Friday, 29 July 2016

Forget my name (paddling in the shallow waters of my stream of consciousness)

There was a glitch in the code today. A hiccup in reality. 
And no-one noticed but me.

It hit me like a tic, a twitch of the eye. A silent stutter amid the jammering, hammering of everyday. A misstep of a mind on the edge of sleep, just before falling too deep into myself in the swaying motion of the morning commute.

It brought me rushing to the surface with a sharp sigh, looking around and wondering if I was the only one to feel it. I saw nothing in the strap-hangers and earbudded nodding dogs bouncing to their internal riffs. No missed beat. No chord change. Not even a new narrative.

Just blank looks and preservation, the tools that get us through our day, to earn us a right to say that we’ve done our bit, made a contribution, mattered.

Collaboration is our default setting. We assimilate, isolate, congregate, denigrate. Annihilate The Other to make The Whole stronger, and abandon the dregs to see their hopes and minds shattered on the hard city streets.

A disconnect. That’s what I felt. A detachment from the hive mind, a glancing butterfly wingbeat of empathy with The Other. The enemy. The thing we fear the most. Them.

Just a flutter of emotion, faint but powerful enough to bring the careful construct crashing down like a pile of wooden bricks.

I know my place, I always have. Somewhere right in the middle, maybe a little higher. Just enough to offer the illusion of the individual, while holding up the façade.

But if I was to step outside, would it feel the strain, or remain? And what’s in my name, when we’re all the same. Am I Stella, or Hope, or just plain Jayne?

Does anybody know, anybody care? Is there anybody out there? In that place we think there’s order, solid as a rock, strong even to squash the mocking mutters of the underworld and pretend it just isn’t there.

Stepping off the train, and felt it again. More than a twitch now, like a rough hand brushing against my cheek, enough to give me a peek into the shadows and tune into the whispers getting louder. Vibrating with emotion, stripped of devotion to the glue that binds us all.

The crowd waiting to ride the stairs moved wordlessly towards open air. No second glances, no raised brows. Could I really be the only one to feel the pull to the other side? Was it there for them all, just smothered by fear that it would wreck their comfort zone like an angry teen trashing their bedroom in a tantrum?

Riding up to the light, I looked up into an urgent laser gaze of another heading down. A glancing connection, a shock of recognition, an unspoken knowing. In the time it took for our paths to cross on twin escalators, a minute warning shake of the head stopped me from crying out, flying out of my proper place to scream out, to shout 

Nothing is real, you’ve got to feel. 
Forget 'Keep calm and carry on'. 
We’re all ticking mind bombs. 
Wake up and smell the garbage.

Of course, I didn’t. It was just too big, too scary, too….   everything, to step out of my slot and into the outcasts.

So, I screwed in my earplugs, tuned in to the community hum and drowned out the coda throbbing from the dark corners. I’m a creature of the light, after all, a responsible citizen with rights and responsibilities, a duty to do and a role to play.

I offered my wrist to the scanner as I entered the Square and dared to hope no-one there picked up the high notes of my fleeting rebellion. I smiled my automaton smile, walked on, and prayed that they would (please) forget my name.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Verdict - Final chapter of 'Witness: A modern parable'

The Evening Star – 15 April
People’s Prophet found guilty in uncontested trial

In a trial lasting just one day, the self-proclaimed “People’s Prophet” has been found guilty of sedition, disturbance of the peace and unspecified charges believed to be linked to a suspected terrorist plot.

The trial was held in camera, closed to the press and public, due to the sensitive nature of the case. The 37-year-old defendant refused to enter a plea, and did not contest the charges. At the request of the court, he will undergo further psychiatric tests before his sentence is pronounced.

There was a heavy police presence outside the court building in anticipation of possible protests. However, in sharp contrast to their vocal presence at public meetings and rallies in the days leading up to his arrest, none of the accused’s followers joined the press outside the court to hear the verdict.

Chief Prosecutor, Theodore Fitzgerald, told reporters that the open-and-shut nature of the case confirmed the accused had no defence.

“Let this be a lesson to those who aspire to undermine the stability of our society,” he added. “So-called charismatic leaders are nothing without their followers, and as you can see, the People’s Prophet’s followers quickly evaporated.

“The status quo prevails.”

(This is the sixth and final part of "Witness: A modern parable". Click to read Parts One, Two, Three, Four and Five.) 

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Goodbye - Part Five of 'Witness'

The Evening Star – 12 April
Unknown woman found dead in squat

A woman has been found dead of a suspected drug overdose in an abandoned apartment used by squatters in Lilac Grove. The unidentified deceased, thought to be in her late twenties, was discovered after neighbours reported a suspicious smell. Foul play is not suspected.

Peter stood alone in the unpopular far corner of the graveyard, looking down at the anonymous hump of soil that now covered the cheap cardboard coffin. It had been an hour since the gravedigger had gone but he wasn’t ready to leave. Not quite yet.

A sparrow hopped down from the branches of a nearby tree, now in full blossom, and started picking at the disturbed dirt. Drab, but full of life, it darted here and there, looking for bugs to feed its nestlings.

Peter watched the bird as he pulled a crumpled pack of Lucky Strikes from his coat pocket. Lighting the last cigarette and drawing deeply on its first sharp smoke, he wondered if he’d done the right thing.

He’d known the minute he spotted the lonely paragraph in the bottom right-hand corner of page 8 of the day-old newspaper. Lilac Grove – that’s where they’d first found her over a year ago, and he was sure it was where she’d gone when everything fell apart. And when he read “suspected drug overdose” he knew that, after all, she hadn’t found the strength to resist her old ways after her new all-too-human addiction was taken away from her.

He’d worried that he’d face an interrogation when he turned up at the city morgue offering to pay for the funeral, especially after being questioned by the police that night. But no-one raised an eyebrow. It was old news by then. No-one made the connection between the death of yet another anonymous junkie with soon-to-be-forgotten events of last month. They hadn’t even bothered to look through her meagre belongings – just a few clothes, the old Zippo lighter Peter had used to light his cigarette, and a journal which now sat in his backpack.

These days, it wasn’t unusual for the well-meaning to pay for a “decent send-off” to one of the army of unnamed, unloved and unclaimed who came through the city morgue’s gun metal grey doors. No headstone, of course, but at least someone to acknowledge that they had once been, and now were no more. 

The bored clerk had shrugged when he’d replied that no, he hadn’t known the woman. She just filled in the form with the false details he gave, and took his handful of notes to cover the costs of the paperwork, a flimsy box and a man to dig the hole. Without once meeting his eyes, she’d handed over the receipt, then gave him the plot number, a time and date two days later if he wanted to be there “when they put her in the ground”.

That was it. No more ceremony than paying a parking fine. There’d been no ceremony to the burial either. No priest to churn out tired platitudes, no mourners, no flowers. Just him, the gravedigger, and the sparrow.

Peter took a last drag on the cigarette. He let the dog-end fall and ground it into the damp grass with the heel of his shoe. The sparrow eyed him and hopped over to the spot to see if what he’d dropped might be a tasty morsel.

Putting his hands back in his pockets, he murmured “Goodbye, Magda”, turned, and walked away.   

(This is the fifth of six parts of 'Witness - A modern parable'.
Click for Parts One, Two, Three and Four.)

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Welcome back: Part Four of 'Witness'

Magda’s Journal: 30 March
In the end, I gave in. Of course I did. I let Jimmy walk me to the dirty old sofa and lie me down. I let him tighten the strap on my arm, and I watched him cook up the sludge in a teaspoon.

I knew what it promised and was ready for it—even the horrific heaving I knew would come afterwards. I’d lost everything. I just wanted to stop hurting, to feel like I was kissing an angel one last time.

I watched as he tapped the needle and gently eased it into the vein. A wave of relaxation swept over me, washing away my hurt, making me feel like I could reach out and touch heaven. Nothing mattered except my bliss.

I didn’t even mind when Jimmy opened the door and lead three faceless men in.

I woke this morning, bloody and bruised. I must have thrown up thirty times; there’s nothing left to bring up and yet the heaves continue. I feel like I’ve been used, turned inside-out and thrown away in the corner like an old burger wrapper. I probably have.

Then I saw it. Another package on the table with a handwritten note from Jimmy: “Welcome back, darling. This one’s on the house.”

(This is the fourth part of 'Witness - A modern parable'.
for Parts One, Two and Three.)  

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Counsel for the Prosecution - Part Three of Witness, a six-part modern parable

The yellow legal pad shone like a beacon against the jumble of papers strewn across her desk. 

A steaming cup of coffee she’d hoped would help focus her thoughts sat next to an ashtray that smelt of lost weekends and defeated dreams. It was crowded with squashed cigarette butts—some smoked down to the chemical sting of their filter, others abandoned halfway in disgust or distraction. 

Anna rubbed her eyes and stretched in her seat as she tried to reboot her brain to make sense of the papers littering the tabletop like super-sized confetti.

It wasn’t her case she was working on, she was only assisting. But she felt involved, intrigued. It was one of the oddest cases she’d ever come across—even in the pages of all those textbooks she’d waded through at law school. The facts were unremarkable, but the people involved and the circumstances surrounding it would make it memorable. 

She couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Why so much pressure to convict and punish the sad, silent man who’d refused to take the stand, offer any kind of defense or even recognise the court? Of course, there was the hint of a terrorist plot, but she hadn’t found anything to support that amid the reams of papers.

Sure, he’d stirred up some unrest, but that was hardly remarkable in these days of disenfranchisement, disenchantment and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, was it? Every Tom, Dick and Harriet was out there rabble-rousing these days—and a good few on the extreme who backed up their angry words with knuckle-dusters and knives had been overlooked by the authorities. So why pick on the bedraggled figure who had sat staring at his hands neatly folded in his cheap-suited lap at the initial court hearing? 

But who was she to question? A high profile case would look good on her resume, especially as a conviction looked like a certainty, albeit one she wasn’t really comfortable about.

Taking a sip from her coffee and lighting a fresh cigarette, Anna looked back down at the photocopied letter in a clear plastic folder. It was only background, circumstantial, unimportant to the case, but something about it kept drawing her back to it.

Dear Tom,

I’m writing to you because I know that you haven’t been swept up in the madness. You’re a rational man, not one to get caught up in the mania that’s infected those desperate to believe something more than the simple truth. 

I don’t suppose you’re happy to get this letter. I know I’m not going to win any popularity contests from now on. But I hope you’ll read on.

You must be wondering why I did what I did. I had no choice, or so I thought. Now, I hate what I’ve done, what I’ve become. But I couldn’t let things carry on like they were, hurtling at break-neck speed towards destruction. I had to do something to pull him back from the brink before his madness ate him alive, and perhaps salvage something of the dream of mending a broken world that had brought us all together in the beginning.

I believed in him from the start. I saw something that could lead us to something better, kinder. I became his right-hand man, his most passionate advocate. Even—I hoped—his friend.

But something changed. I’m not quite sure when I first saw it, that odd look in his eye. Something more than the spark that lit a fire in us—it was the glint of mania. It didn’t help that that she was always there, whispering nonsense in his ear about him being “The One”. Soon, he started believing his own words just as completely as the sheep around him.

I still loved him. I still do. But he scared me.

I had helped him weave a web of pretty half-truths and I could see it was heading for something nasty, loud, maybe dangerous, and definitely too much of a threat to be ignored. And he’d be the one to pay the price.

I thought I could save him from himself. That's why I went to the press, and then the police. I really thought they’d just pick him up and deliver him to calm-voiced, white-coated experts in quiet, pastel-painted corridors who would soothe him, exorcise his demons, help him see things as they really are. 

But I was wrong. They chewed me up and spat me out like an old piece of gum, making sure that I knew full well that it was me who sealed his fate. Now I’m hated, reviled, forever branded a traitor. Even you turned away when I tried to explain.

That’s why I’ll be lying on a cold slab by the time you read this.

I’m more sorry than anyone can ever know. I hope you can forgive me.

Don’t give up. We need people like you to make a difference. We just don’t need any more martyrs.


No matter how many times Anna read the letter, it got to her. Something kept pulling her back to the dead man’s words. A sense of affinity, despite herself.

An urgent bleep brought her back from her thoughts. A text from Theo, her boss, reminding her that he needed the papers on his desk by 8am tomorrow—in just six hours.

His words as he gave her the assignment echoed through her mind: “Let’s get this fruitcake sorted, so people like you and me can get on with things.” Like she was part of some secret cabala of privilege that couldn’t afford to let the boat rock too much.

Perhaps she was?

(This is Part Three of a modern parable in six parts. Click for Parts One and Two)  

Friday, 15 July 2016

Witness - Part Two

Peter Steinman, ID No.5D38064.

This statement is true to the best of my knowledge and belief, and I make it in the knowledge that I may be prosecuted if it contains any false information.

            Name:  Peter Steinman                                                Date: 11 March 2016

On the evening of 10 March, I took a short cut through Grove Park on my way home from work at the central fish market. At the north-east end of the park, I saw a group of men sitting around a fire, listening to a tall man in a long coat. I had never seen them before, but stopped to listen to what he was saying out of curiosity. I couldn’t hear clearly so I got closer, and was invited by one of the men sitting on the ground to join them. 
I listened for a while, but wasn’t impressed by what I heard. As I started to get up to leave, a red-haired man came out of the trees surrounding the clearing and approached the tall man. After he greeted him, policemen entered the clearing and stopped anyone from leaving. The tall man was arrested.
I explained that I was just a bystander and showed the police officer who detained me my ID and work pass. He said I would have to come to the station to give a statement.
I was put in a police van along with nine or ten others, but the tall man was handcuffed and put into a police car. I didn’t see him again. No-one spoke in the van, but several exchanged worried looks.
At the police station, I repeated that I did not know the tall man, that I had nothing to do with the gathering and that I was just a passer-by. I explained what I had heard, but could not give any information about the name of the group or their apparent goals.

After signing this statement, and giving his full contact details, the witness was advised that he may be called upon to testify at any future trial and was allowed to return to his residence. He was released unconditionally at approximately 09.35 hours on 12 March 2016. 

Magda’s Journal: 29 March
Jimmy came to visit today. I didn’t have anything to offer him but he was fine with that. I could make up for it later, he said. He was messing about with something in the kitchen. No idea what. There’s no food in the house.
 He left a package on the table for me. I know what’s in it. How could I not? I’m trying to pretend it’s not there, but it keeps pulling me back with its promise of sweet emptiness and an end to the pain. I’ve bitten my lip raw trying to resist. I don’t know how much longer I can hold out – or if I even want to.

(This is Part Two of a modern parable in six parts. Click here for Part One.)

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Witness: A modern parable in six parts - Part One

Magda’s Journal: 24 March
I woke up shivering as the first light of the day crept through the blinds. I’d fallen asleep in the armchair again, TV blaring out the same old, same old. The morning chill made my bare legs look like chicken flesh, so I pulled on my jeans and went looking for some socks. Then to the kitchen to make some tea. Black. I haven’t left the flat to get milk - or anything else - for days.
I can’t seem to get enough of the news these days. It’s nothing but doom and gloom but I can’t stop watching. Like an obsession, addiction even. Can’t bear the thought that I might miss something. Some special message, meant only for me, hidden in the reports.
I tell myself to snap out of it. Move on. But how can I? I’d built myself a new life, and now it’s been smashed to pieces.
So I sit here, all day, watching the flickering screen, hoping for a sign. Waiting patiently, loyally, for the call. When it comes, I’ll be ready.

The Evening Star – 25 March
'People’s Prophet' to stand trial on terrorism charges

A cult leader accused of masterminding a terrorist plot to bring down the Government is to stand trial. A preliminary hearing today ruled that the 37-year-old accused, who refused to give a name or address, was mentally competent to face the unspecified charges.
Throughout the ten-minute hearing, the self-proclaimed ‘People’s Prophet’ refused to acknowledge the court or enter a plea. He also waived his right to legal counsel.
Due to national security concerns, the trial will be held in camera, closed to the press and public.

Magda’s Journal: 26 March
I saw him on the news. He looked so small, so lost, alone, in a badly fitting suit that only someone with a grudge could have picked out.
They all thought he was invincible. I was the only one who knew the lost little boy behind all the fire, the passion. And I was the only one who could give him what he needed, so he could give them what they needed.
But now, he’s not talking to anyone and won’t see anyone. Or so they say. 
None of our friends are talking to me either. It’s like we never happened. They’ve all gone to ground, denying they ever knew him. 
I’m the only one left.
My phone is filled with texts from reporters. The same ones who dismissed us as deluded hippies before. They’re clambering over themselves and drooling at the thought of an exclusive. They’ll get nothing from me.
There’s one person I can talk to, even though it’s been more than a year since I swore I’d have nothing more to do with him. A year since I put myself through the wringer and came out the other end, clean. And for what?
Jimmy sent me a text as soon as the news broke. He was still my friend, he said. He was there for me if I needed anything, he said. We all know what ‘anything’ he was thinking about, don’t we?
Old habits die hard, especially when they carry the promise of blissful escape.
A Letter from Thomas

Dear Magda,

By the time you get this letter, I’ll be gone. I’ll post it before I board the ferry, but I won’t tell you where I’m going. It’s better you don’t know.
I hope you’ve managed to stay clean and healthy. I know it’s hard for you, with everything that’s happened. It’s hard for us all. I had to get away. Sorry I couldn’t stay.
You should leave too. Nothing good will come from waiting around for some kind of miracle to happen. You’ve got to start thinking about what’s best for you now. Forget him, and start putting Magda first, for once.
I know you won’t. You never would listen when I tried to reason with you about his so-called “mission”. You were always free of the doubts that haunted me, but I’m afraid that certainty will hurt you now.
We’ve had our differences, but I always cared for you. Now, I can’t bear the thought of you falling back into the life you had before. I have to try, at least one more time, to get you to see reason.
Please, think about it. He’s not worth it. You are.

With love,
Magda’s Journal: 28 March
I left the flat yesterday. After seeing him on the news, I decided I had to see him, let him know I was still his.
I showered, put on clean clothes, even fixed my hair, and took the bus. Though my heart was pounding in my ears and my hands shaking the whole way, I knew it would be worth it just to see his face again, hear him speak - only for me.
But he made them turn me away. He wouldn’t even leave the cell. 
How could he be so cruel? 
After everything I’ve done for him? Giving up everything I knew to give him the comfort that only I could see he needed?
When I got back, the letter from Thomas was waiting for me. I knew what it would say, but I read it anyway. Blah, blah, blah. He thinks he’s so logical, so superior. He just doesn’t understand. His precious letter’s now just another piece of paper gathering teacup stains on the table. It doesn’t mean a thing.
I’ve been thinking more and more about Jimmy....