Category Archives: 42 shorts

This is the sea

Once upon a time I learned to sail. Time steals the memories of that learning and now that I can navigate the river I can’t remember those days of running aground, of fighting the slow, easy current, or even of the repeated soakings as I was tipped into the water. Nor do I remember those early journeys, all way back upstream now, through the hurried rapids, down the narrow streams of my childhood. Perhaps at the time it all seemed bigger but looking back, up and across to the mountains we made our way down, I can barely make out the path of the water; like tracing my face for the lines left by tears that dried up long ago. As the river widened and relaxed into the valley some memories stick. I do remember that initial sense of freedom, striking out from the bank alone for the first time but secure in knowing that the river was slow, shallow, and not so broad that I couldn’t swim back to something solid. The river guides. That was the teaching: trust in its easy, forgiving flow and use it to learn for the sea. The unspoken truth though was that the river is poor learning for the sea but it is all we have.

The sea looked like hope from the river as I glimpsed it occasionally back then, wide eyed, staring downstream into the future. Just as looking back changed perspective, shrinking things that had seemed vast, looking forwards played the same trick but in reverse. The sea looked contained, bound by shore and horizon; it looked manageable. Navigable. The distance flattened the ceaseless rise and fall of the tides and ironed out the distant surges and storms. It looked like a gently creased, blue grey sheet stretched out between the land and sky and I miss that idea of it. I miss the time when I headed for uncharted waters with excitement and confidence, when apprehension felt like the precursor to discovery – something new and wonderful – instead of the prelude to fear. Even when the discovery was just someone else’s map of those uncharted waters, the discovery that they weren’t uncharted at all, that someone had sailed this course before and left you their notes.

And for a while, as I stuck to the charted waters or uncovered the notes from those that had sailed before me, the sea delivered on the promises whispered in its waves. Close to the mouth of the river it was as easy to sail as the river itself had been. The boat I’d built and sailed as a child rode the benign tides close to shore just as it had coped with the nudging currents that had eventually pushed it out into open water. The coastal squalls were exhilarating rather than frightening, the rush of adrenaline feeding the strength to trim the sails or tack back into the wind. And when they abated the sea was calm for long enough, and I was strong enough, open enough, to improve the boat, to make modifications and adjustments. To face each successive squall stronger than I’d faced the last. Perhaps the sea guides too. That’s what I thought in those days skimming the surface spray hugging the shoreline. I don’t think that anymore.

I don’t remember losing track of the shore. It must have happened slowly, over years, a progressive pull from the ebb of the tides winning out over the flow. Out here the sea doesn’t look contained or manageable and the notes left by fellow sailors are fewer and further between. Is it even navigable ? Out here there’s just the sea. Vast and endless and unforgiving: it can swallow you up and leave you cold, lost and adrift. When the storms hit my boat splintered and sank. I fought them until my bones ached and my fingers blistered from straining against salt lashed ropes in the desperate struggle to stay afloat. If I’d had a solid place to stand then perhaps I’d have saved the boat but the drenched deck gave no purchase for my feet. If I’d battled a single, violent tempest then perhaps I’d have saved the boat but the bad weather resolved itself into a change in the climate, storms piled on storms. If I’d learned to rest, to trust the sails to others, to admit to the weariness of near defeat, then perhaps I’d have saved the boat but even back in the days on the river I’d always sailed alone. There was no solid place to stand, there were many storms, and there was nobody to relieve me as captain: my boat splintered and sank.

The sea’s depths seemed to offer solace, they were untouched by whatever raged above. At first there was a relief in the isolation as I dropped beneath the roiling, rolling waves, pieces of my former vessel, fractured and sinking beside me. As I lingered there longer though it became colder and a kind of numbness set in; it became harder to strike out again for the surface. There was nothing up there but storms and the relentless toss and twist of the swelling waters. Nothing there but more sorrow. There was nothing here either but it was a constant nothing. It was predictable. Navigable. I was lost but if I stayed where I was I’d never be more lost and I’d never risk the hope of clutching at a way back to shore. I’d never feel the touch of the sun on skin but I’d never have to feel the rain either.

The sea doesn’t guide, it just is. The sea doesn’t guide but perhaps those that sail it still can and still do. The notes from fellow sailors are fewer and further between out here – down here – in the sea. But some remain. Even here some remain.  I found one of those stray, rare notes and it said this: even out here it’s not truly uncharted. There’s a universal map written in the stars for those able to raise their eyes and read it. Perhaps it leads back to your shore but you can’t read that map ensconced and ensnared under water. You might see the lights, foggy and distorted, but the water refracts and changes the true positions of the fixed reference points you must follow. You must brave the surface to see the way. The only way back to the shore is to risk the storms. How do you learn to be still on the waves ? Or how do you learn to lean in to the teeth of the gale and laugh ? When does knowing you’re not in control of the boat stop being terrifying and fill your heart with exhilaration ? How do you leave notes as you chart your waters that others might find and learn from in future ? These are the questions I asked and still ask as I seek the playful exploration of the shores close to the river that I learned to navigate when I was young. I read the note and draw strength to seek the surface.

This is the sea. Terrible and terrifying and relentless. Open and hopeful and limitless. Build the best boat you can and learn to make it dance on the river but accept that when you reach the sea it can crush the strongest vessel or the skilled sailor without thought or malice. All you can do is learn to sail again. Seek out the constants in the sky, learn to sail and as you chart your course leave notes that others might follow and might know that they are not alone, adrift in their storms. The river need not be our only learning. We are each other’s guides.

Once upon a time I learned to sail. Happily ever after remains my destination, out there on the horizon, across the sea.

 

……

This is story 42 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts

So that’s it. Took longer than anticipated but all 42 are done and, to date, I’ve raised £700 for Mind. This one’s about everything the other 41 were about but also, in spirit, was about the value in sharing stories.

It owes a huge debt to Mike Scott and The Waterboys who said in six glorious minutes and two chords what I’ve struggled to say here.

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Fragments

I remember the bridge and the accident. Or, at least, I remember that I wrote that there was a bridge and that there was an accident. Something bad happened. We can agree on that. I’ve been coming here for weeks now, perhaps months, and trying to talk about it but the words just won’t come. The summer house at the end of a garden, slatted windows open in the late summer to let in the air, shuttered tight in the winter to protect the heat rising at our feet from the electric radiator. There’s a box of tissues that I’ve never reached for although there’s some part of me that thinks that I should: the absence of tears no doubt noted dutifully in the book of notes I never get to read. Am I a secret to myself ? A wasp drones angrily at the glass in the summer house door.

“Perhaps we should let it out ?” he asks.

I look up at him, at his eyes, at his eyebrows raised expectantly, at his kindness.

“Letting things out isn’t my forte,” I reply ruefully. He lets me lapse back into silence and watch the wasp, a study in impotent rage, continue to fail to break through the glass, fail to fly to the garden it can see but not reach.

I remembered the shattered shards of glass on the bridge after the accident. The lights from the ambulance refracting through the splinters, red and blue light dancing across the wet tarmac as I waited for them to tell me what had happened. Does it matter if there was really an accident or if I just wrote it ? Something bad happened. It seems easier somehow to dramatise it rather than  just lay out the bare facts because the reality was so banal, so mundane, or at least it was when I said it out loud; inside it felt like an accident. It’s not as if I don’t have the words. I am not short of the words, whether recounting the miserable, ordinary slide into depression, or describing it second hand via a series of thinly disguised metaphors. All of those stories came from the same source, the same white light scattered through the mosaic of broken glass strewn across the bridge, a myriad of separations, a spiders web of my shattered self reflected back in shattered glass. Does it matter if the bridge was real ?

“So what did you want to talk about ?” he asks, more questions.

“I’m not sure that I want to talk about any of it to be honest,” I reply. “You know I prefer to write it all down.”

“The stories ? The music essays ?”

“I’m better written down,” I persist.

“But it’s another front, isn’t it ? Another way of packaging yourself up to present to the world ? The pieces of yourself you’ll allow people to see. Carefully considered and thought through. Nothing in the moment or out of control or truly vulnerable or exposed.”

“Pieces of splintered glass,” I murmur. “I don’t know. Is it just a front ? I’m not saying those stories amount to ‘Blood On The Tracks’ but there’s all of me in there if you search. They seem as real to me as a hand shake or a late night conversation with a friend or, or I don’t know, an imagined road accident on a bridge and its post traumatic fall out.”

“So why don’t you cry ? Or get angry ? Through all that pain, through that trauma. Where does it all go ?”

“It goes on the page. Or it pulls me down, eats me up. It’s better on the page. I’m better on the page.”

“And do you think you could put yourself back together on the page ? Tell enough stories, find enough of the fragmented strands of yourself that you can stitch them back, weave a tapestry out of the threads. Work it all out on your own. Is that the point ?”

“That’s not the analogy I use. In the story – you know, the first one – it’s glass. All of those stories are just the little pieces of glass sprinkled across the scene of the crash, little reflections of a part of my whole.”

“So change the analogy. Glass doesn’t really yield. It shatters or breaks and even if you could glue it all back together you’d always see the joins, you’d never see through it as clearly again. Sure, we unravel sometimes but when you knit the frayed threads back together you can make something new; just as strong as it was before, maybe stronger if you can see where the stitches failed last time. Don’t write stories to describe the fractured pieces of glass. Weave.”

“How would I start ?”

“I don’t know. You’re the story-teller. How do stories usually start ?”

 

……

This is story 41 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts

This is intended as a wrap back to the very first story: Beginnings. It either all gets a bit meta or it disappears up its own arse. It’s a fine line… but it’s well intentioned. One to go.

Riffs and variations on loss and friendship featuring onion rings, Nick Cave, tinnitus, and Brexit

“Don’t ask me about sex, okay ?”

“It’s okay Pete. I’ve had the talk. My mum drew the short straw and told me what goes where and how babies are made and how to stop babies being made and how to fake an orgasm. All that stuff.”

“How to what now ?”

“Alright, alright. Just kidding. She only told me the important stuff. You know the faking it bit and how to stop babies being made,” laughed Jen.

“This explains a lot. Remind me never to meet your mother. Or, indeed, sleep with her.”

“At least it wasn’t my dad, right ? And did you just turn down my mum ? You shouldn’t be so choosy. She’s pretty hot for her age.”

Pete exhaled loudly, deliberately. “Weird now. I knew I shouldn’t have raised sex, it always gets weird. All I was saying was don’t ask me about whether I’ve had any recently.”

“Given the request I think I can fill in the blanks. Don’t worry anyway, I wasn’t calling to check up on that. I’ve learned my lesson. We’ll just end up talking about Eeyore having phone sex with Sufjan Stevens again.”

“That’s not quite how I remember it.”

“I was paraphrasing.” Jen put on her best TV voice over voice: “Previously on conversations between Pete and Jen…”

“That’d never make it past the pilot episode,” Pete countered.

“Hey, it might. Maybe they’d get someone more famous in to replace you for the actual series but I reckon I’d be snapped up to continue playing the role of myself.”

“I’d forgotten just how much your calls cheer me up Jen…”

“Quit it sarcasm boy. I know the only reason you won’t let me Skype you is that you wouldn’t be able to hide the smiling.”

“No, it’s because I don’t want you to see the state of the flat to be honest.”

“Still living out of pizza boxes ?” asked Jen, concerned.

“Something like that. More like I’m living in a pizza box. Apparently some people get a compulsion to clean and tidy as a side order to go with their grief but I didn’t seem to.”

“Like the world’s worst meal deal ?”

“Yeah. An Unhappy Meal,” said Pete. “I’ll take mine extra large.”

“What are the fries in this analogy ?”

“I don’t think that’s the most important part of what I’m saying Jen.”

“Mmm, I know. I just really like fries. I think they’re probably the onion rings or something. Georgie loved those Burger King onion rings, you know ?”

“Yeah, she did,” said Pete. “Do you remember coming back from The Chemical Brothers in Brixton ? She must have had four bags of them before we got to Victoria. I think she had the munchies from all that secondary smoke.”

“She never could handle her secondary smoke.”

“Handled everything else though,” said Pete quietly.

“Yes, she did Pete,” Jen answered, equally quietly. “She was… She was… Fuck. There’s nothing I can say that isn’t fucking trite and pointless. She was Georgie and she was my friend. That’s it. It’s as simple as that. I miss her. I miss her so fucking much.”

“I thought it’d get easier, you know ?” said Pete. “Those first months I was just numb to everything, like my brain had decided to self administer a huge dose of anaesthetic. I knew there was something horribly wrong but it was all sort of detached, like I was watching it happen to someone else. But these past few weeks the anaesthetic’s wearing off and outside of the numbness there’s just pain. There’s just nothing but pain.”

“I’m supposed to say it’ll take time, right ?” said Jen gently.

“You’re hurting too Jen. It’ll take time for all of us. I don’t know, the talking helps but the actual words… the actual words just all feel empty.”

“That’s why I call and talk… talk stupid. All that vapid nonsense is just a way to not say what we’re supposed to say. If the words are all empty then why not make them really, properly empty ? I miss her so hard Pete and I know that it’s not fair to call you and say that.”

“It’s okay. None of it’s fair but I don’t have exclusive rights on missing Georgie. She loved you. You were her best friend.”

“Apart from you. We were her best friends. Christ, I can’t believe it’s been three and a half years.”

“Want to hear something stupid ?” said Pete, suddenly.

“Always. Especially now,” replied Jen.

“I got into an argument today with some bloke in Sainsbury’s. I think I’d been spoiling for a fight for the last few weeks, I just didn’t expect it to be over a deli counter in a supermarket. I keep thinking I’m through the angry phase but then I just find myself back in it again. Anyway, we were waiting to get served – it was one of those counters where you take a ticket and wait for your number to come up – when this guy suddenly pushed in front of the woman in front of him. She says something, strong Eastern European accent, and then he turns round and tells her that he doesn’t have to wait in line behind people like her anymore. That she can go get her cheese in her own country.”

“Her own cheese ?”

“Seriously. You couldn’t make it up. He started ranting about taking our country back and how she wasn’t welcome, coming over here buying up all the foreign cheese. I think she was Polish…”

“Renowned cheese makers that they are…”

“Well, quite,” Pete continued. “Anyway, everyone was standing around not knowing what to do and this poor woman started to look really quite scared so I asked him to get back to his place in the queue and calm down a bit.

“You asked him to calm down ?”

“Yeah. Turns out telling frothing bigots to calm down doesn’t really calm them down,” said Pete.

“What were the chances ?”

“Easy in hindsight. He starts yelling at me that I’m a traitor to my country and that I need to learn what democracy means and how his grandparents had liberated Europe from the Nazi’s…”

“So he started doing irony ?”

“Not intentionally, no. I think he offered me outside but by then the security guy had appeared and threatened to throw us both out if we didn’t cool down. My new friend Mosley or Nigel or whatever his name was turns back to the counter and places his order. Only goes and orders pierogi and kabanos.”

“No fucking way.”

“No, he didn’t really. Slab of Cheddar and some Red Leicester.”

There was a pause as Pete laughed at his own joke before Jen asked, “How’d we get in this mess ?”

“Elastic bands,” answered Pete. “Hear me out, I’ve got this theory. I didn’t vote leave but I get why some people did. They’re not all like that idiot. It’s just that we’ve gotten too stretched…”

“Keep going Chomsky.”

“It’s good, you’ll like it. The elastic band is society and then imagine the people at the top of society are one end of the elastic band and the people at the bottom are opposite them. The more distance there is between them the more tension there is in the band, until the band either snaps back together again or…”

“Or it breaks,” Jen finished.

“Or it breaks.” Pete started singing softly: “I got those elastic band post-Brexit blues.”

“Ha, sounds like it should be a Nick Cave song.”

“You heard Skeleton Tree ?”

“Of course I’ve heard it Pete. When you were telling me about that Sufjan Stevens record a couple of months ago I couldn’t get my head round it. I couldn’t understand why you’d want to listen to something that was so nakedly carved out of someone else’s grief. But then I heard the Cave record and I’m like a moth banging its head against a light bulb. There’s no shelter in it, no comfort but it just shows you so much pain that it kind of matches your own. I’m not making any sense…

“No, I get it. You ever have tinnitus ?”

“That ear ringing thing ? No, not really. I mean only after a gig or something, nothing permanent,” said Jen.

“I have it a bit. Like static in my left ear all the time. It’s always there but one of the things they tell you to do to mask it is to match it up with something on the same frequency. So I might listen to some tuned out radio white noise and then I don’t hear it. I think the Nick Cave record’s like that. Only something that intense, that raw, can match up to what we’re feeling and give some release to the pain. Maybe not release. Give some sensation to the pain might be a better way of describing it. It short cuts that anaesthetic.”

“Why’d we want to do that ?”

“Because the anaesthetic’s not real,” sighed Pete. “She’s gone Jen and she’s not coming back.”

The line was silent for five, ten seconds. Eventually Jen asked the same question she’d asked every week or so for the past five months.

“I gotta go now Pete, early start tomorrow, but are you alright ?” There was the same pause he always left before answering and then the same answer before the line went dead.

“No. Not today Jen. But ask me again tomorrow. What about you ?”

“No. Me neither Pete. But ask me too.”

 

……

This is story 40 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts

This is a direct sequel to story 14 (https://42at42.wordpress.com/2015/04/04/riffs-and-variations-on-loss-and-friendship-featuring-balloons-aa-milne-sufjan-stevens-and-phone-sex/) and shares its structure: I just really wanted to hear Pete and Jen talking to each other again. It also directly lifts its title (or the basis for its title) from the similarly named Sufjan Stevens song.

Perspective (too much perspective)

A faint, residual mist of hairspray hung in the air, motes sparkling in the semi darkness as Josh picked up his cigarette from the ashtray and inhaled. The tip flared and illuminated the descending shroud of spray, a tiny universe of stars falling and winking out in front of his eyes. He exhaled, blowing a long, lazy smoke ring that dispersed the last of the haze. Eighteen years on the road and these were the two things he had to show for it, the two things he’d learned. First, how to blow rings. Second, how to style his hair and smoke at the same time without setting himself on fire. No one was much impressed by either but he’d seen enough wannabes never master the second: why’d you think so many frontmen wore bandanas ?

Veteran rockers. That was what the reviews had said this tour. Veteran. Like they were returning from war or something. If he was then Josh was pretty sure he hadn’t won: it’d been a long, bloody siege, camped just outside the walls of mainstream success, battering to be let in but never quite finding the firepower to get it done. It hadn’t always been like that. First record had gone gold and Rolling Stone had anointed them heirs apparent to Guns ‘N Roses, eulogised about their inevitable place in a lineage traced from the New York Dolls through to all those West Coast bands that ripped it up in the 80s. They’d even opened for Motley Crue back in ’89, an experience that had teased a glimpse of a life they’d see fleetingly a few times in the years that followed but never quite catch. Still, those boys had shown him how to handle a can of hairspray and their audience had taught him how to dodge a bottle of piss so he couldn’t say it was a total waste.

This felt like coming full circle, except now they were opening for a parody of all the bands they used to think they wanted to be. When did rock and roll become pantomime ? Maybe it always was. Maybe it just came down to timing. If they’d landed in ’89 with three chords, a distortion pedal, and a plaid shirt then they could have decamped to Seattle and ridden the swelling (new) wave of grunge instead of being in LA just as everyone got washed up, spent, on the shore. Left to wring out their spandex. No-one wore lycra anymore unless they were cycling. It’s the new rock and roll apparently. Remember when rock and roll was the new rock and roll ?

Josh exhaled again and watched his face, staring out at him from the dressing room mirror, disappear behind the fug. As the smoke dispersed he came back into focus, indistinct and translucent at first and then sharper until he could trace every line on his forehead, every crease around his eyes that the soft smudges of mascara didn’t conceal quite the way they used to. Exhale. He liked himself better in the smog.

Two minutes. Someone had banged on the door and shouted the final call. No sense in being late on when you opened, not when you were trying to pack eighteen years, trying to pack a lifetime, in to the thirty minutes on stage you were allotted. They’d steal a bit back at the end. String out the band intros and stretch out “Sex Freak”; it was the song everyone came for now anyway. Billboard rock chart top ten, had even looked like breaking the Hot 100 in the midweek listings until dropping away at the end. Maybe if they’d agreed to the edits MTV wanted they’d have kept up the rotations but you don’t think it’s your only shot when you’re twenty one. You don’t want to start off by playing the game. It’s rock, man, not the Backstreet Boys. Cut the sex scene ? Fuck cutting the sex scene. Had he meant that or had he just been egged on by Nikki Sixx and Tommy Lee ? Maybe taking advice from filthy rich hedonists with a sideline in heroin addiction wasn’t the smartest move he’d made. Great hair though.

Must be time. Do what you love, he muttered under his breath. Do what you love. It’d be the last thing he’d say to the crowd as they finished their set and it was the last thing he’d said to every crowd they’d ever played to. He’d carried it as a mantra all the way back to the days (or mainly nights) spent flyering the Sunset Strip, begging club owners to give them a slot, pestering label execs to turn out to watch showcases. Do what you love. It had sustained him through being dropped after the second record, kept his faith as half the band quit in acrimony last year. No, we’re not going to try more of a country feel. Who’d you think we are ? Steven fucking Tyler ? It was the rallying call as he’d put the new line up together, mostly kids: he could still see the belief – the desire – burning in their eyes each time they played. It could all still happen when you’re twenty one. It almost did for him.

You’re on Josh. Kill ‘em, man. Show time.

Do what you love. But what do you do when you don’t love it anymore ?

 

……

This is story 39 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts

This is for an old friend. It is fictional but may have been partially inspired by watching a Steel Panther gig this week. Yep, Steel Panther. I’m not proud.

Pyre

It was still warm even as the time approached midnight, all the nights that summer were like that, the heat of those long days settling and cooling into the darkness but never quite fading away. We looked at each other in the dancing light from the torches velcro fixed around our heads. Jones had said it made us look like the colonial marines in Aliens. I was pretty sure they had lights that sat just behind their shoulders, attached to their back but I wasn’t a hundred percent. Sam would have known. He always knew that stuff and it pissed him off when people got it wrong. Little things that shouldn’t have mattered – didn’t matter to anyone else – but that really riled him. I remember one time Jones had persuaded all of us to wind him up by saying that we thought it was better that Greedo shot first, that Han’s code of honour would never have let him kill something else without provocation. He made us watch the original scene frame by frame on his battered old VHS copy of Star Wars (never, never A New Hope, always just Star Wars) whilst he ranted about Solo’s narrative arc from rogue to hero and how Lucas had betrayed his own mythic principals of storytelling in making the change. He didn’t speak to us again for a week and for the next month he’d pepper his conversation with “Han shot first” like it was some kind of mantra.

Maybe we should have realised. Afterwards people put it all together as if it had been obvious, like it had been staring us in our faces all the time. He sat around in his room a lot listening to Joy Division. Or lost himself for hours in video games and unreal worlds. Scribbled out rambling, scrawling diary entries – that came to light later – that spoke of feeling isolated and anxious and lonely. Wore a lot of black. But that could have been any of us and we were still here whilst he was gone. That was just being fifteen and a bit awkward, wasn’t it ? None of us liked the way Sam’s life got retro fitted to his suicide, as if everything had led, neat and tidy and processional, to the point where he felt like there was no point carrying on. It just wasn’t like that. He just wasn’t like that. Not all like that at least. We remembered lying in the park looking at the stars and listening to him run through his terrible Star Trek impressions. He could make the sound the doors made pretty well but Patrick Stewart’s baritone always eluded him until he settled on repeating “make it so” and “Mr Data” over and over again until we begged him to stop. Or the time he cleared the floor at the school disco after finally persuading the DJ to put the Stiff Little Fingers’ “Alternative Ulster” on and he’d turned the now empty space into his own personal piece of performance art, a mosh-pit of one until reluctantly we’d joined in at the end. He must have bought his own copy with him. That was Sam. All of us had slunk off embarrassed afterwards when the DJ, presumably as some sort of revenge, had teed up Rick Astley. All of us except him. He’d just laughed and pogoed harder and harder round the floor bellowing “never gonna give you up” until we dragged him away. Like I said, Sam’s death wasn’t the only thing that happened in his life.

We’d made him a character sheet. I guess it was for old time’s sake. None of us had played a paper and pen RPG for a while but it had been the thing that had brought us together in the early days. Sam had started it, albeit by accident. That first year at school he used to carry a full set of dice – three sided, six sided, eight sided, all the way up to the d20 – around with him until one of the older kids had tried to flush them down the toilet. I’d managed to salvage all of them by rolling up my sleeve and hooking my hand up and around the U bend. From then on they’d always made me play as a thief or some kind of character with a high Dexterity stat: my role as the retriever of stolen treasure was set. Jones always ended up playing a fighter. He was the smallest in the group and always had the most trouble at school, his mouth forever throwing better jabs than his fists.  He was brave though. He’d been the one that had really saved Sam’s dice as he’d pulled the perpetrator away before he could hold the flush down fully. It had cost him a couple of blows to the head and a scuffle that ended with him ripping his trousers at the seams and having to spend the rest of the day flashing Spiderman boxers every time he wasn’t sitting down. None of us ever mentioned it again and none of us ever said anything every time he picked a warrior or a berserker or a knight or some big, strong archetype to project himself into. We all did it. Maybe Jones was just a bit more honest about it. Rob was always the magic guy which I always chalked up as some kind of ironic acknowledgement that he lived the least magical, most ordinary life you could imagine. Outwardly at least. I always liked how Rob held whole worlds in his mind. He used to write poems. None of us were supposed to know but I saw them once, discarded notes stuffed under his bed. Outwardly you’d never have known but inside his mind he soared. And Sam ? Sam used to mainly run the sessions. Dungeon Master. DM. In hindsight maybe it was the only time he got to feel like he was in control but you don’t think that at the time. Back then he was just the one with the graph paper and the imagination to plunge the rest of us into an adventure.

We’d written up his character sheet as a Cleric. It was sort of a joke about his family and sort of because we liked the idea of him being a healer. A slightly dark joke I guess but it wasn’t disrespectful. Not that we’d have ever said it but all of us loved him. Boys just don’t do that stuff very well. Just don’t say that stuff. We did crap jokes and head locks and arguments about whether Star Fleet was essentially an oppressive, militaristic organisation. We had endless conversations about girls who would never speak to us and whether The Cult had sold out with “Electric” and headers and volleys because we could never find enough people to make up a proper game. All that stuff we did well but none of would ever have told him we loved him. As well as making him a Cleric we’d given him really high stats. He’d have hated it because he always hated it when someone kept re-rolling to cheat their way to some ridiculous Strength score or insisted that they wouldn’t play unless they could have an Intelligence of 18. We knew he’d have hated it but I suppose it was our way, our useless boys’ way, of telling him that we loved him. The sheet was stuck to the side of the coffin.

I didn’t remember whose idea it had been to steal the body. I knew we’d all been uneasy after his death with the way he seemed to be reclaimed by his family as someone we didn’t know. Grief does funny things to families I guess. Before it happened we never really used to think too much about why we never convened at Sam’s house or why we never saw him Sunday mornings or even really why he sometimes left stuff with us rather than taking it home. Especially anything related to fantasy or magic. Just tame stuff like his copy of Lord Of The Rings or his Predator video, it’s not like we were reading Crowley and reaching out for the dead. Rob brought round an Ouija board once but we spent the whole time tilting it to spell out the name of some girl Jones was trying to ask out. Eventually he caved in and called her with the three of us whispering and giggling like idiots in the background. Obviously she said no. Funnily enough she spoke to us after Sam died. Said she was sorry for what had happened and that she’d always liked him. Not, you know, liked him but thought he was a good guy. It was awkward but touching. At the best of times us talking to Alison Miller would have been awkward but throw our sense of loss into the mix and the best we managed were mumbled thanks and intense scrutiny of our shoes.

After his death it sort of all fell into place, things became clearer. We were all told to stay away, that the family wanted privacy. No one ever came right out and said it but we all felt that we’d been recast as somehow culpable in what had happened, that we were part of the problems that Sam had, and not the outlet that we knew we were. The friends we knew we were. It hurt when they told us to keep away from the funeral and hurt turned to anger when we heard the details of the service. It just wasn’t him or what he’d have wanted. I suppose if we’d been older then maybe we’d have realised that the service wasn’t for him anyway, it was for the people left behind. His parents were the ones that needed their god and their church and their prayers to mark Sam’s departure from the world. I don’t know. Maybe we did realise on some level but we were angry just the same. We knew exactly what Sam believed in (punk rock, Ellen Ripley, some ill defined concept of magic) and what he didn’t (God, religion, Ewoks). He was passionate on it, angry even. A few months before Sam had killed himself Jones had briefly declared that he’d found God. After we’d traded various gags (“where was he, hiding behind the sofa again ?”) we realised that he was serious, or at least as serious as a fifteen year old can be whilst trying out various bits of identity to see what fits. Sam debated and argued with him for days. It was like the Han and Greedo and who shot first thing all over again but ten times worse. Quietly me and Rob thought the group might break up because of it, that this might be the point friendships fractured and fell apart. Then, as quickly as he’d declared himself a believer, Jones declared himself an atheist again. Or agnostic. He wasn’t really sure but, either way, whatever faith he’d discovered vanished like it’d just stepped on to a Transporter on the Enterprise and Scotty had beamed it away. Or O’Brien if you preferred Next Generation like Sam.

We even knew what Sam had wanted after his death. I don’t think he’d told us because he was planning it. I get that it might look that way now, knowing what happened, but it was just one of those conversations we had. He hadn’t even started it. I think Jones was going through a Trek phase and, inevitably given his warrior fixation, had latched on to the whole Klingon idea about good and bad deaths. This was after he’d found and lost God. He’d spun out some stuff about how he hoped he’d go out fighting, like Vasquez in Aliens or Boromir in Lord Of The Rings, and so there’d be no need for a funeral because there’d be nothing left of him. That was what had sparked Sam off, it was the chance to be pedantically right about something rather than some grand plan foreshadowing his own death. In painstaking detail Sam proceeded to tell Jones that his examples were flawed because, in fact, there had been all of Boromir left at his point of death, enough indeed to have a brief chat with Aragorn and to confess to breaking the Fellowship. He’d wound up being set atop a boat and cast adrift towards the Falls of Rauros. If anything illustrates why girls like Alison Miller didn’t really talk to us until catastrophic circumstances prevailed then it was this conversation. That’s where the boat came from though. Sam and Jones had argued for a bit about whether Boromir’s boat had been set ablaze by a flaming arrow before agreeing that it hadn’t. In turn that had set Sam to talking about his own wishes.

That’s why we’re here now, carrying a stolen coffin in the dark down to the river.

“Who’s going to do it ?” hissed Rob. We looked at each other, pupils shrinking as our eyes were caught in the glare of the torches. We hadn’t really discussed it, as absurd as that sounds. There’d been so much other stuff to plan that it must have just slipped attention. None of us had really spoken as we’d dug up the coffin and then replaced the earth to cover the theft. We knew there was something terrible about what we were doing but to us it was the lesser evil than not carrying out what Sam wanted. Grief does funny things to friends too I guess. We didn’t talk because there was nothing to say and, besides, we were terrified of being caught. So we remained silent as we wheeled the coffin, wedged across the back of two bikes, down through the woods at the back of the graveyard towards the river.

“Who’s going to fire the arrow ?” Rob tried again. Jones stopped sloshing petrol across the rowing boat we’d tied up earlier in the day. Rob had sorted it out and we hadn’t asked him how just as nobody had questioned Jones on the jerry cans full of petrol or the cords of rope and nobody has asked me about the bow. That one was legit. It was mine, dusted off from under some old sheets in the garage, left there ever since the end of a brief period when I’d taken up archery. Abandoned along with a telescope, my BMX, and a set of lifting weights: no future awaited me in astronomy, trick cycling, or body building. There might not be much of any kind of future waiting for me if we didn’t do this right.

“I’ll do it,” I offered. “Tether the boat so it stays close to the bank so I can hit it though. I don’t know how these arrows will fly with the lit cloth on them. We can always throw one on if I miss and then cut it adrift. Hopefully the current will take it straight down to the sea.” There were nods of assent but I could see the doubt. None of us knew how this would go. It must only have been half a mile to the mouth of the river, if the wind dropped you could just make out the sound of waves hitting the shoreline in the distance, but we didn’t really know what would happen.

We lugged the coffin on to the boat.

All of us were to blame for what happened next. Jones blamed himself because he was holding the matches. Rob blamed himself because he was holding the rope that was keeping the boat hugged against the river bank. I blamed myself for all of it. For not seeing the signs, for not joining up the dots into the bigger picture of Sam’s sharp decline. They were there now that I looked back at them: changing the subject whenever we talked about his life at home, evasive when asked about his random bruises, that time we got caught swapping notes and wound up in detention and the look in his eyes when he was told there’d be a letter to his parents about it. They pinned it on the washed out, faded black clothes, and the escapism, and the devil’s music, and the unhealthy obsession with the occult. Fuck all that. He was a kid that liked small f fantasy and capital F Fantasy. Just a kid that liked to shut out the voices around him by listening to fast, loud songs. And, yeah, maybe to shut out the voices in his head too.   Just a kid like we all were.

Jones had tried to light a match. That’s when it started to go wrong. His hands were trembling, in the dark none of us had noticed that he’d started crying and he would never have told us. Boys just don’t do that stuff well. As he struck the match he managed to lose his grip on it and it tumbled over and over, a faint flickering light, to the floor. Everyone panicked. Jones tried to catch it, like trying to grasp a dancing firefly, throwing the box with the rest of the matches away to free up his hands. There was barely a ripple as the box hit the water and all of our other chances to make fire drowned. Rob saw the box leave Jones’ hands and he went for that, in turn relinquishing his grip on the rope holding the boat. He missed the matches and the eager tug of the river’s current pulled the boat, topped by Sam’s coffin, out away from the shore. I just stood, numbly watching the scene unfold in a kind of slow motion by the light of the twin torches strapped to my head, holding the bow and a solitary arrow.

None of us really know what happened. All I’ll say is that I saw the match go out and hit the floor and then it sparked back into life as Rob picked it up. Later on, when we talked about it, none of us ever used the word ‘magic’ but we were all thinking it. Back when we used to play D&D, if things were going badly, Sam would always find a way to even things up. Holding the game universe in balance, he called it. Not cheating exactly – there was always a pre-determined chance for something extraordinary to happen and there was always a dice roll – but something to tip the scales. As the match flared Rob held it against the damp, petrol soaked cloth skewered on the arrow that I had resting on the bow. It caught and I gripped tighter, fighting the impulse to move my hand away from the heat. The boat had drifted quickly, maybe thirty or forty feet from the shore, and I pulled back on the string, smooth as I could, arms shaking, lined up my shot and then released.

Some god we didn’t really believe in rolled a twenty sided dice somewhere and we held our breath. One last check against my Dexterity stat. Maybe it was Sam, wherever he was now, holding the game universe in balance one last time for us. The arrow arced up and out over the water, its flaming point streaking across the surface as a blurred reflection. The scales tipped. The arrow dropped soundlessly into blackness, there was no splash. Gradually flames appeared, seemingly on the surface of the water, but as they tightened their grip on the wood, burned through the petrol, we could see the silhouette of Sam’s makeshift funeral pyre stenciled between the night sky and the ink of the river.

Enough smoke blew back to the shore that all of us could later say that was what brought the tears as we watched in silence as our friend made his final journey, the boat drifting out towards the sea, a trail of embers in its wake.

 

……

This is story 38 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts

This is the first longer one for a while. Was nice to stretch out a bit. Your mileage may vary of course. I really like the characters in this one and hope I did them justice. Perhaps I’ll return to it later and tidy up the ragged bits.

 

We are taking names

We are taking names. Smith. Williams. Brown. Roberts. Patel. Jackson. Cooper.

Hold up. What was that one ?

Cooper ?

Not that one, back up a bit.

Cooper, Jackson, Patel.

Stop. That one. Check that one. Come on, quickly now, we have no time to waste when we’re taking names.

Third generation, parents born in Uxbridge, impeccable national insurance contributions.

Okay. Let’s keep going.

Harris. Green. Clark. Moore. Hussain. Campbell.

Stop. Check that one.

Campbell ? I didn’t think we were checking Scots ?

Not yet, no. Not that one. The one before. Hussain, wasn’t it ?

Yes, Hussain. Second generation. Egyptian grandparents. Been here a few decades and barely even travels back to Africa anymore. The odd holiday by the looks of it.

Hold it for now. Let’s see what the numbers look like at the end. Keep going.

Mason. May. Rudd. Hunt. Johnson. Tysoe.

Wait, what ?

Tysoe. It’s unusual but it checks out. Might be French. There’s a village with that name in Warwickshire. Goes back centuries.

Okay. Best to be sure though. Doesn’t sound right, you know ?

I know. Maybe get to it next time.

Maybe. Keep going.

Dixon. Harvey. Andrews. Ford. Bomberg. O’Leary.

Woah, woah. Too fast. There were two there. Right there. Jewish. Irish. Gotta check them both.

Sorry, there’s just so many.

It’s okay. That’s why we’re here. To take the names. We are the Department For Taking Names.

The Jew checks out. Here before World War Two. Father fought for us, landed at Normandy. Better hold the Irish though. Came over less than fifteen years ago, probably an economic migrant. They had all that trouble, didn’t they ?

Yeah. Put him on the list.

It’s a she, actually, Couple of kids by the looks of it.

Fine. She then. Put her on the list. Kids too. Presume they’re at one of our schools ?

They are.

Well we’ll see about that. Keep going.

Kowalski. Another Smith. Robinson.

Kowalski ?

I already checked it. Been here since the 50s. Fled the Soviets, bought a shop in the 60s, worked it until retirement. Contributions check out. Married a Jones. Kids in jobs. Nothing else on record. No police or hospital admission or benefits or anything. Nothing to see here.

I don’t like it. Doesn’t look good. Won’t play well to the 52. Or the Mail.

The list ?

Yeah, put him on the list. The list of names. Let’s keep going. We are taking names.

 

……

This is story 37 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts

It’s not exactly Orwell I admit but it would feel remiss to write nothing given the current state of affairs in the UK. My surname is Tysoe in case you’re wondering where that section came from. I’ve been here my whole life but have scarcely felt less interested in being British.

Powder blue

That bit was true. She wore powder blue. A skirt that shifted up and around her legs as I watched her walk, hips lifting and falling as she retreated from me. I didn’t follow her. She’d made it clear that I shouldn’t but there was nothing I wanted more than to chase her. Powder blue skirt, white blouse, hair pulled up in a loose bun, loose strands tumbling down her neck. I memorised her back. Her walking away was as good as it was going to get so I fixed it in my head. I love to watch you leave. Jesus, now you’ve got me sounding like the lyrics from some 80s hair metal band. Shot through the heart and you’re to blame.

That bit was true though. That bit I remember. The stuff before that I’ve tried to forget and mostly been successful. I expect it was the usual easy let down lines about not the right time or not in a good place right now or it’s not you it’s me. Your mouth said some words. Your perfect kissable mouth said some words. I watched it and remembered feeling it on mine but couldn’t reliably say what it said. You never listened. Perhaps that’s what it said. It’s a fair cop. Guilty. There’s not a court in the land that wouldn’t acquit though when I submit, in my defence, the glory of watching that mouth and tasting those lips and feeling that tongue tease and test mine. Who’d listen under those circumstances ? A better man than me. You were just too distracting. Too arresting. Does that make me shallow ? Did you get tired of splashing around in shallow old me, looking for some depths to sink into that just weren’t there ? I don’t know. Maybe I am. You just walked out on me and I’m fixing the image of your swaying hips and perky backside in my brain as my memory of this moment. I’m not proud.

There’s other stuff I’ve forgotten. Dates we went on as a prelude to sex. Conversations we had as a prelude to sex. Staring romantically into each other’s eyes as a prelude… You get the idea. The prelude was always pretty predictable. As we’ve established I’m shallow enough to have my well rehearsed moves fixed down to a tee. Like muscle memory. You could drop me down in a bar, in a cinema, walking down the street hand-in-hand, in a restaurant, in a gym, on a train, even one time buying some throat sweets in Boots, and it would end in bed. Or the floor next to the bed. Or stairs. Or an alleyway. As I say, you get the idea. I’m not boasting, it’s just something I know how to do. That part is always a means to an end. The fact that it is seems to always bring about this you-walking-away end.

It was all lies. I never wore powder blue. I might have worn navy or black or, when we first met, something red even, but powder blue ? I always knew there was a gap between the reality of us together and the twisted narrative playing in your head and presumably this was part of it. That I was all powder blue and perfect bottom and floor to ceiling legs and blow job lips. What the hell are blow job lips anyway ? Coming next month in Cosmo: 23 lipsticks that look great round his cock. So what did he tell you ? That it was all sex ? That he was dreadfully, charmingly, shallow and that I thought I was the one that would get him to dispense with the scuba diving and gear up with an air tank to fully explore our murky depths together ? He’d never use a diving analogy without some fucking gag about, you know, another kind of diving though. That part about him being shallow ? Give him some credit: that part, amongst all the lies, was true.

For the record then I wore navy. I remember it now. A straight, tailored skirt from Hobbs, cut just above the knee. There were no flashes of thigh or glimpses of suspender belt. No hint of what was underneath unless you were some kind of sex obsessed maniac that sees navy as powder; some permanent rendering of the world in soft focus. I guess that’s what too much porn will do to you. That and an endless compulsion to buy me “gifts” from Agent Provocateur. Yeah, sure I’ll wear those. Just as soon as you clamp your balls in a vice and shove a feathered butt plug up your arse. Also for the record my hips don’t sway or swing. I don’t casually sashay across the floor. I walk. Specifically I walk away from you and not so that you can watch me leave but so that I can get the fuck away as fast as I can without falling flat on my face in three inch heels. I’m amazed you didn’t mention those. Presumably you couldn’t drag your eyes away from my behind long enough to notice.

That stuff you forgot ? Honestly, you’re right to forget it. It was forgettable. You’re not the only one that phoned it in during those dates, during those meals, those films, those walks, as a prelude to getting to the mindless escape of fucking. You really think that was a one way street ? I’m not walking away because you didn’t listen or because ‘it wasn’t you it was me’. It was you. It really wasn’t me. I just got fed up finishing myself off every night after you rolled over asleep after another loud but short explosion. You’re lucky my name’s only got two syllables: I’m not sure you’d have ever managed to call it out before you came if it had been three. I was happy with shallow, I was feeling pretty shallow myself, but if we’re going to connect purely for sex then let’s at least do it properly. That too much to ask ? Sure, at the start, maybe I was looking for something more than that but not by the end, not when it became obvious that there was no more to you than that. And in the end you couldn’t even deliver against your shallow promise. You were a means to no end and that’s why I walked away. Remember me in powder blue if you like. It’s a lie but then all of it was.

……

This is story 36 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts

This is not dissimilar to previous story, Moonshot, in that it was just an attempt at straight voice. I’m not sure the two protagonists ended up being distinct enough but you can be the judge. As usual there hasn’t been an edit.