Tag Archives: short stories

DIE HARD – A VICTORIAN GHOST STORY

5 Jun

EDDY

           

Thunder cracked and lightning forked in the night sky as an incessant rain beat a diabolical tattoo off the leaded glass of Ye Olde Sheep Stealers Inn. Fog swirled among the gas lamps and, drifting slowly up from the river, muffled the cacophony and obscured the nocturnal iridescence of heavy industry; the occasional crash of the new iron-age, chorus to the rare abatements in the tempest raging overhead. The cobbles were awash and slick underfoot; the biting cold of December evident from the huddled, shrouded figures scurrying home to the warmth of hearth fires; the promise of brief respite from arduous factory shifts in decrepit tenements; the spasmodic covenant perhaps of pressed flesh.

            The Sheep Stealer was an ancient coaching inn that had stood sentinel since time immemorial. The auberge was replete with a rich and colorful history and the patrons that passed through its nail-studded doors never failed to be impressed by the tales of roundheads and cavaliers who’d plotted and planned around it wooden tables; of the highwaymen who’d escaped the hangman’s rope through its upstairs casements and of the great plot to kill King James when Guido Fawkes himself had spent a restless night underneath its dilapidated slate roof. Although a neighborhood landmark it wasn’t long for the modern world as with the new municipal transport system being ploughed through London there was little hope for its survival. In its place would come the necessary ephemera of tunnels and termini that would usher in the new age, transforming the ancient city of London into a Victorian Babylon. The modern era was expeditiously replacing all that had been familiar and in a world of a change, a beacon of nostalgia was a welcome sight to the weary traveler.

            The pot man looked up from his duties as the door swung upon. The candles guttered and the flames in the grate roared as the night air rushed into to fill the room. “Shut the bloody door before we all freeze damn you!” challenged the bar keep at the silhouette that had suddenly appeared from out of the night.

            A fire blazed in the hearth and the smell of roasting meat filled the ale house; spurious shadow creatures and shapes diabolical danced on the flaking plaster walls. The stranger rubbed his hands and gasped at the welcome warmth already beginning to drive out the aching cold that’d permeated his bones. Throwing the cloak from his shoulder and removing his hat he revealed the scarlet jacket of a soldier, the white piping that clutched at his collar and cuffs an odd contrast to the martial figure and saber slashed face that made its way to the bar.

            “A room and some food,” said the soldier throwing gold onto the counter, “and a pot of ale to wash it down with.” The innkeeper eyed the sovereign, nodded and, wiping his hands on his greasy apron, pulled a pewter mug from the rack above his head and proceeded to fill it. The soldier quickly drained it and it was immediately replaced with another.

             “Your food’ll be out in a little while Captain. Why don’t you take the weight off and go and sit by the fire and warm yourself? I’ll bring it over when it’s ready.”

            Two, worn high backed chairs stood in front of the hearth and as the soldier approached he noticed skeins of smoke rising above the leather head rest. As he came closer he saw that it was occupied by another man. Undaunted by the company he sat down.

            “Come far ‘ave you?” asked the stranger.

            “Far enough,” he replied noncommittally.

            The stranger stared at the soldier’s uniforms his eyes drinking in his insignia and the regimental crests on his silver buttons. “The 69th  Regiment of Foot. I was with them in Belgium at Quatre Bras back in ‘15. Bloody mess that was. Not many of us made it out of there.”

            The soldier looked up at his companion, disbelieving yet curious. “Who was your Colonel?” There were enough confidence men and tricksters on the streets and with a silver tongue and a few war stories it was easy to illicit money from drunken redcoats and so the pretense of having served the colors was an easy scam to pull.

             “McDonald . Colonel Jock McDonald. You ‘eard of him?”

            The soldier started. Who hadn’t?  Black Jock McDonald was a man of myth and legend and tales of the death-dealing mayhem he’d wrought on the Frogs that June afternoon were still told by the men of regiment. “Garn! Get out of it you old codger. You was with Black Jock?

             “Aye lad. Side by side in that field of burning corn outside of Waterloo. Shoulder to shoulder we stood, brothers to the end. Steeped in the blood of our comrades and the enemy alike we was.” The old man stared at nothing in particular and pulled on his clay pipe, the escaping smoke from his nostrils lending him an unearthly aspect as the light from the fire played upon his ancient face.

            The soldier put the tankard to his lips and drank in the rich warm taste of bitter beer, smacked his lips and contemplated the old man. Quatre Bras had been the most destructive day in the history of the regiment where nearly two hundred men had found their deaths in the space of an hour at the hands of the French. Despite the enormous body count the regimental colors had been saved and with the late arrival of the Prussians the French had eventually been repelled. June 17th 1815 was a symbol of regimental pride; a day of bloody infamy that lived on in the tales told by the new recruits and old sweats alike.

            “Quatre Bras,” mused the old man, “I remembers it like it was yesterday.” With that his eyes glazed over and he began to relate the events of that fateful summer day forty years ago.

*

            Bugles sounded and whistles shrilled as the sergeants berated the men into line abreast. The companies broke out of their columns and shook themselves into single file.

            “Move your arses.”

            “What you waiting for Jones, a bloody invitation?”

            “Look alive. The Frogs are over the hill.”

            Both the King’s and the Regimental silks whipped over their heads as the infantrymen efficiently came into line attack and proceeded to walk across the field. With bayonets fixed and muskets held at waist height they advanced to where they presumed the enemy was entrenched. Suddenly, out of nowhere, swarms of French cavalrymen appeared on their flanks. The leading scouts saw them immerge from the dead ground, screamed their alarm and, fearful of being caught in the open, sprinted back to the safety of the main body of soldiery. The French seizing the element of surprise spurred their horses, lowered their swords and, sensing victory, galloped towards the vulnerable open ranks of the British.

 

*

            “They was them armored Frogs with the blue uniforms and steel breast plates. Cuirassiers; heavy cavalry,” explained the old man. “Big men with faces full of moustache on monstrous ‘orses.” The old man became agitated, his face twitching, his hands shaking as he told his tale. “Evil bastards with long, wicked swords. Well, we was done for. Only defense against cavalry is square and we were stretched out from one ‘orizon to the next. We didn’t stand a bleeding chance.”

*

            The French crashed into the British line and turning like mackerel – their swords flashing and falling in air – swooped down on men who, although they didn’t know it yet, were already dead. Men screamed as blood drenched sabers thrust and plunged, the horses trampling the corpses and finishing the work of the men on their backs. The blood lusted cavalrymen yelled their challenges and stabbed and slashed as the madness of combat engulfed them rendering them automatons of death. The British could do nothing. Soldiers turned to face their enemy and holding up their arms in a pathetic attempt to ward of the attackers, fell to the ground; their life blood draining into a foreign soil that would be forever England.

*

            “Easy pickings we was for them Frogs. Riding field days ‘round us they were. Hundreds of the ‘orrible bastards grinning and screaming as they skewered man after man. It was McDonald who rallied us. Centre Company and the color platoon managed to square up we did, grounded our muskets and presented Sheffield‘s finest to the enemy. With our bayonets creating a steel hedge the nags wouldn’t come close and we began to fight back; shooting the riders down like ducks as they rode about us.”

             The soldier had heard the story a thousand times before but now, told by someone who’d actually fought the engagement, it took on a whole new life. He could hear the shouts and screams, taste the gun powder from the muskets and through the fog of war hear the cries and prayers of both the living and dying.

             The old man’s eyes clouded as he went on. “It was numbers game and seeings ‘ow there was more of them than there was of us we weren’t going to last long. Slowly but surely they wore us down till there were less than thirty men stood ‘round the colors. McDonald stood next to me in the front rank screaming like a bleeding banshee for the boys to hold, “Die hard 69th. Die hard.”

             The old man’s face grimaced as he remembered. “There was no chance for a man alone and the only ‘ope we had of getting off that field alive, at the rate Frogs was picking us off, was to stick together or stay until the last man fell. Any rate we was down to our last balls and if it hadn’t been for the arrival of the Prussians and old Black Jock we’d still be on that field. Say what you want about the Teutonics but on that particular day I was never gladder to see anybody.” The old man grinned and nodded. The soldier smiled back recognizing a brother in arms, one who’d endured and who’d been a part of a thin red line of heroes protecting king and country.

            The soldier lifted his tankard in salute, “Die hard 69th! Beer?”

            The old man smiled, “Aye lad I will.”

            The soldier got up and went to the bar keep. “Two ales.”

            “Two?”

            “Aye. One for me and the General over there,” he said pointing to his companion sitting by the fire.

            The bar keeper looked at him and then looked towards the fire. “You ‘aving a laugh soldier.”

            The soldier grimaced clenched his fist and brought it down hard on the wooden bar. It was bad enough that soldiering was a profession that commanded little respect, but to be disrespected to your face by some loathsome toad of a civilian went beyond the pale. “Two, he growled, “and shift your arse.”

            The man behind the counter stared at the soldier. “Think you’ve ‘ad enough lad. There aint nobody ‘ere but me an’ you, in fact there’s been nobody ‘ere all night what with this blasted weather.”

            The soldier looked back towards the two empty seats by the fire. Smoke curled in the air; the only indication that anyone, or anything, had ever been there at all.

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THE POTION PEDDLER

4 Jun

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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.

 

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AN ODE TO CURRY

24 May

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged that an Englishman in possession of a couple of quid and a belly full of beer must be in want of a curry…”

Jane Austen; Pride and Prejudice.

 

“Oh, sweet elixir of life, the meaning of reason, and the object of my desire. What it is to be bereft of thy company, only to rekindle joyous acquaintance in my unhappy hour of want? Words cannot quantify nor does allusion describe the bitter sweet of fond empty-plated remembrance. Clothed in plastic-bagged-fantastic and foiled in silver, thou art a joy to behold; a breath of fresh, pungent air, a tangible tingle to the nostrils, a veritable mistress of saucy delight. A jewel to the eye, a sear to the soul and a burning rush of requited love. Solitary confined moments shared and savored where one can reflect and revisit the intimacy of oral delight. Never was there a less selfish lover – never were the clinging moments more cherished – never was one left so bereaved by flushed adieu. Until we ‘eat again, I bid thee a flatulent farewell!”

*

“Last orders ladies and gentleman, please!” screams the potbellied publican from behind faux teak and poor dentistry. Standing amidst an island of factory-produced nostalgia he checks his watch and rings the bell one last time. “Come on now move your arses! Ain’t you got homes to go to?”

I finish the suds in my glass, choking back the stagnant liquid that just moments before browsed golden as it bubbled and foamed, and place it on the counter top with the other dead soldiers. Pint and shot glasses stand together in blissful union, unaware their usefulness has passed and that closing time has robbed them of employment. I look around at my fellow imbibers and through alcohol-addled eyes, spy the lonely and the loved as they file through the exit and into to the icy embrace of life. Their moments of communal pain-dulling congenial inebriation now forgotten as they check wallets, grab jackets and fondle newly-found soul mates. The weekend is over and the morning brings another day at the foundry, office or other unworthy place of forced employment. Wage slaved to the boss, the credit card, and the mortgage they scuttle to grab precious hours of sleep before the onslaught of fresh corporate demands engulf them.

I consider making a move on the last female at the bar however realize before I engage in optimistic social intercourse that either from want or neglect there’s probably a reason she’s still there. I rethink my strategy, drag myself from my wooden throne, and trudge into the night.

It’s cold outside and I spy my reflection in the puddles of monsoon-ravaged Middle England. Despite the chill there’s prospective inner warmth, the knowledge that only mere yards away lays a harbor of tranquility – a safe haven in an otherwise harsh, unforgiving world. I smell it before I see it; my feet splashing through water, my heels clicking on the pavement as unseen, aromatic hands grab me by the shirt collar, slap me about the face and drag me towards their irresistible event horizon. The choice isn’t my own. It’s a necessity, survival instinct; an innate sense of following one’s nose and complying with one’s inner hunter-gatherer. I stand before the plate glass window, the light from the restaurant transfixing me with its hypnotic tractor beam. There’s no escape, no use running – the dinner bell has sounded, and like a Pavlovian puppy I salivate into my jacket.

 The House of Bombay; it might as well be the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the final resting place of the Holy Grail, or the gates of Valhalla. I grin moronically, my eyes wide with anticipation, my tongue thickening in my mouth at the prospect of what I am about to receive. I am truly grateful and I push open the door and enter paradise on earth. It isn’t a religious revelation however the Buddhists and Taoists would recognize the spiritual transformation I am experiencing. Truly one of the converted, my faith unshakeable, I accept the dogma completely and throw myself before my altar of expectation.

The restaurant is full of excited voices and exotic smells, its tables occupied by like-minded individuals who’ve escaped the pub and stopped for a bite on their way home; a perfect ending to a perfect night. Ten pints of lager, a bag of crisps, a game of grab ass on the dance floor, all washed down with lashings of the hot and spicy.

*

“…These are the things. These are the things. The things that dreams are made of…”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     The Human League

*

What to choose, what to choose? The delicacies of the great Indian sub-continent are catalogued before me in a cornucopia of delectation and gastronomic delight. A temptation to the weak, a fix to the addicted but a delight to the enlightened. The crash of pots and pans and the mantra of cursed Urdu transport me to a place far from windswept, rain-soaked, Yorkshire. No longer the last man at the bar but a willing supplicant at the place of pilgrimage. An acolyte shoves a much fingered menu into my hands and demands to know what I’m drinking. Being the connoisseur that I am, I choose an Indian beer that claims to have been brewed on the banks of the river Ganges. National Geographic images waft through my mind as I briefly swim through the corpses and crocodiles to the sari-ed beauty that holds a bottle outstretched in her henna-ed  hand.

 I grasp, I sip, I swallow.

 Reacting to the broken English of the waiter, I flick through the curled pages of the stained menu and peruse the delights of the Punjab, the Kashmir, the snowcapped peaks of the Himalayas, and the golden sands of the Southern Keralan coast line.

 Lamb or beef, chicken or shrimp, veggies or not?

The aromas are intense, the Bollywood music blaring, the Indian chatter emanating from the kitchen incessant. Having made my choice I shut the menu. Poised with pen in hand, the sauce-splattered waiter prepares to notate my desire.

“Vindaloo, so bloody hot that it’ll burn my arse. Don’t forget the Nan or the poppadums, and jump to it Gupta! I’m bloody starving.”

The waiter smiles, he’s heard it all before, the well-meant racial slurs roll off his back like a rice-paddied buffalo flicking flies. He beams his gold-toothed smile and moves quickly behind the counter and disappears through the hanging colored beads into the kitchen, The bastard will make me pay for my flippant comments and no doubt there will be more than just chili powder in my tinfoil take-away box – a huge dose of scotch bonnet pepper, a little liquid napalm perhaps. It will be Gupta’s name that I scream in abject agony the morning after the night before.

Cold hard cash clinks from my sweaty palm and the mutually beneficial exchange is made. A silver container, already oozing brown joy, exchanged for  a couple of dirty notes – the pleasure is all mine, although judging by the grin on my newfound friend’s face the pleasure is all his. I walk to the door and make my exit.

As I trudge through the rain I reflect on the wisdom of ignoring the femme-fatale at the bar. The last girl in the world, at least on this particular Friday night, shunned for the illicit pleasure of liquid love –I hate to share and besides Gupta only gave me one plastic fork.

C’est la vie baby, maybe next time.

*

“…Club Tropicana’s drinks are free. Fun and sunshine – there’s enough for everyone…”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Wham

PASTAWAY

23 Jan

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The machine gun barrel smoked, the restaurant echoed gunfire. It’d been over in a muzzle-flash, a full drum of thirty rounds pumped through the weapon in the general direction of the dead men who even now dripped scarlet on freshly laundered table cloths. Broken crystal reflected subdued lighting and a half shattered Champagne bottle leaked its last onto the polished wooden floor. A great neighborhood eatery, famous for its scaloppini and pasta, that after tonight  would be known for more than just its culinary excellence. The boss had warned them. There were no second chances. Capiche?

After the first few shots his killer instinct instinct kicked in – the screams and smoke culminating in a tableau of mayhem and death. He’d squeezed the trigger until the gun clicked – simple enough, nothing new. One clip had been sufficient, although ever the professional, he’d a spare magazine in his coat just in case. Lifting the muzzle Joey stared at the destruction he’d wrought.

He shouldered the weapon, drew his pistol and walked towards the shattered table. “No mistakes,” the boss had told him. “Dead men speak no tales.” Short and sharp the pistol cracked, a shot to the head of each of the dead men – a third eye blooming on their foreheads as the bullets found their mark. No screams this time, no pleas for mercy, just the report of the gun and the silence of the recently liquidated.

In this town you didn’t mess with the boss. There was no forgiveness. Sure you could buy a little time, but a little was never enough. The boss was right, “You have to command respect. No bastardo give you nothing.”

The instructions for the hit had been in his pigeon-hole in the hotel lobby, the names and photographs of the soon to be exterminated. Nothing out of the ordinary, no major planning necessary, and he’d enjoyed his bagel and coffee at Lew’s on 35th street while casually contemplating the job. It was straight forward. The nearly deceased would be at Toni Fratennilies restaurant on 69th, same way they always was on a Thursday night, enjoying the food and dividing up territory or whatever it was bosses did.

What did he know? He was small time, a pawn in very large game of chess, where if you didn’t stay one step ahead you’d wind up dead as these fishes laid across the table.

He kicked the chair of one of the unfortunates and sat down; a corpse slumped to the ground. What a fucking mess, there was pasta and spaghetti sauce all over the place but miraculously some of the table had survived. His prowess with the Thompson was legendary. Holding the gun at waist height he’d simply scythed his way through the diners, his bullets cutting them down at chest height. It was the crashing bodies and their urgent attempts to avoid the unavoidable – hands reaching for weapons, smashing through piled plates, toppling wine glasses – that had caused the table top devastation.

Holstering his pistol he removed his black leather gloves. He’d time before the cops showed up – the amount of money donated to police headquarters meant there was always time. Half the frigging city was on the boss’s payroll. With cash, girls and booze you could buy anybodyand that’s just what he’d done. 

A pasta-splashed bottle miraculously still stood in the middle of the table, corked and as fresh as the day it had left Naples. Chianti that had been pressed and bottled in Italian sunshine, a land he still remembered from his youth. He reached for it and poured wine into a glass. He sniffed, then quaffed.

Darn good stuff. Apperritifo wine is what the fellas would call it. Better than nothing, that’s for sure.

He swirled the dark liquid, coated the walls of the glass, watched the tannins skin its crystal surface.

Not bad, he thought, and poured himself another.

He looked around greedily, there was still salvageable food on the table, not quite the banquet there’d been before but enough to satisfy. He moved one of his victim’s hands from a silver tureen, wiped blood from a spoon, and scooped pasta onto a plate.

Bellissimo.

He could smell the olive oil, the spaghetti falling apart in individual strands across the plate. Al dente, perfect – just the way he liked it. He’d heard about Toni’s before the contract. When this mess had blown over and they’d cleaned the place up he’d come again, maybe bring the old lady or one of the dancers from the cabaret – the red head perhaps?

Picking through the detritus he selected what appeared to be veal scaloppini. A flower from a vase that had obviously been on the table before being blown to smithereens sat in the middle of the dish giving it a festive look. He removed the greenery and poured the meat and sauce over the pasta. Fantastic smells emanated from his plate; basil, garlic, oregano – thick edible aromas that indused instant salivation.

He was back in his mother’s kitchen on Sicily, the lady standing before her range, hour after hour, creating plate sized pieces of heaven for her husband and eight children and whoever else might appear at the table. Memorable times when the house had been filled with laughter and music, happy days when the term family hadn’t referred to the outfit he was with, but rather the company he loved. He spooned food into his mouth and was immediately transferred to Tuscan hills and orange groves, warm Italian sunshine and mountain fresh air – a taste of the old country, the essence of Italia. He could hear them all – see their smiling faces, the checkered table cloth, the wisp of curtain in the afternoon breeze. Looking around the table at his brothers and sisters he felt a belonging, a oneness, a sense of famiglia. Village life and home town remembrance washed across his tongue. The voice of loved ones ringing in his ears, young girls in summer dresses, wrinkled older couples, who’d lived and laughed forever, dancing slowly on terracotta tile.

Delizioso

Finishing his bite, and finding himself back in a restaurant populated by death, his thoughts quickly returned to reality. He could hear police sirens somewhere in the distance, it was time to go. Grabbing his gun and pocketing his gloves he moved swiftly through the restaurant, through the kitchen, and into the back alley where a car was waiting for him. Splashing through puddles, his shoes clicking on cobbles, he opened the door and sank into the leather passenger seat.

The driver smiled nervously, hands clutching the wheel, “How did it go?”

Joey shrugged.

A look of panic crossed the driver’s face and he pointed at Joey’s shoulder. “You get hit? You ok?”

Joey looked at the driver and then his shirt – redness oozed through white cotton.

Joey smiled, swiped his finger through the wound and stuck his finger in his mouth. “Spaghetti sauce! Damn good as well.”

“Yeah I heard about that place,” said the driver putting his fingers to his lips and making a kissing sound. “Besta pasta on the east side.”

Joey looked up at the sign hanging above the door of the restaurant.

Fratennilies – he’d be back.

The car drove off into the night.

TEA TIME

30 Oct

 

It was the 22nd of February 1942. It didn’t matter how long he stared at the calendar it was always the 22nd of February 1942. Time, if it could be called such, with no perceptible movement hung like a wet blanket. Einstein had his theories however, Bill could attest to the facts. Hours spent with a beautiful woman may evaporate in mere moments but time spent with his companion George had lasted an eternity.

Bill sat on an upturned crate, newspaper open with a cup of tea steaming on the table beside him. He didn’t know why he bothered, he’d read the same text a thousand times. He could recite the obituary column word for word, broadcast the shipping forecast to the entire room from memory, and could announce the complete sports section in either a Scottish or Irish accent. He’d perfected the subtle nuances so well that his intonation could resemble either northern or southern regional peculiarities at whim. Quite an accomplishment for a man who’d never travelled further than the coast, but there again he’d time enough to perfect his delivery.

”What’s the time,” asked George.

Bill sucked his teeth,” What does it bloody matter what the time is?”

“Course it matters. I want to know, “persisted George.

Bill glanced at his wrist. It was five o’clock in the evening.

“Soon be time then,” said George. The same thing he said every day.

“Soon be time to get it done,” mouthed Bill before George turned around to face him and said, ”Soon be time to get it done then!”

“Exasperating! Bloody exasperating is what it was. The man had no conversation, no hobbies, no game, no stories, nothing. This wasn’t purgatory, this was bloody hell. Stuck in limbo between this world and the next with a mindless moron would be the death of him, of that he was certain. At least cast the occasional aspersion, proffer an opinion – hell, pick a fight. Do something, anything to change the monotony.”

George turned back to the window, Bill to his newspaper.

Busy on their way to somewhere to do something, people bustled passed the window; as ever the planet continued to revolve, life went on. They’d seen it all. The changing fashions, hairstyles, the cars on the streets, the aircraft in the sky. With every passing, reintroduction of the very-same-day, they took no part in modernity and change.  Change wasn’t for everybody, at least not on their side of their glass. For Bill and George it was always 1942.

They could see humanity, but humanity couldn’t seem them. Energy transference was not transmutable and so having passed through the veil of death it was only possible to observe – interaction was physically impossible. A whole world had walked by without ever registering their none-existence.

 He’d stood where George stood now, watching the pretty girls and their ever decreasing hem lines. Things had certainly changed since they’d walked the earth in human form. Now as mere shadows or rather specters of the people they’d once been they could only listen and watch as regular people went about their hum-drum lives. Bill yearned for hum-drum, what they’d had to endure was beyond mundane. If it wasn’t for the fact they were already dead, the boredom would’ve bloody killed him.

George turned, opened his mouth and went to speak.

“If you ask me again, I’m going to punch you on the nose.”

George looked shocked, “What do you mean?”

“If you ask me what the time is, I’m going to kick your arse

“I was just going to ask you if you wanted another cuppa?” said George.

Tea was the only thing they had left, that and a couple of curly cheese sandwiches. Every day as much tea as they could drink was available, their only sustenance the brown paper wrapped sandwiches they’d brought with them all those years ago. What the hell, “Sure I’ll have another brew.” Wasn’t as though he was going anywhere.

“What’s the time?” asked George.

Bill screamed, clenched his fists and tried to control himself. “It’s five bloody minutes since the last time you asked me.”

“ Nearly time then,” said George.

“Yes, yes, it’s nearly bloody time. It’s always nearly bloody time. You know that as well as I do?”

With an audible demonstration of lost patience, Bill turned the pages of the newspaper.

Page six; Political commentary. The rising cost of living, or the dearth in your shilling by Michael Maverick

Bill read about an expanding war economy that instead of creating wealth, cheap beer and lucrative over-time was the cause of an overworked underpaid population. The fruits of their labors, instead of going to the British workers, went instead towards more advanced munitions with which to kill more Germans toiling under equally diabolical conditions. What was it all about anyway? The papers in the early years had been filled with ‘poor little Poland’ needing protection from the ‘big fascist bully’. Old John Bull had been just the man to put an end to the playground tyranny except, it hadn’t worked out that way, and mean old Adolph had sent England home with a split lip. Three years now they’d been pounding the shite out of each other, and for what?  Ration coupons, rickets, longer lines, blackouts, conscription and fake butter!

“Sugar?” asked George.

“Yes.”

“Milk?”

“Yes, the same as bloody always. How long have you been making me tea?” screamed Bill.

 “Touchy, touchy,” chided George,” I was only asking.”

Their work at the local munitions factory had placed them in a protected occupation category and so call-up papers had never arrived. There was money to be made in a blitzed city and the shift work had enabled their moonlighting. Between the munitions, moving families out of bombed housing and the black market both he and George had done pretty well , in fact their war had been going rather well until February the 22nd 1942.

“Here you go, drink it while it’s hot.”

“Thanks,” said Bill.

George went back to the window raised the cup to his lips and sipped. Even in death the British had tea, a cruel irony that the afterlife consisted of hot brews and stale butties. What had happened to the paradise they’d learned about in Sunday school? Where were the blue skies, the wispy clouds, green pastures – where were the harps?

They’d been told by some celestial authority figure or other that they were on a waiting list. The war was causing a huge back log of transferees, the term used for the latest residents entering the kingdom of heaven. It was just a small matter of paperwork, a little patience if you please”, and they would soon be through the gates. Clearly the bearded, winged-figure’s estimation of a little time was worlds apart from their own. It seemed like an eternity since they’d last seen the official – who knew maybe it was?

 Surely they hadn’t been forgotten?

Bill drank his tea and considered George; he wasn’t a bad lad, just a boring bastard. There again, after being stuck in here for all this time he probably wasn’t the most brilliant conversationalist himself.

He looked at his watch, “Bollocks, it was ten-till, they’d have to get a wiggle on, it was nearly time.”

“George, get your arse in gear we have to get started.” With so much time on their hands they were running late. What kind of sick joke was that?

The men picked up the box and moved towards the staircase.

“Up up on your end, down on mine, to the left, no the right!”

It was the same dance they did every day as they fought to get the packing crate up the stairs. Once they’d made the first landing the stair case widened out a little making their task easier. Puffing and panting the two men placed the box on the floor – a quick breather before they proceeded up to the next level.

Suddenly a woman dressed in a night gown walked out of a bedroom and across the landing to the bathroom. Tall with blonde hair, she stopped and stared at the two men, rubbed her eyes and shut the door.

George looked at Bill. “Did she just see us?”

“You know they can’t,” said Bill.” She was probably dreaming.  She was half asleep, anybody could see that.”

The toilet flushed and the woman reappeared briefly before disappearing back into the bedroom.

“Bit of a looker,” said George.

“Not ‘arf,” smiled Bill. “Wouldn’t mind spending an afterlife with her.”

George chuckled. “Half an hour would do.”

With the box safely delivered to the top floor the two men took their prospective positions. Bill sat on the bed and George stood by the door, in exactly the same manner they always did.

“Any moment now then.”

“Yeah, any moment now.”

“See you in a bit then.”

“Aye, see you in a while.”

“Tea and sandwiches?” asked George.

Before Bill could reply the bomb dropped by the German aircraft crashed through the roof and exploded, eviscerating their bodies and turning the building into a ranging inferno.

*

Bill looked at the calendar, it was February the 22nd. It was always bloody February the 22nd.

 

 

 

POE – ETRY

14 Oct

 

The stack of prepaid junk-mail had lain on his desk;  offers of credit cards, Caribbean holidays and a notification, courtesy of some no-named agency in the Philippines, informing him he was worth a million dollars in prizes. Buried beneath all the unsolicited correspondence he’d almost missed the letter.  He still didn’t know why he’d done it, why he’d stopped the shredder in mid-mangle and pulled the white envelope clear of the paper shards. It was personally addressed in a hand he didn’t recognize, franked from a sea-side town where he’d spent many happy hours. Maybe it was the recognition of the Florida state symbol foiled by the bright white of the envelope, or perhaps the shinning sun on the postage stamp, either way it had peaked his interest.

Slitting the envelope open, he read.

“Dear Bill.

Long time no see. I’m finally leaving the service and taking retirement.”

An old Navy buddy he hadn’t seen for years was hanging up his hat and heading for the beach. A great guy, and a good friend, but that’d been a million years ago.

I’ll be staying at the old house on the Cape and thought you might like to join me and maybe catch up on old times. Drinks are on me, so’s the vacation. Think about it. It would be good to get together after all these years.

The letter contained dates, addresses and a proposed time table. His old comrade wouldn’t be there for the first couple of days;

I’ve some pressing business to attend to, so if you’d like to come down and treat the place as your own for a couple of days  that would be great – in fact you’d be doing me a favor. Nothing worse than walking into an empty home!

Bill smiled, “Who wouldn’t want a fully paid vacation in a fancy beach-front house?”

Even now he could see himself sitting on the deck, toes in the sand, drink in hand, as he watched the liquid lucidity of an azure-blue ocean break and wash across golden sand. With the sound of gulls in the air, and a vision of sun-bronzed beauties wandering the beach, he’d quickly made his decision.

“Hell! After the year he’d had, he deserved it. What with the housing crash, the corporate restructuring and the latest unobtainable sales goals. Fuck yes! Work used to be fun, now it was just work. It’d been a tough couple of years, not just on the business side of things but his personal life had taken a hit as well. After the accident his wife had packed her bags and left, taking the maid and the dog with her. Married for over twenty years, she’d just got up and walked out. The bitch!”

It hadn’t been his fault, there’d been loads of people at the party that night. How could he possibly have been responsible for the death of the girl found floating in the hot tub. The police had been sympathetic but the media merciless. Descriptions of a drink, drug fuelled party, which although not entirely untrue, where exaggerated to the point where he’d been cast as a modern day Caesar overseeing weekend orgies and hosting untold debauchery behind the walls of his Malibu mansion. No blame could be attached to him, and there was absolutely no proof that he’d supplied the drugs. Sure, he had his connections and with the money generated by the housing boom at the time, it’d been too easy to get hold off. A quick phone call to the friend-of-a-friend of the loosely connected Cuban-exile contingent and the necessary had been provided.

Drugs, girls, whatever he wanted, and all just seven digits away.

He hadn’t known her. She’d had some foreign sounding eastern European name. Sure, she’d been a looker, judging by the newspaper photographs, but all he remembered was a water logged body tossed up on the pool deck with paramedics trying to pump her back to life. The moment had been surreal, the blue flashing lights of the emergency vehicles, the uniformed officials surrounded by half-naked party guests in little more than bikinis and shorts. A moment that had been far too serious for the light hearted party atmosphere that had prevailed. Of course the press had camped outside his door for weeks, bothered his family and accused him of God knows what. He was no plaster saint and he’d had his share of flings with girls so numerous he’d forgotten most of their names, but he wasn’t a murderer.

“Saborsky? Sikorsky?  What had the girls name been?” Didn’t really matter now, it was all so long ago.

Of course his fair-weather friends had deserted him, his phone calls going unanswered, his lifestyle of the rich-and-nearly-famous gone forever. After his wife had taken what little money wasn’t mortgaged into the house he’d moved into a regular neighborhood, with regular people, earning regular money. Guilty or no, the mark of Cain was upon him. Scarlet-lettered and treated like a social leper the invitation he held in his hand was a breath of fresh air.

He checked the calendar on his desk. There was nothing that couldn’t be reshuffled and decided he’d accept the offer. “Fuck it, what did he have to lose?”  He pressed the button on the intercom and spoke with the secretary outside. “Louise do me a favor and get a letter off to,” he dictated the address and the name. “In fact send a telegram,” that should get to his old buddy a little faster; hopefully he’d have an answer before the end of the day.

* 

Two weeks later Bill found himself waiting in the Florida sunshine on the side of a road. The telegram had come back in the affirmative.

…..Sounds good stop

Look forward to a few drinks stop

Relive some of those glory days stop.

Will send car stop

Details to follow stop……..

Planning on relaxing he’d packed a suitcase with a couple of tropical shirts, board shorts and some khaki slacks. Not required to dress-to-impress he’d judiciously left his ties and stiff collars in the closet where they belonged. He glanced at his watch; the car should have been there by now? The sun was starting to climb and Bill was beginning to perspire – a bead of sweat leaked from his brow.  Pushing his sunglasses up his nose he watched as a dark limousine indicated, moved out of traffic, and pulled up to the curb.

The door opened and a chauffeur liveried in black stepped out of the vehicle. “Mr. Brown? I’m here to collect you Sir.”

Brown climbed into the rear of the car – the suitcase was placed in the trunk. The interior of the vehicle was a gorgeous mix of richly stitched leather and Ebony carpentry replete with drinks cabinet, a television and a cassette player. Brown was impressed; clearly his friend had done well for himself. The glass slide partition between the front and the back slid down, and the chauffeur spoke over his shoulder. “Mr. Keagan instructed me to ask you, to make yourself at home. You’ll find drinks in the cupboard and there are some cigars, which you may appreciate, in the humidor. Anything else you need, just speak into the microphone and I’ll be more than happy to assist.” Brown thanked him, the partition slid up, and the vehicle glided back into traffic.

Bill couldn’t help but smile. It’d been a long time since he’d enjoyed any form of hedonism and he was about to indulge. Crystal-glass chinked and rattled as he decanted a generous helping of whisky. His fingers found the latch to the humidor, his eyes greedily selecting from the Cahaba’s and Monte-Cristos. Glass in hand and cigar in mouth, Bill watched the City disappear behind them as they headed for the coast. For the first time in months he was smiling. Life was good.

*

Bill woke slumped in the back of the car, the vehicle motionless the engine off. There was a heavy smell of whiskey and his shirt was damp, the crystal glass lay smashed on the floor. Not understanding what had happened Bill tried to sit up but couldn’t. His head was pounding and there was enormous pressure behind his eyes. He attempted to focus but found it difficult, went to move but felt hampered by his leaden limbs. There was a face on the TV screen. He was sure that it hadn’t been there before? Was he drunk, surely not?  Just because his means had diminished didn’t mean his bad habits had, and he was still a regular imbiber. He stared at the face on the screen not recognizing the image. He held his hand to his throbbing brow and forced himself into an upright position. Where was the driver? He stared through the darkened glass, there was nobody there. What the hell was going on? Looking out of the window he could see the ocean. The vehicle was parked on a slip-way, slightly angled down toward the ocean. Where they there? He didn’t recognize anything, but there again it had been a while since his last visit. Sitting erect and doing his best not to slide back down the seat he stared at the image in front of him. It was young woman. Something fizzed and clicked in his brain and he began to trawl on a dim recollection.

“Surely not?” The female face stared at him from a past life. “It couldn’t be?”

“Shirovsky,that was the girl’s name, the girl who’d died at his party. Stupid cow what had she been doing? Ruined his life she had. Her death had taken everything from him and yet it wasn’t his fault. The girl on the screen was her, he was sure of it. What was she was doing on the TV? It didn’t make any sense.”

*

The driver’s door opened and Bill watched as the chauffeur leant in. The man released the hand break and the vehicle lurched forward. Slowly and deliberately, the glass partition slid down. Like a face in a dream he saw the man’s lips move disproportionately to his words. “Mr. Shirovsky wants you to know that it really isn’t his fault.”

Bill pulled on the handles but to no avail, everything was locked. He did his best to kick at the doors but he’d no strength. He felt as though he were struggling in quicksand – everything he did, useless and weighted. “Hey, what’s going on?” he demanded. “Let me the fuck out of here! Hey arsehole. What the hell does that mean?”The chauffeur smiled and the partition slid back into position.

With the image of the drowned woman still on the TV screen,  Bill watched helplessly as the driver walked to the rear of the vehicle. Putting his weight against the car the chauffeur pushed. The vehicle slowly edged forward. Inertia took hold, and the limousine began to roll down the ramp towards the sea.

Bill still dazed from the effects of whatever had been in the whiskey was now keenly aware of his situation. “Let me out,” he yelled.

The car bumped into the ocean, the water slapping against, and enveloping the windscreen. Bill could only stare. Trapped inside the car, and weaker than milk, there was nothing he could do. Fear was taking hold and Bill, unable to resist his fate, could only sit and watch as the vehicle slowly floated from the dock and gradually dipped beneath the water. He felt his bladder release, smelt the piss – the warm liquid pooling in his trousers, the dark stain spreading across his lap

The chauffeurs words rattled in his head, “Mr. Shirovsky says it isn’t his fault. What the hell did that mean?”

The ocean pored through the doors and windows, the front of the car submerged as it surged relentlessly upwards towards his chest. He watched the screen flicker, the image of the girl disappear. He screamed but it came out as a whisper. Cold water raced into the vehicle and he fought to shift his position as the pressure of  inundation forced the air up into the roof of the vehicle. Struggling to hold his head clear he thought on the girl – thought about holding his breath – thought about dying.

 It hadn’t been his fault.

*

The chauffeur watched as the vehicle disappeared beneath the water, the residual air exploding to the surface in a tsunami of bubbles. With the car gone his task was completed. He turned and walked back to the waiting vehicle.

AUX PRINTEMPS

9 Oct

 

Contemplating the vista below, Bill fished inside his jacket for his pipe, tapped it into his hand, and then stuck it between his teeth. Leaning on a shovel, he watched as dawn broke, the lights of the town gradually extinguishing to reveal blackened chimney stacks and dilapidated rooftops.  For the inhabitants, warm showers and corn-flakes would be the order of the hour before another day of toil and struggle demanded their presence on factory floors.  A city slowly coming back to life; a magical now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t moment. What just minutes before had been a sea of lights and flood-lit streets, returned to daytime normality.

He packed the pipe with tobacco and reached into his trousers for his matches.“Damn it,” he thought,” where were his bloody matches?” He turned around. “Hey Jim, you got a light? I can’t find me frigging matches.”

Jim cursed; stopped work, fumbled in his pockets, and after a quick shuffle came up with a lighter. ”Are you going to help me out you lazy old bugger, or do I have to finish this all by my bleeding self?  He demanded.  

Bill smiled, told him to go fiddle with himself, and lit his pipe. Smoke billowed around him, the sweet scent of caramel filled the forest glade. “It was a beautiful spot alright,” thought Bill. “What was the word? Pristine, that’s what it was.”

 It was good to be out in the fresh air, at one with nature. He looked back at his son who was shoulders deep in the trench shoveling dirt for all he was worth. Father and boy, sons of the soil, unified in a common purpose – there was nothing like a bit of hard graft to unite and repair passed differences. It hadn’t been easy raising the lad – memories of a never satisfied wife who’d left them both in the lurch for what she thought was bigger meal ticket.

“Shame the meal ticket had left her for a younger pair of tits – life’s a bitch aint it?”

With record unemployment, miner’s strikes, and industrial austerity the effort it’d taken to put food on the table hadn’t always been easy. The list of cock-ups and myriad difficulties that’d gotten in the way of raising the boy right had often seemed insurmountable. He hadn’t done badly though, and the strapping man who was digging his way to Australia was a credit to him; all the fellas down the pub had told him so.

Ever since he and Jimmy had gone into business together, their fortunes had taken a dramatic turn for the better and life had suddenly become a lot more tolerable. No longer the two-up-two-down on Isambard Kingdom Brunel Terrace but a couple of semi-detacheds in leafy suburbia complete with P.V.C. windows and indoor plumbing. Finally they were moving up in the world.

The figure in the hole grunted and swore, the sound of a shovel flung high into the air thumped onto the ground. “For fuck’s sake dad, give me a hand will you? We’ll be here all bloody day.”

The sun climbed higher in the sky and the coastline along the south side of the town began to take shape; the boats in the harbor and the rock-ridden beaches all coming into view. Tilting his head to one side Bill imagined he could hear the voices of the men unloading freshly caught fish but it was more than likely just the tinnitus playing havoc with his eardrums. A brief spell with the artillery during national service, lobbing shells across desolate moorlands at imaginary communist hoards and practicing the defense of the indefensible, had put his piano playing days to bed for good, at least that would have been the case had he have ever played the instrument. Eighteen months of pure bull-shit, but at least he’d managed to wangle a trip to Germany. A smile spread across his craggy face as he remembered dirndl-dressed frauleins at the bier fests he and his mates would frequent on the weekends. It hadn’t been all bad.

Jimmy was starting to get angry. “Move your wrinkled arse you old git. I’m sweating my bollocks off over here.”

But that was a long time ago, a different epoch, life had moved on since then. Partnering with his son had probably been his best move; it was definitely his most lucrative. They should have done it years ago, but reconciliation is never on a time table, and after Jimmy’s release from nick it hadn’t been easy to pick up where they’d left off.

Bill watched as Jimmy climbed out of the hole and walked back to where they’d parked the car. He was a good lad. All it’d taken for him to realize it was a thirty year pain-in-the-arse and a short, sharp, injection of capital. He drew smoke into his lungs satisfied with his lot, happy with his circumstances. Turning his back on the view, he sauntered over to where Jimmy stood impatiently waiting.

The boot was open. “Give me a hand here, this bastard weighs a ton,”complained Jimmy.

Sucking on his pipe Bill looked into the boot,turned away, and then wretched, “Bloody hell boy, the bugger’s starting to stink!”

“No shit Sherlock, we need to get him out of there and then burn this bloody thing.”

Grabbing the corpse by the shoulders Bill and Jimmy heaved the body out of the car and dropped it onto the grass. Their latest post office extravaganza had gone slightly array and instead of making their usual clean getaway they ended up in a gun fight on the pavement outside. Bill was certain he’d taken out the guard; he’d watched him drop to the ground after unloading on him. He hadn’t seen the second man though, and as Jimmy jumped into the car the glass on the driver’s side had splintered, the bullets ripping through the interior and killing Danny their getaway driver. Luckily Jimmy had the sense to jump behind the wheel, and with a screech of rubber and a couple of backward shots for good measure, they’d headed for the hills. It would’ve been a little awkward to drop Danny at a hospital – too many bloody questions!

They dragged Danny by his legs and pushed him into the hole. Gasping from their exertions both men stared at the man in the woodland grave.

“Alright dad, you finish covering him over and I’ll do the car.”

“Lazy little bastard,” thought Bill, he always got the shitty-end of the stick. He stabbed the shovel into the heaped earth and scooped it over the body. The exploding car and ensuing fireball illuminated the corpse, giving Danny a final, if slightly macabre vitality before his face disappeared under the dirt.

Burning upholstery crackled as dense, acrid smoke from smoldering tires blotted out the town below and filled the clearing. Bill took one last look, stuck his pipe back into his pocket, and concentrated on the job at hand.