Category Archives: Fiction

First draft of a second (half a) chapter of Floodlands

Floodlands

 Chapter II

Elsewhere in the hospital, one of the patients was clambering against the chipped plasterboard of the hospital walls. Her hands were a mess; a collection of gnawed chicken joints heaving with gristle and tiny growths, all wrapped in a loose skin of iodine dipped newspaper cuttings, each page telling some old, typical tragedy. She kept her wrists and elbows in contact with the skirting which ran along the floor, and her hair trailed over the warped parquet beneath her knees. She was saying something to herself, reminding her fingers of the rules of a game. The other patients could continue their endless marathons of invisible chess, she would mutter. Her game was the real thing. All she had to do was join herself with the plaster, there were plenty enough holes and gaps, giant stratified spaces where the textures had been chipped away by sharp hips and rubbing wrists. She just had to find the one that would let her in. It couldn’t be far away now… She had almost found it, just a couple of days ago. Her head had been pushed against the underside of a windowframe, and she could feel the heat passed down through the glass and into the whitewash, into her dry cheeks. There had been a space, a small gateway through which she thought she saw two stone heads, an eternity apart… if only she could fit through, she could begin the second stage and move closer to home. All she had to do was contort herself in, and then run, and run and run…

She dipped underneath a woman leaning at a stiff forty-five degree angle against the sides of the room, her feet almost a metre in front of the back of her head. As she jostled against the kneepits of this rigid human ladder, all rungs of ribs and the stink of perspired barbituate, she was overcome with some small sense of ecstacy. Here was a sign, she sighed. The angle, the passing beneath thin thighs, the shadow of another cast perfectly onto her back for a second or two – all such things were symbolic and perfect, part of the plan, the greater game. Two huge faces were waiting for her touch – just a graze with her nails would be enough, and the shape above her now was just like their shape, she could perceive home in this moment. It would be so easy. The feeling washed over her like a euphoria, an ending.

This sensation, however, passed quickly and was certainly not picked up by the other woman, whose gaze was fixed solidly onto the handle of a door in front of her, an old brass grotesque which curled in upon itself in a way which was currently being perceived as both coquettish and threatening. It had been communicating with her and the ghosts of her sisters for the past two and a half hours, and so she barely noticed the awkward shuffling beneath her. A pounding on the tiles and the scrape of broken nails on glass – another patient hurled herself passed them, and they looked up to see a rare sighting of the female lycanthrope on one of her lunar days, running away from sodium lightglares and itching at the lupine hair she could feel scratching away on the inside of her skin. She didn’t even see the other two, and couldn’t hear the muttering which followed our crawling patient as she kept herself pinned to the base of the wall, propelling herself down the corridor by her scabbed and clicking knees. Somewhere, there had to be a gap large enough…

The rest of the corridors were completely empty. Somewhere, a girl was talking. A shaft of sunlight was splitting a room in two, and a hundred pairs of ears sweated together as they listened.

The heat continued in pulsing waves which carried its own passover and madness. The sun was unaware of any women shuffling, staring or shrieking beneath its nauseating influence as it inched its way across the empty sky above the hospital. Unaware, but constantly perceived by both the animate, the inanimate and the insane. Roof tiles retracted, split and fell onto parched ground. The lake waters continued their resigned retreated, and the offspring of the inbred life within flipped and gasped their slowly shrinking limbs on the crackling earth, reducing their own birthing pools to a writhing mass of incest and mucus, of shedding scales and brittle bones. Windows curled in their frames, walls groaned beneath the weight of their own gathered dust and twisting stanchions, and the women clawed at their flaking skin beneath ceiling fans turning uselessly above them. In her wood-lined office, Angela, the clammy, fattened matriach of the hospital, lay back in her seat and fanned herself slowly with gathering of greasy papers clutched in her huge fingers. They were covered in stamps and seals, scribbled on and blackened out, modified and edited to the extent that the original text had been lost some time ago, merely the shadow of the initial intention remained, a handful of consonants beneath half an inch of whitener and blotted ink. The name at the top was untouched, however, and Veronika’s face peered out from a small grey photograph stapled to the corner, her eyes drawn forever to the white borders of the image. Angela coughed, twice, dryly – her lungs were suffering from both the heat and the massive weight of her sticky bosom, and she continued to turn the pages of the old, old book which sat open on her desk. The writing angered her, and each sentence was a stinging slap to her conditioning of rationality, of order and the accepted timestream of the regimes she had devoted her professional life to. What angered her even more, however, was happening a few hundred metres away, down the parched corridors of the hospital and in the leisure sanctum, the humid central room which oversaw the gaping eyes and impossible games. Veronika was speaking, the relative silence, the pause in alarms and running feet detectable from even this distance confirmed this, and Petra, the newcomer, had clearly failed in her initial duties to silence her.

Petra had indeed failed. She had set off after leaving Angela’s office to locate the sedatives she believed she would require, but on arrival at the dispensary room she was met with hundreds upon hundreds of looming and towering shelves; leech jars filled with clear liquids and stoppered with rotting corkwood rattled above the door, racks of test tubes with labels written in the language of the old country – but not her old country – stretched out into the sweaty gloom. To her left were the barbituates, their acrid odour escaping from badly sealed lids, and the opiates were arranged in some impossibly confusing system of potency to her right. The view was dizzying, it stretched on for years, around unseen corners. The bottles reflected what little light there was in thin waves, and most appeared to be empty and clambered with dust and congealed fluid. This task could and should wait, she decided. She sensed that Angela would not care if Veronika had been dosed with enough morphine to stun the entire contents of the lake outside the windows, but even in here, this forgotten institution, some sense of her own decency remained and so the nurse walked to the central area to witness the patient she was supposed to be medicating. She had been listening to Veronika speak directly to her for forty-five minutes now, and her ramblings had been so far fascinating in tone, but ultimately unrailed and unravelled, a yarn which took no direction. There had been references, numerous references to ice, and snow, a fat mother, a wetnurse, but these were intercut with words nobody in the room could understand and long, drawn out moans and moments of stillness and silence. The audience remained rapt and transfixed throughout, and Petra was unable to resist giving her full attention –  any thoughts of sedating this sad-eyed, pallid orator had escaped her completely, as had the memory and fear of chastisement from her superiors. Petra looked around her. Three other matrons were staring dumbly and directly at the new nurse – she simultaneously began to wonder if they could speak at all and  to sense that this lecture was unusual, that her arrival had somehow provoked a shift. She was, for now at least, rendered speechless.

„I never killed a man” Veronika repeated, again staring at the nurse in front of her, eyes unmoving and fingers splayed out before her, a blind girl unaware that she could see. „Anyway, your home is in my book. And I remember every word, if I try. Let me tell you about your town”

 

Somewhere down a wavering corridor, through a set of shivering mirages, Angela turned a page, and checked to see that her door was locked. An echo danced towards her office, it was the sound of Veronika clearing her throat, of a hundred patients listening expectantly.

„Towards the end, a girl disappeared. She packed very little, this they knew, for little was taken from her quarters. An old sealskin bag, a few scarves, possibly some dried meats taken from the end of summer’s shelves somewhere. Her bed was left neatly rearranged, the furs were folded onto each other as was her habit in the mornings, except this was not a morning, no… not this far north. The winter ensures that the mornings never come, not until something is appeased, something is begged for. Only night, occasionally twilight. The herring boats go south each hour, and some of them might glimpse the edges of a new day in the far distance, but they know it will be many months before they can bring one back with them. Still, the birds gather around their masts, screaming their demands and taking their sacrifice. Up there, all is symbol, all is sacred. The ghosts of dead men swim alongside the scraping hulls, exchanging limbs for fins, breath for breath of a different kind. The stars are not stars, rather something quite different. Trees are spoken of in hushed tones, and rarely seen at all.”

Veronika kneeled forwards, and touched her forehead to the floor. Petra moved to stand up, to say something. There was a sensation within her that this was deeply unfair – that she should speak out. That she had heard and lived all this before, and how could a patient interred for seven years so far make these claims? She must have been barely a child upon entry to the hospital, for despite the lines in her face and the patches missing from her scalp, she was surely only in her early twenties. Veronika raised herself again, and once more looked at Petra. The nurse could only look down, and hold her tongue as best she could. „All the time in the world…”, she told herself.

„Morning didn’t come, and there was one who wished it never would. For her past held secrets, and one morning she was afraid she would have to speak them. And secrets can drive even the hardest mind to madness, can make even the strongest legs flee beyond the forests…”

 

Petra stood up. „Stop it”, she said, quietly. „Please, stop saying these things.” A hundred hands flicked away her pleas as the audience returned their eyes to the rocking girl, and behind her, Petra could sense the silent swaying of the matrons, their backs clammy from the glare of the windows.

In her chamber, hidden from the sunlight, Angela was looking over the penultimate chapter of the book she had taken into her collection, seven years ago. She had read it dozens of times before, each time resisting the urge to tear it up, or burn it, or spit on the old ink with the last of the moisture which remained in her mouth. Of all the parts of this text, this section was the most story-like, had some sense of a narrative. Not that any of it made any sense, she thought, as she gripped the sallow and flaking paper in her fingers. The chapter opened with the description of a nurse, a savage sort of nurse in a savage sort of land. All were by now aware of the types of people who dwelled north of the borders, Angela repeated to herself. And all knew what a nurse was, and regimes may rise or fall, but patients need to be kept and silenced – the world must be shielded from the mad and the dying, or at least they must shield themselves from the world. The newly born must be cleansed properly of the bloodshed and the vile fluids which coughed them into existence before being allowed to step into the society which would mould them. Everybody knew this, she said, as she read on. She read to herself aloud:

„The nurse scratched at her worn knuckles. They carried the remainder of the coal dust she had been dabbing on the incisions she’d made on and inside her patient, and it coated her fingertips, leaving a black and irridescent stain over the backs of her hands which now swung crookedly at her sides. “There, there’”, she muttered. “There, there”. A deeply gutteral snarl was emitted from the misshapen form on the ground. Pregnancy within the royal household, way up here in the north, was never an attractive or miraculous process. The ceilings were slick and hanging with the condensation of burnt seal fat, the cadence of winter with its blood and sunless skies were an infection which couldn’t help but crawl its way between the cracks in the blubberlined window frames, and the pulsating belly which carried an heir seemed not so much a symbol of life but a reminder of the inevitability of the struggle to maintain it. Little did all three of them know that a story was approaching fast, pulled by dogs and heralded by a growing fervour amongst the people of the settlement. Still, within this room, a nightmare of its own was unfurling between clawmarked thighs and coalblackened knuckles. The room continued to grimly sweat and gag, and the fires which had burned for hours were reaching their sad zenith as they spat towards their end. The nurse clapped her hands above the hearth, and thousands upon thousands of carbon granules fell to join their source, or ignited for a moment in the heat which still hovered above the embers, falling away, or upwards, or nowhere. Exhausted and resigned, she released a rattling sigh as her knees crackled and rustled with her squatting.”

Angela could hear the words falling from her fleshy lips, and they disgusted her. Here was a tale of an uncultured land, a household unshaped by regime and the changes of regime. A place without the merits of history, without institutions such as hers. Outside, the ivy fell in agreement, its battle with the dry heat coming to a toppling end as it crumbled away from the walls. Not so far away, Veronika was continuing the story, and Petra grew increasingly sickened.  Her soft voice meandered down the corridors, was carried on motes and platelets of dust.

„…It had been a long night, the reeking miasma of burning skin and heather was aching her lungs and her joints were dull and throbbing rhythmically with her old heart. She needed to lie down and continue her efforts in a few hours, of this there was little question, and the stool which numbed her hind quarters groaned in agreement. The patient continued to lie on the piled and matted pelts, a huge, bloated specimen of a woman, belly creaking and undulating on the ground, the imprints of tiny hands and feet within clearly visible, punching and stretching beneath the taut drumskin of a vast stomach. The woman was barely human in this state; she barked and groaned and flopped vastly across the floor, amniotic fluids and blood coagulating on her thighs. A child was coming, and all the nurse could do now was watch as a portent began to spill across the floor…”


Saga III

The nurse scratched at her worn knuckles. They carried the remainder of the coal dust she had been dabbing on the incisions she’d made on and inside her patient, and it coated her fingertips, leaving a black and irridescent stain over the backs of her hands which now swung crookedly at her sides. “There, there'”, she muttered. “There, there”. A deeply gutteral snarl was emitted from the misshapen form on the ground. Pregnancy within the royal household, way up here in the north, was never an attractive or miraculous process. The ceilings were slick and hanging with the condensation of burnt seal fat, the cadence of winter with its blood and sunless skies were an infection which couldn’t help but crawl its way between the cracks in the blubberlined window frames, and the pulsating belly which carried an heir seemed not so much a symbol of life but a reminder of the inevitability of the struggle to maintain it. Little did all three of them know that a story was approaching fast, pulled by dogs and heralded by a growing fervour amongst the people of the settlement. Still, within this room, a nightmare of its own was unfurling between clawmarked thighs and coalblackened knuckles. The room continued to grimly sweat and gag, and the fires which had burned for hours were reaching their sad zenith as they spat towards their end. The nurse clapped her hands above the hearth, and thousands upon thousands of carbon granules fell to join their source, or ignited for a moment in the heat which still hovered above the embers, falling away, or upwards, or nowhere. Exhausted and resigned, she released a rattling sigh as her knees crackled and rustled with her squatting.

It had been a long night, the reeking miasma of burning skin and heather was aching her lungs and her joints were dull and throbbing rhythmically with her old heart. She needed to lie down and continue her efforts in a few hours, of this there was little question, and the stool which numbed her hind quarters groaned in agreement. The patient continued to lie on the piled and matted pelts, a huge, bloated specimen of a woman, belly creaking and undulating on the ground, the imprints of tiny hands and feet within clearly visible, punching and stretching beneath the taut drumskin of a vast stomach. The woman was barely human in this state; she barked and groaned and flopped vastly across the floor, amniotic fluids and blood coagulating on her thighs. A child was coming, and all the nurse could do now was watch as a portent began to spill across the floor.

***

The last person who watched her feet crunch and snip their way through the compacted snow behind the fjords was a young man, no more than sixteen years old. He sat as he did every day, cross legged and turning the pages of his old books as his goats ignored the ice floes crumbling into the boot-black water. She had stumbled past him, not three days ago, after something had come to an end. He was barely aware of the happenings in the settlement.

They asked much, of course they did. Their questioning was vile and insistent, and overwhelming for a boy of solitary life. He was the last witness, the last contact. He had influence, and the mothers and the sisters of the disappeared hung above him, their insignia waved in front of his face and pockmarked staffs striking the floor at his feet. He told her family, as he told everyone else, that they had shared a glance and pocketful of pleasantries, that he had offered her a cigarette, a end of dry bread, a chance to rest her legs. Her family, as everyone else did, eyed him with a suspectful gaze, willing him to trip on his words, to betray a mundane truth, to confess. They hauled him before the oldest members of the community, a triad of weary eyes set deep and uncomfortably in weary faces, casked in social formalydehyde and horsehair, and these aged matriarchs of the town asked him again. What had he revealed? Why did the girl walk beyond the edges of what she knew and into the plains, to be taken by the cold?

A search party was sent out, with their lamps and what remained of the dogs of the previous year. They stood at the borders and called her name into the horizons. Up there, you could barely see the treeline, if there was one at all. Up there, men had lost their sight, and much more. The gathering of the strongest couldn’t bring themselves the cross the lines in the snow, not even now, after all this time.

He told them again, and again. He had tried to converse, to be joined in his thoughts, and he himself knew little about what lay beyond the harsh uplights of the whitened flatlands, only the stories of the times before, those which they all knew. At the mention of this, more than a few glances were thrown towards the longhouse, where it was known a birthing was taking place. At the mention of this, more than a few eyes were cast down to feet.

He was a simple boy, a keeper of emaciated livestock and a broken sled. His book, which was tied to his wrists by a long leather cord, was something passed down from forefathers, a relic of a forgotten time. He couldn’t read the myriad symbols, the writing, any more than anyone else could. The book was irrelevant, he said. She didn’t even see it, or ask about it. She just kept walking north. He mentioned this over and over again, until it became certain they would take the bound piles of foxmarked papers from him. It had happened before, and in his father’s time, he was told, but he held it to his rackety chest and passed his thumbs between the pages. He took some comfort in their uniformity. Nothing else here was constant – each autumn the land and all in it was carved into a form of icy stasis, and each spring it was moulded through watery attrition into new shapes, for a few short months of glaring, unending daylight. Glacially, the landscape never stopped creeping south.

A decision was quickly made, and the girl was not yet found. In the distance, a moan erupted from behind a door, and someone thought they heard a baby cry.

They say he pleaded his innocence throughout the excruciating length of the ordeals, and they say he looked into the windtorn faces of the mothers without even flinching. They say he would have passed all the trials an innocent man, were it not for the fact he confessed to being the last man to see her. They say he stopped speaking, just before the end, and sat cross legged in the snow as they fell on him, a tribe of people seeking an angry omen. They say they couldn’t prize the book from his frozen fingers, even long after most of the congregation had forgotten why they were there. They say that when it was over, there was nothing left of him. They say it soon became obvious that this was the third portent, with no doubt in anyones mind. They say it had all already begun.

The nurse patted the remaining coaldust from her hands, sighed, and began to dig into the snow. She dug for quite some time. Spring was on its way.


an adolescent opening, or, “throwback”

He’d been sewing his melancholic roots all over the slabs of Budapest for almost three years now. They dragged along at the heel of his boot, cutting a slew of mire and wreckage in his wake. He heaved and pulled his way between buildings, slicing the streets and lugging this cadence with him like a vendor, plying his wares from district to park, from monument to tenement. Three years? No, two. His sense of time, his calendar was askew – there were springs, and autumns; he was able to distinguish the seasons, and held some sense of months. Wax, and wane, whichever was which. The slickly spitting waters of the Duna coughed themselves up as the moon breathed them in, and clenched back as it exhaled – the black sea swelled some thousand miles to the east. Hibernation sat in his mind as a subject of envy – somewhere beneath the silty drift of the river. Sleep, dust. Just.

A ship, an emissary of old English frustration, pitching to a reversed tide of the idea to escape. Some small success he’d had, but these weighed down his coasting and creaking frame like too-precious ballast; unbalancing, creating inertia and little else. The Black Sea screamed from across a lengthy border, grasping for her source. It moved through him, tossed him to shingle as it clambered through counties and lowlands, floodplains and summers.


Residue

Bored in an exam, revisiting old ideas

A Residue (a re-writing of The Zenith)

It was April, and a slaking of rain and vertical cloud had just rinsed the city clean. Rivulets formed at the base of bushes, and they picked up oil-slicked tributaries as they fell down the sides of the streets, searching, leaf-laden, for a way to return home. People were looking out of their leadlined windows, eager to step outside and breathe, and be reminded what it is to breathe, to live. You could see their faces readying their bodies for a congratulatory gasp of air, as clean and fresh as the city would allow. These days were rare, and the populous felt it from indoors.

There was one who did not notice the rain, though, and whose gaze was fixed on a nodule of hardened emulsion, a tiny, tumourous growth of pigment on the corner of a canvas. It was he who had put it there, carving it with the edge of a brush and lancing it through with a palette knife. He did not hear the almost comprehensible rhythm dancing on his shutter frames, and he did not see our tributory, now strengthened by a hundred slick and muddy brothers, rush past his door. He did not notice the rainwater pass over an old collection of artist’s tools on his step, and strip the top layer of paint, making half a second of technicolour arabesques swirl around the drainpipes. He was looking at his work.

He had spent almost an entire year on this one painting, a large and textured mass of colour. He had completed it several times, laid down his hands and relaxed his retinae, satisfied that perhaps it was ready to release from the studio. Within minutes, however, the sensation flitted away coquettishly, cruelly. Each time a final, finishing touch had been applied, it led to an alteration, which unbalanced the piece, and required a review of the flow of the eye, and brought up an ugly and unfitting clash of colour, or movement, or anything, and it became agonisingly obvious that the piece was indeed far from finished, only an idiot would think otherwise. Twice, he had covered the entire canvas again with white acrylic, to cover everything beneath. Look closely, and might can see the strata of several thousand brush strokes below the empty spaces, cavernous splits and cracks divided the cankers of reappraisal. Frustration was mounting, and desperation was overbearing his movements – he spat and scratched and mauled the piece, before prostrating and apologising and wishing it into closure.

Yesterday, one of his fingers fell off. It was the third one to go in as many weeks.

For the past month, every time he had laid down his brushes and palette knives with a sense of heavy-eyed finality, or kicked aside the wax coated wine bottles and shards of willow charcoal from around his feet, or picked the hardened paint from his greasy, matted beard, he’d move too quickly, and he would hear a crackling rustle, a shifting sound like rats in a dead tree, coming from his hands. Each time this happened, he would look closely at the source of the noise, always a finger, and inspect it intensely as it wrinkled like salted mollusc, turned grey, or brown, or black, and fall to the floor. The process was painless and fast, leaving a dry, flaky, self-cauterised stump behind, as if it was the result of an injury received as a child; an accident with a hammer, or a mild birth defect, a warning lesson from the family dog.

September came fast, and the leaves were starting to dry and curl on the branches that scratched on the window of the studio. Summer was already starting to seem like a memory of a half-dream, held for a few seconds on awakening, and seen with perfect clarity before quickly being lost to garbled, mossy symbolisms and abstract word association. He sat on his stool, flecked white with paint and looked at his papery hands. Only three fingers remained; his first finger on his left hand, pressed hard against his thumb, and the middle and smallest fingers on his right hand, looping around a palette knife encrusted with black, glutinous mulch. Every seven minutes or so, he would raise his right hand up to his painting – now several inches thick from the months of pigment plastered upon the frame, a physical, swollen calendar of frustrations – and scratch the edge of the knife through the top layer of paint to expose a sliver of April, a scar of spring. All the months were under there, a year and a half of gazing, of stabbing oneself with bottle tops. January was half-visible, a streak of whiteness, and both Julys were the wound and scabbed skin around a green lip of last week. Last autumn was barely visible at all, but to lay your hands on the bulging, obese surface of the painting would reveal its presence, buried.

The artist shut his eyes, and threw a small metal pot of silver paint at the top-right hand corner of the convex frame. It bounced off, and he heard it scuttle to the sides of the room. One eye opened, encrusted with blue cyan dust. For one golden second, he could see the piece as finished. As he pulled his arm away from the canvas, trembling with elation, he was sure that this was it; that the one cut he had just made through the heavy globules of arterial red, followed by the radial flecks of silver he had just launched… this had completed his work. It had. The painting loomed at him, and he shifted his weight from one cracking ankle bone to another to gain a few degrees of perspective. It just required one tiny extension, another inch of dragged marbling through the layers.

An exhalation, and a recognition of the same pattern.That extra inch wasn’t repairable; he had reached a zenith and then fallen, having completely changed the dynamic between the washes in the bottom-right corner and the sharpness of the veins stretching around the side. Tears of pain ran into his beard and the artist stomped around studio like a chastised toddler, throwing his portfolio against the filthy windows, scattering praise and high reviews from many years ago, shouting at the papers and glossy uselessness that floated down over dead candles and a year of picking away at a year of picking away. His feet crashed through mirrors and kicked all in sight; the skeletal remains of a mummified aspidistra scattered into dust-motes and moth wings, and the acrid cloud produced a wracking, dry, rasping cough from his cracked old lips. The artist fell into a wretched heap on the oily rug that covered most of the floor, and lay still, bare chest heaving, his liver spots rising and falling on pigeon bones, their erratic rhythms moving cog-like on his heartbeat.

A noise grew upwards from his hands. Tiny claws clambering, bracken fires spitting.

His head banged against the thin fabric with a hollow thud as he brought his hand to his face to watch the little finger twist and curl inwards like a dying spider, like a sleeping fern, atrophying quickly as a sped-up film of pestilence. It twitched twice spasmodically before turning the colour of London loam and hanging for a moment on a thread of papyrus-skin before dropping onto his stomach. His gut wrenched as the appendage rolled onto the ground near his chin, the droplets of hope and impetus drying up inside him as so many grains of sand slipping through a distorted hourglass. Only two fingers now remained on his ravaged hands, ashen stumps forming involuntary fists hung on the end of his arms like chicken gristle. Soon, he thought, soon he would be useless, sterile, impotent. He did not find the idea of mouth or foot painting at all attractive, and so what would happen if this wasting disease spread to whatever part of his body he used for his art? Would his lips suffer the same fate? His feet? His head? The idea wasn’t so unbelievable. And the painting hung heavy over him, glaring, scarred, unfinished.

He had not stepped out of his studio for so, so long. His windows let in the occasional polymer of daylight, hanging limp and sticky, photons of dead spermatozoa coughed out over his cluttered desk with its smashed glass veneer. Nobody had seen any of the work he had produced for almost fifteen years now; the exhibition he was planning on putting together was going to be crowned by this final painting, this unfinished, unfinishable virus that would complete the retrospective. He did not know what had happened to his family, his critics, his customers and investors. It had been too long.

The artist walked over snapped pencils and crushed cans, stood next to his window and scraped at the mildew, scraped again at the months and years that had gathered on the glass. Outside looked different to how he remembered it; the trees, which before were all he could see through the filth, now stood in front of tall buildings which seemed to stretch away into the distance. A thousand identical houses rolled down the hill to the left of his parched garden, and enormous cars were pulled in and out of a thousand tarmac driveways, like flotsam on a Perspex tide. A look of determination crossed the artist’s face, and he sat at the desk and scrabbled for some paper, a pen, his inkpot and an envelope. A letter would be written to his old agent (or the agent’s successor), the address was one he had never forgotten, burned into his memory when he was young, a darling of the town once. These hands had impressed, had burned with colour.

A letter announcing the completion of the retrospective, the apex of all of his work to date was written slowly and clumsily, in green ink on the old, stained paper. His remaining two fingers held the pen pincer-like, and the process was arduous, but determination drove it to completion. The old man was almost panting with excitement, a year of tears and struggles, eighteen months with hardly any food or water and with nothing to stare at but the same canvas, a mocking year, almost comple! Unwilling to step outside at this crucial time, the artist forced open the window and flung the envelope out onto the pavement, several feet away, to wait for a neighbour to pick it up, to deliver it for him. They would. He was sure of it.

The artist stepped into the centre of his studio and looked hard at the canvas. He picked up the pots of paint, held them close to his chest in the crook of his wrist, and poured their entire contents over his naked body. His ribs were highlighted by ochres, magenta ran through his hair and mingled with the greens dropping in a single, continous spout from his genitals. His ankles were heavy with blues and reds, and his back was pocked and shattered with a hundred pigments fast becoming one solid, muddy hue.

When he was completely doused in every colour he owned (even the tiny pot of silver metallic paint
from the corner of the room, that he bought for a futurist project that never materialised), he took a deep breath, bent his old legs and laughing, leapt at the canvas, knocking it off the easel and smearing it with the deep brown, sickly, heady concoction that covered and clung to every grey, wiry hair. He floundered around on the floor, feeling months of dried paint scratching and cutting his neck, his chest, his leathery thighs, plastering his beard to his clavicle. He caressed and attacked it, made love to and murdered it, prussian blues ejaculating over burnt siennas. He lay still, spent, panting in the knowledge that his work was complete. He could not see it, his eyes were caked and gummed with a colour so heavy it may as well have been a solid black acetate. Pushing himself down onto the canvas, he penetrated the layers of dried and sharpened paint, crystallised months and days opened to his skin and accepted it. Vision had left him, and finality was here.

A smile crept to his dark blue lips that were flecked with paler cyan when he heard the sound: The noise echoed once around the room, inside his head and off glass domes filled with old skin and moss. Scarab beetles under sand, rice falling on sheets of glass

It continued, clicking and rustling in his ears, up and down the sinew of his arms, on his eyelids, between his buttocks and over his knuckles. He listened until his entire body was crackling and popping and spitting with sounds of an untuned radio left out in a petrified forest. The artist’s mouth gasped once, spasmodically as his body shrunk like an autumn leaf, dried and discoloured beneath the mess of wet paint. His body contorted once, twice, and then broke into tiny pieces, which settled like dust on the canvas, and waited for the curators to collect him.

It was soon April again, and the rains returned, and the city opened itself to be washed clean. Rivulets ran, and collected their twins, and the residue of colours searched for the sea amongst the spinning leaves.


Saint no.23 (first exam piece)

That the young woman had healing hands was a difficult fact to deny, even by the most sceptical of observers. When she was hauled before the magistrate’s court in the presence of pockmarked deliquents and the white van driver with charges of running down cyclists, the gallery was brimming with cynical faces, eager to see what the free newspapers were on about. I was there. I was one of them.

Her estuary accent was disarming, to say the least. No mystically elongated vowels, no faraway moonfaced whisper of a voice. Her words and the way she spoke them undoubtedly added to her story, and we can all see that, now it has reached at narratively familiar ending. She spoke as though she was pushing words through gold hooped earrings, her phrases turned with Lambert and Butler and all the rest. Quite what she was charged with was always unclear. Wrong time, wrong place; typical outcomes with a messianic twist. She was first reported as being found wandering in the crisp packet and condom littered no-mans-land of in-between gang territories of Dagenham, the black spot accentuated by local press and the petty prejudices of the white working class. She’d wait for the bruises and the shanks, the chrome bumper breakings and the occasional gunshot. One witness claimed they saw her kneeling over a child waiting to be front page tabloid news in the neverending grinding into the ground of suburban London, and lift him to his feet, the wounds scabbing over within seconds. He picked up his bag of glue and swaggered over to the rust covered ice cream van. Of course, nobody could prove a thing. Getting anybody to speak to the police down there would require far greater, older miracles. But the girl kept returning, and was seen everywhere from Chatham to Dartford, getting up from the swings or the bonnet of a car, flicking away gum and laying her hands on the unlucky, the guilty, the crossfired and the brandished. Stories started appearing online, and cctv footage acted as it always did, the unblinking eye of a filthy urban deity, handing out punishment and reward to those it glares at under the yellow sodium light of the maisonettes.

Some claimed she was hero. Some were disgusted by who she saved. Some said she should go back to where she came from, but nobody really knew where that was. She didn’t wear a headscarf, and I suppose that helped, in a sad sort of way. Some said she couldn’t speak, but we knew that not to be true, in the end.

The congregation of the gawping and superior in the magistrate’s court felt ill, by the end of the trial. Here was a reverse vigilanteism, taking the lore into one’s own hands, so to speak, a dangerous extension of an old, hypocratic oath. The city needs victims, and it needs villains, and we all know this, somehow. What the city can’t stomach is saviours – we underpay our nurses and midwives, we string up our golden ones and doubt them when they return. If they must come back, let them at least speak properly. Let them understand the charges against us, let them forgive us. Let them be male. She did and was none of these things, a halo of hairspray and the static crackle of nylon followed her through the room, and she stared incredulously at the judge, rolled her eyes at the list of questions.

People play roles, of that we can be sure. The words we choose, the clothes we wear. By a certain point in our lives, we are Pierrots, we are Malmaries, Harlequins and Judases and Jonahs and Jobs. I’m sure that’s what she said, in not so many words. And perhaps this explained the look of complete boredom on her face as they carried her outside and drove nails through her hands, planted a crown of razor wire onto her head and poured white spirit onto her wounds. She looked to her left, and spoke to one of the pockmarked deliquents. Nobody quite heard what she said. She laid her hands on a blind man, and he could see. It was all just tricks, they were saying. Someone claimed she was a single mother, too. This started a frenzy.

„You don’t know what you’re doin’”, she said.

„Forgive us”, they replied. „We need you to forgive us”.

„You don’t know what you’re doin’”.

She spoke in that awful voice for some time, before falling silent. Parables, they used to call them. A mobile phone range tinnily in a pocket somewhere. People stayed.

Somewhere in London, the ground shook so much that all the envelopes in the post office headquarters fell to the ground, and those working on the outside of the gherkin lay down their sponges and buckets. The Thames rippled more than usual. The prayers of the faithful in Saint Paul’s were uninterrupted, and a young man bled to death outside a children’s play area in Dulwich. All was as it should be, again.


Rope Trick, part III

Daniel collapsed to the straw-strewn floor, and rolled onto his back. The first breath pulled into his wracked and self engraved chest a fistful of scorching air, the second contracted the meat beneath his spidery broken veins with the acridity of feline piss, a heavy, jungle scent, all sharpened with ammonia and basic human instinct. Collective inherited memories scrambled to the forefront of his addled mind, screaming reflexes into his legs to get up, and run. ’Big cat, here!’ they seemed to say. ’Get away!’, they shouted, a million tiny voices, a hormonal klaxon kicking him behind the knees. Olfactory terror was known for producing visions, the flood of adrenaline was a potent trigger of revelation. Everyone knew that, and here he was; Daniel in the lion’s den, throwing himself down hard. A bruise was blossoming under his clavicle. ‘This is good’, he thought to himself.

Still, he did not hear The Voice.

The lion was a ragged old thing, submissive, tired, all swollen ankles and eyes crusted with lethargy and conjunctivitus. It wasn’t cheap, even for the fifteen minutes of squalid genuflection it was hired for. With one pleaful look at the whip-marked, pocked old cat, it became clear that this method wasn’t working, either, and Daniel walked wearily to the rope ladder which hung down into the pit. He cosidered getting a stagehand to throw him in once more, but lowered his eyes and climbed past Busburosa, the obese circus master with his cloud of tobacco smoke and lazy lechery. Daniel didn’t even raise his head, as he walked towards the door. He didn’t notice the boys who watched him from the sawdust, their hair littered with petals and plastered onto shining faces with bright, clear water. But then, he wouldn’t have. He was seeking the presence of a god, he was grasping for a gift.


Saga II, revisiting old themes in short, sweet prose.

The last person who watched her feet crunch and ratchet their way through the compacted snow and hardened leaf mould behind the fjords was a young man, no more than sixteen years old. He was sitting as he did every day, cross legged and turning the pages of his old book as his goats ignored the ice floes crumbling into the boot-black water as she stumbled past him, not three days ago. He told her family, as he told everyone else, that they had shared a glance and pocketful of pleasantries, that he had offered her a cigarette, a end of dry bread, a chance to rest her legs. Her family, as everyone else did, eyed him with a suspectful gaze, willing him to trip on his words, to betray a mundane truth, to confess. They hauled him before the oldest members of the community, a triad of weary eyes set deep and uncomfortably in weary faces, casked in social formalydehyde and horsehair – supposed wisdom in the collection of repetitive days – and these aged matriarchs of the town asked him again. What had he revealed? Why did the girl walk beyond the edges of what she knew and into the plains, to be taken by the cold?

A search party was sent out, with their greasy lamps and what remained of the dogs of the previous year. They stood at the borders and called her name into the horizons. Up there, you could barely see the treeline, if there was one at all. Up there, men had lost their sight, and much more. The gathering of the strongest couldn’t bring themselves the cross the lines in the snow, not even now, after all this time.

He told them again, and again. He had tried to pass on something of his own, and knew little about what lay beyond the harsh uplights of the whitened flatlands, only the stories of the times before, those they all knew. He was a simple boy, a keeper of emaciated livestock and a broken sled. His book was something passed down from forefathers, a relic of a forgotten time. He couldn’t read the myriad symbols, the writing, any more than anyone else could. The book was irrelevant, he said. He mentioned this over and over again, certain they would take the heirloom from him. It had happened before, and in his father’s time, he was told, but he held it to his rackety chest and passed his thumbs between the leaves bound in leather. He took some comfort in their uniformity, the thinness of the pages flowing like meltwater over his fingertips. Nothing else here was constant – each autumn the land and all in it was carved into a form of icy stasis, and each spring it was moulded through watery attrition into new shapes, for a few short months of glaring, unending daylight. Glacially, the landscape never stopped creeping south. Suet sat heavy in tight stomachs as the sun refused to move for another few months. Decisions were made, gestures were performed.

They say he pleaded his innocence throughout the length of the ordeals, and they say he looked into the cracking faces of the mothers without flinching. They say he would have passed all the trials an innocent man, were it not for the fact he confessed to being the last to see her. They say he stopped speaking, just before the end, and sat cross legged in the snow as they fell on him. They say they couldn’t prize the book from his frozen fingers, even long after most of the congregation had forgotten why they were there. They say he was probably younger than he looked. It isn’t easy to tell, at this time of year.