Wednesday, 31 October 2018

The Last Round

A laugh of surprised triumph escapes my lips as the ball soars into the sky then falls to exactly the right spot on the manicured greens. I stand there for a moment, the wood still resting on my left shoulder, admiring my unexpected handiwork. It’s been years since I’ve been on a golf course and I certainly hadn’t expected to send the ball straight down the middle from the very first tee-off. 

“Looks like I’ve still got it."

I look around the calm greens of Eight Elms golf course, embarrassed that someone might catch me talking to myself as I play my solitary round. I shrug my shoulders and smile, grateful that at 5 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, most regulars were still chained to their desks or running those never-ending errands on their To Do lists. 

I’m alone – almost. A woman stands at the edge of a small thicket, hacking away at the undergrowth. She’s dressed like Central Casting’s idea of a lady golfer from another age, in tweed plus-fours, leather brogues and a pink and yellow sweater. Makes me feel an imposter in my Mum jeans and sweatshirt, like an uninvited guest at a society party. I wave hello, but she’s too intent on getting her ball out of the rough to notice me. 

I slide the heavy club back into the battered leather bag and shoulder it, ready to walk up the greens and take my next shot. It’s much weightier than Bill’s new bag filled with fancy carbon fibre clubs, but I enjoy the heft of history that almost a century gives mine. What stories of past glories would it tell if it could speak? 

A breeze tickles the nape of my neck and the low autumn sun warms my cheeks. Somewhere, a dog barks and a pair of rooks take off from the branches of a dead oak. All around, trees are changing colour for their last flamboyant shout-out before they drop their leaves for winter. A whiff of bonfire floats in the air, but there’s not a cloud in the sky. 
I feel good. Alive. More than I have in an age.

“Beats online shopping any day.” I’ve spent too many empty hours trawling the bargain sites since Mark left for college, trying to fill the void he left. But that’s what’s landed me here, playing the best game of golf of my life on a glorious late October day, with no-one to cheer me on. 

I’d been thrilled with my latest find. The 1920s golf bag was offered free to anyone willing to pick up. I clicked without hesitation and collected it that same day from a sullen old man in a neglected house on the edge of town. At best, I’d clean it up and sell to some hipster vintage-hound for a tidy profit. At worst, it would become a conversation piece to fill the corner of the living room where Mark’s guitar once stood. 

But, as it turned out, it got me back on the links. Reawakened my love for the game that brought me and Bill together, before marriage, motherhood and the menopause got in the way. I gave up years ago, when Mark was just an overgrown jelly bean in my belly wriggling to be born. Bill carried on, of course, never missing his weekend round while I took care of chores or chauffeur duties for music lessons, football practice and play dates. Who knew that I would still know how to handle the woods, irons and putters after all this time? Next time Bill heads for the greens, I’ll grab the old leather bag and join him for a game.

A few satisfying slices take me within feet of the first hole, and I nudge the ball in with a neat, satisfying plop. After the next five holes, I feel better about myself than I have for a long, long time.

A movement in the bushes catches my eye as I sink the ball at the sixth. It’s Madam Plus Fours again. She’s got company now. Her bag is propped up against the trunk of a tree, and there’s the shape of a man in the shadows. Alright for some. Others have to caddy their own clubs round the course.

I pick up my bag. There’s a dark stain at the bottom I hadn’t seen before. I hope it's just the turf's evening damp leaving its print on the leather and make a mental note to give it another rub down with saddle soap when I get home. I look up to watch the woman and her caddy as they head to the next green - but they’re nowhere to be seen.

I spot them again at the eleventh hole. The man is silhouetted against the pinkening sky. I can’t make out his features. He’s much closer to the woman now, holding one of her clubs. They're arguing, but I only hear notes of anger pricked with pleading through the evening air. 

Probably some petty argument about which club to pick for her next shot. Some people really need to lighten up. It’s just a game, after all.

It’ll be dark soon. Better finish my round. The stain on the bag looks bigger now. Probably a trick of the light - dusk has a habit of throwing up visions of things that aren’t there in the sharp glare of morning. 

Shadows like skinny giants loll against the landscape as I reach the sixteenth hole. I’ve played the best round of my life and I’ll definitely be back tomorrow. 

But in the morning. The evenings are drawing in way too fast now. 

Right now, I just want to reach the eighteenth hole and get back to my car. There’s something about the rustle of the leaves in the dark that sends chills down my spine.

The garish diamonds of Madam Plus Fours' sweater glow ahead of me through the growing gloom. She and her caddy are leaving the seventeenth hole and she’s gesticulating wildly, shouting at her dark companion. What a bitch, blaming the poor caddy for her bad game. He still has her bag on his shoulder and a club in his hand, waiting for her to finish her tirade, get it all out of her system. Poor guy, I bet he can’t wait to see her finish her round, get paid (no tip, for sure) and wind down with a drink at the bar. 

I tee up for the last hole, look up to see where I’m aiming for, and drop my wood in shock.

The caddy is holding the club over his head, threatening the woman. In a panic, I stumble and knock over my bag. The dark stain spread all the way along one side.

Gotta do something, Stop him, Help her. 
The lights of the club house twinkle invitingly, but the eighteenth hole is closer. I scramble to my feet, yelling. Maybe the commotion will scare him off.

I’m running as fast as my middle-aged legs can take me. Panting hard and looking down for fear of tripping on something. Blood pumps in my ears. My heart feels like it’s going to burst out of my chest. Red starbursts play at the edges of my vision. 

The dark and my panic are playing tricks with me. The denim on my pumping knees looks like tweed, and they seem to have bunched up mid-calf. 

Keep going. Stop him. 

I reach the green and stop, facing the dark figure wielding the club. 

“Hey, you! What do you think you’re doing?”

He looks at me, smiles and he steps towards me. I turn to tell the woman to run. She’s gone. Already on her way to get help, I pray.

It’s just me and the caddy. I’m exhausted. Frozen with fear. Menace flows off him like sweat. With every step he takes, a little piece of my sanity deserts me. 

Just two paces away from me now, I see his face. 

It’s Bill. My Bill. The man I’ve shared the past twenty years with. The man I lost somewhere along the way. The man I wanted to get back out onto the greens again. But it’s not my Bill leering down at me. It’s a warped version of his slightly flabby, once-handsome face. Twisted with malice, intent on harm. 

He raises the club. It’s one of the heavy vintage woods from my bag, which is now lying on its side next to the last hole. Clubs, tees and other paraphernalia have spilled out in a growing pool of dark liquid. 

I raise my arm to cover my face. In a surreal split second, puzzlement banishes panic as I see that, instead of the deep red of my sweatshirt, my sleeve is clad in pink and yellow diamonds. 

My world explodes, and everything goes black.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Read all about it!

Read all about it, the headline news.
The latest gossip, we aim to amuse.
Who’s dating who, who’s got fat,
On the screen right where you’re sat.

Just what you want, no need to think.
Coming at you now. Please don’t blink.
Headline news to keep you at bay
Ask no questions, or stay away.

Tabloid dreams in electric ink.
Cartoon clichés that don’t make the link
Between them and us.
Not really human, why make a fuss?

Words as weapons to stir up hate.
Pull at your emotions to agitate
tension and serve their agenda.
Reject it, wrap it up, return to sender.

Divide and conquer, or unite and thrive?
Choose what makes you feel alive.
Despise your neighbour, swallow the lie,
Got to save your slice of the pie.

So, go on, paper your fort with pages
that proclaim the “other” your enemy of ages.
Ignore what you can’t accept is true,
that to some, the “other” is you.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Unlucky in love

“Life is like a box of chocolates.” Is that really what your mama told you, Forrest, me old mate?

Well, I’ll tell you something. I’d trade this whole Deluxe Selection box – even if it was filled to the brim with my favourite Hazelnut Caramel Crunch Clusters – for a little bit of the old rumpty-pumpty.  

Speaking of hazelnut clusters, don’t mind if I do…   Hmmm. Lubbly, jubbly.

It’s not easy being me, you know. One look and everyone assumes I’ve got the whole romance deal sorted. The rosy, chubby cheeks. The bouncy blonde curls. My wide-eyed innocent gaze to the heavens. The half-arsed bow and arrow. Even those stupid lumps of feather flapping about on my shoulders (as if a pair of pigeon wings could lift my un-birdlike frame).

I know how you all see me. How you imagine I spend my days. You’ve got this image of me flitting from cloud to cloud, shooting darts of romance here and there, infecting the unsuspecting with love (with a capital L) and chucking hearts, flowers and rainbows around like nobody’s business.

You know, the whole vomit-inducing shebang. 

Guilty as charged. 

But did any of you ever stop to wonder if good ole Cupid ever found love, had someone warm and welcoming to go home to at the end of a long day? No, of course you didn’t. Not a single one of you ever gave a thought to the state of my poor, bleeding, unrequited heart.

Yuck, Strawberry Dream. Not my favourite. Too mushy by far. Any of you fancy it?

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes. The bitter sweet irony of the God of Love never having got his end away.

Yes, you heard me right. Never. Not once. Not even close. Since ancient times - and I mean real ancient times. Romans and Greeks, togas and intrigues, and the like.

So, next time you’re crying into your beer ‘cos Little Miss Sharon McTottie won’t look your way, instead of chucking a few choice swear words in my direction, stop to consider what it’s like to be an eternal virgin whose day job is all about connecting people to do the horizontal samba. 

Thing is, no-one really goes for the cherubic look, do they? These big baby-blue eyes and pouting lips may make broody wannabe mums swoon and croon over pushchairs, but when it comes to the business of getting the kid implanted, forget it. No way, Jose. 

They want butch, macho or, at the very least, darkly sardonic. Not an easy ask when you look like this.

So, there you go. Chaste and untouched for millenia. Not by choice, in case you missed my hint. The original incel (that’s involuntary celibate, in case you didn’t know - the latest label for blokes who blame all womankind for the fact they can’t get laid instead of looking in the mirror). But without the viciousness, or relentless online baiting. I may be bitter, and horny as holy hell, but I ain’t that bad.

Now, what’s this one. Espresso Delite (American spelling if you please). Could be good. Let’s see. Just a little bite to try….  ….oh no, no, no.
Too bitter for me by far, thanks to thirty years living over a Billericay café where the tea's fit for builders but the coffee's not much more than dirty water.

Funny thing is, lately, I have been feeling a little bit dark and sardonic now and then. It might just be my imagination, but I could swear that there’s a touch of Roger the gargoyle rubbing off on me. 

Roger? Oh, you don’t know him? 

Seriously, you didn’t think I was the only random mythical creature walking the streets with you humans, did you? There’s loads of us, everywhere you look. Vampires, warlocks, goblins, the occasional ogre, elves, not to mention naiads and dryads searching for their spirit streams and home trees that were cemented over years ago. 

People used to notice us, steer clear, shake pitchforks, light torches and chuck the occasional cup of Holy water in our direction. These days, they don’t bat an eyelid. I’m not surprised really – these days most ‘ordinary’ people are scarier than a legion of demons.

Me and Rog have been hanging out a lot lately. Bit of an odd couple. Him all dark, charred and leathery. Me, well… you know. This. But we get on well enough, and he does make me look cool.

I’ve been teaching him the words to Celine Dion’s entire back catalogue. And he’s helping with my Alice Copper and Ozzy impersonations. All good clean fun. Unfortunately.

But I’ve noticed something. I’ve started feeling a bit… how can I say it?...  different. My toenails are getting longer and tougher, my feet are getting bonier, like claws. My cheeks are sinking, right down to the bone structure I never knew I had. And I swear I saw a dark red glint in one eye when I looked in the mirror the other day.

Roger says I’m imagining it. I’m just seeing what I admire in him in myself. Sort of wishful thinking. Arrogant git. 

I mean, would I really want to look like a hobgoblin on speed after a week of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll? 

Too bloody right I would.

Like we said, no-one wants to shag the fat roadie with a face like the Gerber baby. 

Pineapple crème. I’ll save that for Roger. He has the weirdest tastes for a gargoyle. There must be a Walnut Whirl somewhere in here for me. 

So, like I was saying. After all these centuries I can feel something stirring, changing, solidifying. And no…  …it’s not “that”. Not yet, at least.

I don’t think I’m the only one to notice. I got a look today from the girl with the nose ring in the café. Not the usual can-I-pour-my-heart-out-about-my-pig-of-a-boyfriend-before-leaping-back-into-his-bed look, but something that might – just might – hold a hint of an invitation to join her in the sheets myself.

At first, I thought it was for Roger. But no, it was definitely me Tanith stared at for just a little bit longer than necessary when taking the same order I give her every day. I ran a cocky hand through my hair, smoothing it down against my scalp instead of letting the ringlets spring like a halo, as I murmured “One tea and an Eccles cake, please darling”.

When she came back, she gave me two Eccles cakes and an encouraging wink. 

Is that a Rum and Raisin Swirl I see hiding there in the corner? Not any more. There you go. Very nice.

The only downside is the smell. It simply won’t go away. Again, I thought it was Rog, but his usual air of brimstone seemed to linger much longer than it should after he’d left for his weekly meeting with the Dark Overlord yesterday.  

I shower, scrub myself in all those important little places (especially now that I’m getting those signals from Tanith), but when I raise my arms to check my pits, I’m still getting a whiff of sulphur oozing out of me like lava. 

If I’m honest, I secretly relish it. It’s much cooler than the cloud of baby powder that used to follow me everywhere.

So, yes. I’m changing. A kind of ridiculously overdue puberty is transforming me. At long bloody last. 

I can hardly wait. I go to sleep, excited to see what new transformation awaits me when I wake. I walk down the street with a new purposeful stride, Queen’s ‘Find me somebody to love’ pulsing through my head at full volume. My wings have folded flat against my shoulder blades and I think the feathers have all dropped out. 

I can’t remember the last time I saw my bow, let alone shot one of the arrows. The world doesn’t seem to notice. Carries on. Maybe it just doesn’t need me anymore?

I reckon Roger took the arrows. I saw him messing with them over his coffee. Could be he’s already handed them over and sent them to the depths of Hades? Or not. Who knows? Who cares?

Just a few chocs in the box now. I should have saved the bottom layer for Tanith, now that I know I might be in with a chance. But I can always buy a fresh box in the morning, can’t I?
I wonder what that one is? Don’t think I’ve seen it before. Small, round and very dark.
Probably some fancy super-pure Peruvian cocoa…
 Let’s see…  …Nope. Not cocoa at all. Small, hard, vaguely smokey. A lump of rock charred at the edges, fizzing slightly at its centre. Surprisingly tasty.

Yep. I’m changing. And fast. My time has finally come. Tanith is giving me that special smile and nodding towards the side door. I’ve waited long enough.

Question is, can you lot handle my metamorphosis? Are you ready for a world without love? 

Suck it and see.

Friday, 14 September 2018

“London Isn’t Burning” but Fuzz Skyler set Athens ablaze

A packed rock bar in downtown Athens. It’s late, close to midnight. The crowd has been warmed up by sterling performances from local favourites, and they’re curious to see what the headline act will bring to the show. Five London-based musicians take to the stage. They are Fuzz Skyler, and this is their first ever gig outside the UK.

The clarion call from their opening song – “Oh, what we do for a minute or two of fame” - rings out, and the crowd roars approval. Even jaded bar staff who’ve heard it all raise their eyebrows in delighted surprise.

It’s the start of an energetic set of piano-driven rock supported by dynamic dueling guitars, passionate yet precise percussion, and a bass line delivered by the epitome of cool. The charismatic lead singer and keys player is all big hair, big eyes, big stage presence and a big voice reminiscent of Freddie, but more – there’s something else that’s all his own.

The crowd isn’t fazed by the fact they haven’t heard their songs before – Recall, London Isn’t Burning, Greed and Fortune, the more reflective Solitude and other Fuzz Skyler originals are all welcomed with red-hot Greek passion, whilst a handful of covers including the band’s take on the traditional Greek Misirlou, Muse’s Hysteria and even Adele’s Rolling In The Deep are welcomed like old friends.

It’s after 1am by the time the band finishes their set, but the crowd wants more, chanting “Fuzz, Fuzz, Fuzz, Fuzz” until the sound engineer nods permission for a full-throated reprise of Recall which most of the audience seem to have learned by heart already.

On stage, the band are hot, sweaty, stripped to the waist, and grinning like maniacs. Their Athens debut has been everything they’d hoped for – and then some.

Fuzz Skyler was formed just over a year ago. Its members are all former or current students of the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance (ICMP) in North London. The band is a real melting pot with five different mother tongues - Persian, English, Greek, Portuguese and Lithuanian - but it’s the common language of music that provides the chemistry that produces their unique sound.

Piano and a strong narrative element form the backbone of most of their songs, with guitars playing a dynamic supporting role with energetic riffs to drive home the melody and the message. It’s a “big” sound supported by first class musicians who are passionate about what they do.

If forced into a genre, Fuzz Skyler would probably sit in the same box as some of their key influences such as Muse, Queen, Keane, Coldplay, Elton John and David Bowie. It’s a theatrical genre of rock of enduring popularity, grand, anthemic and packed with personality.

Fuzz Skyler have a lot to say. They have the vision, the energy, the musicality and the sheer talent to say it well. And if their international debut in Athens is anything to go by, it’s a message that audiences beyond their home fanbase want to hear.

Gig Details
Where: The Crow Club, 27 Sinopis, Athens
When: 1 September 2018
On stage: Fuzz Skyler
Wash of Sounds, Konstantinos Tourlis and Friends, Heavenblack and Dimitris Gasparatos & The Double Vision.

Monday, 23 October 2017


That’s where it started. In the darkroom. I’d spent the afternoon taking pictures of a sixteen-year-old with the wholesome teeth and unchallenged confidence of a future beauty queen.

Sarah. That was her name. You know the type. Clear-skinned, bright-eyed, conventional little blonde. Aced her exams, dating the captain of the cricket team, raised on a diet of praise as she swanned her way to adulthood. Almost certainly head prefect material. Pretty, polite, practically perfect for the niche carved out for her. And dull as ditchwater.

What could I do? Pampered little madams like her paid my rent. Picture perfect portraits of good girls that never betrayed the small cruelties they inflicted on the outcasts at school. Studio portraits for the yearbook, doting grandparents, distant aunts and uncles, whatever – that was my bread and butter. After the strikes and shortages of the “Winter of Discontent” the papers had been screaming about, I couldn’t afford to turn good business away, could I?

I’d posed her prettily in front of the backdrop and started shooting. Brushing a hair off her cheek, adjusting her collar, sweet talking her to get the most flattering shots. Snap. Snap, Snap. Now one for grandma, sweetheart. Snap. Snap. Think about David Cassidy. Snap.

Mother sat in the corner, smiling stiffly and watching me like a hawk. No need, of course. Even if I was that kind of sleaze ball, her little princess just wasn’t my type. I decided to butter her up. Massage her ego. Put her mind at rest

“Come on, Mum. Let’s get a nice one of you both together. I can see where she gets her looks from, though you look more like sisters to me.” Snap, snap. Dear god, save me from this tedium.

After the goodbyes and thank yous, I locked the front door and went to the darkroom. Small, cramped, reeking of chemicals, its womb-like familiarity welcomed me like family. The warm glow of the safety light pushed fingers into the corners, shining off the smooth plastic bottles lined up next to the developing trays.

A sudden movement in the corner. I peered into the dark. Nothing but shadow, lurking where the orange glow couldn’t reach. But it seemed to be breathing, in and out in a steady rhythm. My own breath. I held it. The movement stopped. Of course. I shook myself out of foolish imaginings. After all these years, should be used to the weird shapes that form in the dark as I pour and dip, swish and pull prints from their warm baths. Shadows dancing past the lines of smiling faces pegged up in the gloom, hung out like the weekly wash. 

But, as I pinned the final print of Sarah and her mother, grinning like idiots in a washing powder advert, the darkness nudged my arm and reached out a dark finger to stroke the image. I felt nothing, heard nothing. But I knew. It wasn’t just the fumes.

I never did get paid for that studio session. Sarah and her mum never got home, thanks to a driver who’d had a few too many. The local rag used one of my shots with the screaming headline “Star pupil and mother killed in drink-drive horror”. No credit though. So much for the exposure the photo editor said I’d get. I mourned for them, in my way. How could I not? But if I’m honest, I mourned my lost fee more.

I used to do school photos. Spent the day in pale green painted classrooms, trying to organise kids who’d arrived scrubbed and combed to pose in awkward groups of siblings. Class shots too. Not anymore. Not since the shadow stroked my handiwork again. Two weeks before a freak avalanche wiped out most of Class 2B on a school ski trip.

Even then, I didn’t admit the connection. Couldn’t. Those horrible random accidents were just that – random. Nothing to do with the shadow in my darkroom.

But then there was the winner of the Bonny Baby contest who simply stopped breathing one night, in the safety of her cot, for no apparent reason. Every mother’s nightmare. Waking up after an uninterrupted night’s sleep, thankful for the rest, only to discover death staring from their child’s mattress.

And the local rugby star, stabbed in the guts when he got caught up in a pub brawl he had nothing to do with. Three weeks they had him on life support, hooked up to a beeping machine. His big toothy smile replaced by a lifeless drool. His beefy body getting weaker and more useless before someone poor sod had to make the awful decision to pull the plug.

The Victorians used to photograph their dead babies. Did you know that? The ones who could afford it, I mean. Waxy faced toddlers already stiff with rigor mortis posed for immortality, sometimes propped up by bereaved mothers with faces covered by tablecloths. I swear in all those pictures I can see the hand of a shadow man, caught in the folds of the cloth or creeping over the shoulder of the dead child. Like it’s afraid of losing what it already has.

Strange lot, the Victorians. Melodramatic and obsessed with gadgets. We’re far more sensible these day, aren’t we?

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. Well, that’s why I stopped doing school photos. Weddings and christenings too. Semi-retired, I suppose. I make just enough to cover my rent and feed myself as the official photographer for the local council. You know the sort of thing. Mayor in his official chain opening some new factory. Shaking hands with visiting businessmen and the like. No sign of the shadow man there. I suppose local dignitaries aren’t his cup of tea. Not mine either, but it’s better than the alternative.

My boy came to see me the other day. Haven’t seen him for years. Not since his mother left all those years ago. Fair enough, she kept in touch, let me know how he’s doing, sent me a snapshot every time he blew out a new lot of birthday cake candles. But they’d moved a way off, up north, and there was never time, money or courage for a visit.

But there he was, large as life, and twice as handsome in the doorway. Decked out in uniform. Royal Military Police, he said. Took me a while to stop seeing the eight-year-old boy in the man in front of me. Stumbled over my guilt and embarrassment for not being the father he’d deserved.

He wanted his photo taken, he said. Surely there were army snappers who could do that? Yes, but he wanted me to do it. He’d never asked anything from me all these years. What’s the point of having a photographer father if you can’t get your picture taken?

I tried to put him off, I really did. But he wouldn’t hear of it. Got to admit, he did look splendid against the sky blue backdrop, with his metal buckle and buttons gleaming in the glare of the lights. Got some grand shots of him. Twice the man I’ve ever been.

He told me he was off for a tour of duty in two days, so could I please send the photos straight to his mum by post? She wanted something for her mantelpiece while he was away. In Belfast.

That night, in the darkroom, he was there again, after all this time. I could feel him. A cold clamminess, waiting in the corner, slowly inching its way across the room. Waiting, hungry, greedy. I watched out of the corner of my eye as I developed the prints. Into the developing solution, then the fixer, then hung out to dry on the line.

The shadow shifted and darted to the workbench. I blocked its way. It would not have my boy.  

....It’s cancer, they say.
Too far gone to do anything except “keep me comfortable”.

I’ve seen the pictures. Lifesize negatives of my skull and what’s in it. A big black shadow leaking across frame, eating me up, blotting out reason some of the time, soon to blot out my life.

The doctors have their theories. Their favourite is all those years of exposure to the fumes in my tiny darkroom. But I know. It wasn’t the chemicals. I’d denied him the sweet bloom of youth, so now he’s taking me. Slowly, painfully, stripping me of my dignity.

But I won. That’s how I see it.

Wherever there is light, there’s shadow. I saw another one this morning, slipping along the wall in the corridor outside the Children’s Ward. Called out to the nurse, a sweet overworked girl with a soft Derry accent. “Ah, it’s just a trick of light” she said and rushed off in a flurry of efficiency and exhaustion.

It’s here. Come for me. Can you see it? Creeping around the walls. Getting closer.

My time is done. I see it now. Closer than ever. Standing right behind you. Can’t you feel its cold fingers on your shoulder?

I swear it’s grinning at me. Smiling for the camera.

* * * * *

This story was one of six featured in the Cast Iron Theatre's 'Dukeanory: Ugly Tales for Beautfiul Souls' on Thursday 19 October 2017, as part of the Brighton Horrorfest.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Inside the mind of a Modern Mental Rebel

Nikos Kapralos, a.k.a. Deejay Nic, buzzes with nervous energy, his eyes constantly dancing around restlessly. 

Part of the breed of Greeks caught up in the country’s financial crisis, he is no quitter. He’s the man behind the decks for Deejay Nic The Band, a genre-breaking group which features a signature Rockstep style combining sampling with live rock and dubstep performance. He’s also one of the leading lights of the Modern Mental Rebels™ (MMR), a non-profit organisation which promotes the independent Greek rock scene.

MMR taps into a rich seam of modern musical talent that does not fit comfortably into the country’s mainstream music scene. It cemented its reputation with its successful staging of the Greek finals of the Global Battle of the Bands (GBOB) in 2015, and again 2016. The MMR concerts started in 2014, and continue today. For each show, 4-5 bands share equal billing, giving audiences a multiple artist experience at an affordable price.

We asked Deejay Nic for his thoughts about MMR, Greece’s independent music scene, and how bands can take control of their own future.

Explain the concept of the Modern Mental Rebellion concerts.
There are no headliners. The bands have equal billing and help make the gigs happen. It’s collaborative, not competitive. We draw on the expertise of MMR volunteers to apply management methods to the organisation and promotion of concerts, and through that joint effort we provide bands with a great platform to showcase their music and, hopefully, the audience a night to remember.

Can artists outside the Greek mainstream to make their mark?
Greece is a small market, where most people favour mainstream Greek pop or folk music, Even if you make it “big” here as an alternative band, you won’t be BIG in the Greek market. Nonetheless, to attract labels or managers from overseas you have to make a buzz in your local market. That’s what our MMR stablemates, Coretheband from Crete, have done through their own efforts and with the support of MMR. They’re now preparing to take their first steps beyond Greek borders. Remember their name. You heard it here first.

How are things going for Deejay Nic the Band? What have been the highlights so far? What are your future plans?
We’ve only be going for a little under two years but we already done a lot. Our first CD, featuring two original tracks, came out recently,and we’re very proud of it. In terms of live performance, our 2016 appearance at the Zeytinli Rock Festivali in Turkey is hard to beat – our first time outside Greece and we played to 130,000 people.

This is just the beginning. I always have my eyes open for opportunities for the band. The sky’s the limit!

What advice would you give young people considering a music career?
Being a great musician is not enough to secure success. Promoting yourself is vital. Aim to excel at both.

For more about the Modern Mental Rebels™, go to or

The first in a series of United MMR concerts will be tomorrow, Friday 31 March 2017, at the Crow Club at Sinopis 27, Ambelokipi, Athens. The music starts at 10.30pm and goes on til the early hours of the morning. 

For just 5 you'll enjoy the exprience of four bands live and loud. On 31 March, the line-up is:
Caught Art Delusion
Entropy Devine
Sin By Four

On 28 April, Deejay Nick The Band take the stage, together with Perfect Denial, Smolderhaze and Wash of Sounds.

The 26 May gig will feature Amantes Amentes, COUNTOWN, Ganzi Gun and Termatikos Stathmos.


(Photos by to LensMan-Nick, Nikos Paraskevas)

Thursday, 22 December 2016

A dark tale for a bright season

In the spirit of the season, I’m sharing a story that was included in the ‘Festive Frights’ anthology published by the CW Publishing House last Christmas. If it whets your appetite for more dark Christmas tales, you can order the book here

Seasons’ Greetings
by AJ Millen  

The harsh caw of a rook made Inspector Thomas Crumb look up at the row of beech trees on the horizon, their branches outlined stark against the early morning sky. He should have been home by now, sipping tea and nibbling on toast and marmalade after a quiet night shift at Burbon-on-Lee’s tiny police station.

It was cold outside, but colder yet inside Hathaway Cottage as he stepped across the threshold. The living room was crammed with overstuffed, once grand furniture and a collection of knick-knacks that only a lifetime in the same place could accumulate. A forlorn plastic Christmas tree sat in the corner, its lights blinking feebly. Three stockings hung from hooks on either side of the old cast iron fireplace. One hook lay empty, spoiling the careful symmetry.

A line of cards stood on the mantelpiece, pride of place given to the largest one, an ornate affair which looked like it had been made to order. It depicted a room like the one it sat in, but an picture book version without the dust and discarded crockery.

Crumb approached the armchair facing the now cold fireplace, and looked down. In it sat a man in his 80s, wearing a checked flannel shirt, knitted tie and thick jumper vest. His thinning hair was slicked back against his scalp, stray white hairs jutted out wildly from his eyebrows, his skin stretched across closed eyelids and gaunt cheekbones. His ankles were tied to the legs of the chair, wrists firmly bound in his lap, and something was stuffed tight into his mouth. He was dead. Very, very dead. And it didn’t look like he’d gone peacefully.

“Poor old bugger must have choked on whatever the evil bastards shoved down his throat to keep him quiet,” said Jo from Forensics, taking a large pair of tweezers and carefully pulling the make-shift gag out. “See those broken veins, and the bluish tinge to his skin? Tell-tale signs. Asphyxiation…  what the hell?”

Her eyebrows shot up as she tugged the gag out to reveal a length of colourful fabric with the name ‘Jake’ written in glitter above a cheery appliqued snowman. A Christmas stocking – probably intended for one of the grandchildren expecting for a festive visit.

“Funny thing is,” she continued “although obviously some sadistic git did this, there’s no sign of a break-in. All the doors and windows were locked from the inside. Nothing missing either – not even the box of fifties our boys found at the back of his kitchen cupboard. If it hadn’t been for Elsie Symms letting herself in with the spare key, it would have been days before anyone realised they hadn’t seen old George.”
Marjory Falstaff was hard at work, oblivious to the drama unfolding at the other end of the village. Humming along to the Christmas carols playing in the background, she smiled as she gave added the finishing touches. On the shelf behind her, an old grocer’s scales gave the slightest creak as one side clicked down a fraction, bringing it a degree closer to equilibrium with the weights neatly stacked in the opposite tray.

Admiring the finished greetings card, she added the final detail. Her trademark – the shadow gate seal, three truncated crescent moons intertwined to resemble a spiky flower. She’d been using it ever since that day a year ago when she’d made the deal that gave her one last Christmas with David.

Already well-known in the village for her crafting skills, she’d been unable to do anything but cry after that cold November day when the doctors delivered the news. David wouldn’t last a month, they’d said. The cancer was too far gone. He wouldn’t see Christmas, they’d said.

That’s when she swore she’d do anything for more time together. Promised the unthinkable to things she hardly knew (or dared consider) hiding in the shadows, for the chance to celebrate his favourite holiday one last time.

David confounded the doctors and rallied as the darkest day of the year approached. His bloodshot eyes regained something of their old spark as he watched Marjory place the angel atop the extravagant conifer she’d dragged in from the garden and decorated with the glee of a six-year-old. He’d enjoyed a mince pie washed down with mulled wine as they listened to the Midnight Mass on the radio late on Christmas Eve. He’d even opened his gifts with delight and managed to eat a full plate of turkey with all the trimmings on Christmas Day. He was happy. So was his wife.

That happiness was short-lived. Marjory and David did have their one last Christmas together, but that was all. Boxing Day dawned on his cold corpse lying next to her in the bed they’d shared for more than forty years.

Since then, she’d been adding her mark to every card she sold at the village fete, church bazaars and, in the past two months, online.

And now the time had come for her debt to be paid. 
By ten in the morning, Jo had finished her examination and was watching carefully as George Jenkins’ body was loaded into the ambulance for its trip to the mortuary. It wouldn’t take long to formally determine the cause of his death. It was the why and the how that was a mystery.

Crumb sighed as he thought of the paperwork waiting for him back at the station. But first, he called by Bellamy & Sons – Funeral Directors, to let them know they could expect a new customer once the coroner released the body.

A hush washed over him as he opened the door to undertaker’s parlour. A kind-eyed woman rose at the sound of a visitor entering, carefully arranging her features into an expression of solemn compassion. It was replaced with a tired smile when she recognised the local CID man.

“Morning, Doreen,” said Crumb. “Another chilly one, eh?”

Settling into the chair opposite Doreen Bellamy, he continued: “I’ve just come from George Jenkins’ place. Another customer for you, but I’m afraid he didn’t go naturally so you’ll have to contact the coroner’s office to find out when you can get his body and make the arrangements.”

“Seems it’s high season in our business,” Doreen sighed, pushing a desk calendar showing the next two weeks across the page. Every weekday was marked with names for cremation or burial. “The graveyard at St Swithun’s will be more brown than green by New Year.”

Winter was always a busy time, but this year had brought a bumper crop of freak accidents in addition to the usual cases of pneumonia or dodgy tickers that carried off the old and infirm. A single mother, determined to give her kids a jolly holiday despite her limited budget, electrocuted when trying to fix the ancient wiring on fairy lights found in the attic. A reckless teenage boy, his neck snapped like a twig when he slipped trying to fix a large illuminated Santa to the roof of his family’s home. The aging spinster found frozen solid on the park bench, the remains of seed she used to feed the birds still clinging to the fibres of her woolen glove.  
Time for a break, Marjory told herself. She stood up from her work table, stretched and hobbled painfully to the kitchen. Filling the kettle, she gazed out of the window. Weak winter sun was struggling to break through the clouds, casting patches of warmth and light on her lawn to melt the frost on the grass.

A robin landed on the handle of a spade leaning against the shed. It turned in Marjory’s direction and seemed to look directly at her with its bright eye.

“Hello, sweetheart,” said murmured. The robin redbreast always put her in mind of David, making her feel that he was still keeping an eye on her from… well, beyond whatever it was that separated the living from the dead.

She turned on the radio to listen to the midday news, more out of habit than interest. Terror, conflict and death washed over her like a breeze moving a net curtain, Her ears pricked up at the news of a woman in Vermont trampled by a herd of wild reindeer – an animal never before known in the state. And in Australia, a brand of gourmet Christmas pudding had been withdrawn after a child died of internal bleeding after eating a bowlful laced with broken glass.

The scales on the windowsill moved another inch closer to balancing the books.
Temperatures plummeted in Burbon-on-Lee the night before the winter solstice. An icy wind cut through the streets without bringing a single flake of the snow the children hoped for.

“Too cold for snow” opined Harry, resident amateur meteorologist and barman at the ‘Old Bell’ pub as regulars piled in for something to chase away the chill. The fire in the 16th century inglenook and the crush of pre-Christmas drinkers offered a warm refuge. Outside, long icicles formed on the eaves overhanging the footpath to the car park, trembling slightly with every gust of wind.

The cowbell above the door jangled as Inspector Crumb walked in, seeking a warm meal and company after a long day.

“Evening, Tom,” said Harry, wiping spilled beer from the bar. “What can I get for you?”

“I was thinking of one of Sal’s piping hot meat pies,” said the policeman, settling into the high stool.

“Coming right up,” said the barman, making a note of the order. “And what about a pint while you wait? Or are you still on duty?”

Finished for the day, Crumb decided on something from the pub’s selection of traditional real ales. Home was less than a quarter of a mile away, he could always walk.

“I’m done for the day. Give me a pint of Green Man.”

Taking a sip from the nutty brew, Crumb looked around the bar. Regulars sat around their usual tables, sharing the gossip – no doubt including the demise of old George. A pair of old codgers supped hot toddies over a game of chess. At the far end of the bar, a gaggle of suited twenty-somethings hooted in a fit of pre-Christmas boisterousness.

One pint led to another, as Crumb settled into a comfortable stupour after his hot meal. He didn’t want to go home to the empty house that had felt as personal as an airport hotel room since the day Jane left three years ago. He settled back in his seat, contentedly working on The Times crossword and looking up every now and then to greet familiar faces as they came and went.

The gang of drunks at the far end of the bar were getting louder and more obnoxious. If they carried on, he might need to get official and order them to pipe down.

But no, they’d had enough of the charms of the country pub and were now on their way out. No doubt to some city bar serving champagne cocktails with cranberry spiked swizzle sticks.

None were in a fit state to get behind the wheel - but that wasn’t Crumb’s problem. Just days before Christmas, there would be plenty of officers on the look-out for drunks stupid enough to attempt to drive.

Crumb raised a hand to signal to Harry for a hot toddy before calling it a night. But before the barman could respond, a monstrous gust of wind shook the pub, howling like a wild animal trapped beneath its eaves. A rumble, a crash and a scream smashed through the cacophony outside. Harry looked up, threw the bar door open and dashed out to see what had happened. Driven by his unshakable sense of duty, Crumb followed.

Through the dark peppered with the first wild swirls of snow loomed an unexpected sight. Not a toppled chimney stack, as he had expected, but the largest icicle that had dangled from the eaves had plummeted to the ground. Unfortunately, the head of one of the departing Yuppies had got in the way.

Spread-eagled in a growing pool of blood mingling with smashed ice splinters, the be-suited young man was clearly not breathing. The left side of his face was obliterated and his expensively cut hair matted with gore and bits of brain. A blonde knelt next to him, hysterical, heaving and screeching.  

Crumb watched, paralysed by shock and fatigue. Around him, people were running, screaming, shouting. Harry was yelling into his mobile phone.

Something made Crumb look up and started at a gargoyle-like face grinning down at him from the rooftop. He blinked and looked again. This time, he saw only darkness broken by the approaching flashing blue of the ambulance lights bouncing off the red brick pub wall. Must be seeing things, he thought. Shock, fatigue and too many pints of Green Man could have that effect.
Marjory was desperate. Time was running out, and the scales had still not balanced. Payment was due and if it wasn’t made… well, who knew?

One more, just one more to appease the powers that had granted her those last few days with David, and the promise that they would – one day – be reunited.

She grabbed a card from the pile she had finished that afternoon, and hastily scribbled a greeting inside. She sealed the envelope and wrote “Inspector Thomas Crumb” on the outside, and prepared to leave the house to deliver it to the police station.

She let out a strangled scream as she opened the front door to a man dressed in red. He lowered his fur-trimmed hood to reveal the ruddy, familiar face of David. Her David, healthy and happy, before the cancer.

But her blood turned to ice as his smile twisted into a snaggle-toothed snarl and he raised a filthy-clawed hand holding a white envelope bearing HER name. In the bottom right hand corner, she spied the shadow gate seal, calling to her like a homing signal.

“I’ve brought your card, Marjory,” rasped the figure before her, no longer wearing the face she loved. “It’s your turn now. The balance is paid. Time to go.”