(and other ‘true’ stories…)
Versions of ‘The wringer’ and ‘Bulldog’ have previously appeared in Rising magazine. Versions of ‘Mr Happy’ and ‘Neil, not Neal’ have previously appeared in ‘Obsessed with Pipework’ magazine.
These stories are works of fiction and no character is intended to portray any person or combination of persons living or dead, etc.
It was a fine day and early enough in the year for the sports field to be green, the white lines bright and unscuffed. The boys ran up and down the parallels in shorts, daps and singlets. The girls, a little up the slope and on the concrete flat, played netball. They were allowed polo shirts.
I slogged along behind Cotter, a dark line of sweat running down the back of his bulging vest.
In the cottages opposite a few elderly residents had come out to spend the morning gardening in the sunshine. Vapour trails were the only clouds in the blue of the sky. At the top of the slope Mr Cotham stood in his red Adidas tracksuit, whistle in his mouth, flirting with Miss Lovett.
I grew bored of watching Cotter’s fat arse and decided to nip in front of him while Cotham wasn’t looking.
“Hey!” called Cotter, hoping to attract the teacher’s attention, but then something happened that made everything else irrelevant. From somewhere not far off came a sound we all knew, a sound from war films, from documentaries, from the tales of our grandparents, the wailing rise and fall of an air raid siren. It cut through the morning, the sound coming as though from above, unignorable.
I jogged to a halt, turning to look at where the sound seemed to be coming from, down towards the river perhaps, towards the power station. I looked across at the adults, they’d know what to do. Cotham had his hands buried in his curly hair. Other teachers had emerged from classrooms, staring towards the river, hands shading eyes and still the siren wailed on. I knew what it meant, we all did, The Day After had been on TV not so long before and we’d all talked about it the next day. We’d seen the news, parades in Moscow, mushrooms on the TV screen. It was in all our minds, a shadow inescapable.
In the cottages opposite I saw the gardeners had ceased and were now conversing, secateurs still in hand. It seemed unreal. I looked around, everyone was facing west towards the sound. I knew it was west, we’d used compasses in cubs that week. It occurred to me we should be facing the other way, that’s where they’d come from. I turned, looking at the deep blue sky, empty still but for contrails, every other face looking past me.
I wondered if we shouldn’t be doing something, if the adults shouldn’t be marshalling us inside to hide under desks, duck and cover, protect and survive, something like that. I looked again at the teachers who had gathered in a small group, talking so we wouldn’t hear. Some of the kids were making little groups, a couple of the girls were crying. I stood alone and wondered what my mum was doing, my little brothers. I felt my blood turn to water. Four minutes. I wondered how long we had left.
I logged out of my email account and then logged back in. Yes, it was definitely there, I hadn’t imagined it. I’d won the short story competition. I was going to be published alongside famous names, be reviewed in the national press.
I took a deep breath and looked around the room. My colleagues had their heads down, the blue glow of computer screens illuminating blank faces. Their lives were proceeding as usual. Inside my head synapses were firing, jumping and dancing. I tried to keep my face expressionless, copied and pasted the message from Picador, printed it off and went outside.
I sat down in the sunshine, lit a cigarette and read the message again. My hand was trembling. Colours were brighter, sounds more exact. I thought about telling my girlfriend, my mother, my friends. I thought about the people I didn’t like, how they might find out. I allowed myself to smile, laugh aloud. This would show them! Perhaps this would be where it all began, where everything started to change. I stood up and turned on the spot, almost dancing, energy fizzing in my legs and arms.
Then it appeared, the thought, the sudden horrible awareness.
Perhaps this was it, the high point. Perhaps it would never get this good again. Perhaps this was the pinnacle.
I sat down and frowned, feeling suddenly heavy, the print-off sweaty and crumpled in my hand. The cigarette burned.
Yesterday my landlord hung out his washing; shirts trousers, underpants, knickers and a solitary nightie, all pegged on the line, fluttering like bunting.
Three days earlier his wife of forty years had died a slow senseless eight year death that had sucked her dry and filled her legs with five litres of stagnant fluid. It seemed incredible, five litres, but why would he lie.
I wondered how he had felt as he sorted her dirty clothes, putting them into colour coded piles according to the cycle, knowing that this was it, their last ever wash together. From now on until the end it would be his things alone, dancing, whirling, coming to rest at the end of the spin, entangled but lonely.
There were none of her dresses, blouses or trousers on the line. For the last six months she had been wasting to nothing, imprisoned inside, propped up on pillows in laced pastel night-wear. Strange for him to have washed her knickers, I thought. For what? Not to hand down or on to the needy. No, I realised, it was just to return them clean and neatly folded to their rightful place. To shut the drawer with everything settled.
Almost men all angles elbows and knees, four crammed in a Mark 2 Mini parked in a lane, windows down, interior fogged with cigarette smoke. It is summer and a hundred yards away the lights of Westwing Girls’ School glow in the darkness, a beacon of lust. They scheme to get the girls out, how to avoid teachers, how to find the courage to approach, even speak to the upper-crust lovelies within.
Middle-class boys, they flatter themselves the sixth formers will think them bits of rough. They are not.
They talk in low voices, a hand shifts the gear stick, a tape plays, volume down, wary of discovery, relishing fear, the transgressive thrill of unrealised endeavour. Each mind and body braces for the mission, ready to dare do all that may become a man.
The moon and stars shine in a cloudless sky.
Next to them outside the car comes a bellow, a low roar, visceral, angry and wild. The boys shriek, shrinking and those in front scramble with handles, winding the windows in desperate circles. Up up up, bang down the locks. The roaring endures, stops then resumes. The boys laugh, ashamed of their fear.
Dan has his hand on the key but doesn’t turn the ignition. What is that? With glass up and locks down they feel safe again. It’s on the other side of the hedge. The passenger window open a crack. The noise comes again, guttural, huge. More laughter. What the fuck is that?
Dan gets out holding a rounders bat he keeps in the door. I follow. The others stay, closing the doors behind us. It is cold despite the season. We edge towards the gate, placing each foot with care. Dan holds the bat cocked and ready. The roar comes again followed by wet, splashing sounds. We freeze, every sense wire taut. Our eyes meet. We frown and shrug. I reach the gate placing both hands on the topmost bar. Dan hangs back. I am taller, I lean over, slow and silent.
There in the gloom, a shape, a bulk, black, white, convulsing, hunched. The roar now sounds anguished, no longer angry. The wet sounds come again.
I see what it is and laugh, loud enough for all to hear. Dan’s head appears at my side to look at a vomiting cow.
We never saw any girls that night. Our courage had been spent.
Shake off the dust
Whenever I heard it my heart contracted with a shudder. Didn’t they know what awaited those who sung such dreadful words? I would listen with rictus grin, not wanting to reveal how appalled I was, wanting them to think I was in on the joke. I almost admired them for their recklessness yet pitied them for being so flippant about something so serious, about someone so sacred. For some reason I was also appalled at the thought of what my grandma would think if she ever heard the song. By not publicly chastising the blasphemers I was betraying God, Christ and Grandma.
The vision of the Saviour riding a Yamaha (I always pictured it as white with blue trim, perhaps due to his mother’s preferred colour scheme) was not in itself problematic, in fact in sandals and robe, with beard and long hair flying in the wind he looked pretty cool, an Easy Rider. What was more problematic was the Lamb of God committing infanticide due to reckless driving. To suggest that the Redeemer, He who would ‘suffer little children to come unto’ Him, He so gentle, meek and mild, to suggest that He might “kill a kid” struck me as grossly inappropriate. I was tormented by the thought of the pain it must surely cause Him (for He must have been a sensitive man) after all He’d gone through for us. It was so ungrateful, so unfair. It bothered me far more than the anger it might provoke in his Father; to have endured crucifixion to save mankind only to have schoolboys ridicule and slander him so crassly… As for the final line in which the King of the Jews suffered castration at the hands of a dustbin lid, it was beyond awful.
As my spiritual evolution moved down its winding path, eventually taking a direction that led far from Damascus, it occurred to me that Our Lord would have forgiven such sinners and that all my concerns had been misplaced. That, I realised, was why they had sung with such abandon, it was they who were closer to God, it was they for whom he’d come. He hadn’t come to call the righteous, but to call the sinners to repentance. How I wished I’d sung along.
Jesus Christ, superstar
Came down from Heaven on a Yamaha
Did a skid
Killed a kid
Chopped off his bollocks on a dustbin lid
Neil, not Neal
My first friend in school wore a sweater that scratched him, pillar-box red that’s still burning now. He’d pick at the crust of his splintering eczema, crayon clutching hands cracked down to blood. He would beat me in maths tests and taught me to pull on inside-out socks. Brown, ribbed and limp they somehow disgusted me.
His house smelled of polish, run by a mother who named him in order to stop abbreviations like Jim or Robbie, Nick or Steve. When she was in earshot we called him Knee.
Nowadays in seamless skin he drives a sports car, red of course, and wears the softest woollens.
His socks? I dunno.
It was a bright evening in early spring and I was walking out through the gates of Eastville Park opposite the Queens Head. A squirrel darted past and then across, flashing back up the wall and into the park. A couple of seconds later, I heard a shout, high and feminine and then the scrabble of claws as a bulldog barrelled past, shoving my leg to get by. Unaware of the squirrel’s change in trajectory it thundered across the pavement, lumbering into the rush-hour traffic on Fishponds Road, straight into the path of a white van.
The same voice screamed again and I heard something fall, contents rattling, scattering. The dog stopped in the road, looked left then WHAM! It was gone. The van didn’t brake or swerve, just sped on as though nothing had happened. The dog reappeared under the van’s rear bumper, some strange physics spitting it high into the air where it flipped, spinning in a howling arc of piss that fountained into the cool evening air. It landed with a thud in front of a Ford Mondeo that screeched to a halt.
Something rolled past my foot, a pound coin, and wobbled to a halt at the curb’s edge. The woman raced past me, heading for the dog, and I picked up the coin.
The dog clambered slowly to its feet and stood, legs braced, and shaking its head with a jowly grunt.
The woman attempted to gather the beast in her arms but as she tried to pick it up it howled. She eased it gently onto the pavement where it lay, chest swelling in laboured breathing, otherwise motionless.
I rolled the pound coin between finger and thumb, watching as a couple of bystanders crossed to the woman. Another woman had picked up her handbag and put its contents back in, she placed it at the woman’s side, laying a hand on her shoulder for a moment.
I wasn’t sure what to do. I couldn’t pocket the pound but it didn’t seem right to give it back to her then and there. I looked around, wondering if anyone had seen me pick it up. People were offering the woman advice but she was weeping over the dog which seemed to have lost consciousness. A man was standing a little way from the group, talking into his phone, a finger jammed in his ear. The traffic kept moving.
I walked across and edged sideways through the crowd, extending my arm, the coin held between finger and thumb, almost under her nose. She looked up and her mascara blurred eyes met mine.
“Your pound,” I shrugged, making an apologetic face.
She didn’t respond for a moment, just stared. When she spoke it was as though to a child.
“Please… just… go away,” she said.
I opened my mouth to speak, nodded and then ducked out of the cluster, slipping the coin into my pocket.
Simon was an undergraduate at Oxford studying archaeology, not as bright as you’d expect, as is often the case, but there you go… My friend Jakob warned me that he might start talking about his heart at some point. It was something Simon did after a few drinks, though he’d had tests and doctors had told him there was nothing wrong with him or his heart. He was at his prime, as perfect in fitness as any young man could expect if they ate and drank as he did. He was funny, Jakob said.
Sure enough, later in the evening when we were pissed Simon started asking if it was normal that his heart was twinging and asked me to take his pulse. Earlier Jakob had told me to indulge him, but with a few drinks inside the devil took hold. No, I told him, it was almost certainly bad news, a sure sign of impending heart attack. He started crying and it didn’t seem so funny anymore. The next morning no one said anything about it.
A few years later Jakob told me what had become of Simon. He’d been on a dig somewhere in Norfolk, it was August, and after a day in the field he and his colleagues had spent the evening in a local pub. The next day he’d excavated and exhumed in blazing heat, sweating out a hangover and wearing no hat. He’d refused food and refused water, working in a shadeless trench, ignoring everyone around him.
In the middle of the afternoon he collapsed and no one could revive him. By the time the ambulance arrived it was too late, he was dead, a massive cardiac arrest. The coroner said it could have happened to anyone, there was absolutely nothing wrong with his heart.
The body lay at the mouth of the old railway tunnel, stretched on its side, frozen in a run, head bent and reaching as if twisting for a butterfly. At first it was a dull red mass, distant, fast approaching, transforming, revealing its sad ruddy form in the seconds that I cycled past. It must have been playing the night before, high above on the wooded slope, leapt onto the stone balustrade, slipped and tumbled through the cold dark air, landing unseen and unheard, leaving silence and an empty space for a mother who knew only that one of her litter was missing, the frantic search, the hopeless call to return.
His body was gone when I passed in the evening but when I got home and was walking to the polling station I heard from afar the cry of a child, high and hurt – and drawing closer I saw in a public phone-box used mostly for drug deals a woman clapping a tiny baseball capped head with ring studded palms.
“I’ve had enough of your fucking bullshit!”
He was facing the floor, motionless, arms at his side and his wordless grief, shrill and hiccupping, echoed in the confines of the box.
She saw me staring and pale and blue eyed met my gaze in challenge, unflinching and unblinking, both of us, and in those moments what passed was an understanding of our own cowardice and shortcomings.
There was a fancy dress theme for New Year’s and I went as Yasser Arafat; military jacket, false beard and a red checked tea towel. Dan ran the nightclub and got us in on the guest list. As we descended the stairs, jumping the queue, someone reached over and tried to grab my tea towel. I turned and barraged him with a stream of gibberish and finger wagging.
Inside we had a reserved table and Dan laid on jugs of vodka Redbull. I’d not had much success with women for a while and it occurred to me that the outfit was unlikely to help. I swapped my beard and tea-towel for an afro-wig and before long was chatting to a Bond girl at the bar. She came over to our table with her friends, more Bond girls, and things began to move smoothly. At midnight we kissed. She was warm and giggly, curved and wriggly.
At the end of the evening I jotted her number in my notebook. Although I was living in Manchester and she was at university in Reading and lived in Castle Combe I was hoping it might work.
I waited a couple of days before I called, not wanting to seem too eager. A recorded voice told me the number was not assigned.
I’d wondered if this might happen, I’d had to ask her for the number and when we’d parted she didn’t seem that sorry to be going. I stared at the scribbled digits. Could I have copied it wrong? I’d been pretty drunk. So had she. I tried reversing some of the numbers. Once or twice I got through to people who weren’t her or claimed not to be. Each time I dialled the new sequence I could feel my self-respect draining with each punch of a number, my desperation growing. Was it really worth it? I tried once more, loathing myself.
I kept watch, though it was open fields behind us, while Lawrie cut the barbed wire, then we squeezed through. Neither of us had been on the other side of the Green Shield, a huge corrugated metal fence, since it had gone up over ten years earlier, filling and cutting off the old railway cutting. We’d ride our bikes up to the barricade, painted green in a vain attempt to make it blend in, cautious in case any of the punks who left bags of glue lying around were there. From the top of the stone stanchions it was possible to see over and down the cutting, though the tunnel entrance was away beyond the curve.
We stood on the far side and listened. The man who owned the land was notoriously protective, dogs guarded the front of the property and the tunnel was now a nuclear shelter. We had wanted to see it for a long time.
We made our way down the cutting, the sides sheer and growing higher. Trailing greenery made a jungle of the narrow space. Neither of us spoke, our feet splashing and squelching in the quagmire as we edged further into the unknown around the bend. Lawrie was just ahead, I placed my feet where he’d stood.
“Jeez!” he whispered.
Up ahead the cutting ended abruptly in a mound of rubble that took up the entire space, rising twenty feet in front of us. We crept closer. The apex was topped with barbed wire apart from a narrow gap at the left hand side. Hanging from the wire was a sign printed on a square of tin.
We looked at one another, eyebrows raised and shook our heads. It couldn’t be.
I moved up the mound, placing each hand and foot with care. All I could hear was my laboured breathing and the buzz of a fly drawn to my sweaty head. I paused near the top and looked down. Lawrie was watching my progress hand on hips. I listened again but all was silent, a distant motor, a tractor maybe was all. I scanned the apex, wondering if perhaps the sign wasn’t a bluff after all. I pushed myself up the last few feet and looked down on the other side.
The brickwork of the Victorian surround was still visible but where the darkness of the arched entrance had once been was now a massive metal door, within which at ground level was a smaller door. I edged a little further to get a better view, turning to call back over my shoulder.
“I can see it!”
From somewhere nearby came the harsh sounds of an alarm, tearing through the silence, repeating and insistent. I looked down at Lawrie, seeing the alarm on his face. He turned and ran. I scrambled down the incline, hearing something tearing on my jeans, then the sound of dogs barking.
I hit the level and began to run, water erupting under my boots. I hurtled through the undergrowth and overhanging greenery, staggering, slipping, fearful to look over my shoulder. Up ahead I could see the Green Shield and Lawrie emerging into the light, not looking back for me, tearing up the side towards the gap in the fence.
He was waiting on the other side when I got there, holding the wires apart. I scrambled through and we didn’t stop running until we got to the main road where we collapsed, breathless and hysterical on the verge.
I was taking Evka to catch the early plane to Prague and we had to change at Victoria to get the tube. It was Sunday and the echoing concourse seemed huge with absence, just a few passengers scanning the departure boards and glum vendors opening franchised units on the periphery.
The wheels of Evka’s case trundled on the polished floor. We were talking about a film she’d seen by a director I liked. Nothing we’d seen on our journey had suggested there was anything out of the ordinary about the morning. We’d been out the night before and had only slept for a couple of hours, both still giddy with the aftershock of wine.
We were almost a quarter of the way across the white plain when I first noticed the man with the trolley of newspapers. He was coming from the corner we were bound for, heading for the corner from which we’d come. Hunched and grim he pushed his load before him, bearing down on us like some great tanker on the ocean. As we drew closer something about the man and his load seemed to hold our attention, though I couldn’t tell what, and our conversation died. It wasn’t the man despite him glaring at us as he laboured closer; it was as though we’d trespassed in some way by talking and laughing, as if we were in some vaulted cathedral.
Then I realised what was wrong with the trolley, just as it was about to pass, all of the stacked piles of newspapers were black. Evka and I looked at the covers as they slid past. Pure black with white type.
We stopped, the trolley squeaking onwards behind us, and turned to one another, eyes wide and mouths agape. We burst into laughter. It was not loud laughter but it was laughter nonetheless. We reached out and held each other’s arms, eyes locked, never breaking. I’m not sure who stopped first but as soon as they did the other stopped too. A kind of madness had seized us, neither could have said what was funny. We pursed our lips, sniggered slightly and glanced around the station, feeling dirty, guilty. A few people were staring. We looked at each other again and then away, afraid of what we might do, afraid of what they might do, and then continued on our way, on the path from which the trolley had come.
“Get up. You’re going to school. Your grandfather invaded Sicily with dysentery.”
“What? On his own?”
“I’m not telling you again.”
So my stoicism was installed for future trials. Inside my trenches packages of love and lies would arrive, blessed with kisses and hopes for life.
After numerous hints, delivered like merciful blows, she finally stopped buying me boxer shorts with Mr Happy of the Mr Men emblazoned on the leg.
It was easier after that, no more waking thinking, ‘Christ, what next?” and then opening my smalls drawer and seeing that yellow fool waiting his turn with a smile.
The toilet roll wars
It’s driving me mad. She hangs the toilet roll so that the paper falls to the back. What’s wrong with her? Doesn’t she know there’s only one way to hang a loo roll, so that the paper falls to the front. You’d think after 5 years of marriage we’d have sorted this out.
I’m a reasonable man, a man of compromise. I don’t leave the seat up. I’ve learned that it’s not worth the bother, the yell down the stairs every time she gets in there. There’s no point resisting. She will go on and on until I’ve trooped up the stairs and lowered it.
Why it should be me who puts it down rather than her putting it up is beyond me. It seems rather rich when she gets so indignant if a man tries to hold open a door or offer his seat to her. Chivalry’s last acceptable stand, the toilet seat.
Still, I will not give in on the toilet roll. Some things are about right and wrong. Some things have to be defended. This is my line in the sand.
There are no words just passing glances on the landing. The toilet roll is the Vietnam of our Cold War. She knows that I’ve changed it and with tooth grinding certainty I know that she will change it back, undo my work as soon as she sits.
But I will put it back again.
I grew up in a market town in the west of England. Poverty wasn’t prevalent, quite the opposite for the most part, but poverty of imagination was endemic, exacerbated by the lack of anything to do other than drink in the pubs on the High Street. On weekends the pavements of the centre were starred with glass and splashed with blood and vomit. Many preferred to stay at home.
PizzaZ did good trade, delivering sweaty deep pans to the estates and beyond. I did this for a while, flat boxes stinking up my car, knocking on smoky doors behind which big dogs barked. The lower the house the better the tip.
On my first night the boss sent me out with Gareth to learn the ropes. He talked non-stop, charming the doorsteps with flirty banter, eyes swivelling all over the place, through curtain cracks, into hallways and living rooms.
Gareth smelled of weed and cologne, a heady mix that battled the pizza and Magic Tree in his wide wheeled Peugeot 206. We drove the narrow streets with the windows down and sub-woofer booming. For a pizza delivery boy he was well-turned out, Armani and Aqua Scutum. While he may have been quick of wit Gareth was not what you’d called nuanced.
He’d been threatened a few times and the police had paid a visit but found nothing. Gareth had sharp eyes but the light fingers belonged to someone else. Spoils were shared.
One night Tony took a call for a big house out of town. Gareth took the delivery, drove down the lanes, past the gates and up the drive. The tweedy bloke who answered the door wasn’t expecting him. They argued for a while but he wasn’t paying for what he hadn’t ordered, he insisted. With a single fingered salute Gareth spun on the gravel and was gone.
When he got to the bottom of the drive Gareth found the gates had been closed. He got out of the car and into the darkness.
When the police found him later that night the engine was still running, exhaust fogging the beams of the headlights. Gareth had been dumped in the bracken, his face unrecognisable. He never woke up and eventually his mother had him switched off.
No one’s ever been charged but there are plenty of rumours, plenty of names.
Burglaries went down overnight.
Under grey autumn skies I biked through the flat landscape to Oldbury-on-Severn. Dan’s house was around two hundred years old, a butcher’s and baker’s which had been knocked through. It stood on a crossroads opposite a Post Office that also served as the village shop. Oldbury nuclear power station was only two miles away yet the village still retained an air of remoteness.
Dan and I spent the morning drinking coffee and listening to records. The morning passed without incident. Outside it was monotone grey, the clouds claustrophobic and low. We sheltered in the old abattoir, now his dad’s workshop, and blew cigarette smoke into the haze of rain.
At one o’clock, I remember the time because we wanted to be back in time for Neighbours, we headed over to the shop to get lunch. As we were leaving the phone rang, it was Dan’s mother. They talked for a minute and then she had to go; she worked in a travel agent’s and a customer had come in. She’d call back once her customer had gone.
Thick fog had descended as it often did, rolling in off the estuary, but the green tinge to the swirling cloud was something we’d never seen before. We stood and stared, entranced by the weirdness, the fog heavy and cold in our lungs. The light seemed to be coming from the direction of the power station.
Inside the shop we bought pasties, spoke briefly to the lady behind the counter, and then headed back. We’d been gone about ten minutes.
We walked back inside to the sound of the phone ringing. It was Dan’s mother and I could hear her shouting as soon as he picked up the hand set. Where had we been, she demanded, she’d been calling for the past hour. Dan looked indignant, angry even, but when he looked at the time his face froze. According to the clock an hour had passed in ten minutes.
Dan’s mother didn’t believe us, she was convinced we’d been up to no good. We couldn’t believe it either.
We went through to the living room and switched on the TV. The programme was the one that followed Neighbours. We looked at each other and in Dan’s eyes I saw fear and my own fear reflected, each rising as though in a short circuit.