Sunday, 29 April 2012

We're No Here

(Mogwai - We're No Here)

He woke exhausted from a night when his dreams had felt like he had been awake, and the times that he was awake had felt like a dream. Once, he'd woken to a dull low rumbling sound, as if a heavy lorry had been driving slowly past, but he was too tired to do anything other than register annoyance and then slide back to sleep. Now the sun made the blinds into squares of soft yellow, and he stretched and luxuriated in just being there, doing nothing. Evie must have got up early and quiet and taken the kids out, because no-one was running around screaming, or hitting a toy repeatedly against a door, or bouncing on the end of the bed. He lay there for a little longer, content because it was a Saturday, and because he appreciated the gesture from his wife.

When he started to fall asleep again, he made himself get up, because it was gone nine and if he went back to sleep he'd wake up with a terrible headache. He staggered into the shower, bleary and in need of coffee. He turned on the little waterproof portable radio shaped like a crocodile, but all he could get was static, so he tried to make a mental note to buy batteries when they went to the supermarket that afternoon, but knew he would probably forget. The first thing he did when he got downstairs was switch the coffee machine on, and while it was hissing and filling the kitchen with the smell of wakefulness, he took a mug from the tree, ate a biscuit and felt guilty about it because he was trying to lose a few pounds, and flicked the CD player on, switched it to radio.

It hissed, and he played with the tuner, but got nothing. He frowned and wandered through to the sitting room with his coffee, picked up the remote and switched on the TV, and saw Evie's purse, keys and phone on the little table next to the end of the couch where she always sat. Turned, and saw Jake's pushchair in the corner. The TV came on, with a hiss.

He ran up the stairs, and checked the kids' bedrooms, but there was nothing there except the usual mess and clutter, so he ran back into his room and pulled on last night's t-shirt and his jeans, ran down the stairs and forced his feet into his trainers that he had pulled off without undoing the laces, and was out of the door.

It was a beautiful morning, with a clear pale blue sky, and the air felt fresh and smelt of spring. A soft breeze shivered the leaves of the shrubs in their tiny front garden, and he heard it so clearly because there were no cars driving down their street, and no sound of engines and bus air-brakes from the main road just twenty yards away. None of the neighbours were starting their weekend DIY, no kids were riding bikes on the pavement, no-one stood bored and staring into space while their dog pissed up a garden wall.

He looked up, and he remembered Evie's concerns about being on the flight path and so close to the airport, and how their friends who lived a couple of streets away had told them that although yes, the planes were always coming and going there wasn't really much noise, and what there was you didn't notice after a month or two anyway, and it was worth it for the lower house prices and the excellent school. He looked up, staring at the pale blue sky, that stretched high and empty above him.

Sunday, 22 April 2012


(Massive Attack - Angel)

It was the hottest summer I can remember, suspended between school years as if time had stopped.

There were five of us, and we thought of ourselves as a gang, even though we didn't have any rivals to fight. We did have a leader though. Fender was as big as  any two of us put together, and he had grown up fast and hard on his dad's farm with no mother to sweeten the influence.  He used to take the piss out of me and Paul - Lord Tweedledum and Lord Tweedledee - we were both from middle-class families, and were both going to boarding school at the end of the summer. Tucky and Mike would be going to the comp; Mike could have coped at any school, but his father didn't believe in grammar schools. Tucky - well, Tucky wasn't the brightest match in the box, as Paul used to say, but he was a laugh. They were all a laugh. It's what we did, the five of us, laugh, play in the hot sun, swim, fight, build camps, play football, laugh, under skies so blue they appeared painted above the world.

And then that summer, there was a sixth. Every group has its outsider; ours was Miles. He had only arrived in the village that Easter when his father bought the village shop and moved the family in above it. Miles first turned up when we were killing time outside the garage, sitting on the low wall, practising spitting into the cow parsley on the opposite side of the road. He was breathless and talkative; we were sullen, grudging, curious. We gave him such a hard time in the beginning that I imagine the only reason he put up with it was the lack of any alternative. Fender in particular seemed delighted in the novel challenges presented by a new face. He'd arrange a gang wrestling tournament, and when he drew the lots for partners, Miles would always end up fighting Fender first. Miles had nearly drowned once on holiday, he confided in us once, eager to win us over with a tale of dramatic adventure. Fender listened intently, and then casually suggested a swim to cool off. He walked off in the direction of the river, taking off his shirt as Miles stood waiting behind, shifting from foot to foot, diminishing in the distance as we all followed our leader.

Miles was small for his age and wore glasses which slid down his nose every five minutes. He put up with all of our teasing, desperate to be accepted, and over the summer he gradually became part of us, if not ever actually quite one of us.

At one point he disappeared for a couple of weeks. We wondered where he had got to, but not to the point of bothering to call round for him. When he eventually reappeared, something was different. He was more confident, in a distant kind of way, his shyness not so much gone as pushed to the back, subdued by something stronger. He'd meet our eyes now, and argue back if we were talking. We all still teased him, but it just seemed to wash over him. This infuriated Fender, who started getting worse with Miles, giving him a hard time as often as he had the opportunity - and Fender made sure that there were plenty of opportunities. Miles just laughed and went along it, and always seemed too far away for it to really bother him, but this just made it all worse.

A week after he had come back we were sitting on the wall by the garage, watching Mike's cousin doing oily things to the underside of an old van, sucking at ice-pops and waving away wasps. The big question of the day concerned a nest of red ants Mike had found in his garden, and the consensus reached was that we were going to kill them with boiling water first and then excavate the nest afterwards. Miles suggested that when we had finished we should build a gang den down in one of the ditches at the back of Tanner's Field.

 Fender paused and hawked up some phlegm, spat it expertly across the road. "We've been around for years. All the things we've done. All the fights we've had. We've been around for years. Can't just become part of the gang in one summer. Maybe not even two or three."

Miles looked at the ground, scuffing the heel of one foot back and forth against the wall, not saying anything.

"Different if you could bring us something." Fender said.

"Sweets from yer dad's shop." Mike said.

Fender snorted."Sweets. Jesus. No, like beer from his dad's shop. Or  fireworks, proper class bangers and rockets. Or a ninja throwing star.  Something like that. Something better. Prove himself worthy."

Miles looked directly at Fender. I had never seen him look so intense. His glasses had slipped down over his nose again but for once he hadn't pushed them back up. He stared at Fender over the top of them.

"I can show you something better than those."

"Better than a ninja throwing star? Yeah, reckon."


"Like what?"

"You know when I went away for a few days? Was at my aunt's. She's got all sorts of stuff, my aunt. Her shop's by the docks, she buys stuff off the foreign sailors, see, sells it to the tourists. Old stuff, all sorts. She gave it me."

"Gave what to you?" Fender managed to sound both bored and impatient at the same time.

Miles grinned, and jumped off the wall.

"Meet me at the rope swing in quarter of an hour and you'll see. Then I'm in the gang? Swear?"

"If it's as good as a ninja star, you can take Tucky's place if you like," Fender said, and we all laughed, even Tucky.

Miles ran off down the street in that odd, lop-sided way of his. We finished our ice-pops, dropped the wrappers behind the wall, and walked down to the bottom of the road. Fender was first over the fence and as we crossed the rec ground to get to the woods beyond we speculated wildly as to what Miles was going to bring. Tucky was busy telling us about the time he had stolen some cider off his dad, and been sick in his mum's flowerbed, when we reached the swing. It was our invention, a strong rope with a tyre on the end that Mike's big brother had tied to a high branch of an oak for us in return for Mike not letting on about his cache of dirty magazines. Miles was there before us, walking round and round the clearing, an excited look on his face, a faded Tesco carrier bag in his hand. Fender carefully assumed his most uninterested look, strolled over to the swing and sat in the tyre, rocking himself to and fro.

"Go on then. And this had better be good."

"You promise not to tell. You all promise not to tell. My aunt said if you tell, it doesn't work."

"We promise," said Fender, swinging round in a lazy circle, "don't we lads?"

We swore our agreement on various relatives' lives.

"Go on then." Spinning round, pushing off from the tree.

Miles stopped pacing, reached inside the bag and pulled out a small, dark bottle that looked like nothing more than an old medicine bottle.

"What the fuck is that?" Fender stopped the swing of the tyre with an abrupt kick of his foot into the ground. "I thought you said that it was better than beer."

"It's not beer." Fender's anger scared Miles. It scared me.

"Well what is it, moron?"

Miles swallowed, pushed his glasses back up. "It's an angel."

There was silence. The air hung hot and heavy on my skin, even in the shade of the trees. Then Tucky howled with laughter.

"Miles is mental, Miles is mental, mental Miles is mental - "

"Shut up." Fender slid off the swing. His voice cut Tucky off in mid-song.

"It is," Miles was pleading now. "My aunt said it is. It's brought me luck. It came from India and she bought it from a sailor, he told her the story of it, it's sealed in the bottle and as long as I keep it, it will bring me luck, and stop everything being bad for me and make everything right and - "

Fender stepped forward two quick steps and punched Miles in the face. The smaller boy staggered backwards, a hand flying up to his nose.

  "You said." Fender was angrier than I had ever seen him. "You said it was better. Better than fireworks. And you bring me this, this, this shit. You can fuck off, and never, ever come near us again, you liar, you shit you, you little lying shit."

Miles made the sort of noise our cat did once when I trod on her tail, and he scrambled off through the trees. We all started after him without really knowing why, but Fender jumped in front of us, holding up his hand. We came to a crashing halt.

"When we catch him, he's mine."

Tucky nodded, Mike just stood there, eager to run. I wanted to say something to Fender but I didn't dare in case his anger turned upon me. Paul started to speak, but the look on Fender's face froze the words and Paul tailed off into an embarrassed mumble. Fender dropped his hand and ran off into the woods, Mike and Tucky close behind. Paul and I exchanged a look, and then ran off after them. After all, it was our gang, we belonged together. And we were scared of Fender - and scared for Miles. We charged down the wooded slope, dodging the low branches that tugged at our shirts and the brambles which left red welts on our legs, and came out onto a dirt path. I saw Tucky's red t-shirt disappear around to the left, and followed, catching the others up.

As I reached them, Fender held up his hand again, and we all stopped. The path led down to the river where we swam, clear bank on this side, steep rocks on the other. Miles was standing where the beaten earth of the path tapered out into the crumbling riverbank. He was holding the bottle tight against his chest. He looked into the water, looked back at us, then across at the rocks, and then back at us again. Fender walked forward, slow deliberate steps, and stopped, a few feet away from Miles. We followed, a few paces behind, waited in Fender's shadow.

"Rub the bottle to see if it'll come out and fly and rescue you away" said Tucky. "Flap, flap. Is it a bird, is it a plane? No, it's Mental Miles and his magic angel."

"Shut up Tucky" said Fender.

"Fen, come on, leave it, let's go back and -"

"Shut up Paul" said Fender.

Paul looked at me. I looked away, at the rush of the river, looked back at Paul, shrugged and stayed silent.

"Give it me." Fender held out his hand, stared at Miles.

Miles looked at the ground, wrapped his fingers tighter around the bottle.

"Give it me or I'll take it."

Miles looked up, tears in his eyes. We all knew that he knew that whatever he said or did, Fender was going to take the bottle. There was a few seconds silence, Fender staring unblinking, his hand outstretched, Miles looking back, scared and defiant. His glasses slowly slid down his nose. Fender leapt forward, but for once in his life Miles moved faster, whipping back his arm and throwing the bottle across the river and towards the rocks on the other side.

The bottle spun, turning end over end in the air, and then smashed against a rock. There was a brief moment of light, and then there was just broken glass scattered over rocks on one side of a river, and six small boys standing on the other. Miles walked through the rest of us, and away into the woods. I had moved forward to touch Fender's arm, to say that enough was enough, but he made no attempt to get to Miles, just stood there, looking across the water. The sun had gone behind a cloud, and all the colour seemed washed out of the air. After a while, Fender turned and walked off into the woods without a word. We all followed at a distance, quiet for a while. Tucky started to say something but Paul punched him hard on the arm and for once Tucky took the hint and shut up.

When we got out of the woods, we all went our separate ways. I walked back most of the way home with Paul, and by the time we got to the fence at the back of his house it had started to rain. Paul looked at me as if he was going to say something, then looked away again, vaulted his gate and disappeared inside. I began to run, only intending to run the last few yards home, but as I got to our house I kept on running, faster and faster, until I was sobbing for breath and the muscles in the backs of my legs were burning. I ran the length of the village, I ran as far and as fast I could, but when I reached the garage I couldn't run any more. I stopped, my arms and legs shaking as if I had a fever, and then I threw up over the little wall of the forecourt, and walked home in the rain.

At the end of that summer Paul and I went off to boarding school, and the others to the comp. Although we saw each other in the holidays, the friendship between us all gradually slipped into acquaintance. Even Paul and I, once inseparable, found others, changed from best of friends to just friends. Growing up, growing apart. We went to different universities and occasional letters turned into annual Christmas cards and now he's married and a father and I have never even met his wife. I catch up on the gossip back in the village once in a while when I visit mum and dad. Tucky works in the garage, as he has since he was sixteen, and Mike survived the comp, got a place at university and ended up teaching there. Fender works on the farm his dad used to own, and has four kids now, by three women.

Miles was found in the river, a week or so after that day, his small body caught by a willow which hung its branches tenderly into the water, the soft flowing river eddying around him and then on, rushing over rocks as if nothing had stopped it. The five of us stood together at the funeral, a solemn little gaggle all pink-scrubbed cheeks and hand-me-down too-wide black ties just behind the grieving adults. When it was over and the grown-ups were drinking tea and talking in quiet voices we all left, and walked down to the river, stood in silence in the soft rain for a few minutes, and then walked back to the village. Although nothing had really changed for us, nothing was ever the same.

Sunday, 15 April 2012


(Invocation - ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead)

I heard her, out there in the static, by accident.

I'd moved the radio to paint a wall, thinking stupidly that if I changed how things look it might change how things felt, and I must have knocked the tuner. The next morning, I stood dumb and tired waiting for my tea to brew but I couldn't stand the silence and myself any longer so I flicked the radio on, even though I knew I wouldn't find anything that didn't annoy me, just lying politicians, or terrible music. I flicked the radio on and walked away to get my coffee. Static hissed, and I swore and walked back to sort it out. Then I heard her.

At first, I thought I was fooling myself. The static ebbed and rose like the sea and it was just noise, and I reached out to tune it and she was there again, the hiss and crackle coalescing into her voice, her voice saying my name.

I stood and listened, but it didn't come again, and I listened so long I knew I would be late for work. I switched the radio off, but I didn't change the dial. When I got to work he was angry and asked me what the hell I thought I was doing being so late, and he was so angry he made a spit-bubble and when he opened his mouth it stretched between his upper lip and his lower lip. So I just watched that and didn't listen to what he was saying. I didn't think I could work there much longer, but then I hadn't thought that I could do anything much longer, least of all face the day after day after day and nothing changing.

But something had changed.

At home that night I didn't eat because sometimes I just don't want to. I sat and listened to the static, and eventually she came. I don't know what she is, or how she is, a voice amongst the noise, just that she is out there, calling my name, as if from a very long way away. I never slept very much, and once I found her I slept even less, just sat there, listening, trying to understand. Sometimes I knew it was her, talking to me, but I could not make out what she was saying, and it became harder, because her voice grew softer, more distant among the hiss. She sounded weaker, fading. I felt cold, and scared at the thought of her leaving me, and I bit at my nails until my fingers bled.

Then I got up for work one morning after just two hours sleep, and I could not hear her at all. I stood on the platform in the crush and the stink of sweat, waiting for the tube train, wondering if there was any point in anything now that I had lost the only thing I had, the only thing that called my name, and the warm air blew out of the tunnel and tasted of electricity and dust and the rails hissed and in the hissing I heard her, the tiniest, quietest of sounds, and she was desperate and I understood what she was telling me. So as the train came in, I gave a little push, just a little push, and like dominos, the person two in front of me was on the rails and then under the train and I couldn't hear anything but shouts and screaming.

I didn't go to work. I have never been back to work. They probably phoned, but I pulled it out of the wall so I wouldn't know. When I got out of the station, I ran. Not with fear. With excitement.

I turned the radio on, and the light glowed and the static wrapped around me and her voice came, stronger than ever before, terrible and beautiful like a storm, and she called my name and she called my name and I sat there and I cried with happiness and with love.

Life is getting hard now. I can't remember the last time I ate, and I don't really sleep at all, and I am cold because I didn't pay the gas bill so I could put the money towards batteries for the radio.

She calls my name. And when she gets weak, I feed her.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Way Down In The Hole

(Tom Waits - Way Down In The Hole)

The two men were both stood on the thirteenth floor waiting for the lift, and when the doors slid open they did the after you, no after you, dance. The younger one ended up going in first, and stood with his finger hovering over the control panel.

"Which floor?"

"Ground, please."

"Same as me," the younger one said, and then he felt a little stupid, because it had been a pointless thing to say. He didn't recognise the older man, but because he was quite junior he assumed that anyone in the building who was older than him, and who wore a suit that looked more expensive than his, was senior to him. Which was most people.

The lift doors stayed open for a moment, as if inviting them to change their mind. The older man frowned and looked at his watch, so the younger one stabbed at the button again, as if that would make a difference. The lift doors sighed shut, there was a slight jerk, and they started to descend.

There was an uncomfortable silence, and the younger man hated uncomfortable silences, so he said "I wonder if its still raining out."

The older man made a noise in his throat that said I heard you, I don't know, now please be quiet as I indeed more senior, much more senior than you, and I do not want to talk about the weather. The younger man blushed and shut up and watch the lights count down from five to four to three to two to one to Ground.

The lift kept going down. The younger man could feel it hum and vibrate, could feel the slight weightlessness in his stomach.

"We must be there," the older man said, almost accusingly, as if the younger man was somehow at fault, had pressed the buttons wrong, but although the light said Ground, and there were no floors below it, the lift kept going down.

"Some kind of fault," the older man said, but he sounded more like he was asking a question than giving an explanation. The younger man pressed the button marked G again, and then again. They stood in silence, and the lift hummed, and they kept going down.

"Press the damn help button," the older man said, and the younger man looked stupidly at the control panel. "Press the bloody thing, speak to the control centre, tell them something stupid's going on, I don't know, just press the damn thing."

So the younger man pressed the bright red button, and there was a moment of static, and then a terrible crying, a screaming wail like a mother who had just lost her child. The younger man jerked his finger back from the button, and the noise stopped.  The older man opened his mouth, as if to say something, but then he closed it again.

The lift kept going down, and the air kept getting hotter, and they both stood, staring ahead at the doors, not saying anything.

Then the lift stopped.

Then the doors opened.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Grey Ship

(EMA - The Grey Ship)

Daniel knew he was Chosen when the fog came and his mother started crying and would not stop, and his father set his jaw so tight Daniel thought that his teeth would crack.

It had been three years since the grey ship had arrived at the island, and everyone had known that if it wasn't this year, it would be the next. The fog would come, and the next day the grey ship would sail down from the north, and it would anchor in the harbour for one night. In the morning, it would be gone, and so would be the person who was Chosen. They stood at the end of the breakwater, and the fog came in, and when the fog lifted both the ship and the Chosen were gone.

"It is a wonderful thing that you do, Daniel," Anders said. "You know how we live here. Our crops grow, our nets are full of fish, the sun shines upon us and the sicknesses from the mainland never come. It is how we live here. You do a wonderful, wonderful thing. Everyone else here, your mother, your father, your sister, they are safe now. Never the same family twice, not in a lifetime."

Daniel didn't know how old Anders was but he was older than anyone else on the island. He kept the records, and wrote out the name of every newborn child in beautiful, perfect script in ink on a stone from the beach under the cliffs. The stones went into a box, and from that box came the name of the next of the Chosen. Once, it had been Daniel's aunt, once, a neighbour. It was how it was, you grew up knowing it was how it was, and you just hoped that it would not be you or someone you loved. But if it turned out to be was how it was.

"How long have you known?" Daniel asked. "That it would be me? When did you draw the stone?"

Anders looked at him. "On the last day the grey ship sailed."

Daniel pursed his lips, nodded. That afternoon he said goodbye to his mother, who wailed enough to raise the dead. His father pulled him tight, squeezed hard, then turned away as if he could not bear to look. His sister stared with big eyes, too young to know what was going on, old enough to know that something was.

The fog wrapped the island close and early that evening a shout came up from the harbour. The grey ship slid in without a sound, without a sign of life, came to rest in the middle of the harbour. No signal was given, no flag was flown, but none was needed because it was done the way that it always had been done.

Anders rested a gentle hand on Daniel's shoulder and walked him down to the harbour.

"What happens to me?" Daniel said. "When...I go."

Anders stopped, looked at him. "I do not know."

They walked on, down to the wet stone of the breakwater. The waves slapped and splashed at the side, and the grey ship sat in the harbour, silent, empty.

When they reached the end of the breakwater, Anders squeezed Daniel's shoulder. "A wonderful thing," he said, and then he turned and left, and within three steps he was hidden by the fog and Daniel was alone.

He stood for a long time, and he shivered, and he cried, and he stopped crying, and then after that he heard a scraping sound and when he looked down there was a small grey rowing boat bobbing at the foot of the old ladder on the side of the breakwater. It had not been there when Anders left him, and he did not know how he had got there.  He walked to the ladder, turned to step down, but then stopped.

"No," he said, to the fog and the sea. "No."

He stood for a long time more, and he shivered but he did not cry anymore, and he waited for something to come and take him. But after a long time the fog thinned, and the sun rose, and the harbour was empty and the grey ship was gone. Daniel didn't know what to do so he stood there a while longer. The others on the island would be very cross. Maybe they would throw him into the sea anyway. Maybe the grey ship would return the next night. No-one had ever come back, so Daniel didn't know. He clenched his fists, and he walked back down to the harbour, but nobody shouted at him there and nobody challenged him when he walked up the hill to the village, no dogs barked, no chickens scattered, no babies cried. Daniel walked the empty island for a long time, and then he went back to the harbour, but the grey ship did not return.