Short stories

The Stone Steps

I still have the guide book I took with me in 1980. “Umbria the green heart of Italy – The City of Perugia – In the evening young people, many of them foreign language students from the famous Italian language school for foreigners, sprawl on the cathedral steps, still warm from the sun, chatting together, eating ice cream or watching the nightly “passeggiata” of fashionable Perugini.”  The stone steps outside the cathedral are still warm but I don’t chat or sprawl or eat ice cream nor am I young, I just sit with my ant.

Like me, my ant enjoys the warmth of the steps. I believe It helps her charge her battery for the important tasks she does during the day. We all have important tasks don’t we. I have to learn Italian, my ant has to do whatever ants do, like get food, build a nest or have baby ants. –  Lay eggs I should say.-  Ants lay eggs don’t they? – I think she builds her nest underground, and lays eggs, maybe under the actual stones I am sitting on. That would explain why I don’t need to look for her or call her. She’s been waiting all day, waiting for the feel of my body on top of her. Or that’s what I like to think.  I just place my hand flat on the stone and in a minute or so she appears and climbs on. It’s like we are holding hands.

I have never studied ants – not in the way you study Italian. I just feel things about her without having to read books. It’s the same with people. You know when somebody likes you without studying them.  It’s an instinct. Sometimes I look at her though my reading glasses while she fusses about on my hand. She’s small and dark and very beautiful with an amazing body. It seems to shine even in the late evening.  We don’t stay holding hands for long in case I squash her, instead I gently guide her off onto the steps and draw a circle around her with a black marker and she stays in it. She must think it’s a wall.

Perugia has the highest, oldest walls of any Italian city and the steepest hills. That’s what I think anyway.  The sun has trouble getting in so it always dark even in the day. Dark enough that when I walk back down the hill after lunch for my nap through the cramped streets it’s like I am tunnelling. It makes me think of my ant. I imagine her laying her eggs in the cosy corners of her stone step or in my bed, tunnelling under the duvet or in the pillow-case to the safe places, so nobody can find them but us.

Of course, I miss my Maria. I want to be sprawling on these same warm steps, eating ice cream watching the nightly “passeggiata” of fashionable Perugini” with my Maria.

She’s long gone of course – I’m not stupid – I’m just saying in those days she was my best friend. Nothing improper mind you.  She just sat next to me every evening. She was young and dark, and beautiful, very Italian. She listened to me attentively. “Mi chiami Christopher. Io abito  in Inghilterra. Io ho vent anni.” She was gregarious with lots of friends. They all listened to me.  They loved my accent. I think they found me very charming as they were always there waiting, loads of them!  Sometimes Maria was very cheeky and lay against my arm licking the sticky ice cream stream that trickled down my wrists, her head thrown back  soaking up the sugary liquids flavoured with peach or melon or hazelnut. She was brazenly unconcerned about flavours or hygiene.

She was my first love.

 My first and most precious ant.

 My Maria.

The Waterwheel

I slipped off my socks, rolled up my trousers and picked up my sixpenny fishing net. The gate had corroded to such a point that parts of it were now missing and local children had long since found ways to squeeze through the bars. Now much of it had disappeared allowing access to any child not put off by the cavernous darkness and strange echoes beyond. I climbed through with little difficulty.  Behind me were children paddling, framed within the gaping mouth of  bridge, trousers rolled up  or dresses tucked into pants wielding fishing nets  and loudly declaring their prowess at netting fish or tadpoles. I knew that on the other side, inaccessible accept by this means, lay an abandoned water mill it’s wheel still sloshing relentlessly, grinding no more grain, and providing no living for the parents of these children.  The children watched me enter but didn’t try to follow.

Despite the pressing current and the darkness that initially made me panic a little, I told myself that the secret would be  to consider each new footstep carefully while bracing myself against the current with the stick of my fishing net. That way I wouldn’t stumble and make a fool of myself. I knew that ahead there were troughs in the river bed as well as sharp stones. I knew the water became noticeably  colder especially near the middle where for some reason the current seemed to pause and miniature whirlpools would sometimes  appear. I was sufficiently far in that I could already feel the water chilling.  My feet were accustomed to the route but appeared whiter and thinner with blue veins that in the cold water glowed like an ancient script.  As I lifted my head  I was aware of a distant descant of children dwarfed occasionally by rumble of a car passing over the bridge  overhead  and the slosh the waterwheel. It brought it all back.

I looked back. A small audience of children had assembled beyond the gate  framed by the bridge arch now in silhouette against a bright afternoon sun.  The bridge was made from flint and consequently the raw edges of sharp stones glistened and reflected the light back into the rivers flow and back onto there faces like the moving grain of an old film. The children were smiling, kind smiles like they recognised me. The faces were familiar. I knew them everyone. My eyes filled with tears and  I leant against the wall blotting out the reflected light. The screen went dead.  My feet were freezing. My fishing net slipped from my grasp. I felt myself falling. The flints scraped against my back as a sat into the water. The water filled my trousers and I wet myself.

“Chris I can see you ? Are you alright. We have been really worried .You have missed your tea but we kept some for you. It’s trifle your favourite. Come on now everyone’s waiting it’s bingo night.

Can you see me?






I can hear you but I still can’t see you. (PAUSE) I know it’s crap isn’t it. Is the camera definitely turned on? (PAUSE) Can you see me? (EXCITED AND SUPRISED). How are you by the way? Sorry, so…no.



What? (PAUSE) No that’s no better. Try the settings. Top R on the screen.



I am lying. I can see you perfectly. Every little detail. In fact I can see right through you. In and out, straight to the… You’ve still got it. That look. Right through me alright. (Pause and audible breath) I can see through the window. Even though it’s steamed up. (Pause) That window. Right above the bed. “This bed has a history” you used to say. It wasn’t funny. Why did you say that? Just to make me feel sick. Feel sick that you had a history. You were never funny. Do you know that?




No nothing yet. Let me see if it’s a setting at this end.



I can see that garage across the road. It kept me awake all night. All the coming and going. Where we bought milk in the morning. The Turkish Takeaway.

The noise. The shop with the guys sitting outside on the street. I was scared of them. You were never scared of me. Why would you be. You knew me. You could see right through me. (He realises what he has just said) Huh!




Nope not at this end, nothing so far. (pause) That might work. Don’t worry, don’t rush, I am not going anywhere (laughs).



What have you been doing. Showering I would guess. Every morning a shower. You made me do it. Before I met you I had baths? You stopped all that. Lying in my own dirty water. I stopped all my dirty habits for you. At least you thought I did. (Pause and slight laugh) The windows always steamed up after your shower. You could draw on them. A heart. “I love you“ I wrote. Then the look. I didn’t deserve it. (Pause) That look. There it is. Go on look at me. I am here looking right back this time.


Such a tiny flat. It stank. You hated the smell. Mould everywhere, every time it rained, every time we boiled a kettle, every …




Yea! Something popped up for a second. Give it another go. Maybe it’s the camera itself. Plug it again and then unplug it.



The place looks much better now. Perhaps you want to show it off. Show me the the paint job, the new things, the ’accessories.’ You’ve got what you wanted.




Yes it’s working. Hooray! Wow looking really great. I barely recognise it. (Pause) You can’t see me though. Oh no! No you’ve gone again! Let me try something.



I am lying. You’re still there. (Pause) Why me, why after three months. How about all that history.

Where are they? (Like an advert) ‘Lonely?

Call Chris.’ You, now, here, your look, your room, our room. (Pause) Huh! The window ledge that hasn’t changed. still the same stuff. (Pause) I remember that! That’s the bear. You called it..? What did you call it? Something obvious but trying soo hard, but you said it, said it like nobody had… Basil that was it. Basil Bear. “After the brush.” I said. You didn’t get that. You said it looked like me. Said it in your cute voice. The one that… YOU REALLY HURT ME! You are looking now. Looking into the camera.

That look that only I can see. So close I can read your skin. It looks drab. Too long indoors, not enough air, not enough sun. Open the window get some air. Go outside. Oh of course you can’t, the new rules. No open doors, no open windows, don’t go out its airborne. Government says it spreads like pollen. Wear your mask. WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE!

(He laughs loudly) I am lying.




No sorry, still nothing. it must be the line. can you see me?



I wish. (long pause) So now you are on your own. Like me. You deserve it.



I can see you. Can you see me? Great! How are you long time no see. Its been an age…



In the beginning, in the darkness, it floated into my mouth and then stuck. I had discovered my thumb or rather it had discovered me. I was addicted.

Blog Post: by Sampson

By the time I was four it became apparent that I would never be able to stop sucking my thumb. Despite the protestations of my mother and most particularly my father – ’You stupid little baby’ – I could not face the world without a wet thumb pushed through my lips caressing the roof of my mouth. The sensation of sweet, boney fleshiness was how I imagined a pig might feel about its trotter were it to mistakenly suck upon it while gobbling rotting brussels or snuffling in the mud. By fourteen my thumb was sufficiently central to my continued existence that, when other boys were trying to look cool by hanging about sucking on cigarettes, I was still hanging about sucking my thumb. As you can imagine this created a distance between me and others of my age such that the only bond with other creatures I felt were those either engaged in the same act as me, or its derivatives. Toddlers in push-chairs, babies at the breast and any number of suckling baby animals, in particular pigs.

As my parents ran a pig farm my familiarity with pigs outweighed any other beings. Their capacity to eat and digest everything thrown into the pen including discarded version of their own species or even their own children fascinated me. Consequently my internet bookmarks catalogued all species of pigs from wild and obscure Asian ones, to mainstream types similar to ours. I also relished images and videos of suck-a-thumbs that I arranged in a convenient hierarchy from the relatively rare, actual thumb sucking (adult, child, baby) to tangential links to dummies, bottles, teats and alike.  I was aware that this interest could be perceived as unhealthy for a teenager so I ensured that neither my mother or father could gain access to my computer by securing it with a password ‘suck-a-thumb14.’ My parents were farmers so there was little danger of them gaining access to my computer both of them being uneducated in matters technical and only really clever with pigs.

Now in my twenties I have a computer and I have started this video blog to realise two ambitions. One to provide some tips for thumb sucking, and two…


“…well that will be a surprise for later.

My three tips for thumb sucking are displayed on the screen now:

  1. The perfect thumb should be cold and wet and smell of Brussels sprouts.
  2. A dry thumb is just a step a step toward a wet one.
  3. A warm thumb is the price you pay for sucking

Thumb sucking cannot be rushed.  A snatched thumb suck is a wasted one. Better to wait until you have the time to invest in the activity. They say the place to ‘suck-a-thumb’ is in bed, on your own at sleeping time, so to be polite and not annoy people I don’t suck-a-thumb where people can see me. Well only you, and my parents. Besides what’s the point if there’s someone to talk to. You sound dumb talking with your thumb in your mouth and don’t you look stupid!

My dad likes to call me stupid whenever I suck my thumb. This doesn’t stop me and it doesn’t hurt nearly as much as he thinks it does. Given that he is a stupid farmer that knows nothing and I have I have read all of Shakespeare all of a Dickens and all of the Bible as well as the AA book of British Mammals and all the maps we have in the house and I have a computer, it’ s funny that he calls me stupid. If I am that stupid I wouldn’t have found out all the important stuff I have found out on the internet. For example, Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, got his lines wrong. My father does not know that, as it has nothing to do with pigs. If the first person on the moon was a pig then he would know it. He thinks he knows everything. My father knows that sucking your thumb means you are a baby. He says he never ever sucked his thumb, not even as a baby, not even in the womb. Although, how he knows that, is anyone’s guess

Anyway, back to the tips. The first one is the most important. A new thumb is dry and tepid but an old thumb soaked in saliva, out of the mouth for several seconds will be cold, damp and smelling of Brussels sprouts.

Here in Yorkshire we eat Brussel sprouts at Christmas. Here on the farm the pigs love them too. They get all the messed up ones we eat the good ones. Dad says Brussel sprouts are good for you unlike thumb sucking. Brussel sprouts make you strong unlike thumb sucking. Thumb sucking is more than stupid it’s evil he says.

This Christmas, while we were eating dinner and I was thumb sucking between mouthfuls of turkey and roast potatoes, dad was shouting “Sampson, you are a stupid baby” so ferociously  I got frightened and confused and thinking I was biting into a nice buttery Brussel I bit into my thumb. Well it didn’t hurt much but blood poured down my wrist onto Mum’s Christmas cloth, into my plate, all over the place. Dad began screaming stuff I can’t say on this video. Mum was sponging the Christmas cloth with her napkin, picking out the blood-soaked parsnips from my plate and telling me to go and wash my hands.  She was crying. At the kitchen sink I realised I had actually bitten off a  piece of my thumb so I spat it into a tissue to keep it. We finished without saying another word. Once I had finished the Christmas pudding, while dad slept in front of the TV and mum washed up, I savoured the bit of thumb preserved in the tissue.

I had bitten through a bit just under the pad.  This proved to be a lucky accident. Closer to the nail all I would have produced would have been a blood blackened nail and we wouldn’t be here now. I had no hesitation in popping the fragment into my mouth. It seemed so familiar like a single grain of rice pudding and jam left over from tea.  At first I sucked. This was exquisite. The familiar thumb taste was now laced with one less familiar, somewhere between soil and sweat, between beetroot and plums and as I chewed, a texture neither too firm nor too soft. I swallowed and a peculiar calm descended on me. I knew from the bible that this was a religious experience, something that would change my life.

Needless to say the pleasure was beyond words, even Shakespeare’s words. I was addicted.

Since Christmas I have developed my taste. I have stopped sucking my thumb but continue biting it. My parents are delighted. I explain my gloved right hand as a means of dissuading me from relapsing and a crucial step toward conquering my addiction. Dad has stopped calling me stupid and mum has stopped crying. They are both happy.

But that can’t be right.

I promised a surprise and here it comes!

I hold up my gloved hand to the camera.  I offer it to you all, all the suck-a-thumbs of the world, all the cool boys with their cigarettes, all the mums and dads swearing and cursing their silly baby boys, all the kittens, the babies at breast, to myself and my thumb in the dark in the womb .

This little piggy went to market – little finger

This little piggy stayed at home – ring finger

This little piggy had sliced bread – middle finger

This little piggy had none – first finger

And this little piggy went wee wee wee all the way home

(Sampson bites his thumb off.)

End of video

End of blog post


Sampson. No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I do bite my thumb, sir.

William Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet. Act 1, scene 1.


Grandma was fat and ugly. Not fat-jolly or fat-cuddly, just fat-full, full of food, full of sweets.

Her favourites were penny sweets, the sort she could buy at the village shop when she was little. Rock-hard lollies on wooden sticks, mini sherbety Swizzlers, sweet cigarettes in cartons with pictures of cowboys on, tiny fruity balls called millions, gobstoppers with seeds in the middle and her favourite of all, tubes of Parma Violets she pretended were pills. Nowadays she could buy them all in the Co-op. Giant cellophane bags called “Children’s Party Selection” containing the lot. Not as much fun as choosing each one separately – but there were so many! She could suck down all of a tube of Parma Violets, the whole lot in one go. No need to keep some for later.

She ate so many she smelt of sweets. As she walked down the street kids would follow, sniffing her sugary scent, like the pied piper she would lure them to a cave and imprison them till their parents paid up. No not really – as she walked down the street nobody followed as nobody cared. Another fat, old, ugly lady full of sweets.

One day on her way to the Co-op she passed a new shop.

The new shop used to be a newsagent. She never used it as it was full of chocolate bars and crisps and she didn’t like them. The new shop smelt good. It smelt like her. She went in. The counters and shelves were stacked with the giant sugary sweets. Not the little sweets she knew but big, fat ones. Fat like her. Gross sugary bars of green and white and blue and purple. Stacks of giant balls coloured strawberry and cream with sprinkles on. Trays of blocks and spheres and cubes and pyramids and hearts in all the colours of refreshers and spangles and opal fruits and the flavours of the rainbow and best of all stacks and stacks of giant cakes of Parma violet. Grandma filled her basket. She bought tons. So many they sold her a fancy wicker basket to carry them all.

So, the fat, ugly, old Grandma walked home carrying her basket of sweets. On the way she met a Wolf who told her about another Grandma. No not really – on the way she met no one, and nobody talked to her as nobody cared.

When she got home, she set about eating her sweets. She started with the plainest looking ones so she could look forward to the fancy ones. She tore into the green and white bars. Mmmm! – they were so good. Then the blue and the purple. Next she licked the giant balls clean of their sprinkles down to a sticky pink and cream centre. She gorged on her basket of shapes, colours, textures and tastes until her mouth foamed, her eyes watered and her tongue was sore. Nearly everything was gone but the Parma violet were last.  ‘Ready’ she thought! She sucked her fingers clean.  Slowly and lovingly she ground the tablets to a grit that spattered and showered the roof of her mouth before bathing her taste buds in their perfumed soapiness. ‘Soapy’ she thought. ‘Soapy but so good.’

But then a bubble.

First one little bubbly fart slipped out. Who cares, nobody. Fat grandmas fart don’t they. But it was followed by another and then another. She waddled toward the toilet loudly projecting her continuous fragrant stream of sweetness as she went. She dropped her drawers and aimed her fat arse at the seat. Just in time for an avalanche of soapy bath products and sugar to thunder into the pan. It kept on coming, overspilling the pedestal and onto the lino forming a mosaic of multicoloured sugary crystals that spread about her just like Millions.

Next day Grandma was thin and popular. She was still old but now she looked like Joan Collins. People liked her because she smelt of soap and not sweeties but mainly because she was thin.


Our car was a Ford Cortina in beige. Once it might have been gold but by the third owners – us – it had lost its glister. The colour fitted the occupants. We lived in a beige Bromley suburb in a beige brick house behind a ‘hint of caramel’ front door – beige. Our life was dull and safe. That is until Dad discovered Campingaz.

Dad was a fan of camping shops, though he had never camped. He was a thrifty chap and the idea of a holiday which required no investment in such necessaries as a tiled roof appealed to him. Thus our Saturday morning shopping trips to Bromley High Street typically ended with the three of us in Blacks cataloguing the tents, sleeping bags, guy ropes, and walking boots. At twelve years old, these goods promised the sort of adventures that my timid self could imagine but never execute, but to Dad they offered ‘savings’.

‘Adventure’ to Dad and Mum was framed by the experience of being bombed almost to blazes in the war. Dad described to me the occasion when an oil bomb ripped through their flat, and the scraping and rattling sound of shrapnel from the anti-aircraft guns dropping onto the ruptured roof as they waited for the bomb to explode. (It didn’t.) Dad had only one leg so he was a warden, specialising in preparing for a gas attack. Luckily one never occurred, but how he managed to scramble over the nightly accumulation of rubble in the Lewisham housing estates I really don’t know. As she was walking back from work Mum saw a stray bomb land on a primary school in Catford. That was how they met, picking up burnt bits of children.

Nowadays ‘adventure’ meant going to the library, shopping in Marks, walking our vicious red setter Grace, and frequent Saturday afternoon car rides. The Campingaz was intended as an enhancement to the car rides. Cocooned in its blue tin box, printed with instructions in French and English a luggage catch hid a series of deft flaps that displayed two spare canisters and a base to rest the burner.

Caution determined that we avoid too much excitement all in one go. This particular car ride would be unambitious, no more than 25 miles there and back. The participants would not include my sister, a perpetual dieter and dismisser of fried food, thus allowing room in the car for Grace, who in any case forbade us from leaving her at home if there was any prospect of a walk.

Mum intended a tea consisting of Walls sausages, fried eggs, and tinned tomatoes. This would be complemented by a fresh cream cake, delivered by the milkman this morning and currently defrosting, and McVities chocolate digestives. As the Gaz stove would be occupied with frying, she also prepared a small flask of tea with sugar for me, and a larger flask of Gold Blend, with a plastic bag of Coffeemate (a recent and much-admired discovery on the shelves of Safeway). To top off this assortment, she had found a bag of barley sugars left over from some travel sickness incident, and a single Express Dairy yogurt which nobody wanted but she insisted had to be eaten. For Grace, there were Bonio biscuits.

After a forty-five-minute drive, the Cortina was berthed in a lay-by somewhere north of Tunbridge Wells. We were sitting on folding chairs between the open car doors, which acted as a windbreak, squeezing some warmth from an indifferent English sun. The view was of a field through a gap in the hedge. The spot was chosen for the grass, a bin provided by Sevenoaks District Council, and the gap in the hedge, which provided access to unobserved penny-spending, invisible even to a double decker bus.

Dad took care to remove the spare canisters and place them on the parcel shelf before lighting the stove. At the beginning of the year, Miss Hutchinson had instructed us at length about the danger of Bunsen burners, but given Dad’s war time expertise we knew we were in good hands. The blue tin provided a sort of tent for the device as well as a flat base. Because it was outside and in common with a tradition that hitherto I had been unaware of, dad cooked. This tradition emerged quite naturally from nowhere. I had never seen Dad cook before and it was almost as embarrassing as catching him without his artificial leg on a night-time hop to the toilet. Once the Spry Crisp and Dry was bubbling, Mum opened the packet of sausages, Dad lanced them with a fork and dropped them into the pan. The eggs and tomatoes would wait until a later round of frying. Dad’s face beamed with delight. We knew why, and Mum and I joined in with the beaming. This was hot food outdoors. Proper food, smelling – and soon to be tasting – just like the food Dad had more or less every day. No reading restaurant menus outside to check the prices, no awkward looking at the tablecloth while we were served, no non-Walls sausages, and best of all no bill. Mum and I felt loved and hungry.

Grace meanwhile had smelled the sausages. She had been resting in the grass unenthusiastically licking a Bonio. With no one to bark at and no other dogs to bite she was much less present than normal and we had all forgotten about her. Grace combined athleticism with focus. This was demonstrated by the acceleration she achieved in crossing the ten yards from her dining spot to the frying pan, and the precision with which she hit pan, Campingaz stove, and Dad simultaneously before disappearing with a sausage through the gap in the hedge into the fields. Meanwhile Dad, Mum and I spectated this event as if we were catching up with an old Laurel and Hardy movie. By the time we had gathered ourselves the entire back seat of the Cortina was ablaze. Instinctively I stepped back into the council bin, which seemed to hold me like a supportive adult at the scene of an accident. Which I suppose this was.

And then wonder came to pass.

With uncanny agility Dad leapt to the back of the car, opened the boot, and threw Mum a large can of water used to fill the radiator. For himself he grabbed an old blanket he kept for the frequent winter breakdowns or when Grace’s blanket became too unsavoury for the back seat. He threw it on the grass and Mum doused it with the entire contents of the can. As Dad shut the front kerbside door, Mum moved to the other side of the blanket. The two of them raised it as though folding laundry and somehow managed to launch the blanket like a salmon over the back seat. Dad snatched the two spare canisters from the parcel shelf and Mum slammed the door. Almost immediately the flames subsided, black smoke filled the car, and the back window cracked. Mum and Dad retreated to the council bin and cuddled me.

A green double decker bus swung round the corner and pulled up down the road. Inside, a crowd of primary school children, presumably on a weekend trip, massed at the windows. Grey faces peered at us. The driver came over. Were we OK, what had happened, the car was ruined, did we want a lift, tell the dog to stop barking.

We wanted a lift.

I was designated the front seat with Grace, who was asleep. I had the best view of the overhanging tree branches before they scraped the roof of the bus and enjoyed being the eldest on board other than Mum and Dad and the driver. Mum and Dad were in the back row, bathing in children, who had already forgotten about the smoking Cortina that smelled like breakfast and were singing songs. The children did not seem to notice that Mum and Dad were crying. I knew it wasn’t about our Cortina, or our burnt tea.

Flat fish

A flat fish lay on a cold slab looking up. Looking down was a woman and a child. The child crinkled its nose and made a disgusted noise. The woman bought the fish and the three of them went home. Later that day the woman went to cook the fish but it had gone. She went to ask the child if she had seen it, but she had gone too. The woman returned to the shop and asked the fishman if he had seen the fish. The fishman said he had not, but that he had seen the child. “Like you, she asked about the fish.” He said. The woman returned home and telephoned the Police. “Someone stole a fish from my house.” She said. The policeman asked her if anyone else was there at the time. “A girl.” Said the woman. The policeman asked the woman to come to the police station. At the police station the woman was shown some pictures. The pictures showed a fish on a cold slab looking up.

The Boating Pond

She thought of herself as unique. Not good unique, like a very rare butterfly, but bad unique, like a disease nobody else has or wants. At least that is what people at school seemed to think. No she didn’t wear glasses but she might as well have done so, as her clothes, mainly hand me downs, seemed to confer glasses to her face. She regretted that she wasn’t one of the feisty heroines she read about in books. Those Cassandras’ who set off with just a slice of fruit cake and a trusty dog to catch a villain who had alluded the grown ups. In the books, the dogs were called Timmy or Flash and were generally sleek Border Collies with intellects surpassing Einstein. Of course the Cassandras’ were accompanied by some smug James who had all the answers as well as a torch and a walkie-talkie. She qualified in one respect, as she could call upon the family pet, a brown and white Bulldog Boxer cross of intimidating weight and ugliness having inherited the worst physical features of both its parents. He was called Brut, after the deodorant, something he was occasionally needful of. Her escape from bookishness was her passion for model sailing boats. Coincidentally there was a model boating pond situated next to the library, thus she could indulge both her passions and take Brut for a walk on her Saturday trips to town.

One sunny Saturday, after an unsatisfactory spell in the children’s section of the library, in which she could find nothing good she hadn’t already read, she collected Brut from the library cycle racks, where he was eating a discarded lolly stick and proceeded to the boating pond. She carried with her a model sail-boat she had been working on for a month. A scale model of a C Class yacht that would have been the stock in trade in the 1920’s and 30’s. This would be its launch. The pond was an area once imagined as an ornamental garden in an oriental style but now gone to rack and ruin. It had gaudy flowers in military rows, over sized trees, copious brambles and damp rotting benches surrounding a large, perfectly circular concrete pond. A fading danger sign announced that the water was six inches deep at the edges increasing to three feet at the centre. Leaves and litter had filled the pond and the blue floor painted with incongruous waves was only visible if you stirred up the water and scraped away the algae and mud. Apart from the well-tended flowers it was a scruffy place with graffiti gracing the rim of the pond and broken slats on the benches.

On one of the benches a group of boys from senior school were sitting smoking. One of them had his shirt off displaying a skinny white torso and red shoulders. She recognised them from her own school. They had left a couple of years ago when she was nine. Naturally she had had nothing to do with them having no interest in boys of any age. Besides she was focused on the launch. After a drink from the pond, Brut melted like a giant vanilla and chocolate ice cream on to the concrete rim of the pond and she prepared the boat for its first voyage.

There was almost no wind but this was not a problem. She knew from experience that the centre of the pond attracted a breeze. If the very worst came to the worst and the boat became becalmed or even sank, Brut might be persuaded to ‘fetch’ although with some significant cost to the integrity of the craft. Paddling out to rescue a stuck craft was not an option, due to the depth in the middle of the pond. Given the value of the yacht in girl hours she determined to follow a cautious path and to launch it with a tow line attached ensuring that, should it become becalmed she could haul it back to harbour.

She placed the boat into the water and was pleased to see that it balanced well on the keel. She set the sails and the negligible breeze indicated a wind direction toward the opposite side of the pond. She duly unravelled a significant amount of line from the reel allowing it to float in the water and attached the boat to the line at the bow. She set off walking around the pond with Brut following. On the way she became aware of the boys. She resolved not to acknowledge them on the basis that boys were customarily indifferent to her, in fact most people were indifferent to her, so no matter. Arriving at the optimum point around the pond she began to reel in the excess line in readiness to tow the boat a few feet from the pond perimeter and then allow it to set its own course, hopefully over to her.

The boat responded beautifully to its newfound freedom. The large sails captured what breeze there was and it falteringly waltzed away from the edge of the pond. The drunken path of the craft would extend its journey time but satisfyingly it required no further tugs on the line to maintain a course that was, at least, somewhat in her direction. The meditative mood was heightened by the sunshine that in her mind transformed the local authority decay into a trendy marina of the Jazz age. She sat on the warm concrete next to a steaming Brut who had closed his eyes and was unconsciously and ineffectively jerking his leg in pursuit of imagined rabbits or real fleas. The boat continued its coquettish dance toward them accompanied by the fuzzy sounds of the high street and a rumble of chat from the boys who had now all stripped to the waist and lay in and around the bench like thawing fish fillets. The minutes slipped by as she watched and imagined piloting her miniature craft into the harbour at Cannes.

As it neared the centre of the pond a cloud slipped across the sun as abruptly as a camera shutter and the yacht stopped dead. This was the opposite of what she expected as the centre was the place least affected by the shelter of the ill tended trees. She prepared to wait some while, with the expectation that this was a temporary halt. She didn’t have a watch, but for boating she had endless patience. Tugging on the line would ruin the illusion of authenticity and would spoil the bed-time reflections that fed her very best dreams. The boat had managed fifty yards of genuine sailing and should be given the opportunity to complete the journey unaided. She resolved to leave it to fate and wait until either the town hall clock struck the hour or alternatively a motor horn was heard (in this polite market town an infrequent occurrence). Brut was leaning against her drooling and snoring but the darkening sky made her button up her cardigan. It felt like she imagined a lunar eclipse of the sun to feel. She had read about them. The changes seemed miraculous and unreal – too much too quickly for a summer afternoon. The minutes passed and the clouds continued to hang across the sun like mourning veils. They both dreamed, soaking up time wondering why the weather was so weird.

Just beyond the library the town hall clock struck four. The boat remained becalmed. The fates had made their decision but she felt a little nervous as she teased in the line. Like a fisherman she awaited the jerk as the yacht became a puppet and could begin its animated journey home. The dripping line continued to feed back onto the spool, occasionally tangling or dredging up weed. This had to be a meticulous process as she had unwound a copious amount of line to give the boat the freedom to improvise its path to shore. She continued to wind and unsnag for several minutes until, to her alarm, the end spun wildly, like the end of a film show at school. The line had worked free and the boat (the best she had ever made) was now stranded 50 yards out in the deepest part of the pond.

Till then she had forgotten about the boys but now her concern about a stranded model was subsumed by another concern. The boys were not that threatening, after all she remembered them all from school. She recalled one in particular who wet himself during an egg and spoon race when she was in class one. Now she was aware that she was a spectacle and that what ever she did to rescue the situation would be under their gaze. In the strange subdued light, their presence, sitting on the nearby bench, reminded her of the audience of parents at school plays. Given her reluctance to stand out in any way, she had been cast in non-speaking roles like third fairy or tree or peasant girl but still she was obliged to be on show and she hated it. Now she was in a position where both inaction and action would draw attention to her and her dilemma. She could neither move nor speak. Despite the enshrouded sunlight she felt a shaft illuminating her position at the centre of the stage. A loud car horn penetrated the scene.

Brut woke abruptly. One of the boys stood up. ‘He’s an ugly Brut,’ he called to her from the bench. To her his voice was like a prompt demanding the next line in a play. Mechanically and absurdly quickly she replied ‘His name is Brut and yes we know he is ugly.’ The boy didn’t respond but continued to walk toward her. She had intended to communicate indifference but was aware that the tone of her response was haughty, teacher-like. She regretted replying at all. The audience was shuffling now and she felt panic as this boyish form began to grow taller and more adolescent, engulfing her. She knew him. He was the wetting one. What were his intentions? She looked away trying to will this spectacle to stop. Maybe he recognised her and wanted to revenge the shame of his infant sports day debacle. Surely his intention was to humiliate her in some way, to show her off like the prize he missed out on. Maybe he just planned to push her into the filthy water. Maybe he wanted to drown her. She remained turned from him as he reached out a hand…

…but Jill, for that was her name, began to whistle. Not a tune nor a signal but something in between. Not a scream or an alarm but a sound so intense it blocked your ears like eyelids block your eyes. Brut turned up to her, his jaws set slightly apart as if he was in silent prayer. Together, and in a split second Jill and Brut pirouetted like figures on a music box until both of them faced toward the lost yacht. Her song spread across the pool like skin on hot milk. In the middle the sails of the boat abruptly filled, and from its sheets spun a white swan that flew toward the group on the shore. Slowly at first, then swiftly it drove forward, a bow wave spreading across the glassy surface of the pond forming a gaping fan or a jaw. Within seconds it was with them and Jill had lifted it up into her arms, wrapping it in her arms like a new-born baby.

The boy, who during the spectacle had left his hand outstretched towards Brut’s muzzle, allowed it to fall to his side and onto his crotch. The other boys had witnessed the spectacle in full. This gesture, his silence and the trickle of urine that now seeped through his fingers triggered an exeunt. Jill turned and watched as they pushed their way through the overgrown trees and brambles ripping their bare arms, poking their eyes and finally stumbling and squashing the meticulous rows of lurid flowers as they headed back toward the library, the high street and their safe little town upon which a radiant late afternoon sun now shone.

‘Come’ said Jill to Brut. She headed back toward the library carrying the dripping yacht. Brut sauntered behind.

The Realistic

I would get in from school at about 4:00. Children’s Television would be allowed from 5:00, but at 5:45 it was switched off so we could sit down for dinner at 6:00. Tidying up at 6:30. At around 7:30 the television might be turned on for ‘Dad’s Army’ or ‘Are You Being Served’ but by 8:30 it was night time and I would have to go upstairs to bed. The 16 watt economy bulb on the landing would make my ‘Big Worry’ grow in my tummy, crawl up to my neck and finally bury itself in my ears. From downstairs, through the muffled TV banter I might catch Mum or Dad moving about or even better speaking. If there was a comedy on and he liked it, they would laugh. That was fantastic, a double helping of relief. Not only were they still there, they were happy. I knew the schedule. ‘World in Action’ at 8:30 on Tuesdays, The News at 10:00 every day, The Good Life, Thursdays, The Sweeney, News at 10:00 – Big Ben – bong, bong, bong announced a further half an hour during which my ears would be stretched open like the mouths of hungry birds. At 10:30 the TV weather forecast promised the most precious parade of sounds. The kitchen door opening and my Dad going to the outside toilet, taps running, doors being locked, lights being turned off and finally my Mum creeping up the stairs so as not to wake me. Then my Big Worry would let me off until the next night.

I had always had little worries. At six years old I heard a teacher in the school canteen say to another teacher that ‘I was the nervous one’. She may have gone on to say something like, ‘be gentle with him’ but if she did, I didn’t hear it because she whispered. The canteen was frightening and smelt of lamb and sick. My house was OK and didn’t smell of anything but my house was where my Big Worry waited, that is until my eighth Christmas morning.

In the living room our stove was lit, a Christmas treat and we had a tree with a dozen lights, but the biggest parcel in the pile was disappointingly light. I only liked heavy toys. Toys made of metal with gears and engines. I liked to think they were not really toys at all. This was cream plastic and felt like a toy. A length of skinny, plaited wire and two small cases with oval shaped gold painted grills buried in some crumbly polystyrene. It looked like the sort of thing other boys might want to get as a Christmas present – and those were always the presents I pretended to like but didn’t. I pulled the bits out of the polystyrene and read the instructions.

“Listen-in secretly from another room or even outside. The ‘Realistic’ Spy Intercom. Range 50 yards. Battery included”.

This was quite a bit better than it looked. It was a toy that did something. That worked. It was real. My Dad looked pleased, because I looked pleased, and my Mum looked relieved that whatever it was, I understood it and seemed to like it.

After Christmas dinner at 1:00 I carefully positioned one end of the Realistic on the table in the sitting room. I stood it up, like a family photo. I turned the golden grill toward the settee where they sat. Then I laid the skinny wire up the stairs, against the banister – so no one would trip. I couldn’t use sellotape because that would pull of the paint but the wire could be tucked and wound round things. They were pleased with me wanting to get it all set up so tidily. Anytime they needed me, they could press the lever and buzz me. No need even to say anything, just buzz and I would come. As Dad said, there was no need to keep the intercom switched on all the time and waste batteries. I could pop down in a trice. It took most of the afternoon to get it all just right but I was so pleased I showed them what I had done. After Christmas tea at 6:00 and Morecambe and Wise at 7:30 I was ready for bed. Armed with the Realistic I actually looked forward.

“Time for bed don’t you think” announced Dad. I kissed them both and strode to the living room door and up the stairs to the toilet. I got into bed, stretched out to full length reached over and gently rotated the dial to on. Keeping the volume as low as possible I lay under an eiderdown with a golden grill smiling at my left ear. I was amazed at how sensitive the ‘Realistic’ was. Even with the volume turned down it was able quite easily to pick out a gulp from a quiet burp or a slipper scuffing against a chair leg from the rustle of the radio times. With the ‘Realistic’ maybe you really would be able to hear a pin drop. It was important that Dad didn’t know I had kept it switched on draining the battery. I had to turn it off as they came up the stairs. I would be embarrassed if they knew how babyish I was. As soon as I heard mum tread on the bottom stair I switched it off, hung the ‘Realistic’ on its little brass hook next to my bed and rolled over, brave enough to face away from the 16 watts of dark confident that with the Realistic they couldn’t disappear. For 364 nights the Realistic and I slept soundly together. My Big Worry stayed away. That is until my 9th Christmas Eve.

On my ninth Christmas Eve I woke with the ‘Realistic’ on my pillow hissing. It took me a moment. Waking up in the middle of the night now seemed very unfamiliar, as if years had passed since the last time. I did not feel sick or need to go to the toilet but something was beginning to make me want to cry. For the first time since the Realistic I had missed hearing mum and dad come up the stairs. I had fallen asleep. The gold painted grill grinned at me caught by the 16 watts from the landing. No. Of course they were still downstairs on the settee watching ‘Panorama’. Thank you! I thrust my ear into the ‘Realistic’ and listened intently. Had I thought I would have known this was stupid. I knew the ‘‘Realistic’’ could hear a pin drop. It would hardly fail to hear a Bush television set at seven. Still I flattened my ear against the speaker. At first I heard nothing except the swirl of electronics. I raised the volume. I thought I heard something familiar very feint against the deafening hiss. No nothing. I closed my eyes and buried my other ear into the pillow to soak up any other sound. I listened. My hearing pounded. Again I heard a faint whisper. The sound of a breath but I couldn’t be sure. I wanted it so much I might have wished it. I wrapped the pillow even more tightly around my head. Time passed. Then the electronic hiss ceased suddenly allowing the fermenting sound to penetrate and reach my ear clearly. It was a breath. Held, and then another. One after another. In out, in out. It was relief. I lay face up releasing the pillow. I laughed. I could do something. I could listen really hard and the Big Worry would run away. And then another breath. Higher pitched this time. Loud and clear. A man and a woman perhaps. Surely Mum and Dad. Breathing, well, happy, still here. But asleep. Surely not. It was not likely. They slept in their bed from 10:45pm until 7:00am. They did not ever sleep anywhere else or at any other time. I stepped out of bed onto the landing and screamed. “Mum, Dad are you alright” and at that moment the ‘Realistic’ screamed back.

A deafening and absurd medley of theme tunes. The Golden Shot, Songs of Praise, World in Action, the Good Life shouted their melodies, fighting to be heard. I recognised them all. They were my lullabys. But they shouted and so did I. ‘Mum, Dad” I yelled against the shouting. They can’t hear me, the TV is too loud. Something is wrong with the Realistic. The 16 watts seemed darker than ever. It glowed dark. I reached for the skinny wire and ran it through my finger and thumb as I felt my way down the stairs. An ending was taking shape in my head and I needed to see it. I opened the living room door the noise stopped. The television was on and the room was cheerful with the Christmas tree lights. I saw it. Mum and Dad were not there.

I didn’t stay. I cleared the stairs to the landing in three stumbling leaps. “Mum Dad where are you”! Any hesitance had gone. I needed them to be back and screaming was all that I had left. I crashed through the door to their bedroom.

I had arrived. It had arrived. After years tucked up in a corner my Big Worry had slid in and now it filled me and my house. The worry spread through me, buried and chocked me down. The plot that had framed every day of my life up until that day was finally closing in and finishing. It was ending. I felt like I had when I had once wet the bed but worse. It drained down my pyjama bottoms and my stomach gulped and farted. Instinctively I strained to hold it back tugging on the closed curtain for support, preventing myself from squatting. The curtain pulled open and by the grey outdoor light I saw them.

They had not disappeared. They were on the bed side by side, absurdly symmetrically arranged. My white Mum and Dad lying on their backs, naked. The skinny wire could be seen trailing between them dividing the bed into two equal halves. Every 6 inches it was selotaped to the sheet giving the appearance of a scar expertly stitched. Their heads were meticulously presented on a pillow each. Their mouths were open. Open too far, stretched into a perfect oval. A gold painted grill caught the grey light. From the grill came a hiss. They were breathing. It was 3 o’clock exactly.


Burning down the sports hall was easy. It was probably all the poxy rubber gym mats, and the poxy Swedish pine cladding on the walls, and the poxy polystyrene tiles. Everyone says they are really dangerous when they melt. Give off poisonous gasses, people die. They should have listened shouldn’t they. I hate them all, the sports teacher bastards I mean, but not enough to kill them. Killing is for psychos and I am not a psycho. An arsonist is the right name for someone like me, someone who no one notices, someone just ordinary, but with hidden powers like fire in their fingertips. My powers come from my books. I read a lot, mainly books on war and guns. I know what TNT, stands for, and how the Chinese made gunpowder. It’s all in the Encyclopaedia Britannica in the library along with the pictures of vaginas and African tribeswomen tits. I write all the recipes down, the detail is all in there. 5, 5 , 7 is the recipe for gunpowder. You grind up Charcoal, Sulphur and Potassium Nitrate till it turns grey and like dust, then boom, gunpowder. Everyone thinks it’s really dangerous but it’s not actually, you can do it anywhere even in the front room watching Dads Army or the News at Ten. Mum and Dad think it’s for a school project. Something to do with frogs I tell them. What am I doing mashing up frogs spawn! Who knows or cares ‘it’s good to see he is applying himself.’

He was one of the posh village kids. Found himself at the rough Comprehensive and tried to fit in by being a ‘bad boy’. Doesn’t work though, they can see straight through him. The accent, the haircut, the dad commuting to the City, the books and most of all the soft skin. They all have suede skin, skin that can take a beating, take some stick.

My friends are two Steves, three including the crossed eyed one. No girls of course we are all too weird or clever or ugly for that. What with the ears as well! We pretend we aren’t interested but we all know we are desperate fucking sex maniacs. Sixteen and never had a girlfriend never even had a proper grope except Sandra White at the swimming pool but that doesn’t count because it was just an accident when I crashed into her tits in the swimming relay. Talk about passing the baton! They call me Flapper or Dumbo because of the big ears. It hurts, it’s embarrassing, but they don’t know that and I don’t tell them. I just laugh it off and pick on something about them. As I say, Steve is a bit crossed eyed sometimes but most of the time you don’t notice whereas my ears are like sodding flags, bright red, white and blue in the winter like a fucking Union Jack and bright red and peeling in the summer like a stale Mivi. Girls are always laughing at them, so I don’t say anything, just watch them using my hidden powers, staring, and sometimes I follow them home without letting them see me. I write down their addresses and imagine blackmailing them. I am an anarchist. That’s what it says on my bag. A big ‘A’ in red felt. An anarchist hates everyone, which I don’t. I love my dog and my cats and my books. Prison might be all right for an arsonist, after all it’s not for rape or sex or buggering babies or anything they could pick on you for. Just a few years to keep your head down then out with your head held high. ‘You’re the one that burnt the school sports hall down, good on ya.‘ That’s what would happen. People would know me, they might be a bit frightened of me, rightly so, you never know what I might do next.

The idea had been for three of them to do it together. They had spent months planning it. Filling in exercise books with notes and secret codes detailing the time, the chemicals they would use, an escape strategy, communications, how they would let the papers know after they had done it, everything meticulously set out. The new movement they would start – BSIS Ban Sports in Schools, the uniforms they would wear and all the girls that would come flocking to join up, but in the end neither of the other two turned up. So that left him on his own.

Believe it or not the door to the sports hall was unlocked. Just one of those fire doors, gave it a tug and it flew open. So much for fucking security. Plenty of light from the street no need to turn any other lights on. I was in like a snake with a box of matches and a tin of our special stuff. All the ingredients from Boots. They had no idea what they were selling, must have thought I was a gardener or a relapsed diabetic. Four pounds of fucking weed killer and two pounds of sugar. Arseholes. Grind it up in the right quantities pack it into a tube and bang, you have a bomb, a lot more powerful than gunpowder. The IRA use these, proper professional weapon. If you don’t pack it you have some very flammable white stuff that burns slow but as hot as a sodding firework. Enough of it and it will light a fire just about anywhere. We tested it in the woods and it seared the middle out of a dead tree in a couple of minutes. Has to be made fresh though otherwise it turns to jelly that looks just like spunk and you can’t light it. Who would want to light spunk anyway, except if you want to make a devil come alive like Alistair Crowley did. Before I could really think it through I threw a load over the rubber mats and a load fell on the floor and down my trousers. I looked like a proper tosser. The rest was still in the can so I stuck that under my jacket to use later. Not sure if I planned to light it or not in the end. No I don’t think I did. Just wanted to make a mess leave my mark, a signature. People would know it was me. The next day they would be bound to be whispering that I did it. I sort of tested the idea of lighting it. I struck a match. A spark must have flown off the match. White light and I was outside fast, the fire door closed behind me.

He walked away. It was raining now. A late goods train pulled slowly through the station. At this time and in this weather nobody was about, he didn’t really care anyway. To have been caught would have been all right, even good. There was nothing to see from the outside as all the sports hall windows were high up. For a moment he was relieved, a few burnt mats and the remains of their chemistry scattered about. Headmaster, police, expelled, kids at the gates watching him go, a caution or community service. Then from inside the hall a muffled roar followed by a crack as one of the upper windows shattered. He quickened his pace into a strut and headed down the street towards the estate.

I moved down the street to where I knew a bunch of gardens full of junk would provide plenty of cover but I could still see the my work. I settled behind the hedge on a plastic turtle, took a piss watched the comings and goings and listened to the noise of police radio and wot not. I began to think about the next step. A train passed through the station at speed, the sound drowned out all the other noise and I turned away thinking of leaving for a quieter spot. There among the discarded junk like a perfect garden statue she stood. Smaller than I remembered her, she had left the school a year ago we were never told why. I had never spoken to her but had watched her on many occasions. I had her address somewhere. She wasn’t the prettiest but she was the neatest. I couldn’t remember her name except it was something unusual. What I remembered was that her movements were all perfect, when she picked up her bag it was if she was showing the other girls how to pick up a bag. When she waited for the bus it was like a masterclass in perfect waiting. I had never heard her speak and I wasn’t going to now as somehow she made it clear that whatever conversation we were to have it would not involve words. She stood perfectly among the broken toys inviting me to leave my turtle and join her. The rain seemed to have stopped and the flickering streetlights had settled into a constant warm glow. I stood next to her, closed my eyes and flew.

The brigade arrived in about 5 minutes. It was too late. The building was gone. They doused the steaming remains but the rain had already done most of the work. No need to dig deep, at this time in the morning the building would be empty, a casual glance around and a verdict of electrical fire, after all the building had been made on the cheap. It was quite new but the cowboys who made it had certainly cut corners. An accident waiting to happen lucky it didn’t spread.

Using my secret power we flew through the empty streets without saying a word, dodging puddles, past the rec, the lower school, the rows of shit council houses with upside down cars and prams abandoned in the gardens, the occasional new town houses, where my sister lived, the Express dairy, the church and the local pubs and shops. We crossed the railway line and watched as the Boat Train swooped silently southwards towards Folkestone. We followed her riding the sky like surfers. Fire flowed through my fingers brightening the sky.

She had been walking home from a friend’s house early in the morning. She was last seen opposite the sports hall standing under one of the street-lights, she seemed to be waiting.

The embers of the fire glow on the skeletal remains of the hall. It is a Martian landscape, red from the street-lights, the floor twisted and deformed by the mounds of molten plastic and stained by the vaporised rubber. The two hover and rest at the highest point, a pommel horse that was blackened by smoke but still intact. Astride the horse they survey the crowd that has assembled. Stretching from the hall up to the school reception and beyond the paths are lined with boys carrying banners for BSIS. From the classroom windows girls wave flags celebrating the burning of the sports hall. On their knees the sports teachers lay gym shoe tributes at the couples feet. Amidst the debris, charred but intact a decapitated head and two flaming ears brighter and bigger and redder than ever before.

Charmaine, that was her name