Short Story: Insidious Demands

– Hey there pretty lady, are you sitting all alone? A beautiful lady like you shouldn’t be alone.

– Oh, erm, hello, I’m just waiting for my friends, they’ll be here soon. Any minute now.

– Why don’t I keep you company then, hmm? You look like you could do with some company, just until they get here.

– Well, um, I’m not sure… it’s a bit of a school reunion, you see? Not an official one, just the old gang getting together again. I’m really quite nervous, it’s been so long.

– That’s why you need me to talk to, make a new friend while you’re waiting for the old ones.

– Well maybe, I mean. Maybe they’ll think it’s rude if I’m talking to someone else…

– Hey now, you shouldn’t be worrying about that, when we’ve got this chance to get to know each other, hmm?

– Well, I suppose. And it’s the kind of thing that we used to do back then, just start chatting to some random stranger. Kirsty especially, I could tell you some crazy stories. Whenever we took the train we’d end up talking to some boys or making friends with an old tramp.

– Well that’s great, I think you and me already have a real connection, don’t you? How about I buy you a drink?

–  Oh I don’t want to start drinking yet. Once the others get here, then I imagine it will be a free-for-all. More alcohol than you can shake a stick at, you know? Not that we were alcoholics, but we did like a drink.

– You don’t need to be so uptight about it, just have a drink with me.

– Oh Kirsty would love you. She did like a pushy fella who’d buy her a drink, she liked to play with them, she wanted the risk. Oh, I can’t wait to see the old gang, I haven’t seen them in years, not that it should matter, I mean when you’re friends with someone, that’s it for life, isn’t it? They say your teenage friends are your greatest friends, right? Didn’t they say that in a film once? But we were all very different back then though, and there were reasons we stopped being friends…

– Right, well that’s interesting…

– Kirsty especially got out of hand, not violent exactly, but, well there were incidents. Not that it was her fault, if I’d had that man as my father I’d have done a lot more than throw bottles at a car. Of course it would be all different if we were kids now, we’d spend our whole lives on the phone chatting to paedophiles. And you know kids today, the only time they actually look at one another is when they need to take a selfie, or a we-lie, or is it an us-y? I don’t know why they need to keep making up new words, like there aren’t enough words to deal with already. I mean there’s a whole dictionary full of the things.

– How about I get us that drink..?

– Anyway, I was telling you about Kirsty, you’ll like her, all the boys did at school. It’s odd because she was never that fastidious about personal hygiene, but then they say attraction is all about pheromones, so maybe she just didn’t wash hers off as much. You’d think the feet smell would mask the pheromones though wouldn’t you?

– Mmm.

– Fastidious, now there’s an interesting word that kids today never use. They’re too busy with their OMGs and YOLOs. But anyway, Kirsty, apparently she’s a big shot consultant now, earning a fortune in the city. Well it’s not really surprising, she was always clever. Clever and bored, that was her problem, school just wasn’t enough to occupy her, she could pass exams without even studying, lucky cow.

– Well that’s great, but maybe…

– Anyway, we all found each other on Facebook, it’s amazing isn’t it? Modern technology? Fifteen years, all five of us scattered across the globe. All going about our business never expecting to see each other again. Then a few clicks of the mouse and there you are, the whole gang together. Kirsty, Jennifer, Archisha, little Sarah and big Sarah. Of course big Sarah is not so big now. She actually looks fantastic. Not that she didn’t when she was a teenager, but, well, you know what it’s like for larger girls, it’s tough. Except it’s probably fine now, now that obesity is so common. Big Sarah would probably be considered quite svelte. Quite svelte Sarah we’d have to call her. Although I expect we’d be arrested under the Political-Correctness-Gone-Mad Act for it. You know at my son’s school they actually have a points system for bullying? Like with driving, you get too many points for picking on other kids and you have to take an anti-bullying test. Well, I said to the teacher, that’s just another form of bullying isn’t it? You’re bullying my son now, how about you take a test? How about I set that damn test? And yes, I did swear, but you can’t let these teachers push you around, can you?

– Ok, um, I really need to go now…

– Oh sorry, sorry, I got totally side-tracked, I was telling you about the gang, wasn’t I? Well there was Jennifer, sweet, mousy Jennifer. All the boys who didn’t go for smelly Kirsty, went for Jen. I never really understood why, I mean, she was pretty in a bland, unthreatening way, but there was no spark to her. Maybe that’s what they liked, someone who’d make them feel sparky by comparison. Boys don’t like to try too hard do they?

– Lady, let go of my arm…

– But I haven’t told you about Archisha and she’ll be here any minute. And hers is such a lovely story. When she joined the gang she was much like Jennifer, mousy. She followed us around with those big eyes, trying to make jokes, but she wasn’t funny, just awful. Then one of the boys took a shine to her and then she started to take a shine to herself, you know? I mean, we helped her out with make-up, lent her clothes and so on, but it was a total transformation, she blossomed. Became a bit full of herself to be honest, and she didn’t stop cracking those awful jokes, but the boys would just laugh and laugh, trying to impress her. I suppose they thought she was exotic, or is that impolitically correct now too?

– I need to go, please let me go…

– Yes, that’s right, you run along now. Run right along.

 

Originally posted March 19th 2016

Justice in the Age of Bubble Living

“You have never known vulnerability,” boomed the judge, enjoying the echo of her voice. “You have lived a life eased by your looks, and taken it for granted that you could have whatever you want. You have never worked, simply charmed your way to an easy life. And then when faced with an item you couldn’t have, a car you didn’t need but wanted, and that the owner wouldn’t just give you, you stole it!” The guilty man with the dimpled smile looked at her quizzically and then his eyes twinkled as he tilted his head. The judge’s heart hardened, she hated it when people tried to manipulate her.

“So your punishment is to know vulnerability. To lose your ticket to the easy life. To learn what it is to struggle and be rejected. You shall spend the next five years…ugly!”

She enjoyed the horror on his face, the struggle as he was dragged away, protesting and sobbing. The programmers could work out the details: a few warts, a wonky nose, hair in all the wrong places. Judging was so much more fun in these days of virtual reality.

Flash Fiction: Coming of the End Days

I am prepared for the doom that marches upon us. The catastrophe is coming and you’d have to be an idiot to not see it, not to prepare. Although people are idiots and they just carry on with their day to day drudgery like it will all be fine. It isn’t fine! The end days are coming, and I’ll be ready. And they’ll all come to my door wanting my help. I can’t wait.

My training started young, because the knowledge came young. Partly because I observed society slowly collapsing around me, and partly I could sense it in my bones. I’ve always had an old soul.

So I started learning. I learned how to get food without supermarkets. I got my grandad to teach me what weeds were edible: did you know you can make salad from chickweed and hairy bittercress? And you can make soup from nettles? The thing with weeds is that they survive. When the end days come all your fancy vegetables that need special grow lights, they won’t last five minutes in the new climate. Do people know that? No, I’ve asked. Do they care? No. So I’ve been cultivating weeds in my room. Pots and pots of them. I want to cross pollinate them to make new, super, unstoppable weeds, no luck yet.

I’ve trained myself to use weaponry; I have a sword, nunchuks, even poi made of fire. With these I will be able to fight. I am also trained in martial arts: my own creation. I tried karate and judo, but I found the teachers to be fools and realised I could better design my own fighting methods. I haven’t named the art, names are for people who chatter and I don’t need chatter.

I have learned survival skills too: how to tie knots, how to make a fire, how to catch a rabbit. People think that survival is Bear Grylls, they think they can watch a few sensationalised TV programs and then be able to survive in the wild, ridiculous! When the end days come I will need to pass on my skills if the human race is to survive.

Now the time draws near, I’ve started sealing up my room. I’m using foam sealant I got from Wickes, and cling film I got from a drawer in the kitchen, I’ve been sealing up all the holes, so if it’s chemical warfare I can stay in here and I’ll be fine.

“But if you’ve sealed your room, how will you breathe?” asks my mum because she doesn’t get it at all. I don’t think she’ll last long, I will shed a few tears, but it’s for the best. I must be free of dead weight.

When the end days come, they’re going to need me. They’ll be sorry that they misjudged me, that they laughed at me. I’ll be king. I must be strong.

Trial by Fire

Every morning Cat would wake in a panic and rush to the bathroom where her make up was gathered around her sink like a jury. She’d work through the routine, as layer by layer she would remake her face into something acceptable. Concealer, liquid foundation, foundation powder, blush, neutral eyeliner, defining eyeshadow, eyeliner. She saw her face as a collection of flaws to be patched up or buried. Each year the slap had grown thicker and thicker as new wrinkles and blemishes popped to the surface and each day her true face was lost once again.

Some days she’d try to imagine how it would be to be loved for all her flaws, to show herself to the world, could she really be so disgusting to look at? Sometimes she’d make a deal with herself that tomorrow she would walk down the street with her face naked, just to see what would happen. Would people shout? Laugh? Would strangers video this hideous creature to stick up on Youtube? Sometimes she’d dare herself to just step outside her flat and take the lift to the ground floor, say hello to Mrs Robey who liked to stand in the hall smoking a fag, maybe pop her head out the door to where Salman would be playing with his kids on the grass. The dares and the deals would quickly evaporate as she imagined the horrified reactions, and she knew that she’d never do it.

And then the fire happened. At three in the morning, the fire alarm rattled through the block with such a raucous demand for attention that she was out standing on the grass in a daze before she remembered her face was empty of disguise. She was about to run back inside, plans of which  tubes and palletes she could grab spinning around her head, but there were too many people spilling out of the front door. As the street filled up with scared occupants in dressing gowns and duvets, she tried to keep under trees in the shadows. She saw Mrs Robey, already lighting up a fag to calm her nerves, even in the panic she had thought to bring them with her, and Cat cursed herself for not showing the same quick thinking. She saw Salman huddling his children to him, trying to keep them warm. As people from neighbouring blocks joined them, it became increasingly difficult to keep out of sight, all spaces were filled with people, both dazed and bustling, slowly edging her out into the light. Until finally, she found herself in the middle of the noise and fuss, being offered cups of tea and being wrapped up in blankets.

“Look at you, you’re half-frozen!” exclaimed Mrs Robey, rubbing Cat’s arms to warm them. Cat tried to hold the cup up in front of her face, tried to shrink herself small enough so that no one would notice; but it was strange, because no one was recoiling from her ugliness, nobody even flinched. They acted as if they didn’t care, as if she looked normal; and she started to relax. Mrs Robey added a snifter of whisky to her tea to warm her up, and Cat began to forget her face and all its flaws. Instead she slurped her tea and chuckled with her neighbours about how scared they’d all been; or about what they’d been dreaming when the sirens started, and for once she didn’t need to think about her make up slipping or lipstick on her teeth. She didn’t need to think about her face at all. And it was quite nice.

We Already Invented Pokemon Go

I expect you’ve heard of Pokemon Go. We invented it twenty years ago, with ghosts.

Growing up my twin sister and I were isolated by geography, we lived on a farm in Cornwall, in the middle of nothing and nowhere. Our dad was intent on going off-grid, becoming self-sufficient, and with his fervour, he took his new bride out to the arse end of oblivion and set up home. Piecing together his notes from the time (the ones he didn’t burn before he died) he believed that if he joined nature, it would welcome and enrich him. It didn’t; he got hayfever, he was bored (this was long before the Internet), most animals eluded him, his attempt at agriculture failed.

He gave up.

He quickly fell into a depression and it was up to our mum to take over. She turned a small corner of the farm into a vegetable plot. She had no idea what she was doing, but did a good enough job. Our vegetables were mostly edible; wonky and you had to pick out the grubs, but otherwise fine. She learned to fish, to bake bread. Smart woman our mum.

Anyway, all this meant that me and my sister looked after ourselves. We made our own entertainment and we searched for ghosts. And they were everywhere. Not the pale, flimsy wraiths that you get in horror stories, ours were all shapes and sizes. Some were fat, some had tentacles, some had many feet and others had none and slithered along the ground like snakes. There were colourful ghosts, solid ghosts, ghosts that span in circles and ghosts that could do tricks.

We’d be sitting at dinner, mum would be busy reading while she ate, dad would be staring at his dinner mournfully. We’d have to stay quiet, but we didn’t need words, we could signal with our eyes: look over there, by the sink! A lesser purple-splotched wriggling turkey ghost! And we’d point our ghost catching devices at the ghost (the devices were actually calculators, but the fancy kind with sin and cos) and press the right buttons and the ghost would be ours and we’d write it down in our notebooks.

Or we’d be out on the hill behind our house. Staring up at the clouds and then we’d hear a rustle in the bushes, we’d whisper so we wouldn’t scare it away,

“A jumping, three-eyed lumpy sprat ghost, quick!”

Me and my twin don’t talk anymore, we’ve already said everything there is to say, but still when Pokemon came out I sent her a postcard, on it I said: hey, didn’t we do Pokemon already?

I thought about adding a smiley face or putting a couple of exes, but we’re not that kind of family. She hasn’t replied.

A Life Caught in Rain

“Listen out for the rain, I don’t want the washing getting wet,” she says.

“Sure mum, don’t worry; just keep watching the film. Look, this is your favourite bit, isn’t it?” my mum’s eyes flick back to the TV, where Richard Gere is lifting Debra Winger into his arms and for a moment her face lights up, the old glint of joy in her eyes. While she’s distracted I get up to tidy away a few plates, pull back the curtains, check that she hasn’t unplugged the fridge.

“Listen out for rain,” she says, her face fretful again, disturbed by my movement.

“It’s alright mum, there are clear blue skies, look,” I point out the window where the sky is more of drab grey than blue, but she only glances vaguely, then sinks her thoughts back to the TV.

I turn my back to pick up a few cushions that have fallen on the floor, dust them off, plump them up so that it will feel more like home. I want her to feel safe here, that the room fits around her and she’s where she’s meant to be.

“Listen out for rain, I don’t want the washing to get wet,” she says. It’s what she’s been saying for years, latching onto the thought that makes sense, something to remember in a murky sea of confusion.

I don’t tell her there’s no washing out. I like that she has a focus, a small tie to this world, keeping my mum tethered with this thin thread of worry. I want her to feel safe in this room, but I’m scared I might lose her to it altogether.

Coulda Shoulda Woulda

“They told me I wouldn’t regret if I followed their rules,” whispered my uncle; his body was shrivelled and hunched, but his eyes were burning with indignation. “They said, these are the things people regret on their death beds, and they listed them. As if you could sum up all human experience in a list. As if we’re all the same.”

“I know Uncle Andy,” I said, gingerly patting his hand, scared to break the fragile skin. But I didn’t understand, I had no idea what the problem was. Uncle Andy had had a great life. He had six kids and a loving wife. At thirty-seven he’d abandoned his lucrative accountancy business to go off-grid. He took his family to Italy to live on the beach, he had spent ten years selling his paintings to tourists. Most people would do anything to live Uncle Andy’s life, even Andy himself had liked it at the time. However, now he was nearing the end, as cancer claimed one cell after the other and chemo scrunched him up like a piece of paper, Andy was talking as if his life had been a waste.

“You know what they said? In their lists and articles? They said people regret not spending more time with their family, not pursuing creativity, people regret working too much. That’s why I did it, why I moved to the Amalfi coast, out of the rat-race, painting and playing with the kids.”

“Yes. And that was good, wasn’t it Uncle? That was a good time?”

“No! Ten years painting the same beach scene over and over again, to tourists with no imagination!” His rage was giving him strength as he stretched forward in the chair. Numb blue nails dug into the chair arms, wisps of hair clung to his forehead with sweat. “Nobody wanted my picture of the apocalyptic desert, or the dragon dressed as Biggles. And don’t let anyone tell you that growing your own vegetables is better than buying them in a supermarket, the number of hours I spent digging the ground for potatoes, if only I could have those hours back now. I’d use them right, if I could do it all again.” I knew this was one of stages of death. My mum, ever the pragmatist, had told me he might go through this, the emotional stages: anger, resentment.

“What would you do instead?” I asked. He had the twitch of smile, it affected his ears more than his mouth.

“Video games. They looked like fun. Who wants to pick caterpillars off cabbages when you can race cars through a war zone.”
“But time you spent with your family, that was good, wasn’t it? That was worth it?” Uncle Andy sighed as the fight drained from him, and he shrivelled a little more.

“I’m not saying it was bad, but there are seven billion people in the world and I spent it most of it with seven of them. I just keep thinking, what if there was someone better?”

No matter how my mum had prepared me, I left Uncle Andy with my heart dragging. I didn’t understand how someone with a life so well lived could feel such sorrow. Are we all doomed to lie on our death bed agonising about all the things we could have done, no matter what we did? I slouched out of the hospital, feeling the shrivelling of my own body, suddenly even my dreams weren’t enough. What if I did make that round the world boat trip? What if I did marry Jessica from Maths? I would still regret.

I was in the wood and half the way home before I worked it out. I was kicking my way through the leaves, at first in a moody manner, then with increasing glee. At one point a dog had abandoned his owner to join me and leapt around barking with delight. And I got it.  Because if you’re going to regret whatever you do, then there’s no point in planning for it. Uncle Andy was sad now, but when he was living his life, he had loved it. So you can’t live life for your death bed, you can’t live trying to defy the Death Bed Regret List. Screw it, you just have to live for whatever joy you can get.

A Hole Where Her Soul Should Be

As soon as I met Narinda I could see she was missing something. She was friendly, funny obviously very smart; but there was a hardness to her, a lack of concern for anyone. Art college was a fluffy, hysterical place and we all wailed our way from one drama to another while Narinda stayed back, calm and quietly scathing.

We lived three doors down from each other in halls, and spent polite time together, but she wasn’t someone I could go to with howls of indignation that my latest project had only got 54%, even though I’d poured my soul into it, or tell her the sexy dream I’d had about Brennan from our pottery class. She made me feel childish and emotionally messy; and to be fair I was. Anyway, I didn’t know what set Narinda apart until one drunken night when the truth spilled out of her. I say ‘spilled’, it was more of a controlled release. We were talking about our families. I said how mine was like a zoo: you know, everybody trapped and pacing. Narinda replied,

“My upbringing was like a psychological experiment. In fact, I think that’s what it was. My parents never hugged me or gave me praise. They didn’t like playing with me, never took my photograph even. I thought that was just how they were, and then my sister was born. You should have seen how they were with her: constant kisses and affection. Little gifts that they’d buy her, they’d tie ribbons in her hair. And we had photo albums filled with pictures of her stupid smiling face.”

“Why?” I asked, aghast.

“I said earlier, it was an experiment. It took me a while to work it out, but it’s how they deal with everything. They experiment with food, trying out new recipes and putting odd ingredients together; they buy from different shops and compare prices and quality, writing it all down a notebook. They experiment with TV programs and technology. Once my dad wired a Furby up to the vacuum cleaner. They want to play with things, see how they turn out. My dad wanted to be a chemist, but he couldn’t pass the exams.” She shrugged as if she didn’t care, her voice even and with the slight sneer that accompanied all her words.

We never talked about it properly again. I think with all the other emotions flying around our classes, her measured sadness wasn’t loud enough to be heard. And I didn’t forget what she’d said, but I didn’t think about it either.

The night Narinda vanished, it took until midnight to notice. From there the situation quickly escalated. There was the neatly written note explaining that she’d decided art college wasn’t for her, the measured request for no one to come looking for her. Within a few hours her parents had arrived from Stockport: two nervous, wide-eyed people who held on to each other and fretted. I’m not sure how I ended up looking after Narinda’s father, feeding him tea and awkward sympathy. There just isn’t much to do when someone goes missing, mostly you sit and wait. So he sat on my scabby armchair that I’d found in the street, huddled over a chipped mug and unable to stop talking. I think guilt had caused his mouth to spring a leak.

“We tried to be good parents, we really did. I expect she told you we didn’t care, but we cared, we tried,” he paused, looked at me pleadingly, then shook his head and looked at the floor. He let the words spill again,  “We knew we weren’t giving her what she wanted, but we didn’t know how. We never understood her. She acted as if she didn’t want to be our daughter, right from a baby she was bored with us. It was as if we couldn’t connect. She wouldn’t hug us, didn’t want dolls. I remember I tried to tie a ribbon in her hair once, she pulled it out and threw it in a puddle and stamped on it. She found everything we did an irritation. In her high chair she’d sit and scowl at us, as if we were wasting her time. I thought it was us, but then her sister came along, and well, she was a delight, we could make her happy. But Narinda, it was as if she had something missing. You know?” He looked up at me, his face a cacophony of guilt, sadness, bewilderment and loss. I nodded, because I did.

Facebook Blues

Sarah was content before she joined Facebook.

She had been popular at school. She had glided through the corridors with her good looks and quick wit. She saw it as her duty to enlighten the lesser beings (the nerds, the weirdos, the ugly) of their place in the world, beneath her. She had been so successful at growing up, that it never occurred to her to move out from her home town and seek further approval; she simply was great, so why try? She’d always assumed that those nerds, weirdos and uglies would still be impressed.

Then she joined Facebook, and discovered those same hapless beings were running companies or living in far off lands. One was even a model. She had been happy imagining how sad and sorry they all were, but instead she could see their photos of glamour and adventure, and excited posts of achievement and popularity. And she had nothing to post. She went to work at the hairdressers, she went home and watched X Factor, she went to the supermarket.

“I think you’re either good at being a child or good at being an adult,” posted one ex-dweeb, all her pimples gone. The accompanying selfie showed her drinking cocktails in an exclusive club in London. “And now I’m a surgeon in Harley Street, it makes all the  bullying worthwhile. But it seems like all the cool kids are now just stuck in the same town in crappy jobs, pretty sad really.” The post got two hundred likes and thirty comments agreeing. Sarah was incensed.

So she set out to prove them all wrong. She spent two days plotting and shopping. She travelled to London and scoured the streets. She sweet talked every good-looking stranger. She wore her credit card down to a stub. And then she unleashed the new Sarah onto Facebook. Careful not to show all the evidence of her sparkly new life all at once, just a few details at a time.

Monday: The picture on Sarah’s Facebook page showed a pair of men’s shoes by the door “Oops, looks like I did it again #YOLO”. She had bought the shoes in Shoezone, they were accepting returns.

Tuesday: picture showed a Ferrari with the number plate SRH 2. “Guess who’s got a new car!” She had wandered around Chelsea for three hours looking for a car to pose with. She had to balance just above the bonnet so as not to set off the alarm.

Wednesday: picture showed Sarah grinning in a selfie with a barman, “Time for a little drinkie.” The little drinkie cost a day’s wages. She had tried to get a few of the other patrons to join her for a photo, but they had backed away from her.

Thursday: picture showed Sarah with a horse, nose to nose, “My own Ferdinand, looking gorgeous as always.” She hadn’t been able to get on the horse, and it had taken many attempts before Dobson (the horse was not called Ferdinand) allowed her near him.

Friday: ten pictures, all showing her new haircut from a different angle. The haircut was real.

Her newly added friends liked and commented, with gushing praise for her glamourous lifestyle. Sarah felt such a high, riding on the crest of praise, she didn’t even think about how she might maintain proof of her glamourous existence. Every time she logged on (thirteen times in one hour) there was someone else giving her the validation she craved, that she deserved; even if the reason they were giving it was not the reason she deserved it.

“Oh you have a horse! He’s beautiful!”

“Love the hair, honey.”

“Yolo! LOL!”

Saturday morning, she opened up Facebook with glee, and with eyes still blurry from sleep. She clicked on a PM and felt her stomach drop as dread took over. Her one true nemesis was on Facebook, the worst gossip she knew. The only one that could unravel her web of lies.

“Sarah! Wonderful that you’re on Facebook finally, but what’s all this about a horse? And men’s shoes? I’ll call you later, love mum.”

Short Story: Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches

“You know me and my love of Madagascan hissing cockroaches.” Fabian was right, I did, he had told me about it in depth. He didn’t tell me about his seventy-eight sibilant pets when I answered the ad for a room to rent, he must have hidden the glass cage when I had a viewing. It was only as I was carrying boxes in from the taxi that I heard the noise: a frantic hissing, I assumed he had stuck the kettle on for a welcome coffee, but then he said,

“Don’t worry about that. That’s just my Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches, seventy-eight of them! I counted this morning. Of course, the numbers change as they breed. Or eat each other.” I’ve been alive a while, I’ve perfected the nervous smile, and I used it then. I’ve used it many times since I moved in with Fabian.

I liked Fabian from the moment I met him; he moved liked an uncoordinated child, jerky, lumbering movements topped with too much curly hair and a shy smile. I thought he was delightful. Then he started to grate a little. Like a vicar’s sermon dragging all topics back to Jesus, Fabian would return all conversation to cockroaches, hissing ones. A few days after I moved in, my aunt died. He explained to me that he knew just how that felt because his favourite roach had hissed its last,

“I knew it was him, because I put a little blob of red paint on his back. It’s obviously just a really bad day for death.” He said.

“Hmm,” I replied.

I’d never met anyone quite like Fabian before. Filth and muddle seemed to spill out from him. Crumbs scattered from his jumper and mud from his boots. I discovered the erratic lurch was because one of his feet was a size 6 the other a size nine, but his problems went way beyond his feet. His mind  was always adrift elsewhere, thinking through facts and figures that he would share with the world just when the time was wrong. Usually when I was trying to concentrate, or when the phone rang.

Once he clomped into our lounge and thumped himself down on the sofa with the elegance of a walrus, not noticing that I was already sitting in that same spot. I yelped; it took a few moments for him to work out he had to move, then he shuffled awkwardly into a chair, huffing, already telling me that Madagascan hissing cockroaches liked to bury their dead, with a little ritual,

“They only eat each other when they need to assert dominance,” he said, “I read that in my new book,” he said, while I rubbed my bruised legs pointedly.

But those roaches, I knew they’d be trouble. It was only a few weeks later, I was sitting on my bed, reading, and I heard the distinctive hissing sound. I dropped my phone in panic and ran from the room calling Fabian’s name, pointing wildly to my door.

“Oh you’ve got one have you? Just giving them an airing. It’s important for Madagascan hissing cockroaches to get out and about sometimes.”

Still, I liked my new home, I was settling nicely into my new town. Learning where the best shops were, visiting the local park. And it wasn’t long before I got a job interview to work at the small accountancy firm in town. The interview was going well, I had impressed my potential employer, Gerry, with my knowledge of the company (Googled the night before), and with my friendly professional manner. It was all going well, when I heard, very quietly, that hissing sound. It came from just below my ear, I could feel the faint tickle under my collar. I tried to suppress the look of panic as Gerry looked up from his notes. I smiled politely as if all was normal.

“Now you say you can start anytime, is that right? No notice to work out?”

The tickling had become a scratching as small black legs climbed the few stubbly hairs on my neck, it wasn’t easy to keep my voice level.

“Yes, I could start tomorrow if you wanted,” I was trying to say it with a light chuckle, but it came out a little more like a supressed shriek. Gerry gave a nervous laugh of his own and looked down at his notes, saying,

“Now we’ve got both your references, haven’t-” he looked up as he was speaking and stopped, eyes wide beneath furrowed brow and I knew what was wrong. I could feel it, the sharp scrambling as the Madagascan hissing cockroach clambered out of the neck of my shirt, hissing frantically.