Here is Tuffin occupying the best seat in the station waiting room, near the gas fire on Sunday so no trains are expected so no one is here. He puffs on his pipe and makes smoke like a train.
A blind man and a dog come in. The blind man sits opposite and the dog sits with Tuffin and leans his head on Tuffin’s lap but Tuffin likes dogs and this one is a fine one. Tuffin is not sure if the blind man knows he is here so he stays very quiet so as not to startle him. The blind man farts so Tuffin puffs on his pipe a bit more. The dog drools on Tuffin’s lap.
Tuffin dare not move despite the fart and the drool. As it is Sunday no one else is likely to want to wait.
- The blind man takes out a book. He doesn’t look at the book at all but he turns the pages one at a time and reads out loud.
Tuffin wishes he had bought a book too.
- The blind man takes out a plastic bag and eats the sandwiches and biscuits.
Tuffin wishes he had a biscuit.
- The blind man removes his shoes and stretches across several seats.
Tuffin wishes he could remove his shoes and put on his slippers like he would later.
The dog scratches.
The blind man scratches and makes a pillow with his bag and falls asleep and snores.
So does the dog.
…Now Tuffin goes to the door and leaves the waiting room.
…But he waits at the platform puffing on his pipe and making smoke like a train.
A train stops and the blind man gets on without the dog, with the book and with the bag but it’s Sunday.
Tuffin goes back to the waiting room and the dog is occupying the best seat by the gas fire and he is awake.
Tuffin’s garden was a square like everyone else’s. He planted only green and leafy and bushy and tall things, no coloured flowers at all. He put a path around all four sides just wide enough for him to walk round, and used a ladder and a plank and a spirit level to clip everything very straight and flat and to keep them from growing too tall and annoying anyone.
The garden grew into a giant and dense and green cube.
Tuffin knew how to squeeze into his garden without disturbing a single thing. Inside everything was clipped to perfection making a square room with leaf green walls and a leaf green ceiling and a grass green floor. The floor was painted green as the room was dark and real grass did not thrive.
In his garden Tuffin would do all the usual garden things. He would hoe and water and weed and take tea at a table and as he worked he would hum and whistle along to the wireless. He set up a tiny badminton court to pop pop on and set the mower blades high enough that he could mow the grass in stripes and make the clickety clickety noise quietly.
Tuffin’s garden was the same in the day and the night. Birds did not nest in the trees and local cats did not litter. Butterflies passed by and bees and wasps did not bother. Neither the sun nor the moon ever shone and rain never fell. It annoyed no one.
Tuffin’s house was new, when he was new, and now both of them were 60 years old.
At 11:15pm on Thursday he sat in his chair in the sitting room.
He knew that beneath his feet was a red rug, a brown carpet, grey linoleum and wooden floorboards.
He went to the tool shed. He selected a jemmy and a claw hammer.
He moved his chair, lifted the rug, rolled up the carpet and peeled back the Lino.
With the jemmy and the claw hammer he removed a small area of floorboard.
He exposed the joists and the brickwork but it was dark.
Tuffin went to the tool shed again and collected a torch.
With the torch he was able to see down beneath the joists.
Beneath the red rug, the brown carpet, the grey linoleum and the wooden floorboards a thick layer of grey dust covered a concrete floor.
Embedded in the dust were several fresh footprints as finely wrought as the finest filigree.
Tuffin waited for ten rings. No answer.
He dialed another number. “Tell me a story.” He said. “I am sorry?” He heard. “Tell me a story.” He said. …Silence.
Tuffin tried another number. “Tell me a story.” He said. “Hello who is this?” He heard. “Tell me a story.” Tuffin replaced the receiver.
- Three calls each sitting.
- Four digits per call.
- Never repeat the same four.
He was alone so it was easy to remember.
Then one day, after hundreds of digits.
“Tell me a story.” He said. “Very well” said the woman.
So she began.
When she had finished Tuffin replaced the receiver. He looked at the telephone on the table in front of him and the photograph beside it.
He knew it was her.
Here is Tuffin taking a red bus on a foggy Saturday at 5:00pm in December.
At 5:25 pm, at the railway station everyone gets off leaving the top deck empty. All the windows are steamed up and most are smeared by hands and cuffs and gloves and handkerchiefs but the wide window at the front is untouched. Tuffin moves to the front. He can just about see his misty face reflected in the glass.
•He has 20 minutes.
He removes a pencil from his top jacket pocket. The sharp end is no good but the rubber end is perfect. He traces his face through the mist onto the glass. He draws his mouth and nose and ears and hat. With his nails he forms lashes and with his fingers he makes eye-holes so that the dark outside looks in.
•He sits back.
In places water drips, making the picture weep. This amuses him, but his face floats in an expanse of nothing – and that doesn’t, so he draws the background as fast as he can.
•He is wet and steamy and hot.
He draws a jungle and monkeys and toucans and tall trees and everything. Fresh mist from his breath feeds the grasses that grow taller and stronger and creatures swing and climb and crawl and fly about. From his face a lion with a straggly mane springs. It peers back through the drips at the bus. He works until every bit of the canvas is filled with his touch.
•At 5.45 pm he stands and rings the bell.
Here is his stop. Here are the village shops lit with Christmas. Here is the lion glowing green, the toucans glowing gold, the grasses glowing blue, the monkeys glowing red and here is Tuffin’s face, pink and wet and glowing and stepping off the bus and walking home.
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.
- I waited for ten rings.
- I tried another number. “Tell me a story.” I said. “I am sorry?” I heard. “Tell me a story.” I said.
- I tried another number. “Tell me a story.” I said. “Who is this?” I heard. I replaced the receiver.
Three calls each sitting.
Four digits so as to stay local.
I never repeated the same four.
It was easy to remember.
Then one day.
“Tell me a story.” I said. “Tell me a story.” I said.
“Tell me a story.” I heard.
Tuffin’s salary was paid into his bank account every month. Every fourth Friday afternoon he would go to the bank and take out as much money as he could in penny coins. He would carry the coppers back to work in a strong leather bag and then, at the end of the day, he would take them home and decant them into the bath.
Every day, in the evening he would have his bath. The water made the coins quite shiny. He made them shinier still by stirring them round for several minutes so that they rubbed against each other. Those that were still dull he scrubbed with pumice. This made the bath cold and gritty, just how he liked it. He was ‘as clean as a new penny’ and smelled of metal.
For twenty years he shared his bath with the pennies. He liked to wiggle his feet into his heap until they disappeared. Sometimes he would pile a selection of the shiniest ones into towers to make a castle. Once he had collected enough coins, he would bury himself in them so only his head was sticking out. When he got out of the bath he admired the shape of his bottom cast in the coppers. Every bath time he felt like he was on holiday.
Over the years the amount of water he could fit in the bath grew less, until only a puddle spread across the bed of coins.
On the evening of one Wednesday, Tuffin was forced to acknowledge his bath was full and there was no room left for any more pennies. He went to bed dirty.
- Next day Tuffin went to work as normal. At his desk he wrote a letter of resignation, which he left for his boss and then went home.
- Even though it was not the fourth Friday, the next day Tuffin went to the bank and closed his account, taking the remaining balance in cash. Not in coppers though.
- On Saturday he bought a car and a steel bucket. He used the bucket to empty the bath of pennies and fill the boot of his car.
- On Sunday he drove his car to Deal and emptied his coppers onto the shingle beach. During the day he built a magnificent castle using every penny.
- In the evening he removed his trousers and buried his legs into the shingle, smiled and bathed in the cold seawater. Just how he liked it.
- Afterwards he admired the shape of his bottom cast in the shingle. He was ‘clean as a whistle’ and smelled of the sea.
Then he went home.
That night the sea washed his castle away.
The sea still stirs and shines his pennies. Now they are the size of sixpences.
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.
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
In the park there is a model boat pool. In the middle of the pool my sail boat is still. The breeze has dropped and now the boys are laughing. I take off my shoes and socks and stand in the pool. I whistle my tune and the sails fill. The boat turns toward me and smoothly tacks across the pond to rest at my feet. I put on my shoes and socks and slip the boat under my arm. The boys are quiet now. As I leave the park I whistle under my breath so as not to worry them.
The balloon was a mile wide. Untethered it lifted its cargo of one thousand above the morning mist. Against the horizon its mackerel skin crossed the face of the rising sun scattering the red rays like fireworks. We were in awe. The sun was not impressed. She whitened with anger. The heat seared the mountains the oceans, the deserts, the forest and the horizon. It struck the silver fabric like a storm, boiling the air inside. The one thousand were lifted above the head of the sun and flung into space. The sun smiled red and we were in awe.
I sat on the landing at top of the stairs and counted the steps to the bottom. Thirteen. I knew that if the dream caught me I would leave my tummy at the top and land lightly at the bottom. Only the thick shaded light above my head was on, downstairs was a mystery. My flying record was six steps but that was in the daytime. Night meant I didn’t know. I just had to let go and see. I took off spreading my arms like the Comet. As I flew I counted the steps. Twelve.
Jill sat on the ground in her place at the back of the shed. She pulled her knees up, leant against the warm wood and pulled out his pipe, tobacco and matches from the secret pocket in her dress. She pressed the tobacco into the bowl, and watched the flame circle like a spell as she sucked the smoke through her lips.The sun froze the smoke still like a picture. Daddy’s shadow lengthened as he levered a heavy clod from the soil. ‘There! About time to go, don’t you think.’ ‘No not yet Daddy’ she thought to herself
As I dived into the pool my swimming trunks slipped off and I was naked. My head struck the bottom like a spade. The other boys and girls saw me so I decided to stay down. Lying on the bottom I could see their floating faces and hear their chat. It reminded me of a church or a film of a famous picture. I swam around until they had all gone and then I found my trunks. I don’t need them now because every night I swim around and every day I sit naked and dripping, listening to their chat.
While mowing the front grass Dad uncovered a clock. It looked like the moon in a green sky. He dug it up and put it on the mantelpiece. Every Saturday at 10 o’clock it chimed twice reminding him to cut the grass. He told me that someone must have put it there a long time ago, as the clock was very old, probably before they had mowers. We wondered why. One Saturday the clock stopped chiming so Dad stopped mowing. In the grass a bluebell grew and every Saturday at 10 o’clock it chimed twice. Now we knew why.
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<prosody pitch=”120Hz”>G, </prosody> and, <prosody rate=”x-slow”><prosody duration=”3s”><prosody pitch=”120Hz”> A,</prosody> </prosody> </prosody>
<prosody duration=”2s”>A, </prosody> <prosody pitch=”120Hz”>and, <break time=”750ms”></break>G,</prosody>
A scale step,
Up, <break time=”250ms”></break>
To, <break time=”750ms”></break>
<prosody rate=”-60%”><emphasis level=”stong”>Today,</emphasis></prosody>
<prosody pitch=”high”>A,</prosody> and <prosody pitch=”low”>G,</prosody>
A, and G,
<prosody rate=”-40%”>Slips, they,</prososdy>
A sweet tune,
On, <break time=”250ms”></break>
To, <break time=”750ms”></break>
G, and A, and A, and G,
Lie side side,
Till. <break time=”250ms”></break>
Two, today <break type=”strong”></break>
are, <break time=”1000ms”></break> One.
As if seeing not hearing the fear
That crept like snail and hid here
Lives as new as then and hear
Them trill like a bell
As the skyship sails air here
It rings the shell snail ear
Melting the seventy nine year
Curl up in this shell
The burning lips of gas peel
And shrill sounds a siren steel
The souls searing chorus sings
‘Sail away, sail away
Burning whispers of one day
Drop where snail trail glisten