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.

Alby Stone: Hell’s Bells

Copyright © 2013 Alby Stone

With no apologies at all to Christopher Marlowe, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Peter Edward Cook.

 My seven years were up and it was time to settle but I really didn’t fancy paying the bill. Somehow an eternity of sulphur fumes, intense heat, jabbing with pitchforks and rectal probing with red-hot pokers did not appeal. It wasn’t as if I’d got anything worth having out of the bargain – a few nights of admittedly satisfying passion, some extra cash, a modicum of fame and some glitzy toys were all very well but in the end I had nothing of real value. Nothing lasting had been achieved and I would wind up as little more than a few lines in the local newspaper and a bundle of bones buried in a wooden box whose location was marked with a stone rectangle inscribed with my name, a couple of dates and a cringeworthy epitaph dreamed up by whatever member of my family had remained sober enough to think of composing one. At least I would be leaving them enough money for a decent piss-up to mark my passing. OK, it wasn’t really that bad, but even so.

Still, I’d made my bed and now I had to lie in it. A deal is a deal and my word is my bond, et cetera. There’s nothing like imminent damnation to get the creaky old adages rolling. 

*

In retrospect, I’d made a bad deal; though at the time it had seemed not only a great idea but the logical next step in the circumstances. It was a dark and stormy night, and a bitterly cold one. I was unattached, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future; I was unemployed, broke, sober and hungry. And my Christmas stocking was as empty as my bank account, my bed and my prospects. At twenty-five minutes to midnight on that dreary Christmas Eve, I raided my almost-empty tobacco pouch for a matchstick-thin cigarette. I looked around my miserable, undecorated bed-sit and its one-candle illumination, and wondered how things had become so bloody bleak and depressing, so utterly hopeless.

Of course, there was no-one to blame but myself. I’d moved to London from my home town almost a year before, with bright eyes and high hopes of making it big in the city. After years of slaving in dead-end jobs and marking time with short-term relationships and long-term underachievement, I felt I had no choice but to get away from all the things I knew, the people and activities that held me back, and make a fresh start armed with nothing but my undoubted talent and a new-found ambition. I was going to be a success. I was going to be a sensation. I was going to be a star.

Inevitably, I failed to take account of one small factor that was to prevent me from realising my dream. I had no talent at all. I flunked one audition after another – minor roles in theatres, bit parts in television productions and films, faces in crowds in commercials, spear-carriers, third policemen… I cast my line into the water time after time and never had a single bite. It seemed being a well-known figure in local amateur dramatics wasn’t enough to merit being even an anonymous visage in a celluloid mob. Eventually, my savings ran out and I was forced to live first on minimum-wage casual work then, when even that dried up, on benefits. I fell behind with the rent, couldn’t pay the utilities, and joined the ranks of the freegans just so I could eat. The gas had been cut off and I had no coins for the electricity meter so I couldn’t cook anything I’d liberated from the supermarket bins, and I was sick to death of stale sandwiches and crushed biscuits. A dead dog and a divorce, and they would have been writing songs about me in Nashville.

Sure, I could have gone home, if I’d been able to scrape enough money together for the coach or train fare. But that would be to admit defeat, and that was unthinkable. I could picture my siblings’ smug, told-you-so faces, and hear the insincerity in my friends’ voices when they pretended to soothe my battered ego. On the whole, I would rather have starved to death or perished from hypothermia before going there.

The clock nudged its big hand a little closer to the twelve. The timepiece had been a flat-warming gift from my mother. Thinking about it, I was impressed with the longevity of the single AA battery I’d inserted almost exactly one year earlier. As I watched it moved forward another notch, then another. I fancied a mug of coffee but had no way of heating the water, and nothing to mix with the water anyway. I kept looking at the clock. I had nothing else to do. Then the hand stopped moving.

‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ I sighed. Despondently, I rolled another cigarette, resolving to go to bed when it was smoked. But although the lighter sparked, there was no flame. It had run out of gas. I had no matches. The candle flickering on the mantelpiece was my last one. There was exactly seven pence in my pocket, a long way short of the price of either matches or candles. If I blew the candle out, I’d have nothing to relight it with. If I let it burn down, I would be without light on Christmas evening.

I lit my cigarette from the candle. As I puffed at it to keep it alight, I coughed and the candle was extinguished. There wasn’t much I could do about it. For a moment I thought I might actually cry. God knows I wanted to. But I merely sat there in the dark and smoked, too fed up to even swear. Outside, the local church bells were ringing and people staggering home from the pubs were singing carols and shouting: ‘Merry Christmas!’

Merry Christmas? What did I have to be merry about? I toyed momentarily with the idea of going out onto the street and begging. Surely some of those mellow drunks and the boys and girls wide-eyed and excited from Yuletide snogs would have it within them to donate a quid or two to some poor bastard down on his luck? Then I thought back to my own pre-London Christmases. For every merry drunk there had been two vicious buggers spoiling for a fight; and for every snog-happy bloke there were a couple more who’d come away from their Christmas do with unpressed lips and a need to take out their frustrations on someone. And drunks make mistakes – with the way my luck was going some sodden fool would probably think I was a mugger and I’d end up at the nearest nick sharing a cell with a human vomit machine. Though at least it would probably be warm and well-lit and they’d give me a cup of tea and breakfast in the morning. Now that was a temptation indeed.

‘You call that temptation? That’s amateur stuff. I could show you real temptation.’

I didn’t see where he came from – or indeed, how he’d got into my poky little flat, as the door was locked and the security chain was on to make sure my dodgy neighbours couldn’t get in. I had nothing worth stealing but that doesn’t stop some people.

‘Who the hell are you? How did you get in? What do you want?’

My questions were hardly original but they were all apposite. The bloke now sitting on the end of my bed laughed. It sounded like someone unblocking a sink with a bull terrier.

‘Who the hell indeed,’ he replied.

I took a good look at him. Yes, my flat was pitch-dark – I hadn’t bothered to open the curtains when the candle went out – but I could see him clearly, as though he was somehow lit from within. He was about my own age, mid-thirties, with a Guy Fawkes goatee and moustache, and short dark hair brushed back from his forehead. He wore a black suit with a white shirt and black tie. His eyes were solid black orbs that either glowed with an inner fire or were reflecting orange light from a source that wasn’t there. He bore an uncanny resemblance to José Mourinho.

‘Aren’t you sick of living like this?’ He gestured to take in my distinctly shabby home. ‘Aren’t you fed up with being poor and lonely and a failure? Wouldn’t you like things to be better than this? I mean, short of contracting a disfiguring, painful and ultimately fatal illness, things really couldn’t get worse for you, could they?’

I had no answer to that. ‘No, they really couldn’t,’ I agreed. ‘But you haven’t answered my questions.’

He laughed again. This time it sounded like a grizzly bear scraping a blackboard. ‘You know who I am,’ he said. ‘You let me in. And what I want is what you want.’

‘I don’t know who you are,’ I told him crossly, though I was beginning to get an idea. A man who looked like Satan incarnate, who had gained entrance to my home through apparently supernatural means, and who seemed to be about to offer me – something… Well, who else could it be?

‘Liar,’ he said, with a grin so smug it would have graced the features of a Cabinet Minister. ‘You may be an untalented idiot but you’re not stupid. You’ve read the stories and you know the deal. Seven years of good times, the very best times you can imagine, with all your wildest dreams and fantasies realised, then I collect on the debt. All you have to do is sign on the dotted line.’

I thought about it for a couple of minutes. He was patient. He had all the time in the world, after all. I realised he was smoking a cigar.

‘Can I have one of those?’

‘If you sign I’ll leave a whole box of these here for you, to sweeten the deal.’

‘Could I have a lighter that works as well?’

‘You drive a hard bargain,’ he chuckled, a horrible noise like a corpse being dismembered with a rusty chainsaw. ‘OK, why not? A box of cigars and a fully-functional lighter it is. And seven years of good times.’

‘And the price would be the – er – usual, I suppose?’

‘Correct: one soul of which you are the sole owner, payable at the end of the specified period.’

‘I’m guessing you have the contract already drawn up?’

He reached into his inside jacket pocket and produced what looked like a parchment scroll. ‘Human skin,’ he said proudly. ‘Cost me a fair bit but just look at that finish. Smooth and silky as a baby’s bum. Actually, it probably is a baby’s bum. Do you want to read it?’

I thought I’d better. Fortunately, unlike most legal documents I’d seen, this was fairly short and concise. In return for seven years of pleasure and good fortune, to be spent in the manner of my choosing, a box of cigars and a working cigarette lighter, I was to forfeit my immortal soul. The payment would be demanded in exactly seven calendar years from the moment of signing.

It didn’t take me long to decide. After all, what did I have? My life was nothing but poverty, misery, futility and loneliness. What good was my soul anyway? It didn’t pay the bills or get the drinks in or feed me or get me laid. If I understood correctly, its sole post-mortem purpose was to spend all eternity singing the praises of a supreme being I didn’t even believe in. That didn’t sound to me like much fun. Mind you, if this bloke sitting on my bed existed then maybe the other one might. No, I wouldn’t even think about that. Besides, getting into the heavenly glee club was supposed to be a tricky business and I was pretty sure I hadn’t racked up anywhere near enough brownie points for a harp and wings.

‘Where do I sign?’

‘At the bottom, where it says signed.’ He removed a fountain pen from his breast pocket. ‘But first we need ink. This may hurt a little bit.’

He stabbed the fountain pen into my wrist and pressed the lever to fill the barrel with my blood. It hurt like buggery, but I gritted my molars and let him get on with it. When it was full he handed me the pen and I signed away my soul. He breathed on the signature to dry it, rolled up the parchment and stood.

‘It’s been a pleasure doing business with you. Oh, you’ll need these.’ He placed two one-pound coins in my hand. ‘One for the lottery the day after tomorrow – any numbers will do – and one for the electricity. It’s bloody freezing in here.’

I blinked and he vanished. The church bells were still ringing. The drunks were still shouting. I had a cigar in my hand.

*

As soon as he left I put a coin in the meter and switched on the electric fire to warm the flat enough for me to get undressed for bed without dying of exposure. The next lottery draw was a couple of days later. In the interim I had to last nearly two more days without food and came close to blowing the deal on a Mars bar, and would probably have starved anyway if I hadn’t found a fiver in the street on the way home from the newsagent. And I forgot to tick the ‘no publicity’ box.

You know the rest. I won an improbable sum of money on the lottery – an eight-digit windfall that turned my life upside-down. Consequently, I was not only suddenly astonishingly wealthy but inundated with begging letters and besieged by attractive women – and my bloody family, naturally – and like all ‘undeserving’ lottery winners became the stuff of tabloid legend, the good-time geezer with a different woman for every night of the week, and fifty-two different sets of those ladies every year. I was a prize rotter, a cynical love-’em-and-leave-‘em bounder of the first order, the carelessly wealthy guy who’d think nothing of writing off his Mercedes because, what the hell, there were more in the garage. I was the man who lived on champagne, cocaine and caviar when he couldn’t get anything better. The papers were full of my exploits – the starlets, the private jet hires, the hotel orgies, the drunken fights and iffy financial dealings, the kisses and the telling.

It was all bollocks, of course. In reality I had a decent but modest new house, a shiny but nondescript Renault, and a few non-celebrity girlfriends to whom I was always faithful and treated well. I never took drugs, partied excessively hard or indulged in outrageous gastronomic extravaganzas. I spent a bit of money on artwork and books, nights at the theatre – the one love I could never forget – or travel. I actually gave a lot of it away, to charities or people in need. I looked after my family and my friends. On the whole, I led a fairly decent and restrained life. The simple truth was that I didn’t have the appetites and vices expected of a twenty-first century celebrity. All the status symbols and decadence money could buy were not things I wanted to have, and I had no desire to make anyone else’s life a misery. But I never denied anything. I let the tabloids write what they wanted and allowed people at large to believe what suited them. People need entertainment and after all, it was all theatre really, wasn’t it?

It was the best performance I’d ever given, but it was hollow. Because I would never find lasting fulfilment and I didn’t actually do anything. Tabloid hacks and the public imagination did all the work for me.

So there I was, sitting at home on a Christmas Eve seven years on from the day I signed my soul away. I was watching the clock, the same one I had when the deal was made. I’m not sure why I kept it – maybe out of superstition, or maybe it was as a reminder that my time was short. I was alone, as I had been that night, only this time it was by choice. My current girlfriend – someone I cared for deeply and thought I might actually have a future with, if only I had a future – was away, visiting her parents. She’d come back the next day to find only an empty piece of meat, the soul departed in more ways than one. She’d grieve but she’d get over it, I hoped.

It was different from that night in other ways. There was a cheerful fire in the hearth and it was warm enough for me to be comfortable in only a dressing gown. The electricity was on, with a decorated Christmas tree shining with baubles and twinkling with fairy lights. I’d had a good dinner: a full Christmas job, only with a nut roast instead of turkey. I gave up eating meat shortly after selling my soul – somehow the prospect of an eternity of torment made it impossible to ignore the suffering of animals in abattoirs. I was smoking a cigar, with a box of them for my expected visitor, in red and white Christmas wrapping paper; and there was an open bottle of good brandy with two balloons at the ready. If I was going to be damned, I’d be civilised about it.

The clock’s hands approached midnight. In the street outside the church bells began to chime and the drunks cheered and shouted: ‘Merry Christmas!’ They were wishing the world a Christmas I would not see. That was OK – as I said, I didn’t much fancy the red-hot pokers up the bum or whatever Satan’s horned minions did to the eternally doomed, but I’d made my bed and was prepared to lie in it. I just wished I’d done a little more with it all. I just wished – well, what was the point of wishing? I shrugged and poured two decent measures into the brandy balloons. Then the clock stopped. I blinked and there he was, sitting in the armchair opposite.

I gestured to the brandy. ‘Have a drink,’ I said. ‘It’s a good cognac. You’ll like it.’

Satan took the balloon, warmed it in his hand and inhaled the vapour. He sipped and savoured it. ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘Yes, this is a good one.’

‘I thought you’d like it. Nice and smooth but fiery. Just like you.’

He laughed and for a second I thought a bus full of small children had crashed into a petting zoo. He glanced at the wrapped box, read the gift tag. ‘For me? That’s very kind.’

‘I may be about to be dragged into a fiery pit forever but that’s no reason not be civil.’

He took the parchment scroll from his pocket and unrolled it. ‘Five minutes left. So, then – no pleading? No begging for mercy? No wailing and rending of garments? No last-minute repentance?’

‘No. A deal is a deal. It was made fair and square; and I knew what I was doing. Anyway, what would I repent to? I don’t believe in God. Mind you, I wouldn’t believe in you either if you weren’t sitting there, so maybe I’m wrong. It doesn’t matter. It’s time to pay my debt – one immortal soul, as specified.’

He studied me closely, stroking his goatee. ‘What if I told you God does exist?’

‘I probably wouldn’t believe you.’

Satan smiled crookedly. ‘Actually, there is a God but it’s very different from what the Scriptures say. The Buddhists are much closer to the truth. God is indifferent, unknowable and ultimately not the Creator of All Things. It is a creation itself – a by-product of the universe. In fact, God is the universe. Everything is God. Even I, the creation of human fear and greed and hate and stupidity – which is probably why I’m such a bloody cliché – am God. As are you, my friend.’

‘I don’t feel much like God. I don’t think I’d want to.’

He laughed once more, chisels hammering into a squealing rhinoceros. ‘You’re a strange one. I gave you what you wanted and you didn’t do anything bad with it. I’d even go so far as to say you’ve used it for good. You accepted damnation so you could be moderately comfortable and used most of what you got out of the deal to do the right thing. And you’re even honourable. It’s impressive – sad, but impressive.’

I finished my brandy, extinguished the nearly-finished cigar and sighed. ‘Come on, let’s get it over with. I’ll just take off this dressing gown. Let’s not go all Doctor Faustus here.’

‘You’ve got one minute left.’

‘It’s only a bloody minute, less than that now. Let’s go.’

‘Can you hear the bells?’

I could indeed hear the bells. ‘Do they have bells in hell?’ I couldn’t say why but I was genuinely curious.

‘No, the Devil hates the sound of bells, or so they say. That’s why churches have them, to keep me away. It doesn’t really work but that’s tradition for you. I actually quite like bells, especially at this time of year. They also say the Devil has all the best tunes but there’s no music in hell. All we have down there is fire and the reek of brimstone, and pain and suffering and despair and the screams of the damned, on and on, ceaselessly, for eternity.’

He stood abruptly and tore the parchment in two then tossed it onto the fire, where it instantly caught and became flakes of ash that quickly disappeared up the chimney.

‘It’s no place for a man like you.’ He picked up the box. ‘Hell’s for really unpleasant bastards. Having you down there would be embarrassing. You’re so bloody soft you wouldn’t even be much use as a member of staff. Anyway, I’ve got to dash – a date with a well-known MP in his “second home” in Mayfair, where he’s been spending some quality time this evening with a lot of cocaine and a woman who lives there and isn’t the one he’s married to. Family values, my diabolical arse. I might get some decent begging and pleading there, maybe even some gnashing of teeth. And I’m really looking forward to seeing him with a red-hot poker rammed up his Khyber, the smug, hypocritical bastard.’

This wasn’t at all what I had expected. ‘You’re releasing me from the contract? Why?’

‘It’s Christmas,’ he said. ‘Peace on earth and goodwill to all men, and all that. Even the Devil can get into the Christmas spirit. The religion’s immaterial – it’s the thought that counts. Mind you, I draw the line at politicians. Thanks for the Christmas present. I hope I don’t see you again, so be a good boy.’ Then he vanished, popping out of existence like a soap-bubble, taking the box of cigars with him.

When I looked up at the clock, still unable to comprehend what had just happened, it was one minute past twelve. It was the Christmas Day I thought I’d never see. The telephone rang.

‘Merry Christmas, my love,’ she said when I picked up the handset. And outside, the drunks were singing and the bells kept on ringing.

Alby Stone: Slugs and Snails

Copyright © 2012 Alby Stone

Slugs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails; adenine, cytosine, guanine, thymine and uracil…

Nucleotides and nursery rhymes don’t tell the whole story. Little boys are made of more than the twin superstitions of science and folklore. Physically, Oliver Peters was made of the usual chemicals and minerals arranged in the standard pattern for a human male human. Medical science confirmed his biological ordinariness. He was a standard-issue organic machine of the type known as Homo sapiens sapiens. Psychological tests demonstrated that the software guiding its operation was pretty much average: he clocked in at well above average IQ; personality tests indicated that he was neither excessively introverted not overly extrovert, and only slightly more empathic than normal; and he showed no signs of any personality disorders. But it was obvious to anyone who came into contact with him that there was something seriously wrong with Oliver’s internal workings. It wasn’t anything he did or said – it was just that people didn’t like him. In fact, his fellow humans simply couldn’t abide his presence. He knew nothing of that when he was small, of course, not in his waking moments. But as he grew bigger and older so it became clearer that Oliver’s social life was destined to be a solo enterprise.

He should have known all along how his life would play out. The contempt in his father’s eyes, the spiralling of maternal rejection – they should have given him some inkling. So too should the suspicion on the faces of his reluctant playmates and the ease with which they so readily abandoned him as soon as an opportunity arose – even the distaste expressed by his first primary school teacher’s curled lip. Or maybe the way he was always the last kid picked for the teams, the one nobody ever passed the ball to; the boy destined to be at the back of every queue, the one left empty-handed whenever sweets and treats were handed out.

But he failed to recognise every sign. It was of no consequence, not then. Recognition could not have changed the facts. But it might have prepared him better for how his life would be.

Mrs Simmons, his second primary school teacher, once confessed to her colleagues that young Oliver unaccountably made her skin crawl. She had, she told them, an irrational desire to run away from him. He also provoked unpleasant thoughts and violent impulses of which she was not at all proud. The staff room murmured and nodded in agreement. Oliver made them all feel the same way.

‘I get this strange feeling,’ said Mrs Simmons guiltily, ‘as if he was going to be responsible for something really terrible, and that my only two sane courses of action are to either steer clear of him or do something drastic to stop whatever it is from happening. I know it’s bloody ridiculous – he’s only a little kid, for God’s sake – but he gives me the heebie-jeebies. It’s the same sort of feeling I get when I see a slug or a centipede, something I know won’t do me any harm but somehow makes me feel like I’m in some sort of danger.’

Asking any one of Oliver’s schoolmates or neighbours how they felt about him would have produced answers that, although varying in coherence and articulation, said more or less the same thing.

By the time Oliver Peters reached adulthood he was friendless and estranged from his family. Although intelligent – he had once been thought gifted, though for some reason his teachers had quietly reclassified him as ‘average’ – he had achieved nothing. He had no qualifications beyond a handful of reasonable-grade GCSEs, few useful skills, and no prospects whatsoever. Bewilderment and loneliness are not qualities that impress a potential employer. He drifted from one menial job to another, none lasting more than a couple of weeks – usually only until he angered the management sufficiently to allow them to get rid of him and employ someone likeable. The Jobcentre eventually ceased to require him to seek work, but only because the staff refused to interview him. The failure to obtain remunerative work was the least of his disappointments, however. Grown men and women didn’t like him. Small children and animals feared him. Even the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and hawkers of more substantial commodities only ever knocked on his door the once.

In truth, by any objective standards it was very hard to see why Oliver was so universally loathed and despised. He wasn’t unfriendly – far from it. He liked people and yearned for friendship. He was always sincerely polite. He bathed regularly and dressed neatly as far as his limited funds would allow. He didn’t smell bad. He would have been thought good-looking if he’d been anyone but himself. He was well-spoken, generous, kind, gentle and quiet, and there was no malice in him at all. He enjoyed jokes and had an excellent sense of humour. On paper he should have been a big hit with the ladies, a popular guy in the pub, the proverbial life and soul of all the parties he was never invited to.

*

When he was twenty-six, Oliver had a great idea. He would write a novel. It would, he reasoned, be the perfect way to change his life. A successful book would surely give people cause to look at him differently. It would break the social ice and might even thaw the icy hearts of the women he met fleetingly as he went about his everyday life and who invariably looked at him in the same way they would regard something unpleasant they’d just stepped in while walking their dogs. Literary achievement could even result in a much-needed swelling of his bank account.

He set to the task with enthusiasm and unrelenting commitment. The novel was about a white man who had been raised from infancy by pygmies in the Congo after his naturalist parents had been killed by a mysterious giant beast that may or may not have been a descendant of the survivors of whatever had killed off the dinosaurs. The pygmy elders, who had grown to fear the youth, who at six feet four now towered above them all, had belatedly handed him in to the Congolese authorities in Kinshasa. Repatriated to his parents’ home in Eastbourne, the young man had to learn grown-up English and the niceties of middle-class society but was quickly ensnared by questionable family friends and became embroiled in various illicit schemes, social misunderstandings and attempts to cash in on his life story. Eventually, he tired of all this, returned to the Congo laden with practical gifts for the members of his former community, and married his three foot seven childhood sweetheart. The story ended in comic tragedy when he took his bride to a Brighton hotel for their honeymoon and was arrested on suspicion of being a child molester, while his twenty-five year old spouse was placed in a children’s home.

The novel was a finely-crafted work of comic genius. It was a winner. Oliver knew it as soon as soon as he typed the final full stop. He e-mailed a copy of his Word document to an agent whose website promised a quick response, and waited. A week later the agent phoned and asked to meet him for dinner.

*

The restaurant, a swanky French place in Chelsea, was almost empty when Oliver arrived, even though it was eight o’clock on a Saturday evening. Oliver was surprised. He’d googled it and had read that it was very popular. He decided that there was probably something else on locally that was keeping the punters away. Oddly, most of the tables still had half-full plates and unfinished glasses of wine. It looked as though they’d been vacated in a hurry. The only other customer was an attractive woman sipping a glass of white wine. She had shoulder-length red hair and was dressed all in black – trousers, blouse and shoes – just as the agent, Annette Midgley, had said she would be. Oliver hurried nervously across to her table, a desirable spot by the window.

‘Annette Midgley? Oliver Peters.’

‘Oliver, good to meet you,’ she smiled. To Oliver’s surprise, she rose, clasped his right hand and kissed him on the left cheek – not the usual chattering class air-kiss but an authentic meeting of feminine lips and masculine skin. Oliver was stunned. No member of the female sex had ever kissed him before. And none had ever seemed remotely pleased to see him.

They sat facing each other across the table. Oliver didn’t have the faintest idea what he should do. He’d never been out to dinner with anyone and the etiquette was a wholly unknown quantity. Annette helped out by calling a waiter.

‘A bottle of the house dry white, please’ she said. ‘We should be ready to order in about ten minutes, if that’s OK. Thank you.’

The waiter silently glared at her and stalked away. Oliver noticed that the man at the small bar was staring at them. At first he assumed the man was staring in the way men do sometimes stare at women – there was no denying that Annette was an attractive example of her sex – but then he realised that the look was actually quite hostile. The waiter returned with the wine, belligerently pulled the cork and thumped the bottle down on the table. He didn’t ask either of them to taste it and didn’t offer to pour. Oliver wasn’t an experienced restaurant-goer but he’d seen enough television programmes to know that the waiter hadn’t exactly followed the usual rules.

‘Your book is hilarious,’ Annette told him. ‘Once I’d started it I couldn’t put it down. I can’t believe it’s your first novel.’

‘Yeah,’ Oliver replied, embarrassed but pleased. ‘My first stab at anything creative, really. I’m glad you liked it. Do you reckon it might interest a publisher?’

‘Oliver, I’ve already shown it to Penguin and they want it. I was surprised, I must admit. But they want it just as it is. No changes, even. That’s practically unheard of. But then your book is very, very good. It’s about time one of my clients had a decent break.’

‘So it’s official? Don’t I have to sign a contract or something?’

‘We can work out our contract later. The guy from Penguin wants you to meet their lawyer next week – that’s a big hurry, so they’re obviously desperate to sign you up before anyone else gets a whiff. That puts you in a very good bargaining position, Oliver. You could be a major earner for them. All the publishers want to find the next JK Rowling or E.L. James, not that they just want woman writers, obviously. You know what I mean – they’re after instant-hit writers whose books will shift major units and make a lot of money very quickly.’

‘Do you really think it’s that good?’ Oliver was incredulous. ‘I mean, I’ve never read the Harry Potter books or Fifty Shades of Grey but surely mine can’t be that accomplished?’

Annette laughed. ‘Don’t mistake popular for good,’ she told him. ‘The best-seller lists are like the pop charts. Genuinely good material is usually a bit too challenging for most readers. Most people want something easy to read that doesn’t make them think too deeply. If it tells them what to think, that’s even better.’

‘That sounds a bit cynical.’

‘It’s the sour voice of experience. The only times genuinely good literary novels sell in quantity is when they’re up for a big prize or they’ve been turned into films or television, or are mentioned in films or bigged up on television. People are like sheep. Look at all those silly people who went out and bought Herodotus because of The English Patient, or when everyone had to have A Brief History of Time. I know they’re not novels but you know what I mean. How many of the copies they sold ever actually got read? Your book is different. It’s a good piece of writing that will be popular before they make the movie.’

The waiter appeared again and sullenly took their order. They both opted for moules marinières with seasonal vegetables, pommes frites and green salad on the side. The waiter hastily scribbled their order on a notepad and snatched up the menus.

‘He seems in a bad mood,’ said Oliver.

‘Yeah, everyone here seems a bit touchy. This is the first time I’ve been here but the internet reviews all say how friendly and helpful the staff are. You could have fooled me. I think there must be something going on. When I arrived the place was nearly full but within five minutes they’d all paid up and pushed off. The waiters are probably annoyed that their tips won’t be too good tonight.’

She paused to smile brightly and wave at an elderly woman walking past the restaurant with a small dog on a lead. The old lady peered at her suspiciously. The dog, a Westmoreland terrier, went berserk, baring its teeth and snarling, flinging itself at the glass but being brought up short as the woman yanked hard on the lead. The woman yelled something at Annette. Oliver couldn’t quite hear what she was shouting but Annette flushed and quickly turned away from the window.

‘That wasn’t very nice,’ she muttered, clearly upset.

Oliver tried to cheer her up. ‘You look great,’ he said. ‘That’s a terrific outfit and your hair’s nice. The colour’s lovely.’

Annette looked at him carefully, frowning slightly. ‘Why, thank you. Do you really mean it?’

‘Of course I do,’ replied Oliver, taken aback.

‘It’s just that men don’t usually pay me compliments – well, not ever, actually.’

‘You’re kidding – a beautiful woman like you? I find that hard to believe. I’d have thought you’d be fighting them off.’

‘That’s very sweet of you, Oliver. But honestly, men usually back off as soon as they clap eyes on me. When I was a teenager I used to think it was because boys found me unattractive but I’m not exactly ugly, am I? It seems to have become worse as I’ve got older. I’ve no idea why. Do you know, I’m nearly thirty and still haven’t –‘

She blushed and said no more. Oliver knew what she had been about to say. Perhaps she wouldn’t feel so bad about it if she knew that he too had never done that.

‘Same with me,’ he said cheerfully. ‘I’ve never had any luck with women – never had a girlfriend, not even a snog.’

‘Now you’re the one who’s kidding. That’s crazy. You’re a good-looking bloke and you seem really nice.’

Oliver chuckled ruefully. He knew he was saying too much but he found her somehow easy to talk to, even about intimate matters. ‘Not to worry. I expect I’ll break my duck one day. Anyway, I hear celibacy’s fashionable in some quarters.’

The food arrived, minute portions that challenged even the legendary stinginess of nouvelle cuisine. The waiters carelessly slapped the plates and dishes onto the tablecloth and stalked back into the kitchen. Annette and Oliver stared at the food, which would have been dwarfed by the plates even if the portions had been reasonably large, and shook their heads. The mussels had been cooked to dehydration and the salad leaves were not so much tired as comatose. The vegetables looked more mineral than anything else. Annette tutted and Oliver exhaled sharply. Their eyes met as they raised them from the culinary disappointment.

‘Tell you what,’ sighed Annette. ‘Do you fancy getting some fish and chips? Then we could take them back to my place. It’s not far.’

That was a worrying development. Oliver wondered if single women lived differently to single men. He wondered if other single men lived differently to him. It had been a very long time since he’d been in someone else’s home. He had always kept his flat clean and tidy, not just in case the visitors who never came turned up one day but because that was how he liked to live. What could he expect from Annette’s place? Vague memories of his sister’s bedroom filtered back – he remembered expanses of pink and frills and fluffy toys, and permanent untidiness, but that was about it. Whatever had become of his sister? She had moved suddenly and left no forwarding address. Much as his parents had done, in fact.

‘My place is a bit of a dump,’ said Annette apologetically. ‘It’s quite nice inside, though. It’s a housing association place. I was placed there by Social Services years ago as a teenager when my folks upped sticks and left me alone in the house. I think they went to Canada. I’ve tried moving but can’t find anywhere. Landlords always say my references are unsatisfactory.’

‘That happens to me, too. Mine’s a council flat. It’s not much but I suppose it’s OK. Nobody ever bothers me, except some of the local kids. Sometimes they put stuff through my letter box and spray “nonce” and “paedo” and “nutter” on the door. They always spell “paedo” wrong. Kids, eh? I suppose they don’t have anything better to do.’

‘Yeah, I get that where I live. Not the “paedo” bit, though – it’s usually just pictures. You know the kind I mean. It isn’t very nice but what can you do? I’ve reported it to the housing association and the police but they seem to blame me.’

‘Snap. It’s the same with employers. I never last long in a job because I seem to get the blame for anything that goes wrong.’

‘That happened to me until I decided to become a literary agent. I do most of my business online or by phone and I don’t do too badly out of it. Mind you, my clients usually move on to someone else as soon as they meet me in the flesh. Maybe I don’t come across as professional enough for them. It’s very frustrating.’

Oliver boldly signalled to the waiter and asked for the bill. The man seemed relieved and was slightly less surly when he brought it to their table. Annette insisted on paying but they agreed that there would be no gratuity. No member of staff came to either collect the money or bid them goodnight. They left the money on the table and collected their coats. No one saw them to the door.

Out on the street, Annette took Oliver’s arm, another surprising gesture. He didn’t mind that. In fact, strolling along with a beautiful redhead on his arm, he felt ten feet tall. People gave them a wide berth. In the chippie customers queuing ahead of them seemed to suddenly remember that they had somewhere else to be. The woman behind the counter was unfriendly but served them speedily. They arrived at Annette’s flat slightly less than fifteen minutes after leaving the restaurant.

Oliver couldn’t believe his eyes. Annette’s walls were emulsioned white and the floors were varnished wood with autumnally-coloured rugs. All the curtains were ochre and so was the three piece suite. The remaining furnishings were pine. The flat was tidy and clean. Books, DVDs and CDs were neatly arranged on pine shelves. It was exactly like Oliver’s own place. He had the strange feeling that he’d dreamed the visit to the restaurant and had just woken up at home.

I am actually at home here, he thought hazily as he watched the red-haired woman arranging plates and crockery, uncorking a bottle of wine and smiling at him as she did so. This place and my place are somehow the same place.

Two bottles of wine later, the cod and chips were eaten and a third bottle had been opened. Annette and Oliver were sitting on the ochre sofa.

‘I’ll be there when you meet Penguin’s lawyers and their rep. The deal will have to include at least two more books, a hefty advance and a good deal on royalties and rights. I did a legal course online so I know the ropes.’

‘This is brilliant,’ said Oliver happily. ‘Annette, this is the best night of my life.’

‘It could get even better,’ she grinned wickedly. ‘How do you feel about breaking your duck? I’m absolutely dying to break mine.’

*

They had to try a few times before they got it right but that night those ducks were well and truly broken. Oliver was happy to go along with Annette’s suggestion that they needed plenty of practice, so they saw a lot of each other over the next few weeks. After that they were pretty well inseparable. They tried eating out a few times but it always ended in some kind of disaster so after a while they no longer bothered. It wasn’t too much of a pain – there were takeaways and plenty of delivery services available. Their occasional trips to the cinema never went smoothly so they gave that up too, staying in to talk, watch DVDs and brush up on their bedroom skills.

Oliver was more than a little dismayed that his new-found happiness didn’t rub off on other people. Indeed, people seemed even more hostile and unfriendly than they had previously been. Annette reported similar experiences. Fortunately the meeting with the people from Penguin went relatively well. Lawyers seemed to have an innate ability to ignore the psychic emanations of others – a legal education clearly involved the elimination of feelings, and the total exclusion of sympathy and empathy from any and all proceedings. In this case it worked to everyone’s benefit. Oliver got his three-book deal, a jaw-droppingly huge advance and a fair royalty rate. Contracts were signed, his novel was accepted and everything in the garden looked satisfyingly rosy.

The news of the latest literary sensation spread fast. Annette Midgley suddenly became the agent everyone wanted to represent them. Her business boomed, to the extent that she was forced to hire two assistants. These women worked from the comfort of their own homes and only communicated with Annette by e-mail, text and telephone. Meanwhile, Oliver was wooed by the media. The Observer ran a short feature on him, followed closely by the Daily Telegraph and the Independent. When the book was published Oliver was invited to appear on the Late Review and the Culture Show. The BBC couldn’t get enough of him. These interviews and appearances generated a fair bit of unwarranted hostility on the part of presenters and interviewers but Oliver didn’t care about that. There was no such thing as the wrong kind of publicity. Sales soared and he became almost a household name.

Annette and Oliver decided to move in together. They bought a house in Clapham. Less than a week later ‘for sale’ signs were erected in the front gardens of the adjacent properties on either side. They were forced to decorate the place themselves – every decorator they asked for an estimate claimed to be too busy to take the job on. Fortunately the new house didn’t need much in the way of renovation or repair, and Oliver was able to handle things like putting up shelves and replacing light fittings. It wasn’t too long before they had their new home more or less just how they wanted it. They kept their old furniture and rugs, and the interior colour scheme was familiar to them both.

To Oliver’s astonishment, his novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In the end he lost out to another first-time novelist, Cynthia Owusu, but was encouraged enough to vow that his second novel would be much better than his first. The award ceremony was marred by animosity from the tables surrounding theirs, and what seemed to be an orchestrated snub by the other shortlisted authors, though the winner was gracious enough to break ranks and shake his hand, and to sign Annette’s copy of the winning novel, the first instalment of a trilogy that now seemed destined to net Ms Owusu another two Man Booker prizes, continuing the trend of recent years.

Oliver began work on his second novel, an acerbic comedy in which W.C. Fields and Groucho Marx teamed up with James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Rin Tin Tin Jr to break up a Nazi spy ring in the Hollywood of 1938. It was, asserted Annette when she’d read drafts of the first four chapters, another winner.

One night, lying in bed after what Annette affectionately continued to refer to as ‘practice’ – though by now they were both rather good at it – they had a long discussion about their once-lonely lives and unaccountable unpopularity. Like Oliver, Annette had never been driven to examine her unpopularity very closely and had always simply assumed it was her lot in life, just the way things would be for her.

‘But it’s strange, isn’t it?’ said Oliver. ‘I mean, here’s nothing wrong with you at all. By rights you should have lots of friends and your family should dote on you.’

‘I could say the same about you,’ she replied. ‘It’s only since we met that I realised there was something wrong with me, and that’s only because I could see the same thing was happening to you. I suppose we’re lucky in that we’ve been able to be fairly successful without having to deal too closely with other people. At least we’re not lonely anymore. We’ve got each other. And even if all our success ended tomorrow we’ve got plenty of money in the bank and a nice home. We don’t really need anything else, do we?’

They didn’t. But two years after the publication of Oliver’s first novel, hard on the heels of the international best-seller that was his second, they got it anyway.

*

Sebastian Oliver Peters was born in the February of 2018, a strapping baby who arrived three weeks later than advertised sporting a full head of curly brown hair and armed with a set of vocal chords that a foghorn might have envied. It was a happy moment despite the circumstances.

Annette’s confinement was an ordeal. Sebastian had to be delivered by Caesarean section, which meant hospitalisation. Annette’s fellow mothers-to-be complained about her – no concrete reasons were ever given – and demanded to be moved to other wards, preferably in different hospitals. The nurses could barely be bothered to see to her needs. Doctors’ examinations were cursory. She was treated with contempt by the catering staff, despised by the cleaners, and left alone with her discomfort and anxiety. When Oliver visited her, things only became worse. At one point he came close to being escorted from the premises by security guards because someone had complained of his aggressive behaviour – all he had done was politely ask a nurse where he might find a chair – and only the distraction of a genuine violent incident on a neighbouring ward saved him from an ignominious and undeserved ejection.

But that was as nothing compared to how people reacted when Sebastian was born and the new family was together for the first time. Babies screamed and wailed, expectant mothers sobbed, visitors fumed, and the staff turned openly hostile. The unnerved Oliver couldn’t wait to get them out of there. The driver of the taxi he’d ordered almost drove off again as soon as he saw the three of them and was only dissuaded from doing so by the deployment of a large wad of banknotes. Even so, when they reached Clapham he drove away without even waiting for them to shut the rear doors.

The houses on either side were still unoccupied. The previous residents had cut their losses and moved out a year after Annette and Oliver moved in, despite not managing to sell the properties. It wasn’t a problem for the couple as they would never have seen their neighbours anyway. It just made the road a little quieter.

Sebastian, despite the ear-splitting volume at which he could request a feed or nappy-change, was a sweet little kid, gurgling happily at each new experience and always smiling in that helpless, slightly desperate way that babies do. The health visitor – the only person to have been inside their home other than the sullen removal men and the people who came to hurriedly read the gas and electricity meters – turned up for the first few appointed dates, though always late and smelling of gin only partly masked with peppermint, hurriedly weighed and looked at the boy, brusquely asked a few questions, and usually took her leave after less than a quarter of an hour. She didn’t interact with the child at all and when her visits dried up sooner than expected neither parent thought it worth complaining about her dereliction of duty.

When they took the boy out to the shops in his high-tech buggy with electronic sensors that monitored ambient temperature, ultraviolet light and moisture, and which had inbuilt heaters and a retractable UV-filtering cover that kicked in automatically when it was too bright, cold or rainy, they didn’t get the attention normally given to babies by old ladies and new or expecting mothers. People avoided them. Shopkeepers sometimes refused to serve them, claiming that a family emergency meant they had to close suddenly. Pedestrians steered well clear, dogs barked and growled as they passed. It was sad and disconcerting but they got used to it.

Annette and Oliver lavished love, care and attention upon their new son, which went some way to making up for the fact that the rest of humanity seemed set on ignoring him completely. Indeed, the kid thrived. His physical development was slightly better than the average, he was walking and talking a few months earlier than the books said, and he seemed to be remarkably bright. Sebastian was able to read at less than three years of age, and could add, subtract and multiply – division took him a bit longer to master, but Oliver joked that was because little Seb always wanted all of everything and never did things by fractions. There was no denying that the boy was clever but he was also rather literal-minded. Similes were just about manageable but he could never understand metaphors, and homonyms and puns were beyond him. How could anything possibly be two different things at the same time?

By the time Sebastian started school Oliver had published six best-selling novels – the first two of which had been turned into successful films – and a collection of short stories. Annette’s business had expanded to become the nation’s leading literary agency. They were very wealthy indeed. The money was a major factor in deciding the shape of Sebastian’s education, enabling them to place him at a nearby private school for gifted but ‘difficult’ children. The head teacher Mr Pargetter – or Malcolm, as he insisted they called him – stared at Annette and Oliver with appalled fascination and grinned insincerely through his scruffy beard as he assured them that his school was well-equipped to deal with children like Sebastian. He had accepted several boys and girls who had problems fitting in at other schools, including a couple of profoundly unsociable boys – one, ironically, the son of a child psychologist – and another deeply unhappy kid who had been targeted by bullies both in and out of her school. All were now well-adjusted and content, thanks to Pargetter’s liberal but demanding regime and his caring, hard-working staff, supported by a qualified psychologist and a team of counsellors. Sebastian’s parents were impressed, to the extent that they didn’t notice Pargetter’s deep sigh of relief as he closed his study door on them, or take note of the way his personal assistant seemed to be in a big hurry to see them off the premises. They were also deeply grateful that they hadn’t been given the now-expected brush-off.

Taking their little boy to school for the first time was an emotional experience, pride mixed with anxiety and sadness at the realisation that he wouldn’t be a little boy forever. Annette cried as they saw Sebastian in the playground that morning, walking bravely but uncertainly toward a group of children already playing a game, running around and laughing. Oliver gently led her away to the bus stop, keeping his fingers crossed that Sebastian would be accepted by at least one of his peers. Up to that moment the boy’s contact with any human beings other than his parents had been minimal. He’d never even spoken to anyone his own age apart from some of the neighbours’ kids, who had immediately run away from him and made sure to avoid him ever since. The boy was a distillation of that strange repulsion his parents inspired in others. Oliver hoped that the school’s reputation for handling difficult children and Pargetter’s confidence in his own methods were well-founded. But he wasn’t optimistic about that and had no doubt they would find out the worst when they went to collect Sebastian at half past three that afternoon.

 *

The telephone call came at seventeen minutes past one. There had been an incident, said Pargetter in a shaky monotone, and they should come to the school immediately. When pressed for details he refused to say more, adding only that it was very urgent and that they should prepare themselves for the worst.

They arrived to find six police cars and an ambulance parked outside the school. Annette and Oliver hurried from the taxi, their hearts pounding, expecting the worst. But the worst they feared wasn’t as bad as it could be.

‘Sebastian, why did you do it?’ Oliver was close to tears and Annette was weeping into her hands, sobbing convulsively. Pargetter and his PA were standing by the door of his study, ashen and distressed, at a loss as to what they should do. A white-faced policewoman stood over Sebastian, who looked lost in the huge leather-covered chair he had been placed on. The boy was covered in blood. Gore was smeared around his mouth. He shrugged, sulky and bored with the proceedings.

At ten minutes to one that afternoon a child had come running from the boys’ toilets, screaming loudly, his eyes bulging in terror. When Pargetter went to investigate he discovered the horribly mutilated bodies of a boy and a girl from Sebastian’s class. Sebastian, wielding a filleting knife he had taken from the school kitchen, was still dissecting the boy’s body, his hand as steady and deft as a skilled surgeon. The boy had been disarmed, led away and locked in Pargetter’s study while the emergency services were summoned. He had sulkily refused to say a word to Pargetter, and had blankly ignored the police and a doctor. Normally the police would have taken his clothing as evidence but they didn’t have any paper overalls small enough to fit him. The officers at the scene were waiting for someone higher up the food chain to decide what to do with the boy. A six year old murder suspect was unprecedented.

‘Why, Seb?’ Oliver wailed, overwhelmed with distress.

‘Sir,’ the policewoman sternly interrupted, ‘the suspect – your son – hasn’t been advised of his rights yet so you can’t question him.’

‘He’s six years old and I’m his bloody father!’ Oliver yelled. ‘And how can he be advised of his rights? He’s too young to understand what rights are!’

Annette sobbed even more loudly as Oliver’s voice rose. The policewoman looked both angry and thoughtful, perhaps calculating her chances of being able to find a reason to arrest Oliver but reluctant to actually take him into custody. She remained standing by the door. Oliver sighed and tried to relax but it was impossible. He gazed at his son with helpless love and incredulous horror. Sebastian still appeared bored and sulky. The boy refused to meet his father’s eyes.

‘They told lies,’ he said abruptly. ‘It was stupid and I told them so. But they kept saying it so I had to show them they were wrong.’

‘What lies do you mean, Seb?’

‘It was that stupid rhyme. I didn’t believe them but they kept on saying it and trying to make me look silly so I showed them.’

‘What did you show them, son?’

‘I showed them there weren’t any slugs or snails or puppy-dogs’ tails. And she didn’t taste anything like sugar and spice.’