Wednesday, 30 April 2014


1989 probably wasn’t a particularly good year if you were a student protesting in Tiananmen Square, or the bloke in charge of guarding the Berlin Wall.  Salman Rushdie probably wouldn’t place it in his top ten, marking as it did several years of living dangerously (and with a fatwa hanging over his head). Nor would a handful of Eastern Bloc rulers who saw power slip through their fingers.

But for me, in my own little non-world-events scope of things, it was the start of something big.

It was the year that I travelled to Greece to work a summer as a tour company rep for British holidaymakers on the island of Samos. The year that I made friends with the cheeky barman in the hotel where some of my guests were staying, the one with twinkle in his brown topaz-tinted eyes and just the right idea for where to hang my noticeboard. 

And 25 years to the day today, we crossed the line between friendship and something more.

Despite my dodgy perm and my even dodgier rep’s uniform. 
Despite the seriously garish  Hawaian shirts and dubious braces he wore. 
Despite the fact that three days after our first proper date he turned up drunk as a skunk on my doorstep at 3am, having been challenged to sample everything in the bar by a guest (yep, a Brit!). 
Despite the fact that we smoked too much, didn’t sleep enough and ended up turning our lives inside out to face a direction neither of us ever expected. 
Despite everything, for me and the Mr 1989 was a very good year.


Gogo frowned at her meagre collection of lipsticks. All subtle variations of a ladylike rose shade, none of them really matched the new silk scarf she’d knotted round her neck. She so wanted to look ‘nice’ today. Not that it really mattered – she knew that her son and daughter-in-law wouldn’t be dressing up particularly, even though it was a feast day with all the family gathering at their house. No matter, she had standards and she intended to maintain them – even if only by example.

Sighing, she picked up the brightest shade and swiped it across her lips, pressing them together to get an even application. She looked into the mirror, smiled broadly, pouted, then frowned. She hated the lines that appeared to the sides of her mouth and above her top lip. They just reminded her that the carefree young girl from the village was long gone, her plump optimistic face erased by the years and replaced by that of a much plumper old lady.

Not that she would ever have dared wear lipstick as a young girl. Back then, only actresses, harlots and brides on their wedding days would go to such extremes. She absently fingered the cross beneath her scarf and thought of the girl she’d once been, then grabbed a tissue and scrubbed the colour off.

What business did an old woman in her 70s have prancing about with painted lips, after all? Better leave that to her daughter-in-law, who had a penchant for scarlet lips, despite the fact that she was – frankly – a bit of a slob in other ways. Gogo hoped that her 15-year-old granddaughter and namesake, Georgia, would take her style tips from the older generation. But she didn’t hold out much hope.

She saw a lot of herself in Georgia. She was delightful child who had inherited the dark eyelashes and perfect golden-tinted skin her English mother so envied. She was prettily round in the face and, like all 15-year-olds, rather self-conscious. She let her hair hang down over her face as she bent over whatever book she was currently burying her nose into and stubbornly rebuffed her grandma’s efforts to pin it back with a pretty hairpin or grip. That, Gogo reflected, was down to her mother’s influence. Though a ‘zeni’ (foreigner), Susan had a good heart but she also had more than her share of English obstinance.

She grabbed her bag, shrugged her coat on and called out to her husband, who was sitting in the kitchen bent over a crossword to the soundtrack of a TV show no-one was watching. “Ela, Michali! They’ll be waiting.”

The gruff, luxuriously moutaschioed old man gave the hallway a hard stare and put his pen down. Getting up, he grumbled that HE was the one who’d been waiting 40 minutes for her to decide which top to wear. “OK, Gogoula. Calm down,” he barked affectionately and reached for his coat.

His wife of 49 years bent to check that the votive candle burning in its holder on her dressing table had enough oil to stay alight until they returned from their lunch date. Stepping into the hall, she arched her eyebrow at Michalis but resisted the urge to ask “You’re wearing that?”

As they walked the 200 metres to their son’s apartment, she bemoaned his instructions not to bring any food to add to what they were preparing for the family meal. “I just hope that there’s enough for everyone. I’m not sure if a 7 kilo side of goat will be enough – and not everyone likes those strange salads and vegetarian concoctions that Susan comes up with. And what about dessert? I bet they haven’t thought of that.” Michalis grunted and hoped that his youngest grandson wouldn’t be hogging the TV when they arrived.

A pleasant surprise met them as Susan opened the door with a smile. She was in a dress, not jeans, her hair was brushed, and she was wearing make-up (including ruby red lips). Still barefoot, mind, Gogo noted as her daughter-in-law stepped aside to let them in. A glass half-filled with wine sat on the sideboard, a smudge of scarlet betraying its owner.

“So, what do you want me to do?” Gogo bustled into the kitchen where her only son was carving chunks of meat (and stealing mouthfuls), still in his track pants and an apron. 

“Hi Mama," he replied. "Everything's under control - just sit down and relax til we’re ready to serve up.” 

She ignored him, as he knew she would. Hovering at his side, she offered advice on how to cut the goat, opinions on the right serving dish to use and help with sampling the stuffing to make sure it was properly seasoned, in between tidbits of gossip about cousins he barely remembered he had.

The food and her son were abruptly abandoned with a broad smile as she turned to greet Georgia who had crept in and said “Kalimera Yiagia”.

“Hello my sweetheart, how are you? Don’t you look lovely?” she said, stroking the teenager’s hair into a nice, neat side parting. “Aren’t you going to put some shoes on? And where’s that lovely crucifix we gave you?”

A dark look gave her all the answer she needed. Georgia stared at her with glistening, almost fearful, eyes.

“Let’s go inside, Yiayia,” she said. “I’ve got something to tell you.”    

Friday, 25 April 2014

End of the line

Shouldering her backpack and digging a book out of her bag, Mary stepped onto the escalator heading down to the Metro platform heading for Downtown Athens. She’d made the same trip so many times, her feet knew the way, freeing her eyes to focus on the page open in her hand. She wandered up the platform and planted herself exactly at the spot she knew would put her at the foot of the Up escalator when she arrived at Monastiraki. She glanced up to see when the next train was due. Four minutes, not too bad.

Around her was the usual collection of subdued wage slaves, still smudged with sleep as they made their way to the office, or the shop, or the factory, to earn their daily bread. World weary and dead-eyed this early in the morning, none complained – they knew they were lucky they were to still be working when 27% of the population weren’t. Each was shrouded in their own personal exclusion zone, essential for survival on public transport, even when packed in so tight that a crowbar would be handy to get off at your stop.

Further along was a sprinkling of students on their way to morning classes, obstinately clinging to the hope of a decent future when all evidence pointed in the opposite direction. The noisy buoyancy of their youth added a spark of life to the strangely silent collection of Greeks, usually so garrulous but oddly quiet when riding the underground. One young lad with the unmistakable cock-eyed grin of one who’d got lucky the night before. His friend wore the hopeless gaze of one who hadn’t. A gaggle of girls giggled and compared manicures in the corner.

The train slipped into the station and shuddered to a halt. Doors opened with a whisper and they all piled in. Vacant seats were quickly grabbed before a black clad pensioner clutching a carrier bag bulging with papers and a large X-ray envelope had a chance to reach them. She planted herself next to the upright pole, hung on and stared at her feet. A young man of about 20 sporting dreadlocks, a straggly beard and a skull tattoo on his wrist jumped up and gave her his seat with a shy smile. She beamed her thanks and sat down with a sigh.

Mary scuttered to a convenient corner by the door, leaning her backpack up against it, and turned her attention back to her book. She was at a crucial point in the plot and she was hoping to reach the climax before she had to negotiate the crowds to change trains and head down to Piraeus.

The carriage jerked and swayed its familiar dance to the next stop, spilling out passengers and letting yet more in. The long, penetrating ‘baarp’ sounded, the doors slapped shut and they were on their way again. At the next stop, a handful of severely-barbered young men in dress uniform and fatigues joined them. Hardly surprising – it was the station next to the Ministry of Defence, after all. Doors thumped shut and the passengers braced themselves for the movement that would follow. None came. The train sat obstinately where it was, hermetically sealed and sulking by the platform, like a puppy that didn’t want to go for a walkies on a rainy morning.

Mary looked up briefly, but paid little attention. There was probably some glitch up ahead. It would soon be sorted out. Hopefully. She furtively crossed her fingers beneath her book and hoped there hadn’t been another suicide on the tracks at Ambelokipi station. That’s where the city’s central courts were. Where many a broken householder had received the final ruling that would cost their families their homes over the past five years. If one of those unfortunates had decided throwing himself in front of a train was better than the shame of returning with the news that he had lost everything, things tended to get messy. And she’d almost certainly be late for work.

Three more minutes passed. Some passengers started twitching at the corners of the shroud of silence covering them. Exasperated exclamations, pleas to get moving and good old-fashioned moans started to fill the carriage.

After ten minutes there was still no movement, announcement or opening of doors. People started exchanging worried looks. A feral-faced young girl, no more than eight, clung to her mother and whimpered softly. The beggar who been trawling the carriage, selling his dignity for the hope of a few spare coins, started mumbling wildly beneath his breath.

Mary reached the end of her chapter and looked up. Great, she thought, now I’m going to have to stay late tonight to get all my work done.

A communal sigh of relief rose from the crowd as the train jerked into action and started speeding forward. Normality had returned and everyone settled back into their safe bubble of isolation. Everyone except for the wild-eyed girl and the mumbling beggar who seemed more disturbed than ever.

As the train sped through Katahaiki station without stopping there was a groan of protest from those who had planned to get off there, but no-one else paid any mind. One missed stop would get them where they were going faster, after all. 

That changed as it hurtled past Panormou and Ambelokipi.

The walls of the tunnel were a rushing blur, the stations a strobe of illumination as they hurtled through them one after another. Panic spread through the passengers as they train gained yet more speed.

Mary dropped her book and stared in bemusement as the old lady with the X-rays slumped in her seat. The dreadlocked youth bent down to push her upright, whispering something in her ear as he did. The young girl clutched desperately to her mother’s breast, fiercely sucking her thumb. The beggar waved his arms and shouted drunkenly.

Something was not right. Something was so very far from right that it had crossed to a different time zone from the ways things ought to be.

With no warning, the lights went out, bathing the passengers in darkness and the screaming whoosh of the train as it sped its way to….  who knew where? 

Mary thought she could see dim shapes in the gloom moving from one row to another, but she couldn’t be sure.

An unexpected metallic voice on the public address system crackled through the the buzz of fear and confusion.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we apologise for the inconvenience.
Please brace yourselves. We are approaching the end of the line.”

Monday, 21 April 2014

Pathetic poet writes again (with apologies to all with a talent for verse)

The empty chair

Tapping off her ashes, 
wondering if passion’s
ever going outta fashion.
Chews her lip.

Looking cross the table, 
thinks she might be able
to write her modern fable
(dunks a chip).

The empty chair dares 
her to stay unawares
of fellow drinkers’ stares,
as she waits.

Ten-thirty he said he’d meet her 
in the caff with that old heater.
(Thinks: really should be neater.
Hates blind dates.)

The crossword lies completed, 
but her hopes stand - defeated.
Maybe she was too conceited?
Re-reads the ad.

“If you can sit alone just sipping 
cold coffee or idly dipping
into your book, as I'm clipping
from your hair,
you might be the lady for me.
The one I’ll woo for no fee
for all the world to see.
Meet me there.”

Ninety cold minutes gone astray. 
No, he can’t have lost his way.
Guess he wants to screw up her day,
but he won’t.

You needs dates with inept poets 
who’re so bad but just don’t know it?
Last time she’ll sink so low - it’s
time to go.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The girl who said no

She looked down at her feet and wiggled her toes. They looked like a wave, or a smile, from her happy toes back up to the brain that left them unfettered. And despite the dire warnings of her devoted but larger-than-life and deeply melodramatic Greek granny, in the two years since she’d started having her period Georgia hadn’t once suffered paralysing pains beyond the dragging cramps her friends had as a result of her insistence on going barefoot.

It wasn’t the only thing she and her gran clashed over. Seems that everything she did was wrong - from whistling in the street (even if it was Bach) to refusing to wear the turquoise bead that looked like some gruesome eyeball gouged out of an alien socket that Yiayia Gogo had given her to ward off the 'evil eye'. 

She suspected that Yiayia rather enjoyed the theatricality of her studied (and highly predictable) responses to her wayward granddaughter. She especially like to lay it all at the door of her English side. “Ach, that English ‘peisma’ – that, that… stubbornness – of yours!” she would lament “What am I going to do with you, my girl, if you won’t listen to your Yiayia, eh?”

Georgia would roll her eyes and reflect that considering that Ancient Greece provided the bedrock of modern philosophy, its modern-day heirs could do with a few lessons in stoicism, instead of throwing their hands in the air at every new crisis that arose (anything from running out of olive oil to not finding the right saintly icon to give as a wedding gift, even though the happy couple had asked for baking tins and tupperware).

Most of the time, Gogo’s despair was good-natured. Deep down she was rather proud – and not a little envious – of the young girl’s rebellious streak. Bemoaning it helped occupy her time, in between the Turkish soap operas and cooking up a storm to feed any family member within a five-mile radius. And after all, Georgia was a good girl – she got good grades, didn’t smoke (even though Gogo got through her own half pack every day), and she didn’t dress like a little ‘poutana’.  

She was just so contrary and questioning – about everything. In private, Gogo reflected that was probably not a bad quality in girl you fully expect to earn the family’s first PhD and give her the joy of telling her friends about “My granddaughter, the doctor”. Not that she would ever have admitted it.

The thought of Gogo made Georgia bite her lip as she rehearsed her speech announcing her decision. Yiayia would almost certainly go ballistic when she heard the news, descending into a paroxysm of panicked prayer and crossing herself. It would a regular Greek drama, all right.

But no matter how much she loved her granny – and she did – this was one thing she was not going to back down on for the sake of a quiet life.

It had all started when one of her friends told her she could opt out of Religious Studies classes at school. All she had to do was get a form from the school secretary (who gave her a very disapproving glare as she handed the paper over) and get her parents to sign it. Then, she’d be free of the weekly tirade of tedium distracting her from the things that really mattered.

She couldn’t see the point of the lesson anyway – let’s face it, your take on religion is first decided by your family and second, if you can be bothered, by yourself once you start looking at things critically round about the same time that puberty hit. A kid from a devout family will go to church regardless of whether or not gospels and catechisms shoved down their throats at school as well as at home. And someone from an agnostic household (no-one actually admitted to being faithless, not in Greece) was hardly going to experience some miraculous conversion on the road to Classroom B as a result of the world’s most boring lecture from some fossil of a teacher, were they?

Perhaps there was some value in the lesson, if you were planning on joining the priesthood or becoming a nun. But the kids at her school weren’t exactly clambering over each other for the chance to take the cloth, were they?

Georgia had a plan. She knew what she wanted to do, and she knew how much effort and dedication it was going to take from her. Frankly, she could do without having to learn chunks of a seriously slanted view of world religion presented in the books like some kind of eulogised parrot. That’s why she wanted out.

Her parents’ reaction surprised her. Dad, the more traditional of the two, just shrugged his shoulders and turned his attention back to his laptop screen. It was Mum, who she was sure would be her biggest ally in this fight, who challenged her.

“Why, Georgia? Why make an issue of it? Why upset the apple cart? And why now?” she said as she absently stirred the pot of beans on the stove with one hand and turned the page of the book before her with the other.  

Georgia stared at her mother, mouth agape, not quite believing her ears.

“Muuu-uuum! Don’t be such a hypocrite!” she squawked, knowing full well the effect of the ‘H’ word on her mother.

She gently placed the completed form, missing only the all-important parental signature, and a biro atop of the page her Mum was reading and cast her a cow-eyed gaze of “Come on, you know you love me!” to the English woman as she did.

Her mother sighed, slopped the wooden spoon into the beans and bent to scribble her name on the page after reading the words it held, lips moving slightly as she processed them. She thrust it back at her eldest child with a look of exasperation tinged with a hint of reluctant pride.

The doorbell ripped its jangling way through the steady murmur of the house. Georgia stopped in her tracks, panic-stricken, knowing full well who had pressed the button. She looked to her mother, now standing watching her calmly, with her arms crossed across her chest.

“Mum, pur-lease, please, please! Please, will you tell Gogo?”

The older woman straightened up, looked her daughter in the eye and gave a little smirk of amused defiance.

“No,” she mouthed, and turned back to her book.

Monday, 14 April 2014


Funny how you miss even a nuisance when it’s gone, she mused as she blinked the stinging smoke from the corner of her eye and headed back towards the trolley.

Crazy George was one of those uninvited reminders of the ever widening holes in society’s safety net that pricked her pathetic bleeding heart conscience every time she saw him. Broken but harmless, he was enough of a jar in her normality to make her feel uncomfortable. Guilty. 

Just not enough to prompt more than handing over a few coins from her pocket, without having to look into his red-rimmed eyes.

She couldn’t recall when she’d first noticed his rambling, shambling presence. She guessed he’d always been there, part of the army of invisible unfortunates who reminded ‘ordinary’ folk like her of what might be if they strayed too far from normality. But she did remember when she'd first heard his voice. Like the rasp of a key turning in a rusty lock, stiff and creaky from lack of use. He’d touched her slightly on the shoulder and smiled crookedly when she turned to see who it was.

“Not long now. I heard them. They’re coming,” he growled conspiratorially. He glanced with meaning at the battered transistor radio in his hand with the flap hanging off its empty battery compartment. Her shock at his uninvited contact was tempered by amusement, but the smidge of decency within her stopped her from laughing out loud.

Over the next few months, she learned more about by him some kind of osmosis. He was a well-known ‘character’ in the neighbourhood, and folks said he was once a respectable, hard-working man – until that day when something inside fractured beyond all repair.

She’d started greeting him every time they met with cheery but empty platitudes, carefully designed to shield her from the reality of his situation, and soon he’d become part of her daily routine. A memento mori of how lucky she was, despite the problems piling up at home. Taking the time to say hello and offer some crumb of comfort assuaged her survivor’s guilt slightly, made her feel alright about being OK, even gave her a small sense of moral superiority. But she could never bring herself to look him direct in the eye. Scared, perhaps, of what she might see reflected there.

“Morning, George!” she’d say, looking at a space precisely three inches to the right of his haunted gaze. “Bit nippy today. Hope you’re keeping warm” as she dropped some spare change into his hand. As if 73 cents would make any kind of difference.

And yet, he seemed to warm to her, see her as one of his favoured people. The ones who at least pretended he was human, and to whom he trusted his revelations.

“It’s nearly time, you know. They’ll be here VERY soon,” he said that morning with a toothless grin as he gummed his way through the greasy sausage roll she’d given him.

“Who’s that then, George?”

He stopped, mid-chew, and looked at her in disbelief and doubt.

“YOU know. Them. They’re coming. Soon. And when they get here, everything will change. Everything.” He dropped her a cheeky wink and extended his hand, offering her the last two bites of the pie.

“No thanks, George. I’m good. Gotta go. Take care.”

She scurried off to buy her daily pack of smokes from the nearby kiosk, angry at herself for letting the harmless street nut propped up against his supermarket trolley spook her like that. Clutching her cigarettes in one hand, she rattled the small change in the other and decided to give him the coins. 

But the street was empty except for the trolley neatly parked under a Stop sign on the corner. George was gone. Nowhere to be seen. Not sitting on the low wall to the side, or even taking an untidy pee around the corner.

She strode up to junction and looked both ways, expecting to see him bent over talking to a pigeon or staring up at the skies. But nothing. It was as if he’d been vapourised out of his miserable existence, quietly and discretely, in the few seconds it had taken her to buy her cigs.

Tapping one out of the packet, and taking a deep jolting puff after lighting it on the third attempt, she turned and walked back past the trolley.

It was empty, as it always was when George rolled it around the neighbourhood with him. Except for the greasy paper bag that had held his sausage roll. Beneath the printed words declaring its makers the best bakers in town, someone has scrawled some uneven penciled letters, jagged like broken teeth. 

She squinted in the sunlight and bent to read what it said. The words made her choke on the smoke and look over her shoulder in panic.


Thursday, 10 April 2014

Heavens! 21st century saints

I learned something new and rather delightful this week. 

That in itself is not unusual – most weeks I stumble across some new nugget of knowledge that makes me go “Hmmm”, “Huh?” or “Ha ha!”.

What makes this week’s revelation noteworthy was the fact that it was related to religion.

It was to my great delight that I discovered that St Kevin – yes folks, Kev himself – is the Patron Saint of blackbirds. How cool (and how unnecessary) is that?

Further research revealed that there’s a saint for pretty much anything you can think of, including the beatified protector of invincible people, the one and only (but surely underworked and bored stupid) St Drausinus.

Then there was Genesius of Rome, a stand-up comic of his time who experienced a conversion whilst on stage mocking a Christian baptism. I guess the modern equivalent would be Tim Minchin falling to his knees shouting “Halleluyah!” – and meaning it – slap in the middle of his “Thank you, God” song. Considering that he was sainted for giving up comedy, it’s a bit odd that he’s the patron saint of comedians. But I guess You-Know-Who works in mysterious ways, doesn't He/She/It?. Genesius is also the dude who keeps an eye on actors, clowns, lawyers, barristers, converts, dancers, musicians, printers, stenographers and…   torture victims (what?).
I definitely fall into at least three of those categories (I’ll let you guess which) and perhaps more, so I suppose he should be my guy. Shame I don’t do the whole God thing, really.

But heavens to Betsy! (More of her later). This is the 21st century, an increasingly secular age in which lip service is paid to all creeds and credos. So, why shouldn’t the godless get saints too?

Here are some of suggestions for saints particularly suited to our times and the special needs of western civilisation in this modern, oh-so-enlightened age.

Our Lady of Aspartame, Patron Saint of junk food dieters. You know the ones I mean – the ones who run a mile when someone offers a grape, screaming in horror at the thought of “All that sugar!”, but who happily glug back the diet Coke whilst nibbling daintily on a fat-free, taste-free, nutrition-free E-number bar. After all, if Coco Chanel had meant us to be lumpy and bumpy, designer jeans would come in sizes larger than Pre-teen Famine Victim, wouldn’t they? Our Lady is the one who protects them from the derision of the dumpy and confirms their deeply-held belief first uttered by their founding priestess Wallace Simpson, that a woman can never be too thin.
Her devotees can be found wandering the aisles of H&M, chewing on caffeine patches, bemoaning the 'huge' sizes and mindlessly repeating their mantra “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”.

At the other end of scale we find St Barry of Bridgend, the Patron Saint of binge drinkers. Positively Dionyssean in his outlook, Baz demands that his devotes pay homage to him every Friday and Saturday night by downing the body weight of a baby African elephant in cheap booze before discovering an almost spiritual inability to walk down the street without regurgitating on stray dogs or taking a dump under a streetlight. 
Saint Baz looks rewards his faithful followers by providing them with sensible friends who take away their car keys (and most importantly, their mobile phones) before a night out. Not a merciful saint, however, he leaves those to fail to worship him to literally left stew in their own juice.

Some of those who escape the clutches of St Barry inevitably end up in mocking embrace of Simon of Cowell, protector of the deluded talentless. They can be found most weekends, hogging the karaoke machines in pubs and clubs and being egged on by drunken followers of Baz to go for it and audition for the latest exercise in reality humiliation the box is offering. Best known for building 'em up, then ruthlessly knocking ‘em down, St Simon’s golden rule is to be cruel to be kind, or kind to be cruel, whichever generates the highest ratings and biggest turnover. 

St Angelina of the Perpetual Pout inspires particular devotion from her followers, as she represents the absolute possibility of transforming from vice-addled bimbo to earth motherly sainthood, by virtue of a few judiciously selected adoptions, the ability to give birth and the uncanny ability to make a sack-cloth sari drape her body like a frock from a designer known for his 'Va-Va-Voom'. Most of the time, her eyes are downcast, but perfectly mascara-ed, as she endures the penance of daily bee stings to keep her lips swollen like a guppy suffering from anaphylaxic shock.

I can’t close without mentioning St Betsy (I did promise, after all). She’s my favourite, and when I grow up I want to be just like her, complete with the lop-sided halo and barbed wire wings. She’s the patron saint of feisty old ladies, who refuse to age gracefully, probably drink a little too much and definitely have the dirtiest jokes.

These are just a small sample from the pantheon of modern-day saints. I’m sure you know some I haven’t discovered yet – so, please, enlighten me.
I SO want to believe.

Friday, 4 April 2014

The Kitty Letter Chronicles: Stake-out

It was eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-spring, with the sun fighting the smudged clouds to emerge and a light dew dampening the calls of the blackbird perched in the peach tree. I was clean (thanks to a thorough licking), sleek and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. Everything a well-turned out feline private detective ought to be. Today, I wasn’t chasing my tail - I was chasing a case.

After a quick tour of the premises, and a visit to the sandbox to lighten my load, I took up position on the sill. Pale green leaves dappled the sulky sunlight as a pair of sparrows squabbled in the branches. I yawned, stretched my jaw and pushed back my ears before considering the best stake-up position to await the arrival of my No.1 suspect.

I hadn’t been looking for a case. It had dropped into my lap, and no matter how hard I tried to push it under the rug and ignore it, it kept nagging at me like a dame selling cigarettes at a speakeasy or carnations at a 'Skyladiko'.

This was no victimless crime we were talking about. The victim was someone who meant the world to me.
The victim was me.

As the winter chill had lifted Big Red had started giving me my meals al fresco. And who was I to complain? Food, water,  the constantly changing drama unfolding on the street below, a patch of sunlight to luxuriate in, and the occasional bluebottle fly to chase was pretty much as close to cat heaven as anyone could expect in the Here & Now. It also gave me a great view of next door’s tabby as she sashayed her way around the garden like the closet siren I knew she was at heart.

But there was trouble in paradise.

There was a thief on the balcony – and his loot was my lunch.  

Every morning, my bowl was filled with crunchy goodness. Being a cat of simple needs and moderate appetites, I would only take a few mouthfuls before doing my daily limber-up and practicing my stalking technique in the mirror. But lately, when I returned for a top-up after my mental gymnastics (the ones that involved stretching out on the sofa, twitching my ears and gently snaking my tail from side to side as I considered the intricacies of a case), I’d noticed that someone had beaten me to it. The bowl was picked almost bare, leaving only the boring brown triangles that no discerning feline will eat unless faced with certain starvation.

It was a mystery. Judging by the look on her face when she dished it up, it wasn’t Big Red dipping into my food – and as for DanglyMan and NoisyKid, they hardly even touched it. No other cats stalked my beat. So, who was the culprit?

None of my usual contacts knew anything – or at least, those birds weren’t singing. I suspected the blackbird may have been in on it. His only reply was a teasing “Wouldn’t you like to know?” look down his yellow beak with one beady eye, before hopping over to another branch to squawk for his mate.

And so the stake-out had begun. For three solid days, I had taken up my post, hidden between the curtain and the frame of the balcony doors, watching, waiting for the thief to come. For three days, I followed the progress of fallen leaves from the untended flower box geraniums from one end of the balcony to the other. For three days, I pricked my ears for the slightest sound offering a clue beneath the blanket of birdsong and passing cars. For three days, I took only minor 20 minute naps to break the monotony of round-the-clock surveillance.

And for three days, I’d woken to find my bowl bereft of crunchies. It was as if the thieves were waiting, watching me, and swooping in to claim their swag the minutes my eyelids drooped.

But today was different. Today I would catch them in the act, and show whoever they were that I was no kitty to be toyed with.

I dropped down from the windowsill and took up my place near the half-open balcony door. A slight breeze fandangoed the net curtain at the edge of my gaze, threatening to break the focus. A beetle scrabbled to the corner, ignorant of the fact that he’d fall his certain death if he ever did manage to scale that ledge. The sun rays grew stronger, and warmer….  the lazy drone of a fly threatened to lullaby me to sleep. But I resisted.

A whirr of wings and chorus of coos announced it was Show Time. A gang of thuggish pigeons alighted on the railing. Big, urban bruisers with red eyes and dirty grey plumage. One sported what looked like a half-hearted Mohawk dipped in a puddle of something unmentionable.

My backside instinctively started waggling in anticipation. I forced my base urges back and bided my time “Slowly, slowly, catchy pigeon” I repeated under my breath like a vengeful mantra.

One by one, they hopped down onto the balcony tiles. Led by the biggest, meanest bruiser of the bunch – a strutting heavy with a splat of black across his left eye – they pigeon-toed towards the bowl. Black-Eye mumbled orders to his minions and they took up position behind him as he bent his filthy head to the food, MY food.

Fury acted like rocket fuel on my back legs as I exploded out of my hiding place. Mohawk narrowly missed losing an eye to the fully-extended claws on my right paw as a flying jump landed me squarely on Black-Eye’s greasy puffed-up chest.

His minders with the single digit IQs scattered to the four winds with a flap of frantic, discordant coos, and I looked down at my thick-billed nemesis trapped beneath me. Black-Eye fixed me with a malevolent glare as he struggled to escape. Part of me wanted to grab his filthy head with my teeth and twist til I heard those its super-light bones in his neck snap like dry sticks – but I couldn’t. I have my standards – and there are some things that I simply won’t put in my mouth.

I lifted my paw, claws extended, and swiped. I caught the top of his left wing and the cheek just below his vicious eye. Pain and panic shot him upwards as the movement threw me off-balance. Black-Eye scrabbled out from beneath me for a clumsy, hurried take-off that dropped into the branches of the mulberry bush below, leaving me with a pawful of feathers and the satisfying sight of a smear of avian blood across the tiles.

“Don’t think I'll be having any uninvited dinner guests for a while,” I said to myself as I shook the grimy feathers out of my grasp and smugly licked my paw.

Sauntering over to the edge of the balcony, I looked into the green-eyed gaze of next door’s tabby. She blinked up and turned to stare at the cables linking the street lights.

From one end to the other, they were filled with a chorus line of pigeons, all looking in my direction. They didn’t look like they were about to dance the Can-Can.

I decided it was time for my nap. Inside.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The Lost Letter

So, Jude had been right all along…

He couldn’t believe it. Or at least, he didn’t want to. He raked his shaking hand through his thinning, greasy hair and stared through blurring tears at the letter. The crumpled, faded pages torn from an old school workbook shook slightly in the breeze – or perhaps from his own tremor of shock and denial of the truth it betrayed.

The contents of the letter he’d found tucked into the personal effects handed over when he left jail a month ago had delivered a body blow as real as a sledgehammer to his solar plexus. He didn’t want to accept them, but they were irrefutable, and the hurt was just as deep every time he’d re-read it since settling into the halfway house.

Could it really all have been for nothing? Was everything they had done, everything they had been through, everything they’d sacrificed, all been part of an elaborate fraud? Everything they’d believed nothing but a web of lies built around the delusions of a charismatic megalomaniac?

And he had believed. Believed, because he needed to feel, to know, that he was part of a bigger story, a nobler cause, a greater truth. Because he needed something to refill the empty glass of his existence with meaning and purpose.

He’d believed that night Jude and The Teacher quarreled bitterly for the last time. He’d believed when the police burst in, scattering their numbers to the night and arresting those not young enough, quick enough or streetwise enough to make a run for it. He’d believed all through his three-year sentence.

But now, he didn’t know what to believe.

Jude had been the one who first got him involved. Moving among the dregs of society, animating them with his passion and compassion, he was the one who’d convinced them they could do something about their miserable lot, filled them with hope that together they could put right the wrongs of a world besieged by injustice.  That was before The Teacher joined them, first of all quietly, unassumingly, but with the fervour blazing brighter in his eyes with every day that passed. Soon, he’d eclipsed Jude’s burning passion and his position as their natural leader.

It’s not that they hadn’t done good, made a difference. They had. At least to the most wretched and desperate. At least for one day. Old men reduced to rifling through rubbish bins for scraps of discarded food were given a hot meal. Dried-up nursing mothers received formula to nourish their babies. Children faint with hunger gulped down warm milk. The uninsured sick got medicine to ease their pain. Shelter was offered to those with none to protect them from the cold and cruelty of the streets.

All that was asked in return was that they believed. And they did. Because they had to. They needed to believe that, despite their torment, they were the chosen, the special, the ones who would be rewarded – one day.

As the months passed, Jude’s intense gaze had gradually clouded with doubt and confusion. He started to question more, and to accept the answers less. And as he did, he was increasingly ostracised by the group he had created. His bitterness at their rejection burned like acid. Cynicism grew like a tumour within him, fed by the anger that smoulders in the heart of a disappointed idealist.

After that last night together, he’d heard nothing more of his old friend. He simply ceased to exist, his name only ever mentioned in contempt and anger. As a man, who cared, struggled for justice and hoped for a better future, he had been erased. All that remained was a new name for treachery.

The letter in his hand was undeniable. The upright letters unmistakably in the bold, commanding hand of The Teacher. But the words seemed so much at odds to the message he’d followed and given himself up for.

They gave step-by-step instructions for a Master Class in deceiving those only too keen to believe, from faking miraculous cures to manipulating ancient texts to prove that they were destined to inherit everything they had been denied by harsh reality. The promise of a higher power handing out reward or punishment was the motive, and along with a little succour delivered to the desperate along the way, the result was the elevation of one charismatic man to a pedestal which fed his pride and delusions, and ultimately led to his martyrdom.

He stared at the pages for the hundredth time. The letters danced in front of his eyes, mocking his gullibility, his willingness to do things he would never have dreamed of, all for a cause they now revealed to be a con. A well-intentioned con, to start with at least, but a con nonetheless.

He’d given up everything for the cause. His free will, his family, his friends, his freedom. He’d thought it gave everything he needed. It had felt right. It had felt like ‘home’. And now he was faced with evidence that it was all for nothing.

There was no reward for him, and no penalty for those who’d opposed him. The only reward for the good he’d done was the knowledge that somehow, somewhere, he had helped someone – even just a little.
He tried it on for size. No. It didn’t satisfy. It wasn’t enough.

The truth will set you free, they say. Bullshit. The only thing it had done for him was imprison him in a cage of regret, resentment and self-loathing. If that was freedom, he preferred the enslavement of blissful ignorance. He envied those who still believed. He wanted to rejoin their ranks.

He tapped a cigarette out of the battered pack in his pocket and lit it. He watched the line of red march up the paper as he greedily sucked in its acrid smoke, squinting as it stung the corner of his rheumy eye and blinking away a tear of regret and resignation. He made his decision.

He held up the letter – lost to him through all those months in jail and unknown to him before he was sent there – delicately between thumb and index fingers from the top left corner. With his other hand, he flicked open his ancient Zippo lighter and held it to the pages until the flame licked at the edges of the paper. A line of black followed the vanguard of glowing embers eating up the pages, swallowing the words that revealed the truth that had tormented them since he first read them. A familiar scent of bonfires filled his nostrils and he smiled through the smoke as the flames devoured the pages.

He dropped the last scrap before the creeping heat blistered his fingers, stamping it to brittle black fragments as it touched the ground.

The letter was lost again, leaving him free. Free to believe there was a reason for everything.