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The Siege of Somerstown Part III

5 Dec

The Siege of Somerstown: Being a Portion of the Records of a General of the Fifth Hants Involuntary Air Rifles Concerning an Infantry Sortie on Behalf of the Crown and Portsmouth City Council’s Department of Colonial Warfare

After leading an infantry charge against the recalcitrant subjects of the Empire’s outer reach – or Somerstown to use the native designation – General Sir Eugene Nicks finds himself detained by the infamous headman known only as Kev. To survive he must depend on his wits, his courage and his enormous regulation moustache. Read it here.

The Siege of Somerstown Part II

3 Dec

The Siege of Somerstown: Being a Portion of the Records of a General of the Fifth Hants Involuntary Air Rifles Concerning an Infantry Sortie on Behalf of the Crown and Portsmouth City Council’s Department of Colonial Warfare.

Having lost his master spy to assassination by scratch card, General Sir Eugene Nicks must lead the charge against the uppity indigenes of the savage and mysterious casbah known in the local lingo as Somerstown. Read it here.

The Siege of Somerstown Part I

1 Dec

The Siege of Somerstown: Being a Portion of the Records of a General of the Fifth Hants Involuntary Air Rifles Concerning an Infantry Sortie on Behalf of the Crown and Portsmouth City Council’s Department of Colonial Warfare

Sir Eugene Nicks, QC, KBE is a modest man who doesn’t normally like to discuss his highly distinguished and widely decorated military career. But as a regular columnist for Star & Crescent he is duty-bound to share his recent experiences and one of these was his appointment by the Civic-Colonial Governess to lead a detachment of troops to repress a nationalist uprising in Portsmouth’s own ‘heart of darkness’.

Read it here.

The Coconut Game

21 Jun

When I tell people that I still think of Doni as my best friend they laugh at me. ‘You haven’t seen or heard from him for six months,’ they say, ‘you don’t know a thing about him now.’ I tell them that that doesn’t matter. The important thing is that I still love him in spite of what happened and whatever he now thinks of me. Furthermore, I’m an idealist and my insistence that he is still my best friend is more a statement of hope than of fact, about how I’d like things to be rather than how they have turned out.

I first met Doni when we were 10 years old on a trip to Saud Beach, Pagudpud my family had organized for the long Bonifacio Day weekend. Doni came as a guest of a cousin I didn’t get along with. What brought us together that day was our distaste for playing with the other kids. Doni summed up the reason for this later on in our friendship when he said, ‘Well Carlos, we just don’t fit into teams or groups. We’re not ‘club-able’.’ So when it was time to pick teams for a basketball game under the palm trees, Doni and I found ourselves on the sidelines, the odd ones out. I guess it was natural that we should get talking. We decided to slip down to the beach, aware of the adults watching us from the picnic area where they were cooking barbecue on big black grills. At the water’s edge we invented a new game that was so challenging that, looking back, I don’t know how two 10-year-olds ever thought they could win it. The aim of the game was to throw a coconut far enough into the ocean so that it would be sucked away by the tide forever. In reality, though, our young arms were barely strong enough to pick up the lead-heavy fruit, much less pitch it beyond the first few meters of gleaming water. But we didn’t mind losing. It didn’t annoy us the way the kids behind us might have got annoyed about, say, missing a layup. On the contrary, we found this pitifully one-sided battle of man – or rather boy – versus nature hilarious; after three rounds of the game, we were contorted with laughter. Doni started doing this mad little dance while holding one coconut between his legs and balancing another on his head. I have no idea what the adults made of this. They must have thought we’d gone crazy. When it was time to go eat lunch, I remember Doni’s sudden change of mood as we headed back. His jagged brow and forced half-smile spoke of self-consciousness, even shame.

We sat together on the bus back to Cubao. I marveled at everything outside so much that Doni asked me if I were in fact a foreign tourist and not the Filipino I looked and sounded like. I commented on the candy colors of colonial houses and the lanterns swinging from domed chapels, saying that I could imagine the ghosts of Spanish conquistadors roaming such places at night. Doni nodded and said that that would be a great premise for a videogame. He then started talking about many of the videogames that were popular at the time, analyzing their design, playability, graphics and generic traits with a technical knowledge that was truly precocious. Not all that interested in the subject, I semi-listened to him, just about staying in the conversation with the occasional murmur of agreement. I was more interested in the scenery, in the low-hanging stratum of clouds flecking the horizon like sea-spume. When night had filled in the day, the sparks of peasant fires burst out of that same horizon, illuminating a space in the darkness above. With the same authority, Doni discussed other aspects of technology such as his favorite cars, motorbikes and airplanes. He went quiet when he realized that he didn’t have my undivided attention.

It was not until we came back to Pagudpud ten years later that we thought of the unimaginative title the ‘Coconut Game’. We were college freshmen, Doni majoring in computer science at Ateneo, me studying art at New York University. We’d been crawling from bar to bar all day, chasing SMPs with Fundadors, and trying less successfully to chase women. It had been the happy drunken day I’d hoped for, with Doni telling some good jokes and captivating me with his current intellectual passions, chief amongst them the Human Genome Project. Me being an artist and Doni a scientist meant that we complemented each other well, we filled in each other’s gaps. There would never be envy or competition between us.

In the late evening, Doni started talking about Ateneo. Not being ‘club-able’, he couldn’t fit in there, felt like he had nothing in common with his fellow students. He didn’t so much moan about this situation as lament it. I have always been naturally upbeat – certainly compared to him – so I offered a pep-talk. ‘Don’t worry about it. You’re good fun to hang out with. You’re smart, you’re funny. Besides, maybe you just haven’t found the right friends yet. Give it time.’ He gave me a blank look and got back to drinking.

At midnight, we staggered out to the same spot where we’d first played the Game, confident we’d play it a lot better now with our man’s arms and our man’s strength. Doni immediately cheered up. Things felt just like they had ten years ago. However, this time there was to be one crucial difference: there would be a winner of the Coconut Game, and the winner would be me.

I gathered a coconut to my chest and heaved it high over my head like a powerlifter. At that moment, the breeze that had been so soft against our cheeks accelerated, stirring twigs from dead camp fires into mini cyclones. I strained my eyes to watch the moonlight fragment across the freshly-disturbed water. My ears filled with the scratching sound of a banca’s moorings blown tense by the driving wind.

With a Neanderthal roar, I hurled the coconut with all my might. It was too dark for Doni or I to see where it landed. We didn’t hear the gulping splash we were expecting. Doni took out his torch, set it to full beam and shone it over a wide section of the sea. Then he walked the torch up and down the water’s edge. ‘Wow,’ he said when he returned. ‘It must have stayed out. It looks like we have a winner.’ He raised his hand for a high-five, but did it sadly and slowly.

I met his palm with kid-like enthusiasm. I felt like howling for joy but I wasn’t drunk enough to actually do it. ‘Hey Doni,’ I said. ‘Are you going to try and beat that? Maybe it’ll be a first time for both of us?’

Doni shrugged, turned and disappeared into the darkness.

Early the next morning, the telephone in our hotel room rang. Doni fought through his hangover to answer it. The volume at the other end was so loud that I heard everything the caller said. ‘Hello sir. After a good night’s sleep, a new day is dawning. New hope, new challenges. Let God be your guide and make your life wonderful. Sir, do you have time to discuss the bible with me?’

‘No,’ muttered Doni. ‘It’s 4 am. Fuck off.’ He slammed the phone down. This made me giggle so much that I couldn’t get back to sleep for an hour.

Later on I went into the hotel restaurant for breakfast and Doni was there eating tapsilog over his laptop. He didn’t acknowledge my arrival so I decided to go get my laptop as well. A lot of time passed with nothing but silence between us, our fingers doing the talking to an ersatz social circle. I soon grew tired of this so I went down to the beach to swim and talk to real people.

 

After we finished school, we didn’t see each other for a couple of years, although we kept up email contact. I stayed on in New York, getting a job in the marketing department of the Museum of Modern Art. Despite graduating cum laude from Ateneo, Doni wasn’t interested in pursuing a career in I.T. Instead, he moved back to live with his parents and ran the odd errand for his Dad’s microelectronics company. Doni’s family was rich so there was no real pressure on him to embark on a career. Thus he found himself with a lot of spare time on his hands, not having to get up in the morning, doing as he pleased. He revealed to me in his emails that he was filling this newfound leisure time by doing drugs, both at nightclubs in Malate, and at home, alone, playing online games. I too was ‘experimenting’ in the techno clubs of Manhattan at this time. Almost everyone I knew was into that scene.

Then things changed dramatically for Doni. His Dad suffered a debilitating stroke and Doni, as the only son, was expected to take over as CEO of the company. I knew this was stressing him out because he felt resentment towards him from certain employees who had been close to his Dad. His emails became less frequent and I took this to mean he had less time on his hands.

When I flew back to Manila for a visit, I suggested we take a break and was surprised to hear him agree; I figured that he wouldn’t be able to fit it into his busy schedule.

‘Where do you want to go?’ he asked.

‘Pagudpud of course,’ I said.

‘Why have you got this fixation with Pagudpud?’ he snorted. ‘Why don’t we go to a better beach in Boracay or Palawan or someplace?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I have happy memories of Pagudpud. We’ve had some good times there. I find it more relaxing than Boracay.’

Doni stroked his chin pensively. ‘I guess it does have something about it.’

I wanted to take the bus so I could sketch the scenery. Doni disagreed, the techno-snob in him now demanding that we fly, especially as we both now had the means to do it. I accepted without protest. The important thing for me was that he should just get away from Manila and the method of transport didn’t matter.

We flew into Laoag airport and rode a taxi through the city and into the countryside. We were reminded that it was still off-season by the dripping walls of stucco beauty salons, the rotten complexion of electricity poles leaning at crazy angles and the moisture on the hides of caribous lounging in fields.

To my chagrin, the resort we’d stayed in last time had closed down. We checked into a clean beach hut with air-con and a hot shower. That night we rented a picnic booth and cooked bangus, spring chicken and Porterhouse steaks on the barbecue. It goes without saying that plenty of beer was also consumed. At first, Doni was talkative and entertaining. However, it did bother me that he didn’t say a word about his work, even when I asked him direct questions about it.

Much later on, a party of Ateneo students joined us after recognizing Doni as the older cousin of a friend of theirs. It was me who had given them the invite while Doni had shaken his head very subtly. I thought some socializing would do him good. I was wrong. He spent the rest of the evening saying nothing and hardly touching his beer. I tried to give him opportunities to re-enter the conversation, asking him to tell our new friends about himself or at least just tell a joke. It didn’t work. It was awkward to say the least. I recall now that Doni was looking sicker and sicker as the night wore on, his cheeks contracting behind his cheekbones, his sweat-sodden face changing color from red to white and back, over and over again.

At two am, when there were only 3 of us still up, he excused himself with barely a word and without looking at me. The remaining Ateneo kid mouthed, ‘Is he OK?’

I made a rolling motion with my hands, not unlike a gesture a basketball referee makes to signify traveling. To this day I’m not sure what I meant by it. Perhaps I was trying to tell the Ateneo kid that Doni was just moving on as best he could, dealing with life’s rich pageant and the good and bad things it pitches at the best of us. But inside I was scared. What was wrong with him? He’d never been exactly free from complications but this was something else. I’d never seen him like this, so ill, so weirdly-behaved.

In the morning, I persuaded him to walk down to the beach with me to play the Coconut Game. When we got there he changed his mind. He started sweating. ‘Let’s go and sit down in the shade,’ he murmured. So we did, under the fulsome canopies of the palma brava trees.

While I waited for Doni to speak, I looked first at the sand beneath me, then to where the tide whipped the shore and then to the great vast ocean itself, reaching out uninterrupted until Taiwan to the north, Hainan Island to the west and Mexico to the east. The land and the sea: these permanent, timeless features upon which all manner of day-trippers, surfers, sunbathers came, here today, gone tomorrow. But the land and the sea never went away, never changed. As I mulled this over, I noticed Doni staring at me with wide eyes.

‘What’s wrong?’ I asked. ‘You haven’t seemed yourself lately. At all.’

‘Disjointed’ is the best word I can think of to describe the exchange that followed. Rather than making clear statements, Doni blathered like a nutty old woman on the street, losing me in a stream of consciousness from which I could pluck out only the odd repeated phrase: ‘people want to know about me’, ‘gotta take care of myself’, ‘bad luck’, ‘I’ve won a bad lottery’. I lost count of the number of times I asked him what on Earth he was talking about. While he went on like this, he spread his legs and arms as far as they would go, so that his posture was as wide as his eyes already were.

Not until I shouted ‘Doni’ at the top of my voice did he stop. He relaxed his limbs back to their normal position. He wiped the sweat from his face.

‘Doni, I can’t do this,’ I said, regretting my loss of cool. ‘I know you have something to say to me but I can’t figure it out ‘cos you’re not making sense. Now let’s just try and narrow this down so that I can understand. You keep saying that people want to know about you. What people?’

‘I don’t know, Carlos, all kinds of people.’

‘People like me?’

‘Yeah, it’s possible.’

‘What would I want to know about you that I don’t know already?’

‘You might want to figure out if I’m still a cool guy, if it’s still worth hanging out with me.’

‘How might I do that?’

‘Well, I don’t know. I mean, there are things you already seem to know about me and I don’t understand how.’

‘Like what?’

‘Like, well, I mean, how did you know that some of my Dad’s old employees didn’t like me?’

‘Err, ‘cos you told me.’

‘I didn’t. I wouldn’t tell anyone a thing like that. That’s confidential stuff about my family’s business.’

‘So how am I supposed to have found out this stuff?’

‘There was a commotion in our garden the other night. That could have been someone snooping around.’ He squinted at me hard, as if trying to read my inner thoughts.

‘Are you implying that was me?’

‘It’s possible, Carlos.’

I could feel my cheeks heating up like I was being sunburned. ‘What would be my motivation?’

‘To, you know, like I said, maybe find out more about who I am. But that’s all right. That’s cool. I can deal with it.’

‘Dude, I’ve known you for twenty years. I don’t need to break into your fucking garden to find out anything about you.’

‘There was another thing. My Mac got screwed up by a virus the other day. In an email you sent me the day before that, you mentioned a virus.’

I had to think about that for a moment. ‘No, no, I told you that my sister had come down with a virus. That’s nothing to do with computers.’

‘Could have been to do with it. Like a code. It’s possible.’

His squint grew even more intense. It told me that he was manifestly not joking. I felt like bursting into tears. ‘Have you gone nuts?’ I almost shouted at him. ‘That’s totally irrational!’ I cooled myself down with some slow breaths, aware that anger could be counter-productive, could scare him away or worse, reinforce his suspicions. ‘How could you think such a thing was possible?’ I said, my voice struggling not to crack. ‘Me, your oldest friend doing something like that to you?’

‘It’s possible, Carlos,’ he kept saying.

‘Everything’s possible,’ I protested. ‘But we have to deal with what is probable and actual or we’d all go crazy worrying about every little risk, every little thing. We’d be… paranoid.’ I put my arm round his shoulders. ‘Look, man, I think you ought to go see someone.’

‘No, Carlos, I’m perfectly fine. I’ve just had some bad luck. I can deal with it.’

‘But you’re accusing your best friend of fucking spying on you. Don’t you know how strange that sounds? And how do you suppose I’ve been able to watch you? What evidence do you have for that?’

I could feel the tears racing towards their ducts. I wanted to run because I was too proud and masculine to cry in front of him. But I hesitated, hoping to God that he would start grinning and shout, ‘You’ve been punk’d!’ and it would turn out that this was a sick joke at my expense. But this never happened. Instead, he stroked his chin almost nonchalantly and said, ‘You know, Doni, I can deal with it.’

‘What do you mean, my spying on you?’

‘Yeah, I’ll adapt to it. It’s no problem. Maybe it’s not just you watching me, it’s a whole bunch of other people on the internet too. That’s cool. That’s the modern world. That’s CCTV and Facebook and chatrooms and shit.’

This was the most chilling thing he said to me during the whole saga. The idea that he could accept being watched, that it was no big deal, that he didn’t see it as a humiliation or an invasion of his privacy. I couldn’t help but shout once more. ‘I’m not fucking spying on you, Doni! I had no reason to come into your garden. If I had, your guard would have blown my head off with his shotgun. And you know damn well that I know nothing about computers. Now get real, Doni. This isn’t funny. You’re fucking scaring me, man!’

He stood up too and moved his hand from his chin to his forehead. I took this sentence of body language to mean ‘remorse’. ‘Look, man, I’m sorry. I’m just kinda mixed up at the moment. Had some bad, bad luck. I know you wouldn’t do anything like that to me. We’re best friends, have been for so long.’ He extended a shaky hand in my direction. ‘Just tell me everything’s OK and I’ll be OK. I’ll stop worrying. Promise.’

‘But I can’t do that. I don’t think you are OK. Besides, if things have got this serious, if you’re thinking that your friends are spying on you, I don’t think my reassurance will be enough for you.’

‘It will. Please just tell me everything’s OK, that nothing weird is going on, and your assurance will be enough for me. Please, Carlos.’

‘I think you need help, Doni. You need to see a professional.’

‘No way. Are you spying on me?’

‘No.’

‘Then everything’s OK.’

‘You gotta fucking see somebody.’

That night Saud Beach was hit by a heavy storm. It was like nothing I’d experienced. The foundations of our beach hut shook. The thunder was deafening. I imagined I was a Huk in World War II, dug-in while Japanese Type 35 Guns tore up the land around me. More than once that night, I feared that lightning would burn our hut. Doni slept through the whole thing.

In the morning I was awoken by the seething chirrups of frogs and the slosh of water seeping under the front door. This whole area of the beach had been flooded and when it came to check-out time, we had to paddle our way to the road, ankle-deep in murky water.

Later on in the airport, I went to the CR after we’d checked our luggage in. Doni followed me. While I was standing at the sink, freshening up, he stared at my reflection in the mirror in that wide-eyed way of his. No-one else was in the CR but us.

‘Nice one, Carlos,’ he whispered in my ear. ‘Fiber optics. Very smart.’

I turned round to face him. ‘Say what?’

His gaze stayed on the mirror and wouldn’t shift to me. ‘Fiber optics. Last night. In the mirror. In the hut. Very smart.’

‘What the hell do you mean?’

He side stepped away from me and the mirror and put his hands over his eyes as if the sun had just risen from the sink. ‘Well it’s possible. Everything’s possible.’

This time I could not suppress my anger. I shoved him in the chest so that his back was up against the wall. ‘Will you stop screwing around, Doni? Will you stop qualifying everything? If you are hinting that I was watching you through the fucking mirror then just be fucking man enough to come out and say it. Then allow me to tell you that I wouldn’t have the first fucking clue about rigging-‘ I put a halt to this line. It seemed that rationalizing wouldn’t work. I’d tried that yesterday and failed. ‘You said to me, you fucking promised me that if I told you everything would be OK then you’d be OK, and you’re not. As your best friend I am begging you. Get some help.’

We didn’t speak to each other for the whole of the flight. I tried to take my mind off things by watching the clouds, but I found myself unintentionally projecting my inner angst onto this bizarre terrain, discerning in that malleable whiteness the smooth sloping topography of Saud Beach. Other clouds resembled the waves we’d thrown our coconuts into, licking above themselves into the stark empty space of the stratosphere. Then, half-sleeping, I saw the anguished face of Doni etched into a vast cumulus like the Presidents in Mount Rushmore.

When I got back to Manila, I took advice from a psychiatrist friend who worked at St Luke’s Hospital. She told me that Doni was probably too far down the line of psychosis to heal himself. He’d have to volunteer for treatment himself and that would be the tricky part. He could only be forced into it if deemed a danger to himself and/or others, and that didn’t seem to be the case at the moment. I thought this attitude to madness was, well, mad. ‘So we just have to sit and wait for him to do something bad before he can get help?’ I asked my friend in disbelief.

I thought if I called Doni we might just argue, so I sent him an email restating how much I cared about him and pleading with him to come see my friend. He didn’t reply. I checked his Facebook account. There had been no activity since before our last trip to Pagudpud. I started to worry. I called his house and his Mom picked up the phone. ‘He went out for a drive all day,’ she told me hastily. ‘I don’t know when he’ll be back.’ I asked her to get him to call me. He never did.

A week later I called again. His Mom seemed even more like she couldn’t wait to get me off the phone.

‘Is Doni in?’

‘No.’

‘Do you know where he’s gone?’

‘No.’

‘Do you know when he’ll be back?’

‘No.’

She hung up on me without another word.

I decided to drive round to his home in Pasig. Just as I’d found a parking space near the front of the house, the family’s maid Juanita, whom I’d known a long time, stepped hurriedly out of the front door, almost ran down the driveway and raised her hands to me. ‘Sorry, Sir Carlos,’ she said with a nervous tweet. ‘Mr and Mrs Salazar have instructed me not to let any visitors in.’

‘But why, Juanita? Is there something wrong with Doni?’

‘I cannot tell you, Sir Carlos. Please just turn around and go. Please, Sir Carlos.’

What was going on? I felt like pushing past her and charging the front door down. I had a right to know how my best friend was. I calmed myself down. There could be a million other reasons for the Salazars to want their privacy right now. Perhaps I should just tell Juanita everything that had happened between me and Doni recently. If his condition worsened and he turned dangerous, the people he lived with, the people closest to him, ought to know. But then again, what if his family did already know? If that was the case, what had they done to him? Locked him up here or someplace else? Furthermore, my talking to Juanita might be construed as gossip and this could bring such shame, such a loss of face to the Salazars that I dared not think about it.

I can’t remember how long I waited there on the driveway having this internal argument with myself, old Juanita standing stoic before me. I finally decided to get back in my car and go home.

I used the occasion of my going back to the States as an excuse to call Doni’s house one more time. I was shocked that he answered the phone this time.

‘Shit, Doni, how have you been?’

‘Fine.  Just been very busy working.’

‘Oh yeah, how’s the business going?’

‘It’s going. We’re doing this and that. Been so busy I haven’t really been out socially.’

‘Look, I tried to come to your house the other day but Juanita wouldn’t let me in. Is everything all right?’

‘Yeah sure, why wouldn’t it be?’

‘Precisely ‘cos Juanita wouldn’t let-’

‘Just had all this work to do, real busy.’

‘It’s just that you haven’t responded to any of my emails-‘

‘I told you I’ve been busy.’

‘So have you been feeling OK? Nothing weird-’

‘No, I’ve been fine. Never better.’

‘It’s just that the last time we saw each other you accused me of some pretty far-out stuff. So, naturally, I’m worried about you.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah you did. I’m pretty shocked you don’t remember. I will remember it for the rest of my life. It frightened the shit out of me.’

‘Hmm, well, I was probably joking. You know me, Carlos, and my weird sense of humor, right? Don’t worry about it. All you need to know is that I’m fine, never been better.’

‘But I can’t believe that, Doni. Not after what you said to me. It was strong stuff and you didn’t mean it in a jocular way at the time, you seem pretty anguished. That’s why I’m still worried about you. You don’t just suddenly magically get over shit like this. You need to see a professional.’

‘Absolutely not. There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m having a perfectly sensible conversation with you now aren’t I?’

‘Apart from not remembering some quite important stuff. Look, do you think you might have done too many drugs back in-‘

‘Look, Carlos, I don’t know what you think you know about me but I’ve never done drugs. I’m a geek who loves his computer, not some clubber. Can you imagine me in a club? What’s gotten into you?’

‘It’s kinda insulting to my intelligence that you’re denying taking drugs. I mean, it’s well-known. You’ve told me about it yourself enough times. Mutual friends have seen you.’

‘Like who?’

‘Eddy Lim, Buck Defensor-‘

‘They don’t know shit.’

‘But you told me all about it yourself! Look Doni, my oldest friend, my best friend, you are a man of reason, of science. You’ve always been fascinated about how things work. It’s important to you to know what’s true, what’s real. Aren’t you therefore worried that your perception of certain things seems to be radically different to mine and other people’s?’

‘Examples?’

‘You don’t seem to be able to remember things that others know for certain and that can be proven empirically. Just a few weeks ago you accused me of spying on you, of trespassing on your property and setting up some surveillance system. You had no evidence for that but you seemed pretty serious about it. I think you have to accept the possibility that you might have a mental health issue-‘

‘I don’t!’

‘Well OK then. If you’re sure you don’t then what are you scared of if you speak to a professional? They can give you the all-clear and I will be the one shown to be crazy, or to have been spying on you, or whatever. I tell you what, why don’t we both go and see my psychiatrist friend together? I have nothing to hide. Do you?’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘Look, man, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. When I first came to New York I had these panic attacks on the subway. My doctor told me this was due to me getting stressed out by a strange new place. I saw a counselor a few times and I beat it. No big deal. So come on, just be honest with yourself  ‘cos the longer you deny it the worse it’s going to get.’

‘Carlos, you know, I’m getting sick and tired of this. If you’re just going to harass me like this then maybe we’d better go our separate ways.’

That was the last time I had any contact with Doni whatsoever. I resigned myself to having done the best I could to help him. It was in his hands now. I only hoped that my psychiatrist friend was wrong and he might conquer his demons by himself. After I returned to New York I asked those mutual friends Eddy and Buck to let me know if they saw or heard anything about him. The irony of me now getting these guys to keep tabs on Doni was not lost on me! After a week or so, Buck sent me a MySpace message about a rumor that had originated in the Salazar family business. Apparently Doni had more or less quit as soon as he’d taken charge of the company, unable to handle the workload. To avoid public embarrassment, Doni remained CEO in name only, while his Dad’s most trusted lieutenant ran the show for real. It didn’t take a genius to figure out how disappointed his Dad must have been in him.

Literally the day after this revelation, Eddy sent me a link to an Ateneo alumni blog post. It stated that Doni was missing feared dead, last sighted alone on Saud Beach drinking vodka. I thought that was odd because Doni always hated vodka. Anyway, this post went on to say that that night there had been a big storm, I guessed like the one that had struck on the final night of our last trip together. His parents had given it 48 hours and then reported his disappearance to the police. There was a mention of Doni’s ‘mental troubles’ which worried me, as I assumed this wasn’t common knowledge. I felt physically ill reading this. What if Doni had ended it all by playing a final, fatal variation on the Coconut Game? I called Laoag City Police Station for more information. They had never heard of a Doni Salazar. I got the same response from Batac Police Station up the road and several hospitals in Ilocos Norte. The puzzle was finally solved when Buck sent me another message later in the day revealing that the blog post was some sick hoax with no foundation in truth. It had now been removed by the site manager. I didn’t concern myself with what kind of demented asshole would do something like this. Apparently these kinds of prank are widespread, with the deaths of celebrities erroneously reported and so on. Their success depends upon people not bothering to fact-check them against other media like newspapers. And why would they? Everyone uses the internet now, it is our prime source of information about everything.

My fears were only fully allayed when I heard from Eddy that he’d bumped into Doni’s Mom shopping at Megamall. She told him, in her hurried manner, that Doni was ‘just fine’ and ‘working a lot’. So at least he was alive.

I suppose had Doni really given himself up to the tide, it would have been too apt an ending to the story. And we all know that real life doesn’t work like that. In real life, he will live a life socially paralyzed by fear, rarely leaving his home, his parents unwilling to get him help because they grew up at a time when there was such a stigma around mental illness. Doni might get better by himself, but it’s more likely he won’t. I really don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again. That’s up to him. As I said before, I remain hopeful. I will continue to regard him as my best friend as an expression of that hope.

First published in Taya Literary Journal 2010

Let There Be Something or Nothing

9 May

He is looking for the signs. All he needs to see are oddities or inconsistencies in the city he is so familiar with. Then he will know whether he is really the draughtsman of his own reality or a sketch in someone else’s, some organising force or entity. Then he will have solved mankind’s greatest mystery. The first day of the new millennium seems like a good time for it to happen. Let’s test the predictions of a legion of oracles, druids and laudanum fops, see if they got anything right. And if some revelation is forthcoming then it might as well arrive on a blank slate, when there is a primal glow to every clock on every computer: 0:00, 01/01/00.

Will the signs be hidden behind the quotidian just to make things more interesting? Or will they be gaudily visible like the gold and green deities on pimped-up Delhi rickshaws? He has to be eagle-eyed.

Plotting some course must surely be inappropriate. Instead he trusts in his instinct which pulls him this way and that way like a rodeo bull. The destinations smack of bipolar disorder. He finds himself in the compulsive bustle of Pekeliling Station, rubbernecking bus drivers, and then suddenly he’s getting off the LRT at a sloping, windless suburb in Jalan Petaling where he meditates on the crazed array of insect sounds. Wherever he goes he is surrounded by the melioristic skyline of rocketships licking the stratosphere.

He moves in grey-suited anonymity, fedora forbidding positive ID. It hasn’t escaped him that today there might be other forces at work for whom the signs could spell profit or advantage. There might also be parties whose interest it is to preserve the status quo, to stop him detecting the explosive truth. Near-delirious by the time he reaches Chinatown, he ponders the Homelands Food Court and grabbing some pig’s intestines on the fly. But there’s no time for that. He stands outside a luridly overpriced bar listening to the sotto offbeats and crosswind melodies of the gamelan. Nothing unusual there.

A door with a sign reading NO SEX NAVIGATION PLEASE opens and he gets a waft of computer game white noise – crowd groans, gun cracks, wench squeals. The silicon god boxes to whom spotty acolytes prostrate themselves.

He notes down the first possibility: the roof-hugging rollercoaster in Time Square is out of order, a first as far as he can remember. What can that mean? Doesn’t matter. The correct thing to do right now is to listen and absorb.

A blind man wearing a Bin Laden T-shirt sits beneath the Petronas Twin Towers, playing a kendang drum which, by the arid state of his cap, hasn’t earned him a single sen.

Near there a huge screen shows trailers for US action films all starring people who look distinctly like nightclub bouncers. High above in the sky the trails of aeroplanes almost form a cross but on second glance they are more crooked like a pair of scissors.

He joins a crowd near Maharajelela station to look at a brilliant aura that has formed around the sun. He is disappointed to be told that this is an optical effect of ice crystals in tropospheric clouds.

He wonders if the animals might know something. He once heard a spaced-out Dutchman talk on a relaxation CD about how whales have evolved a more complex language than humans and a more complete understanding of reality. In the zoo he studies the backs of cobras as they sleep coiled up in their tanks. He gazes and gazes but the psychedelic patterns don’t strike him as the elaborate work of a prime mover. He doesn’t feel like he is being drawn through the doors of perception.

An obvious destination – maybe too obvious – is the National Mosque. Might the old creeds and their talk of fate, divine intervention, providence and submission still have some relevance? He strolls between the precise, star-shaped fountains until he reaches the entrance. He has missed the public visiting time.

It is conveniently close to the National Museum of History where he muses over the succession of maps made by explorers who came to region over the years. This was a kind of reality-making of course, and usually to strict ideological spec. The early cartographers consciously downsized India and Africa. Those globes on European desktops were always for closet megalomaniacs – touch and spin your very own Earth!

A giant inflatable grouper fish promoting a cellphone company bobs along the roof of the new media plaza outside Bukit Bintang. Smaller fish, buoyed by helium, are released from the backs of transit vans and crowd together before taking leave of the ground forever, probably to be found days later deflated and wrapped round the blade of a helicopter. Some referential tuning fork is struck deep inside him. Fish multiplying. The signs might be going old-school.

In another mall, he doesn’t care which one because there are so many, he takes a translucent elevator which goes so fast his ears pop. From it he can see the operations of perhaps the greatest world religion playing out on a big screen. Sculpted shamen work their magic and conduct time-honoured rituals inducing ecstasy in onlookers. He shoots, he scores!

There are peculiar shops selling weapons like numchucks, silver-plated blowpipes and replica handguns. Traders offer him superhero T-shirts, military-style binoculars, belts, cigarette cases, intricate pen knives, scale models of the Very Important Towers.

An Indian guy seizes him by the hand, makes as if he is about to perform reflexology but instead studies his palm. “You will live long and be healthy,” he says predictably. He pauses and then adds, “Don’t worry about questions that might not have answers.”

He keeps on through the afternoon. His route ends up a formless scribble on the map: next up is Jalan Tamingsari, then a swing back to KTM Station, then southwest to the Lake Gardens, a radical swerve towards the Merdeka Stadium, on to Jalan Davis, Jalan Raja Chulan and then a leap back into the core of the city, back to Chinatown and the Colonial District. But it’s just another normal day all around KL, with a pinch more excitement than usual given the festivities looming. Inner critics question his choice of location. Why not Angkor or Borobodur; some place sparkling with mystical tradition? But the new signs, if they are to be relevant to the modern mindset, are more likely to appear in a modern milieu.

Night creeps up slowly in this eternal summer, so there is always a long intermission before darkness proper. He sees the omnipotent shine of the golden arches – there must be a record number in this city – and the guiding star of a sportswear advert projected against an office block. There’s the colonel beaming at him and him only: Maybe I have the answers, kid! Pizzas and footballs and chopsticks: the hieroglyphics of seduction. A neon terrain of leisure lifestyle designed by the West, adapted by the East and known by almost everyone on Earth. A small part of him is jealous of those who can submit to all this with blissful ignorance, those for whom cosmology ends at the supermarket till.

At five minutes to twelve he returns to his Chinese hotel where twosomes can rent rooms on an hourly basis. His quest to understand the signs forced him to change his life some time ago, to cut of the ties most normal people retain. Thus all week his phone has been beeping a symphony. Pleas by text message and mobile phone.

Where have you been call me and let’s go out for a few drinks you seemed like you needed it last time I saw you which was a long time ago hu-llo? hu-llo? don’t make me beg I just need to know you’re OK that’s all I’m not prying into yur private business I’m sure you have your own reasons your daughter needs to see you and you’ve skipped the last five weeks this is an important age for her she needs a father figure especially since we got the divorce son? son? I can’t get to Giant to do my shopping son I need your help you know I do og hello sir can you please call me back at the office concerning taxes owed for the revius three financal years much appreciated sir be reasonable friend I know you’kll say something like we don’t live in an age of reason but just meet me for ten minutes and we can sort this all out

He half-listens, half-cares. The messages are distant, unreal. Thay are petty trivia the rest of those numbskulls care so much about but don’t realise the futility of – careers, money, families, relationships. These things will not be the decoys that throw him off the scent of the signs.

He wipes the dust off the mirror and is shocked by his changed physiognomy. The key features – lips, nose, chin – have lost their association with one another and appear scavenged from different heads. The eyes have expanded and reddened like a firebrand preacher’s. The skin is the same though, its creamy ambiguity an outward reflection of the cultural slippage and identity confusion that set him on this chase in the first place.

He needs to relax himself, eject the tension of the day. He strips down to his underpants now so worn that one of his testicles hangs out of a big hole in them. He doesn’t care. He passes a pythonesque shit into the toilet and admires its girth and length for some time.

While the TV counts down he masturbates to a mind-parade of women’s faces. One of them is the assistant in his local 7/11, others include Bollywood actresses and even distant relatives. He comes on precisely the stroke of midnight as the fireworks are launched and the crowd goes untamed. The camera pulls back to show helicopters dropping powder paint in the colours of the national flag. People in the local dress of each state release balloons which are blown into an arcing pattern by the vagaries of the breeze.

Presently he slips into bed. He mustn’t dwell on the day’s happenings at all and risk importing his own opinions into this project. He will murder to dissect the truth of the signs which will only appear to him on their own terms. He must listen and absorb.

But he has no choice when it comes to his dreams. Wheels of life spinning. Sacred pillars throbbing with significance. Arks and saints and sinners. A garuda with wings of fire eating a wild-eyed snake. Monkey tricksters. Deities manifested in all the elements.

 

The signs continue to elude him into the new year and he enters a dark period of fretting over how they will appear. He needs to experience a major miracle, or a major disaster, something he could never conceive of himself. He has to be shown things of such complexity and wonder that he couldn’t have imagined them himself, couldn’t have been the godhead behind it all. But it’s a matter of interpretation; there have been plenty of miracles and disasters and things of complexity and wonder but which were the Real McCoy? Which could be taken down as evidence?

He starts to take out his frustrations on the unsuspecting. He makes a beast of himself. Back in that Chinatown food court he steals the tin from a beggar on crutches and sprints cackling into the night. He tells another beggar elsewhere that he can’t give him one ringgit because he only carries fifty notes.

He hangs around outside hotels to meet tourists who are about to go trekking into the interior. He misinforms them that the indigenous people they will encounter don’t speak Malay or English. He gives them a few phrases in an entirely made-up language of his own devising. A couple of days later the newspapers report on tourists thought to have lost their minds in remote villages talking gibberish and getting angry that the locals can’t understand them.

The schadenfreude of this keeps him mildly entertained and his mind off the profound questions, the signs. But he is soon thinking about them again…

 

Ten months later he is sat in a bar watching an audacious act of violence against a symbol of Western prosperity. Alcohol has always produced one or other of two feelings in him: pathetic empathy or icy neutrality. Tonight it is neutrality. He is surprised that the terrorists didn’t aim for a more populous target but then he suspects that that might not have been the point. A practical military victory was probably deemed less useful than a terrifying image, a sign….

His head zips back to the drummer beneath Petronas. Had that been a prediction and therefore a clue that he was looking out for the right things?

The years go by, bringing with them more potential signs. His spirits improve to a level where he now thinks he didn’t waste all that time searching. There is more terror closer to home along the border with Thailand and in nearby Bali. An old schoolfriend loses his life in the latter incident. Then a cataclysm that could have been from the apocalyptic phase of a holy book – the tsunami that mercilessly sinks islands, drowns whole tribes.

He is sure he would never have conjured so much suffering if he controlled the universe. The human subject might interpret the external world with its cognitive models but that is something quite different to creating the external world from scratch. So much responsibility there! So he plays with the scary notion that maybe there is a higher power and it is irrational and barbaric. But the alternative theory is scarier: that irrationality and barbarism is the result of random chance.

That night he has the most vivid dream of his life. He watches himself roam an endless volcanic landscape. He calls out but only echoes answer him. He looks to the sky which is devoid of a sun, a moon or stars. Only a murky light allows him to see the scabrous ground underfoot. It is a sad, desperate place and he is compelled to cry desperately. His tears fall to the ground and become puddles which expand until they become lakes which in turn form tributaries and rivers. At the edges of the water he begins to sculpt the sand into little hills. They grow into vast mountains and craggy gorges and swooning valleys. He looks up again and now a sun has appeared and he feels warmth and the new world is illuminated in a rich range of colours. He urinates and the sky follows his lead, lavishing life-giving liquid upon the landscape. Crops sprout at an amazing speed as do herbs and flowers and trees. Soon there is a kingdom of animals.

Feeling wholly satisfied he watches himself turn slowly translucent like a failing hologram, until he disappears altogether in a shroud of steam. The steam disperses upward into the atmosphere.

The next day he decides to take his destiny into his own hands. He quits all his responsibilities in this city – not a difficult process – and travels to Java where the bus takes him through rutted slums with birdcages hanging from their barbed wire balconies, where laundry is drooped over power cables and babies sleep in hammocks made from old flags. There is an all-pervading smell of smoke.

The countryside beyond cheers him up a little with its dramatic scenes of workers gathering sticks from manure-blackened fields sustained by groaning irrigation machines set in stone circles. He thinks about how different this is to home, how there is so much variety in the world.

As soon as he gets to Bali he notices a better quality of light which shows off the lushness of the vegetation, organized vaguely by rows of canes and streaming white flags to ward off pests. People in straw hats fish in the marshy lagoons carved out by low tide movements. The gentle, stained-glass sea seems to be the backdrop wherever he goes, it is always the same, always there. With little or no regulation the traffic flows across bridges, down country lanes, along beachfronts. The vehicles nudge one another for pole position, a scooter sliding between a bemo and an oncoming farm truck, an old Mercedes cutting off a motorcade carrying Hindu youths in head bands. But there are no accidents, no hard feelings. Everything goes on. Everything is as it looks. Everything is as it should be.

He arrives at a new, good, simple life. He will work at a beachfront bar, drink beer, smoke ganja, swim, soak up the sun and not think. He will unclutter his mind of meaning. He will accept the reality of appearances. He will not long for things that aren’t there, signs that may or may not exist.

(First published in Urban Odysseys: KL Stories)

Armageddon Kid

22 Mar

“For the first time ever, everything is in place for the battle of Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ. It can’t be too long now. Ezekiel says that fire and brimstone will be rained upon the enemies of God’s people. That must mean that they will be destroyed by nuclear weapons.”

Ronald Reagan

At some point in the 21st century – the precise date is irrelevant – a man by the name of Bob J. Firbank was elected President of theUnited States.

The motivation for his candidacy did not stem from an interest in politics nor from a desire for greatness. Bob did not have much of an ego to accommodate and was indifferent to the banal trappings of power. He was not lured to the White House by the perfumed scent of nubile interns. Neither was he turned on by the prospect of in-house catering and luxury furnishings.

Rather, he had made a bet forty years previous with members of his college fraternity while on a hunting trip in New England. These snotty offspring of America’s most wealthy had decided to round off a hard day’s killing with a keg party in a mansion someone’s parents owned. As the booze flowed, the conversation moved from girls to baseball to drinking then working out, before finally settling on politics. They had reached that argumentative stage of drunkenness; everyone believed they could set the world to rights.

Frampton Keppel, whose dad was a hotshot libel lawyer from Chicago, mentioned that no less than twenty-eight former Presidents of the United States had once been members of their particular fraternity. A warm gust of pride swept through the young men. After an awestruck silence, Calvin Hooper, heir to the Dexco fortune, began to wax despondent about the general state of the nation. He warned that foreign countries were becoming increasingly hostile to the United States and would, within their lifetimes, unite to destroy it. The portents were clear enough. At that time more than half the globe was run by Communists with their nukes pointed in America’s direction. Old allies were deserting to form regional power blocs such as the European Common Market. Even public opinion in the so-called unaligned parts of the world was unfriendly to US aims and policies. Hooper finished his slurred lecture by declaring: ‘We got maybe fifty years then we’re screwed.’

Don Hartley, an economics major who was known for his religious zeal, protested that any good Christian need not worry about this. Come what may in this life, the kingdom of heaven was assured to every clean-living American. ‘In fact,’ he said, ‘Bring ‘em on. Let’s take some of ‘em down with us. We’re all looking forward to the afterlife aren’t we?’ Strong noises of agreement were made by the rest of the group. Bravado soon superseded reasoned debate.

Bob joshingly posited a scenario where a US President pursues such an objective, and was shocked to find his friends taking him absolutely seriously. Between them they agreed a wager stipulating that, if one of their number ever became President (which was historically likely), he should do everything he feasibly could in a four year term to quicken the rush to Armageddon.

Bob’s head was uncluttered with Don’s metaphysical values – he lived his life by no particular code. The nearest he got to a belief system was in his love of sport, its emphasis on immutable rules, personal dedication and fair play. A bet was a bet and a bet had to be honoured.

The world had changed by the time Bob was sworn in, but it was no less dangerous. He rewarded his old frat buddies by installing them in his cabinet. They were more convinced than ever of their apocalyptic teleology. The crucial role America had to play in this was fully planned round an informal barbecue in the grounds ofCamp David. The friends swore an oath of secrecy about their true intentions. If anyone in the media questioned their actions, their stock reply would be, ‘We’re making Americasafer by pre-empting our enemies.’

Bob’s first act as Commander-in-Chief was to assaultCubawith a new small-scale nuclear weapon called ‘an economy bomb’. The advantage of this weapon was that it wiped out everything within a twenty mile radius without any risk of radiation fallout to adjacent areas. On Valentine’s Day, as Bob relaxed by smacking baseballs around the White House lawn, a USAF bomber glided into Cuban airspace and dropped one such bomb onHavanacity centre.

Predictably, there was an international outcry. Bob and his cabinet anticipated the critics with fabricated evidence which strongly implied that the Cuban regime had sabotaged US shipping in theCaribbeanand involved itself in organised crime inFlorida. When the critics accused him of overreacting he said to them, ‘What are you going to do, take us to theWorld Court? We’re not signatories. Are you going to tell the UN on us? We couldn’t care less.’

The long-established Axis of Evil was reappraised and expanded. Any minor nation that had wronged theUSover the last century or so, regardless of the temperament of its current regime, was condemned outright and economy-bombed. The Philippines were invaded and recolonised. Mexico was annexed by troops based in California and Panama.Alaskawas handed back to Russia as a gesture of goodwill intended to prevent the world’s second largest nuclear arsenal intervening just yet. Secretary of State Calvin Hooper would telephone Bob in the dead of night to assiduously enquire as to whether the President ‘was getting ready for the pearly gates.’ Bob would be puzzled and simply retort, ‘I’m just seeing out this bet like a gentleman.’

With the enemy list exhausted, Bob resorted to a systematic alienation of his allies. Diplomatic incidents were engineered acrossWestern Europe. An embassy aide flipped the bird to the Queen of England during the state opening of parliament. A visiting White House attache urinated against the Reichstag building, Berlin in full view of the world’s press. The US Ambassador to France accused Monsieur Le President of being ‘an absolute goddamn asshole.’ National treasures were stolen from Egyptian museums and transported through customs in diplomatic bags.

With the end of his term approaching and his approval rating at an all time low, Bob decided he had to work fast. Citing ‘unfinished business’, he ordered the self-destruction of US nuclear bases in Britain and Germanyas ‘revenge for the War of Independence and World War II respectively.’ The rationales for this insane behaviour were wearing thin, so the whole administration ceased giving press conferences. Instead, they sat behind closed doors, their fingers itching on the red button.

An attempt to impeach Bob by opposition senators tied him up in cross-examinations for several months. His maniacal cabinet continued the good work without him, conceiving of a final all-out nuclear strike on as many countries as possible, to be enacted the day Bob left office. ‘We paid for ‘em so we might as well use ‘em,’ Calvin Hooper quipped privately.

As the removal vehicles loaded the last of Bob’s possessions, the outgoing President joyously shook the hands of each of his frat pals/cabinet members.

‘Congratulations, Bob,’ they all said, as they clutched their eight by eight inch solid gold crucifixes and hoped they’d done the right thing.

‘Never mind that. What do I get for winning the bet?’

They presented him with a baseball bat signed by a legendary Boston Red Sox line-up. Bob could hardly hold back the tears. ‘Gee, thanks guys. So it was all worth it after all!’

Armageddon day arrived. When it was clear what the US was up to, every nuclear power was of course compelled to fire nukes back in the mad rush towards mutually assured destruction. Explosions pockmarked the earth like a watermelon used for target practice.

The moment Bob exited the White House he had his limousine drive him straight to the baseball diamond of a public park. As mushroom clouds sprouted on the horizon and radioactive mist flooded the upper air, Bob J Firbank chewed his favourite bubblegum and hit pebbles for home runs.

First published in Lunar Harvest, 2004

Mr Tickle Gave Me Nightmares

7 Mar

Amber gingerly laid out the toys on the floor as if they were a ritual offering to the gods. Emerald clay lizards in vinyl frying pans. Bear-teacup hybrids with furry paws for handles. A scuffed glass bearing the simple orange form of Mr Tickle, serpentine hands holding a too-small hat to his raver’s smiley face.

The pigeon puppet on Daddy’s hand caught her attention: it nodded, shook its head, dived suddenly under the computer desk, soared high towards the energy-saving lightbulb. Then Daddy picked up a baboon from a plasticene plinth, making “ooh ooh ah ah” noises.

She shrieked with high-pitched laughter the way children will. Then she gave him a look of playful cruelty. She leaned forward, flicked the monkey on its tail with her stubby index finger and giggled.

Daddy turned his lips down glumly and struggled to simulate how a monkey might burst into tears. She sensed his difficulty with this and crossed her arms. He gave up. Some things just had to be explained, not badly acted. “Amber,” he said. “The monkey’s all upset so say sorry to him. You can’t go around hurting people like that.” He sat back on the shagpile, waiting for her response. He remembered to add, “Or animals for that matter.”

“But Daddy, but Daddy, but why does the monkey cry when he is not real?”

He had to admit he was bamboozled. Every so often she’d cut through the suspension of disbelief with a question like that, making him wonder if she was more ironically aware of their games than he gave her credit for. Then, doing a handstand which sprayed her hair across the room, she served up another few in quick succession: “Why is the pigeon e-ttached to your hand? Will the pigeon die one day? How do pigeons make other pigeons?”

Mummy entered in an invisible cloud of essential oils, amused by Daddy’s floundering explanations. She offered support by hugging his waist and kissing him on the nape. “You’re so lovely to her,” she whispered.

Daddy’s mobile rang as he tiptoed onto the topic of sex and death in the bird kingdom. “Saved by the bell!” he exclaimed, almost with joy. But his mood fell back down a gear when he heard that the babysitter couldn’t make it.

In the kitchen, Grandpa groaned above the TV showing a consumer rights programme. Mummy went to see if he was all right. “You know, love,” he said, straining forward in his wheelchair against the blanket that had been tightly tucked over his thighs. “I can always keep an eye on the nipper. You go out have yerself a nice time. Go on.”

“Thanks Dad, but she needs proper supervision.”

Grandad looked hurt and reverted his gaze back to the TV.

Mummy put an index finger to her mouth. “I mean that she needs to be bathed, her teeth brushed, put to bed and so on. And you can’t really-“

“I know, love, I know.” Grandpa reached for his keyring on the cooker. Hanging on it were symbols of a past life of physical action – a pewter model of his old boat Adventurer, a mountaineering clamp from an expedition to Ben Nevis he’d been on in the 1960s, a fob in the colours of West Ham United, a team for whom he’d briefly played a decade before. While watching the stories about dodgy builders exploiting housewives, he worked these items in his hand the way someone from a latter generation might use worry balls.

“Oh well,” said Mummy, back in the living room. “I’ll have to join you two, I suppose.” She slipped off her boots which looked conspicuously realistic and in-scale next to the toys on the floor.

“Shall I ring Asif’s for a balti?” said Dad. Without waiting for a reply, he did so.

“Yeah!” squealed Amber, clapping until her hands were red. “Curry! Curry! Curry from the curry monster!”

“You can’t have any,” said Mummy. “You’ve already had your dinner and you hardly ate any of that.”

“But I’m hungry,” Amber puckered in dismay. She slumped down to the floor with tightly folded arms.

“If you’re hungry you can finish your shepherd’s pie.”

“I hate shepherd’s pie.”

“You loved it yesterday and every day before that.”

“Well I hate it now, so there.”

Daddy played ventriloquist, giving the pigeon a guttural Brummie accent. “All roight Amber, mebbe you should eat loik I do, you knaow?” Mummy threw a pistachio nut a little too high into the air so that it ricocheted off the lampshade on the ceiling. Daddy kept a keen eye on it because its descent was much faster than he expected. Nonetheless he made an expert diving catch of it with the felt mouth of the pigeon. Amber burst into delighted laughter. Daddy winked at Mummy. “Takes me back to when I caught and bowled Mr Parker, the hated geography teacher, for nought, St Dennis School Teachers v Pupils Charity Match, May 1989.”

“You’ve still got the reflexes,” said Mummy, winking back. She pushed her blonde curls all over her face and staggered, arms stretched, zombie-style toward Amber, groaning “I’m cooomiiing to geeet yooou.”

Amber dithered, taking a diagonal step then taking it back. Down on her hands and knees, she headed for Grandpa’s old chest – a favourite hiding place – but paused halfway there. As Zombie Mummy’s shadow juddered across her, Amber squeezed herself into a ball, fingers over eyes. “I’m a-visible. I can’t see me. You can’t see me. I can’t see me. You can’t see me.”

They organised a tea party with a diverse guest list. Brummie Pigeon drank from the bear cups and Zombie Mummy pan-fried lizards. Daddy mixed his real urges into the fantasy by making the pigeon munch with spastic speed. “Oim hongroy!”

“Yeeesss.” Zombie Mummy dropped her cup on her toe and hopped about in mock agony. Amber laughed so hard she rolled on to her back like a baby.

“But seriously,” Daddy said in his normal voice. “It’s five to eleven now.”

Zombie Mummy reverted to plain old Mummy. “Five to eleven? Sh-“ She cut the cuss short, remembering Amber’s impressionable ears.

“Five to eleven!” shouted Amber. “Five to eleven! Five to eleven!” She paid homage to Mummy’s zombie act with a voice that was like an old-school tape player running low on batteries. “Fiiive tooo eeelevurrrn.”

“Or four hours after your bedtime,” said Mummy with a scowl.

Daddy rifled through his fleece’s pockets for his phone, snorting with aggravation as he did so. Not for the first or last time, Amber and Mummy exchanged amused glances. Once he’d retrieved that quintessential element of modern human communication, he used it to shout at one of Asif’s many sons. “You’ve been almost three hours! You’re only ten minutes’ walk away. Did your delivery boy get lost crossing the road?”

“Calm down,” mouthed Mummy.

“I’m hungry,” said Daddy.

“Sorry sir,” said Asif’s son.

“I’m not talking to you!”

“No, I mean I am so sorry sir.” Asif’s son proceeded to cram in as many I am so sorry sirs as he possibly could into one breath. After that, he promised the food would arrive within ten minutes.

“It’ll be free of charge?” asked Daddy.

“Yes sir, of course sir.”

“And cold I expect.” Daddy discarded the phone on the sofa as if it were chemical waste.

Mummy went to the kitchen where Grandpa had fallen asleep to a rolling news channel. She returned with a chilled bottle of rosé and a glass.

“Come on Mummy and Daddy.” Amber had tired of this extended foray into the grumpy world of adult affairs. “Play! Play! Play!”

“Well,” said Mummy. “It’s way past your bedtime. I didn’t realise how time had flown. We’ll play until our curry arrives and then you’ll go to bed with no fuss. OK?”

“OK. Play! Play!”

Mummy looked at the wine bottle and tutted. “Sorry, darling,” she said to Daddy. “I forgot to get another glass.”

“Not to worry,” said Daddy, reaching into the morass of toys. “We’ll use Mr Tickle.”

Creases formed in the soft skin of Amber’s forehead and cheeks. Her lips puffed out like marshmallows. She stared at the glass in Daddy’s hands with wary eyes. “But Mr Tickle gives me nightmares,” she said cautiously, afraid to admit the fact. Dramatic effect was added by her stretching out of the final syllable: “maaares.”

Mummy agreed but offered reassurance. “I have to admit that Mr Tickle gave me nightmares too, darling. It’s all right though, your Daddy and I will protect you from his funny hands.” Mummy took a closer look at the glass. “In fact, I think Grandpa bought me that when I was about your age. Never liked it.”

The sharp, cut-price wine made Daddy burp. He made it as loud and indulgent as he could, growling the words “I am the Burpy Monster” through it. This usually made Amber laugh. But not tonight. She was still worried about Mr Tickle.

The TV in the kitchen declared that it was now midnight. Grandpa stirred, fell back to oblivion. For the umpteenth time that day, a slinky female newsreader pouted a bulletin. News must have been scarce because she was previewing the anniversary of the Mr Men, the successful series of children’s books created by the late Roger Hargreaves. A celebratory lunch was to take place later today at Hargreaves’ old school, Sowerby Bridge Grammar in West Yorkshire. It would be attended by pupils and people connected to the franchise over the years: the original publishers, the actors in the spinoff TV series and representatives of Chorion, the company who now owned the rights to the characters.

In the living room, Zombie Mummy was trying to wrestle the Mr Tickle glass of wine from the Brummie pigeon. The doorbell went, an urgent curry alarm; Amber could almost smell the chillis, the coriander, the fenugreek, the cardamom pods, drifting through the letterbox. But her parents didn’t seem to hear. The bell rang again. “Mummy and Daddy,” Amber said, stamping a jelly shoe. “Answer the door! Answer the door!”

Brummie Pigeon took off around the room once more, eventually touching down on the toy box where it picked up more items for the tea party. Zombie Mummy made an erratic half-turn and grasped her daughter by her feet. “Do noooot meeess with thurrr zooombie!” Gravity forced Amber’s dress over her face as Zombie Mummy lifted her upside down. When Amber was at the requisite height, Zombie Mummy blew a raspberry on her stomach. Amber laughed half-heartedly and buried her head between Zombie Mummy’s knees.

The doorbell stopped ringing.

Brummie Pigeon dropped Trivial Pursuit wedges from its beak into the frying pan. “Who wants som haloomoy?”

Amber rolled free from Zombie Mummy’s grip. She lay on her side and pointed at the door. “But that was the curry man just there just then. It was.”

Zombie Mummy hissed a cooking sound. Brummie Pigeon added the baboon to the stew.

Amber was still pointing. “But that was the real food. You didn’t let the man in. You didn’t listen.” Zombie Mummy reached into the pan to rescue the baboon, feigning burns from hot fat. Brummie Pigeon snatched the utensil away. “Oi oi, that’s moyn that is. Give eet eere.” He glided over to the sealed fireplace, Zombie Mummy lurching after him.

After a last “Mummy and Daddy!” Amber gave up on these two grown people who now seemed more committed to the cause of make-believe than anyone her age. She watched them do their silly things in their silly voices.

 

***

 

Two hours later in the kitchen, news was breaking loudly enough to wake Grandpa. A vein now bulged like a prize-winning sausage in the newsreader’s once pretty head. Her register had moved up a gear from the dulcet of a pro to the squeak of an hysteric. “We are getting reports from Reuters in Los Angeles that the Hollywood screenwriter Jordan Gila has been arrested after threatening his father and daughter with a handgun at his Beverley Hills home. Mr Gila had just signed on to write a new film adaptation of the first Mr Men book, Mr Tickle, for the American animation studio Pixar. He was due to attend an anniversary lunch here in the UK which was mentioned in our earlier round-up.”

Grandpa missed half the story due to a critical coughing fit. “Love?” he hacked. “I need me pills, love. Would you fetch me me pills?” There was no response. He flicked the wheelchair’s joystick, guiding himself to the nearly closed door. “Love?” he said in a whisper enforced by all the coughing. He craned his neck to peek through the door but the gap was too narrow. Had his hearing aid been on he’d have detected a level of jollity many his age would deem inappropriate for this time of night.

Zombie Mummy was bent double, her hair rubbing the floor like a golden mop. She had been blowing a fart simulation through her lips for the last ten minutes. Brummie Pigeon finished its puke-mimes into the bin. “Aww dear,” it lamented. “Oi think we ayyte the wrongg thinggs there.” Reinvigorated, it flew off to slam the door to the kitchen.

Although Amber had now taken the view that ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ and started throwing the baboon up in the air, she couldn’t ignore Grandpa’s garbled calls. She slipped past her engrossed parents to see what he needed.

“Pills, love, please get me them. There’s a good girl. Should be in the bureau. And I’ll need some water there too. Ta, love.”

She skipped into the living room, fished through the battered old bureau and took one pill out of the green prescription bag she found. She skipped back to Grandpa, snatching the Mr Tickle glass on her way.

“What are those silly buggers doin’ now?” he asked, setting the glass and the pill on the mantelpiece above him.

Amber considered this for a while, her arms open with uncertainty. “They are…” She held the ‘are’ for such a long time that Grandpa had to hurry her. “They are playing a game,” she decided.

“But it’s two o’clock in the ruddy morning. Tell ‘em to get you to bed, me to bed then themselves to bed. That Mum of yours, what a hypocrite, eh? She said I wouldn’t be able to look after you! Cor blimey.”

The TV interjected with a grim outside broadcast of Kensington High Street shrouded with smoke. A fire had been detected at around 3 am and was believed to have started in the Head Office of Egmont Publishing UK.

Amber nestled her head in Grandpa’s woollen sleeve. “Just for a bit. Just for a bit can I pease stay here with you Grandpa? Pease.”

“Thing is, love, you need to go tell ‘em to sort it out. Stop all this carryin’ on.”

Amber puffed out her lips again. “OK.”

Things had quietened down with Zombie Mummy and Brummie Pigeon so absorbed in a game of snap that they didn’t notice the sun’s rays nagging through the curtains. They thumped cards down like industrial stamping machines, the pile growing by the second.

The doorbell rang. Amber side-stepped with her back to the wall, thinking she’d avoided detection until Zombie Mummy suddenly roared, “Snaaap! Ha ha ha!” with bared teeth and crossed eyes. “Whaaat’s my priiize?”

Brummie Pigeon buried his nose in the cards in a vain bid to stop Zombie-Mummy picking them all up. “Your proize,” he said, “should baay a fraay tickle of yong Amber there.”

Zombie Mummy did so, reaching under Amber’s dress to reduce her to a fit of reluctant laughter. In the midst of it, the young girl squeezed out a demand to open the door, but Zombie Mummy didn’t listen, she just kept tickling.

The doorbell fermata ended with a snap of the letterbox. Amber wriggled free and sprinted to the doormat where a little red card stated that a postman had tried to deliver a ‘large letter’.

Meanwhile in the kitchen, Grandpa had worn out his lungs’ capacity to groan. He manoeuvred his wheelchair back round to watch the TV.

“…We are getting early reports of a very sad development indeed. You may be aware of the charity appeal we launched in May on behalf of 7-year old Shona O’Neill from Belfast who needed stem cell treatment for a rare condition called spinal muscular atrophy. The news just in is that young Shona has slipped into a coma.”

A newly-arrived health correspondent took up the baton. “There is a connection here with some of our other stories this morning because Shona was due to be visited by actors dressed up as the Mr Men – amongst them Mr Tickle – as part of a fundraising event that some hoped would generate the last few hundred pounds required to pay for her treatment.”

Cut back to the newsreader who gave a theatrically glum look. “What a tragedy.”

“What a tragedy indeed.”

A hot flush came over Grandpa. Using the edge of the mantelpiece, he pulled himself up to the window for fresh air but felt his chest thicken with the effort. His vision disintegrated into a shattered glass effect. He reached for the pill, fumbled it and watched with panic as it plummeted to the lino floor, through a hole in the skirting board and down into the unknown cavities of this ex-Victorian poorhouse. “Amber? Amber, love?”

Amber didn’t hear him but nonetheless evaded both Brummie Pigeon and Zombie Mummy to return to the kitchen.

“Wee,” slurred Grandpa, his face turning a vivid shade of fire. “I dropped me pill down the side. Could you fetch me another? Ta.”

“Yes yes yes!”

“B-before you go, pour us some water, there’s a dear.”

“Yes yes yes!” Amber filled Mr Tickle up to his hat, handed him over to Grandpa and shot back into the living room.

The newsreader filled in some background detail. “Mr Men creator Roger Hargreaves was born in Yorkshire in 1935. He spent two decades in advertising, copywriting for companies such as Lindt chocolate and Pimms before writing the first Mr Men book in 1971.”

The muscles in Grandpa’s face had slackened so much that he spilled most of his water down his cardigan.

Amber ducked and dived past Zombie Mummy and Brummie Pigeon to the bureau, only to find that the prescription bag had vanished. She looked to Zombie Mummy. There was a spark of gall to her otherwise docile expression. Amber knew precisely what was going on. She darted behind Zombie Mummy and saw her hands clenched round the viridian parcel of drugs.

“Yooouuu caaan’t geeet it!” moaned Zombie-Mummy, lifting the vital item well beyond Amber’s tiptoe reach.

Amber jumped at full stretch like a goalkeeper saving a chip shot. “Pease Mummy,” she begged. “Pease for Grandpa! Pease for Grandpa!”

Grandpa’s head felt like it had been injected with pure capsaicin. Memories of past predicaments – punch-ups, cuts with DIY tools, a motorbike crash in 1958 – came to him unbidden. They seemed trivial compared to the acute agony of the present.

“The inspiration for the first book came when Hargreaves asked his young son the question, “What does a tickle look like?” The first six books went on to sell over a million copies in the space of 3 years.”

Zombie Mummy threw the bag into the air. Amber kept her eyes on it just as she’d been told to by every single adult she’d ever played a ball game with. But the advice was to be of no use. Brummie Pigeon shoved her aside to steal a textbook beak-catch. Amber sighed and ran.

Grandpa was failing. “At last,” he said or thought or felt, “this body, for all I’ve put the bleeder through, has reached its sell-by date.” His vision blank, his limbs deadened, his head erupting, he was somehow able to get more water from the Mr Tickle glass inside him.

“Roger Hargreaves died of a stroke in 1988.”

Grandpa’s skin seemed to turn the same tone of crimson as his West Ham fob.

“Grandpa?” Amber looked with sorrow at her empty hands. “Grandpa? Grandpa? Grandpa?” She tugged the V-neck of his cardigan. His eyes were fastened shut while the rest of his body trembled like jelly. Amber thought grimly of a toy that was running low on batteries. She kept tugging him until she felt Zombie Mummy tugging her from behind and found herself back in the living room. Brummie Pigeon flew in to collect the Mr Tickle glass. Then, on his return, he shut the door for the umpteenth time, only this time he locked it.

“What about Grandpa?” protested Amber. “I think he’s not feeling so well.”

“Doooesn’t maaatter,” boomed Zombie Mummy, resuming her game of mini badminton with Brummie Pigeon. “Yooou caaan beee piiiggy in the miiiddle.”

An alarm on Zombie Mummy’s mobile sounded to remind her that it was now 1pm and that Aunty Danielle would soon be coming to pick Amber up to go shopping at Brent Cross. The game had now been going on for half a day. This was evidenced by the family’s greasy hair, expanding sweat patches and rumbling stomachs.

“Mummy I’m hungry. I want some breakfuss.”

“Yow can ‘ave a lizard loike, can’t yow,” said Brummie Pigeon.

“I want some real food, not a-tend food! I want some real food like chewcumber samwidge with maymaise!” This was the first time that Amber had raised her voice since the game began.

But she needn’t have bothered. Aunty Danielle came to the door, knocked and went while Zombie Mummy and Brummie Pigeon played statues. Amber decided not to call out. Although her parents worried her, she could hardly ask for help. They were all playing a nice game after all. Later on, Jehovah’s Witnesses and employees of the local kebab shop dropped their literature through the door.

As the afternoon rolled on, the trio played games of movement, Amber listless, her parents remaining steadfastly in character, their stamina unlimited. They played musical chairs and musical statues and hide and seek and forty-forty-in and what’s the time Mr Wolf? and rock-paper-scissors and three-legged race and sack race and blind man’s buff and British bulldogs (although Amber had never heard of this one).

In the kitchen at what should have been teatime, there were new strands to the web of Mr Tickle stories. The newsreader, now a breezy, nerdy Welshman who looked like he’d be more at home presenting a Sunday morning religious programme, was talking about mass hysteria in West Yorkshire. Guests at the Mr Men event at Sowerby Bridge School had panicked for reasons unknown and evacuated the building. An ambulance had been called when the actor Lionel Swadlin suffered a suspected cardiac arrest. Others were reported to be in a state of shock. The image of a man dressed up as Mr Tickle dawdling next to paramedics in the school playground flickered across Grandpa’s colourless body.

There were more unheeded phone calls at around eight and ten. By 11.30, Amber was struggling to stay upright. The joints in her arms and legs throbbed from all the action. Whenever she was static for more than ten seconds, her eyelids clamped together and she started to nod off. Each time, though, she would be hustled back into the game by a peck of Brummie Pigeon’s beak or a heavy-handed tickle from Zombie Mummy.

At five to twelve, almost 24 hours into the charade, Zombie Mummy stopped passing the parcel and took a sip from the Mr Tickle glass. Brummie Pigeon did likewise. Zombie-Mummy thrust it under Amber’s nose. “Driiink?”

“No!”

“Whyyy nooot?”

“A-cause I hate Mr Tickle!”

“Bot way koind of loike him neeoow.”

“…This really has been a day of tragic news items all in some odd way related to the Mr Men character. Tom will be back later for an update…”

With her free hand, Zombie Mummy held on to Amber’s hair so she couldn’t escape. Brummie Pigeon’s beak closed around the little girl’s nose. Zombie Mummy swilled the water in the Mr Tickle glass around and around.

“No!” gasped Amber, tears gushing down her cheeks. “I don’t want a drink! I don’t!”

But the glass approached, Mr Tickle’s appalling grin slowly dominating Amber’s whole field of vision. She closed her soaking eyes, felt the hard rim of the glass bump against her teeth and the lukewarm liquid hurtle unwanted down her gullet.

Midnight.

“…And we have updates on those stories now…”

Amber lay face down on the carpet.

 

***

 

Two hours later, the TV in the kitchen was still on. The breezy Welshman was rounding up developments since midnight. “The American screenwriter Jordan Gila has released a statement through his lawyer stating that he suffered a one-off psychotic episode which he remembers nothing about. I now quote, ‘I have always been a totally law-abiding citizen who, until this moment of madness, has never so much as received a parking ticket. I simply do not know what came over me this morning when I caused such terror to the people I love the most in the world. I profoundly regret what I did.’”

In the living room, Amber and Mummy were curled up on the sofa asleep. They had both showered and changed into fresh clothes. All the toys had been cleared from the carpet into the toy box. Mummy’s phone went but she was so tired that she couldn’t answer it in time. “Sh- sugar, that was your Daddy.”

Amber joined the waking world. “It’s OK, he’ll call back. Yes he will.”

Mummy yawned a gaping chasm.

“Mummy, why were you and Daddy being so funny yesterday? You were being so funny. But it didn’t make me laugh, no, it made me unhappy.”

Mummy scratched her head. “I’m not too sure, darling. I don’t remember what happened.”

“…Other news: the actor Lionel Swadlin who suffered a heart attack at the Mr Men anniversary event is in a stable condition. Swadlin, 57, was rushed to Calderdale Royal Hospital in Halifax after complaining of chest pains and shortness of breath.”

Mummy’s phone went again and she slapped it against her ear. Her smile revealed all. Daddy reported that, contrary to his doctor’s advice, Grandpa was already up in bed, chatting to the nurses. Daddy was about to set off home.

“I was scared about you,” said Amber, snuggling into Mummy’s breasts. “I was scared of what might happen.”

Mummy glanced at the Mr Tickle glass, on its side in a pool of water. “Oh darling. It may have seemed scary but it turned out all right in the end didn’t it?”

“…The fire that started at the Head Office of Egmont Publishing UK early this morning has not claimed any lives, contrary to earlier speculations. The fire has done little damage to the Egmont building and did not spread to neighbouring businesses along Kensington High Street…

“We’re just hearing some truly great news: 7 year old Shona O’Neill who had been battling with spinal muscular atrophy has now come out of her coma. This happened at exactly 12 midnight and doctors say that she seems not to have suffered any mental or physical disabilities. From all of us in the newsroom, congratulations Shona. Perhaps you’ll be well enough for Mr Tickle to come and visit you like he promised.”

© Tom Sykes 2010

First published in Underground Voices, January 2010

 

Clifton Rock

7 Mar

Clifton Rock

George vowed not to be grumpy today. He had something to look forward to. But his good mood only lasted till he reached the breakfast table. ‘Feel like a foreigner in my own bloody country,’ he groaned into the Mail on Sunday. He looked to the bust of Queen Victoria on the mantelpiece and felt better.

‘What time does the station open, dear?’ asked his wife Audrey, bringing him a bacon sandwich and herself a mango.

George scowled at her choice. ‘You’re not used to that stuff, love. It might give you the runs.’

A statuesque black man wearing only boxer shorts passed through the room.

‘Who the bloody hell was that?’ whispered George, cowering in his seat.

‘Must be a… friend of Sarah’s,’ said Audrey, nibbling a spoonful of mango. ‘Excuse me?’ she called after the man. ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’

‘Well I wish she wouldn’t treat this house like some bordello,’ said George.

‘Give her a break, dear. He might be her boyfriend. Could be good for her after all she’s been through.’

‘Yes yes, that’s probably what he’s been telling her too.’ George shook his head. ‘But why doesn’t she go for someone less…’

Their son Tim ambled in, yawning and fuzzy-haired. He lifted his glasses and rubbed his eyes.

‘Uh-oh,’ said George. ‘The great scholar graces us with his presence.’

Audrey raised her eyebrows to her husband. ‘Dear, when did you say the station opened?’

‘Fancy coming to see some real history, son?’ said George.

Tim brought a mango to the table and sat down. ‘You mean unlike that fake stuff I’m doing my degree in?’

George rolled his eyes. ‘Postcolonial postmodern post-this and post-that. Whatever happened to good hard facts? Did you know, son, that the railway extends five hundred metres from Clifton to almost next door to this very house? Isn’t that fascinating?’

‘Yeah, Dad, fascinating.’

‘Would anyone like a cup of tea?’ asked Audrey with a sudden smile.

George got awkwardly to his feet. ‘Well I’d best be off.’

‘How is uni, love?’ asked Audrey of her son.

‘Costing me most of my pension,’ said George, picking up his National Trust walking stick.

‘It’s fine, Mum,’ said Tim.

‘I saw Sarah’s… friend earlier,’ said Audrey, ‘and, well, wondered if you’d got yourself a girlfriend yet?’

Tim looked away.

Everyone fell silent as the black man passed through the room again. For a brief moment Tim and the black man made eye contact.

George didn’t know what to make of this. He patted Victoria’s crown for reassurance.

 

The steep walk up Hinton Lane was tiring. George stopped halfway to take a painkiller for his arthritis. When he reached the Top Station of the Clifton Rocks Railway, his heart was pounding more from excitement than from the trek. A bearded guide spoke slowly to a queue of Chinese tourists. George joined it, looking at his watch with impatience.

Once inside, he peered through the gloom into musty corridors and rubble-filled offices, at the stained brickwork of the auditorium and the grazed iron of the tracks. The guide rejoiced in the past. The world’s only four-track funicular railway created by Victorian sweat. A vital artery of local life surging through the cliffs. In its heyday, whisking thousands between chic Clifton and the bustle of the river. By 1940, defending the realm with an air raid shelter and emergency radio unit. George flushed with pride. He wanted to tell a Chinese tourist how great it was to be a Brit and a Bristolian.

The queue shuffled into the pump room. This had once housed the ‘water balance’ machinery that had been the driving force of the railway. On the ground George noticed a loose rock with a weird blue glow to it. He waited for the queue to move out and placed the rock in his breast pocket. It felt warm and stirring against his heart. He thought about the railway some more. It came from a golden age when the word ‘British’ was synonymous with strength, excellence, hard work. What an age to have lived through.

On the way home, the pain in George’s leg returned. But he didn’t stop for another painkiller. He lifted his walking stick, stiffened his back and marched.

Nearing Hotwell Road, he felt increasingly bewildered. He frowned at the cars whizzing past, at an aeroplane in the sky, at a teenager on a mobile phone. ‘Egad,’ he muttered to himself.

He entered the house and bowed to the bust of Victoria. Audrey was sitting at the table reading. ‘How was the railway station, dear?’

George scrutinised her book. ‘By Jove, wife, what is that?’

‘A book.’

‘A book authored by a… female?’ He let out a stentorian laugh. ‘The very notion is absurd. The fairer sex is congenitally incapable of any act of philological composition. That is empirically proven. This must be a wheeze of some variety, and there is no room for japery in this house. I shall do you the honour of disposing of it forthwith.’ George snatched it with forefinger and thumb and tossed it in the bin.

‘But I love Danielle Steel!’ peeped Audrey, putting her fist to her mouth.

Music sounded from the student flat next door.

George put his fingers in his ears. ‘That recalls some godless racket from the colonies, the kind of egregious din the martial races tortured us with back in Lahore, ‘82.’

‘Are you feeling all right, George?’ asked Audrey. ‘Fancy a cup of tea?’

Tim appeared at the front door. He was wearing cycling gloves. ‘Hi Dad.’

‘Dad?’ barked George. ‘Dad? Henceforth you shall address me as ‘father’ or ‘sir’, confound you! Respect for one’s paterfamilias is essential to a young man’s hardihood and discipline, lest he degenerate into some idle jollux, rummy old cove, or worse – Yorkshireman.’

Tim removed his glasses. ‘Are you playing some sort of joke on us? It’s not April Fool’s Day is it?’

‘No dear,’ said Audrey.

‘I am not, at any rate, a ludibrious fellow,’ said George.

Tim looked hopefully to his mother. Audrey got up without looking at either man. ‘George, if you could stop all this messing about, there’s something Tim would like to tell you.’

George approached his son with a self-assured nod. ‘Is this so, boy? I trust it is good, sturdy news, as you would not trouble a gentleman of my wit and standing with a mere trifle. Are you going up to Cambridge to read Mods and Greats or Divinity perchance?’

‘No Dad, I’m already at UWE, remember?’

‘Or perhaps you have enlisted with the Royal Engineers to help annex the Dark Continent for Queen and country? Come on, boy, spit it out.’

Tim was about to when Sarah entered. Her dreadlocks bounced against her camouflage vest. ‘What’s all this hassle about? I can hear you all from my room.’

‘Sarah, child-’ began George.

‘What do you mean ‘child’? I’m twenty-four years old.’

‘Do not ejaculate in such a discourteous fashion, child.’

Sarah sniggered. ‘Why are you talking like some olden days person? Have you been drinking?’

Audrey spoke up. ‘Sarah, dear, you know your dad hasn’t touched the stuff for years.’

‘Well maybe he went back to it,’ hissed Sarah. ‘They say retirement is boring.’

George tightened his grip on the walking stick. ‘Blast your slanders, child! Do not forget that I have long been a stalwart of the temperance movement.’

‘But seriously, Dad, have you fucking flipped?’

‘Why, your mouth is like the Randall Road Sewer and your mien that of some velvet-tipping harlot of ill fame! On the contrary, child, it would seem that you are suffering from feminine hysteria. Melancholia too, perhaps. I advise laudanum or heathen tinctures from the Orient, but failing that, a restorative spell in Bedlam. There is one Dr Featheringstone based therein whose progressive methodologies involving the Padded Rotary Chair come highly recommended by both The Lancet and the governor of Newgate Prison.’

‘What are you trying to say, Dad? Are you talking about my depression?’

‘Don’t say horrid things to Sarah, dear,’ said Audrey.

George’s eyes zipped about in shock. He raised his stick at each family member in turn. Tim started hyperventilating. Audrey took a step back. Sarah stayed where she was.

‘What is this?’ said George. ‘Mutiny? Mine own blood going socialist on me, possessed by frightful hobgoblins? Do you want me to thrash the lot of you? Gluttons for punishment all, eh?’

‘Wanker,’ said Sarah under her breath.

‘Please, dear,’ squeaked Audrey. ‘Put your stick down, this is getting out of hand. And Tim really does have something to tell you. It’s very important.’

Tim was bright red, his breath still escaping him.

‘Well hurry and enunciate, boy! And do not bore me with trivia.’

Tim caught his breath and took it in deep. He squared up to his dad, eyeball to eyeball. ‘How about this for trivia, Dad? I’m gay. Got that? I’m gay.’ He turned to his sister and mother and shouted with the hysteria of relief. ‘I’m gay! I’m gay!’

Audrey raised her eyebrows and smiled faintly. Sarah grinned with pride. ‘At last, little brother, standing up for yourself!’

George frowned. ‘So you declare that you are happy. There is nothing so queer about that-’

Tim screamed in his dad’s ear. ‘I’m homosexual! Got that? A bugger! I spent all night with my black boyfriend’s penis up my arse and I loved it and there’s nothing you can do about it ‘cos I’m free and you don’t rule my life!’ George opened his mouth to speak, but Tim’s rant wasn’t over. ‘And I don’t know what all this Victorian bollocks is about, but if you ever bothered to read something other than pub quiz primers you’d know how fucking miserable that period was, how this country exploited half the world, how women and children were treated like animals, how hypocrisy was elevated to an art form, and, and, and…’

With his free hand, George brandished the rock from his pocket. His family gasped at its blue glow. ‘Backgammon player!’ George howled and swung the rock down towards Tim’s head. Tim dodged and snatched the rock.

‘Give that back, you opium-addled mandrake!’ shouted George.

‘What the hell is this?’ said Tim, turning the rock over in his gloves, staring at its blueness.

George whacked Tim on the backside with the walking stick. ‘Take that for demurring the authority of your patriarch!’

‘Right, I’m calling the police,’ said Sarah.

‘You’re mental!’ shouted Tim at his dad. He ran out the door, down the steps and into Hotwell Road. George gave chase with shrieks of ‘Churl! Hobbledehoy! Workshy affiliate of the back-stair classes!’ Neighbours rushed to doors and windows.

Tim dropped the rock onto the pavement and jumped up and down on it. By the time George was a walking stick-length away, the rock had turned to dust, its blue glow gone.

George collapsed, eyes rolling as he fell.

 

Some hours later, George awoke in the Bristol Royal Infirmary. His family flanked the bed, cheeks sore from tears.

Audrey fell upon her husband, hugging him for dear life. ‘Oh George, you’re awake, you’re all right! The doctor thought you’d gone into a coma.’

‘Well I feel all right,’ said George. ‘Bit groggy. How did I get here?’

‘Do you remember what happened before you blacked out?’ asked Tim, touching the spot where his dad had hit him.

‘No, son. I was in the station and I took this rock as a souvenir. Then… well, nothing.’

The doctor came in to check George’s pulse and blood pressure. The doctor asked some questions about where he lived and what year it was. George answered them correctly and was free to go.

Back at the house, his family explained what had happened, the things he’d said and done. ‘You were, like, possessed, Dad,’ said Sarah.

George didn’t believe them. This was a wind-up. But then the police visited and confirmed his odd behaviour. They said that the matter was now in Tim’s hands; he could press charges for assault if he wanted. Tim chose not to. George felt an incredible sense of shame which he couldn’t shake off. He was also scared for his health; ranting and raving and collapsing in the street wasn’t healthy. Not for a man of advancing years.

He admitted all this to Audrey the next morning at breakfast.

‘Perhaps you need to make some life changes, dear,’ she suggested. She brought him a mango instead of a bacon sandwich. He enjoyed it. That surprised him.

‘I was wondering, dear,’ said Audrey. ‘We should invite Tim’s friend Deon to dinner at the weekend.’

George began to scowl, but thought again. ‘All right, we’ll… we’ll give that a try.’

Tim rushed into the room and sat down. He was shaking. ‘We don’t know how that rock works! What if I’ve been… infected by it? I held it in my hands.’

Audrey touched his shoulder. ‘But you smashed the silly thing up, dear. And you were wearing gloves. I’m sure they would protect you.’

‘I don’t know. I should avoid anything Victorian for a while. Might trigger a Dad moment. No costume dramas, no flowery wallpaper, nothing designed by “the Little Giant”.’

‘That’ll be hard in Bristol, dear.’

‘I’ll tell you what,’ said George. ‘This’ll do us both good.’ He picked up the bust of Queen Victoria and took it out to the bin next to the sealed Bottom Station of the Clifton Rocks Railway.

First published in Hidden Bristol (Tangent Books), 2011.