Friday, 12 September 2014

Sleight Of Hand

Another 8th birthday party booking. They all seem to be turning 8 this year. Maybe that's also the age where parents finally lose interest in the novelty of their children's birthday parties, and decide to just book a magician.
Still, I shouldn't complain, at least work is steady this year. Means I'm putting in less hours at the petrol station.
Though it's Steph's birthday soon, should probably buy her something good, but it's not like the money is pouring in. She'll understand.
I get to the kid's house, forty of them, it's usually the whole school class and a few extras - cousins, friends from different classes, the token friends of any siblings, or children of the parent's friends. It'd be weird if parties later in life were attended in a similar fashion.
I go through the motions, I think half these kids have seen me before. I hear one whispering the conclusion of the trick to her friend. If I see her at another show she can be the "volunteer" for the custard pie trick. I always save that one for the little shits.
So, I do some giant size card tricks, a stuffed rabbit in a hat, the knotted handkerchief and a small scale swords through a box routine with the birthday boy.
Afterwards I loiter by the food, chowing down on cocktail sticks skewering pineapple and cheese chunks, and I have a slice of plasticky Transformers cake.
"Hey, great stuff," an overly enthusiastic father says, shaking my hand and placing a friendly mitt on my shoulder. "I loved the magicians when I was a kid, had one at every birthday for about five years running. Thought I wanted to be one, until I heard about investment banking!"
He laughs a big cackle. The howl of the well off.
"I got these big, ungainly hands anyways," he says. "Could never get the cards to stay wedged in there. My parents wastes a small fortune on magic kits for me. At least yours backed the right horse, huh?"
I swallowed my mouthful of sponge. "My parents don't know I do this."
"Shit, you are living the boyhood dream, huh?! Ran away and joined the circus, right!"
"They're dead."
His face turned sour and he quietly, quickly made some new friends on the other side of the room.
I tossed my paper plate towards the bin - though it failed to make its target.
After collecting the rest of my pay I packed up and left. Children's birthday parties are no place to hang out, though in my younger days I met some willing single mothers, and once one that wasn't single. Though Steph put paid to all that.
It's not that I yearn for it or anything, that stuff is far more exciting in theory than practice. But there is a certain frisson to those chance encounters now lacking in the inevitability of my days.
I know what bed awaits me, I know who's there, and this malaise comes from somewhere, but, don't get me wrong, I wouldn't change things. Not between me and Steph.
I should try and think of something nice to get her. I think I've let her down these last couple of years, I'm sure she's already wondering how I'll complete the hat trick. But, and perhaps I'm ignorant, forgetful or complacent, I just don't remember what she likes.
I resolve to try and listen that bit harder, hear the clues in what she says. Maybe there's something that she keeps hanging out there, like a carrot for a mule, seeing if I'm going to putz it up one more time.
I drive home, passing the petrol station, unconsciously - I think - I slow the car and take a long, lingering look at the place. I've got the night shift there tomorrow, 11pm to 7am.
I take the next junction and, eager to have a drink and slip into bed, I press my foot down a little.
I look forward to the feeling of Steph's body pressed against mine before we fall asleep.
I see a flash.
It's dark. Sudden.
There's a thud, followed by an uncomfortable clatter.
I brake, look back, and see the body lying in the road.
Leaving the car I'm thankful that the street is quiet. A few houses, but not a light on in any of them.
Getting closer I see that it's the body of a young boy, dressed in an unhelpfully dark hoodie and jeans. His face is pale, about from the blood stripe across it. His eyes are wide, lifeless.
I look up and down the road, still noone around. I've been fortunate.
I crouch by the body, hold my hands over his most obvious wounds and I close my eyes.
His sharp intake of breath alerts me.
"Are you okay?" I ask.
He's bewildered, sits up and shuffles back.
"You should wear a hi-viz, or at least something colourful, if you're going to dash across roads at night."
The boy holds a hand to his chest, breathes deeply, as if ascertaining the veracity of the situation against his memory of it.
"You hit me? With your car," he finally utters, though doubting himself.
"Clipped you," I correct him. "Nothing serious, but you should see a doctor just to be sure."
I give him my card in case there are any problems. I offer him a lift home but he points to his house, we're right in front of it. I get in my car and drive away.
When I get home Steph is asleep, though she stirs and mumbles a hello as I climb in next to her, kiss her cheek.
As I lie sleepless in bed, I'm brought back to the vacant look in that boy's eyes as he lay dead on the road. That look which confirms the disconnection between body and spirit, or soul, or whatever.
Now I know that if I'm quick then that spirit lingers, as if taking one last look at its vessel and I can encourage it to take up its residence for just a little longer.
I wish I'd known that then, before I killed them.
I told Steph about the accident, sure I left out a few details, like my powers. But she insists that it was, as I say, an accident. But I know more, and I can never find forgiveness.
I've told Steph about that, though I've never told her how she died once. That we were putting up a painting, she was on a short ladder, missed her footing and her head collided with our kitchen worktop.
From somewhere within me came this urge, this futile rage, a seemingly impotent hope. I looked into her eyes, saw that the life had gone. I placed my hands on her, and then it was back.
And she never knew why I cried and held her so close, so tight.
That I couldn't bear the abyss of my life without her.
Yet I know that with every passing day the tide comes in, our lives must end, and it dulls the magic, it dilutes my hope.
Perhaps, I make excuses for myself, I'm so tired, so listless, because I love her so much. If I cared less maybe our eventual deaths wouldn't concern me.
Though I cling onto the idea that there is a soul, that it is that which I coax back to those vacant bodies, and if it were to roam free it would find a fitting afterlife. I can't help but think we are all doomed, and that is what I see in the eyes of those children as I reveal their card, as I pull the rabbit from the hat, as I push the pie into their face.

Friday, 4 July 2014

A Blarthgarrr's Best Friend

All Edwin remembered was pulling his car into a services off of the M6 at Salford, a bright light, and then finding himself inside a large cage.

It was Monntarq's hatchday and his progenitor took him to the showroom to get his first ever pet.
After looking at the more docile creatures - the cuddlefish, the octopig and the howling terror puppy - Monntarq became enamoured with the blokes. There were five of them all in the cage, but one inparticular ran immediately up to Monntarq waving its appendages in a delightful display of affection. Monntarq ticked its hairy chin through the mesh and turned to his progenitor.
"I want this one!" he insisted.
"Now Monntarq," came the considered reply, "it's a big responsibility looking after a bloke. Wouldn't you prefer a horstritch instead? Or what about a nice cute ginchilla?"
"No," he inflated his vocal sac in a strop, "I want this one!"
HIs progenitor looked carefully into Monntarq's glistening eye, nodded and conceded.
"Ok, but you've got to be extra good at looking after it."
Monntarq jiggled up and down with excitement, they called over a clerk who hoisted the bloke out of the cage and took it over to the counter for the sale.

When they got back to their dwelling, Monntarq was very eager to play with his new pet. His progenitor carried the portable case from the conveyance into the dwelling, closed the door to the main room, and carefully lifted the access panel.
Nervously, tentatively, the bloke stepped forwards, a sort of worried look on its little face.
"Come on," Monntarq cooed, "don't be shy."
Pressing its bare foot onto the ground, wiggling its toes, the bloke got a comfortable footing, let its hands leave the safety of the case and stepped, naked and alone, into the middle of the room.
Monntarq giggled excitedly, "It's so adorable! Look at it."
With joy Monntarq rushed forward and the bloke let out a yelp and retreated back into the case.
"Easy Monntarq, slowly," his progenitor said with a calm, soothing tone, mainly for the benefit of the trembling bloke.
Monntarq reached into a carrier bag from the showroom, removed a hard crispy orb and held it out, waving it towards the bloke.
"Here you are, it's yummy, come and have a bite."
Again the bloke made cautious progress, checking both Monntarq and his progenitor before leaving the case and stepping towards this out-stretched snack.
Uncertain of what exactly was being offered, the bloke sniffed at the maroon dusty shape, and then pressed its tongue against the side, licking it a little. Smacking its lips to contemplate the flavour, the bloke then took the orb from its owner and proceeded to noisly, and messily, crunch at the biscuit until it was all gone.

They decided to name it Flopsy, and Monntarq was good to his word. He took Flopsy out for a walk twice a day, though Flopsy did require some discipline at first. He fed Flopsy himself and washed him when necessary.
They took Flopsy to the vet to get neutered and chipped, and a lifelong friendship was formed.
Flopsy went everywhere with Monntarq and lived to the age of 8. After that Monntarq got an octopig.

Edwin had found himself placed in a cage with four other men, all naked, shivering and screaming in terror. Two were Chinese, one was Mexican and the other was from Wales, so it was only the latter than Edwin could understand.
"Where are we?"
"I don't know, but there are monsters out there... Monsters!" the Welsh man stammered, his eyes wide with fear.
"How long have you been here?"
"Not sure, it seems like a few days, but look..." The Welsh man held up a wrinkled, veiny hand. "I'm only twenty six, I don't know what's happening to me!?"
Suddenly the other three men all cowered into  a corner, the Welsh Man - looking over Edwin's shoulder - did likewise.
Edwin turned and saw a huge cycloptic creature looming towards their cage, it's one yellow eye staring intently.
Desperately, confused, Edwin rushed forward waving his arms; "Please, you must help me! I don't know what you want from me, from us, but I have nothing. I'm just a bank clerk."
In a booming voice it began howling gibberish and nonsense.
Edwin smiled earnestly, hoping it had understood and then a humongous wriggling tendril pushed through the wire and slapped him across the chin rapidly, leaving gloop and slime matted into his beard.
Another beast, this one twice the size, towering taller than a skyscraper, began bellowing at the first creature. Finally the small monster let out a piercing wail which seemed to bring about a conclusion to the discussion, and over Edwin's head a trap door was opened.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Why Not Me

I parked the car, eager to leave its stale embrace, and step out into the busy lot. The grey skies above made me reluctant, having forgotten to pack an umbrella, I was tempted to sit it out for a bit until things cleared up, though I was already running late.

Impatient, and excitable, I grabbed my bag from the boot, and dashed across the tarmac towards the reception, following the confusing sign-posts across the large car park towards a rather ramshackle hut.

To my surprise, and muted concern, the resort - from here - seemed like nothing more than a deserted air-strip, a few hangars and workshop-like barns dotted about the place. Somewhere you might imagine people would test-drive cars nowadays.

At the reception desk I was greeted with a glowing smile by a young man called Clark.

"Mr. Benson," he squeezed my hand to shake it eagerly, "it is an absolute pleasure to meet you. Did you have a good trip?"

"Yeah, it was all right, bit of traffic on the A22, but..." I tailed off, suddenly feeling like this was supposed to be part of it and I wasn't quite playing along.

"Well," he beamed, "I'm sure everything will be absolutely perfect from here on. Ah," his eyes discovered a short, neat young man standing just behind me, "here's your assistant, Mr. Kendrick."

Mr. Kendrick stepped forward, his face young and pale, his eyes wide and keen. "Sorry I'm late sir..."

"No, it was -" I began, but the expression on Kendrick's face suggested I change my tune; "That's quite all right."

"We'll take a car to the hotel, this way sir."

Kendrick lead me past the reception, down some steps and into - what looked like - a small parking garage. There was a discrete black car with tinted windows waiting, the driver stood by the door, holding it open, nodded his greeting.

I slid in and Kendrick followed.

As we drove he began listing a schedule to me, whilst reassuring me that everything was in hand, he offered me a drink, a virgin bloody Mary, which, when we reached out destination I was allowed to take with me.

A hotel bellhop got the car door for us, he smiled and wished me a good day, and Kendrick handed him a tip, which the bellhop thanked me for. I was ushered into the hotel lobby, Kendrick steered me away from the reception towards the elevator - having already checked in on my behalf earlier - and we emerged, after a quick ascent, in the exclusive penthouse suite.

Practically as soon as I stepped into the room, even before I'd had a chance to take in its luxuriant decor, a room service trolley had been wheeled in for me to enjoy a delicious brunch of eggs Florentine followed by Belgian waffles with fresh strawberries. I had a glass of champagne, which I drank standing on the balcony over-looking the city. The weather was cool and calm.

When I returned to my room a nervous looking young woman was standing next to Kendrick. She pushed a fallen length of hair back behind her ear and was introduced to me as Allie McCullough, a reporter for Marquee magazine.

She extends her arm, offering a hand, "It really is an absolute pleasure to meet you."

We talk for thirty minutes, I'm a little awkward myself, unsure of how to respond to some of her questions, but for the most part she's delightful and offers me all sorts of praise and compliments. At first I was bashful, blushing beetroot, but soon the wealth of compliments made me feel like, yes, I deserved them. Why not? It felt good, and she didn't seem sycophantic in her praise, just honest.

As our time together drew towards an end Kendrick stepped over and whispered for things to be brought to a close. I had a signing to attend, so it was back down in the elevator, into the car and off - a short drive - to a nearby record store, a large, yet cool, retailer that already had a queue snaking outside.

I was rushed in, to cheers and applause, down the aisles towards a small table that was set up with a large poster advertising my presence.

With coffee and cake at my side, and another assistant - a young woman by the name of Bea - I met hundreds of fans, people who were all smiles - some actually crying with joy - who just wanted to meet me, shake my hand, some asked for a hug, and everyone wanted a photo. It was overwhelming, and they shared their stories with me, how my work had changed their life, had spoken to them, made them realise something fundamental about themselves that - until then - they had never had a chance to really understand. It was humbling.

Afterwards I felt exhausted, even though I'd barely left my seat for two hours, and we drove to a charming little restaurant for lunch. A complimentary bottle of champagne was gifted by the manager, who said she was also a fan of my work and asked for an autograph.

We then went to a boutique fashion store so I could get a suit for a red carpet event I was due to attend that evening. I, at first, was apprehensive about being too extravagant with my choices but the manager of the store told me that it was all free as I was doing him a great service wearing it to the premiere that night.

"Just remember," he smiled, "to tell everyone where it came from!"

Then I got my hair done, a manicure, teeth whitening, everything.

And so that evening I went to the premiere of a new blockbuster film, but as I stepped out of the limo and walked the red carpet I was dazzled by a hundred camera flashes and the sound of people - both photographers and fans - screaming my name.

"Mr. Benson, sir, this way sir," the photographers seemed to shout in unison, making a little disorienting as to which way I should turn.

Kendrick had advised me to dictate, with my body language, as to which section I was posing for, though, he added, they'll probably keep snapping regardless of whether I was facing them or not.

I signed some autographs and then - nearer to the entrance - was a gathering of press, holding out microphones. I spoke to each one in turn, telling them about my clothes, my excitement to see the film, I didn't quite know what they wanted to hear so I just said how great everything was - which I guess was true - and then went into the packed auditorium to watch the film.

There was an afterparty, very elaborate, drinks and dancing. I didn't notice any other celebrities there, but people came up and told me they were producers and executives and all sorts, so that was pretty interesting to meet them and talk about their work. They all said how much they loved what I do.

Around midnight I was feeling quite tired, and, as if by magic, Kendrick was by my side helping me into the car so we could go back to the hotel.

Once I was back in my room, and on my own, I decided to have one last cheeky glass of champagne before bed. I stepped out onto the balcony to enjoy it, leaning woozily on the metal railing, soaking in the quiet ambience of the city at night, the distant twinkle of the stars, the murmur of traffic below.

As I lifted the glass to my mouth I fumbled my hold on it, sending it falling from the balcony where - a second later - it smashed on the top of a building that appeared to be across the street, but was - in fact - about a metre away, it then plummeted down thirty storeys in the blink of an eye, before crashing as gigantic shards of glass - towering over the miniature cars - on the street below.

I looked at the misproportioned carnage, too sleepy to care, they'll clean it up tomorrow.

Collapsing into bed I turned on the television, to act as some sort of lullabye, and the entertainment news was on, reporting from the evening's premiere, featuring my red carpet interview and some experts talking about my great outfit and how good I looked. When the piece ended it began all over again, playing on a loop as I drifted off to sleep.

The following morning I had breakfast in my room, read the paper, a large picture of me on the red carpet adorned the front page and there was a further feature in the celebrity section.

Kendrick came to let me know the car was ready, I finished my coffee, followed him down to the street and we rode back to the parking garage.

Leaving through the main reception, Clark, the young man at the desk, handed me a gift bag. I thanked him, shook Kendrick's hand, and walked back out into the confusing car park.

As I strolled back to my car I passed a woman glancing up and down from her booking form, she called over.

"Is that the main reception, mate?"

"Er, yes," I replied.

She didn't thank me, but she quickened her walk and hurried off to the reception excitedly. I slumped into my car, peered into my gift bag, which featured a DVD of the entertainment news report, a pristine copy of the newspaper and photo album of my day, along with some other knick knacks.

I started the engine, pulled out of the parking space, and drove back home.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

A State Of Mind

I've asked them to check again, it seems so unlikely, but the results are the same. They're expression of confusion seems to be more a reflexion of my own than their own personal feeling. If anything, they seem more likely to feel somewhat sorry for me, but that emotion is buried somewhere under this current facade, bamboozled as to how I couldn't have known when my birthday was.
    I'd always made an assumption, unknowingly so, never having had any need to fact-check what seemed like an inherently true story. Not even a story really, it's just an accepted part of you, something that you would only jokingly lie about as old age eeked its way ever closer. Who would make up a fake birthday for themselves beyond the elderly and optimistic youths queuing for a nightclub?
    But, there it is, plain as day, I am, in fact, two years older than I thought I was.
    Perhaps I should just shrug this off, what does it really matter? This morning I was 29, now I'm 31. My partner Joan suggests - when I call her later - that I should have two years worth of birthday parties at once to celebrate, and make up for missing the big three-oh. If anything the things my mind immediately leaps to as retroactive miscarriages of justice are all pretty trivial; I could have gone drinking earlier, seen 18 certificate films, etc. Ironically I had my first drink in a bar when I thought I was 16, if I'd have known the truth I wouldn't have been so nervous about the whole thing.
    Has my age ever been a reason or an excuse for any of my behaviors? Whilst I've been taught - practically had it drummed into me - to respect my elders, I remember feeling inferior to kids in the year above me at school, despite actually being a year older than them. It wasn't my age that made me smaller, it was the hierarchy that had been constructed around it.
    As I dialled Joan's number, I must admit, I was nervous about how she would respond. She's 23, and I've felt a little of-a-different-time to her anyway, and now the distance has been pushed that little bit wider. Indeed, for some, the third decade can feel, to some, like such a huge, imposing barrier of age that even into their late-twenties people are reluctant to cross that numerical threshold, especially with regards to dating.
    But the age difference never seemed to bother me with Joan, we just clicked and, oddly, for the longest time we didn't really know how old each other was. We knew when our birthdays were, but not the year. I thought we were about the same age, and so did she.
    I have dated people who I have considered to be a bit too old for me, and now, adjusting the differences to compensate for the change in my own vintage, I realise that it couldn't have possibly - at least, entirely - been our ages that were responsible for the chasm that opened between us.
    Ultimately, at this point in my life, this change is meaningless, but it has a resonance, a curious and unsettling one at that. My perception of myself has been defined outside of my own control, through comments for me to "act your age" or to not "dress like a teenager", perhaps even moreso in the decor and ambience of the shops designed for me, the perfumed smell of the women's toilets, the doll that was tucked in with me as I slept, the wallpaper that surrounded me as a child, the idea that you're a little girl, a stroppy teenager, a young woman, an old hag.
    Have I ever been myself? Or have I just been defined by arbitrary modes of behaving and systems of numbering that have, quietly, insidiously, dictated who I am supposed to be?

Wednesday, 19 February 2014


There was a note on his desk that read 'Late'. It was written in stodgy red felt tip, double-underlined so he assumed it was serious, but they'd used a post-it hastily grabbed from the pile beside his monitor. Surely if this was a really serious matter they'd have written a formal letter or, at least, just emailed. No, this move, passing by his desk, noticing he wasn't present, but, moreso, investigating to make sure he wasn't in the break room or the kitchen, and then returning to leave a statement like this, a confirmation that - yes - his absence had been acknowledged, this was a more concerning degree of seriousness. It was passive aggressive.
    He balled up the note in his hand but didn't want to throw it away, he wanted whoever wrote it to know that it had been read, and it had not been tolerated. So, he placed the little scrunch onto his desk, nearest to the aisle, and slumped into his booth.
    Sure, he thought, he had been late, he'd been late every single day this week, but that was one week out of hundreds, and he'd had problems with the trains. Admittedly he'd sauntered to the station quite lackadasically, but they weren't to know that, he'd sent a text ahead to say that there were delays and he'd be in by half past.
    He called down to the reception desk, Julian answered.
    "Good morning, reception."
    "Hi Julian, did you get my text this morning?"
    "About the train delays."
    "Oh, that, yes. Yes."
    "And did you let anyone know about it?"
    "Er," the sound of a biro hollow tapping on the side of pouting cheek, "I don't think so, nobody asked."
    He hung up, irritated that his boss hadn't thought to call in with reception for any news of his arrival time. He sneered, shook his head, opened his emails, expecting some sort of continuation of the debacle, but there was nothing. Just a few spam messages and a request for him to proof some copy.
    Frustrated he picked up the stained coffee cup that the cleaner had ignored, and trudged to the kitchen.
    Michael was in there talking to Hattie, they were giggling over the personal ads in the free paper, but their shared chuckle halted almost immediately when he walked in and switched the kettle on, its boil erupting the cosy, quiet of the small sterile room.
    Michael folded up the paper, "Well, I'll leave you guys to it."
    He watched him slip out of the door, giving one last lingering look to Hattie before he left. She was staring down at the tabletop, at her own empty cup, waiting for something that he couldn't quite fathom.
    "Well, I'm having a shit day," he announced.
    After an uncomfortable silence the kettle clicked off, he poured his tea and grabbed the milk from the fridge, giving it a quick sniff before adding it to his brew.
    She set her cup down with an audible clink.
    "Sometimes, y'know," he shook his head, weighing his thoughts and curling his lip, "I just want to walk into that big office, go up to her and just, I don't know, give her a piece of my mind. Don't you?"
    She sighed, "Yeah."
    "What?" He could tell she wasn't really paying attention, her eyes seem fixed on a point on the floor, but there was nothing there, nothing at all. He shrugged to himself, glancing around the room, his eyes lost, before he deflated and finally leant over to her; "What's wrong with you?"
    She looked up at him, her brow furrowed, confused.
    "Didn't you get my note?"

Friday, 7 February 2014


Her eyes flickered open, prompted by the gradual illumination of her room. Despite facing to the south west, her apartment glowed with morning light generated by a meticulously "randomized" pattern of LEDs across the walls. With a contented, yet slumberous, sigh she shifted out of bed and walked down the hall, her bare feet padding on the easy-wipe linoleum.
    "You are ovulating. Excess caffeine detected," said the toilet.
    The spray from the bidet feature made her jump a little, as it always did, and she nestled into the warm air that followed, drying her off.

The dispenser buzzed harshly, she clapped her hand frustratedly on the side, but it continued to refuse. Defeated she continued to dress, checked the time, and left for work.

On her tab a travel alert popped up, she stretched it to fill the screen, two lines were down, but she didn't want to get the bus. As she left her building and walked onto the high street, she gradually moved herself into the yellow line, on the far left, for quicker pedestrians.
    She clipped the tab to her inVision unit and caught up on the end of the film she had fallen asleep to last night. In it the plucky heroes had finally broken into the capital and were about to bring down the evil empire.
    Stumbling suddenly, she glanced back and down, wheeled luggage being pulled tentatively across the lanes of commuter traffic by a wide-eyed young man, staring down at the map displayed on his phone. Having regained her footing, and with little time to spare, she picks up momentum and continues onwards, looking back to see another commuter - a tall man wearing a suit with trainers - berating the boy who seems to be lost in his words.
    Into the coffee shop, she stares bewildered at her options, the touch-pad having deliberately filtered out any caffeine products. She turns, desperately, to the customer queuing behind her, but his eyes are impossible to meet as they deliberately dart from left to right, and he jabbers away at whoever's on the other end of his head-set.
    Frustrated, huffing to herself, she presses for a banana muffin and a decaf caramel latte and proceeds to the collection point.
    Back outside, taking her first sip, she realises that the caramel shot hasn't been added.
    "Excuse me," she lightly pats the shoulder of the next in line to the service point, "do you mind if I cut in? I've just bought this and they haven't added my syrup."
    The customer looks down the line, as if asking permission, or - at least - judging the mood, and, buoyed on by nervous energy, apologises and sends her to the back of the queue. Her thanks are sarcastic, but the passive aggressive intent goes unnoticed.
    Three arduous minutes later she's back at the front of the line, the touchpad recognises her and beams: 'Welcome back, Katherine!'
    She pushes the button marked 'Help' and can hear the customer behind her sigh with deliberate volume.
    Having prodded the screen repeatedly, nudging through the tree of options, she finally finds herself at a window headed: 'Complaint'. With no specific button to press for her particular issue she chooses: 'Wrong item dispensed.' However, she's instantly informed - via a recording of the shop's doorway showing her leaving - that items cannot be returned once a customer has left the premises.
    Beaten, she orders another decaf caramel latte and makes sure she loiters around for it to cool so she can take a sip for certainty.

Reaching the terminal she throws her arms up, discovering that four lines are now experiencing severe delays.
    "Someone under a train," another commuter says.
    "Oh, for fuh-" mutters someone laden with shopping bags.
    She decides to take her chances, hoping others have been put off by the chaos. She takes a free paper from the stand and is beeped through the gates. The escalator down is packed, but, craning her neck, she can see that someone about ten steps down is standing on the left and wonders why nobody's asked them to move over.
    Once they reach the bottom she can pick up speed, and, over-taking, she notices that the person who was standing on the left is blind and she feels bad about having tapped her foot, groaned quietly and wanted for someone to give them a little nudge to move.
    The platform is quite quiet, she moves down to the area where the second from last carriage arrives, there are suggestions on the floor to encourage passengers to use certain carriages for certain stops. She always feels a little pleased with this addition, having signed an online petition for it about seven months back, now it's going through a trial on this line.
    On the first attempt to leave the automated voice comes on over the speakers; "Please keep personal items and belongings clear of the doors."
    There's a second attempt, a repetition of the annoucement, and then, when the doors finally close - no thanks to whatever obstruction it was - the voice adds: "Obstructing the doors causes delays. Respect your fellow passengers and keep the doors clear. If you see any unattended items or suspicious behavior please alert a member of staff or a police officer. Thank you for travelling with London Underground. The next station is Pimlico, alight here for the Tate Britain. Doors will open on the right hand side. In hot weather it is advised to bring a bottle of water with you on London Underground services. If you feel ill do not press the emergency alarm button, as this will cause delays. Instead, alight the train at the next station stop. We are now apporaching Pimlico. Delays are reported on the Victoria, Bakerloo, Northern and Piccadilly lines. There is a good service on all other lines. This is Pimlico..."
    And, as the doors opened, another automated voice joined in, adding a harmony of; "Please mind the gap between the train and the platform edge. Allow passengers to alight before boarding the train. Please keep personal items and belongings clear of the doors..."
    She never really took much notice of the announcements, they seemed to register on some level, as she would keep an ear out for further disruptions which often seemed to be slipped in, almost subliminally, amongst the barrage of information. Sometimes though, especially at the weekends or during the early hours, you'd find yourself walking towards a closed tube line without even knowing it, there being no indication anywhere that the trains weren't running until you found yourself up against a partition wall emblazoned with the words: 'Line closed.'
    Almost as soon as she thought this the train came to a halt, somewhere in the tunnels between Pimlico and Victoria. The lights dimmed a little, then there was nothing, not even the distant rumble of other stock moving along the tracks. Usually, the policy was for announcements about a delay within 15 seconds of stopping, but the voice wasn't there.
    She tried to check the service update, but her connection was out. Wireless was usually patchy during peak hours thanks to a rush on the service provider, the computer would just cut it if traffic got too high, and with all these delays it's not surprising.
    It was getting hot, the last splash of her coffee had cooled, but the caramel syrup had grown tart and unpleasant on the tongue. She wished she hadn't got it, but she was in a rush, she wanted something to start her day, and it looked so nice on the screen, she felt like she deserved a treat. The banana muffin had grown warm, squashy, and unappetising in her bag. She clawed out a chunk but it was dry and flavourless, she needed something hot to balance it out.
    To kill time she flicked through the paper, not reading anything in detail, just getting an overview of the news. Nothing much happening, nothing that really grabbed her attention, some conference of world leaders was taking place later that month and house prices were falling by the coast, otherwise it was the usual mix of human tragedy and celebrity gossip. She skipped ahead to the sports section, read the football results from yesterday and let the paper fall onto the vacant seat next to her.
    Someone got up, began pacing, he was dressed in jogging bottoms, but had a pressed shirt, perhaps on his way from the gym to the office. He went over to a panel by the door, hit the button marked 'Assistance'.
    "This service is currently unavailable," came the automated response.
    He dropped heavily back into his seat and asked if she was done with the paper.
    "Sure, it's all yours," she said, and he reached across to take it from next to her.

Twenty minutes passed before the train began to move again, crawling slowly into Victoria station, where they were herded off by police officers.
    "Out of service," they barked, waving passengers out of the carriages and onto the platform. There was no indication of when the next train was due, the overhead screens were blank, and once the train was clear and closed it was sent on its way, vacant.
    "Is there a problem with the line?" the man in jogging bottoms asked a police officer.
    "Technical difficulties," she responded, before turning away and speaking into her communicator.
    "Technical difficulties," he reiterated, nodding at Katherine. "Engineering works I think, those workers always leave something to fuck things up on a Monday morning."
    She nodded, people at the office had complained about similar things, so it must be.
    "Where do you work?" he asked.
    "Just down from Warren Street."
    "Me too, fancy spliting a cab? Might be quicker."

He hailed a taxi, having found where an available one would be via an app. He had designed it, his team worked in mobile technology, with a focus on solutions to make the everyday easier. She told him about her company, branding and market recognition. They exchanged information.
    They shared the cost, selecting the highest percentage to tip the driver, who had remained entirely anonymous behind their screen for the journey.
    "Well," he smiled, "have a good day. Hope, after all this, the elevator makes it to your floor."
    She laughed, shook his hand, they parted.
    Inside the building she was beeped through the security gates - knowing that her presence would be alerted to her P.A. who, hopefully, would start brewing her a coffee - she stepped into the elevator, the doors closed, and it began to ascend.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014


Nobody ever tells you something's wrong until it's too late. Then you blame them. It wasn't your fault, somebody should have told you.

At first it was little things, trivial things, a phone bill quietly mounting up because the phone company never told me that I'd exceeded my price plan for the month. Then, when I get the bill, I stare in disbelief and think; Why didn't anybody tell me?

The bank had done it to me before, I asked them; Why don't you let me know when I'm going past my overdraft limit?

I'd cynically sneer that it was because they wanted money, it's greed. That's how I'd justify it.

When it's gone, when the bill comes, when the bank charges, you're so helpless and you waddle, metaphorical cap in hand, and hope for kindness, for a change of heart. "But they were legitimate charges," they say, and you know they're right. Why are you so incapable of looking after yourself?

I've been sad for years and I've never come to terms with it. I'm waiting for everything to change, and things to go back to how they were before. Because I know it's possible, that's what we were trying to do, we were trying to change the world.

She had stepped into the coccoon, closed the hatch and blew me a kiss.

Then the machine was propelled into the sky and somewhere, up in the atmosphere, I saw it evaporate, sent on its journey through time.

We had calibrated the machine to send her back to the 1960s, a time where we knew she would be able to find the means to return. Where she could find open-minded and understanding people who wouldn't lock her up in some ward, a loony with wild ideas. It was the safest destination for a test drive.

And it worked.

I saw her in a photograph, looking through a book called Brighton In The 1960s, there were images from a student protest in June 1968 and she was there, smiling into the camera, as if smiling out at me, a knowing look that confirmed; "I've made it! It worked!"

Even though she probably knew the outcome of the protest she was still there, still holding a placard, fighting for their rights. Is it worth fighting a battle that's already been won? I wondered.

At the same time I reflected upon the now; that every day I was seeing things I cared about slip away, the malevolence of their disappearing only evident by its silence. As the government tip-toed in and gradually, quietly, dismantled that which made us great. Yet I sat wallowing, thinking it'll all work out, I mean, if it was really going to be bad somebody would tell me, right? Somebody would give me that slap around the chops, warn me.

She never held back from me, that's why I loved her. She'd call me out on every bit of apathetic complacency I seemed to couch upon. Snuggling into ignorance, like a wrongly convicted prisoner who's given up and grown so used to their corner of the jail that - with revolution raging outside - they don't trust a suddenly open cell door and miss their chance to escape. Then, when the revolution has passed, they find themselves - with no fanfare - locked away to be forgotten. A victim of cowardice.

That's why I let her volunteer, we were both capable of manning the craft, both capable of operating the controls. But I was afraid, ultimately selfish, that something would go wrong and I would be hurt. How cruel of me, how cowardly.

Yet how wrong I was. If anything the success has been worse. Knowing she's out there, somewhere in time, and she doesn't want to come back, because if she did she'd be back by now.

And I cannot accept it, even though it has happened, I don't feel like this is what I deserve, this debt, this pain, this loss, even though I earned it by stepping back and doing nothing. I never loved her enough. I only loved myself.

Maybe, in that photograph, she does know that I can see her, but maybe she's smiling because she doesn't have to see me?

We cannot get something back when it's gone. We thought we could go back and change things, undo the mistakes we had made in our lives. In a sense that is what she did, and left me to pay the price for my own.

A Coupling

"It'll just give rise to people marrying their pets or farm animals!" cried Harold Wiest MP, flapping unrelated papers that he clutched in his chubby fist.

This was when social media went into an expected frenzy, people posting memes of a hastily cut-n-pasted Wiest as the groom in various bestial weddings.

Crol held hir brain pod in hir suckers and despaired. This is what shhe had feared this debate would become once it finally reached the parliaments of Earth.

For all their perceived progress, hir progenitor had told hir, humans are unflinchingly irrational. Shhe was resilient, believing that most people are good. Besides, shhe had fallen in love with one of them.

Love, for hir kind, was a - no pun intended - alien concept. Crol had come to Earth to study philosophy, shhe enjoyed the dilemmas that Earth thinkers would pose for themselves and it opened hir mind to analysing hir own kind in a different light. Though, at first, they had felt superior in the regard of being a species that lacked gender, and therefore lacked any inequality between sexes, they soon discovered that they shared many similiar forms of exclusion and repression familiar to humans and, in instances where the two species were incompatible, new and unique forms of division.

Crol experienced this at a young age, with certain regard to hir fascination and obsession with humans. They used to call hir a dirty gene pool, taunted hir with lurid gestures and doodles of what hir mutant offspring would look like and hir ugly, hairy partner.

If anything this ultimately made Crol reluctant, to the extent that shhe began to try and suppress and deny hir feelings as shhe found hirself falling for one of hir fellow students. Shhe was ashamed, shhe thought he would undoubtedly be repulsed by hir because of who shhe had lead hirself to believe shhe was. Made incapable of looking beyond the torment of cruel, narrow attitudes.

He didn't reciprocate hir feelings, though he spoke so eloquently in class and seemed so reasonable and understanding he was also unable to transcend the superficial differences that had been created between the species.

We, humanity, had thought we were such an understanding and enlightened species, having fought for centuries to eliminate racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, discrimination of all forms. It became obvious to those who had been blissfully ignorant that many of these are battles never truly won, that blinkered tolerance is not the same as true unconscious equality. These beings that came to our planet reawakened a wealth of dormant prejudices that embarrassed us as a species.

People would hold up examples of protest from our seemingly distant past, people picketing against integration, against mixed race couples, against same sex couples, and they would say; "Look how foolish and short-sighted these people seem now." As if that were enough to crumble the foundations of hard-wired bigotry.

It had been someone reaching out to hir in the end. Shhe had retreated, feeling admonished by his rejection, as if he were confirming hir worst expectations, what humans had shouted at hir in the street; "There's no place for your kind here."

When he was questioned about it by his friends they always, with a telling lack of sensitivity, leapt towards the most lurid of questions; "Yeah, but how do you do it?" Tact soon left him and he told his friends to "just fuck off", and this seemed to help them understand.

He had rubbish thrown at him as he walked down the street, names shouted from strangers, threatening letters sent to his home and his family, once somebody posted a dead squid through his letterbox with a note saying, in angry scrawl, 'Why don't you marry it?'

It was in part because they had become the figureheads of the campaign to legalise inter-species marriage, and it was on this subject that Harold Wiest MP was harrumphing like a stuck pig. Those people who bleated the rhetoric of marrying pets seemed to wilfully overlook the issue of mutual compliance and how "Meow", "Moo", "Baa" or "Quack" is no subsitute for "I do".

It wasn't even that he and Crol wanted to get married, they just wanted equality, we cannot live in a world where there's one rule for some and another rule for everyone else. We cannot put in caveats to the detriment, exclusion and alienation of others. It would drive them both insane that people seemed to be afraid of an unknown corrupting force, one that would make them - against their will - change who they are, becoming a prisoner of some imposed way of life that they fundamentally disagreed with. Oh, the irony, that others might be forced to live lives - against their will - that strangulate and confine them, make them behave the way people expect and want them to, to wear masks, to deny their right to be themselves.

"Do you ever stop to think," Crol said, looking towards Harold Wiest MP, who could not hold hir gaze, "what it would be like to not be the dominant kind?"

That's all shhe wanted to say, because shhe didn't enjoy confrontation and despite how much it hurt hir, how shhe trembled inside as shhe saw people trying to prevent hir from being hirself, shhe could never bring hirself to want to dismantle someone else's beliefs. Shhe just wanted them to afford others the same courtesy that shhe gave them.

Shhe wished shhe was a more aggressive type, then shhe'd snatch Harold Wiest MP from his bed and take him back to another planet, one intolerant - unlike hir's - of humankind. He'd be put on show, ridiculed, made to feel exactly how shhe feels when he talks - with no regard for anyone but himself - about putting restrictions on the freedom of others.

And other planets, other species, did hate humankind. They were amused, though wearied, by our enduring intolerance. It was outsiders who brought us interstellar travel, who brought us technology beyond our comprehension, things they were capable of because they had - long ago - moved beyond petty bickering over, what they considered, trivial matters. The ethnicity, the sexuality, the beliefs of others were almost irrelevant to what a unified planet could achieve. Whilst arguments will never cease it is at least more noble to argue for something worthwhile other than the constructed and perceived inferiority of one race or class or gender or persuasion to another.

Other planets thought us petulant, stroppy toddlers, and maybe it's because we're a young planet? A young species. But, still, these differences never really occured to many of them amongst themselves.

Shhe wanted to prove them wrong, he wanted to prove them wrong, they turned their love over as a willing symbol, an act of public defiance and whilst the voice of fear and hatred is often louder and more startling, the voice of hope and reason and love - though shy - is larger, and ultimately stronger. It just needs to push. It just needs to break through.

They held one another close, and waited for the votes to be counted, and waited for the voices to be heard.

Friday, 17 January 2014

The Time Machine

"Ladies and gentlemen, I know there's been some confusion, but let me explain. To travel through time into the past or future is impossible, and ultimately pointless. However, what we all need in our lives is more time. My time machine is capable of generating time. Time between time. For instance, I can split a second down the middle and place another second inside it.

"To an observer, as I will demonstrate, your perception of time remains unchanged. Whereas for me - FUCK YOU - I have an extra second.

"Now, my invention is not limited to a flimsy second here and there, by adjusting the dosage I receive I have inserted amounts of time up to..."

I stepped out from behind the podium, walked towards the audience, their faces drowsy with slowtime. I scan them all, one by one, taking in their expressions which, the last they knew, were looking at me delivering my lecture in front of them. Playfully I swap notebooks around on their desks, pull pens from hands and nestle them behind ears, I finish someone's coffee, take a bite from a cookie, wander the entire lecture hall and return to my podium.

"...ten minutes."

It takes a moment or two for them to realise things have changed, and the commotion is quite jolly and good-natured as they swap their belongings back, or discover other suggestions of my mischief.

"You see, time is relative and our ability to move within it is a construct of our perception of reality. My machine - implanted into the hypothalamus - and my formula directly effect the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which controls our circadian rhythms, and warps my perception of time. Depending on the dosage the more time stretches. I am able to move - at what you would experience as - faster-than-light within this continnum that I have created."

After the lecture I signed some copies of my findings, a quite vague essay that belied my reticence to reveal my invention and give the gift of time to everyone. The more people who would travel at slowtime, then the more slowtime becomes like normal time, and I treasure slowtime because it means I can escape.

When I was younger I'd say that I was born in the wrong time, I used to pine for the past, I had such hopes for the future. But I can never go back, and tomorrow keeps letting me down. If I could exist forever inbetween the moments then I think I'd be happy. If I could find a way to slow down time for me indefinitely then I'd be happy to grow old there, to live and die in the blink of an eye.

As the last of them shakes my hand, congratulating me on my work, I brush the hair from my eyes and move a pin to hold it in place. I could never afford to make enough formula to spend the next fifty or sixty years in slowtime, the only way I could would be to sell the patent, to give it to the people. Perhaps if the world became hooked on slowtime then I'd enjoy the days as they are? Rather than feel myself burdened, weighed down by each and every second.

Ten minutes, that's all I can make for myself each day. Ten minutes of time to myself. It would take me 144 days to save up enough for a day off. 52,560 days for a year away. There's never enough time.
My mind flutters with daydreams about how I could generate the formula itself within slowtime, meaning it would perpetuate more quickly. If there was some way of creating a pocket of slowtime that I could interact with in normal time, an ever-expanding bubble that I could use to harvest the formula. If there were a way to create a wormhole between moments, from the present via the expanded time between a second and then the present again so that as soon as the process begins the results are achieved.

I've always been impatient, most projects go unfinished because once I can visualise the goal in my mind I lose interest in the efforts required to attain it. This formula, this machine, it was an accident. A George's Marvellous Medicine concocted as I played mixologist with my prescriptions. I began to experience affected perceptions of time, but then noticed that it wasn't just perceived time that moved slowly, it was time itself and if my head was clear then my speed would remain at a constant whilst everything slowed down around me.

If anything it gave me hope, the meds had taken that from me. I'd been dulled down, too calm to care, and controlled by the wagging fingers that warned me of coming off of my medication. I wanted to die, that's why I mixed them, I wanted to go to the place where time doesn't exist, where my consciousness doesn't exist, I wanted to feel the nothingness. At first I thought it was a cruel joke, that I was a ghost stuck in a moment, and I had to haunt that frozen point in time for the rest of eternity.

Between time I'm free, I'm happy. Nobody really looks at me - they can't - and nobody is aware that I'm gone. It's like I become someone else, and each time I return to the same time as everyone else I have to remember who I am, what everyone thinks of me, their superficial perceptions and judgments, and I have to wait, wait for the next moment to escape.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Life Outside

I run a bath, tickling my fingers in the water, checking the temperature is just so. As the tub fills I pace the bathroom in my robe, daylight framing the closed shutters on the window. There's a weary glumness to the light inside the room, a sombre sadness to this early Summer afternoon.

Afterwards I try to find Tilly and the children, they're somewhere in the house, but with our wealth of rooms they could be anywhere, and my cries are swallowed up by the expanse. Eventually, I hear Margot's laughter coming from one of the guest bedrooms, and I discover, to their great amusement, that they've turned the bed's blankets and pillows into a fort.

"No Daddy!" Alex commands as I step forward to search for them, "You can't come in."

After a circular discussion in which I try to bargain my way into the fort I go downstairs to the dining room. Lunch has been served, and I ring the bell to let the family know, expecting the temptation to bring them running.

The kitchen staff have shyed away from me recently, since I dismissed Tiago - my last lunch chef - to the outside. They tend just to notify me once the meals have been served, and the waiting staff - at dinners - have perfected an almost invisible art of clearing plates and presenting the successive courses.

"What did he do?" Tilly had asked, removing her jewellry as we prepared for bed that evening.

I told her that he had this neck tattoo, a bloody skull, I hadn't noticed it before, and I'm sure it wasn't new. Perhaps, I posited, he had been covering it with make-up and it had slipped his mind. Tilly agreed that it was most inappropriate, not something we would want the children to be exposed to.

After lunch I logged into the office cloud, I had a meeting with the other MDs, each beamed in from their respective studies. I made sure that I was framed by my bookshelf in the webcam's view, father had told me that this would give off a positive and knowledgable perception, and I carefully noted what my colleagues had chosen as their backdrops.

There was a flat beige wall, a world map, a garden view, a Miro painting, and another had also chosen a bookshelf, though his was less impressive - mine heaved with hardback tomes, his was rife with paperback page-turners; I considered flagging this up to the Chief Executive as an item of concern.

More frustrating though, Alfred - who lives in a very pleasant pile near Haslemere - was clearly wearing his pajamas to the meeting, whereas the rest of us were in suit and tie. I scribbled a note, to remind myself of this.

After the meeting I went into the garden, the sun was at its apex, so there was a warm, flat light over the grounds. I enjoy this time of day best, since having the high walls installed I've missed sunrise and sunset, but in the summer especially this time of day is most pleasant.

Tilly had come out into the garden to, she was in a lounger by the pond.

"Were you kicked out of the fort?" I asked, strolling over and taking an orange from the fruit bowl besider her.

"The kids got bored, realised it was a lovely day and wanted to play outside."

I dig my finger into the skin, it resists my efforts to tear a chunk away and begin peeling.

"Where are they now?"

She looked up and scanned the garden, my eyes followed, and we found Alex throwing a dinosaur up in the air near the sandpit, and then Margot over by the guardhouse.

I was a little out of breath when I got to her, checked she was okay, and aside from a look of panic - probably a reflection of my own - she seemed fine. I stared up at the guard on duty, a short man, but broad, with a neat grey beard and round glasses.

"Afternoon, sir," he nodded at me.

"Please don't talk to my daughter."

"I hadn't, sir. She was talking at me."

I ushered Margot back towards her mother, standing my ground, watching the guard glancing at me but keeping his eyes fixed on the monitors that showed the perimeter, outside the walls, that showed the people idling around.

"Can't you do something about them?" I asked.

"There's a 10pm curfew in the summer months," the guard said reaching for his tea. "Other than that they can do what they like most afternoons. Got to give the inmates a bit of free time."

"But they could be made to work, do something productive."

"Ay, they do, eight until one in the afternoon, then lunch. Well, they try to. I was talking to a warden, he says it's getting harder to... Well, I shouldn't gossip."

"No," I sized the man up again, "you shouldn't." I tried to make the warning clear, he was lucky to be getting that.

I turned and made my way back to the house.

"Have a good evening, sir," the guard called after me. "Any plans?"

Perhaps it was the jovial tone in his voice, but something about his farewell crawled under my skin. I couldn't sleep that night, tossing and turning in the sheets, which felt damp and clammy against my body.

Tilly called to me from her bed, asked if I wouldn't mind sleeping in another room if I was going to be so restless.

"Are you going to report me?" I joked as I took my quilt and a pillow elsewhere.

I made myself comfy on the sofa, despite the guest rooms I rather fancied falling asleep whilst watching some television. I ordered a hot chocolate from the night staff and went to draw the curtains.

At the end of the garden, by the guardhouse, I could see a light - the tip of a cigarette - the audacity of that man! Smoking on my property without permission. I moved to the phone, but hesitated at the last moment, and I'm not sure entirely sure why, but I suddenly felt that - despite everything - I didn't want to send him away, I wanted to keep him here, this guard, this insipid stranger, as if something about that was a form of punishment.

I went back to the window, the figure had returned to the guardhouse. I drew the curtains, and when I returned to the sofa there was a hot chocolate steaming on the side table.

Turning on the television there was a high pitched whining, a test signal, and a card that read 'Due to unforseen circumstances all programming has been suspended', and behind that a spectrum of colour bars.

I lowered the volume so the whine was barely audible, yet its presence gave me a little comfort, I pulled the quilt over myself and snuggled onto the sofa, sipping at my hot chocolate, letting it softly warm me inside.