This short story was long-listed for the Sheffield Author’s Short Story Competition 2019.

“What a pillock.”

The two boys in the seat in front of him turned to look at him. John turned to look through the window, his face burning at missing his stop and speaking his thoughts out loud. The bus had just turned on to London Road. He pressed the button and got off, chuntering at himself like a lost-it boy.

On the pavement, John paused and looked around. A few people were walking, cars were flowing up and down the road. He’d not been down here for a long time, years, perhaps, but it seemed to look about the same as it ever had. And then he looked again. Something wasn’t quite right. He wasn’t able to focus properly. It was as though he was looking at two photographs of the same thing, one overlaid on the other. That supermarket, Sainsbury’s. That had been a nightclub, hadn’t it? The buildings opposite, red brick buildings, when did they get built? Hadn’t that one been a car showroom? And the pub across the road, the one that was busy as buggery every weekend, where was that? What had happened to that?

Looking along the road, a stream of memories of people and past events came at John in a sudden flood. Things he’d done, things his friends had done, things they’d done together. The pressure of these remembrances became overwhelming. He felt an obligation to recall them, clearly and accurately, and at the same time an urge to let them go, to discard them. He began to feel dizzy, drunk on thinking. Deciding to head for the underpass that ran beneath the ring road, still lost in his thoughts, he set off across a pedestrian crossing before the lights had changed and got a brash blare from a lorry driver for his sin. John waved an insincere apology and walked on, down the steps of the underpass, past a homeless pile of clothes waiting for their owner to return. That wasn’t right, either.

The two young lads sitting in the seat in front of his on the bus had been excited about a football match tomorrow. They didn’t look like they were even teenagers yet. John had begun remembering being their age and as excited as they were about football. There had been a pinging sound. Both boys had stopped talking and taken out their phones and thumbed them mercilessly. John had zoned out. He had carried on thinking about when he was a boy. It had made him feel happy. Too happy. That was how he’d missed his stop. Perhaps that was what had started it; the remembering.

He walked around the monstrous Moorfoot building and came to the bottom of the Moor. John crossed the bus lane and walked past an isolated kiosk and stopped. Looking up the Moor, he again felt the sense of something not being right. That duality settled over the scene once more. He was seeing what he was looking at but looking through his memory. The Moor, a carved stone canyon of neat, straight, sheer facades ran away up the slight incline in front of him. A pedestrianised space, John saw cars on either side: a Ford Cortina; a Hillman Imp; old vehicles from so long ago that they had probably been scrapped and recycled and scrapped again by now. He rubbed his eyes. At the top of the hill he could see the Town Hall. John remembered that was supposed to meet his wife there at lunch time. He began walking again, quickly.

He passed Atkinsons and felt comforted and suspicious that it was as it had always been, doubting his memory. John had intended to call in at the Moor Market to pick up a Wateralls’ pork pie for tea but he just looked at the worked expanses of wood that framed the market and kept going. As he moved through the thin crowds of people, images flickered through his mind like shutter stock: Curtess shoes; Blaskeys; BHS; Debenhams. He was trying to remember what had been there before but seeing things as they were now at the same time. Big, bold, clinical buildings paraded on either side of him, bright stone and clean lines. Nothing has detail any more, he thought, and wondered why. He stopped.

“I’m losing it,” he said.

A young girl walking towards John heard him speak to himself and subtly changed her direction, taking a course further from him. Some other day he might have smiled at this, at the idea that he’d become the odd bloke in the street. It wasn’t funny today, though. Not funny at all.

I’ve already lost it, he thought, deciding against speech. I’ve lost the detail of my life. Why did it go? How did I lose it? A terrifying understanding came to him, and he felt the danger of public tears. John swore quietly at himself, and started walking again, as quickly as before, as though he were hurrying from something.

The top half of the Moor and Pinstone Street passed by in a blur. He couldn’t process the volume of images and thoughts that were storming his mind. Passing the Peace Gardens, the silver jets of the fountains sparkled in the sun and, somewhere unseen, a lone busker was playing a trumpet. The Hovis tune, he thought. The sight and sound settled him a little, and his frantic walking slowed.

He was in front of the town hall now, and he stopped and looked down, panting. Even this was wrong. There were names there. He was walking on stars. John felt faint. He edged towards the Town Hall steps and leaned against a wall. His mind was a glittering palace of lights, flaring and dying. He closed his eyes and wondered if this was how the end begins. He didn’t know. He knew where he was now, though. He was where he was supposed to be. But there, the place he wanted to be, wasn’t there any more.

An Encounter

He cried out as he came.

She wound above him, gripping his hardness with her wetness. Sweat sheened her body in the half light that shone through a gap in the curtains. Her body kept moving, her hips sliding backwards and forwards on his, grinding down on him, taking him in, emptying him. She leaned forward and placed her hands on the bed on either side of his body. She began to slow.

He looked at her as she leaned over him. Her breasts were small but well formed, with dark, prominent nipples. She wasn’t skinny but she was very slim. He could see her ribs as her chest filled and emptied with her now lessening breaths. Her hair was dark, almost black in the dim light, and it fell forward, masking her face until she raised her head. Her eyes were still closed and her lips were slightly parted. He could feel her breath on his face. It smelled of something he couldn’t name, some kind of spices.

His mouth was dry and he swallowed twice before speaking.  “Oh, god,” he said.  “Oh, my god.”

She opened her eyes and looked at him. The bright grey irises were startling. They had been the first thing he had noticed about her. In the bar, talking with some of his friends, he’d turned to look in her direction just as she’d walked in and she’d seen him at the same instant that he saw her. The sight of her took his breath away, literally made it hard for him to breathe. He was young and fit and handsome but quite shy. He never made the first move. He did then, though, immediately and without hesitation. He walked over to her and said hello and she smiled and he bought her a drink and she spoke in a voice like song and they walked back to his place and they kissed and undressed and climbed into bed and now here they were. Coupled.

He was as much a boy as a man. He came from a large family in an industrial city in the north of England, a family with the sort of high moral codes in which fidelity was a prized virtue, and so he was unusual amongst his peers for being a virgin. He’d had every intention of saving himself for his wedding night and his future wife, whoever she turned out to be, and yet somehow he had ended up here, tonight, in bed with a complete stranger and, strangely, he didn’t regret it. He wanted more. He wanted her, this woman who hung above him now, staring into his eyes. He wondered what she was thinking. What did she want from him? Could she tell he had been a virgin? What would she think? He decided that it would perhaps be best not to tell her right now.

“That was fantastic,” he said, looking back into those hypnotic eyes. “Fabulous, really. Was it okay for you?”  He laughed, not waiting for an answer.

He ran his hands along the smoothness of her thighs, cupping them round her buttocks and gently squeezing the fleshy softness. He could feel her tightening on him as he diminished. It was as though she didn’t want it to end. He wondered how long it would be before he would be able to do it again.

She dismounted, his softening penis leaving her body with a sound like a wet kiss. She swung gracefully off the bed and he watched in puzzlement as she placed her hands on her pubis. He wondered if she needed the bathroom. She stood facing the wall for a moment and then turned away and walked slowly towards the window at the far end of the bedroom. She had long, slender legs, and the way she walked was almost feline, the pelvic girdle rising and falling in opposition to her shoulders as she moved.

“You’re beautiful,” he said.

He felt so full. He’d never felt anything like this before, nothing so intense. He wondered if this was the real thing, true love or whatever. He laughed silently to himself. True love, he thought. I don’t know anything about her. I’m not even sure of her name. I just know I want her. I need her.

She came to the tall window. She reached up and pulled the curtains apart. The glow of  streetlight spilled into the room, painting her naked body a sour yellow against the black shadow of the room behind her. It was like a vision, a chiaroscuro dream. It would be his last memory on the day he died. He saw her outline, the hang of her breasts and the swell of her belly and the roundness of her buttocks, and he felt a returning surge of blood.

“Hey, what’re you doing?” he said, smiling. “Somebody’ll see you. Come back to bed.”

She looked back at him. He could see no emotion on her face. She turned her head away and undid the catch and slid the top half of the sash window down. She lifted her face to the night sky and placed her hands together, as if in prayer.

“Come,” she sang, to the star-sparkled darkness. “Come. I have the seed.”

Angel Street

There he was. Arthur Scargill. Sixty feet high and wearing a miner’s helmet.

It wasn’t Scargill, of course. It was a mural in brick of a steelworker who looked a bit like him. The mural had been made when the gable wall was built in the eighties. At that time the man was living in another city, and so he hadn’t seen it until he came back home to Sheffield. The first time the man saw it he’d assumed it was Scargill because he thought it looked a bit like him. He’d only discovered it wasn’t Scargill a few months later. He’d read the story about the miner’s union paying for his luxury London flat for so many years. It had made him wonder why anyone would commission a mural of a man like Scargill. He’d had a look on the internet and found out that they hadn’t, that there were no monuments to Arthur Scargill anywhere. He felt that this seemed appropriate.

He scrubbed the condensation from the window with the sleeve of his coat. The bus had driven past Arthur Scargill. It had passed the pound store and the cheap hotel. They were approaching Angel Street, which meant…

There she was.

She stood at the bus stop wearing a white raincoat that looked like it was made of some kind of plastic. It should have looked cheap and tawdry but she somehow made it look smart and tasteful. She had knee length black boots and a black hat and a pair of black gloves and she should have looked common but she didn’t. She never did. She looked fabulous, as usual.

He twisted in his seat to keep her in sight for as long as he could. The bus whirred past her and on towards West Bar. He wondered where she came from to catch her bus here. He wondered where she was going. Hardly anyone got on or got off at the stop she used. The road from here headed north from the city centre. He guessed that this stop served the area around Hillsborough but he wasn’t sure. It didn’t matter. She was from somewhere else, going to somewhere else. She was not here.

He’d seen her, at that stop, at this time of day for the last couple of weeks. He’d started this latest contract at the Bank at around the same time. He’d seen her on the first morning. As soon as he saw her it was as if she was familiar to him, as if he already knew her. She stood in a queue but it seemed to him that there was nobody else there, no other people around her. She had bright blue eyes and cherry red lips and a smile like a painting. When she smiled her eyes squeezed tight, leaving her squinting like a beautiful baby. She had a way of standing that emphasised her hips, her body loose-jointed but elegant. That was the word for her. She was elegant.

Infatuated was the best word for him. It was an infatuation; there was no doubt about it. He’d never had one before but knew he’d got one now. He’d always thought of people who succumbed to this kind of thing as being weak-willed or weird or both. He was neither. He was almost sure of that. And anyway, what was wrong with infatuation? It wasn’t a bad thing. It just meant that he thought a lot about her. A lot.

He got off opposite the Law Courts and headed towards his office. He decided to pick up a takeaway coffee from the cafe on the other side of the street. He was still thinking about the girl. At the pedestrian crossing he pressed the button and waited to cross the road. The sign of the green man walking appeared and he set off across the road.

There was a screech of brakes and a car halted three inches from his leg.

Get the full story in Steel Works.

The Peace Gardens

The gang could be heard before they were seen. Their shouts echoed off the walls and buildings surrounding the Peace Gardens. It was a mixed group. There were different sexes, different races, different styles of dress and attitude. Some were quiet, uncomfortable to be part of such a group. Others enjoyed the attention they attracted. Most were more or less drunk or drugged. A weedy fug trailed in their wake.

The old woman watched as the group approached the fountains. Children played on. They were too consumed by their play in the cool dancing waters on this hot sunny day to notice the newcomers. Most people did as the old woman did and watched as the gang invaded the peace of the gardens.

A tall blond boy in skinny jeans and an equally tall black boy wearing low-rise sweat pants led the group. They walked past the old lady and the other people sitting on the low wall outside the Town Hall. The others following behind him in couples and clusters. The blond boy looked into the eyes of the people he passed. He spat little drops of insolence on the ground as he walked. A young couple and a family got up and walked away from the gang, leaving a space of the wall beside the old lady vacant. The gang began to occupy the vacated space, settling and rising like birds roosting.

The girl at the back of the group was young, perhaps sixteen. Her hair was a warning. It had been dyed day-glo red and was draped around her pimpled face like a curtain, something to hide behind. Strands fell down over her face and from between them a pair of too-blue eyes stared as she passed. Something about the eyes seemed false and it took the woman a moment to realise what it was. They were incredible, the brightest blue she had ever seen. Right now they were unfocused and permanently moving. The old woman noticed the irises, black, wide and of different sizes.

“Wotchewlookinah?” said the girl, her words all slurred into one.

The woman realised that she had been staring. In some other summer, she and her husband had sat here. Here, together, on a bench made of knife-scribed wood and coiled iron snakes. They had talked of the here and now that was there and then. Children ran and squealed in joy as jets of water flew from the ground beneath them. This was the place where her young self and her younger husband had held hands and talked of the future. Bare feet splashed through her memories. Children’s voices, the music of the present, sang to her past. The sights and sounds and smells of today overlaid those of yesterday, of other days. She and her husband had been happy here, watching people. She watched these young people now. She watched this girl.

“I’m sorry, dear,” said the old woman. “I was looking at your eyes. They’re beautiful.”

“Yeah?” said the girl.

She hit the old woman with the back of her hand. The blow was hard and fast, the young hand whipping across the old face, arms sweeping wide like a matador with a cape. The old woman fell sideways like an un-strung puppet.

“You twat,” the blond boy said to the girl, standing behind her. “You stupid, pointless twat.”

The old woman levered herself back up into a sitting position. She placed a hand on her reddening cheek. She looked down for a moment. She saw the neatly laid grey granite paving blocks. She raised her eyes to look at the torch of a girl blazing in front of her.

The girl was standing on the balls of her feet. She was almost hopping, adrenalin and alcohol and amphetamines rioting in her body. She waited for a response, for comeback from the old woman.

The old woman placed her hands on the top of the wall either side of where she sat. She pushed herself up, with care, rising to a standing position. She brought her hands together and clasped them in front of her, her smart leather bag dangling from one arm. She looked at the girl.

The bouncing girl looked into the old woman’s eyes. She could see no anger in those eyes. There was not even fear. All the girl could see were eyes almost the same colour as her own, though they were weaker. The whites were yellowed in places, the irises less delineated than her own. She felt as though she were seeing through the old woman’s eyes now. She saw through eyes that had seen so many things, seen war and death and hurt and loss, eyes that had seen enough. The old woman was done with fear and anger and blame, and she would see no more of them.

The girl stopped bouncing.

A bald fat man in a food-stained vest came up behind her. “All right, love?” said the man to the old woman. He was looking at the blond boy and the others in the gang. “The wife’s called the coppers. They’ll be here in a minute.”

The blond boy looked at the fat man and spat carefully on the floor.

“We don’t need this, man,” said the black boy. “Come on. Skip.” He began to walk away. The others followed him, walking slowly backwards out of the gardens. The blond boy looked at the girl and then at the fat man and then bent and spat once more before following the others.

The old woman held out a hand to the girl. The girl looked at the hand and saw the wedding ring. She saw the swollen knuckles and the liver spots and the fine, fine skin. She looked up again, into the mirror of the woman’s eyes. The woman opened her hand and turned it palm upwards.

The girl took the hand. The old woman drew her in. She put her arms round the girl and hugged her.

“There, there,” said the old woman.

The Moor

“Can you help me pliss?”

The woman was smiling at him. She had the whitest teeth he had ever seen: and the blackest skin.

“Pliss. Can you help me?”

He took the note from the little old dear he’d been serving and handed over her change. He thanked her and told her he’d see her next week and then he turned to the woman.

“Yes love?”

“Hallo. I need you to help me pliss,” she said. She had a deep and warm voice that sounded like a smile.

Another deep voice came from behind him.

“The first thing you need help with is your English, love.”

His father came round from the other side of the stall. He was rubbing his hands to keep them warm in the chilly autumn air. He had a look of doubt on his face. Perhaps it was scepticism. These two looks are hard to differentiate. Neither is welcoming.

“It’s please,” he said. “Not pliss. Please.”

The woman nodded, her smile continuing to shine. She was tall and solid. The way she held herself suggested a strong frame beneath her bright green and gold turban. She wore a matching wraparound under an incongruous grey coat. They protected her from the cold English weather.

“Thank you,” said the woman to his father. “Can you help me pliss – please?”

His father sniffed. “Depends what you want,” he said.

“I am from Ghana,” said the woman, “From Accra. I am a market trader like you.”

“Like me?” said his father. “You don’t much look like me.”

The son turned to face his father. His father looked at him and looked away, back to the woman. He rubbed his hands again and blew into them. The woman glanced from father to son and back, her smile unwavering.

“A market trader, eh?” said the son, turning back to face the woman. “What kind of trader?”

The woman looked down. There were trays and containers stacked in neat display rows across the front of the stall. She waved a hand across them.

“I am like you,” she said. “I sell fruit and vegetables. The freshest: the best.”

“Second best,” said the father. He pointed at the sign attached to the awning above the stall.




“Go West for the best, it says,” he said, enunciating, reading the words out slowly. His son bit his bottom lip. He looked down at the trimmings and loose paper scattered around the floor of the stall. George pointed to his son and back to himself. “We’re the best: West and son.”

“I’m Joe,” said the son, holding out a hand to the woman. She shook his hand, her stark pale palm cool against his own. She smiled at George, who put his hands in his pockets.

“How can we help you?” asked Joe.

“Thank you,” said the woman. “Thank you indeed.”

Joe smiled. “We’ve done nowt yet love. What can we do for you?”

The woman laughed a bass boom of a laugh. It tailed off with a high pitched fading sigh.

“No,” she said. “I mean yes,” she laughed again. “I mean I would like to have a market stall too. Can you tell me how to get one pliss – please?”

Joe laughed along with her. Her body cavorted when she laughed. She rocked backwards and forwards, sidestepped left and right, wriggled her hips. He couldn’t help joining in.

“I used to have a stall in Accra, in the Makola market,” said the woman, her mouth forming each individual word. “It was a big market; hundreds of stalls, very busy, very busy. Very good food; very good: fresh every day from the farms. And that is only one of the markets. There are lots of markets in Accra. There is one market, the Circle market, it is open all day and all night. You can buy things, get something to eat, anytime of the day, anytime at night. Anytime.”

“Sounds like hard work to me,” said Joe. “Long hours.”

“Long hours, yes,” said the woman. “Ghana is so hot that we sleep in the day and work at night. But I like to work. I like it!” Her laugh boomed again.

“You’ve got no chance,” said George.

The woman stopped laughing. Her smile was still broad and bright but it no longer reached her eyes now. Her head tilted to one side as she looked at George.

“No chance,” he said again. “All the pitches have been taken.”

The woman turned to look at the collection of pitches and stalls laid out along the Moor. Around half of the pitches were occupied by working stalls. Of the remaining pitches, about half had frames erected. The remaining pitches were completely empty. She turned back to face George.

“Who says?” said Joe.

George turned his face away from his son. “Mester Johnson,” he replied. He began arranging the pile of butternut squash in the box marked PRODUCE OF GHANA. “Markets manager. He told me the other day. Going like hot cakes, he says. It’s this new indoor market. Rents in there are too expensive so everyone’s after one of these outdoor stalls.”

“Really?” said Joe. “I thought Johnson was off sick?”

“No, he’s back now. He’s re-coop-er-ated.”

“Has he now?” said Joe. He turned back to the woman. “What’s your name love?”

“Efie. Efie Ansah.”

“Well Efie, the best thing for you to do is to contact this man.” He took a wallet from inside his jacket and picked out a card and wrote on it. “Mister Johnson. If he isn’t there someone else will answer. He looks after the markets in Sheffield. He’ll be able to tell you if any stalls are available. Come back and see me if you have any problems.”

“Wouldn’t waste your time love,” said George, arms folded across his chest.

“You are very kind, Joe,” said Efie, shaking his hand once more. “Thank you for your help. And you Mister George: thank you too.”

“You won’t get anything,” said George.

“Perhaps,” said Efie. “I will try though.” She blazed a smile at him.

“Best of luck Efie,” said Joe. “Let us know how you get on.”

“I surely will,” she said as she moved away, waving and smiling. “Thank you again, and God bless you both.”

The two men watched her head up the Moor. She had a dainty way of walking, placing one foot in front of the other, as if on a tightrope.

“That’s the last time,” said Joe.

George stood with his back to his son, watching Efie glide up the Moor towards the Town Hall. She was like a royal barge decked in green and gold livery.

“How d’you mean?” he said.

Joe paused. “I’m sick of you,” he said. “This is my stall now. I don’t want you around anymore, not after today. You’re done.”

“I were only trying to stop her being disappointed,” said George. “She’ll not get a stall. And anyway, we don’t need any more stalls doing fruit and veg, do we? We’re going to have enough on when the new market gets going.”

“You know what you were doing,” said Joe.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said George.

“You know exactly what you were doing.”

Division Street

She was like a balloon that was too pumped up.

She even felt tense, her skin too taut when he accidentally touched her as they passed each other in the small kitchen of the small apartment. He could feel himself stiffening and tightening in response. He noticed that he had unconsciously planted his feet, anchoring himself.

They stood near each other, him at the sink, her at the hob. The only sound was the dull clink of cups in water and meat frying in the pan. The only light came from the grey winter sky outside the window. It seemed to enter the room horizontally. She was staring thin-lipped through the window and he thought the setting suited her. He thought it made her look like an actress from an old film.

He stacked the pots and put the cutlery on the drainer and sat down at the table. He picked up the newspaper and began reading. Something banged behind him and he raised his head. He heard murmured words and another bang and he asked if there was anything he could do. There was a cat-fight sizzle as she poured the passata on top of the meat. She said something else. He said I’m sorry and she said no you’re not. He said no, I mean I didn’t hear what you said.

She walked out of the room.

He stared at the door for a few minutes. The meat sauce had been left on a high heat so he got up and turned it down. He turned on the extractor fan and the overhead light and stirred the sauce and then he boiled the spaghetti and cut some bread. He laid the table and opened the wine and then put out the meal. He opened the door and shouted that it was ready. He waited for a few minutes and then called again.

He sat down and looked at the food. He poured out two glasses of wine and took a big mouthful from one of them. After a couple of minutes he began eating. He finished his meal and his wine and then poured out another glass. He stood up and clasped his hands on top of his head and looked out of the apartment window as the day died outside. He saw people walking along the wet pavements of Division Street. He wondered how they lived.

After a while she came back into the kitchen. She had been crying and her eyes were red. She sat down in front of her food and folded her hands in her lap. He stood up and took her plate and warmed it in the microwave and put it back in front of her. She took a sip of wine and said I’m too upset to eat and he said what are you upset about. She said you know what and he said I don’t. I don’t.

They sat together for a long time without speaking.

Later, when the police asked her why she did it, she just couldn’t find the words.

The Stranger

The stranger was walking. It made a change.

It was late evening in early winter and the night was cold but dry. All around him the lights of the bars and shops of the city centre glared and glowed, a stream of colours flowing around him under a starless black sky. People passed by, couples and groups, a few solo travellers, mostly young people, mostly heading home. The only sounds to be heard were the heels of women’s shoes and transient conversations and occasional guffaws. He walked on, passing the late night food outlets, smelling onions and tomatoes and spices and meat, always meat.

Nobody looked at the stranger. He did nothing to attract their attention.

The route he followed took him through the alleyways and hilly streets that formed the little village at the centre of the city, and then out towards the east. In the city centre, people had been lively and chatty, and the place seemed warm and welcoming. Now, as he moved further east, there were fewer people, and they kept their heads down or looked straight forward, avoiding eye contact. It became quieter. It seemed colder.

After a while he came to a big island, a distribution point for traffic coming to or through the city. A footbridge spanned the entire roundabout, it’s walkways radiating out from the centre of the island like the spokes of a giant wheel. He climbed some steps to the footbridge and walked across, above the stream of traffic. Leaning against the railings, he paused for a few minutes to watch the vehicles coming off the Parkway. A beautiful woman in the passenger seat of a Jaguar looked up as the car she was travelling in passed under the footbridge. She smiled, perhaps at him. He turned and watched as the car drove out towards the motorway. She didn’t turn round. He stood there for a while, listening to the drawn out roar of tyres on tarmac, smelling the poisonous leavings of cars and buses and lorries and bikes. An ambulance flew into the city, blue lights in a maniac swirl, its siren sounding like a toy. When it was out of sight he started walking again.

Coming off the footbridge, he climbed up an incline and on to a long, straight road. Red and white lights from the traffic on the dual carriageway streamed below him on the left. On his right he passed a modern church that was dying and a working men’s club that was already dead. A many-floored block of flats stood behind the church and the club that had been built to serve them. Every window was darkened or covered with curtains or blinds. Lights shone in just a handful of the living spaces. The only thing moving on the street was a black and white cat searching for mice. The cat paused and sniffed the air as the stranger came closer before slinking away, ears pricked backwards, listening.

The stranger came to a junction with a side road. As he approached the junction he heard a voice. He looked around to see where it came from but he couldn’t see anything. He stopped for a moment. The voice came again.


It was a man’s voice, but there was weakness in it, and it trembled.

He looked around again and saw a long, thin arm lying on the pavement a little way along the side road. There was hedging along the side of the road and the arm stuck out through a gap. He hesitated for a moment and then saw the hand twitch.  

“Help me,” came the feeble voice.

The stranger ran up to the gap in the hedge. As he bent down to the figure that lay on the ground, the twitching hand shot up and fastened around his throat. Another hand joined it and dragged him head first through the hedging. The stranger was pushed to the ground, his head bouncing off the tarmac before his face was pressed down into the dirt and gravel behind the hedge, out of sight of the road. A weight landed hard on his back and forced the air out of his lungs. His left arm was trapped under his body, the other twisted up behind him and held tight in a strong, bony grip.

The arm belonged to a dark-haired boy who carried no fat and whose bones seemed to be made of metal. He was kneeling on the man’s body. As they jostled on the ground, the boy’s knees burrowed into the man’s back. He banged the man’s head on the floor again and bent down to speak. He had a tattoo of barbed wire circling his neck. He smelled of drink and weed. His name was Damon, though he preferred Lemon but couldn’t remember why.

Lemon had seen the man as he walked alone in the night. Lemon had a bad habit that needed to be tended to, regularly and irresistibly. He had a bad attitude, too. If someone was walking around here, alone, at night, well, it was their own fault if something happened to them, wasn’t it? They should know better. Served them right if they got done over. He was just teaching them a lesson. Doing ’em a favour, really. Fuckers should say thank you after he’d done ’em.

“No noise, right?” said Lemon, twisting the man’s arm further up his back. “Don’t you make no fuckin’ noise, man. Right? Just give me your money, okay? Give me your money and I’m gone.” He shook the man.

The man laughed.

The boy paused. They didn’t laugh. They usually either put up a bit of a fight that Lemon quickly slapped out of them, or they rolled over and coughed up straight away. Nobody had ever laughed before. He dug his knees into the man’s back again, leaning hard on him. The man grunted. Then he laughed again.

“What you fuckin’ laughin’ at?” said Lemon.

“I don’t have money,” said the stranger. His voice was soft and deep, unaccented.


“I mean, I don’t have money,” said the man. “I have nothing. Nothing that you want, anyway.”

“Bollocks,” said Lemon.

 With his free hand, Lemon reached into the inside pocket of the battered jacket he was wearing and took out a black cylinder and held it beside the man’s head. He pressed a small silver button on the side and a thin, pointed blade sprang from the cylinder. He wiggled the blade in front of the man’s eyes, the sharp ground edge glinting in the darkness.

“Money,” said Lemon. “Now.”

The man was looking at the blade. He was still smiling.

“Search me,” he said. “You can keep anything that you find.”

“Oh, fuckin’ ‘ell,” said the boy, exasperated.

He took hold of the collar of the man’s jacket and dragged it down and off. Lemon held it up and fumbled quickly through the pockets. He found nothing.

“Bollocks,” he said, throwing the jacket away. “What’s in your trouser pockets, then? Up you get.”

Lemon had been sitting on the stranger’s legs. He got up now. The stranger lay there for a moment and then he levered himself up and turned to face Lemon. The man moved very easily. He was taller than Lemon. He had dark eyes and dark hair. His face was square, with a wide mouth and a strong jaw. Lemon noticed that there were no marks on his face. 

“Pockets,” said Lemon, waving the knife left and right in front of the man. He was getting twitchy now.

The man paused for a moment and then reached into the pockets of his jeans and pulled out the linings. There was nothing in them.

“Bastard,” said Lemon. “You’re fuckin’ potless, aren’t you? Skint. That’s why you’re walkin’, in’t it? Fuck me. Just my fuckin’ luck.”

He looked down. The stranger was wearing shiny leather boots with silver buckles. They looked new.

“Right,” said Lemon, pointing. “I’ll take them. Get ’em off.”

The stranger didn’t move. 

“Come on, fuckin’ ‘ell. I am’t got all night.” 

Lemon waved the knife around as though it were a magic wand. 

“You don’t know anything about me,” the man said.

He wasn’t looking at the boy directly but at the empty space to his right. The expression on the man’s face was difficult to interpret. Lemon thought he saw sadness, though it could have been boredom. Lemon looked around as a car drove past on the main road. It was too far away to see anything and gone in an instant. He turned back to the man. He jumped. The man’s gaze had shifted from empty space and his dark, dark eyes were now fastened on his own. And he was closer. Much closer.

“You don’t know what I can do,” said the stranger.  

He reached out. Lemon tried to pull his arm away but the speed of the man’s movements made his own seem heavy and slow. In a single motion, the stranger grabbed hold of the boy’s wrist and turned his hand backwards and pulled him forwards. He simply took the knife out of the boy’s hand. As Lemon fell past him and down to the ground, the stranger stamped on the back of his calf and then dug the heel of his boot into his thigh, deadening the muscles. Lemon squealed. The man bent quickly and slapped his open mouth, hard, with an open hand.

“No noise, right?” said the stranger.

“Umph,” said Lemon. Pushing with his one good leg, he scuffled backwards away from the man, coming to a halt against the screening hedge.

“What do you think I am, boy?” said the stranger, standing over him.

Lemon shook his head, unwilling to risk another smack. The stranger looked at the knife in his hand. He was holding it  with two fingers by the base of the cylinder, the blade pointing downwards. He let go and the knife dropped. The blade pierced Lemon’s thigh and embedded loosely in the dead leg muscle. Lemon squealed, and the man hit him again, retrieving the knife with one hand as his other connected with Lemon’s mouth.

“What do you think I am?” the stranger said again, crouching beside the shivering boy.

“Evil,” said Lemon. Blood ran from his split lip and snot from his nose. His head was a thumping ball of pain and his bowels were growling and coiling and fighting to release the few evil remains of whatever food fermented there. “You’re fuckin’ evil, that’s what you are.”

“Maybe,” said the stranger.

Lemon looked around, desperate for a passer-by to provide the sort of interruption that he would have resented under other circumstances. Nobody was in sight. The night seemed darker and more silent than before. 

“Perhaps I am evil,” said the stranger, “but you don’t know that. I could be good. I could be doing you a kindness here, teaching you a lesson, perhaps. Or I could be completely amoral, which is a word I’m sure you don’t understand. It means I might not care about right or wrong at all. Any of these could be true, but that’s not the point. The point is, what do you know about me? There’s only one thing you actually know, boy. What is it?”

Lemon shook his head again. The man waited, but Lemon wouldn’t speak. He saw that sad, bored look appear on the man’s face again.

“I’m a stranger,” said the man. “All you know about me is that you don’t know me. And yet you attacked me, not knowing what I might be capable of. That’s a big risk. That’s like stepping beyond the firelight and out to where the wolves wait. Sometimes you get away with taking that sort of risk. Sometimes you don’t. What do you think now, boy? Do you think the risk has paid off?”

Lemon said nothing.

“What’s your name, boy?” said the man.

“David,” said Lemon.

The stranger carefully placed his knee on the dead leg and leaned forward. Lemon whimpered in pain.

“Your real name.”

“Lemon. That’s what they call me. Real name’s Damon.”

The stranger looked at the boy. “Damon. But you couldn’t pronounce it properly when you were young, could you? It came out Lemon and it stuck.” He thought for a moment. “You can’t read, either, can you? Dyslexic? You were a problem at school. Fell in with the bad boys. Became one of them. Mother gave up on you. Father gave up on both. Now it’s just you and that nasty little habit of yours. About right?”

Lemon was entranced. The man was reading out his life. This stranger knew all about him. It was like magic. He nodded.

The stranger nodded too. “This is as low as your life is going to get, Lemon. Mugging strangers for their shoes. That wouldn’t even get you enough for a packet of fags, never mind anything else. So, in spite of your silly little stunt, I’m going to do you a favour. I’m going to give you a way out of this situation. Two, in fact. You interested?”

Lemon nodded, though his head hurt worse than ever by now. He was going to be sick soon, too.

“Well, here you are, then. The first way. This is the hard way, but it’s the best way. What you do is you go home, or wherever you hide away, and you go to sleep, and when you wake up, you go to the drop-in centre in town and ask for help. You ask them to put you on a rehabilitation programme and you see it all the way through. And then you get a job as a counsellor and you help other people in your situation and you feel better about yourself. You will. You’ll even like yourself. That’s the first way. Okay?”

Lemon nodded again. He’d lost interest after the word ‘rehabilitation’.

“Okay,” said the stranger. “So here’s the second way. This is the easier way, but it’s a bad, lazy way. You don’t have to put any work at all in with this way, no effort of any kind, and it’s guaranteed to work. All you need to do is just let me slide this shiny little blade of yours in between these two ribs here and it’s all over. No more comedown jags, no more worries about where you’re going to sleep or how you’re going to eat. No heartache ever again. All done. Over and out. What do you say, Lemon? What do you say to a little bit of eternity? Just give me the nod.”

Lemon looked down. The man was holding the tip of the knife against his chest, on the left hand side, just below the level of his armpit. He hadn’t seen him put it there. 

In a sweat of fear Lemon wrapped the man’s hand with his own and gripped bone-hard, with all his strength, so that the knife couldn’t move. He looked up at the man’s face and into his eyes. Lit from above by the dull glow from the street lamps, Lemon was close enough to see his own face reflected in those dark, shining pools. He saw a scrawl of hair above a pale mask, a thin beak of a nose, an open, dopey mouth. He hadn’t seen his own reflection in a long time, and the face he saw now was the face of someone he didn’t recognize. It was the face of a stranger.

A memory came to him then. He was a boy, a young boy just starting school. He remembered the little wooden chairs with the seats made from formed plywood and the bright colours of everything in the classroom and the whirling noise of voices shouting and whispering and laughing and crying. He remembered the children running round, talking to each other, playing. He remembered the teachers, the grown-ups, bending down beside the children, showing them things, telling them what to do, how to do it. He saw himself, sitting on one of the little wooden chairs, alone, in the middle of the room, with the life of the school happening all around him, other children doing things, working with the grown-ups, working with each other, talking to each other, and him sitting there and not moving and not speaking. Not knowing what to do. Not understanding what was expected of him. And he realised then that he’d always been like that, that he’d always been apart from everything because he didn’t understand, he still didn’t understand, what he was supposed to do. He didn’t get it. Being in the world, being alive. He didn’t see the point of it. And he knew now, seeing himself, a stranger in a strange man’s eyes, that he never would.

“Oh, fuck it,” said Lemon.

He yanked the man’s hand. The blade stroked a rib as it entered his body but he was surprised by how little it hurt. He pulled hard, making sure it went all the way in, stopping only when the hilt hit the rib and the tip had pierced his heart. He was surprised now by how quickly he began to fade and by the intensity of death. The sound of traffic in the distance and the whomp of his own blood in his ears both became intimately clear. The smell of the place invaded his nostrils: cat scat and dog shit; the piss of men; rubber; engine oil; and, carried on the wind, the smell of food, of fried onions and garlic bread. He felt his clothing wherever it touched his body, the hard grains of asphalt under his buttocks, the burgeoning ulcer on his tongue. His mouth tasted suddenly foul. He wound down without another word, understanding no more of his death than he had of his life. His last thought was of his mother.

The stranger didn’t move. He looked down at the treacle black slick shining on the boy’s dirty sweatshirt, at the unseeing eyes staring at the handle sticking out of the unmoving chest. A sliver of drool had spilled from the boy’s lips and a dark stain had begun to spread around the crotch of his track suit bottoms. The stranger freed his hand from the boy’s grip and took both of the boy’s hands in his own. He felt them cooling. He felt nothing more. 

A dog barked in the distance and the stranger rose to his feet.

“Humans,” he said, looking at the dead boy and shaking his head. 

And he smiled, and he walked on.


Sammy wandered along the road without feeling the need for a destination. In the summer holidays there was too much time in a day for a destination. It was the middle of the morning and he had already been twice around the cabbage field behind his home trying to find the puddle with the tiger-coloured newt. The weather had been warm and dry for a long time now, though, and the puddles had all gone. Where the newt had gone was a question that didn’t occur to him.

His journey had started at the farm on the other side of the cabbage field, but the spectacular ejections from the smelly pigs in their sty didn’t seem so funny without anyone to laugh along with, and his friends were all away. He had wandered on to the sweetshop along the road but he didn’t have any money and didn’t like the way the sweetshop owner kept watching him through the multicoloured tassels of the fly-screen behind the counter. So he kept on wandering, under a blue-blazing sky, over sticky-toffee tarmac so hot that it warmed the air around his bare legs as he walked.

Sammy was nine years old and stocky and muscular for his age. He wore a white tee shirt and blue denim shorts and white socks, none of which fitted properly. Trainers that were scuffed from climbing trees and playing football and sliding in playgrounds clung loosely to his feet. His dark hair was shiny but uncombed and he carried a stick that had until this morning been a branch of a small tree. He walked in the ungainly and disjointed way that young children do, their ability to coordinate their movements outpaced by the speed at which their bodies grew, though he could run with grace and a good turn of speed. In the absence of any friends he had been left to himself by his parents, who were each alone at home.

His parents argued a lot. They used to stop when he came running into the room after the shouting started but they didn’t bother any more. Lately they had started being silent with each other, which the boy hated even more than the arguments. They didn’t talk to him when they were together now, only when one of them was not around. It was uncomfortable being in the house these days, so the boy was always out playing or doing something that kept him outside.

His mother was on her own one day not long ago, and when Sammy came in, she knelt down and kissed him on both cheeks. He knew she was a pretty woman, even with the scar on her face. He could see that she had been crying.

“Are you happy, Samir?” she said.

“Yes,” said the boy.

“I mean, are you happy here?” she said. “In this place. Do you like this place?”

“Yes,” the boy lied.

“Good, good,” she said. “That’s good. That’s all that matters.”

Sammy arrived back on the road that led to his house. It was long road, full of unbroken houses made of brick, not concrete, with roofs were not flat. They were tiled and they sloped up to the sky. The gardens were green, there was no dust, and it was very quiet. These were the first things he noticed when he looked through the window the morning after they came.

It was too soon to go home so he turned away and kept walking. He had been on these streets many times of late so he decided to walk until he found somewhere he hadn’t seen before. He turned right and right and left and right, passing the diligently different gardens of the red-brick houses that all looked the same, and ended up on a long straight road. After some time he realised that he was on the road that led to the Big School and he thought about turning back until he realised that the Big Boys wouldn’t be there because of the holidays. Heartened, he carried on. He could hear the sound of cars getting louder and could tell that he was heading towards the dual carriageway.

He saw them at the same time that they saw him.

There were three of them, sitting on the ground in the shade of a chestnut tree. He thought again about turning back but saw that this road curved away from the droning traffic and the boys and so he kept on going. One of the boys stood up. Sammy recognised him. He was the boy who had been outside school at home time a few months ago.

The boy had tripped Sammy up as he tried to pass and started saying things to him, things Sammy didn’t understand. The boy had started kicking Sammy, not hard, not hurting, but he had kicked him there on the pavement. Sammy had stood up and hit the boy full in the face with a rock he’d picked up from where he had fallen. The boy had screeched and blood had come from his mouth. Sammy had just stood still, holding the rock, waiting for what came next. Grown-ups came and took them both away, and a little while later his father had come to collect him. Sammy told his father what had happened and his father had looked at the grown-ups. They had looked away. His father had said something else he didn’t understand and then kissed Sammy’s head and led him home.

The boys under the chestnut tree all turned away from Sammy.

Coming to the junction at the end of the road, he decided to turn left, away from the sound of the traffic. The houses became fewer but bigger, with bigger spaces in between them. Fields appeared on one side of the road, and then came hedges on both sides, obscuring his view from the pavement that he walked along.

Through a gap in the hedge he saw a ship.

The ship was a canal boat and it was sliding slowly along the canal that was hidden behind the hedge. Peering through the hedge he could see a towpath on the far side of the canal and, deciding that this would definitely be a good thing to explore, he carried on along the road looking for a place to cross. After passing a couple of houses he arrived at the end of the road and turned towards the sun-gilded waters of the canal.

He came to a bridge.  It was a swing bridge with a big timber arm that allowed it to be manually swung to one side of the canal to allow barges to pass, as it must have done for the barge that was now chugging unhurriedly into the distance. He realised that it must have been opened and closed by the people on the boat. Crossing the bridge would take him to the towpath that he wanted to explore but, looking to his left, the boy noticed the concrete platform over which the bridge swung when it was opened. The top of the platform was almost level with the water and he could tell even from here that the water was clear enough to see into the depths of the canal. The boy looked around in that innocent-at-the-moment way young boys do when they know they are about to do something wrong. Seeing that there was nobody around to stop him he hopped through the little barrier beside the bridge and on to the puddled concrete platform. Crawling towards the edge of the platform he knelt down in a relatively dry patch and peered into the water.

The sun bounced occasionally off the ripples on the surface of the water further along the canal but his attention was fixed on the small world he could see in the shade beneath the bridge. Weeds like wet green hair clung to the sides of the platform and to the stones and bricks and rubbish of the canal floor. Grasses and stalks and other bits of loose vegetation floated lazily past on the gentle current. Eddies and whirls stirred the world below him. It was as if a gentle breeze was passing, blowing through this underwater world, shushing silently over the green plants and rocks and passing on to the place where breezes die. The peacefulness of this world entranced him. He put his hand into the cool water and noticed the insects skating along on the surface of the water skittered away from the disturbance caused by his hand. A sudden flash of electric blue above the skating insects caught his eye. It was a dragonfly and it darted and hovered and darted again, under the bridge, over the water and the canal banks, flying haphazardly up and down and this way and that, busy with an unknowable urgency that was at odds with the lazy summer day.

He watched the dragonfly for a while until it disappeared from view and then he returned his attention to the water. The water flowed by unhurriedly but still produced the odd plop and gurgle as it flopped against a flat surface or a cavity. A sudden flash of silver in the water echoed the electric blue flash in the sky from a few moments ago. He stared into the water but couldn’t see anything. Looking further out into the centre of the canal he could see nothing because the reflection of the sky painted an impenetrable sheen over the surface. Looking closer to the platform again he concentrated hard, flicking his eyes randomly around the depths that he could see. He decided that this was like trying to spot lightning and so instead focussed on a fixed spot in the water to see if he would be able to catch sight of the silver flash from the corner of his eye. He knew it was a fish of some kind and he was desperate to see it.

There it was. The fish swam out into the centre of his field of vision from the area under the sheen. It swam in the same way that the dragonfly flew, side to side and up and down, but in a less haphazard manner as it swam against the current of the water. It shot forward and paused and shot down and paused and then back up and to the side and repeated variations of this sequence, all the time facing into the current. The pauses were of varying lengths but often lasted up to ten seconds, which gave him time to study the fish. Its sides were silver, shiny, like metal, and the sunlight reflected by the sides was what had caught the boy’s eye. The back of the fish was darker, a faintly striped grey-green colour, while the front underside beneath the mouth appeared to be orange. It wasn’t a big fish, perhaps only as long as the width of the boy’s hand and not much fatter than his thumb. The most noticeable thing about the fish were the spikes along the back. He eventually decided there were three of these, although it was difficult to be sure as they weren’t always raised up. The mouth went pop-pop-pop as it breathed. The boy thought it was the most wonderful thing he had ever seen. He wished that he could catch the fish and take it home.

The concrete platform was surrounded by a wooden frame that the bridge swung onto when it was opened. The boy decided to edge out onto the frame to get a better view of the fish. As he did so he noticed that up against the edge of the platform was a patch of water that was shielded from the current by a protruding slab of concrete. The water here was still and clear, like a pane of glass, and in it he saw another fish that had been hidden from view until now. The fish was floating on its side on the surface of the water and was obviously dead. He realised he could just reach it by laying full length on the platform and stretching his hand out under the wooden frame. Scooping the fish out by cupping his hand underneath it, he placed it in a puddle on the platform.

It was the same kind of fish as the one in the water, although not identical as it seemed fatter and less patterned Lifeless and out of its natural environment, the fish still fascinated the boy. He pulled gently forward on the leading spike of the top fin and doing this raised the other spikes. He fanned the dorsal fin behind the spikes and ran his forefinger along it. He fanned the broad caudal fin and held it up to the sun and saw the golden spines that gave it form. He noticed that the eyes of the fish did not seem perfect, as if the artist who created her had painted them in a rush. The artist had still had enough patience to make the skin shiny and decorate it with little dots and flecks that changed colour when held at different angles to the light. Placing the fish carefully back in the water, he sat and watched it for a long time, the reflection of his own head framing the floating fish. This was the first time that he understood the meaning of the word beautiful.

The water was cold as he slid into it. Beneath the surface, the canal looked like a long room filled with slowly moving furniture, the waving green weeds dappled with light from above. He breathed in and the water filled his lungs and he tried to cough but couldn’t. He kicked and struggled for a little while but the panic soon left him as he surrendered to the dreamy comfort of floating.

The last thing he saw was the stickleback.

Paradise Square

The stars seemed to be moving oddly. Some of them flew by quickly while others stayed still. One or two were circling around each other. Some of them were quite big and then quite small and some trembled and some wobbled. There were orange ones and purple ones and green ones and he thought that was odd too. There were smells: mothballs; petrol; blood.

He opened his eyes and saw a scuffed and scruffy wheel arch that was once white. It was now various shades of finger-printed grey. His face was on the floor of a vehicle close up against the metal of the wheel arch. It was so close that he could see little else apart from a dirty brown cloth or blanket that his head was laying on. He didn’t know what he was doing there. His mouth tasted bad. He tried to open it but something had been stuck across it and it pulled his skin when he tried to speak. He lifted his head and the stars moved even more oddly, dancing like flies in evening summer sunlight. He felt sick.

He tried to get up but he couldn’t move his arms. They were behind him. He felt something tight around his wrists that stopped him from trying to lift himself up off the floor. He tried using his legs but they’d been tied at the ankles too. His jaw hurt badly. He began to feel panic and to breathe heavily through his nose. He rolled onto his side and saw a man with hair spread out like a halo all around his head. The man leaned forward and punched him in the mouth. He punched him harder than he’d ever been hit in his life.

When he woke, the stars came back again and moved around even faster. He felt dizzy and even sicker. The hairy man leaned forward.

“Wanker,” he said in a whisper. “Listen to me, wanker. Every time you move I’m going to hit you. Do you understand? Every time you make a sound I’m going to hit you. OK? Do you understand me, wanker?”

He nodded and the man hit him again, on the side of his head, as hard as the last time.

“You nodded,” said the hairy man. “I told you I’d hit you if you moved.”

The man’s voice seemed to echo, as if it came down a tube or a drainpipe.

He lay on the floor of the van, his head bursting. He was trying to keep down the bile rising at the base of his throat, trying to stay still and to keep quiet. He closed his eyes and tried to work out how he’d got into this mess.


Get the full story in Steel Works.

Locked Out

There’s a god on the ceiling, looking at me, which is odd. I don’t think he knows me. Not god. No. There is no god. Insect. It’s an insect. Ladybird? I don’t know. Can’t quite see properly. The ceiling seems to be spinning round, anti-clockwise, which is also odd. I can smell something horrid. Think I’ll close my eyes for a bit. Jesus, I’m hungry. Bloody drugs.

Eyes open again. God is gone. Left the building. Heartbreak hotel. Ha.

Eyes open, again. Wish I could stay awake. Never realised how hard it is, staying awake. Sleep is easy. ‘Cept the big sleep. That’s hard. Too hard.

Drugs must be wearing off. Think I’ve been awake for a while. Daily exercise time. Roll the eyes. Up, down, left, right. Oops. She’s there, bless her. Watching me, with that look on her face: always watching, always there. Wish she’d bugger off. Wish she’d do something useful, something for herself. She can’t though, can she? I’m here.

Must’ve zoned out again. Here’s Doctor Dalek with his shining light and ice-cold stethoscope, listening to the burblings in my chest. I wish I could speak. I’d tell him to bugger off too. Don’t waste your time. Let me get on with it. I’m going to ignore him. I’m closing my eyes.

There were just the two of us at the start. Me and her. We went travelling after uni, went bloody everywhere. I remember one place in particular. I can see it now. The fields were so green, so bloody green. And the sun was so bright and warm and we were so happy. Where was that? Where did we do that? Was it England? Green and pleasant; must have been.

She’s still there and I love her. I hate her for being here but I love her for being here. I love her anyway. I know that she loves me. Jennifer Eccles. My Jenny. She’s just noticed my eyes are open. Here she comes; tissue for the drool; wipe, wipe. No smile this time: serious. Wonder why there’s no smile this time? Must be something serious. She’s worried about something. Must be me. It’s always me. Poor cow.

I never worried. Is that a bad thing? Does it mean I didn’t care enough? That’s not true. I cared, I know I did. I cared too much, if anything. If I hadn’t cared, all this wouldn’t be so bad. It wouldn’t hurt so much. Maybe I should have worried, though. If I had worried, if I’d thought about the things that might happen, I’d have been prepared for them. I would have had a plan. I could have had a stash of something ready for a situation like this so that I could just throw it down my neck and get it all over and done with. But you don’t, do you? Nobody thinks they’ll end up in this sort of position. So nobody prepares for it. And when it happens, it’s too late. It’s all too late.

Oh, God! What if it had happened to one of them! Jesus! The idea of any of them going through all this, it’s just too much. I can’t bear it. I’d be as helpless as they are now, standing around me, watching me die too slowly. What would I do? Would I be able to do what I want them to do for me? Could I actually kill any of them, even now, after all I’ve learned about dying alive? I don’t know. I hope I could. But I don’t know.

Think about something else. Think about killing yourself. Always cheers you up, that does. Close your eyes. Dream about it.

We’d finished the second year and decided to go on holiday in the Lakes. It was a beautiful day so we decided to go for a run. Ran for miles. We came out of some trees and kept running across a field. The river was in front of us. It was a scorching hot day. Finney shouted, “Last one in buys the beers,” and we all just galloped straight in to the water. It was bloody freezing. Finney was standing on the bank, arms folded, smiling. “You’re buying,” I shouted. “I was anyway,” he said.

Ouch, that hurt! What was that? That hurt. Someone’s trying to turn me over. Bedsore duty. Someone new: blonde. She’s looking at me. She knows she hurt me: blonde and red. I must have made a noise. She feels guilty now. Wish I could say something to make her feel better. It isn’t her fault that this bag of bones feels but can’t speak, can’t tell her what hurts and what doesn’t.

Oh, god. She’s trying to clean me up now: tugging and pulling and wiping and drying, trying to get rid of the shit. There’s so much about shit that is shit when you think about it: the smell of shit; the stickiness of shit; the shittiness of not being able to shit properly; the shittiness of someone else having to clean up your shit. I won’t miss shit.

Don’t. No, don’t. She’s going to, though, isn’t she? Yep. Here she goes. She’s talking. Mouth right in front of my face, loud voice, enunciating her words, a slow drawl as if she’s speaking to a particularly stupid child. Stop. Just stop it, please. I’m not an idiot. I’m a Cambridge educated engineer. I understand every word you say. It’s you that doesn’t get it. You don’t understand what this is like. Just lying here, with people like you having to do everything for me. I was so much more than this. I was.

Another dream. Drugs are great for that. Only thing worth hanging around for. They make me feel like I’m here and there at the same time: now and then. And, when I think about it, then seems sharper than it actually was at the time. More focused. What do I mean? I don’t know what I mean. But it’s great. It’s the reality that’s so bloody awful. Waking. Opening my eyes. Seeing everything. Not able to do anything. Not able to talk. It’s just horrendous, a torture. Hell isn’t oneself. Hell is living like this, with no way out.

Maybe I could send myself mad? If I went crazy none of this would matter, would it? Let me see.

Blondie’s back. I must be due a top up. Go on then. Make it a big one. Make it big enough to really help. She just squirts a dose in to the canula and looks at me and smiles. Can’t stand that pathetic, feel-sorry-for-you smile. Don’t do it. I glare at her and she goes away.

I’m going to count. I’ll count off each second of the day. That’s the thing that’s unbearable about this anyway, isn’t it? The sheer scale of the time I’ve lost, and how much more I’ve got to endure. Yes, that will do it. I’ll be bonkers in an hour. Okay. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven…

Marie was the best baby. I can’t tell her that now of course, even if I could speak, but, out of the two of them, I liked her best as a baby. She just giggled all the time. As soon as she saw you her round pink face would tighten and her eyes would widen and then squeeze up and she would just smile and gurgle and laugh. She made everyone happy, even me: heart-hammering, throat-tightening, eye-watering happy. I remember every minute of her. I will always remember every minute of her; every minute.

Where did I get to?

Oh, bollocks.

Here comes the sun; the square sun on the ceiling. It’s all right. It’s morning and I’m all alone, which is good. It’s nice to be alone for a change, alone with the sun. There’s usually someone hovering over me and I wish they wouldn’t. I wish they’d all just go away and leave me alone. They can’t though. Leaving me alone would be a crime; not feeding me would be a crime; not trying would be a crime. They’d be locked up: locked in a cell: which would be quite ironic, actually.

It’s just such a stupid situation, isn’t it? All these people, all around me, all doing their best to keep me alive: which is the only thing I don’t want them to do. And what makes it worse is that they know. Jenny understands. She must have told them. When we worked out this eyelid-flicker messaging system, I think she was expecting me to say how much I loved them and to tell them what I needed. She wasn’t expecting the first message to be “tell them to kill me”. Upset her a lot, that did. But it had to be said. It’s what I want. It’s what they need, even if they can’t accept the fact. There’s no going back. I’ll never get better. I’m already dead, really.

Blondie’s back. Time for another shot. Is it me or are they becoming more frequent? Wonder if I’m on the pathway? Hope so. I bloody hope so.

Anyway, dreamtime.

I remember: putting the ring on her finger; Finney’s speech; driving to Cornwall with the top down, even when it rained; seeing my girls born; the school play, crying like a baby; decorating the bedroom of our first house and tipping the paint all over myself; the holidays, all of us together, having fun and laughing and enjoying everything. Everything. I remember everything.

Here comes the food. It isn’t food though, is it? It’s just mush: good, tasty food pulverised to mush so they can spoon and squirt it into my mouth. Then I’m supposed to waggle my tongue around to slide it down my throat. Only I won’t. I grit my teeth as she loads the spoon. She’s looking at me and I’m looking at her and it’s horrible. She lifts the spoon and tries to push it into my mouth but my teeth are clamped tight so it just gets smeared around my lips and she stops and cleans up. She’s not looking at me now. She’s looking at the bowl. She takes a deep breath and scoops out another sloppy spoonful and brings it up to my mouth and I bare my teeth and look at her and I’m crying and she sees the tears and then she’s crying and she can’t stand any more and she gets up and leaves. I can hear the unformed noise of my voice mooing like a cow as I try to apologise to her and swear at her and tell her how much I love her. Moo. Moo.

First kiss: a wet bus stop late at night after the pub. It’s been a good night, I’m not too pissed. She’s beautiful. She lives on the other side of town so she has to catch the bus and it’s a dark road and I want to make sure she’s OK so I go with her. The late bus only runs once an hour so we have a good talk while we’re waiting. I’m dopey-stupid in love with her but she’s miles too good for me. We see the bus coming down the road and we both go quiet. Just before it stops she turns to me and gives me a real, proper kiss; not a peck on the cheek; a kiss. She gets on the bus and waves through the window and I set off to walk home and start jogging and then running and I’m whooping. Whooping! Me!

Who decided to call it a stroke? It’s much too gentle a word. It should be something like stab or punch or crash. Yes, crash would be better. Stab and punch are just personal. Crash is bigger: a whole system, a whole body; a whole family; a whole life. Crash.

Marie’s here! And Jo! My beautiful girls! They’re both here, both smiling, both with red eyes. They’re trying to comfort me and make me feel better but they’re the ones who need comforting, not me. I can’t do anything. I can’t smile or speak or touch them. Jo reaches out and touches me. She looks at her sister and they each strangle a sob. It’s too much. Her hand is trembling. This is killing both of them. I wish I was dead.

I’m swimming. I can feel my legs again, I really can feel them open and flex and close, and the weight of my arms as they pull through the sea and push the waves behind me. I can feel the cool water around me and the drag as I push through the waves towards the shore. The sun is there again, bright and hot, high in the sky. There are some colours on the rocks and I see that it’s Marie and Jo and my beautiful, beautiful wife, waiting for me, calling to me. The water turns white, becomes heavy, covers me and clings to me, enfolds me. The voices are fading; the light and the colours are fading. I can’t decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing. I don’t know if I’m scared or excited.

It’s dark. The night lights are on so it must be late. I can see all three of them though, my wife and my daughters, all around my bed. The Dalek is here too. That’s a bad sign. Or maybe it’s a good sign; it depends what I want. What do I want? I want to be free. I want to be locked out. I’m ready.

I just woke up dead one morning. I could hear everything going on around me but I couldn’t move anything, not any part of me. I couldn’t make a sound. She thought I was just having a lie in so she got out of bed and left me there. I could hear her cooking breakfast in the kitchen of the apartment. She made bacon and eggs and I could smell them and I was starving hungry. She called me and I couldn’t move. She came into the bedroom and called again. She leaned over and pushed me. Then she looked at my face and screamed.

I can’t breathe properly. I can hear myself heaving. That boiling-bubbling sound is my chest; the air I breathe passing through the gloop in my lungs. I hear voices, squeakier than usual, and the sound of blood in my ears. I can see people in the room hustling about, urgent little movements, trying to do something that can’t be done. I wish I could say goodbye.

I’m on my grandmother’s knee and my Mum is at the side of us. They’re both smiling. My Nan is playing the riding game, a family heirloom, balancing me on one of her knees, holding my hands out to the side, the thick lenses of her spectacles magnifying her lovely blue eyes. ‘A lady goes a nim-nim, nim-nim, nim-nim-nim,’ she is saying, sing-song. Everything begins to slow down.

Everything stops.

Last Words

“I’m going to kill you, old woman.”

The old woman smiled. She could see her reflection in the ornate, gold-framed mirror that hung above the mantelpiece. She saw herself nod.

“Yes,” she said. “I’m sure you will.”

She looked again at her reflection. She saw her short greying hair and the frill of crinkles around her lipless mouth. Age had leached the colour from her irises, which were now the same dull grey as her thinning hair. Her eyelashes were almost hairless, as were her eyebrows, although there were sprouts of silver on her chin and upper lip. She reached up to touch her face. Her hand was small and bony and she could see the blotches and stains that covered its crepe-paper skin. She didn’t recognise the hand as her own. She watched as a long, curved and unpainted fingernail traced a line that ran from her nose down to her chin and beyond. A cockleshell of wrinkles appeared beside her eyes as she smiled and shook her head in wonder.

The woman turned away from the mirror. She rested her hand on the cold tile of the mantelpiece, steadying herself. The bones of her hips ground against each other, sending sharp stabs of pain all around her body and and making her movements jointed, like a badly made puppet. She listed alternately left and right as she turned, lifting each foot and placing it back down with a heavy, painful stamp as she made her way to the high-backed chair facing the fire. She turned and grasped the bare wooden ends of the the chair arms and lowered herself on to the many-cushioned seat, falling into it as her knees failed. The effort left her gasping for a few minutes as she struggled to get her breath back. She listened to the soft ticking of the wall clock and tried to get her breathing and her heartbeat into a matching rhythm.

The face in the mirror was a daily surprise. Inside, where she really lived, she was still a young woman, a girl. She could still sing the old songs, could still hold a conversation, still had things that she wanted to do. She could do sums in her head faster than the young people she knew, even with their fancy gadgets. The old girl in the mirror, the bent and bowed body she saw, that wasn’t her. That was just wrapping that had got a bit frayed around the edges. She wasn’t bitter though. That was how things were, you couldn’t change them. It was just a buggeration. You just had to get on with it.

This was more than a buggeration, though.

“Are you ready?”

She sighed. “Ready for what?” she said. The high-pitched wheeze of her voice found no resonance in the cluttered and curtained room. It hardly seemed to get any further than her lips. “Ready to die? Of course I am! Good and ready! Get on with it.”

An unbearable pain suddenly burst inside her, as if someone had taken a jagged knife and dragged it in a ragged line across her belly. Her lips peeled back from her teeth and a low moan rose up from deep inside her. She placed both hands on her stomach and looked down. Her abdomen pushed out against the constraints of the loose fitting skirt she wore, parting the thick-knit cardigan like a curtain. The pain came again, wave after wave of it, hurt and pause, hurt and pause, as if her body was being subject to vicious torture.

“Bastard,” she said. “You bastard.”

She leaned her head back into the chair and fought against the faintness that the waves of pain brought on. She dragged air in through her dentures and blew it back out, her cheeks bulging with each expulsion. Her hands moved from her abdomen to the skin-polished wooden chair arms and she gripped them as if they would save her life. The papery skin on her hands tightened and became shiny until they seemed to be carved from some exotic blue-veined marble. After a few moments the pain eased and she began to regain control of her breathing.

She looked down at the bulge of her belly.

“Why do you need to do that?” she said.

“Do what?”

“You know what,” she said. “The pain. What does that get you? What’s that for?”

“It’s what I do.”

“That’s no answer,” she said. She was breathing steadily now, in control again. “No answer at all. There has to be a reason for something like that. There has to be a reason for pain.”

“Not really.”

She closed her eyes and thought.

“Yes,” she said. “There is a reason.”

“What’s that, then?”

“It’s so you know you’re alive,” said the old woman. “Pain is the price we pay for being alive. Sad pain and love pain and your kind of pain, hurt pain, they all tell us we’re alive.”

“Maybe so.”

There was silence. In the quiet, she thought about her pain.

“Can you feel anything?’

“No,” she said. She noticed the clock had stopped.



“Told you.”

Lady’s Bridge

It was too cold for the clothes she was wearing; a smart black skirt and a tight white top under a thin grey coat. She’d chosen the skirt because the way it was cut emphasised the shape of her hips, which were rounded and full and not like the square, hard hips she saw on the skinny bitches in the magazines these days. She’d chosen the top for the same sort of reason; she had good boobs and they were looking even better of late. The tight white turtleneck showed them off and the new seamless bra underneath made them look fantastic. And black and white felt right. She was glad that she’d picked the long leather boots too, but she knew now that the coat was a mistake. It was quilted and stuffed with feathers but it was too thin and the autumn wind whirling along the road cut right through it. The cross wind that ran along the river and over the bridge made it worse, although she could hide from that by standing close against one of the pillars on the bridge and pulling up the hood of the coat. He’d said he’d meet her here anyway, at the pillar with the plaque on it that said something about Richard Hawley. So here she was.

She was early though; much too early, really. He’d said he’d be here at three and it was only half-two now and he was always running late anyway. It might look like she was a bit too keen, getting here this early. But he knew that she was keen; very keen, absolutely mad keen in fact. She couldn’t wait to see him and tell him her news. So she stood, in the cold wind, on the old bridge, and she waited.

They’d only met a few months ago, up in the little park off Devonshire Street. She’d got sick of sitting in her dingy little council flat waiting for something to happen and so she’d put on a pair of denim shorts and a white lace top and gone to the park to sunbathe. It wasn’t really sunbathing weather but it was warm and dry and anything was better than being in that crappy little flat on her own. It was Wednesday and she was always skint by Wednesday and so the only things she could do were things that didn’t cost anything like that; sitting in the park and watching people. The little park was called Devonshire Green and it was a good place for that kind of thing, for people-watching. All sorts passed through here on a summer day: students; residents from the nearby flats; workers from the offices and shops in that area; boozers getting tanked, and lovers getting petty.

She always tried to imagine where all these people came from and what they did, tried to picture what happened in their lives. Where did the bearded drunk in the unfit suit go to sleep? Did the too-pretty blonde girl sitting reading on the bench clean her toilet properly, scrubbing it and bleaching it and scenting it as she did herself? What about the two lovers on the grass beside the path? Were they a couple or did they have other partners, ignorant of their cheating? She made up answers to her own questions as she sat on the grass, her knees hugged tight to her chest, her head rested on her arms. Sometimes these answers made her smile or even laugh out loud as she sat and watched these other lives meander past her.

Looking at other people was a way of avoiding looking at her own life. She had only arrived in the city last year, having trailed up here from Nottingham to be with her mother only to be abandoned again when her mother had found a new man and buggered off to Brighton with him. The council wouldn’t let her stay in the family house that they had been living in and so they had shunted her into a flat in the city centre. It was handy for the nightlife but she didn’t have a job and so she didn’t have the money to make the most of it. She’d tried to get a job a few times but she didn’t have a great employment record because she was always having to up sticks to follow her mother everywhere she went, and there were hundreds of other people after every job anyway, so she’d decided to give up trying for a while. She’d given up on her mother, too, now. She was sick of being deserted every time she managed to snare a new man. She wasn’t going to go running all the way down to the south coast to mop up the tears and the blood this time. Stuff her.

She’d been watching a little old couple having one of those silent fights that couples have when they’re in public, all snatched hands and held glares and spat whispers. It had been so funny that she’d laughed out loud again and they’d looked at her and she’d looked away and that was when she’d seen him.

He was laid out on the slope of grass to her right, hands behind his head, legs spread wide like a welcome. He wore jeans and a short sleeved shirt, unbuttoned so that everyone could see his muscled stomach and almost hairless chest. He was wearing sunglasses but the sun was almost overhead and the angle of the light got behind the lightly coloured lenses and she could see that his eyes were on her. She looked away but she knew he had seen her look at him. If she looked back again too soon he would know that she was interested, but that would be something only common, easy girls did, so she watched the furiously silent old couple again instead. After a little while she took off her sunglasses and made a show of polishing them, although she was really trying to look at him in the reflection of the mirrored lenses. She couldn’t find him anywhere, no matter how she angled the lenses. Instead, she held them up to the sky and then polished them against her top and held them up again and made a show as if a speck of dirt had fallen from them and landed in her eye. She turned her head to the slope of grass to her right and he was gone.


Get the full story in Steel Works.

Love Street

The street lights shone through the front window of the stationary car. It painted their faces the glowing yellow of cartoon characters. Her skin was smooth and unlined and on her face the light seemed like the background wash of a watercolour. His face was pocked and unshaven and on him the light gave the rougher, grainy look of an old photograph. The lights drew thick, delineating shadows around their faces. It made the scene seem even more artificial, like a page from a comic book.

He glanced at her. She had looked at him once or twice. Most of the time they faced forward along the deserted back street where the car was parked. The street had been re-surfaced at some time in the recent past to service the new buildings up ahead of them. The old buildings around them were decaying and crumbling into ruin. Buddleia and bramble spilled out onto the patched and uneven pavement. They seemed to have been sown to fill the spaces between the derelict buildings around them.

“Do you know the name of that road?” he said, pointing straight forward.

The road in front of them ran past some old brick buildings on the right. It curved left at a crossing towards a large modern building.

“No,” she replied. She hadn’t spoken for a while so her throat had dried and it made her voice crack slightly. It made her sound nervous.

“Workhouse Lane,” he said. “Somewhere around here was where they built the first workhouse in the city.”

“Really,” she said. Her reply was automatic. She seemed to be thinking of something else.

“Yes,” he said.

They were silent again. They listened to the irregular sound of the cars running along the road behind the brick houses. The rain made the tyres of the cars sound sticky as they rolled along the road.

“Do you know the name of this road?” he said. “The one we’re on now?”

“No,” she replied, shaking her head.

He smiled. “It’s called Love Street.”

She looked at him, raising her eyebrows.

“Honestly,” he said. “We’re on Love Street, looking towards Workhouse Lane.” He laughed. “Love really does lead to the workhouse. Very Gabriel and Bathsheba, don’t you think?”

“Who?” she said.

“Not a Hardy fan then?”


“Doesn’t matter.”

He flicked the windscreen wipers to clear the drizzle that had settled on the windscreen. They squeaked backwards and forwards three times before coming to rest again.

“What are we doing here?” he said, leaning forward and resting his hands on the steering wheel.

She looked down and gripped her small handbag with both hands. “I don’t know,” she said.

He leaned further forward and placed his mouth on the back of his hands. He looked up into the city-lit night sky, at the trickles of rainwater running down the windscreen.

“I think we’ve made a mistake,” he said.


Get the full story in Steel Works.

Morning Glory

He was drowning.

He was rising through fathoms of a green, swirling, evil sea, the water heavy and thick, dragging on him and slowing his ascent, compressing his chest, salt-sting filling his nose and burning his eyes, and the closer he got to the surface, the nearer he came to the pale light above, the slower he moved, until, within touching distance of sweet, clean air, with his arms aching from stretching upwards and with his legs cycling uselessly below, he stopped altogether, and he knew then that it was over, that this was the end and that all he had ever been was done.

Mark Watson jumped awake with a roaring intake of breath. He was panting, shaking, trembling. He was terrified.

He was lying naked on his bed, the sheets twisted all around him. They were damp, soaked by the sweat that was still leaking out of him. He was breathing hard, and he could hear his breaths hushing in and out through teeth that were clenched shut in a tight bite. There was a foul taste in his mouth. He didn’t dare move. He saw a tiny spider on the ceiling and he fixed his eyes on it, unblinking, because he knew with inexplicable certainty that if he looked away from it he would never find it again and he would be lost, completely lost, without any hope of ever finding his way back to the world.

Outside, cloud gave way to sun. A bar of light shone through a gap in the curtains and slid across the ceiling. It stretched into the room until it reached the spider that had anchored him. The golden touch disturbed the creature. It began to move, the spell was broken, and he closed his eyes. He heard a blackbird outside, its wheedled tweets answered by one more distant. It was morning. It was early on a summer morning. He was in his house, in the quiet village in the Yorkshire countryside. He was home. He was safe.

He blinked and double-blinked and steadied his breathing, in through his nose, out through his mouth, calming himself. He gulped, and tasted something awful again. His body slowly lost its tautness, and he became aware of how painful it had been to maintain a level of tension so high that his back had been arched off the bed. He let his body relax and slowly settle into the mattress beneath him. He had clumps of bed sheet gripped hard in each hand, gripped so tight that he found it difficult to unfurl his fingers. He spread them now, flexing them, and then stretching and unwinding the rest of his body. He closed his eyes again and then placed his forefingers over the lids, sucked in a great chestful of air, and slowly let it out again as he tried to push the memory of the nightmare away to the back of his mind.

Mark began to think again, which made him realise that he hadn’t been thinking up to now. He’d just been responding to the nightmare, in its grip, controlled by it. He’d never felt anything like that before, such a total abdication of self-will. He wondered for a moment which part of the nightmare had scared him most, the drowning or the lack of control, and then he realised that it was neither. What had scared him most was the end. Not death, not just dying, but the prospect of becoming nothing, of being nothing, forever and ever, amen. Oblivion, the foundation of so many faiths. That really scared him. That and the fact that he’d had the exact same nightmare the night before. And the night before that. The same thing, over and over, for days now.

He swore a question to himself.

His voice was weak and it trembled as he spoke. It sounded like someone else, someone he didn’t even know. He sounded tired, even to himself. He felt tired. Now that the strain of the nightmare was diminishing, he realised how washed out he was, as though he hadn’t slept at all last night, as though he hadn’t slept in days. The nightmare always seemed to happen just before he woke, so he knew that he must have managed to get at least a little sleep. It just didn’t feel like it. And last night seemed to be the worst one so far, the hardest to get through. Just then, at the end, it had felt as if he was in danger of not escaping from it, of not waking at all.


Get the full story in Mortality Tales.

The Attic

The room was big and white and dusty and filled with fear.

There was no reason for the fear. It was just something she felt as she entered the room. She’d felt it the first time that she’d walked through the door. She’d turned the round, loose, rattly old doorknob, and rested her hand on the much-painted door frame, and put her head into the room, and she’d been scared and she didn’t know why.

It was the top room of the house, a big attic room, empty and bare of any furniture, just dusty floorboards and white-painted wood-chip covering the walls. A large dormer window had been installed at some time, its un-curtained panes streaked with grime on the inside and a splatter of birdlime on the outside. Two great, thick timber purlins ran along the length of the room, one on each side, the ends embedded in the brickwork of the walls that supported the roof. It was a light, bright room, almost too bright; when the sun shone from the west, it poured in through the window and bounced off every surface, each reflection accumulating and magnifying the light until it became almost painful to the eye.

Her husband squeezed past her and walked through the door. The sound of his leather-soled shoes on the bare floorboards echoed around the room and made her feel uncomfortable, as if he was somehow intruding. She followed him in, her rubber-soled sneakers making no sound at all.

“Yeah, this could be great, Jo,” he said. “Nice and bright. Bags of room. Wall space for hanging your work, and that area under the dormer would be ideal for your desk and easel and whatnot. A fair old view, too, although a titch like you’d need a step up to see it, and these windows will want cleaning, but it all looks good to me. Just what you said you wanted, really. Don’t you think, Jo?”

He turned to her and saw that she wasn’t looking at the room. She was looking at him. She was a petite red-head, with blue eyes and high cheekbones, and lips that were usually formed into an easy smile. Her lips were pressed tight together right now, though. He saw something in her eyes too, something he didn’t recognise, that he’d never seen before.

He saw that she was scared.

“What’s the matter?” he said.

She stood in the centre of the room, hugging herself, her shoulders hunched up. It was a warm spring day but she looked like she was cold. She shrugged.

“I don’t know,” she said.

He walked over to her and put an arm round her shoulders and kissed her cheek. He made an assumption. It was wrong.

“Bit too late for second thoughts now, love. We’re in. This is it. Day one of life in our forever home.”

He kissed her again, smiling. She didn’t respond. A frown spread over his face.

“Come on, Jo. What’s up?”

She shrugged again. “I don’t know, Mark.”

“Is it just because it needs cleaning and decorating? We can sort that out, can’t we? A lick of paint and it’ll be fine. Won’t it?”

Jo slipped out of his arms and began walking around the room. She ran a hand along one of the timber purlins and then rubbed the acquired dust off with her other hand. She paused at the window, standing on tiptoe to see out through it. At the end of the room she stopped in front of the wall. Mark walked up to stand beside her.

“Wood-chip,” he said, running his hand over the heavily painted surface of the wallpaper. “Hate the bloody stuff. Reminds me of when I was young and we lived in that godawful terraced house. Tiny little place it was, too small for a family as big as ours. I hated it. I suppose that’s why I’ve always wanted somewhere like this; a big, old house, with lots of rooms and nooks and crannies, lots of space to spread out in. Lots to love.”

He reached out to a small piece of torn wallpaper that had been left trailing down. He tugged at it and the tear became bigger.

“Well, that’s handy,” he said. “Whoever put this paper on was a bit stingy with the paste. Looks like it’s only held on by the paint now.”

He tugged again. The paper peeled easily away from the wall. Long strips of it dropped to the floor, the layers of paint that had covered the paper crumbling to dust as they fell.

“We could have this lot all off in an couple of hours, Jo. Put something nice up instead. Or we could get the walls skimmed and paint them some bright, happy colours, yellow or orange or…”

“Mark,” said Jo.

Mark looked at his wife. She was staring at the bare plaster that had been hidden beneath the wallpaper and was now revealed to them for the first time. He stepped back and stood alongside her and tried to see what she was looking at. He couldn’t see anything except for scraps of wallpaper and a few scratches on the wall.

“What is it, love?”

“Look,” she said. “Can’t you see?”

Mark looked again at the area of the wall that Jo was pointing towards. He saw that the scratches in the plaster weren’t random. They had been scribed into the surface with a fine pointed tool of some kind, the point of a knife, perhaps, or a nail. He could see that the lines were part of a drawing. The style looked like something scratched out by a childish hand; odd-angled lines and curves had been formed from multiple passes with the tool, scratching and re-scratching, so that the resulting shapes had an indeterminate, feathered appearance. The shapes were of children, of boys and girls of different ages and sizes and shapes.

They were naked.

The two of them stood together in silence looking at the figures. The detail was enough for them to know that they were drawn from life, by someone who had seen these figures unclothed and had who had observed them closely. They could see three figures, two girls and a boy. The feet of each figure almost rested on the skirting board. They appeared to be drawn to scale; life-size.

The tallest figure was that of a girl. She stood in profile. The boy stood with his back to this figure, and a smaller girl stood on the other side of him, facing into the room. No emotion could be seen on any of the faces. None of them were smiling.

“We can’t stay here,” said Jo.


Get the full story in Mortality Tales.

A Trumpet Sounds

She saw her death in his eyes.

The warrior stood beside the remains of her home. He was tall and young and strong and he looked at her now as she held the bucket of water that she had drawn from the well. She was alone. There was nobody else left in the village.

“Give me water, woman,” said the warrior.

The warrior barely recognised his own voice. It was hoarse. His mouth was dry from the hot desert air, and his throat was sore from screaming. He beckoned her with the hand that did not carry a weapon. She looked into his eyes. She did not move.

The warrior raised the arm that did carry a weapon, a battered and dusty Kalashnikov. He was tired from days of fighting and nights of not sleeping, from killing too much and eating too little. The weapon was heavy, a deadly weight. He pointed it at the woman as if it were a pistol, with one hand, a lazy way to aim an automatic rifle. The sullen metal was too heavy for his tired arm to hold firmly. The barrel of the gun drifted left and right and it was mere chance that she was not in line with it when he pulled the trigger.

The sound of the single shot echoed from the walls of the ruined buildings that surrounded them. The bullet kicked dirt up into the air behind the woman but still she did not move. She just kept looking into his eyes.

Her face was uncovered. It was a pretty face, with a strong, almost masculine structure. Her eyes were a striking light green, the colour of olives, and there was no fear in them. Her hair too was unusual, brown rather than black, with streaks that had been bleached blonde by the sun. Widowed early by a disease that they could not name, and childless as a result, the woman was used to being alone. She was at the end of her third decade, and she had seen all the people in her village killed in a war that had nothing to do with them. She was the last.

“Give me some water,” said the warrior once more. “Give me water or I will kill you.”

The woman stayed where she was. “You will kill me anyway,” she said. Her voice was deep. She sounded as tired as the warrior. “You want more than water. You want blood.”

The warrior smiled, though not in amusement. “Perhaps,” he said. “But I will surely kill you if you do not give me water. I will kill you now.” He raised the rifle and used both hands to point it at her. Still she did not move.

The warrior was becoming angry. He spat into the sand, his eyes on hers all the while. “You know that we rule this land now.”

“No,” she said, looking now at the spittle as it died away on the baking sand. “No, you do not. This has been my land, the land of my people, for as long as we have been a people, but we do not own it, we do not rule it any more than you. The land cannot be ruled, nor the sun or the sea. They are of the world, not of man. Only man can be ruled, only people. The land will still be here long after all the people have gone. Long after you have gone, soldier. And you will be gone soon, I think.”

The warrior made a grunt of anger. He shouldered his gun and stepped towards the woman. She stood still. The warrior snatched the bucket from her hand. Water slopped from it. He placed a foot in the woman’s gut and pushed her away with such force that she fell on her back on the stony ground in front of him. Turning sideways so that he could still see her, he raised the bucket to his lips and drank part of what flowed from it, allowing the rest of the water to waste itself across his face and down his body. When he was finished he threw the bucket down beside the woman and they both watched the last of its contents soak into the sand. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. He had a thin beard and droplets of water ran down it as he spoke.

“You were right, woman,” he said, kicking her foot. “I need more than water.”

The woman felt the world become smaller. All the days of her life seemed to gather around her. It was as though she could touch the beginning and the end of her life from where she lay. A memory of the sweetest figs she had ever tasted came to her, figs that her grandmother had given to her on a feast day. She tasted it now, the sweetness of the soft and sticky fruit in her mouth, and then she felt the kiss that her grandmother had afterwards placed on her head, and all the love that had flowed from that kiss, the love of her grandmother, of her mother, of all her family, all her ancestors, all of her people. All those generations, all those words and touches and kisses, all gone now. She was alone. She was ready.

“You can take nothing from me,” said the woman.

The warrior laughed. “But I have already taken your water,” he said.

“The water is not mine to give,” said the woman. “It is a gift of the land.”

The warrior laughed again. “I’m hungry. Did the land give you any gifts of food?”

The woman thought for a moment before she told him the truth. “I have a few olives and some stale bread. A little oil. Nothing more. Everything else has been taken or destroyed.”

“You lie,” said the warrior. She saw anger crease his face again. She knew that anger sometimes made a man exciting to behold but this was not a handsome man. He had a sneer, and anger raised his upper lip and made the sneer even more ugly.

“I do not lie,” said the woman. “I am not like you. I do not need to lie.”

“What lies have I told?” said the warrior.

Again she paused to consider before she replied. “The lies you tell yourself, boy. All of the brave warriors who have passed through this land, your army and the armies that you fight, you all lie. You tell yourselves you are righteous. It is a lie. Worse, you know it is a lie, and still you fight on. You claim the slaughter of innocents, the weak and the unworldly, people who you kill just because they are not like you and do not want to be like you, you proclaim their deaths as victories. It is a lie. You believe that this is a holy endeavour, that you fight a just war, that you will be eternally rewarded in the heaven of your god for all the deaths that you deliver in his name. It is a lie. You know it is a lie.”

The warrior bent down and stamped the butt of his rifle on the woman’s face. It broke her nose and split her upper lip. The warrior straightened up. The woman made no sound. She lay on her back, elbows in the sand, hands clenched in the air. Blood ran from her nose and her lip, and flies quickly found the blood. She watched him in silence.

“This is the truth, woman,” he said. “You are going to die. I am going to kill you.”

“You will do what you will do,” said the woman. She wiped a hand across her philtrum and looked at the blood it found. “Do you have a mother, boy?”

“I am not a boy.”

“But you do have a mother? Would she be proud of you and what you have become?”

The warrior was already thinking of his mother. She was a small, round woman who had been regularly beaten by her husband. The warrior had once tried to protect his mother and save her from such a beating. She had thrown him aside and told him to respect his father, who had then beaten them both. The warrior left home soon afterwards. He joined his army because they would train him and they paid well and because there was nothing else he could do. He said their words and sang their songs and did their bidding but he didn’t believe in it. He didn’t believe in anything.

“She is of no consequence to you,” he said. “She is of no consequence to me. She is just a stupid, fat little woman. She means nothing. Just like you. Just like your country and your people. You mean nothing to us. You are just stepping stones that we tread upon in our march to victory.”

The woman nodded. “Victory?” she said. “What is that?”

The warrior didn’t understand. He looked puzzled.

“How will you know?” said the woman. “How will you know when you have won?”

He shook his head. “When all our enemies are trampled in the dust.”

“And then what?” The woman wiped her face with her shawl, streaking it with her own blood. “What will you do then?”

“We will praise god and thank him for our victory.”

“And then what?”

The angry sneer returned. “I will waste no more time here,” said the warrior. “You should begin to make peace with your god, woman. You will meet him soon.”

“You do not know, do you?” she said. “You cannot see what you have done, can you? Ask yourself this: how will you live? What will you make? What will you eat? You have killed all the farmers and tradesmen. Who will build your houses? Who will grow your food? Where will you grow it? The land will be barren by the time of your ‘victory’.” The woman laughed and placed a forearm over her eyes to shield them from the sun. “You fools. You have been taught how to destroy, and so you have destroyed all that you do not understand, which is everything. All you can make is war, but war is like fire. It consumes whatever it touches. It will consume you, too, you and the bitter old men who rule you, who sit now in the comfort of their holy places while you and all those like you die for them. Not for your god. For them, and their madness, their ideas of how the world should be, how they think other people should think. And you know this. I can see it in your eyes. You know this, and yet still you fight.” She sighed and moved her arm from her face but kept her eyes closed. The sun shone blood red through her eyelids, and she could see eternity. “They have won, the old men. They have stolen the hearts of our young, and thrown away their minds. They already have their victory.”

The warrior could see that the woman was speaking to herself now and he became fearful of her. There was something about this woman. She had no fear. She felt no pain. She knew his most secret thoughts, and spoke them out loud.

“Who are you, woman?” said the warrior. “Are you a witch? A demon?”

She shook her head. “I am one who has seen too much. One who has thought too much. One who has lived too long.”

She levered herself up from the ground into a kneeling position, straightening her shawl and smoothing her dusted skirt around her. The soldier saw that the blood on her face had already caked and blackened in the heat of the sun. She looked into his eyes again.

“I will give you one last chance,” she said.

The soldier laughed loudly at the absurdity. The woman continued as though he were silent.

“Turn away from them. Turn from the old men. Go home. Find a woman. Have children and teach them about life. Teach them how to love. Teach them to be good. You can still do this, even now. There is still time for you.”

The soldier slowly stopped laughing. He shook his head.

“I know now that you are truly mad,” he said. “Just a crazy old woman after all. You will be no loss to the world.”

“So this is what you want, is it?” she said. “To kill and kill and kill? Never to rest? Never to have joy? Never at peace? Never happy? For you are not happy, I can see that.”

“Stupid woman,” said the warrior. “Why would I give this up? I have money. I have a gun. I can have any woman I catch. I could have you, woman, here and now. My life is exciting. Why would I go back to being what I was? A nobody, with nothing.”

The woman put her hands together and looked down.

“Are the others like you?” she said. She did not raise her head.

“What others?”

“The other soldiers. Are they like you? Are they unhappy? Do they also fight for what they do not believe?”

The soldier looked around, as if to check that nobody was listening. “Of course,” he said. “Nobody believes all that holy war crap. None of us. But we have nothing else. This world gives us nothing so all we can do is take from it. There’ll never be anything for me, for people like me, unless we take it from someone else. That’s just how it is. That’s how it will always be from now on. The old ways are gone. They didn’t work, and now they’re gone. I told you before, we rule now.”

The woman was still. After a moment she raised her head. She nodded.

“I am ready,” she said.


“Yes,” she said. “There is nothing more for me in this world. Kill me now.”

She raised her chin, to make it easier for him. The soldier saw what she did and it filled him with terror. This is not a woman, he thought, this is a spirit, a demon, and she has twined her life with mine. He considered leaving her here, just walking away and letting her rot. Nothing could stop him now though, not even himself.

“As you wish, woman.”

He drew a long knife from the scabbard on his thigh and leaned forward and slid the blade’s edge through the skin of her throat. He felt the drag of her flesh as the knife passed through it.

The woman didn’t fall. She stayed where she was, still kneeling in the dust of the land of her fathers. Blood sprang from the slash along the side of her neck, pulsing out and across her shoulder and down the front of her body, soaking instantly into the material of her clothes.

The warrior began to walk away from her, walking backwards at first, watching the woman as if expecting her to rise and come after him. He stumbled and then turned. He began to run. It’s over, he thought. It’s all over. For some reason he remembered his mother.

The woman watched him run as she died. She knew that it wasn’t over.

She called to her god now, her own god, the god that exists within each of us and that has been known by all the different names of god throughout the ages, the god that rules us and serves us, she called to her god and begged for the death of this man, and as she called she realised that this was just a man, just one man of many, a small part of mankind, and so she called again to her god and begged for more. She begged for an end to this man and all men like him; she begged for an end to the hatred of one for another; she begged for an end to the ruination of the earth; she begged for the only thing that could bring about all these dreams; she begged for the end of mankind. And as she faded, she thought she could hear the sound of trumpets, distant at first, then louder, and louder still, loud enough to echo in her chest, to shake the walls of her village, to make the land tremble; and she could see a bloom of light, could see the sun grow and blossom and cast out a great curling tongue of flame that came down through the searing sky and licked the shrieking soldier out of existence, that rolled on through the land, consuming another man, and then another, and another, until she was the last, the very last of all mankind, and the fire came to her and as it took her she smiled and she gave thanks to her god for the sweet peace of eternity.


The Darlings

The house at Coppice Close had been built with hate.

The developer had hated being forced by the local council to build on a brownfield site, a place that had once been an opencast mine. The bricklayers had hated each other for imagined slights committed against each other in the past. The carpenters had hated the developers for under paying them. The plumbers just hated being plumbers. One of the electricians hated being a man, and the others had hated working in the tension of the man’s unhappiness. The foreman had hated the build for the arguing and fighting and sheer bloody bad feeling that went on every day. It had rained the whole time the building was going up. Something blocked the sewers one day and they backed up and flooded the ground floor. They had to dig out the whole drain to find out what it was. A cat had crawled in through an open inspection hatch trying to find somewhere to give birth to her kittens. They had all drowned, died in trying to live, and had become swollen and putrid. The house had no chance from the start.

It was going to be a bad place even before its first brick was laid.

Joy Marler loved the house at first sight.

It was only a marketing illustration, a drawing in a sales pamphlet that she found on a table at her daughter’s playgroup, but it was everything she’d ever dreamed about: detached; private; south facing rear garden; at the end of a close; modern; new; everything. It had everything. So she had to have it.

The next day, Joy went to look at it, just to make sure. Dennis needed the car for work so she had to drop her daughter at the playgroup and then catch two buses to get there, which made her think for a while but didn’t put her off. The pavement of the road was still unmade, and the roads themselves were covered in muck and mud from the lorries, but that didn’t put her off either, and she got there. The shell of the house was complete, the roof was on and the windows were in so what she saw was almost the finished article from the outside. There were still all the final fixings to do inside, plumbing and electrics and what have you, but she could see what the house was going to look like when it was finished. She saw the shape of it, and liked it. She saw the position, last house on the street, and liked that, too. In a slow turn, she imagined what the area would look like on a sunny day in summer, when everything was all finished. She like that most of all, and she smiled to herself, looking at the house.

The house looked back at her, at what she was. She was coming. The house waited.

Joy told her husband about it when he came home from work. Dennis knew from the way she spoke that, in his wife’s mind, they’d already bought the house. He pointed out that they couldn’t afford it, that it was on the wrong side of town for them, that it was far away from their families and friends, and even farther away from the factory he worked in. The kids would have to go to a different school, he’d said, they’d have to make new friends, too, and they’d lose all their old ones. It just wasn’t a practical, sensible choice really.

He might as well have been talking to the house.

Joy had already made contact with the developers. She’d phoned them as soon as she’d stepped out of the playgroup. She’d phoned them again when she got home, and again in the afternoon. She did the same the following day, and the day after that, and for the next three days, until the developers got so sick of her that they just gave in and put her at the front of the queue. She used the same tactics on Dennis to get him to apply for the mortgage that they couldn’t really afford. He’d been in this position before, though. He just gave in sooner.

That had been at the end of September, just seven weeks ago. When the delivery team finalised the sign-off of the building last Thursday, Joy was outside in the family Ford Fiesta with the kids, David and Susan. Dennis and his brothers were sitting in the hired van waiting to unload the contents of their old house.

The developer handed the keys over and Joy started dancing.

Today was Saturday.

Standing in the doorway to the kitchen, David watched as his sister’s tears trickled down her face. Susan’s head was tilted forward and leaned against his chest. Her tears ran in a watery line towards her chin and somehow came out through her nose. She cried silently. Her eyes were closed. David couldn’t understand how tears could still come even when someone’s eyes were closed.

Susan had her hands over her ears, but David knew she could hear them. Dad was shouting, Mum was screeching. They’d been at it for ages, arguing like that. Dad was standing at one end of the kitchen, leaning against the cooker. His arms were folded, which was good. It was when they were unfolded that things got bad. His name was Dennis. It was only recently that David had realised that a Dad could have a name.

He already knew that his Mum’s name was Joy because people shouted her name out whenever they went out walking. She was tall, although shorter than her husband. They were now both in their late twenties, and had been together since they’d met at school. She had blonde hair, his was a dirty brown. David thought she was pretty, though she didn’t look pretty just now. She’d been crying, and she’d wiped mascara all across her face. She kept walking up and down the kitchen with her hands pressed on her hips. Sometimes she would stop and raise a hand and jab a finger at Dennis as she spoke. It was like she was stabbing him with bad words. Dennis just stood and took it, looking bored, his top lip up on one side. Sometimes she would say something and he’d shout back at her. David could see that his father was getting angry. Dennis had thick eyebrows. When he got angry his eyebrows came closer and closer together until they were just one solid nasty line. They were meeting now. Dennis unfolded his arms. David wrapped his arms tighter around his sister.

His mother was saying something about someone called Melody. No, not Melody. Her nose had started to block with all the crying. Was it Melanie? Someone called Melanie? David wasn’t sure that was the right name. Whatever it was, that was what did it.

“Right,” said Dennis, pushing himself away from the cooker. “That’s enough of this shit. I don’t have to take this. I’ve done nothing. I’ll be fucked if I’m going to stand here and get slaughtered for something I’ve not done. Fuck it. I’m off. You’re on your own.”

Dennis grabbed his jacket from the back of a kitchen chair and strode towards the rear door of the house. He was a slack man and he sometimes walked like he was a puppet, all loose and floppy, but when he got angry he sort of set and turned hard. He was hard now, and when Joy tried to stop him he brushed her away with just a wave of his arm. It was a heavy push rather than a blow that caught her. Joy fell across the chair that had been dragged out of position when Dennis pulled his jacket off it. She slid down between the chair and the kitchen table. Before she could get to her feet, Dennis had slammed the door behind him. He hadn’t looked back.

Pushing the chair out of the way, Joy got up and ran to the door. She pulled it open and ran through it. David heard her shouting his father’s name seven times. He counted. She shouted really loud. When she came back in she looked wild, like a cat looks when it’s chased by a dog, wide eyed and bared teeth. She walked up towards the cooker where Dennis had been standing and almost tripped over the fallen chair. She picked it up and righted it and put it back in place. Her hands gripped the shiny wood where Dennis’s jacket had been just a few moments ago.  Releasing the chair, she put both hands into the nest of her hair and grabbed it tightly and stamped once, hard.

“Bastard,” she said, through her teeth.

It was only then that she noticed her children.

Joy came and crouched down and put one arm around Susan and one hand behind David’s head. “Sorry, David,” she said, her hand working in his hair. “Don’t cry, Suze. It’s just an argument, babe, that’s all. Mummy and Daddy’ve just had a little argument. Don’t you worry, love. It’ll be alright.”

Joy hadn’t looked at Susan at all as she’d been speaking. She hadn’t looked at David, either. She’d been staring at the back door all the time. David knew what she was going to do.

“Mum,” said David.

Joy turned to face her son. He pulled away from Susan but Joy’s eyes stayed fixed on the space where he had been. He knew that she was thinking about something else.

“You can’t leave us, mum,” he said.

Joy focused on him again. She shook her head. “I’m not going to leave you, Davey boy. Never! I’d never leave my darlings. Never, ever.” She stood up. When she spoke again, it was as if she was speaking to herself. “I’ve just got to go out for a minute, though. Just a few minutes, that’s all. I’ve got to find Den. It’s really, really important, love. I’ve got to find him before… I’ve got to find him first, that’s all. Bring him home to his family. To us. Won’t take long. I know where he’ll be. I’ll be straight there and back. Twenty minutes it’ll take, no more than that. Thirty, tops.” She was walking towards the back door, walking backwards away from her children. “Just you two sit tight and wait here. Wait in the living room. Watch telly for a bit.” Grabbing her handbag from the table, she turned and took a coat from the coat hook on the back of the door. She slipped the long key out of the lock and put it in her coat pocket. “Straight there and back,” she said. “Promise. I’ll bring some chish and fips if the chippy’s still open. You want some chish and fips, don’t you?” She nodded, though her children had remained silent. “Yeah, course you do. I’ll pick some up. And battered sausages, too, yes? Yes. Right. Won’t be long.” She stepped through the door. A cold draught of air forced its way into the kitchen. As she pulled the door shut she said, “Sit tight.”  They heard the key rattle in the lock and then she was gone. They were alone.

The house surrounded them.


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