Stenny Johanssen

Living in a house converted to three flats, Jacky was only slightly surprised to see on the hall table, post for a name she didn’t recognise. It was a package the size of a bag of sugar, and the name on the front said Stenny Johansson. She checked beneath it for her own post, found none, and went on her way.

The package had been there for three days when the doorbell rang early on Sunday morning. A cheerful blonde-haired, ruddy-faced Swedish man stood on the doorstep, and Jacky peered at him through her hangover,

“Hello! Hello! I am so pleased to see you here. I was hoping that you had a parcel for me, Stenny Johansson?”

“You’re Stenny Johansson?”

“Yes, I’m over here from Sweden and my wife sent my parcel to the wrong house. Do you have it?”

“Oh, sure,” said Jackie, blurrily and confused, she handed over the package.

“Oh what a relief. It is parts for my vacuum cleaner and I’m leaving in a few days, so I need those parts before I leave the country.”

“Ah,” said Jacky, wondering vaguely why anyone would have vacuum cleaner parts sent over from Sweden if they were about to leave the country, but instead she nodded sagely.

“Oh you are a doll! You’re a lifesaver!” said Stenny, exuberantly, in a noisy way that hurt her head, and Jacky was relived to shut the door.

Three days later, on Wednesday morning when Jacky was still on her first coffee,the door bell rang and Jacky trudged down the stairs to open it. In the doorway stood another blonde, cheerful man.

“Ah yes! Hello! My name is Stenny Johansson, I’m hoping that you have a package for me,” said the man.

“No, someone called Stenny Johansson picked it up a few days ago,” said Jacky, feeling befuddlement flush her face red.

“No, no. I am Stenny Johansson, that is my package. Do you have it?”

“No, I just told you, someone picked it up.”

“But it’s mine,” said the man, sweaty indignation furrowing his face. “It’s vacuum cleaner parts, I need them to fix my vacuum cleaner. Did you check he was the real Stenny Johansson?”

“No, why would I check that?” asked Jackie, she was feeling indignant now. The second Johansson stormed off, shouting,

“Well you shouldn’t have given my post away! That’s illegal, you know?”

When the third Stenny Johansson appeared at the door, Jacky knew instantly. He had the same ruddy face, tousled blonde hair and look of optimism. Before she could speak, he tried to force his way in. Jacky put her foot against the door, but it took all her strength to keep the new Stenny outside.

“But those are the parts for my vacuum cleaner!” he shouted through the letterbox. “How will I clean my house now?”

The fourth Stenny Johansson didn’t bother announcing his name as he shoved the door aside with such force that Jacky went flying against the wall and knocked her head. With her thoughts still spinning, she was only dimly aware of Stenny Johansson stomping up the stairs to her flat, and then stomping back down a few minutes later. She didn’t really register the bright red object in his hands, and it was only later when she found her Henry hoover missing that she understood that he’d taken it.

Not his Wife

Stanley was sitting in his favourite chair wishing he’d learned how to smoke a pipe so he could really enjoy not moving, when the woman who wasn’t his wife came home. She was wearing the right face to be his wife, and the clothes looked familiar, but without doubt, she was someone else. If he was asked, he’d have been hard pushed to explain exactly how he knew it wasn’t his wife, but it was a sense as fundamental as gravity, and the more she moved about the house chattering about the queue at the Post Office in a way that was similar, but not the same, as his wife, the more he knew.

Stanley was a polite man, and the woman who wasn’t his wife seemed so certain of who she was, that after some quizzing that got him nowhere, he decided to let it go. Still as the days passed, a resentment grew. She kept moving the furniture round, and she cancelled his subscription to his model aeroplane magazine. She even bought broccoli and expected him to eat it. With each new and inappropriate behaviour, he felt lied to and manipulated, it just wasn’t on, but then she made lasagne.

He’d always liked lasagne before he got married, but his real wife’s cooking was dubious at best, and she made a watery, insipid dish; but his new not-wife made her lasagne crisp and tasty, so he decided, on reflection to just let it go. Aren’t we all imposters of one kind or another, he thought, philosophically, before wondering where the sofa had gone.

Short story: The Long Walk

“I screwed it up this time. I screwed it right up,” Toby muttered as he walked down the street-lit road with his shoulders up around his ears to keep out the cold. “Won’t answer her phone this time, I can’t even tell her I’m sorry.” Toby wasn’t sure what he’d done to upset Jennifer, but he knew it was something terrible. Last time he’d upset her, she’d finally explained to him that he hadn’t bought her the right birthday bracelet; it had taken three hours of texts and a desperate phone call, but he’d got there in the end. She never believed him when he said sorry, ‘You only say that because I’m angry,’ she’d say, ‘how do I know you really mean it?’ So tonight, emboldened with a few shots of whisky and three beers, he was trying to prove that whatever it was he’d done wrong, he hadn’t done it intentionally.

It was three in the morning, on a cold January night and he was walking the six miles to her house to tell her he was sorry. He fingered the carefully written note in his coat pocket, but now he thought about it, a note didn’t seem enough. He should have got flowers, maybe some jewellery to post through the door with the note. He hopped over a low wall into someone’s garden and picked a couple of snowdrops and held them in his cold fist as he kept walking. Snowdrops, no one can be angry when faced with snowdrops, he thought.

Up ahead a dead bird was lying in the road, its guts spilling out through its beak, and Toby felt suddenly hopeless, Poor thing, didn’t stand a chance, he thought. He felt a part of the bird’s death, seen and mourned only by him. The night streets took on a lonely, dramatic feel; as if he was in a Beckett stage play, as he walked beneath the surreal orange spot-lights, muttering to himself, like the sole cast in a tragedy.

He looked down at the snowdrops in his hand, and they just didn’t seem enough now, they seemed silly, pathetic. So as he walked, he kept an eye out for anything he could use as an offering, like a magpie. He found a shiny black stone, a ribbon, a toy car. He wondered if the streets were always so filled with abandoned treasure. She’d have to like some of these, wouldn’t she? She’d have to forgive him. He tried to imagine her finding his little collection and the carefully worded note. Surely she’d laugh when she saw the toy car, be touched by the snowdrops, tied up with the ribbon. Then he wasn’t sure at all, he wondered if anything he did could ever be enough, maybe he was just destined to disappoint her. His legs were getting heavy and the cold bit at his knees, he hadn’t gone more than a couple of miles and the hand holding the snowdrops was completely numb. His eyes were scanning the pavement, the walls, for any more gifts. Then he spotted the note, folded and discarded on a wall, the ink smudging with the damp. He picked it up and began to read. It didn’t feel like an invasion of privacy, because these were the night streets and this was his play, instead he felt an instant kinship with the writer:

“I’m sorry William, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what I’ve done to make you so angry. Please let’s talk about this, we can sort it out. I love you, Becky.” Toby stood under the streetlamp for a long time, just rereading the note, imagining poor Becky writing that heartfelt note, only for William to care so little he threw it away. He imagined her desperation and fear. He wished he could give Becky the snowdrops, he felt she’d love them, that she’d laugh as he handed over the small car. With a heavy sigh, he crouched down by the wall. With his numb hands and his knees creaking, he created a small alter with a toy car, snowdrops in a ribbon, and a shiny black stone. The note sat in the middle. It felt like the proper resting place for all things discarded.

“Don’t you worry about him,” Toby whispered, “he’s not worth it.” Then he turned and started to make his way home.

The True Meaning of Secret Santa (short story)

hat
Picture from here

I found Secret Santa fun at first. Tashinda got me a fluffy turkey hat that made gobbling noises, and Malcom made a clay ashtray, delicately painted with flowers. It didn’t matter that Malcom’s Secret Santa recipient didn’t smoke or that I’d never wear the hat again once Christmas was over, that isn’t what Christmas is about, it’s about fun and happiness. So Secret Santa was great for the first two years, but then things started to change, it started to get competitive. People stopped keeping to the ten pound limit; no one specified a new limit, just that ten pounds wasn’t enough. Then everybody started using sparkly wrapping paper and ribbons on the presents, even though you can’t recycle either and they just get thrown away. Last year, in the big pile of shiny presents tied up with curly ribbons, mine stood out as the only package sellotaped together, in cheap red paper with bells on, and everybody laughed at me. But at least I didn’t get Dennis’s present.

Dennis is scary. Mostly he’s just sarcastic, but that can bubble into rage. It’s difficult to know when, it could be someone sitting in his spot in the canteen or a splatter of tomato sauce on the floor. Everybody is too frightened to leave unwashed mugs in the sink anymore, or crumbs around the microwave. And then when we passed around the Secret Santa gifts at the Christmas meal last year, Dennis smashed his new mug in fury.

“What is this?” he screeched.

Tashinda said nervously, “You don’t like it?”

“It’s thoughtless tat!” shouted Dennis. “This could be for anyone! There’s no thought in this, there’s no effort!”

So this year, when I pulled Dennis’s name from the bobble hat, I felt my stomach drop into my shoes and I haven’t rested since. What can I buy him? He’s not my friend, I don’t know what he wants.

I woke up at two in the morning, fretting. I tried to calm down by writing a list of all the things I knew about Dennis and possible presents: likes custard creams (buy twenty packets), doesn’t like it when people leave crumbs in the kitchen (dustbuster), has neat beard (beard trimmer). No present seems thoughtful enough. So, unable to sleep, I went looking on his Facebook page. I discovered he liked Metallica and is a member of a biker group, but he doesn’t have a motorbike. He often wrote bitchy lectures to people he called ‘A waste of oxygen’, people who needed to ‘Stop whining and starting winning’, this made me more nervous. I searched a bit harder, googling various nicknames he used for himself on his wall, following the friends he had, the groups he was part of.

If you really pay attention to what people write on social media, it’s not that difficult to pull the threads together. You can find forums they write on anonymously, Instagram and Twitter accounts under different names, even old Myspace pages they’ve forgotten existed. So that’s how I found out that Dennis writes poetry about his feelings. He started as a teenager, but hasn’t stopped, he just keeps it hidden. I’m normally a pretty mild-mannered chap, I don’t like to ruffle feathers, but I kept thinking of Tashinda looking crestfallen after Dennis broke her mug, and soon I was thinking: maybe if I frame his cheesiest poem, or find a photo if him posing as a teenager, maybe that would be funny. So I kept looking, and found more poetry, more blog posts about how lonely and misunderstood he was, but as dawn came round, I didn’t want to laugh at him anymore. I felt that all the bluster and complaint was a way of covering up for feeling unhappy and out of place, which are things I know quite well. I felt he needed a hug more than to be mocked.

I wasn’t with Dennis when he got his present, but I heard he liked it. I got him a book of Sylvia Plath poems and Ten Simple Steps to Happiness. I was told the books made him smile, and that’s what Christmas is all about.

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.

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.