Category Archives: short stories

As Blue As The Land Beneath The Ice

The summer you gave me has frozen over inside an empty flat. Black on blue like the bruises insomnia leaves below my eyes. The flat is the barren plain where scraps of scrub grow resilient to the weather which beckons their death. The shabby forms of five writers sit on the shelf above the television set which is fuzzy and speaking only in tongues. Icicles form stalactites below the broad shelf, the scuffed shoes of the writers dangling as they look to each other for an answer to the question my eyebrows pose.

Jack scrapes grit from his boot with a dirty finger.

“I know the most about this winter. This icesheet. But why should I help someone who has condemned me as tired cliches your young self believed in?”

He looks at Gabriel.

“No pedestal for me when sat next to him. But I make you write don’t I? Because you think you can do better. With him you tremble with love and forget the plot.”

Gabriel said nothing. He grinned at me warmly. His face was weatherbeaten and tanned. But a tan in the light of winter looks a strange and suspicious thing. His teeth were crumbling, the more he smiled the more they slipped from his mouth like sand. His dark eyes held a love and sadness that made my heart break. That simultaneously brought value to what I felt and devalued it as trivial nonsense.

Margaret is reading. A shabby old leather-bound book, the title so faded that I can’t make it out.

“Margaret,” Jack says. “Surely you have an opinion? Like me you always do.”

Margaret lowers her reading spectacles with a long finger and peers at me and then over at Jack. They look like the construction workers hanging over New York City in that famous photo. Smiles and lunch boxes, legs dangling into the metropolitan abyss. But Margaret is the tallest and the only one who doesn’t wear a hat.

“Are you making this political, Jack? You’re not always subtle.”

Jack pointed to a spider shivering in is cobwebbed lair. “I don’t make it. It’s just the shape it comes. The pieces just fit together what the picture says is up to you.”

Margaret chuckled wisely and turned to me. “Make of that what you will!”

Her voice is clipped. American English. Two Americans and one Latin American. And what of the others? Who are the mystery pair in shadow on the end of the shelf? The whites of their eyes faintly visible in the gloom as they study the cold room with puzzlement.

“Why is it winter in here and summer outside?” I ask aloud this time. My voice shakes as though my vocal chords are wired up to a distortion pedal. as though the frog in my throat is a snake’s rattle.

The distortion moves around the room, latching onto other sounds which gather like a storm until the writers’ voices are lost. The creaks of the house become shrieks. The slight hiss of electricity becomes a mass. The spider scuttles to safety.  Time folds up on itself like origami crushed under foot. And inside the folded pages I hold my ears and cower, waiting for the end.

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The Wind Cries Barney

No melting hearts today in the blue snows. Just the aftermath of the winds. The kind of winds that re-enlighten your belief in the coming apocalypse. A troll stomping over rooftops and chasing down to you in the damp street. He bellows in your ear leaving a damp splattering of spittle quickly iced by the cold air. Stray twigs torn from trees crunch under foot. You step around them until they become too many, filling the pavement and road in piles and piles of insignificant broken limbs.

“Did you laugh together more than you argued together? And if not do you know why?”

Mazzy flipped the record to it’s forth side and teetered among the clutter in the tiny flat. Immunity by Jon Hopkins. Something stronger was needed to block out the catcall of teenagers in the street.

“We always laughed. We were always stupid. That’s why it lasted so long. I don’t know how to be any other way anymore. All that bickering about things that don’t fucking matter. The most efficient way to load the dishwasher? Nah.”

A quick shake of her head and eyes that strayed into a distance that wasn’t visible beyond woodchip and the first feint patterns of damp. I was persistent though. I knew how he could be.

“But the moods. The dark moods. How did you cope?”

Mazzy looked puzzled. She picked up a mug of tea which had turned tepid. A softer wind was tapping the window. If yesterday he was an angry troll today he was mischievous sprite.

“There’s a tiny bit in the middle of this bit of the record which reminds me of Diamond Mine, just a few bars. Do you know what I mean?”

I waited. Knowing she would settle and answer my question when she’d dispelled these important thoughts.

“I don’t notice them. I didn’t.” A shrug. “You know my family, if nobody’s hitting the roof you enjoy the peace. It’s just grumps with him. I could still make him laugh, that’s the difference.”

Mazzy settled in a beanbag and looked at her tea disappointedly. “What about you, now? Do you get lonely?”

I faltered at the question and rubbed my forehead, trying to work out the creases. It seemed a stupid question. I nodded.

“Everyone does. Don’t they? We’re all alone.”

“But you’re really alone.”

“Like a troll.” I tugged at troll hair which seemed to sprout like dune grasses.

“This bit.” Mazzy pointed to the record spinning on an axis of melodic refrain.

“What?” I’d zoned out of the music. She’s better at multi-tasking than me.

“Reminds me of…”

I nodded.

The scene dissolves in history like all others before it. The young march on into the morning. They know all will not be well, but there’s nothing to do but evolve, grow, be something society didn’t expect it was capable of. You are your own hero, your own catastrophe. Failure doesn’t lie in your bed. You only fail when you hold others back with your backwards mindset and bullying ways. Your poison is malice and you drink it straight from the bottle.

Back to the whispering hum of the dehumidifier removing tears and mould from stained walls. No music or the voice of Mazzy to break its hum drum sound. The lack of television keeps the brainwashed society at bay. Adverts and pop music filtered out. Shelves stacked with more books, music and films than they can hold. Stuff that has fucking meaning. Stuff that draws a portrait of a life before it’s lived. Brain supplements to keep the rot at bay. To help us keep writing. Because writing is all we can do to survive our own minds.

I tear open a letter from Mazzy, out in the Hebrides. I saved it two days because I knew I would need it today.

‘Dear Barney,

Although you are not dear.’ She begins….

Aspire to Asylum

ASPIRE TO ASYLUM

Back to the quiet routine. Back to watching the dust and the bar flies settle in the reflection of a patterned mirror. Moments nuzzle up close to one another, leaving no personal space. Gruff John’s glass is empty. Specks of froth scatter the interior in a pattern which defines the last disappointed sip. He leans on the counter and begs the nurse for another dose. Politely first, then more insistent, sensing resistance to the logic of just one more.

In the corner Dog One is getting ratty towards Dog Two. They see each other every night and exchange the same old woes. Some time is spent with belly and jowls lowered on the floor, paws pushed forward as though diving towards an idle nap, eyes watching the feet that pass, drool leaving a small pool to mark the passage of time. Some time is spent greeting regulars and staff, tail uncertain in its waver, an empty wine glass caught as it’s nearly knocked from the low table. Some time is spent, like this time, re-establishing boundaries. Dog Two must know where he is allowed to sit, and who gets first dibs on pork scratchings.

The Rude Lady thumps the counter. She’s tolerated here. She takes advantage of this by being demanding. She demands because the world has never given her nothing. Least of all manners and gumption. The more she demands, the less is given. Nobody gives a shit for someone who gifts them nothing but grief. She has spilt cider on her table cloth skirt and loudly jokes about pissing herself. Nobody laughs. Her neediness fills the space around her. Those closest shift bum cheeks on bar stools.

The Intellectual Beard is preoccupied by the cryptic crossword, or at least he seems to be. Really he’s wondering whether his best friend has read his new book yet. It’s been three weeks and nothing has been said. He has grey hair sprouting from his ears but has yet to notice how it interlinks with the kinetic energy given off by the skittish nervous systems of those nearby. The whole room and its life forms are interwoven and yet the sharp tug of a single thread could pull the whole place apart.

But. No, nothing, it doesn’t matter. I never meant to say that, I’m just a bit pissed, mate.

Gog the Manager is not as old as he looks. But he still looks younger than Gruff John, who has the beetroot nose of a man who likes his tipple more than himself. Gog the Manager doesn’t judge, he has been known to match them all glass for glass, each new ale turning over his tongue. They are all connoisseurs here, except those who have resorted to habit and can no longer taste anything but the routine slug. But this is a nice pub, fights rarely break out here. Glass is smashed only with laughter, and a disorientated grace of being. You can take the pub from the community with beer tax and monopolising Pub Co’s, but you can’t take the community from the pub. Every man and woman is one-another’s equal here, and knows it. The outside world is the place where madness and insecurity rampage the streets and shout at the traffic. In here they are contained. A safe jacket with a tab where sandwiches can be ordered before 9pm.

There is no detached observer here. Even the man who only drinks soda water and keeps himself to himself. He scribbles in a notebook but if you look closely at the black boards his words are reassembled there.

TITANIC STOUT 4.5% £3.20 A JAR.

The door to the yard is propped ajar. Laughter and the chill breeze slip in through the gap. Two women smoking share the jokes and secrets only smokers understand. The heat lamp lasts three minutes and then Sheila with the Big Bum pulls the cord again. She always pulls the cord because she feels the cold settling in her mittens. Frances with the Curly Fringe forgets. Forgets how cold she is, caught up only in the laughter, in the promise of the night sky that squeegees away the dirt of daylight and leaves a clean surface on which tomorrow can be written, like the next guest ale off the draymen’s list.

The Graveyard Shift

THE GRAVEYARD SHIFT

Dusk came early, gulping the city and surrounding valley. Irish Steve clocked on as the builders and engineers packed up and left for the day. The easy craic and banter of the local lads soon dissolved in the approaching mizzle. Pulling on his high-vis vest over a thick wax jacket, Steve gazed about the place. The building site changed a little each day, but as night fell it loomed with the same ghouls and echoed with same sounds. He sat on the threadbare swivel chair in the foreman’s hut and pawed through a newspaper by lamplight.

The tiny lamp inside the tiny hut made the surrounding darkness deeper, darker and colder. Towering girders rolled overhead, reaching out into the indigo which enveloped the seven hills, the seven hopes, the seven places of shelter for a fugitive of daylight. The city sat spread-eagled in between, its gennels and gulleys running amok over broken-heeled cobbles. Mosswood bridges over the sound of brooks babbling, the boards creaking under the weight of ghostly padfoots patrolling the twilight.

A distant farmer making a last check on his sheep looks down from his stile. Beyond the shadowy pasture, heath and stubble fields Sheffield twinkles with secrets. Rustic bricks battle Utopian concrete. Ribs ache from laughter and drunken mishaps. Tomfools lying on cracked curbstones, while piss-artists sing at the pockmarked walls.

Irish Steve checks his watch. Many long night shifts have taught him patience, but not the kind his boss expects of him. The bricks and mortar provide stoic conversation, the sprites and goblins melancholy nonsense. Steve answers both with dry humour and the boldness of a man who has faced worst demons. A nearby derelict warehouse focuses in the gloom. Every grey window with a brick through and whiskers twitching, tiny scuttles disturbing the dust. Scrawny pigeons flock in to roost for the night, calling neurotically to one-another amongst downy twigs and shit splattered brickwork. The cold sets into bones and Steve can already sense the routine of travelling home on an early tram. Home to Brokers Place and the 7am sleet.

It’s too long to wait. He knows his will power is too weak and his guts crave beer and human conversation. A nearby stack of rubble is gurgling, damp from the soft weightless rain which is barely falling.

“If they got me a damn dog, it wouldn’t be so dull. But he’d do a better job anyways, so I’d just let the mutt mind this rammel,” he says aloud to the rubble and rats.

His newspaper rustles in reply. His breath is shallow like the lamplight, but still seems loud in the gloom. He longs to be away from sobriety and creeping loneliness. Sometimes he enjoys the solitude. He was brought up in the sticks after all, used to conversation with sheep and grasslands. Used to the mocking wind and chatter of hail. But now his kids are grown and left, he needs silliness even more. Up the hill in the city centre, the football fans will be flocking in, half-cut and full of jokes. There are local haunts where the barkeeps have named him ‘Irish Steve’, just like the dayworkers. His face is familiar – lined with a life of laughter and troubles drowned with cheap lager and knock-off cigarettes. He’s built a habit of skivving for large parts of the evening. He’ll still be on site in the small hours when the toe-rags are most likely to come looting for tools and making mischief. But the graveyard shift passes a damn sight quicker with beer in his belly and a takeaway brought back to the shabby little hut.

The same dull details, the same signs. Hard hats should be worn at all times, and hardships must be shoved into steel toe cap boots. He lights his second cigarette of the evening and puzzles over whether the newspaper belongs to today. The stories seem familiar, written for an audience that wants the same thing day-in, day-out. Sun rise, sun set, and after it sets, Steve is alone with a night-time that no-longer spooks. He smokes some and idly checks his watch again, knowing it’s a terrible habit. He tries, at least, to last a little longer each night after the lads have left. Counts up the minutes as rewards. An extra bag of pork scratchings deserved, buy that pretty bar maid in The Duck a drink tonight. He’s not one for sleazing, but takes small pleasure in seeing her smile at his jokes. When they’re good enough.

It’s colder tonight, though. So much easier to keep the icy air out with a beer jacket on. Nodding off for a wee while at 1am to the fuzz of the radio. He rubs his hands close to the little heater, which is about as hot as a candle, and stares at the dried up skin around cracked nails. The open door shifts on its hinges and outside the half-built walls grin cynically at him.

“Already?” A discarded wheel barrow says.

“No bother.” He sniffs. With weary predictability he stoops to a stand and shoves the maglite in his jacket pocket. Pushing the door further open his steps down, then stops his casual tracks. His ears chase a sound across the deconstructed brickland. There’s someone else on the site, creeping suspiciously about.

“Fur fox sake.” Steve emits a hefty sigh. He pulls out his torch, positioning it just above his head, the beam reaching out into the dark.

 

© Kirsty Fox 2013

Dead Mouse

Remember me skulking into the kitchen like a cat. Laying out some offering on the tiled floor at your feet. Just anecdote or whimsy. Nothing that really mattered, but at they same time they mattered to me. You would look a little bewildered. Peering down at the mouse I’d so lovingly broken the neck of and laid at your feet.

Did you notice the detail? The inscisors slightly visible on a clenched lip. The trickle of blood so perfectlly formed. The facial expression stripped of life energy. I laid at your feet, a broken thing, having given up the good fight and accepted the inevitable.

You looked at me for a while as though I were a sweet, charming thing. A cute destraction. You feigned appreciation for the raw, rodent suppers I carefully prepared.

When I wasn’t looking you picked up the mouse by its tail, holding it away from you between thumb and index finger. No burial for the broken mouse, just a dustbin that smelt of cigarette ash and the urine of drunks.

When I returned I saw the empty spot on the tiled floor. The perfect trickle of blood by itself.

But you had thrown away all that I’d given you. You had crunched my vertebrate and left me broken. And still you looked bewildered. As though I shouldn’t have cared so much about a dead mouse, or bats in the attic, or fucking dime bars.

…The sound of your voice is distant now, still unsettling hairs on the back of my neck. I’ve stopped seeing your face. It’s just a disappointed smudge in the room.

Fatal Baby Bug

Fatal Baby Bug

I hated having booked seats on trains.  The fusspots make a worms-meal of it, and the lottery of companionship, especially all the way down to London.  To make matters worse I had a stinking hangover and was sweating out the previous night’s fun in beads and muggy splatters.

I’d really won that lottery this time also, around a dreaded table seat I had a friendly drug-dealer, a ballet teacher and a plump girl, I shit you not.

The man was slim and scruffy, rough around the edges in an amiable sort of way.  It was the two mobile phones, constant calls from apparent near-strangers and slightly passive/aggressive phone-side-manner that gave the geezer away.  That and his constant euphemism of the word ‘stuff’. The ballet teacher, prim and slim, with her hair in a bun and elegant spectacles, seemed not to twig what kind of entrepreneur her new friend was.  The same with the plump girl who I failed to learn to occupation of.  Her being on the big side, is anecdotally relevant, I’m not just being mean.  She had streaked hair, and bright lipstick.  She was an open friendly person and I’d like to give her a PC nickname, but nothing else stuck in my head.

I was pretending to sleep anyway, to the rhythm of the train.  Half-eavesdropping, half-trying to piece together the night before (this seemed vital at the time, though events that followed buried it in a rum-bullion of insignificance).

I didn’t want to join in the amiable chatter, that was the bottom line.  And rather than look sulky and rude, I figured faking sleep was a better option.  My life through headphones, filtering out some of the small talk.  They spoke about the weather, the government cuts and about ballet.  The plump girl saying – “I’d love to try it, but I don’t think I have the figure”

The ballet teacher agreed rather bluntly and I cringed inside, and tried harder to fake sleep.  I was slumped against the train window, which bumped at my head and vibrated my teeth.  I was listening to The Bug, and trying not to mouth the words, nor wriggle my shoulders in skinny-white-boy appreciation.  You should know that I’m nearly thirty, but I still look like a tall twelve year-old.  I have the first traces of crows-feet, but I think they’ll only make me look weirder – like an artificially aged boy.

With my eyes closed, all I captured was the changing light which flashed between window panes on the surface of my eyelids.  The music mellowed towards the end of the album, and changed without me noticing into some electronic ambient.  It was plugged into my brain mush like a drip, so that between its utterances and the muted talk of the people and the nomadic machine, I existed inside a rolling soundscape.

I wake to dusk outside and an empty train as it pulls away from some station.  Time expands and contracts in my dozy state.  The rain streaks on the pane as the train gains speed, then droplets wriggle and search like eager sperm.  Stuffed clouds hang above the demure hues of the sun sinking into a beery stupor.  Everything is bleak and magical all at once.  Inbetween light, inbetween days, inbetween double glazing.

Rail lines outside are sketched hastily as dashes of light.  Marks made on the Earth beneath the gathering twilight.  Still the sonic conversation of the train.  The hooves, the whistles, metal talks to glass, glass to plastic, plastic to the everchanging airflow inside and out.  In my ears and in my spine.  My brain is a crossword with only gently penned-in answers that don’t connect with one another.

My eyes flickered open, the train was full again and it’s still day outside.  The drug-dealer’s ringtone dueted with the music in my ears.  The plump girl was talking about ‘Confessions of a Shopaholic’.  I was sweating kittens inside my hoodie, but too sleepy and stupefied to care.  I stared out of the window, glimpsing farmland and pasture, the ruminations of cows chewing the cud.  The light was very bright, so I closed my eyes again.  My mp3 player began the intro of The Flaming Lips ‘Do You Realise?’ and my bedraggled inner-self swooned and swayed inbetween sleep and wake.

There is a little cat sat on the table.  I recognise it from my neighbourhood, a scrawny near-black tortoiseshell, the type with a harshly rasping yowl, that invites itself into people’s houses when they’re drunk and don’t know any better.  My friend nick-named him Sabuteo the magic cat, because he once appeared on my window sill on the second floor and we had no idea how he got there.

He stares at me, with that stare they have that reads your soul and reflects your secrets back in pale emerald irises.

“I think you may be dreaming,” he said. “It’s plausible I somehow got onto your window sill, but this is just silly.”

We discuss for a short period whether or not he can help me with my feeble love-life.  I forget exactly what is said, words seem to slip through time and escape short-term memory.  But he recommends I read a book called ‘The Master and Margarita’, in general he says I ought to read more, then I might have something vaguely intelligent to say to women.

“Do women like men who like cats?” I asked him.

“They prefer them to men who spend a minimum of seven hours a day playing Football Manager games and then wonder why they can’t sleep,” he replied.

“Hmm, I see your point…” I began to say, but an unseen child pulled the tip of his tail, he made the kind of primal noise that turns those with weak hearts to stone.

The noise made my bones quiver, jolting from sleep, I opened my eyes.  The train had stopped.  Everyone in the carriage was stood on one side, gawping out of the window, trying to peer over each other to get a better look at what was going on.  My face had been resting on the crumple of my hoodie’s arm, I could feel the imprints in my face.  I looked at the people, they were the right people, there were no talking cats and the time of day seemed accurate.  I still wasn’t sure I was awake though…

Shufflefield

Nothing is real. A dream of a dream. The vain wisp of hope which keeps dying in tears and a feint weary sigh. The beer tastes of something optimistic. But the goosebumps quiver and gather and spread. Heart doesn’t so much beat as clench with an impending sense of doom.

My reality feels utterly fragile and earnest. Yet they seem to brush it off like a pesky insect. You’ve made your bed.

If only it was a bed, I could sleep now. The cocoon. The warmth. The dreams, however uneasy. Though the dreams would be akin to the waking nightmare. Walking but not sure where. And my limbs ache with the weight of treacle. And all the roads look the same, twisting into dead ends and private places. So I continue walking. Continue waking. Stuck inside a dream and a real life that both repeat because of tiredness.

Tables vacate and then fill again. How much time has passed? And who knows anything about the man in the moon?

I fall into achy love as quickly as I discard it for a more sensible option.

Stream of conscious has no place in town-planning. We are a lost generation. Fucked beyond all recognition. We licked the icing off the cake and then realised we’d spend the rest of our lives owing that icing.

Nausea sneaks in again now. Maybe for the pretty music. Maybe for the fish. Maybe for the rum.

Everybody looks half familiar, like versions of somebody else. Like a remake of a former episode. Or the re-enactment  of a crime. The social element takes precedent. What I would give for the social element.

A slightly bald man with a beard keeps carrying chairs through the door. I’m not sure he’s real.

I want to bawl like a small child. I want to scream murder so blue. I want someone to talk to, but I have nothing to say. Hyper-awareness is a drug I cannot recommend. Paranoia isn’t suited to my palette.

Words skip before my eyes. I care too much what the waitress thinks of me sat here alone. She’s probably indifferent. Most of us are. They’re playing so many songs uniquely familiar to me it’s almost spooky. The whole sequence of events is like high-performance nostalgia. So many memories crammed in, they’re forgotten before they’re recognised.

The clock only gets slower, fades to nothing, stops ticking. It only ticks when it wants to keep me awake. Now it’s no help at all. Except for breaking all those promises. I’m a burden upon the human race. Upon an Earth which cannot cope with the weight of my eyelids.

I think I’m having a mental breakdown. But I decide to do it quietly. In a solitary way. In the shade of boredom and regrets I don’t have because I don’t believe in regret.

I’m cold but I don’t know if the world is cold. Maybe I have a fever.

The light dims inside and out. Suits loiter, reading. Chairs appear from nowhere. Cocktails have been supped and gossip shared. All in the space of a blink. I wait. I wait inside a weight. I’ve been forgotten, lost, abandoned. I may as well wander the streets like a bum. I’m just killing time and by fuck, time is killing me.