow.
Thank you.

I walked home with a chicken, bread, rice, salad and two bottles of Coca Cola.

That was in 1997. My life took a strange direction in 2011 when set up a charity in the UK for asylum seekers. It's always a huge pleasure when someone gets leave to remain. We have cake and candles. It gives people hope. They think: me, I'll be next. I always think of Akeel and soon Mr Aqil will give me a new life, a fresh start.

So, sometimes, I'm happy.

From above, I see a calm, crimson circle.

There is something special about this shape. I am reluctant to use the word 'perfect' - but truly, there is no other. I envy its simplicity.

I find myself wondering more often whether I should bother with a glass at all. The only thing that keeps me drinking straight from the bottle is this childlike game I play, leaning forwards over the glass and looking down, closing one eye, then the other, trying to move my perspective so I see the surface of the wine in a perfect circle.

It makes me smile. It is not wide or endearing - but a smile, nonetheless. They are hard to come by.

I pour a few more drops into the glass, trying my utmost to ensure the liquid lands precisely in the centre. Of course, I fail. My hands are so unsteady these days.

The fragile circle is upset, wavelets expand and contract across the surface. I feel a strange sense of guilt. Not the guilt I live with every waking hour, the guilt that anchors my mind to a night three years ago - an overturned car, a vision blurred by smoke and booze, a dead girl in the passenger seat next to me...

No, this guilt derives from nothing more than the simple act of topping up a glass of wine, disturbing the surface as I do so.

Isn't that odd.

It occurs to me that if I pour, maybe, a quarter of a glass and drink the rest from the bottle then the circle I made would never need to be disturbed.

Yes, that's the solution.

I stop pouring and take one last urgent gulp from the glass leaving it a fraction full. Equilibrium - my circle - is restored. The same shape, only smaller. I appreciate its beauty and again, for the briefest of moments, I forget my guilt.

I raise the narrow neck of the wine bottle to my trembling lips and wonder if there is hope for me after all...

Unexpectedly, Joy


(1505 words)



“Watch out!”
Joy yanked the startled, young man away from the kerb as the bus doors hissed closed in a burst of heat just inches from his face, wafting back his dark, glossy quiff like a shampoo advert. The vehicle lurched away with a whine, its pursed-lipped driver tapping a temple and shaking his head.

The rescuee looked at Joy, then frowned up at the laughing seagulls, before pointing at the travel agent’s window behind them – filled with images of tropical beaches, smiling Geishas, and the monolithic Uluru behind a group of grinning Aboriginals.
“I wanted to go there,” he explained, in a foreign accent that Joy, for all of her travels, couldn’t quite place. He had to be a day-tripper from the Supported Living Centre. She looked around.
“Is there someone with you, hon?”
He stared at her.
“I am … travelling alone. I am here with work and want to see the … sights.”
The guy seemed more lucid now. Just foreign, then, perhaps.
Joy realised that he was, in fact, staring at her lips. The moment stretched a little uncomfortably, and she fiddled with her ever-messy hair, wishing she’d not forgotten her make-up.
“Well, you’re in luck – so happens I work here!” she cocked a thumb at the travel agents. “Come on in!”

Inside, he sat at her desk, staring at the ranks of glossy brochures and milling customers and a child who was bouncing like a kangaroo, chanting “Disney! Disney!”
“I very much like the peoples here.” he marvelled.
“That’s Dubliners,” Joy smiled –– a warm welcome in every bar, and a bar on every corner…. Now, what do I call you?”
The young man frowned.
“I am… Juan … Juan O’Toole”
What a name, poor fella. Half Mexican, maybe? Maybe looking for family?
“So… is this your first visit?”
Juan was peering at her photos – a grinning Labrador and a bobble-hatted party group.
“Ah, my thirtieth birthday in Iceland.”
Juan’s expression remained blank. Joy beamed at the memory.
“We went to see the Northern Lights. Blew a whole pay cheque in one go! Worth it though – apart from wearing five attractive layers of thermals.” She could feel herself waffling as she usually did around good-looking men.

Juan looked at her, up and down. Probably thinking ‘Babbling eejit woman, just book me some tickets!’ But his gaze made her feel about fifteen and faintly fluttery inside. Then he leaned closer, bringing a little gust of warm, masculine scent that gave Joy a breathless rush last felt in the nineties.
“Clothing is …unimportant.” he murmured, pointing at her smiling lips.
“This is most attractive thing. It is -” he squinted out of the window at the sky,
“radiant – like sun.”
Joy opened her mouth then then closed it again - utterly lost for words and a little light-headed. Poeticism amongst Irish men was not entirely uncommon, but not like this…
Meanwhile, Juan had turned his attention to the photo of her Labrador.
“A beautiful animal. You and he look … alike.”
An-n-nd back down the other side of the emotional roller coaster. Thanks, fella!
“I beg your pardon?” she mustered, politely.
Juan pointed at Rex’s huge, canine grin.
“His… face - it is doing the same as yours.”
“What, smiling?” Joy reached for her notebook and her colleague’s pen, ignoring the scowling looks on the perfectly contoured, trout-pout face of its owner.
“Smi-ling…” His finger touched the photo. “Where I live, no one does that. ”
Joy felt a pang of guilt – maybe this poor guy grew up in some poverty-stricken South American backwater, maybe saved for years to go travelling, and all she could think of was flirting with him. Shame on you, girly…
“So, where do you want to go?” she held the pen poised, wishing she was asking about a date, not a travel itinerary. “How about…” She glanced at a five-foot, cardboard Eiffel tower. “Have you been to France? Paris is a must-see - very romantic” she blushed, unable to resist thinking of them both there. “Or Venice?… or do you already have plans? Travelling without fixed plans is no picnic.”
“Pic-nic?” he frowned. “What is that? …”
“You know – a meal outdoors? – when you get out of the city smog and find a pretty meadow with a cow-pat-free spot for your blanket and fight the ants for your sandwiches and cake?” Joy turned and pointed at a forest holiday poster “… Like that?”
Juan still looked blank, but now with a hint of perplexed, like a billboard model.
“ - that’s - that’s ... if you work in a city, of course.” Joy stammered “ What line of work are you in?… Not being nosey, sorry - I’m just trying to work out which sort of destinations you might like.” She felt her cheeks flush with heat.
Ooh, you little liar. Stop blathering, woman and do your job, already!
Juan was giving her an odd look, as if he was trying to work out the square root of 103.
“In my land, I do… transport of people for job too … but all places I go are bad - like home. But then -” Hs face lit up with something like wonderment as he looked out at the colourful riverside buildings and waterfront trees swaying in the breeze “… I see your land - in pictures - so colourful, so clean and so much green. So, I get work on a big ship to come for visit.” Juan waved an arm at the destination posters and brochures. “I see these places only from ship - this is first time I can leave it.”
“Oh, I feel for you – I do.” Joy nodded. “I only worked for a couple of months on a cruise ship, but I know the frustration of working long hours below decks, only getting glimpses the amazing places you pass through. Not quite the escapism I’d hoped for.”
Juan touched her desk with a gentle fingertip.
“One day I will have job like yours - finding unspoiled places for my people to make escape journeys to. Places that make them do this.” Juan reached out and ver-r-ry nearly touched her lips. Joy barely stifled a little whimper - torn for a moment between savouring the delicious closeness of such a beautiful man and remembering the teeming shanty towns she’d passed through on her gap year. If his home was anything like that pitiful squalor, it was no wonder no one smiled there.

“SCUUUSE meeee!” Travel Agent Barbie interrupted, grabbing back her pen and batting her inch-long eyelashes. To Joy’s surprise, Juan completely ignored the porn-face looks and gazed so intensely at Joy’s embarrassed smile that she forgot to breathe for a moment. Her colleague arched a brow, huffed and retreated with an eyeroll.
“Um… “ Joy tried to sound calm, “Of course, if you need a tour guide while you’re here, I’m qualified … and I know some great picnic sites.”
Was that too cheesy and unsubtle?
Juan was frowning again.
“The people I work for – if they learn of these places, too many will come. They always spoil the places they go. I want that they don’t do that here. Have you ever visited somewhere so - ” His eyes seemed to search the ceiling for the word, “so… beautiful that you didn’t want to return home?” Joy smiled and nodded with a wide-eyed sigh as Juan leaned back and glanced around at the customers.
“And I have become fond of the peoples here – the smiling, it is…”
“Contagious?” Joy murmured, as a soft bleeping made Juan sit up suddenly.
“I must go now - and make report to boss. I will tell boss and rich people on my ship that … that this is not good place to come. So, they will not come and spoil it, like… like much litter after picnic.”
“That’s very considerate.” And refreshing… and even more attractive! she thought, sighing inwardly, before an insistent nail tapping drew her attention to a tiny post-it that Barbie’s scarlet-tipped finger had pressed onto the corner of her desk.
‘Not a hope - he has to be gay!’
In that moment of indignation, Joy took a deep breath and gave Juan her warmest smile.
“I could call you, if you like?”
Juan looked puzzled, and Joy felt her cheeks flush again as she slid the notepad toward him.
“I - I mean, when you decide which destinations you fancy, I could help. Do you have an email address or phone number? A way to contact you?”
Juan looked at the notepad, then at her, then at the pencil she was handing him. As he wrote, a strange expression grew upon his face. His lips twitched and curled, then slowly broadened into an utterly delighted smile, making Joy very glad that she was sitting down.
As he left, walking straight past Barbie’s open-mouthed bewilderment, Joy looked down at the paper.
‘Crewman 1102 – Intergalactic Cruises Holo-channel 3649421-1102’

---- END ----

Sometimes I’m Happy by Marion Foreman
She walked with purpose, aiming to get to the lighthouse. It was a big decision but she would do it. The sea was to her left and the marshes to her right. The light was good and the path ahead, at the moment, was clear.
The difference between the sea and the marsh wasn’t clear. The relentless pressure had blurred the edges, the road being dragged in by the waves. She felt the pull and the battle.
There were few people out today, sometimes it boarded on crowded, but not today. The grey sky had combined with the cold, making the bleakness inhospitable. But she was confident, she would do it. She had her kagool, her shoes were serviceable; all would be well. She had done it before of course, with him.
They had walked together often. She liked to remember the lack of words fondly. And it didn’t matter if they didn’t hold hands, after all, they did go to bed together. She had loved him. She did love him.
The wind caught at her and she stuffed her hands into her pockets. The rucksack felt heavy. Was the flask really necessary? The lighthouse seemed to recede with every step. The waves were high today and the tide was in so far. The marsh seemed to be filling up. She scrambled over the broken path. The concrete was in great chunks, no longer a way thorough, simply a tangle of obstacles to be navigated.
For a few moments she felt him walking beside her. Strong, capable and protective. Then he was gone and the fragility returned. The clarity that she once had between the him she loved and the way he behaved seemed to ebb and flow. Like the tide, her doubt came in fast. She was a broken as the stone. She had been scared so much of the time; living with him was perilous.
The couple heading towards her looked like professionals. Proper jackets, sturdy walking boots and sticks – nothing left to chance there.
‘You need to be careful’ the woman said, ‘its likely to flood and you’ll get cut off – did you know that?’
She nodded and mumbled her thanks. Of course she knew that. She had read the note in the shelter. She knew that today was one of those days. The days when the sea fully met the marsh and the path just didn’t exist. One of those days when your thoughts clashed with your emotions and overwhelmed. She had got through before and she would again.
When she got to the lighthouse she sat at the table and drank some tea. She nibbled on the biscuits she had carted all this way. She knew she should start back but it was so hard. Turning around was difficult. She had struggled to get this far, but she knew she couldn’t rest long.
Her pace back to base was slow. Going back on yourself seemed so fruitless. There were so many obstacles but she couldn’t stay where she was, she would get swamped. One step at a time – it was all she could do. The wind was biting cold now and her eyes were watering. But she had no choice, she couldn’t stay where she was, she would drown.
When she reached the lowest point the water was lapping over. No clear boundaries any more. She paddled through. It was icy and unkind. It would have been easier to stay where she was. She dithered about which way to go. She pressed on; she knew that if she went back she would be marooned. She wanted to get back to her house, to her home. The peace and quiet. She wanted to leave the inhospitable to flood and die. Her feet were wet but she had no choice – if she wanted to survive she would have to go through this pain.
Her hands were almost too cold to manage the car keys, but she wasn’t giving up – she had come so far. The heater warmed her up, the dregs of the tea defrosted the inside of her.
The sea raged now but she was safe again. She would have a curry this evening.
‘Sometimes,’ she thought ‘I’m happy’.

Sometimes……

Sometimes we search
for happiness like suicidal moths
beating wings at candle flames
and pining for the moon.

Personally, I’m happy with
a well-chilled glass of chardonnay
in the summer shade of a lazy
Lloyd loom afternoon.

Or, lost in a field of seething wheat,
chided by shabby rooks,
rising raucous against
the yellow and the blue,

smeared by a palette knife
in oily flecks, black with threats
against a swirling sky
that only Vincent really knew.

Sometimes to find
brief happiness,
I walk through autumn woods
to make the most of shorter days,

where through the falling
golden leaves of ash and beech,
slanting sunbeams
cast their silver rays.

Sometimes I wonder
at the sound of distant thunder
snapping at the heels of vanished
summer gone asunder.

I love the crackle-snap of a
bonfire at the bottom of my garden,
until the chill October dusk
sends shivers down my back,

then through gathered gloom
the kitchen window beckons
to me with comfort food
and a promise to relax.

Later I watch leggy spiders
scamper round the skirting,
hunting for love while winter
waits behind the curtains.

Did you ever do the same?
I must confess that once
I longed to join the human
version of that feckless game.

Happiness is an elusive wish
in the way that KitKats
sometimes, (for a moment)
taste of fish,

or in the way that long forgotten
perfume surprises for an instant,
but looking round, there’s nothing
there but emptiness and distance.

I don’t expect or even hope
for happiness to last,
I know it’s only temporary,
it never stays for long,

so I let contentment
settle in its place and
raise a smile as I recall
some fond-remembered song.

Maybe I am crazy. The wind is like knives right now. I think my left glove is filling up with blood but I can’t take it off to check. I’m so tired. This might be the most tired I’ve ever been, and you know that’s something. This damned cold, it leeches the life from your bones. I’m worried I might shatter like a lightbulb. Breathe. This is just where I am right now. keep moving. Reduce everything down to the simplest actions and repeat them until you reach your goal. Focus on surviving each moment and if you survive enough of them, you’ll prevail... or die trying. Is there some sort of nobility in that? I’m not sure.

“This is an incredibly bad idea Tom. You’re a forty year old man who suffered a massive stroke in his early thirties. Your recovery has been impressive but… Tom, I don’t want to be harsh here, but there’s a reason you had that stroke in the first place. You are not physically equipped for this in any sense. It is, quite literally, suicide… Look, Tom… I… I don’t want to overstep but, I get the sense that you haven’t been happy for a long time. I think some part of you is looking for a purpose, something to get out of bed for, and that’s laudable, I applaud it, I really do. It’s good for you to push betond your comfort zone, really beneficial, and I support it, but… You’ve fixated on a really dangerous idea here Tom. I can help you find someone to speak to. In fact, I think a good friend of mine could really help you out. He’s not NHS but I’ll happily put in a word. But… I’m sorry Tom. As your physician I cannot possibly sign off on this, and you… you really shouldn’t want me to.”

He’s a good man. He would’ve sectioned me if I’d told him the whole truth, but there are private doctors with less scruples. I was happy once. I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t. I know what I want now.

Do you remember the picnic in Chipping Camden? Well, the first picnic at least. That place has such a hold on you. I was going all out to be as swanky as possible, trying to go fully artisanal, real hipster stuff. I bought that obscenely expensive sourdough… I think the starter predated Edward the Confessor. I wasn’t trying to show off, I just wanted it to be good you know? But I made the fatal error of trusting you. “Oh yeah, I’ll find some pâté, no worries.” No worries… I can’t believe I had to spread Tesco potted beef on a loaf that cost fifteen quid.

That was happy.

That loaf was shit too.

God, you would be so angry with me right now. No, actually you’d laugh at me. Both? I’m seriously climbing up a mountain to find a man who grants wishes. Actual wizard shit- Shit!

That is a deep crevice. Like, ‘there’s no coming back from that’ deep. Hang on a second, I need to focus. Make smart moves Tom. Hah. This might be that abyss Nietzsche was talking about. It’s narrower than I was expecting but it’s definitely gazing back at me. I think I’ve got a good hold but it’s hard to tell. I have so little feeling left in my hands. Christ.

Look, I can’t stress this enough… It’s not like I don’t know that this is stupid, I swear to you I do, but… I don’t know. It’s symbolic maybe? Like, when I used to read the cards for you. We both knew it was bollocks but the ritual meant something. It did to me at least. Anyway, I t’s a mystical mountain and that’s pretty alluring.

I’m really just working through some stuff. When I get to the top all I expect see up there is the clouds… maybe the stars at this rate.

I hope it’s glorious. I hope that I’ve earned that. Can you physically climb your way to an epiphany? God, listen to me, it is a bit unhinged. I think that’s just how I am right now. Is that alright?

I like the stars. Remember when I pointed out Vega through the conservatory roof? I told you all about Lyra and how Orpheus ventured into the underworld and, you knew all of it, obviously, but… I was still struggling with the words back then. You were the first person I wanted to say them to so you let me. I wonder if Orpheus could play like you? I mean, he’d be baffled by a guitar but… I bet he wasn’t all that.

It’s always like this when I reminisce. I feel myself getting morbid now and I really don’t want it. That’s probably dangerous in a place like this. I mean, true story: at this exact moment, my index finger is the only thing keeping me alive. Don’t worry about it.

Memories are ghosts. Their ghosts you can only reach through a lousy medium with a torn Polaroid. You really can’t go home again, so…God help you if you lose track of it. Find a new one I guess? For me the past has always been inherently mournful. I really wish I could remember you without the sorrow but it’s hard. I don’t know… it makes me feel ungrateful I suppose.

There are some crazy icicles here, like a rack of glass lances. I kind of want to lick one. Oh crap, Knight Rider! Remember that? Punjabi MC? I had to carry you back so, yeah, probably not. I don’t think that would fly anymore. You know, two super white people trying to sing Bhangra at the karaoke? God, I loved that track. Almost makes me feel warm.

You know, I can carry a tune pretty well now. I want to join a choir but I’m kind of embarrassed. I need to get over myself.

I’m almost scared to give into the hope but… I think I’m pretty close. That would be great timing because I’m starting to feel a little euphoric. I think, in a mountaineering context, that means my brain is dying? I’m supposed to be worried about that right? I dunno. Would this be a good way to go? Is this a good story? I think it’s probably lacking important cont- Wait…

Shit, I think I see something. There’s a little red flag peeking above the horizon. It’s on a thick wooden pole and it’s been blown ragged by the wind. It was roaring so loudly before but now it’s like a dull hum. Might be my ears. I think there’s a building… It’s a tiny hut made of stone, but it looks solid.

I think there’s a light through the cracks of the door. It’s so small but… God, I can’t believe there’s really something here. It might all be nonsense but there is something here. There is someone on this damned mountain.

I might be crazy, but I’m going to march in there, even if it gets me an ice pick to the face. I’m going to march in there and do what I first dreamt of when I heard this stupid story.

I’m going to tell them about you. I’m going to tell them what you mean to me and how much I owe you. I’m going to tell them just how wonderful you are, and I’m going to get it wrong because I never had those words in the first place.

I’m going to tell them that, tomorrow, the love of my life is marrying the man of her dreams… and I’ll bite my lip.

I’m going to ask them, please, make sure it doesn’t rain in Chipping Camden.

Sometimes I'm Happy

Corners up and corners down- they give the game away- or do they?
A slight incline, a slight decline - emotions they define - or do they?
That gesture to the sky or ground tells something quite profound.
Up, incline, to the sky I smile - happy? maybe
Down, decline, to the ground I smile - sad? maybe
That subtle move is all it takes to swing the pendulum of feeling.

In between that up and down, 19 smiles we harbour.
Baring all, masking truth- our communication armour.
Eyes and teeth, fine lines and skin give context to this mouth sign language.
Schadenfreude, sad despair, flirtatious, fake and lying!
In reality, you see,
Only sometimes am I happy when I'm smiling :-)

Weathering

They are the child's notches on the wall,
Counting time with length,
The reflection of the sun's rays about the eyes,
The wind cutting the ridge,
Etches of the smile on midsummer eve,
The dive from the rocks,
A cold dry winter's night with snow underfoot,
The cliff walk in hailstones,
Memories creased and minded
Like knots on a string.

He felt as if he had not slept for days, for weeks. But finally his head had relaxed on the pillow, his body had sunk thankfully into the softness of his bed.

He hadn't realised the tension in his muscles, but gradually he felt it ebb away, as he breathed deeply to consciously slow his heart rate and try to steer away the onslaught of thoughts that threatened to overwhelm him.

These past three weeks or so had been a sudden frantic burst of activity that seemed totally endless, schedules upon schedules deluging from all quarters, all meticulously planned years in advance but still needing co-ordination and co-operation when there was a realisation that not everybody had the same plans in mind.

Somehow, though it had worked. The public had seen a militarily precise operation carried out by innumerable different organisations with scarcely a fumbled moment. They had noticed the uncooperative pen that squirted ink all over his hands and wondered if it had been a bit of sabotage by some minor individual. But apart from that he was relieved that the days had passed without major incident.

The past had not been without it's crises, sometimes of a terribly controversial nature where the media had been cruel and critical but he had to bear all that, all those things he had to tolerate and in addition all those things he had to do but not necessarily wanted to do, with the best face he could muster.

He had learnt long ago that it was difficult to please everyone all the time and relieved that now, of all times, the media as a whole had been supportive and sympathetic. Despite their criticisms in the past, they had honoured his Mother, his predecessor.

His Mother. How he missed her. And his Father, also not long passed away. They had both been strong, the strongest people he could imagine. They had helped him grow into this position, though it had actually taken a long time for him to arrive here.

He knew that his position was a unique one. How many men, or women, would pass retirement age, then take on such a challenging job knowing that it was, literally, a job for life. He would be doing this now until his deathbed.

How many people would have taken this career choice, not knowing how long they might wait before stepping into dead men's shoes, or in this case, a dead woman. And they were big shoes to fill.

Had he chosen to take this career? He might have refused, as other had before him in the past. But his Father had pointed out that free as this country is, not many people actually have a choice in the passage of their lives. Best thing is, to make the best of it. There will be certainly things he would not wish to do, but that applies to everyone.

So, here he was, in this situation he had waited patiently for. It seemed surreal. Perhaps he would wake up in a minute.
The thoughts crowded in on him, random, without rhyme or reason, the voices of a thousand people, a crowd of heads all looking at him, talking at him, a thousand wise counsellors giving him sage advice but each with their own agenda and each of whom he had to give consideration to and choose what he felt was the best and most achievable course, without offending those he wished not to follow just at this particular time.

Then he realised it was of course more than a thousand, for beyond them was another sea of heads, all demanding his attention.
Amongst them was a little boy, small, surrounded by smart trousers and portly stomachs. The little boy looked up to a sea, an ocean, of serious, stern faces, ignoring him as they consulted wisely with his Mother or his Father. Occasionally one might glance at him and remember to smile patronisingly. He was only a small boy and not worthy of more and he could not understand the significance of his own future.

Suddenly he realised that the boy was himself and felt his heart gallop and race in panic, overwhelmed by the pressures put upon him, by the trousers and polished shoes surrounding him. He was a little boy again, turning to look for the reassurance of his little friend the teddy bear, the only one he could turn to and share his worries and his secrets. But the bear was no longer there, had not been for decades. His Father had sternly reminded him that Teddy Bears are only for little boys, not for him now that he was growing into a man, a leader of men. Leaders did not have Teddy Bears. Leaders of men did not cry. He had not seen his Mother cry, despite the cries of the media who thought that, sometimes, she should be seen to cry. But still he felt her warmth, her gentleness, her humour and . . . well, her motherliness as she smiled at him across the years, from decades before when he was that little boy.

Suddenly, he felt alone. So alone. After a lifetime of support from his parents, although he had made his own decisions for decades they were still made within the general policies of the family, of the firm. There was always co-ordination and co-operation, but now the Principals of the organisation were no longer there: he was the Principle and he would have to make the decisions from hereon, treading the knife-edge between what is popular and what he felt was right. He felt his Father's reassuring arm on his shoulder and his pulse slowed. He had a lifetime of advice to help him with his new responsibilities, as well as of his own experience.

He would make the best of it.

The voices reduced, the small boy stepped back quietly into the past and once again he breathed slowly and deeply and reflected on this strange new experience.

Yes, it was a strange thing,
being a King.

SUN KING

Consider reality
a window
I look through
at you
Hiding
from the one
who burns
to make you
visible

The man who would be king circles me like a shark; watches me through his tiny flitting eyes and waits for the moment I am weak to strike, drag me down and drown me, before finishing me off with his nasty pointy teeth.

I exaggerate, a little, but this is how it feels as I go about my kingly business and he exists and covets my life. It's always been like this even before I was made king - him, and me, caught in an endless power struggle to get to the top.

I made it first. I won over the people and their tributes reflect their respect for me and all I do for them. He isn't to be trusted. It's in those eyes I mentioned, the ones that flit about, looking for danger - or opportunity - his furtive whispers, his quiet meetings when he thinks I'm not watching. He thinks I'm stupid and that I don't have a clue about what he's trying to do. He wants my job, the one I was given by birthright, and he's not getting it.

I'm safe. I have loyal bodyguards; he has acolytes who follow him about and try to be like him, even to the point of flicking their eyes about. It makes them look like they're having some kind of episode, but they think they look like him, and that's fine. The weirder they look, the better it is for me and the people who follow me.

Our country is small. I watched The Godfather once, and it reminded me of us and our endless circular power struggle, caught in the tides of our lives. None of us has any power or choice, not really, even kings are bound by laws. The Godfather and all the dark cinematography reminded me so much of our country it made me cry. My two most trusted bodyguards, who were with me, subtly pulled tissues from their pockets and handed them to me.

My rival is called Angus. King Angus. He things it has a ring to it but I think there are far too man gs in there. If you say it with a Liverpudlian accent, like the doctor, it sounds like you're choking.

My name is Jon. Simple, strong, and chosen by me. For the longest time it was my secret name, but now I get to live it every single day, live Me. King John. Biblical, almost. If I had the power to start a religion I would, because I live a life of kindness many would benefit from , if we all chose the same way. I'd call it Jonway, my religion. It's how I try to rule - Jon's Way. King Jon's Way. Angus's jealousy and meanness make him ugly; Jonway makes you beautiful inside.

It has been a beautiful year. My reign. Things have been better here; the people happier. If it weren't for Angus, I would feel entirely safe, and so would everyone else.

Only lately, the last few days... it's hard to explain. I've not felt myself. I've felt like Old Me, Jon-before, when I had the name I hated. I don't know why. I don't tell anyone, because kings have to be strong. They hide their feelings. They have to, to rule with equity and

*****

Two days until I expose him. Literally. I have had to plan it right, so the correct people are watching and the right backs are turned. If not, at the last minute my carefully laid plans could be ruined. The overthrow of a king is no easy business. It's taken months of careful planning and secret meetings and whispered promises. My new PM. My new Doctor in charge. My new Princes.

I began slowly. A bribe to an unscrupulous Princess Nurse (leading to a cut in the royal dose "Jon" was given); some acting on my part (just enough to unsettle him and freak him out with my Freaky Eyes); a few promises to the hard bastards like Grainger (I will need his protection, and I can give him much much more than "Jon" can. King Jon. What a load of shite.

King Gus - almost like a new word in itself. Kingus. A way of being. A way of living. A leader who's not paranoid. A leader who is a true man, not a fake one.

Joan was her name, but I'm guessing you guessed that already. I mean look at him. Her. Some trans men are just so manly. Jon is just... Fake. I'm a bloke's bloke. I'll be the proper king.

I knew Joan before we came here. Joan does not remember. I knew Joan when Joan was just a worn out crazy shell of a woman, beaten by men, mistrusted by other women. I'd have felt sorry for her if I had that capacity but I've been told I'm a psychopath, and incapable of mercy. That's fine by me - how many benevolent kings do you know anyway? They're all completely up themselves, so it'll be the perfect job for me. I've been told many a time how selfish I am. Fine. I do not have a problem with that.

Joan does, though. Joan thinks she's a bloke - not just that but a king - and Joan's biggest problem, out of all of them, is that Joan sees me as a problem. That does make sense. To me, anyway.

So. Joan's royal meds got cut, and suddenly Joan's not quite so comfortable. The royal nurse looks almost as uncomfortable, but the royal nurse is on a shitty wage and I'm rich. All it took was a couple of phone calls and the promise that when I'm king, everything here will be calm and controlled, not the chaos and riot it is under "King Jon".

When Joan feels bad enough, Joan's paranoias will really kick in and she'll be back in the soft room for a bit. I'll step in then, to my rightful shoes.

*****

I've done a bad thing. Angus the terrifying offered me money to cut the dose of another patient. He said it was because the other patient has been bullying him and he's sick of it not being dealt with by the doctors, and could I do him a wee favour? I didn't want to, but I really really want a new car and Angus set up a few quid (turns out Angus is loaded - who knew?) to go into my bank account each week if I help. A few quid. A few hundred, actually. Angus also promised to make my life easy and not tell the world who I really am (he may be bluffing, but I really need this job and if my PVG is exposed as being fake, I'm done.) Looking after crazies doesn't pay that well, but it's not bad either. Crazies. I should not call them that. But honestly, man, if I told you some of the stuff that goes on in here your eyes would pop out of your head. It's pretty mental. Scuse the pun. Living on site means I have a house and a job, all in one. And I'm allowed a fair bit of freedom, even when I'm working.

Some of them are convinced they're in other places. Bit like that Leonardo DiCaprio movie where he thinks he's a copper and he's actually an inmate. Honestly.

It's a mixed ward, which brings its own difficulties. This is where my conscience really gets pricked - I know how hard it's been for Jon, and here I am helping destroy his Self. The drugs he's on keep him being a bloke, and keep him in his happy place (which has been as God, Jesus and once, Prince Harry's secret dad), and without them, he'll be back in the locked ward, which we all call Lala Land because nobody knows where they really are in there. I was in there for a bit before my shift pattern changed. Once Jon is in there, Angus will stop paying me, which is a bugger, but at least I'll be able to sleep at night. Cutting his dose is not easy. I take the meds from the doctor and give him a lesser amount without the doctor seeing. I'm good at my job, though. Derek, you're the best, is what I hear from docs and patients alike.

******

I'm worried about one of my patients. Jon, once Joan, isn't doing as well as he was. He's been in a great place for almost a year; so fully, finally in his own skin he almost looks regal. yes, that's the word. He looks Regal. And people follow him. Jon as his true self is a beautiful gentle giant of a man, not an awkward and unhappy cross-dresser. We have been talking about an operation to finalise things and I thought he was There. Ready, soon, to be rehabbed back to his proper life. The that asshole (should not call patients that) Angus got involved and winds him up constantly. I have fought for his transfer to The Sands but the cogs of the NHS move far too slowly and he's still here, in the wrong place. Keeping him and Jon apart has become my biggest challenge when I'm on shift.

Another recent issue is Angus's relationship with Derek. Derek used to believe he worked here and it took months to reinstate him to his proper station in the world, so to speak. he used to turn up to staff meetings and changeovers, with his own notes and everything. It seemed as the moment we got him 'right', so to speak, back in HIS right skin, he developed this shift friendship with Angus and I see the two of them plotting all day long in corners. They pick on Jon, no matter how hard I try to protect him. Jon's always been a favourite.

I like to think I know everything that's going on in here, more than anyone else. I take time to talk to the patients, see, and the others just treat them as if they're Things to be kept in order. Like books on a shelf. But open any one of those books and inside is all this LIFE. Dr King, who is the top doc in this place but has a God complex (maybe needs some treatment himself?) says I care too much and it'll be my undoing but at least I know what's going on in here. He has not got a clue. He may be in charge, but what is he in charge of? he hasn't a clue, not really. He doesn't talk to people. He doesn't know them.

I do. I understand everyone. I should be running this place really. Get rid of Doc King and his grand gestures of fakery, when he smiles and puts a hand on a shoulder... The people here are people, still people. Not patients, commodities, Things to be fed and medicated.

Take Jon. Gentle, lovely, caring Jon. If he wasn't here as a patient, he'd be a great Dr King. He'd have the place running so much better. He'd probably start by moving Angus, before Angus stabs us all in our beds (OK, I'm a bit over-dramatic there, but he freaks me out, and I would not put it past him to be able to sneak a knife into the hospital.)

I can dream. And in my day time job, not dreaming, I can try to help, understand, and medicate. And wish there was another way.









Kings sigh.

Heavy lays the crown.
Quite literally, solid gold.
Bejewelled New and old.
I will play my part to judging eyes.
I'll wear this mask with stout pride.

Heavy is this crown.
The ones who came before.
Their tales streak royal blue.
Even if they are not true.
Dull pain upon my brow.

Heavy, heavy crown.
Surrounded by dead wood, clamped and tugged.
Bed for 6 o clock.
The sun may bring a slither ray.
Sadly reign another day.

Who would be king


The guard stumbled backwards as Noah’s sword met it’s target. The prince grinned offering his hand to the guard, helping him up. The future king was known all throughout the city for his fighting prowess, “ he will lead us through many victories” the people would say.

Noah ruffled his younger brothers hair as he listened to him rant about his day in the town. “ He’s kind and caring, the city will flourish under his control” they would whisper.

Everyone listened intently as he gave a speech during the holiday festivities. “An amazing spokesperson, destined for greatness”.

His hand went through his fathers shoulder, a failed attempt at comfort. Watching unnoticed as his family mourned his death.
The only fight he lost, soon became his last.


Would Be King
Marion Foreman

The flowers were meant to be a lovely gesture she thought. Delivered to her work place they had caused a bit of a stir. She had had to go down to reception to fetch them and that overly made up, heavily eye lashed twelve year old had cooed over them and was clearly itching to know who (and why) any one would send her, Ella, an old lady, a fairly indifferent bouquet.
Ella was no more old than the receptionist was twelve, but its all in the perception isn’t it? She took the flowers back to her desk and puzzled what to do with them. They were a gesture but she wasn’t really sure of what. She wanted them to be lovely but actually they looked like the cheapest that the cheap florist could put together. And she knew that they were meant to say something but she couldn’t quite think what the message might be.
Last night had been one of the worst. She didn’t hold out any hope for today.
‘Ella, what’s for tea?’, he had demanded as he walked in. She counted to three, she knew the exact timing.
‘Is it ready? Where’s my post?’.
‘Its nearly ready and there was no post’. Bloody postal chess. Furtive little envelopes, meticulously reposted with a new move inside. Why couldn’t he play online like everyone else? The board stood, poised on the chess table. Untouched and untouchable. The one time she had dusted it – but she wasn’t going to think of that again. One wrong move and a whacking great bruise on her cheek.
He hung his jacket over the back of his chair. How she wished he wouldn’t do that. He took out his newspaper and a pen and settled on the crossword. With any luck it would be finished just as the meal finished. She would sit, quietly. Once she had tried reading a book at the table but the punishment for that lasted a week and certainly wasn’t worth the crime.
He ate noisily. He slurped his drink (beer, one bottle per night, no more) and burped. She held her breath, waiting to see how the crossword progressed. The occasional days when it was ‘done by a rogue compiler’ and deemed to be ‘unsolvable’ were purgatory. He never asked her – if he had done she would have told him; she had finished it on her phone over her lovely breakfast that she had had that morning after he had left for work.
She had needed extra time this morning. She had had to change the bed sheets even though it wasn’t the weekend. She couldn’t face sleeping in them after what had happened. Hopefully he wouldn’t notice the change in the schedule. But surely he wouldn’t want reminding either? The rage had been bad and made worse because she hadn’t seen it coming. She wasn’t braced ready.
The flowers would be all the acknowledgement; they were meant to say sorry. There had been no card. He used few words. They were in the bin at work. After much staring at them she couldn’t bear the sight. She had texted a thank you few words and then erased them. Unsent. Hypocrisy wasn’t her thing but she knew she would have had to big them up and tell him that she had left them at work so that she could see them all week whilst she worked.
She cleared the plates and brought in the ice cream. Chocolate, it was a Wednesday. She could see that there were only a few clues left.
‘4 across would be ‘king’’ she said, reading the clue that said ‘piece that is subservient to its female part’.
He grunted, cross with her. He looked up and what she saw did it. Never again would she play that game.
The blow to the back of his head from the rolling pin was swift. Dazed, his head fell into the chocolate mush.
‘Check Mate I think’ she said, quietly, and the second blow wiped the board clean.

Would Be King

“I would a tale Unfold …”
A simple sentence, softly spoken. Yet, everyone in the room heard each word as if it were murmured personally by a trusted voice breathing close into their ear, to them and to them alone. The wall lamps in their polished brass sconces flickered , then dimmed, trimmed by an unseen hand: the flames dancing in the log fire stretched taller for a moment, as if making compensation.
All conversation died. Each held his or her breath. An expectant silence rippled across the room as the Seanch’ai settled more comfortably in his chair.

“There was once a King” His hood was folded back, revealing his pure silver locks. His face was still in shadow: he leant heavily on his staff, the polished bole of a rowan tree.
“His name was Cormac Rú, wise and brave, with hair the flame-red colour of the sun in a spring dawn. He frequently wintered in his castle close by, on Trinity Isle, Lough Key.”
“He had a daughter as fair as the day is long, by name Una Bhàn, which means ‘the One with Pure White hair’. Many princes and noble suitors courted her, but Cormac deemed none of them worthy.”
“Of these, one was the son of a close neighbour, Tomás Laidír Costello. Of all her suitors, he was the only one for whom Una Bhàn had feelings, and his love for her was sincere. For a short, blesséd while they succeeded in finding a few stolen moments together, until Cormac discovered them and immediately banned Tomás from his demesne.”
“Before riding away, Tomás declared that unless Cormac sent word of a change of heart before he reached the boundary between their estates, he would never return. Una Bhàn was distraught, and begged her father to relent. On seeing her so upset, Cormac sent word: but Tomás had crossed the boundary, and determined that as a man of Honour he could not break his Word.”
“Cormac had Una Bhàn confined to a room high in the Castle on Trinity Isle. She wept continually, falling into a melancholy. When Tomás heard of this he rode each night to Lough Key, swimming to the Island to profess his love.”
“It is said, Una Bhàn died of a broken heart. Tomás Laidír caught a fever from his nightly swims. On his deathbed he begged Cormac Rú to allow his body to be buried alongside Una Bhàn, on Trinity Isle. Cormac consented, and to this day you may still see two roses grow, one from each side of the Castle door, entwining overhead.”

“Tomás Laidír: King of a Princess’ Heart”

In These Times of “Western Civilisation”
-------------------------------------------------

Who would be king, must abdicate
All wish to rule. His attitude
Should stay inferred, unless it fits
The country’s governance, lest they
Should boot him on the other foot
And boo his humble protests...

So you are born to it? Your lonely choice
To spurn your birth-right, and accept discord
In seeking after urges of your heart,
Means: Leave your destined hearth, and risk being cast
Out coldly from your dearest kith and kin.
If you can bear this, then take, brave, your leave
And hope one day to speak with those bereaved
Of your planned turn in vested dignity
That hangs upon the brows of monarchy...

The cost that way is great, dear Prince, and most
Resist that call, that road of mingled mirth
All mangled by the gossips of the world-
The meanest tongues from meddling minds you’ve heard.
Easier to stay with where you find yourself...
You are no Buddha yet, to break away
And sit for years in dust to meditate
Till deepest knowledge opens your eyes wide
To blessed peace in poverty’s sunrise .

So bow your poor throned head, Unfortunate,
Content yourself with smiling, tea, and dogs
To follow you through many dreary walks
The nation’s width, pat wide-eyed children
On their shampooed heads, and chat
Of nothings in the rehearsed etiquette...

I pray for you that duty’s lure
Will, as in ancient times, suffice:
A Roman governor gained much respect
From joining ranks, and leaving out a voice
Of dissent from the citizens accord
For common good. E’en though it abased slaves
Within the system, rulers were well served
In their appointed place, the royal- with the rich
And purple cloak which, if Caesar abused,
Would lose him his esteem in the known world...

Keep thou, o King, from such a tragic fate!
Your murmurings may bring much needed good
And hope for people in this breaking world.
A crown, a promise, held through joy and grief
Can give those crying in the dark, relief.

You’d still be King? Then may your plotted life
Prepared for thee by others, well suffice,
And, while you serve your duty, find delight
In caring for us all, in giving wealth
To help your country to much better health
Than now it lingers in. The poor can’t wait
For food, or shelter, as they crowd your gate.
The ancient writings summon thee to share
With all who plead: THIS is the Royal care!

He who Would be King

Each November
outside my bedroom window
is revealed the face
of one who would be King.

It’s no surprise
that he resides inside
a mighty oak,
the very King of trees.

He bathes naked
while he braves
the steaming cold
in early winter sunshine.

He is the jewel
resplendent
in the oak’s
high crown.

He looks down at me
while I lie in bed
and drink my
morning tea.

His eyes follow
every move I make,
even as I step
into my underpants.

He probably thinks
I’m bowing
in deference
to his glory.

And when
the wind is up
I see him mouthing
and thrashing,

marching on the spot,
puffing and blowing
and swaying
with the storm.

He is a perverse
incumbent
of my winter
garden.

It just requires
imagination
to recognize
his kingly gaze.

The shapes
between
the branches
form his regal pose.

Squirrels chase
each other
round and round
and scratch his back

and magpies
cackle
and flip their tales
in deference.

I call him
'Beerbohm the Mighty'
residing as he does
within a Tree.

I am struck
by his theatrical
countenance
and airy gestures.

He is the
Great Pretender
but
I applaud him still.

No Caliban
or Thane of Cawdor
was more
splendidly portrayed.

As always
he delights
in standing
centre stage.

With the drapes
of summer gone
he reigns until
return of spring,

when new leaves
swell upon
the boughs
to hide his majesty.

And now
September wanes
and I count the weeks
to his reveal.

As the first leaves fall
I prepare to throw
the curtains wide
and bid him welcome.

The equinox
is past and
now, at last,
The King cometh.

They said you would have been a king
With a decent, righteous, uncorrupted soul
That justice and peace, you, would bring.
But after that, your heart could never be whole.

You had looked at them with your solemn eyes
Knowing your fate was written on slated stone
That the limit for you won’t ever reach the skies
You were always tied down by your blood alone.

‘O, would be king’ you cursed that night
‘They’ll dangle me – only they’ll be king,
‘I’ll be a puppet, while they scheme out of sight,’
‘I’m bound to them, my life – their string.’

And so they did, again, as each story goes,
Corruption reigned, as it always had,
The tale every kingdom hates, but it knows,
Repeats to insanity – a pattern gone mad.

The king that would have been, could have been.
Was bound, hammered, shaped and moulded,
So he would be the way that history has always seen.
While, he himself, was led off a cliff blindfolded.

White wings once ruffling with promise, now tightly tethered
Their soul began to fall – dropped, trampled and erased
On the dusty bare road, the stones now weathered
A gift, shattered, never to be replaced.

There are reports that suggest that The Bastard King used to write poetry. An interesting proposition, certainly—when examining figures of history, it is often easy to reduce them simply to the most memorable among their achievements, failures and anything that falls therein. The Bastard King, for example: Killer of gods, master of the blade, he who slayed his own father in the Battle of the Fallen Sun. (note: Sebastian II bested both Torren, god of soil, and Ziamuth, divine caller of storms, in combat—eventuating their brief deaths. In spite of this [bordering inhumane] feat, he is referred to chiefly as The Bastard King. Is the matter of his birth truly more worthy of note than the fact that he destroyed not one, but two gods? Albeit for a short period? To research further.)

The following scrap of a poem's first draft is available for viewing in the Interdimensional Museum of Iconography (I am fairly sure that poetry is not iconography at all, though there is likely a reasonable explanation for its being displayed there... To research further.):

The lion cub hunts in meadows green,
And plays in waters blue,
His father watches from the hill (replace hill with something cooler, like mountain or i dont know like a cliff or something)
His gaze a vivid blue (you rhymed blue with blue you idiot) (also lions dont have blue eyes?????)

It is unclear who wrote the addenda, but many suspect them to be the work of Jethram, Sebastian II's... good friend? Or lover. It is unclear.

If this poem was indeed written by The Bastard King, it is illuminating. It tells us not only that he liked to write, but that even great heroes are capable of being entirely mediocre in various fields. A comforting thought, and a humanising one. Something else interesting of note is Sebastian II's love of caramel-dipped apples. It is said that he was never without a leather pouch of caramel, and was always buying and slicing apples with which to dip in it. (note: My research partner, Kerra, claims that carrying caramel in a leather pouch wherever you go, and dipping apple slices into it and proceeding to eat them, is strange. Her specific wording was "What? What the fuck? This Sebastian guy sounds like a freak, Elias." I don't see what is so freakish about it. He likely cleaned the pouch.)

Other than what I have shared, information regarding The Bastard King is unfortunately rather scarce. Much of it was destroyed in the Siege of the Bloody Sun (note: Noticing a pattern in naming conventions in this timeline. To research further.) or otherwise discarded. There was another poem found in his chambers, in a familiar handwriting. This is also suspected to be penned by Jethram:

The sun bleeds red, bleeds red, bleeds red
Hands of copper break the earth, dragging men to a hundred, hundred silent dooms
A flag once white is raised aloft
That sea of violence cannot grasp its meaning—
The symbol is drenched in crimson.

The death march trudges on.

This read is not as pleasant as that of the lion, it must be admitted. If Henry was here, I'm sure he would have something to say about how art survives, how tragedy forges works in fire and things to that effect. I don't agree. I don't think those swathes of dead soldiers particularly care that Jethram managed to get a grim poem out of the whole thing. Tragedy is just tragedy. There is plenty of art that exists without it. (note: Am I being overly cynical? Am I disregarding art that has emerged from tragedy and, by extension, those that have created it? Am I too detached? ... To research further.)

These notes are enough for today, especially considering the lack of surviving evidence. I suppose I could commission a temporal expedition to witness past events, but that will no doubt be rejected... Sentimental reasons are often dismissed for such resource-intensive excursions. No matter. Kerra is requesting my assistance with something, so I have demonstrably chosen an apt time to pause.

To whoever reads this: you can be largely forgotten by history and still create something worthwhile. And in that same vein... You can be truly wondrous, and produce technically weak art.

THESE NOTES ARE FOR INTERNAL USE ONLY — WORK OF ELIAS NARUTH

Vantage point

How does it look
from up there on your throne?
You look pleased with the happiness you took
when only misery you bestowed.

It must be nice to feel superior,
To feel somewhat untouchable,
By making me feel inferior,
And somewhat unloveable.

You must be proud of how you have risen
while you watched me fall.
I think of all the care I had given
while you smiled and took it all.

You, like a would be king, I served.
I ignored a lot of my own needs.
All I gave was not deserved,
as you were swept up in the power and greed.

And even now, the impact of your tyranny
can still be felt, be seen,
It manifests in different ways in me,
In my confidence and self esteem.

But I guess that’s the role of a narcissist,
Long live your reign.
I was drawn in by your charm, hard to resist,
Yet you inflicted so much pain.

So I wonder, how do I look
from that vantage point on your throne?
You look smug with all the love you took
and the crown in which upon you I bestowed.

You may not believe me when I tell you what I do, but I need a boost. No, this isn't just a way to pull you into my story - though of course I want you to read on, and be lifted up a little by my words and the possibility that exists inside the lines. You just may not believe me, simple as that. But you should. And if you do, well, let's just say it'll help us both out.

You've met me. You won't remember quite what I look like, just that I was the one who helped at the right time. Pick me out of a line up? I doubt you could, because at those moments of crisis all we can see is our own predicaments and the fact we're probably screwed... until voila, along comes what you later refer to as a guardian angel, who saved the day. But you won't quite remember my face.

You're quite close to the truth with that one. Angels. Perhaps that's the best way to describe us, although angels would probably do what we do for free, because they're, like, angelic, and not simply out to save themselves, as we are. Anyway angels as you know them don't exist. But we do. In a way.

We're selfish, but we spend our time saving, helping. A selfish saviour. It sounds like an oxymoron but I'll try to explain.

That time you stood at the checkout and realised you'd forgotten your purse (back before apple pay and all that stuff gave us slightly fewer opportunities) and a kind old man stepped out from the queue and said he'd pay, and no, he didn't want anything back? That was us.

That time your kid nearly stepped out in front of a bus, or fell out of your car door when you'd forgotten to put the child lock on and there was miraculously a never-before-seen gap in the traffic that day? That might've been me.

That time you stayed a second longer - somewhere - because somebody stopped you and asked you a question? One of us.

What about when the train you were about to get on crashed/the plane caught fire on the runway/the bus went into a jack-knifed lorry - and you weren't there, even though you should have been? And you say, There but for the grace of God go I, as the camera pans over bodies under sheets. Not a common occurrence, but yes, that was me, or my colleagues.

Are you getting the picture? You don't have control, not ultimately. It's not God, or at least not any God you'd recognise. Even we don't know who's in charge, just that somebody is, because we were given a choice. And we feel a whisper - a 'this is the moment' and in we step.

Still with me? Have you ever searched for meaning? Wondered what it was all for/about? Of course you have. It's in human nature to wonder. We want answers, and if we can't find them, we make them up. You might say this is what I'm doing now, because of course lying is part of what I do. But this bit, at least, is true. I want you to believe me. I hope - I need - you to believe me and feel just a little tiny bit brighter about life at the moment. Be lifted back out of the grey of the past few difficult years with their ongoing weirdness.

What I/we do on a average day might look like this. Kiss my husband/wife/lover goodbye. Go to work/the shops/school pick up. Do the thing I am meant to be doing, come home. And if I'm lucky, I find a Job. And if I find a Job, I do the Job, and I come home again and I might cook your tea of eat the tea you've cooked or make love or put a wash on. I tend to avoid TV except if I need to train, because what a waste it is. What a waste of life. And I/we know exactly HOW precious it is.

How about now - are you still reading? Intrigued? Wondering about all those times somebody nameless and faceless helped you? Remembering how you wanted to thank them or pay them back and you end up doing it on social media because I didn't give you a number and you can't remember me? And now you might be thinking is: but hang on, why are you telling us this? Surely whatever you're on about (because I doubt you've quite got it yet) is some kind of a secret?

Well, yes.

But.

I feel like some of you need a boost. Sometimes I feel I've lived even longer than I have (you won't believe me if I tell you but let's just say I've seen several more prime ministers rise and fall than you ever will, and the first one I experienced was never photographed - yes, that long ago) and life at the moment is feeling tougher than it has, even though, even though for most of us it's the easiest we've ever had it. Trust me, life is easy, even if you think it's not. You're not spending the winter worrying you'll have enough food (although this year, perhaps), worrying about how many more of your children are going to die, worrying about being made houseless because your husband has died and you cannot own property because you were born without a penis. You're not having to farm and store just to eat. There are options, even to the poorest of you. Been there, done that, to use one of these horrible modern expressions. No. I'm telling you about what I do because I think you need a boost; a reminder; a wee stroke. You need to know some of the unexplainable stuff is actually unexplainable (to you.) It WAS a bit of magic that you survived/didn't get on that plane/were helped buy a week's worth of shopping/etc etc.

And actually, I don't even know if I can explain it myself, and I'm part of it.

If you're reading on, congratulations. It means your curiosity is still alive, and with curiosity comes the possibility of Everything in Each and Every moment. You're beyond the mundane. Life hasn't killed you yet (forgive the pun.) You're the type of ones they ask. They. Yeah, even I don't really know who they are, and I've been doing this a while. They.

For me it was a tap on the shoulder at my lowest ebb. Like a masonic handshake that you'd only recognise when it came. I never knew They existed, but the moment that tap came, on went a light and I knew that something out of the ordinary had just happened. I'd had a life of struggle - I won't bore you, but they were a tough 51 years and though I'd not had enough, my body had. In those days 51 was ancient, and I was sort of being looked after but also sort of left to just conveniently die and leave everyone else a bit more food. I was low. So low. I was having what might now be called an existential crisis: Just exactly WHAT was the point in any of it? Everyone I'd loved had died, my entire life had been hard work and I was physically broken and mentally angry. In short, I wanted more, and I knew I wasn't going to get it. I'd tried praying - pah. I'd tried everything else before praying - but I was going to die alone and wrung out and wretched and alone. What had been the point?

I spent days like that. I heard my daughter-in-law talking about the cheapest coffin and I thought, I'll go and get my own damn coffin, so I got up and began to inch my way to the coffin-makers. Damn them all.

I never saw a face, but I felt a tap, and all of a sudden, I understood that there was a point/some magic/a power higher than us. So I stopped and turned and was greeted by a large cloaked figure - nope, not Death, though it was him I was expecting. A bit monkish. A face in a dark hood that asked me if I wanted a bit more time. A bit more time? I asked. How much? That depends, said the face under the cloak. It depends how good you are.

Apparently, I'm quite good. I'm still here. And there are some who are not, who started after I did.

The interview - such as it was - took a few hours and required me to do a practical demonstration and a LOT of talking. They wanted to see inside my soul, or that's how it felt. The practical was a random act of kindness (as it would be called today. I forget what they called it back then.) It didn't have to be big, but in the event I saved a young child from choking by doing what today would be commonplace, but back then looked like some crazy witchcraft. Three things happened: The child lived, I was under suspicion, I suddenly felt better.

There were sage nods from the cloaked figure. And I saw a smile. Welcome, the figure said, and melted away. I had questions, probably the same ones you do now, but I had more pressing matters to attend to - the fact I had seemingly brought a child back from the dead - and that I was walking a little straighter, breathing a little easier. I left the house of my late son and I began walking, and on the way, I did some Jobs.

I won't get into trouble for telling you this. It's secret and will remain so - you've no idea who I am and you couldn't find me if you tried. The internet is one of my biggest playgrounds and unlike others my age, I've mastered it as a tool for Jobs. Even tiny things help: that free stuff you got by accident and were unable to return to amazon/ebay/wherever; a bigger bank account than you expected, and you realised a payment to an awful huge corporation hasn't gone though (a guilt free gift!); the right post on social media at the right time ; that long forgotten friend/lover who got back in touch... Let's just say they had a helping hand.

It's clear what you get out of it: Help, in whatever way.

It's clear what I/we get out of it: More life. More wonderful, joyous, difficult, magical, addictive LIFE.

I don't know how many of us there are.

I don't exactly know WHY, although I know it's to do with Love. It's to help us keep on keeping on. We help you, you help us, the whole thing keeps on going. Who started it all? Not a clue. And I promise you that's the truth.

But if you're interested I can tell you what They like - selfless people; those who understand but don't wallow in struggle; those who are always hungry for more; those who aren't ready to go, who want to do and be more. There are other qualities, too. You must like people, even the ones who are on the surface unlikeable. Those Jobs pay the best, because you're helping to convert to - or restore - a sense of humanity. If this sounds like you, open your eyes, Open yourself up to the possibility that there IS meaning, that there IS something bigger than you.

And wait for the tap on the shoulder.



What I do
So many times I waited to be paid. I had to tolerate the power ego of people who knew I needed the money and delayed me.
So, now, when I employ people I give them what they have earned without delay. It’s theirs and they should have it.
It’s what I do.

So many times I longed for my boss to give me a compliment when I had given work that was beyond the call of duty. I used to wonder why they didn’t and then I realised they would not give confidence in case you used it to ask for more money.
So, now, when I employ people I congratulate them on their skills and am thankful.
It’s what I do.

I used to feel shy about telling people I loved them, and then I realised they can be taken from us expectantly and then one can regret having not told them that they are amazing. So now I tell them whilst I have their attention.

It’s what I do.

Hour of Writes you do a great job. Thank you.

I’m very careful at what I do. Getting caught is for chups and I’m no chup, let me tell you.

I was born in New York but now live in Stephen King country, aka Maine and what I love to do is hunt.

I have been watching the middle aged woman through the kitchen window for over forty minutes. The night is dark and silent and I’m crouched in a set of small bushes approximately 20 feet away from the patio doors which I know are unlocked.

She turns the tap off and moves out of sight. Now is the time to move, with my pulse quickening I check the left pocket on my combat trousers. My homemade garrotte is there. Last time I used a claw hammer bought from Home Depot. True randomness is very hard to predict. As I’ve already said I’m no chup. I also have a filleting knife in a pouch on my belt just in case.

The woman is now back in the kitchen. I decided on her around 10 days ago. She had been several people ahead of me at the coffee shop on the Main Street and had been rude to the barista. Like them all, truely random. I don’t even know her name and I don’t care.

I’m confident. I know she is alone. Time to move. A final check to make sure my gloves and balaclava are in place. The seams at my cuffs and ankles are taped. I keep my hair short. DNA is pesky and I go to great lengths to ensure I leave no trace.

I move silently from my hiding place and walk over and slide the patio door open. As it does, it makes a low grating sound and I move in quickly and slip to my right and crouch in a shadow near a curtain leaving the door open.

The woman walks through from the kitchen cautiously, looking concerned and walks to the open door and peers out.

Unfortunately for this particular lady, life isn’t like the movies, there will be no doggedly determined police detective making a last minute appearance to save the day.

I slide quickly and silently behind her and at the same time I lasso the piano wire garrotte with my homemade wooden handles over her head. Immediately I cross my arms and pull hard, at the same time I raise my left knee into the small of her back and push hard.

This is tremendously effective, far more effective than I had expected. I think, I might need to break my own rule and use this method again.

Less than 30 seconds later I drop her to the floor.

I quickly remove one of the wooden handles and pull the garrotte free. The wire is stubborn and sticky at first but with a little effort it starts to slide, the blood collects and drips in fat drops on the floor. These drops join the growing patch blossoming under the dead coffee shop woman or as I’ll document later tonight number '27'.

The bloody garrotte goes straight into a double ziplock bag and will be incinerated along with everything I’m wearing within the next 60 minutes.

I step over the body without looking back and move quickly back into the shadows. I take a deep breath and exhale slowly. This is what I do for fun. Total violence, absolute randomness. Perhaps I’ll get caught, but my thoughts are not. As I move carefully back towards my car which is parked nearly a mile away along with a set of false plates, I think about the possible newspaper headline if I were to be caught………”Local High School Principal Miss Lopez on Serial Murder Charge”

Not that it will happen. I’m too careful. It’s what I do.


What I do and who I am
Twenty-one was thinking about how she could quit the undercover team. Having a clandestine affair with a cricketer meant contact inside and outside his arms 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The final straw was negative feedback on her performance when she charged him at the bat and ball hotel. Of course, after first refusing to accept that she was a cop, his face wobbled like jelly. She knew he had kids and a wife. Sorry, she said as he was taken, 'It's what I do".
And as far as the police ethics committee, well! How could they justify her life being so swallowed up by this guy? Years of being unable to say what she really did to her mother. Years of lying and being lied to again in return. Why should I stay in this deadbeat role for every detective's dream sting? She hissed to Barney in the 'project coat tail' meeting. 'Speak with someone, he hissed back at her. 'who?' 'your superviser'. Jim Anderson, her Inspector superviser, had worked in the back blocks of the city since 1985. He was crusted with cynicism, and she knew he wouldn't know how to talk about her feelings. Besides her best friend in the force, Francis was getting over an affair with him. Messy.
She knew she was second to none in covert work, but recently, even her nickname bugged her. Yeah, it's what I do but not what I AM.
"Twenty-one, you and Barney intercept the two Grafton jail escapees. They're driving a cream van towards the border, and reports say they will stop in parks. You are a couple on a road trip holiday. Fly up today and start. An always pretending never for real couple she thought.
Barney stopped at a pocket park with swings close to the Queensland border and took a radio update. "Fourteen-year-old girl found dead at Jacky's landing. Ledbetter, Russell and Fox were identified in a van leaving the town. Local pub owner says they told him they're headed towards Kangai homestead. Ledbetter heavily armed— approach with caution. Tactical team on alert over.'
When the cream van with a green tarp on the top pulled up, Twenty-one approached Ledbetter, who gave her a wink. 'Any chance I could get some water? Desperate for a cuppa tea.' Barney covered as he read travel maps. Ledbetter opened the boot. She saw blankets just covering guns, and he caught her gaze. 'kangaroo hunting with the mates'. Another wink.' Where ya headed.'
' Bordertown. Hubby likes to take the four-wheeler for a run every now and then.' Giving her the water, Ledbetter brushed her arm and said, 'catch you later. She smiled. 'Yeah yeah, love your van… looks like you've got everything.' Barney boiled the water and made a cup of tea. The cream van screeched off, and suddenly two children put their faces to the back seat window. Children are what every cop dreads at a crime scene. Children's suffering is the stuff of years of Trauma. Seeing her pale face, Barney barked 'get a grip. It's what you do'. He showed her the fire trails to the Kangai homestead. They would avoid the road.
Playing Dolly Parton and driving like an ambulance, they took the fire trail towards the homestead. Pink Galahs jumped out of the way on the basalt rock trail. Amidst clangs on the underbelly, they made out a news report. 'Channel 9 newsman Mike Brown is broadcasting a conversation he's having with Ledbetter, who is holding two children hostage at Kangai homestead.' Barney nearly lost his grip on the wheel. 'Jesus, Mike Brown, a bloody journalist, thinks he is a siege negotiator.'
Pulling in at twilight, they could see tactical officers setting up flood lights, with Jim Fuller, chief negotiator calling on a loudspeaker. Twenty-one grasped the scene immediately. Ledbetter was now up for sexual assault, five murders and a host of other charges. None of Jim's bargains made sense to Ledbetter. Only more hours in life outside after the shrunken world of jail meant anything to him. And Jim could not offer this to him. Ledbetter's way out would be to kill everyone, including himself.
'I'm going in', 'No, Lydia! Barney had not called her that for years. On her second walk beside back rooms, she stopped and moved closer to what sounded like crying. She saw two children sprawled on an old mattress through a window with Fox, one of Ledbetter's pals in charge. The children ran out to Barney, when Lydia Farragio walked in the door, her badge and gun out and shot Fox in the leg.
A channel nine helicopter landed in front of the homestead, defying the exclusion zone. Not wanting to die in Ledbetter's suicide pact, his pals ran out in the glare of floodlights. Finally, when Mike Brown, the journalist, tried to talk to him through the loudspeaker, Ledbetter shot himself in the head.
Watching TV, her mother saw Lydia and had to sit down.
'I'm speaking to Senior Sergeant Lydia Farragio, who has just saved two children from this murderous spree.' The screen panned the homestead.
'Lydia, Jim Fuller, the negotiator, is complaining about the lack of discipline at this crime scene. He's demanding I leave immediately and says you acted outside of command orders. What do you say to that?
'Well, Mike, at the end of the day, protecting children is what I do and passionately believe in'.






‘What I do’

I couldn’t see the sea, I was deep in the shelter of the path – what was left of it. Of course, I knew the sea was there; I could hear it, smell it, I could feel it.
We frequently trod the path, it was well known to us – we walked. Like fitness freaks, we walked. One eye on the step count – being sure to make that daily target. It was a well-worn path. Like so much in my life, it was eroding. Some days great chunks came lose and got lost. The relentlessness of the battering just wore it away. I knew that the time would come when there was no safe way through. I could feel the sides slipping away. I didn’t always know where the marsh stopped and the sea began. Some days there was no difference – the insatiable tide washed right over, marooning any who thought they knew better. Marooning those who had thought they could beat it. ‘It will only be a few inches – we can get through that’ – until they couldn’t – until they realised the full extent of the strength and determination. The lucky ones took shelter in the hut, with its warning notices and its invitation to stay until it was safe again. It smelt of piss and fear.
I miss-timed it one day. I thought I knew how to play the game. I ignored the warning signs, I saw it edging closer but, Canute like, I thought I could hold it back. I thought that I could hold back his anger. His anger that swept over me, the anger that was always there – I knew, I could sense it. It was inexorable, tidal. I was out of my depth. I could cower in the hut – waiting for the storm to pass. Cold, neglected and hungry; ‘what did you expect’ he spat ‘ keep to the rules or take the punishment’.
Or I could rise up. One side was the sea and the other was the marsh. Neither was safe – but straight ahead would be an option – I only had to wait for the tide to turn.
That night had been long. He had made me sit outside. Naked. That, he told me, would teach me.
Yes, it taught me; it taught me that I was no longer prepared to walk the path between sea and marsh, hoping to be saved. It’s not what I do. That morning I rose up and walked away from the dubious safety of the smelly shelter and found my footing on safer ground. The knife he carried had fitted easily into my hand and into his neck; the blood had mixed with the swirling water. He hadn’t expected me to turn against him and by the time he realised that murder is what I do it was too late – the tide had turned.

What I Do

What I do is write about
the things I cannot change.
You might say it’s a
flag of convenience
sitting on my arse
banging at a keyboard
and you’re entitled to your view,
but I say I am a witness
to the present and the past
and lay it down as best I can.

It’s simply what I do.

Sometimes I get inspiration
in the dark
and wake disturbed,
sleep’s back broken
by a reflux of memories,
regurgitations rolling
round my restless mouth,
a burning taste I can’t spit out.
Demons on my back
thrust images
before my peeled back eyes
and so I rise and write them down.

Once I smelt the stink of
burning flesh and petrol fumes
from ‘Soweto necklaces’
and tasted the
skin stretched back
from melted faces,
feeling at their
unhealed scars and
futures wasted,
abandoned in a wasteland,
corrugated and windowless,
a playground of broken glass
for shoeless children,
ancient in their weariness,
eyes inured to suffering
while queuing quietly
for Kalashnikovs.

Like mothers baring empty breasts
for starving children,
I cannot alter their or my regrets,
and so

I simply write,
and try to do my best.

What I do is,
I ring my son, and tell him there is gout in all four limbs;
and I cannot come to Christmas.

In the morning I sleep until 6am,
I have my tea,
and when I finish,

myself and the meerkat who lives at the bottom of my cup,
make eye contact for a while.

I drink my tea with milk and 5 sugars.

I don't drink drink anymore. But I remember absinthe fondly.

I let my clothes smell like musk and mould, and I let them move away.
What I do is, I keep the family home,
in case they all come back, and in case they want to have Christmas here again.

My little hand looks old, and I pull up the skin and let it fall back slowly.
The ceiling falls a little in the kitchen, and there is a casualty,
he is a child's depiction of a mug.
I wrote
my other mug is wedgewood
on it
that is my little joke.

I journey to the attic where I find my box of things. A ruler, telescope, a Michelin guide of Italy (1979).
I call grandchildren, I tell them Santa left something at my house. The gifts will be with them, within the next fortnight.
They will fight over the telescope.

The piano is out of tune, and it whinges when I play Brahms.
But the sound is special and it is mine.

There was a bump last time I was in the car, my eyes didn't open for me and I forgot to open them myself.
What I do is,
I take the train.
And then I complain about Prince Phillip getting back behind the wheel.
I don't tell them about the bump and I don't tell them about falling into the bush.
I tell them about the gout in all of my limbs, and I don't tell them about the moss in the footwell,

and how I thought it was the breaks.
My record player only plays the instrumentals and backing vocals when I listen to The Beatles,

what I do is,
I appreciate half the track,
tell everyone it's the only way to listen.
I walk strongly with both legs and I do not need a stick. I am proud because I am a size XL, which I have been since I played rugby.
But if I did need a stick, it would have the head of a pheasant carved in it.

If I leave food in the wrinkles,
it moulds before I find it.

When I have my second cup of tea I put four and a half sugars in it.
The whites of the Meerkat's eyeballs have tea stains in them.
I try to fill up my cup every time I reach him,
so we don't have to look at each other again.

I keep wearing a mask well after it all ends,
it helps me with my teeth.
What I do is,
I feel a lot of shame.
I walk strongly on both my legs, but the kitchen ceiling is on the floor. It was something to do with the taps.
When you leave my home,
you will wash your clothes 4 times.
They will remind you of me for months,
so make sure not to wear things you like.
When I lift the mask down to drink my tea,
you will see my teeth,
and then you will look away.
I hope Christmas is at mine next year!

Here me speak for
I am the bearer of bad news
(for people like you)

I was born a howl, furious
Sculpted by a displeased deity who
Thought you had gotten away with enough.

Spirits walk with me, singing my name
Souls ostracised in life, their skulls dashed
By your righteous hand.

They flood to me, your victims
Whose foul sin was only yours
I am warm and welcome them all.

I pick up the wind as I go
Can you hear it moan outside your hearth?
Do you feel the night quivering, shivering for you?

Oh, the dark is far too gentle
It fears for you even now, for it knows
The hour is over, and so are you.

Clerical demons and militant ghouls
Are eaten alive in the underworld
Did you know?

I am the bearer of bad news
The reminder:
Your time here is done.

Do not waste your last breath on a sob
Or implore my merciful heart
I was not born with one. Neither were you.

Love forgives. I am not Her
This is what I do.

The Cost of Living is not measured in pounds. Pounds are merely the conversion factor used; that symbolic x standing at the heart of the equation. Cost = £x = Living. The Cost is actually counted in moments.

There is the moment one wakes after a fitful night’s sleep, any small patch of flesh lying outside the bedclothes bitten into by endless, endless cold. Then, the moment when any lingering animal survival instinct to stay curled up, immobile, must be pushed away hard, along with those bedclothes. There is the sigh at the laundry hanging all around, with no hope of it drying in the unheated air. The clothes seem as wet as when they were first hung there, as though they have not lost any moisture at all, except that they must have done, because some of the moisture is in the air now, hanging around in small clouds and gathering into spots of pinkish mould on the walls. There is the moment of looking in the mirror and realising how badly one’s hair needs washed, and deciding that this is a need that must go unmet, as the means to run the shower today are out of reach; and the moment of foregoing one’s morning cuppa, as it is best to conserve the milk until it is really needed. How much is each of these moments worth? Cost = £x = Living. Enough yet? Of course not. Nowhere near.

Perhaps you don’t like counting in moments? It can be done by weight. Let’s convert….

The Cost is the weight in that backpack we each heft around, pulling shoulders constantly towards the ground on the trudge to work and back (always back, of course, never to the pub or the cinema or shops. These things would increase the Living side of the equation and make it monstrous, un-balanceable, and so these things must not exist….) The contents of each backpack are both unique and identical; each packed in their own way with worry, or hopelessness, or panic. Tucked deep somewhere in each will be that heaviest of bricks: the ground-in shame of never being quite clean or quite warm or quite full enough. The longer that particular weight is carried, never unpacked or looked at too closely, the greater the sense that this is somehow deserved; that not-quite-enough was all one ever was, all along. Enough is an aspiration too far.

So, here are the moments, and here are the weights in the backpacks. Enough yet? It’s just numbers, black and white, plain and simple. Enter the figures into the equation and calculate: does the Cost so far add up to enough for just one unit of Living? One moment when, labours complete and expenses paid, one can wrap back up in the bedclothes and watch the breath in the air until there is sleep once more.

Except, looking at that unit, is it really Living at all?

They exchanged their hearts,letting someone own your heart and emotions- the cost of love.
But the demons lay around idly preying and watching the snags on the garment and pull, snatching the love. In the midst comes those painstacking emotions, oh boy, to expierence heartbreak,anger,jealousy,insecurity that is the cost of living.
She carried her life inside her tummy for nine months.
But the life was still at birth.This cost her life.
He owned her mind,her body and her life and treated each like a marionette, pulling each string at his pleasure. He is her cost of living.
He woke feeling groggy, high pitch sound in his ears. He looked around his home crumbled and smoke everywhere, his families lifeless bodies lay there. The is this young Syrian man's cost of living.
I wake up the taste of last nights whiskey in my mouth. My mind is black. I drag on my big pants and my giant blue shoes- i look ridiculous, perfect. I paint on my face, painting black around my eyes and a big red nose. I look in the mirror and smile, what a broken smile, such a scary image. To portray a happy image and make everyone laugh and to be absolutely dying inside in the depths of the blackness.
I was given a number 103 but im only 9 years old? anyhow they shaved off my hair and sent me for a shower. Religion, culture and evil was this young boys cost of living.
I wake up cold and hungry again on the floor. My mammy is gone again, well at least she can't hit me now. My body hurts from last night but i deserve it. I'm a bad child. My cost of living-unconditional love and innocence.
I am just a girl wondering aimsely around. Everybody says i'm such a happy person. I aim to do good by everyone and take care of everyone. My heart beats for those closest to me. I will help you and be kind to you. I want to fix the world and take care of everyone. I look after those who can't themselves, this is my passion, me as a person. The demons in other people come out to play with my gentle soul, take my kindness for weakness, my kindness makes me vulnerable to others, i am their puppet, their slave. I try to have a perfect exterior, do myself up, surely nobody will notice my mind then, its locked away, thankfully. I can fool everybody and be everybody's fool. I am 'normal' ha. But my mind eats me up, also controlling me, those nasty demons always lurking about. I'm happy boom i'm in the depths of darkness just wanting to escape from everyone and everything, be non existent. I want to be with you all the time, i can't live without you, I can. Indecisive. There is something wrong with me most definetley but addressing that means everybody knows, medication which will change me, but do i want to change? There it is again ha. Well I guess as much as I get to witness all the beauty of the world, the tress, the ocean, animals, the moon, the sky i think my mind will always win over the beauty.
My cost of living. The cost of living.

Cost of living

You’ve heard of the trolley problem, right? If not, here’s the basics. You’re watching a runaway train come down the track. It’s heading for 5 railway workers. You can pull a lever to switch the train to a different track where there’s just one worker. If you do nothing, 5 people will die. If you pull the lever, only 1 person will die.

For the greater good, it’s best to pull the lever.

But you’ll be directly responsible for the death.

Would you switch?

Originally, it was just a thought experiment. Then they created a simulation to see whether what people would actually do is the same as what they think they would do. Most people, when asked, say they would pull the lever.

Of course, they couldn’t give participants any idea what was going on. So they advertised for people to take part in a focus discussion about high speed rail. I volunteered. I like trains. I’d never heard of the trolley problem.

The first step was a questionnaire. Apparently, this was designed to weed out anyone likely to find the experience too stressful. Whatever answers I gave, they must have satisfied the organisers, and I got an invitation to the discussion itself.

When I got to the venue, I was welcomed by a woman at a desk under a green gazebo. She said we’d be starting in about 20 minutes. As it was searing hot, she suggested I take shelter in an adjacent cabin, a remote switching station. The operator inside the cabin said that was fine, told me to come on in.

Inside, a wall of monitors dominated the small space. Sitting at a control desk, the operator explained there was a lot of construction work in progress, and it was his job to make sure trains were directed only down tracks that were clear of obstructions. I watched him pull a lever a few times; saw trains switching from one track to another. He even let me pull the lever myself once. Wow – I had the power to control a train!

Then his phone rang. "Just need to get this", he said, and walked out of the door, closing it behind him.

I looked at the monitors. Each one showed a different section of track. All seemed quiet. But then I saw a group of railway workers walking towards and on to a track. They were all wearing ear protectors, and looked distracted. And a train was coming towards them.

I opened the door, thinking the operator would be right outside. He wasn’t. I shouted for help. No one came. I looked at the monitors again. The train was approaching a set of points. There was still time to send it away from the group. But then a different worker wandered onto the alternative track.

Surely the train would have sensors, I thought. Or the workers would notice; someone would look round. And what if I pulled the lever and screwed it up; made things worse. How could they be worse, though? 5 people were going to die. 5 families traumatised. I could stop that. Save them. Reduce the net death toll to 1.

It wasn’t my responsibility. Someone else must be in charge. I started singing. Self-soothing, they call it. But the train kept coming.

I pulled the lever.

The monitor images vanished, replaced by a message: End of test. Everyone is safe.

It was all an experiment. No runaway trains. Just loops of tape. To prove it wasn’t real, the actors introduced themselves.

The organisers said I was impressive. I’d had the guts to take action, when most participants didn’t. Turns out that people aren’t as willing to kill for the greater good as they think they will be.

I see a psychiatrist once a month. A life is a life, yes. And more lives are worth more. But every time I close my eyes, I see the monitors. I see the lever. And I see the man I condemned to death.

Your casket is empty
Except for 
Silk lined predictions 
In a cream, white lace 
A veil you spun
Like a spider
With just as many eyes. 

A web
Wrapped around and around 
Tiny soft hands 
Half hers, half his 
Whoever he is 
But not half mine 

Green blooms on your kitchen table 
The light dapples, you think it
But you will not 
or can not,
Perhaps the cost is too dear
To tell her they are for her. 

Is it something old and blue? 
Or two empty bottles, 
red teeth and red lips 
spit obituary, toast it 
close the lid 
the mahogany traps my fingers 

Your altar and mine 
are the same 
We both pray to her, hands clasped 
Lowered breath 
I won’t mourn
I won’t

Could there be an organ song 
More suited
To this chasm left where you dropped her 
This web is thicker than water 
Your grief and hers entwined 

The Cost of her Living

Strange – We could spend hours on the phone but, put us in the same room and within fifteen minutes there’d be an argument. Of course, I should have been more patient and considerate but hemmed in, in the same room, I felt the claustrophobia of our mother/only-son relationship. But arguments or not, there was always love. Well, we had been through so much.

So, what’s that got to do with the cost of living and the media proclamations of gloom and doom and cries for help, importuning a government that (whoever leads it) only seems capable of rearranging the deckchairs…….?

We’re sinking, right?

I don’t want to belittle the challenges we face as we slide into a winter of discontent and genuine hardship echoing to the cries of “What do we want?....When do we want it? Like many, I’m in fuel poverty too and on a fixed income with a sick wife who could, literally die if the thermostat is turned down too much.

Still, as we rant and rave and damn Putin, Brexit or the pandemic (take your pick), I’d like to crave your indulgence and contrast life now with a life as it was. One particular life anyway – one that I am qualified to comment on; my mother’s life and....

the cost of her living………

My mother, Joan, married at the age of eighteen in 1941 to Flight Sergeant Tom and within six months was a widow. My mother was a hairdresser and she and Tom had rented an empty shop which was to be fitted out as a salon with flat above, which they were looking forward to moving into, in the meantime staying with my maternal grandparents. After Tom’s death, Joan could not bear the thought of continuing with those plans, so after a period of desperation, she did what some do in order to forget – she joined the Foreign Legion or, at least, a metaphorical equivalent – the Women’s Land Army. And off she went to Devon.

Running from her grief she became extremely ‘driven’ and quickly became a gang leader or ‘Ganger’. She and a new friend, Lillian from Ramsbottom formed an inseparable duo. The rest of the team, all Londoners, were even younger than them and unsuited to an agricultural environment. Joan would drive the truck with Lillian by her side doing their Gracie Fields impersonations as loud as possible to annoy the other girls sitting on benches in the back of the covered waggon. Lillian would suddenly interrupt Joan with, “Hey up, Joan, there’s a humpbacked bridge coming, put thee foot down!”

Unfortunately, my mother was invalided out of the Land Army with bronchitis and returned to the north but she and Lillian were set as friends for life.

She then looked after errant evacuee boys who proved too unruly to be controlled by their hosts, before becoming a quality control inspector at the Eveready battery factory.

Joan then met my father. He had lost his wife and so they had something in common. My father, unfortunately, had a drink problem which only got worse with time. His father, a wise and benevolent man, tried to persuade her not to marry him, but to no avail and they married in 1947.

As my father’s drink problem got ever worse, he had difficulty holding any job down and he started to assault my mother regularly. We never had any money and lived in a terraced one bedroomed (one box room – my bedroom) flat above the ‘Bamboo Coffee Bar’ where the juke box played till late accompanied by revving motorbikes outside. A threadbare strip of carpet led from the bedroom to the bathroom under which, at night, cockroaches from the bakery next door, crunched underfoot.

If there was no meal ready when my father came home she would be in for a beating, so my mother would prepare my father’s evening meal and put it in the oven, not knowing when he would return. My father would come home from the pub and throw his, by then, dried up dinner across the kitchen before assaulting her.

He once picked up a chip pan of boiling fat and threw it at her. I was standing between them at the time. Luckily, in his temper or drunken stupor (or both), he missed, the pan sailing over my head and hitting the wall.

I frequently lay in bed and listened to my father beat my mother to a pulp. My brave mother would not try to defend herself, but looked him silently in the eye. This, of course, just made him worse. On one occasion (I was five at the time) he beat her so badly the doctor had to be called the next day and he said that another such attack would probably kill her. He suggested that she divorce my father and helped her to that end, bucking the 1950’s taboo for domestic violence to be hidden behind closed doors.

After the divorce my father disappeared, reappearing once to assault my mother with a brass candlestick (sorry if it sounds like a game of Cluedo) but I still remember the bloodstains up the lounge wallpaper. Unsurprisingly, he never paid any maintenance.

Joan worked at the eponymous ‘Ogla’s’ a local hairdressing salon and quickly established her reputation as a really good hairdresser. She worked with determination and when I was seven years old she bought me a special present – a private education. As a day-boy I had to travel to school each day on the train and for the first week she made me (much to my embarrassment) ride on a first class ticket which I held up in front of me as evidence of my permission to be in that carriage, full of bowler hats and copies of the Financial Times.

In 1959 she bought one of the first ever minis (156 KTU) and we proudly took it to Blackpool and became the object of much curiosity.

In 1960 she bought her own salon, paying £1800 for the goodwill in a nearby business from the scheming Olga, to find there really was no business at all and so started from scratch to build it up again. This she did very successfully over the ensuing years.

When she was feeling cross, my mother used to say to me, “I work my fingers to the bone for you,” and indeed she did, as by Christmas eve, the repeated action of putting rollers in clients' hair would draw blood from her perm-stained hands.

The beatings she received around the head eventually caught up with her and she died with dementia in 2005.

Her life cost much but was worth so much more. Thanks Mum!

We now face a cost of living crisis on top of everything else.

No wonder everybody looks miserable; no wonder most of us feel miserable. Or perhaps, when our masks were no longer mandatory, we discovered we no longer needed to smile, or we'd forgotten how to smile at other people, or to say nice things, or to even make eye contact...?

People are going to have to choose between eating and heating, and those already using food banks are requesting more 'no-cook' foods because they realise they may not have the electricity left on their meter to cook a meal, or to even warm up a tin of soup in a pan. They may well even have sold their microwave by this point in time. 'No-cook' foods will hopefully be fruit and salad and cereals and breads but may well be snack-like such as crisps, biscuits, cakes, which are not nutritious, and none of the foods just listed are warming. A hot drink is important in cold weather to keep warm; people will not even be able to boil a kettle for a hot water bottle or a cup of tea.

What has happened to our country?

What has happened to our world?

Is Mother Nature re-paying us for how badly we have treated her beautiful blue and green sphere, which, once upon a time, was empty, without form, innocent and silent.

Now our world is packed with people fighting each other; hating each other. Even our own little island, the so-called, 'United' Kingdom, is experiencing stabbings and gun crime.
Everybody is exhausted; worn out; burnt out; stressed. Mental health problems and disorders are rife, sadly, especially amongst young people.

The NHS is at breaking point. People are being begged to pay for private operations if they can afford to do so; but, obviously with energy prices rising so enormously, very few will be able to do this. It is predicted that even those who are lucky enough to earn £40k a year will struggle. Many of us have no chance, then...

Even our machinery is turning against us! Think about the convoy of Russian tanks at the start of the conflict in Ukraine; how they stuttered and came to an standstill. Think of the UK's warship, which broke down near the Isle of Wight recently. And even more than these two examples, consider Artemis, the rocket named after the Greek Virgin Goddess of the Moon and the Hunt. That too had technical problems which have delayed its lift-off.

And this last, is particularly ironic, don't you think? Have our machines become so digitised, sophisticated and intelligent that they are thinking for themselves? Is Artemis saying 'I really do not want to take astronauts to the moon or to Mars or to any other beautiful and silent planet, only to allow human beings to wreak havoc and wreck it, like they have done to the planet Earth'?...
It's quite feasible, don't you think?

And I would agree with Artemis whole-heartedly. Humans have wrecked this planet, despite warnings of 'global warming' years before 'climate change'. We have be selfish and greedy; still are selfish and greedy.

We have allowed forests to be destroyed; we have stood by whilst wonderful animals to face extinction. We have permitted poisons and oils and sewage into our rivers and our seas, killing the innocent lives therein.

We have paid for wars and for munitions. People are killing innocent children and babies.

Half the world is starving; half the world is obese. Nothing makes sense any more. Does it?

Mother Nature is paying us back with floods and with fire; and with the worldwide pandemic.

Only the other day at toddler was killed by a massive hail stone - in August; in Spain...

So sad; so tragic.

People's houses in England were burning down in the heat last month, 40 degrees centigrade. And now a third of Pakistan is underneath water, and over a thousand people have drowned.

On insurance papers, incidents such as floods and fires are often referred to as 'Acts of God' which suggests that Man has no control over such occurrences. But in fact this is untrue. Many fires and floods are caused by man's reluctance to care for our planet. I was going to say 'beautiful' planet, but so many parts are now ravaged by war and by poverty; and beautiful natural habitat bulldozed down to house an ever-increasing, ever-greedy population, it has massive parts of ugliness.

People are reluctant to work or are 'quietly quitting' which in my younger days was called 'working to rule.' Who can blame them, especially those in caring professions and in the NHS? Who can blame teachers, nurses, the police, postal workers and those in public transport for striking? These people kept the country going throughout the pandemic.

These people should never be forgotten. We owe them such a lot; they should be rewarded with a decent payrise, not fobbed off with a round of applause. And yet they too will be struggling during what is set to be a Winter of Discontent as we experienced in the 1970's; no, not even that, it is set to be a Winter of Severe Discontent.

And yet whilst these special people were helping us during the pandemic, and, not wanting to blow my own trumpet, people like me volunteered and worked on a helpline, the government was partying!

They were partying on the eve of Prince Philip's funeral whilst so many of us, just remove the 'T' and jiggle the letters around a little, were praying! Praying as our loved ones died frightened and alone, amongst exhausted strangers wearing masks.

It is all so wrong.

Once more, the most vulnerable of people and those with underlying health conditions will be expected to struggle through this cost of living crisis on top of everything else.
No wonder everybody is burnt out.

Perhaps our universal 'burn-out' is a reflection of the candles many of us will be forced to light during the months to come?

Cost of Living

Margaret pulled back the jumble of dried branches, lifted the old door out of the way, slid it away from the hole she had dug, and opened the top of the chest freezer she had buried in the ground. There was little to see: her secret stash of emergency food had dwindled to a few potatoes and apples she had carefully stored, along with a few things she had been able to barter with the last of her firewood from the fruit trees she had cut down for fuel to keep her warm in the harsh winter. It seemed pointless keeping them to grow the fruit when the apples were taken before they had even matured. Keeping her small hoard in the freezer kept the contents cold, although she felt she could equally have just kept them in the house for all the difference it made. But here they might be safe from scroungers who came begging.

With a small bowlful of oats she closed the lid, replaced the door and pushed back the pile of branches. The house was cold and dark and she shivered as she entered. It seemed even colder inside than it was outside. She lit a rush-wicked tallow candle which she had made herself one Sunday when she had allowed herself a proper fire to warm herself up. The fat had come from the last pig she slaughtered, to barter for food and money to pay the inevitable bills. Even though she now had no electricity and no water, the rates still had to be paid as well as other essentials to keep herself in her house. She tried not to remember the wonderful times she and the family had enjoyed there, the family home. It was a large place, more expensive than they had cared to budget for, but it was in the place they really had yearned to live so they felt the extra outlay was worthwhile. But now she was alone in the big house, all of the rooms dark and cold, some with broken windows with the cold wind whistling through.

She ate the oats raw, softened in cold water which she had brought earlier from the stream at the end of the garden. When they had moved in, they thought it was so romantic and the children had splashed and played in it when they were young, occasionally swimming when it was deep enough to make a pool. But then they thought of the cows wading in it, drinking it with their sticky mouths, then not bothering to get out before they dropped their smelly pats in the water. One day they had found a dead sheep caught up in a bush when the stream had flooded. Then they thought of the noxious chemicals the local farmers sprayed on the land which flushed into the stream. Margaret tried to not think about these as she supped her softened oats.

The studio at the end of the garden had been turned into a latrine, with an earth toilet. Margaret had remembered her Grandmother describing how they worked and had used them at the cabins they had visited while holidaying in wild places. It was strange how folks longed for the “good old days” but these had returned with a vengeance. Margaret hoped desperately that she would not fall ill, as nowadays one could not simply walk into the local doctor’s and expect to be treated for free. The doctor was as poor as everyone else so hoped for some sort of reimbursement. He, however, was one of the few people in the village who was able to enjoy the wonders of an electricity supply, although that was now rather unreliable due to the supply equipment going walkabouts when someone needed to trade scrap metal for something they felt they needed. The doctor was the only person in the village who ran an electric car, though that could not cover a wide range now as the batteries were all but dead. If only engines had been developed to run on a wide variety of fuels, instead of only on the monopolised petrol. She had heard of drivers running their car on used chip fat oil many years ago, but instead of being praised for their initiative and innovation they had instead been fined for evading tax.

Margaret lit another tallow candle from the flame of the old one which was now beginning to gutter. She allowed herself only two per night, and each of those did not last very long. Very shortly she would return to her bed, the only place that was slightly warmer, though it was now getting rather unpleasant because she had not washed it for several weeks as she knew it would never dry in this cold weather.

She wiped the bowl clean with her finger – no water to wash up with. Then paused, as she heard a soft tread outside the back door. Silently she moved across to check that she had shot all the bolts closed, even though she knew she had. When once you could live with the door open and enjoy the pleasant warm fresh air of the summer, now you kept it tight shut not only to keep out the cold but to keep out unwelcome visitors. And now, they were visiting. The door rattled as it was tried. Then a firmer rattle. Then a loud knock on the door. A pause. Then a thud of a shoulder against the door which moved but did not yield. Then a firmer lunge made it rattle. A couple more thuds, flesh against wood. Then a pause, a muttered exchange between two low voices. Then a splintering of wood as an axe broke through, retreated, chopped in again, smashing smashing the solid wood of the door and finally breaking its way through.

Margaret thought of how her country had divorced itself from its neighbour. How her neighbours had hoped this would stop the constant influx of foreigners and refugees. The foreigners had left, but nobody wanted the jobs they were prepared to do. The refugees had come across in their boats unhindered because what interest would France have in helping to prevent them? Trade had become difficult, markets had dwindled, inflation had raged and instead of riding the tide everyone had demanded wage rises to make things even worse. Except for those that looked after the ill and frail, those who had tried to keep everyone alive despite the danger to themselves: they had carried on despite being ignored by the very people they had saved.

Who was at the door? It did not need to be a foreigner or a refugee, it was more likely a neighbour from the other end of the village, looking for a source of firewood for their fire. They would come in, ransack the place looking for food and fuel. Margaret was uncertain what her fate might be but now she stood braced with her large carving knife in hand. She would never have thought that the wedding present of the kitchen set she and her husband had been given all those years ago and which had carved so many family meals, before they had each in turn become vegetarians so that better use of the farmland could be made: she would never have thought she might need to use it like this.

The remains of the back door swung drunkenly open, parts of it dropping on the floor as a booted foot appeared, framed with its owner in the doorway, another dark figure behind. In the closeness of the small kitchen, Margaret could smell the earthy odour of the unwashed figure standing there, large, filling the smashed doorway. Unseen eyes peered at this frail woman with upstretched arm wielding a large knife, its blade longer than her forearm.

Margaret was overcome with a desperate feeling of not caring any more. She had had enough. She could take no more.

The blade fell.

Cost of Living by Marion Foreman
She moped his brow – was that even a thing? She felt like a latter day Florence. This had been going on for weeks. She stretched, the pain in her hunched shoulders seemed to be permanent.
At the beginning she had prayed for his recovery. The police had said that he had ‘life changing’ injuries. Well, she thought that is what they had said. It had partially filtered through her shock and the crackle of their radios.
The doctors had been less dramatic and had talked of intensive care and his age. She thought that they had said that the two were incompatible.
There was talk of organ donation (too old) but then of living wills and ‘his wishes’. She didn’t know – they hadn’t discussed that. They would have to ask his elusive children.
They had ‘found love in later life’ (the correct definition if you read the glossies) and neither were sure of their place. His place in her bed was established, at her meal table and in her savings. But not in her life. She wasn’t his next of kin but that got forgotten; the idea of two old people ‘in a relationship’ was so alien that marriage was always the working assumption.
She didn’t know if he would prefer to linger in vague hope or go swiftly with dignity.
It has begun innocently enough (didn’t it always?) The Writers’ Discussion group. She was attracted to him when he used an apostrophe correctly. His ability to do The Guardian quick crossword efficiently was appealing at first but wore thin when he did all the across clues and left her the down ones.
Sex came later. His expectations didn’t live up to his achievements but he did his best, bless him. She was grateful for the nights apart – it gave her a chance to catch up with where he had left off.
The evenings out were great – her purse made many appearances, his wallet not so often. They didn’t discuss money. They used her car, it was easier to get in and out of.
He didn’t forget many things – she made sure of that. Little reminders, little nudges. The odd elusive word supplied when necessary. She ignored the never finished book and the TV plots which he claimed to be ‘very obscure’. She was glad of his company and he was good with his hands. Provided it needed a drill and some screws and not too much accuracy. Shelves were his thing but door handles and picture hanging were in his repertoire. And the grass – he mowed the grass when she reminded him that it was ‘mowing Monday’. ‘Online’ anything was an anathema but he was a dab hand at reading tedious letters from utilities companies and declaring them to all be ‘scandalous’.
She had thought of marriage but couldn’t decide on the colour of her dress so abandoned the idea along with the bouquet of roses and the three tiered cake. She was glad now – she didn’t want to be a widower. But she didn’t want this living death either.
How much longer should she wait? She could see there was no hope. Should she raise the topic – what was it called? Turning off life support? No, he wasn’t on any ‘support’. He just lay there, the stroke coming so soon after the accident meant that he needed feeding through a tube and all the outgoings through other tubes. She didn’t know what he wanted but she sure as hell knew she didn’t want it. She liked him – but not this version. The cost of living was too great.
She put down the cloth, kissed his forehead and walked away. The crossword, all to herself, was waiting.

I smelt her before I saw her, Opium; heady and oppressive, breaking me away from inhaling my newborn girl. I raised my eyes, dazed and braced myself. She kissed us both, elaborately and brusquely and sat down saying
"You need a shower darling." then.
"Well, look at you, how are you?"
"Tired," I said weakly.
"Well you might as well make the most of me while I'm here, give her here and go and shower."
I handed over my little cocoon and kissed her on the head before painfully raising myself from the bed and shuffling to the bathrooms, reeking of institution and bleach. I caught sight of myself in the mirror and did a double take to see myself swollen, sagging and unrecognisable. I put my face up to the mirror to see if my eyes were different, if I looked like a mother but only watery grey sadness was reflected. The effort to get myself undressed and into the shower was monumental and once there, I felt so weak, so broken and bleeding and I wept, not fit for purpose, not fit for purpose at all and then I remembered my precious purpose and rushed to get back to her. My mother was busying herself rearranging the flowers and reading the cards on my nightstand.
"She is hungry and I couldn't find a bottle."
"I'm feeding her Mum," I said cradling her in my arms.
"Well, I'll catch up on some work emails while you do tthatt" as the blue curtain shut between us. I closed my eyes and drifted into the hazy union of feeding, I open

The alarm clock went off. Again. Literally in his head. The latest software update to ‘The Chip’. Wednesday 21st April 2032, Frank Hewitt is alive and awake and ponders slowly if he is thankful or not. Depressingly he thinks not today, today is not going to be a great day.
While pondering what lay ahead, the alarm sounds again but this time with the vibration. Frank taps his temple to acknowledge the alarm knowing the countdown is now starting until ‘The Chip’ needs to register his body as vertical rather than horizontal.
Frank recalled the last time he went back to sleep following the alarm, the shock from ‘The Chip’ was both unexpected and agonising. That had motivated Frank to get vertical very quickly.
He sits up and swings his remaining leg over the side of the bed and attaches his motorised left slightly below the knee. A reminder to stick to the rules

Franks stands up and moves to the sink and relieves himself, today is not a day to hurry so the toothpaste is applied slowly and carefully. The size of a pea he was told when he was a child. Frank hasn’t had fresh vegetables since ’29, ruefully he mused that no one Class 4 or above had likely had fresh vegetables since the events in August 2029.

With the taste of Colgate in his mouth, he spits out the foamy waste and swallows. With water metered by the nearest 100ml, rinsing his mouth or even running a bit of water down the sink after his morning piss were luxuries he literally couldn’t afford. Looking up, Frank stares in the mirror. Frank looked much older than his near 31 years, his hairline was receding and going prematurely grey. Wrinkles were etched into his skin like mini canyons. He had both ears and no visible scarring to his face. He flicked his eyes left and right, as always, the left eye was very imperceptibly slower to react, he put this down to the tiny motors that were installed at the time. He tried to think when the last time the visual link to this artificial left eye had last been suspended but couldn’t recall.

Even though today was a day he didn’t need to rush out to join the queue of people desperate for work on the corner of the street, he didn’t have the luxury of dawdling. Frank turned slowly and took in the entirety of his apartment. Turning 90 degrees to his right when looking at the sink he could see the bed – not a new bed but equally not an old bed. He had bought this in better times and looked after it with a carefulness that approach obsession. Continuing his slow turn to the right he took in the bare skeletal frame of a built in wardrobe, pretty much empty apart from two Class 5 Robes emblazoned with the national flag and ID number and barcode. Now with his back to the sink, Frank stared at the front door and at the irony of the 3 electromagnetic locks and bio sensing keypad. This door for entry or exit couldn’t be opened without the thumb on your right hand. Naturally he wondered how he would feel later this afternoon, at least he would be able to get back into the apartment.

Passing the front door, there is a small pin board with a solitary piece of paper secured by one small drawing pin, continuing to turn, Frank is now looking at the Kitchen, he uttered a short noise that could have been compared to a laugh if it hadn’t sounded so maniacal. All he had prepared in this quarter of the room since moving in were the Basic Class 5 Rounds and that was only because the government felt it unfair for people to starve to death quickly. Much better they do this slowly while serving a purpose he thought bitterly. On the counter was his United Global Dollar (UGD) Balance as he looked at this depressingly small amount of $75.63, Frank’s thoughts started to wander back to the time before The Chip.

7 years ago and approximately 4 years prior to August 2029, Donald Trump was re-elected for a second term in the United States. It was a landslide victory given the attack in Texas the previous year, Frank recalled that no one actually expected Russia and China to follow through on the bravado and their threatening rhetoric of 2024 but unfortunately everyone was very wrong on that occasion. On the 9th September 2024, three suitcase nuclear bombs were detonated, the first being in the north of Houston, as the evacuation sent those trying to escape South, another was detonated and at the same time one further device was detonated to the West. For all intends and purposes this trapped the near 6 million people in a hellish triangle. All told on that day over 700,000 people were killed in the initial bombings and another 1.1 million died over the next 6 months, nearly one third of the population of Houston at the time. Uncharacteristically the US did not react or retaliate. This caused the then Government a lot of problems, but of course no one understood the course of action they were actually planning.

Following the 9/11 bombings of 2024, Donald Trump rallied for and won a landslide election and unknowingly inherited the deadliest weapon ever created. It is still unclear why the previous administration in 2024 didn’t use this new technology against China, perhaps some politicians had a thread of humanity and weren’t prepared to open Pandora’s Box. Unfortunately Donald Trump had no such issues.

‘The Chip v1’ as it is now known was a nano-molecular circuit board that could be ingested by inhalation, eating or drinking or absorbed through the skin. These Chips would coalesce and find each other and become autonomous. Once formed, The Chip, which would locate itself at the bottom of the Brainstem as the control Centre for the Brain. A Hostile Takeover of your body if you will.

One key question that concerned Frank was, why following over 1.8 million deaths and the worst atrocity in history did the US not retaliate immediately?

This became apparent in the Spring of 2026, over a period of 3 months an ultra secret operation was underway in the distribution of over 10 Trillion Chips across Russia and China. These microscopic and nearly undetectable circuit boards were air dropped, fed into water supplies and dispersed in aerosol format unknowingly by nearly all major manufacturers. At the end of this period, 99.9997% of the population of Russia and China were affected. On July the 4th 2026, the US finally retaliated against China and Russia for the 9/11 bombings of 2024 by sending a message to all these Chips to stop whatever their host was doing. 2 Continents literally ground to a halt, causing Billions of dollars in damages and over 800,000 deaths. As it transpires not all hosts can cope with being taken over in a hostile manner. What percentage of these deaths were due to drownings, car or air crashes or house fires from suddenly pausing was and remains difficult to ascertain.

The US Government literally got over 1 billion people to stop in their tracks and freeze what they were doing for 36 hours. During this time, the biggest land invasion in history began. Over 1.5 million soldiers were deployed and not one of them carried a rifle. Each and every soldier carried a sidearm and a tablet that was operated by their DNA signature. These Soldiers walked into the major cities in Russia and China and effectively took control of two of the biggest economies in 48 hours.
What followed was a slaughter on an unprecedented scale. The Chip when fully functioning not only controlled the host but was aware of their inner most thoughts. With a little work, The Chips could be commanded to sever the Brain Stem on any serving member of the Military or Government Official, it could be commanded to end the lives of police officers, doctors, judges, lawyers without question.

By the end of 2026, the US was the true Global Super Power – they held the launch keys and codes to over 90% of the known Nuclear arsenal. In early 2027, these were used to neutralise Iran, North Korea, India and Pakistan. To date these are still Nuclear wastelands that are forbidden to enter. By mid 2027, the US had morphed into the United Global States of America and all major economies had bargained and agreed treaties with President Donald Trump. By the start of the 2028, this position had morphed into Global Chancellor and the United Global Dollar was introduced. A period of relative calm was experienced until early 2029 when a further million soldiers were deployed globally and then in August 2029 the unthinkable happened, The Chip was upgraded. This new version allowed for a refined level of control and was linked to the amount of UGD you had in your bank account. A 10 level class system was introduced with those dissenting or brave enough to speak up, silenced immediately. The decree came that these traitors were to be left where they fell. It is reported that over 2.5 million people lost their lives on 10 August 2029.

A gust of wind at the window, bought Frank back to the present. Today ahead of the procedure he was forbidden to eat, so he turns back to his left towards the wardrobe and his clothes for the day. Throughout the entire time, Frank has been naked as the day he was born, he walks over to the wardrobe. He always finds that the mobility in his leg improves quickly after putting it on. He picks the robe on the left, it is slightly cleaner that the one on the right. Good to keep whatever dignity he has and look presentable if possible. He slides the robe over his head and ‘The Chip’ registers that he is now getting dressed. On a normal day searching for work, he would have 2 United Global Dollars deducted from his overall balance if he wasn’t dressed within 300 seconds of waking.

Day dreaming on the past now means Frank has to hurry to the Level 5 CP Meeting Point to avoid the 5UGD fine. Frank puts on the one required shoe, no shoe needed for his left foot. He places his thumb on the pad and it turns green indicating he can exit. He longingly looks at his left hand and wonders when the cost of living will be too much for him to bear any longer. Not today he thinks and makes his way out of the door allowing the door shut as he goes. As the door gentle closes, the flow of air dislodges the paper that was pinned loosely to the notice board and it falls silently to the floor.

Controlled Punishment Notice 1-075-654BA85-XY

Name: Xu When Chi Gender: Male D.O.B 21/10/01
UGSA Name: Frank Hewitt

Controlled Punishment Notice 3

The United Global States of America hereby requires Frank Hewitt to attend Beijing CPC Facility on the 21st April 2032 for the forcible removal of his left arm at the shoulder.
On the 3rd March 2032, Frank Hewitt was in violation of International Fluidity Law 35 Act 7 which states that no domicile resident may obtain a negative UGD Balance for more than 48 Hours.

Account Number XWCFF286509303 was overdrawn by $53 UGD from 1st March 07:30 to 3rd March 07:30am

Previous Controlled Punishments Log

CPC 1: 21st October 2030 – Violation – Consumption of an unlicensed alcoholic beverage. Forcible removal of left leg below knee
CPC 2: 6th August 2031 – Violation – Travelling in Class 3 Transport Vehicle. Forcible removal of left eye.

The subject has been deemed suitable for donor matching to Class 3 and above

COST RIPOSTE

The cost of living is a scandal
It’s not only difficult to handle
Lighting a room, now it’s a candle
Not only about how much we use
But the rising price of all Btu’s

But living’s not just big energy bills
World oil price, the source of all ills
It’s no longer the dark satanic mills
It is also the regular weekly shop
Will this rising inflation never stop

But quite unlike many decades ago
With free healthcare, head to toe
These days dental care costs grow
Even prescriptions attract a charge
At least for the population at large

Residential care when old or infirm
So expensive it makes one squirm
The house is lost in the longer term
But support and daily bingo entices
No need to worry about any crisis














A price I’m willing to pay.

Fire Sale: Everything Must Go

Sell your old phone, sell your old CDs
If you're one of those people who still listen to CDs
Sell your books, or it might be worth more
To use them to keep a fire going
The money making lists said sell your old clothes
But when I'd sold everything I didn't use
I sold my new clothes and walked around naked
Making it impossible to put on another jumper in winter
But still they said, sell everything, sell anything
So my hair was the first to go
Followed by pictures of my feet for those with a fetish
I hacked off my arm to sell on the black market
And used a butter knife to cut out a kidney
Before I sold the butter knife
Then claimed I had nothing left
But the smug money making lists
Kept on repeating the mantra, sell what you’ve got
Sell what you don't need, sell some more and keep going
It's a fire sale and everything must go

Utopia
Nine woke and rose before the alarm sounded. Another perfect day, and why not? He lived in Utopia, and everything was perfect. He could hear the alarm sounding in other rooms: some of his classmates were clearly less alert than he.
Today, his class – eight boys, eight girls – would finish their Education. Everyone in Utopia got A* grades, of course: anything less than perfection was unthinkable. More important, they would be given a Name instead of a Number, and enjoy a whole Seven Days freedom before starting the Job they had been allocated. Unemployment was unknown in Utopia. His education was designed to give him the skills to perform any job which needed doing.

He’d had That Dream again. He hadn’t told anyone about it, yet he half-suspected the Synod which ran the city would be aware of his unsettling Dream. They knew about and controlled every aspect of daily life. However, he hadn’t been questioned. It seemed there were still some things the city Fathers didn’t know.
And yet. Most unexpectedly, he felt … Something. An Emotion? The schooling he’d received over the past eight years was designed to remove all such weaknesses!
He closed his eyes and held his breath, listening for any slight sound.
There! The faintest possible scrape/creak. It was repeated, and seemed to be directly outside his door. As his fingers curled around the latch, he knew the answer. The Question in his mind was “Who?”
“Nine?” The single word throbbed with the unfamiliar concept he had labelled Emotion, but it also ‘felt’ alien, delivered by a Voice he recognised, knowing it was not his own.
“Three.” Not a question: a Statement. He hastened to secure the tenuous, unexpected connection before it was lost.
“I am Nine. Three, stay with me!”
Remembering to breathe (which required a conscious decision) he slowly opened his door. Immediately opposite a corresponding door opened just as slowly to reveal Three, a female member of his class.
“How?”
“I am not the only one to ask a Question! Three, I have no Answer – yet! But you are not alone. We are … different, but that does not mean We are ‘wrong’: Do you understand?”
“Yes. I know your Voice. But how…?”
“I cannot say. We ask Questions. We feel. Come! Talk!”
Nine pulled his door open and backed away, staying where Three could see him. A few seconds dripped slowly past. Three flowed silently from her room and crossed the corridor.
Something was different, something he hadn’t yet had time to name: he had only become aware of its existence seconds ago. Whatever it was, it wasn’t ‘he/him/his’. It had its origin in Three, but sat uneasy in his mind …
“We talk.”
He could feel breath surge across his vocal chords, sense the movement of his lips, hear the words so clearly he expected them to assume a physical form, dance across the room. Three nodded, and he knew at once they were ‘speaking’ normally, not exchanging silent thoughts.
“We know the meaning of the word ‘Emotion’, but our Education should make it impossible for us to feel such things.”
Three nodded but did not interrupt. He continued:
“If we live in a perfect Utopia …”
“We do not need these Emotions.”
Three could no longer resist interrupting, completing Nine’s thought.
It was Nine’s turn to nod agreement. Another powerful surge of Emotion swamped his mind: strong, positive, and somehow right.
“I can ask “Who?” You ask “How?” Perhaps we do not ‘belong’ here?”
Nine could scarcely believe he was speaking such heresy, but he was ill-prepared for Three’s instant and complete agreement – and the strength of the warm, positive emotion he experienced as she replied.
“So there must be an alternative.”
“Not Utopia? Some other … place?”
The idea of anywhere ‘not-Utopia’ was so foreign, neither could find a Word for it. Yet Logic had led them thus far …
“If we leave now, nobody will know! If there is somewhere ‘not Utopia’ we can find it.”
As he spoke, Nine watched his hand drift towards Three, inviting contact. Her hand mirrored the movement. Nine felt himself a passive spectator. Their hands touched, clasped. More Emotions, the most powerful yet, fired his being. With his free hand he opened the door and led Three along the deserted corridor to a door which opened to reveal the perfection of Utopia’s cityscape, the only Home they had known for sixteen years.
The streets were empty. At this time of day, everyone else was either at Work or in school. In the city’s North Quadrant, less than a mile distant, the discreet haze of a shield marked the utter limit of their Known World, the safe, protected community of Utopia. Nine turned to his new-found soulmate and companion.
“When we leave, we cannot return. You understand?”
Three nodded.
“We do not belong here. We leave nothing: if we find nothing, nothing is lost.”
Three nodded again: Nine sensed a sudden but unmistakeable increase in the pressure of her fingers on his. He gazed intently into her eyes.
“What?” Nine knew he hadn’t sounded the Question Word aloud. He was so tense, he dared not breathe. Three reacted as if Nine had filled his lungs and screamed the impossible Word with all the power he could muster.
“Nothing. You say we leave nothing here. Must we take Nothing with us?”
Nine’s eyes flicked around the spartan room he shared with seven other boys, all roughly the same age as himself. Identical beds, identical lockers, and without looking he was certain each locker would contain exactly the same clothing, accessories and equipment. Once again he experienced a strange Something he had no name for bubble briefly to the surface of his inmost thoughts. He forced himself to ignore it: there was no obvious way it could be of any practical use if they were going to leave the only home they had ever known.
“A change of clothing. Some few small things, perhaps, but nothing large or heavy – we must move now, and move quickly.”
He strode across the room and shook the pillow on the nearest bed out of its cover.
“Go now to your own room, take some clothing and whatever you want, but no more than you can carry in a pillow case. I’m using one from another boy’s bed, but it won’t make much difference. They will know who is missing as soon as they check! Go now, and hurry!”
Nine opened his bedside locker and studied its pathetically few contents. Two folded one-piece coveralls, one grey, one a pale green, otherwise identical to the white one he was wearing. A cup, cutlery, a small towel: a glowstick, which could be adjusted to provide either warmth for cold hands working outdoors or light in a dark tunnel at night.
“This is all you have, all you own, after eight years of schooling, learning rules written by someone else?”
The newly-awakened Voice inside his head was becoming more critical, less like his own, every time he heard it.
On an impulse he took the grey one-piece from his locker, then raided other lockers for a towel, a glowstick and basic eating & drinking tools. As he left his room, Three’s door eased open and she joined him. Her pillowslip looked to bulge in roughly the same places as his, about three-quarters full. This didn’t surprise Nine: there would be no real difference in what was available to plunder and steal.
“I’m ready.”
Although he ‘knew’ Three had spoken to him without vocalising, Nine’s eyes flickered along the corridor in both directions, alert for any alarm raised at this pivotal moment.
Nine felt another unexpected flood of Emotion, but this was different again. Three’s words were simple, yet carried a subtle hidden meaning. He took a deep breath, grasped her hand.
“One thing we miss: our Naming Day. Gold, I name you, for the beauty of your hair.”
“Blue, then, I must name you, for the colour of your eyes.”
Words were superfluous. Turning as one, the self-baptised Blue and Gold took their first tentative steps on the journey from Utopia to who knew where …


 

Visions of Utopia (a conversation)

Those lofty castles built on slavers' fees
Are not for me,
Nor fine deep forests
Where the hunters roam.
-

We dream of freedoms
Holding constant peace,
Where children sing
To elders at sweet ease
In sunny gardens...
-

Utopian visions! Who is equal there?
Can "gentlefolk" who wish to rest or muse
Achieve such joy without the servitude
Of workers bringing oil and clothes and food?

We are that species with the hellish power
To make things change from boredom, greed, or lust...
-

Or is it fear that makes us lock our gates
and threaten others whom, we guess, we hate?
-

Do lambs look on us as their saving gods?
Or calves . wrenched from their mothers, moments old?
Each spring the dams lament for long crying nights.

Can humankind
(Explorers ever meddling with our world)
Succumb to live in Eden
Which surrounds us as we kill?

A sprawling hand that metes out war
Too easily erases sights
That once gave all a taste of hope-
Cathedrals , temples, where we went to dream
Of perfect moments, privately,
Or touched a hint of glory in a priest-led prayer,
So quickly crumbled...

Fields edged with poison
Hold lost pastorals.
The rising melody
Of springtime's birds
Becomes a memory.
-

Utopia with rules
To hold the cruel ones back?
-

CAN this be best for ALL
Since it would lack
The power to stop excesses
That THEY cannot see?
Their heaven's not designed
To give equality.
-

The circle closes.
Colluders have no rights
To live perfection
Since we create night.
-

My friends, you think of this so narrowly!
Utopia's in every breath and sigh.
So let me tell you my thoughts warily:
We even find perfection as we die

If every moment we attend the sound
Of dawn's full opening-and -best-
Embrace with loving arms each friend around
And all who show us how to live with zest.

THEN nobody would call for bloody war
Or kill for "pleasure" , paying no regard
To others' rights to love lost Eden's store
Of glory still, although so much is marred.

If every moment promises a rose
Utopia's found in every thing that grows.
----

So soft and sweetly bade the friends farewell
And went their ways, musing so wistfully
On what was said, hoping to find a way
To search out gently, and with fine regard
To others' needs, to share all equally
With generous hearts, in equanimity.




Dear Mabel

Yes, I did catch the virus in England and it nearly killed me. It changed the very composition of my blood and strained my heart and lungs, which remain weak. But I am sure they will improve in the high mountain air of New Mexico when I get there. The pandemic is almost over now and the vicious Russian war too if disputes over territory between Russia, Ukraine and the Baltic states can be resolved. Liberty and Democracy have been under threat, shaken to their core, but after it was suggested by the authorities that my ‘foreign’ wife might be a spy in England, I’m not sure I believe in democracy as much as I used to.
I was afflicted at birth with a need to understand myself and the world. Dreaming of a better world is something I have always done. More’s Utopia didn’t sound like much fun. The people worked too hard, spent their little leisure in honest and laudable pastimes, but were docile and controlled, not spirited and free. However, I found it striking that he imagined Utopia as a real place, rather than as a set of principles. From an early age, I have had an impulse to write things down and I wrote to a friend about my thoughts on a perfect society when still a schoolboy…
“Don’t you think it would be possible to have a large house, really big, you know, and all the people one likes best live together? All in the one house? Oh, plenty of room inside and out, of course, but a sort of centre where one could always find those one wanted, a place all of us could come to as a home. I think it would be heaps nicer than to be all scattered and apart. Besides, there’d always be someone one liked near at hand. I know I should love something of the sort. Haven’t you often felt sad at the thought of the gradual breakup of families or groups of friends like ours? I have, and it could be avoided if we had the means.”
More’s vision rose from the converging streams of the artistic Renaissance, the age of discovery and the print revolution. A post-war, post-pandemic modern world in the middle of a communications and technological revolution is a time to take stock, make plans. Consider the seed; how it stays dormant until conditions are favourable. It is almost time for action, for renewal of my youthful vision. If I find what I think I will in New Mexico, we should invite all our friends to join us with the intention of creating a new society. Everyone must do things. Cook and clean and build and make what we need and grow flowers and vegetables. Others may copy us. The first law will be that there are no laws and the second that all men and women shall have the right to food, shelter, and knowledge and the right to mate freely. Our religion will be a religion of the blood and the flesh and of warm, human contact. We will use the new technologies but follow our instincts as much as our intellects. If we can always be our best selves, it would be the finest way to live. In time we may even regain contact with the lost world of the senses.
I hope the landscape of New Mexico will yield its secrets to me. Whatever I write there will be shaped by the landscape. My work has always been concerned with love and sex and death and the more I am vilified and persecuted, the more passionate I become about it. Nothing I see or feel will ever be beyond the reach of my pen.

Yours, DH Lawrence, April 4th, 1922

PS My best supporter in England, Forster, thinks I’ll still be read in a hundred years when every other modern writer is forgotten. A hundred years! By then the reading public, if it still exists, will wonder what all the fuss was about.

How warm the summer breeze feels on my cheeks. The soft light in the western sky bathes the fields as I stroll homewards through the lush grass. It's the summer solstice and I wander trance-like towards the light infused, golden backdrop of Whitbarrow Scar and its limestone curtains. My chosen path rises up to meet me but occasionally I feel only air beneath my feet as the ground has somehow disappeared. Now and again I seem to float for a second like a spirit ascending. I see lambs cast a wary glances at this drifting soul. A warm gooey feeling surges right through my body and I suspect that once more I am decades younger, walking home after a night well spent with the closest of friends.
As I look across the field at my home I know I am one of the most fortunate people to have ever lived on this planet. There's my house, set in such bucolic beauty, surrounded by rich, green sheep grazed pastures. The land is peaceful, safe and beautiful. Distant Bowland bodes broodily. The sea in Morecambe Bay washes silently against the shore with the incoming tide. Close by, a young curlew rises, calls to its mate and glides effortlessly across the meadow with streamlined wings in perfect, silent motion.
Despite my best efforts I occasionally stumble on the dewy turf. I giggle. A sort of giggle you only make when no-one else is listening. It's a childish laugh brought on by the heady, intoxicated state that dreams are made of. It's been a wonderful evening at The Derby Arms. The band hit every note with such perceptive acumen. Rip roaring melodies showered out to an appreciative throng. In the sweaty, confines of the bar, friends and acquaintances passed a heavenly evening swaying, rocking and singing to well known tunes. Rhythm and booze ...you can't beat it!
The Chambers Dictionary describes Utopia as "an imaginary state of ideal perfection". That's me, right in this field, right now.





A Vision, Utopia, or Both?

Amelie was fully aware of what was coming to her. She had run the gamut of emotions, from despair to a drug-induced euphoria, and back and forth between them through aching dullness. But she had settled, her days had a pattern, and often it was she who found herself comforting her husband Tomos rather than the other way round.

'Do not worry, mon amour,' she said to him, stroking his arm. 'I am not leaving you. This is just an adjustment, a shift into a different part of life.'

She realised, during the weeks of that summer, that it is easier to bear our own pain than that of another, and indeed seeing him in such tumult was to her as sharp daggers in her side, a kind of protracted crucifixion.

'Let us go, one more time, to the sea,' she said.

They went to a favourite place on the southern coast of the island and sat for hours side by side and hand in hand, watching the inexorable va-et-vient of the waves, before eating a salade de tomates and thin slivers of cheese and drinking a bottle of the finest Sauvignon blanc.

Next day Amelie asked again to go to the sea, for it was as if sleep had wiped her mind clear, and she cried when Tomos told her of their day, and of its joy. To calm her he spoke of past times at the sea, in that place, and yes, she remembered - how could she forget? They had been so happy, they could be happy there again, it was her favourite place, how could he deny her one more visit, knowing it might be her last? That made him cry, her saying that, so wide-eyed.

They went again, and again, and that summer each day was clear blue and glorious, and Tomos was glad of it, and of his wife's simple pleasure, for all that for her it was a chimera.

***

On the same day and at the same time each week, Tomos asked Amelia these questions:

When and where were you born?
What was your mother's maiden name?
What was your last job?

Each time she replied, without the slightest hesitation:

I was born in Nevers, France, on the second day of February 1962.
My mother's maiden name was Aumont.
My last job was as a seamstress in the workshop of Jean Samier, couturier in the Rue de la Melle, Paris 5e arrondissement.

She would add little details about the town in Burgundy where she had been born, and which she and Tomos had visited together so many times. She would reminisce about her mother, remembering - and perhaps creating, who was to say? - nothing but good times. She would speak of her job in Paris, of the fine work that she and the other stitchers had done, and of the pleasure it had given her.

Tomos, whose own past life had included things he would rather forget, indulged his wife, was glad to see her smile, whether what she spoke of had been real or was a vision. It was a way of coping, for both of them.

'I have had a good life,' she said to him each week, at the end of their conversation, and it made him weep.

***

Amelie knew that one day she would be unable to answer one of the weekly questions. That, at least, was what she had been told. But what actually happened was different, the shift that she had expected of a different order.

One day she woke and did not recognise the man in the bed beside her. But she kissed him and her returned the kiss.

'Are you my prince?' she said.

He laughed. 'I'm just Tomos,' he said.

'I don't know you,' she said, putting her hands to his face, gently. 'But you are beautiful.'

When she rose from her bed she did not recognise the view from the window.

'Is this the Garden of Eden?' she said to the man who was a stranger to her. 'Are you Adam? Am I Eve?'

Tomos told her again who he was.

They kissed once more, and moved together as the young lovers they had once been.

***

Tomos found himself living with a woman who he knew was his wife, but it was as if she had already moved, in earthly form, to the paradise in which some people believed. She spoke less and less, but seemed happy, or at least calm and content. And that was enough for him, for they were still together.

Utopia

From space Earth is a speck.
A dot, a fleck.
You can’t spot the rows of soldiers
crawling through a field
under an old sun,
from that distance.

Can’t spot the screaming mayhem
on this planet - People shooting or being shot at.
Blood flowing like a river.
Bodies of toddlers strewn like discarded dolls.

The fires of war scorching our children's children,
a fire perpetually hungry
for the wood of corpses.

It’s alright to summon the Buddha to mind
when you can’t take it anymore.
That calm face,
serene as daybreak grass,
an antidote to this claustrophobic violence.

They say you can fit thirteen Earths inside Jupiter.
Ask them if you can fit all the hatred we’ve nurtured on our planet, there.

Utopia
is a beautiful vision of peace.
Peace that looms so large that its unmistakable even when sighted from space.

Visions of Utopia

Its not what I think it is or is it?
I hope not and then I do, it depends.
My eyesight is fine its just my vision.
and I can hear its just sometimes I'm deaf.
They say its the biochemical reaction in my head.
I visualize what I think it is and today that's ok.
I don't depend on another's eyesight or vision.
In utopia I can hear color and see Silence.
The addiction has left me here without it today.
Tomorrow we start again with visions of utopia.

Utopia is never right now. Or right here.
It’s a place just out of reach, slightly too far ahead. Beyond the next corner. But on some days, I swear it’s sneaking up behind you, breathing down your neck. Or lurking just out of sight. You turn your head, it vanishes, shrinks from contact. Utopia doesn’t like confrontation. It prefers to taunt. It's not there when you wake up at 3am, thoughts racing.
Am I haunted by visions of Utopia? For me, there are too many visions to count, and they change by the moment, as fickle as shadows.
Utopia is made from the everyday - a hash of humdrum experiences, sights and sounds, temptations and frustrations. Of finely-balanced observations and half-forgotten thoughts. Of things you wish you’d said, and things you wish you hadn’t. Of things you want to forget, but that refuse to be forgotten. Of memories you fiercely cling to. In any case, those things never lie down and die. They raid the dressing-up box, and find their way back, in the guise of dreams.
Those everyday visions come back as all the houses you've ever lived in, strangely knitted together, the corridors intersecting, the rooms rearranged, with familiar people in them who were never actually there in real life. But now they are. They now somehow have permission to be there, doing what the hell they like and answerable to noone, least of all you. Now there’s a fun place to be.
Or maybe utopia is a real place, with cats in. Cats rolling on their backs, showing their furry bellies, eyes wide, alert, and watching, waiting for you to succumb. For their chance to lunge.
My utopia is hearing the rhythmic sound of gentle snores, as I sit late at night, typing away. Again, just of out of sight.
Some things are best left to the imagination.
Writing this, I realise that I'm happy in the real world. Right now, and right here.

Time, that's what it boiled down to in the end.

Are you making notes? Good.

So, time. The perfect window. Enough to get past the initial awe, the shock, but not so much it became familiar. It might seem odd, now it's so everyday, so much a part of everyone's routine. But at the start, when we were testing it, when it was nothing but possibility...

Look. I'm sure you know what you're doing, but this, this will change things, do you understand? It's important people know the truth and I am trusting you with it. This isn't for me.

Good.

I think the idea was raised twenty years or so ago. After the initial riots. After the tribunals had ended, after the unions were squashed. You could feel it, do you remember? The resentment and the anger just floating in the air like a swarm of bees. Everybody a twitch away from getting stung.
I hadn't worked at the company for long. I was so grateful. Before, I'd been a driver, like most. But I had my degree, like most too I suppose, and had been applying daily here and there, to anyone I thought might take me. So to get a foot in the door there? It was a dream come true. A miracle. I was assigned to 'development'. Even then nobody knew what the company did, exactly. They just were. You saw the logo on office blocks, on vans. And obviously you were aware that they had shares in this or that. Most of the movies. Even publishing, back before that ended. I suppose I thought I'd be part of a team developing a new tablet or implant. They'd just started those. So it was a surprise, that first day. When they had dimmed the lights and started the presentation.

'Visions of Utopia'

In the most perfect font. I'm sure they had whole teams just working on that. The 'V' and 'U' locking together in that lovely red. Looking back, I would have liked to be part of that. It would have made things easier. That's what they did, you see. Entertainment was just the sugar on the pill. Population control, that was their bread and butter. Sorry, I'm mixing my metaphors. It's been a long time since I've spoken to someone for this long. I used to be better.

You've worked out the idea by now? Of course, why else talk to me? You just want confirmation don't you. How to keep the working man quiet, happy with his lot! How to stop his mind drifting back to how close he came to tearing it all down.

Show him paradise. Distract him with perfection.

When they explained it to us, we were silent. The programmers looked terrified I suppose back then they thought they'd be coding it all. A paradise per person. It was so simple though. With the amount of data we had, the amount we'd all signed away, it was the easiest of things. To connect us with what we yearned for.

As I said earlier, time was the hardest thing. It was addictive, you see. People got hooked. You couldn't tear them away some of the early testers almost starved. And there were other issues. Risks.

People are so wonderfully complicated and yet we're so easily tricked. Those mirrors, hung in every home by the end of the first year, a 98% take up! People went without to get them, as soon as they heard from a friend about theirs. I remember reading all the think pieces, the op eds, the exposes. All so fantastical. So wide of the mark. Writing that we'd tapped into parallel universes, had an alien on ice with wires in their heads so we could broadcast its dreams. That we'd built the worlds most powerful AI and it watched out for us all. Because word got out quick each scene was different. Each unique. Sort of. What will they do, do you think? When they read this? When they find out the future was just the past repackaged?

A two way stream. A link from one place to another. Nobody thought to ask, when the mirrors were installed, about the external boxes. Just cameras, of course. So when you sat in your flat, staring at the paradise of open fields a man or woman there stared back. Marveled at a world where life was easier. Things more plentiful. There were no people shown, there were issues early on with that people recognizing others. So we tweaked it, put in facial recognition software so the cameras only ever showed landscapes. Cityscapes.

'Greener Grass' that's what they should have called it. Much more appropriate. It's all it was after all. But it's kept everyone quiet. Happy. Content. It's a trick. Nothing more. A placebo.

I've got the paperwork here, all the raw data. I'm going to try and get to...look this is embarrassing, after all I've said! But I had one too, a mirror, even knowing what it was and I want to go. To my paradise. I looked at the code I know where it is. It's not even that far. By the sea. I hope when you tell people they can find theirs. Or something close. The world is full of wonder and we've been denied it. Paradise is what we make of it, not what we're told it could be.

Do you know, I keep thinking of an old joke I head, on a radio show from years ago. My father liked it. A character is explaining to another about a world, a city he visited that is perfect in every way and when he's done his friend looks at him and says.

Gosh, that sounds like utopia.

Yes, the other replies, but it's spelt differently.

We're walking into the record store, Numb by Linkin Park playing on the speakers, and I've just told Belle what I think about Denizens - the band that is. She nods, she agrees on a couple of points, but when I finish, I know she's gonna slam me. Also, why'd we even still have record stores when you can pretty much download anything you want from Napster? Al says by 2005 HMV and all the rest will be as good as gone.

'The thing about Denizens, Davey,' Belle starts - I love it when she calls me Davey - 'they barely even count as proper rock.' There's something about the way she says "proper" that really gets me. Like every time. She nods to this lanky guy that's huddled over the metal section and I feel this kinda tug as I wonder what their history is. Al told me that if a girl's at least an eight then eighty percent of the boys will fancy her as 'that's just how it is,' and if she's 'into it' then you can only imagine how many people she's been with. Sometimes though, I think Al's full of shit.

Belle's still speaking. '...and that line in the chorus about war on the brink and all that stuff; what even is that?'

'Yeah, I know what you mean,' I say.

'Hey,' the record guy, Phil, says. Phil's got to be at least ten years older than us but he talks as if we're all close friends. 'You checked out Inhibition yet?'

'On my to do list, Phil,' Belle says, 'on my to do list.' And she leads the way to the back of the store, and I try to remember what it is we're even here for.

We shuffle past a couple that are having a pretty heated debate about Nirvana and stand by L in the rock section. 'You gotta admit though,' I chance, 'it's got a pretty good beat to it.'

'Beat?' Belle says, flicking through the end of the B's. 'If I wanted a beat, Da-vid, I would be listening to R&B.' The album's not there and Belle takes a step back. 'What the hell? she says.

'They've not got it in?'

Metal guy, dressed all in black with the absolutely stupidest hair I've ever seen, all spiked up tomahawk-style, leans over the shelves behind us. 'You looking for the new Lotus album?'

Belle's flicking through the C's now, not looking back. I spot another guy in denim over in pop and he looks over at her too. 'I was a bit curious,' she says, 'but not really my kinda thing.'

Which is strange, as Blue Lotus is pretty much all Belle ever talks about.

'You guys come here often?' Metal guy asks, corny as hell but at least he's including me, even if he's barely looked my way.

Belle lets the question hang for a few seconds and, swiping the CDs to the left so they all clack into place, she turns to him and brushes her fringe away from her eyes. 'Why'd you want to know? You some kind of stalker?'

Wow, shit, I think, actually unable to hide my smile. Metal guy takes a step back and I see his face redden, nose crease in anger. 'No bother to me,' he says, recovering. 'Know the store pretty well, is all, in case you're looking to make a habit of coming down here.'

Man, he's making even my flirting skills look good.

Belle walks over to the L's. Metal guy gives it one last go. 'You heard it yet?'

I'm as much involved in the convo at this point as denim guy over on the far aisle.

'Visions?' Belle asks, again not looking up from the CD rack.

Metal guy waits for her to say more. I know she's not heard it - neither of us have - which is crazy considering everything else they do gets played and played on Kerrang! first.

'Got the last copy in my car if you want to listen.'

What the hell, man? I think, standing there like I'm invisible.

Record store guy, Phil, is talking to denim guy about the latest Oasis album; I can just hear them, and Belle turns around to metal guy, one hand on her hip. 'You're a Blue Lotus fan?' she says, her voice dripping doubt.

'I'm a fan of all god art,' metal guy says, and I wanna puke.

Belle has her other hand on her chin. I find myself focusing on the chains metal guy has looped down over one thigh, and his boots, which actually have heels.

'What kinda car you drive?' Belle asks.

Metal guy pauses. 'Fiesta.'

It's while I'm waiting for her to respond, that a, bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum bass line fires out the store speakers; definitely louder than the song before. Like they've turned it up.

Belle turns from metal guy and our eyes meet, her eyebrows raised. Could it be?

How can you recognise a song you've never heard just from the bass line? But then, Thump, the bass drum; Tush, the snare. Just those two with the bass.

I take a step towards her.

Metal guy speaks, 'You know, I've got the whole thing in-'

But he's no longer in her field; no longer in mine. 'It is,' Belle says.

'Definitely.'

'White noise and bitter drums.' The beginning of the first line, and it's his voice, that perfect voice, and Belle's face as we hear it together, standing two feet apart.

Metal guy mumbles something else but he's gone to us at this point. My neck hairs prickle as Lotus shifts into the bridge, which rises, and rises, and -

'Visions of Utopia,' Gregson Teng's voice rings out. 'Visions of Utooopia.'

It's everything we've ever wanted it to be.

When it ends, we're standing so close, Belle and I, that I can feel her breath.

'Davey.'

I'm biting my lip, looking up at her.

'I think we should start our own band.' She waits for my response.

I hold the moment a few seconds, her eyes still on mine, I can feel her gaze - like actually feel it. 'Belle,' I say. 'That's a frickin' amazing idea!'

Hour of Writes Marion Foreman
16.03.2022
Visions of Utopia
She sipped her coffee. She was, as always, early. She had never achieved the ‘coolness’ of being a bit late. And anyway, today she was optimistic. This was going to be a good meeting she kept telling herself. That’s what all the books said wasn’t it? They said if you kept positive and believed then all would be well. Admittedly she had not had a great deal of success to date with this approach. Some of the dates had been, at best, unremarkable and some had been positively catastrophic. Could you be positively catastrophic she wondered? She would look that up when she got back in.
But this one would be different she felt sure. She had an image in her head of how he would be. She wasn’t naïve, she knew that the photo on his contact page wouldn’t be how he really was – but close enough would do. She could manage if he was a bit older, a bit fatter, not quite as dashing. All she really needed was for him to share her ideas on what life could be like. She knew, she just knew, that the life she had planned was idyllic and all that it needed was the right person.
She had tried to persuade men in the past that this life was the one that they were looking for too – but they were so silly that they couldn’t see it and didn’t agree with her. Inevitably they had left. More fool them.
This time it would be different. This time she would go more slowly and this time she wouldn’t tell him the whole story. There was no need to mention how many children she wanted on their first date was there? She would even consider asking them what they wanted in life – but really there was only one way ahead – one ideal way that she was ready to strive for.
She caught sight of him as he came into the pub. She had grown used to sitting in the right seat to watch the door. He was short but that was OK – at five foot two she was hardly what you might call tall. His clothes weren’t smart but she could easily change that as she could the dreadful haircut. She waved and beckoned him over.
‘Hello’ she said (straight in, positive actions, she knew her moves) – ‘you must be Tom. I’m Molly – good to meet you. I’ve got your drink in ready – I know you like IPA – here’s a pint of the stuff’. She had done her background checks – she knew what he liked – she was ready.
‘Let’s get down to business straight away shall well?’ she rambled on – not really looking at him and therefore not seeing the look of bewilderment on his face. ‘I thought we could go back to my place tonight and get cosied up – just check that we fit together – I think we will be fine. I’ll cook supper and you can make sure you’re happy with my kitchen skills. There’s plenty in the fridge for breakfast – so don’t worry about that. I’ve got spare toothbrushes. Where do you work? Nowhere much if you’ve come straight from work in those clothes. I run my own business but you know that from our online chat don’t you? I get the newspaper delivered – you do read The Guardian don’t you? Of course you do – I would never have been so open if I thought you were a Tory. They’re in a real mess aren’t they? Now, where was I? Oh yes, off to work tomorrow then pop round your place, pick up a few things and move in – job done. Let me get you another drink.’
She drew breath. Tom also breathed in but his moment as gone. Molly launched into round two of the grand plan. ‘Come the weekend we can do a bit in the garden – of course, you can have your say. It will be your domain – I’ll run the house and you can do the car and the garden – I’m all in favour of blue jobs and pink jobs aren’t you? That’s how my parents did it – what about yours? Silly me – talking about parents so soon – we will be talking about children next!’
Tom held up his hands but she appeared not to notice, just ploughing right on with her vision.
‘Now I don’t want to scare you but we don’t have much time’ she said and Tom looked at his watch. ‘Oh darling, you are so funny’ she chortled ‘you know I mean that we are getting on and the old biological clock is ticking. Whoops! There I go again – silly me. My mother always said that my tongue ran away with me. Do you like oral sex? I give good blow jobs, so I’m told. Not that it really gets me anywhere but its all part of the service. Imagine that – blow jobs whenever you want – isn’t that just your idea of heaven?’
He wasn’t saying much – in fact he hadn’t said anything but she was staying positive – she wasn’t letting her idea of perfect slip away again. This time she was going to nail it.
Tom shifted uncomfortably on his seat. ‘Don’t worry sweetie, you won’t feel trapped. We will need to get married as that’s always been part of my ideal plan, but you will still be able to see your mates. I won’t hold you back. I hope you were honest about your salary in the chat – we will have to manage without mine,’ she rambled on.
Tom cleared his throat as if he was going to speak. Molly held her breath – she knew, she just knew, that this was the moment when all her dreams came true. It’s when he would turn to look into her eyes and tell her that he loved her. That he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. Her utopian world was just about to begin.
‘Um, I’m sorry, I came in here to meet my wife’ he blurted out, looking uncomfortable. ‘And you have,’ she almost shouted, ‘here I am, ready for you to claim’.
‘No, my real wife. My name’s John, I’m not Tom’ he stuttered, looking completely flummoxed.
‘You’re not Tom from the internet? You’ve not come here to meet me? You don’t love me? You don’t want to marry me and have children?’ she was crying now. ‘You’re all the same. Lead a woman on and then drop her. I hate you. All of you.’ She picked up her bag and left, not even noticing the tall, neatly dressed man with a trendy haircut and well-trimmed beard sitting at the bar, gazing at the scene that had unfolded. Not sure if he had had a lucky escape or just missed the best chance he had of achieving perfect happiness.

In Search of Utopia

Some believe utopia
resides in sunlight
glancing from the
wings of dragonflies.

And that’s just fine.

But to understand
paradise that well,
you have to come from
somewhere
pretty close to Hell
in order to make
informed comparisons.

So, let’s define….

If we agree that those
who fail to grieve have
never really loved,
then by that token,
those afraid to love
cannot complain if life
should leave them numb
with hearts unbroken.

Those who are numb
cannot claim
to feel the cold
and must allow for
hot-heads to live
a life that’s bold
and live to love
and love to live
with no bars holed…

…if you get my drift.

And so it goes….
Life demands we take a risk
from time to time,
otherwise we’ll fall before
we’re even asked to climb.

We’ll only build utopia
if we’ve a mind to.
So, we should
cast fortune to the wind,
take the risk and feel inclined to…

Give it all.

70 years, or more she imagines, of poverty for him, the strange short man with unkempt stubble across a red face bearing an expression she had first registered as derangement but now realises is a sort of bewilderment with how is has all gone. Promises were made. It was not supposed to play out this way.

Dark is setting in, and she has 6 houses to call on yet, but instead of taking the forms to fil in he is standing in a crooked, urgent pose in the doorway.

“Tea then eh? Eh?” hands run through slightly lank hair, and he proffers an invisible cup before gesturing inside. She should not, of course, but it is cold, and she wonders how isolated he has been over the pandemic, and besides, she has never been good at saying no.

The kettle is a whistling one. The process of its boiling put her in mind of a canary in a coalmine as she smells the gas. He has always lived here. In this town. In this house. It was nearly countryside, but Dublin has grown to maul it. It was never his intention to live here. He pined for Australia since he was 5 and his brother called from Melbourne at Christmas.

All his life he tried to leave for that far-away land, and his sitting room is littered with books, strewn with magazines. Beaches as they were in 1972. The Uluru in black and white.

The mother was dead, before he knew her, and the father a weak man, tortured by ghosts and sins, calling his whiskey medicine and clacking a rosery with the old women and doing nothing of value all his days. And Chrissie- whom they all called Bobo- the older by two years but made simple by God and needing minding. The father was no good to Bobo so he himself did her food and her baths and wiped her arse because sure, she had no one, and when the father passed there was little difference and none really came to the funeral.

The tea was strong, unpleasantly so, and he had milk in it before she could tell him she didn’t take dairy. He was hardly about to have oat milk though was he.

He’d thought he might sell the house and bring Bobo to Melbourne and he and the brother might share the work, but it turned out the council owned the house and besides the brother said “sure she’s settled there, it’s all she knows, it would distress her to move all the way around the world.” And so twenty years passed then, with them having no money because he hadn’t finished school and couldn’t learn a trade when he was needed day and night.

He offers her a sandwich, and she says no, only his face takes on a look and so she says yes, sorry, I was only being polite. It’s white pan and ham and cheese and butter and a packet of King crisps. She tries not to think of the pig as she eats it, and wonders how she can bring him back to the census forms.

Bobo ran off one day, which she’d never done. They were at the shops and he was in a cast where he’d dropped a brick on his foot trying to do repair work. Bobo got scared of a sign on the wall with a face on it and off she ran. It took a day and a half to find her with the Guards and all, and he’d never been so afraid. She was in a ditch and blue with he cold. From then on she lived in an institution and he had to take two busses in and two busses out of town each day to visit her, and sometimes he spent 3 hours on the bus or waiting on a bus in a day. Bobo didn’t trust anyone else and once he couldn’t come for two days when he had the flu and she went off like a firework and walloped herself in the head with her fists, and wouldn’t eat and they said if it goes like this again we’ll have to use a tube. He could only imagine how scared she’d be with a tube and two men holding her down so he tried to never ever go a day without being there.

And he made the best of it, he read lots of books on the bus, and imagined how his brother must be living out there. After a while he didn’t even need to read he could picture it so well already. He could feel the heat of the sun like you only get in Ireland once a year, and smell the salt and the barbeques. In Melbourne they must not think anything of walking around in just shorts, and there’s people there from all over. Chinese people, and Black people and people from America and all. Everyone goes there and they’re all welcome in Australia, especially the Irish, who the Brits sent out there at the start.

She spent 4 months on the Gold Coast and another 8 weeks backpacking, but she doesn’t say, just nods along. What’s the point of telling him about all the racism?
And then four years ago, a week after she turned 70, Bobo choked on a grape and died, just like that. And his heart was broken, and he didn’t know what to do with himself. He thought of going to the drink but decided it was a bad way to die. So in the end he got all his bits and bobs he’d saved up over the years, and sold some furniture, which was why the place was so sparse, and he bought a one-way ticket to Melbourne, via London and Singapore, for April 4th 2020, which was the cheapest date they could find at the travel agency.

Only he was the fool in the end because they cancelled the flight over the Covid, and sure that was it. He hadn’t known he could get the money back and now it was too late.

She’s not crying because of the shock of it, and she eats her crusts and says nothing to him and the silence stretches out.

Has she heard about the Ukraine and what’s going on out there? She says yes, it’s terrible. Does she pray for them? She hesitates but shakes her head, no she doesn’t pray at all.

Each to their own then.

He read there was a woman who was born in the siege of Leningrad, or was it Stalingrad? And she’s under siege now in the Ukraine. She’s twenty years older than he is.

He wonders, did she think of the Ukraine for a long time, when she lived in Russia?

He says, it must be terrible to have a life like that.

My Notes