Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Blessed Be The Fruit


Albert pulls the hood over his head, enjoying its smooth embrace as he fastens it in place. He shuts his eyes to focus on what lies ahead, preparing for his part in the solemn ritual. It’s nearly time, he tells himself, not long now. Unable to contain his curiosity, he crosses the small chamber and pushes the door open a crack. Just enough to see what is happening on the other side. What’s waiting for him. 

There they are, hundreds of them. Streaming in silently, filling the pews beneath the soaring sandstone arches. 

Where once sweet castrati voices had been offered up to the heavens, the only sound is shuffling of feet against the polished marble floor, a low murmur and the occasional cough. All eyes are turned to the High Altar. Desperation hangs in the air like a miasma. Though they are many, the crowd stands like a single creature, wounded, watching, hope oozing from its pores. Waiting.

Sulphur-tinged daylight lends a sepia hue to the jewel-bright colours of the stained glass windows that workers laboured over centuries ago, for the glory of God. But the religion the cathedral was built to serve is now long dead, its saints and martyrs no longer revered. Its nooks and nave now heave with living bodies pressed against statues of forgotten knights, bishops and patrons.

No Eucharist is performed at the altar where priests once shared the body and blood of Christ to congregations hungry for redemption. Instead, a large glass dome stands before it, hermetically sealed against the acrid air. Inside stand two trees, each as tall as three men, with broad, glossy leaves spread like splayed green hands over their branches. They echo the idyllic image in the first of the tryptic of windows that rise up behind the chancel. A vision of the beginning of the world, unspoiled, unsullied, innocent, populated by one man and one woman. Adam and Eve, unashamed and naked but for some strategically placed foliage, in the Garden of Eden.

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
– Genesis 2: 16-17

The trees in the dome are fig trees – one male, one female. Their fruit a symbol of fertility, like a ripe womb, considered by some the original source of temptation in God’s first garden. That temptation is seen in the second window, a snake twisted around the trunk as it whispers enticements into Eve’s ear.



These are the only living trees left anywhere on the planet. Beyond the dome, every leaf, flower and blade of grass has withered or been burned and stripped away. The sky is tinged with an ominous ochre, the land a uniform sea of grey-beige cement. The oceans are reduced to a listlessly heaving mass of flotsam that will never rot nor sink. No squawk of birds or buzz of insects joins the hum of human occupation – they haven’t for more than a generation.

And yet, congregations still gather at the cathedrals to worship and pray.

The crowd looks to its left at the sound of a small door at the side of the nave opening. They follow Albert’s slight, bent figure as he steps out and pads his cushion-soled way to the altar. He’s the chief attendant, dressed not in the priestly robes or vestments of past centuries but a hooded bio-suit and perspex face mask. Moving with the reverence of the most pious supplicant, he takes a card from the bag slung around his body, places it into the slot at the opening to the dome, unlocks the outer door and enters. Closing it behind him, he turns and steps through the second door into the trees’ realm.

Albert is a horticulturist, the last of an almost-dead breed. At nearly 160, medical science has ensured that his mind is still clear and multiple laser surgeries have kept his vision sharp. His movements are painful despite his many implants, yet driven by the urgency of his mission. Named after the patron saint of scientists, Albert is a mere mortal, decades beyond his prime and wracked with doubt and desperation. The load he carries is a heavy one. The hopes of the world lie on his shoulders. Hopes for a green resurrection. Rebirth.

It’s time to begin the ritual. He plucks two small buds from the male tree, cuts them open and taps out their pollen into a sterilized steel bowl before gathering the precious dust into a syringe. Then he takes a needle and passes it all the way through the single fruit hanging from the female tree. Into the hole it leaves, he injects the pollen and, lifting his mask a little, gently blows into the hole like a kiss on the wind - just to be sure.

In the third window above him, the faces of the man and woman are twisted with fear and anguish. No longer naked, they’re covered with rough tunics as they flee an angry angel charged with their punishment.

And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken.
– Genesis 3: 22-23

A deep sense of peace passes through Albert’s bones. His mission is complete, his purpose fulfilled. He is done. He turns and faces the crowd.

With shaking hands, he removes his mask completely. As he slips his hood down, the halogen light glints off his delicate pink scalp dotted with age spots and wispy white hair. The gloves go next, freeing him to unzip the bio-suit and step buck-naked out of it. His meatless buttocks sag loosely as he turns to face the trees. He raises his arms to them in tribute then brings his hands together in prayer. The crowd responds with a mass murmur rippling through the pews:

“Blessed Be The Fruit.”

Albert is spent. His time is over. These are his last moments, and he is claiming them. He sits creakily cross-legged at the foot of the mother tree and leans his head against her trunk. His eyes flutter and close as he breathes a long sigh of contentment. Beneath his lids dance visions of juicy red-fleshed figs plucked from the trees in the sunlit gardens of his youth more than a century and a half ago. He has regained his paradise. Only time will tell if he is alone.

The ritual is complete, but the congregation does not leave. Even after Albert’s chest rises and falls gently for the last time, they refuse to go. This is where they need to be. There is no fear on their faces, just weariness and resignation pricked with faith. 

Reluctant to return to the harsh, leafless world beyond the cathedral walls, they sit and wait. For a miracle. For a resurrection. For the glory of what they once had, but have lost forever.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

The Artisan


Today:
A strip of old blue paint flakes off the door as I lift the latch. It falls to the ground, resting on the overgrown grass like a petal shed from one of Nana’s beloved cornflowers. 
The door opens with a creak and I peer into the gloom. Weak rays of sunlight filter through the windows at the back of the workroom, smeared with years of dust and neglect. The light dances clumsily on tarp-shrouded humps whose shape I remembered so well. Musty air catches in my throat. It speaks of being sealed like a tomb, a memorial to the most practical of men whose tools now lie obsolete.

There’s a hint of wood chips in the air. Very faint, like a distant memory, but enough to recall countless pieces cut, shaped and smoothed to exactly the right shape and size.
In the corner, covered by an ancient oil cloth, sits the abandoned power saw. Next to it, shoved unceremoniously against the wall, is the workbench. His workbench.

++++++++++++++++++++++
August 1976:

It had been a long, hot English summer. Quite unlike anything I’d ever known in my 11 years. June, July and now August had hardly seen a spot of rain. At first it was fun, running around the garden like little savages in swimsuits, splashing about in paddling pools, turning a fierce shade of pink whose heat kept us awake at night.

Then the hosepipe ban came into force. The sun kept beating down. Grandad’s carefully tended lawns turned dry and yellow. The flowers in the herbaceous borders drooped like surrendering soldiers. The dank, green-tinged rainwater in the butt behind the shed was soon used up on the thirsty tomatoes.

With no hosepipe to frolic around with, we quickly tired of playing outside at our grandparents’ house whilst our parents were working. We’d read all our books, climbed all the trees, explored the woods at the back of garden (now parched and buzzing with insect life), and built as many play camps as we could with old bean sticks and blankets from the shed.

Biscuits had been baked, raspberries and green beans picked, peas shucked from their pods, tomatoes gathered from the tangy-sweet smelling greenhouse.

We had became blasé to the heat whose novelty was now quickly waning.

We were bored. And boredom is a dangerous thing in pre-teen sisters.

++++++++++++++++++++++
Today:
I wipe the grime from the heavy cloth and yank it down onto the floor. Mindful of grandad’s meticulous ways and half fearful he’s still watching me, I bend to fold it neatly and place it to one side.

The workbench sits there patiently, just it has for more than half a century, waiting to be useful. The vice is slightly ajar, ready to tighten its grip whenever needed. There is still a slick of ancient Vaseline on the thread of its screw to ward off the rust that dots the handle and the screws holding it in place. Faded numbers mark the inches along the length of the bench. A carpenter’s pencil, its broad flattened tip sharpened with a Stanley knife, nestles in one of the grooves.

I bend closer and breathe in. A faint but still powerful cocktail hits my nostrils - stale sawdust, the sweet tangy tobacco he rolled into five cigarettes per day (three for breaks and one after his midday and evening meals), the strangely plastic scent of the neon pink gel he used to clean heavy duty dirt from his hands. If I close my eyes, I can almost hear his calm countryman’s voice telling me the right way to hold the chisel.

++++++++++++++++++++++
The whirring squeeea of the circular saw stopped abruptly as our girlish voices rose to crescendo. The workroom door opened, and he stepped out, fixing us with a gaze that silenced us in an instant. It wasn’t his style to scold or shout at us. He didn’t need to. We knew he expected better of us.

“I think you two need to do something useful,” he said. “Why don’t you give me a hand in here?”

The card game we had been playing was deserted on the parched prickly lawn. We rushed to the doorstep and put on our shoes (no bare feet in the workroom) and joined him at the door. He smiled and led us over the threshold into the cool within.

++++++++++++++++++++++

September 1989:
The workbench was shoved to the side of the room. The floor around it littered with scrunched up newspapers and with spent dog ends. The circular saw and all sharp tools were banished, locked away, for safety’s sake. The workroom was locked. Hadn’t been opened for months.

Grandad was spending most of his time sitting in his armchair by now, staring into space. The twinkle in his eyes extinguished. His hands, unaccustomed to idleness, picking at the upholstery. When he got up to potter around the garden, someone had to go with him to be sure he didn’t wander off. We’d learned that lesson when he disappeared - only to be returned by the local bobby. Everyone knew the man who’d built so many village houses, and where he lived – even when he didn’t.

Lived. Past tense. He wasn’t living any more. Not the active, useful life which was the only way he knew. He was a moving shell housing the faintest whisper of the man he once was. Some days, he didn’t even remember his own name.

He didn’t know who Nana was. He knew she looked after him, and that he loved her. Assumed she was his mother.

Some days, he went outside to howl his rage and frustration at the heavens.

++++++++++++++++++++++
August 1976:
A stack of neatly cut lengths of timber lay on the floor. He handed a pencil to my sister and showed her how to measure and mark the pieces to the length against the inches on the workbench top. For me, a square block with sandpaper wrapped around it to smooth any splinters from the wood held tight in the vice’s grip. 

Cutting the wood and handling sharp tools was his job. But he called us both over to watch him work, always making sure we kept a safe distance as he operated the saw and carefully carved out holes with a chisel. He was calm, methodical, benevolent. Nothing in his capable weathered hands or mischievous blue eyes to say girls had no place in the workroom. An Equal Opportunities grandfather.

Hours passed in contented industry. Measuring, sanding, sawing and carefully fitting together the pieces of the puzzle. When we were finished, two stools sat amid a pile of sweet-smelling shavings. We didn’t even whine when he handed us brooms and a dustpan to clear up the mess. Our fights were forgotten, and there were two new pieces of furniture for the play house built on top of what had been a bomb shelter in the dark days of war.

++++++++++++++++++++++
December 1989:
The last time I saw him was in the care home. Defeated and confused by his unfamiliar surroundings, he still had moments of lucidity. Those moments were the worst – a reminder that he knew what he had become but could do nothing to escape his internal prison cell.
He looked into my eyes – the same blue as my Mum’s and my Nana’s – and said “I know those eyes so well”.

I tried – and failed - to cheer him with talk about the plants in the surrounding gardens.

“They’re dying now, just like me,” he said. Then, after a heavy pause: “I want you to go and get my shotgun.”

I looked at him, unsure what to say. He sank back into the depths of himself and was lost again.

By Christmas Day, he was dead.

++++++++++++++++++++++
August 1976:
After a glass of lemon squash and slice of cake in the sunshine as Grandad smoked his fourth roll-up of the day, we returned to our work. He had laid newspapers under the stools. A sharp chemical smell filled the air as he opened a tin of varnish with the flick of his long-handled screwdriver.

We sat cross-legged on the ground in front of the stools, each holding a brush and listened obediently as he told us how to apply the varnish to the naked wood without leaving streaks or loose badger hairs.

We were very proud when we completed the task. Even more so when he tipped the stools to show us the underside of their seats. While we’d been finishing off the crumbs of Nana’s sponge cake, he had added a hidden inscription to each in bold letters: our names, the date and the honourary title ‘Apprentice Carpenter’.

++++++++++++++++++++++
August 1990:
I woke up in a cold sweat, shaking and in tears. Horrified and heartbroken at the betrayal my sub-conscious had committed.

It had started as a simple childhood memory of Nana and Grandad’s house. But like so often in dreams, the details were off. The road in front of the house was different. The layout of the house was skewed. The garden back-to-front.

The worst inaccuracy, the greatest betrayal, was Grandad. He wasn’t the gentle, patient, thoroughly decent man who’d played such an important role in our happy childhood. In my nightmare, he was a monster, harsh, sadistic, with vicious sharp teeth. We cowered in the corner of the shed, aghast and shaking with terror as we watched this monster grab the baby from the pram left in the garden next door and take off with an evil grin on its cruel, alien face.

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

How could I have dreamed such a thing? What was wrong with me that my mind could defile his memory in such a way?

++++++++++++++++++++++
Today:
Now it’s time to banish that monster and exorcise the false ghosts. To reclaim my memories of a golden childhood denied to so many.

The house is being sold. The buyers have plans to modernise, so the workroom, play house and sheds will probably be bulldozed to make way for decking, bamboo curtains, water features and a barbecue pit.

I pull the workbench from its corner, brush the debris off and test if the handle on the vice still turns. It does. Good.

I take the pieces of wood I’ve brought with me, cut by hands more expert than mine, and set about sanding them down with the long, unhurried movements he had taught me. When they are as smooth as satin, I fit them together like a poor man’s Rubik’s cube and secure them with plates and screws.

Three coats of varnish, and it’s ready. A stool. Like the ones we made all those years ago.
It just needs one final touch.

I tip it over and write under the seat: “Artisan – then, now and always.”

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Hearts of Stone


I’ve been sitting here on my marble backside for nearly 200 years. Watching, waiting, a witness to the history of man.

The Piazzo del Popola isn’t the best-known square in the city. It doesn’t draw crowds like the Colosseum or the saints looking down from the Vatican rooftops do. We don’t see people willingly throwing their money into our fountain like they do at Trevi. But it’s our own little corner of the eternal city of Rome. The ‘People’s Square’ has seen its fair share of humanity, and from where I sit solidly at the feet of the god of the seas, I’ve had a ringside view of it all.

The three of us – Neptune, me and the other Triton on top the Fontana del Nettuna – have seen everything. The beginnings and ends of hundreds of affairs. Countless bottles of wine drunk. Mountains of pasta eaten. Tourists snapping selfies as testament that, yes, they were here. They pass through, perhaps stopping for a cup of freshly brewed espresso, before heading for the next ‘must see’ attraction to tick off their lists and get the shot to prove it. It’s not enough to tread the flagstones, smell the coffee and nibble on the biscotti - if it’s not on social media, it doesn’t count, or so it seems. Heads down, thumbs busy. Do they even see what’s happening around them?

But today? Today is different. The Square is throbbing with kids. Children and teenagers who really should be in school – it is Friday, after all. But here they are. In their thousands. Chattering like a flocks of starlings, laughing like hyped-up hyenas, shouting like over-excited penguins. Selfies are shot, hand-made signs are waved, music blares out. Some pedal madly on the bank of bicycles behind us, going nowhere but generating enough young energy to power the sound system set up in front of our fountain.

The air really does smell of teen spirit. And outrage.

The babble lulls as a small, pigtailed girl in lilac jeans and a striped top steps up to the microphone. She’s tiny, insignificant, just a child. But there’s something about her – a certainty, a determination, the arrogance of youth perhaps? – that silences the crowd. They look up at her expectantly.

Her voice is small too, even through the microphone that bounces it off the buildings. She speaks in halting, timid, slightly awkward English.

“I speak on behalf of future generations.”

Cheers, hoots and applause explode into the spring air.

“I was born in a time and place where everyone told us to dream big, I could become whatever I wanted to, I could live wherever I wanted to. People like me had everything we needed and more…”

She is not speaking to the crowd. She is speaking for them, and for countless more not here. She is claiming the voice of those who are told they are too young, too inexperienced, too immature to have a say. She speaks to the powers that be, men in suits, decision-makers and those holding the purse strings. She’s showing them no mercy.

“You lied to us, you gave us false hope, you told us the future was something to look forward to.”

A scrape of stone next to me makes me look up. She’s caught my master’s attention. For the first time since 1823, Neptune has shifted his sculpted gaze. No longer looking regally out across the Square, he is now staring at a little girl from Sweden who looks like she’d rather be hiding at the back of a library than holding a crowd of thousands rapt with her words.

I flick a look across to my fellow Triton (I call him Luigi - you can call me Al). He raises his eyebrows in surprise. We’ve seen just about everything since we’ve been here, but nothing has ever moved Neptune. Until now.

But maybe that’s only right. After all, isn’t the very thing they’re protesting about destroying his realm too? Soon, they’ll be more plastic in the oceans than fish. Some waters are already too toxic for life. Where does that leave a messenger of the sea like me?

‘May you live in interesting times’. Isn’t that how the old curse goes? Well, I’ve seen my share of interesting times. Mussolini’s Camicie Nere marching through in shirts as black as their hearts. Violent retribution when Il Duce was toppled from power and ripped to pieces by an angry mob. Red Brigade bank robberies and kidnappings. Berlusconi’s belligerent buffoonery. The unbounded joy of winning the 2006 World Cup.

But perhaps these times are the most interesting of all. Maybe they’re even the end of the times.
Children behaving like adults, surveying the mess we’ve made, begging for action to stop it getting worse. Politicians acting like spoiled brats, fingers in their ears and singing ‘la la la la’.

“…Around the year 2030, 10 years, 257 days, 13 hours away from now we’ll be in a position where we set off an irreversible chain reaction beyond human control, that will most likely lead to the end of our civilisation as we know it…  …unless in that time, permanent and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society have taken place, including a reduction of CO2 emissions by at least 50 per cent…”

Greta is pulling no punches.

“The climate crisis is both the easiest and the hardest issue we have ever faced, the easiest because we know what we must do: we must stop the emission of greenhouse gas. The hardest because our current economics are totally dependent on burning fossil fuels, and thereby destroying ecosystems in order to create an everlasting economic growth… …we have to stop burning fossil fuels and restore nature and many other things we may not have quite figured out yet… “

There’s a gravelly creak to my right as Neptune shifts his left foot, preparing to move forward.

“… we must start today, we have no more excuses…  ...nothing is being done to halt or even slow climate breakdown. Despite all the beautiful words and promises…”

I flex my muscles and get ready to get to my feet for the first time in centuries. This is no time for sitting around.

“In the last six months millions of school children all around the world, not least in Italy, have been school striking for the climate. But nothing has changed, in fact the emissions are still rising…”

As Greta’s words ring around the Square, and around the world, no-one notices that the statues on the fountain behind her have changed. No longer sitting back watching the world go by, but standing up and lending our heft of history in the hope of saving the future.

“…We children are doing this to wake adults up, we children are doing this to get you to act, we children are doing this because we want our hopes and dreams back...”

Will the adults wake up? Or are the children’s urgent pleas about climate change lost in the bickering about banks and immigrant boats?

Their passion have woken hearts of stone in our little corner of Rome. But what will it take to stir those who can make the difference?

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

The Game

She watched, fascinated, as the bead of red bloomed out of the cut in the soft flesh on the inside of her forearm. Glistening petals broke the surface tension and trickled down to the bend of her elbow, making patterns like naked trees against a winter sky. It surprised her how little it hurt - just a small drag followed by a clean metallic sting as the old-fashioned blade bit into her skin.

Holding her arm up to the cold electric light, she admired the liquid as it dripped and pooled onto the enamel of the washbasin, making bright circles of surprise on the white. A sly smile crept across her lips as she thought of what would go through her mum’s mind when she spotted the bloody splashes that she would ‘accidentally-on purpose’ miss.

Gripping the barber’s razor in her hand felt good - grown-up, powerful, in control, even glamourous. She was the romantic lead in her own movie, and surely the tragic heroine would get the attention of some tortured prince out there. Wouldn’t she?

The flow was starting to dry up, so she clutched the blade in her fingers and slashed lightly across the cut to revive it. She held the razor’s elegant V-shape like she’d seen in the movies, but a just little too tightly. Its sharp edge bit into the pad of her thumb, forcing her to drop it with a clatter into the sink, wincing in pain, trying to suck away the ache. She tracked the new trickle as it ran down, holding up her hand and twisting it to make the blood work its way around her wrist like a ruby amulet.

An angry banging on the door roused her. Her sister. Always her sister.

“Get out of there - I haven’t even cleaned my teeth yet.”
“All right, I’m coming!”
 She wrapped her bleeding forearm tissues, wiped down the porcelain and hid the blade in the back of the cupboard, for later. The door burst impatiently open the moment she turned the key, before she could pull the sleeve of her school shirt over the blood. Her sister rolled her eyes in exasperation and muttered “Idiot” as she grabbed her toothbrush.

“It doesn’t make you any more interesting,”
 she said, toothpaste frothing in her mouth making her look like a rabid doll. “It’s not clever, and it’s not cool. It’s just stupid.”

The younger girl sneered and tossed her hair in what she imagined was exactly the same move as the tortured heroine in her favourite teen vampire series.

Throughout the day, she obsessively examined the reddened welts, stroking them, picking at their edges, enjoying the frisson of pain when she prodded them. She relished the part she’d given herself to play. Her sleeves were left casually rolled up, but no-one noticed – until Annie grabbed her arm in the playground, stared intently at the skin and looked up with glittering eyes and a vulpine grin.

“We’re blood sisters now,” she whispered. “Your pain is my pain. We’re connected, and I’ll always know when you’re hurting. Next time, we do it together.”
At the dinner table, she waved off her mother’s enquiries about the spots of blood in the bathroom, saying she’d cut her legs shaving them in a hurry before school. Her sister’s muttered “Yeah, right” went unnoticed or ignored.

“Mum, can Annie come round this evening? I’ve done all my homework."
Her mother nodded as she loaded the dishwasher. It was a Friday, after all, and she had a week’s worth of housework to get through before Monday - having a friend over would keep her attention-hungry youngest out from under her feet.

Two hours later, behind the locked bathroom door, the game continued. Annie held the blade and slashed her own palm, then swiped at her friend’s before fiercely clasping their hands together until their mingled blood oozed out and trickled down their wrists.

“Do you trust me?” she demanded, looking intensely at her friend. A mute nod. “Hold out your other arm.”
Anna drew a long line from inner elbow to wrist, admiring the flowering scarlet that followed the blade’s progress. The girl winced, panic flashed in her eyes. It bit deeper than before, flashing hot fear through her as she saw the flow well up from the cut. Fat shining globules fell to the floor like hailstones in summer.

This wasn’t a game anymore. She didn’t want to play anymore.
Was it too late to stop?

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Passenger


Erin screwed the buds into her ears, scrolled through the screen on her phone and clicked on her favourite podcast.

There wasn’t a day that went by that she didn’t thank the gods, and especially Steve Jobs, for technology. The burble it delivered helped her zone out and get through the twice-daily ritual of strap hanging, personal space invasion and pungent reminders of what other people had for dinner the night before. The train was a necessary evil - a quicker, cheaper and less stressful commute than driving across the city and searching for a space to park that wouldn’t cost her an expensive fee or a fine. It was just a shame that so many other people had to be in the carriage with her.

She took a last gulp of fresh air and stepped onto the escalator that carried her down into the bowels of the earth. All around her, people scurried about like ants in a panic after a boot smashes their nest. Everyone had the same frantic zombie vibe. Some days – usually when she’d slept less than the average fruit fly – she could almost see a Hieronymus Bosch painting with her fellow commuters as the tortured damned in the Underworld. Whether they were suited and booted for business, made-up to the nines, fresh from the bed they’d dragged themselves from, or gym-ready in sweats and leggings, they all had the same air of weary urgency.

And, of course, eye contact was strictly taboo. Only crazy people look you in the eye when you’re underground.

One of the crazies was waiting for Erin as she reached the bottom of the escalator. Mad George was one of those uninvited reminders of the ever-widening holes in society’s safety net that pricked her conscience every time she saw him. She couldn’t remember when she’d first noticed his rambling, shambling presence. She guessed he’d always been there, part of the army of invisibles who reminded ‘ordinary’ folk like her of what might be if they strayed too far. Broken but harmless, he was enough of a jolt to her normality to make her feel uncomfortable. Guilty. Enough to prompt a mumbled “Morning, George” before handing over a few coins from her pocket, but not enough to look him in his red-rimmed eyes. She always focused her gaze somewhere just above the bridge of his broken nose.

Erin started the pantomime of searching her pockets and grimacing an apology for having no spare change. But George held up his hand to stop her. He reached out his index finger, its chewed nails blackened with neglect, and poked her on the shoulder. The shock of the uninvited touch from a street bum who’d waved goodbye to sanity years ago gave her a physical jolt. Like being pushed aside in her own body.

“Tag,” said George in a voice like the rasp of a key turning in a rusty lock, stiff from lack of use. “You’re It.”

He smiled, nodded to himself, turned and walked away.

Erin stopped for a heartbeat, watching him, before being shoved along with an angry grunt by the lady behind her. They swept through the turnstile, swiped their tickets, and were washed up onto the platform.

Screwing her earbuds back in, Erin sighed and shook her head at George’s latest eccentricity. She tapped her phone’s screen and prepared to tune into the dulcet and oh-so-eloquent tones of Stephen Fry.

“Woah! What the…?” a voice that was most definitely not Stephen Fry’s rang through her head. “How the…? Where I am? What’s happening?”

Erin ripped the buds from her ears and looked at her phone. The screen was blank. No battery. Odd. She’d charged it overnight.

The voice continued even though her earbuds were now dangling from her hand: “And who the hell are you? Where’s George?”

She looked up and down the crowded platform. No-one else showed any sign of having heard the shout.

“Oi! You! Yes, you. Answer me. What happened to George?”

Erin looked around, started to stutter an answer…

“Not out loud, you ninny. You want people to think you’re a nutter?”

Erin clapped a hand over her mouth, twirling round and looking up and down the platform for whoever was talking to her.

“In your head. Answer in your head. I’m inside you.”

Omygod, thought Erin. It’s finally happened. I’ve flipped. All downhill from here. Before you know it, I’ll be wheeling a shopping trolley around filled with old shoes and shouting at passers-by about cats in space ships.

“Don’t be so daft. You’re as sane as I am,” said the voice.

Hardly the most reassuring thing I’ve heard this year, thought Erin.

“Oi, cheeky cow. Enough of that.”

With a whoosh of stale air, the train slid into the station. Its doors opened, a wave of people got out and Erin joined the wave that replaced them. She grabbed the pole, leant her forehead against its cool metal and willed the voice to shut up and go away.

“I’m not going anywhere, darlin’. Can’t. Not yet. You’ve gotta help me.”

Tentatively, and still worried about her grip on reality, she tried answering the voice – inside her head.

“Help you? How? If I’m not going mad, then what is all this?”

“Calm down. It’s nothing to worry about.”

Erin felt about as calm as a hedgehog in a tumble dryer. “Really? So, suddenly hearing random voices inside my head is perfectly normal, is it?”

“Well, not normal, I’ll admit that. But I’ve sussed out what’s happened. You’ve been tagged.”

“What?”

“Tagged. You know. You’re ‘It’. Like when we were kids in the school yard.”

“We?”

“Yes, we. I went to school too, you know. Probably round about the same time as you. George tagged you, so I’m inside you – for now. Hitching a ride, I suppose. And I really, really need your help. I gotta get home. Please. Help me.”

Erin wanted to run… or faint…  or scream…  anything to get away. But squashed between an old lady clutching a bag of meagre groceries and a 30-something bloke who thought it was a good idea to go straight from the gym to the office – without taking a shower – was hardly the best place for it. If she was lucky, she’d be ignored, the subject of stony-faced embarrassment. At worst, she’d been thrown off the train and collected by station security.

She shook her head, tried to clear the madness. Then she listened, carefully… Good. Nothing but the rocking of the train, beeps and nasal announcements from the speakers, and the chatter of the group of schoolkids in the corner. Seems she’d been imagining things after all.

She screwed her earbuds back in and checked her phone. Oh yeah, dead. Great. Oh well, just enjoy the silence.

“Well? You gonna help me? You’ve got to help me.”

The voice hadn’t gone anywhere. It had been biding its time. Maybe giving her time to recover from the shock. It hadn’t been enough.

“You’re just my imagination. What I get for eating too much cheese at night, or maybe that tuna I had was past its sell-by date. Or not enough coffee this morning. Or something. Anything that makes sense.”

“No. I’m real, alright.”

“… …?”

“Yeah, I know. I’m still trying to deal with it myself. It was only last night that…”

“…that what?”

“Well, not to make too fine a point of it, that I was walking around just like you. You know, in my body. Had a laugh with my mates. A few drinks, maybe a few too many. And on way home…  bham! One minute there I was…  and then…   Next thing I know, I’m inside this mad old geezer dossing in a doorway, looking through his eyes at blue flashing lights and an ambulance crew scooping me up off the road.

“Been walking around in George’s head ever since. Well, til he tagged you… Didn’t know he could do that, but I’m glad he did. Feels much better inside your head. His is a right mess, poor old bugger.”

Erin let out a sigh and shook her head. “All right, let’s say I’ll help you. How am I supposed to do that?”

“Just get me home. To Jessie, my girl. Wife actually. We got married a month ago. I can’t bear the thought of life – or the afterlife, I s’pose – without her. Not quite yet. I know I can’t stay forever but just a little bit more…  that’s all. It all happened so quick. I’ve got to get to her. Be with her. Even if it’s just for a little while…”

The voice cracked a little. A sniff, and a heavy sigh. Almost as if it was crying. But can you cry without a body?

The train rattled into the station and the doors slid open. Erin stepped out and mounted the escalator.

“Hang on. How’d you know to get out here? I never told you.”

“I always get out here. It’s my stop.”

“Well, well. Seems like George knew what he was doing, after all.”

“I seriously doubt that.”

“Well, I dunno, the fates or something. This is exactly where I need to be. You know that little park by the station?”

Erin nodded. She walked past it every day on the way to work.

“Jess takes the dog for a walk there every morning, round about this time. Daft mongrel she got from the shelter. Called him Spike… stupid name for a dog… but she’s nuts about him. No matter what, even with me dead, she won’t miss taking Spike for his morning walk.”

“But what am I supposed to do?” asked Erin, trudging up the last steps to daylight.

“Tag her, of course.”

“Oh, so I just walk up to some poor woman who’s just lost her husband and poke her? I don’t think she’ll thank me, you know.”

“You’ll work out the way. I can tell from in here that you’ve got a way with people.”

The gate to the park creaked as Erin pushed it open and looked around. An ordinary inner city park. Kids dragging their feet on their way to school, a man in a high vis vest raking leaves into a pile, swings and a climbing frame sitting empty on a bouncy rubber floor, bins overflowing with plastic bottles and fast food wrappers…

A bag lady in a rainbow bobble hat waddled past, dragging a suitcase bulging with newspapers. The council worker had stopped his raking for a sneaky smoke. A woman in a business suit and running shoes was power-walking across the grass.

“There she is!”

“Where?”

“There. On the bench, over there. That’s my Jess. That’s my girl.”

Half hidden by the trunk of an oak tree, a young woman with dirty blonde hair scraped back into a messy ponytail was slumped on the seat. Her shoulders were heaving with soundless sobs and a scruffy grey dog was nuzzling her face, trying to lick the tears away.

“Go on. What are you waiting for? Go to her!” The voice was frantic.

“And do what?”

“I dunno, ask if she’s alright. Give her a hug or something.”

Erin shook her head. She may be a people person, but giving hugs to crying strangers was not her style. As she approached the bench, she heard Jess mumbling under her breath: “Oh Spike, what’m I gonna do? He’s gone. I’m all alone.”

The voice was urgent now. “Do it!”

Erin shyly approached the girl. “Um, are you alright, love? Do you need help?”

Jess took her hands from her face and raised red-rimmed eyes to look at Erin. She wiped her tears and sniffed back a bubble of snot, but there was no hiding her heart-ripped-to-shreds grief.

“Bet I look a sight,” she mumbled. “Thanks, but you can’t do anything. I’ve just got to carry on... …but  …but  …I don’t know how.”

Erin sat down next to her, saying nothing. What could she say? She just sat. And waited.

“Jon, my husband, was hit by a drunk driver last night. Died on the spot, even before the ambulance got there. The driver did a runner and of course his mates didn’t get the number…  I told him not to go out with Darren…  bloody idiot. He’s left me all alone, and I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

She flung her arms the dog and sobbed into its grey-specked fur.

“Now! Do it now,” hissed Jon. “You saw what George did. Just a touch. Put you hand on her shoulder or something. You’re a sympathetic stranger, it’s only natural.”

Tentatively, Erin reached out and patted the green wool of Jessie’s coat.

“Do you want go for a cup of tea or something?”

Jess looked up. “Tea? I’ve had enough tea to sink a battleship since the police knocked on my door last night. But thanks, anyway. You’re a good person. But I’ve just got to get used to him not being around anymore, haven’t I?”

Erin sat, awkwardly, unsure what to do next. Had she tagged Jess? Was Jon gone?

“Oh, for fu…  I don’t bloody believe it. I didn’t work.”

He was still there.

“You must have done it wrong. Tag her again, harder this time.”

Jess got to her feet and gave a small sad smile. Erin took a step towards her, wondering how to touch her again without seeming creepy.

“Thanks for asking, but I’ll be alright,” sniffed Jessie. “I’ve got to be, haven’t I?”

Erin reached out and touched her elbow, probably more forcefully than necessary. Jessie didn’t notice a thing.

“Shit,” cursed Jon. “Still nothing.”

“I’ll come back tomorrow,” Erin told him. “Try again.”

Jess picked up Spike’s lead, and beckoned the dog. But it backed away and jumped up at Erin, who ruffled the rough hairs on its head and held his muzzle with its slobbering tongue at arm’s length.

Whoosh…

Everything went quiet, no birds tweeting in the trees. Not even the roar of distant traffic. Then the moment was gone. Spike’s ears pricked up, he dropped to the ground and bounded to Jessie…

Jon didn’t know what had hit him. It was like he’d been shoved aside and sucked through a vacuum. He wasn’t in Erin anymore. He was somewhere else. It was warm, familiar… and slightly smelly.

He tried talking to his new host, but there were no words. Just feeling. Pure and simple. He looked up at Jessie’s tear-stained face and panted.

Erin watched, open-mouthed, not quite believing her eyes. Spike let out a series of yaps and happy whimpers, as Jess bent to his clip the lead onto his collar. She froze and looked deep into the mutt’s button bright eyes.

“I’m not alone,” she half-cried, half-laughed. “I’ve got you, haven’t I, boy? I’ll always have you.”

Silence reigned inside Erin’s head. “Jon has left the building,” she thought to herself with an inner smile.

He was back where he belonged. He was home.