The sole of my shoe, free of the bounds of nail or glue, claps out of time with the nervous tap of my foot in the gutter. Something somewhere smells of piss. This is the city, so that’s almost always true, but there’s a strong possibility that this time it’s me. It’s “I don’t bloody know” in the morning, it’s cold and I’m damp everywhere. It probably is me. Whose piss it is is less clear. Getting home’s going to be tricky, no cab driver will pick me up looking like this. Thank God it’s Saturday … Oh shit. Is it ?
Granny Joyce died last weekend aged 88.
For the last two years she has had a sealed envelope on her mantlepiece labelled in her famously spidery handwriting
“To be opened in the event of my death”
She made sure that her children, her neighbours – everyone in fact who visited regularly, knew about the envelope.
Her son was concerned that the envelope was going to tell him some terrible secret
“Your father was a Russian spy”
“You were adopted. We found you in a shopping basket outside Waitrose”
The time came when the envelope had to be opened.
Her son poured himself a large whisky, sat down with the envelope in his hand and his wife in support, took a deep breath and ripped it open.
He pulled out the sheet of writing paper and slightly nervously unfolded it.
Turn off the gas.
Turn off the electricity.
Tell the DSS I’m dead.
From a true story told to me by Charles, published with permission
A huge banner stretched across the back wall of the Alpha Street Hyatt ballroom, “Bravo Charlie !” in bold font and even bolder colours. The delta between the corporate conservative style of the place and the cheesy cheer of the banner was echoed in the disparity between the manager Philippe’s perma-smile and the pained expression in his eyes.
“Mon dieu it has got worse” he told his daughter who was the head of the waiting team that night.
“Now they all watch the dancing on the television and think they can pass off synchronised floor walking as a Foxtrot.”
The Rayleigh Golf Club’s Annual Dinner Dance was probably his least favourite night of the hotel year.
“I had a call this morning from some fool who wanted Chicken Tikka Masala ‘just like they make in India’ ! I am not making like a snob Juliette” (he so clearly was) “but we could bake a kilo of Lima beans in a vat of ketchup and if Mike told them it was ‘legumes au four’ they’d think it was Cordon Bleu.”
“You will win another Oscar tonight Papa” said Juliette to her grumpy Dad.
“The Essex housewives will swoon at your exotic Montreal accent – their hearts will thrill to the dulcet tones of the Quebec Romeo. They will have opened their own door as they got out of their husband’s eighteen year old Ford Sierra and then they enter our world and the thought of one tango with you in your uniform and their hearts are smiling.
Of course their little husband is the victor in the end, because while he is drinking whisky with the boys she is getting romantic thoughts because of you and he gets to reap the reward later.”
“Juliette you look at people like a doctor looks at an x-ray” he said. He was proud of how wise she had become, but she did not get that wisdom from nowhere. He knew that she was flattering him because she wanted something, and if he wasn’t mistaken it was to do with her exciting new African American boyfriend visiting from Chicago.
“How much time off do you need to spend with your Yankee Zulu then huh ? How many days do you think that compliment will buy ?”
“I will bring you the prettiest dance partners Papa” she grinned “and that alongside the flattery should be worth next weekend off”
Philippe grunted in agreement as the Golf Club chairman walked into the room and the perma-smile flashed its brittle welcome.
Peter’s father was a pilot, his grandfather too, and today Peter stood at the launching grounds for the very first time.
Pre-flight checks done, his heart beating hard at the danger, excitement and expectation of his ancestors, he levelled his gaze on the horizon and stepped into the unknown.
He fell ten feet before his wings caught the breeze and he swung his tail round to steer. Not so much flying as controlled plummeting, but he was safely down. Peter had earned his wings.
All he faced now was the not insignificant matter of getting back up to the nest.
Brawn, son of Tower, was the only giant he knew.
His parents had been taken from him by Evil Jack, the Beanstalk Killer and his world was filled with loneliness and trying not to be angry.
Humans took one look at him, his size and strength, and decided he was cruel and stupid, ignoring the possibility that he might just be sensitive and a bit upset. He wished he could lose himself in a strong, loving embrace, but there was no-one left big enough to hold him.
Human girls just screamed when they saw him and they were so very … breakable.
Welcome to Picton Drive. Listen. There’s something I ought to tell you.
Ginger lives next door but one with her son Fred. Her feeders live there too, but they’re not important. She runs this end of Picton Drive. If you have territory at this end of the Drive, it belongs to Ginger first and you maybe. She will patrol every morning and every evening – mostly to check if your feeders left a door open for you and you left your food out. If I were you, I’d let her eat whatever she wants. She’s beautiful but … cruelly persuasive.
Daniel Taraxacum, Baron of the Greenlands, slammed his fist down on the table and roared at the rest of the Star Council.
“The Cirsium must die. Every last one of them. Every adult, every child must be torn from their home and burned.”
There was an uncomfortable silence from the other council members.
Some were silent because they agreed with Taraxacum but did not want to be seen to support his violent and extreme views. Some wanted only peace.
“This vulgar horde must be stopped. They have moved into the Greenlands and now they spread.” He spat the word.
“We cannot stand idly by while they steal our land, our food and water. We must kill them. Kill them all !”
Lady Aster cleared her throat, placed her white gloved hand on the table’s edge and drew her elderly frame slowly upward until she stood, posture perfect and eyes fixed on the agitated baron.
She did not use his title. She spoke as if to an intelligent but wayward child.
“Daniel, your family and mine are as one. Clan Cirsium is of our family too if you look back far enough, yet you would cut them down and feel nothing but the smug glow of the victor.
You hate them because they strong and they take care of their own. You hate them because when we are attacked by the beasts, they are left alone and your children are not. You bristle because they are quick to take advantage of new opportunities and slow to be taken advantage of – who does that remind you of Daniel ? Who is always there soon after new ground is broken ? You Daniel. And yours. And me and mine. Every one of the Asteraceae on this council.”
The Baron’s head hung low. He could not bring himself to look his accuser in the eye.
“I would have you bring their Chieftain here and tell him he is welcome in our lands Daniel. If you are not willing to lead our Council in opening our faces to the newcomer then I will have to ask you to pass the Star of Aster on to one of your cousins.”
“Daisy …” he mumbled.
“Lady Aster Daniel” came her sharp retort.
“Lady Aster, I will meet with the Scot and welcome him”
He raised his head and the two of them nodded in assent.
He puffed out his yellow mane and spoke as if he had always intended to say:
“I, Daniel Taraxacum of the family Asteraceae and subfamily Cichorioideae do call Lance, Chieftain of the Cirsium of the family Asteraceae and subfamily Carduoideae before this council and I, and all my kin do welcome him to the Greenlands.”
Lance, Chieftain of the Cirsium threw open the doors of the chamber, his bold voice rang out across the room as he strode towards the high table.
“Dandy you wee pussy. It’s about time ye called your own kin.
Now, let’s have a cup o’ your famous wine and celebrate.”
Every day Derek Jenkins, 45, takes a train ride and a step step change on the tube and spends the day surrounded by younger, smarter, better qualified people and pretends not to be intimidated.
They help of course by repeatedly demonstrating that their training, brains and youth mean little when not alloyed with guile, creativity and aggression.
Derek would love to tell them where he developed his alchemical skill, but he can’t. He must carry it with him. Hidden. But every now and then his feet belt out a Shirley Temple & his eyes flash with the thrill of the contraband.
The neighbourhood’s changed quite a lot since we were nippers. We were both born here weren’t we Jim ? He’s a bit older than me – we’ve been like brothers all our lives. We were brought up to believe in the same things weren’t we Jim ? Always look after each other, the value of hard work, obey the law, be loyal to the Queen. Thank goodness these are values that still resonate with the young folk. My brother Dave was a soldier. These are the things Dave died to uphold. Termite attack a month ago. Now he guards the great anthill in the sky.
Tuppence was the kind of girl who looked you in the eyes and demanded, without saying a word, that you justify yourself to her. Her world was full of words people had used but not meant, and yours had better not let her down.
I let her down.
It’s not that I didn’t mean what I said, it’s that I was too careful, too afraid, too … predictable.
It was her surname. Halfpenny. Pronounced “haypney” … that put me off for starters. Then there were her eyes – looking at me. Deep deep brown eyes you could curl up and lie down in but then the piercing cold demand of her right eyebrow. Arched. Imperious perhaps. And then her disappointed shoulders – collapsing as if two vertebrae had fallen away in a spinal landslide. The momentary loss of her gaze, the swift flare of her nostril and her eyes snapped back to lock on mine until I couldn’t take it any more and my eyes fell to the floor in shame.
I picked them up, dusted them off and put them back in their sockets where they belonged.
A tear welled on my eyelid: hot and fat and salty. It wasn’t the lint I had missed as I dusted off my eye, but the thought that she might never learn to trust me enough to just laugh freely.
I blinked and the tear rolled heavily to the corner of my mouth and the salty tang, the brine of my fear, let itself kiss my tongue.
I saw her chest rise as she prepared to speak. Pray God I wasn’t staring at her chest, that distracting plunge of skin and that mole – did God really need to put a mole just there – drawing my eye and. Oh no. I definitely looked that time and she’s still looking at me. She’s seen me look right at moley and then over correct. EYES. Yes. Got them – there they are. Completely devoid of mole, though I swear I can see it sitting just on the valley wall there, teasing me.
I could do with a drink. My mouth has gone from being perfectly functional to slightly salty and now it’s an oral Atacama; moisture a distant memory. Something cold and long. Something sophisticated perhaps to show her I have taste. Maybe iced water with a slice of lime and an olive. Maybe that would taste awful or be too showy. Maybe just a cold glass of water with the beads of condensation coalescing into tears of their own and tumbling to the table. I should probably get her something too. She’d like that.
I really need to fart. I’m not sure how much pressure I can apply before it defeats itself and turns a tiny gas slip into a trumpet fanfare. Hnnnh. Not good. And not I need a wee. Should I get these drinks in first ? Oh God I don’t know. To pee or not to pee …
Shit. She’s asking me something. What was the question again ?