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.

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

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.

The Continuing Wisdom of Bert

smiley-dog

Bert could barely suppress a smile as he groaned his way into his armchair. A good groan was like a fine wine, something to be savoured; plus it served as a segue into a new conversation. While his wife tried to watch Doctor Who, he explained the thought that had occurred to him on the toilet,

“I’ll tell you what’s odd; dogs never used to smile when I was young, but you see them now and they’ve all got big grins! All over the Internet.  Tom posted a picture of one on Facebook, a big doggy grin it had. That’s genetic engineering that is. That’s modification. Centuries of inbreeding. Isn’t it? Isn’t it, Becky?”

“Uh huh.”

“But what I’ve been thinking is, when are they going to work on cats? I mean dogs were always happy creatures and we had the wagging tail and licking, so there’s no real mystery about how they’re feeling, but what about cats? No one ever knows how a cat is feeling. They could do with smiles. When they going to modify cats to smile? Becky? Becky?”

Becky didn’t answer, and Bert sat back, contented. They could carry this on later, over dinner.

 

Picture pinched from here

Living Ghosts

The dreams were taking over. I still lived my life as I should, went to college, did assignments, even went out drinking and laughing with my friends; but it was a pretence, ever since Kamil, my best friend from school, had been hit by a car. I’d been with him. When he’d crumpled to the floor like a sack of broken bones. I’d held him, but he never opened his eyes. He didn’t know I’d held him. He’d vanished in a moment, but I’d carried on. And then the dreams had started.

Mostly they weren’t dreams of him, they were dreams of vampires and werewolves biting and tearing their way through the streets. Or dreams of earthquakes and tsunamis destroying the city, plucking me from the alleyway and throwing me against buildings so that I could feel the snap and crush. Dreams of death and violence, so that each day I would drift in a daze through classes and conversations, half-seeing horrors. The days had a muted emptiness that the dreams never had, so that waking life faded. How could I really care about grades and crushes, when I knew that night I would be smashed through the window of a high rise or see my rib cage ripped apart and my heart pulled out?

The last few days the dreams have been different, no blood, no terror. Instead I find myself walking through a street, a clean suburban street with clouds of cherry blossom and clipped lawns. I find myself walking with my sister, Asha. Each time we’re walking across the road and I feel myself tense, but there are no cars, there’s no danger. We walk up to one of the pretty houses with a blue door and a hanging basket filled with dead flowers and my sister nudges me so that I reluctantly open the door, feeling a surge of sadness, but no idea why. Then I wake up and carry that unnamed feeling of sorrow with me all day. I sit in the History lectures with my friends. I pretend again.

Last night I dreamt that I opened the door and we went inside. The house was nice, a little dusty, but you could tell someone had loved it; little touches like the semi-antique table in the hall, on it a shell with keys in. On the wall hung a few photos in ornate frames. The kind with curly carvings in gold. One of the photos was of me, another of a Jack Russell terrier leaping to catch a Frisbee. The third photo was of a young woman with dark eyes and a shy smile. Her eyes were set slightly too close together and her nose a little too big for her to be conventionally attractive, but that just meant her beauty took me by surprise, snuck up on me. The photo showed her from the waist up, looking straight at the camera, straight into my eyes.

“You ok bruv,” said Asha, her hand on my arm, her voice gentle.

“Who is she?” I asked, pointing at the photo.

“You know. She’s your wife. She’s gone now, I’m sorry,” there was a pause, I knew Asha was trying to work out the right words to use, to coax me. “The cancer took her, she’s gone, but it’s going to be ok.”

It wasn’t a violent dream, but it’s stayed with me, given me a sense of unease and it was a relief to meet up in the canteen and act normal. We swapped notes on the French Civil War and bitched about Professor Wilson and his constant throat clearing and pen tapping. We took too long choosing expresso toppings and then had to run to class. Normal.

As soon as we got to class that illusion shattered. There were three new students. We were warned last week that new students would be joining us for ‘budget reasons’, in other words, their college had run out of funds. Two of the students were regular guys, trying to look confident and failing. And the third was her, my wife from the dream. My dead wife.

I didn’t learn much history. I kept glancing across the rows of seats to where she sat. Each time I thought It can’t be her, I’ve made a mistake. Each time it was her, same dark eyes and hawk-like nose. Even worse, she kept catching me looking at her and then ducking her head away. No doubt she thought I was a stalker, and what could I say that would convince her otherwise? I saw you in my dreams?

The relief I felt when the class ended wasn’t satisfying, I just wanted to escape, bolt out the door. I mumbled something about securing a seat in the canteen and gathered up my books. I was working my way down the tiers to the exit, but she was standing in my way, the girl from my dream. I was already apologising when I realised that she was too.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to freak you out, I know I was staring. I just wanted to explain,” she said. Her eyes were on the floor, then up at me, chocolate brown and scared. In my desperate state, for a moment I thought it must have been me speaking, because those were the words I would have said. She went on,

“I know I must seem weird, but can I…talk to you? About something?”

I nodded dumbly. She floundered for a minute, trying to find the right words, I smiled to ease her and she gave a sheepish grin back and shrugged.

“Look, this is crazy. It’s just I had this dream last night and you…you were in it.”

“What?” I said, a bit harsher than I intended. I thought I might have scared her, but actually she got a little more sure of herself, she stood straighter and started to speak more quickly.

“It was a silly dream, nothing really happened. It couldn’t, because I couldn’t move, I was just sort of standing there. I remember wishing I could move, but it’s like I was frozen. I was looking out of this window, but it wasn’t really like a window, it had a golden ledge, carved. And you were there. You were looking right back at me. It was just a dream, but I know it was you. You were pointing at me. I know it doesn’t make sense, but it was you.”

March of the Luddite

Most people shuffle reluctantly into old age, but not Bert. Bert had spent his youth feeling put upon, pushed to do stuff, to get involved. He looked forward to his twilight years as if they were surrounded by a warm golden glow: he would get old, he would buy slippers, he would complain, he would watch the kind of crap gameshow telly that his peers scoffed at but he secretly loved. And now it had happened. He was only fifty-four, but he had leapt on the chance to be a curmudgeon with gleeful determination.

He was sat in his favourite chair, the one that had dark patches that perfectly fitted his head and elbows. The one that groaned in tune with his own groans when he sat down. He was watching old episodes of Deal or no Deal that he seen many times before, so that he could mumble along. When the adverts came on he did puzzles on his iPad while he grumbled to his wife, who was doing yoga at the other end of the room.

“Technology thinks I care about it way more than I do,” he said. He waited for a grunt from his wife to show he was listening and then he went on. “All I want from my technology is for it to do my bidding; I press the button it does the thing, the end. I don’t want it to know me, I don’t want it to suggest things to me or to disagree with me. ‘Are you sure that’s what you want to do?’ says some text box and then it does something I didn’t want it to do at all. ‘How about you personalise the experience?’ it wheedles at me. But I don’t need a cutesy photo on my phone to express my personality. ‘D’you want to announce to the world you just bought a toaster shaped like an armadillo?’ No, I bloody don’t.”

He never got very far with his puzzles, to be honest he didn’t really like doing them, they made him feel stupid. So instead he used them as an opportunity to complain.

“And I don’t like this wavy fingered thing either. Touch screen technology, is that what they call it? My fingers don’t do that. On a good day I can tie my shoelaces. I don’t want to accidentally open a dozen programs every time I try to type.” His point made, the adverts over, Bert wriggled deeper into his cardigan and sighed a happy, contented sigh. Life was always good now.

Lost and Addled

It’s at times like this Jenny always says, “the hag will out” and then we cackle and the people around us look aghast, which makes us laugh louder, especially if we’re in some posh bar where people only ever smirk. Right now, the hag is me, tangled up in my spangly jacket sleeves, my head in a toilet, my shoes gone and my feet grimy. The toilet is in a designer bathroom, somewhere, I don’t know where. I’m guessing from these details that it is Friday night and I have taken too many drugs. Again.

I really need to puke, my stomach contains evil things that should be exorcised. I focus on the crusty brown lines inside the toilet bowl, but I can’t even retch, the muscles in my throat are too relaxed and the brown lines start to look pretty – like streaks of rust on an old farm gate beneath a blue sky. I tumble onto to the floor, tip my head right back and look upside down at the bathroom door.

I remember being over there, standing up, next to that white door with the curly brass handle, it was quite traumatic. Who owns a door like that in their bathroom anyway? It looks like something one of my mum’s friends would have, very faux riche and pseudo-sophisticated. I spent a long time making sure that door was really locked. It was needlessly complicated, and even now it looks like it’s ready to spit the key out onto the floor and smugly open wide to reveal a scattered hag-like me to whatever world lies beyond the bathroom. From this position, I can feel my brain cells pooling in the top of my head, maybe that will help me remember where I am.

Nothing yet.

My face is starting to bulge from an excess of blood, I roll back onto my stomach and feel my head deflate and hang slackly around my teeth. How long have I been here? Ten minutes? An hour? Won’t someone else need the toilet? Or is this a house blessed with several toilets? Each with curling brass handles and fluffy blue carpets. Maybe this is Heaven’s toilet. Maybe I died of a terrible drugs overdose (so tragic, so young, such a wasted life, blah blah blah) and I got beamed straight up to Heaven. With my head still whirling and stomach lurching, of course I staggered straight to the nearest toilet. Maybe God is standing right outside that door with divine knowledge of the state I’m in – he won’t be happy, drugs are worse than stealing, probably. I lie down on my back again and wait for the Death-Heaven-God paranoia to pass.

I am having trouble distinguishing up from down, it seems a strange stupidity to have, although I don’t suppose it matters when you are lying on the floor of a toilet. Although if someone starts knocking on the door, I’ll never get my legs the right way up in time. Hopefully it will be someone patient, someone with a kind heart and a functioning memory, or just Jenny will do. Jenny would get me out of here, we could go find a TV and a sofa and just watch cartoons until my memory returned. I’ve always moved around too much, that is definitely the problem. No wonder I’m confused, I never stay still and wait to see what happens.

I’ll try sitting still for a while. Back straight, not chewing my lip. Not smoking, just staring at a small patch of white on the wall that spins with a thousand colours, fizzing and sparking. I feel as if two metal hands have gripped my spine and are slowly wringing it dry. The fizzing colours have got bigger and my feet look so far away it makes me cry a little, the whole world feels hollow and strange.

I’m not sure that staying still is the answer.

I move closer to the door. I have to start facing up to the reality beyond this bathroom. Pull myself together, pull my socks up, take a little responsibility. The longer I wait here, the more corroded my brain will become. I can feel each brain cell in turn spinning away into the void, all sense and reason drifting away. I wonder why no one has come looking for me. Aren’t they worried about me? And exactly who are they anyway? Parties have become so random these days. Not just friends’ parties, but friends of friends, and friends of acquaintances of friends, and drug dealers of friends who know someone else’s cat and once had a fight with a member of a band, so that’s interesting right? Let’s go there.

I think that actually we don’t like each other anymore and make increasingly insistent attempts to make sure that we never spend any time alone together. Me and Jenny, two screeching drug hags, who secretly hate each other. Maybe everyone else hates us too. Maybe they are all relieved that I’ve disappeared into a toilet, maybe that’s why no one has come looking for me.

I’m going to stand up, I’m going to start dealing with this situation. I do so and pretty coloured lights flash all around my head, so that for a moment I’m in a circus, then the lights settle and I’m staring at the bathroom mirror. Most people are blank faced most of the time, but my expression is beyond blank, it is the rotting dead. If I go out there, someone will surely notice. I pull a smile, wrinkle my nose and tug my eyes – I look like a tragic accident of plastic surgery. Happy is not a good look for me. I will try for moody indifference, that usually works.

I sit back down and stare at the wall for a while, feel my eyes turning inside out, so that all the black stuff in my head pores from the sockets like blood. I blink and the whole process reverses, speeded up.

Maybe everyone else is wasted too. Maybe, if I go out there, they will welcome me in with speechless warmth, I will crawl beneath someone’s arm, and snuggle in front of the television. Everyone will be watching a cheesy comedy that we have seen ten thousand times in the same state, and we don’t laugh at the jokes any more, we just feel comforted by the repetition of familiar lives.

I crawl to the door and listen, I can’t hear canned laughter or the tinny jangle of a theme tune. Maybe they are all asleep. The paint on the door is very cool against my face, I could just stay here and sleep.

Suddenly someone starts banging on the door, knocking a bruise onto my cheek.

“What are you doing in there, hag?”

Shouts lovely Jenny’s voice. It takes me a good few minutes to figure out how to unlock the door, made more complicated by Jenny her-wonderful-self, who keeps kicking at the other side. When I finally fall out into the hallway, she is standing above me, light bulb behind her head like a halo – sweet angel Jenny, come to rescue me from my doom.

“My God, but you look a mess. Get your face back on the right way up and come and join us, you’ve missed three lines of coke already, and you’ll miss another one if you don’t get a move on.”

“Ok then.” I reply and remember how to smile.