Human Flow

Interlocking fingers of
Wire, coarse and thick,
Wrapped, bundled,
Spiked and spiralled,
Mile on endless mile.

Like pylons in the desert.
Searing the land:
From skyline to eyeline.

Endless divide.

Binding you to –
one side –
And me another.

Parallel lines drawn in dirt,
sand, snow, grit,
Blood.

Saltwater laps the edges,
Melted ice blurs the bounds,
To the land I’m allowed to stand in,
The ground I am owed,
It can’t be bundled up and carried on my back.
Once they spit you out,
They don’t take you back.

My fingers catch in the wire,
Your gun butts me out.

The world behind me burns so hard
It’s ash
The world in front
Is caged.

The lines are drawn.

No man’s land
Is what I own.

Tell’er

He taps the packet on the dusty kitchen surface.

Packet’s compact, not solid. He taps it once again to be sure, and notices at the corner, a small stain on the shiny surface. A quick inspection with a fingernail, reveals a red speck. The pit of his stomach drops and yet he can’t imagine what else was to be expected, how else this was to be obtained. The salesman, the man he is entrusting is a Tell’er. It’s in their very nature to be deceitful, to look for survival at any cost. And when he considers what he is asking, what he is unburdening, these small flecks do not weigh heavy upon his conscience. It is but another accumulated paper-cut.

 A child’s face, as dirty as the kitchen surfaces, peers through the door.  It spies who’s inside and quickly vanishes. The man in the corner, the Tell’er, wanders back and forth getting his bearings of the room, although he’s been here before many times. He’s always alert, always ready. He’s trying to be subservient, to be respectful and quiet.

It’s a hard task, and it’s making him edgy, out of sorts. He’s trying to place the objects in the room. He’s sure that clock was an exchange, the silverware too. Strange how the other half lives. Ix can’t take it any longer.

“You want it? Or no?”

The other man shrugs his shoulders. He sniffs the packet now. ”Doesn’t smell right.”

The salesman moves to grab it off him. ”It’s high quality, premium you just haven’t laid your hands on the good stuff since it all began.”

The salesman’s pitch isn’t winning his target around.

”Where’d you get it anyway?”

”That’s a tale,” says Ix. ”Well it’s not really. I found it, deserted, on the ground, in some knapsack. ”

”Pull the other one.”

”Alright I’ll give it some more colour. I found it deserted on the ground in a knapsack, next to a man. And I pulled it off of him.”

”Sounds more likely. But you’re the colour of light leather on a sunny day. I’d expect blood. Black and blue, maybe a little yellow. But you’re uniformly unscathed.”

”So he wasn’t much of a go-getter. To be honest he wasn’t much of a brain surgeon either.”

The salesman draws up close to the other man, his mouth at his ear. He slides his hands, remade as weapons over either side of the man’s hips. He rips his hands upwards as if he were cutting at flesh.

”See he sold his kidney for that package. Seems he thought he’d have time to enjoy it. Problem was he hadn’t long gone and sold the other one. He was the one who was yellow. It was clean sailing, Father.”

The man slits open the package; out pours brown grounds. He puts it to his nose to inhale the scent.

“This is the real deal. So, you had me called here for a reason. I mean this, this coffee – I’m getting something in return.”

”Yes.”

                                                            ——-

The sky is dark, burnt, although it is a long while till sundown. The land too is decrepit, cracked and dry; baked even though the sun can barely scrape its rays through. Amongst the dry ground trails a young girl and behind her trail two dogs. She weaves in and out of a cut-path in what would have been fields, if they were toiled anymore. The dogs weave behind her. The small posse shuffle between overgrown plants; dry and brittle but still inching towards the sky, desperate for water at their roots and sunshine in their lungs.

Yolanda has been up early sent on a myriad of errands, and now she’s come to the end of her list. This one’s the enjoyable part: the wild yips and yaps of dogs nestling into the undergrowth and following their noses, the pleasant feel of foot fall after foot fall. Of space, after been cooped up for so long. Fresh air, wind between the many corners of her mind, where something has been playing about; scratching. A stray thought she hasn’t been able to corner and place neatly back in the box. She’s nearing the end of the walk, the return to reality; stocking up on firewood, putting together whatever supplies they might have. Her foot falls on something soft. She pulls away sharply.

Nothing in this landscape is soft.

As far as her eye can see lie a series of crows, splattered on the ground as if they’d simply dropped from the sky. Dive-bombed. Recently, judging by her encounter. She eyes her watch, and shrugs. It makes a kind of sense, she supposes, at about this time. Now she tiptoes her way through the small field of bodies; the dogs too give them a wild berth. Their enjoyment dampened a little.

From the sea of crows, they emerge into what she has come to call home. Deluded, they might be, but unremittingly friendly they are too, and she is glad to make it out of the depths of death towards smiling faces. Yolanda thinks of ways she could make the crows an anecdote, something that was sent directly in her path, to no doubt test her.

Their wings clipped, they fell from the sky in unison, at my feet. Lost souls called to return to the earth. They’d like the idea of being called, of souls, the poetry and the spiritual of something that was nothing but a cruel and bitter fact, with no clear reasoning behind it.

She passes the main barn expecting to see a couple of stragglers clearing the place up, preparing it for the ‘Lord’s Work’. She prepares her face and hand to wave and smile at these feeble-minded folks.

But there’s no one there.

The scratching becomes more precise, it’s painful now, the emptiness, the definite lack of what should be. It’s eerie. She breaks from her slow pace, she pulls her feet up; she runs. The dogs are enjoying the race, striding ahead of her.

She breaks off her speed. Comes to the farmhouse. It’s deathly silent. No movement.

And there’s a smell, she puts her head up tries to trace this odour. Had she smelt it before? A ghost of a memory catches in her mind. She moves towards the side-door. Tries the knob. Pushes against it. It sticks fast. She’s about to get frantic, to pull and claw and holler.

”Don’t breathe it in.”

The salesman, Ix, calls from behind her. He looks shifty, uncomfortable, a pained expression, he’s got to tell her something that he doesn’t want to. She can tell.

”Tell’er. Ix? Breathe in what?”

”The Father, he said, he said that the time that was prophesied had come to pass. Don’t breathe it in.”

She falls back from the door. And doesn’t look directly at the house any longer. It’s a giant blind spot. The dogs, she doesn’t know where they’ve got to. She doesn’t want to look.

”He made me leave. He gave me a list.”

“He said you weren’t a true believer, you’d never hidden it, he wasn’t a murderer, he couldn’t take you, not if you weren’t a believer. See they think, they thought, the end is nigh.”

”It’s been nigh, for centuries now.”

The Tell’er gives her a bleak smile, and skitters back and forth, kicks at a bag lying on the ground. This wasn’t his usual sort of gig. Usually there was an exchange: of goods, of information, or tales. Tales of what them-over-yonder were up to, where the latest food or other usual substances could be found, who was friendly, who was not, what was happening and why, always mixed with a little bit of spice, local or otherwise, perhaps an untruth here and there. Keep them wanting more, keep them in that murky middle-world of uncertainty, can we trust the Tell’er? Are we in safe-hands? Do we care when the tale’s too good to be true? In this new world order, that was long past new, that’s how you could make a living, the exchange of tales, there was no call for the paper exchange or the metal nowadays, there were no manufacturers to put these things into the marketplace anyway. Just the lone Tell’er walking out and mixing with the different folks, the ragbag groups that had formed from the primordial soup of the remnants of humanity. He knew other Tell’ers, but gave them a wide-berth. They were only good for intoxication, of mind and body.

And now here he was with a companion. Or a future companion, if she didn’t bolt out to the wild, or kick-down the door. Suffocate in the fumes.

——

Ix had watched as the Father took his pack of foraged for coffee and began to empty out the contents. Ix hadn’t lied with his final tale, some poor soul had sold his kidney for that bagful, but unfortunately forgot about the other one he had lost not that long ago. A robbery, perhaps, Ix wondered. Maybe the man was knocked out the first-time, endured a little minor-operation, and was sent on his way home, never fully being told the whole story. It made a kind of sense.

And now the Father was taking this packet and brewing its content. The full lot. A man’s life was being spent in front of his eyes.

”Father, that, I’m not going to come into that for a good long while. It took the man who got it. It was a mighty shock I came into it in the first place- shouldn’t you- I mean this could last months, maybe years if kept well.”

The man ignored him. And started to bring out a series of mugs. One after the other. He placed them on the kitchen counter, then spread them across the table. A never-ending series of mugs.

And then The Father began his own tale. A tale of beginnings and endings, of servitude and endurance, of the foretold time and the foretold place and the finality of all things. But also of hope, of the young bud that sprouts from the crust of despair, that pushes through although there is nothing to sustain it, and that keeps pushing ever further in search of light.

He named his exchange. ”The girl.”

The Teller shook his head, he was affronted, not his kind of thing all. And others, they simply weighed you down, the lighter you were on the feet the easier you could disappear from danger.

The Father in the meantime had distributed the coffee into a series of jugs and pots, and now into the kitchen trickled a stream of dirty children and adults all carrying pots of boiling water, which they began to pour into these devices.

As they traipsed out, the Father explained in more detail. ”She has your gift,” he said, ”she’s the prodigy you didn’t know you had. More importantly, you’re all she has.”

Ix was about to protest, a girl, she wasn’t worth the package, she would only be trouble. All she had? He didn’t understand.

The old man had mixed the elixir, the mugs of coffee, and the followers were once again traipsing in, this time they left with their own mug. It was a strange series of faces, of ages, at least thirty-five people wandered in and out, before the Father spoke again.

“It has come. The final time. The time of no return. I am aged, my followers are tired, we have been rewarded only with continual hardship, this was not as it was foretold. The bliss lies in the other world. And we are to follow it. Yolanda, she does not believe in these things, although she thinks us too simple to notice. ”

The old man sipped at his coffee cup, and breathed a satisfied sigh.

Ix stumbled out of the building, as the followers sealed it up from the inside. Blinds and curtains came down all around, tape was wrapped around any openings, there was a continuous rhythmic sound that he couldn’t quite place. Until it dawned on him, hammer against nail; they were covering all bases. He began to smell something odd, and pulled himself away from the building, to sit on a kerb and await Yolanda.

——-

Ix and Yolanda sit side by side. Yolanda’s face etched with tears. Gone, they were all gone, without even the decency to tell her, to hint at the possibility that the errands she had run were entirely useless. Or not entirely as Ix had pointed out, she had gathered food supplies, clothing and bedding. In fact, when she thought over it, this had been what had clawed at her mind, the smallness in nature of what she was asked to do. It seemed it would only benefit one person. That wasn’t how the Lord’s Followers worked. But today was different, they saw her as a seed of hope in a sickly world, one they did not feel they were meant for. Or so the Tell’er spun it. And she was his apprentice, sold for the last remaining bag of coffee. A worthy price he assured her.

”We should be leaving, ” she tells Ix. Yolanda points to the house. “We don’t know the effects of this.” The dogs bound down from their hiding place, prepared for a long journey.

”I guess not,” he says, and hands her a knapsack. She absent-mindedly scratches a thumbnail across it, removing small red flecks.  Which pulls her attention away for a moment. Yolanda looks up at Ix suddenly.

 ”Do you know why the birds fall out of the sky the way they do, clockwork every-day?”

Ix shrugs his shoulders, he’s more intent on leaving the farm then entering into a discussion. But his profession and his trade means he needs to find some way of explanation. This afternoon has stumped him though, and burdened him with an apprentice to teach the arts of occasionally telling people what they thought they wanted to hear, when they didn’t want to hear it, and what they needed to hear when they didn’t want to listen.

She gathers her assorted supplies in the knapsack, and swings it over shoulder.

”Could it be the levels of oxygen have decreased? In the air. Something to do with air pressure and atmosphere and the sky being black. ”

“Makes a kind of sense.” He said.

The dogs follow her as she walks past the gate, and closes it behind them all.

“Perhaps,” he starts…

“It all began when the skies burnt in the great fires,” she said.

“And the world grew dark,” he continued as they made their away away from the farmhouse. “And the birds sought safe passage towards the sun, which had faded from sight.”

“And many still make the pilgrimmage,” said Yolanda, “each day at two.”

Disappointing Nelson (The Temps’ Revolt)

“He was judging me,” she diced the onions thick and fast, letting both sting behind her eyes.

The room judged her in return. “How’d he do that?”

She slid the onions into the sizzling pan, and let it spit and hiss while she thought up a response.

“He eyeballed me the entire time.”

“What was he doing in the basement?”

“They’d shoved the two of us down there, out of sight.”

She’d sat there all day, typing, while he hovered overhead, forever watching her. It was unnerving, his constant disdain from his gilded frame. He and she were entwined, thick as thieves, at first.

She did little, stretching out her tasks as long as possible and dawdling on the internet, but then boredom and fear would drive her back to the same tired activity, and so the endless rotation of excel spreadsheets, and procrastination would perpetuate until the damned thing was done.

Still over all of this he remained an endless presence. A presence that shook its head at what she had become, some mindless drone doing pointless tasks that she could have achieved having graduated high school.

He became cantankerous, then forlorn and later he wondered what she could have done, where she could have swerved in her long line of failures to not end up in this position. Largely, though he was disappointed, and that was what grated. He thought she could do better, and he was right. He had been here long before, and better versions of his portrait dotted the halls upstairs, but this one, this one knew he had nothing to prove and that she, she had everything to.

Jess’s friend Bex took over the cooking, she was a psychology graduate making latte art at the local coffee shop, she could understand a mental crisis when she saw one. She also knew the exact way they should be rectifying this, and it wasn’t what they’d been doing now, for far too long.

“We should be psychopaths.”

“Psychopaths?”

“Psychopaths.”

“You think we should murder people?”

“You’re thinking sociopaths,” said Bex.

“That’s not what I’m thinking at all.”

Bex prepared her soap-box address, she was ready to line this out for them, she had thought long and hard about success and how little she had of it, and she knew there was another way.

“Psychopaths, like cream, rise to the top and they get there because they don’t care. About anyone.”

While Bex made coffees, day in day out, for executives, hipsters and the odd OAP, she imagined the lives they held outside. The lives she imagined always seemed so much more interesting than hers. The guy in the suit and tie, with the hidden full-sleeve tattoos, the knuckle rings and the spiky voice, who always had a caramel latte, extra hot, surely had something going on under the surface. The nastier the conversation he was having over the phone, the sweeter his order got. See the coffee she served held many purposes, but largely it was to placate the life of a worker bee. It was to perk up and start again, to distract, to get through, to keep calm, to keep stable. By in large it was to avoid the emotional pain of living, which from 8am-6pm, usually meant the emotional pain of working.

Now a psychopath – would they be subject to such needs? They don’t register anyone’s emotions but their own, they play mind-games and manipulations to get what they want and they think nothing of the moral consequences.

Truth is bendable, post-truth, post-hence.

“A psychopath would get to where they wanted to be, by any means possible.”

Jess stirred the pot. A psychopath wouldn’t be in a basement typing things into a spreadsheet, they’d be head of the company. They’d install some virus, that only they could remove, they’d rewire the building to electrocute the CEO, they’d give everyone food-poisoning, they’d infiltrate the temping agency and take the city.

“They’d infiltrate the temp agency and take the city.”

“Take the what?” Kath eyed them both from over her laptop like they were idiots. While Jess was temping her life away and Bex made babycinos, Kath had it figured out. She had a timeline, it was drawn up on graph paper and stuck to her wall, when she didn’t have company.

She was 25 and yeah, she was off-base. 25 was meant to see her in a non-specific high-ranking career, well on her way to good pay days, a house and a spouse. She was an intern at a small start-up, raking in meagre dough, in the evenings she was teaching herself how to code and doing a little freelancing, on weekends she waitressed events. That summer had seen her hiking up her hemlines, in the interests of better tips. But she knew if she covered enough ground and really leaned in, she get far. Really, really far, hopefully far enough that she wasn’t even in this grey city.

Jess was in the zone, she figured out how she’d make her way through the boredom and misery that was the working life, she’d manipulate her way to the top. Lie, sabotage and steal. She’d looked to government, and seen that it worked.

But first she had to free Nelson.

“He’s a symbol, a guiding light, and he’s just hanging there, gathering dust. In the basement.”

Jess wandered back and forth, while Bex tried to interject, she knew what this was really about, but perhaps this was a chance to test her psychopathy theory. They should work for their own self-interests, seeing as no one else was.

Kath flipped her laptop down.

“You realise I’m online right now. “

They nodded.

“Someone could hack into my laptop’s video and see us planning a heist.”

A smile gathered at her lips, their eyes glistened. Now this was something to sink their teeth into.

For all those under-used, talented people out there, they just needed to re-dedicate themselves to a life of crime.

                                                             ***

The three women sat outside the bar, jammed on a brick wall between cigarette butts and old, discarded pint glasses.

“There are three stages to a heist,” said Skittles, “and none of them involve you.”

Skittles rammed skittles in her mouth and crunched; her hair and her tailoring were razor sharp, as was her tongue. These girls knew little to nothing about the real world, and they couldn’t even come to her with a decent scheme. You don’t steal what you can’t sell.

But Skittles was bored as shit, bartending and dealing here and there held no thrill. She needed her own business, her own crew. In one sentence, they were talking about nicking a worthless portrait due to the holiness of the subject, in the next they were talking about infiltrating the city, making the gophers, the subordinates – kings and ousting everyone else along the way.

That was the sort of heist she was interested in. If you controlled the city, you sure as shit controlled product and distribution. Entrepreneurial is what it was.

She rubbed her hands together and lit a cigarette, Kath caught a light, and exhaled a plan.

She mentioned she had graph paper and pens in her backpack. Skittles ushered them into the basement, where they could get cosy and hash it out.

In the darkly lit basement, with the barrels of beer, and a sticky table they rolled out the paper and defined their plan. First, they would take Nelson, then the temping agency, then the city, then they would take the nation.

Bex leaned back on her deck-chair, while the others squatted on all assortments of chair-like apparatus. “What are we taking it for? And where are we taking it to?”

There were grumbles at the table, and some noises of ‘she’s hit the nail on the head there.’

Skittles banged the table, then scraped her hands together to rid herself of the residue.

“Power.”

Bex nodded. “Power for the little guy.”

Skittles shook her head, “Power for me, I couldn’t give a shit about some little guy. The one’s on top are the ones on top, the ones in the gutter stay in the gutter. No one’s looking at the stars.”

Jess scribbled on the paper as Kath tried to bat her away. “An equal playing ground. How am I ever gonna get anywhere if I can’t get a seat at the table, and the one’s before you got in there easier, because ‘times were different’ but once they got in they rolled up the drawbridge behind them.”

Skittles narrowed her eyes at them. “This some knights of the roundtable shit? Someone insult your honour?”

They all muttered and scuffed their feet against the floor. Skittle drummed her hands against the table, and instantly regretted it.

“We’re not airing our grievances, we’re taking a stand.”

The table turned to their timeline drawer, the one who had absolute faith that if she absolutely just kept going, then she’d absolutely get ‘there.’ Wherever the mystical ‘there’ was. Was it a corner office, a business of her own, a bungalow to call her own, the likeliness of a pension, an occasional holiday? Each year she downgraded her certainties. Was she thinking too big, was she aiming too high? When you can’t get a job that pays, how can you make plans on graph paper that span your life in year-like increments. How can you foresee a future, when it doesn’t feel like anyone is invested in you having one?

When you keep downgrading your abilities, and squeezing yourself to fit into the cage that others built, how do you see past the bars?

Kath started a bullet-pointed list. The first was headed Free Mandela, the second was Temping Take-Down. To Free Mandela they would need:

  • A map of the building
  • A good forger

To take down the temping agency they would need:

  • An insider
  • A map of the building.

The rest of them looked quizzically at her rather limited lists.

“I’m starting to see how your whole ‘timeline’ thing hasn’t panned out,” said Bex.

Jess tapped the table with her pencil, “These are good starting points, but I’m like the insider in both.”

“Well you brought this to us,” said Kath, “You’re the leader, for better or worse.”

Skittles snorted, Bex looked affronted.

“Psychopathy isn’t a plan, I’m not sure it’s even the correct use of the term,” said Kath.

***

The Drive – part one

Her feet jut out from under the duvet into the cold and dark.

She was sprawled on her front, her mind still a hundred miles deep below the ground. Above the surface it rang and rang.  From the black, eyes a gritty-darkness, mind in some jet-lag of the sleep interrupted, her consciousness tries to claw its way towards the dim light of late-night, early morning.  

Slivers of light cast out from between the blinds. And the ringing kept on. She wipes away the eye-crust, and rips her feet out of the cold, to only hit cold floor.

She blind-stumbles and trips her way towards the noise, patting down heaps of clothes, her fingers become mitts, her phone, once found, an unyielding bar of wet soap.

Her voice cracked as she answered the phone, “Mum—“

She slumped on top of the pile of clothes on the wooden chair, hunching over, her head heavy in her hands.

“It’s 3am.”

She found herself nodding, in the cold and dark, still in a heavy fog, her bare legs shivering. She slipped out of the chair, still nodding and uhuh-ing, her mind and body beginning to thaw. There was a crisp silence behind the blinds, a pale white light. Still agreeing, she peeked between the slats and saw a thick layer of snow.

She wound the blinds up, phone clamped to her ear. The reflection of the street lamps and the full moon in the snow sharpened her blurry edges.

“Dad’s in hospital,” she said matter-of-fact, staring out onto the empty snowscape, still nodding.

                                        ———————————–

The car door clunked shut. She rubbed her hands together and buried her neck in her scarf, trying to fiddle with the heat at the same time. The suburban street was buried under snow and emptied of souls. She felt like blasting the radio, but instead slipped her phone onto the dash and readied herself.

She turned over the engine just as her mother’s voice came over the line.

“Are you on your way?”

She steered her small car over the crisp snow, meeting the silent road with a bump.

“Seems like it.”

She was passing through her neighbourhood in slow motion, stuck in some excruciating treacle, when usually she’d zip by, strapping her seat belt on as she went, flipping the radio on without a care.

Confident others would move out of her way. Certain, she was moving forward.

She imagined her mother alone and confused under fluorescent lights while efficient yet anonymous health workers zipped past her, pressing her with questions she couldn’t find the words to answer, plying her with tea she didn’t dare drink. A shrunken figure suddenly immobilised by the hurried and the purposeful, when her certainty had been forever shaken.

The piercing, “Darling, are you bringing along husband number three?”, broke the spell. Perhaps she was mistaken, maybe her mother was directing these health workers instead, and they were purposefully, hurrying away from her.

“There’s no husband number three, husband number two was enough.”

She slowed to the traffic light’s red, on an empty junction, when a thought occurred to her, “Were you, are you planning a husband number two?”

“That’s a bit morbid darling, but no sounds like a lot of work for not a lot of ROI. Return on your investment.”

There was a lengthy pause.

“Not that I don’t love your father, Eddie darling, you know I just don’t need another one.”

“Yes he,” she stumbles over her words, and scratches at her face, “is unique.” She winds the window down to let a little ice-cold air onto her face.

She seems to have zoned out of the conversation, her mother is zipping ahead, from what’s around her to memories and back again in the blink of an eye.

“…they just keep handing me Styrofoam cups of sludgy coffee and telling me he’s doing better. I had to leave the room, all those beeps and suction noises and he’s so small in there. Small and grey. They’ve got every support group notice sign on this wall. Should we call someone? He was only just telling me how he – he – he….”

There’s the scratching sound of Styrofoam being torn to pieces.

She catches a glimpse of a man at the side of the road swaddled in a what looks like a green duvet coat, hood up, holding a cardboard sign that reads ‘Anywhere.’ His gloved hands shaking slightly in the cold, he holds the sign up above his head as her headlights pass by, a look of elation in his eyes, waving his hands about as if he’d met a fellow traveller on a barren road to nowhere.

Which he had.

They were kindred spirits, he could tell.

She drove by at an embarrassingly low speed, slow enough to see his elation turn to bitter regret in her rear-view mirror. While her mother droned on in the background, tearing apart endless coffee cups as she did.

“Mum, I’m just going to be a second.”

She painfully reversed back toward him, slow and steady, focusing on the road and tuning out her mum’s recitation of every available support group in the area. Once she’d reached the man on his cold snowbank, she flung open the door and left the indicator dinging, the engine still running as she made a diplomat’s approach.

“Darling there’s overeaters’ anonymous, addicts of all kinds on here. I won’t go into too much detail, but sex, there’s a sex group here, very surreal. There’s grief support too. Can you imagine sitting there in a circle talking about how sad you are, about death while some other woman compares the loss of her 105 year old mother, which she knew about from the very beginning, got the chance to stroke her hand and lie beside her as she ‘slipped away’ to the death of your husband of 40 years who collapsed in front of you, and then they pulled off all those wires from him and you never could say a word to him. He didn’t slip away. He disappeared down some horrible black hole.”

The indicator keeps a rhythmic ding.

“Darling? Are you there?”

Silence.

“The nurses are back with more coffee, telling me I’m getting agitated. Keep saying I should rest like I’m some ancient – of course, I’m getting agitated! Are you far?”

Silence, then a bundle of noise as the man and his duvet coat, and big hiking backpack awkwardly squeeze into the back of the small car. Eddie calls across as they struggle against his luggage.

“Mum? Sorry I picked up a man on the side of the road.”

The man in the back, fighting with his backpack, “Dylan, Mrs Peters”, an Irish lilt to his reply.

“You’ve picked up an Irishman off the side of the road?”

“Best place to find us, Mrs Peters,” Dylan dumps the bag, and slides into the passenger seat, still bundled up in his duvet coat.

“Eleanor, please. Well, nice to meet you Dylan.  Although in my day we’d be wary of men we picked up on the road, and I’m afraid to say, we’d be doubly worried about Irishmen.”

“Happily, it’s not your day mum, it’s long past your day, and Dylan was standing in the freezing cold.”

 “I was looking to get out to anywhere, even if that’s via a hospital for bad coffee and a little light racism.”

“Racism is downright awful, black children are just cherubs,  I’m very against discrimination.”

Eddie attempted to get a little heat from the car as she and Dylan strapped themselves in. She made a sympathetic face and mouthed ‘Sorry’, he shrugged and smiled at her.

“Me too, Mrs Peters, me too.”

“Eleanor.”

“Of course.”

“They keep handing me cups and cups of the stuff, telling me to call someone, while I’m talking to you!”

Eddie’s face tightens into a grimace, she drives on and disappears into the flow of the road while she lets Dylan steer the conversation.

                                  ——————————————————

“Maybe you’re husband number three? She found number two in her friend’s bed.”

“That wasn’t how we met, that was how we ended. Dylan’s hitchhiking. Have you looked out the window? It’s freezing, outside.”

They crunched slowly across the snow, their breath fogging up the windscreen, so she has to wind down the window again.

Dylan bunches up his duvet coat, hood still up, scrunching his neck so he becomes a curiously hunched figure. He sticks his gloved hands deep in his pockets. Eddie tries to jimmy the heating just a little, it finally blows first shockingly cold air and then a slow pleasant heat. Dylan keeps his hands deep in his pockets, but Eddie winds the window shut again.

“Are Liberty, Egbert and Jiu-Jitsu coming too?”

Eddie rolls her eyes, and taps the mobile to mute herself, to Dylan. “She thinks she’s funny.”

He gives her a short smile. It’s been eight minutes or so since he was on the side of the road holding a cardboard sign, to ‘Anywhere’, his fingers nearly frozen off. He’d left the house before even the promise of the crack of dawn, not thinking of the cold, only thinking he couldn’t stay on this narrow cul-de-sac, behind a motorway near a drive-through Costa Coffee, a petrol station and miles of farmland, anymore.

He had no idea what was going on, except it was different.

“It’s barely 4am, mum. Justice, Lola and Eli won’t be up.”

“You mean you left them alone?”

Dylan pulls his dirt covered trainers up onto the dash, Eddie’s eyes narrow, as he shifts knocking the phone to the floor. He makes a crazed scramble for it as Eddie starts to yell towards the ground. He pulls his gloves from his hands with his teeth, then wrangles the phone from underneath his chair.

In an attempt to reach her mother Eddie alternates between screeching and yelling.

“OF COURSE NOT. They’re with friends. We’ll pick them up on the way. DON’T YOU WANT TO REST, mum? We’re going to be HOURS yet.”

Dylan successfully yanks the phone out and holds it aloft, only to return a crest-fallen Eleanor.

“I thought we’d keep each other company while I wait, and you drive. But you picked up company, I see. They’re bringing me some breakfast anyway.”

She clicks off, leaving Dylan and Eddie silent, while an enormous gritting truck screeches alongside them, flinging grit which spatters against the windscreen, as Eddie flicks on the wipers.

“She’ll call back in half an hour and it’ll be forgotten. Which gives me a little time to find my kids.”

By the Sea, standing still

Two feet spit with flecks of sand:
Shells and stone ground down –
Perhaps whipped from that,
Cliffside far ahead, beat hour after hour-
Century after century,
Till they were swept ashore,
Washed,
As crumpled pieces:
That cling to everything.

Ground into ever moving
ground.

Pausing to hear the silence between –
The howling waves’ crash
As sand slinks out between the toes,
Icy water laps and pools,
Soft surf with the sting of salt,
Fades in and out
Heels are firmly gripped
Pulled down.
As everything crumbles.

The sun sinks in the sky
A red haze, a strident blur
Low tide leaves a quarter of the beach intact
For now.
Everything spins fast out around
The feet on the shore
Change is in every ripple.

It’s background noise:
There’s nothing but the sea
And the sand
And the cliff
As the water tracks back and forth
Crumbles the solid ground
you stood upon.

The Rapture

She worked the clay with her fingertips. A sore spot, a tear, she worried at then kneaded into a complete line. Chatter surrounded her, nervous laughter; the stench of perfectionism.

She just worked the clay.

She certainly was no expert. There wasn’t an age when you were meant to have this ‘pottery’ thing licked, there wasn’t a desired number of pots that you should have made in pristine condition. At least not when you were an amateur, when you weren’t competing, but instead dabbling on the side-lines.

This was additional, this was quiet. You could ‘throw’ a pot on a wheel, you could test, you could trial, you could experiment.

This was the soft silence, the in-between time on the shore as the water drags back out, before the next wave crashes down.

In other lessons she hadn’t been watched, she hadn’t been noticed, but here there was a frisson of competition, of comparison. Each looked over the other’s shoulder, to impress upon themselves either their skill or what they lacked. They wanted a solid trophy to take home and prove their worth, to prove they’d invested their money well.

To show what they were really capable of.

She repeatedly smoothed the flat clay with a wooden tool so it shone; the room disappeared, the chatter dissipated. A smirk spread across her face as she became lost in her own thoughts. It was enough for other people’s faces to crinkle in confusion.

The teacher did a tour of the room, cooing over odd-shaped pots and cups, murmuring over the over-zealous and over-confident, bolstering the timid and risk-averse, pressuring the rigid perfectionists. She reached Cassandra and started a conversation.

“Looking better – a coffee cup?”

“A tea-cup.”

The teacher nodded at the sheets of paper at Cassandra’s elbow, where the plans were sketched out in intricate detail and where there were not one, but two clear designs.

“You’re making a couple?”

They both smiled pleasantly but impersonally and continued on their separate performances.

“Uh-huh, a set.”

Organizing the delivery of hot drinks was a main-stay of Cassandra’s profession. People might not want canapes, or to pay for lunch, but they’d probably want tea and coffee at their meetings. She was the Catering and Events Manager at Global Elite, a prestigious hotel chain, its branches were dotted round the world in every major city.

“A tea-cup,” she thought as she wound the clay round so it made a pot like shape, “So strange, that this would be the beginning.”

In the interests of cutting costs she found herself managing a broad sway of these hotels’ catering staff, if only through their procedures. It was her training manuals that were replicated across the globe, her menus that were found in every country, her desired uniform, her dining-room set-ups, her preferred flavours.

Her preferred tea cup that was sat at each place-setting, just so many centimetres from the customer, turned with the handle at a clear right angle, a drop of fudge on each saucer, an elegant weighted spoon, laid just so. Never patterned china, always a bright marine blue.

It was her preferred tea that was ordered by the truck-load.

She found the edges of the large strip of clay and hacked away at both sides, filling them with sticky ‘slip’, a watery clay, before she smoothed the two together, blended them with a small wooden tool. You had to hack at the thing to bond it, to make it strong.

It had been nine months ago when she was approached.

She sat at the hotel bar, wearing her hotel uniform, eating her hotel branded bag of nuts and sipping on a hotel-approved Martini. The petite woman slid beside her, and looked her up and down.

It was just the two of them sat at the bar. A quiet Tuesday in January, when the hordes of people that usually flocked to the hotel were now recovering from the festive season, few were to be found at an extravagant hotel.

The petite woman sat far too close, she smiled too sweetly. The hotel uniform did this to people, you weren’t off the clock, you were ready to serve. They were paying guests, it was their right.

Cassandra smiled back, and considered the best exit strategy.

The woman sipped her fresh Martini, “Could I get you another?”

Cassandra began to shake her head.

“I could really do with the company.”

Now Cassandra could place her: the smile, the sidle, it wasn’t as predatory as it first appeared. She’d arranged this woman’s business luncheon, and spoken to her multiple times on the phone as she had very specific tastes. When the day finally came to pass, she let her in early and showed her round, had her meet the catering staff. Not something she would usually do.

She could see it in her clothes, this woman was a control freak. How much thought and effort had gone into that simple black dress, those heels, the mask of make-up that sat almost like real features?

She played with the olive in the glass. She was asking the wrong questions. The lady beside her wouldn’t do these things, Cassandra nodded to herself: she would have staff.

“Beth, I’d love to.”

The two of them moved to a further corner of the bar, to one of the cabaret style tables. The bartender lit the red candle that lay between them. From the tinted windows, they could see out to the windswept beach.

Three or four Martinis in and Cassandra’s tongue had loosened. They were getting on well. Beth with her smeared mascara and her slurred speech had lost her pristine gloss. She was relatable when she slung her heels under the table and picked at her nail polish.

Cassandra cut out a long strip of clay and began to bend it and smooth it like a handle, to fix to her mug. Beside her another woman complained about the cracks spreading through the drying clay, she was told to soak it in water and wrap it in plastic. Cassandra watched as the small mug was covered in a little white shroud, to sit in the corner and wait.

That small meeting with Beth led to a regular catch up, quick drinks after-work, a coffee on the run, lunch when they could. Over two months she felt she knew Beth, or at least she knew everything Beth presented to her. There was an undercurrent in all their conversations.

Beth worked tirelessly with a security agency that supported international higher-ups from companies, governments and institutions. She and Global Elite had become a constant fixture; it was her job to handle these meetings with iron-tight fists, to make sure that she knew every mechanism, every exit and every staff member. Yet at every meeting she found herself the only woman in the room, and when she mentioned security precautions, the group looked at her burly, male, security guard for confirmation.

Now when she spoke it was deafening, and when someone listened she didn’t stop. She was so used to people not acting on what she said that she found herself constantly checking up, unable to let go. She watched every dropped thread and considered it a criticism. If they had listened, if they respected her, the error wouldn’t have occurred. A lifetime of following up was dragging her down.

The pristine self was sloughing off. Each morning a new layer of lacquer was applied to the fraying body beneath. But when each night consisted of hours of tossing and turning, soon there would be nothing but an amber-like globe, with a small withered cocoon of Beth within.

“Couldn’t you do something else?” asked Cassandra, when the constant cascade of woes got too much.

“I’m the only woman in the room,“ was Beth’s constant reply, as if that was to mean something.

Why fight so hard for something that nobody saw, wondered Cassandra. Who would know she had stepped away? It’s not like she added to the table, her one small seat added nothing, changed nothing. It didn’t register. She told them when it was safe, and even then, they didn’t listen.

At 4am in March Cassandra got a call. Beth talked an endless soliloquy. She’d lost hold of herself. Cassandra hung up the phone. She didn’t rush to her friend’s side, she didn’t offer empty sympathy or comfort.

All she said was, “We’ll find a strategy.”

Then she put it together piece by piece. Like the mug. Like ordering for the 5,000 to be delivered food and drink at bite-sized increments throughout the day.

She started work on her next mug, rounded this time, she hacked triangles into, what would be the mug’s base, and curved these round to meet another flat piece of clay. Slicing notches into the connections and smothering them in slip to seal these small wounds.

Once smoothed with small wooden tools, the mug would be whole, and once fired, water-tight.

Like her current alibi.

She paced it out, like when she paced the room with her servers, like they rehearsed back and forth when there was a function that required perfect coordination. So perfect it was as if she and her crew didn’t exist. Glasses refilled by magic, plates appeared and disappeared in a flash, all without a thought, an action.

That was the key, the fluidity, the cracks couldn’t be visible, the underbelly would only be clear to those who created the illusion.

It was then she started to see tiny cracks in her beautiful marine blue cups and saucers, turned with their handles just so. Once she spotted one, she noted many. How long had they been in rotation? How long had she’d been working invisibly, seamlessly?

Cost-cutting saw her beautiful teacups look battered and worn. She realised she had long been covering for wear and tear, using cloth to cover the tables, centre-pieces to cover the stains, chair-backings to cover the grime, placement of chairs to cover the carpets’ dredge. Lighting to cover the gloom. Showmanship to cover the shabby.

Global Elite wasn’t so elite anymore, and with that realisation, it wasn’t so hard to influence the change she needed.

She suggested various suppliers, pointed out the best, the one she would prefer, that she felt met their brand’s needs and under duress the other that was the most cost-effective.

They would never listen to her adamancy that they were making poor, short-sighted decisions; that it would cost them more in the long run.

She didn’t understand the intricacies of business they’d mutter looking at the finances rather than her small smile. She wrote lengthy emails, popped up in meeting’s minutes, held impromptu crisis discussions. She was so much on the record it was almost farcical.

While she laid down the frame-work, Beth’s contacts worked to tie up loose ends.
Beth pushed for events to take place simultaneously across the globe, or on the face of it she appeared to try and poke this particular idea full of holes. A logistics nightmare she implied, a terrorists’ dream. Her negativity it seemed only spurred them on. They insisted it was her job to deal with these issues rather than derail proceedings. It became a running joke, that Beth was predicting ‘the rapture.’

Cassandra smiled, as she carved her name into the base of one mug and Beth into the other.

Cassandra couldn’t even imagine Beth sipping from this cup, she always clutched a take-out coffee, adding to her appearance as always being both busy and ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

As Cassandra finished her mug, news alerts pinged around the room.

Gloom descended over those who picked up their mobiles; shock and disbelief.

They all looked to her as she carefully laid down her tools.

“Don’t you work at Global Elite?”

Cassandra laughed, “My day off and they make the headlines. What’s happened?”

All the blood drained from their faces.

Beth would be the only one sat at the table now.

Blank Canvas

The cement is fresh, clean and thick,
You can leave drifting prints,
Feet, hands and any passing,
Implement–
Writ large, or small,
Poignant or plain,
Beautiful or tragic,
Abstract or visceral.

You could tap-dance to Shakespearean sonnets,
Illustrate the hypocrisy of a binary system,
Carve a caveman’s treatise,
Sketch barn owls’ eyes,
Smear jaunty barbs,
Or daub thoughts from the inside
Of your brain.

Stand too long in this,
This clean piece,
This fresh start,
This promise,
Becomes an anchor
As you sink,
With every passing thought:
Of what could have been,
What marks you should have made,
What better thoughts some other would have had,

On and on,
You scrawl through every reason this could be a pitfall,
While you sink right through,
Leaving nothing behind.

It all having been in your mind.

 

words

discarded metal unloaded
clangs
to
the
ground.
Bullets from a smoking tongue,
Heavy in the air.
People listen-
Hear them clatter,
Spent –
The hordes don’t scatter;
But feel and inhale the reverberated spatter.

They take heed;
Spit them at a pulpit,
Hurl them on a pyre.
Black them out,
Glorify their ire.
Make them creed and council,
Scratch them through,
Take them as an affront.
Slap them together for a kidnapper’s stew.

Yet the weight of your hate never comes back to you.

It builds and flows,
Cross comment currents that scream,
That whistle through the wind,
Screech;
Whine and moan.
Till they become:
The only conversation known.
Again and again.
The storm inhales them,
Turbo-charged fuel for “collateral”
Damage.

You stand in the eye of it all,
Golden,
Your views strewn.
Lies or truth,
Facts or falsehoods,
Matters little.
Power backs your endorsements.
Blockades reality.
Screens or Foxholes:
You have an audience.

The tornado carries the believers,
Lifting them buoyant as they bludgeon,
One leg dangling free;
At any point,
A sentence can plunge them into the sea.

While you stand golden,
In the centre of –
A three-mile island.
With your smoking tongue,
Never tied,
Ready to spit bullets-
And lies.

Out of Sight

When you’re down, you’re down,
When you’re out, you’re out,
Out of sight.

When you’re beaten, you’re beat,
When you’re bludgeoned, you’re bloody,
and down,
Down.

When you’re down, you’re down,
When you’re out, you’re out,
– Out of mind.

Down and out.

But you bleed,
like train tracks,

Running,

Down, down
Down and down
Down and out
Under and under
Further and further

Out of sight.

Till the dams burst
Till it ruptures
And the crash comes.

And the world above sees you
surface, for a second.

Glittering,

In sweaty, blood-speckled, tear-
stained flesh.

For a glimmer.

They see.

Will they see you tomorrow?
Will they still sweep you under-

The rug

Where all those others lie

Festering.

Running,
Like train tracks,

Down and down,

Out of Sight.

 

Strong and Stable she tells me

Strong and stable she tells me.

Oh really I say, that sounds nice.

Strong and stable she tells me.

Interesting, I say.

Strong and stable she tells me.

Not very specific though, you know what I mean?

Strong and stable she tells me.

Like are you saying ‘strong’ in terms of defence and ‘stable’ in terms of horses?

Horses aren’t part of policy.

Although fox-hunting is. Does it refer to looking for a manger, you know that parable about the Christian saviour?

Overt religious affiliations aren’t part of policy.

I don’t think Boris would have been let in anyway. So, no room at any inn whatsoever then? (To be honest I can’t imagine Lenny’s a fan.) Could stable refer to our economy?

Strong and stable and exactly the way we’ve been doing things for the last 7 years.

So, stable means that we continue to grind people into the ground till there’s no joy, and we cut all the fat from the ‘back-office’ and the ‘waste’ that we don’t have, so that we can create greater problems in the long-run in policing, healthcare, housing, prisons, education and people’s wellbeing?

Strong and stable she tells me.

Does the strong refer to iron grip, like you have on your ministers and the press?

No comment.

Could it refer to your ‘Brexit’?

Strong and stable she tells me, not soft and poached.

A hard-boiled Brexit. Are you referring to some sort of Raymond Chandler novel that I’m not familiar with? Or are we actually discussing breakfast? (I’m very confused.)

Brexit means Brexit.

Right, Britain’s exit from the EU, which we have established is going ahead, we’re wondering more how you’re going to negotiate that and what it will involve…

A red, white and blue Brexit.

Ah so it’s going to be French then. That does make sense.