Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Athens Interlude


Blue skies. White steps. The peevish ‘preet! of a traffic cop’s whistle. Horns honking like angry geese. Fumes creep into my nostrils and curl around the fresh-baked smell of koulouria from across the square. The babble of people swarm in and out of the Metro station. I lean back against the cardboard I’m lying on, close my eyes and let the thin winter sun tickle my face. Its warmth feels so familiar. If I try hard, I can almost imagine I’m back home. Back to the ‘old me’.

I open my eyes and watch the feet going past, each on their way somewhere else. Rushing to work, late for a date, going to a lesson, meeting friends for coffee.

Two small sneakers with the laces half undone stop in front of me. Their new-shoe shine has been scuffed off, and they dance awkwardly on the spot like they’re trying to find the courage to do something. A little kid, maybe five years old, bends down and nervously hands me a crumpled paper bag, then looks to his mum for approval. I look inside, then up into his face, and nod my thanks for the half-eaten cheese pie.

Sometimes, people give me food or some spare coins. Even a smile before going on their way. Other times, it’s just angry words I only half understand.

But most don’t even look at me. I’m no more important to them than the empty coffee cups, unwanted flyers and dead leaves swept into the gutter. Just another part of the landscape that they filter out in this dirty, noisy city that’s as old as history. They feel safer that way, I suppose, more ‘comfortable’.

I’m not the boy I used to be. That boy, and the life he had, seem like a dream now.

++++++


That boy had a family, a home, a good life, hopes and dreams despite the troubles beyond our walls. He had an Xbox, home cooked meals, friends, homework, a mobile phone, football boots, piano lessons...

Maama was so proud when I was offered a place at the Damascus High Institute for Music and Theatre. Made all those hours practicing scales and plonking my way through the Arabic and Western classics worthwhile. Her own ambitions, stopped in their tracks when she married, were born again through me. The first time I played ‘Für Elise’ without a single mistake, she’d burst into tears. Imagine how happy she was when her boy had got into the country’s top music school.

It closed down just a few months after I enrolled. The chords and harmonies that echoed in its practice rooms silenced by the crescendo of gunfire and explosions that got louder, closer, more deadly every day.

++++++

The music still lives inside me. Even this ‘new me’ that hasn’t showered in months, gets as much compassion as a stray dog and has to beg or rummage through the garbage for food. Music is the one thing that reminds me that I’m still human. Just about.

I cram the rest of the cheese pie into my mouth and wipe my fingers on my jeans. I reach into my pocket, pull out a grubby piece of paper. It’s marked where it’s been folded and refolded a thousand times. Notes and time signatures dance along the lines on the page. I lay it on the ground and carefully smooth it out.

My fingers mimic familiar movements on the keys and, just for a moment, I’m back in our living room. Practicing while Maama stirs a pot of thick, sweet coffee, her head nodding with the tempo and a quiet smile dancing on her lips.  

I can almost smell the cardamom cookies she bakes to serve with the coffee.
++++++

My older brother Sameer left one night and never came home. He’d gone to Europe, Maama said. He’d send for us. But her eyes were red, and the shadows under them got darker with every day we heard no news.

One day, Baba came home smudged with dust and blood. A bomb had exploded in Rawda Square, he said. Things would only get worse, he said. I had to leave. Now.

Maama’s face crumpled. “No! Not my baby. He’s only 17. He’s just a boy.” A sudden staccato of gunfire a few streets away silenced her. My father looked at us, empty-eyed, a once proud man broken by his inability to protect his family.

Two days later, I said goodbye to the only home I’d ever known. Bundled into a truck in the middle of the night, clutching a bundle of pastries Maama had spent a tearful afternoon baking, trying to soak every ounce of her mother’s love into the dough. Baba hung his head as he handed the driver a bulging envelope. He wouldn’t – or couldn’t – look at me.

The journey was a blur. We travelled by night, often with no lights, through places I’d never heard of. After days (or was it weeks?) on the road, we reached the coast. I spilled my guts in the open boat crossing the sea. Then, we were vomited onto the beach of an island where people looked like me but spoke a different language. Some brought us day-old bread, olives, bean stew and dry clothes. Others spat at us as we walked into town.

An overwhelmed policeman with a nicotine-yellowed moustache demanded our papers. I had none, except the music in my pocket.  

++++++

Athens is my home, for now. No camp or shelter for me. Officially, I don’t exist. I sleep in the wreck of an abandoned school. Fifty of us to a room with rows of filthy mattresses covering every inch of the concrete floor. No running water or electricity. We make what we can with the rice, lentils, oil and bottles of water kind-faced volunteers bring us, cooking our meals over a flickering camping stove.

It’s better than sleeping on the streets. Or selling ourselves to perverts in the park.

++++++

Back at the squat, I have to escape. Too many people. Too much noise. Too many smells.

I climb the stairs, picking my way past the junkies lying dead-eyed on the landing. I’ve never come this far before, fearing they’d infect me with their poison. Huh, needn’t have worried. They don’t know I’m there. All they know is the temporary escape running like sludge through their veins.

On the second floor, a breeze ruffles my hair and bangs a classroom door. All the windows are broken. Graffiti I can’t read covers the walls. I shiver and pull my jacket closer around me against the chill.

My footsteps crunch over the broken glass that lines the corridor. I open a door and look inside. Almost empty. Just a battered piano stool. No piano. A space waiting to be filled.

I pull the stool to the windowsill, sit down and take out my sheet of music. My fingers find their place and start to move. ‘Für Elise’ fills my mind, and I swear I can smell cardamom cookies.

The old me still lives, bound by hope and the music in my head to my home. A place where I am safe and loved. A place which probably no longer exists.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Black Rose


Holding her breath, she swept the fine brush across her half-shut lids. First one, then the other. A steady hand and patience were key if she wanted to avoid that all-too-familiar ‘panda after a rough night on the town’ look.

She closed her eyes and counted to twenty under her breath, waiting for the eyeliner to dry and praying it would form a perfectly even kitten flick on both sides, making her look irresistible rather than someone with a slight squint.

Susie opened her eyes and examined the result. Not bad, not bad at all.

With the tip of her tongue protruding ever so slightly from the corner of her mouth just below the tender spot where her lips met and laughter lines should have been, she made the final adjustment.

“There,” she said to herself, not daring to smile with satisfaction for fear of spoiling her handiwork. The wide-eyed stare of South London’s answer to the 1950s Hollywood starlets that Lee admired so blinked back at her from the speckled bathroom mirror.

“So far, so good.”

Her expertly applied make-up hid most of the bruise blossoming on her temple. What it couldn’t conceal would be artfully covered by a ‘random’ tendril of her usually drab brown hair, which tonight shone like a polished chestnut.

Now for the finishing touch. A red pencil carefully outlined her lips, giving her a perfect Cupid’s bow, then she filled it in with ‘Drop Dead Red’ to produce a full pout. She’d have to take care how she ate and drank tonight - she didn’t want anything to spoil her lipstick, as least not before Lee did with his ardent kisses.

The dress he’d picked out for her clung to her body in a delicious, unfamiliar way. So different to the modest, unassuming clothes he usually liked to see her in. She didn’t have to dress like a slut to be beautiful, he always said.

He was right, of course. He always was.

But tonight he’d surprised her with the little black dress, and she’d surprised herself at how good it made her feel. It was Audrey Hepburn classy-sexy, rather than in-your-face Jane Russell tussle in the hay. The neckline gave a fleeting glimpse of her burgeoning bosoms, without resorting to the sluttish heaving that enraged him so. The fabric embraced her figure gently without betraying the small bump in her belly. A double strand of pearls finished the look, and helpfully covered the scratch on the side of her throat.

She looked sweet, vulnerable, in need of protection. Just the way Lee wanted her.

The door handle rattled angrily, impatiently.

“What the hell are you doing in there?” came a voice tinged with annoyance from the other side. “Why’ve you locked the door? I’ve told you about that, haven’t I?”

“Just a minute, sweetheart,” she replied. “I want to surprise you.”

“Well, get a move on. We haven’t got all night.”

Susie slipped on her brand new peep-toe stilettoes, smoothed her skirt, and patted her hair. Turning, she smiled to herself at the thought of Lee’s reaction, turned the key and opened the door with a flourish. “Ta da!”

She was met with a stony glare.

“We’re not going to a Vicars and Tarts party, you know.”

Susie’s face fell.

“When I bought you that dress, I thought you had the class to carry it off without looking like some kind of street walker. You think I want to be seen out in public with…  with… that?” he gestured angrily at her torso.

“But, but…   I thought you’d like it,” Susie stuttered, fighting the tears that threatened to ruin her carefully constructed face.

“Like it? Thought I’d like being seen in public with a whore, putting it all out there, advertising herself as anyone’s for the couple of drinks?”

Lee, small but wiry and strong, grabbed her wrist and pulled her close.

“If that’s what you think I’d like, let’s see how you like being treated like a whore,” he snarled. Spinning her round and pushing her forward over the sofa, he roughly yanked her skirt up past her stocking tops and fumbled with her panties.

“Lee, please don’t!” she cried, her eyeliner now seeping down the creases in her frightened face.

“Shut up, bitch.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t want to make you angry. I just… just…  aaaah!”

He wasn’t listening. He was lost in a frenzy of lust and fury, grunting like an animal.

“Is that what you like, you dirty whore? I treat you like a queen, give you everything you need, but it’s wasted on you. You’re nothing but a common tart. Is that how you want me to see you? Fine, let’s see how you like it. Maybe we can put you on the street corner when I’m done with you, as you like it so much?”

His fingers dug painfully into the soft flesh at the front of her thighs. Susie tried to raise her head to protest, but was shoved back down roughly, leaving her to softly weep and wait for it to be over.

It didn’t take long.

Re-buckling his belt and wiping the sweat from his top lip, Lee pulled her up.

“Now, for God’s sake, go and clean yourself up. Wipe that muck off your face, change your shoes and put your coat on. It’s Valentine’s night and we’ve got dinner reservations.”

****

From his bedroom window, Jake watched as Lee frog-marched Susie through the cold night to their car. She seemed smaller, somehow, perhaps because of the big coat swamping her figure, and her steps were hesitant, like a nervous bird.

He knew why, of course. He’d heard it all. Hard not to, through the walls of the old Victorian terrace that held their flat, his, and three more neighbours he never saw. The raised voice, pleading tears, grunts, the angry banging of the sofa against the wall.

It didn’t take a writer’s imagination to work out what had happened.

What he couldn’t fathom was why. Why she stayed. Why she didn’t just walk away. Seek refuge somewhere. Perhaps with him.

He sighed. He knew Lee’s game. The daily wearing away of her self-esteem. Convincing her that she was worth nothing in her own right. That he was the only one that could possibly see anything in her. That everything bad that happened to her, she brought upon herself.

He knew it only too well. He’d seen it up close and personal. How it had worn away at his mother’s sense of self, until there was nothing but a shell left, limp of emotion like a rag doll, ready to jump or flinch at the smallest criticism. To cow-tow to his father’s quixotic whims and to hang on his every word for a hint of approval, like an over-eager puppy dog.

Until one day, she was no more. Nothing left of her but a sad red stain spreading over the white bathroom tiles. Then, the sympathy of neighbours for the poor bereaved husband. The same neighbours who’d turned a blind eye to the bruises, a deaf ear to the night-time accusations, incriminations, smashes and thuds.

The platitudes came in floods at the funeral: “You did everything you could”, “She wasn’t a well woman”, “She didn’t have the strength”. Only he, sitting in the corner in a stiff collared shirt bought for the occasion, knew that his mum had once had the strength, but it had been drained from her by the years. Years with Him.

He was just a kid back then. Powerless. Now, he was older, stronger, smarter. He would not let the same fate claim Susie.

****

Susie didn’t say much at dinner. She didn’t need to. Lee ordered for her, as always. She didn’t dare tell him she didn’t fancy steak.

She chewed diligently at the meat, trying to ignore the twinge of her bruised jaw, just as she had tried to avoid Lee’s critical glare as she picked at her prawn cocktail starter. The lemon juice in the dressing had made her lip smart, and she really didn’t like prawns all that much. She looked up to see Lee staring pointedly at her.

“Eat up, princess. I’m spending good money on that sirloin. For you. You need the iron. Got to look after yourself, and my boy.”

“It might be a girl,” she murmured under her breath, careful not to be heard above the tinkling piano in the corner of the restaurant packed with couples dressed up to the nines, desperate to convince themselves that they were all madly in love.

The thought flitted across her mind that Lee’s treatment earlier that evening probably did more harm to the child inside her than a slight iron deficiency that would be easily corrected with a prescription from the family doctor. She dismissed the it before she could acknowledge it, fearful that he could read her conscious thoughts and take revenge for her imaginary betrayal. Again.

Her eyes strayed down to the single red rose laying on the linen tablecloth next to her dessert fork. It had come with a card, obviously dictated to the florist, in a curling baroque script that bore no resemblance to Lee’s practical, heavy hand:

Forever mine.
Lee.

Susie shuddered inwardly as she read it again. Others would probably find it romantic in its simplicity.

To her, it felt like a life sentence.

****

Jake opened his bedside table drawer and pulled out a schoolboy’s exercise book, a pen, and a door key. He scribbled a note on the lined page, ripped it out and folded it carefully. On the windowsill sat a vase of deep red roses, the colour of blood that’s delivered its load of oxygen, standing in water tinged with ink to make the petals even darker. He rose to his feet, took one, and tapped the droplets from its stem. Wrapping it in a napkin, he left his apartment and headed down the hall to Lee and Susie’s =front door.

He slipped the key easily into the lock.

Averting his eyes from the mess by the coffee table, embarrassed by the evidence of Susie’s humiliation, he headed for the bedroom. She always went to bed long before Lee, to catch some peace before he switched off the TV and woke her with his nightly demands, whether she was in the mood or not.

Jake gently laid the rose on her pillow. Beneath it, the page from his exercise book with the simple message: “You’re not alone”.

****

“You’re a lucky girl,” crowed Lee. “A new outfit, flowers, dinner at a fancy restaurant. Who else would do all that for you? No-one can say Lee Lawrence doesn’t deliver on the romance front.”

Satisfied that he was indeed God’s gift to womankind, Lee threw his jacket onto the back of the coach, loosened his tie and slumped down onto the cushions.

The TV screen blossomed with a click of the remote and he settled down for a well-deserved couple of hours soaking up sports scores, action movies and maybe a little porn if he could find anything tasty. He’d earned it, after all.

He refused to let Susie’s moronic clattering in the kitchen break his mellow mood. All was right in his world. He had a good job, a nice flat, and a son on the way. Everything was going according to plan.

Well, almost everything. Susie was where things fell short. Every now and then, she needed a little reminder of her rightful place. If he was honest it was those little reminders that kept him interested, kept the spice in their relationship. The surge of testosterone that fueled their fun and games before dinner made him feel powerful, invincible. Just thinking idly about it now awoke a stirring in his groin, even after a big meal and a bottle of wine. Maybe he’d be back for a replay a bit later.

She loved it, he was sure of that. All women fantasised about being ‘taken roughly’, didn’t they? Just look at the sales figures of “Fifty Shades of Grey”. All women have a little whore in them, a bit that loves to be dominated.

Yes, he’d definitely be giving her another seeing-to in an hour or two. It was Valentine’s Day, a special occasion, after all.

He smiled benevolently as Susie placed a steaming cup of coffee topped with cream on the table next to him.

“Irish?” he said, wiggling his eyebrows.

She nodded mutely and showed him the hip flask in her other hand.

“Good girl,” he cheered, slapping her behind as she turned to go. Limping slightly, she crossed the room and put the pewter flask back in its place.

Silly cow, thought Lee affectionly. So clumsy. Must have tripped over something in the kitchen. She was always doing stuff like that. Walking into doors, falling downstairs, burning herself on the stove.

“Off to bed with you now, darling,” he chirruped. “You need your beauty sleep. Just do me a favour. Keep those stockings on.”

****

Already nauseous, Susie almost choked on the thought of further violation and fear for the child growing in her belly. She was sure Lee’s nightly assaults would eventually make her miscarry – and then she’d in for more punishment for not taking care of ‘his’ baby.

There was no escape. Just the promise of a few snatched hours of sleep before his fumbling woke her and the nightmare continued.

Murmuring a meek “goodnight” she went straight to bed without bothering to wash off what was left of her make-up. All she wanted was to sleep, escape, if only for a little while.

She flopped onto the bed with its freshly laid crimson sheets without turning on the light. Kicked her shoes into the corner, shrugged her date dress onto the floor, lifted the quilt and slid between the sheets.

As she lay her head on the pillow, something tickled her cheek. Something that smelled green, fresh, like the park after a summer shower. Puzzled, she switched on the bedside light. A rose, not perfect but exquisite in its imperfection, lay on her pillow. Deep red, almost black, it would not have been visible against the dark pillowcase if it hadn’t been for the scrap of paper beneath it.

A wave of realisation crashed over her, bringing with it shock, fear, disbelief, guilt, and… yes…  a small thrill of excitement.

She knew who had left it there.

Jake, their wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly nerd of a next-door neighbour. The one who could be trusted to water the plants and accept deliveries when they were away, but who had never once looked either of them directly in the eye.

Jake, who kept himself to himself, made no unreasonable demands and could always be relied on for a cup of sugar or handful of teabags when she ran out.

Jake, the ultimate Beta Male whose name Lee could never remember.

Jake, who’d gone on about the language of flowers when she called round with a hastily-scribbled Christmas card a couple of months back.

With trembling fingers, she took the piece of folded paper and opened it. Inside, a simple message, an expected one even, but one which gave her hope.

Lee mustn’t see the rose. A flower from another man – even if it was “just Jake” – would be enough to send her to the Accident & Emergency Department at St Swithun’s. That was the last thing she needed.

She scrunched the note into a ball and stuffed it under the mattress. Then, taking the bloom by its long stem, and carefully avoiding its sharp thorns, she placed it like a sleeping child under her pillow. Right next to the elegant filleting knife Jake had ordered from the Chef’s Shop after taking those online cookery classes.

Its blade gleamed as Susie lightly ran her index finger along its sharp edge. The soft flesh opened cleanly and beads of blood welled up. She smiled, put the pillow back and lay down, sucking at the pad of her finger and waited.

She didn’t have to wait long.

****

7.30am: Jake was already up, teacup in hand, peering at his computer screen. A soft knock roused him and he went to the door and peered through the spy-hole.

Susie stood there, without a scrap of make-up to hide the fresh bruise on her cheek or the older one at her temple. With her hair gathered in a messy ponytail, clad in sweats and with an unfamiliar twinkle in her eye, she looked like a tomboy who’d been in a schoolyard brawl - and won. There was an energy about her, an air of triumph, radiating off her like he’d never seen before.

She grinned shyly as he opened the door, then thrust a red rose still in its florist’s wrapper at him.

“Thought you’d like another one for your collection,” she announced. “Put it in ink with your other ones. You never know who’s going to need a bit of revenge next.”

Jake took the flower and nearly dropped it in surprise at its unexpected weight. Inside its plastic wrapper nestled a sleek, sharp knife – one that matched the empty hole in the butcher’s block on his kitchen counter. Its blade was dull and sticky, stained almost black, like the roses on his windowsill.

He looked a question at Susie.

“Thank you,” she whispered, then patted her stomach and nodded. “Rose says thank you, too.”

****

It was a week before anyone noticed something was amiss. The Lawrences were a quiet couple, not given much to socialising. None of the neighbours paid much attention to their disappearance, not even the solitary writer who lived next door.

Eventually, the smell oozing from their apartment raised the alarm. Next door no longer had the spare key – or so he said. They had to break the door down.

Everything seemed normal. A tidy kitchen, a forgotten coffee cup on the table next to the coach, towels neatly folded in the bathroom. Even the sheets were laid on the bed… until closer inspection revealed they were pulled over the butchered body of Lee Lawrence. Their deep red hue was the colour of his death. The colour of black roses.

****

Four hundred miles away, a young woman sat in a Glasgow tattoo parlour grimacing through the sting of the artist’s pen as it bit into the distended flesh above her belly button.

“Are you sure you’re up to this?” asked the pierced and painted girl with a Rockabilly hairdo, looking up from her work. “Maybe we should wait until… you know… after?”

“It’s OK,” replied the woman in the chair as she craned her neck to seen the outline etched on her stomach. “I can take the pain – I’ve had plenty of practice.

“Anyway, what’s a rose without a few thorns?”

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Mogwot


It starts with a low hum, a chord played in B minor, like the first flush of shy blue light on the horizon as dawn breaks. Sustain. I add the same chord, but two octaves up. Then rays of light as the single notes – B, D and G – prick through the darkness.

I smile to myself and take a swig of my coffee. I’m liking this. It feels good. Moody. Right. And it’s all mine.

Early morning, or perhaps I should say very late night, is my favourite time to work when I’m in a fit state for it. It’s that silent time before the garden’s dawn chorus starts tugging at the edges of night’s blanket. One of the few times I can fill the void with something that comes from me, and me alone.

Scra-scra-ttcch-tcch-scra…. 

Spoke too soon. A rasping from the corner of the room signals that he’s here, uninvited as usual. Bloody attention whore.

“Bugger off, Mogwot. I don’t need you right now.”

The scratching stops, for a moment, and is replaced by a tapping that makes a little more sense. A small grunt and some hurried shuffles, and he climbs up onto the desk. Small, barely the height of my coffee mug, dark, and far from handsome. His squat body looks like a badly drawn cartoon and his eyes glint greenly as me.

I reach over to the bulging bowl of jelly babies and pick out a black one, his favourite, and hand it to him.

“Just let me get on with it. Keep quiet.”

In a few wet chews the treat is gone. Mogwot stands, hands on hips and looks at me like a defiant three-year. Raps the side of my laptop in an erratic rhythm. Settles into a pattern which, despite myself, I realise will work perfectly with my dawn break sounds.

“OK, OK. I know. Percussion. I got it. Now sit down and shut up.”

++++++

I can’t remember a time when Mogwot wasn’t in my life. He was there when I was a lonely only child, making my mother’s life difficult when I threw a tantrum if she failed to lay a place for him at the dinner table or we missed the bus because we’d left him at home.

She’d humoured me at first. It was a phase, she figured. It would pass. But I saw the first flickers of concern in her eyes after my baby brother was born. I was no longer alone, yet Mogwot was still around. She didn’t realise that with Sam such needy baby, I needed my ‘imaginary’ friend more than ever. He wasn’t going anywhere.

But I hated to worry Mum, so I stopped talking about him. We only spoke at night when sleep had settled on everyone in the house but me, and I could hear his soft breathing from the top of my wardrobe.

Mogwot only revealed his true nature when I started playing music, declaring himself my ‘muse’. In the process, he became a giant pain in the arse. A tyrant. A dictator. But a part of me, as surely as my fingers, my nose and my toes.

++++++

The tablets helped. Quietened the chaos clamouring for attention in my head. Slept ten hours straight for the first time ever - deep, dreamless sleep.

But that’s not all they did. They numbed me, fed my lethargy, turned me into a useless slug incapable of anything more than plodding workmanlike through a few chord changes. I felt like I was sitting outside myself, bewildered, incapable, confused. The umbilical cord linking me to my creativity was severed, like chemical castration.

Mogwot was gone.

I missed the little bastard. And the music dried up, like a lonely slice of cheese forgotten at the back of the refrigerator. Still usable, at a stretch, but tasteless, unappealing and curling up at the edges.

So, I stopped taking the meds. On the quiet, of course. No-one could know. I couldn’t handle the endless well-meaning nagging that would start if they found out. Instead of dutifully chucking them my throat, they went down the toilet pan. And quietly, secretly, I welcomed back Mogwot and all the tumultuous, chaotic creativity that came with him.

No-one suspected. I become an expert at presenting a calm, functional exterior to the world as I embraced the maelstrom within. Like a manic orchestra tuning up every morning, with Mogwot on the podium waving the maestro’s baton about like a newly discovered Pokemon on speed.  

++++++

We’re really getting into it now, Mogwot banging a chewed pencil against the desk, stamping his feet, grunting and snorting with excitement. My fingers race to keep up. It’s coming to a crescendo – a fabulous, cacophonic swirling of noise. Better than sex – or at least, any sex I’ve ever had. Building, building, getting there, oh, yes, really, yes, yes…

‘Barp!’
the intercom buzzer rudely breaks into our mutual musical masturbation. Talk about chorus interruptus. Mogwot flashes me a look of fury like a spurned lover, throws down the pencil and stomps away to sulk behind a pile of papers.

“Whaaa…?”

Unsure of where I am, who I am, or why we stopped. Then I remember. Some hack from one of the Sunday supplements, come to interview me as a rising young star of the music world. Mogwot bares his teeth, snarls softly and pulls a page of scribbled notes over his head.

I get up, close the workroom door, lock it behind me and pocket the key. Just to be sure. It’s one thing to be considered a quirky prodigy, quite another to be revealed as a raving loon who takes orders from a pint-sized demon with a penchant for jelly babies.

I open the apartment door. Wide eyes smiling from under a short blonde crop greet me, all eagerness and enthusiasm for a job she hasn’t got cynical about – yet.

“You must be Alex,” I say, waving her through to the living room, undisturbed since Elena the cleaning lady from Hell gave it her magic touch over at the weekend.

“Maybe we could talk where you work?” Alex says, looking around the immaculate room.
A slither and a soft flump sound through the locked door.

“No can do. Tempo, my cat, is in there. He doesn’t take kindly to strangers. Or friends. Or anyone.”

She shrugs then holds up her phone, her exquisite eyebrows forming a silent question. “Mind if I record?” I nod my agreement.

“So, how does it feel to be one of the 30 musicians under 30 to watch?”
(God, I hate this. So bloody embarrassing. If I hadn’t been mates with George, who’s sleeping with the producer’s assistant on the surprise indie box office smash of the year, no-one would have ever have heard of my work…  But it’s gotta be done.)

“It’s humbling, of course, to be included in a list of so many great musicians.” (Like hell it is, at least half are talentless, overhyped idiots churning out tripe to feed the mainstream appetite for mediocrity. But you can’t say that, can you?) “But what really matters to me is knowing that my work resonates with people, moves them, expresses something inside that we all have in common.”

(We all have our monsters. Don’t we?)

And we’re off. The same old copy-paste interview I’ve seen with countless up-and-coming wunderkind in pretentious middle-class magazines. Written for people who want to seem arty-farty, without having to put in the sleepless nights, caffeine-fueled frenzies, crippling self-doubt and the temptation to just give up and settle for playing covers at weddings and second-rate festivals in muddy fields. 

But I behave myself. The interview goes well. It should go down nicely with the quinoa salads and stripped pine of suburbia. She’s sweet, easy to impress. No harm in giving my ego a little massage, is there?

Scree-scraa-scre-scratch
  right on cue, just as I’m about to bask in the glow of my own self-satisfaction. Mogwot isn’t having any of it. Perish the thought he’d let me take all the credit.

Floomph, booph, bang!
The smack of wood against wood as the piano lid is thrown open. Random notes, jarring discords, track his way across the keys.

Alex looks alarmed. “Maybe you should go and check on your cat?”

“Nah, he’s just acting up. He’ll settle down when he gets bored.”

And he does. The rest of the interview is a breeze. For once, I’m feeling good about myself.
(Maybe I should ask her for a drink?)

“Just one last question. In one sentence, where do you get your inspiration?”
(Oh sweetheart, if I told you, you’ve never believe me.)

“Good question” (Yeah, if you like the all-time most clichéd things to ask any artist.) “I suppose it’s something that’s always been part of me.”

A thump and hum of reverberating strings echo from within as my favourite acoustic guitar hits the floor.

“I honestly couldn’t tell you.”
(Pathetic. Say something else.)

“But if I did, I’d have to kill you.” 

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

The Last Round


A laugh of surprised triumph escapes my lips as the ball soars into the sky then falls to exactly the right spot on the manicured greens. I stand there for a moment, the wood still resting on my left shoulder, admiring my unexpected handiwork. It’s been years since I’ve been on a golf course and I certainly hadn’t expected to send the ball straight down the middle from the very first tee-off. 

“Looks like I’ve still got it."

I look around the calm greens of Eight Elms golf course, embarrassed that someone might catch me talking to myself as I play my solitary round. I shrug my shoulders and smile, grateful that at 5 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, most regulars were still chained to their desks or running those never-ending errands on their To Do lists. 

I’m alone – almost. A woman stands at the edge of a small thicket, hacking away at the undergrowth. She’s dressed like Central Casting’s idea of a lady golfer from another age, in tweed plus-fours, leather brogues and a pink and yellow sweater. Makes me feel an imposter in my Mum jeans and sweatshirt, like an uninvited guest at a society party. I wave hello, but she’s too intent on getting her ball out of the rough to notice me. 

I slide the heavy club back into the battered leather bag and shoulder it, ready to walk up the greens and take my next shot. It’s much weightier than Bill’s new bag filled with fancy carbon fibre clubs, but I enjoy the heft of history that almost a century gives mine. What stories of past glories would it tell if it could speak? 

A breeze tickles the nape of my neck and the low autumn sun warms my cheeks. Somewhere, a dog barks and a pair of rooks take off from the branches of a dead oak. All around, trees are changing colour for their last flamboyant shout-out before they drop their leaves for winter. A whiff of bonfire floats in the air, but there’s not a cloud in the sky. 
I feel good. Alive. More than I have in an age.

“Beats online shopping any day.” I’ve spent too many empty hours trawling the bargain sites since Mark left for college, trying to fill the void he left. But that’s what’s landed me here, playing the best game of golf of my life on a glorious late October day, with no-one to cheer me on. 

I’d been thrilled with my latest find. The 1920s golf bag was offered free to anyone willing to pick up. I clicked without hesitation and collected it that same day from a sullen old man in a neglected house on the edge of town. At best, I’d clean it up and sell to some hipster vintage-hound for a tidy profit. At worst, it would become a conversation piece to fill the corner of the living room where Mark’s guitar once stood. 

But, as it turned out, it got me back on the links. Reawakened my love for the game that brought me and Bill together, before marriage, motherhood and the menopause got in the way. I gave up years ago, when Mark was just an overgrown jelly bean in my belly wriggling to be born. Bill carried on, of course, never missing his weekend round while I took care of chores or chauffeur duties for music lessons, football practice and play dates. Who knew that I would still know how to handle the woods, irons and putters after all this time? Next time Bill heads for the greens, I’ll grab the old leather bag and join him for a game.

A few satisfying slices take me within feet of the first hole, and I nudge the ball in with a neat, satisfying plop. After the next five holes, I feel better about myself than I have for a long, long time.

A movement in the bushes catches my eye as I sink the ball at the sixth. It’s Madam Plus Fours again. She’s got company now. Her bag is propped up against the trunk of a tree, and there’s the shape of a man in the shadows. Alright for some. Others have to caddy their own clubs round the course.

I pick up my bag. There’s a dark stain at the bottom I hadn’t seen before. I hope it's just the turf's evening damp leaving its print on the leather and make a mental note to give it another rub down with saddle soap when I get home. I look up to watch the woman and her caddy as they head to the next green - but they’re nowhere to be seen.

I spot them again at the eleventh hole. The man is silhouetted against the pinkening sky. I can’t make out his features. He’s much closer to the woman now, holding one of her clubs. They're arguing, but I only hear notes of anger pricked with pleading through the evening air. 

Probably some petty argument about which club to pick for her next shot. Some people really need to lighten up. It’s just a game, after all.

It’ll be dark soon. Better finish my round. The stain on the bag looks bigger now. Probably a trick of the light - dusk has a habit of throwing up visions of things that aren’t there in the sharp glare of morning. 

Shadows like skinny giants loll against the landscape as I reach the sixteenth hole. I’ve played the best round of my life and I’ll definitely be back tomorrow. 

But in the morning. The evenings are drawing in way too fast now. 

Right now, I just want to reach the eighteenth hole and get back to my car. There’s something about the rustle of the leaves in the dark that sends chills down my spine.

The garish diamonds of Madam Plus Fours' sweater glow ahead of me through the growing gloom. She and her caddy are leaving the seventeenth hole and she’s gesticulating wildly, shouting at her dark companion. What a bitch, blaming the poor caddy for her bad game. He still has her bag on his shoulder and a club in his hand, waiting for her to finish her tirade, get it all out of her system. Poor guy, I bet he can’t wait to see her finish her round, get paid (no tip, for sure) and wind down with a drink at the bar. 

I tee up for the last hole, look up to see where I’m aiming for, and drop my wood in shock.

The caddy is holding the club over his head, threatening the woman. In a panic, I stumble and knock over my bag. The dark stain spread all the way along one side.

Gotta do something, Stop him, Help her. 
The lights of the club house twinkle invitingly, but the eighteenth hole is closer. I scramble to my feet, yelling. Maybe the commotion will scare him off.

I’m running as fast as my middle-aged legs can take me. Panting hard and looking down for fear of tripping on something. Blood pumps in my ears. My heart feels like it’s going to burst out of my chest. Red starbursts play at the edges of my vision. 

The dark and my panic are playing tricks with me. The denim on my pumping knees looks like tweed, and they seem to have bunched up mid-calf. 

Keep going. Stop him. 

I reach the green and stop, facing the dark figure wielding the club. 

“Hey, you! What do you think you’re doing?”

He looks at me, smiles and he steps towards me. I turn to tell the woman to run. She’s gone. Already on her way to get help, I pray.

It’s just me and the caddy. I’m exhausted. Frozen with fear. Menace flows off him like sweat. With every step he takes, a little piece of my sanity deserts me. 

Just two paces away from me now, I see his face. 

It’s Bill. My Bill. The man I’ve shared the past twenty years with. The man I lost somewhere along the way. The man I wanted to get back out onto the greens again. But it’s not my Bill leering down at me. It’s a warped version of his slightly flabby, once-handsome face. Twisted with malice, intent on harm. 

He raises the club. It’s one of the heavy vintage woods from my bag, which is now lying on its side next to the last hole. Clubs, tees and other paraphernalia have spilled out in a growing pool of dark liquid. 

I raise my arm to cover my face. In a surreal split second, puzzlement banishes panic as I see that, instead of the deep red of my sweatshirt, my sleeve is clad in pink and yellow diamonds. 

My world explodes, and everything goes black.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Read all about it!

Read all about it, the headline news.
The latest gossip, we aim to amuse.
Who’s dating who, who’s got fat,
On the screen right where you’re sat.

Just what you want, no need to think.
Coming at you now. Please don’t blink.
Headline news to keep you at bay
Ask no questions, or stay away.

Tabloid dreams in electric ink.
Cartoon clichés that don’t make the link
Between them and us.
Not really human, why make a fuss?

Words as weapons to stir up hate.
Pull at your emotions to agitate
tension and serve their agenda.
Reject it, wrap it up, return to sender.

Divide and conquer, or unite and thrive?
Choose what makes you feel alive.
Despise your neighbour, swallow the lie,
Got to save your slice of the pie.

So, go on, paper your fort with pages
that proclaim the “other” your enemy of ages.
Ignore what you can’t accept is true,
that to some, the “other” is you.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Unlucky in love


“Life is like a box of chocolates.” Is that really what your mama told you, Forrest, me old mate?

Well, I’ll tell you something. I’d trade this whole Deluxe Selection box – even if it was filled to the brim with my favourite Hazelnut Caramel Crunch Clusters – for a little bit of the old rumpty-pumpty.  

Speaking of hazelnut clusters, don’t mind if I do…   Hmmm. Lubbly, jubbly.

It’s not easy being me, you know. One look and everyone assumes I’ve got the whole romance deal sorted. The rosy, chubby cheeks. The bouncy blonde curls. My wide-eyed innocent gaze to the heavens. The half-arsed bow and arrow. Even those stupid lumps of feather flapping about on my shoulders (as if a pair of pigeon wings could lift my un-birdlike frame).

I know how you all see me. How you imagine I spend my days. You’ve got this image of me flitting from cloud to cloud, shooting darts of romance here and there, infecting the unsuspecting with love (with a capital L) and chucking hearts, flowers and rainbows around like nobody’s business.

You know, the whole vomit-inducing shebang. 

Guilty as charged. 

But did any of you ever stop to wonder if good ole Cupid ever found love, had someone warm and welcoming to go home to at the end of a long day? No, of course you didn’t. Not a single one of you ever gave a thought to the state of my poor, bleeding, unrequited heart.

Yuck, Strawberry Dream. Not my favourite. Too mushy by far. Any of you fancy it?

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes. The bitter sweet irony of the God of Love never having got his end away.

Yes, you heard me right. Never. Not once. Not even close. Since ancient times - and I mean real ancient times. Romans and Greeks, togas and intrigues, and the like.

So, next time you’re crying into your beer ‘cos Little Miss Sharon McTottie won’t look your way, instead of chucking a few choice swear words in my direction, stop to consider what it’s like to be an eternal virgin whose day job is all about connecting people to do the horizontal samba. 

Thing is, no-one really goes for the cherubic look, do they? These big baby-blue eyes and pouting lips may make broody wannabe mums swoon and croon over pushchairs, but when it comes to the business of getting the kid implanted, forget it. No way, Jose. 

They want butch, macho or, at the very least, darkly sardonic. Not an easy ask when you look like this.

So, there you go. Chaste and untouched for millenia. Not by choice, in case you missed my hint. The original incel (that’s involuntary celibate, in case you didn’t know - the latest label for blokes who blame all womankind for the fact they can’t get laid instead of looking in the mirror). But without the viciousness, or relentless online baiting. I may be bitter, and horny as holy hell, but I ain’t that bad.

Now, what’s this one. Espresso Delite (American spelling if you please). Could be good. Let’s see. Just a little bite to try….  ….oh no, no, no.
Too bitter for me by far, thanks to thirty years living over a Billericay café where the tea's fit for builders but the coffee's not much more than dirty water.

Funny thing is, lately, I have been feeling a little bit dark and sardonic now and then. It might just be my imagination, but I could swear that there’s a touch of Roger the gargoyle rubbing off on me. 

Roger? Oh, you don’t know him? 

Seriously, you didn’t think I was the only random mythical creature walking the streets with you humans, did you? There’s loads of us, everywhere you look. Vampires, warlocks, goblins, the occasional ogre, elves, not to mention naiads and dryads searching for their spirit streams and home trees that were cemented over years ago. 

People used to notice us, steer clear, shake pitchforks, light torches and chuck the occasional cup of Holy water in our direction. These days, they don’t bat an eyelid. I’m not surprised really – these days most ‘ordinary’ people are scarier than a legion of demons.

Me and Rog have been hanging out a lot lately. Bit of an odd couple. Him all dark, charred and leathery. Me, well… you know. This. But we get on well enough, and he does make me look cool.

I’ve been teaching him the words to Celine Dion’s entire back catalogue. And he’s helping with my Alice Cooper and Ozzy impersonations. All good clean fun. Unfortunately.

But I’ve noticed something. I’ve started feeling a bit… how can I say it?...  different. My toenails are getting longer and tougher, my feet are getting bonier, like claws. My cheeks are sinking, right down to the bone structure I never knew I had. And I swear I saw a dark red glint in one eye when I looked in the mirror the other day.

Roger says I’m imagining it. I’m just seeing what I admire in him in myself. Sort of wishful thinking. Arrogant git. 

I mean, would I really want to look like a hobgoblin on speed after a week of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll? 

Too bloody right I would.

Like we said, no-one wants to shag the fat roadie with a face like the Gerber baby. 

Pineapple crème. I’ll save that for Roger. He has the weirdest tastes for a gargoyle. There must be a Walnut Whirl somewhere in here for me. 

So, like I was saying. After all these centuries I can feel something stirring, changing, solidifying. And no…  …it’s not “that”. Not yet, at least.

I don’t think I’m the only one to notice. I got a look today from the girl with the nose ring in the café. Not the usual can-I-pour-my-heart-out-about-my-pig-of-a-boyfriend-before-leaping-back-into-his-bed look, but something that might – just might – hold a hint of an invitation to join her in the sheets myself.

At first, I thought it was for Roger. But no, it was definitely me Tanith stared at for just a little bit longer than necessary when taking the same order I give her every day. I ran a cocky hand through my hair, smoothing it down against my scalp instead of letting the ringlets spring like a halo, as I murmured “One tea and an Eccles cake, please darling”.

When she came back, she gave me two Eccles cakes and an encouraging wink. 

Is that a Rum and Raisin Swirl I see hiding there in the corner? Not any more. There you go. Very nice.

The only downside is the smell. It simply won’t go away. Again, I thought it was Rog, but his usual air of brimstone seemed to linger much longer than it should after he’d left for his weekly meeting with the Dark Overlord yesterday.  

I shower, scrub myself in all those important little places (especially now that I’m getting those signals from Tanith), but when I raise my arms to check my pits, I’m still getting a whiff of sulphur oozing out of me like lava. 

If I’m honest, I secretly relish it. It’s much cooler than the cloud of baby powder that used to follow me everywhere.

So, yes. I’m changing. A kind of ridiculously overdue puberty is transforming me. At long bloody last. 

I can hardly wait. I go to sleep, excited to see what new transformation awaits me when I wake. I walk down the street with a new purposeful stride, Queen’s ‘Find me somebody to love’ pulsing through my head at full volume. My wings have folded flat against my shoulder blades and I think the feathers have all dropped out. 

I can’t remember the last time I saw my bow, let alone shot one of the arrows. The world doesn’t seem to notice. Carries on. Maybe it just doesn’t need me anymore?

I reckon Roger took the arrows. I saw him messing with them over his coffee. Could be he’s already handed them over and sent them to the depths of Hades? Or not. Who knows? Who cares?

Just a few chocs in the box now. I should have saved the bottom layer for Tanith, now that I know I might be in with a chance. But I can always buy a fresh box in the morning, can’t I?
I wonder what that one is? Don’t think I’ve seen it before. Small, round and very dark.
Probably some fancy super-pure Peruvian cocoa…
 Let’s see…  …Nope. Not cocoa at all. Small, hard, vaguely smokey. A lump of rock charred at the edges, fizzing slightly at its centre. Surprisingly tasty.

Yep. I’m changing. And fast. My time has finally come. Tanith is giving me that special smile and nodding towards the side door. I’ve waited long enough.

Question is, can you lot handle my metamorphosis? Are you ready for a world without love? 

Suck it and see.