Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Ori and his Lunchbox


George unplugged the sandwich toaster and looked across the expanse of Victoria Station. The arches of its roof reached to the heavens like the exposed ribs of some beached whale long since forgotten. Sparrows chittered up high, as heavy clouds spat the first sulky blobs of rain onto the glass.

It was time to pack up the sandwich bar for the day. Morning was peak time for Aphrodite’s Fillings, closely followed by the hungry commuter rush for the home counties that tapered off around 8 in the evening. Most of his regulars were now back in the leafy lanes and Lego-like housing developments of Surrey and Sussex. It was late, with no more passing trade to make it worth prolonging George’s day any more.

Quiet now, just a few straggling suits heading home. Empty food wrappers spilled out of the bins, some drifting across the concourse like tumbleweed in a Western. This was the time for the station’s other regulars. A population of underdogs hiding in plain sight, slumped all day in the corners, bedraggled figures in cast-off anoraks and battered trousers held up with string. Easily missed when you’re swept along in a sea of urban respectability.

George was looking for someone. A specific someone.

Right on cue, there he was. The huddle in front of the announcement board parted to reveal a tall, gangly figure in a cast-off raincoat from Marks & Spencer’s 1987 ladies’ collection streaked with grime that no self-respecting M&S matron would tolerate. Someone’s misplaced old school tie served as a belt, but the right-hand buttoning and jaunty details at the cuffs which ended halfway up his arms were a dead give-away. His long stringy hair was plastered greasily to sunken cheeks. An old leather satchel was slung across his body and he carried a placard proclaiming ‘THE END IS NIGH’.

Eyes burning from beneath eyebrows as shaggy as a wolfhound fixed on George, and he opened his mouth in a smile that revealed teeth as blackened and crooked as ancient tombstones.

George motioned him over. Crazy Ori was one of those uninvited reminders of the ever-widening holes in society’s safety net that pricked his conscience every time he saw him. Broken but harmless, he was enough of a jolt to his normality to make him feel uncomfortable. Guilty. Not much, but enough to make him hand over what was left over from the day’s baguettes, wraps and pittas.

It was a year since George and his father had taken over the sandwich bar concession in the station, and a full twelve months since his father had set foot in it. Every day, George was there, serving up snacks as divine as the goddess of love that his dad insisted they name it after, in honour of the island he had left as a young man thirty years ago. Just 19 years old, George was a hard-worker and good with the customers – chatting brightly and flashing his doe-eyes at customers as he filled their sandwiches.

He couldn’t recall when he’d first noticed Ori’s rambling, shambling presence. It was like he’d always been there, part of the army of invisible unfortunates who reminded ‘ordinary’ folk of what might be if they strayed too far from normality. But he could not forget the first time he'd first heard his voice. Like the rasp of a key turning in a rusty lock, stiff and creaky from lack of use.

The old-timer had reached over and lightly touched the ornate Orthodox cross his mother insisted he wear, nestled in the dark curls poking up over the neckline of his shirt. “You believe?” he’d asked.

“Yeah, of course, mate. Got to, don’t you?”

“But have you repented?”

George thought back to the last time his mum had dragged him to confession at St Sofia’s, shrugged and rolled his eyes.

“Well, not officially. But I do, you know, feel bad about some stuff. It’s hard when you’re busy, innit?”

Ori had nodded sagely with the solemnity gave George’s reply far more weight than it warranted.

“Not long now. I’ve seen the signs. It’s coming,” he growled conspiratorially. “Any time now, the call will come.” He glanced with meaning at the battered transistor radio in his hand with the flap hanging off its empty battery compartment.

That must have been six months ago, and still no call had summoned Ori to his higher cause. And at the end of every busy day, he would appear and George would give him a few pieces of bread, a hunk of haloumi starting to sweat under the lights, maybe a dollop of taramosalata or hummus, the occasional cheese pie and anything else that wouldn’t survive a night in the fridge and come out as fresh as a daisy for the morning punters.

“Evening, Ori,” said the young lad cheerily, putting out his hand as the tramp approached the stand.

“Orifiel,” he replied, fumbling in his bag.

“Yeah, right. I get that too – my real name’s Yiorgios, but everyone calls me George. I’ve got a nice bit of turkey for you today.”

Ori pulled out a square lunchbox made from white opaque plastic. There were three indentations in the lid, where once a plastic knife, fork and spoon would have slotted. Once upon a time. Long since lost now.

He then turned to argue with a pigeon picking at the crumbs on the floor.

As George opened the box, the stench of a thousand leftover meals hit him. Though empty, its side were streaked with the remains of old sandwiches, half-eaten pasties rescued from bins and salads well past their best.

He was a kind-hearted boy from a good Cypriot family, his cherubic cheeks a testament to his mother’s home cooking and her insistence on sending him off to work every morning with a healthy portion of the family’s meal from the night before. Today, it had been a doorstep-sized chunk of moussaka, Mama Lucia insisting as she did every morning that he needed more than “bits of toast” to keep him going through the day.

He put Ori’s stinking lunchbox to one side, making a mental note to return it perfectly clean later, and eyed the old feta container that had held his moussaka, empty and dutifully rinsed out (even though George knew his mother would scrub it with scalding hot water at home). He made a decision. Putting Ori’s lunchbox to one side and vowing to take it home and clean it properly (or leave it to the mercies of Mama Lucia), he piled the day’s leftovers into the box that had held his lunch.

Ori had won his argument with the pigeon and was now scanning the station roof for some kind of sign, his ear cocked like a puppy waiting hear “Walkies!”. George put the box on the counter and was about to explain that he’d wash and return the original, when Ori’s eyes swivelled at the sound of a cab’s horn impatiently tooting in the taxi rank outside.

“The call!” He grabbed the box without giving it a glance and stuffed it into his satchel.

“I’ll remember you in The Reckoning,” he told George, then turned on his heel and strode across the station towards the Underground.

George shrugged. He’d heard no special call, just the ceaseless soundtrack of the city. He shook his head sadly as he watched the entrance to the Underground swallow up Ori and wondered if he’d ever had a family or someone to look care for him.

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

It was quiet, or as quiet as it ever gets, as Ori walked down the steps to the Tube. Too late for commuters, too early for revellers. Station staff stood wearily on guard, dampened by nearly eight hours of duty and dreaming of a hot meal and a hotter bath when they got home. One watched Ori as he approached the barrier but paid no attention when his coat sleeve produced the same beep a valid ticket would have and opened the way. Nor did he wonder at the sight of the crazy old loon dragging the placard onto the escalator. He’d been working the London Underground for nearly thirty years – it took much more than that to make him raise an eyebrow.

Ori mounted the creaking, cranking elevator that would take him juddering down into the bowels of the earth to the platform. A platform that had seen a great deal since it opened in the cold autumn of 1896. Billions of journeys, thousands sheltered from bombs dropping overhead, more suicides than it cared to remember, and a million romances, break-ups, new dreams, old despairs.

He was alone. The stale breeze of the train that left just moments before lingered in the air as he emerged onto the cracked cream tiles. Looking both ways to check no-one was watching, Ori leaned his placard against the wall and jumped down onto the track far more nimbly than a man his age should be able to and stepped into the darkness of the tunnel.

Feeling his way along the damp brick walls, his eyes gradually adjusted to the gloom the deeper he went. The wall stopped at a recess, easily mistaken for passing space for workers or storage for their equipment, that went back a good four feet to a rusted metal door.

Ori tried the handle. It opened with a clunking creak and he walked through into the sulphur yellow glow of the streetlights in Limekiln Lane.

It was good to be back. He swept his hair – now a glowing, flowing mane of silver in the lamplight – over his shoulder and looked around.

Standing before him was Gabe, horn still in his hand, his broad grin shining through the darkness. Behind him Val, as always resplendent but slightly scary in her biker’s leathers, Haniel in sensible shoes and wings flapping gently behind her, and Zachariel looking sulky and resentful. To one side stood two out-of-place mortals, a scruffy man in a trilby and great coat, and a respectable housewife knocking back espressos.

Gabriel, Haniel and Zachariel each held something small, white and plastic. A knife, a fork and a spoon, designed to slot into the grooves on Ori’s lunchbox and signal the beginning of the Last Great Battle.

Ori smiled and reached into his bag. But what he pulled out was greeted with groans of dismay.

“Great! Just great, man,” blurted Gabe, fingering the trumpet in one hand and banging his knife against the box with the other. “How is this going to work if you can’t even be trusted to bring the right box?”

Val muttered “Men!” under her breath, angry sparks flashing in her icy blue eyes.

Ori looked down at the box in his hands, took off the lid and held it out. “Cheese pie?”


Wednesday, 20 May 2020

22b Limekiln Lane


Brenda watched the burgundy and custard-yellow No.14 bus sail past the café window and up Limekiln Lane. She should have been on it, after finishing her Agony Aunt slot at the local radio station. Instead, here she was, sitting in a café with chipped formica tables, a tea urn which had probably been shiny and new some time in the late-1950s, and Madge behind the counter, who’d been in her prime round about the same time.

A dowdy middle-aged woman half-smiled as she put a pale green mug of tea before Brenda, then scuttled back to the counter. The same harmless looking woman who’d been waiting outside the station after the morning show to shyly invite her for a chat over a cuppa.

Brenda had a pretty accurate antenna for evil. After so many years, she had evaded her fair share of those seeking revenge for encouraging their partners to walk away from lives where abuse was part of the daily routine.

But this sweet lady, Jayne (with a y, as she had been at pains to point out), sounded no such alarm bells. She had a pleasant face, a little tired and puffy, with a hesitant touch of mascara and a shy slick of lipstick. Ordinary, well-meaning, eager to please. Certainly not someone likely to cause trouble.

They almost had the place to themselves. Just an old fella by the open door sharing his bacon sandwich with a scruffy wolfhound and a hipster couple soaking up the ‘authentic vintage vibe’ of the establishment.

This will all be gone soon, mused Brenda. Might as well let them enjoy their mundane reality before it’s turned upside-down, inside-out and twisted beyond their wildest imaginings.

Jayne was back, with a cup of the muddy swill Madge was confident few of her clientele could distinguish from real coffee, and fewer still would dare complain about. She slid a plate with a flat, flaky, sugar-crusted pastry in front of Brenda.

“Eccles cake,” she chirped. “You said you love them when you were talking to that lass with the eating problem last week.”

“Goodness, what a memory you have. Thank you.”

“It’s the least I can do,” replied Jayne.

She meant it. Few people seemed to notice she existed these days, let alone bother to listen to what she had to say. But something about Brenda’s ‘I’m here for you, lovey’ when she’d called in with her mid-life woes told her she might be open to listening some more.

“So, what did you want to talk about?” Brenda asked, taking a bite from her pie.

She stifled a cough. It had obviously been sitting under the dome on Madge’s counter for over a week.

“Past my sell-by date,” mumbled Jayne. “That’s how I feel. My life is ordinary, expected. Stale.”

Brenda’s eyebrows arched as she struggled to swallow the dry pastry. Jayne took it as a question.

“The kids are at Uni. Harry’s got work and golf. I can’t help wondering ‘Is that it?’. I need an adventure – but I’m not sure bored housewives are supposed to have adventures.”

Brenda forced the cloying flakes down and cleared her throat.

“What kind of adventure, lovey?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Something to remind me of who I thought I was going to be when I was a young girl. I was fearless back then, you know. Ready to take on the world, change it too. But somehow that got lost along the way, meeting Harry, building our life, looking after the kids.”

She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye.

“I know, I know. I should count my blessings. Take joy from what I have. A life others can only dream of. Happy marriage, great kids, lovely home. Holidays in the Loire Valley every year…

“…but, somehow, it’s not enough.”

The far-off sound of a klaxon cut through the hum of the suburban street and distant wash of waves on the beach. The wolfhound at the door pricked up its ears, and his owner hurriedly stuffed what was left of his sandwich into his mouth.

“Great timing, Gabe,” muttered Madge, wiping down the countertop and switching off the tea urn. “Just before the lunch-hour rush.”

The 21st century teddy girl and her beardy friend remained oblivious as they Instragrammed their ironic egg and chips brunch.

Brenda’s sixth, seventh and eighth senses were all tingling like she had fallen into a bed of nettles. It was time to get out – now. She looked up at Jayne who was idly pushing the scum in her coffee cup around with a spoon.

“Do you really mean that?”

“What?”

“That you want an adventure.”

Jayne chewed on her bottom lip, looked down and thought for a moment before licking her spoon clean and looking Brenda in the eye. She nodded emphatically.

Beyond the sensible hair and comfortable shoes, Brenda saw what was lurking beneath the M&S hoody and mum jeans.

Yes, she would do.

“Come on, then.”

The two women rose. Madge waved her dishcloth, and the old fella growled “See you later” as they went through the door.

Taking Jayne by the arm, Brenda patted her hand.

“Like I said, I’m here for you. But you’ll have to trust me. And be there for me too. Can you do that?”

Jayne nodded.

They’d walked twenty yards down the familiar street when Brenda pulled her to a stop next to a gap between two red-brick houses. It was barely the width of a shipping trolley. Jayne knew the street like the back of her hand, but had never spotted this narrow alley before.

Inside was dark and smelly. Bulging bin bags of dubious shapes and sizes lined its sides, punctuated by occasional ominous rustles. Jayne shuddered inwardly but focused on what was ahead.

A dead end.

The alley went nowhere. It finished abruptly at a battered wooden shed. On its mossy green door was a polished brass number plate.

“Welcome to 22b Limekiln Lane,” said Brenda, opening the door and pushing her across the threshold.

An unexpected smell crept up Jayne’s nose, quite unlike the old shed scent of abandoned tools, potato sacks and rising damp she had been expecting.

Coffee. Real freshly brewed coffee. Deep, aromatic, sensual. 

As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she realised this was no shed. Before her a street stretched out as far as she could see, which wasn’t far as it was a moonless night (despite barely being midday back in Bridlington) and no streetlights lit the scene. Next to her a wide pipe, like a chimney flue, was pumping out the hot aroma of roasting beans.

Brenda nudged her and pushed a thimble-sized cup into her hands “Here. Drink this. I think you’re going to need it.”

Jayne took the cup and downed it in one. Thick espresso rich enough to make a strong Italian cry slipped down her throat, snapping her back to reality… or whatever it was that she now found herself in.

“Er, what’s going on, Brenda?”

The agony aunt smiled beatifically as a dark shape like a giant moth rose up behind her.

“This is your adventure,” she said.

“And by the way, you can call me Haniel.”

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Custard creams and comfort


Agnes Bliss was content. Less than a month after being bundled into that pokey room at The Laurels in Billericay, she was back where she belonged.

She smacked her lips as she drained the last dregs from her bone china teacup. Her cataract-dimmed eyes flitted around the living room taking all her favourite, familiar knick-knacks. It was sheer heaven not having to share the place with a bunch of doolally old dears and creepy Kenneth, The Laurels’ only widower, who thought he was as irresistible as Idris Elba coated in caramel.

Zach, that nice young Care Assistant from somewhere she could never remember nor pronounce, had been just as happy as she was to leave. That wretched virus had done them both a favour.

Dark curls and smiling eyes appeared around the door jamb, followed by a face half-covered by a pseudo-surgical mask.

“Supermarket van just came,” Zach chirped in his staccato accent. “I’m just going to get the bags.”

Zach didn’t really need the mask – his type was pretty much immune to any plague man or nature had ever devised. But it suited him that no-one raised an eyebrow at his covered mouth and nose these days. Just the ticket for someone who didn’t want to be found.

“Make sure they brought my custard creams. The proper ones, not those half-baked imitations they sent last time,” called Agnes as she heard him heave the bags to the kitchen.

Zach pulled Mrs B’s shopping list from his jeans pocket. As he did, an envelope flopped out onto the floor. THE envelope. The one that had arrived when they still knew where to find him.

Frowning, he picked it up and put it to one side, putting it out of mind as he unpacked the groceries. He liked his new, mundane routine. Life lived at a snail’s pace, offering care and companionship to a sweet old bird approaching the end of her days suited him. The last thing he needed was a reminder of what was to come – and the role he was supposed to play. How he wished the end of ALL days wasn’t on his agenda.

“Don’t you worry, Mrs B. I’m checking it all. And then we’ll have another cuppa.”

He appeared at the doorway, holding a fresh cup of tea in one hand, waving a packet of biscuits triumphantly with the other. “With proper custard creams.”

Agnes smiled up at him as he placed her tea on the table beside her, two biscuits from the pack nestling in the saucer.

“You’re my angel.”

Zach blushed, and hoped she didn’t hear the dry flutter beneath his t-shirt.

“Lovely looking boy. Beautiful manners too. I’m lucky some girl hasn’t snatched you up.”

She took a slurp of her tea, then turned up the volume on her favourite midday show. Zach settled on the sofa, shut his eyes and let the blare of the TV wash over him as Mrs B’s steady breathing morphed into gentle snores.

He was lucky, he knew that. Literally, one of The Chosen. But he’d happily give it all up for a quiet life in this anonymous little house that smelled faintly of boiled cabbage. Life is easy when it’s boring.

A buzz from his back pocket broke the thoughts. He took out his phone and checked the message.

Val - again. Of course. Who else? He pressed the button and opened it:

WHERE ARE YOU??
BE AT TOMORROW’S MEETING – OR ELSE.
YOU HAVE THE AGENDA.

Same old, same old. He hit delete, just like he had 13 times before. The threat of ‘OR ELSE’ didn’t worry him – knowing the end of the world was coming put things into perspective.

The doorbell rang. Zach stood up and headed for the hall. Through the frosted glass he spied a dark, spindly figure in a shabby overcoat.

He’d been found.

“Hello Gabe,” he sighed at the nicotine-stained grin that flashed at him beneath a pencil moustache and pork pie hat. “How did you find me?”

The owner of the smile waggled his cell phone in triumph. “GPS, baby. Ain’t technology grand?”

In his other hand was a battered old trumpet. Gabe raised it to his lips, a question dancing on his eyebrow.

“Do I have to blow my horn? Come on. It’s time to save the world, little brother.”

From her favourite armchair in the living room, Agnes Bliss smiled and let out a long breath as the last custard cream she would ever enjoy fell from her hand.

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

The Call


Aloysius Lark was having a bad day.

He’d woken with a snort at his desk as the morning light struggled to push through the grimy windows of his office. After wiping the drool from his mouth and peeling a piece of paper stamped FINAL DEMAND off his cheek, he’d taken a swig from the bottle at his side, downed a couple of aspirin and set about trying to remember what day it was.

That was three hours ago, and the day hadn’t got any better as it ambled towards lunchtime. The phone had been ringing every 20 minutes, but Lark had not once answered. He knew the callers were vultures circling his shrinking resources to honour old debts, not clients seeking his services.

Fuelled by guilt and good intentions, he’d tried to organise the papers swarming on and around his desk. He gave up three minutes later, when a dust-cloud puffed up from the first folder, flew up his nose and sparked an orgasm of sneezing, choking and streaming eyes.

Lark settled back into his chair, lit a cigarette and took a wheezing drag.

A rap at the door roused him from his contemplation of the tendrils of smoke twisting through his fingers.

Before he had the chance to say “Enter!” or take his feet off the desk, the door opened. In strode an imposing blonde in biker’s leathers. She wore them well – very, very well, Lark noted with appreciation.

“Aloysius Lark?” she commanded in a voice tinged with traces of Stockholm that made him stand to attention.

“At your service, dear lady,” he bowed slightly, hoping his old school charm might soften her officious manner.

It didn’t.

“I have a job for you.”

“Let me check my availability.” He pulled out his diary, making a show of scanning the pages whilst hiding the empty gaps stretching into June and beyond.

The woman reached across the desk and slammed the diary shut. “You’re free. And if you’re not, you will be. This is urgent.”

The detective arched his eyebrows.

“What exactly do you need of me?” he asked. “Find a lost cat? Track down a deadbeat boyfriend?”

“Look at me,” she sneered. “Do you really think I need that kind of help? If it was up to me, I wouldn’t even be in this…”  she looked around in disdain “…place. But we both know there are certain services that only you can provide.”

Then it dawned on him. It had a been a long time, but now he realised what it was the blonde had awakened within him. It wasn’t lust. One does not lust after mythical beings, least of all female warriors charged with choosing who will fall in battle.

Aloysius Lark had a talent – unasked for and of unknown origin. He could spot a supernatural creature anywhere.

And they were everywhere, hiding among mortals in modern society. Forgotten, unrecognised and mostly powerless. Vampires, warlocks, goblins, the occasional ogre, elves… not to mention naiads and dryads searching for their spirit streams and trees years after they’d been cemented over.

People used to notice them, sometimes worshipped them, but mostly they shook pitchforks, lit torches or chucked Holy water in their general direction. These days, they didn’t bat an eyelid. Hardly surprising when many ‘ordinary’ people were scarier than a whole legion of demons.

Most of the supernaturals just wanted a quiet life – and Lark was happy to let them be.

He looked at the woman with new eyes. It was obvious now that his instincts were firing on all cylinders. The flowing blonde hair, the steely gaze, the Nordic features, the motorbike helmet with wings above each ear. Dammit, he could almost hear Wagner playing at the back of his head. He wondered how it hadn’t spotted it before.

“Call me Val,” she told him. “We must act fast. We’re talking about the end of the world.”

The dame meant business. Lark stubbed out his cigarette, pushed some empty burger boxes aside and started making notes.

The battle lines were being drawn up for the last fight for the fate of the world, she said. Forces were gathering in an evil alliance to claim the soul of every man, woman or child that had ever lived. Forces that were all the more powerful for being man-made, so the pantheon of mythical beings had to come together to resist them.

But there was the problem.

“The Angels of the Apocalypse,” she sighed. “I’ve tracked them all down – except one.”

Like her, they’d been living among men, waiting for the call. Orifiel, charged with declaring the coming of judgment day, was the harmless loon who haunted the Pret stand at Victoria Station begging for scraps and declaring the end was nigh. Gabriel was thinly disguised as a jazz musician playing gigs in a dingy Islington club. Haniel, the bringer of compassion, was better known as a Brenda, resident agony aunt on Radio Bridlington’s morning show.

But Zachariel, the healer who would lead the dead to judgment, had gone A.W.O.L. Last thing Val heard, Zach had been working in a nursing home in Billericay. Turned out he preferred that life. Now a reluctant angel, he simply hadn’t answered the call to report for the last great battle.

Lark suppressed a burp, rubbed his face and met her steady blue gaze. “Perhaps we should discuss the matter of my fee.”

She held up her hand, stopping him dead in his tracks.

“How about your immortal soul?”

Lark nodded meekly. This was no lady to argue with.

“Good. You’re hired,” she said. “Now, let’s get down to business.”

++++++++++

In the hallway, a sharp-suited man was bent, unseen, listening at the door. He nodded to himself, straightened up and pulled out his phone. With a flurry of thumbs, he tapped in a message and hit ‘Send’ with a vulpine grin before creeping down the stairs to the High Street.

He melted into the crowd, leaving nothing behind him but a faint fizz of brimstone.


Wednesday, 29 January 2020

The Alphabet Alliance

"As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport."
- King Lear, William Shakespeare

A was the first to arrive. He knew the importance of staying one step ahead of his enemies, and two ahead of his friends. Ambition by name. Ambition by nature.

He strode to the head of the long table and sat down. With a click of the remote control, images filled the TV screen behind him, the sound muted.

A large, lumpen man with hair like straw and a dark business suit was beating a podium, his face contorting as he shouted slogans. A didn’t need the sound to know how the crowd greeted his words – the triumphant fist pump said it all.
He smiled. Everything was going fine.

A knock on the boardroom door.

“Come!” snapped A. He half-rose from his seat and motioned the woman who entered to take a place on his left. Mrs B sat and the TV flipped to burning crosses against the night sky.

“The Pastor will be with us soon,” a blush spread across her buttoned-up features. “We rode in together.”

“Ah yes, the good Reverend,” A nodded. “A great man. Couldn’t do without his firm moral compass.”

Angry demonstrators waved “GOD HATES FAGGOTS” banners as a middle-aged man with a clerical collar and suspiciously smooth face joined them.

“All praise!” he pronounced. “Our time has finally come.” He sat at A’s right hand without being bidden.

Next came a buxom blonde with a fake tan, false eyelashes and fur coat. In her wake, a woman who was her polar opposite - small, timid, birdlike, dressed in brown, eyes darting about in case of hidden dangers.

Mrs B snorted with contempt at the blonde, looked to the second woman and patted the seat beside her. “I saved you a place, Miss F.”

F darted over and sat on the edge of the seat, clutching her bag.

Unphased by the snub, the blonde threw herself onto a chair, and tipped the contents of her bag onto the tabletop. Make-up, cigarette packs, fast food wrappers, wet wipes and used coffee cups spilled out. Nestling among them was a gold lighter emblazoned with the slogan ‘Nothing succeeds like Excess’.

C was the last to arrive, all wild eyes and shambolic fashion sense speaking of deep hurt buried but never resolved.

“Typical Chaos,” B tutted to F, loud enough to be heard.

“Back off, sister! Have you seen the traffic out there?”

He pulled papers out his pockets, peered at them, dropped a burger wrapper and tried to smooth a crumpled page.

“We can’t all be perfect, Mrs Bigotry. You’ve got Judgement and Xenophobia on your side, not to mention Little Miss Fear here, and Dogma …” he nodded at the Pastor “…with his rules laying everything out in black and white.
“I got nothin’ like that. I’d like to see how you’d handle natural disasters and madmen who manoeuvre themselves into power.”

A coughed and shifted in his seat.

“Let’s begin,” he turned to his left. “Maybe you would like start?”

Mrs B straightened her spectacles and stood.

“We’ve been focusing on the media,” she said, clicking the TV remote. A hard-eyed woman baying into a microphone, a Twitter feed pock-marked with capital letters and exclamation marks, headlines screaming.

“Our well-known allies in the ‘War on Woke’: shock jocks, publicity-hungry celebrities, trolls and tabloids. But in the past few months, we’ve seen growing support from the so-called ‘serious’ media – something we would never have seen if not for the admirable work of Popularism.”

“Excellent,” said A. He cast a questioning glance at C, who was still searching for something in his backpack.

“Not yet,” came the reply.

A rolled his eyes – but a smile played on his lips. He turned to his right.

“Very well. Then, perhaps we can hear from the good Reverend?”

“Gladly,” said D. He took the remote control and clicked to a PowerPoint presentation. Every page was headed ‘The One True Way’. Graphs, maps and figures danced across the screen, dominated by an angry red arrow in a jagged upwards trend.

“Despite our concerns over rising secularism, we’re seeing a welcome resurgence of fundamentalism across the board.” Burning effigies slid onto the screen. “And not just in our heartland, where you’d expect. We’re seeing great work by Mullahs, Rabbis and even in some Buddhist strongholds.”

He smiled at F, cowering across the table. “Much of this can be attributed to our good friend Fear, as well as the excellent work of our agents in the field Ignorance, Oppression and Zealotry. Praise be.”

All eyes turned to C. Head down, he was still sorting through his papers.
A turned to Excess. “Madam E, if you’d be so kind?”

The big blonde flounced to the head of the table and posed before the TV which now showed mountains of plastic flaking fibrous strands into the wind.

“Our recycling campaign has been a HUGE success. We’ve convinced people that all they have to do is throw their trash in a different bin and they can carry on consuming with a clear conscience.”

On the screen, hessian bags sat in a shopping trolley with boxes, bags, vacuum-sealed vegetables and shrink-wrapped bananas.

“Meanwhile, our sideline businesses selling reusable cups, bottles, bags and more are seeing record sales – and 80% of households are repeat buyers. We’re on track to smashing our target, and making a tidy profit in the process.” 

Excess sat down and Miss F got to her feet. As she did, the image on the screen flipped again. An endless line of people snaked across the screen – every one of them young, male, dark-skinned and sinister. Bold red letters screamed ‘BREAKING POINT’ next to a frog-faced man in a grey business suit.

“We’ve been working with Mrs B and her team, and the results speak for themselves. Even among those who claim to embrace diversity, fear of the ‘other’ is at record levels.
“And whenever concessions are made, our response mechanisms are working like clockwork. Look no further than the conspiracies about cancelling Christmas and removing the word Easter from chocolate eggs. All excellent fuel for paranoia.”

A shot her a Cheshire Cat grin of approval, and she sat down.

Finally, it was the turn of Chaos. He gave up rifling through his papers and walked to the head of the table. The screen leapt into staccato action showing wildfires, looters, floods, caged children, riots, a boy carrying a gun as big as himself…

“It’s growing exponentially,” said C. “It’s clear we’re approaching the tipping point, from which there’s no return…” he gave a hollow laugh “…exactly as we planned.”

“Excellent work, Chaos – yet again,” said A. “But next time, please be ready when it’s your turn.”

C flipped A the finger behind his back.

“That’s something I never got. Why is it so goddamn important to have everything in ABC order?”

A sighed.

“It’s about symbols. The alphabet is a human creation. So are we.”

He settled back into his chair, a smirk smeared across his face.

“The signs are good. Project End Days is progressing well. You will all be rewarded – in this life or the next.”

In a spreading bruise of yellow, red and black, a familiar mushroom cloud filled the TV screen.