The Betrayal of All Humanity

I saw a woman walking down a footpath towards the sea. One woman of a group of three pedestrians, not yet elderly, certainly no longer young.

They carried between them the paunch of middle age, tucked neatly under a belt or a waistband. The woman wore sensible leggings stretched out underneath a summer shift, a pursebag between the stripe of a strap across her back, sandals slapping on the footpath.

“I’ll let you know the next time we get one and I’ll send it over,” her friend was saying, as they swung past me on the final zig of the sea-bound zig zag.

“That’d be great,” the woman replied, leaning to her partner by her side. “Last time we paid, what was it? Sixty? You can go by train, but…”

As she said these words, she veered to her left, reached out a hand, grasped a stray branch and, with the deft clench of an expert, stripped the branch of leaves. She walked on, without breaking her stride.

“Oh no, you’ll want to fly,” her friend said.

But it was too late. In that moment, the woman had betrayed all of humanity for the apes we are.

Seen Seine Scene

This is a better story than the one you are reading. I know it is because I am looking over your shoulder. You are the Japanese man sitting up straight on a marble bench, at the head of the Île Saint-Louis, where it prows into the Seine. The winter sun is propped up on the draughty apartment blocks of the Île de la Cité. You squint over at the river whenever the sun squeezes through the clouds; otherwise your head is bent to the paperback pocket book in your hands. But it’s not as good a story as this one and it never will be.

Beside you is your trusty leather briefcase with its brass buckles and also your thin rain jacket and your hat, discarded in an unexpected light of February. Your bare hair is graveled with grey. You must be about fifty years old.

 You lean back to watch one of the tourist navettes as it rumbles on towards the Tour Eiffel. Your interest is gone for a moment from your book. I do not wonder, for it is not as interesting as you thought, is it? In fact, you yawn, teeth straining against lips. Then you rub your hand over your chin, feeling the stubble that wasn’t there this morning. It seems to grow faster as you get older. It seems to grey faster as you get older too. We’re not alone on the bank. A man and a woman twist into each other’s limbs. Three girls sit, legs dangling over water. Two dogs walk a man. Your attention drifts like the current.

 Reluctantly, you pull your eyes from the girls on the bank and back into your book. But you’ve lost your place. These things happen more as you get older. You try to start again from a page you remember, but it’s too much. Who is this character? You flick back a couple of pages, forward a couple of pages. Where are they? You frown. This dialogue doesn’t seem right. This description isn’t familiar.

You flick right back to the start of the story, but even the first line looks foreign now: ‘In 1962, a child was born…’ That would make him fifty today, you think to yourself – but who is he? He hadn’t been there before. The book had been about a nineteenth-century poet before you’d got distracted. You put a hand on your trusty leather briefcase for reassurance, but the brass buckles are cold. You shiver as the sun struggles. The words of the book are confusing, making your grey head hurt. It had been about a romantic poet with a flair for society, but now it talks about photocopiers and divorce?

 You snap the book shut and sigh. It’s too much. You look out at the water. The sun pushes hard one last time. The girls on the bank laugh. You bend your back and stand up straight. A dog barks at nothing. The navette rounds a corner in the river, beneath a span of the Pont Neuf. Without quite meaning to, you draw back your hand and, with all your force, launch the book out into the Seine. I quite understand, because this will always be a better story than the one you are reading.

A Disturbing Night

He awoke with a restless sense of unease.

What was wrong?

He felt for his hands, pushed his legs against the mattress, brushed his tongue over his teeth. All present and correct.

Something was missing.

His sheets were there, in some disarray, but there. His blanket and pillow were there. But the feeling remained.

What had gone?

He looked around the hotel room, sunlight sliding through. Maybe something had happened. Maybe his friend had gone. He looked over – but there she was, sleeping in the other bed, the sheets rising and falling, slow and steady.

Then it struck him: his boxer shorts.

He felt for them under the bedsheets. Gone. He bent to look around on the floor, keeping the sheets tight around his body – but they had disappeared.

How can a pair of boxer shorts simply disappear?

He had worn them to bed, he was sure. He knew he had worn them to bed last night. His friend would have screamed if she’d seen him naked. She wasn’t that kind of friend.

So where were they now? Was this some kind of practical joke? Was he the victim of alien interference? Had he, in the Freudian depths of his unconsciousness, somehow removed them? And if he’d been able to remove them – what else had he done?

The mystery of the boxer shorts would linger through the day, teasing his mind as his friend showed him around the ruins of Ġgantija.

Death of a Snail – RIP 22nd July 2006

I went to refill the watering can. As I lifted the grille on the water butt I noticed a snail shell stuck to the top; no sign of the snail mind you, but, damn, I’d be hiding out in this heat too. As I dunked the can into the murky water of the butt, filled overnight by heavy storms, something floating on the surface caught my eye. There it was, bobbing serenely into my half-submerged watering can: one gruesomely bloated carcass of an ex-snail.

I gasped and brought the can sharply out of the water, leaving the slug behind, drunkenly pirouetting in the disturbed water. I examined the carcass more closely; the slug had swollen to gargantuan proportions. It was half a foot long and its tentacles burst from its head like an over-inflated novelty balloon.

A long hot humid spell inevitably wrought thunderstorms; the rain was straight out of The Old Testament and brought a harsh mercy to garden life, but marked one snail in particular for spectacular extinction.

This is a reconstruction of his final hours.

In the ne’er do good pre-dawn of Saturday, with his foolish progress punctuated by Frankenstein thunder and lightening, one snail attempted the daredevil crossing of the water butt. In the dark, the depths echoed danger, but the treacherous grille cover proved temptation too much.

Snails love water, but you don’t see them swimming in puddles, except face up.

This snail had not accounted for the rising water from the depths of the parched butt.

The vengeful rains brought down inches in moments and it was not long before our snail started to feel the waves lapping at his underbelly. Another ten minutes of deluge and the water butt starts to overflow, washing mercilessly over the body of the snail. The grille prevented the shell from slipping into the wash, but as the rains eased, the slug drowned from the bottom up.

Love Letter Litter

The rubbish truck crawled down the road. Two men in orange suits trailed behind, feeding the truck with the green recycling boxes from the kerbside. One man did the odd houses, one did even and the lorry drove between them, its lights whirling.

One of the men in orange suits hoisted the recycling box from number 73 up to the truck and was about to toss it, when he stopped: something caught his eye. He rested the box on the side of the lorry and took out a single sheet of A5 paper.
“Here, look at this,” he called to his even-house mate.
“What’s that?” The other bin man walked over. “Anything good?”
“It’s a love letter.”
“Aw, how sweet! – you soft or something? Drooling over mush!”
“Shut up! What’s it doing in a recycle bin, that’s what I want to know.”
“It’s paper, isn’t it?”
“I didn’t mean that. I meant: why is a love letter being recycled? You’re supposed to keep them forever, aren’t you?”
“Love don’t live here any more,” the second bin man sang.
“Maybe it was the wrong address, you mean?”
“No idea, Sherlock.”
“Maybe it wasn’t sent to 73, but was meant to be from 73.”
“The mystery of the love letter litter!”
The first bin man looked at the letter. “It’s addressed to 73. But I guess that could be the sender’s address, couldn’t it?”
The second bin man leaned over the first’s shoulder. “Where’s the envelope?”
“It’s not here.”

Just then, the driver leaned out the window and banged on the side of the lorry.
“What’s keeping you?” he yelled over the churning engine.
The first bin man looked up from the box and shouted back, “come and have a look at this, Bill.”
“What is it?”
“Just come and have a look.”
Bill face huffed and disappeared back through the window. The engine shuddered to a silence. The door opened and Bill jumped down from the cabin.

“What is it?” he asked the first bin man when he’d got to the back of the truck.
“A love letter.”
“A what? You got me down here for a bleeding love letter?”
“What’s it doing in a recycle bin, Bill?”
“I couldn’t give a rat’s ass what it’s doing in a recycle bin! Come on, let’s get back to work,” and he turned away.
“Ah, come on Bill, play the game. Why’s it in the bin?”
Bill turned back to the first bin man and shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe she doesn’t love him any more.”
“Is it from a man?” the second bin man asked the first.
“I can’t tell. I’ve only got the first page here. It’s addressed to someone called Anne.”
“Maybe it’s not even from a man. Maybe it was a letter from her mum,” said the second bin man.
“Could be.”
“Has it got a date?”
“Come on guys, let’s get back to work,” Bill said.
“No, wait, let’s see,” the first bin man looked closely at the letter. “Yes, there’s the date: the 14th of February.”
“Mystery solved: Valentine’s,” Bill said.
“Could be…doesn’t explain why it’s in the bin, though.”
“What year is it?” the second bin man asked.
“It looks old to me,” said Bill, leaning back over the letter.
“There’s no year, just the 14th of February.”
“Blows your theory of the mother out the water,” said Bill.
“Not necessarily – Mums often do stuff like that.”
“You get Valentine’s cards from your mum?” Bill sneered.
“Shut up – I didn’t say that!”
“Never mind. Maybe it’s from her mum, maybe it’s not. But why’s it in the bin?” the first bin man asked them again.
“Oh – maybe it was sent to the wrong address,” Bill said.
“I thought that,” said the first bin man.
“Or maybe not the wrong address, but maybe it just arrived too late.”
“Too late for what?”
“Well, Valentine’s day was on Monday, wasn’t it? What if it arrived on Tuesday? What if she already had a Valentine for Monday?”
“Or that she didn’t want this one,” the first bin man said.
“You’re not suppose to know who your Valentine is – I bet the letter was anonymous,” the second bin man said.
“How come you’re such an expert?” said Bill.
“Shut up – some of us can get with the ladies, you know.”
“It might have been anonymous, but no one just sends a Valentine’s out of nowhere. You can always guess,” said the first bin man.
“All right, so here’s my theory,” Bill said, “maybe this fella was an ex. Maybe he was a arsehole. Maybe he used to beat her and that, so she threw the letter away.”
“Oh, dark, mate. What are you saying that for?” the second bin man said.
“Well, it explains why the letter’s in the bin, doesn’t it?”

The three men fell silent and looked at the letter, two reading over one’s shoulder.

After a while, the first bin man spoke up: “maybe it got sent and it arrived and Anne said yes and they lived happily ever after.”
“Why’s it in the bin then?” asked the second bin man.

The first bin man shrugged.

The Superlative Death of Gerund Clause

Gerund Clause (1938-2010) was the world’s finest grammatician. Even at primary school, he would terrify playground bullies with his diachronic inflections and became known as a powerful allusionist at the end-of-term school performances.

At university, he studied chemistry with metallurgy and wrote his thesis on the extraction of iron from irony. He was a popular young man, full of complements, but also an incorrigible show-off, frequently disrobing the female students with a well placed copula.

After university, he astonished military advisors to the government by splitting an infinitive from forty paces and was immediately employed as grammatician-general to the army.

Gerund enjoyed a successful career with the army. It was said that, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he dismantled an atomic bomb with just a question mark. He became famous in the United States for his reported speech to the UN Security Council, describing members of USSR politburo as “oxymorons”.

Continuing his work with the army, Gerund was considered for the Nobel Peace Prize after his vigorous campaign to replace explosives with expletives in NATO combat operations. Unfortunately for global security, his diacritics defeated the policy and Gerund quit the military in 1978.

After leaving the army, Gerund moved into domestic policy. He became known as “The Postmodifier” after a number of measures to streamline the US mail service. In the 1980s, he proposed the legalisation of prostitution in urban areas and suggested that government levy a new syntax on the vice industries. While working in vice control, Gerund uncovered a multi-billion dollar criminal enterprise that was extracting heroin from the female protagonists of nineteenth-century English literature.

Although unconventional and not always succesful, thanks to his considerable achievements, Gerund rose to a high preposition in the US government. He retired from public service in 1999 at the age of 60.

In his retirement, Gerund spent more and more time on his scientific interests. He deepened his understanding of astronomy by studying the phrases of the moon and, in 2001, he successfully demonstrated that spacetime was not infinite, but infinitive. In his spare time, he bred race pidgins.

In his 70s, Gerund returned to the political themes of his youth and, in 2009, he wrote a blistering attack on the selfishness of modern society, diagnosing the entirety of Western civilisation with a self-obsessed malaise he called “Meiosis”.

Sadly, last year, Gerund died of a parasitic gap to the brain. He will be remembered as a great man, whose motifs were always pure and who always had a simile for everyone he encountered. He leaves behind his loving wife, Polysyllabic (68) and daughter, Anaphora (41).

The world mourns the loss of a great figure of speech.

Repose

There’s a repose to your room.

Six vases stand on the table in the centre. In each one is a withered flower. Withered of one, withered of another. The petals lie curled up on the table, dropped on the floor, all shades of decay, from crackly burgundy to dusty velvet. I can’t make out the original, but it looks like it might have been budded roses.

The fireplace stands, but the fire is out: deaded coal dust. The lamp is no more lit, hiding the corner where I know the bed does sit. The whole room could be a mausoleam, or a museum piece. Nothing on the walls is unfamiliar, but it’s all cast with a silty pallor.

That picture over there, I took that: a sunny day in Brighton. You’re laughing, I remember, behind me, laughing at the cameraman and his so serious sunsets. But apparently it was worth it, there on your wall, after all.

The carpet is fudgey. My feet seem stuck and I can’t budge inwards. I can’t creep to look at books on your shelf, or the papers you hide in their covers, to twist and turn over the oddments that scatter the room. On the mantelpiece, what is the meaning of that elephant? I’ll never know now. A simple shiny lacquer elephant, still standing where you placed him, faithful, trunk swung. But I can’t move.

I know it is there, there in the corner, by the lurk of the lamp, the lamp you never let me touch. I never switched it off at night, I never switched it on in the dark mornings. The lamp was always the gatekeeper, daring me: when you have the lamp, you have the girl. I couldn’t touch the lamp now, not now. That would violate some unwritten rule of repose.

But I know it’s there, there in the corner. Lurked by the lunky lamp, the bed humps, angle poisoned. The bed I know, with its sheets and shivers, the smells when you clump the duvet down, the secrets of underneath pillow. All that soft sheer thread-count-a-million cotton to smooth out and repose. In your repose.

Fancy a Butcher’s?

His mother was the village butcher. She always dressed elegantly, often in full-length evening dress with a string of pearls around her neck. Then, over her beautiful dress, she would throw her butcher’s apron – the purest white, all the better for showing up blood.

He hadn’t known any different; she’d always been his mother, the village butcher. Every day she’d open the shop very early to take the carcass deliveries, Then she’d prepare the cuts of meat, lovingly, handling the sharp knives with a dexterity that her father would have been proud of. Then she’d serve the village regulars, slicing, dicing, mincing to order and her day would end in time for her to walk down to the school to pick her only son up at the gate.

No, her little boy had never known different, but he’d been told by the neighbours that his mother had been quite something in her day, before she’d taken on the family business, quite something.

When she was young, in the blossom of adolescence, she’d had, they said, the boys of the village wrapped around her little finger. But, they said, there was no one for her but Andrew Hammond. No one remembered Andrew half as well as they thought they did, but everyone said that he had been the pride of the village: the golden boy.

They remembered his clean sweep at the school sports day: 100 metres, 400 metres and long jump. They remembered his single-handed demolition of The King’s Head ‘A’ in the darts. They remembered his hat-trick in the final of the West Harkshire Under 19s. And they remembered, perhaps best of all, his shining smile, as featured, almost every week, on the front and back pages of the Croxford Herald.

And it had never shone more than on the day he was murdered.

It was the night of the school dinner-dance. His mother had gone with Andrew, of course. They were the prince and princess of the village, the luminous couple, the day-dream dancers. They said she wore a dress of pure gold that night, with a simple pearl necklace that lit her face just so. But her face had been dark that night, they said. They said that his mother and Andrew had had an argument, about what no one ever found out.

But it made no difference: still they danced and danced around the village hall, her shoes tapping on the wooden boards and his smile reflecting off the mirror ball brought down for the evening. Nothing could take away from their luminescence, from her beauty and his athleticism. Everything was well, it seemed. But that was the last smile anyone ever saw on Andrew’s golden face.

They never found out who did it, who stole the knife from PG White the butchers and who had made the precise cut above the Adam’s Apple to remove the head, found in ditch on the road leading out of the village.

They told him that his mother had never taken another boy after Andrew – out of grief, they said. She had taken over the family business when PG White himself died not long after. They said it was God’s justice that Andrew Hammond had begotten a golden child before his horrific end. They said that his mother was an angel in her virtue, living her quiet life since, slicing, dicing and mincing.

But every time he watches his mother, in her long dress and her white apron, making another incision to the neck of a pig, he can’t help but wonder what really became of his father.

Progression

Do you know what an arithmetic progression is? Of course you do. Our lives are a finite arithmetic progression with a common difference of one: we live one year at a time. One follows one follows one – and so on towards infinity, until, one quiet news day, a bus brings a bloody end to your smug-faced progression. Or maybe it’ll be Gog, Magog and the Lake of Fire, Sarah Palin or a CBRN incident. Oh come on: Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear.

That’s an arithmetic progression. Fucking boring.

Now think of a geometric progression. Are you an optimist? I’m not, I say things get worse. I say we live in a nightmarish geometric progression with a common ratio of a half. We live one life, bad enough, but then we’re back again with a life half as long. After that: another life, half as long again. Then another, again half as long – and so on into infinity until we’re dead before we have a chance to be born.

Think of it like reincarnation. I’m going to live this life as a human, a squalid lump of rotting flesh with a heart that beats for a million ticks and then stops. One human life and then I’m dead and gone, cremated because I’m not worth the grave-space. Call it a hundred years before I’ve checked out – maybe I am an optimist; maybe I just want to make the maths easier for you. A hundred human years.

But then I’m reincarnated. I’m not so lucky, though: I’m on a geometric progression with a common ratio of a half, remember. So this time, maybe I come back as a chimpanzee and only get fifty years before getting smeared.

Then, before you can say “the transmigration of souls,” I’m back as a snake and only get twenty-five before kicking the calendar.

Next, I might return as a camel for twelve and a half years before popping my clogs. I quite fancy being a chipmunk for six and a quarter years and a mouse for three and an eighth, before eating another dirt sandwich.

I could add another eighteen months as an opossum, before rejoining our great majority. As a particularly resilient worker ant, I could manage nine months before being remaindered. I’d follow that up with a life as a worker bee, before turning up my toes to that too.

Then I’ll race through lives as a housefly and a fruit fly until I’m back for just five minutes as a female mayfly of the species dolania americana – and thence to meet my godless maker.

But even if I took all these reincarnated lives, from my fifty years as a chimpanzee to my five minutes as a mayfly of the species dolania americana, and added them together, I still wouldn’t get another hundred years in total.

That’s the nature of this hellish geometric progression. Even if you kept coming back after the mayfly: for two minutes, one minute, thirty seconds, ten seconds, five seconds, two seconds, one second – you’d still never match your hundred hypothetical years as a human.

Don’t waste it.

Death on a Sofa

It could happen right now. The ceiling could collapse on me, squashing my skull under the concrete. The radio could burst into flames and I could suffocate in the fumes. A thief could break in through my window and stab me to death. I could have already ingested a deadly bacteria from a tomato that I didn’t wash earlier. I could have a heart attack. The incense I am breathing in could be poison.

The whole point of death is its suddenness. That’s the game, that’s the framework. I need death to live and life to die. I need you to be me and you need me to be you.

The fluorescent light bulb on in my room could explode and kill me with noxious fumes. The floor might collapse underneath me, crushing me in the rubble. My computer could explode, sending shards of plastic flying across the room to sever my carotid artery and I could bleed to death on this very sofa, right here, as I write these very words.

Still waiting.

Better do something else.

The Age of Plastic

What’s left when the entire human race is dead?

Good question. Well, now we know: what’s left when the entire human race is dead? Fire alarms, that’s what.

There’s no one here to service them, there’s no one here to fix them after they go off. And, because they weren’t connected to the grid, they didn’t just shut up when the power went down. I know that sooner or later the batteries will run out, but I’ll probably be gone by then too.

It gets you to thinking though. Those fire alarms will last longer than I will. What does it say about the human race, when our warning systems outlive the ears they were meant to warn? It’s like the man who set his alarm clock for the morning, but never woke up. When the neighbours called the police, they found him there, the alarm clock still ringing, but his ticker gone.

When we’re all dead and rotting – and it won’t be long – the vultures (or whatever’s left) will get ear-ache picking over our bones.

Makes you wonder what else we’re leaving behind. What else seemed so important that we had to give it a life-expectancy ten times longer than our own?

Did you know that the first piece of synthetic polymer plastic wasn’t created until 1907? The plastic we used to make, before we started dying, had a life-expectancy of a thousand years. You’d have to go back to the Norman invasion of England to get an idea of how long a thousand years is. Just imagine if the Normans had made everything out of plastic instead of wood or metal or stone. Archaeology wouldn’t be so hard: it’d all still be here.

Except there wouldn’t have been any archaeologists around to find it. If the Normans had invented plastics, like we did, they’d have got themselves into this fine mess, like we did – and we wouldn’t have existed at all.

So should we be grateful that the Normans didn’t invent plastic? Grateful that we got the chance to live on earth, grateful that we were the ones who invented plastic? Grateful that – no matter that we wiped out fifty percent of the species on earth, including ourselves – at least we had the opportunity to live?

Maybe we should be. What difference does it make? The earth was bound to reject us sooner or later. No species lives forever. We’re not the first species to mine ourselves out of existence in an orgy of over-consumption either.

Maybe we are the first species to talk about it at dinner parties, though. Maybe we are the first species to know what we’re doing to ourselves as we’re doing it to ourselves – and then to pass around the port.

We’re like the villain in a Bond film, who, with masochistic relish, informs 007 of the precise mechanism of his death and then walks away. Of course, that was always just a plot device to give James Bond enough time to escape from the villain’s snare. It’s not going to work that way for us. We’re doing it to ourselves, pressing the gas mask to our faces as we talk. We can’t walk away.

Strangely enough, though, I don’t care. And I’m not alone. Well, I am alone, but I wasn’t alone, clearly. No one cared, before they started dying, because it wasn’t real. No one could get a grip on the scale of the problem. I can’t blame any one else either. No one understood what we were doing in the age of plastic. And then, when we did understand, no one could control themselves.

We choose this, we wanted it.

Funny that, as the earth burns up, the only sound I can still hear is the sound of fire alarms.

An Alcoholic in a Country Village

We see him, now and then, shuffling along the road leading out of the village. Sometimes we see him in the local shop, his head unsteady, tilting at the sweet stand. But most often we see him in the pub, The King’s Head, on the left as you come from the green.

His name is Steve and he drinks lager. Sometimes he plays on the fruit machines, but most often he drinks lager.

The King’s Head is split into two parts, separated by a wall. The larger part of the bar is on your right as you come in and there’s always half a dozen locals here, whiling away the country hours. The left hand part of the pub has only a few seats and is where you can find the pool table, a couple of dartboards and, lately, me and George.

And Steve.

We go there to relieve the tension of unemployment. At the pub we can relax, shoot some pool and talk about jobs and how they’re for mugs and how we could make a whole stack of money in some scheme or other.

But we don’t drink. Oh no, we don’t drink, not like Steve.

I wonder about Steve a lot. He’s not employed either. I don’t see how he can be. He’s there, already drunk, when we pop in for a quick game of pool at lunch time and he’s still there when we leave. He drinks slowly, but steadily. Lager.

But then he does seem to go home for the evening. I wonder what he meets there. A wife? His mother? A housekeeper? Or the lonely click of his key in the lock, the tired creek of his old front door and the empty tick-tock of the hall clock…?

The Hostage

The men with masks tied us up. They tied us up, back-to-back on the floor of the bank vault, and then they left. For two days we breathed each other’s breath, felt each other’s hearts, beating through our rib-cages. For two days we starved and suffocated together.

On the morning of the third day, the men with helmets came and cut the cord. The vault opened to the agoraphobic world and I lost you in the crowd. You were relieved, but I? I am still in that vault, bound alone to my memories.

The Lamp

It was my birthday today. My girlfriend – of six years, mind you – gave me a lamp. A lamp. I don’t like lamps. Why did she buy me a lamp? Does she know me so little? Six years! Has she not noticed my aversion to mood lighting?

It’s not even a lamp with a purpose, like a bedside lamp or a desk lamp – it’s one of those funny little ornamental lamps, shaped like a stone. And the light – such as it is – is a feeble puddle of sick yellow. Useless. It just sits in the corner, like a disease.

I haven’t the heart to tell her I hate it though. I wonder if it was meant as a message, that she wants to shed some light on our relationship or something. I’ve never been so disturbed by a gift in my whole life. I mean, I’ve received plenty of crappy presents before, but this is supposed to be from the love of my life. A sodding lamp.

I think I’m going to have to break up with her.

But what can I say? I can’t tell her the truth. I can’t say that we’re splitting up because she gave me a lamp for my birthday. That would look superficial – but it’s not superficial, is it? How can she have gone out to buy me a nice present and come back with a lamp? What does that say about us?

But still, I can’t blame the lamp. She’d tell all her friends that I broke up with her over a lamp and then I’d never get with Suze, would I?

Nah – there’s no option but to blame our break-up on something else. I guess I could use Jon. They’ve been shagging for months.

Then I can dump the lamp.

Tetris Life

I once spent a whole summer playing Tetris. I’d get up late and play, like, seven hours straight. And then, at night, when I slept, I’d see the blue and yellow and red and green blocks falling like alien snow, soft and easy in my dreams, falling into place with a touch of my mind.

But the summer ended and it was time to go back to school. Obviously I couldn’t play so much and anyway I met Susie soon after that. But that summer of Tetris has always stayed with me, as a metaphor, and I still get those dreams sometimes.

I figured life is just a game of Tetris, isn’t it? You twist and turn to fit in around other people, sometimes you slot into space perfectly; other times it’s awkward, nothing seems to fit and there’s a bit of a panic as the mistakes pile up. Sometimes it gets so awful that you’ve got no choice but to fail and start all over, building up from the bottom again.

The most important thing in Tetris, like in life, is to have a good strong foundation. An early mistake is always lurking there to trip you up. You’ve got to dig down and sort it out sooner or later or you won’t get anywhere. Sorting yourself out can take a long time, but it’s always possible.

The art of Tetris is to stay focussed on the current block, while keeping one eye on what’s coming next. But you’ll never really know the future, nothing beyond the next block. You have to deal with the blocks that life throws at you.

Me and Susie lasted a couple of terms, but then she decided that Adam fitted her much better. That was fine by me. She helped me get through a couple of levels and then I was ready for more, with a clear screen ahead of me.

As I get older, though, I find the blocks are falling fasting. It’s that much more difficult to manipulate them and get them slotting in the right way. Sometimes you just have to make do, cram them in any old how. There’s no point waiting for the right block, I don’t have time. Once, around level four, I waited almost the whole game for one of those long straight blocks. I could afford to do that, the game was still pretty slow and, when it came – boom – five rows down in one.

I don’t have that luxury any more. I’ve got to make do with whatever comes my way. Just keep going, line after line, level after level, until one day it all just falls apart.

The Taps

The taps have stopped dripping. Ever since the day my dad died, all the taps in my parents’ house have been dripping, like they were in mourning or something, dripping tears onto the porcelain of the sinks. The taps have been dripping for so long that the water-drops have grooved brown stains where they fall.

It would make sense that the taps were in mourning. My dad was a plumber and lived pretty much his whole life in this old house, ever since he bought it in the sixties with mum. He fixed up the central heating back in the seventies and he was always tinkering around with the pipes and the boiler. They must have missed him badly when he died.

Soon after the taps started dripping, mum called dad’s old mates in to sort it out. They tightened all the nuts in the taps – for free, they said, out of respect for my dad – and the dripping stopped. But as soon as they left, the taps started up dripping again. Mum decided to get used to it, she said it made up for the silence of my dad’s absence.

But now they’ve stopped, a year to the day that my dad died.

I suppose when you live somewhere for a long time, you and the plumbing start working in rhythm. The boiler warmly awakens you in the morning and heats the house for you in the evening. The water pipes expand and contract in diurnal exercise. The radiators flex into life in the winter and hibernate in the summer. There’s hot water just when you need it, cold when you don’t. The plumber playing on his pipes in symphony. And then, suddenly, only the taps drip-dripping.

I don’t live in a house. Not many people do these days. I live in a studio flat in the city. I moved in six months ago and I imagine I’ll move on again in another six months. I don’t think my studio flat will cry for me like this old house has for my father. It’s not like that anymore.

She Was a Pianist

She was a pianist. That’s what she always said anyway. Not once in the whole time I knew her did I ever see her play the piano, but that didn’t stop her. She was a pianist, end of story.

We’d been dating for about two months before I questioned her pianist credentials, but she just changed the subject. I didn’t press her at the time because she was very pretty and it’s not often that I have the chance to date pretty girls, so I just let it slide. What did it matter to me anyway, if she did or did not play the piano?

So things progressed, as they do. I’d go to her place, she’d come to mine, we’d meet in the park, we’d go to the mall. Then pretty soon it was her birthday. I was excited about what I’d got her: two tickets to go and see a concert, Chopin’s Nocturnes and Ballades. I’d phoned my mum and asked her for some advice and that’s what she’d said. It was going to be a surprise so I didn’t tell my girlfriend until the day of the concert. I was excited, she was excited, we were both excited. Then I told her and everything changed. She went deathly silent and I got a bit upset.

‘Aren’t you pleased? I thought you liked piano music – you’re always saying you’re a pianist for Christ’s sake! Let’s just go to the damned concert.’
She shook her head.
‘Why the hell not?’
‘I can’t.’
‘Why not? What’s wrong? Tell me.’
She looked very sad, ‘my brother was killed by a piano.’
I was shocked, ‘how?’
‘It fell on him’
‘While he was playing?’
‘We used to live in a big house with a grand staircase. One day, the piano fell down the stairs and crushed him. He was only nine.’
‘Jesus, that’s awful!’
She nodded.
‘So why do you call yourself a pianist?’
She looked ill. ‘It was me who pushed the piano down the stairs.’
‘Why on earth did you do that?’
‘I wanted to see what it sounded like.’

I didn’t see too much of her after she told me that story. The Nocturnes were good though.

Recycling

I always do my recycling. I always separate my papers from my plastics. I always wash out my yoghurt pots and flatten my pizza boxes. Always. Least I did until this morning. I don’t know what I’m going to do now. Anyhow – I’ll tell you what happened.

I’ve got this big green box that I was given by the council for all my recycling, right? I fill it up over the week, all conscientious like, and then on Wednesday nights I take it out for the Thursday morning collection. So last night, just like every Wednesday night, I took the box from under the sink in the kitchen and picked it up to take outside. Just as I got to the front door, though, a baby mouse jumped out. Near made me pop an aorta.

What was I meant to do? If there’s one baby mouse in the box, I thought to myself, there’s probably a whole nest of the poor blighters. Now I’m not superstitious or anything, but I am a believer in Buddhistry, least the bits pertaining to not killing no one. So, you see, I couldn’t just put the box by the side of the road and let them get mashed by the recycler, could I? At the same time, though, I’m proud of the fact that I’m a conscientious citizen: recycling is my civic duty. So what’s it to be, my duties or my moralities?

The only thing left was a compromise. There was two options for the compromise. One, I could take the recycling out of the box and disturb the nest, remove the mice and get the recycling done. Or, two, I could leave the mice to it and take the recycling out when they’ve left the nest. I thought hard about it, but it came down to a very simple question: which do I value more, my duties or my moralities? There’s only one answer to that, so I left the mice alone. I didn’t want them in the house, though, so I left the box by the front door.

I thought I’d made it clear to the bin men that they weren’t to take my recycling. The box was right on the step outside my front door and I’ve got quite a bit of a garden before the road, where I normally put my rubbish. But I guess we’ve got conscientious bin men, haven’t we? I saw them taking that big green box this morning, as I stood in the upstairs bathroom, just out the shower. I saw them as they threw everything into the compactor – papers, plastics, yoghurt pots, pizza boxes – and mice. My aortas froze and I felt my heart skip a somersault. I nearly ran outside, naked as a lark, but I stopped myself in time – what good would that have done?

I feel pretty bad about what happened. I keep thinking about the day when I open up a new pad of recycled paper and there, across the page, is the scarlet gash of mouse blood. I’ll deserve it.

The Light of My Life

My dad was famous. When he died, the newspapers were full of him and his life’s work. It’s not often someone can say that. Of course, I knew him long before his fame and he only became really popular at the end of his life, after I’d left home.

I’ll always remember he used to tell me that it didn’t matter what you did as long as you were persistent. As long as you keep doing it over and over again, he’d say, people will eventually take notice. And his life was the proof, I suppose. In repetition, he’d say, there’s pattern. It doesn’t matter if the original building block, the singular of the pattern, is something strange or mundane, ugly or beautiful. What matters is replication to make the pattern.

I never really listened much to that old guff. The last thing I wanted to be doing was the same thing over and over and over again. It seemed pretty stupid to me when I was a kid, but now? Now I don’t know.

My dad became famous for collecting light bulbs. Doesn’t sound too spectacular when I put it like that, does it? But when I say he collected light bulbs, I mean he collected light bulbs. He stockpiled them, he amassed them, he hoarded them every day of his life. Not to use, mind you, just for the sake of collecting them.

If I buy one light bulb, he used to say, people will think I need a light bulb; if I buy ten light bulbs, people will think I’m stocking up; if I buy a hundred light bulbs, people will think I’m crazy – but if I buy a thousand light bulbs, people will think I’m a genius. And that’s sort of the way it turned out, just he got the order of magnitude wrong by about a factor of about a hundred, I reckon.

I didn’t see too much of my dad after my mum left him. I mean, we weren’t enemies or anything, we just weren’t that close. I had my life and he had his – or rather the light bulbs had his. It got to the point, even while I was still living at home, where there was no room for anything but light bulbs. There were light bulbs in the house, in the garden and in the garage. There were light bulbs in the basement, in the kitchen and in the bedrooms. There were light bulbs in all the cupboards, in the fridge – I even found a secret stash in the toilet cistern. Anywhere you could put a light bulb, he put one.  All different kinds too: bayonet heads, screw heads and pin heads; halogen, LED and tungsten; pearls, globes and candles. You never saw such diversity. You can understand why my mum wanted to get away. I’ll never be the light of his life, she told me once, with a grim smile.

And then he got into the papers, when my mum left him. It was a freak show kind of famous, though: “The Man who Destroyed his Life for Light Bulbs” – that sort of thing. A lot of the newspapermen asked my dad why he collected light bulbs. A lot of people assumed it was a metaphor, that the light bulb represented genius, you know, the light bulb moment, or some other symbolist rubbish. But no. My dad always said the reason for collecting light bulbs was simply that they were a widely available household product. That was the only criteria. His point was that anything done persistently enough will get it’s own reward.

It was a shame that he died when he did. He was really excited about all those new energy saving light bulbs and went on a madder-than-ever buying spree just before he died. Nothing me or mum could do to stop him. But then he snuffed it and he was in all the papers again: “The Man who Destroyed his Life for Light Bulbs Dies.” The papers got even more excited when I executed his will and found that there was nothing left. It had all been spent on light bulbs. The house had been re-mortgaged even. All that he left me was a key with a little tag tied to it: basement stairs.

I thought maybe he’d left me something after all, so I fought my way into the house, through all the junk of light bulbs and dug down the old basement stairs. And, sure enough, there was a little cabinet high up on the wall. Quite excited at what I might find, I reached up on tiptoes and unlocked the door with the key. But inside was nothing. Nothing at all, just a simple switch, like you might find on any wall in any room. I thought dad had finally gone potty: why lock up a stupid switch?

Disappointed that it wasn’t something a bit more significant, I flicked the switch. Suddenly the basement burst into light. The glare scorched my eyes and I flinched like I’d been hit and threw my arm over my face. I staggered back up the stairs, but the hall was also on fire, a blinding light, pulverising my eyeballs. It was like being a tiny tungsten electron in an enormous incandescent bulb. They flared from every wall, from the ceiling, from the floor, through the cracks of cupboard doors.

I stumbled out of the house and into the front garden. The whole house was ablaze with light, lit up like a lantern. It really was a sight, a million Christmases and a million Bonfire Nights all rolled into one. Slowly, steadily I heard voices gather about me. I looked around and saw that the whole street had come out of their houses to watch. Then some folks walked up from the village to see the spectacle. Through my wincing eyes, a little bit of me was proud. Soon people were pulling up in their cars to marvel at the walls, the windows, the roof, stacked with bulbs, all shapes and sizes, glowing in the night like a star.

Well, of course that got him into the papers again. No more the freak show, though. This was a wonder of the modern world, a work of art. You could see the house on satellite maps, apparently, so wherever he is, my dad can see it for sure. I like to think it gives him a little smile.

Hide Dad

So I open the door and this dead guy falls on me. Gross. So typical, though – it was my dad. What a moron. Why’d he have to die here? He’d only gone out for a fag. And now everyone’s gonna blame me. Typical. Whenever anything goes wrong in our house I’m always the one who gets the blame. Well I’m the youngest, ain’t I?

I’m lucky my mum and sister have gone out shopping so as no one sees me with a dead dad in my arms. I pull him inside so the neighbours don’t see neither and lay him in the hallway while I think about what to do. I check his pulse. Definitely dead.

This is so not my fault and I’m so gonna get the stick for it. I give him the once over, to see how he’d died and that, like a stabbing or something. But I can’t see nothing, no blood nor nothing. And you know what that means, don’t you? No alibi. Here he is now, dead as a doughnut, with my fingerprints all over him. Incriminating, or what?

There’s only one thing for it: hide the body before my mum and sister come home, and then deny everything. Without a body there’s no evidence, is there?

It’s like that vase I broke last year, that one of mum’s she loved so much, a present from my sister. Stupid glass thing, no idea why she liked it so much. If anything, I did her a favour. I’d have got well in trouble if I hadn’t hid the bits. Mum’s always having a go at me for playing football inside. But I’d swept it up real careful and then denied everything when she got back in from work. Nothing she could do was there? No evidence. Course she suspected something, she suspected I’d broke it, but she never knew, did she? I wrapped it up in newspaper and dumped it in a bin down by the caff on the high street. They never found it, course, that stupid vase.

So it’s the same story for dad, I guess. Wrap him up in newspaper and dump him somewhere out of the way. Then deny everything. They won’t be able to prove nothing.

Ezekiel is not an Idiot

Ezekiel is not an idiot. He is very well qualified and holds a position of responsibility at one of the more respectable IT services corporations. He has a company car. Ezekiel is not an idiot.

But he’s troubled. It should just be lunch, but something has disrupted his meal. Ezekiel is eating a bag of mixed nuts – or rather – he was eating a bag of mixed nuts. Instead, he is looking down at his palm, trying to identify his food. He knows from the list of ingredients that this bag of mixed nuts includes peanuts, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, pecan nuts and almonds. Using a process of elimination he thought he had identified them successfully, that’s a peanut, that’s a pecan, that’s a hazelnut and that’s surely an almond.

But what’s this? Ezekiel isn’t sure what this nut is. It’s a lot smaller than his almond, but there’s something very almondy about it. Perhaps this one is the almond, not that other one. But then which ones are the Brazils? And are these really hazelnuts? Ezekiel is troubled. If he can’t identify his own food, what else is he missing?

Ezekiel is not an idiot; he’s got a company car.

The Little Red Fiat

This is the story of The Little Red Fiat. You’ve probably seen it, haven’t you, in the Tate Modern? It was painted by my little boy – not so little now, but he was back then. Probably about twelve I think, when he painted that one. But he started painting them when he was only three.

We’d bought him a painting set, nothing fancy, for his third birthday. We needed something to keep him occupied after his little sister was born. He hadn’t taken too well to the new member of the family and we couldn’t deal with a demanding toddler and a new baby. So we sent Joseph off with his painting set. It seemed to absorb him and he did a painting of our little red Fiat – we used to have one back then. This painting wasn’t quite like the one you’ve seen in the Tate, just blobs of red in a box shape. It took a bit of working out what it was, but we said well done and stuck the picture to the fridge, like all good parents do. We encouraged him to paint some more and over the next few weeks he painted and painted and painted. But all he’d paint were little red Fiats.

At first we were just grateful we’d found something to keep him occupied. But then, after his little sister had grown up a bit, we started to worry. We tried to encourage him to paint other things: a tree, the house – other cars, at least. But no, all he wanted to paint was our little red Fiat. He painted all day sometimes and the paintings did improve, he put in more details, made it look more realistic, but it was always the little red Fiat. When he was about six, the painting (for their was only ever one painting really) had crystallised in its final form: the little red Fiat with the the doors thrown open and a boy in pyjamas standing with his back to the painter, looking at the car with his hands folded behind his back – you would recognise it, I’m sure. And so, for six years, that’s exactly what he carried on painting, doing three or four a week. We didn’t think much of the paintings themselves, except as a cause for worry over our son’s mental state, but then we weren’t an artistic family.

But then, one day, something extraordinary happened. Joseph was twelve by then and had just finished one of his paintings and, as usual, it was of the little red Fiat with the doors thrown open and the little boy in pyjamas facing it with his back to the painter and his hands behind his back. This one didn’t seem much different to us from the very first one he’d painted, certainly not in the subject matter. He’d got better with the brush, of course, but you can imagine our frustration as parents. But that evening we had a couple of friends over for dinner and they saw the picture on the fridge (Joseph put them there now, a new one every couple of days) and they remarked how good it was. This must have been almost the first time we’d had friends over for dinner, Joseph now old enough to look after himself and Sarah upstairs while the adults ate. Of course, we just thought they were being polite and we thanked them and carried on serving chicken in white wine. But the husband couldn’t keep his eyes off the painting and it started to irritate us, we wanted to enjoy the evening, but he was obviously totally distracted by the painting. Then, in the middle of dessert, he stood up, quite rudely I thought, went straight to the fridge and stared intently at the painting for a couple of minutes. “You must take this to a gallery!” he declared and his wife nodded, equally hypnotised. We could not believe it and just said, “Oh, don’t be silly,” annoyed more than anything.

Even so, we were rather taken aback by their reaction to the painting and we wondered what to do. Perhaps we should take Joseph to a psychologist, find out what was wrong with him. Over the next few days, though, something even more remarkable happened. Our friends started showing up at our door unannounced, obviously a little embarrassed, asking to see ‘The Little Red Fiat’. Baffled, we opened the door of course, took them to the kitchen and showed them the fridge. Some of them we had to forcibly eject from the premises, they stood staring for so long. It was nice to have friends, and we were oddly proud that our son was attracting their admiration, but the disruption was a little annoying and we were scared that one of them might tell social services that our son was mentally unstable. But then, after the friends, came the strangers. Complete strangers, not even acquaintances, coming up to our door asking to see ‘The Little Red Fiat’. Some even offered to buy it for extravagant sums of money, some people left money on the kitchen table in entrance fees, everybody said how brave we were to keep it in the house and not secure in a gallery. We were on the local news, then national, then the BBC came to our door asking if we would be happy to take part in a documentary about our artistic prodigy son. Of course not, we said, we’re not an artistic family.

Well, we knew it was getting out of hand when an elderly woman fainted – she could have knocked her head and done some serious damage. As it was, she got away with a cracked hip and breathless said, “It was all worth it!” And then of course we had all the doctors around, gawping at the painting – a child’s painting!

So we decided to get rid of it. We asked some auctioneers to come over and value the painting. It sold, quickly, for 1.2 million pounds. That just about knocked our socks off. It was immediately donated to the Tate Modern, a ‘national treasure’. You’ve probably seen it, haven’t you? A little red Fiat with the doors thrown open and a little boy with his back to the painter and his hands folded behind his back.

Our son doesn’t paint any more. He’s grown out of it, I suppose. After we sold the Fiat painting, we also sold the real-life Fiat and bought a Bentley. A few weeks later he came home from school saying he’d finished with painting. He never painted anything else, just our little red Fiat. Just one of those things, isn’t it? We still make a living selling the hundreds of other paintings he did during those nine extraordinary years. We’re glad he’s normal again, though, imagine how he would have been bullied at school, doing those funny paintings.

***

Everyone always asks why I didn’t paint anything else, why I don’t paint any more at all, why it was always the Fiat. I only understood when I got to secondary school, I didn’t have a clue why I was painting at the time. Mum says I was three when I started painting the car. I just remember being so confused by it. The colours were insane. I was scared of what I’d seen. I knew it wasn’t right and I sensed at the time that I couldn’t ask mum and dad about it. And then, when my sister was born, I was even more afraid. It scared me, that scene, the red Fiat with the doors thrown open, like it was abandoned, dad jerking away on top of mum.

Ephraim

Ephraim is holding a big orange balloon in front of his face. He knows that very soon it will all be over and the girls who are dancing around the dining room floor will stop. He knows this because he can hear the mothers’ talk getting louder and their footsteps approaching the door.

The girls are swinging each other by the arms on the wooden floor, their bare feet skipping past Ephraim as he tries to hide. At least they’ve stopped calling him to them. They’re of a certain age, these girls, too old to think anything of him, too young to think anything of him. But they don’t realise that Ephraim is old enough, just about.

So he holds the big orange balloon in front of his face and he prays for the mothers to end this embarrassment. How can he bear it?

***

‘I’m sorry, Ephraim the Younger, I can tell you that it only gets worse,’ says Ephraim the Elder, as he sits on a leather-effect bench in a discotheque. Those same girls – and others – are jerking their bodies on the dancefloor in front of him to beats that Ephraim’s head can’t stand. He lifts his bottle of beer in front of his face and drinks in the view. ‘It only gets worse, buddy.’

***

‘You have no idea, you young ones. Much is left to be decided.’ Ephraim the Eldest was a disembodied vase on a shelf in a motel room in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His china gaze fell on the bed, where two bodies were writhing on top of the stitched bed cover. The sun came in through the window. ‘Have patience.’

***

Ephraim the Youngest swam on ahead, into the waiting world. Leaving his brothers behind. Bold, love has its own way, new life.

Black Magic

My ears are bleeding. They’ve been bleeding for about three days now. I’m not going to go to the doctor. There’s no point. I’ve diagnosed myself: it’s my girlfriend. We had an argument three days ago and I haven’t apologised. I know it’s her because they started bleeding as soon as I said, ‘You can take the damned rubbish out!’ I’m pretty confident it’s voodoo or a curse or something. I’d never noticed her interest in black magic before, but it just goes to show: you never really know people do you?

Cholera

I am leaving, you shall be glad to hear, on the 9 a. m. train. You shan’t see me again, I can assure you. But there are one or two “home truths” I feel compelled to deliver before I depart. One: I have never appreciated your dress. You should know that opulence will never conceal a poverty of spirit. It reminds me, in fact, of eighteenth century whoredom.

Number two, a related point: I should hate to acquaint myself too closely with your kind for fear of contracting some terrible “social disease”. I cannot believe that our ancestors shared common genetic material, but it is not unknown for a stubborn virus to cross from a degenerate species to a more successful genotype, like a rat fleeing a sinking ship.

Thirdly, I love you; I shall bring you dysentery from the Amazon and cholera from the Indus.

The facts on the ground (A love story)

I loved her from the minute I first saw her. You didn’t think that could happen, but it does. She didn’t show much interest in me. She didn’t even seem to see me, to be honest with you. And she was talking on the phone to her boyfriend. So there was no point trying to talk to her, was there?

A year later we got talking, me and her. I found out that she didn’t have a boyfriend any more. To my surprise we really got on. For a month or so we spent every minute we could together. But I was scared, not like I was with you. I couldn’t deal with it. A couple of times I stayed over at her house, but nothing happened. A couple of times she stayed over at my place, but nothing happened.

Then she got another boyfriend. And I met you.

That’s the facts on the ground.

I’m looking at the floor because there’s nowhere else to look anymore

I’m looking at the floor because there’s nowhere else to look any more. It is brown-red and made from cement. Discoloured in places, chewing gum pressed into its surface. At least, I think it’s chewing gum. I control an urge to fall down upon the floor, to feel its smooth stone, to feel its dust, to press my face into its cold comfort. But I won’t because I know that, if I do, they might shoot me. This floor has felt the shuffle of endless feet over the last four years, felt those feet force themselves over its warning floors to the security machines and search areas ahead. Lines of people, patiently everyday, submitting to the architecture of the checkpoint, squeezed through cattle cages, cramped between bars, sent across this floor for the impertinent approval of occupiers.

I am looking at the floor because there’s nowhere else to look any more. I cannot look at the walls, covered with the language of occupation:
‘Insert your documents into the window and await further instructions.’
‘Deposit your bags in the conveyor belt, stand back and await further instructions.’
‘Keep the terminal clean.’
I cannot read these signs any more, especially not the one over there that reads, ‘Emergency Exit.’ There are some I can’t read anyway, written in those block capitals, another angry order.

I am looking at the floor because there’s nowhere else to look any more. I cannot look into the faces of the people waiting beside me. In front there’s a mother, a baby lolling over her shoulder, its eyes fixed by my foreign face. The little boy there, no more than eight, carrying a box of chewing gum for sale, hopeful my foreign pockets will hold change. The pretty young girl behind me, dressed in blue, heading for school. The teenager leaning on the bars, his first moustache faintly showing, an echo perhaps of his father – where is his father?

I am looking at the floor because there’s nowhere else to look any more. I cannot look at the soldiers who hide behind bullet-proof glass, whose orders distort the intercom, who target these unwanted citizens. I cannot look at this soldier, just a youth, as he interrogates the young woman in front – Where is your brother? Where is your father? I cannot look at that other soldier, her feet up on a soft chair, insolently idle on her mobile, talking in a tough voice about something.

I am looking at the floor because there’s nowhere else to look any more. I cannot look outside, beyond the cages, to the cars crawling past soldiers who carry weapons like magic wands, turning princes into frogs. I cannot watch as families are kicked out and the search begins for they-don’t-know-what. I cannot face the watchtower, standing sinister with battlefield views over the wall, the concrete strips of the wall, each one connected like Lego to the last, the least imaginative construction, the efficient architecture of control.

No, I can’t look anywhere else any more so I am looking at the floor. This brown-red cement floor, the foundation of this prefabricated building, this prefabricated checkpoint, this prefabricated state.

Apricots

I’m eating her apricots.

They’re all I have left.

They’re fleshy and sweet and soft from time. The innards make my fingers and my mouth sticky. Every ravenous bite reminds me of her sweetness. But she’s long gone.

‘You’ll want these,’ she’d said, as she threw me the bag of apricots. That was almost a week ago and now, reluctantly, I agree that she was right. I didn’t want to eat the apricots, the last of our love, but I’m going to have to. I’ll intend to save one or two in her honour, but I know that I’m going to eat the whole bag and then all I’ll have is gut trouble. It’s one of those times in life when a metaphor imposes itself so strikingly that you can’t do anything about it. You know that you’ll fulfil the misery of the metaphor and your life will disappear down the wrong course.

I’m down to the last one already. I’ve eaten so quickly that my fingers are sticking together and my mouth is dripping with juices. The bag hangs like a sling shot, heavy with the last fruit. After this there will be nothing left of our love except an empty bag and my gut trouble. I take the apricot out of the bag and admire it. It seems to be the most delightful apricot that ever grew. It’s perfectly globoid, perfectly coloured, perfectly scented – a temptation of biblical proportions. It is without blemish bar a single mole near the stalk – like she has above her mouth when I kiss it.

She could have simply left me quite alone with nothing more than a goodbye if she had wanted to teach me a lesson, but she wanted me to suffer. She understood the metaphor. She knew that I would be forced to devour the apricots one by one as my hunger overtook my love. Yes, she knew about the metaphor already. She wanted me to see the bag and the apricots, to feel the pangs of hunger as they grew and grew, to smell the delicate apricots as they teased my taste buds. So she had thrown the bag down in the hole with me, after she pulled up the ladder.

‘I’ll be back in a month,’ she said, ‘If you really love me then you won’t be tempted, but if you don’t, then you’ll want these.’

Then she threw the apricots down.

Butterfly Home

There’s a hill overlooking Jerusalem that you can get to in a couple of hours. The view from the top is splendid and so peaceful. So a friend and I headed out there one morning, to get away from the city dust. We took bus number 185 to the end of the line, which set us down at the bottom of the hill in a small village. We reached the summit just as the heat was becoming stronger and rested under the shade of a few olive trees. Neither of us said a word, but just admired the view of the white city, the hills and the valleys spread out before us in the sparkling sunlight. Then, as we caught our breath from the walk and the beauty, we were surprised to see an old man approaching us carrying an urn and some glasses.

‘Good morning. You want tea?’ he asked.
I looked over at my friend, ‘Thanks. That would be lovely.’
Dropping a tea bag into each glass, the man poured us the most fragrant tea, scented with cinnamon. As we held the hot glasses, he stood with us, looking out over the city.
‘Do you live around here?’ I asked with interest, for there was no habitation on this particular hill, just the old olive trees and the view. The old man must have walked a long way just to give two tourists a glass of tea. The old man didn’t move his gaze from the valley below.
‘No, my home is down there, do you see? Where the red roofs are.’
My companion and I looked down on the bright new villas that he indicated.
‘Oh that’s beautiful!’ I exclaimed.
‘Not for me,’ the old man answered, ‘That is my home, but I haven’t lived there for sixty years. Those houses are new, other people live there now.’
‘Settlers?’
The old man didn’t say anything.

We continued looking down in silence, but the view had changed and the air suddenly became a little stifling. After a moment or two more, the old man shuffled behind us with his urn and sat down. I took a sip of tea. It tasted good, sugar and cinnamon. I took the tea bag out of the glass and hurled it in the direction of the settlement. It flew towards the sun, glinting with its moisture, before starting to dip down towards the earth. But as it did so, something happened. Its spinning arc evened out and it began to return, to home in on us. Startled, I ducked as the tea bag flew back at me and my companion. Then it landed gently in front of us, on a rock. It was the origami of a beautiful butterfly, with iridescent wings and drops of tea for eyes. It sat on the rock before us, a miracle.

We turned around to look for the old man, but he had disappeared.

The Bus Ride

In the bus station everyone is waiting. Buses are coming and going and we could jump on any one of them. But we don’t. We always wait for the bus that we have bought a ticket for, the one that we intended to catch when we arrived at the bus station. It seems perverse that, in a world where pretty much everything else gets fucked up, we are so militant about catching the buses we bought tickets for. I reckon we should be forced onto almost any bus except the one we intended to take. That would make more sense here.

I tried explaining that to my girlfriend, on the phone, as my bus left the bus station. She was waiting for me at the restaurant and was pleased I called. But then she got angry so I hung up, my bus heading into the night, god knows where.

The Genie of January

Once upon ago, there was a young genie called Eric. Eric grew up just like all the other genies, he played with magic carpets and stayed away from lamps, he went to genie grad school and learnt to do amazing cool things. He could fly like a bird, swim like an otter and eat like an elephant. He could turn princes into princesses, princesses into peas and peas into war. He could Open Sesame, Open University – even open walnuts. He could stir up love potions, hate potions or soup oceans. He could part the waves, part the heavens or just part your hair. Eric could do all these genie things and more – but there was something wrong. No matter how many princesses were turned into peas, Eric was still dissatisfied.

Eric didn’t want to be a genie just like all the other genies – he longed to be different. One day, a day much like all the other days of his adolescence, Eric the young genie was sulking. He was sitting on a rock, among lots of other rocks on a rocky seashore, throwing peas into the soup ocean while grumbling to himself. Suddenly there was an almighty crack and a gigantic genie with a big beard struck down in front of him like a lightening bolt from the sky.

“Hey, you,” the newcomer bellowed, “You, young genie – what are you moaning about? Don’t you realise how lucky you are to be a genie? Are you not a spectacular magician? Do you not make the sheep walk on tiptoes and compel all the cats to speak Russian?”
Eric squeaked in fear at the sight of this awesome genie, but managed to stammer a reply, “Oh yes, Master, I’m a very competent wizard all right, but…’
“But what, boy?”
“But…I feel a bit ordinary,” said Eric in a small voice, designed for mice.
“Ordinary? ORDINARY? Would you call producing a rabbit from a reservoir ordinary?”
“Well, no, but…”
“But what, boy?”
“But, everyone – all the other genies can do that as well. I’m not a particularly special genie. If someone wants their cows enchanted or a magic potion made, they can go to any old genie anywhere. Maybe they’d come to me, maybe not – I don’t give them anything different. I look it up in the big old tomes of genius that we all have and there we go – just like anyone.”
“Hmm,” (when this genie “hmm-ed”, all the rocks rattled and the earth shook) “You really are a dissatisfied little genie, aren’t you?”
Then Eric grew bold, “And, honestly, I think turning princesses into peas is a little pointless – if only I had a good reason for humans to come to me, then maybe…”

At this, the gigantic genie with the big beard cracked his staff on the rocky cliff face (which promptly split in two) and cried out in a mighty voice, “Well, if you’re so miserable as a genie, boy, then I shall strip you of ALL your powers and turn you into a pathetic pauper, forced to labour on the King’s farm all year!”
Eric opened his mouth in protest –
“But,” the gigantic genie continued, “For the month of January alone, you will become a genie again. You will be responsible for one thing only: making sure humans stick to their New Year’s Resolutions. You will be the genie that makes people change their lives – you will be the Genie of January.”
Eric leapt up for joy and shouted, “Oh thank you, thank you, Master!”

As the gigantic genie vanished in a puff of perfume, Eric ran off with great excitement and set about helping people change their lives. He gave a love potion to an old friend who wished but never spoke, he taught a defenceless old woman karate overnight, he won a sergeant major the ballerina contract he’d always dreamt of and, on a kitten, he put a set of angel wings so that it could dive bomb the neighbourhood dogs.

Oh yes – you’ve never seen a busier or happier genie than the Genie of January! But every year, on February the 1st, Eric sets down his genie’s staff and turns into a common labourer, just like you or me. He works long hours in hard labour for eleven months, but, even so, there’s always a smile on his face. Eric doesn’t grumble any more because he knows that, come the New Year, he’ll be bringing hope, motivation and courage to people all over the world. Every year there are millions of people who change their lives for good and never look back. They don’t know who to thank, but the Genie of January is always smiling.

Snowcat

‘The Snowcat!’
I didn’t see a damn thing, but she seemed pretty convinced.
‘I saw him! The Snowcat – over there – I did!’
‘OK honey, just keep hold of my hand, it’s slippery out here.’
I scanned the ground quickly for paw prints, but you don’t see paw prints of the Snowcat.
‘I saw him, I saw him! Let’s go!’ You could hardly tell the ground from the sky, everything was so white and grainy, like an old black and white TV on the static channel after the shut down. But I guess Ellie had sharper eyes than I did.
‘Which way’d he go honey?’
‘Thatta way!’ Her paw thrust out in her red mittens, out into the snowscape over there, towards the forest. The light was beginning to gloom, ready to play tricks on the eyes. It was only about four o’clock but already the horizon was submerging into the ground. They’d be no sunset tonight.
‘We’ll just walk a little way, OK?’
‘Aw! I wanna track Snowcat properly! You promised!’
‘Yes I know I promised, but that was this morning. It’s getting late now.’

We’d been walking the snow fields around the cabin for about four hours now, she never got tired. This was one game she never got tired of. Every year since my father, her grandfather, told her the story of the Snowcat about six Christmases ago, she’d wake up too early on Boxing Day morning and go running into dad’s room, yelling, ‘Granpa, Granpa, wake up – it’s time to go Snowcat tracking!’ And off they’d go, all wrapped up in new mitttens and coats and boots with a pack of left-over turkey and they’d traipse around the snow fields and the forest for hours until she got tired. Then they’d come home as the sun was going down, totally exhausted, and she’d fall asleep with a mug of hot chocolate, listening to dad’s stories about the Snowcat. This was the first year without Granpa, so I was conscripted as tracker. I wasn’t surprised, but today we’d not seen any sign of the elusive Snowcat – until now.

‘Please mommy! Please let’s track the Snowcat properly!’
I looked warily at the horizon, at the few flakes drifting down and at my daughter, her lower lip red from the cold. If I turned around I could just see the sun disappearing through the clouds over the town and, up ahead, the light of the moon filtered weakly over the forest of the Snowcat.

‘OK honey, but we’ll track him just to the forest and that’s it, your father will be wondering what’s happened to us.’
She gave a little yelp and dragged me off in the direction of the invisible tracks.

I had been worried about how it would be without dad to lead this mischievous wild goose chase. Ellie was always so excited about tracking the Snowcat, it was all she would talk about for weeks before Christmas and all she would talk about for weeks afterwards. She had been getting increasingly desperate as the day wore on without any sight of the Snowcat, without my father to help her. But she was a persistent little madam and we kept on through the snow, searching the ground for the invisible tracks. As we tracked him, she recited the story of the Snowcat, word for word, as she’d memorised it from dad.

‘The Snowcat is a very rare beast. He sleeps all year round tucked in the hollow of a tree – except for one day a year and one day only. He only wakes up when he hears the laughter of the little boys and girls – but it’s got to be loud and clear, not just any old laughter. You can’t fool the Snowcat!’ She shouted the last bit happily, like he’d always done.
‘And what’s the day that all the little boys and girls are laughing? Why it’s Boxing Day of course! That’s the day when all the little boys and girls are let out to play with the presents they got for Christmas. So the Snowcat walks the earth on just this one day of the year and he’s almost invisible because his coat is so so white and snowy that he just blends right into the ground and the snow. And the Snowcat doesn’t leave any footprints at all because his feet don’t melt the snow because he treads so softly, like a snowflake. That’s why he’s called the Snowcat.’
She looked up to check I was still listening. I smiled and squeezed her hand.
‘The Snowcat walks all around the town and the fields – no one sees him and no one hears him because everybody is so happy playing and having fun and his tracks are invisible and his coat blends in with the snow. He listens to all the little boys and girls laughing and playing and then, when the sun goes down, he goes back to his hollow tree to sleep the rest of the year. And – I forgot a bit! – And he’s got huge ears, like trumpets, and they soak up all the laughter so that he dreams happy dreams all year when he’s sleeping!’
Her arms swung happily, swinging mine almost out of their sockets.
‘So if you track him before he disappears into the hollow tree – if you can track him with his invisible footsteps and his camouflage coat – then he will share all the laughter with you and you’ll only dream happy dreams for a whole year!’

She finished triumphantly just as we reached the edge of the forest. I looked nervously ahead. The forest was dark now, completely dark. There was no way we’d be able to get in and out without a torch. I sighed.
‘Come on Ellie, it’s too dark now. We can’t go in without a torch.’
‘No! We’ve got to! Granpa would let me! We always tracked the Snowcat right to his hollow tree and I always had happy dreams afterwards – we’ve got to – otherwise I’ll have nightmares!’
I sighed again. There’d never been such a cat. It was just a story my father made up to entertain her. And now with him gone…the memory was painful.
She tailed off, ‘Granpa would let me…’

I turned around and looked back across the fields. There was something very gloomy and grey and fuzzy about the scene. Just a barren snow field and a few shapes that must have been hedgerows underneath the snow and the vague traces of telephone wires against the grey fluttery sky. And way back there, beyond the furthest hedgerow, the town and our cabin on the very outskirts of that. You could just see the faintest little trickle of smoke escaping from the chimney. John must be sitting there, in front of the fire. Maybe dozing, maybe watching an old movie on TV, maybe reading. I felt the little hand in mine – not tugging, but an urgency, an energy, an impulse. I turned back.
‘OK honey, just five minutes, just for granpa.’
‘Yay!’ And she tugged away down into the path of the forest.

The frozen leaves crunched and crackled under our footsteps – a different kind of crunch to the deep snow that we’d covered over the fields. A twigletty crackle.
‘I see him up ahead! He waited for us – good Snowcat!’ I still couldn’t see a thing. My eyes were just getting used to the new gloom of the forest, but Ellie was surging ahead, following whatever her eyes imagined for us.
‘Look mom – can’t you see? Up there, by the old tree with the burn mark!’
I knew the tree, but couldn’t see a thing. There were no tracks, but then there wouldn’t be. I couldn’t even hear a sound in the muffled snowscape.

He was always telling the tallest stories, my father, always playing around, always making something out of nothing. The smallest little trip would have to be an adventure. You couldn’t just have a quiet family walk – it would turn into the great escape from a jail house or hunting down a Russian spy – or tracking the Snowcat at Christmas time. In truth it was annoying and embarrassing for me growing up as a kid. It might sound great fun, but he used to do it all the time, every little thing would get his treatment and it used to wear us down, me and my mother. I remember once – I must have been having a teenage temper tantrum – we were just out doing the shopping and he was trying to turn it into a secret mission to gather ingredients for a nuclear bomb and it just got too much. I dropped the basket right there in the middle of the shop and shouted at him – ‘Stop it! This is not a munitions store, this food is not depleted uranium, this is not the Second World War and you are not General Eisenhower – I am not your toy!’ And I stormed right out of that shop while my poor dad had to decide whether to pick the broken eggs up from the floor or come after me.

There was a squeal from beside me –
‘Look – there!’
I turned my eyes up from the snow.
The moon was shining a narrow beam of light through the trees and there, with his front paws resting on a big gnarled root of the hollow tree, was the most beautiful cat I ever imagined. My breath caught in my throat – he was the purest white – I can’t describe it. His coat was made of the finest snowflakes that have ever fallen – made with the purest water from the purest stream. He had huge ears, like…like trumpets, alert, listening to our heart beats. He was so still and watchful, the air turning to ice with the warmth of his breath. My heart was pounding and I felt the little hand in mine, hot and alive. Ellie and me and the Snowcat stared at each other – it was only a few seconds – until a cloud passed over the moon and the apparition was gone.

Chemistry

The second time he came, I was ready. I raised my wooden staff above my shoulder and I waited. I couldn’t see him of course, but I knew exactly where he was, what sounds matched what movements, the precise creak on the wooden boards as he moved closer towards me across the bridge.

The darkness was complete – but it would have been even at noon, under these trees. He was nearly fifty yards away, but I heard every movement as clear as night. The trees seemed to trap the sounds and pull them down to my ears. I’d stamped out the fire and the smoke was drifting across, towards the bridge, towards the approaching figure. He knew nothing, that was his mistake. He knew nothing of his future and he misunderstood his past, like she had before him. Was that why I was doing this? I don’t think so, I didn’t choose this – it’s sort of forced upon me by the decisions other people make – hapless decisions to move forward unknowingly, unthinkingly – like little bugs creeping along a branch into the web of a spider.

The first time he came, we were still friends. He bounced over the boards of the bridge like a simple kid.
‘Nick!’ He shouted, lifting up some sort of a package, wrapped in greaseproof paper. ‘I’ve brought some hash beef, here, we can cook it up.’
We settled down over the camp fire in this clearing I’d made in the middle of this gloomy old forest, where the wood scarcely ever got dry enough for tinder. Luckily, I’d brought some little sticks and things with me from the edge of the forest, where the late summer sun still beat down on the ancient bark.

By the light of the fire we brought out my ma’s old skillet and set about making up the dinner. After a while, with the hash beef browning in the pan and a kettle of water boiling up among the flames, we ran out of things to do and sat back, waiting.
‘She won’t be long,’ he said.
‘No,’ I replied. He was looking into the fire. I broke up one of the big logs with my staff. It made a little burst of red hot sparks.
‘We’d better take the beef off the heat just a touch, so it’s not burnt for her.’ John slid the skillet off the heat just a fraction. That wouldn’t do anything.
‘I wonder what she’s found,’ he said. I didn’t say anything, just prodded my staff into the fire a bit. By now the beef was beginning to lose any moisture it had to begin with so I took it off the heat altogether.
‘We might as well eat ours. There’s no point in it going cold.’ John didn’t agree, but took the plate I passed him.
‘I bet she’s caught up picking blackberries or something.’
‘Probably,’ I say.

The forest wrapped around us, in cedar silence. There was just the silence of the creak a little way off through the trees, running under the rough old boards of the bridge. This was my new home and I was happy to share it with pretty much the only people I’d liked at college. John was my room-mate from way back and now he’d got together with Susie things couldn’t have been rosier for them. I was doing fine too; I’d spent the summer camped out somewhere along the river, moving along slowly for a change of air every few weeks. But now it was nearly autumn and I needed somewhere a bit cosier, with a bit more cover from the October rains that hurl down in this part of the country. So I moved to the forest. From here I couldn’t even see the sky and, like I said, the sun barely made its way through the tall tall trees. But that didn’t bother me. When it rained I felt hardly a drop and the tarp I used was more for privacy than cover. Not that I needed too much privacy in these parts. I hadn’t seen a soul since July – apart from John and Susie of course.

I’d picked them up from Forgotten Creak railway station just two days before. When I say pick them up – I didn’t have a wagon or anything, I just walked right up to the station and we walked right back down the six miles or so with all our bags and gear and everything on our backs. I carried Susie’s stuff of course. We had an understanding, me and Susie, that John didn’t get. Don’t get me wrong, John’s a great guy, but he’s not very – subtle, do you know what I mean? Well me and Susie were walking up ahead, catching up on the good times, and John was crawling away down behind us, scrambling on the stony path. Me and Susie flew on up ahead – me because I knew the path like the back of my hand and Susie because she was high on seeing me and didn’t have any bags to carry. After about four miles I could see John was struggling. The sun was beating down still in this dog-end of summer and he was looking pretty red and sore. But I didn’t stop, I kept on walking – even faster if anything, with Susie by my side.

I’d met John almost by accident in fact. We were both in the same chemistry class at college. Not that either of us were studying chemistry, it was just a cool subject back then. We liked messing around in the labs, with free access to all kinds of fun chemicals. When I say by accident, we were both called up by the professor at the time and asked to take part in an experiment together. I don’t know why the professor picked on us, maybe because we were the oddest pair going, but he made us put on all the chemistry gear, all the eye glasses and lab coats and everything and took us down to the quad. He said it was going to be a pretty dangerous experiment – for one of us. He told us that one of us was going to set the other one on fire. I know – he must have been some kind of sadist or something. But we went along with it. As you can imagine, that was a pretty awkward moment. No one wants to be set on fire, but you don’t want to be the one who sets some poor guy on fire yourself, do you? I was lucky John was chosen with me. After a little moment of silence he said ‘Alright, you set me on fire.’ You can imagine my relief. Anyway, it turns out that this sadist’s told the whole damn college that there’s going to be some kind of a show and they’re all looking out from the windows all around the quad, looking out on the student whose going to be set on fire.

Don’t ask me how he did it – I wasn’t a chemistry major, remember – but he made John strip right off, with just a pair of shorts and a stupid looking net hat that was meant to protect his face. He looked like a naturist bee-keeper to be honest. Then the chemistry professor gave me some real plain looking gel. It could have been for your hair piece, you know? I guess this is why he needed another student to do the experiment; he could have been accused of molestation, rubbing this gel all over another student’s naked body. So there’s John in the middle of the quad with all the students hanging out of the windows, hooting and hollering, stark naked covered in this flammable gel. Me and the professor have retreated to a safe distance and he hands me a box of matches. I can’t believe it’s this crude you know. That’s why I reckon he was a sadist. I’ve got to open the box, strike the match and throw it at this poor kid who I hardly know, just some small town sophomore who thought he’d do a bit of chemistry to broaden his mind. Course the first match broke and the second one got lost in the wind, by which time John’s beginning to look a little grey. Third time lucky though and I’ve never seen anything like it.

As you can imagine that bonded us pretty closely and we ended up rooming together for a year, well, it was almost a year. Just around exam time I met a girl, Susie, who was always hanging around the labs. She told me about the day I’d set John on fire and how brilliant it had been and we kind of had a thing going. I told you we always had something that other people didn’t understand, a kind of chemistry. Anyway, it didn’t last and it’s not as though I was sore about it or anything, it was kind of inevitable that it wouldn’t last. I was too complicated I suppose. She wanted something a bit more dependable, someone who would take one for the team. Someone like John, that poor son of a bitch who volunteered to be a human torch. So like I said, after that summer me and John stopped rooming together. I went and lived in a tent just off campus for a while and eventually John and Susie got together.

It was kind of with my blessing to be honest. Neither of them ever really made a move. Susie kept coming out to my tent trying to talk to me, trying to make my come in and live on campus. Eventually I had to move camp without telling her before she finally got the hint. And John I saw between classes sometimes – junior year you can’t take electives any more, it all gets pretty serious. You know – I can’t remember what he did any more? English literature? Art history? some such crap anyway. So they got together and our lives went in separate directions. I think I came out the better. But then everyone would say that, wouldn’t they? I never really saw them again until Susie sent a postcard to my ma saying they’d got married and about how they’d love to come and see me during their honeymoon, for old times sake. I don’t know how they got ma’s address, she doesn’t even live there any more – it was forwarded on.

So that was that. They came down here to Forgotten Creek and I came down to pick them up, although it was hardly picking them up and then we’re sitting around eating and taking and they’re going off into their tent at night and I’m retreating to my tarp and that’s all there is. Then tonight, their last night, she disappears and me and John are just sitting eating beef hash in the silence with the trees all around and not a sound. She’s gone off for some scavenger food – blackberries she saw or something. And then he gets worried and all of a sudden he gets up and goes looking for her and then he’s coming back over the bridge for the second time and I’m ready and waiting.

How long is a short story?

My latest short story, Perched, is only about 850 words long. Yet I have put it into the Short Story section of my site – is this correct? How long is a short story?

So, to settle the matter with some hard statistics, I decided to interrogate my favourite short story writers: Ernest Hemingway and, firstly, Naguib Mahfouz.

From The Time and the Place (1991), we have:

  • Zaabalawi: approximately 5600 words, based on 400 words per page
  • The Conjurer Made Off with the Dish: 3600 words
  • The Answer is No: 1600 words
  • The Time and the Place: 3600 words
  • Blessed Night: 3600 words
  • The Ditch: 2600 words
  • Half a Day: 1600 words
  • The Tavern of the Black Cat: 4000 words
  • The Lawsuit: 2200 words
  • The Empty Cafe: 3600 words
  • A Day for Saying Goodbye: 3600 words
  • By a Person Unknown: 6200 words
  • The Man and the Other Man: 2800 words
  • The Wasteland: 3600 words
  • The Norwegian Rat: 2600 words
  • His Majesty: 1200 words
  • Fear: 4400 words
  • At the Bus Stop: 3200 words
  • A Fugitive from Justice: 3400 words
  • A Long-Term Plan: 3200 words

That’s 20 stories at an average length of about 3300 words per story. The range is from 1200 to 6200 words, but you can see the vast majority land in the 3200-3600 range.

Now for Hemingway. From In Our Time:

  • Indian Camp: approximately 1225 words, based on 350 words per page
  • The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife: 1050 words
  • The End of Something: 1050 words
  • The Three-Day Blow: 3150 words
  • The Battler: 3150 words
  • A Very Short Story: 700 words
  • Soldier’s Home: 2450 words
  • The Revolutionist: 350 words
  • Mr and Mrs Elliot: 1225 words
  • Cat in the Rain: 1050 words
  • Out of Season: 2100 words
  • Cross-Country Snow: 1925 words
  • My Old Man: 4200 words
  • Big Two-Hearted River: I: 3125 words
  • Big Two-Hearted River: II: 3150 words
  • L’Envoi: 150 words

That’s 16 stories at an average length of about 1900 words. The range is from just 150 to 4200 words, with most hovering around 1000-1200 mark.

So I don’t know what we can take from that, except that short stories can be anything from a few hundred to several thousand words long. It also seems that different writers feel comfortable at different lengths for their stories. Mahfouz’s short stories tend to be three times as long as Hemingway’s, but you wouldn’t say that one is preferable to the other.

I am pleased to note that my story, at over 800 words long, is longer than three of the Hemingway collection. So I shall be keeping it in the short story section because it feels like a short story.

Perched

A crowd had gathered. I couldn’t see why at first so I moved closer. They seemed to be gathering about a tree. Of course a crowd standing around a tree is nothing to do with me, but I moved closer anyway. There were about ten or fifteen people, pointing and – not shouting – but raising their voices at the tree’s upper boughs. There didn’t seem to be anything unusual about the tree, there were branches and the branches had boughs and the boughs had leaves, which were just turning the colour of autumn, but none had yet fallen. It seemed a perfectly ordinary tree, with bark and little growths of lichen. But there it was: a crowd, pointing and raising their voices at a tree.

It’s nothing to do with me, but I moved to the edge of the crowd. There was nothing unusual I could see about the crowd either. They seemed to be people just like me, with clothes on their backs and rings on their fingers, with handkerchiefs in their pockets and some with ties about their necks. One woman in particular, wearing a head scarf, was pointing high up into the tree and almost shouting. I followed her finger and saw a tree with leaves and boughs and branches, with bark and with lichen and a man in a bowler hat.

He was perched high up in the tree with his fingers curled around the branch like a bird. He was frozen still, but his muscles were taut as if he was about to fly away. Which of course he wasn’t, because, aside from being a man in a bowler hat perched in a tree, he looked perfectly normal. In fact, I found my hand nervously moving to my own bowler, as if my choice of headgear might bring association with this most odd fellow.

The crowd, as I said, were not shouting, but were speaking in raised, almost coaxing, voices to the man in the bowler hat. Perhaps this was what made him look slightly tense. He seemed to want to make the flight, but was nervous of his ability; a nestling, needing a push. I noticed that the woman in the headscarf was also wearing an apron. She held a wooden spoon in her right hand and, as I said, was pointing at the man.
‘What are you doing bird man? Get back to work! Stop wasting our time! Come down and we’ll forget the whole thing!’

For the first time since I got there, the man in the bowler hat moved. With a quick shuffle he edged a little further along the bough, which shook it’s leaves. One or two may have floated down on to the heads of the crowd.
‘Come on,’ the woman with the wooden spoon was speaking again. ‘There’s nowhere for you to go, bird man! Come back down – you can have the rest of the day off – I’m sure the office won’t mind.’

This provoked no discernible reaction from the man in the bowler hat in the tree. And it was nothing to do with me, but the woman in the apron spoke again.
‘We’ve called your wife – she won’t be impressed at all. She’ll leave you for sure if she finds you sitting up in a tree when you should be at work! And what would your children think?’

The woman in the headscarf shook her wooded spoon and the crowd rumbled. The bird man flicked his eyes over to me, I’m sure. There was an awful look in them. an awful pleading. I couldn’t look back, it was painful, so I just looked down. It’s nothing to do with me anyway, a man in a bowler hat in a tree. The woman in the apron with the wooden spoon raised it still higher.
‘If you won’t come down, bird man, we’ll bring you down!’

And with that she bent down and picked up a stone. It was just a small stone, but she was accurate. The bird man made a funny noise that could have been a squawk, but couldn’t have been because men in bowler hats don’t squawk, not even when they are in trees. A few more stones flew from the hands of the crowd. Some hit, some didn’t. The bird man flapped his arms in defence and his branch lurched. A few leaves floated to the ground.

The woman with the apron seemed unimpressed with her ballistics and directed the crowd to the tree trunk itself.
‘We’ll shake him down!’

Well, there’s nothing for me in a crowd looking at a man in a bowler hat in a tree. It’s nothing to do with me. I thought I should walk away, so I did. I felt the crowd surge forward. From behind me I heard the rumble of a tree, the heavy rustle of boughs and the light falling of leaves. Then an inhuman squawk, a loud thud and a cheer. It’s nothing to do with me, a man in a bowler hat in a tree.

Grande Ecole

She kept looking for the answer. The little girl was running from shop front to shop front, shouting her question: ‘When will I die? When will I die?’ She had long blonde curls and a fierce look in her eye that made the shop keepers laugh.
‘Never!’
‘In a very long time!’
‘Ten minutes if you keep up that racket!’
The answers were always different and the little girl started to get confused. She ran to the shop of her favourite grocer, Pierre. Pierre was an old man; surely he would know the answer to her question. Pierre laughed softly, not like the others, and hoisted her onto his knee and began to tell her a story:

‘A long time ago there was a little girl just like you who always questioned everything. She always asked ‘Why?’, ‘When?’ and ‘How?’ This little girl, who had lovely blonde hair just like you, cherie, learnt so much that she grew up to be very clever. She quickly learnt everything that anyone in her small village could tell her, but still found she had questions. She started to get frustrated with the villagers who could no longer answer her. The old people of the village looked on with sadness in their eyes because they knew that soon they would lose this beautiful little girl who asked all the questions.

‘She grew up fast and soon she was a beautiful young woman, impatiently counting the days until she would be allowed to leave the small village and go to Paris to study at the Grande Ecole there. That day arrived and all the old men of the village wept as she boarded her carriage, knowing that they would not see her beautiful face again, that they would die before she returned – if she ever returned. The old women of the village wept also, knowing that this curious young woman was going to learn secrets that had evaded them all their lives. Everybody wept because they knew that the young woman would not return for many years and that the village would not see the benefit of her great intellect and curiosity.

‘Well, the young woman, whose name was Therese, left that day by carriage and arrived two days later in Paris. This beautiful young woman had never been in such a huge city and knew nothing of the ways of the townspeople. So she started asking her questions: ‘Where can I stay the night?’, ‘How do I operate the trolley-bus?’, ‘Where can I take a carriage to the Sorbonne?’ She learnt the ways of Paris very quickly and soon settled into city life.

‘One day she decided to move from her room in the Hotel Cosmopolitan and so she asked a young man, ‘Where can I rent lodgings?’ The young man led her to a house where an old man sat outside, whittling a piece of wood. He stopped when he saw her and looked her up and looked her down. She started to feel uncomfortable, for she was very beautiful, so she asked, ‘Why do you look at me like that?’ The old man replied, ‘Because you are beautiful, I will give you good clean lodgings.’
‘Thank you. But how much will it cost me?’
‘Oh very cheap,’ the old man’s mouth cracked into a smile, ‘very cheap for a face like that.’
The young woman felt uncomfortable, but followed the old man into the house. He showed her a room, which was satisfactory and she paid a deposit of 15 francs.

‘The old man was a very attentive landlord and Therese would often find him waiting outside her door when she went to bathe. This made her uncomfortable so she asked, ‘Why do you wait outside my door when I bathe?’
He replied, ‘Because you are beautiful. I am an old man and it gives me great peace to see such a beautiful young woman.’
Therese couldn’t find the words to deny this old man his pleasure so lowered her head and didn’t say anything.

‘All this time Therese was studying at the Grande Ecole, asking her questions and getting her answers from her very intelligent tutors. One tutor, whose name was Jean, took a particular interest in her development and took it upon himself to ensure that she had full access to whatever materials she needed and also to his personal library. One day, after she mentioned that she was struggling to find money for tuition as well as food and even her very cheap lodgings, Jean offered to help pay for her room in the old man’s house. Therese thought this very kind and, because he was very intelligent, she trusted him and confided that the old man with whom she was staying made her feel uncomfortable. Upon hearing this, the tutor immediately offered her a room in his house until she could find more appropriate lodgings. Therese accepted with relief and immediately hired a carriage to move her few bags across town.

‘Jean’s house was much more convenient for the Grande Ecole and Jean himself was a very convivial host. They would spend the evenings talking in great depth about her interests and he would spend hours and hours answering her questions, sometimes even before she asked them. They would have long, relaxing dinners with wine and cheese. He had a taste that was delicately refined and he reveled in teaching Therese the subtleties of society. She had many questions about this of course, coming as she did from a small country village. She had scarcely thought about the village since being in Paris: the old villagers had been right to cry.

‘After two weeks of wine and intellectual lodging with Jean, Therese suddenly realized that she was supposed to find her own lodgings. When she told Jean of her intention, however, he grew offended and insisted that she remain with him. This made her puzzled and so she asked, ‘Why do you insist on me staying here?’ He did not reply, but left the room.

‘This was the first time that somebody had given her no answer at all and it made her think. He had not said, ‘I do not know.’ He had not said, ‘Please ask someone else.’ He had not said, ‘You can find the answer in this book.’ He had not said ‘I shall try to find out for you.’ He had not said ‘Examine the evidence and you will find out for yourself.’ He had not said anything. He had simply left the room. This confused Therese deeply and she went to bed that night with her mind in a frantic state. She could not sleep and tossed and turned until midnight. Jean’s house overlooked a church square and Therese could see from her bedroom window the tower of the church. The moon was high and shone its light over the clock face. The two hands of the clock were pointing straight up to the stars, as if pointing to the answer for her question. She stared out of her window as the clock struck midnight. She opened the window wide; perhaps the air would help her sleep.

‘As the twelfth note sounded there was a commotion of wings and, to Therese’s astonishment, a white barn owl landed on the eaves of the house just in front of her. She didn’t dare breathe as the owl surveyed the square below, seeking a mouse for prey. She was close enough to reach out and touch the soft down of the owl’s wings, but she didn’t dare move a muscle. The owl stood there, alert, its head rotating as its eyes penetrated the gloom. Its claws gripped the straw of the roof thatching and Therese felt like she was in a dream. The beauty of the owl in the moonlight haunted her and she grew bolder, inching her head closer to the owl’s. The owl caught her movement in his wide eyes, but stayed calm and rotated his head all around to consider her. The two stared at each other in the moonlight as the last echoes of the church bells drifted over the sleeping city roofs. Time seemed to stand still; the two creatures staring deep into each others eyes. Therese realised this was the moment she would find her answer. So she whispered, very faintly, ‘Why did he run away from my question, Owl?’
The owl looked deep into her eyes, his claws twitched on the thatch. He had her question and Therese waited breathless for the answer. But the owl batted his wings and, with one last look, took to the skies. Therese sighed and watched him disappear over the sleeping rooftops.’

There was a pause as Pierre stopped talking and smiled at the little girl.
‘Well what was the answer to her question?!’ The little girl almost screamed. ‘That’s not fair! Tell me the answer!’
Pierre looked down at the furrowed brow underneath the blonde curls of the little girl on his knee, ‘Sometimes, cherie, there are no answers; just moments.’

6th October

The streets would not forgive him. Cairo revealed herself, but at a price. Bert could feel their eyes, pricking his conscience, taking him apart limb by limb. The hawkers carried on their shouting match, but he knew their eyes were on him, the foreign. What were they selling? Was it the piles of plastic combs at their feet or was it something more precious? This man had all manner of plastic toys. Where had they come from? China probably. The new colonialism. We shall conquer the world by exporting plastic toys. First plastic toys, then… The business model worked, incredibly. In this world it worked.

A few others sold sweets wrapped in lurid plastic wrappers. Here and there were traditional food sellers. A man with a rough wooden cart was roasting sweet potatoes. An old woman, fat and wrapped in black was crouched beside a pile of tissues. All their eyes were upon him. Overhead the bridge flew over and down below micro-buses hurled past screaming their destinations. Even the birds stopped their pecking in the dust as he walked through the bus station.

What had brought him here? What unlikely, unnatural turn of events had brought him from middle class rural Germany to a bus station in downtown Cairo? Astonishingly, in this world, it was common. He looked up and could see ahead of him another blond man fighting to board a micro-bus. He had just past a Dutch looking woman heading down the subway. Suddenly he hated that blond, the unknown Dutch woman and, above all, himself. What right had they to be here? Bringing their Euros, easily buying the life that these hawkers could never attain despite working twenty-four hours a day, sometimes more. What sheer fluke, pure chance, unkind fate had bestowed upon them the right to jet into other countries and live it up with scarce a thought to where the next meal was coming from, when they would next wash with warm water or how they would sell enough plastic toys to shelter let alone school their children?

Bert knew where he was going. He was going to cross the road past the bus station, climb the stairway above the hawkers and stroll across 6th October Bridge in the evening air over to Gezira and on to his clean, comfortable hotel in Zamalek. His life was etched out ahead of him, he could see it, plain and clear in frustrating detail. What could go wrong? What event could possibly happen that could not be settled with a call to his credit card company or a visit to a cash machine? Even if he were hit by a car crossing this road now, he would be well looked after in the finest hospitals of Cairo and the man who hit him would doubtless spend the night in jail. His place in this city was cosseted away behind the security at his hotel in the tree lined boulevards of colonial Zamalek. There was no obstacle to his comfort and it was all thanks to pointless, aimless luck. Of course he worked but, in this world, incredibly, one hour’s work in Germany was equivalent to perhaps three days’ work for these hawkers. Probably more. Bert didn’t like to think about it because there was nothing he could do about it.

As he lowered his head a shout and a look caught his attention. A man about his age was waving a flashing elephant in his direction. Bert heard his name in the look. There was a flashing plastic train careering around a yellow plastic track at the man’s feet. Bert walked over, entranced. The man looked at him, “Seer! Mister!”
“Bikem?” Bert heard himself say.
“Da?” the man said, indicating the elephant.
“La,” Bert almost whispered through dried throat, “kull haaga.”
“Kull haaga?” The man’s eyes grew half an inch in diameter.
“Yes – it all. How much for everything?”
The man hesitated, calculating, measuring disbelief against opportunity.
“I want everything you have. The table, the stool, that cloth.” Bert was warming up, pointing at everything the hawker used to hawk with. The man was clearly unnerved by this mad foreigner and glanced across at his neighbour, who was beginning to take an interest. They fired a few sentences between themselves. The other man laughed and said, in surprisingly good English, “You want to buy all Mohammed shop?”
“Yes. I do. I want his entire stall. Everything.”
The man laughed and explained to Mohammed, who stammered a reply.
“Ok mister, Mohammed want 500 pounds.”
Well, eid has come early for Mohammed, Bert thought.
“I don’t have that much on me, but here is 250 pounds Egyptian,” Bert started emptying his pockets, “50 dollars US…and my watch.” Mohammed looked stunned.
“Is that enough?”
Mohammed laughed this time and took the money eagerly, counting it out for himself.
Bert laughed as well and said, “Now go, my friend, go and enjoy yourself! I’ll take it from here.”

Bert had never done anything so reckless. He felt like a new man. He had a vocation, he had comrades in the fight for survival. He and Mohammed had swapped places. Now Bert was the plastic toy hawker under 6th October Bridge. Mohammed was free, without a care in Cairo. Bert slipped into the world of a real Cairene. He grabbed the flashing elephant with zeal and started hawking. The other man, who introduced himself as Mahmud, was laughing heartily. Mahmud had never seen anything like it.

Bert hawked all that night, all the next day and into the night again, shouting himself hoarse. He stayed there twenty four hours straight, high on the intoxication of freedom. He didn’t sell a thing, but he didn’t care. Egyptians wouldn’t buy from a foreigner and foreigners would never buy the rubbish he was selling, certainly not from a mad German. He drew a lot of stares, but he didn’t care one bit. He was a Cairene hawker.
The police arrived after about eight hours and tried to get him moved on. They asked him where his hotel was and threatened to call the embassy, but Bert held firm and the hawkers, his new friends, argued his case in impassioned Arabic. The police moved to a respectful distance but stayed watching, clearly suspicious of this extraordinary foreigner. A gang of baladi kids came up to him and started teasing him, “Mister, mister! How much mister!”, delighting in this reversal of fortunes. Then they started trying to steal from him, mobbing him with their strong little hands. But Mahmud had eagle eyes and whipped a length of knotted rope at them. The kids fled, screaming in delight.

After about fifteen hours of non-stop hawking, Mahmud offered Bert half of his sweet potato to keep his spirits up. Bert gratefully accepted, they were equals, sharing food like true comrades. A few ragged looking men shuffled past on their way back from sweeping the roads, most just stared at him with dull eyes, but a few hissed. The police tried to get Bert to leave again, stating that it was against the law for him to work. Again Mahmud defended him by arguing that Bert hadn’t sold anything so technically could not be working. The police moved off again, buzzing into their radios.

About twenty hours in, an old lady shuffled up to Bert. It was clear that she was very poor and as she got closer Bert could tell that she was half blind. She used her hands to rummage through Bert’s collection of plastic and finally selected one, a chicken with furry feet who played a banjo when you twisted its neck. Bert looked into her darkened, unfocused eyes and felt his heart plunge. He was still far from equal. He could not sell her the chicken and shooed her away before his weakness showed. Mahmud noticed but said nothing. They watched the old lady shuffle off the kerb onto a bus, the chicken merrily banjo-ing the tune to Achy Breaky Heart.

The old lady had shaken Bert and he began to feel increasingly uneasy about shouting his wares into the night, increasingly self-conscious. He grew quieter and less eager for customers, fearful they would expose him for what he was. As his twenty-fourth hour approached, Bert started panicking, he started seeing the desperate eyes around him, he no longer saw comrades. How Bert had wanted to join them just twenty-four hours before. Now he could not imagine anything more claustrophobic.

As the twenty-fourth hour passed Bert saw a familiar face approaching his stand from across the bus station. Mohammed was returning and he did not look in the mood for conversation. Halfway across the road he started shouting at Bert. Bert couldn’t understand most of the words, but gathered that he was not welcome.
“Imshi! Get out! Get out! Thief!”

Mohammed was waving his arms around the stand of plastic toys. He picked up the flashing elephant and waved it in Bert’s face. Bert sensed the other hawkers closing in, forming a circle around him. The night was dark, lit from the fires of potato ovens, reflected in the dark eyes of his former comrades, the men he had spent the last twenty-four hours side by side with. Loneliness struck him in the chest. He lifted his arms as Mohammed started to beat him with the flashing elephant.
“Go! Get out! Thief! Steal my life! Get out!”
Mahmud raised his knotted rope and bared his teeth in the gloom. The cars and taxis raced overhead and Bert eyed the staircase. He ran. The mob chased him out of the bus station, out of the market and up the stairs, where they watched him flee across the Nile into Gezira. They watched him run until he was swallowed up in the night among the tall trees of Zamalek where he could do no harm.

6th October Bridge shook with traffic as the hawkers carried on their shouting match and a flashing plastic train careered around its yellow plastic track. The streets had forgotten him.

City of Dust

It was a time of dust. It was a time for decay.

The year was turning, slowly, from quiet winter to noisy spring – but Cairo doesn’t notice. The cars barricade the roads and buses blockade roundabouts. A woman sitting behind a cart of roasting chick peas, shoe shiners scrub, scrap metal merchants clatter from gutter to gutter and the dust settles around them.

He awoke with a choke. Thick mucus caught in his tonsils and he’s bolt upright hacking into his sheets. Scrambling for consciousness, scrabbling for a fight or flight response. This was the return to Cairo. The Hilton looked over into his room, across the Nile. The constant lazy motion of the Nile washing steadily to the sea, the constant frantic jerk of the cars beating their way to City Stars, to Talat Harb, to Agouza, the smiling swagger of loose limbed Cairenes swaying through the dust.

But he didn’t have time for metaphors, for adjectives vermilion; she was here. He could sense her in every speck of dust, even if she was only three parts per million, he could detect her in the air, on the pavements, in the dust thickened trees. They took on the appearance of a house plant that hasn’t been taken care of. Left in a corner, forgotten. No rain touches them, no cleaner dusts their waxy leaves. They lean over the roads in Zamalek, begging to be touched, begging to be shaken out of their torpor.

But he had no time for trees either. He hacked one last time into a tissue and got out of bed. He moved over to the bathroom and washed his hands. There was dust on the mirror and his face looked back through the haze. He looked older. Or younger. Or foreign. Happy. Sad. Tired. Excited. But he didn’t have time for making faces either.

Downstairs in the hotel he left the key with the manager and stepped into the evening. The dust rose to meet him carrying smells of gasoline, of searing meat, of crushed herbs, of sweat. He cleared his throat and set off towards her. He felt like a blood hound on the scent of a memory. He turned instinctively, feeling his way towards her. He could find her blind, he could stretch out his arms and his feet would carry him to her, borne like the dust on the loose wind of Cairo. Mohammad Mazhar, Mohammed al-Maraashly, Bahgat Ali: the names floated back from a year ago, binding memory to reality. The embassies and the days they walked these streets: there’s Iraq surrounded by tall palms, Myanmar isolated behind crumbling walls, Sweden with every brick in place like it was sent over flat-packed. As he walked, the Nile pleaded with him to drag his feet, but he bent his head and turned towards her scent.

Broken pavement, crushed Baraka bottle, branches with leaves resigning, dog shit smeared. The road passed below him, marking time, playing a show reel of human waste. The cafe was ahead. He could see its lights. He could remember its lights. His memory was racing to meet him. He was suspended in time and his memory was swelling every moment. Soon it would join his reality and he would be enveloped by the same words, the same touches, the same caresses that belonged a year ago.

The entrance swallowed him and the cafe was delivered to his senses. He must have looked lost because an immediate waiter bobbed into his vision, “Sir?” He looked down, his head beginning to throb and said automatically through mucus, “ayiz shay min fadhlak”. The man nodded curtly, “hagga tany?” What? He paused, then remembered his lines, “shay bas, binayanaya, shukran.” The man gestured to a chair nearby. He sat down heavily and became aware of the other patrons. Men. Mostly. Mostly smoking. Mostly staring at the new arrival. The tea arrived and he took it in his hands. Too soon. The glass burned, the skin of his palm shriveled in self-preservation.

She would come. He could feel her coming. Like he used to. He could feel her so strongly that he thought it idiotic that they were meeting in a cafe at 7, as if they needed to arrange a time and a place. He could have found her in a sandstorm. He started to relax and replaced his hands on the small glass cup. His hands, reluctant, grew bolder and soon sunk into its warmth. The glass was patterned in gold around the rim. Of course it wasn’t real gold, probably just an alloy. He turned his gaze on the cafe. Its high ceilings and carved decoration spoke of an elegance that it barely tried to maintain. Dust lay everywhere human hands did not care to reach. But the bar was clean enough and there was a man polishing a window. He had seen him doing that earlier in the day. Was it the same window? Was the man a memory? Was there a persistent stain, refusing to be polished, refusing to be scrubbed out of existence?

She would come. She was here. He took a first sip of the tea and the warm liquid left a breath of mint before sliding down his sore throat. He could feel, now, a warmth in his stomach. The tea had settled and was making itself at home. It was a shame, he thought, that in a short time the tea would cool and digest and he would be left with nothing but an urgent need to relieve himself. A short moment of warmth followed by a repulsion. He looked at the tea in disgust. He was just looking at his future. He was inevitably on the way to pissing out the contents of that glass, gold rimmed cup. In fact, looking at it closely, it was already a sepia yellow colour. It wouldn’t even look any different coming out as it did going in. Maybe his piss would even taste of mint. Why should he piss? Why couldn’t he enjoy his memories of mint tea without the hassle of pissing? After all, this particular cup of tea would add nothing to his memory. He could already classify, identify the taste and feeling of mint tea, the warmth, the slight clean taste, the roughness of the scorched tongue – so why should he bother with the drinking and the pissing? He knew he would though, eventually. Just like he knew she was going to come, eventually. And what else could he do whilst he waited? So he lifted the glass and put his lips to the gold rim and tilted his head back a little.

The liquid, predictably, slid over his lower lip and over his tongue, which he lifted so that the mint flavour slipped down onto his lower palate before gently swallowing through his thick throat. Thereafter the sensation was of warmth. He tried to follow the warmth down to his stomach but was disappointed to notice that only the first sip can be traced that far. Subsequent sips seem to get stuck somewhere higher up. He almost felt full. He should stop focusing on the tea. It was just tea. Just something to do while he waited. Time didn’t seem to be passing. The same cars droned past outside, the same combination of lights and horns, shouts and breaking screeches. The waiter in the cafe made the same movements, back and forth, sheesha, tofaah, shay, ahwa, sukkar. The patrons made the same gestures to one another and the speech was indecipherable. They seemed to be talking about the football. Or the weather. Or memories. Or the dust. One is pointing. One raises his glass. One pulls on a sheesha pipe. One just sits, still. An old man is sitting near a large plate mirror, staring. Time didn’t seem to be moving at all. Time didn’t seem to be moving at all. Time didn’t smee toby moo thing at all. Team dad int smeethabee moofin atorl. Moofin atorl. Orl.

He jerked up with a start. What had happened? The waiter looked over at him sharply, but continued his movements. He was choreographed and couldn’t miss a step. She was coming, wasn’t she? He could feel her coming, just like he used to. He could. The smoke in the cafe mingled with the dust, filling his lungs with a weight. That must have been what made him drift off. It had got so smoky that he wasn’t even sure if he could still see the old man across the room. He could see the mirror, or thought he could, it was hard to tell what was reflected and what was real. He could feel time receding now, the moment was reeling away from him. His memory was clouded in a haze of smoke and dust, he wasn’t sure anymore about anything. Was she coming? Was she still? He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate, but behind his eyes his memory was out of control, it was lurching about, making him feel nauseous. It wasn’t that he was forgetting, it was that the time was gone: an impenetrable haze of dust had settled between him and his past. She wasn’t coming. It was a time of dust. It was a time of decay.