Red among em

Published by Disclaimer, 9 September 2017


Usually it’s Pendril and the Celt what bring me the news from the villages tween ere and Croydon. They come to me when they’s passing through Penge on the way to the markets up London Wall way. They tell me who’s sick round their parts, I tell em what I’ll need to make their folk better, and then they fetch it for me from the herb sellers at the Wall. I don’t pay em for their troubles, but Ailsa creates certain protections for em now and then, and that’s payment enough for any man.

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International English

Published by Disclaimer, 13 August 2017


A voice tells him to make himself comfortable. A disembodied, non-British voice, its accent impossible to place but with the curled vowels of American English. An international-school voice. Female, of course – but then they always are. Clients find female voices more appealing than male ones, regardless of the gender or orientation of the client themselves. Much research has gone into confirming this…

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First published in blAEkk vol.4 – ‘Utopia’, March 2017


They’re a proud, patriotic, idealistic people. They won’t let the death of their monarch stop them celebrating the jubilee.

This would have been the one hundredth year of the monarch’s reign – an amazing, unbelievable milestone, had it been reached. And they’d come so close! If only the monarch had held on for another fortnight. If only they, the people, had done more. They could have been less demanding of the Crown’s time and dwindling energies. They could have raised taxes to fund more of the wonderful medical techniques that had already extended the royal lifetime well into the 130s. Wouldn’t that be exactly the kind of genius that the monarch had always championed, the kind that made this society the finest the world has ever known?

No matter. In an ideal society, any event can reach an ideal state.

It’s a glorious day for the time of year. The air is crisp and the palace shines as white as an iceberg in the deep light of a February afternoon. In the palace forecourt, troops parade beneath the famous balcony at which, any moment now, the royal family will appear. In front of the palace gates, news reporters stand with fingers pressed to their ears, waiting for the throw from the studio. Occasionally there’s a flash from high in the sky as the sun glints off the windows of the helicopters circling overhead. If your attention wasn’t caught by one of those flashes, you might never even know that the helicopters were there. As loudly as their rotors are spinning, you can hardly hear them over the sound of all the people. There must be a quarter of a million of them here – people of all classes and backgrounds, of all races, all nationalities. Those at the very front have been camped here for days; others are arriving at the back even now to join in the celebrations. These latecomers are almost half a mile away from the action, and surely they know they won’t see much. They could have watched the whole thing at home, on TV, in comfort. But that’s not the point. The atmosphere is the thing.

There’s a flurry of excitement when, down in front, one of the reporters straightens herself out and stands to attention before her camera. Is she getting ready to broadcast? Does this mean it’s all about to begin? There are pockets of animated chatter in the vicinity. A group of schoolchildren begin yelling and waving their little flags, hoping to get on the telly. A few of the more well-to-do adults discreetly pull scented handkerchiefs from their pockets and cover their noses. (The monarch was only human, after all. And it’s been over two weeks now. Surely there will be an odour of some sort.)

But it’s a false alarm. The reporter was only doing a light check for her cameraman. The chatter dies down a bit. The kids keep waving their flags, but a bit less manically. Hankies are repocketed.

When it does all happen, it’s unmistakable. The reporter comes alive again and readies herself before her camera, as do the presenters from numerous other networks also ranged along the palace perimeter. Then, almost simultaneously, they begin speaking in their confident, fluid voices, introducing the world’s viewers to the scene. Inside the gates the sergeant major barks an order to his troops, who halt their parade and turn as one to face the crowd. A gossip of nervous enthusiasm breaks out among the masses, becomes contagious, and quickly spreads along the entire boulevard. Perfumed handkerchiefs are retrieved once more; scarves are quietly pulled up over noses. The sergeant major yelps a new order. The front row of his squadron takes a step forward and lifts a row of shining golden trumpets. But they don’t play a note just yet. First there are the jets. Here they come, three of them, ripping through the sky from behind the palace to pass over the crowd’s heads, their smoke trailing the three colours of this nation’s flag, and the qualities they symbolise. Kids shriek and cover their ears at the monstrous roar of their engines; adults go ahh and applaud. The jets disappear behind the end of the boulevard, behind the city, behind the horizon.

Now the squadron can play. It’s the national anthem, of course, its signature three-note introduction sounding every bit as triumphant today as it did during the monarch’s long, glorious, revolutionary lifetime. Everybody’s singing, even the non-natives, for this is as much a tribute to the universal ideals this nation has propagated as it is a tribute to the nation itself. Everybody knows the words.

When the anthem ends, the TV cameras pan from the people up to the balcony. From somewhere inside the palace, the hand of a royal aide can be seen pulling aside a heavy purple curtain. Through the gap comes the royal wheelchair bearing the Prince Regent, his three daughters, five adult grandchildren – and, following them, rolled out on a kind of mobile throne by another aide, the corpse of the recently deceased monarch.

If pushed, television viewers will later report that yes, there was a halo of flies circling the cadaver, and front-and-centre attendees who hadn’t covered their noses will admit that yes, you could indeed catch a certain sour-meat tang on the air when it wafted their way from the direction of the palace. But it’s indecorous to talk about such things, so nobody will ever mention them unless asked. One cannot perfect the world by dwelling on its imperfections.

The Prince Regent smiles and waves to his subjects with grandfatherly kindness – he’s well into his nineties himself – and waits for the adulation to subside. With aristocratic aplomb his daughters and grandchildren smile and wave too, their mouths and noses bare, showing no sign that they smell a thing. The eldest daughter even turns to the monarch during the ovation and whispers something to it, while affectionately patting one of the yellow-green hands that someone has crossed together in its lap.

The cheering is cacophonous and goes on for minutes. And yet you could hear a leaf fall when the Prince Regent approaches the microphone, gently clears his throat and begins his address.

In his cobwebbed voice, the Prince tells the crowd how grateful the royal household is to see so many people here on this most special day, the centenary of the coronation of their dear, beloved Grottii. (The ancient word is well chosen: it means both Mother and Father, which of course has specific relevance to the family, but it also has a more general, shared definition close to Leader or Founder that make it equally relevant to the multitudes also present.) A rash of applause among the congregation. This is indeed a bittersweet occasion, the Prince Regent says – and here he turns to check that the monarch hasn’t slumped in the throne or begun to disintegrate in the fresh air or anything. Sympathetic ahhs and some tearful sniffing in the crowd. An insect, a roach or something, crawls out of the monarch’s nostril and scurries up into the royal scalp – but it’s a tiny thing, and not even the heavily zoomed-in TV cameras pick up on it. Yet the monarch’s legacy will endure, the Regent continues. The Crown oversaw some of the greatest social changes in our history, he says. The prosperity and perfectibility of our lives today is directly attributable, he says, to the stewardship of our wonderful, beloved monarch. In such a context, Grottii’s reign can never end.

With the help of the eldest daughter, the Regent lifts himself from his wheelchair to lead yet another round of applause. Along the length of the boulevard, sad-happy tears are shed, flags are flown to and fro, camera-phones are held aloft. Cheers are bellowed. Tens of thousands wave to the dead monarch on the balcony.

And then a wonderful thing happens. The corpse waves back.

For days there have been rumours about this in the press, but no one seriously thought it could happen. Yet there it is, for all to see: the monarch stiffly lifting one bloated arm and waggling a palm at its people.

The crowd’s first reaction is a collective gasp of astonishment, but that soon passes and is replaced by something like rapture. They know the Crown isn’t waving, not really; they know that the arm is being operated by somebody behind the heavy curtain, puppeteer-style, via a delicate, barely visible rod stitched into the royal wrist. But that’s okay. The strict truth of a moment isn’t all that important; it’s what you do with it that counts. In order to make a perfect world, one must infer perfection in all events. And what could be more perfect than this: a monarch who did so much to bring people together, to defeat the forces of division and anarchy, now defeating death itself?

The people roar their happiness. The royal children and grandchildren smile and laugh in response, their reaction wholly genuine. The Prince Regent wipes away a proud, sad, joyful tear, and joins his subjects’ applause for his beloved Grottii. The TV cameras scroll back and forth, first capturing the crowd, then capturing the royals on the balcony, and then capturing the crowd once more. The images they will transmit are just that: images. They can’t convey the full glory of being here, at this moment, as the jets return, blasting overhead to paint the sky once again with the colours of idealism. But they will transmit the images anyway.

And around the world, billions will watch them, seeing how it’s all supposed to be done.

Turn taken

One evening a couple visited the home of another couple. Socially the guests were equal to their hosts, and neither couple outranked the other to any uncomfortable degree. The hosts’ house was not grander than their guests’. The wife of one couple was not more beautiful than the other, nor one husband more dashing. The meal that the hosts prepared together was homely but tasty, and the wine, which had been jointly selected and brought along by the guests, went down easily. After dinner they all repaired to the lounge for more drinks, more conversation and livelier music. When the record played through to a song the women both adored – they went way back, these two – they rose and began to dance, laughing. Their husbands watched from the sofa, grinning. The women beckoned them. After a little manly show of reluctance, the husbands got up; each automatically joined his own spouse. The song concluded and was followed by a slower number. Now the host wife suggested that they swap dancing partners. The husbands exchanged tentative looks and jokey comments at this, obeying the rule that a gentleman shouldn’t appear too keen on such a thing. But an agreement was reached, the partners decoupled and recoupled, and in their new configuration they danced. It was all very politely and respectfully done, yet one husband saw a degree of transgression in the act that he found agreeable. Later the moon was up and this fellow suggested that they swap partners again, that he might be paired with the other man for a time. That was the evening that the lives those couples had been cultivating were brought to an end.

Back out screaming

Published in blAEkk vol. 3 – ‘Solitude’, on 15 Dec 2016



You make it three, maybe even four minutes before anybody sees what you’re doing.

The first person to notice is a man with a laptop two tables away. He’s been busy with his screen and his coffee, but then he lifts his head to ponder something, and that’s when his eyes meet yours. The man has a grown-out crew cut, hipster glasses and an upright, swimmer’s physique. He’s young but not adolescently so; you figure he’s been around and seen a few things in his time. But nothing like this. As soon as your eyes meet – as soon as he comprehends what you’re doing – the man looks quickly down again, not so much at as through his screen. Inside of three seconds he’s downed his coffee and clapped closed his computer and is making hastily for the exit.

You watch him go. You keep doing what you’re doing.

It’s mid-afternoon on a weekday and the gallery’s cafe is not especially busy. At the top of the room a male staff member goes around tidying tables without much urgency. Another two employees, both female, stand near the counter, chatting while they press buttons on monitors or file away wine glasses that they handle, with care, by the stems. Your table is located in the cafe’s south-west corner. Your back is to the wall and you are facing the room. None of the staff and none of the cafe’s few customers is paying any attention over here, where you’re doing what you’re doing. Halfway down the room’s west wall is a large standing plant; if there’s anyone at the table beyond it, you can’t see them. Not that it matters. The cafe’s exit is directly opposite you, in the north-east corner. The cafe’s eastern wall is made of an apple-green frosted glass. A class of teenagers is led in from the foyer by their teacher and down the corridor, past the frosted glass. You take all this in. You continue to do what you are doing. You notice yourself make a brief noise, but nobody hears it.

Another minute passes before you are seen for a second, more consequential time. Two ladies, one in her middle years and the other what you assume to be her mother, have brought a tray to the table recently vacated by the alarmed hipster. You continue with what you’re doing. The ladies pour and enjoy their tea. Briefly you think of your own mother. You make a new noise, louder than the last, and of a slightly different nature: earlier it was a kind of persistent phutting, whereas now it’s more of a sustained, high whine.

Against expectation, it’s the older lady who has the keener hearing. With elderly difficulty she turns side-on to see where the sound is coming from. There’s a certain quality in the old woman’s face that you find sympathetic: something mildly bohemian, ’68-ish. The old woman looks your way and squints, but the scepticism in her eyes lifts when she understands what you’re doing, and you could swear you detect the beginnings of a knowing smirk in her expression as she taps her daughter’s arm then points a big-knuckled finger in your direction, but the smile is cut short when the daughter sees what her dear old mum is drawing her attention to and makes a high, shrieking sound of her own, confirming in the process that she does not share the older lady’s progressive outlook.

So, here we are. This is how it’s going to go. Fair enough. There wouldn’t be much point stopping now, even if you wanted to. So you keep doing what you’re doing.

It would be a grave understatement to say that the daughter is displeased with your behaviour. She yells something, some declaration of alarm and disgust that you can’t make sense of over the whine that you yourself are still producing – and now everyone’s looking your way. In unison the two female staff members yelp and cover their mouths, shocked; then one of them breaks into a kind of appalled laughter, while the other screws up her face and makes straight for the kitchen, wanting nothing to do with this.

There are five diners in the cafe, including the woman and her elderly mother. You verify this by counting them as they hurry towards the exit at the top of the room. The elderly lady offers a quick, comradely nod as she’s dragged away by her matronly child. The scandalised but amused waitress takes out her phone and starts snapping photos of you. This neither pleases nor displeases you: pleasure is not the point. You would be doing what you’re doing either way.

The male waiter, the one who’d been doing the rounds with the cloth, stands where he is, looking nervous. He knows he’s the one who’s going to have to deal with this. Tentatively he crosses the room, twisting his hands into his cloth. The waiter approaches with his eyes to the floor, as if you were a dangerous animal that he doesn’t want to antagonise – although you know it’s really just because he doesn’t want to look at what you’re doing. You increase the intensity of your activity. The waiter takes a step back, then moves closer again, but even more tentatively. He holds the limp cloth in front of his body, like it has some power to protect him.

Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave, he says. Now. Right now.

You continue as you were. You cock an ear to check if you are still emitting the high-pitched noise. You are. It gets louder.

Sir, I’m serious, says the waiter. You have always found this bizarre, this being referred to as sir at times when the last thing its speaker feels for you is respect. It’s hypocritical, and it only makes you want to speed up, to spite him. So that’s what you do.

Please, says the waiter. This is a public place. People come here to eat.

You cup a hand to your ear, indicating that you did not catch what the guy just said over the sound you are making. The waiter turns and looks pleadingly towards his colleague, who is by now bent over and thumping the counter, in gales of laughter. The waiter makes a gesture of helplessness. His colleague shrugs back. I don’t know, she mouths. I can’t even…

Almost your entire body, save for the ear-cupping hand, is now fully engaged what you’re doing. Inspired, you wonder if it’s possible to involve your face in some way. It must be. You turn your ear-cupping palm flat against the side of your head and begin to push it in the direction of the rest of your body’s activity. The high whine does not stop and hardly falters during your endeavour, which you find quite remarkable, in the circumstances. Your eyes have been on the waiter all along. You keep looking at him as your face moves to where your hand is pushing it.

The waiter already looked pale, but now he loses another shade of colour.

Oh Jesus Christ, he says, and you could almost feel for him until some internal tide seems to change and his expression hardens and you’re disappointed to see him become just like everybody else in the world and he says he doesn’t get paid enough to put up with this – as if he thinks you have anything to do with the free-market systems that determine his income anyway – and he backs away, screaming insults as he goes. Loser. Weirdo. Loner. All the classics.

You watch him exit through the kitchen. He’s followed swiftly by his co-worker, who still seems to find this all very funny but who isn’t about to be left alone with you as ever more energetically you move, shape, peel, contort. Your vision blurs with the vigour of your activity. That’s new. Your wallet and other personal effects fall from the table. You let them go.

The waiter’s words strike you as rude and unnecessary, albeit unsurprising. You have always been alone, misunderstood; but true pioneers usually are. You’re considering the most respectable way to phrase a written complaint to the gallery’s management when you’re distracted by something – a sound, high-pitched and insistent, much like your own but more of a squeal than a whine. Your face’s angle is such that you can’t see the source of the noise, but you understand that it’s coming from over to your left, roughly where the large standing plant is located. So you haven’t quite emptied the room after all; you aren’t alone.

With some effort you reorient yourself. Halfway down the adjacent wall, a person steps out from the table obscured by the potted plant. A woman.

There’s no question that she is the source of the secondary noise. Over your whine and the woman’s squealing you can just about hear a gossipy murmur as punters begin to gather outside the café, drawn by the commotion of the panicked, escaping diners and the tannoy’s request for the assistance of a member of security staff. But it’s not the hysteria that makes you slow down what you’re doing, nor the familiar anticipation of burly hands dragging you out into the street and throwing you down, maybe even spitting on you, like that time at the Proms; it’s the woman and her behaviour.

The woman is copying what you’ve been doing, or at least performing her own version of it. Your vision clears as your activity slows and your body kind of unfolds and your face returns to its normal position. The woman’s smiling at you. The sense of it is not at all maniacal but in fact rather friendly as she emits her excited squeals and mimics the gestures you yourself were recently making. Shaking, pulling, spreading, adjusting, pushing, reconfiguring. She seems to believe this will be pleasing to you, but it’s not pleasing, not at all. It repulses and frightens you – not the behaviour but the woman’s obvious ignorance of what the behaviour signifies. It was all right when you were doing this. When you did it, it was harmless – not a grotesque, diabolical act but the mere appearance of one. Not quite a parody but certainly a commentary. You were bravely exploring, pushing boundaries, and in the disgust you caused you were forcing your audience to explore and question their own mores, and if they were not able see that now then one day, one day…

But there’s no such power behind this woman’s performance. There’s no higher ideal at stake, no governing intellect at play. Look at her, all dowdy forty-odd years of her, with cake crumbs on her blouse, doing what she’s doing, her eyes glazed and moronic and her intentions utterly, vulgarly sincere as she doesn’t just do what she’s doing but seems to be enjoying it for its own sake. This… this is wrongall wrongYou wish you had the moral strength to confront this horrendous smiling woman, but you don’t. You can only gather your things from the floor as quickly as possible. You stand, close your coat around you and what you’ve been doing, and you back away to the door, just as the male waiter had, yelling the same class of insults that he had used on you. As you exit you fall relieved into the path of the arriving security guard, who asks you if you’re okay, sir. You’re pleased to say you are. Gently the man guides you to one side, encouraging you into the growing crowd of onlookers. You gladly join them – the safety of their physical company, their moral comradeship. The security guy makes to enter the café, but he stops at the threshold when he sees what the woman is doing and makes a kind of nauseated gulp. My god, he says. What is wrong with people.