Backwards Daffodils

daffidils

Mrs Wrench nearly tripped over her own Jimmy Choo’s in her hurry to get outside.

“Er, Matthew!” she said, voice shrill with delighted indignation.

“Yes, Mrs Wrench,” said Matthew looking up from the box hedge he was pruning, his back creaking with effort.

“I believe I told you I didn’t want any purple in the garden!”

“Purple? There isn’t any purple,” said Matthew, looking about confused.

Mrs Wrench pointed to the Agapanthus that Matthew had recently picked up from the garden centre and potted into a huge urn.

“And what do you call that?” said Mrs Wrench, triumphantly.

“Blue?” said Matthew.

“I don’t think so! Get rid of it immediately, I won’t have purple in this garden.” Without another word she turned and marched back into the house.

“Well, that told him!” she announced to her husband as she walked past where he was reading the paper, he didn’t look up. “I mean, really!” she said to no interest whatsoever. Mrs Wrench stood glaring at the back of her husband’s head for a few moments and then went to the kitchen to look out to where Matthew was throwing the Agapanthus on the compost. She looked searchingly around the garden for issues. Then, she marched outside again,

“Matthew! Matthew!” she called, Matthew ambled over, a nervous look on his face that gave her a glow of contentment. “These daffodils,” she barked.

“Yes,” said Matthew, “I thought you liked yellow.”

“I do, I do like yellow, but they’re all facing the wrong way. When I look out of the window, all the flowers are facing into the garden, and I can’t see them properly.”

“Well, yes,” said Matthew, “they’re facing towards the sun.”

“It’s simply not good enough. I want you to dig them up and turn them around, so I can see them from the window. Understand?” The look of befuddlement on Matthew’s face was a joy to behold, and Mrs Wrench walked back inside with a spring in her step. She sat in her favourite armchair, took her phone out of her pocket and set the alarm for twenty minutes. Plenty of time for Matthew to do something wrong. She leaned back in her chair and smiled.

 

Finding a Guru

Wade had a blister that had started out as three separate blisters but had grown into one. He’d run out of energy bars. He was sick of breath-taking views of endless skies above endless valleys.  His knees hurt. But he was finally here, outside the guru’s cave, waiting to have the meaning of life explained to him.

He’d first read about the guru Alodu on the Internet. People would write gushing posts about how he had freed them from the nagging doubts, given them a lasting sense of peace. For years now, Wade had been dragging himself through life feeling each moment as itchy with guilt and insecurity. He had visited therapists, taken medication, listened to CDs, but these things only ever felt like a temporary solution, a hiding of his problems, not fixing them. When he heard about Alodu he decided the chance to free himself was worth the price of a flight and a hike. He hadn’t expected the route up the mountain and to the cave to be quite so well signposted. Luckily, since he’d run out of food, there was a fast food kiosk selling burgers, but it felt a little tacky.

He ducked under the cave’s low roof, and was surprised to see a small speccy white man sitting on the floor in a cardigan. He was unimpressive, and Wade felt his hopes deflate as his blisters throbbed.

“So, I’m Alodu,” said the guru, “what’s up?”

This felt all wrong to Wade, but he had rehearsed this speech a hundred times and he wasn’t going to waste the effort.

“I’m plagued,” he said dramatically. Dramatic had seemed right when he planned this conversation on the walk up. However, sharing with this librarian of a man, his head cocked to one side politely, it seemed inappropriate to be dramatic. “I feel like I’ve done and said too much that’s wrong. I want to forget, stop caring and get on with my life, but I can’t stop thinking about all the mistakes I’ve made.”

“That’s unfortunate, “ said Alodu as if he was commenting on something mundane like a traffic jam, rather than Wade’s plagued soul. “Have you tried collecting stamps? I find that soothing.”

Wade shifted awkwardly on his rock, hoping this would convey his lack of satisfaction with this answer.

“Stamps?” he said.

“Yes or perhaps watch some Bob Ross videos about learning to paint, I do like a bit of Bob Ross.”

“Now look here!” snapped Wade, causing the guru to flinch inside his cardigan. “I’ve climbed a bloody mountain, I want better advice than my gran would come up with.”

Alodu looked at him thoughtfully, with infinite patience and calm. Then in hushed tones, whispered,

“You want meaning in your life? Serenity?”

“Yes!”

“Have you tried eating steamed broccoli?”

Wade stormed out on his blistered feet. As Alodu watched him go, he said sadly,

“Some people just don’t want to be enlightened.”

Short story: Running with Spiders

spidey

Every day is a weary lie. I can barely force my face into a convincing smile, but no one notices, too caught up in their own worlds. I wear shoes, but they’re a lie, my feet don’t want to wear shoes, they don’t want to be confined to feebly gripping, clumsy slabs with laces; they want to feel the world and cling to it, never falling. I wear the suit, but my neck doesn’t like that choke-chain tie around it, my legs don’t like to be bound in fabric. I may wear cashmere, but it constricts like cheap nylon, because it’s wrong.

I get to work at nine o’clock sharp, an unconvincing copy of an enthusiastic smile clinging to my face, because this isn’t where I’m supposed to be. I’m not a creature of bright strip lights and open floor plans, instead I’m of the night, of the dark and dank and dusty. I’m at work now, because I haven’t the energy in the day to argue with convention, all my will is used up at night. At night, where truth rules and where I scutter and spin. So I sit down at my computer, fighting the urge to groan, my body is so heavy, so affected by gravity. I don’t understand how people can live like this without the glorious escape.

Craig in the next cubicle starts up a conversation, he always does, and I always react with empty platitudes and polite nodding. Slurping on his coffee, he says,

“Can’t go to the match this weekend, the wife’s said.”

“Oh dear,” I say with the appropriate tone I don’t feel.

“My brother in law died at the weekend, she says we’ve got to sort out his things.”

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“Yeah, and an Arsenal home game it was too.”

“I meant about your brother-in-law dying.”

“Nah, I hated him anyway.”

My work is dull and pointless, the moment I leave the office I forget what it is I do all day. Something to do with numbers, and catalogues and the ever-whining public. All that matters is that eventually it’s over and the moment of freedom is close, true freedom from this dragging carcass. I ride the train, staring at my phone like everybody else, but all I’m looking at is a timer, counting down the minutes, the seconds.

Sat at my kitchen table, my alarm sounds, but I don’t need a clock to tell me, I can feel the change. The same change that has taken over my senses for five years now.  Every night, every night a revelation and a joy. The hairs first, thick and black, poking out from around my eyes and from my arms. And those arms! Becoming longer, thinner, sleeker. I stretch their beautiful form, feel a breeze tickle at the hairs, so slight that I didn’t notice it before, a delicate caress. I’m shrinking, becoming a size that fits my new senses, as those close-fitting walls get far away and irrelevant. The six new eyes pop from the front of my head one by one, each one telling me a new story of the world, but that’s only the start. Vibration sings its song to me, everything I touch is a tapestry of understanding. I am humming, I am alive with the song of the world around me. And then, as my new body solidifies and strengthens, I am ready to run. And I run and leap. Within moments, I’m on top of the sink and leaping down the drain. Faster and faster, encumbered by nothing. Running along pipes at such speed, the power! The freedom I have! I swoop and glide, gravity doesn’t touch me. As I scutter the depths of the world feeling no fear, my kith and kin run with me.

I run with the spiders, for I too am such a beast.

Day 4120 in the Big Brother House

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Day 4120 in the big brother house. They won’t let us sleep again.  Every time we start to drop off, they blare a klaxon horn and we all have to get up and start dancing. Becky collapsed, I was too scared to go to her. We need these food rations, another week eating just dried crackers is going to make us sicker. I’m not sure, we’ve got no way of checking, but I think we’ve all got scurvy, that’s why we’re so weak. Strange lesions have started to appear on my arms as well, I asked to see a doctor in the Diary Room last week, but no matter how many times I pleaded, the perky voice just tried to get me to talk about Hannah. It kept goading me to say something bitchy, and in the end I had to call her a ‘sow faced trollop’ just to be able to go back to the house.

Then Becky got called into the diary room. Her face was all twisted up in terror, looking at us pleading, but what could we do? She gets it the worst, I don’t know why they pick on her, maybe it’s because she made such a fuss when we first came in, she’d throw a tantrum over every little stupid thing they’d made her do, she was good telly. Now they take every chance to torment her, she cries herself to sleep at night, sometimes she wakes up screaming, and we can’t stop her; sometimes I don’t even try, she’s got reason to scream.

She didn’t come back in, but a screen opened up in the lounge, and we could see Becky, sitting on a stool, her eyes were red and wild, like they wanted to burst out of her head. She was wearing that stupid green lycra suit, so we know she was wired up to get electric shocks. They started playing Living La Vida Loca over and over at full blast, while she had to search through some cards to find the answers to trivial pursuit questions that flashed up on a screen. If she got one wrong, or took to long to answer then they sent a hundred volts through her spine. There was no reason to it, there never is, it was just about humiliating her, and trying to get us all to turn on her when she got it wrong. By the end she couldn’t stop sobbing long enough to even try and answer the question, she just curled up in a ball no the floor while they shocked her, over and over.

I can’t remember why I ever signed up to this, but I would chew off my own arm just to get my life back, just to be able to take a walk in the sunshine or to read a book. I don’t know if those things will ever happen again. In the beginning we would tell ourselves ‘It’s only a gameshow’, but we know now, this is no game, and understanding that is what will get us out. They think they’ve broken us, but we’ve got a plan. Not that we can ever talk about it out loud, but we’ve got good at silent communication, good at noticing when they aren’t around, at understanding the weak points in the walls. Little bits of information that we share through tiny gestures and glances. We’ll get out soon, I promise you that. Keep watching.

Patience and Sensitivity

“I’m a very patient person,” he’d said when I moved in, and I thought that was great. I’m a very sensitive person, so we had this lovely chat about how so many other people are thoughtless and rude, and how we’d both lived with unpleasant people in the past and it was great to have found each other.

That Saturday, he said it again,

“I’m a very patient person.” This time it was when he found some crumbs I’d left by the kettle, only there was a slight edge to his voice. And I thought Whoah! It’s only a few crumbs! And I actually had a little cry, because it seemed a bit mean. He felt guilty though, so I thought we’d be alright from then on.

Then he said it again on the Monday when I left a ring around the bath, only it was more high-pitched. I said, “Well I’m a very sensitive person, and I can’t live with this kind of atmosphere,” and I slammed the door and didn’t speak to him for three days.

I hoped that had got the message through, but then again, those words, spoken through gritted teeth while pointing at the coffee splots on the floor. He didn’t even seem to see how unreasonable he was being, so I poured my coffee all over the carpet and up the doors, because all this tension is intolerable.

We were fine then, until this morning. I was just chatting to him about something at work that had upset me, while he was doing the washing up that I’d left in the sink to soak over the weekend. Everything was fine, but then he started being so rough with the washing up, that he actually broke one of the plates, and then stormed out! His anger just came from nowhere.

As a sensitive person, I need to leave for the sake of my mental health. I don’t think he’s patient at all.

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)

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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.

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.

Letter from the Damned

Dear Sam,

I don’t have much time so I’ll keep this brief. Last night I slept for thirteen hours, that’s the longest yet. If I keep going like this, soon I won’t have to wake up at all. My phone has wracked up seven messages while I slept – I know most of them will be from my boss since I missed my shift this morning. It’s difficult to care.

You wanted to know what’s going on with me, you’re not the only one, but you’re the only one that might actually understand, I hope you can. The truth is, I started having these bizarre dreams about a year ago. Every night I would dream that these shadowy demon figures were gathered around my bed, just watching me. Nothing about them was clearly defined, even their eyes were dark hollows, and then when they moved I could see darker streaks shifting like muscles beneath the smoky nothingness. Sometimes they would talk, but I couldn’t understand them. Sometimes they would prod me, even lift up bits of my body, and I was powerless to stop them. I didn’t know if they were bad or good, or what they wanted from me.,  I’ve never talked about it, because you’d have all thought I was crazy, sometimes I’ve thought I’m crazy too. And I kept thinking about them all day, just wanting an explanation, a plan, anything. And then I heard about lucid dreaming. In fact I read a blog about it, about how you could just take control of your dreams, kind of be conscious while in that dreamworld. I thought if I did that I could get them to speak in English, I could get up and prod them.

Like I say, I was never really sure that they were bad, they didn’t do anything nasty, but we’re taught to be suspicious of mysterious shadowy demon figures, they’re in so many horror stories, aren’t they? So when I started the lucid dreaming – writing notes to myself to stay awake, training myself to be kind of conscious while asleep – I was also getting ready to fight them. But they didn’t need to be fought. It turned out they had only come to visit and were working out how to communicate with me. Once I was able to get up and talk to them, it was pretty simple.

“You didn’t respond,” one said, speaking clearly, it turns out they hadn’t known I was English.

“It was as if you weren’t properly there at all,” said another.

“Well, I guess I wasn’t, that’s what dreaming is for us, usually,” I said.

“Ah,” they all said in thoughtful unison, they’re really very mellow. Sometimes we just sit in silence, it’s peaceful, I’ve never really known that kind of peace before.

Thirteen hours doesn’t last long in their world. We have time for a game of chess, a chat about what I’ve been up to and then I wake up. It’s been going on for a few weeks, and it’s made me realise: waking life is such a drag. No offence, but all the rush and the needless drama, I’m sick of it. I want to be where my demon friends are (that’s what they say they are, but demons aren’t bad in the dream world) but it’s ok, because I’m getting there. Each night I’m staying longer, each day becomes more of a token visit. Soon I won’t have to wake up at all.

So that’s what’s been going on. Look after yourself Sam, you’re one of the good guys. If you don’t see me around anymore, then you’ll know where I am.

Joe