Whisky

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.

Thistle

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.”

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 ?

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.

The Two Beasts

On either side of the kingdom of Fabulisia live two decidedly different beasts.
The Story Beast is a large, fruity toned monster, whose voice sounds as if all the words, however poetic or tender, were actually typed in bold.
The Gorey Beast, on the other hand, is a rangy creature who speaks entirely IN CAPITALS and whose manner would be described by an Englishman as ‘somewhat direct’ and by an American as ‘Goddam rude’.
I am, I must confess, equally fond of both of them. This is helped greatly by the fact that I have not actually met them, but on my visits to the kingdom I have heard the people speak of their beastly pair with a mixture of lemony wonder, earthy fear and a pinch of salt.
The Story Beast and the Gorey Beast are brothers, but as is often the way with siblings who are close in age, they are very very different in character.
Local legend has it that they fell out years ago and can only communicate with each other by remote telegraphic message – that if they met in person for confabulation, there would instead be conflagration. They are, to each other as matter and anti-matter, antipathy and pathy, pasto and … Well you get the idea.
They do however eat the same kind of food : stories; though the kind of tales they favour are quite distinct.
Story Beast favours tales of courage and hope, he loves to hear thoughtful little fables where peace and calm outs in the end.
Gorey on the other hand is restless and ambitious. He wants effort and brains to conquer all and many a tale of beauty has been hurled against the wall in a fit of rage and frustration.
They do share a scale of appetite that is formidable. Story after fable after tale is consumed by the beastly duo. Week after week they gorge themselves on fiction – sometimes they create plates of it stacked so high that they can’t even eat it in one sitting.
But as they have aged, so they have slowed.
When the beasts were youthful a week’s worth of stories would be devoured in but a single hour.
Now though the beasts are not so swift to nibble a narrative. Now they often pick at the stories for days – not really eating them at all.
What of the authors ? I hear you cry. Those poor enslaved scribes, tied to their chattering typewriters churning out tale after tale to the tastes of their beastly overlords …
They I am sorry to say, are destined to die. For without the scraps of encouragement thrown by the brothers Beast, they have nothing. Nothing but an excess of words and a diet of your own words is a thin gruel indeed.
Dear readers call for the beasts. Call them to the table to sup.
Let us feast on words once more till our imaginations burst the belt buckles of our minds.
But wait … Is that the sound of pawsteps ?

Anthropomorphic

He’s a tetchy old bugger.

He bloody hates commuting you see. All those wide people and men with overspread knees and headphones susstattering at you when you haven’t really woken up yet.
People who turn the page of the newspaper noisily. Man he really gets riled by that. Every flick and crack of the page is worth five or ten heartbeats a minute.
He’s not good when he’s hungry either – it seems to irritate him and nudge him towards the spleenventingly unfuckingreasonable.
Once he’s had breakfast he begins to behave like the world wasn’t invented for the sole purpose of pissing him off. Until he sees the morning’s emails.
Emails. They breed overnight. You leave two or three of them sitting in your inbox and by morning there’s fifty six of the little buggers all clamouring for attention. Needy little chicks all beak-wide-open cheeping at you begging for you to feedmefirst.
You can’t just kill them all. Control A Delete stamping on the nest with your boot and crushing the chirpy wormgobblers into a silent pulp because it’s not polite and it’s cruel and there are rules about that sort of thing.
Old grumpyboots is unconbloodyvinced. He’s pretty certain that an email that isn’t a reply to one he sent first is bloody spam and deserves to die. Left to his own devices he’d sit there hitting DEL fifty six times, and the best I can do to prevent him is to let him fire off one really massive over-reaction to some perceived slight.
That done, he’s got time to bubble up some proper resentment against the idle little bastards who rock up at nine o’bloody clock in the morning when you’ve been there for an hour and a half already and then potter around having a piss and getting a coffee and logging on and don’t even start being bloody productive until gone half past.
Then a morning of fuckwittery and dumbuggery as a never ending stream of people who haven’t got a fucking clue book his time just to torture him with their stupidity.
By lunchtime he’s got hungry again so he stops being quite so reasonable and his instinct control gets a little weak.
A good lunch calms him down some, provided he doesn’t eat at his desk and catch up on the emails again – usually the replies from the idle buggers who weren’t at work yet when he wrote to them before nine o’clock.
The afternoon’s often a little quieter, some of his pent up fury is wrapped up in tackling the afterlunch snoozies, but by five the pressure’s built up again and it needs an outlet and if you let him he will target you and everyone else and most of all himself until he’s spent and the day is done.

I’d like to think that that tetchy old bugger was my alcoholism – my addiction, and that he was somehow someone else entirely, but that’s not true. That grumpy bastard’s just me, unfettered and furious. All I have to do is to remember to check the locks every day.

Quest

Sir Charles sat upright on the stool allowing Knipe his valet to tilt his head back and forth and side to side as the razor scratched and slid across his jaw. Knipe’s fingers tugged at his skin, stretching his face into comical clown shapes and hiding his jawbone under sheets of skin and jowl fat. The towel around his neck smelt freshly laundered, the shaving soap the same blend his father had favoured and Knipe’s father had lathered before him.
Knipe wiped off the last of the soap with a clean flannel into which he had poured cool water and a few drops of lemon oil before handing Sir Charles a fluffy towel with which to dry his face.
“Thank you Knipe. I shall take breakfast in the conservatory.”
“Very good sir”
Knipe placed the towels and flannel into his enamel basin, slotted the razor into his apron pocket along with the soap dish and drew the strop over his shoulder. He headed downstairs to let chef know Sir Charles was ready for breakfast and where it should be served.
His master walked as purposefully as he always did towards the conservatory. The sun was shining, and he felt like sitting amongst his oranges, lemons and olives. A little part of Hampshire rich with the trees of Spain and memories of dark eyes laughing.
He was fondly lost in a long time ago when Sanders came in with his tray.
Swiftly and neatly, he placed the cutlery on the table – a steak knife and a fork, the salt and pepper at nine O’Clock and a glass of water, an apple juice and a strong, black French coffee from twelve to two.
The warmed plate with poached eggs on one slice of granary toast, halved; its flattened edge parallel to the table edge and, as Sir Charles sat, the simple, heavy cotton napkin addressed to his right hand.
“Excellent Sanders. Good man”
Sanders dipped his head in confirmation and silently left the room.
Two shots of black pepper for each egg. One each of salt.
Sir Charles sliced decisively diagonally across each egg, the edge of his mouth curled upwards at the sight of the rich, golden yolk spilling into the channel cut into firm white eggflesh and across the toast. The steak knife then cut clean through the corner of the toast, capturing a neat edge of egg and as his fork pushed through the right angled triangle of toast created he registered the satisfying depth of the toast and its pleasing colour and crunch. Chef had taken care not to let poaching water sit on the egg and wet the toast.
He drank deeply. First the water, then the apple juice and, once the egg was finished, the palette cleansing coffee. He cleaned the edges of his mouth with the napkin and pulled the last bit of egg white from between his front teeth with his tongue.
Standing, he threw the napkin down across the plate and breathed in the mixed citrus oils of his indoor garden. Today was going to be a good day.
As for the rest of the unruly world, he was less sure, but the quest for perfection had started well.

Chimera

Chimera (n) A grotesque product of the imagination.

Paul doesn’t do imagining. It’s not his thing. He uses tried and tested thoughts that won’t muck about in his head. Thoughts that just get on with the job in hand. Thoughts that haven’t got ideas above their station. So he was more than a little annoyed to discover imaginings crawling unwanted around his skull like ants at a cranial picnic. Bloody things.
He squeezed his eyes tight shut as if that would somehow keep the pictures out, but it was no use. They seemed to enjoy the darkness – it made them brighter, somehow more energetic.
He stuck his fingers in his ears and la la laa’d to fill his head with sound but they just bounced off the echoes and riffed a harmony. One of the little buggers went double time and beat out a scattety rhythm. The little shit.
Paul picked up the paper. Shouldn’t think the Daily Mail had much patience for imagination. It had bugger all patience for anything else, and this sort of namby pamby making-things-up-for-no-good-reason was bound to be the very sort of thing The Mail opposed vigourously. Opposed or not, at every comma, every full-stop, every pause for a fiddly word – they crept in and interrupted him.
Hmmph. It was a lot harder than it ought to have been to stop his own brain from imagining.
His own brain ! Bloody traitor. He started picturing a trial where his brain was on trial for treasonous misconduct against itself, but as the image of his own brain in the dock popped into his mind he gasped in the realisation that he was imagining being tried for the crime of imagining and it all got too much for him.
Paul took his biro out of his jacket pocket, splayed his fingers out flat on the table in front of him and started stabbing the space between his fingers at high speed. He had to focus – eliminate all extraneous thoughts from his head or the conical metal at the biro’s end would come crashing down on hot, soft flesh, piercing the skin and driving the little round ball deep into the bone …
He could still hear the tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap of the pen on the table but it was far off while he saw the red and black blood and biro ink spurting from where the pen had not yet speared his finger.
Botheration. There was no way round it. He was going to have to let it imagine stuff.
Let’s be honest. He wasn’t going to let it do anything. It was just bloody well going to do it whether he let it or not.
He breathed out in resignation and settled back to see the show.
Silence. Plain reality before his eyes. Not a fucking peep.
The little bastards – they’d gone. It was as if they didn’t want to play in this big space all on their own. Paul’s brow furrowed. Crap. He missed them now they were gone.

Oxymoron

Phil was crammed into the sidewall of the trench trying to get some sleep when the letter fluttered across the lip. A light blue airmail tissue paper butterfly striking terror deep into his very core.
In an old fashioned serif, looking for all the world like it had actually been typed by hand, the letter was as follows :

Dear Sir,

We very much hope that this letter finds you well and that your officers have kept supply lines open in these difficult circumstances.

We are settling down well in the trenches we recently captured from you. Your engineers did a magnificent job building them, they really are first class. The same however cannot be said for your cooks – one of our chaps tasted some food that had been hurriedly left behind as you retreated and the poor fellow hasn’t been quite right since !

We just wanted to drop you a quick line to let you know that our next attack is scheduled for four thirty tomorrow morning. Hope this reaches you in time for you to take appropriate evasive action.
We thought we would preface the main thrust with an artillery barrage for half an hour or so with fairly regular flares so we can all see what’s going on.
Our supply master Wilf is particularly proud of his new delayed action ground clearance wotsit – you shoot it up above the area you want to clear and it howls loudly as it falls from altitude. Not really sure why it has to do that frankly – it’s a little overly dramatic don’t you think ? When it falls into the trench it goes completely silent for a while before exploding into lots of what he calls ‘bomblets’. Little packages the size of a golf ball apparently that bounce around the place making a bit of a mess of things before coming to rest and then exploding too ! No wonder Wilf loves it – howls and hundreds of explosions – he’s just a little boy in a uniform to be honest. The louder it all is, the more he likes it. I don’t deny the little thrill you get when you set one of those things off, but it does make an unholy mess of anyone underneath it when it comes down, so without teaching Grandma how to suck eggs and so on, I would strongly recommend you’re not there when it does.

There are a number of excellent options open for you at the moment, but once we get to four thirty I’m afraid choices will become severely limited. My personal suggestion would be a nice orderly surrender at the dip in the land about five hundred yards south of your current position – or you could of course flee to the rear and fight again another day – it’s really up to you.

Looking forward to meeting you at the dip or in battle someday,

Yours,

The Gentlemen of the First Brigade, Roxton Harcourt.

Phil shuddered, shook his head slowly and looked to the south where he saw a thin stream of his fellow rebels heading for the dip. He stood to join them.
He was strangely relieved it was over. He looked at his watch to check the date.
September 12th. The end of the civil war.

Shuffle

Shuffle sat back from his workbench and rubbed his eyes.
He had been leaning in to the same fiddly design for hours and the sheer effort of concentration was stitching a knot in the centre of his forehead.
He knew he couldn’t give up, it’s just no one had told him how hard this was going to be.
His father Chaos and his mother Lucky just did this sort of stuff at the breakfast table like it was nothing. A quick squint of the eyes, a wave of the hand and whoosh ! There it was. New matter.
Dad’s brother Entropy was the family genius though. He was the creating force behind some of the compounds that everyone just thinks have been here forever – things like water, salt and Kraft Singles.
Dad said Entropy had some sort of condition that meant he kept on growing all the time so he couldn’t do the detailed work any more, he said these days Entropy was working on whole systems of galaxies, building huge factories instead of just single atoms and molecules.
It sounded cool, but Shuffle thought it must be lonely up there weaving wormholes and juggling gravity. Kind of made you grateful for just hanging out with a friend, playing some tunes, maybe going to a party and playing at being a DJ.
“Right. This stupid matter isn’t going to invent itself”, thought Shuffle, so he cracked his knuckles, stretched his back and focused all the energy he had on the space just above the surface of the workbench.
The air grew brighter and energy spat and sizzled, trying to stop him from catching it and turning it into matter. The plasma was dripping now, little globs of white sticky stuff escaping the shape he intended for them.
“No fucking way” he thought and pushed the drops back into the shape that was so nearly forming in front of him and then all of a sudden the air popped and an object fell onto the worktop.
Shuffle looked at it in amazement. His very first creation. Right here, in his very own room.
The family business was safe. He could do it ! The sense of relief was overcome by the rush of celebration. He had to tell someone. Show someone.
“Mum ! Mum ! Come up here ! I’ve done it !”
Lucky walked into her son’s room and looked at the new thing.
“It’s lovely dear”, she said.
“What is it ?”
“It’s called an iPod Mum”
“Well whatever it is, it’s lovely dear. Well done” and she kissed him on the head.