Archive | February, 2011

THE POTION PEDDLER – FLASH FICTION

17 Feb

 

O’er hill and dale, past moss covered dry stone walls and creeper-caught bridges. Following the ancient roads hacked by Caesar’s legions through soft English chalk and the coastal trails blazed by retreating Saxons. Twixt green bowers of gnarled spreading forests and across the wastes of stark deserted moorland – the grind of iron shod wheels squawked on greased axle trees.

Undeterred by wind and weather, the same ancient routes crossed and re-crossed in order to reach the forgotten familiarity of distant villages and time-worn market towns. The clip-clop of plodding diligence to fresh faces and familiar vistas.

A whale-oil lamp swung above his hooded head, tapping its wooden tattoo on the side of the hooped caravan. The familiar clink of glass with every hoof fall; the slosh of liquids medicinal and the clatter of necessary instruments. Smell of horse was strong in his nostrils, the tang of pestled powder bitter on his tongue, the stain of dark paste upon his fingers.

He always broke camp at night, stealing away from candle-lit curiosity and the press of eager crowds. There was no point prolonging contact, garnering associations or establishing friendships. The exchange of hard won silver for bottled miracles and manufactured tablets was oft regretted the morning of the night before. Dubious cures for infestations and arthritis; promised miracles to ease the burden of daily life only a palm-pressed sixpence away.

His time-keeping was meticulous. Never out stay a welcome and never frequent a settlement more than once every few years. Acquaintances were soon kindled and soon burnt; it was best to stay one step ahead. Familiarity bred contempt as did the fact that his potions were worthless. Snake oil and powdered Egyptian mummy, dried toad and unicorn horn infused the heady concoctions and broken promises that persuaded village folk to dig eagerly into leather purses.

Of an evening when the crowds were gone and the camp fire blazed he would sit quietly, his hand coursing over velum – ink splashing in the fire light . The only sounds were of curb chained horses cropping grass – the gleam of flame lit brass. Recording the events of the day; penning for posterity the stories learned and experiences shared. New tales to relate to future customers – to expound upon, to embellish.

The art of potions wasn’t the mixture nor was it the voluminous recipes laid down by generations past. Secrets divulged by father to son, mother to daughter. Forgotten knowledge retained by travelling folk and distributed frugally among those outside the inner circle. Although an initiate of the ancient rite of healers, he knew that it took more than colored glass and powdered opiate to heal the body and excite the imagination.

His audience sought beyond the physical plane, thronging to his caravan in eager anticipation for both cure and enlightenment.

Stories of adventure – tales of distant lands, dragon slaying knights, daring deeds done by daring men. Engaged in enigmatic conversation it wasn’t long before his product was crossing the counter to be scooped up by needy souls, weak in body and bereft of worldly contact.

Although tutored in the ways of healing, it was a story-teller’s heart that he possessed.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? short story

15 Feb

 

Jake jumped from the number seven bus, the pneumatics hissing closed as it pulled away. He stepped towards the entrance. He wasn’t apprehensive, more curious than anything. This was his third year and instead of being stuck in a centrally-heated classroom watching the gloom pass over what passed for a seaside resort he was about to begin situational training. He’d done his time with the kids and geriatrics, now he was off to work with the unhinged. Three months with the mentally incapacitated. He felt a tingle, he wasn’t sure if it was excitement or nerves. He’d heard stories from his mates, believed half of what they’d told him, eager to experience it for himself. 

‘You’re going to love it, best job I ever had,” John his classmate had told him. ” You won’t believe half of what you see, and no one’s gonna believe a word you say. Just treat them like people – no more, no less. The pub crawls are great – but don’t turn your back on old Sam! Oh yeah and the room, well you’ll find out for yourself!”  

The hospital was an old country home belonging to the fornicator, philanderer and some-time author Lord Byron, his destitute heirs having sold the estate to the government to pay off death duties and gambling debts. The government in its wisdom turning the house over to the National Health who’d been using it as an asylum ever since. The debauchery it had witnessed oozed from between the bricks and mortar, mute volumes screamed of secrets long past. 

He passed through stone pillars supporting rusting iron gates, surmounted by eagles – petrified sentinels, circling above those daring to enter. Crunching through gravel under a draping avenue of horse chestnut trees he headed towards the art-deco portico. Expansive lawns spread either side of him, the genius of Capability Jones back in the eighteen something’s. Derelict greenhouses stood at the end of what was presumably the kitchen gardens, overgrown with huge nets of blackberries and the last vestiges of what appeared to be grape vines. Byron had clearly had his head on straight – why bother with winter vegetables when you could be fermenting your own wine?

Walking through the park he spotted several individuals who were clearly patients. Some of the deranged stood statue still, others walking in endless circles. Pyjammered pugilists remonstrated with unseen adversaries whilst others laughed, sang or shouted. Conversations between unseen friends, arguments proliferated amongst invisible antagonists. The stark raving-mad were loud and large, walking freely around the lawns. He smiled pulling his scarf around his neck; the eagle had bloody landed, this really was the loony bin.

 Poor mad bastards, he thought, God forbid it should ever come to this. 

Stepping into the building he was confronted with sweeping marble floors and wide open staircases. Endless Esher-esque stairs that climbed the center of the hall, opening up into galleries leading to more staircases. Jake stared skywards feeling dizzy at the maze of stone and iron winding into infinity above his head. The ceilings gargantuan, covered in extensive moldings, the walls hung with past masters, relics of a Byronic estate. 

Ancient oiled renaissance patriarchs glared down at him, the marble busts of owners past turning to stare blindly at the intruder. The whole building suspended in a vacuum, a place more befitting regency opulence than its current dower occupants. 

No longer the Vanity Fair of bustled ladies, well healed gentlemen and uniformed flunkies, Caldwell Hall was now the abode of the mentally infirmed. The great and good making way for the addled and distracted – position and wealth for annonymity and bewilderment. 

A reception desk bizarrely stood where it shouldn’t, guarded by a bored brown haired nurse flicking through  magazines. In front of her several mismatched chairs and tables grouped together in clusters, presumably for the inmates and their guests. The faint smell of bleach and urine, the ever-present welcoming funk of socialised medicine. It didn’t matter which building you entered the smell was always the same. The institutionalized  mug of antiseptic and human effluence, the stark, pervading contrast of medical sterility and human infirmity. He loved it. 

 

**** 

Jake had met with Brian a senior nurse – the man who was going to guide him through his Bedlamesque experience. Jake noticed despite his inexperience that nurses who worked on mental wards were a different breed. More confident in their abilities, more able to perform their tasks, each with a wicked sense of humor and rapier wit. Perfected and holy-stoned after dealing with daily ridiculum. 

What you have to understand is that it’s big game, a battle of wits,” said Brian. “Half of them aren’t as stupid as they look and the other half, don’t look a stupid as they are. It’s us against them, the age old conundrum of whose guarding the guards? Don’t slip into the mentality of you’re better than they are; we’re just different, possibly slightly less mad – but equally unbalanced. After a couple of days you’lll think that you’ve seen it all. I’ve been here fifteen years and everyday is a surprise.” He grinned a buckled smile and slapped him on the back. This was it then. Let the games begin! 

It wasn’t long before Jake encountered his first recountable tale,  a couple of long-term psychos, institutionalized for years. The psychotrophic drugs that allowed others to reintegrate into the community had been ineffective – these two were here for life. 

They’d decided to make the most of their incarceration, living up to their societal status. Not quite as mad as they were thought to be, but looking more crazed than they should they stalked the carpeted corridors in search of visitors – fresh meat for their quotidian scam. 

The idea was to ambush traumatized family members, regaling them with tales of abuse. Shouting, screaming and pleading, they would demand money with menaces, relating tall stories of starvation diets and much needed cash for the vending machines in order to survive. 

The place was terrible, the abuse, the ignominy! 

Only too happy to oblige and affect a quick escape, victims would dig deep into pockets pressing sweated silver and crumpled notes into the blackmailer’s hands. As the two menaces gloated over their ill gotten gains whilst shoveling chocolate bars and emptying fizzy drinks into their toothless mouths’ the victims would make their escape. Regretting the moment they’d decided to visit Uncle Bob on the fourth floor. The medicated highwaymen grinned lopsidedly at each other, knowing that yet another unwilling participant in their pyramid scheme had coughed up the necessary cash. This had been going on for months. Families unwilling to report the assaults  simply left the building, leaving the muggers to continue their reign of vending machine terror. 

 

**** 

Oh they know alright. They might give you that innocent, incontinent, sugar wouldn’t melt in my mouth look, but they know. Secrets not to show any weakness lovey, stand up to ‘em. They’re just like big kids. A little guidance and a thick ear.” Beryl was the matron, it was her hospital. A big robust woman whose white uniform stretched like sail cloth across her massive bosom, straining at every stitch as she ordered, demanded, coaxed and cajoled her way around the Hall. Jake could only imagine being on the end of one of her clips, rubbing his ear in psychosomatic expectation. 

Behind the drugs and idiot smiles the inmates knew; the patients could smell fear and were prepared to push the envelope. Jake had been warned he would encounter surreal situations – meticulously planned, organized and executed by inmates with too much time on their hands. He may have been there for his own reasons however he was also an unwilling instrument of pleasure and amusement. 

Brian was right. After a month he was starting to think he’d seen it all; the naked inmates wandering the grounds, Mr. Jones who persisted in wearing his underpants on the outside of his trousers,  the amorous couples copulating in  toilets and brush cupboards.  Institutionalized hanky-panky couldn’t be stopped, even the neurotic have their urges and so the women were force fed anti-pregnancy medication. This added an air of guilt by association whenever Jake encountered a romantic rendezvous or interrupted a courting couple. 

He’d fallen down the rabbit hole, and woken up in a topsy-turvy world, that although upside down was perfectly the right way up. The unusual was the norm, madness and insanity embraced, the outside world paying no heed.  

**** 

 

Despite the freely displayed love the inmates also embraced the darker side of their disease. Smiles and cuddles would disappear transforming the meek and mild into their most aggressive selves. 

Brian had warned him,” Don’t stand in front of old Jenkins, you won’t see it coming!” 

 Mr. Jenkins a short, stocky, softly spoken man walked around the house in faded woman’s slippers and a red paisley housecoat smiling at everything and troubling nobody. Appearances belied reality. Before the madness had taken his mind he’d been a professional boxer; a pugilist of repute winning trophies and a chance at the All-England Lightweight Title back in ‘52

Although delicate in both speech and demeanor, Jenkins would without any warning smash his fist into any unfortunate who stood directly in front of him. Attacking the unlucky individual with professional gut crunching, piston like fists. Behind a punch-drunk visage, memories of halcyon moments would flash before his eyes, his victims folding like sacks of potatoes, writhing and screaming on the floor. Jenkins would raise his hands above his head in victory, walk circles around an imaginary ring and carry on as though nothing had happened. 

 

**** 

Sometimes violence was the only recourse and on occasion implemented by the staff themselves. One inmate in particular, a huge Irishman who’d been at the Hall longer than anybody could remember struck fear into the nurses. Big Seamus personified violence, a giant, hulking, mountain of a man with black-pits for eyes. Because of his aggression he was permanently resigned to the padded cell. The comfy room as Brian called it! 

In order to clean the detritus smeared throughout his cell it was necessary to initiate a military style operation. Jake stood back and watched as four of the biggest nurses prepared themselves to do battle, huddling together like nervous Tommys waiting for the whistle to send them over the top. 

GO!” 

The door was flung open. As one they rushed into the cell, a stained mattress in front of them. The idea was to pin the Mad-Mick against the wall allowing housekeeping to complete their Herculean task. Having cornered him they used their combined weight to crush the giant into a corner. 

Jake watched as huge steam hammer arms wind milled tattooed girth from either side of the mattress. Woe betides any nurse that he got to grips with as black eyes, broken noses and bruised ribs were not uncommon. 

Housekeeping completed, the nurses retreated like legionnaires in tortoise formation, slamming the heavy door behind them, leaving the stunned befuddled patient wondering what the hell had just happened. 

 

**** 

During Jake’s time at the Caldwell he’d managed to explore most of the great house, visiting the ball rooms, the cellars and even the attic reputed to be haunted by old Byron himself. It was puzzling that despite such an enormous house Byron would restrict himself to the cob webbed, dusty confines of its most uninhabitable portion. The haunting didn’t frighten him in the least however one place in particular disturbed him immensely. 

His explorations had led him to the treatment room on the third floor; an archaic, white tiled, Victorian cell where bad medicine had been performed by bearded men in tall hats. At the turn of the century with the introduction of the pseudo scientific method, the medical community floundering in its own ignorance had tried countless methods to relieve the unfortunate of their mental miasma. With forced lobotomy, chemical castration and the modern medical phenomenon of Electro-Shock-Therapy, patients like pilot whales were driven onto the beaches of mental anguish. 

As he stood outside the room, a lady in her late seventies wearing only a pair of shoes, a pearl necklace and white gloves passed him in the corridor. Mrs. Harrison, nice old lady, who no longer appreciated the societal norm of wearing clothes. 

She smiled at him as she flounced past – he smiled back. 

A cracked window pane painted the room in fading light, shadowing the gurney standing against the far wall. Unoccupied now, the leather restraining straps hung loosely at its sides – electrical cables running beneath it to a steel box attached to the wall. There had been earlier time when the gurney had held unwilling patients captive as Doctors administered recommended dosages of voltage and amps. Pulling and stretching at their bindings, unwilling victims would attempt to release themselves from bondage. The administration of muscle relaxants rendering wild billowing oceans of patient fear into serene mill ponds of peace. 

The cables attached, the dials would be turned, the buttons switched. A brief illumination and the box would hum and fizz, the lights throughout the great house dim and flicker. The current passing through the patient’s brain causing them to arch their spines, set their mouths in rictous grins and loosen their bowels. It was as if a capacitor had been discharged and drained. The live wire who only moments ago had been trying to tear the room to pieces now laid child-like in complete supplication. 

Jake hated the room and walked quickly by. The hairs on the back of his neck erect, his innards liquefying as he hurried away. Too much had happened in there, that was obvious; the trauma the room had witnessed still permeated the air. He’d been warned! 

 

**** 

“Nothing to worry about! You just march ‘em down there, sit ‘em quietly, buy ‘em  a couple of pints and a bag of crisps. No trouble at all – good as gold. I mean what could possibly go wrong, easy as falling off a bridge?” The nurse turned his back on Jake, mischief glinting in his eye a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. What he wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall. 

He recalled his first visit to the King’s Head. He couldn’t remember who was more excited, him or the inmates. Every Thursday morning they would assemble in front of the big house before trooping down to the local hostelry. 

Mr. Plumbton, with a pre ordained opening license from the fuzz, would open his doors to Caldwell Hall inmates and the pub would be theirs for a couple of hours. Jake walked down the line of thirsty imbeciles checking them off against his list. 

“Alright everybody hold hands and let’s go.” 

Resembling gas-blinded men on a Somme battlefield they followed each other shakily through the gates and down the road towards The king’s Head

Like sheepdogs wary of an errant flock Jake and the other minders would harry and cajole the group together. Getting there wasn’t too bad as the purpose was universal; it was coming back that was the issue. The effect of alcohol mixed with mind controlling drugs wasn’t something to be recommended – probably lost in the fine print of disclaimer, and yet the tradition persisted. How much damage could it do anyway? 

The return journey was a different matter. The beer running through their veins would change the group into floundering teddy bears, errant street pissers, amorous cuddlers and would be traffic policemen. They’d never lost anybody however it wasn’t for want of trying.

 Once inside the pub, the patients would sit in rows on the long tables the landlord had positioned by the window. Jake went to the bar and with their pocket money in hand ordered pints of bitter, pickled eggs and bags of crisps. Somebody fed the Juke box and the group warbled to the thrashing drum beat pouring from loudspeakers. 

Huge, brown, frothing, pints of liquid goodness passed through his hands to the patients. Placing two pints on the table he turned to fetch the rest. It wasn’t until he returned that he realized his mistake. 

Old Sam, with beer froth plastered to his moustache and an empty beer glass pointed to the heavens, was polishing off his second pint. Head back, mouth open, he tipped the golden liquid down his throat. With a satisfied burp he returned the empty glass to earth with a crash. Jake wouldn’t make that mistake again. 

”There was a young lady from Ealing,

Who had a peculiar feeling.

She laid on her back….” 

Of all the inmates his favorite was an old sailor who’d whored his way through the ports of the empire and was in the final stages of tertiary syphilis. His mind was Swiss cheese, however Noah, as they called him – since they didn’t know of an older sailor- could still swear in fifty different languages, sing louder than any of them and tell the most disgusting jokes. 

Tell us a joke Noah,” had become a daily ritual

Noah, whose real name was Amos, would glow, his eyes sparkle as he  ushered forth with the most descriptive juicy enunciation possible, making each and every joke lewd enough to blush a trooper. 

“Opened her snatch,

And peed all over the ceiling!” 

 

 

 

**** 

It was easy to get attached. Daily contact and the requisite governmental care distributed frugally among multiple patients meant that relationships and bonds formed easily. All said and done they might all be mad as hatters but they were people too. 

Convicted by society for being a little too weird and not quite mentally stable enough to function autonomously they were cast upon the human scrapheap that was Caldwell Hall. It was easy to apportion blame, point and castigate, however who was truly sane in this mad, mad world? 

“You’re going to see a lot of things which to say the least, are a little out of the norm. Our guests here don’t act like regular people, and because of that we have to adjust our own attitudes so that we can give them the care they deserve. Don’t forget we are dealing with people not idiots.” The doctor’s words struck a chord with Jake who understood that despite the gross lack of funding, the familial neglect and the criminally insufficient means at their disposal, work had to go on. 

Conversations with inanimate objects were nothing unusual and towards the end of his internship Jake started to engage the patients in their own delusion. Why fight it, it was their reality anyway? 

There was Mr. Blake who had continuous conversations with walls and potted plants. Mrs. Stevenson who could always be found lying on the ground under her bed. The parade of personalities was endless. 

“What’s going on Tom?”

It’s my wife, she’s telling me what to do. She won’t bleeding leave me alone.”

Jake smiled, laughed and thought of his own long suffering father understanding perfectly what Tom was going through.

“What you doing Jean?”

I’m fixing my car of course what are you blind as well as stupid?”

“What’s it this time, the brakes again?” Jean grimaced and shook her head disgusted at Jake’s lack of mechanical aptitude.

“No it’s the bloody alternator; I only replaced it last week!”

 

Morning Jake.”                                                         

“Morning Mrs. Harrison,” as she tripped by in gloves and shoes wearing nothing else but her smile. 

“Hey Bob, you really should go and get dressed. Matron’s only going to scream at you when she sees your underpants on the outside!”

 

 

**** 

The huge grounds ended abruptly at cliffs edge, terminating in a sheer drop to a pebble beach below. On a summers night you could watch elongating lawn shadows as the hall disappeared in encroaching dusk. The genus of flickering electric lights at windows, illuminating the Hall, edging out darkness. The inaudible sighs of exhaling hot summer days, giving up their heat to refreshing evening coolness. A beautiful view on a summer’s eve, but a temptation to the desperate. 

Jessie, a quiet girl with a long history of incarcerated care hadn’t shown up for the Thursday beer trip. Younger than most, for some reason she’d never been relocated to another institution so that she could mix with people of a similar age. Slight and introverted she was never any bother. There was a story about a car accident that had taken her parents and brother leaving her bereft, crazed and a burden on society.

They’d looked around, asked the other nurses, tried to find her but nobody knew where she was. It wasn’t until the evening of the next day that the local constabulary reported they’d found the body of a woman on the beach below the cliff. 

 A Sergeant with his mind on the six o’clock kick-off and not on anonymous jumpers from the loony-bin asked if someone from the staff would be kind enough to identify her. 

It was Jessie. Too much pressure, too much life, too much pain had caused her to jump. Ironic really, a madhouse with a suicide platform at the bottom of the garden! What had they been thinking? Much like their patients, rational thought had obviously not been the order of the day for the benevolent trustees. 

 

**** 

The final day arrived; Jake was sad to be leaving. His time at the asylum had been rewarding and educational and he’d set his mind on his major. Soon as he got back to college he was going to opt for every psych class he could find in order to specialize in mental health. His mates had been right, the experience had been eye-opening and life altering. 

He made his way to the great room where long trestle tables and benches had been set for breakfast. Each morning the same ritual, routine was the key. The places were set and steaming tureens of bacon and eggs sat in stainless steel glory.The procedure was as repetitive as the quality of cooking. Inmates served nurses, nurses served the patients. 

Serenity. 

No madness just happy smiles, the smash of gums on crispy bacon. He would miss it, they would miss him.

DIVINE INTERVENTION short story *IN MEMORIAM*

14 Feb

 

 

Roger stopped the car and turned off the engine. There were only four collections due today. He should be finished by ten giving him more than enough time to skip home and grab some lunch. 

He looked through the rain drizzled windscreen at the houses and yards spaced along each side of the road, the wet morning dripping off the unexceptional, overgrown, suburban landscape. He noticed the hedges and trees that needed clipping back, understanding the obvious neglect of front yard husbandry – to be honest who was going to go outside in this weather and take care of their garden? If it wasn’t for the fact that he needed the money he too would be warm at home, lost in a book or vegged out in front of the telly. Arsenal were playing today, he’d get to see the pre-match highlights, listen to the banter of bitter ex-footballers; loved his football did Rog! 

He took a final drag on his cigarette, crushed it out, zipped up his jacket and stepped out of the car. Fumbling with his keys he felt the chill of the April morning and wished that it was June already. Him and the Mrs. had booked a couple of weeks in the Canary Islands. One of those all-inclusive breaks where you could eat and drink as much as you liked at no extra cost. He licked his lips at thought of endless sangria and bottomless kebabs.

Glancing up at the grey sky he tried to catch a glimpse of the sun, seeing nothing but watery remembrances of better days skulking behind steel colored clouds. Only a few more months and he would be on the beach, toes in the sand, beer in hand, living the life.

Despite the cold he felt prospective inner warmth, the glow of expectation and the tingle of excitement. He turned from the car and walked down the street, looking up at the house numbers as he went. 

Number 26, Sebastopol Terrace, Mrs. Patel; sounded a bit foreign! 

She was one of the lucky individuals who would get to enjoy his company today. 

His job with the insurance firm brought him into contact with all manner of people, taking him all over the city. Although everything was slowly being computerized there were still customers, especially the older folk, who preferred to pay their premiums in cash. Theirs was a monthly remittance and, although not a lot of money, worth the collection. When you calculated that he saw perhaps ten to twenty people a day, with an average payment of five pounds, then the money soon added up. The Super had told him that his was the most important job of all, as without the money there really wouldn’t be a business. This made the handfuls of hot change, crumpled banknotes and promises of tomorrow all the more worthwhile. 

Just one short year ago Roger had been a retiring serviceman after spending half a life time in the R.A.F. He’d joined as a boy soldier, escaping from an electrician’s apprenticeship in the hope of greener pastures and bluer skies. Looking back it probably wasn’t the wisest thing to have done. He blamed his older brother who’d done the same thing. 

Joining up a couple of years before him, Derek had sent postcards from places like Singapore and Hong Kong. Fantastic faraway lands where possibilities were endless. His brother had spun tales of good times, great food, perfect beaches and the local girls. 

Oh, those local girls! 

After joining he was immediately posted to not-so-sunny Scotland, a classic case of being careful for what you wished. Wind-swept moorland rather than sun-kissed palms. 

Leaving the service had been hard. Twenty three years of institutionalization had taken its toll. Supplied with accommodation, food, money and a secure work environment, the outside world seemed, by comparison, empty and harsh. Sure, they’d prepared him for civilian life, given him the mandatory courses, but with no safety net, no recourse and no choice, they had finally cast him loose with even fewer guarantees! 

He had quickly found work as a salesman in the newly expanding telemarketing industry selling New-World-Wines. The idea was that you sat behind a desk and called up unsuspecting winos. 

“Hello is this Mrs. George?”

“Yes.”

“Would you like to buy some wine?”

“No.” 

Such was the depth of conversation Roger was participating in. Clearly the killer instinct of telephonic marketing was a branch of sales he wasn’t cut out for. Not taking rejection well, and loathing the hate emanating from silent telephones he moved on to Insurance sales, and so into collections. 

Of course, he could cajole a lonely pensioner into a necessary policy, however why would he? Bullying old ladies and scaring old men into believing that their families would be responsible for their debt was child’s play. 

In the beginning he had followed the company line pursuing ever increasing sales goals. Policy after policy was signed, sealed, and delivered – but at what cost? Profit at the price of sleepless nights, bad conscious, and feelings of remorse. The collections were much better. He he had an honest face, so he was told, which the clients trusted. 

He pushed open the iron gate, walked up the path, and rang the bell. The garden was neat and tidy and virtually weeds free. No sign of dogs; he hated dogs, didn’t like cats much either. He could hear the bell ringing deep inside the house. Eventually, after what seemed an eternity, he heard shuffling, a rustling of papers and the scrape of furniture on wooden floors. The clientele were not particularly quick but there again he wasn’t exactly in a rush. Mrs. Patel opened the door. 

“Hello Roger.”

“Morning Doris, how are you?”

“Oh, you know. Well as can be expected I suppose.” 

Roger was dreading the conversation; he knew that this polite interlude was leading to a climax he didn’t want to confront – the part where he asked her for money and where she told him she had none. 

This would be the fifth time now and without the requisite funds he would have to strike her off. He knew how important the life policy was to her; Mrs. Patel had a granddaughter with a young baby. Given her health issues, her age, the fact that she probably didn’t have too much more of her mortal coil to shuffle, she was no doubt hoping that she could at least leave something for her.  

“Have you come for the money Roger?” 

He smiled, opened his heart, and then his mouth. 

“Oh, no,” he said,” I was just in the neighborhood and thought I’d pop round and check on you.” 

The conversation continued. Details of her granddaughter, his sons, the bin collections on Thursday, her arthritis and his tricky knee. Did he know that TESCO had raised the price of milk by sixpence? 

The door closed and Roger made his way back down the path. Stopping at the gate, he pulled the ledger out of his satchel and opened it up to the policies paid page. Licked his pencil – strange habit – found the entry for Mrs. P. and ticked the appropriate box. 

Paid! 

Reaching into his pocket he pulled out his wallet, found a five pound note and deposited it into the brown envelope with the rest of the morning’s takings. That was the third old lady this week he’d anonymously subsidized. At this rate of financial extension he was going to have to find himself another job. 

The perfunctory angel made his way up the hill, got back in the car, turned on the radio, and drove away. 

Mrs.P’s daughter would be round that afternoon. She’d enjoy that he thought.

THE BOX – SHORT STORY

14 Feb

 

 

You used to see them everywhere, the post-office red of cast iron sentinels celebrating everything that was British about Britain. Embossed with monarch’s cipher, one could trace the date of the telephone booth by the type of crown steel-stamped into its lintel; king’s crown, queen’s crown, a history lesson in metal, recalling the halcyon days of Empirical conquest. 

Crimson beacons in an otherwise dour and soggy landscape, radiating the hope that was only a series of dial tones away. One could transport oneself via the magic of Mr. Bell’s genius and suddenly be connected to the other side of the world. No longer the driving rain, ocean-sized puddles and biting cold – instead the balmy climes of Florida, the joie de vivre of la Belle France

A public time capsule, an individual transportation device activated by inserting lusterous silver coins and fingering-dialed launch codes. The digits were rotated and then, in anticipation of ringtone dissipation, a voice crackling through the static on the other end of the line.

 “Hello, this is Margery?”

“Hi Margery this is Bill, how’s the weather?”  

Mission accomplished, objective achieved, escapism realized. 

Crunched into ridiculously small compartments one could escape the cares of the world by living vicariously through all too familiar voices on the end of transatlantic telephone wires. No longer were Britains trapped in sceptered isolation but privy to public launch platforms where the world was suddenly everybody’s backyard. 

A telephonic, geographical extravaganza, the requisite destinations listed on the mission guide screwed to its wall. A large, mildew stained map of the British Isles, sequestered behind plastic screening as though it were on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum listing each and every dial code required to accomplish the journey. Listed alphabetically, the great cities of Britain, Europe – the world laid bare like ancient knowledge, just waiting to be selected and utilized by the pilot. Flight coordinates and geographical positioning for those who prefered metaphysics in easily consumed compartmentalized packages. Bite size geography, the Grande Tour on a sixpence, who would have thunk it?

 No longer limited by the boundaries of imagination or the vacuum of pocket book, one could now jaunt at will – exercising one’s freedom to roam, ramble and wonder at leisure. Satiating and slaking the wanderlust, escaping Britain’s weather-induced house arrest. 

Back before the war to end all wars (the first not the second) when the box had first been placed, the whole village had been in attendance. Sunday finery was the requisite dress, local dignitaries parading at the appointed hour. Fine words had been mumbled, cameras focused, flashed and dazzled. The inaugurate call had been made, whilst muffled singing of God Save the King and Rule Britannia penetrated through thick glass. 

The telephone box was the very model of British engineering. The door swinging open on newly oiled hinges, the bright shiny scarlet paint of the G.P.O. silken to the touch. The sheer size of the iron coffin cast at the local foundry – now a super market – a marvel in itself. The interior was lit by new fangled corporate installed electric, the bare bulb illuminating its pristine interior. 

This modern invention of long distance communication was a wonder to behold and came equipped with all the pre-requisites of 1908. There was an ash tray to hold one’s cigarette, as talking and smoking just wasn’t etiquette. An umbrella stand in the corner and a coat hook on the back of the door for raincoats and top hats. The post master general designers had thought of everything. Shelves had been placed below the Bakelite telephone apparatus containing the directory listing everybody in the market town’s catchment area. 

The public stood aghast at the gargantuan task of recording everyone’s name, address and telephone number; comparable to building the pyramids, the transcription of the Bible, the erection of the great Chinese wall. Marvelous what Englishmen could do when they put other nations men to task. Little wonder that the empire spanned half the globe – that the sun never set on the Union Jack. The divine right we islanders had been blessed with was helping to save the nations of the world. Spreading Brutishness one country at a time, so that no matter their creed or color they could enjoy afternoon tea, cricket and oppression.

 

****

 

These days the phone booth isn’t quite so grand,  still serving as a monument although this time to a country in decline and depression. The empire’s long gone, as have the coat hooks and umbrella stands. The windows smashed out by the local hoodlums and replaced with cheap plastic, bearing the scratched names of lovers, haters and rival football supporters. 

Carved memorial in faux glass. 

The paint is no longer pristine,  the box  probably two or three times its original size, judging by the thick layers of post-office-red lathered upon it over the ensuing decades. Its interior now dirty and smelly, the original Bakelite apparatus replaced by something stainless steeled and plastic blued. Directories have been torn out, the map of Britain still hidden behind the plastic. Now barely visible because of the scorch marks caused by fire-works ignited inside the booth. 

A dense mixture of odors permeates the interior, all bearing witness to its misuse, as urinal, spittoon, piss-pole, meeting place for local junkies and God only knows what else? Used by bereaved parents, persistent wooers, desperate messengers, teenage lovers, rain dodgers, bus-waiters, and all manner of humanity from every location. 

It has served Pakistanis, Hindustani’s, Bangladeshis and Jamaicans. Greeks and Turks and even the indigenous Yorkshire population. The booth is no longer the tele-transporter of yore but instead a remembrance to the generations it has attracted through its creaking portal. 

For the moment it still stands in the center of the village down by the duck pond however there are rustlings that they are going to take it away, replacing it with a shiny new plastic box. No longer the G.P.O., but some Scandinavian firm, with call centers in Vietnam and operators with unpronounceable names. 

Don’t they care that this scarlet icon is all we have left of the golden age our grandparents once enjoyed? It’s comparable to the traditional British pub, fish and chips, the local Chinese take-away. Americans arrive in their fancy cars, take their photographs and tell us how quaint we are. How they wish America had the depth of history and culture that we enjoy. We smile back of course, and from behind bad dentistry hate them for their money and their good looks. 

Lose our phone box lose our identity, lose our identity lose everything, lose everything lose the world. 

What then? Sucked up by the mélange of Europeanism and its insidious permeating effluence,  slowly choking the highways and byways of our sovereign nation? 

 NEVER! A declaration of war if ever there was one. 

Championed by the local history society we’ll fight them all the way. Who do they think they are, taking away that which is rightfully ours? What next – our homes, our wives, our livelihoods? On the beaches and in the air, down by the duck pond and behind the chippy, we will resist. We’ve fought back Romans, Normans, Spaniards, French, Dutch, Nazis and Polish immigrants. We will not be subjected to the brutal hand of corporate attrition. Down with Big Brother and his goose stepping iron heel. 

The box will not be moved! 

Everything else is gone, BRITSH STEEL, BRITISH RAILWAYS, BRITISH COAL, BRITISH EMPIRE – passed over and forgotten. However the box still survives; its electric light dimly illuminating the village square. 

Maybe that’s the last thing they can never take from us!

PSEUDO SOPRANO – SHORT STORY

13 Feb

 

The cushions molded around him as Jake grabbed his beer and sank into the couch in one easy practiced movement. Another day another dollar – hopefully tomorrow would be the same. The handyman business had really taken off and after three years of hard graft he’d managed to establish a reliable and lucrative clientele. It was peanuts by giant corporation standards – just Jake, his truck, and his fifteen year old son occasionally accompanying him on weekends.

It was super low tech, making for quick decisions and easy money. Living on a side of town where retirees outnumbered the working stiffs there was a bundle to be made. Jake enjoyed his job;  everyday was different.

He had seen it all from the good to the bad to the extremely ugly. That was the beauty of being a handy-man you got to become a professional sneak. Poking around people’s homes, checking out their pictures, record collections and everything else they chose to leave out. Decorum and modesty was anathema to most of the paying public. He had come across the most personal of items lying around bedrooms and bathrooms. From the innocuous vaginal dryness creams and male-enhancement pills to the very latest in electronic gadgetry and vacuum pleasuring devices. He had even had the dubious pleasure of making the acquaintance of several personal inflatable companions; nothing surprised him anymore.

 

 

It didn’t matter, money was money, and strangely enough he had no aversion to any delinquent or pervert that was prepared to write him a check or fork over the ready cash.

The truck was unloaded and garaged, the soiled rags from the day’s labors tumbling in the wash machine in preparation for tomorrow. It was time for a little relaxation; some well deserved Jake-time. He flicked a switch on the remote and the DVD sprang into life. One more manipulation and it whirred into action. He was watching the latest DVD selection from HBO, some mob series about a family in New Jersey. Good stuff, lots of tits and stiffs, just the way he liked it. Jake had spent hours living vicariously as a mobster, to the extent where his ever later bed times were causing issues. Getting out of bed was increasingly problematic. Something had to give and usually it was the alarm clock. A quick bitch-slap and the screaming demon could be silenced at least for another five precious minutes.

 

 

He’d utilized every excuse under the sun to explain away his tardiness to his customers. Tall tales of errant children, sick daughters, punctured tires and trucks that failed to start. They all displayed the same faux sympathy, reassuring him that it really didn’t matter, that they hoped all would be well and that they were just glad to see him.

 Better late than never?

They loved Jake, he’d been doing their houses for ever, had strongly recommended his services to their neighbors. He smiled gratefully, accepted their contrition, picked up his tool box and went about his business.

The mobster series was fantastic, well filmed, well dialogued and totally believable. The lead character a bastard, but a lovable bastard. He exuded a level of psychopathic empathy which made him more approachable than your average mob boss. Of course he had to enforce his territory, make sure that his goons were performing to his satisfaction when dealing out the necessary violence however wasn’t that the same for any management position? The position of Godfather clearly demanded respect, and to be honest, Jake thought that the hours and the benefits didn’t look so bad. Especially when compared to some career choices he could think of.

 

 

The large screen TV was burning images into his brain, the message of violence and extortion laid down for subconscious posterity. Thousands of neuron connections created with every episode he watched. Frequently, especially after a three-client day, he would catch himself dozing off halfway through the show. His mind switching from the pseudo reality of the living room to the manifest depths of dreams where wildest fantasies were played out in technicolored, surreal brilliance. He found himself cramming 9mm shells into chrome plated pistols, beating delinquent debtors, strangling made-men and generally pursuing the life, liberty, and happiness of the average gangster. The dreams were so real he would wake up at night in cold sweats, the covers in disarray, staring around the room to see if he was being watched or followed. Of course he wasn’t and so drifted off to sleep again, only to reencounter the darker side of the New Jersey population.

 

 

One particular episode involved the mob boss shaking down an Indian restaurant. There he sat, suited and booted surrounded by hundred dollar bills and multi-limbed goddesses, serenaded by sitar music, whilst digging into a plate of chicken Vindaloo. Indian food at the very least is extremely potent and Vindaloo is right up there with the Madras and military grade explosive. A dish not to be taken lightly and one which should at least come with a Surgeon General’s warning.

Warning: this curry will turn your innards to lava causing you to spend the rest of tomorrow in bathroom isolation.

The predictable of course happened. The boss fell foul of Delhi belly and for the rest of the episode Jake watched him race from bed to bathroom, puking and farting simultaneously with no control of his bodily functions, leaving lots of trace evidence for the FED’S.

Gandhi had truly had his revenge!

Jake felt his pain,  he too had succumbed to delicious aromas emanating from a curry-house back in the mists of youth and had paid dearly. Like the mob boss his enthusiastic indulgence had been his undoing. He recalled his own Olympic sprint to the bathroom, the last sheet of paper as it peeled of the roll, a story he had told many times. He had run to an invalid bathroom, knowing they were always empty, and proceeded to devastate the porcelain. He had emerged shaken, half the man he had been from the ground zero only to find a row of desperate wheel chair bound amputees lined up in the corridor door waiting to use the convenience. Guilty as he was, the least he could do was tell them not to go inside, however his advice fell on deaf ears. 

 

 

After kicking off his shorts, rubbing his nuts, and sinking into the welcome embrace of the couch, Jake’s long suffering wife brought across the meal she had prepared for his dinner. A steaming plate of golden brown surrounded by a halo of white,  accompanied by God’s amber nectar. Truly a feast for the immortals – ambrosia in the form of Chile Con Carne and bottled beer. Jake’s demands were simple however his tastes refined. The Chili couldn’t be spicy enough. He prided himself on his cool demeanor when friends would cough and splutter at the mere mention of Jalapeno, break sweat at the allusion to chili powder.

If you can choke it down when those around you are losing their cool, then you will be a curry-eater my son. Pussies!

Chile was a man’s meal. It wasn‘t just food it was a test, a badge of honor. Hadn’t one of the tasks of Hercules been to consume the entire chili reserves in the Augean stables or was he confusing that with an episode of ultimate something’s on one of the so called learning channels? Either way he was prepared, stabbing his fork into the morass of heat, slurping down the meal. He felt the heat hit the back of his throat, burn all the way down to his belly like bomber-dropped napalm. Raising the beer to his lips he slurped greedily, emptying half the bottle in one swig. This was really living. His senses burned with the hot chili infusion, sweat breaking out on his thinning scalp. Jake looked at the TV mob boss – the mob boss looked back at Jake. They were one and the same. It was hard to make out who was living vicariously, and just who through whom?

 

Jake in his own mind was a made-man, the DVD-reality running through his mind only serving to compound the revelation. Conspicuously he had started to develop an Italian east coast accent, practicing to himself every morning in the mirror. His lip would curl, his hands gesticulate wildly, his stance adjusting to support his aggressive attitude. The mobster in the mirror would stare back at Jake, repeat the expletives whilst tossing his greased back hair and staring at the balding man in the saggy underwear with the protruding belly before him

 A blind man would have sworn they were twins, or at least distantly related – brothers form another mother perhaps?

 

 

Jake liked the way he looked, and had taken to wearing dark 30’s cut pin-striped suits when he took the ‘Mrs.’ out for dinner at the local Spaghetti Warehouse. Lacking only the Trilby, the burp-gun, the gangster’s mole and the black sedan, Jake personified dangerous.

***** 

Day followed night and Jake was back on the job. He parked his truck outside the client’s house and checked the rear view for any sign of the Feds. Nothing – either he had lost his imaginary tail at the coffee house or he was just too smart to be caught. They were no match for his criminal genius. He jumped out, walked to the door and rang the bell. A dog barked somewhere inside and after a couple of seconds the door opened. A woman in her early fifties, divorcee, widow, he couldn’t tell but knew that she lived alone. She smiled and they talked small. No matter the topic of conversation Jake couldn’t take his focus of the lone, errant whisker poking out from her chin; a survivor of the quotidian plucking holocaust which her body no doubt endured. Something to do with higher testosterone as estrogen leaked out of them during menopause. Memories of Aunt Mary flashed through his mind – the only woman he knew with a permanent 5 o’clock shadow. Chewbacca told Jake she’d have to leave but would return shortly. The over pampered mutt, humping the kitchen stool, had to be taken to the groomer. 

 

 

The conversation ended and he turned to go. As the door shut he felt the first thrust of his bowels, quickly followed by a tsunami of heat rushing through his body. Jake farted, recognizing instantly the essence of chili. Recovering himself he thought no more about it and went about his work. The gas persisted and Jake fought back his body’s natural reaction to defecate. Wave after flaming wave of gut wrenching spasms flashed through his lower abdomen. 

The garage door suddenly opened distracting Jake from his misery and the woman reversed her car out of the drive. The bumper stickers on her car declared her devotion to the cross marking her as one of God’s chosen. She waved at Jake. Jake waved back. 

As the car disappeared from view Jake knew he wasn’t going to be able to maintain the status quo of civilized expectation with the necessity which was brewing in his gut. What the hell was he going to do? He couldn’t go in the house when she wasn’t there. The last thing he needed was to be accused of breaking and entering. How does a man explain himself to a woman who comes home to find a stranger grunting and groaning in the bathroom with his pants around his ankles? 

 

 

He extinguished the fantasy and thought fast. Action was required. Without action there would be consequences. His mind raced, his palms sweat as he was overcome with the desire to shit. It had to happen, and it had to happen now. But what if she came home? There was no time to waste, the metal was hot, the iron was about to strike – the turtle was rearing its ugly head. 

Stop, drop and dump! 

He fumbled with his belt, ripped down his pants, rending the zipper useless as he did so. He didn’t care that he was exposed, vulnerable, and taking a dump against the side of somebody else’s home. He braced himself against the French doors, between the air-conditioning unit and the American flag sticking out of the plant pot. Jake stared fixedly in front of him, straight into the kitchen window of a neighbor’s house. Too late, no time for modesty, what would be would be, it was coming fast. 

 

Squatting like a garden gnome at a horticultural show, Jake let rip. Like a steaming train emerging from the mouth of a tunnel with whistle blowing, Jake shit himself. Fireworks exploded, choirs sang, and the light of heaven beamed down on the sinner. The abrasive pyroclastic flow of released gasses burned his arse cheeks, singing his hair. He felt the hot blast shoot past his balls, splattering like an exploding paintball against the side of the Christian lady’s residence. 

 Curiosity overcame him and he turned to view the destruction he had wrought. The steaming pile spoke volumes as it oozed and shimmied in its own heat haze. He thought he detected the face of Jesus, quickly dismissed the idea, blaming it on the momentary stress of the situation. He reached into his pocket and fumbled for a rag which he proceeded to drag across his arse. No time for niceties, no checking to see if he was clean. The wipe was as perfunctory as it was swift.  

He discarded the once yellow rag in the grass and fought to recover himself. Speed was of the essence, the difference between discovery and escape. He couldn’t afford to mess around. Looking straight ahead he imagined he saw a shadow at the kitchen window of the house opposite, but tried to dismiss it as rationally as possible. He continued to stare, but saw no further movement. Today fortune was on Jake’s side. The guardian angel that had been hovering around his nether regions had saved him in his moment of need. Jake invoked the spirit and gave thanks. 

 

 

He heard the car coming up the drive, the slam of the door, the sound of footsteps, and panicked. He was dressed but disheveled; the evidence of his deed plain to see. He thought quickly, his mobster reactions racing for a solution. His synapses fired and entering fight or flight mode he grabbed for the hose pipe by the side of the house. His fingers came alive, dexterously operating the faucet and directed the ensuing jet at the chalk-outlined evidence. 

Like a mobster pumping round after round from a Thompson machine gun, he obliterated the turd from memory; spreading DNA far and wide – erasing the crime scene. 

The Christian lady popped her head around the door. 

“Everything ok?” 

Jake looked up, smiled and with an open handed Mediterranean gesture, dropped his lip, and rolled his shoulders – indicating  there was no problem. The evidence was gone, the deed hidden. There was however still the matter of the witness at the neighboring house who had to be taken care of. Jake’s imagination went into hyper drive as he envisioned hits, shallow graves, and moonless nights.  

What was he thinking?  

What he really needed was an early night and some decent sleep – maybe a couple of beers and a few hours in front of the TV.

It was going to be a late night.

 

THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER – FLASHFICTION

12 Feb

 

The room was dark and shadowed the curtains open. Heavily laden battle-ship clouds drifted overhead; rain ran down the windows. The garden was a morass but judging by the activity at the pond the ducks were making hay. Rain pelted the surface causing large ripples to ellipse and expand – watery rings circumferencing reed ridden banks. 

“Weather for ducks,” is what his grandfather said whenever it rained, one of the many truisms he loved to share whenever inspiration struck. Another of his gems was, “Where there’s muck there’s brass,” conjuring up images of highway robbed bullion lying forgotten in roadside ditches. Just waiting to be dug up, rinsed off, and spent on lollipops and lead soldiers. 

Jake loved coming to his grandparents; loved the mystery the old damp creaking house possessed. The sitting room was filled with the treasures of ages; the piano in the corner of the room that nobody played, the two shiny brass artillery shells standing guard by the fireplace, the large framed picture on the mantelpiece. The sepia colored man in the picture dressed as a soldier, spit and polished, holding an ancient rifle – a protagonist of a long forgotten war. 

The fire roared in the hearth. Because of the rain, the chimney didn’t draw quite as well as it should;  the back lash of smoke giving an earthy scent and a haze to the already darkened room. He was in the back parlor as his Nan called it; the sitting-room in modern day parlance. Obviously if there was a back parlor, then there had to be a front parlor. That was the room Jake wasn’t allowed to play in. 

The mysteries of the front parlor had only been revealed to him on a couple of occasions. Once when his grandfather had run out of pipe tobacco and he’d followed him into the room, the other when his Nan had been distracted whilst dusting and using the Hoover on the deep piled carpet. On both occasions he had caught fleeting glances of the room’s interior before being shooed away. 

The front parlor was special; or rather the front parlor was for special people. 

Unlike the sitting room, the front parlor was lightly papered with a floral print. There was a large picture window at the end allowing sunlight to enter on warm Yorkshire days. From memory he recalled a mirrored cabinet that bounced the sun around the room creating a sense of well-being – pulling at the corner of mouths – inducing smiles. Upon entering the room on a day like today, it was as though a great weight was lifted from one’s shoulders – the lubrication required to oil the spring in one’s step. His Nan had told him that that she stored her best crockery in there, that and her Belgium lace. They never used it of course, but that’s where it was stored, just in case. Good to know he thought, just in case! 

You could see the ever shut door to the front parlor when entering the house via the kitchen. Through the kitchen door and into the hall-way where the paraphernalia necessary to combat the harshness of inclement British weather stood. The umbrella stand beneath the coats was a large ceramic elephant’s foot his grandfather had inherited from the big house on the hill when the lady had died. Apparently he had done a bit of gardening for her – her eternal thanks expressed in  Wedgewood gigantism. 

A perennial biscuit tin sat on the table however it had been years since there had been any biscuits inside. The tin was red with a picture of a lady wearing a crown waving from a horse drawn carriage. Around the tin, images of places in London titled variously as ‘The Tower,’ or ‘Big Ben.’ Now the tin was full of old coins. Some brass, some silver, and some gold in color. The coins had barely pronounceable names such as thrupenny-bits, sixpences, farthings and half-crowns. There was even a gold sovereign, but his Nan kept that in the front parlor in the glass cabinet for the special people that never visited. 

The fire blazed, the logs spat – wooden shrapnel flying from the fireplace and bouncing off the fire guard. His Granddad had told him the wood had been wet, that the fire would dry it out. Made sense if you thought about it! 

Once again he looked upwards at the large black and white photograph on the mantel and wondered who it was. There was a familiarity, the stance, the nose, the ears and yet he couldn’t put his finger on it. Clearly the young man was very brave, dashing in his soldier’s uniform – flat campaign cap on head, puttees wrapped around his legs, rifle slung over his khaki clad shoulder. The boy in the photograph looked like one of the characters from the old movie reel pictures they showed at the Odeon Picture House before the main flick on Saturday mornings. 

The clock above the mantel struck the hour, the pendulum weights slipping on the chains. 

His grandfather walked into the room. 

“Time for a cuppa,” he said, shuffling towards his chair, paper under his arm, tea cup in hand. There was something familiar in the features of his grandfather that he hadn’t noticed before? Jake watched him as he slipped into the big comfy chair, slurped his tea, flicked open his newspaper and started to read. They sat in amicable silence, each enjoying the company of the other. 

Jake looked out the window, watched as the rain slid down the glass and thought that his granddad was right. 

 This really was, “Weather for ducks.”

DEAD STOP – FLASHFICTION

9 Feb

 

The vehicle lost speed, brakes protesting as large rubber tires ground to a rolling halt. The truck stood at a four way crossing, nothing unusual about that except this time the stop was empty. 

Fuel injected heat created a made-in-American mirage above the hood – faux flashing blues beguiling the casual observer. Burning desert sun glanced off paintwork, dazzling the driver, momentarily blinding as it danced on glass and sparkled on chrome. The driver squinted, adjusted the shade to block the glare and tugged his battered cap down over his eyes.

Prudence prevailing, he peered in all directions before gunning the engine and pulling away. The pride of hand-polished ownership vanished from view – the dust pall and exhausted-flatulence the only reminder it was ever there; that and a couple of air-sticking notes from some long forgotten country legend. Summer sunned wires hummed metallically, creeping grass whispered, black-top baked; nothing exceptional, except this time the stop was empty. 

 The dirt brown flats that passed for fields and margined the road were deserted, the cotton harvest gathered, the migrant workers presumably idle. Stop signs swayed, creaking in the gentle breeze – air whistling through the shotted holes the local farm boys had blasted into them. A couple of birds sat on telegraph poles serenading what passed for traffic; a jackrabbit, the only other witness, disappeared into the undergrowth as quickly as it had appeared. A regular four way stop, except this time it was empty. 

Behind the tangled wire, next to the generic debris of Cola cans and discarded industrial packaging stood a white cross, a horseshoe at each of its stations, an ironic gesture considering the luck of the recipient. The arms welded together, its white paint peeling, the rust blisters erupting in iron red flakes as dry air ate it alive.

 Desert heat devoured everything eventually, including memorials to eternity and everlasting life.

Cobbled together by some grieving relative or well-meaning friend, the memorial stood in testimony to the once living, breathing corpse which now resided at ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe’ on the far side of town. The marker, half buried in long straw grass, memorialized the lives of previous visitors to the cross roads, belying the serenity of the scene – recalling a time when the crossing had been much busier than it was today. 

Gone were the blue probing lights, the wailing sirens and uniformed authority. No longer was the air rent with the cries and screams of departmental urgency; the crunch of regulation footwear on broken glass. The ashes of traffic flares used to illuminate the car wreck long since dispersed on dry desert breezes; gone  the smell of spilt gasoline, burning rubber, the curious faces of nighttime-passers pressed against darkened windows. All now just distant memories, imprinted on a time which no longer existed – the stains bearing witness to life–sapping-death all but vanished.

The only trace of the alcohol fueled birthday – celebrating the onset of manhood and the impossible prospect of youthful immortality- the colored glinting jewels of  gutter-strewn glass. Reminiscent of wreaths floating on distant oceans – memorializing the bodies of drowned sailors- the  fragments reflected emotions past; mute to opinion, deaf to argument, screaming of a time when the crossroads hadn’t been quite so pastoral. 

Brown tumble weed, paying no attention to the hazards of oncoming traffic and ignoring the protocol of motoring niceties, bustled through the four-way stop. Disappearing down the road, it raced towards some predestined rendezvous, leaving nothing but twigs and dust in its wake. 

The sun began to wane, the wires twanged, the grass sighed, the heat of the day radiating as the earth gave up its warmth; just another day, nothing to write home about.

Except today, the stop was empty.