Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Athens Portraits: The Fall

She knew in an instant that she was going down. And going down hard. 

A foot snagged in the netting flung across a shopfront under renovation as she dashed along the over-furnished, over-populated pavement could have no other possible result. That much she knew – been there, done that, time and time again.

Inside her head it played out in tortuous slow motion allowing her time to observe every single detail of the scene. She was powerless to do anything to stop her inevitable slam into the grimy paving slabs dusted with dirt arrived at the bustling port from Syria, Afghanistan, and countless other war-torn and persecution-plagued lands.

Passing faces turned to watch the spectacle. People like her, rushing home at the end of another working day, tired, weary, eager to reach home and put their feet up. They watched, then they turned away. Somebody else’s problem, after all. 

The backpack holding her laptop shot off her right arm and flew skywards, promising its own spectacular touch-down.

And then, impact. Pain exploded like a firework in her left shin – the one already permanently battered and slightly misshapen from last year's unfortunate encounter with a train and that gap you’re supposed to mind. The smash of her right knee was a mere coda to the main event, but it hit at an angle that promised a deeper bruise in the days to come. A heavy “oomph” pushed itself out of her mouth as the breath was knocked out of her, and an ominous tinkling sound rang in her ears from her laptop skidding across the concrete.

Embarrassment overcame possible injury as she dragged herself to her feet trying to brush the dust off her work trousers.

An anonymous hand reached out and touched her softly on the shoulder in a gesture of sympathy and concern, before handing her the backpack. No words were spoken, just a heartfelt glance from deep chocolate brown eyes beneath a dark headscarf. A look that crossed oceans of misery and misunderstanding and spoke a simple, human question: “Are you OK?”

A nod, a shaky grimace and a hand on her heart in gratitude was all she could manage, stunned by the simple act of kindness from a stranger who had probably seen more inhumanity and danger that she’d ever dreamed in her wildest imaginings. She was lost for words.

With a shy smile, the woman in the headscarf bobbed her head and returned to the crowd which quickly swallowed her up and carried her away. 

Wage slaves continued putting one foot in front of the other, blindly, unseeing, eager to get home for their evening meal. None missed a beat or diverted from their path to check on their fallen colleague. The only note of kindness had come from a stranger, from an unknown country, who didn’t know where she’d be sleeping that night, or even if she’d be having an evening meal.

Get the violins out, you're in for a sob story

I never knew my mother. She didn't want me. Left me in a dumpster along with yesterday's leftovers and sticky takeaway cartons.

I was no more than two days old, still had the umblicial cord attached to my belly like some useless, filthy piece of old string Mama dearest had chewed through to sever the maternal bond. 

I don’t remember much from those first two days. I know it was dark (my eyes were closed), and scary, and unknown. Too weak to climb out, and with a hunger gnawing away at me, all I could do was cry. Who knows? Maybe the sound would reawaken some semblance of pity in the female who dumped me like a used paper napkin.

But my mother didn't hear me. No female did. A man did. A big, loud, clumsy fella whose chat and laughter died the minute his oafish ears caught the sound of my mewling when he came to dump his own garbage. The harsh joviality in his voice softened as I felt warm hands scoop me up and a strange cooing sound rain down on me as a work-roughened fingers stroked my head. Before I knew it, I heard doors slam and an engine start up. New smells, very different from the stench I’d been sitting in, invaded my nostrils. I didn’t know anything about anything, except for my fear. And my hunger.

I was put in a box lined with something soft and warm. I snuffled up against it, paddling it with my feet, but was rewarded with no sustenance. But at least it’s smelt safer somehow. I ignored my growling belly and curled up against the softness to sleep.

I awoke to new hands lifting me out of the box, touching me, making soft sounds and trying to push something in my mouth. I fought it, frightened of the invasion, but then a few drop of something warm and wet gave me hope. I grabbed the tiny piece of plastic and began suckling, greedily, frantically. Soon, I was full, and my belly was aching. I soiled myself and was lifted into warm water where my feet paddled to find the way my still closed eyes couldn’t.

But I didn’t need to see to know that, by some kind of random act, I had found my way home. Or rather, it had found me…

That was nearly three years ago. 
The humans are part of my life now, and if I’m honest I’m quite fond of them. Big Red still feeds me every morning (she’s the easiest to wake), and Dangly Man (the one who rescued me from my humble dumpster beginnings) is as soft and forgiving as a marshmallow, even when I knock things off shelves to get his attention.

I even allow them to sit or sleep in my place now and then, just so long as they know they are tolerated as guests who have to serve as pillows.

I mean, a cat’s gotta get its beauty sleep, hasn’t it? 
Especially one that’s had such a rough start in life as I have.

Friday, 22 April 2016

News From The Writer's Desk: Spring Edition

Spring is here, and there's new projects sprouting from my keyboard like fluffy chicks from eggshells.

The first takes the form of a kind of self-medicating pre-emptive psychotherapy, as I prepare for my No.1 (and only) son to leave home, leave the country he grew up in, and relocate to the country where I grew up to study music.

I'm trying to be cool about it. Trying very hard. And mostly succeeding. Or possibly not.

What I think is merely me trying to prepare my sprog for life in that-there London, far from the comfort and convenience pockets of Mum & Dad Towers might actually come across as frantic mother in meltdown as she prepares to relinquish control.

It all started with a conversation about jotting down some quick, easy, economical and healthy recipes in a notebook for him. Rapidly followed by the realisation that said notebook would soon be lost amid the debris of a 19-year-old's lair. So my thoughts turned digital. A blog, I thought. And why stop at food when there's so much more my little daring would have to deal with.


And so, Staying Alive: A Mum's Guide to Student Life was  born, featuring tips from me, other parents and some students who have survived their first year on food, money, study tips and how not to piss off your housemates. And of course, a section devoted to my mental rambling son the subject called "Inside A Mum's Mind". It even has its own Facebook page.

To be honest, on some counts I'm flailing about in the dark so I'm aiming to tap into the wisdom of the crowd, so if you have any tips to contribute, send me a note and we'll take it from there.
In other news, there's a couple of new anthologies out now featuring some of my short stories:


The first is the third in the CW Publishing trilogy of dark little tales to mark holidays. Following on from 'The Grim Keepers' (Hallowe'en) and 'Festive Frights' (Christmas), we now have 'Twisted Easter Tales' which includes my story 'Feastertide' which adds a distinctly Greek flavour to the collection. 

Easter may have come and gone for most of you (it's in just over a week here in Greece) but the stories in this anthology can stay fresh til next you or even bear consumption out of season. 

Order your print copy now from https://www.createspace.com/6138095 using discount code: FEQ8VPR7 or pick up a FREE electronic copy from Smashwords.com


The second anthology is not only a good read, it's also for a good cause: The British Heart Foundation. All proceeds from "Short Stories and Tall Tales" go to charity. And it gives you a double dose of AJ Millen with two separate offerings from my keyboard. 

All for a measly £6.22 from Amazon UK or $9.99 if you're State-side and ordering from Amazon USA

There's more to come, including the publication of a new Sci-Fi collaborative novel coming soon, so stay tuned.



Lessons learned riding the Athens Metro

Travelling on the Athens Underground every day has given me a new perspective on some things.

For a start, I have now worked out why people wear sunglasses indoors. And, believe it or not, it’s not just to look cool, enigmatic and interesting.

No - people wear their shades on the train so they can stare directly at other passengers without it being obvious how rude they’re being! Once you’ve got your trusty Raybans on (just make sure the lenses are nice and dark) you can really scrutinise everything about the people in the carriage with you – their untouched roots, badly applied lipstick, crooked toupees, what they’re reading, the faces they pull as they listen to their iPods. It’s great.

Public transport is a positive paradise for people-watchers. All humanity is there, and some things that belong in other categories too. The freaks, the wage slave veterans, the knackered new parents, the cheeky school kids, the young lad with the unmistakable look of one who got lucky last night, the hopeless gaze of his mate who didn’t…

Whether we’re waiting at the platform or actually riding the train, we all establish our own little exclusion zones, don’t we? Even when we’re packed in so tight that you need a crowbar to get off at your stop, we all maintain our private space. You might be so close to your nearest neighbour that you know – in intimate detail – what he had for dinner the night before (especially if it involved garlic), but those precious few millimetres are impenetrable.

And another thing - we all either lean or hang, don’t we? Personally, I’m a leaner. Always have been, always will be. Probably comes down to innate laziness, but I do like to think I am doing my fellow travelers a favour by not hanging from the overhead straps on a sweaty day in the Athens Underground (just think about it for a moment).

As I lean, I slip on my shades (looking very cool, enigmatic and interesting as I do so – at least in my mind) and check out my fellow passengers as we sway all together to the rhythm of the traffic. Some stare solidly ahead of them throughout the entire journey, like they’re afraid that civilisation would come to an end if they caught someone’s eye. Others constantly flit their gaze from one place to another, trying not to get caught staring at anyone in particular. Some simply seek refuge in a book, magazine or feigned sleep. And then there are a few – very few, mind you – who will occasionally look at you and even (gasp!) smile.


But beware! Letting down your defences sends out a signal to the itinerant loons that can be found on trains and buses all over the world. Like Jasper Carrott, I seem to be something of a homing beacon for the 'nutters on the bus' and, being a soft-hearted old boot, have become embroiled in more than my share of discussions about the colour of my aura, the imminent invasion of earth by giant earwigs, or the demons that live in the air-conditioning vents.

Kids are pretty safe. Pre-schoolers usually haven’t learned to be all inhibited and buttoned-down yet, they take you pretty much as they find you. All you have to do is pull a few silly faces to capture your audience and produce a fit of the giggles and the illusion that you are the most entertaining person on the face of the earth.

But when you arrive at your destination, the illusion is shattered as Mum gives you a filthy look (the type reserved for dirty old men who hang around school playgrounds) and whisks her little darling away to safety....

Friday, 18 March 2016

Expectations

“I don’t know where I’m going” she says, staring into her paper cup.
“I’m scared. Who knows what lies ahead? All I know lies behind.”
He takes a deep breath, takes her hand and prepares to remind
his friend that what has been, is why she’s here right now.

That she couldn’t take any more, couldn’t live in the darkness.
Her mind tumbling, fumbling, bumbling towards the light.
But now, the weak glow of dawn doesn’t seem right.
It’s not the glorious blaze she thought would meet her,
to greet her like a prodigal daughter as she takes centre stage
(after all, who’s to say she can’t star, even at her age?).

Instead she finds a watery dose of reality,
No open arms, no pity party.
Not what she expected at all.

He takes her cup, puts it on the table, closes his coat
against the gale.
Wondering all the while if he is able to convince her that
she won’t fall, she won’t fail – she is enough on her own
to face the future and show the world she’s not done yet.

It’s not about ‘Happy Ever After’. Nor about a moment’s laughter.
He has no promises, no declaration of devotion or endless care.
But he is there - to hold her hand, to watch her try.  
To make her smile through tears, until they dry
upon her mascara-streaked cheeks .

But words fail him, sinking like sugar through froth in his coffee cup
stirred by a little plastic stick.
He takes a sip then turns his gaze to heavy clouds sulking on the horizon
like teenagers moping on the edge of social statistics.

“That’s where we’re going” he says, pointing forward.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s a start. A way to heal your trampled heart,
and put away what was, what might have been. 
Open your eyes to what you can be.”

She shakes her head but in surprise she sees,
wherever she goes, whoever’s she’s with, she is enough.

Not what she expected at all.


- AJ Millen, March 2016

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Confessions of a Mumbler

When I was a kid, my Dad nicknamed me 'Mumbles' thanks to my habit of muttering things under my breath. Now that he's gone, I feel a little sad that there's no-one left to call me by that name.

Some nicknames have a limited shelf-life. You just grow out of them and what once seemed cool and clever, in time sounds crap and stupid.

When I was at school my little gang of mates called me 'JAM' (a play on my initials) or 'Baggot' (which applied equally to us all). And that was fine, while it lasted. But by the time we went our separate ways after the trials and tribulations of the O levels, they had reached their expiry date. Today, I cringe almost as much at those names as I do at the haircut I had at the time, and I'd be hard-pressed to even tell you what a Baggot is.

But with 'Mumbles', I have actually grown even further into the name as I've got older. Dad obviously knew me well.

What started off as the habit of chatting to myself has developed into a perverse sort of communication tool. Whilst I can still occasionally be caught rehearsing one of those conversations going on in my mind, I now consciously mumble as a way of making people think I know what I'm talking about when I don't.

The idea is that if you talk quickly, clearly and enthusiastically enough, and with the right air of authority or confidence, you can skim over the bits you don't know by half-swallowing the words.

You'd be surprised how effective it can be. It even works in a second language (especially in a second language?).

No matter how long I have been here and no matter how good my Greek gets, there are certain words that I never seem to be able to get my mouth around properly. So, when I know I'm going to have to say one of those dreaded words, I work up to it by building what I am going to say into the context of the conversation and then just mumble an approximation of it when the time comes. Ta-ta!

If I wave my hands around enough (someone once said all you have to do to shut me up is to handcuff me!), the meaning is understood and it doesn't occur to anyone to ask what on earth I am waffling on about.

So, the lesson of the day is: When in doubt, mumble!

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Aloysius Lark and the Case of the Missing Madrigal

“Up the stairs, first on the left” said the helpful stranger with the face of a Persian prince and the voice of a Cockney barrel boy. 

The carefully constructed blonde in Prada heels smiled thanks and sashayed up the narrow staircase, fully aware of the impact on those watching.

In the gloom behind unwashed windows obscured by towers of box files, an equally unwashed man took a furtive swig from the coke bottle in the nearest one and summoned his best Sussex Downs accent to bid the shadow at the door enter. 

In walked a vision of statuesque but studied femininity. Arched brows, a slash of red lipstick, eyes that kept you guessing - and the merest hint of an Adam’s apple.

(‘When’s a dame not a dame?’ the PI thought in his best Raymond Chandler inner narrative.)

“Aloysius Lark at your service, dear lady. You can call me Al. How may I help you?”

“I’ve come up from Brighton,” came the husky reply.

(‘Figures.’)

“My name’s Bambi Fancipants and I manage The Wayward Strumpets burlesque troupe. Maybe you know them?”

The PI grunted and shifted uncomfortably is his swivel seat.

The cool blonde’s composure suddenly melted as she gushed: “Help me, Mr Lark. You’re my only hope! Madrigal’s being held to ransom.”

Madrigal was her ancient one-eyed tomcat. Sounded like a thoroughly vile creature to Lark, but Fancipants seemed distraught at the thought of anything hurting a hair on his scabby tabby head. Days after Madrigal stopped turning up at her seafront villa for his morning kedgeree, she’d received a ransom note from Hamish McFarb, her silent partner in the Wayward Strumpets business and owner of Bundlewood Fun Fur Factory. His demand? Complete control of the Strumpets’ assets – or the cat would become mittens.

“I’m a wealthy woman and there’s nothing I won’t do to have Madrigal safely back where he belongs – except surrender the Strumpets to that beast McFarb! He’s gone to ground and I need someone local to ferret the weasel out."

She paused, before continuing coyly: "And let’s face it, no-one’s going to believe I’m a simple check-out girl at the Tesco superstore, are they?”

After giving Lark her details, a description of the mangy Madrigal and the last known whereabouts of McFarb, Fancipants turned on her exquisite heels and left, leaving the PI intrigued, but faintly miffed.

Final demands spilling onto the floor witnessed the fact that he needed the cash. But this was no run-of-the-mill ‘Toy Boy does a runner’ or ‘Mrs Goggins loses her dentures’ case. It would take real leg work – and that meant he’d have to leave his second-storey office, venture downstairs and hit the mean streets of Sussex.

First, though, there was no harm in a little Googling to gird his loins for the task ahead. Nothing could have prepared him for what the results revealed…


The Sussex Sentinel – 27 July 2010:

Freak ice boulder kills movie star and spinster

Hollywood and a Sussex village are reeling after a freak accident claimed the lives of one of Tinsel Town’s hottest properties and the local librarian.
     Rick Rivers and Bambi Fancipants died instantly when a 500lb block of ice and frozen waste plummeted onto the stage at the Holthorne-by-Sea fete, where Rivers was presenting prizes in the cooking competition. Investigators believe it had formed as a result of a faulty valve on the toilet of a plane that took off from Gatwick Airport 20 minutes earlier. The frozen sphere is thought to have fallen off just before the aircraft crossed the English coast.

Double tragedy
Rivers is best remembered for his impromptu performance of “The Lumberjack Song” when accepting the Oscar for his supporting role in “Mounting Miss Maisy” this year. Born Dickie Pond in Holthorne-on-Sea, he had returned to the village to conduct research for a documentary about his rise to fame – and to open the annual fete.
     His agent Barbra Heinschleck said: “Since Rick arrived in LA, he had turned our world upside-down with his cute English accent and penchant for playing bad guys. The tragedy is that he was poised for greatness – both professionally and personally. Not only had he been on the verge of signing for a major new movie deal, we were about to announce our engagement.”
    From Holthorne-by-Sea the Rev. Obidiah Digby, vicar of parish church St. Mary’s-On-The-Side, said the community was struggling to come to terms with the tragedy.
     “Naturally, we’re deeply saddened by the death of little Dickie Pond – I mean, Mr. Rivers,” he said. “But the greatest blow is the loss of Miss Fancipants - she represented everything great about rural English life. The very soul of discretion, she was always eager to serve in any way she could.”

Bequest
Neither Rivers nor Fancipants left any family. However, a Last Will and Testament found in the spinster’s cottage bequeaths her collection of Anne Summers memorabilia to the Brighton Home for Wayward Strumpets and expressed the desire that her cottage be converted into a new 20th Century Erotica wing of the county library.


Well! The dame in his office a while ago sure hadn’t seemed dead, but it seems she’d wanted it to look that way five years ago. Al couldn’t help thinking that a simple name change might have made the ruse rather more effective.

He sighed heavily, laced up his boots and lumbered down the dingy staircase to street level. That’s where he had to be to track down the fiendish McFarb – he was sure his contacts wouldn’t let him down.

He was wrong. 

Neither the knots of teenage gangstas defacing the town’s walls, the friendly landlords, the not-so-friendly betting shop managers, or the philosopher tramp who held court in the bandstand knew a thing. 
Or if they did, they weren’t talking. 

He even approached the sweet-faced lady in a pink hijab greeting indifferent Waitrose shoppers with a hopeful smile and “Wiggy Shoe?” as she tried to sell them copies of ‘The Big Issue’. Nothing.

Then, inspiration stuck. He shuffled into the saloon bar of ‘The Poisoned Pig Pen’ where he found old Harry, business correspondent of the local rag, propping up the bar like one of the historic pub’s ancient beams.

“McFarb, old chap?” chirruped the hack after Lark told him who he was trying to find. “Piece of cake! I was at a junket at his place just last week. Launched a new line of pet warmers - dreadful idea. Probably make him a fortune. Quite an arse really, but the man knows his single malt.”

In vino veritas, indeed...

...Two hours later, buoyed with renewed hope and a skinful of Dewars, Lark hailed a taxi and headed for Clayfield Flats, the not-so-secret hide-out of the plush goods magnate.

An eerie silence descended over the damp landscape as the cab sped away and the PI started tramping up the muddy private lane towards the sprawling mock-Tudor monstrosity. Rooks cawed a creaky welcome and something rustled in the hedgerow.

The house seemed deserted. No hum of TV or radio betrayed a presence within, nor did any lights brighten the inner gloom. But a sound from the rear alerted Lark’s attention. An insistent, mechanical tak, tak, tak, tak accompanied by a scent of scorched metal that grew stronger as he skirted the sodden lawn and headed for the back door. Unlocked, it opened easily to reveal an artfully reconstructed ‘olde worlde’ kitchen packed with 21st century stainless steel and halogen hobs. An old-fashioned kettle was rocking on the hotplate as the heat warped its faux copper base.

A flight of worn steps led down to the basement scullery, from where what sounded like a miniature pneumatic drill could be heard. Lark descended the stairs and peered into the darkness at the bottom. The steady, defiant gaze of a single gold-green eye staring out of the face of the biggest cat he’d ever seen floated out to greet him.

Of course. The famous Madrigal.

“Well, that was easier than I expected,” said Lark out loud as he bent down to scoop up the feline.

He jumped back abruptly as a sharp-clawed paw swiped at him, threatening to sever something vital. Only then did he spot what the animal was sitting on. The lifeless chest of a moon-faced man with a 1970s porn star moustache and a tartan tie. There was a sticky pool of half-dried fluid on the far side of his face that was turned away from the dim light.

Madrigal was idly playing pat-a-cake with a round glutinous object. A small trail of slime and blood showed the progress of the cat’s plaything from its original owner’s eye socket.

Aloysius Lark screamed like a little girl. 
When the shock of realisation passed, he took out his last century cellphone and dialed his client’s number. 

“Miss Fancipants, I don’t think McFarb is going to be troubling you anymore.”