Alby Stone: Dog and Pony Show

Copyright (c) 2017 Alby Stone

It isn’t often that I’m intimidated. Never, in fact. But this was the exception that proved the rule. Usually when I’m called to business appointments I find the client on his or her knees in a muddy puddle, clutching some kind of offering – just lately I’ve had my bloody fill of chickens – alone and possessed of a facial expression somewhere between surprise, desperate hope and abject terror. But this – well, it was outside even my extensive experience.

He was on his knees right enough, and in the traditional position; but that was as far as it went. The patellae in question were resting on a white velvet cushion embroidered with the Stars and Stripes. The offering – at least, that’s what I at first took it to be – appeared to be some kind of small mammal, perhaps a Persian cat or angora rabbit with improbably coiffed bottle-blonde fur, curled up asleep on top of the man’s head. And the unidentifiable creature’s human perch wasn’t alone.

‘Who the hell are they?’ I pointed at the group of men and women standing in the road behind my latest client. I’ll call him Jones. Client confidentiality would ordinarily be enough, but this bloke would sue even me if I gave him half a chance.

‘Them? Oh, they’re my people. Bodyguards, PA, personal trainer, stylist, campaign manager, a couple of gofers. And my lawyers, of course. I don’t even take a shit without legal representation.’ Three men wearing suits that put my hand-tailored Italian masterpiece to shame nodded courteously, if a trifle coldly. Their eyes flashed like supermarket checkout displays.

The client squinted suspiciously. ‘Say, you got a beard. Are you a Muslim?’

I ignored him and focused on my surroundings, hitherto unnoticed due to my fascination with the client’s entourage, and his odd choice and location of offering. There were more people, quite a lot of them. Bright lights all around. And cars, heavy traffic. It all seemed familiar but I couldn’t quite place it. That’s disorientation for you. ‘Where are we?’

 ‘The junction of Virginia Avenue NW and 19th Street NW, DC,’ one of the client’s flunkeys replied, after checking a map. ‘It’s at the centre of a triangle formed by the White House, the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Memorial. This is an auspicious place, right at the heart of power in this great nation.’

‘Not the sort of power you’ll be getting your hands on anytime soon, mate,’ I growled under my breath. ‘Let my client speak for himself,’ I continued aloud. ‘There’s a good boy.’

Jones was still squinting. ‘You sound like a Brit, just like on the TV show. That’s good. I like the British. They know how to do the right thing.’

‘Unlike you,’ I observed. ‘Traditionally the client requests my presence at a deserted crossroads at midnight – alone, not with a bloody circus trailing behind him. Or her,’ I added. Historically, women have rarely requested my services in this manner. The recent flurry of female supplicants was, I supposed, a heartening sign that gender equality was finally becoming a reality. Though my client would no doubt put the kybosh on that if his grasping hands ever held the reins of authority.

‘I do things my way or not at all,’ said Jones, puffing himself out like a gamecock. ‘So what do I call you?’

I shrugged. ‘You can call me “Sir”, “Lord”, “Master”, whatever seems appropriate.’

The man frowned, which seemed to cause the animal on his head some discomfort. ‘Hey, I’m on first-name terms with everyone. That’s my style. But whatever suits you, pal.’

Pal? In all my years no one had ever addressed me in such a manner. I bristled, tempted to show him there and then precisely what suited me. I smiled instead. Payment for his insolence could wait. The long game has always been the most satisfying. Mind you, that night I was on a tight timetable.

‘Look, you called me. Can we just get on with this? Lemmy was in the middle of a great story about Hendrix when you called. I thought the bishop was going to piss himself. Mind you, that might have just been the sight of my butler stoking the fireplace. And I have an appointment elsewhere.’

‘Okay,’ said the client. One of the lawyers leaned over and whispered in his ear. ‘Yeah, got it. Where were we? Oh yeah, I want to be President.’

That much was already public knowledge and I told him so.

‘Yeah, but there may be – obstacles, capisce? Certain things in my past that might be better forgotten. By everyone, know what I mean? Things that’ll probably take a little more than putting a positive spin on them.’

‘I’m the Father of Lies,’ I pointed out. ‘Or at least I was until recently. These days I feel like a sodding amateur. Honestly, are you modern politicians totally incapable of telling the bloody truth?’

Jones made that Mussolini face that certain kinds of mindless bigot find just adorable. I brightened. I would soon be in possession of a fine pair of bookends. They’d look good above one of the fireplaces, in one of the more distant chambers that I hardly ever visited. If there’s one thing attention-seekers hate, it’s being ignored. I do what I can.

‘Anyway,’ I said. ‘What’s the offering? And why on earth have you got it on top of your head?’

He stared at me blankly. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ He snapped his fingers and another of his people stepped forward, nervously – and with not a little difficulty – clutching a large, angry, squirming rooster. Black, of course.

‘It’s still alive,’ I pointed out.

‘Yeah, we weren’t sure of the protocol. Thought you might prefer to off the critter yourself. Who’s got the machete?’

The client’s people huddled together and conferred. Hands were spread, heads shaken and blame exchanged. It was as clear as day that no one had remembered the machete. Eventually a hapless lackey was selected to impart the bad news to his boss, whose face turned crimson with fury and as distorted as a choice Notre Dame gargoyle when he began what was surely the bollocking against which all subsequent bollockings would be measured. I checked my watch. At this rate I was going to miss that Black Sabbath gig I’d been looking forward to. The tickets had cost an arm and a leg. Not mine, obviously.

‘Look, if it’s all the same to you I’m quite happy with a live one.’

The client narrowed his eyes. ‘But I was told you liked a big black – ’

I wagged a finger in warning. ‘Not one more word about poultry, sunshine. Right, so you want to be the leader of the so-called free world. What’s in it for me?’

For the first time he seemed unsure of himself. ‘Well, my soul, of course.’

‘Actually, I already have that. A contract with me is made more by deed than spoken or written agreement. Bad actions constitute a kind of IOU.’

‘Bad actions? What the fuck did I do?’

Normally I would have given an evil laugh and vanished in a puff of sulphurous smoke, but he seemed genuinely baffled. That’s the trouble with sociopaths. Even if they know they’ve done wrong it just doesn’t register. Lack of conscience is also lack of self-awareness, and no amount of narcissism can make up for it. I felt duty-bound to spell it out.

‘You haven’t exactly led a blameless life, Mr Jones. You claim to be a Christian, yet you’ve lied, cheated, stolen and fornicated your way through several decades of existence. You’ve bullied, threatened, insulted, defamed and humiliated more people than most of your supporters could count, assuming they even possess basic numeracy skills. You’ve admitted committing numerous sexual assaults. You believe the strong have a duty to exploit the weak, a belief which has been expressed in almost every action you have ever taken. Do you really think I might not have noticed?’

The Foghorn Leghorn defence response kicked in again. Mussolini took the stage once more. ‘Yeah, but I’m a fucking Christian. So I grab a little pussy now and again, and I never give a sucker an even break. Big fucking deal. I earned the right to take what I want when I want it. That’s the American Dream, pal. And that’s what my election campaign is all about, the whole dog and pony show. I want to make America great again. When I’m President I’m gonna kick out those godless Mexican Catholics and the Muslims, get rid of ObamaCare, abolish all gun control laws, put the faggots and feminazis in their place, and make sure the people who create the wealth get to keep it, whatever they’ve made and no matter how. What the fuck’s wrong with that?’

I was almost speechless. I’d only met one person with a similar degree of self-righteous arrogance, and that was the guy who’d given me my job. It was probably just as well that although Jones was nearly as bad-tempered and vengeful as the Almighty, he didn’t have the omniscience and omnipotence to give it substance. Mind you, once he got his hands on the CIA and those nuclear codes he wouldn’t be far off.

‘In broad theological terms, all Jewish, Muslim and Christian sects believe in the same God. And the same Devil. Do you really think God gives a shit about beards, hairstyles, pictures, language or whether or not a woman keeps her head covered? It’s God, for Christ’s sake – he’s got more to worry about than that. He’s trying to keep the universe in one piece and all you lot can do is think up new ways to argue with your neighbours. And kill them. God didn’t invent nations and religions – you did. He didn’t invent guns. He’s not offended by nudity or sex. He didn’t create America – that was all down to planet formation, geology and the unfathomable human fetish for lines on maps. He didn’t even make you humans. All he did was create life and allow it the freedom to evolve. So don’t any of you use religion to justify your actions. Like all living creatures, you have free will in accordance with your biology. How you choose to employ it is up to you. But you have to accept the consequences.’

‘What consequences?’

‘In your case, it means sitting at one end of a bookshelf for all eternity. In a library nobody ever visits. Though I’m sure I can arrange the occasional social call from some of the Mexicans and Muslims you’ve pissed off.’

The face grew redder. ‘You can’t do that to me. Do you know who I am?’

There it was, the plaintive cry of the self-important man caught with his trousers down. ‘Of course I know. And you know who I am. Otherwise you wouldn’t have called me, right?’

One of the lawyers tapped his shoulder and whispered something. ‘Yeah, right,’ said Jones. ‘Let’s get back to business. My attorneys have drawn up the contract. All we have to do is sign.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘No contract, no deal.’

He stared at me again, this time in disbelief. Behind him, a dozen jaws dropped in sycophantic unison. ‘You can’t refuse,’ he hissed. ‘My people have done the research. I know you can’t refuse.’

I nodded. ‘Technically, I shouldn’t. And in most cases I wouldn’t. But as I said, your soul is already mine. I know you have a history of unethical business dealings but you simply can’t sell me something I already possess. In short, you have nothing to bargain with. I am, therefore, remaining strictly neutral. You win or lose without my help or hindrance. The American people can make their own mistakes.’

‘I can do what the fuck I like, you limey punk. Okay, if my soul isn’t good enough, I can give you much more than that. Three hundred twenty million, give or take.’

Oh, dear. Someone had been talking. And had earned himself a little extra-special treatment a few years down the line. I was going to enjoy that. Confidentiality is a two-way street. ‘Well, as you have apparently heard, I did recently make a deal with someone whose soul was already my property, but who was able to offer me something else. But he had the wherewithal to deliver. You, on the other hand, have nothing to offer except that poor chicken. And that weird thing on your head, which frankly I don’t want because it gives me the creeps. Tell me, does your nation’s Constitution say anything about the President making decisions on behalf of the people with the people’s full consent?’

‘No, we have a long and proud tradition of not trusting the government, and especially not the President.’

‘Quite. I am well acquainted with many Americans who hold that view. I was talking to a Mr McVeigh about it only a couple of years ago. It seems you people really do believe that two wrongs make a right. But I digress. Anyway, have you yourself not said that the electoral process is rigged?’

‘Well, if I don’t win then obviously it is.’

‘But you would agree that means no American citizen should accept or trust the outcome, no matter what that is?’     

‘Not unless I win.’

I shook my head, making sure the tip of my beard remained steady and aimed in his direction. ‘That isn’t logical, is it? Rigged is rigged, after all. But my point is that mistrust of the President is integral to the American way of thinking. Unlike, say, the United Kingdom, where there is a tacit understanding and consent that representative democracy is a pyramid with the Prime Minister at its top, a structure that allows the Prime Minister to make decisions for the entire country, the United States of America is a federation. Each state has its own legislature, its own government. Furthermore, all branches of the federal government – executive, judicial and legislative, including the office of President – are answerable to a higher authority. The Constitution. And what does the Constitution guarantee?’

‘The right to bear arms,’ he said, crossing his own and pouting like a freshly grounded teenage girl. ‘The right to pursue happiness, and screw anyone who doesn’t like it. The right to say what the fuck I want.’

‘It’s a bit more than that,’ I sighed. ‘Its opening words are “We, the people of the United States of America”; and it is a document that makes it absolutely clear that the US government exists to serve the people. In the UK, people are subjects; they serve government. Your Constitution guarantees individual liberty and collective equality. In short, although the President may speak on behalf of the people, he or she cannot in any way deprive them of liberty unless such a deprivation is as the result of due legislative process. In short, the souls of the American people are not yours to give away.’ I pointed a finger at the client’s people. ‘And you can tell Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel over there not to bother checking the law books. The Constitution trumps everything.’

Jones began to shout, incoherently at first. After what were for me a few enjoyable and entertaining moments he regained a semblance of self-control and a sort of intelligibility returned. ‘Don’t get all clever with me, asshole. I’m gonna sue you for every last fucking buck. Breach of contract.’

I smiled. ‘There is no contract. Anyway, you can’t sue me. United States ex relatione Gerald Mayo versus Satan and his Staff, United States District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania 1971.’ I nodded at the lawyers. ‘You can look that one up. It’s an object lesson in what happens when you allow deranged fuckwits unfettered access to the legal system. I was in the public gallery that day. I’d never even heard of the plaintiff. Typical, blaming me for his own mistakes. Bearing false witness, a broken commandment too far, as I like to tell him. And he had the bloody nerve to claim I was an American, thanks to that silly story by Stephen Vincent Benét. Couldn’t even tell fact from fiction, like most humans nowadays. Or ever, come to think of it. Still, one day, eh? Hope springs eternal, and all that.’

Unable to contain his rage, Jones screamed and punched the air and stamped his feet. I was slightly disappointed that he didn’t do a Rumpelstiltskin and deliver both halves of his miserable, shrivelled soul to me there and then, but it was still fun to watch. His entourage – some of whom had clearly been on the receiving end of his tantrums before, as they were already backing away – turned on their heels and ran. I tuned out Jones’ ridiculous display for a few seconds while I considered the fact that they were more afraid of him than they were of me. On reflection, I was indeed rather less dangerous than Jones. I could just picture him with his Mussolini face and petulant pout, jabbing a meaty finger down on a lethal red button just because of a bad morning on the golf course or an offensive tweet. The man was downright fucking scary. Yes, they were right to run.

I scooped up the chicken, which clucked amiably and snuggled contentedly against me. He was a handsome little fellow, and quite good-natured now his captors had beaten a retreat. ‘I think I’ll keep him,’ I said to Jones. ‘I bet I can train him to peck at eyes. I shall call him Johnson.’

‘Johnson? What kinda dumb name is that for a rooster?’

‘He just reminds me of another big, not very bright cock I know,’ I replied. ‘Just be thankful he isn’t a duck.’ I began the usual disappearing procedure. Sulphurous smoke isn’t as easy to conjure up as you might think, and it had been a long night. I looked at my watch again. If I got a shift on I could take Johnson to his new home, get him settled, see to some business, and make it to the Black Sabbath concert in time to get a couple of beers in and check out the merchandise stall before heading for the mosh pit. I was really looking forward to seeing Ozzy. He was getting on a bit and with my busy schedule this would probably be the last chance I ever had to see him perform live. Or dead. Don’t believe the stories.

I waved cheerfully at Jones as the thick, yellow smoke began to rise. ‘I’ll see you when the dog and pony show is over,’ I said genially. Johnson squawked happily. He seemed to appreciate the scent of brimstone.

‘Yeah? I’ll see you in Hell first, buster,’ Jones sneered.

I patted the rooster’s head. ‘Precisely. Come on, Johnson, let’s go home and have dinner. I’m not sure what chickens eat, to be honest, but have you ever tried eyeballs?’

Alby Stone: A Contract is a Contract

Copyright (c) 2017 Alby Stone

Smith isn’t his real name, of course. I pride myself on discretion and confidentiality, all part of the service. You can probably guess who he is, but that isn’t my fault. I don’t point the cameras or write the headlines. I don’t force him to act the goat whenever he so much as sniffs a paparazzo. I didn’t make the client a fucking brand. That was all down to him and no one else. So was what happened next. Attention-seekers make their own bad luck. And he was one of the people responsible for yours.

The first time I saw him he was down on his knees, eyes rolling, a machete in his right hand, blood up to his elbows. And I don’t mean figuratively. Chickens make a real mess when you decapitate them, more so if you don’t have the faintest idea of how to do it. At first I thought he was either extremely drunk or off his head on drugs, but I soon realised that stupefied was his natural state. ‘What’s that supposed to be?’ I asked. It was a rhetorical question, of course. He was covered in blood and feathers and liberally peppered with chicken shit.

‘It’s for you,’ he replied, grinning nervously but hopefully. ‘Is it – ah – acceptable?’

‘What, a fucking chicken? Surely you could do better than that? I mean, you’re not exactly poor, are you? You could have got me a racehorse or something. A pedigree dog would have been nice.’

‘Oh dear,’ he mumbled. ‘Sorry. I thought it was traditional. All the books say you like a big black cock.’

I sighed so deeply they must have felt it back home. ‘The books are wrong, I can assure you of that. I’m strictly a ladies’ man and I don’t give a damn about colour.’ The fixed, vacuous expression suggested my little joke was lost on him. ‘As for that thing,’ – I pointed disdainfully at the sorry object dangling from his left hand – ‘it’s bloody insulting. Chickenfeed, in fact. I prefer something more meaningful than mangled poultry.’ I stared down at him and shook my head. ‘Look here, have you got a towel or something else you could use to clean yourself up a bit? Frankly, you’re a bloody eyesore.’

He actually looked around him. We were at the point where two very remote and totally dark country lanes crossed, just after midnight. The only sign of civilisation was his car parked a dozen or so yards away. Did he actually expect there to be towels draped across a hedgerow? Perhaps a butler with a set of bathroom accoutrements? The fool didn’t deserve it but I took pity on him. I’ve always been a sucker for the terminally pathetic. Besides, this was business. ‘Forget it,’ I growled. ‘Just bloody well stand up. You’re making the place look untidy. What do you want?’

His face was blank. ‘I beg your pardon?’

The man was clearly going to be hard work. ‘You called, I came,’ I patiently explained. ‘It’s what I do. Now what do you want? I left a perfectly good party to come here. The bishop was explaining why he thought it was a good idea to introduce pubescent choirboys to the finer points of Classical Greek culture. It promised to be most entertaining and he was only just getting warmed up.’

‘Crikey. Um, well – look here, do you know who I am?’

‘I do indeed, Mr Smith,’ I replied. ‘We do have newspapers where I come from. And television, unfortunately. No doubt you know who I am.’

‘Of course I do. I’m not stupid.’

Oh, but he was, irredeemably so. There’s nothing worse than a stupid man who thinks he’s clever. And this man possessed a stupidity finely honed and enlarged to monumental stature by wealth, Eton and Oxford. It went hand in glove with the heavily manicured ego and vastly inflated sense of self-worth. In other words, he was a true British toff – a master of nothing who was absolutely convinced that he was born to rule everything in his visual or conceptual range. People like him are also indefatigable windbags. When he opened his mouth to speak I held up a hand to stop him. If we didn’t cut to the chase I was going to be there all bloody night. ‘Long story short. You want to be Prime Minister, right? Please, don’t insult my intelligence by denying it. You’re a politician, for crying out loud. It goes with the territory – low on ability, huge on expectations. And with your background that also meant massive on sense of entitlement. So, what are you offering? And believe me, that flyweight bantam will not buy you anything more than my contempt.’

He prevaricated. His expression changed to that amalgam of schoolboy furtiveness and baffled desperation familiar from the media images. ‘Actually, I’m not so sure now. I mean, it’s a jolly big step, isn’t it? I don’t know if I should, not really.’

I shook my head. ‘Well, if that’s the way you want it, that’s fine by me. There’s a rather good single malt waiting for me at home. It’s traditional to toast a bishop, and that’s always fun. But take it from me, you’ll never be Prime Minister without a very big helping hand.’

Vanity pricked, he took umbrage. ‘Why not?’ he blustered.

‘Because you’re incompetent, insensitive, lazy and thick. You’re a liar and a cheat. And, because you’re such a shameless publicity hound who can’t even be arsed to adequately cover up his blunders and treacheries, everyone knows how selfish and unscrupulous you are. Sure, they like to laugh at you – but it’s obvious to anyone with eyes in their head that you’d be out of your depth in a toddler’s paddling pool, even if you wore stilts and a top hat. Alright, you can get away with that at a local level, up to a point. I daresay your party has plenty of dimwitted ladies who foolishly believe you might one day be so gracious as to ring their division bells, and more than a few low-charisma men in grey suits who think hanging out with you would make them shine a little brighter than totally dull. But do you honestly think you could con the entire country into supporting you as a candidate for Prime Minister? Even the British public isn’t that fucking dense.’

‘But people love me,’ he insisted. ‘All the opinion polls say how popular I am. I’ve worked jolly hard at my public persona and I know I’m popular.’

‘Coco the Clown was popular but for some reason I just can’t seem to recall his time in office. I’m telling you, Hell will freeze over before they vote you into Number Ten.’

‘Ah.’ The piggy eyes narrowed. The furtive look returned. He was cornered. I was his only option and he knew it. ‘Well, I suppose I should consider it. Oh, alright then. But can you do it?’

‘I’m the best PR man and fixer around,’ I told him. ‘Of course I can bloody do it. Now what are you offering in return?’ I was expecting the usual, but he surprised me.

‘Sixty-five million,’ he shot back. No hesitation. Sixty-five million. No conscience, either.

I was impressed. It was the best offer I’d had in years. Not even the Germans and Russians had given me that much. The tempter was sorely tempted, but it was important to know the detail before agreeing to anything. Caution was necessary. ‘That would buy you a heck of a lot of PR. What makes you think you can deliver the goods?’

‘It’s all about contracts,’ he said, now smugness personified. ‘Ours is a representative democracy. A general election is an unwritten contract between the nation and the man – or woman, though between you and me I think Margaret will prove to be a one-off – they put into Downing Street. The beauty of it is that it’s a contract mutually if tacitly agreed by everyone. The public agrees to abide by the ballot and elects a party to represent them. The elected party has agreed that one particular person will represent them in each constituency and make binding decisions in Parliament on their behalf. In practice, the elected members go along with the Cabinet, which does what the Prime Minister wants. In other words, one person, the Prime Minister, speaks and acts on behalf of everyone in the country, with the people’s full assent. So any contract I agree with you on a conditional basis will come into force immediately Her Majesty formally asks me to form a government. Sixty-five million, give or take a couple of thousand. All yours if you keep your side of the bargain.’

I thought about it. Legally, his argument was, I realised, watertight. A contract is a contract. This was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. I extended my right hand. Who cared about a spot or two of blood and a few feathers? The suit would dry clean.

‘It’s a deal,’ I said. We shook on it. Blood was transferred from his hand to mine, sealing the transaction in the time-honoured gentlemanly way with the most important witness of all looking on, though my client seemed oblivious of the fact that my existence made that independent observer both logical and inevitable. Humans have an astonishing capacity for self-deception and a seemingly limitless supply of blind spots. Their innate stupidity helps. Smith had all those in spades.

‘What are you going to do?’

I stroked my extravagant goatee thoughtfully. ‘I have a few ideas. You’ve got a referendum on EU membership coming up, right? The first thing you do is declare for the Leave campaign, drive a wedge between party factions. After that, you do what you do best. Make a few outrageous statements, waffle like a simpleton, bluster like a country squire caught shagging the parson’s wife, and lie through your teeth. Let’s face it, you’ve already done the groundwork. Keep repeating the lies no matter what, and if anyone comes out with a contradictory fact you just accuse them of scaremongering or being unpatriotic. Enough people will believe you, because people always tend to believe the person who shouts loudest and keeps things so simple that they don’t have to waste time thinking about it when they could be in the pub or looking at porn on the internet. Meanwhile, I’ll make sure the Remain campaign is as limp and bland as the people fronting it. I also have another couple of irons in the fire that should help. Vote Leave will win and Cameron will stand down. Trust me, there will be a new Prime Minister by the end of the summer. That is my promise to you.’

For a moment I thought he was going to cry with joy. ‘Well, I must say that seems simple enough. Are you sure you can deliver your end of the bargain?’

I straightened and peered down my nose at him. He’s tall but I’m taller. And rather more imposing, what with my jutting beard and wicked dress sense. It’s the Italian suits. Handmade by a Pope’s former personal tailor, a good man with a needle and thread but not what you’d call a good man. ‘Please. Do not doubt me. I have a very long memory.’ Deliberately, I wiped the blood from hand onto his sleeve and prepared to go home.

‘So,’ he smiled, now childishly happy. ‘Will you need to see me again?’ He clearly hoped not.

I returned the smile with thermal interest. ‘Count on it.’

*

You know the rest. On the 23rd of June 2016 the people of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland narrowly voted, by 52% to 48%, to leave the European Union. It was only 38% of the registered electorate, and around a quarter of the country’s total population. Many of the voters didn’t really understand what they were voting for and hardly any knew anything more about what they were voting against than the lies and misinformation they read in the tabloids or heard from media pundits I would classify as probably clinically insane. In other words, a small but vocal, belligerent and bigoted minority got its own way. I don’t think that’s particularly democratic, but there you go. A contract is a contract.

I know what you’re thinking. Smith didn’t become Prime Minister, did he? No, it was Theresa May who became the new tenant of 10 Downing Street. So what happened? Did I renege on the deal?

Not at all. You all know me. I need no introduction. I’m a man of wealth and taste, the guy with all the best songs. My word is my bond. But I too am bound by a contract. My job is unique in the sense that I am contractually obliged to accept each and every deal that comes my way, even if they conflict. They want, I give, I take my payment. It’s a simple arrangement. And that obligation gave me a major headache in the run-up to the referendum. Smith was only the first to offer me exactly the same deal. In fact, I spent every midnight for a month appearing at deserted crossroads at the behest of politicians wanting to be Prime Minister – or party leader with an over-optimistic view to fulfilling the contract at a later date – in exchange for a deferred sixty-five million, including their own. And that doesn’t include the currency speculators, commodity brokers, and hedge fund managers; or the racists, xenophobes and fascists. Okay, those guys had rather less to offer than Smith and other the politicians, and in effect they’d already been donated. But I turn nobody away. Many a mickle makes a muckle, as the Scots say, and like the people who’ve been screwing your economy for decades, I always play both sides. It must have been a major shot in the arm for poultry farmers, but it was a terrible waste of chickens. Obviously the politicians couldn’t all be Prime Minister, could they? Not all at the same time; and quite a few would die before they got another opportunity. And not everyone can own the same dollar. But a deal is a deal.

Here’s the catch. You see, what those fools didn’t realise is that the mere act of making a deal with me is enough to damn them for all eternity even if I am unable to meet my side of the bargain. God is a very jealous guy, and despite what his hippie son says, he’s not what you’d call a forgiving deity. Far from it. You forsake him once and it’s fuck you and goodnight, fire and brimstone and torment forever, longer if possible. That’s the deal you sign up for when you say your first prayer. Christian, Muslim, Jew, it’s all the same: if you believe for even one second, you are in the game and have agreed to play by the house rules. And if you believe in me sufficiently to actively call upon my services, then you necessarily believe in Him. A contract is a contract, and this batch of clients was in too much of a hurry to bother with the small print. Amusingly, the ones with law degrees were the least careful. Fools rush in, and all that. I think you’ll agree that they all deserve what’s coming to them.

In the end I didn’t have to lift a finger. Brexit won the day but it did so because of voter apathy and my trusty old friends, human stupidity and unenlightened self-interest. The right-wing thugs were mine anyway, so all they’ll get is what was already coming to them; and the referendum result did those posh idiots and greedy bastards no good at all. Spectacular, wasn’t it? First, the economy threw itself off a tall building. Then the political parties tore themselves apart. A non-stop orgy of recrimination, betrayal, backstabbing and bitching as my clients jockeyed for position and generally fucked each other over. Smith was one of the early casualties when the nation shook itself free of the EU yoke and revealed its true, rotten colours. Yes, I know everyone thinks he and a few others didn’t do too badly out of it, but the history books will see it differently, I’m sure. The future is theirs to fuck up, and they will not disappoint. And after that? I’m really looking forward to seeing them all again, especially Smith. Big black cocks? I’ll give him big black cocks. I’m an equal opportunities employer and there are quite a few people of colour down there who still righteously resent those ‘picaninnies’ and ‘watermelon smiles’ jibes.

Anyway, I must dash. These are busy times. I have to make preparations for accommodating all those politicians. That’s on top of record numbers of Anglican and Catholic clergymen, a sudden influx of rock stars, a fistful of American presidential candidates, hundreds of blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em celebrities, an assortment of bankers, and quite a few overzealous but deluded Muslim men who are in for a rather nasty shock. Seventy-two virgins? After what they’ve done? No fucking chance. The best they’ll get will be a good rogering from John Wayne Gacey and his pals, several times a night from now until whenever. And, speaking of the devil, I really must do something about that paedophilic prelate. Not that he’s going anywhere. In fact, he seems wholly disinclined to move. Anyone would think I’d nailed his feet to the floor.

The biggest job, of course, is going to be ensuring there will be sufficient accommodation for all those souls Smith and his colleagues – yes, all of them – promised me. There’s plenty of space but the amenities will have to be upgraded and I’ll need to take on more staff. I’m thinking of trying out a new recruitment system I learned from the UK Civil Service – it’s always good to mix business with pleasure. But it’s going to mean a fair bit of hard graft and a shitload of paperwork. Work, work, work. There’s such a lot to do. It’s going to take forever.

But you can rest assured, I’ll be seeing you soon enough. All sixty-five million of you. A contract is a contract.

Alby Stone: Round Here

Copyright © 2017 Alby Stone

 

‘It’s tradition, see. Round here a man names his sons after himself. Keeps it simple. No grandstanding.’

The beer was too warm and a bit flat, but I drank some anyway, just a sip. It seemed the polite thing to do, and besides, the drink was partly why I was there. The weather was warm and I needed a break from my ad hoc tour of East Anglian B roads. The drive on the A1 from my parents’ home in Doncaster to London was monotonous at the best of times, and I had a few hours to kill before the evening’s production team meeting, so I’d decided to take the scenic route for a change while I considered ideas for the next programme. It would, I thought, be nice to see a bit of countryside. Inevitably, not quite having my mind on the journey resulted in wrong turns and poor judgement of both time and distance. It took a while to get myself unlost, somewhere vaguely south-east of Wisbech, a small village called Midham, which was actually on the AA map. By then I was hungry, thirsty and badly needed a pee, so a pit-stop was a no-brainer.

The village was picturesque and the pub was both pretty and blessedly cool. And after twenty minutes eavesdropping while I ate a ploughman’s lunch and slowly sipped a half pint of local bitter, I’d noticed something intriguing, something that might even make for a good story. The old boy at the other end of the table, alternately studying the sports section of the Daily Mirror and reaching down to pet his dog, seemed the logical person to ask about it.

‘So how do you tell each other apart, Mr, er…?’

‘Call me John,’ the old man helpfully supplied. ‘Well, we call each other by surname or nickname. One on one, or with people from different families, it doesn’t matter, does it? We’re all just “John” then. I’ve got two sons, both called John, just like me and my brother. Big John and Little John.’

‘What do your sons call you?’

He peered at me in that semi-pitying way old people do when someone younger says something stupid. ‘Dad, of course.’

Duh. ‘What about the women?’

‘Ah, we’re a bit more relaxed about that. Anything goes, as long as it’s a proper, respectable woman’s name like Joan or Jean or Jane, maybe Jenny or Janet. Nothing made-up or fancy. No film star names, not round here.’

‘Any other names?’

He seemed surprised by the question. ‘What, for women? No, that’s it. Don’t need more. We did have a Margaret once, mind. They still talk about her. Bit flighty she was, by all accounts. Just what you’d expect with a flashy name like that. Airs and graces, big ideas. Took off with a soldier from Diss and went off to Southwold with him. Bloody Southwold! He was called George. Turned her head with his red coat and that knobkerrie he brought back as a souvenir from Ulundi.’

Wondering what a knobkerrie was and where Ulundi might be located, I drank more beer, barely enough to moisten my lips. ‘So if a man has two sons, they’re both called John? Every family?’

He nodded. ‘Or more than two. When the second one comes along the oldest gets called Big John and the new lad is Little John. If there’s a third, he gets called Small John.’

‘And if there’s a fourth?’

He laughed. ‘Don’t be bloody daft, woman. We’re not made of money round here. Can’t afford to keep more than three young ‘uns at a time. Not sons, at any rate. Traditional community like ours, you can only divvy up a family business so far. We always stop after three sons. Self-control, see? Mind you, it means we’re usually a bit short of women.’

‘So what are you?’

‘I’m Big John,’ he said proudly. I looked him over. Five foot three in his boots and trilby, and built like the elderly brindled whippet that dozed at his feet.

‘It must still be confusing.’

He shrugged, supped. ‘You get used to it.’

I changed the subject. ‘So what do you do for a living?’

‘I’m a blacksmith,’ he said. He didn’t look strong enough to think of a hammer, let alone wield one.

‘And what’s your surname?’

‘Smith, of course. Family name, handed down through the generations. That’s what we do round here.’ He pointed at two men standing at the bar. ‘See those blokes? Big John and Little John Carpenter. Also known as Grumpy John and Fat John. What do you think they do?’

I took a wild guess. ‘Er – carpentry?’

‘That’s right. Between them they’ll knock you up anything from a bookshelf to a barn. There’s a Joiner family in the next village. Same difference. But you get the picture, eh? The landlord here is Big John Taverner. Those blokes playing dominoes in the corner? Big John Miller, John Butcher, Little John Plumber, Big John Baker. Small John Shepherd over yonder, talking to John Gardener. That’s our way, see. The name comes with the trade and the trade comes with the name. Same with all the villages round here.’

‘And nothing ever changes?’

The man snorted. ‘We’re not bloody hillbillies, girl. Of course things change. I mean, not much call for Fletchers and Bowyers any more, right? Not in this day and age. They took up new trades and changed the family names. Gunner and Driver they are now. One lot sells guns, the others are cabbies, as you’d expect. The Tanners opened a betting shop and became the Gambles. We keep up with the times round here.’

‘That’s fascinating. Presumably you also have Hatters, Tailors, Shoemakers…’

‘Cobblers.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Not Shoemakers, Cobblers. These days they sell and repair shoes but don’t make them.’ He pointed again. ‘That’s Small John Cobbler over there. Just came in with his missus, Joan, Draper as was. That’s her sister with them, young Jean. She’s wed to Little John Sexton. The Sextons look after all the churches. A person’s name tells you what they do. We like it that way round here. Right?’

‘Right. So what about more modern trades?’

‘Don’t get much call for most of them. But it’s what you might expect. The Sparks family are electricians, do computer repairs on the side. The Stamps run the post office, the Messengers deliver the mail. They used to be the Coopers, Ropers and Weavers but we buy all that stuff in these days. Same principle, though.’

‘Um. I suppose it makes sense.’

‘Well, we’re flexible round here. But the point is, you always know who you’re dealing with, what to talk about, that sort of thing. See, if I go to the next village and get talking to a bloke and I find out he’s called Painter, I know who to call if I need a spot of decorating done.’

‘Of course.’ I finished my beer. For one thing, I really had to get back to the television studio for that meeting. For another, it was time to get out of there before things got uncomfortable, as they always did when I was not quite telling the truth, and that moment was surely imminent. ‘Well, it’s been lovely talking to you John, but I really must be getting on. Long drive home, things to do when I get there.’

Old-fashioned courtesy was still alive and kicking in this part of rural Norfolk. He eased himself upright and held out a calloused hand, which I dutifully shook. The whippet grunted in its sleep but otherwise didn’t so much as twitch.

‘Been nice to meet you, young lady. But I didn’t get your name.’

I’ve always been a really terrible liar. The blush was uncontrollable, a crimson beacon in the gloom of the bar. Thankfully, I managed to control what my mum always called my fibber’s stammer.

‘Jane,’ I told him as I backed away toward the door, avoiding his eyes, increasingly anxious to get back to my car and on the road. ‘Jane Merchant.’

He nodded and smiled, wishing me a safe journey as I made my exit. Driving away from the village I felt a bit guilty about the lie, but what could I do? I didn’t want him or any other local John getting the wrong idea. There was no way I was going to tell him my name was actually Jezebel Hawe. I could imagine what they’d think of that round there.

Alby Stone: Bean Feast

Copyright © 2016 Alby Stone

One thing Christmas is guaranteed to provide – apart from horrible socks you’ll never wear, indigestion, rubbish television and at least one crippling hangover – is disappointment. Newton’s third law does not apply to Christmas presents. In fact, it could easily be rewritten to suit the festive season: for every present given there will be an inferior and decidedly cheaper gift received. It’s a paradox, a simultaneous display of ostentatious expenditure and targeted tight-fistedness. I’m usually on the targeted end.

But sometimes totally crap presents are not what they seem. Christmas can bring the odd surprise package.

Last Christmas I gave my friend Sam – she used to be my girlfriend but a few years ago unilaterally decided that the ‘girl’ prefix was inappropriate, though we remained on good terms and usually spent Christmas Day together, largely to avoid the seasonal family get-together horror – a boxed set of DVDs and a big box of Thornton’s chocolates. We exchanged gifts in the café round the corner from where she works, a long-standing ritual dating from before we became first a serious item, then not an item at all. Sam was delighted with her haul. In return I received a package the size of a matchbox, which turned out to be rather smaller than that after the layers of wrapping paper were removed. Quite a bit smaller.

Taking the object between the tips of my thumb and index finger, I held it up to the light, squinting as I tried to work out what the hell it was.

‘Do you like it?’ said Sam, seemingly pleased with herself.

‘It looks like a dried bean,’ I replied. ‘A pinto bean, to be precise.’

She shook her head. ‘It’s a Mexican jumping bean.’

Now I know a bit about Mexican jumping beans. For a start, they are not beans at all. They don’t even look like beans. They move when heated because they are inhabited by moth larvae that kick up a bit of a fuss as they dehydrate. The thing I held was too big, a different shape, and the wrong colour.

‘A pinto bean,’ I repeated. ‘Look, it has the right pinky-brown colour, the speckles. It’s a pinto bean.’

‘You’re wrong,’ she pouted. That was Sam’s default response to not being right – sulky face and blanket denial, usually quickly followed by a bare-faced, extravagant lie. ‘It is a Mexican jumping bean. And it’s magic.’

I rolled my eyes. ‘Right. A magic bean. What do I do with it? Grow a giant beanstalk then climb up it, kill a giant and steal a goose that lays golden eggs?’

‘Don’t be ridiculous. This is a real magic bean. It will grant you three wishes. I got it in that New Age place on the quays. The woman in the shop said all you need to do is express your wish in a rhyme but you actually have to address the bean just like you would talk to a person. And you have to mean it. When it jumps you’ll know you’ve done it right.’ Her lower lip trembled. She was getting upset.

The last thing I wanted to do was upset Sam. I still carried a mildly incandescent torch for her, and I didn’t want her making a scene and getting either of us barred from what had become, over the years, my favourite café. The toasted sandwiches were terrific. ‘Right,’ I sighed. ‘Speak the rhyme, wait for it to jump. Okay, I’ll give it a spin.’

‘Not here,’ she said hastily. ‘Anyway, I have to go now. Henry’s taking me to Rome for Christmas. Got to get back to the office for my suitcases. Have to be at the airport in two hours.’

‘But it’s your turn to make Christmas dinner,’ I protested. ‘And who’s Henry?’

‘He’s the new managing director. Really good-looking and absolutely loaded, all the girls fancy him. It’s a business trip.’ Of course it was. ‘I know we usually spend Christmas Day together but you’ll have to manage on your own this year.’

Not even a ‘sorry’. The green-eyed monster hidden within me uncoiled and hissed. I told it to leave it out. ‘That’s nice. Is he treating all the staff to Christmas in Rome?’

‘No, only me. Don’t give me that look. He’s just a colleague, a friend.’

With the word ‘boy’ soon to be in front of it, I thought but did not say. Sam stood, gave me a quick peck on the cheek and a hurried ‘Merry Christmas,’ and practically flew out of the door, leaving me with half a cup of cold coffee and a sour disposition. And a sorry-looking dried pinto bean.   

*

Back at my flat, I poured myself a large drink – neat vodka with a twist of lime – and took stock. It was the day before Christmas Eve; everyone I knew was either away or lumbered with entertaining and providing for visiting family, and I was too broke to go anywhere. There was nothing to look forward to except festive game shows and Christmas editions of television soap operas, and microwaved meals. I didn’t even have a turkey. Meanwhile, the woman who had captured my heart and rejected it as comprehensively as any aggressively healthy immune system was heading off to the Eternal City for what was certain to be a very dirty weekend with the office Romeo. Bloody Henry.

I took the bean from my pocket, stared at it gloomily for a while, and poured myself another, larger drink. I’d been to Rome myself so I had an idea of how long the flight took. I estimated that Sam and Henry would be on their way from Rome airport to their hotel about now. I looked at the bean again. It didn’t even make five.

Now I don’t think of myself as a jealous or vindictive man. In fact, I’m generally stoical and easy-going, even where matters of the heart are concerned. Sam had been out with other men since we broke up and it hadn’t bothered me one bit. Well, it had bothered me, but I was pretty much resigned to accepting that my romance with Sam was a thing of the past. I was grown up, adult, realistic, sensible and so on. But at that moment I was very bothered by the fact that I’d been fobbed off with an utterly shite excuse for a Christmas present and left on my own while she swanned off to Rome with that contemptible bastard Henry. Okay, for all I knew Henry was a nice, decent guy with a genuine affection for her and honourable intentions. But I was buggered if I was going to admit that, not even to myself. I poured another large vodka, not bothering with the twist of lime this time, and downed it. I glared at the bean and gave it an experimental rub, then I held it out on the palm of my right hand.

‘O bean, jumping bean, my magical implement; for the next ten days make Henry sexually impotent.’

I held my breath and waited, expecting nothing but a minimal lessening of my spite levels. After thirty seconds, I laughed self-consciously and relaxed. Of course nothing had happened. Three wishes? Yeah, right.

Then the bean jumped, flipping an inch into the air above my palm before falling back and remaining still.

‘Bloody hell,’ I whispered as I reached for the vodka bottle.

I was rattled because, somehow, I knew it had worked. I didn’t believe in magic – and certainly not in supernaturally-endowed legumes or any other kind of spooky vegetable produce. I didn’t believe in anything, really. I was neither superstitious nor credulous in matters of mysticism or religion. There was no mystical tingle, theremin soundtrack or portentous dimming of lights, no reverberating thunderclap. Yet I knew beyond any shadow of a doubt. Henry would be spending his hoped-for Roman shagfest looking helplessly down at a non-functioning and hopelessly flaccid piece of reproductive equipment that no amount of titillation, aphrodisiac or Viagra could kick-start into usefulness; Sam would be staring at him with pursed lips and a look of barely-restrained fury. She didn’t respond well to disappointment.

For a moment I was tempted to wish to be a fly on the wall in a certain Roman hotel room, but I couldn’t even work out how to turn that into a rhyme, let alone build in any safeguards against flypaper, spiders or rolled-up copies of la Repubblica. By that point I was a bit drunk, but had yet to succumb to stupidity. Besides, even if I’d ruined Sam’s Yuletide sex life, I had to do something positive for myself. I needed another drink and a good think. No hurry.

Outside, a bunch of carol singers launched into an uneven but enthusiastic rendition of ‘Good King Wenceslaus’. My response was to put a White Stripes CD in the stereo and crank up the volume, with the cordless headphones on so I couldn’t hear either the excruciating singing or the doorbell. Then I got another bottle of Smirnoff from the freezer. As an afterthought, and a nod to the necessity of a balanced diet, I rooted around in the cupboards until I found a bag of cheesy nachos. Alternately munching and sipping, I wondered what I should wish for next. And it was obvious, really. I removed the headphones.

‘O bean, magic bean, this Christmas I would like female company; to love and nourish and in every way look after me.’

I held my breath. The bean jumped. The doorbell rang. I rubbed my hands together.

*

When I opened the door, my mother was standing there. ‘Surprise!’ she cried, as she thrust a package into my hands. It felt like a bottle.

‘Mum, what are you doing here?’ This was not what I’d been hoping for. Obviously.

‘Well, you never come to see us at Christmas. I don’t blame you – I know how difficult your father can be at this time of year. So I thought, if the molehill won’t come to the mountain…?’ That was Mum, always mixing up her proverbs. Resigned to her presence, I invited her in. Just as I was getting her settled – she’d also brought a box of mince pies, and had put the kettle on – the doorbell rang again.

Outside it had started to rain, a freezing December downpour. A middle-aged woman stood on my doorstep, soaked and shivering. ‘I’ve come about the cleaning job,’ she said.

‘Cleaning job? I don’t need a cleaner.’ Well, thinking about it, I probably did. The likes of Kim and Aggie have never set foot in my home. There were cobwebbed corners I would never dare set foot in.

‘Is this number 9? Are you Mr Johnson?’

‘No, this is number 36 and I’m Mr Redwood.’

‘Oh, bugger. I must have got turned around in the rain.’ She shivered some more.

‘Look,’ I said, taking pity, ‘why don’t you come in out of the rain for a bit? My mum’s just put the kettle on.’

Mum took it in her stride. ‘Plenty of fish in the tap,’ she said. The cleaner sat down by a radiator and gratefully accepted a mug of tea. The doorbell rang.

The rain had eased off a bit but it was colder. Two women in police uniform were looking me up and down. ‘Mr Wallace?’ said one.

‘No, I’m Mr Redwood. This is number 36.’

The other police woman nodded. ‘Ah,’ she said. ‘Not Mr Douglas Wallace at number 7?’

‘Definitely Mr Redwoood at number 36.’

They exchanged glances. ‘We’ve had reports of a man acting suspiciously in this street,’ said the first policewoman. ‘Have you seen anything unusual going on?’

Apart from a magic Mexican jumping bean, the unheard-of appearance of my mother and the sudden inability of people to find the right house number, I hadn’t, and I told them so. They didn’t seem convinced.

‘Would you mind if we came in to have a look around? Just to make sure everything’s alright.’

‘No problem,’ I replied. ‘My mum’s just made some tea. I’m sure you wouldn’t mind a nice hot drink on a night like this.’

I’d only just introduced them to my mother when the doorbell sounded once again.

It all went swimmingly for a while. My mum, the cleaner and the policewomen were soon joined by the lady vicar from the church at the end of the road, who was under the impression that I was a housebound pensioner called Mrs Perkins; two female paramedics who’d come to the right number but the wrong street; two enterprising young caterers with a consignment of food for an address in a road that appeared not to exist in the A-Z or on Google Maps; a MacMillan nurse visiting a man several doors away who I knew for a fact had died the week before; a young woman in a parka delivering pizza, whose scooter broke down the moment she arrived by mistake at my place; a very attractive woman who simply refused to believe that I wasn’t Mr Rice from number 45, who’d called the escort service and paid by credit card up front; and seven women of varying age who turned out to be the local Women’s Institute carol singers on a spur-of-the-moment second trip round the neighbourhood that evening.

It was all there, everything a man could ever wish for or need: maternal love, nurture, nourishment, care, entertainment, protection – even sex, should opportunity arise and the pre-paid escort was up for it, and if the others would bugger off and give us some privacy, not that anyone showed any sign of wanting to leave. Everything, all at once. But I made the most of it. The WI singers performed a capella versions of classic rock songs – with the policewomen disconcertingly adept at air guitar. We tucked into the pizzas, and the sandwiches and savoury snacks the caterers had provided. We drank vodka from my freezer, whisky from the bottle my mother had given me, the caterers’ wine boxes, brandy from the vicar’s hip flask. Phones and pagers chirruped, buzzed and honked, but none of the ladies gave a toss. A few spliffs appeared. We danced, sang along with the carollers and generally loosened up.

Then another policewoman arrived. Except she wasn’t. Fuddled by drink, I was half-naked and in pink, fluffy handcuffs before I realised she was a strip-o-gram. And, alarmingly, the voice shouting the loudest encouragement to the striptease artiste belonged to my mother.

*

I awoke in my bed, the great-grandfather of all hangovers performing an over-amplified drum solo in my skull, feeling like something a dog had just thrown up. A quick glance at the muted dawn glow visible through the curtains was like staring into an arc light. I was naked, as were the female bodies piled on top of me. My poor bed creaked alarmingly as I painfully extricated myself from the tangle of limbs.

I didn’t want to look, but I couldn’t help myself. How we’d all fitted into my bed was beyond me. There was the escort, the stripper, the cleaning lady, one of the genuine policewomen, and – well, if I was the God-bothering type I would never be able to show my face in church again, that was for sure. Mind you, she was quite something under that cassock.

What on earth had happened? I had a vague memory of the escort handing round some little blue pills she said would make the party go with a bang. I suppose we’d all just gone along with it. By then everyone was pretty drunk, me most of all, and it was the very last thing I recalled prior to waking. Go with a bang? It had been like Hiroshima. It was astonishing that my bed was still in one piece.

I slipped into my dressing gown and stumbled to the living room, which was scattered with empty bottles, paper plates, scraps of tinsel, plastic cutlery and abandoned sandwiches with curling edges, and littered with snoring bodies in various states of undress, including several couples in intimate embraces. My view of the WI was forever changed. The poinsettia on the sideboard looked in a bad way – I doubted it would recover from the paramedics’ attempt to smoke it. Someone had attempted to put up Christmas decorations, seemingly aided by a concept of geometry not normally associated with this universe. My mother was asleep in an armchair, mumbling incoherent messages to herself. Thankfully, she was alone and fully clothed, though she was wearing my boxer shorts on her head.

As quietly as I could, I performed my ablutions, took a couple of painkillers, dressed and slipped out before anyone else emerged from slumber. I had a hunch quite a few of my guests would have regrets, and recrimination would undoubtedly follow, with accusation swimming shark-like in its wake. There would be music I really didn’t want to face.

In the café I ordered a full English breakfast with extra toast, a large coffee and a glass of orange juice. The seasonal baubles and sparkles hurt my eyes. The waitress was quietly singing along with Noddy Holder, who right then I could cheerfully have throttled with his own kipper tie. The magic bean, rescued from under the sofa after a hasty search, was in my jacket pocket. I took it out and examined it under the merciless strip lighting.

On closer examination, the speckles weren’t as haphazardly located on the bean’s surface as I’d thought. I slowly rotated the bean, trying to discern a pattern. The speckles, I realised, were clusters of tiny words in an ornate script of some kind, possibly runes, arranged to form interlocking hexagons. Whichever way the bean was turned, one hexagon was always visible; yet each one was subtly different.

‘Like snowflakes,’ I said to myself.

‘Sorry?’ said the passing waitress.

‘I’d like cornflakes,’ I replied. ‘Do you have cornflakes?’

‘We don’t do cereals.’

‘In that case, could I have another coffee, please?’

‘Coming right up.’ She smiled and walked back behind the counter.

The bean was covered in snowflake-like designs made up of what were surely occult symbols, a powerful spell of some kind. Well, it must be if it could grant wishes with such spectacular success, right?

Why endlessly-repeating snowflakes? Did the pattern represent infinite possibility? Or did it signify an eternal winter of the soul, unending remorse at the selfish, hurtful and ultimately self-destructives wishes of the bean’s user? Maybe its creator merely thought the design was pretty. An experimental press with a fingernail indicated that the speckles were not paint or ink. They had grown there, just like the markings on an ordinary pinto bean. The major difference was that this particular bean made wishes come true.

With a sudden flash, I remembered that Henry was still unable to raise anything more than a desperate hope in the groin department. And I knew that none of the women currently occupying various parts of my flat had any intention of leaving the place before Twelfth Night. Christmas meant all of it. Strangely, that thought only made me feel obscurely sorry for Henry. I mean, it wasn’t his fault, was it?

‘Bugger me,’ I said.

‘Sorry?’ said the waitress as she placed the coffee on the table.

‘Mug of tea,’ I replied, ‘when you get a minute, thanks. I’m pretty thirsty this morning.’

I tried to think of stories in which wishes were granted. Aladdin’s genie of the lamp had granted them in a fairly straightforward way, but then Aladdin hadn’t really asked for anything more complicated than wealth and power. Meanwhile, The Monkey’s Paw was a stark reminder to be careful what you wished for in case you got it. As indeed I had. And it made me think.

I had no claim on Sam. Her choice had been made six years earlier, and we’d both had relationships with other people since then. We hadn’t been on such good terms as I liked to pretend, either. Normally we only called each other or met up when one of us needed someone to talk to – someone who would listen while we unloaded and moaned about work, other people or life in general. It was a habit, that was all. The previous Christmas I’d missed half of the seasonal episode of Doctor Who wondering why we still bothered. My spiteful reaction to her telling me about Henry was simple envy – not of Henry, but the fact of Sam having a good time while I languished on my own. I’d been mean-spirited and petty. As for what I’d inadvertently put those women through…

‘What a bastard,’ I muttered.

‘Sorry?’ said the waitress as she delivered my tea.

‘Got any mustard?’ I asked.

She looked puzzled. ‘Are you sure? Doesn’t really go with tea, does it? And you haven’t even finished your coffee yet.’

‘Forget it,’ I told her. ‘Sorry.’

When she’d gone back to the counter, I held the bean on the flat of my palm.

‘O bean, magic bean, I’ve made wishes that were bad; and now I wish that I never had.’

The bean jumped.

*

Sam was pleased with her presents. She’d been dropping broad hints about that Downton Abbey box set for weeks. It felt good to see her eyes light up at the prospect of consuming chocolates while curled up on the sofa watching her favourite costume soap opera. In return I received a package the size of a matchbox, which turned out to be rather smaller than that after the wrapping paper was removed. Quite a bit smaller.

Taking the object between the tips of my thumb and index finger, I held it up to the light, squinting as I tried to work out what the hell it was.

‘Do you like it?’ said Sam, seemingly pleased with herself.

‘I don’t believe it,’ I said, pretending to be excited. ‘It looks like an authentic magic Mexican jumping bean. They will grant you three wishes, or so I’ve heard. I’ve always wanted one of these. Thank you so much. Wherever did you find it?’

‘I got it in that New Age place on the quays. The woman in the shop said all you need to do is express your wish in a rhyme but you actually have to address the bean just like you would talk to a person. And you have to mean it. When it jumps you’ll know you’ve done it right.’ Her lips curved into a smile.

I drank some coffee, gazed around the café, taking in the decorations, trying not to hear John Lennon’s doomed seasonal appeal to global sanity playing in the background. ‘I fancy doing something else this Christmas,’ I told her. ‘Would you mind if I went to stay with my folks this year?’

Her eyes widened. ‘Of course not.’ She was clearly relieved. ‘Actually, I wanted to talk to you about that. I won’t be around anyway. Henry’s taking me to Rome for Christmas. Got to get back to the office for my suitcases. Have to be at the airport in two hours.’

‘Then you won’t have to make Christmas dinner,’ I said. ‘And who’s Henry?’

‘He’s the new managing director. Really good-looking and absolutely loaded, all the girls fancy him. I know we usually spend Christmas Day together but I couldn’t really turn down the offer to go to Rome.’ She looked away. ‘It’s a business trip.’

Of course it was. ‘That’s nice. Is he treating all the staff to Christmas in Rome?’

‘No, only me. Don’t give me that look. He’s just a colleague, a friend.’

With the word ‘boy’ soon to be in front of it, I thought but did not say. Well, good luck to them both. ‘You have a lovely time in Rome,’ I said. ‘Make the most of it. Merry Christmas, Sam.’

Sam stood, gave me a quick peck on the cheek and a hurried ‘Merry Christmas,’ and practically flew out of the door, leaving me with half a cup of cold coffee and an odd feeling of satisfaction. And a magic Mexican jumping bean.

I drank up, paid up and left. Outside the café I took the bean from my pocket, smiled and dropped it onto the frosty pavement, then ground it to pulp beneath my heel. I didn’t pause to wonder how or why I could remember things that hadn’t yet happened. All I knew was that it wouldn’t be right to wish for a repeat performance. I’d manage Christmas without magic beans, thank you very much.

For some reason I was whistling ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ all the way to the supermarket, in every aisle – even at the interminable checkout queue. I whistled all the way home, carrying my Christmas supplies – including a fistful of DVDs and a couple of paperback novels – as if they were bags of feathers. While I stood on the doorstep fumbling for my keys with hands as frozen as the turkey I’d just purchased, someone spoke behind me.

‘Excuse me, do you know where Mrs Perkins lives? I think I’ve been given the wrong address.’

The husky voice was instantly recognisable, as was the cassock. And I now knew what treasures that shapeless robe of office concealed. ‘Certainly, vicar,’ I replied, turning to greet her with a smile. ‘She lives at number 32.’ I looked at the over-laden bags she had laid on the pavement to give her arms a rest. ‘If you’ll just give me a minute to get this stuff indoors, I’ll give you a hand with that lot. It looks heavy.’

‘That’s very kind of you. Are you sure it’s no trouble?’

‘None at all,’ I assured her. ‘And when we’ve seen to Mrs Perkins, perhaps you’d care to join me for a small brandy?’ 

Alby Stone: Blank/Flash

Copyright © 2016 Alby Stone

The balding man is becoming impatient. ‘Look, do you want a lawyer or not? You waived that right when we read you the Miranda. It’s on the video record. But you say you thought you’d only been arrested for public drunkenness. Well, it’s a different ball game now. So let me repeat, for the tape or whatever the fuck this is being recorded on: do you want a lawyer?’  

The other man pulls at the tight, washed-out white vest, shifts uneasily in the jogging pants that are two sizes too large for his lean frame. His feet are bare. His hands shake. His face is haggard. He doesn’t look in great shape for a man not yet thirty years old. ‘I don’t need a lawyer. I haven’t hurt anyone. I would never do anything like that.’

The balding man taps the table. ‘Tell us what happened at the party.’

‘I can’t remember. Only that it was in Bel Air.’

‘Try.’ The woman at the other side of the table wears her dark blue pant-suit well. She is poised, elegant, strong. Looking only a little older than the trembling man opposite, she is a world away in terms of confidence.

An unsteady hand pushes back tousled brown hair. ‘Man, I was really wasted. It’s just flashes, like someone taking pictures at random intervals in a dark room. Little segments of sound and motion, like those video loops you find on the internet. Then blanks. Blank, flash – blank, flash.’

The woman’s partner, balding and bellied in a suit from the cheap end of the rack, takes over. ‘We’re not asking you to give details of the whole night. Just tell me what you can remember – who and where, what was happening. Look, we’ve all been there. I know you probably can’t even order those flashes into anything like the correct sequence. You were shitfaced. I’ve been shitfaced. Everyone I know has been shitfaced and it’s always the same, like bits of the night have been flushed down the can. Just tell me what you can. No hurry. We’ve got plenty of time.’

‘Uh, can I get a coffee? Maybe a sandwich? Cheese and ham on rye?’

‘Sure, in a minute,’ says the woman, leaning back in her chair. ‘But talk first. Someone will take your order. Could do with a bite myself, tell you the truth.’

‘Right. So I’d had a drink too many, like I said.’

The balding man barks out a short, tired laugh. ‘Don’t forget the coke and the weed. They found the wraps in your pocket. Empty. But we’re not concerned with that. Just be honest with us.’

A shrug. ‘Yeah, okay. So, sure, I was off my face. Up to around nine it was a pretty good evening – the party was shaking, know what I mean? All the gang from work, some of their partners, a lot of people I didn’t know. Then she came along, that bitch who’d been giving me such a hard time.’

The woman leans forward, interested. ‘Just to be clear, you are referring to your ex-girlfriend? Astrid Maria de Santos? Tell me about her. For background.’

Another shrug, a brief darkening of the face that could be embarrassment or anger. ‘What’s to tell? Thirty years old, five three, short curly hair, dark. Gorgeous. Grew up in Beverley Hills, parents moved here from Brazil when she was two. Daddy owned coffee plantations, interests in rubber and minerals. Super-rich. We met at a charity dinner two years ago, hit it off, became an item. Then, six months ago, she dumped me. Out of the blue, no explanation. Just called me one day and said it was over.’

The woman nods, her features understanding, sympathetic. ‘You were upset?’

‘At first. Yeah, who wouldn’t be? But shit, I’d been dumped before and I knew I’d get over it. Besides, I was half-expecting it. Things don’t last, know what I mean? Not in her circle. Not if you’re not what they want. I wasn’t from money and I had no connections. Her friends looked down their noses at me. And there was no way I’d have been welcomed into the family. It was sure to happen sooner or later. So I swallowed it, began to put it behind me.’

She nods encouragement. ‘And how exactly did you do that?’

‘How do you think? I went out. I partied. I dated. I started having fun again, real fun. But then she started calling, sending texts, e-mails, postcards. I’d see her waiting on the street corner when I left for work, outside the office when I went home. I’d see her in bars and movie theatres, the ball game – everywhere I went, she was there. Watching, looking like she hated my guts.’

‘She was stalking you?’ The woman raises an eyebrow in a way that might signify scepticism but her voice is soft, almost maternal.

‘I guess so. But she never approached me. If I went to confront her she would just melt into the crowd.’

The balding man homes in on a detail. ‘Did you keep any of the messages she sent?’

‘No. Everything was deleted or went into the trash.’

Frowning, the balding man tries another tack. ‘Did any of your friends or associates see her when you were out with them?’

‘You’d have to ask them. I never mentioned it. No one said anything to me.’

‘Okay, let’s move on,’ says the woman. ‘What happened when you saw her at that party? What did you do? What did she do?’

‘I was angry. I went out into the garden, sat by the pool, snorted some coke then rolled a jay to calm myself down. Had another drink. I figured that if she followed me out there I’d confront her, ask what the hell she was playing at, tell her to leave me the fuck alone. I didn’t want to get heavy about it, but I was sick of her game and just wanted it to stop. While I was smoking the weed she came out, stood in the doorway, just staring, saying nothing.’

The balding man wants corroboration. ‘Was anyone else out there?’

The younger man shakes his head. ‘Not then. It was too soon for most of them to get started on the dope or go skinny-dipping. Yeah, a lot of my friends are into that. Not my scene, though. Nudity’s for the shower and the bedroom, know what I mean? Anyway, she turned round and walked back indoors. I had another drink and followed her. By then the place was jammed and at first I couldn’t see her. Then I saw her on the other side of the room, still looking at me like I was a piece of shit. As soon as I moved in her direction, she was off again. I must have followed her through every room in that big old house, never managed to catch up with her.’

The woman breaks in. ‘And all this time you were still drinking?’

‘Yeah, I was knocking back anything that came my way. Then I needed a piss. Snorted some more coke while I was in the bathroom. When I flushed and unlocked the door, there she was, looking back over her shoulder at me as she went downstairs and into the crowd.’

‘Can you remember what she was wearing?’ The woman smiles, opens her eyes wide, just another girl after fashion tips.  

‘A white dress, short, tight. Gold hoop earrings and a matching necklace. I never saw her shoes and I couldn’t say if she had a bag.’

‘Did she stop and speak to anyone?’ The question is half-hearted. The balding man is sure by now that witnesses are going to be in short supply.

‘Not that I saw. But after I followed her downstairs I started thinking. What was I doing? Exactly what she wanted. I was noticing her. I was getting angry. So I thought to myself, fuck her. I’m finished with this shit. Let her stare and hang around all she wants, I’ve had all I can take. So I had another drink and started talking to this blonde chick, Chrystal, who works in the legal department.’

‘What happened then?’ The balding man rests his elbows on the table and steeples his fingers. His narrowed eyes suggest this may be important.

‘A blank. By then I was seriously out of it. Then a flash – I’m in the garden smoking weed with Chrystal. She’s laughing at something I said. Then another blank. Then I’m out in the street outside the house and I can hear sirens. Blank. Flash – me and Chrystal are in a dark corner of the garden, making out. Blank. Flash – I’m back indoors, getting a bottle of wine, very chilled. Blank. Flash – I’m on the ground and someone’s trying to haul me up. Blank. Flash – in the garden with Chrystal, she’s got her skirt up round her waist and my pants are round my ankles, and we’re screwing. Blank. Flash – I’m in an alley somewhere, throwing up. Someone says something in a language I don’t understand. Blank. Flash – me and Chrystal are getting dressed. Blank. Flash – she says she wants to leave and asks me to go home with her. Blank – I’m running, afraid. Someone’s chasing me. Blank. Flash – I’m at the party again and Astrid’s staring at me. This time she’s smiling. Blank.’

The woman nods further encouragement. ‘Next flash?’

‘The next thing I remember is waking up here, in a cell, feeling like fifty shades of shit.’

‘So you and Chrystal had sex? Consensual sex?’ The balding man sounds bored but his eyes tell another story.

The young man is indignant. ‘What are you getting at? Of course it was consensual. She wanted me to go back to her place, for Christ’s sake.’

‘Just covering all the bases,’ says the balding man. ‘Are you still sure you don’t want a lawyer?’

‘For being drunk in public? Are you crazy?’

The balding man grins. ‘The jury’s still out on that one. But, like we said, this is about more than you getting juiced. You may choose to believe otherwise, that’s your prerogative. And you can always change your mind. In the meantime, tell me – how did you and Chrystal get on before last night? Were you friends? Had you dated before?’

‘I knew her to say hello to, that was all. In our company legal and commercial paths only cross at the higher levels. Quite honestly, I doubt she remembered me from one day to the next. I sure didn’t think about her very often.’

‘Would you be surprised if I told you no one else remembers you speaking to Chrystal at the party?’ The balding man stretches his legs, relaxed. They are on solid ground now. This is where he does have witnesses.

‘No. Why would they? It was a party. I would expect everyone to have their own things going on.’

The balding man has witnesses here, too. ‘And if I said no one recalls seeing Astrid de Santos at the party? A – how did you describe her? – a gorgeous girl like that? I’ve seen pictures and I agree that Astrid was a very beautiful woman. The kind men remember and women try not to.’

‘I can’t answer for them.’

‘No, of course,’ the woman agrees. ‘But Chrystal – would you say she was gorgeous too?’

‘Chrystal is very pretty and she has a great figure. I don’t understand this line of questioning. I thought you were just trying to help me piece together what happened to me last night?’

‘Oh, we are,’ says the balding man. ‘Is that vest comfortable by the way? Looks a bit small to me. Your clothes were in a bit of a mess. Had to take them off you while you were out of it. We didn’t have much else in the locker room. Hope you don’t mind.’

‘Not at all. When I threw up in that alley I must have got puke all over me. Thanks.’

The balding man waves it away. ‘Don’t mention it.’

‘Can I have that coffee and sandwich now?’

‘Already ordered,’ says the balding man. ‘They’ll be here soon. Tell me, that flash you had, the one where you were being picked up off the ground. Think hard. Can you remember anything more?’

‘Only that the ground seemed uneven. Oh yeah, I tripped when they got me upright. I think my feet were tangled in something. Some kind of fabric maybe? I don’t know.’

The woman nods, but this is satisfaction, not encouragement. ‘Okay, let’s backtrack. When was the last time you saw Astrid de Santos to speak to?’

‘Six months back, the day before she dumped me. She was at my apartment. We were talking about a trip we were planning to make, to Europe, London. Well, I thought we were planning to make it. Guess I was wrong, huh?’

The balding man writes something on his notepad. ‘Did you argue?’

‘No. Everything was fine. She had to go home early because of something her folks had arranged. A birthday dinner for her younger sister, that was it.’

‘And you weren’t invited?’ The woman says this in a manner that makes it clear she already knows the answer.

‘Like I said, I was never going to be welcomed into that family. As far as her parents were concerned, I didn’t exist.’

The balding man sighs. ‘What if was to tell you that Astrid’s mother and father haven’t seen or heard from her since that morning?’

‘I’d say you were crazy.’

The balding man sighs again. ‘And if I said that Astrid’s car was found abandoned in a car park in Brooklyn two days ago – and that Astrid was in it?’

‘Well, she gets around a lot. Always driving somewhere or other. She loves that Lexus. Wait, what are you saying? Is she – is she okay?’ The young man is alarmed, confused.

‘Her body was in the trunk,’ says the woman. ‘It’s been warm lately, but the coroner thinks she’s been dead a while, maybe six months.’

‘But that’s impossible. I’ve seen her so many times over the last few months. She sent me messages, about stuff only I would know. She can’t have been dead all that time. What the fuck’s happening here? Are you trying to set me up?’

‘Please calm down,’ says the balding man, half-rising so the younger man can see just how big he is. ‘Thank you. Astrid was badly beaten and eventually strangled to death. Just like Chrystal Moore. The only difference is that the assault on Chrystal was interrupted. Your little flashes weren’t in chronological order. When your colleagues from the party pulled you off Chrystal, while you were throttling her, your feet got caught up in her dress. You remember the ground as uneven because it was in fact Chrystal’s body you were lying on, and you had your hands round her neck. There’s no doubt. One enterprising partygoer filmed it on her phone. Before she called 911, naturally.’

The young man shakes his head vigorously, his eyes wide with fear and disbelief. ‘No, I don’t believe you. There’s no way I’d do anything like that. I’ve never hurt anyone in my life. It must be a mistake.’

‘No mistake,’ says the balding man. ‘Like I said, we’ve got the end stage of your assault on Chrystal on video. That woman from – accounts?’ He checks his notes, nods. ‘Yeah, accounts – she took a lot of footage. At first they didn’t even recognise Chrystal, you’d beaten her so badly. And we took your clothes because, as well as some high-end puke, they’re covered in blood. Same group as Chrystal, and we’re sure the DNA will confirm that. Are you sure you don’t want that lawyer now?’

The young man can’t speak at first. He seems to be looking inward, searching desperately for a truth that’s just out of reach. In the process he appears to notice something he doesn’t like very much. He shudders, takes a deep breath and pulls himself together. ‘I suppose I’d better. Shit, this is not happening.’

‘Unfortunately for you, this is indeed happening,’ says the woman, not unkindly. ‘Fortunately for Chrystal, she’ll live and will probably make a full recovery. Traumatised, probably scarred, but alive. But poor Astrid – she’s dead. Tell us what happened that day she dumped you. Unless you want to call your lawyer first. Your choice.’

‘I don’t remember hurting either of them. The last thing I remember about Astrid is her putting her shoes on. After that, I swear I don’t know. It’s just a blank.’

*

‘He’s a tough nut,’ says the woman. They are standing outside, in the unlit, empty car park, smoking and drinking bad coffee from paper cups. It is dark. Nothing is visible beyond the yellowish glow from the windows.

The balding man snorts. ‘You think?’

‘Yeah, I think. He must remember something. He killed one woman and nearly did another. “It’s just a blank.” Bullshit.’

‘I think he’s telling the truth. He really doesn’t remember. Maybe it’s the drugs and booze. Or maybe he’s blocked it out – those things don’t fit with his self-image so he’s just convinced himself they didn’t happen.’

‘But we know the asshole did it. We fucking know. We don’t need a fucking confession, for Christ’s sake.’

‘Watch your language. The Chief doesn’t like to hear that kind of talk.’

‘Yeah, but – Jeez, it’s just fucked up.’

The balding man looks around the car park anxiously, then relaxes. ‘Look, you’re right. We know what he did. We have evidence, not that we actually need it. But you know the rules. We need a confession. You can’t punish someone if they don’t know they’ve committed a crime. That’d make it like an accident. No volition, no knowledge, no intent – that equals no guilt.’

The woman drops the cigarette butt, grinds it flat with her heel, lights another. ‘It’s way too easy, you ask me. Shit, all a perp has to do is plan ahead – commit the crime then take a drug so he can’t remember a damn thing about it. Plenty of shit out there that can fuck up your memory. Scopolamine, ketamine, quaalude – mix them with booze and it’s like taking an eraser to a few days. “I didn’t do nothing.” Fucking wipe-out.’

The balding man swills a mouthful of coffee, grimaces. ‘We don’t make the rules – but we have to abide by them. It’s procedure all the way. We screw up, the Chief’ll shit a brick.’

‘Yeah, I totally get that. But it makes me wonder. So many of these fuckers walk on a technicality. Too many fucking loopholes, know what I’m saying?’

‘Sure. But we’re law enforcement. It’s what we do, follow rules, everything kosher and above board. And the rules say we need a confession.’

‘I still don’t get why we can’t call witnesses. Doesn’t make sense.’

‘I hear they used to, way back in the old days. But that was long before I started out in the job, before I even came down to LA. There used to be proper trials, with a judge and jury, witnesses, evidence. The rules changed, seems some bleeding heart liberal started bleating about it being a punishment for the victims to make them come down here and relive their ordeals, and an unnecessary distress for witnesses. Have to admit, he had a point. Why put the poor saps through it again? So now we can tell the accused what people saw or heard, but we can’t bring them here in person. Now we need confessions. And I understand why that is. The perp has to know and understand he or she is a perp. No ambiguity, no doubt. That’s what you need to get a guilty verdict and punishment these days. At least they can still get a lawyer if they want one, that’s something. Plenty of lawyers here in LA. That’s why we do this here and not uptown. Saves on travel. Efficiency, modernisation, whatever.’

‘No ambiguity,’ the woman groans. ‘Give me a fucking break. Hey, all that “blank/flash” crap – do you really buy it?’

The balding man throw his empty cup into a trashcan, hitches up his pants. The waist immediately sags below his belly again. ‘Yeah, I buy it. Before the job, when I was young, I was a real hell-raiser – more lost weekends and blackouts than I can count. Did a lot of things I could never recall. Cheated on my wife, got into fights. Once I beat some poor bastard half to death. OK, I just about remembered that one, though for a while I told myself it was just a bad dream. Thought I’d got away with it, but you know how it goes. So yeah, I think that guy’s on the level.’

‘Can’t imagine you as that type. Still, we’ve all got a past, huh?’ She sighs heavily, stamps out the second cigarette butt, tips the last of her coffee down her throat, pulls a face. ‘Where the fuck do they get this shit? Tastes like its been scraped up from an autopsy room and boiled up with skunk piss.’

‘That’s probably exactly right. Come on, let’s go in. That asshole’s sweated long enough and I need to take a leak.’

The woman folds her arms across her breasts, shivers. ‘Is it me or is it getting cold out here?’

The balding man laughs. ‘It’s as hot as ever, sweetheart. It’s always too damn hot at night in this place. And it’s always night here. That’s why they call it LA.’

The woman smiles and shakes her head. ‘Yeah, I nearly shit myself when they transferred me here. Before that I was uptown, working vice. That was an easy number. Fun, too. This place isn’t what I expected. All paperwork and pampering punks. Christ, it sure is the pits.’

They turn to the station door, but the rectangle of light is obscured as the door frame is filled by a hulking figure, like a blank obliterating a flash. Two red pinpricks glitter angrily in the shadowed face. The car park becomes a shade or two darker.

The balding man whispers urgently to the woman. ‘Shit, it’s the Chief. I told you to watch your fucking language. You just don’t say that name here in the Lower Abyss.’

Alby Stone: A Minority Reports

Copyright © 2016 Alby Stone

Since you ask, I didn’t get the part. Oh, come on – you know who got it. Yeah, that’s the movie I’m talking about. Now you know why I was so pissed. I couldn’t fucking believe it. I mean, he was a complete unknown and he couldn’t even act, know what I mean? Hey, bartender – more beers over here. And maybe pretzels? Thanks, man.

So there we were at the screen test, waiting to do our thing for the camera. Confident? You betcha. I took one look at the competition and thought there was no way I could fail. The big guy hadn’t even fucking shaved, and boy did he need it. He looked like a bum. And I thought he’d been drinking – couldn’t string two words together, slurred and grunted and wailed his way through the script. Turns out his mouth was full of Red Man, you ever tried talking through that shit? Wouldn’t spit it out, no one could understand a fucking thing. In the end they threw him out on his ass, didn’t give a fuck who he was or who he knew. That left just me and the little fat dude.

No way, I thought. Me and Big Guy, at least we had some screen time to put on our résumés. He’d already been in a couple of movies, big at the box office. I’d only been in that one, but it had grossed a few bucks. We had experience, knew our way round a movie set. We had fans, for Christ’s sake. But Shorty? He was a nobody. Shit, it was obvious as soon as he opened his mouth. He couldn’t act, his diction was terrible, he had no presence. With Big Guy gone, I was a shoo-in. Right?

Wrong. As soon as the director saw that little asshole, I was toast. ‘We’ll let you know,’ they said. If you’ve ever been involved in the movies, you know what that means. It’s the kiss-off. Next thing I know, I’m out in the parking lot, wondering where do I go from here. There I am, no work, rent to pay, belly to fill. That part should have been mine but they give it to that no-account jerk-off. But what can you do? I spent the next few years pumping gas, waiting tables, frying burgers, just to make ends meet.

While I’m working my butt off, Shorty makes it really big. I’m green with envy. But after that, nada. Next thing I know, Big Guy’s back in the limelight, reprising the part he played in his big break. Me? You know the song – nobody wants to know you when you’re down and out? Well, that’s how it was. OK, there were a couple more movies later, but the money was never as good and there wasn’t much job satisfaction. I always played the same part, just like Big Guy. Good parts, sure, but not one fucking line of dialogue.

The trouble is, it’s always easy to typecast actors from minority groups. We always play the same fucking parts, over and over and over. Remember Bela Lugosi? All they ever wanted him to play was Count Dracula. No wonder he went nuts. Smith, Murphy, Freeman, they always play the same characters, don’t they? But African-Americans have it easy compared to people like us. Shorty? You won’t be able to name more than one of his movies – and that’s because there haven’t been any more. And he was the goddamn star, an overnight sensation, a household name. I mean, can you name anyone else who was in that movie? Of course you can’t. But that was it for him. Fucking finito. His cousin did a couple movies with Big Guy later on, then that was it for him, too. That speech problem must be hereditary. Hey, bartender – another round of drinks over here. Fuck it, make it whiskey. Leave the bottle, man.

So yeah, I’m pissed. The whole thing left a real bad taste. I’ve gone from Sunset Strip to minimum wage in less time than it takes to say ‘Ridley Scott’. Before I know it, Shorty’s fallen from grace faster than Fatty Arbuckle, except he didn’t even need a fucking scandal. Big Guy’s OK for a while, then he’s gone too. And that’s it. The three biggest minority stars of our generation, and we’re all royally screwed. By fashion.

Then one day – it’s years later, by now I’m a fucking golf caddy, would you believe – there’s a call from a studio. They’re doing a sequel and would I be interested? Interested? I bit the guy’s fucking hand off. Next I meet the director for lunch, he gives me the script, I read it. And what is it? Yeah, that’s right. A fucking reprise. Only this time I have to play around a hundred different versions of the same goddamn character. And that’s a lot of hard work for no extra pay. I don’t even get the lead – they give the only good part to a broad I’d never heard of, which I assumed meant some chick fresh off the casting couch. Really fair, huh? But let’s face it, I was lucky to get even that. Hey, it wasn’t so bad. The money was better than I could make in ten years of kissing ass and eating shit in the service industry. And I admit, it was a blast. There were fringe benefits. That chick I was telling you about? Turned out she was older than I’d thought she would be, a gorgeous mature broad, a regular MILF. No, I didn’t, if you must know. She was a real fucking man-eater, no way was I gonna get tangled up with a bitch like that. But man, she had me drooling.

After that, every few years someone would make another sequel. When that phone rang, I swallowed my pride every time. Like I said, the money was OK. I invested in real estate and Silicon Valley, made enough dough to set me up for life. I even starred with that chick a couple more times, but she made too many demands – parts as extras for her kids, must have been thousands of the little fuckers, only shoot her good side, yadda yadda – and she became unreliable, thought she was the new Monroe, for fuck’s sake. You can’t piss off people like that in Hollywood, you know? Not the movers and shakers. Besides, she was getting a little too old for the action scenes. And, I hate to say, she was losing her looks, and that’s practically a death sentence for a broad in the movie business, especially if you’re not good enough at acting to do character roles. There are another couple of movies coming up. She’ll be lucky if they wheel her out for a cameo as her own grandmother.

Where was I? And where the fuck’s that bottle? Yeah, another two fingers for me. Down the hatch, bottoms up, whatever. Anyway, things were looking up. Big Guy comes out of retirement – he’d become a personal fitness coach in Beverley Hills, working for rich dames who liked to be put through their paces, if you get my drift – for another sequel, with two more in the pipeline. That was a real break, and I was pleased for him. He’s OK, once you get over the hypertrichosis and the speech impediment. And us minorities got to stick together, right? So we start to hang out. Man, we had a few wild nights on the town to celebrate our return to the big time. One night last summer, we’re at this bar in Downtown LA, we have a few drinks, snort some Charlie, he says he wants to get laid. I’m so stoned I think that’s a great idea. So we drive down to Fairfax and Melrose, check out the goods. Nothing on display that floats my boat but he sees this hooker he likes, skanky Hispanic babe with big tits and a skirt that barely covers her panties. He rolls the window down, invites her into the car. She looks at him, eyeballs me, shakes her head, says she doesn’t do threesomes. Well, that’s what she says – but what she means is she doesn’t do our type. Hey, I don’t mind. Heard it all before, no big deal. You guys know where I’m coming from, right? I’m not gonna bust a gut over it. I try to smooth things over, tell her I’m not interested in anything that kinky but she’s not listening, shouts at someone standing in an alley. Out comes the pimp, long leather coat and fedora, fancy waistcoat, gold chains. Looks like Huggy Bear, only he’s the wrong colour and way too short. Then I check out that face, the neck, the belly, the legs. Fuck me if it ain’t Shorty.

He pretends not to recognise us. Flips back his coat so we can see the Glock in its shoulder holster, the knife handle sticking out the waistband of his pants. He tells us his girls don’t do no funny stuff, but he’ll get us a second girl for another fifty bucks. By now Big Guy’s noticed him, spits on the sidewalk, tries to talk, say hello, I don’t know, I can’t understand a fucking word. Next thing is we’re looking down the barrel of that Glock and Shorty’s telling us to go home, only not so politely. Big Guy, he don’t like that, no sir. Starts bawling and hollering, gets out of the car, wants to make something of it. Shorty reaches, draws.

Hey, who’s telling this fucking story – me or you? Yeah, and don’t you forget it, asswipe. Anyway, before Shorty can pull the trigger, I make with my party trick, snatch the gun right out of his hand before he can blink. Then Big Guy goes up to him, makes like he’s gonna beat on him with those big, hairy fists. Man, I can hardly bear to watch, it’s gonna be so one-sided. The hookers are screaming, I start to panic. Then Shorty looks up at Big Guy with those big baby eyes and says something about getting this walking carpet out of his way. Takes me a few seconds but the nickel drops. He’s been bullshitting us all along. ‘Fuck you, penis-breath,’ I say. Big Guy figures out what’s happening, says some crap like someone’s a goddamn robot, I don’t know, I can’t make it out. Could be quoting Joseph fucking Conrad for all I know. But it’s funny. Then we’re all laughing and saying lines from our favourite movies. When we’ve calmed down a bit he tells his girls to take a hike and that leaves just the three of us.

Turns out he don’t give a shit that his movie career stalled. He says being a pimp was easy work, the money was great, and he had pussy on tap. Best career move he ever made. And I have to say, he sure did look pretty happy. I’m thinking maybe he’s an OK guy after all. So he takes us to this bar a few blocks away. When we get there, it’s full of folks like us, guys who were either between projects or had just plain gone out of style. Plenty of familiar faces, a few new ones, some old-timers I hadn’t laid eyes on in years. There’s another of Shorty’s cousins, did nine fucking series of that thing with the two Feds, not one word of dialogue even though he fucking carried that show. Over in a corner, sucking up a pint of Jack all on his own, there’s the big dude with the wild hair and beady eyes, the funny mouth. We worked together one time, that thing with the booby-traps and the fucking ice. Man, that was cold, damn near froze my balls off. I nod, he ignores me, same as always. Asshole. There’s a band playing – Big Guy’s worked with them, he chews the fat with them between sets, they have a new singer, that bald chick with the funny ears, you know the one? Talk about lady sings the blues. Great voice, great body. So I’m watching her and thinking to myself I wouldn’t mind a piece of that, maybe two pieces, when there’s a commotion at the door. I take a look, do a double take. It’s that broad, the one with all the fucking kids. And who’s her date? Believe it or not, the lucky guy is that ugly fuck who never looks the same from one minute to the next, makes you puke just to look at him. Another one-movie wonder, until they made that stupid prequel and brought the piece of shit out of the fucking retirement home for it. Shit, all that ice. I hate ice. But – and you didn’t hear it from me – there will not be a third movie. Take my word. Why? OK, they always like to say ‘no animals were harmed in the making of this movie’, don’t they? Keep the soccer moms and animal liberation nuts happy, yeah? Well, you know that scene with the dog? Yeah, you got it. That’s exactly what happened. That scene was for real. Poor mutt. What kind of asshole does something like that to a dumb animal? I mean, I left that fucking cat alone, didn’t I? Anyway, I heard he did the same thing on the latest movie, during pre-production. They kept it quiet but the way I hear it, he messed her up real bad. That’s one wannabe starlet who won’t be gracing the silver screen ever again. Still, at least now she’s safe from the real predators in this fucking town, right? Right. Damn fucking right. In LA no one can hear you scream.

That guy and the bitch are not popular people. One way or another they give us minorities a bad name. And that dog-killing bastard can’t hold his liquor, you wouldn’t believe what kind of fucked-up shit he does with a few drinks inside him. They’re not people people, know what I mean? So, they tell him and the bitch to stay the fuck away. I thought it was gonna turn ugly but the guys on the door were not the kind of dudes you wanna fuck with. Remember that found-footage movie where they trashed New York? That guy was one of them, the other was his stunt double, his stand-in. These are dudes you do not fuck with.

And that’s the problem. That’s why we go in and out of fashion so fast. I mean, we’re all immigrants, huh? Go way back, everyone’s an immigrant, even the Native Americans, even Donald Trump and Sarah Palin. But there’s immigrants and immigrants. Wetbacks are a problem, but they don’t make people shit their pants. No one gives a fuck about Jamaican taxi drivers, Indian doctors, whatever. OK, there’s the Muslims, but that’s different. You get my point, right? People like us, we have a hard enough time being accepted as anything other than the characters we play in the movies. People don’t know squat about us so they’re scared of us. All except for Shorty and his cousins, of course – their problem is that they don’t have charisma. Big Guy’s got this cuddly image, so he’s OK, the kids love him, next he’ll be doing fucking Disney. Me? People take one look at me and expect me to be exactly like I am on screen. Sure, sometimes I’d just love to give ‘em what they expect. It would serve the motherfuckers right. But that isn’t the person I am. Yeah, it’s partly my own stupid fault. Maybe I should have let the world and his wife know that I volunteer at animal shelters, that I like country music, I’m a member of the NRA, I vote Republican. I go to fucking church. Been here forty years, I’m an All-American boy now, nothing to fear from me. Maybe I should do some interviews, let the public know that between jobs I used to be a clown for kids’ parties.

OK, maybe I should keep quiet about the clown thing. Stephen King and John Wayne Gacy got a lot to answer for, you ask me. But you know what I mean. I may look different, but I’m an ordinary Joe. I’m a patriot. No beard, no turban, no suicide belt, capisce? Hey, maybe that’s why I don’t get so many parts. Maybe I should beard up and get the wrong kind of religion. A lot of good parts for terrorist rag-heads these days, right? Mind you, I’d need two fucking beards.

Another bottle? Sure, why not? Then maybe we can split this two-bit joint. I want to eat.

Alby Stone: Seventeen

Copyright © 2015 Alby Stone

The venue was so hot. Bright light shone on angry or blank faces, on guitars and drums and boards, on limbs moving jerkily or not moving at all. The audience danced frenziedly, flailing limbs and spilling drinkes; or stood as far apart from the mass as space would allow, in small, seemingly bored groups. Underfoot, the floor was sticky with beer and saliva. He looked at her in wonder, grinning at the contradictions. Do we dance or do we stand still?

I don’t know. She made a face, wiped stray beer from her cheek, looked startled when a body slammed into her, shunting her a couple of feet to her left. She glared at the culprit and showed him a middle finger, but the boy was oblivious, his gaze fixed on the performance. I’m getting fed up with this. Let’s move to the back before one of us gets hurt.

They forced their way through the leaping, staggering, soundless crowd until they were at the back of the hall. It was darker there, more difficult to talk but easier to breathe and with less danger of being knocked off their feet by careless, exuberant dancers.

Everything they saw seemed to be shaking. She grinned and ran a hand through her hair, cut short and gelled into untidy spikes for the occasion. His hair was slightly longer than hers but just as artfully disarrayed. They were dressed almost identically. He thought she looked pretty good in the red drape jacket and ripped, dyed-black jeans, pretty yet sufficiently boyish to pass for his younger brother, tall enough to get away with being so skinny. But they were only seventeen. In time they would both fill out. They would grow up. This was fun time, and it was about time.

He offered her a cigarette. They lit up. It’s exciting.

Yes, she replied. Pity about all those idiots throwing themselves around like that, though. I must have been accidentally kicked and slapped a dozen times. Well, I think it was accidental. Some of them are just looking for a fight.

Yes, he agreed. I read about the violence but thought it was just the journos exaggerating. Must be drugs. I saw a couple of guys snorting speed in the bog. But the bands look great.

So do most of the audience, she laughed. We didn’t look like this until yesterday. I feel such a fraud.

Don’t. You look perfect.

Thanks.

Around them the crowd jumped silently up and down, sweating, spilling beer, occasionally brawling, constantly spitting toward the stage in impressively high arcs. They felt the euphoria, the rhythmic waves of pressure, a pounding amphetamine heartbeat that seemed to pump their blood just a little faster than usual. It was like being squeezed from the inside by the fluttering fingers of a giant hand. On the stage, the performance was disintegrating, the mime drawing to a close.

Come on, let’s go now – we can beat the crowds onto the last tube.

She nodded. Maybe the chippie will still be open when we get back. I’m starving.

No, it’ll be shut by now. My folks will be in bed. I’ll make us some toast then walk you home.

They ran down the stairs, out onto a silent Oxford Street. Outside, it was cooler but still warm despite the late hour and the empty promise of September rain. The long hot summer was over but it didn’t yet feel like early autumn. A couple of taxis glided noiselessly westward, taking people to their homes or hotels. On the other side of the road a boy was being liquidly sick in the gutter. Too much cheap, overpriced beer. It took away the bitter taste but didn’t go well with sulphate.

He shrugged, glanced at the poster on the board by the door. The Pistols were great. The Clash were OK too, but the other bands weren’t so good. Johnny looked really crazy. Brilliant clothes.

At the entrance to Tottenham Court Road station, she stopped dead and tugged at his jacket, pulling him round to face her. You know, I wish I could – she hesitated – just once.

Just once what?

Be like everyone else, I suppose.

His face fell. But that wasn’t the point of tonight, was it? That was all about not being like everyone else. It was about being yourself. About not caring what other people think of you.

She smiled. You mean fitting in by not fitting in?

I suppose so. His frown vanished as if it had never been. Back to his normal, optimistic self.

She put her arms round him, kissed him and stepped back. I just wish I could hear it like they do, that’s all. Just once.
It doesn’t matter if we can’t. What matters is that it’s there, that’s all. It won’t last long. None of these things ever do. Next year it’ll probably be something else, something boring. At least we can feel it. Let’s enjoy it while we can.

He took her hand as they descended the station steps. A few other youngsters ran past them, a blur of black and white shapes with the odd splash of colour – bondage trousers bought from McClaren and Westwood, leather and PVC, eyeliner and safety-pin jewellery. One of the girls turned at the bottom of the stairs and looked up at the couple, gave them a smile and a wave, the gestures of solidarity in difference. They waved back. The girl’s lips moved but they couldn’t understand what she was saying. Then she ran after her friends.

I hope it’s as good tomorrow night.

Yes, she nodded. Now watch where you’re going. You know we shouldn’t talk while we’re going downstairs.

Right, he signed. Beans or egg with yours?

Alby Stone: Sky-Blue and Ice-Cold

Copyright © 2015 Alby Stone

Once, long ago, in a village in the marshy land between the forest and the sea, there lived a carpenter and his wife. The carpenter made his living by mending window frames and fences, and making doors and furniture. Although he was good at his trade and worked hard, the village had fallen on hard times, so the carpenter and his wife were as poor as anyone else, and poorer than some.

They did not mind being poor, though. Whatever furniture they needed the carpenter could make from wood he took from the forest trees. His wife harvested flax from the nearby marshes and spun it into linen for their clothes. She made pots and dishes from clay and fired them in a kiln she had made herself. They had a little garden in which they grew their own vegetables. And they kept chickens and goats for eggs, milk and meat, feathers to fill their pillows and quilts, and leather for shoes.
One midwinter day, the carpenter’s wife gave birth to a baby girl. The child’s eyes were bright blue and so was her skin, and when her hair grew it was as blue as the sky above, and so they called her Sky-Blue.

Years went by and Sky-Blue grew up to be a beautiful young woman. She wore linen dresses dyed blue with woad her mother picked in the marsh, little goat-skin sandals tied with strings made of wild hemp, and linen cloaks stitched with white chicken feathers to keep her warm in the winter, because she did not like being cold. All the villagers agreed she was the loveliest girl they had ever seen. And while she heard what her neighbours said, Sky-Blue was so innocent and sweet-natured that she did not let it turn her head.

Eventually the time came when tongues wagged in another direction. Sky-Blue was at the age where young women from the village and the farms round about were usually married. There were a few eligible bachelors of the right age in the village, but Sky-Blue showed no interest in any of them. She was content to help her mother make pots and dishes, spin and weave, harvest the food they grew in their garden, and milk the goats.

Then, on the eve of Sky-Blue’s nineteenth birthday, a stranger came to the village, a young tinker with a handcart filled with metal pans and bowls, knives and forks and spoons. He was not handsome, but he had a fine head of curly black hair and a merry twinkle in his eye. He set up his stall in the village square and cried his wares until the villagers came to buy what they could afford.

Along came the carpenter and his wife, with Sky-Blue at their side. She looked at the goods spread out on the stall and saw a small copper brooch in the shape of a buttercup, which the tinker had polished so it blazed a bright orange in the sunlight. ‘How much is that?’ she asked.

The tinker stared at the blue girl, his eyes wide and mouth hanging open. She was so beatiful he could hardly speak. He fell in love with her straight away. After a while he plucked up the courage to answer her. ‘Two kisses,’ he told her. ‘One now, the second at a time and place of my choosing.’

Sky-Blue considered this, and then she leaned forward and kissed the tinker on the lips. With a flourish, he presented her with the copper buttercup. When she pinned it upon her cloak, it was like the sun gleaming through a gap in a white cloud in a bright blue sky. When the real sun fell upon it, the golden flash could be seen all around, from the sea to the other side of the forest.

Sky-Blue smiled at the tinker and followed her mother and father home, taking the brooch and the tinker’s heart with her.

*

Deep in the darkest and most ancient part of the forest, the flash of sunlight reflecting from the brooch awakened something very old and very cold, something that had been asleep for a long, long time, so long and so deeply asleep that at first it was thought dead, then was quite forgotten. Angry at being wrenched from its dreams and hungry because it had not fed for more years than anyone could count, it reached out with its frosty mind to the crows and magpies and ravens as they flew, and gazed through their eyes, seeking the source of the brilliant golden glare. When it saw Sky-Blue walking home, anger fled and instead the creature was consumed with lust. ‘I must have her and I will have her!’ it cried.

*

Just after sunset, Sky-Blue was sitting with her mother, spinning flax and talking about the young tinker. Sky-Blue had been rather taken with the tinker’s twinkling brown eyes and merry smile, and she had rather enjoyed her first kiss. The carpenter was in his workshop at the back of the house, busy with a pair of clogs he was making his daughter for her birthday.

Suddenly, there was a thunderous noise as someone hammered on the front door. When Sky-Blue’s mother opened it, she fell back with a scream. The creature that stood there was tall and thin and spidery, dressed all in black, white-faced and bald and hollow-eyed. With a long, thin finger, it pointed at Sky-Blue. ‘I must have her and I will have her!’

The carpenter rushed from the back of the house, a large hammer at the ready. ‘You can’t have her and you won’t have her!’ he shouted, and fetched the creature a mighty blow on the crown of its long head. But the blow had no effect. The creature shook itself like a wet dog and laughed at him, then it gripped his face with both hands, so hard that the carpenter fell down in a swoon, his face pale with shock and sudden cold.

Sky-Blue came to the door to help her father to his feet. ‘Who are you?’ she demanded of the creature. It laughed again, a horrible cackle, and said ‘I am Ice-Cold. I must have you and I will have you!’ Then it seized her hand with its own and she was immediately chilled to the bone – to her very soul. It was the coldest thing she had ever known, colder even than the biting, wind-driven snow on the deepest midwinter night. It was the cold of the graves dug before the whole continent was covered in miles-thick ice, thousands of years before.

Sky-Blue’s teeth chattered and her knees knocked together, she was so cold. But, just as she was beginning to fear her eyeballs freezing solid and icicles forming on her nose, there was the tinker, who just happened to be passing as he searched for somewhere warm and dry to spend the night. He drew an iron hatchet from his belt and chopped off Ice-Cold’s freezing hand at the wrist. Ice-Cold screamed and sprang back, clutching the stump of its wrist. ‘I must have her and I will have her,’ it shrieked. ‘And every night until she comes to me willingly, one villager will die by my icy hand.’ With that it seemed to shrink in upon itself and flew away into the darkness like something that was half-wolf and half-bat.

‘Thank you,’ said Sky-Blue to the tinker, gazing into his twinkling eyes. ‘You have saved me from Ice-Cold. You have earned your second kiss.’

‘Not yet,’ the tinker replied. ‘This is not the time or place of my choosing.’

*

The next night, just after the church clock in the square chimed for the twelfth time, the baker was found by his wife. He was dead, frozen solid while kneading wholemeal dough for the next morning’s bread.

Sky-Blue wept when she heard the news. ‘It is because of me that the baker is dead. Ice-Cold has killed him and now we shall have no more bread. Yet I cannot give myself to Ice-Cold!’

The following night, just after the final chime of midnight, the butcher’s wife discovered her husband in his cold room, hanging upside down among the pig carcases, his face iced over, his dead eyes staring.

Sky-Blue wept bitterly when she heard the news. ‘It is because of me that the baker and the butcher are dead and now we shall have no bacon or sausages or meat pies or bread. But I must not give myself to Ice-Cold!’

The night after that, when midnight struck, the greengrocer was found with his head buried in a heap of peas and runner beans he had been washing to make them ready to put on display the next morning. The vegetables were frozen so solid that it was impossible to separate them from the body of the greengrocer.

Sky-Blue wept inconsolably when she heard the news. ‘It is because of me that the greengrocer and the butcher and the baker are dead. Now the villagers will starve. I must give myself to Ice-Cold before further misfortune befalls the village!’

When the carpenter heard his daughter’s words, his heart became heavy. He loved Sky-Blue dearly and the thought of her spending the rest of her life with Ice-Cold was unbearable. He went to the village square and sat down to smoke his pipe, a cherry wood pipe he had carved with his own hand, and think what could be done. As he sat deep in thought, the tinker came along and sat next to him. ‘I have an idea,’ the tinker said.

*

The night after the greengrocer’s death, Sky-Blue went with her father to the village square, where a great bonfire had been piled up. Just before midnight, Sky-Blue gazed up at the dark sky and called to Ice-Cold. ‘Ice-Cold, Ice-Cold – you must have me and you will have me. Come and take me and kill no more villagers!’

There was a sound like a bag filled with cats, and a patch of darkness fell from the sky and unravelled until it became the tall, thin, spidery Ice-Cold, all in black and with its white face and bald head and hollow eyes. ‘I must have you and now I have you,’ it crowed and stretched out its long, thin, spidery arm to grasp her with its remaining hand.
But before it could touch her, the carpenter spoke up. ‘If you’re to wed my daughter, you must have a dowry,’ he said.

‘A dowry?’ Ice-Cold frowned and it was like a thick cloud passing across the moon.

‘It is customary,’ said the carpenter. ‘Until the dowry is paid, the union may not be consummated. You strike me as someone who knows his history. Surely you must know this, Ice-Cold?’

‘Well, of course,’ Ice-Cold lied. For in truth, it came from a time long before dowries or even marriage were invented. ‘What do you have for me?’

‘Why, I’ve made you this fine wooden bed,’ said the carpenter, standing aside so Ice-Cold could see the long, rectangular box, carved with ornate patterns. ‘It’s just the thing for a fine gentleman like yourself. It’s my very best work. Do you like it?’

Ice-Cold peered at the box. The carvings were really very good, even it could see that. And the wood appeared to be walnut, polished so thoroughly that it seemed to be filmed with glass. ‘Yes,’ it agreed. ‘It is very good workmanship.’

‘Perhaps you’d like to try it for size?’ the carpenter suggested. ‘That way if necessary I can adjust it before you take it – and Sky-Blue – home with you.’

Ice-Cold looked at the box again. ‘I’m sure it will fit me,’ it said.

The carpenter shrugged. ‘As you wish,’ he said. ‘But it would be a great shame to drag this heavy bed all the way home with you then have to drag it all the way back if it’s too short. And it is heavy, so very heavy.’

Ice-Cold sighed like a blizzard in an empty landscape, and Sky-Blue and her father shivered. ‘Oh, alright then,’ it said – and lay down in the box and stretched out.

As soon as Ice-Cold was flat on its back, the tinker rushed out of the shadows carrying a wooden lid with wicked iron spikes protruding from one side. He and the carpenter rammed it down onto the box, and Sky-Blue sat on the lid to hold it down while her father and the tinker quickly nailed it fast. All the while, Ice-Cold was screaming horribly from inside the coffin, for that’s what it was – a hideous racket that chilled the blood of everyone for miles around. Then they placed the coffin on top of the pyre – which is what the bonfire really was – and set fire to the wood.

The villagers came out to watch Ice-Cold burn away to nothing and smiled with grim satisfaction as its horrid cries died down until there was only the crackle of burning wood and the winter wind stirring the ashes. And Sky-Blue danced around the pyre in her blue dress and feathery cloak and new wooden clogs, singing ‘You can’t have me and you won’t have me! You can’t have me and you won’t have me!’

When the sun came up and there was only a heap of smoking embers to show where Ice-Cold had met its end, the tinker took Sky-Blue’s hand and told her when he would like his second kiss. ‘The place of my choosing will be the village church; the time will be the day you become my bride.’

Sky-Blue looked into his twinkling eyes and knew she would never be cold again.

Alby Stone: Nativity

Copyright © 2014 Alby Stone

With a fair degree of trepidation, the head teacher rose from her seat and surveyed the crowded assembly hall. There were some difficult parents out there. This was not going to be easy. But, what the governors wanted, the governors got. After all, they were the most difficult of all the bullies she had to deal with, and it was always a simple choice – easy acquiescence or eventual submission to dictat. By comparison, handling the kids was a piece of cake. But, such was their dedication, there were rarely more than a dozen governors at any meeting. Tonight around a hundred and twenty parents were present, many more than she’d expected for such a meeting. Most of them were strangers. The ones that weren’t…

‘Right,’ she said, much more brightly than she felt, ignoring the brief squeal of feedback from the PA. ‘Shall we make a start? Have you all got refreshments? Excellent. Oh, Mrs Moore – there’s no smoking in the school, I’m afraid. I really must ask you to put that out. Thank you.’

The talking, scraping of chairs and slurping of tea, coffee and sparkling mineral water subsided, except for a few stray coughs.

‘Now then, as you all know, you’ve been invited here to discuss the school Christmas play. It’s to be a traditional nativity play so we had a script to work from, as it were. However, the governors felt it was important to have parents’ input. I trust everyone has read the draft script that was circulated last week? Good. Yes, Mr Rahman?’

‘I have indeed read the script and I must say I have concerns. It’s a bit, well – Christian.’

The head teacher gazed levelly at the bearded Asian man, a well-respected local lawyer. ‘Yes, I suppose it is,’ she replied. ‘But it is a Christmas play. It’s about the birth of Jesus Christ. And although we accept students of all faiths, I really must point out that this is St Jude’s Church of England Primary School. Christianity is part and parcel of our raison d’être, you might say.’

Mr Rahman raised his hands in what might have been a placatory gesture but could just as easily have been interpreted as the first stage of attempted strangulation. ‘I take your point,’ he said. ‘But in this multicultural era we must have diversity. This play needs at least one Muslim character.’

‘Um, Jesus was born more than five hundred years before the Prophet, peace be upon him,’ said someone two rows behind Mr Rahman. The head’s heart sank when she saw the spiral tattoos on the woman’s bare arms and rune-patterned headband. It was Ms Rowan Odinsbride, a confused follower of an even more confused pagan path. ‘The Heathen faith, by contrast, was in existence for thousands of years before Christianity. I propose that for balance one of the three Magi should be a Celtic druid. The costume should be easy – white robes, a sickle made of cardboard covered in baking foil, and a sprig of mistletoe. For the sake of historical accuracy at least one of the other Wise Men should be a Zoroastrian priest.’

‘And one must be a Hindu,’ said a sari-clad woman at the back.

‘And one must be an imam,’ Mr Rahman insisted.

‘But there were only three Wise Men,’ someone else objected. That was the Reverend Patricia Waring, the vicar who oversaw the adjacent church of St Jude.

‘Yeah, but the Bible isn’t actually history, is it?’ The speaker was a stern-looking Afro-Caribbean man dressed in a black suit. The head teacher almost flinched when she recognised him. Angus Sheridan, a popular science journalist and notorious atheist. She knew for a fact that he only sent his son to the school because of its reputation for preparing youngsters for the rigours of secondary education. Sheridan was marginally less religious than Richard Dawkins. ‘I mean, it’s only mythology. I don’t see why you can’t have as many Wise Men as you want. If you’re going to fill kids’ heads with crap you might as well go the whole hog.’

There was a minor commotion when Rahman called Sheridan an infidel and Sheridan called Rahman something worse, calmed only by the intervention of a deceptively mild-mannered man with a reputation none of the staff dared repeat in front of the children in case it got back to him. Wayne McArthur, a local entrepreneur whose eight year-old daughter Alice ran a lucrative black market in shoplifted sweets and toys, didn’t look much but in his case appearances were not so much deceptive as barefaced liars.

With Rahman and Sheridan chastened, the floor was taken by a lesbian couple who in their child’s presence referred to each other as ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’ as the mood took them. Their son Hilary wasn’t allowed to play competitive games or sports because they both embodied and promoted aggressive male chauvinist culture – but woe betide him if he was ever out of the top three in academic subjects. He was going to grow up to be a very confused young man. But at least the head teacher had managed to stop them sending him to school in skirts and pigtails.

‘We think there should be more women in this play,’ said one. None of the staff could tell them apart, and their opinions were only ever given as the royal ‘we’, as if they had no individual existence. ‘We believe women are under-represented in all areas of culture and society, added the other woman. ‘We demand positive female role models for our child!’

‘Well,’ the head teacher replied. ‘There aren’t really many female characters in the Nativity story – only Mary and that one whose name I can never remember. What do you suggest?’

‘We think the shepherds should be an all-female group, A sisterhood. Did you know that communities of women menstruate in synchrony?’

‘Er, that’s interesting,’ said the head teacher doubtfully. ‘Though I don’t think we need to worry about the girls doing that just yet. Alright, we’ll make the shepherds into shepherdesses.’

‘Sheep-herders, please. It’s wrong to make gender distinctions.’

‘Yes, sheep-herders. That’s what I meant to say.’ The head teacher was beginning to wish the floor would open up and swallow her. Actually, she’d been hoping that would happen even before the meeting began, though not so fervently. This wasn’t going to be her night. Just to make the point, a small, skinny white woman dressed in eye-wateringly colourful Nigerian robes stood.

‘I think the BABY JESUS should be a CHILD OF MIXED HERITAGE,’ she declaimed.

‘Thank you, Mrs – Ms – er…’ she could never remember Fern’s mother’s title or surname, only that the woman spoke in such a portentous way that every capital letter could be clearly heard. Like her perennially-disobedient and fantasy-prone daughter, Fern’s mother was insufferably smug and self-righteous. ‘However, it is usual for the Baby Jesus to be played by a doll, not a real baby. No one will actually see the doll anyway, as it will be in, um, swaddling clothes? Is that the right term?’

‘No one will SEE, but WE will KNOW,’ Fern’s mother pointed out, carefully selecting her upper case for maximum impact.

‘You could always try forgetting,’ came a voice from the back. ‘Just like you forgot Fern’s father’s name when the CSA came round.’

Amid the laughter an elderly man sporting a yarmulka and sidelocks stood and appealed for quiet. ‘We might take this opportunity to consider Christ’s Jewish heritage,’ he suggested. ‘It is true that Christ’s birth marked the beginning of a new faith but it was built upon an older one. Jesus was raised as a Jew. Therefore, Joseph should be dressed like an Orthodox Jew.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said the head teacher. ‘I don’t think I know you. Are you a parent?’

‘I’m David Rosenberg’s grandfather. David’s parents are at a fundraiser for the Fair Admissions Campaign. While I’m here I may as well add that I have strong objections to the manger scene. One of the animals is a pig. That is offensive to Jews.’

‘As it is to Muslims,’ Rahman added. ‘No pigs. And I see there is also a dog on the list, an animal we Muslims believe is unclean. That too must go.’

‘So must the cow,’ the sari-clad woman piped up. ‘I would find that insulting to my religion.’

The head teacher sighed deeply. At this rate the manger scene would be a humans-only affair. ‘What about the sheep and the goat?’

Rosenberg, Rahman and the sari-clad woman exchanged looks and shrugged in unison. ‘They’re OK,’ said Rahman.

Sheridan spoke again. ‘You could have ducks,’ he said.

‘Ducks?’

‘I like ducks. And I read somewhere that Darwin was fond of them. Or was that finches? No, it was ducks. Definitely ducks.’

‘Alright. We’ll have the sheep and the goat, and some ducks. Everyone OK with that? Then let’s move on. Yes, Ms Smalling?’

‘I agree with those ladies over there that we should be promoting positive images. So far we’ve heard all about religions, sex and race – but we should also be supporting the LGBT community in their fight for equal rights. Why can’t Joseph and Mary be a gay or lesbian couple?’

‘Well, that’s one thing the Bible is pretty clear about. Joseph was a man, Mary was a woman. They were married. You can’t really change that bit.’

‘Why not? And why do they have to be married? Doesn’t that stigmatise the children of unmarried parents?’

‘It doesn’t matter if they were married or not. Jesus was the son of Joseph and Mary.’

‘Hang on – I thought Jesus was the son of God?’

‘Well, yes – but – oh dear. Vicar? Perhaps you could clarify this?’

Reverend Waring stood. ‘Jesus is both,’ she said. ‘He is God, too. Of course, if you take the Bible literally, Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit – or the angel, it isn’t quite clear. However, not all of us Christians accept the Bible as literal truth. My personal view is that Mary’s impregnation by God is a metaphor to indicate Christ’s inherent holiness and goodness. Joseph was Mary’s husband; therefore he was Christ’s biological father. However, the divine flame within Jesus was given by God alone.’

‘That is more in line with what Muslims believe,’ said Rahman approvingly. ‘Jesus was a prophet and thus touched by God while still in the womb. To say he is the Son of God is blasphemy. I agree that Joseph must be played by a boy and Mary by a girl. With her head covered, of course, to show she is a good woman within the Muslim tradition and in keeping with her Jewish background. And Joseph must have a beard. A real beard. The sheep and goat and ducks must also be real. And the infant Jesus. No false images. We must not descend into pagan idolatry.’

‘I beg your pardon?’ Rowan Odinsbride was indignant. ‘I’ll have you know that most of the story of Jesus’ birth was taken from older pagan beliefs. The birth in the grotto surrounded by animals – That’s from Mithraism, an old Indo-European faith related to druidism. And Hinduism,’ she nodded at the sari-clad woman, who nodded back.

‘It’s all the same to me,’ Sheridan called out, patently bored with the proceedings. ‘For all I care you could have Bugs Bunny and Fred Flintstone on the stage. ‘I don’t really care, as long as there are ducks.’

‘Jesus was a Jew!’ Rosenberg thundered, his face dark with anger.

‘Jesus was a Muslim prophet!’ Rahman countered.

‘Jesus was originally a pagan god!’ squawked Rowan Odinsbride.

‘Jesus was a myth!’ shouted Sheridan.

‘Jesus was just a little baby!’ yelled the Reverend Waring.

‘A MIXED HERITAGE BABY!’ screeched Fern’s mother in capital letters.

‘Jesus fucking Christ,’ said the head teacher under her breath, as she put her head in her hands.

*

It took a while, but eventually order was restored and decisions were made.

The nativity would open with the Angel of the Lord, dressed in satin, sequins and lurex, descending in a fiery chariot to the strains of Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’ and announcing to a burqa-covered Mary that she was with child because her husband loved her in that special way that mummies and daddies love each other irrespective of gender and the conventional reproductive processes, and that the baby would be special and called Jesus. Joseph would be played not by a child but by Mr Stanislaw the Polish caretaker, who was short enough to pass for a ten year-old and would grow a beard if the price was right. Mary’s face would not be seen but she would make frequent references to cravings for curried goat, yams, rice and peas, and quote from reggae songs – enough to imply that the Baby Jesus would be of Mixed Heritage.

The next scene would show Herod – renamed Harald because Mr Rosenberg objected to the portrayal of a Jewish villain, and no one would care if they insulted the Germans – being told of a prophecy that the birth of the Baby Jesus would mean big trouble for him and his Roman masters. Instead of the Slaughter of the Innocents, which several anxious parents were afraid would traumatise their offspring, the children of the Holy Land would be grounded for a month and lose their sweet ration.

Joseph and Mary’s arrival in Bethlehem would coincide with the local Gay Pride march, while the townspeople celebrated Diwali, Yule, Hannukah and Polly Toynbee’s birthday simultaneously. The stable would be set within two Stonehenge-like trilithons painted red, yellow and green. The birth would occur with the stage darkened and Bob Marley’s ‘One Love’ playing. There would be five Wise men – an imam, a pujari, a rabbi, a Zoroastrian and a druid; two Wise Women – a Wiccan priestess and a Voodoo mambo; and a Wise Transgender, spiritual orientation to be decided but possibly Native American or Siberian shamanist. Because there was no agreement at all on how he should be portrayed, Jesus would not be shown but the actors would pretend the infant was there. (No one understood Mr Sheridan’s suggestion that the Saviour should perhaps be renamed Harvey.) There would be two sheep, a goat, and several ducks, all live and to be provided by Wayne McArthur at a knock-down price. McArthur had also promised to get the school a good deal on all the other props they’d need and lay on a couple of bouncers if required.

It could have been worse, the head teacher reflected as at last the parents filed out. So far no one had suggested that Scientology, Satanism or the Cthulhu Cult should be represented. On impulse she collared the sari-clad woman as she passed. ‘Excuse me, I don’t believe we’ve met. Which class is your child in?’

‘Oh, I’m not a parent. I just came in to get out of the rain. I do hope it’s stopped by now.’

As she too left the hall, the head teacher was approached by an anxious couple in their early thirties. He wore cords and a hipster beard. She was wrapped in assorted Fruit of the Loom horrors. The head teacher had seen them earlier but they’d kept quiet until now. ‘Sorry to delay you,’ said the man. ‘I’m sure you’re tired and just want to go home. But I understand this school also puts on an Easter play?’ The head teacher confirmed that yes, they did. ‘Well,’ he continued, ‘we’re concerned that it might contain elements not suitable for children. Our son and daughter are particularly sensitive, like all gifted children. They’re very easily upset.’

‘Oh, you needn’t worry,’ the head teacher assured him, recognising them now as the parents of the two thickest and most vicious kids in the school. ‘We don’t show any of the violence. There’s no sword fight at Gethsemane, Peter’s ear doesn’t get cut off, Judas doesn’t hang himself, and we certainly don’t show the actual crucifixion.’

‘Well,’ he replied, ‘that’s a comfort. But there’s just one thing – does Jesus really have to die at the end?’

Alby Stone: The Ages

Copyright © 2014 Alby Stone

A river, wide and frozen, set in a deep bed of snow and crystalline trees. He trudged along one bank, leaving an even trail of footprints, the only marks on an otherwise unbroken sheet of crisp whiteness. Whenever he glanced to his right, to the bank opposite, she was there, distant and silent. Sometimes, he tried to call to her, across the river and through the bitter cold. But all that escaped his lips were foggy spurts of breath.

Were they travelling upstream or down? The water did not move and the riverbanks were mirror images, seemingly parallel lines stretching toward an invisible horizon, offering no clue. Looking back was not an option; whenever he tried his neck locked and excruciating pain shot across his shoulders. If he looked down he could see the prints, ankle-deep, as his feet rose from them. He had no idea where the first had been made but he feared there would never be a last. He had always been walking. There would be no end to this journey. Wherever it led, this route was pre-ordained. The riverbank was his only path and there could be no deviation.

The blue-grey sky never darkened, never grew lighter. Sun and clouds hovered in place, unmoving and unchanging. No birds flew or sang; no beasts disturbed the snow. On and on he walked, always cold and afraid, and nothing ever changed.

She really wished he would shut up. The man’s voice was clear and insistent, saying things she didn’t understand, weird stuff. It sounded oddly familiar but she couldn’t place any of it. No one else seemed to hear him, though. She wanted to scream at him to stop, but didn’t dare to in case the people around them thought she was the crazy one. She wondered if he might be dangerous. Best not to look at him, just in case. The last thing she wanted was a madman creating a scene with her as the focus of his ranting and raving.

The cavity was vast, egg-shaped, lined with interlocking stones and half filled with water that seemed to glow in the soft blue light. Midway between the top and bottom of the ovoid chamber, a ledge ran unbroken around the perimeter, the liquid splashing gently over the flagstones as movements rippled the surface.

He was not alone. She swam diametrically opposite him, in the same counter-clockwise direction and keeping pace. Unless one of them changed course or stopped dead while the other carried on, they would never meet.

The sounds they made merged and echoed up and down and around the curved walls in a recursive serial whisper. Yet somehow he could hear each stroke of her arms through the water, every breath she took, with perfect clarity. Once, he thought she might have laughed – or perhaps she was weeping.

The water was as warm as blood, slippery with salts, tangy as brine when it passed his lips, yet clear as glass. Without looking, he knew he was naked. Presumably, so was she. The thought did not arouse him. It simply felt right, the way it was supposed to be.

He didn’t understand why they were locked in this endless, aquatic dance, even though he was dimly aware that rules were being followed, that they were following prescribed steps.

Was he dreaming? He could no longer tell, increasingly convinced it was the only reality that remained to him. Perhaps it was her dream and he had inadvertently trespassed.

They swam on. Time passed – hours, days, weeks, perhaps months. He seemed to have been swimming forever, thousands of circuits, a million; the first was lost in a history that had no beginning. He was tired, so tired by his eternally scissoring arms and oscillating feet. And he had always been tired.

At last she dared to raise her eyes. As expected, he was staring in her direction – but he wasn’t really looking at her, only gazing emptily at a place somewhere a long way behind her, beyond her, beyond even the glass and aluminium that confined them. A thousand-yard stare. She’d heard the expression many times but this was the first time she truly understood what it meant.

The man’s lips twitched now and then, but his Adam’s apple bobbed continually. He was subvocalising, delivering a lengthy internal monologue and not being particularly subtle about it. And she could hear every unuttered word as if it was a shout so loud the ambient racket could not drown it out.

Curious, she studied him more closely. He was unkempt, dressed in mismatched clothing, tightly clutching a plastic carrier bag advertising a women’s clothing store he was unlikely ever to have visited. He badly needed a shave. It wasn’t what they called designer stubble – there was nothing ‘designer’ about this guy. And he was shivering. Perhaps that was a side-effect of some kind of medication. His expression was oddly blank and indecipherable. He had the look of a psychiatric out-patient, like the strange, solitary old man who’d lived up the road when she was a kid, the one she and her friends all laughed at, though secretly everyone of them felt sorry for him.

The fire separated them, smoke and leaping flame blurring her features as he watched. Branches and twigs crackled as they burned, tiny glowing embers lifted by the thermal current, soaring into the night sky like fireflies. Around them, outside the pool of flickering firelight, there was only an infinity of darkness. Fire, the comfort of the ages.

He sat on the dry sand, regarding her across the dividing blaze. No matter how long the wood burned, it was never consumed. The fire never consumed more fuel than it had when it was first lit. That had been such a long time ago, as old as the first fire kindled by human hands. And they’d sat there ever since, immobile, waiting. But waiting for what?

He tried to stand again, failed again. Movement was restricted to a single reaching out, both arms extended, palms outward to warm by the fire; or a small adjustment to his position to relieve the discomfort. Whenever he made these small shifts, she moved too. It was almost like gazing into a mirror that reversed more than polarity – not only left to right but also man to woman, dark to fair, unremarkable to beautiful.

Unexpectedly – unprecedentedly – she stood and addressed him.

‘I was ashamed,’ she said.

Did they still say ‘care in the community’ in these days when it was only too obvious that communities didn’t give a damn about people like him until and unless they did something bad? Was there a home with family, people who loved him? What had his life been like? Who was he? Did anyone care about this man or listen to his bizarre ramblings?

No, of course they didn’t. She was sure now that the others couldn’t hear him. His speech was intended for her alone. She didn’t know why she could make out what was evidently inaudible to anyone else. All she knew was that she wanted him to stop it – that or get up and walk out and go as far away as possible. As far as she was concerned the lunatic could keep on walking forever, to Antarctica or the North Pole, anywhere just so long as he left her alone.

As she thought that, a solitary tear trickled from the man’s left eye and ran slowly down his cheek to the corner of his mouth. And with that she realised that his expression was not blank at all but was that of a man struggling to suppress great fear and a terrible anguish. It was the face of someone who was pained in a way she would never have to endure. Her heart went out to him and she regretted her reluctance to listen, her dismissal of him as a madman. Her face burned with shame.

When the train pulled into Waterloo, the man and woman sitting opposite each other rose at the same time. For an instant, their eyes met. He nodded curtly and gave her a brief, shy smile. She smiled back, though she seemed embarrassed, no doubt because he was a stranger. They left the train together and strode in spontaneous lockstep to the barriers, inserting their tickets in adjacent slots at the same time. She turned left toward the tube station. He crossed the concourse and took the escalator down to street level.

Outside, it had been snowing heavily. He added his tracks to the thousands already there.