Contraband

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.

Community

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

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 ?

Kitty Metcalfe

Highland CowKitty Metcalfe scared the life out of me when I was a child.
She smelt of strong cigarettes and whisky and had a gruff Glaswegian accent which, combined with the deafening volume, made every incomprehensible utterance sound like a death threat.
She was probably in her fifties, and she was a grandmother.
I look back at photos of her with her best friend (my granny) and I see a woman who devoted herself not to preening, but to her family. A woman who stayed true to her roots even in deepest darkest Windsor. A woman not be feared, but admired.

The Vieille and the Lagniappe

The blades of the oars seemed to slip silently into the water and then, as old Bear pulled the handles towards him, the rowlocks let loose a little squeak just to let you know you were moving. Bear didn’t talk much. He just kept a-stretching and unstretching his arms, breathing nice and slow and, if you listened real close, you might just catch a little humming. Bear’s old head was full of tunes and given a pretty girl and a jar of whiskey he’d dance and laugh all night long. When he was younger I heard tell he’d dance a girl till she begged to lie down and rest; that he obliged many a wish for a lie down and never a wish for a rest. But these days he’s just Old Bear – a big old twinkly-eyed beast of a man who runs a boat and will take you out on the bayou for fishing or hunting or seeking the all-seeing eye of the Vieille.
The Vieille lives far out in the bayou, surrounded by water and ungodly animals like snakes and gators and lizards and more snakes.
I asked Bear for an invite. It’s the only way. Only Bear knows where she lives on account of him rowing out there to take her food she can’t catch in the bayou.
I don’t know how long it took to get there. The sun was blocked out by the tops of the trees when we set out. When we left I had lost sight of it altogether. I had lost so much more, but of course I didn’t know that at the time. I was deliriously happy on account of her telling me I would find true love within the month and be married within the three and within the year, she had told me, I would hear the sound of my baby crying.
I paid her. Of course you got to pay her. She don’t use her all-seeing eye for you for nothing – you got to take gold or silver and you have to give her something your heart beloves so she can get the measure of your spirit. I gave her my Daddy’s old picture of him and me that Momma took and gave him. I found it stuck to the leather inside his old wallet after he died. I gave her that because my heart truly loved that picture and because I could close my eyes and see it even after it was in her hand so it didn’t feel like I was losing it when I gave it to her to keep forever.
I shouldn’t have asked for the lagniappe. The little extra they throw in when you buy something.
“Within the year” said the Vieille “you will know the true value of life.”
I thought she meant the gift of my little baby. Not the life my one true love lost in childbirth.
I should never have asked.

Blood

One saw-edged slice of paper on finger and a drop of blood sits ready squeezed on the surface of the skin.
Fat and glistening and red-black. A ladybird.
I could flick it away – send it flying across the room to land wings outspread on the wall.
I could squash it – crush the hemisphere on a piece of paper and see what Rorschach splat appears.
I could.
But instead, I suck my fingertip to taste the ferrous tang of blood on tongue like one of my grandmother’s old spoons or a nine volt battery as I short circuit the juice of life.