Tales From A Record Shop #10

Tales From a Record Shop #10

N is for Nazi.
And N is also for Nonce.

Well, hi there. It’s been a while. (About 205 days, I think, if I’ve been counting right.) Let’s get straight on, shall we. I’ve got another little tale to tell. And this time it’s not very funny . . .

The focus on writing about daily life in a record shop has always been to highlight how people who are a little different from the norm can be amusing and entertaining – that makes them worth writing about, right? There have also been plenty who can touch the sensibilities (if you tittered at that, you have a filthy (and imaginative) mind). It’s work, a job, but it’s also a sociable place to meet interesting people – as well as being pinned to the canvas by plenty of boring people and morons, it’s true. On occasion, a customer can really give you things to think about. It really is a parade of all walks of life.  It’s a high street shop and everyone is welcome.

Or are they?

Ponder this little dilemmatic example. There is a perfectly pleasant character, about 30 years old, who for a long while has regularly visited the shop. We’ve always got along well, even if it can get a bit irritating when he prattles on about Dr Who. Whovians tend to. (See, if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t even know that’s what they call themselves. Regular readers will recall that Whovians have been the object of my vexation before now.) And I really have absolutely zero interest. In fact, to my mind it is well established that we don’t have common interests – he likes to play video games and watch superhero movies; I’m really not certain that I could care less. I like watching Gardners’ World and being out in the fresh air. I’m sure that he couldn’t care less, about which I couldn’t care less.  I learn from Monty and I love nature.

Anyway, he’s inoffensive and likeable. So imagine how shocking it is when a local news headline pops up: LOCAL MAN ACCUSED OF SEXUALLY ABUSING CHILDREN. Namely, young boys. Beneath, there’s a mug shot of this particular Whovian.

So, what do you do? Shocking as it was, it was not a huge surprise, can’t lie. Furthermore, this is a man who has been accused, not convicted. There has to be civil reasonable doubt. And then I learned that this is the second time that he has been accused of such vile acts (you do not want to know the published details, and I don’t wanna share them). On the first occasion, in a different county, he was convicted. Okay, so moral certainty. Anyway, surely someone who has had their face in the local paper, accused of detestable offences, wouldn’t been seen in public straight afterwards. Surely.

Oh yep, there he is at the counter.

Just to be clear, this is not the actual accused customer / alleged paedophile. All this dude did was “catch children”. And then gave them lollipops, too. Ah, different times . . .

I felt that I had to consider banning him from the shop, and discussed it with a few people whose opinions I trust. But he was not convicted for a second time. Clearly, with moral certainty, he was not reformed by his time in jail. However, the consensus we agreed upon was that he couldn’t be banned by virtue of a news article, without knowing – or saving oneself of knowing – all of the details. The bigger debate really is: Should he have been released from prison the first time? The reality is: He served 20 months. There will be a day when he can no longer go high street shopping for media or for lollipops, of that I am certainly certain. If he wasn’t a predatory sexual pervert, I’m sure that we’d get along fine.

And we did before all this came to light. Yet sometimes you can just tell from the look someone that they are not a nice human being. Before discussing that, probably the most bizarre thing that I have ever witnessed . . .

Another “perfectly pleasant character” visited one day, wearing a suit and bowtie on a hot summer’s afternoon (Whovian?), asking for directions to a local venue.

Oh, what’s going on there today?

“There’s a designer’s convention. I’m late.”

Sounds good. You want to go thataway. Five minutes, max.

“I’m not called Max.”

Well, you do kind of look like you could be.

And he was on his way to the moderately posh local venue. Later that day, in this small market town, there was a proper ruckus. A. Proper. Ruckus.

The central town car park, directly opposite the shop, was suddenly full of people. In a mass brawl. About a dozen of them were dressed in black, scarves covering their faces, fighting a group of twenty to thirty well-dressed men and women, who looked better prepared to dance the lindy hop than street fight. It spilled into the street. The Feds turned up. There were some very naughty words colouring the very middle class skies. And there’s the moderately posh guy who had earlier visited the shop wading right in. Of course he was.

One little fella, dressed as if ready for a prom, was wandering around, hollering in a voice like whatever the love child of John Major and Edwina Currie would have sounded like, “People of S–, there are Nazis in the car park. There are Nazis in the car park. Your town has been taken over by Nazis.” Repeatedly. That’s not a great to thing that anyone would like to hear in any town, so we watched this bewildering scrap escalate and unfold, as you do. It was . . . really weird, surreal, and insanely violent.

It turned out that the lindy hoppers were from a growing far-right “identitarian [sic] movement”; the group in black an anti-fascist group who track down the hipster supremacists and disrupt their conventions and gatherings. And they had chosen a small town in the countryside for what was one of their first meetings. Of course they did.

So, appropos the not nice human being . . .

This is another customer who has been a long-term visitor. He likes his 50s and 60s rock ‘n’ roll music, as well as being fond of old films. That is fine. Of course it is. But he is grim; very grim: Missing a few teeth, through which gaps he sprays alcoholic spittle; not a pleasant aura lingering about him. In fact, even his aura smells dirty. He wears a big jacket on the hottest of days. It smells. He smells. And he always wants to shake hands when he comes in . . . and then again when he leaves. I don’t really want to shake his filthy hands.  And really, there is just no affinity. He orders things and then takes months to collect them – even after I started insisting on upfront payment. There are two ends to my list of customers, with my favourites at the top. He’s on it, but he ain’t at the top.

So I took the payment upfront for a DVD that he ordered. It’s called Triumph of the Will. It sounds just like another of the old fashioned films that he likes. Fine. When it arrived, I was suddenly holding a Nazi propaganda film. I say this with reticence, but it probably is quite fascinating . . . from a historical point of view. But it’s not the sort of thing that you forget someone ordering.

One day, he wasn’t wearing his big old smelly jacket. Even though I had my hands in my pockets, he still held out his hand for a good old chummy shake. And then I saw an image like this tattooed on his forearm

You could also get this horrific tattoo. It’s great for those who want society to think that they’re a complete and utter horrible douchebag.

Yes indeed. Sometimes impressions of people can be right first time. And the particularly astute among you will notice that not only is this individual detestable, he’s also chosen not to have the image of the Swastica at a 45° angle. Perhaps it is intended as an ancient symbol of spirituality and divinity – its historic origin, before being adopted to symbolise authoritarian evil – and just happens to be depicted inside a helmet of the imperial army, beneath the initials of the Schutzstaffel. I don’t know. But I definitely would much rather not shake his grimy hand.

Because this has been a rather heavier topic than usual, allow me to finish on a joke:

I’ve been performing under pressure at work.

Now I just need to find someone to do the Bowie part.

Ah, well I like it anyway, even if big K doesn’t. And it segues nicely into what will be my final TFaRS blog.

Until then, stay cool . . .

Regeneration

Regeneration

From the edge of the forest I find the window. One of the many eyes of the city. To find it, I do not need to seek it. Three floors beneath the sign. The neon glow, startling the night. My eyes are drying. I grind soil between my forefingers and thumb. Soothing, and the scent of the moist earth. I blink.

I hold the up the piece of bark over the cityscape, covering the light, bending the sky back to nature. Just the lights of the petrol station infiltrate my new night. Adjusting my hand, patterned so much like wood, I block the invasive elements. All is dark.

Noises that are the life of the forest wash past me, towards the dark and new horizon, bound only by the light of the moon. To play in the natural world. Yet still, without sight of it, I can see the light of that window. Three floors down. The burn that electrifies the retinas. Coal that does not cease smouldering.

10

With the line of the forest at my shoulder, I walk towards the edge of the city. The hum of the petrol station lights seep into the forest. Tangles of hawthorn and blackthorn grab at the chain-link, pulling the fence towards nature. Tearing it down. I ease the branches aside and step through the cut in the steel wires. Into the storage and waste yard.

Padlocks fasten the lids of the bins, but the plastic housing is pliant and it yields. Yellow glow illuminates plastic-wrapped cartons, packets and bags inside the bin. I pull out tomatoes, salad leaves, meats. Small mammals inside the bin begin again their own hunt. The smell of compost and decay, of dirt, is overpowered by the fumes from the fuel and the petrichor from the earlier rainfall.

Electricity threatens the air around me. My sinuses are clutching, clawing at my cheeks. The light is pushing down on me, pulling me up, crushing and stretching me. As the hedges grapple with the fence, the artificial chemistry infiltrates me, alive on my skin, forcing the ingestion of toxins. This regular torture I suffer to remind me.

9

Passing back through, leaving the gap in the fence and hedge behind me, my mission leads me towards the softer residential glows. Viridecence seeping through suburbs of indigenous and alien life. The struggle more harmonious. There are windows like these that torment an alternative malady within me. That does not stoke the fuel of my animus. Instead it disposes a suffering on my energy. A sufferance that draws the difference between worlds and lives. And yet the two are entwined, like the steel and the branch.

Gaining entry into the back gardens is of little effort. For the most of us we expect for attack to come from the front, while we leave ourselves vulnerable where we are at our most exposed. Where we cannot see what may creep up from behind. Of equally little trouble is removing the drainage gutters from greenhouses and sheds. Continuing for a dozen houses or so, I soon achieve the required amounts of guttering.

After stowing the stolen property nearby the petrol station, hidden behind thorny bushes, I retreat towards the forest. Badgers barking drown the sound of the pulsing, buzzing city, welcoming me home. My vulnerability is now behind me. Through my fingers, I play with the birthday candle that I found on the wall of one of the back gardens. I light it. It sparks to life. I blow it out.

8

As each morning, I awake with a startled realisation of change. Of a different aspiration. It had been more than a year, yet it still shocked my wakening self every day. I stretch to life, swinging from branches and reaching around the trunk of an ancient pine, staying myself. The spongy bark massages my skin and bones as I speak to it. Share my thoughts, my fears, and my confidence.

Chewing on ramp and berries, I think of my five words for the day. Five random words equating to nothing. It has become my morning routine, akin to meditation. A process to encourage thought but also to clear my head. To keep alive my mind.

Forgiveness.

Libation.

Anachronism.

Meta.

Ebullience.’

Softly, into my beard, I speak them over and again. When speaking words this way they begin to merge; to create a pattern where randomness becomes reason, until it becomes nothing but babble. Usually it would, but this time emerged a sixth word. Where something arbitrary became germane. I smile.

7

Killing for entertainment. When hunting season is upon the fields of the forest, I know. The morning I spend clearing the fields of the land animals, the pheasants and grouse. Beating before the beaters. From one of my hiding places I always watch as the expensive cars roll onto the land, bearing with them the guts and the gluttonous. I hear them, their talk of opulence and derision. From some of my vantage points I am close enough to inspect the spider veins threading through ruddy complexion. See the protruding hairs from eyebrows and ears, wild and unkempt as brambles. Familiar as faces behind lighted windows in a darkened city.

Always they complete their day with a trophy of glassy-eyed animals and birds lined on sheets at their feet. Working dogs are returned to their cages as their masters drink from flasks that glint with light reflected from their teeth. I think of family. I think of loveless life, rewarded with wealth and unhappiness. In the daylight, the city is an ogre and the countryside exposes vulnerability, its back turned.

Killing for survival. Returning to my cabin, I check on one of my snares. I find it empty. I look to see if any tracks have been left in its locality. As I survey the land and the surrounding flora I see a rabbit staring at me. It is large, its salt and pepper fleece glossy, rising and falling as those black eyes shine in my direction. I stare at the rabbit. The rabbit stares at me.

6

It is not often that I see other people in the forest. Trees. Trees everywhere. Native, indigenous. Foreign. Nature in harmony. Side by side and entwined. Roots that touch and feel and share. Some grow as weeds. Some fall and lay upon flora, which embraces and feeds from the decomposition. Some will continue to grow after they fall. Nature is abundant. Ash trees. Ash all over. Ash everywhere. The routes that walkers take are far from where I have made my home. It is not often that I see other people in the forest.

It takes a few moments for me to recognise what is not right about the tall beech tree with the forked trunk. I had heard the sound. The creaking noise that a branch under strain makes, especially at night, especially at times when the weather is inclement or extreme. I can smell the odour that is so natural to the forest. I don’t look up into his face. But I do watch as his body weaves on a travelling breeze. His suit is lined. I am familiar with the expensive tailoring. Speckled with droppings from branches above. His shoes are still as shiny as they must have been when he made his way into the forest. As shiny as the ring of his wedding finger.

Everywhere I go my knife is companion. Having watched and listened and thought, I climb easily up and onto the thick bough and cut the rope. Something breaks as the body hits the floor. When I am once more upon the ground, I turn him over and look into the face. Purple and rose, puce and pained. Colours such like a birthed child. Colours I shall never, ever forget. Beneath and within those colours, I believe that I recognise the name. Dane. This once was Dane. ‘Dane,’ I say. I never can understand why someone would give up rather than get out, or when they can get even. Dane occupies a window beneath that neon sign. Dane used to.

5

‘Fuck off! Get the fuck out.’ Sometimes the words that I expel are not as meditative as those of my morning ritual. Sometimes they invade like city toxins. It is as necessary as my routine to put air around them, sorry as I am to pollute the forest. It understands. It cleans them off and returns them as air to breathe. It is nature. This is a human nature. ‘Get the fuck out of my head,’ I mutter. My teeth are clattering. They feel soft in my jaw. My muscles are tense, prepared for battle. I feel at my most relaxed after it passes. It is meditation.

Since coming to live in the forest, I feel better now than I did at the age of 30. Screaming words out to the world, should they occupy a part of my mind that is vacant and vulnerable to attack, is something that I’ve found many, many people do. I used to think that I shouldn’t, even if in my past the words in my head were carefully sown. Not of my choosing. Never of my reaping. I wonder how deeply they were sown that they remain there still. But I do wholeheartedly believe that there will be a day when only my own thoughts remain. Supplanted like nature’s ability to regenerate. Like spontaneous combustion.

Never did I talk about these internal ills. Now I talk about it to the trees. I listen to them as they sooth my affliction. Not many people know how to properly listen. A tree will listen to me and respond in its best way, every time. I was about to move away, yet the sweet chestnut calls me back. I return to it. It is warm and has a gentle pulse, a tattoo that steadies the pace of my heart. It whispers. It is passed. I am soothed.

4

The forest is stocked full of foods and useful finds – once learned where to discover them, and their uses. One of the supplements from the bins was a full jar of goose fat. I don’t recall where from where I stored the memory of how to make soap, but I am close to mastering the process. Using my knife and a piece of flint turned up by the field plough, to build a fire is of little effort. Anyone who is to succeed in living from the land will wonder why people discard the things that they do. Will always question why we feel we need to live with so many possessions, when few could be so useful.

With some fresh soap – a concoction of ashes, fat, water and berries; the goose fat much simpler than cleanly separating the fat of a kill – I move towards the river to bathe. But on the way I hear voices. It is not usual to encounter people this far towards my chosen land. I see that they are wearing hi-vis jackets – like their voices, an invasion of neutral tone. I creep closer. Whenever I am led stalking towards people, as very occasionally I must, I tread as I have seen the animals do. Soft of step. Alert. Wary.

As I watch, I see one of them – a fat man with not a hair upon his head – discard his empty water bottle into the brambles. The other man – younger and with features of a polecat; hooded and wearing sunglasses in this depth of the forest – flicks the end of his cigarette into the bushes. I watch them. I listen to them. I begin to fantasise. Wrapping the fat one in brambles, a cocoon of thorns. The younger one planted headfirst into the ground. Waiting for him to grow. I want to watch them burn. Instead, I listen. They are talking about knotweed. I learn that they have found none in the area. That there is no threat. I will not bathe this day.

3

I trek far and with purpose. Such is the simplicity of the life that I have chosen – when I got out and did not give up – that my days are made of whatever I choose to make them. When I gave myself to nature, and nature accepted. We live outside beauty, the most of us. We settle around others, where we must guard and be vigilant, wary and anxious. A part of my centre was attached to the numbers on the screen, the rise and the fall, the grab, the bust. Gain. Gain. Gain. Facing the screen. Facing the window. Never vigilant. Never wary of what might be happening behind my back. In the forest I have eyes all around. Even in a sound. Even in a scent.

I see the little Sika deer before it has seen me. Heard me. Smelled me. When first I came to the forest, most of the creatures would startle and run at my presence. The little Sika continues to forage as I pass by on my way back from the farm. Not even the sound of the two large steel jerry cans that I carry, flattening the undergrowth and snapping branches, disturb its scavenge.

The only items that I have previously taken from the farm are vegetables – turnip, squash, corn and potato – and rope, nails, screws and hand tools when constructing or working on my cabin. They are rough characters on the farm, deserving of this land. Whenever now I venture onto the farm I am more cautious than I first was when scrumping or thieving. I do not wish to encounter them at close hand again. Even though I found that I am much faster and more nimble than them, their dogs are the most savage animals in the forest. On that day I learned that I can pass from tree to tree like an ape.

2

As the night begins to fall, my fire grows. Fire. No invention shall ever surpass it; few would exist in its absence. In the daylight it is not possible to detect my cabin. For the forest has claimed it, grown around it, reclaimed the wood of the walls and lives now upon the roof. Each day I check the flues, so that we can continue to live without one harming the other. In the evening, such is the depth of my place in the forest, no soul would witness my existence here.

In the early times, I would venture into the city at night to claim what I might need. A rug on the floor of the cabin – part of a display left one night outside a shop. A stack of paperbacks in the corner, a pile of crockery – when chanced upon in front of a charity shop: rich pickings for new literature, clothes and luxuries. I settle onto my bunk, blanketed with sheets and cushions from the streets and a thick sleeping bag. The two jerry cans are just inside the door. I must wait until the waning crescent of the moon begins to fall before I go to the city this night.

Time moves slower in the forest, where trees do not hurry to grow and seasons shall patiently change. The light of my fire shimmers in orange and black waves upon the fabric curtains on the walls. My needs are not separate from the other animals of the forest, and I am alone. I lower my trousers and drawers. Quickly I pull them up. She is looking at me. I pick her up. Holding the half of the photograph, I look into the eyes of the little girl. She is not smiling. I wish that she was smiling. Her bottom lip is slightly plumped up into her top lip. Yet within her eyes I know that wicked humour. I see it still. With my thumb I stroke that face. I am biting the nail of my other thumb. The dirt crunches between my teeth. I touch the torn edge of the photograph, the shape of a broken heart. I put the photo facedown beneath the bunk. I button my fly and tighten my belt.

1

Nature shall regenerate. After storm and hurricane, flood and drought, seedlings find root. Winds shall spread the new seeds. Creepers will creep. Climbers will climb. Where man has built upon the land, where he leaves it, nature will swiftly reclaim. It cannot be destroyed, not in totality. The earth is made of nature’s ecosystems. Its luminescence is the light of the earth into space. We live off it, but are not a part of it. It doesn’t need us to survive. Where nature is free to flourish, it is the skin to the planet’s blood. The more populous we become, the greater threat we are to both. Each natural disaster is an animal scratching the irritation of a parasite. We are alien.

The shape of the field towards the city lends providence to my intention. Guttering leads a bumpy line over the field, down over a path, beneath the hawthorn and blackthorn, beneath man’s steel fence, onto the humming electricity of his forecourt. The birthday candle stands in a puddle of its own wax at the top of the guttering, three dried twigs as a tripod holding it, leaning downward. The smell of the fuel gurgling out of the second jerry can, splashing down the chute, makes my head hurt, my stomach sicken. I turn and vomit into the undergrowth.

The candle is burning quicker than I had expected. One of the twigs falls away and travels along the slow run of the fuel towards the petrol station. With the field at my shoulder, I walk uphill and sit at my place on the edge of the forest. I look at the window. Three floors down. The lights of the city. I hear the woomph from where I am sitting. Watch the furious orange snake hurtle towards the city. I sit. I watch. Waiting for it to burn.

Tales From A Record Shop: Here’s Where The Story Ends – A Year of Songs

Hello.

So why on earth would I have Mary Berry as the poster girl for my A Year of Songs for 2018? How could she be relevant? Let’s just get straight to it, shall we . . .


Idles: Well Done

This band. They’ve done amazingly well, and they fully deserve it. The energy of the songs and performances, the funny, tongue in cheek, but heartfelt messages, the social awareness, the music! I played this to my nephew, instantly he was jumping around, thrashing about, tongue out and arms everywhere – he does that every time I play it to him. As much as his reaction is hilarious and cool, it’s positive too. Unbridled enthusiasm. My sister, a primary school teacher, said that she’d use it as a lesson for her class. I’m not certain that she did.

(I’m posting this live version, because you really don’t see many (read: any) bands performing like this any more. Who knows what new bands Idles will inspire. There will be definitely be some.)


Ray Lamontagne: Such A Simple Thing

The first time that I heard this song was live (I’ve been really lucky again this year with some amazing live concerts. No one breathes when Ray is singing. His voice and songs could turn the toughest person to mush). This song is so Ray, and the album is a true return to form. He looks so massive up on the stage, yet shadowy, vulnerable and somehow disassociated, lost in the story of his song. A man who really means every word that he is singing.

When I like a song, I’ll listen to it endlessly, at volume, and at any time of the day. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to this song this past year. It is such a simple thing, of such amazing beauty. (This version is from Jools. It gives a good impression of what a Ray performance is like.)


Cid Rim (feat. Denai Moore): Control

This style of electronic indie music has captured my attention in the past couple of years – bands like Glass Animals, Whitney, Jungle. It comes across as pretty original to me, the style of music that is to come. From when I first heard this song, it inspired all kinds of imagery, and that’s what I like music to do for me, whether it’s by Ray’s words, Idles’ energy and passion, or a kaleidoscope of sounds, like Cid Rim does. It’s cool, and I like it.


The Prodigy: Light Up The Sky

This year saw the return of The Chemical Brothers and Orbital, but most significantly, I think, The Prodigy. It’s dangerous, a bit scary, and an awesome album. I listened to an interview with Liam Howlett where the new music was referred to as a return to rave, and he was quite passionately dismissive of the tag. And I agree. There is much more to it than that. The songs are so well constructed, energetic, enigmatic, packed full of their unique sound, and inspiring on all levels. No British band does dance music better. One of the most relevant musical returns of the year. What. A. Tune!


The Good, The Bad & The Queen: Drifters & Trawlers

This almost didn’t make the list. But the more I really listened to the theme of the album, the purpose behind the words, the patriotic melancholy of the elephant that refuses to budge from each newspaper, room, work place, pub, bar, office and shop. It ended up as a harder task to choose which song from the album Merrie Land to include. This is another of this year’s significant returns. Again, I was so fortunate to catch the band playing in their short run at EartH. That’s when the songs really fell into place for me. Hearing the songs live leant an entirely new ear, a deeper meaning. Thoughtful and inspired, I think that the album is a classic; it demands to be listened to.


Arctic Monkeys: Four Out Of Five

While we’re chatting about successful returns to the scene, we must mention the most divisive album of the year. Part of what I like about Arctic Monkeys is that they always try something new. Challenging their fanbase and critics alike. Oh, this album did that. And I think that it was another brilliant return. Probably the album that I’ve listened to most in its entirety this year. And very possibly my album of the year. My favourite albums are always the ones where the favourite track changes with regularity. This album was exactly that. I like songs that I can singalong to when I’m bumbling and buzzing about doing my thing. Various songs on Tranquillity Base Hotel + Casino stuck in there and slipped out whenever they fancied. The amount of obscure references and hidden meanings on the album is quite unique to new music. So I’ve learned from it too.

I chose this song for the list as it was the song that they opened with their incredible Albert Hall concert, a great opening live track. (I told you I’ve been lucky; what a show!)


Dream Wife: Hey Heartbreaker

The return of the Riot Grrrl scene. That took me back to my youth, and I’ve been super-happy about it. This was one of the first songs this year that jumped out at me. I love it and haven’t stopped listening to it. You can hear how much fun they’re having, full of zest and recklessness. It’s angry, fierce, electric and empowered – the essence of the scene. A very cool band.


Courtney Barnett: Hopefulessness

The rise of Courtney Barnett. It seems like she’s been around for decades, one of the most important new singer-songwriters on the block. Her new album is in my top few of the year. It’s pretty close to perfection, dripping with her spirit and heart. It’s so, so good. This track is the opening song to the album, an inspired choice as opener. This would sit happily against any early-90s albums – although it would probably be more likely to slump down next to them, with a smile – and is definitely here to stay. Her wit, fun, disdain and personal reflections are just captivating. She’s the queen of picking the right words at the right time. I would loved to have heard her and Kurt Cobain collaborate – I hear a lot of his essence in what she’s doing.


Riton & Kah-Lo: Fake I.D.

I would have liked this song at any stage of my life, it’s a banger. Sooo catchy. I love dancehall and dub music, and with this housey mashup it would be too much to miss. It’s good to see it coming back around and getting some attention. This song has led me towards some of the underground scene that’s bubbling under. I saw Little Simz last year, and she’s another that is trailblazing such a funky scene. And Chaka Khan, no less! All exciting and a bit different from a lot of what I’ve been listening to. Both of the aforementioned were really close to making the list. But this one does.


Cosha: Do You Wanna Dance

This is like a naughty Corinne Bailey Rae, a really sweet voice, and a great tune. A beautiful voice. She knocks a few more potential songs from the list because of the effortlessness of this. I said in last year’s A Year of Songs that this would be great year for music. It’s been so tough to choose. So to decide I’ve chosen songs that I can listen back to and be taken to moments of significance and memories. This is one.  Super-love for this.


Christine and the Queens: La Marcheuse

So, Christine and the Queens. I was listening to Chris’ new album with a couple of other people. I really didn’t like it. I still don’t – I find it a bit pretentious, boring and, simply put, just not the sort of thing that I like. They both really liked it. I wasn’t going to change my mind, but I will always compromise. So we continued to listen to it. I didn’t change my mind. I still haven’t. The new album was packaged as a double album, so in compromising I discreetly switched from the English version to the French version. And then this track came on. I set it back to the beginning of the song and turned it up. This song I really really like (even if my feelings about the album remain). So it’s the strangest choice to include in my songs of the year, but a really lovely song.

(Just please don’t tell anyone, right?)


Sunflower Bean: Crisis Fest

We’ve been listening to this album a lot. I would have been real happy to have chosen any number of songs from Twentytwo In Blue, but I like rock ‘n’ roll, so this is the one – and I think that it’s the first of their songs that I heard, right back at the beginning of the year. More Riot Grrrl action, such a good band. Perfect pop. With a message. And another track with a blinding choice of words.


Smashing Pumpkins: Solara

This is another song that I just have to turn up real loud. Another great return. I liked this from when I first heard it. Typically SP, it is a bit strange (in a good way), but from turning up the volume I found that I heard lots of hidden layers in this, which makes it a proper story where you can make up your own tale as to what’s going on. Really dark and impressive in its imagery, so you might not want to make a tale of it.

(But I don’t like the video. I find it a tough and pretty horrible watch. Even if it fits the song well. So beware.)


SOAK: Everybody Loves You

There was one of these last year, too, when I just can’t place what I reminds me of. It’s a tune that can get at me, so that I want to hear it again straight away. A great voice, a stripped back song, it captures my senses. And again, it has its surprises. Strange and beautiful.


Wolf Alice: Beautifully Unconventional

Such worthy winners of the Mercury Prize. A great album. And a very pertinent song relating to a story that I posted a few months ago called About a Girl. When life imitates art, sort of. I met someone almost immediately after finishing that story who was just like the girl of the tale. I’ve never met anyone who has connected with any of my characters in the way that she did. And then about six weeks later she disappeared. Until I opened up the paper one day to find that she was the interest of the world’s media! It didn’t surprise me. She wanted me to write a second part to that story – thanks for the inspiration, I will! This is dedicated to her.


On last year’s A Year of Songs I mentioned what my earworm for the year had been – a kind of summary in song. The subject of this year’s is Here’s Where The Story Ends by The Sundays. I love the idea of having souvenirs of a year, and that’s what these song lists are for – not that this has been a terrible year, like in the subject of the song – what many songs are for in many different ways, and like the amazing live music that I’ve been to over the past 18 months, or so. But also I chose that earworm as personally next year will be a great year of change, of achieving new goals, ambitions and dreams – you might have noticed that I haven’t been posting much this past year; I’ve been in the lab with a pen and a pad, to quote Dr Dre. There’ll be more about all that in the New Year at some point.

All that’s left is to wish a very Happy New Year to you. Thank you for letting me take up so much of your time – I did get quite carried away. I do. Have fun . . .

*

I can’t resist adding an extra song, just because I can. This is the final song on the Arctic Monkeys’ album. The very last note is such an original ending to an album. A quirky, unpredictable little number. I hope that you enjoy this, and the rest of the songs on the list. I love making lists.

Arctic Monkeys: The Ultracheese

Christmas Wishes

Christmas Wishes

It was Christmas Eve and the snow outside lay deep and crisp and scattered with the icy little jewels of Prudence’s tears. The day before Christmas had been a Christmas horror for Prudence. Sleep, the lack of it, making her head heavy. When making her morning coffee, the putrid stench of the turned milk. Having to restart the boiler time and again, before settling for another ice shower, then stepping out into the cold room, with no heated towel. The stubbed toe; the splotch of marmalade on her clean dress; the dead battery in her watch; the scratch that she’d discovered on the lens of her glasses after last night’s Christmas drinks. But mostly for the confusion when she had tried to start up her laptop, only to be greeted by an error message on the screen HARD DRIVE NOT DETECTED.

Not that all of that was the end of the horror. That was just what had happened before she had left for work.

‘Why didn’t you back it up?’ she admonished herself under her breath as she walked along the high street, towards the train station, hair across her face, incognizant to the looks received from the passing pushchairs and suits. ‘Why didn’t you just back it up, you stupid, stupid dick?

Her novel. The one that she had been working on for the past five months. The one thing that reminded her that life was more than wake, work, home, sleep. Her sole passion for life. The one thing that made her feel an infinitesimal bit more than worthless. For it had just begun to all click into place: the plot settled into a solid structure like pieces of a jigsaw; the narrative loops finally beginning to weave like threads, like rainbows; the characters really coming to life, accompanying her through the drudgery of daily existence. It was something that she could talk about with friends and the people that she met that made her seem actually interesting.

And all of it was simply . . . gone. Lost. Chewed and swallowed into virtual ether. As if it had never existed but in her thoughts. The thoughts that would not leave her alone as she walked along the high street.

At the station, the platform was packed with people. The electronic board advertising that each train towards the city was Delayed. Delayed. Delayed.

‘Some bloke dropped a cigarette into the turn up on his jeans,’ she overheard a platform guard telling a group of commuters. ‘Set hisself alight just after the train left the platform. Problem is,’ he continued, ‘he only noticed he was on fire once the train was halfway along the countryside route, so they’re having to close down both tracks to gain access . . .

‘Nah, luv, don’t know how long. Just keep an eye on the boards.

‘Sorry, mate? Oh yeah, some bloke dropped a cigarette into the turn up on his jeans. . .’

For the previous weeks, the daily passing days, it had been the leaves on the track, and then the ice, and then the snow. And now some bloke setting hisself alight.

After joining the queue for the buses, standing all the way through two towns to the next train station on the line, to then once more stand on the journey to the city, Prudence had eventually arrived at work just over two hours late.

The teary telephone call and look on her face was enough to stop John, her supervisor, from having words with her. It was only when she sat at her desk that Prudence realised the smoothie she’d earlier picked up had been leaking in her bag. Half of bottle of thick berry juice bathing her diary, her phone, her scratched glasses, her purse, makeup bag and her gloves in the fruity, nutritious goodness.

With her coat still on and buttoned up, Prudence picked out a spot and just stared. Could feel her lips drying out as they began to turn down. Staring at the potted lily on her desk, the leaves wilted and browning at the tips. Too much water or not enough? she wondered vaguely. It didn’t seem to matter what she did.

As she removed her coat she looked around the office at the festive jumpers, the Santa hats, the tinsel and the odd cheeky sprig of mistletoe. All of the smiling faces. She listened to the ludicrous enthusiasm of her colleagues, sounding to her like a presenter of a TV shopping channel. “Gooood mornin’, Pierce and Spruce, my name is Nicole, and how can I help you today?” Inflections of ridiculous soubrette soprano rising to an uncharted pitch. “Oh deary, well let’s have a look at that for you and see what we can do for you today.”

The last day at work before Christmas. Everyone happy, looking forward to travelling home to celebrate. To husbands and wives, to boyfriends and girlfriends, to children, nieces and nephews. To cheer, fun, love and sharing. Happiness. Sitting there, fingering the still-sticky patch of marmalade, Prudence listened to the joy in the voices, laughter unbridled. And she felt more miserable than she could ever remember.

Her phone began to ring. She switched on her monitor  – a pang for her lost novel creating a contraction in her stomach  – and put on her headset. ‘Good morning, Pierce and Spruce, Prue speaking, how may I help you?’

‘It’s Christmas Eve and my delivery still hasn’t arrived,’ the voice on the end said. ‘So where the hell is it?’

‘If I could please jus –’

‘This is bloody ridiculous,’ the voice continued, a slightly rasping Medway accent, part-market trader and part cockney-gangster. ‘Second time I’ve phoned, this is. What kind of a bloody service do you call this?’

‘I’ll need to take your n –’

‘You said that it would be next day delivery,’ the voice cut in once more. Prudence could hear the spittle rattling on to the handset at the other end. Could almost feel it wetting her spongy earpiece. I wish you’d just shut up for second, she thought. So that I can actually help you. ‘Two days I’ve been waiting now, I have. Two bloody days.’

‘If I can take your name, please, then I’ll be able to fi –’

‘Geering,’ the voice snipped in. ‘Maidstone,’ it added.

‘Okay, Mister Geering,’ Prudence replied, tapping at her keyboard, ‘if you could pl –’

‘Mister?’ the voice stabbed into Prudence’s ear. ‘Mister?’ shriller now. ‘You takin’ the piss o’ me, young lady? It’s Missus Geering, alright. Missus,’ really yelling now. ‘I order from you in good faith, and this is how I’m treated? I’ve a good mind t –’

While her ears had been being assaulted by Mrs Geering’s fury, Prudence had found an order on the screen for a Mrs Veronica Geering in Maidstone. Now she interrupted the voice screaming down the phone at her.

‘I think that I’ve found your order here, Missus Goebbels, sorry, I mean Geering –’

‘Are you being –’

‘One Massage Therapy Foot Spa with Pedicure to go to Nelson Terrace in Maidstone,’ she continued, ‘is that correct?’

‘Yes, that’s what I ordered in good fai –’

‘And you ordered that on Saturday the twenty-second of December at three-fifty-six p.m. for next working day delivery, does that sound right Missus Geering?’ Prudence could see very well that Mrs Geering’s Massage Therapy Foot Spa with Pedicure was designated to be delivered today at Nelson Terrace, Maidstone for between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m  – a couple of hours from now. Prudence knew that she could simply advise Mrs Geering of this. And usually she would. Having spent the past three years working in the complaints department of Pierce and Spruce, Prudence was very used to the Mrs Geerings of the world.

‘I ordered the bloody thing as a –’

‘Did it come as a bit of a surprise to you, Missus Geering?’ Prudence asked. ‘Christmas, I mean.’

‘What? What do you mean?’

‘Well, in my experience, it’s on the same date every year, isn’t it, Christmas? Wouldn’t you agree?’

‘Look, young lady, I don’t like the tone of your voi –’

‘So, my point is, why didn’t you order the stupid, tacky foot spa in, say, early December? Rather than just three days before Christmas?’ You stupid old hag. And with that, Prudence hung up the phone, took off her headset, and pressed the button on the telephone keypad. Away from desk. She rubbed her forehead, her eyebrows, her eyes, and sat there with her cheeks in her hands. After a moment she stared again at her sorry lily, and then looked once more around the office. She watched John speaking with Nicole. Nicole nodding. And then both of them looking up, looking her way. And then John heading towards her.

On the train home from work earlier than usual – what, with her having been suspended – in between the moments of thinking about her novel and her hard drive, Prudence was thinking about the end of her telephone call with Mrs Geering. She was certain that she’d only said stupid old hag in her head.

The bleak midwinter darkness was settling upon the town. On the slow and cold walk home from the train station Prudence had become overwhelmed. By the joy around her, the families, the happy faces and the disparate feeling that she just wasn’t a part of this festive happiness. Everything around her was illuminated by bright twinkling lights, and yet she was shadowed by her own dark cloud; physically numbed by the cold – unable to wear her berry juice-bathed gloves – and now emotionally numb to the loss of her novel. Prudence didn’t even have the spirit left any longer to lambast herself for the stupidity of not having backed up her hard drive.

Despite its nutritious soaking, it turned out that her phone was still working. Having given it a quick clean in a sink before leaving the offices of Pierce and Spruce, Prudence had stowed it safely in her coat pocket. And now it was silently vibrating in her hand.

The Mothership it said, beneath a picture of her mother, apron on and one finger wiping around the inside of a mixing bowl, looking up with a guilty expression. Because that picture was funny to Prudence, when there was funniness to be found.

‘Hi mum,’ she said, after thinking for a moment whether she should, whether she could answer the call.

‘Sorry to call you at work, Prue. I just wanted to check what time you’re going to be with us.’

‘I, uh . . .’ It had started to snow again. A fat snowflake had just landed on Prudence’s nose. She stopped, someone nearly walking into her back, giving her a nudge and a rude word before skirting around her. Prudence barely noticed. She looked around at the lights around her, strings of them across the street, Christmas trees in every warm window. It felt strangely surreal, as if she had just woken up in the middle of the high street.

‘What’s wrong, darling?’ her mother asked. ‘You don’t sound right.’

‘Nothing, mum. I just had a g and t on the train.’

‘On the train?’ her mother said, practically reaching down the phone and demanding that Prudence turn and look at her. ‘I thought that you were working until five today?’

‘I just . . . I didn’t feel well,’ Prudence replied, starting to walk towards her flat. ‘So I came home early.’ Closing her eyes, she took a few steps in blinking darkness. ‘I don’t think that I’ll be down tonight, mum. I think that I’ll just get an early night and be with you bright and early in the morning.’ The last words she had attempted to sing. Even as she did she had heard the sadness in her voice.

‘Oh, it’s not the norovirus, is it? It always goes around at this time of year. Do you think that it was a good idea to have a g and t if you’ve a bug?’

‘No, I’m not sick. It’s just . . .’ What was it just? I’m just manically depressed, mum. So super-sad that I’ve kind of given up on everything. That life itself seems to have it in for me. More than that, I wish that you’d just leave me alone right now. ‘I was at a Christmas drinks party last night, and I just don’t feel right.’

‘Well again, do you think that having another drink will make you any better for tomorrow? I don’t think that – ’

‘Mum, I’m fine.’ Prudence found that she was gripping the phone a little bit tighter than usual. She’d already been dreading even two days back at home for Christmas. The mothership asking why she wasn’t married yet, why she didn’t just go out and find a nice young man; whether she’d had enough to eat; whether she wanted something else to eat. And if she was still wasting her time writing that novel. ‘I had one drink on the train home and I’m just tired. Like I told you, I’ll be with you bright and early.’

‘Well Will and Linda are going to be here for nine. So I’d like for you to be here by then. Make sure that –’

‘I’ll make sure that I am, mum,’ Prudence said, racing towards the end of the call. The phone cold against her ear; her hand freezing as she held it. ‘I’m going home now and straight to bed. See you in the morning. Byyyeee.’

It was moments after ending the call that Prudence had begun to start crying. And she hadn’t managed to stop all the way home, head down, her hair a tangled, snow-speckled mess, scattering the jewels of her tears onto the icy snow.

And oh, to be home. Most days she hated coming back to her three room apartment. Sure, the rooms were big enough, and it was easy enough to keep clean, but it was dark and it was lonely. It wasn’t how she had ever imagined she’d be living at the age of thirty six. Not in her worst nightmares. But today just to be home was something.

Something.

Prudence was already looking straight at the boiler before she realised that the flat was warm. That the boiler was showing only a steady green light and not the red flashing one that it usually did when it was playing up. That was definitely something. No reason to ponder why it was working, simply that it was. It was something. Perhaps the change that her day of horror deserved.

She unbuttoned her coat and slid it off. As she did, something slid down over her chest, across her naval and out through the bottom her dress. Crouching down, she looked at her necklace. The clasp had broken. Kneeling, Prudence held it to her forehead. The familiar gritty pain was beginning behind her nose, rising, pricking at the backs of her eyes.

‘No,’ she said, shaking her head, the melting snow dropping in beads from the tips of her hair. ‘No no. I can’t,’ she half-whimpered. No more tears. She couldn’t cry any more tears. Whatever it was, why it had all happened today of all days, she simply couldn’t wallow in it any longer. After all tomorrow was Christmas Day. When she’d have to put on the mask of a brave face.

Holding the necklace in her hand, Prudence stood up and walked through to the kitchen. On the way there her mind had told her No wine. By the time she reached the refrigerator her hand had decided that Yes, I will have wine. She put the bottle on the side and took a wine glass out of the cupboard. Before she unscrewed the cap on the bottle she had already realised that there was another something. Why was the bottle of wine that she had left in the fridge a couple of days before already empty?

All of a sudden there was a bang in the fridge, startling Prudence, almost making her drop the empty bottle. And another. And then another bang, this time making the refrigerator door open a touch before closing again. And then another bang and a clatter. All definitely coming from inside the fridge.

Carefully, very carefully and slowly, Prudence began to open the door. Keeping the door between her and the opening, but helpless not to peer inside. She gave a little squeal when a purple blob flopped down onto the floor at her feet. She was about to nudge it with her foot when, to her surprise, the blob moved.

And then a hand! Rubbing its . . . head!

‘Eurgh, fuckin’ hell, mate. What happened?’ the little animating blob said. It rolled around a bit from side to side before settling on its bottom. It looked around and then very slowly turned its head to face Prudence. ‘Alright?’ it said with a faint little frown and a smile. Prudence could only stand there, frozen as an icicle, holding open the refrigerator door.

The little purple blob rolled uneasily onto its feet and stood there swaying a little, again facing away from Prudence. It turned to its right, staring at the cabinet drawers next to the fridge. With a deep breath, it grabbed onto the bottom handle and, quiet ungracefully, clambered up from handle to handle puffing, panting and moaning as it went. When it reached the top, it lifted one of its stumpy legs up on to the counter and shuffled its round belly over the edge until it was sitting on the top, one leg on the top drawer handle, the other leg crossed over.

‘Are you just going to let all the heat out?’ it said, indicating the open fridge door. Its voice was as a little blob should sound, if little blobs that fall out of refrigerators on Christmas Eve should talk at all. Squeaky, like a dog’s squeezy toy. ‘Let the cold in, I mean?’ it said. Closing its quite bulbous eyes, it rubbed its head, its body shaking a little. It pinched the bony bridge of the nose, sitting between its nostrils. ‘You know what I mean,’ it said, rubbing its hands together. Prudence looked at the hands and feet, six fingers, four toes. But kind of cute, like squirrel or baby spider monkey hands.

Brrrrr. Cold.’

Yet still she could only stand there looking at the blob, holding onto the door, letting the heat in and the cold out. Its eyes were wide set, big puffy whites with bright yellow irises; tiny dots of pupils. Where it had been purple, its pimply skin was slowly turning to a dirty artichoke-green colour. Its ears were long and thin, sort of like bunny ears but thinner, the auricle entirely open and flat. They were moving independently of each other: the left hanging down and gently swaying; the right ear up, alert, but a little bit floppy at the end.

‘Soooo . . .’ it said, gesturing with one of the hands. ‘I fixed your boiler. It was so fuckin’ cold in here I went in the fridge to warm up. And really, you should, you know . . .’ It mimed closing the fridge door. It watched as Prudence closed the door and then stand back, arms folded. It picked up the empty wine bottle. ‘Sorry about this,’ it said, looking sadly at the bottle. ‘I got myself stuck in there,’ it nodded towards the fridge, ‘and all I could do was drink this to survive.’ It widened its eyes, until they were all but popping out of its face, which they pretty much already had been.

‘There are raspberries,’ Prudence managed to say. ‘And jars of preserves. And water.’

‘I had the raspberries,’ the little blob replied, putting the bottle back down. ‘Actually,’ it said, pointing a finger out in a rather camp expression, ‘they went quite well with this bottle, I must say.’

‘But why were you in my fridge?’ Prudence asked.

‘Prue,’ it said, smiling, showing its perfectly straight tiny teeth, shaking its head, ‘I already told you. I got stuck.’

‘But why my fridge? What are you doing here? What are you?’ Prudence moved her broken necklace from one hand to the other and then crossed her arms again, leaning back against the door jamb.

‘I’m attracted by the scent of tears,’ the little blob replied. ‘Especially,’ and it pointed its finger outwards again, ‘from girls who like a drink. They taste so much better that way.’

‘That’s really . . . creepy,’ Prudence replied. ‘And wait a second, how did you know my name?’

‘I brought your post through for you, darling.’ The little blob indicated the three cards further along the counter. Both of its ears started spiralling. ‘Not exactly detective work.’

Prudence looked at the cards, and then back at the little greeny blob. She shook her head. Tiredness was overtaking her again. I wish this day would just end already. She blinked clear her eyes. And yet the blob was still there. ‘You’re real?’ she said. ‘Like what, some kind of . . . sprite?’

‘Hmmm,’ the little blob scratched at the rounded bottom of its face. ‘Yeah, I guess I’m a sprite. I’m the Christmas sprite. Well, I’m actually a Maldipléchuip, that’s the closest translation anyway. But sprite sounds way cooler. I’ve, uh, been having a bit of an identity crises lately.’ Both of its ears slumped down by the side of its face, before one sprang back up. And then the other. And then one dropped, swinging around a bit before slapping the Maldipléchuip’s cheek. It reached up one tiny hand and held the ear until it stopped. ‘Listen, have you got any more wine at all? Or any booze? I’m abso-fuck-in-lutely’ parched.’

‘I don’t have any more chilled bottles, no,’ Prudence replied. ‘I’ve got some gin, but no tonic.’

‘That’s fine,’ the Maldipléchuip replied. ‘Warm wine and straight gin chaser is fine for me’. It dropped from the counter down to the kitchen floor. ‘Ouchies! Further than I thought,’ it said, rubbing its back. It walked straight over to the integrated wine rack and plucked a bottle of white from it. ‘And where’s the gin?’ it asked, smiling sweetly up at Prudence, both of its ears sticking straight out sideways.

‘Let me get you a glass,’ Prudence said, skirting carefully around the Maldipléchuip and grabbing another wine glass from the cupboard. ‘Ice?’ she asked, grabbing a handful from the freezer and filling her glass.

‘Not I,’ the Maldipléchuip replied. ‘Just the gin, please.’

‘Let’s just have a nice glass of white to start, yes?’ Prudence replied, raising her glass of ice. ‘And then you can tell me why the hell you’ve decided to come and creep me out, of all people, on Christmas Eve.’

They moved through to the sitting room and sat down on the sofa next to each other. The Maldipléchuip had suggested that Prudence should just call him Chuck. ‘I quite like the name Chuck. And well, it makes things simpler now that we’re friends.’

‘I’m not sure that we are friends,’ Prudence replied. ‘You won’t even tell me why you’re really here, except for that you like the taste of my tears.’ Chuck being here was at least keeping that particular tide from the bay. It was so distracting to find a sprite in one’s fridge that she hadn’t thought even once about her day of horror. About her lost work.

‘I was getting to that,’ Chuck replied, rolling over and scratching his side. Prudence corrected his wine glass just before the liquid started slopping out on to her sofa. ‘People always ask the same questions on a first date: Where are you from? What do you do for a living? Why have I come home to find you going through my knickers draw? I all gets so tedious.’

Did you go through my knickers draw?’

‘Uhh . . . nope?’ Chuck replied. Using two hands, he tilted the glass and drained the wine from it. ‘More please,’ he said, blinking rapidly, his ears flapping like wings. Prudence filled his glass. ‘More please,’ Chuck said before he had drunk any, tilting the glass forward.

‘Just drink what you have first, okay,’ Prudence said. She realised that she was still holding the broken necklace. She put it down on the coffee table. ‘And I’ve not had the best of days, so I’ll be kicking you out pretty soon so I can just get some sleep.’

‘But you do want to know why I’m here first?’ Chuck asked. ‘ I mean, I guarantee that you do.’

‘Yes,’ Prudence replied. ‘Do just tell me. This is pretty weird for me, you know.’ She readjusted herself on the sofa, one foot underneath her, facing Chuck. ‘I know that this isn’t real, that it couldn’t possibly be.’

‘Oh, it really is. I told you that I’m the Christmas Maldipléchuip. The Christmas sprite. So each year I seek out someone by the scent of their tears, like I told you. There have to have been a lot of tears for me to be able to find them. And so I found you. To give you one, two, three wishes,’ Chuck said, counting them out on his fingers, finally getting the right amount of fingers to stand up, his ears doing all kinds of crazy weaving and waving about. ‘It’s always three wishes, isn’t it. And that’s all good and well, so that people don’t misuse them. But everyone always does. Always. Every time.’

Prudence was sitting up now. Her heart was making its beat known. Three wishes. Three Christmas wishes. She imagined that this was how it felt to win the Lotto draw. Disbelief first. And then dreams of money. Dreams of a better life. A way out of Pierce and stupid Spruce. A way out of this flat.

‘But I can’t just make you wealthy, you know,’ Chuck replied. ‘There are rules. No bringing anyone back to life. No making someone love you. No turning a pumpkin into a . . . whatever they turned a fuckin’ pumpkin into.’

‘A carriage.’

‘What? You wish for a carriage?’

‘No that’s what Cinderella had a pumpkin turned into.’

‘Really? A fuckin’ carriage?’

‘Well yes, so that she could go to the Prince’s ball. In style. Like a princess.’

‘Well I can’t make you a princess either, I’m afraid,’ Chuck replied. ‘Nothing that could change the course of history. And no destroying other people’s lives. Or any kind of revenge. ‘

‘I’m not vengeful,’ Prudence replied. ‘And I don’t hate anyone.’

‘Well alright,’ Chuck said, clapping his little hands together. ‘So let’s start.’ He cocked his head slightly to one side, earnest as a counsellor. ‘What do you wish for, Prudence?’

Twisting strands of her hair through her fingers, Prudence thought. About what she really wanted. What would make her happy? What would her Cinderella moment be? Surely like most single girls there was one simple wish to wish for. Carefully she thought about the best way to word her first wish. ‘So you can’t make someone love me?’

‘Nuh-uh.’ Chuck shook his head. And held out his wine glass. Prudence was about to fill him up.

‘This won’t impair your wish weaving, will it?’ she asked.

Nah,’ Chuck replied. ‘Not at all.’ Moving his glass a little closer to Prudence, making geeing little puppy-like whimpers.

‘And you really can grant wishes to come true?’

‘I fixed your boiler,’ Chuck replied, puffing out his plump chest. ‘And I didn’t even need to be asked to do that.’

‘Then I wish to be more attractive to men,’ Prudence said slowly, unable to help but smile. She put her hands to her cheeks to cover her blush.

‘Interesting,’ Chuck said, unsteadily putting his wine glass down on the coffee table – Prudence quickly moved it onto a coaster. ‘So you’re, what, fortyish?’ Chuck said, curling his thin lips and seesawing his hand.

‘I’m thirty-six!’ Prudence replied, her blush burning brighter.

‘Uhh, that’s what I meant, really,’ Chuck replied. ‘About thirty-sixish. Or thirty, really.’ On his knees, he began to waddle over the sofa towards Prudence. His pimply skin began to ripple; his ears again straight out sideways. Instinctively Prudence began to withdraw.

‘S’fine,’ Chuck half-slurred. ‘Trust me. Come here,’ he said, the pimples beginning to radiate a redness from within.

Prudence leaned towards Chuck. And he placed his hands over her eyes. They were warm. She could feel the energy, like when a friend had practiced her healing hands training on her, surprised when they really did begin to become hot.

Even though Prudence could still sense the phantom feeling of Chuck’s hands over her eyes, she now also felt his hands moving all over her face, her cheeks, her forehead. His hands were in her hair, just brushing through. It was strangely sensual, this little sprite touching all over her head. ‘Open up,’ he whispered with his hands on her lips. And then his fingers were rubbing at her teeth, running along the gums and the tops of each tooth.

‘Done,’ he said. ‘Oouergh!’ In his keenness to retrieve his wine, Chuck had fallen off the sofa. He was quickly back up on it, next to Prudence. From somewhere he had produced a hand mirror. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘Look.’

Taking the mirror by the handle, Prudence turned it to face her. And she looked just the same.

Or so she thought at first.

She began to notice, bit by bit, the disappeared thread veins on her cheeks, the slightly higher arch of her eyebrows, the lines from her beneath her eyes and across her forehead . . . gone. Her skin was smooth but glowing; her eyes were bright, the pale browny irises turned deeper, darker, like with her hair, which now also had gentle waves running through it. And her lips, they were fuller; the Cupid ’s bow more pronounced. She parted her lips. And the complete transformation of her face showed greater than ever. Her perfectly white and straight teeth, slightly longer and rounded than before, showing no gum, just . . . perfection!

‘It’s a start,’ Chuck said, slugging at his wine. ‘I mean, you do need to get on a fuckin’ treadmill, darlin’. You’re not bad, but it would take more than a couple of wishes to sort that lot out to supermodel standards,’ he said, gesturing at her body.

‘Hey!’ Prudence said. ‘That’s not very kind. That’s rude.’

‘I’d do your tits for free, mind,’ Chuck said, smiling and rubbing his tiny glowing hands together.

‘Oi! I wish that you’d just . . .’ Prudence put a hand to her mouth. She’d been about to waste a wish – now that she had seen clearly that Chuck the Maldipléchuip was quite capable of granting them.

Betrayed by his smile, Chuck had clearly seen it too. ‘Go on,’ he said. ‘What were you going to say? You’ll still have two wishes left’ – his ears standing straight up on end, before twisting together above his head – ‘This one won’t count anyway, because you didn’t finish it. I just want to know what you were going to say. Honest.’

‘That you’d just shut up,’ Prudence said, careful to not actually wish it.

Chuck sucked his lips together, miming them being stuck, his hands out, gesturing What can I do? He pretended to attempt to drink some wine, but couldn’t through his stuck lips.

It made Prudence laugh, the ridiculousness of the little greeny blob with the floppy ears rolling about on her sofa pretending to be mute. She was feeling, all of a sudden, like she was . . . what was it? Feeling a bit more confident? She took a swig of wine. It could have been to do with the wine. As she put her glass back down she caught a glimpse of her laptop, sitting on her desk in the corner.

‘Can you do technology?’ she asked. ‘I mean, as a wish?’

‘Did I fix your boiler?’

‘You did,’ she replied. It was really warm in here now. It was lovely. Another of those simple things that you take for granted. Like she imagined that people who have love start to do. Because you read about those things, see those things, hear of those things every single day. ‘But a boiler is not technology,’ she said, with a cheeky wink at Chuck. She took another sip of wine. She was feeling better. And all because of this strange, creepy little blob.

‘If you want it, wish it!’ Chuck said. ‘And I’ll see what I can do for you, Prue.’

Taking a moment to compose herself, Prudence began to speak. ‘I wish,’ she said, ‘that you could fix the hard drive on my laptop. Bring back all of the data, the documents, the pictures. All of it! Hang on.’ Crossing the room, Prudence brought the laptop to Chuck and set it in front of him, carefully moving his wine glass and the coaster to a safe distance.

‘Let’s have a look,’ he said. He flipped the screen up and hovered his hands just above the keyboard for a moment. Watching him looking at the screen, Prudence saw Chuck staring at the power button. Again his body was rippling and beginning to glow. He pressed the power button and the screen came to life. But it had done that earlier when Prudence had tried. And tried again. As she waited for the computer to boost, she took another swig of wine.

The password screen came up. This it hadn’t done earlier. As before, she could hear her heart, feel its beat. If this worked she could erase the entire horrid day. She could go home for Christmas happy. And beautiful. And she would join a gym, go swimming, start running again. She would back up her story. If this worked.

She entered her password.

The home screen loaded. The cursor blinking. All of her information was there in front of her. Everything that was lost returned, like . . . like . . who fucking cares. It was there: the photos and images, the music, the podcasts, the ideas. And the file titled The Falling Olive. Her novel.

Prudence was transfixed by the screen. She noticed that her palms had started to sweat. She was drumming her fingers on the coffee table. She looked at Chuck, the bright yellow irises a little bleary now; the little blob clearly a bit disinterested by the screen. In fact, she thought that she had caught him checking her out. Perhaps because of her new attractiveness that she had wished for and he had given her. She could almost have kissed him. Almost. But no chance of that actually happening.

‘You did it,’ she said. ‘You actually did it!’

‘Pass me my wine,’ he said. ‘Well, fuckin’ fill the bastard up and then pass it.’

‘Of course. Of course.’ Prudence emptied the last of the wine into Chuck’s glass and did as he’d asked. And then she kneeled on the floor in front of the sofa and clicked on The Falling Olive.

It opened immediately. Straight to the title page.

All of the text was in Hebrew script.

‘Okay,’ Prudence said aloud. She held down the Ctrl and A keys, selected all of the text, moved the cursor up to the font box and selected the first font. Arial.

Nothing on the screen changed. The text remained in Hebrew.

She unselected the text, clicked instead on Calibri to make sure, and typed The Falling Olive at the top of the screen. As she typed, the letters came out as זית נופל

And the more that Prudence worked at it, the more fonts that she tried, the more frantic she became. The more she attempted to rationalise what might fix her story, the more frustrated she got when the fixes didn’t work. And the longer she tried, the more her blood boiled. Computers, they could do this to her. Part of why the hard drive had died in the first place might have largely been down to how many times she had thumped her laptop in anger. Even at work, words from John had been had when Prudence couldn’t help but throw the odd punch at her monitor. She just managed to stop herself short of doing that now. She thumped the coffee table instead.

‘Stupid thing,’ she said. ‘You stupid bloody thing.’ Picking up her glass, she finished the last of the wine. She felt hopeless. Prudence slumped forward onto the coffee table, head in hands. ‘I just wish that I was dead,’ she said.

Chuck the Maldipléchuip put Prudence’s broken necklace back on the coffee table, the closest thing to hand that he had found to garrotte her with. But only after he’d already smashed her over her pretty head with the empty wine bottle. From its resting place on the floor, the bottle was pointing at Prudence’s head. The rivulet of blood following a route through her hair.

‘Every time,’ he said with a sigh. ‘Every fuckin’ time.’

For Chuck knew that there were ways of achieving fortune, love and happiness with three simple wishes. But no one ever seemed to be smart enough to know what to wish for to get it. There was even a way to become a princess, if that was what a girl wished for. Or a boy, if it was what he truly wanted. Anything was possible. Absolutely anything.

This one Prudence had been close.

After murdering the girl, Chuck had quite simply changed the text back to her mother tongue and skim-read her work. It was actually really rather good. But the anger, the frustration. The impatience of people, the greedy race to fortune, love and happiness. Three wishes, they were supposed to be a blessing bestowed on such a fortunate few. Yet used unwisely, so often such a gift ended up being a curse. It was true, the old maxim.

Chuck sighed as he looked down at the lifeless form of the girl on the floor. It certainly was unfortunate. And just a day before Christmas, too.

About A Girl

About a Girl

With the book in my hand, I left the pub. I was alone when I had entered it and I was still alone when I left. I’d had only one drink. If I hadn’t been driving I might have had another. Sometimes I do have more than one, but that time I didn’t. I was heading home with my book; that was the pattern of my days. Surprises were rarely a part of the fabric of the pattern, but surprise would soon visit.

I walked to the pub car park, got into my car, closed the door behind me, dropped the book on the passenger’s seat, and stared through the windscreen at the tall wall of the building in front of me. My sigh misted the windscreen where it hit the cold glass, just a small cloud that quickly began to disappear. I don’t recall why I stayed there, sitting and staring. Possibly I was contemplating; nothing cheerful. Single, lonely, I’m never in a hurry and I’m very rarely cheerful. The doldrums of existence, you could call it. And then the surprise interrupted my morose introspection.

The passenger door opened. A girl got in and pulled the door closed.

‘Let’s go,’ she said, and nodded twice.

She seemed a little bit flustered, buzzing energy. Her eyes were grey, flecked with needles of gold, an electrical storm through sheets of clouds. She gave another geeing nod.

‘Do I know you?’ I asked.

I didn’t know her.

‘What does that matter?’ Twisting to face me, she slapped her hands against her thighs. ‘Let’s go.’

‘Look.’ I leaned on the steering wheel. ‘Someone can’t just get into a stranger’s car and demand a lift.’

‘They definitely can,’ she replied with a slight smile. ‘I just did.’

‘Well I’m going nowhere with you in the car.’

‘Then let’s go somewhere with me in the car. That makes much more sense than going nowhere.’

Biting her lip, she looked around – at the wall in front of us; at the backseat; at the blue early evening hue that was creeping over the buildings.

I remember how confused I felt then, watching this strange girl who had climbed into my car. She was wearing a thin, spangly shirt beneath a denim jacket. Her wrap-over skirt was a mash of colours, the sateen sheen capturing only dull glances of the orange light. Jangling in the footwell, her outfit was completed with untied boots.

As I stared – or maybe gawked – at her, she pulled her hair over one shoulder, a tangle of blonde-reddish waves. The smile that she began to smile was hard to read. Whether it was manipulative, or simple friendly amusement, I couldn’t tell. I wondered if she was appraising me – blues jeans, Warp Records t-shirt, standard Converse trainers, standard haircut – as I was her. My only distinguishing feature would have been my weary look of disillusionment. Whatever. With my thumb strumming the steering wheel, I, too, smiled. I couldn’t help myself.

‘All conventional wisdom says that I should ask you to leave,’ I told her.

She stopped smiling and folded her arms. I’m not sure why I had said it, really. It was supposed to be only quasi-serious; trying to be clever as I weighed up why she was there.

‘”All conventional wisdom . . .”’ she said, mocking my tone. ‘If wisdom is conventional then it is not free thought, so is therefore not wisdom at all, just a stale mantra.’

She was again staring straight ahead at the wall. Her blink was rhythmic.

I thought carefully about how to reply.

‘Surely that means all philosophies can only be exclusive to one person: the person who first proclaimed it. In that instance, few free thoughts could ever be truly reflective of an individual. No thought could ever be unique. So if it makes sense, wisdom must be conventional.’

Arms still folded, she slumped back in the seat. I noticed that she glanced at the door handle.

‘Wisdom and philosophies are nothing alike,’ she said. ‘Not in modern times, although most people claim both without true knowledge of either.’

‘But again, that doesn’t mean wisdom can’t be conventional.’

Frowning, she glanced at me. ‘If we’re just going to sit here and debate senseless and meaningless nonsense then I’ll just go.’

‘You’re freer to go than you are to just get into my car and demand a lift.’

‘I don’t need a lift.’

‘Then why did you get in my car?’

‘Because I want to go somewhere. Anywhere. Away from here.’

‘Where?’

Anywhere. I literally just said. But still we’re just sitting here.’ She rubbed the patch of skin between her eyebrows.

I thought of what else I would be doing. The answer was nothing, of course. I realised that the girl was probably sitting on my book. Reality like a metaphor. Perhaps because of our brief argument, my initial alarm had wavered. I can still remember, if I ever would ever forget, that my overriding emotion was dreamlike; a surreal feeling that this wasn’t really happening. People don’t just get into stranger’s cars. But I could still feel the vibrancy that had initially climbed in with her. Perhaps a breeze finding my sail after an interminable time spent in the doldrums.

‘Okay.’ I turned the key. ‘Let’s go.’

Looking over my shoulder as I reversed the car, I could sense her staring at me. I wasn’t certain what it meant; whether I had surprised her by agreeing, or if this was a prank of some sort to see if I would. Even if she wasn’t surprised, I was.

I didn’t have a clue who this girl was, or what I was doing. Thoughts of films where a damsel in so-called-distress flags down a stranger, only for an accomplice to steal the car, or worse, momentarily disturbed my imagination. But as we drove down the ramp out of the car park, into the evening, I saw no one.

‘We could go to the top of the town,’ I said as we passed down the road. ‘There’s a good view there. I sometimes go there to read.’

My book must be quite warm by now.

‘So I get into your car just to go somewhere that I could have walked to anyway,’ she replied, fiddling with her phone as she answered. ‘Good idea. Really creative.’

‘Why didn’t you just come up to me in the pub and say that you needed a lift?’ I asked after the silence began to thicken.

‘Because I wasn’t in the pub,’ she said. ‘And I told you already that I don’t need a lift.’

‘Then why did you get in my car?’

When she didn’t reply, I turned to look at her. Her expression, scrutinizing me, was part disgusted, and another part quizzical – a combination of the two.

‘You ask a lot of questions,’ she said.

‘I don’t know you and you got in my car,’ I said, taking care not to form a question. ‘You don’t know me, but still you got in my car. I think that it’s reasonable to ask why you would.’

Again I wondered what on earth I was doing. Her brusque responses had begun to irritate me. I am clearly more suited to colourless days, throughout many of which I speak to barely anyone. I could have stopped then and let her out. It crossed my mind to do so.

I didn’t.

Ignoring me, she turned on the stereo and immediately silenced the radio. I watched her tap the touchscreen and inhaled my irritation.

‘I need Bluetooth,’ she said.

I moved my hand towards the screen. The girl grabbed my wrist and placed my hand back on the steering wheel.

‘I wasn’t asking for help.’

‘If you just –’

The screen lit up.

 Would you like to connect with … . . / — . / …. . .- .-. / -.– — ..-

For a few moments, I simply stared at the text on the screen before I realised what I was looking at.

‘Semaphore,’ I said.

The girl laughed. A real belly laugh. She put her hand to her mouth. The golden needles in her eyes sparkled.

‘Semaphore is waving flags. Making letters with them.’ She was still giggling.

My palms were perspiring, sweaty against the steering wheel. Everything that I said, this uninvited stranger was making me feel like an idiot. I never have enjoyed looking like an idiot. That’s a large part of why I go to the pub with my book, rather than people.

‘Long day,’ I said.

‘Every day is the same length,’ she replied passively, her laughter forgotten.

We had come to the end of the road. I indicated to turn right, towards the duck pond, away from the more affluent part of the town. Possibly heading here by instinct, this was my usual route home. I thought about suggesting that we could go there but wasn’t prepared for the answer that I would receive, so I left it alone.

‘Hmmmm,’ the strange girl next to me sounded out, for no apparent reason.

I was still driving along with a stranger in my car.

‘What’s your name?’ I asked. ‘I don’t even know that.’

‘A question,’ she said, putting her phone between her legs.

‘Yes, that was a question.’

Jazz started to play; skilful, chattering guitar. It said Grant Green Outer Space on the screen, not a name I knew.

‘Jazz music makes me feel good,’ she murmured.

I was only intending to glance, but something about her kept my gaze. The beginnings of familiarity? I don’t know. She was attractive in an odd way, one that was tricky to pinpoint. Her expressions changed with each moment – from troubled, to curious, to alert . . . – as if she was listening with her eyes.

She stared a thousand-yard stare that went straight through me. Looking at me that way, I felt kind of hypnotised; that same floaty, dreamlike feeling. The light of the setting sun found her face, a sparkle upon her soft cheeks. She frowned slightly.

‘The road,’ she said.

‘Huh?’

‘You should really be watching the road.’ She sat back, now staring a thousand yards straight ahead. ‘You’re on the wrong side.’

‘Holy shit!’ I corrected the wheel, steering back onto my side of the road.

At that point, I still didn’t really know where I was heading. I didn’t really know where were going, or where we should go. From the corner of my eye I noticed that the girl was rubbing her arms, holding herself.

‘Are you cold?’

‘Questions,’ she said dreamily, staring through the passenger window. She stopped rubbing her arms and placed her hands on her lap. ‘Everyone always asks so many questions.’

‘How else do you get to know someone?’

‘A question,’ she replied.

The tootling saxophone – at least I think it was a saxophone – chuckled at me, laughing in three-four time. We took the next right-hand turn, heading past the town common.

‘Jazz,’ the girl said. ‘Along with classical, it is the only music where the musicians are true virtuosos; where they can really make their instruments talk, to tell a story. You can’t trust music that has words. I don’t like being told how to think. But instrumental jazz . . .’ She increased the volume, raising her voice over the music. ‘I’ll read words if I want to.’

Someone called Kenny Burrell was playing Chitlins Con Carne, so said the digital screen. It seemed that the girl was right, jazz could talk. It was her that I didn’t understand.

‘I assume that you have a name,’ I said, unable to let it go, unwilling to accept defeat. I had avoided asking a question.

‘I have parents.’ She was watching her hands, her thumb rolling over the knuckles. ‘They gave me a name. Everyone has a name. Except, I suppose, some homeless children. But even they will be given a name by the people they meet; something that they will be known by. People can be so preoccupied by giving names to things.’

As if I should have expected a straightforward response.

We were travelling through the stateliest part of the town, where the apartments have the square footage of a medium-sized house. It’s not the area that I live in. We continued past the place that I had first suggested, with the benches overlooking the town. We were away from my home.

Soul Lament was playing, the screen told me. Things had slowed down.

‘However futile questions are, I’d like to know your name,’ I said, trying one last time. It was easier now to be heard over the music. I hadn’t noticed when she decreased the volume.

‘Let’s just pretend that no one has names,’ she replied.

‘We can’t go on down this road, into the evening, as strangers.’

‘No one is a stranger. Even if you don’t know what name they’ve been tagged with.’

‘Just someone that you haven’t met yet,’ I replied flatly, giving a dismissive shrug.

And then she surprised me, this girl full of surprises.

Rather than disregarding what I had said as obvious and unimaginative, suddenly she was clinging to me, hugging my arm. I could feel the slight warmth of her. I could smell the light musky scent of her reddish-blonde hair. I breathed it in. The way that she was bending my arm in an unnatural way at the elbow was uncomfortable, but it was a closeness that I hadn’t experienced in a long while. I didn’t mind the pain. In fact, I liked it.

At the very moment that I thought so, she unclamped herself.

The girl pulled the phone out from between her thighs. She played with it, dabbing at the screen, swiping up and down. Songs started and stopped. Finally she pressed the button on the car stereo, killing the music.

‘I know where we’re going,’ I said. When I faced her she just continued staring through the windscreen and did not respond. The rhythmic blinking and the ceaseless expressions.

What was it about this girl?

A question. So many questions. But suppose that she was right; there wasn’t really one that actually mattered.

She caught me looking her up and down. It was innocent on my part, but who knows what she was thinking – an understatement, if ever there was.

Throughout the absence of small talk and music, I listened instead to the deep sound of the engine, the passing wind, and the road beneath us. The sun was behind the car, deepening, lighting the trees to the side and in front. They watched us go.

A car passed us by, some souped-up hatchback. I could almost feel the bass of its music. For the first time I noticed how few cars and people we had passed. Until then, I couldn’t recall if there had been any at all.

“You don’t talk much,’ the girl said, interrupting the silence.

‘I don’t.’

‘Why?’ she asked. ‘Why don’t you talk much? Most people do.’

Two questions,’ I replied.

Folding her arms, she fell back against the seat. I wasn’t certain, but I thought that I had seen the trace of a smile. I had broken through the opaque exterior.

‘I don’t know,’ I continued. ‘Sometimes it feels like everyone else has too much to say. Maybe people like me are necessary, to balance it out. In the same way that you like music without words, I sometimes like the world to be that way. Books are my jazz.’

The girl began to play with her hair, running her hand to the end of the strands and then starting again at the top. Readjusting herself in the seat, she tucked the hair behind her ear.

How far detached the situation was to my normal evening routine bounced to the forefront of my thoughts. We were now more than fifteen miles away from the town border, heading further with each passing moment. I can so clearly remember wondering what the hell I thought I was doing. No matter that I had a destination in mind, I wondered where the night would end.

That was the only time I considered turning around, heading homeward, with or without the girl.

‘I don’t know why men would want a woman to have no hair,’ the girl said then, bumping me back down to earth. ‘Why they would want a woman to look like a little girl. I mean, I do know why, but it’s kind of creepy. I don’t know why they do that.’

It took me a long moment to catch up with her meaning. It wasn’t really a specialist topic of mine. ‘Some women just want to look that way, I guess.’

‘Daddy issues,’ the girl said, nodding.

Erm.’ I stifled an awkward chuckle. ‘I . . . don’t know? Maybe,’ I added uselessly.

She was holding her hair, brushing a clutch of it over her chin, peering upward at the scattering sunset. I don’t know if she was thinking about what I had said, or what she’d said. Was there any point at all in second guessing anything about this girl?

Question.

‘The longest relationship I’ve had was about six months.’ I’m not entirely sure why I told her that then. I could have told her that I was a trainee lion tamer and she would have been none the wiser. ‘In fact, to call it a relationship isn’t quite true,’ I continued anyway. ‘It was something that just started with a girl who had no interests in anything except for herself. It never really ended, it just sort of . . . fizzled out, I suppose.’

‘But you miss her,’ the girl said.

‘I never really got to know her enough to miss her.’

I turned off the main road. The girl looked at the road sign we passed with what I guessed was completely neutrality. As with every moment since she had first got in my car, I had no way of knowing.

‘I never met her friends and never really knew her family. I very rarely think of her. And if I do think of her . . .’ – I care about as much as you did when you glanced at that sign – ‘it’s probably just because some shit song that I never liked comes on the radio. You’d have hated her,’ I finish, smiling at the girl.

‘I don’t hate anything or anyone,’ the girl said.

Her face was spacey. I noticed that her lower eyelids had started to darken. It could have just been the absence of illumination. The last of the sun, as it ran from the day, once more decided to run its hand over the girl’s face. Her hair was afire, the red turned to orange. The slight dullness beneath her eyes remained, but the sparks within them had not been extinguished.

My mouth was turning dry, intensified by the lingering taste of beer. We had brought nothing to drink. I hadn’t.

‘I still don’t know why you got into my car.’

‘I wanted to go somewhere. I told you that.’

She started to stroke her face, just where the sun was lighting upon it, as if trying to paint it onto the dark patches beneath her eyes. She was staring through me again. Beyond me. Into the wild, empty countryside.

‘And you’d have got out if I had asked you to?’

‘I almost got out anyway, when you started arguing with me.’

I could have said that it wasn’t me who started the argument; that I should be at home, reading my book in peace. Maybe she was trying to start another argument, I don’t know. Her look suggested that she hoped I would challenge her, but it was also vulnerable and childlike, wide-eyed and hopeful.

There were so many silences on our journey, but I wouldn’t say that they were uncomfortable. I quite enjoyed listening to the jazz – I hadn’t really noticed that she’d put the music back on – waiting for what she would come out with next. At one point I asked what animal she would be if she could choose, and she told me that it was a stupid question. I didn’t try again.

The sun was racing us to the horizon. There wasn’t much further to go, but I thought we would beat it there. We passed two old boys – proper country-folk in old-fashioned country clothes – sitting in a bus stop. I wondered what they were talking about.

Bill Evans was playing, whoever he was. It had a barroom piano feel. Cosy and friendly. A Portrait in Jazz.

‘What is your earliest childhood memory?’ the girl asked me out of the deepening blue. She was staring out of her side of the car, at the odd cottage and the agricultural fields; some with crops growing, others with the shadows of livestock.

I didn’t tell her that she had asked a question. My mouth was still quite dry. I thought about putting the heating on, but didn’t.

The girl’s phone was in her hand again, facedown. She was running her thumb over where the logo had been dug out.

‘My earliest childhood memory,’ I repeated. The first image that popped into my head was the fabric wall-hanging calendar with detachable numbers and days. I was obsessed with keeping that thing up to date.

For a moment, I don’t know why, I thought that it was a Friday evening, but then realised that it was Thursday. Fridays at work are always the busiest, tidying things up for the weekend. I already had about fifty unread submissions in my inbox, and more would come in overnight. My inbox is as unending as winter. Fridays, too. Maybe I should get another fabric calendar.

‘You’re avoiding telling me about your childhood,’ she said. ‘That’s interesting.’

‘Sorry, I was distracted. My first memory . . .’

I wondered about it again. What could I remember? How far back? There were few things that I could remember.

‘Being on my own,’ I replied. ‘All of my earliest memories are of doing things alone. I’m an only child, and I didn’t really have friends until I was older.’

I changed down a gear. We were cruising towards our destination. If it were earlier in the day we’d have been able to see the sea.

‘Does being alone scare you now?’

‘What are the rules of asking questions? Is it okay for you to ask them, but not me?’

‘I’m not forcing you to answer.’

She was stroking her arms again, hugging herself, so I did turn on the heating. She watched my every movement and she didn’t contest.

‘No one can ever force anyone to do anything,’ she continued. ‘Out of the two of us, out here, it’s more likely that you can force me to do something against my will.’

‘Well, if you will get in cars with strangers . . .’ Immediately I wished that I hadn’t said it. Even the jazz was telling me that it was a bit of an outrageous thing to say, even if it had been intended as a joke. ‘That was –’

‘In my earliest memory,’ the girl began, stopping me short, ‘I’m with my sister and we’re beside an old barn. We were on holiday somewhere, somewhere in the French countryside. It was our first day and we were exploring. She ran away from me, around the side of the barn. She’s bigger and older than me. Faster. I ran after her but couldn’t see her on the other side of the barn. I called after her, but she didn’t answer. There was nowhere else that she could have gone.

‘I started walking beside the barn, looking everywhere, and then I looked up and saw the biggest bird that I had ever seen. I think it was an eagle. If I was with my sister it would have been exciting, but instead – I don’t know, maybe by the way that it was looking at me – I thought that it was going to swoop down and pick me up, fly away, and feed little bits of me to its chicks.

‘I can still remember staring at its talons gripping onto the old rotten wood. I tried to tell myself to run away, but I was frozen, and the eagle just carried on staring down at me. I remember how it flickered its eyebrows – or whatever they have for eyebrows.’

The girl had closed her eyes. Even so, she was looking up, picturing the eagle on the roof of the barn. I could hear her breathing, matching the pace of the jazz, bar to bar. She was transfixed. I wanted to step into her memory, shoo away the eagle and carry her back to her family – she looked that terrified, lost and helpless.

‘And then, all of a sudden, the eagle looked to my left. Something hit my leg. I could hear the sound. I spun around and my sister was standing there with a horse whip that she’d found. “Run little pony,” she said to me. “Run or I’ll whip you!” She swiped at me, just missing my leg. So she swiped again and hit me.’

The sun had mostly disappeared by then, so I could make out only parts of the girl’s face clearly. She opened her eyes and spared me a disinterested glance. She reached down and rubbed the back of her calf.

‘What about the eagle?’ I asked.

‘I don’t know. I tried to run away from my sister, being whipped all the way. The next day my legs were covered in red welts. But anyway,’ she said, readjusting herself and picking up her phone. ‘That was better that than being eaten alive by an eagle.’

For the little left of the journey, we again carried on through silence. I was thinking about her story; perhaps trying to make a puzzle out of triangles and squares.

‘We’re nearly there now,’ I said.

Even so, she changed the music to something new. Something unnamed on the screen. Trance music, dark and trippy.

‘Sometimes I like to put this on,’ she stated matter-of-factly, turning to me.

She began to move her head from side to side, as loose and wobbly as a new-born’s. It made me feel uncomfortable.

A minute or so later we pulled into the car park and looked out at the sea, a dark slick with ripples bouncing upon it. There were a few fishing boats out there, their lights gently moving with the surface.

‘Let’s go,’ the girl said, opening the door without a glance at me.

My book was still on the seat. It reminded me that I was more than forty minutes from home. We had arrived at the coast at just about the same time as the last light left day, even though the sun had disappeared. The sunset had won our race.

I caught up to her, striding along the front.

‘We could go for a drink, if you like.’

‘I don’t understand why people do that so much,’ she replied, facing the sea ‘People would rather be inside intoxicating themselves than outside in the free air. This way.’

I was struggling to keep up, both physically and with the way her mind processed just about everything I said. I followed the girl to an old rowboat. The bottom had rotted out, just the husk of the hull left there. The girl looked at the inside, her hands on the edge of the boat, peering in, poring over every inch of it, as if working out how it might come to work again. I was grateful that the boat had no bottom. I could only imagine what she was thinking; what she might suggest if it was in one piece.

‘Let’s skip stones,’ she said, and trotted off towards the seafront.

As she had with the the boat, she surveyed the ground purposefully, seeking out the best stones, and gathered a small handful.

Wait.’

She stepped up close to me, grabbed my arm with one hand, cupping her stones with the other. Height-wise, she was about level with my chin.

Looking into her eyes, my dry mouth returned. I don’t think that I have ever felt such a conflict of feelings. For the first time I felt a connection with her, but it unsettled me. I was attracted to her – I’d decided that already, on the drive – but her eyes, like her mind, intimidated me. I wondered what spending any focused amount of time with her would be like. Maybe I needed someone like her in my life. I have no problem with superiority.

Clearly I was getting too far ahead of myself.

‘You can only throw the stones with your weak arm,’ she instructed, wiggling my wrist. ‘Because I’m a girl.’

‘I’m a feminist,’ I replied with a shrug. ‘So all things are equal.’

‘You’re strange.’ She patted my chest and then turned and threw one of her stones into the sea; all flinging hair and swirling skirts. We heard the plop when it hit the water, but the water was too dark to see the ripples. It hadn’t sounded very far away.

I picked up a stone and propelled it into the sky. It arced into the night, but I lost its path against the dark horizon. Moments later it splashed into the water.

‘Good throw,’ she said.

After we had thrown a few more stones, she came over to me and stood close again. This time she put her arms around me.

‘I’m cold,’ she said.

I retracted my waist a touch. The girl pressed in.

‘I have a hot water bottle,’ she said.

‘I haven’t got any hot water.’

I could feel her shiver. With my arms around her, she felt so small. This stranger. This tender contradiction.

‘I still don’t know your name.’

She didn’t reply.

‘I have a blanket in my car. We could get that.’

‘Would you bring it to me?’ she asked.

A question.

Her hair was against my chin. It moved when I spoke.

‘Sure.’

I ran over the stones. My keys were ready in my hand before I reached the car. The streetlights showed me that the blanket was none too clean. I couldn’t say how long it had been in there without being washed. I grabbed it and headed back to the girl. I don’t how long I had been away. Minutes. When I returned, she wasn’t there.

I was certain that I was in the right place, near enough. I looked out at the fishing boats. The lights from the few bars, buildings and homes lit partway onto the beach. It seemed that there was nowhere she could have disappeared to without me seeing, just like her sister and the barn. If she had walked a little way, surely I would have heard her untied boots scrunching the stones. I turned on the torch on my phone, shone it towards the water and along the front.

‘I’ve got the blanket,’ I called out, waving it around in the air. I couldn’t call out her name. A part of me was certain that she would jump out at me, this strange girl. ‘Hey. I’ve got the blanket,’ I called again.

I spun around. All the way round. Led by the torch, I wondered back to the boat and peered around the hull in the same way that she had but she was not there. I returned to the water’s edge and shone the light over the water. The cold air breezed from the night sea.

Standing there uselessly for a long while, I finally decided that she would be found only if she wanted to be found. With the blanket brushing against my leg, I walked back to the car, the pebbles crunching beneath my shoes.

She wasn’t there. I even checked beneath the car. I could see my breath clouding into the air. It was really cold now. Even though I was concerned, I also felt foolish. She had drawn me to her. Her magnetism. Mysticism. Whatever it was. Elasticity.

I thought about walking along the street, looking into any bars and cafés that were still open. But I didn’t. I drove home, alone, with my book on the passenger seat beside me. I thought of her all the way.

On the drive homeward, I wondered if she might have climbed into another stranger’s car. Let’s go. A tiny part of me even felt like going back, just to be certain that I hadn’t left her in the cold. And then I’d picture it again. Let’s go.

For a little while I did question quite a lot if that night had really happened. Whether that chance meeting, that surprise visit, was real. I had finally convinced myself, certain that it hadn’t. It simply couldn’t have. And then, a few weeks later when I was connecting my phone to the car stereo, the list of connected devices popped up on the screen.

Would you like to connect with … . . / — . / …. . .- .-. / -.– — ..-

A question.

Tales From A Record Shop: What A Difference A Year Makes – A Year Of Songs

Lately, my earworm has been Dinah Washington’s most famous song, which is a fine with me: a beautiful, positive song (along with, inexplicably, Lady Gaga buzzing around beneath my bonnet). Miss D is right, what a difference a day does make. And that got me thinking about a year, made up of days when every day has the potential to make a difference. But just when I start thinking philosophically, up pops Lady Gaga to bust my thread. It’s funny with music, how songs arrive at a time when they can seem pertinent to your life, as if measuring the difference of the day – that’s why a bit of Gaga can be great, because I’ve looked for the relevance of Rah rah ah ah ah / Row mah row mah mah to my life and found none.

That said, it’s be a great year for music. There has been such a wide spectrum of new and interest offerings. So I thought that I’d compile a list of some of my favourites: twelve months; twelve songs.


Laura Marling: Soothing

From when I first heard this song, I adored it. I love the flat bass sound; I love the evocative images that the words paint; I’ve always loved the tone of her voice; I just love Laura. When this song was first released, I would sit up late at night and listen to it endlessly. I could have chosen other songs from the album that it comes from, Semper Femina – that will be true of most of the songs on this list – but this dark little beauty has to be on the list. And it can’t just be a list of Laura Marling songs, really.


The Breretons: Fake

The Breretons performed an amazing gig in February, with so many stand out songs. But they’re at their best when Charlotte and Marc are harmonising, as on Fake. When they performed this live together, I got one of those lovely chills. A brother and sister group, they’re great songwriters, full of honesty and beautiful imagery. Their debut album Keep You Safe is a little wonder that digs beneath your skin and massages from within; it’s a glass of wine by candlelight, but will jab you in ribs, in the dark, when you don’t expect it.


Ryan Adams: To Be Without You

Ryan Adams is a strange one. On each of his albums there will be a song or two that I don’t like much, but it will always get me eventually and then I’ll fall for the album. Not that this song is one of those. He just puts his life into his songs, really talks about the things that not many would be brave enough to. And it’s way he tells them. As much as any songwriter, he makes me want to pick up a guitar and play his songs. This was another one of those late night pieces: lights down so that you really listen. And then again. And then realise that it really is late.


Gorillaz: Ascension

Whenever Damon Albarn releases something new I will listen to it endlessly. This song opens the latest Gorillaz album. It’s a banger. I just wanted to listen to it on repeat. So I went for a drive, on one of those warm spring days that we had, and did. There is so much going on, it’s a few different tunes mashed into one lively party starter. Even featuring a tidy little rap (?) from Damon too. The album has an amazing conveyor belt of guests, and is probably my album of the year. Again, I could chosen about five different songs from Humanz, and on a different day might have, but I like my driving songs, so this is it.


Loyle Carner: Damselfly

So, I’m going to say this: Loyle Carner really bugged me when I first heard him. And then I kept hearing him being played. And then I began to like it. And then it was still playing when the summer came. It began to remind me of the acid jazz from the nineties: sitting in the sun with cider, the time passing so slowly. He’s great with words and storytelling, and I like hearing him talk too – he’s a cool guy. I was always so happy when this song came on, particularly. I’ll be sure to be listening to see where he takes his music next.


Superorganism: Something For Your Mind

This is a weird tune. It’s a strange contradiction: I don’t think that I could listen to it too much, but it’s so goddamn adorable. There isn’t really much that I can say about it, more than that. They’re a bananas little group that met on the internet – don’t watch them, because it really is best just to listen, but definitely check out the song. I can imagine it being one of those songs that you hear ten years later, and you think, “Oh yeah, I remember that; I’ve missed it.” And then it will drive you insane again – it’s that strange.


Soulwax: Is It Always Binary

This is another nineties / early noughties throwback, with more than a slither of the Air / Royksopp / Daft Punky vibe about it. Quite perfunctory throughout, but body-poppingly infectious. You wonder where it’s going to go, and then it doesn’t really bother to go there, but you just want to hear the hook again anyway, so that’s okay. And it has a great title! [Really, I wouldn’t bother reading what I have to say about any of these; just listen to them.]


Alvvays: In Undertow

This song seemed to come on at the exact same point of my day, each day: driving early in the morning, so I began to look forward to the moment when it came on. It’s so simple, and could be construed as a bit miserable, a bit boring. But it’s not. When you’re driving into a new day, it’s uplifting and got me thinking about the words. When you read back what I said at the beginning, what Miss D said, it’s a great song for a new day. And also it’s a pop song that includes very non-poppy words . . .


Angus & Julia Stone: Chateau

When I first heard the album, it didn’t really have any stand out tracks, and I was pretty disappointed. It just passed me by completely. But I kept playing it anyway because I wanted to like it. And it ends up on the list because I was completely wrong – even now I’m not sure which of the songs that I want to add. Chateau or Who Do You Think You Are? I almost didn’t chose this one because I do like Angus when he rambles. But this is pretty romantic, in their beautiful dreamy way. It makes me think of walking out of a town and into the country, and letting the day take you from there.


Ezra Furman: Love You So Bad

Someone made me compilation CD once that had a track on it that I can remember nothing about, who it was by or what it was called, so I haven’t been able to find it. But it went a bit like this, so this is its replacement. It’s bonkers, I like it, it makes me think of them and that’s good. And that’s all I’m going to say about this song!


The War On Drugs: Nothing To Find

What a great band name. What a top tune. What a fierce album. I might change my mind here about my favourite album of the year. I can barely make out a word Adam Granduciel sings unless I really listen, but I don’t need to. It’s all of the best bits of eighties music, with masses of influences dragged up from the sixties and seventies, and then sprinkled with modern chart pop-rock. I just love it. I love it all. And I just can’t stop listening to the record at the moment. As much as possible. I’m probably listening to it right now. I think that it probably is my favourite album this year.


Beck: Up All Night

Good old Beck. It’s pointless trying to predict what he’ll come up with next, but I always like to hear it. I chose the lead single from the album because it’s cool as heck, and the first song that I heard from it. Yep, Beck goes chart pop. Next time he might be doing cowboy songs, you just can’t tell. But this is top. It’s another record that is always beside the player. It was almost the title track Colors that made the list, mostly because it’s a dance track with panpipes, and that doesn’t really happen that frequently, to the best of my knowledge. But this song is a mover. What a difference a Beck tune makes to a day.


So, even though that is my list of some of my favourite songs of the year, if you ask me tomorrow I could easily change my mind about most of them. So many good ones to chose from this year, and I’ve been pretty distracted lately from my usual list-making expertise. Other artists that I’ve keenly listened to over the past twelve months: Joan As Policewoman; Johnny Dangerously; St Vincent; Nadine Shah; Aldous Harding; Ghostpoet (dude); Chali 2na (blast from the past); The Breeders; White Denim; Richie Sanford; MGMT; Charlotte Gainsbourg; Arcade Fire; Hookworms; Ratio; some remixes that I can never remember who they’re by – like Barry Adamson I Got Clothes (A Certain Ratio remix); and the beautiful album by Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – which was very close to making the list. Ah, go one then: the thirteenth month, or a free one for January . . .

Have a great New Year, dear reader. What a difference a year makes, eh? I hope that you’ve enjoyed my list. Enjoy your year, too, where the bar has been set very high, but I’ve heard a few new ones that are coming, so I think that it will be another really good one for new music.

Tales From A Record Shop #9

Tales From a Record Shop #9

A tale with a twist . . .

When chatting with someone recently about short stories, we agreed that the best ones are those with twists at the end. A novel lends a greater scope to building the life of a character through their background and experiences, but short stories have to capture the imagination of the reader within a limited time. They’re not memorable if they just fizzle out, rather than leaving you with a bang. Having studied the form of the short story this year, it’s an aspect that I have tried to embrace. It certainly leaves me with a satisfying feeling upon completion – and I hope that my readers feel that way too.

Life can sometimes be that way, little stories with a twist at the end. Which is a tidy segue into a recent encounter in the record shop . . .

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I was working alone that day. This was a quieter day than usual, so I was pleased when a girl walked into the shop. She was searching through the racks of records in rather a fevered manner, in a bit of a hurry, a bit on edge; a bit flustered. So I asked if I could help her.

Are you looking for anything in particular?

Bob Marley, she replied, without looking up.

Now, I find it a bit discourteous when someone replies without making eye contact. And I don’t think it’s much to ask for someone to pad out a sentence with even a little bit of grammar. Yet this girl just continued ploughing through the records. She wasn’t unpleasant to look at, but that’s no excuse for the absence of manners.

Okay. Any particular Bob Marley album?

Waynetta (because we must give her name): Nah. S’for me boyfriend. For ‘is birfday.

Here. I pulled the Bob Marley Legend record out of the Reggae section! And handed it to her. It’s a ‘Best Of’. A great collection. Ilikeitalot.

Waynetta handled the record roughly, which made me wince. Sigh. I’m certain that manners exist. I’ve seen them, someplace, somewhere.

Waynetta, gripping the record like it’s made of soft dough: Got any Phil Collins?

I’d like to think so. No self-respecting record shop wouldn’t have a bit of Phil in stock. I turned my back on Waynetta, moved to the Versatile-But-Very-MOR-Guilty-Pleasures section, and found a couple of records from the soft pop superstar, just next to some Fleetwood Mac. I handed them to Waynetta, who snatched them and folded them like she was Rolf Harris with his wobble board. She no longer had Legend in her hands.

Waynetta: Dunno which ones ‘e’s got, does I.

I . . . don’t know. Was that a question?

Waynetta: I’ll check wiv ‘im. If ‘e ain’t, I’ll come back an’ get ‘em.

Okay. That’s . . . fine.

Waynetta had stuffed the Phil Collins records into any old rack and bouldered out of the the door before I had finished. A brief and pointless encounter with a surly timewaster. I put the Phil Collins records back in the correct Bland-But-Unexplainably-Successful section, near to the latest Katie Melua release, and went to check where she’d put Legend – undoubtedly in the wrong place.

I looked for twenty minutes without finding it. After about 5 minutes, I’d guessed what had happened. You’ve probably already guessed it: I couldn’t find the Bob Marley record because Waynetta had hidden it somewhere in her tracksuit when my back was turned for five seconds.

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The next morning, the first twist in this little tale occurred. Just after I’d finished explaining what had happened to the owner of the record shop, a guy came in. He was wearing a tracksuit and had a baby in a sling hanging about him. He was making eye contact. Good man. At least that’s what I thought at first . . .

Hey. Can I help you at all?

The New Stranger – in a not-unrespectable voice: Yeah. My girlfriend bought a copy of Bob Marley on record and it don’t work proper.

Wha-wha-wha? Hang on a sec. Using a bit of sign language, gestures, semaphore, and a range of facial expressions, I explained to the owner what this New Stranger had just told me. My skills weren’t so good, and he thought that I’d told him that Mick Hucknall had asked me if I’d like to go bowling. So I just told him outright: The boyfriend of the girl who stole the Bob Marley record has just come in and told me that it doesn’t work proper! Properley. I went back out to the front of the shop, thinking, I’ll enjoy this.

What’s wrong with the record? I asked.

The New Stranger / Boyfriend: It just ain’t playin’ right.

It was a new record. I’ve not heard that before. Perhaps it’s –

“Tell her to bring it back in,” the owner interjected. “Tell your girlfriend to bring the record back to us, with a receipt, and we’ll have a look at it. Tell her to bring . . . the . . . receipt,” he enunciated deliberately.

The Boyfriend: Aiiiii.

Aiiiii, I agreed. How can someone be so stupid? I muttered under my breath. How can someone be so stupid? I said to the owner.

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A couple of days later, a girl came into the shop. I recognised her; I remembered talking with her a couple of weeks before. But I wasn’t serving her – I was busy googling Mick Hucknall’s highest bowling score, wondering if I had a chance of beating him if the opportunity ever arose. I was distracted by the top result in the search engine.

That got me thinking, too. I had just half an ear to conversation happening at the counter, where the final twist was about to take place.

The Girl: Hi. I bought this the other week. It doesn’t seem to play properly. I think that my boyfriend came in and told you.

The Owner: Ah! Yes! Have you got the receipt? Eh? Have you?

The Girl: Erm, yes. I think so. I think that it’s in here somewhere.

With my eyes widening, I pictured what was just about to happen. That’s why I remembered talking this girl: we’d been chatting about Bob Marley and the Wailers. Just before she bought the record from me . . .

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In conclusion:

We haven’t seen the light-fingered Waynetta since. But I have wondered if her copy was faulty too.

We politely exchanged the Legend record for the girl who had bought it from me – it turned out that there was a fault in the original one.

I know exactly what Mick Hucknall has that other men lack: a ginger perm.

Good old grandma Mick
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I’d like to close this one with a little something from Charlie T. Wilbury, Jr., A.K.A. Muddy Wilbury. A true rock ‘n’ roll icon. I wish I could have been in this caboose.

When The Last Leaves Fall

When the Last Leaves Fall

*This is a short companion story to the novel The Reputation of Booya Carthy and contains spoilers.

Jump to chapter

‘The Meeting’
‘The Face of Evil’
‘Scenting the Trail’
‘The Englishman’
‘The Forest’
‘Honahee’
‘The Holly House’
‘The Dying Light’
‘Hunting’
‘The Dark Surface’
‘The Barn”

Chapter One

‘The Meeting’

Greenwood, Mississippi

1943

It was five minutes before the town bell would announce noon. The door to The Mississippi Jug breezed closed behind the stranger. Leather case in hand, he straightened his waistcoat. His gaze judged the face of each man. Only the women reacted to the new arrival in the juke joint, appraising the tall stranger, foreign to their midst. They were of no significance to him. One approached him, a petite woman of the darkest skin; missing buttons of her dress hinting at her lures.

‘You lookin’ for some limonade, honey?’ Her fingers played with one of the remaining buttons, half-slid from its fastening.

Withdrawing his shoulder, he evaded her touch. ‘I am not.’

‘Say, you sure you in the right place here?’ Her hand found her hip. ‘You gov’ment or revenue?’

‘No,’ he answered. ‘Neither.’ He tipped his hat. ‘Good day.’

He had been told that he would be found, to wait inside The Mississippi Jug at midday. He knew that he would not be able to pick out the man that he sought. It could be any man, at any table. Not one that he could see was unaccompanied. They played craps, cards, entertained girls, they drank.

Removing his hat, he patted his brow with a handkerchief. The air was close; the smell of stale damp wood. Daylight turned to dirty yellow where it worked through the deep dust covering the few windows. The stranger watched the same girl sit upon a man’s knee, point at him. The man lifted his head. His look lingered long: slow up and slow down. Interest lost in the stranger, he spat on the floor. The girl’s hand slid inside his shirt; her tongue around his ear. He pushed her from his knee and resumed his game.

The interest the barkeep kept to the stranger was the only one that remained. As the stranger met his glare, one of the barkeep’s hands withdrew from the counter and settled beneath it. The stranger approached. The muscles in the ‘keep’s arm tightened.

The stranger placed his hat and leather case upon the bar. ‘I’d like a drink,’ he said.

‘You gov’ment or revenue?’ the ‘keep asked. ‘Ain’t legal not to say, if you is.’

The stranger glanced around the room, smiled at the ‘keep. ‘A stranger such as I am,’ he said, ‘alone in here with intent of stirring trouble? I rather think not.’

‘Might git trouble even if you ain’t stirrin’,’ the barkeep replied. The corner of his lip twitched. The stranger’s smile faded, but his gaze did not falter. Argument arose from one of the tables: slammed fists, raised voices. The barkeep’s eyes slid to the side and back. Laughter replaced dispute. Through the windows, the toll of the bell told noon.

‘I’m meeting here with Hunter,’ the stranger said. ‘He advised me to mention his name if I encountered issue.’

Blinking for the first time, one of the barkeep’s eyebrows jerked upward. His lips shrugged. Lifting his hand out from beneath the counter, he sighed. ‘You from the north?’ he asked. ‘Ain’t from round here. Wouldn’t come in here if you was.’

‘I’m from the east,’ the stranger replied.

‘Florida?’

‘No no.’ The stranger chuckled. ‘Over the seas. England.’

‘An’ findin’ yourself here?’ The stranger offered no response. The barkeep slapped the counter. ‘Well, if you arksin’ for Hunter someone sure has trouble headin’ their way?’

The stranger yet kept his silence. He felt eyes upon him. Glancing further along the bar he found them. A thick moustache hid his lips; the low hat disguised all but the glow within his staring eyes. The skin was sun-darkened, pricked with dark stubble. One hand was around a cup, the other in his pocket. In the warmth he was wearing a thick jacket of animal hide. He lifted the cup, drank, lowered it. It remained in his grasp. He stared.

‘Said you want a drink?’

The stranger returned his eyes to the barkeep. ‘Whisky, if you have it,’ he replied.

‘Ain’t got barely nothin’ but,’ the barkeep replied. ‘’Less you want warm piss.’

The stranger placed his hat beneath his arm, leather case in his hand, and took his cup to a table next to the opaque window. He didn’t wish to place his arms upon the table, lest it should dirty his suit. He looked again around the room, into the wooden rafters, certain that he could see the day outside through gaps in the boards. A bird of some breed was strutting along one of the beams.

The assembled in the room were mostly white men and black women, all with skins of a darker shade. Even though the stranger had lived in this country in his youth, he was not acclimated to this Mississippi heat. His blood was for moist green lands; his suit for the Royal Courts of Justice. This place a more than just a step back into his personal history.

The stranger tapped his fingers on the table. The wood felt soft. Turning his hand over, he found dirt beneath his fingernails. Reaching down into his bag, he retrieved a nail file. As he straightened up he looked directly at a pistol.

The man who had been standing at the bar was staring at him again. This time from directly across the table. The stranger looked up from the gun at hip to the weathered face. The dark eyes, less obscured from below, were heavy-lidded. Beneath the wavy line of his moustache, the man sucked spit between his teeth. His front teeth remained bared.

‘Mister Hunter, I presume,’ said the stranger. ‘Please, take a seat.’ With a hand on the top of his pistol, Hunter did so. ‘I contacted you. My name is –’

‘Don’t tell me you name,’ Hunter growled. ‘Don’t need it. Don’t wanna know it.’ With his hand still cradling the cup, he thumped it upon the table. ‘Hunter ain’t my name neither. It’s my living. So . . .’ Fist in hand, Hunter cracked his knuckles. ‘Who you want hunted?’

The stranger leaned back from the table. The chair creaked behind him as he crossed his legs. ‘There is man who was a sergeant at Parchman Farm Penitentiary. In his time there he committed gross crimes against inmates under his guard. This man has murdered many, as well as designing the killings and attacks of many more persons, undertaken by criminals under his command. I was committed to seeking charges against this man. But before this sergeant could face justice, he fled. He is a threat to any and every society. It is justice that I seek.’

‘Justice is what I do,’ Hunter replied. ‘Mostly.’ He pulled a wodge of tobacco from his pocket, stuffed it into the corner of his mouth, sucked and chewed.

‘Do not misunderstand my motive, of course,’ the stranger continued. ‘I would rather that this man is captured alive to face the consequences of the horrors that he inflicted upon humankind. I am not a vengeful man, yet I do not trust the system of those who allowed this treatment to continue.’

Hunter was staring at the stranger. His jaw rolled as he chewed. He spat a line of tobacco from the corner of his mouth; the stranger watched it hit the floor, threads of tobacco floating in the puddle. Hunter was appraising the neat side-parting in the stranger’s blonde hair. The pale complexion. The tidy little line of moustache. The appearance of this smart, educated man in a land of outlaws. ‘What personal harm did this sergeant do on you?’ he asked.

‘I’m sorry?’ Through his description of the fugitive, Hunter noticed that a slight flush had raised high up on the stranger’s cheeks.

‘You say that you ain’t vengeful, but you want revenge. I get a sense that this ain’t just about correcting the wrongs of the state. You on the side of The Law, but you ain’t usin’ them; you usin’ me.’

The stranger’s thin lips tightened to flesh. Like, his eyes narrowed. Hunter stopped chewing. He spat the rest of the tobacco onto the floor.

‘There is evil in this world,’ the stranger replied. ‘There always has been, since creation; there always will be. We will encounter it but we can never eradicate it. This man . . .’ The stranger put his fist to his lips. He tightened his fingers. Pensive, the stranger watched shadows of folk passing by on the other side of the window. Turning, he smiled at Hunter. ‘Recently I rescued a friend of mine from this sergeant. Like many others, I have come to learn, my friend had been illegally incarcerated, serving his imprisonment in the cruel care of this sergeant. Part of the reason why he was treated so badly? Because the sergeant recognised my friend from his past. My friend knew the sergeant’s true identity. As the man who murdered my father.’

‘I see,’ Hunter said. ‘Sounds to me like reason enough for revenge. An’ you want him dead?’

‘That would be justice,’ the stranger answered with a nod. ‘But it would also save the lives of others.’

‘What’s his name, this sergeant?’

‘Jacob Helland.’

‘An’ where can I find Jacob Helland.’

Through the window, the sun was directly on the stranger. Again he dabbed his forehead with his handkerchief. ‘I don’t know,’ he replied.

Chapter Two

‘Scenting the Trail’

Hunter had garnered little information about his prey from the vengeful Englishman. But there was something about that name Helland that scratched at him. He’d heard it spoke before. Somewhere. Within the itch, he couldn’t recall the who or the when. Most of his life was spent on the road. When it was on the ground he was a ghost in the shadows. He had no friends, few acquaintances, no one to call upon. But in his search for the new target he wasn’t quite restricted by all of the points of the compass. The Englishman had told Hunter that he’d done a little digging for himself. Most importantly that the last direction that Helland had been seen pointing in was Rolling Fork in Sharkey County.

It seemed that this man Helland had a past of living by his own laws, even when employed by The Law. Busted from his job as a small town deputy for murdering the Englishman’s daddy, he’d been sent to Parchman. Rather than allow it to be a demotion, Helland had used his new role to torment anyone under his control: torturing for fun; killing when the fun was done. By the sound, Helland had loved his new role. Hunter knew well enough how the taste of blood on a tongue was apt to create an appetite. Folks believed that it took a certain type of man to be that way, but that wasn’t the truth. It just came more naturally to some.

Riding through just another Mississippi town where the cemetery was the most populated site, with nothing but a few streets of houses and a road running through it, he decided to stop. He wasn’t yet sure what he would do when he arrived in Rolling Fork. A man from out of town come to ask questions was sure to set tongues a’blazin’. By what he knew of the man, Helland was not a man who would take to questions being asked about him.

Hunter pulled up his vehicle in the dusty street. An old boy sitting out in the forecourt of the one-pump gas station watched him leave the car, walk over the porch and through the doors of Blue Front Cafe. Country blues was playing on the juke. Pairs of bright white eyes in black faces turned to peer at the vagabond in the door. Hunter’s head turned slow, meeting each pair. ‘Negra town,’ he muttered. Helland, he had been told, was a man full of hate, malice and racial aggression. No way that he would be found here. But Hunter was, and he was thirsty.

He walked towards the bar, each step watched. The man behind the rickety table that served as a counter slung the dishcloth he was holding over his shoulder. Gravity had taken his cheeks and shoulders; scleritis his eyes: red and yellow.

‘Help you?’ he asked.

‘Gotta beer?’ Hunter asked, looking at the row of bottles above the man’s shoulder.

‘You gonna take an’ git?’

Hunter peeled a pair of dollars from the roll that the Englishman had given to him: his advance of a quarter, plus expenses. ‘I give you this pair, you give me a pair an’ I’ll slide.’ The old man stared at the paper money, and then at Hunter’s face. Hunter cocked his head. ‘Well?’

The old man shuffled to the shelf, reached on his toes and pulled down two bottles of beer. Hunter tossed the bills on the counter. The old man quickly swiped them into the front pocket of his apron. ‘Go on now and git,’ he said.

‘Glad for your ‘quaintance.’ Hunter picked the two bottles up in one hand, chiming them. He grinned at the faces, still watching, ‘Boys,’ and left.

Leaning against the wall of the Blue Front, Hunter popped the cap of the bottle on his belt buckle. The old boy across the street continued to play the game of Stare. With time to kill and fundamentals to process, Hunter was happy to compete. Defeated, the old boy found his way into the gas station. Dipping his hand into his pocket, Hunter slipped a pinch of tobacco into his mouth. As he sipped at the beer, the sun on his face, the sound of the blues drifted to Hunter through the open window of the café. It was followed by voices.

‘You think he Klan?’ a gruff voice said.

‘Nah’n,’ another replied. ‘Had him a weapon at his side. He n’t of pay. He’a just shot n’ then git.’ That brought laughter, broken with staccato coughing.

‘They ain’t call theyself Klan round here no mo’,’ the voice that Hunter recognised as the old man who sold him the beer. ‘They goin’ by The Knights of the White Camellia again. Like in daddy’s day.’ Hunter leaned his head closer to the window. ‘They come over the Louis’ana border, I hear. Roll right through here on they way to the Delta Forest, recruitin’ up they some locals, gettin’ together to do some badness.’

Hunter looked back down the naked road that he driven in on. The one that stretched all the way to the Delta Forest. A bunch of men down that way “gettin’ together to do some badness”. He asked his gut what it thought about that.

Chapter Three

‘The Forest’

On his way the previous night to find a boarding house, Hunter had rolled through the Delta National Forest on the route road. With the sun setting over the plantations, the poplars and magnolias, he’d changed his mind about where he’d spend that night. The car spitting dust as he turned in the road, he drove back the way he’d come.

This was floodplain land, long stretches of flat green waste, pockets of lakes, the greenest trees in the country. There was nothing out here. ‘Perfect place for a Klan meet,’ he mumbled. A blue heron flapped out of the trees and over the plain. Cruising past the forest, Hunter watched it all the way to the horizon. A little further on, a track road ran into the forest. Turning off the main road, he travelled into the forest and made bed in his car for the night. Except for the wildlife and the wind through the trees, nothing stirred in the forest that night.

*

Pushing his hat from his face, Hunter awoke to a tap of steel on the window. Three men were standing beside his car, either side, staring at him through the windows. The one standing in front of the car was diminutive, peering over the bonnet from beneath his peaked cap and along the barrel of his rifle. Through the passenger side, Hunter could only see the midriff of another man moving alongside the car. In his thick hand, the rifle was pointing downward. The one who had tapped on the window, peering in at him, was lined deeply around the eyes, made deeper by the narrow eyes of malice. He was wearing a beard, with the moustache shaved. Hunter made to open his door; the man on the driver’s side nudged it closed with his knee. Hunter lowered the window.

‘What you doin’ out here, boy?’ the man asked. His trigger finger stroked along the steel guard. Hunter looked again at the one in front. He shifted slightly as Hunter moved, resettling his aim.

Hunter leaned back in his seat, put his hat on his head. ‘Sleepin’,’ he replied. ‘Just sleepin’.’

A hound jumped up at the passenger side, its feet clawing at the glass and slipping to the ground. It jumped again, caught hold of the frame. First a bark, then a growl. It was yanked away by the third figure, pacing beyond the passenger door. It bothered Hunter none. Wasn’t going to ever bother the owner of the vehicle either.

‘You been poachin’ in my woods, boy?’

Hunter turned to face the man by his door. ‘Let me out my car,’ he said.

The man laughed. He looked at the other two. Neither of the others joined him in laughter. Hunter pointed at the little man beyond the bonnet.

‘You wanna stop pointin’ that thing at me, son.’ He took a pinch of tobacco from his pocket, tucked it in his cheek. He thought of reaching for his pistol. It was beneath his backside. He measured the chance of reaching for it unseen. He weighed the quiet of the forest. Instead, tugging on his moustache, he smiled at the man beside his door. ‘Just let me out.’

The man’s smile disappeared. ‘You didn’t answer my question.’

‘Told you I was sleepin’.’ Hunter shrugged. The pistol dug into his flesh. ‘I was sleepin’.’

‘What else you doin’ in my woods?’

‘These here is your woods, huh?’ Hunter nodded. He ran a finger along his chin, a sound like sticks through gravel. ‘I was always of opinion that these was free for all an’ any soul.’

‘Not this part, it ain’t.’

‘I didn’t know. Now I know.’ Hunter adjusted his backside. The barrel of the pistol was beneath him, but the grip was freed, covered by his coat. He put his hand on the seat. ‘How’d you get you a piece of land such as this? I been thinkin’ about living just like you good ol’ boys for some time now.’

‘You bein’ smart with me?’ The man rested the barrel of his rifle on the open window. His finger stroked the trigger.

‘Ain’t bein’ smart with no one, boss.’ Hunter adjusted one last time. As he did, he pulled the pistol from beneath him, holding it down against the side of his seat. He cleared his throat. ‘Ain’t been doin’ no poachin’. Was just sleepin’, truly. Now. Just let me get out the car, stretch my legs, and I’ll be on my way.’

The man looked at each of his companions. Hunter looked at the lean waist of the one holding the dog, shirt tucked into his beige trousers; the thick arms. The rifle was removed from his open window. The man in front of the car seemed confused, as to whether he should also lower his rifle. The door was opened for Hunter.

His pistol remained in hand as he stepped from the car. He stretched out his shoulders, pointing the gun to the sky. ‘Don’t recommend sleepin’ in a ve-hicle over the night,’ he said. ‘Man!’ He wiggled his waist and reached over each shoulder, the pistol waving around. He rolled his head. He jumped, knees up, a few times. Without looking at any face, he slipped the pistol into the waist of his trousers.

‘So I told you what I was doin’: sleepin’,’ he said with a smile. ‘What are you ol’ boys doin’ out so early?’ He turned to look at the man on the other side of the car. He had long hair, a beard to match, salt and streaky pepper. There was nothing distinguishing to his features, save the scowling glare. Hunter nodded at him.

‘You can lower that now, Leo,’ the closer man said to the man at the front of the car. Leo’s feet continued to jitterbug. He didn’t seem keen to look Hunter in the eyes, not now that his sight was clear through the air, rather than along the length of the rifle. ‘What we doin’ out here is no business of yours, stranger,’ he said to Hunter. ‘Not like your business don’t mean nothin’ to us. See, we can’t just have folks walkin’ around in our business. ‘Specially if they stealin’ from our hunt stock.’

‘That’s what you doin’? Huntin’?’ Hunter asked.

The man shared a look with the man holding the dog on a leash. ‘Ain’t your business, but it’s about that, yeah.’ The man took a step closer the Hunter. ‘And you ain’t got no huntin’ gun there, stranger. So what is your business?’

‘Could say that I’m huntin’ too.’

‘Would that be bounty?’

The dog barked. Hunter heard the chain leash jangle. He looked over at the man on the far side of the car and nodded; smiled at the little one in front of the car. He pulled his coat tight. ‘That’s my business,’ he said into the eyes of the man standing next to him.

Chapter Four

‘The Holly House’

‘An’ if they was just good ol’ boys, out for a hunt,’ Hunter argued with himself, back once more on the same route of the previous night, ‘then why the needle? Ain’t no way that they own a part of the forest.’

Most of the fugitives that Hunter trailed simply didn’t want to be found: trails became faint scents became dead ends. Yet sometimes fate decreed that whatever way he pointed, there they would be. There had been a time when his target was fishing on the river right outside the hometown where Hunter had been employed; that catch had only taken half a day. Another time, an itch had brought the fugitive right back to the scene of the crimes, when Hunter had only just begun searching for clues. Most of the time, though, Hunter felt that he was just around the corner from where the shadow of his target had just slipped into shade. It was only a feeling, but one that kept his boots on the move. However, the same fate that handed out a run of winning hands at a card table was more inclined towards laughter in failure.

The comment on those Knights of the White Camellia that drifted to Hunter through an open window in a town of nothing was a gift, Hunter was sure of that. The feeling that trailed thread from the target right to the toe of his boots had made him half expect that one of the boys in the forest would have been this Helland. But the man had been described to him: the deeply pockmarked face, the skin like leather, hatred and death in his eyes and heavy on his shoulders. Hunter had a feeling that he’d know Helland when he found him.

If he found him.

Still, those good ol’ boys were jittery over something. Small town fellas like that could just get on their high horse about their land having no right of way for strangers, sure. Could even be that they simply like to pick fights when they’re in a posse. It felt to Hunter more like they had been warning him away from the area. But the main man had given him a couple of opportunities to declare if he shared their interest, of that he was sure now.

On his way out of the forest, Hunter had driven around a big old beaten Chevy truck, presumably the transport of the good ol’ boys, standing to the side of the track road. With a glance behind him, he’d hopped out and taken a peek into the cargo bed – nothing but a few sheets and what looked like pickaxe handles. Nothing in the cab, either. He knew, now, how he’d find out what their real pastimes in the forest were.

Hunter drove on to Holly Bluff, the nearest town. The town was even smaller than where he had stopped to pick up drinks – that there was a town so far out here in the basin at all was more than he was used to. There was a post office, a bar and a few stores, but not much else except for the small wooden building that pronounced itself as The Holly House. More than that, there was a sign in the window that said VACANCIES. Hunter drove his car round back. He slipped his pistol into his holdall, swung it over his shoulder, and made his way round front.

The folks that he saw ambling along the street were mostly of age. Their concerns would mostly be leant to groceries and gossip, he knew, not a stranger in town. Bare few vehicles were standing or driving through the street. The way of the small southern towns: no one needed to be fixed for ever leaving. Hunter stepped onto the porch of The Holly House and pushed through the door.

The reception counter was unattended. The windows were open, a light breeze playing with the curtains, stirring up the damp smell. Hunter peered through into the breakfast room, three tables covered with gingham tablecloths. No one. He tapped the bell on the counter. Tapped it twice more and a girl wearing a dress, perhaps made from the same red and white patterned tablecloths, sauntered along the hall. Hunter had been quite unprepared for her appearance. Her dark hair was made up with curls, sculpted and shaped, as was her figure. He looked from her chest to her face. Her lips were thick with rouge, her skin youthful, unlined. Her eyes were large, full of life and health. She looked fit for a picture house, rather than a boarding house.

‘Help you?’ she said, hand on hip and tongue in cheek.

‘Was lookin’ for a room, honey,’ Hunter said, slipping his holdall on to the floor.

‘Got money?’

Hunter pulled the roll of bills from his pocket. ‘How much you want?’

The girl placed her elbows on the counter and cupped her head in her hands. ‘Depends how long you stay,’ she said, drawing her eyes up from the money.

‘Let’s just say two nights, for now. Although if you give me good service . . .’ Hunter began to peel notes from the bundle. The girl chuckled.

‘Half dollar a night,’ she replied, swaying her head in her hands. She smiled, her teeth as white as her eyes. ‘That’s the usual rate.’

Hunter handed her two bills. ‘You just hold on to these for me, just in case I need the room for longer.’ As she went to take them, he held them tight in his grip. Time for their eyes to meet. He loosed his hold.

The girl stuffed the money into her brassiere, adjusting herself after. ‘I don’t do this,’ she said.

‘How d’you mean?’

She laughed again, a flick of the hair. ‘I mean that this ain’t my place, silly. Just lookin’ after it for my olds. They’re out just now.’ Another flick of the hair.

‘That right?’ Hunter said.

‘Uh-huh.’

‘So my board? Just keepin’ it warm?’ He looked at where the girl had concealed the money.

The girl pouted. ‘Safest place in town.’

‘That right?’ Hunter said again. ‘Say, what’s your name? Pretty girl like you, I’m guessin’ that it’s Frances or Connie, something sweet like that.’

Leaning her head back, she laughed from her chest. Hunter watched. ‘Couldn’t be further from right, mister,’ she said. ‘And I ain’t tellin’ you, a stranger in my house. But I will show you to your room.’

He followed her swinging hips along the hall and up the stairs, where she walked up almost sideways. Old fashioned pictures lined the wall, mostly pictures of the town and the countryside: old wooden buildings and sepia landscapes. When they reached the top of the stairs, Frances or Connie or Sandra, whatever, with her back to the wall, simply pointed towards a door at the front of the building. ‘That’s you,’ she said. He tipped his hat as he passed her by, sparing her a wink.

Hunter put his holdall on the bed. He was grateful that she’d left him be; pretty girls could distract a man like Hunter from how he had come by a thick roll of bills. He looked around the room: wardrobe, dresser, bed with a floral spread, little table with a chair next to it by the window, a picture of The Man on the wall: sombre with the ills of the world on him. After the previous night, he could do with catching a few winks before the coming night.

Moving the chair away from the table, Hunter pulled back the curtain, glanced up the road in each direction. He opened the window a fraction. The only sound of the day that ventured through was light conversation, and even that was quieter than the wisping chatter of the leaves on the breeze. He couldn’t have positioned a better place to settle for a time. Hunter stared out of the window onto the bar directly opposite for a while, before kicking off his boots and settling onto the bed.

Chapter Five

‘Hunting’

As soon as he woke, Hunter was standing and looking out of the window. The truck wasn’t there like he thought it would be. But the past had taught Hunter that stray dogs don’t creep too far from their lair. They’d be here someplace. Or heading this way. Even if they didn’t, if this wasn’t their town, he had a good idea where he’d be able to find them.

Tipping the jug that he found on the dresser, full of clean water, he washed his face and torso in the basin bath. The pretty girl had been kind enough to leave a fresh flannel; now it was covered in a few day’s dirt. Hunter took a clean shirt from the holdall, black. His hunting uniform. On his way out, he didn’t see anyone downstairs. Too bad that he didn’t feel that he’d be sticking around to find out how deep the girl’s interest was in dirty cash money. Maybe. But if it came to a chase, he didn’t think that he’d be seeing the inside of Holly Bluff again any time soon. Maybe he could stop by on his way to collecting the rest of his loot. Share a little cash for a victory dance with the girl.

Hunter slung the holdall in the trunk. The pistol was inside his jacket. Didn’t want to be caught out without, like he had been that morning. The track road had seemed like a safe enough place to sleep a night, even if he had been prospecting for what happened in the forest of a night. Turns out that it might just be the viper’s nest that he was seeking. There was only one way to find out, but the day was still too broad.

Standing outside the bar, beer in hand, Hunter watched the street. If anything it was even quieter now than it had been earlier. Watching was just a part of his job. Hunter never felt the need to hurry anything. He had deep satisfaction for the vocation that had chosen him. Like this Helland, he too had worked for The Law. The pay was too lousy and the authority too oppressive to keep him; realised that young. Trained by the way of the cannon was all that Hunter needed to take with him, on to his new path of content.

The view up the road was straight and clear, giving him time enough to retreat back across the road if he saw the truck coming. Nothing came but a few motors carefully driven by old timers by the time that the dusk was settling in. He hadn’t seen the one other thing that he’d been watching for either. He had seen only white faces. He smiled to himself. It was time to bring the car out front.

 *

 A little further on from the bar, Hunter sat in his car at an intersection of streets. Soon enough, a truck pulled out from a side street, heading towards the Delta Forest, followed by a smaller car. It wasn’t his truck, but they had crept so slow that Hunter had enough time to see what he had wanted. Inside the truck were two older boys, bearded and rough like the good ol’ boys of that morning. A few younger bucks were in the car behind, their expressions severe: not young fellas heading out to raise sand. Sure enough, the nocturnal animals were coming out to play. With headlamps off, Hunter followed behind from a distance. He had been pretty certain of the track that the convoy would be heading for, so was surprised when they instead carried on down the road, with the forest to their right.

Waders were out in the swampy land to the left, catching supper. With the windows open, Hunter could hear the restless noise of the forest critters, the wild before the quiet of night. Ahead, the cars had disappeared around a corner. He’d allowed the gap between them to grow. His Plymouth wasn’t the sort of vehicle that came bumping around out here when the sun was going down. When Hunter rounded the corner, they weren’t to be seen.

Smiling to himself, he continued on past a different track road, tighter and more inconspicuous than the one that he’d woken up on. Parking up in the forest would be to announce his arrival. Hunter’s intention was watch, see what was exchanged, hear what was said. It might yet be that he’d only stumbled upon a bunch of wild hick geese. Somehow he didn’t think so; his guts told him different. Small town folks have their small town predictable ways about them. Without The Law around, they govern the way that things are done. Without The Law around appealed to Hunter and his vocation.

Ahead he saw a building of some sort, a barn away from the road, a scar on the horizon half-hidden within the tall grasses. That would do as a fine place the leave the car; maybe shelter for the night if the meet ran late or the good ol’ boys fancied themselves a hunt. Crawling forward, he found the road that led towards it. The chassis of the car didn’t like the deeply-potted road. Hunter held onto the window frame, bumping his head a couple of times on the roof of the Plymouth.

Now that he was closer to the barn, he could see that it was large and in an extreme state of disrepair. The roof had multiple lengths of wood missing. The sides were as sparsely clad as a row of teeth in the gums of an old boy out here in the wilderness towns. Within the last light of the disappearing day, the lights that were coming from inside the barn hadn’t shown up from the road. Heading along the track, nothing on either side of him but impassable terrain, nowhere to turn, Hunter noticed that in the shabby dereliction someone was home.

Chapter Six

‘The Barn’

Before reaching the end of the narrow track Hunter noticed that a truck was following through the dust kicking up from the tyres of his bumpy ride. Peering through the window, he saw that the road he was driving on was a raised bank dissecting the terrain. If he tried, all he’d get was stuck. Better suited to the outback land than his car, the truck was steaming along behind him. ‘Well Goddamn,’ he said. There was only one way, so he continued forward.

The track led around the side of the barn. Through the breaks in the cladding, Hunter could see bodies moving around inside, shadows in the sketchy light. When he pulled the Plymouth round back, other cars were already parked on the flat land. The occupants of the truck and the car that he’d seen in town were disembarking, closing their doors behind them. Hunter pulled up behind the car and killed the engine. All the faces turned; no one paid a second look.

Hunter remained in his car, the sun creeping down beyond the far away trees, firing the burnt-colour wood of the barn to red. The truck pulled up behind him. Looking over his shoulder, he recognised the three good ol’ boys from the forest. There was only one way that he could deal with this situation that he had landed himself in. After checking that his revolver was in his pocket, he stepped out of the car.

‘Howdy, boys,’ he said, tipping back his hat. ‘Didn’t expect to see you out here.’ He plucked a finger of tobacco from his pouch and slipped it in his mouth.

The two taller men walked towards him. The smaller man, who had been standing with a levelled rifle pointing at him – Leo, he remembered the man calling him – looked from each to the other. They seemed to be unarmed. Hunter made a show of readjusting his pistol. The one with the long hair, who had been with dog on leash, looked over Hunter’s car. The main man stopped in front of Hunter. ‘Fuck you doin’ here?’ he said.

Hunter spat out a line of tobacco, smiled at the man. ‘Hear me that there’s a meet goin’ on out here tonight. Been lookin’ for The Knights for a whiles, to join with. Without knowin’ ya, seems that I found ya.’

The man looked at his companions. His head swung back towards Hunter. ‘How d’you hear that, city boy?’

‘Y’ask the right folks the right questions then you tend to find the right answers.’

‘So who’d you arkse these questions?’ The man’s eyes were narrow as the clouds, lit under by the last of the sun.

‘Didn’t ask the name, boss. Wasn’t that that needed the knowin’, just the place to be.’ Hunter sucked on the tobacco, spat the rest out. ‘This is the place to be?’ Silence and a hard stare answered him. ‘Say, didn’t get your name, neither. All y’all’s names. ‘Cept for little Leo here.’ Hunter winked at Leo. Leo’s mouth opened and closed like an angry fish on a dusty bank, his feet dancing from side to side.

‘That don’t need knowin’ either,’ the man replied, a trace of humour, or something like, picking at the corner of his mouth. ‘You said that you was huntin’. So tell me now, what’s your prey then, hunter?’

‘Maybe the same thing as you, I’m guessin’, seein’ as all us boys find ourselves out here now.’ Sucking his lips, the man slowly began to nod. ‘But even if you ain’t exchangin’ y’all names with me, you just gone done guessed mine. By name and by nature,’ he said with a smile, flicking the rim of his hat.

Hunter followed the three men around the far side of the barn and in through the open doorway, the doors missing. Inside, other men were gathered in posses, leaning against straw bales. They were all dressed in much the same way: denim pants, heavy jackets, Stetsons and cowboy boots. Dressed like hunters. Even with the looks shooting towards the new face, Hunter blended in like swamp weed to dark water. Staying on the fringes, he listened in to the conversations. Eyes would trip his way, either including him or appraising him. When he was asked where he came from, he’d answer the same each time: ‘From the city.’ Down this way that meant Jackson, without further question. With the range that he imagined these local boys had most likely travelled in their lives, Hunter guessed that they wouldn’t have common acquaintances.

‘An’ what made you wanna join in with The Knights?’

‘Well,’ Hunter would reply, thumbs tucked in behind the waistband of his pants, the heels of his boots at ninety degrees to each other, cocksure and blending, ‘daddy was a confederate an’ his daddy before him, an’ back beyond. So I was just brung up in the way that any good confederate boy should be. If ever I have a boy of my own, he’ll be just like his daddy, too.’

The Knights that Hunter met were whoopers and hollerers, especially receptive to anything that resembled racism. His response to their outpourings of vitriolic hatred was muted – they seemed not to have the wit to recognise that his expression of contempt was anything more than the countenance of the rough-looking new fella. They were just wild dogs, small town boys such as these. The alpha begins a chase, the others follow. Promise them a bone and they’ll gnash their fangs. Throw the bone and they’ll demonstrate just how feral they are. They might be family men, some, but they were pack dogs first.

Hunter regretted not bringing beers for his stakeout. He’d not foreseen actually joining in with the Knights; not that night. There were a few bottles of moonshine being passed around. He took a few slugs, when offered. The State of Mississippi was something else. Out of state he could go into a bar and get some of the good stuff. The contents of the bottles being passed around tasted like it had been brewed in a trough before the swill had been washed out.

Slipping from one group to the next, Hunter studied the faces. Not one looked like they had ever been in the employ of The Law. None looked as if they’d ever washed in anything more than a bucket. Each man smelled the same as the next: of dry stale sweat; of dirt and earth. Each probably with only the set of clothes that they were wearing; all bought at the same store in town.

What Hunter had stumbled upon was not what he’d imagined at all. If this was some kind of organisation preparing an uprising, they were pretty damn short on the organising. Just as he was about to find his friend who had no name to offer him, so that he could move his truck and Hunter could get the hell on his way to somewhere useful, someone that Hunter had not yet met moved into the centre of the barn.

He watched the way that the man walked. Head down, rim of his hat facing the dirt floor. He was tall; his long and straight legs seemed not to bend as he stepped forward. Different to the rest, he was wearing a leather jacket, short at the waist of his khaki pants. His hands were in his pockets, walking head down as if searching for a key lost on the floor. Beneath his hat, also leather, his hair was shorter than the most of them, scruffy beneath the rim, mid-length. As he skulked, the man kicked at the dirt with the pointed toe of his boot. In the dim shadows in which the man was standing, Hunter could not see his face. Until he looked up.

The man scoured the groups standing around and shooting the shit. His eyes were raptor-like, picking his prey. Hunter saw his eyebrow twitch, something uncontrollable, desperate to escape. Hunter hadn’t noticed that he was carrying a shotgun until he began to raise it. As he stripped the faces of the men with his glare, his eyes locked on Hunter, staring back at him. The man might have had a few days of beard growth, but that didn’t hide the deep pockmarks in the leathery face. Pulling thumbs out from behind his belt, instinctively Hunter made to reach for his pistol. He managed to stop his hand, instead rubbed his stomach as the eyes of the former sergeant of Parchman Farm Penitentiary, the fugitive, his quarry, continued around the barn.

Helland fired the shotgun into the roof of the barn, scattering roosting birds, showering one group of White Knights with rotten debris. Splintered parts of the ceiling continued to rain as dust.

‘Hey, buddy,’ one of the men in the group said, looking at the fallen parts of roof on the floor around him. He was the tallest in that group. One that Hunter had met. An alpha. ‘What the hell you think you doin’, new boy?’ Helland was striding stiffly towards the man. ‘Ain’t no way that you – Hey.’ The man lifted his hands, defensive, warding off. ‘Hey!

Helland smashed the stock of the shotgun into the man’s face. Hunter saw the burst of blood. The other men in the group stepped backward. Following the man down, dropping down to his knees, Helland pressed the level barrel of the shotgun across the man’s throat. Easing his weight down. On the floor, the man was squirming; his feet kicking up dirt. His hands grappled with the shotgun, trying to pry it away from his throat. Helland pressed down harder.

‘Hey, man,’ another of the group began. Don’t you think – ?’

Shotgun in hand, Helland sprung up. He pointed the shotgun into the man’s face, less than a hand span away. ‘Don’t I think: what?’

Stepping quickly back, the second man also raised his hands. ‘Nuh-nuthin. Nuthin’.’

‘By . . . dothse,’ the bloodied man on the floor said, struggling for air, still writhing, boots scrabbling in the dirt. Hunter noticed that the man’s hands were reluctant to touch his face, desperate claws pawing the air. ‘He broke by dosthe.’

‘Anyone else want a broke nose?’ Helland said, scanning the barrel of the shotgun around the room. ‘Anyone else got anythin’ they wanna say?’

The room remained silent; the men all sliding their feet towards the barn walls. Feeling a little exposed, Hunter too shuffled backward. He could feel the weight of the pistol in his pocket as he moved. Shotgun now facing the floor, one handed, Helland moved back towards the centre of the barn. Now his head moved from each group at a greater pace. Hunter watched the fugitive’s chest rise and fall. Whether it was from exertion or that same brooding violence just waiting to erupt, he couldn’t be sure.

‘I see y’all standin’ gossipin’ like a bunch of homegals,’ Helland called. His voice wasn’t loud, yet it carried on electric-fired lines through the silence. ‘I hear ya talkin’ ‘bout families at home an’ yard duties you gotta tend to.’ No one responded. Hunter heard the man beside him cough quietly into his palm. It gained the fury of Helland’s glare. ‘Some of y’all is sayin’ what you’d do to nigger when you catch him. I heard it.’ Helland allowed each of his observations to float above the men and settle upon them like the fallen parts of roof each time before he continued. ‘But I ain’t seen you do nothin’ ‘bout goin’ out an’ catchin’ you one, sweatin’ out some justice. Standin’ an’ talkin’ is nothin’. Since I come here, ain’t seen no one do nothin’. I come here because I was told that there’s this group of tough guys, The Knights of the White Camelia, revengin’ history for themselves. Puttin’ history right. Well,’ Helland said, beginning to pace up and down the centre of the barn, ‘maybe there is. But it sure as hell don’t look like you bunch of fuckin’ pussies. So tell me this . . .’ He stopped centre again. The shotgun raised, moving in an arc. ‘Any of y’all wanna actually go out an’ get some nigger blood on your hands?’

No one answered. Helland took a step forward. ‘I won’t kill any man who says that he don’t,’ he said. ‘But I might kill y’all if not one of you wants to, an’ I’ve dragged my ass down to this shithole for nuthin’.’ He broke the barrel of the shotgun, loaded another cartridge. The snap of the barrel as he jammed it closed. ‘ So I’ll arkse again: do any of y’all want to come with me and kill niggers.’

The men hollered in response. Some pumped arms; others raised their bottles.

‘Well, all right,’ Helland said, lowering the fully loaded shotgun. ‘Then I’ll tell y’all how it’s gonna be done.’

Chapter Seven

‘The Face of Evil’

Trucks and motorcars were ahead of Hunter and behind him. With a feeling in his gut that was foreign to him, Hunter drove back towards the town. He thought that he had known all that he needed to of Helland. Having seen him in the flesh and heard his speech, he had stared into the face of evil; evil had stared right back. He remembered now why he recognised the name.

Hunter had underestimated a target once before: a domestic abuser who the brother of the victim had wanted treated. A Mexican, that man had been rabid; just didn’t know how to die, even leaking heavily out of multiple wounds. Hunter hadn’t been scared of that man, just exasperated by the energetic denial of his ride down into hell. The man that he’d seen this night had the fires of that furnace stoking the rage within him.

The Knights of the White Camellia had been much as he’d expected: a mix of boys with time on their hands and little order about them. Small town sects could get nasty, but usually only after they’d tasted blood. They had little wisdom to draw from, and could scare like sheep. Ex-lawmen were a little tougher; trained killers, mostly. But if revenge was their sole mission, it could blind them into making mistakes. They’d been above The Law once, and that was a hard rattle to shake. The man that Hunter had seen was merciless. Driven only by hatred and malice.

He had once heard of a deputy in small town, a known acquaintance of bootleggers and villains. Most lawmen found ways of making a little extra cash beneath the laws of the land. Hunter had been one himself, visiting illegal gambling rings, taking kickbacks for his silence. Heck, he’d even sat in with them on occasion. But this deputy that he’d heard rumour of used criminals and the poor, instructed them to do his bidding: be it extortion, incitement of violence that he could then step into firing, or coldblooded murder. Word was that he cared not for monetary gains. He enjoyed the manipulation of the weak minded; got a sadistic kick out of seeing the world turn wild. He had wondered if this deputy really existed, or whether he was a fabrication of the minds of men justifying their own lawlessness. The name that the Englishman had spoken was a name that Hunter had not heard of for a long while. In the way that the monsters in the nightmares of youth vanish, he had dismissed those tales as folly. Even so, the name had remained tenant eternal of the dark mind.

Hunter felt for his pistol. Thinking back to that moment when he’d first realised that he was facing his man, he wished now that he’d laid him out dead on the floor right at that moment. Maybe that way he would never have heard the voice of the devil.

With his car parked around the back of The Holly House, his head low, Hunter walked in through the entrance. A man of middle-age was sitting at the desk, peering over his glasses at papers, tumbler of bourbon beside it, pen in hand.

‘You got a phone?’ Hunter asked.

Carefully putting the pen down, the man looked up. His complexion was ruddy; his skin blemished with dots of drinker’s acne. His eyes had that half-closed look of a man who knows his way to the bottom of a bottle. ‘Who are you, son,’ he asked, ‘to come in here and ask if I got a phone?’

‘I’m stayin’ here,’ Hunter replied. ‘I paid. Today. A girl. Your daughter?’ She hadn’t told Hunter her name. That seemed to be the way towards strangers in this forgotten town. He remembered her hiding the paper that he’d given her down the front of her dress.

‘Name?’ the man asked, moving the papers and peering down at a ledger.

‘I didn’t give it,’ said Hunter. ‘She didn’t ask.’

‘Well what is your name?’ the man asked, brushing the pen against his chin.

‘Billy James,’ Hunter said. Different town; different name.

‘Well, Billy James, your name isn’t down here.’

‘I told you that I didn’t give my name to the girl,’ Hunter said. ‘But I did give her two dollars.’

‘If you gave her two dollars to stay here then your name would be writ down in this here book.’

Hunter pulled the roll of notes from his pocket. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you two dollars more, if that’s what it takes to use your phone. Don’t need the lodging no more, just the phone.’

‘We don’t have a telephone here, Mister James,’ the man replied. Eyes over the top of his spectacles, he lifted the glass, meandering until it found his suckling lips.

‘Where can I find one in this place?’

‘In the town?’

Hunter nodded

‘Just one that I know of, for the use of a stranger in the town. In the post office. And that’s closed ‘til Monday noon.’

Two days away. ‘There a central operator’s station, or the like?’

‘I’d say that’s in the post office, too,’ the man replied. In between conversation, he was eyeing the notes. ‘You can stay here ‘til they open,’ he said. ‘Dollar a night.’

‘Told you already I don’t need to stay,’ Hunter replied. ‘I don’t have the time to wait out, neither. All I need is to use a phone. You know anyone who’s got one that I can use?’

‘Mister James, I’m not certain that I could recommend you in the state of high disarray that you’re in. I’d suggest bedding down until the public phone is in use.’

Hunter stuffed the money into his pocket. ‘Thanks,’ he said, and walked out of the door.

The Knights and their new leader wouldn’t be leaving the town until dawn at the earliest. All that Hunter could do was to start heading in the direction that they soon would. He had to speak to the Englishman as soon as he possibly could. He had to warn him that Helland was heading his way.

Chapter Eight

‘The Englishman’

Hunter didn’t know the town that the Englishman was staying in, just that it was near to a place called Honahee. He’d settled there for an unfixed term while he helped out a friend of an old friend of his. Someone from his youth. Something to do with the murder of an escaped convict. He hadn’t given the name of where he was staying; just a number that Hunter must call.

With all the money that he’d need for a year burning in his pocket, Hunter knew that he could likely be able to trace FDR’s daughter, if he wanted. If he was in a city, he probably could. Mississippi was a world unto its own. Things down here moved at the pace of field plough being drug by a weary horse. The only way to find someone was for chance to lead you to someone that they knew. Even then they wouldn’t give away anything easy or for free. There was a natural scepticism; a wariness of anything unknown.

Damn this situation. Fugitives were almost always just one man. Even if they joined in with crews, they were still just a man. If Hunter cut and run he doubted that the Englishman would ever be able to trace him. He knew better than anyone the ways that a man could stay hidden. He had been instructed to call with updates once a week. He could call as he headed over the state border, maybe head down to the sun in the west, find work searching out errant progenies. He’d been travelling this way for three days and already felt that this might be the job to end his days – either alive in a small town seeking a peaceful life, or in a field in a creeping puddle of blood. If the Englishman knew who he was truly dealing with then he might have decided to leave well alone. You don’t mess with the devil and come away with only a few burn scars.

As he drove north, the thought of fleeing continued to play through Hunter’s thoughts. Yet thoughts of the man Booth kept troubling him. Assassinating Lincoln had changed the world, especially down this way. Hunter had heard what the man Helland had said. Had seen for himself how he rallied the crowd beneath a hailstorm of threat. If that man was left free to raise an army of hate, not a single person in the entire south would be safe. Where the devil walked the earth, hell would follow.

Hunter headed the nose of his car towards Clarksdale. The town was coming to life as he pulled the car into a lot off Main Street. Stretching his legs, he wondered when Helland and his crew would begin their venture north. He rubbed his eyes. He was tired, brain-weary. After the call was made he would stop for coffee, before heading on.

He found a phone in the back of a general store, dipped in his pocket for cents, and phoned the number written on a napkin. Hunter heard the phone picked up at the other end.

‘Oxford Garden,’ the voice said. ‘You’re speaking with Marcia. How may I help you today?’

‘I need to speak to the Englishman,’ Hunter said, leaning on the booth, his voice low.

‘Do you have a name please, sir?’

‘Don’t know his name,’ Hunter said, repeating a new routine. ‘He’s tall. Fair. English.’

The voice at the other end hesitated. Hunter could picture her: prim in her neat waistcoat; long, manicured and varnished nails; blonde hair tied back. He could feel the dirt of a night’s drive sheening his skin. ‘Do you have a name please, sir?’ the girl repeated.

‘Still ain’t got a name,’ Hunter said. ‘He’s waitin’ upon my call. He said to just ask for the Englishman.’ And then Hunter remembered: ‘He said to say that it’s about his cousin.’

‘Very well, sir,’ Marcia replied. ‘I’ll put you through now.’ Hunter heard a loud click, and then a quieter one a few moments later. The sound of someone clearing their throat, and then breath trickled into the line.

‘Have you found anything?’ the English voice said.

‘I found your man,’ Hunter replied.

The Englishman hesitated. ‘Is he dead?’ he asked.

‘Not even close,’ Hunter said. ‘He’s too busy aimin’ to kill.’ Hunter explained the situation of chancing upon The Knights of the White Camelia, in the direction of where the Englishman had said that Helland was last spotted. He told how he had stumbled upon the clan meet in the barn opposite the forest. ‘He got them all on his side, quick enough. Told them what his plan was. That The Knights had been chased away with their tails between their legs, after some of their number was killed in some ongoin’ battle in a town. That they’d lost an opportunity to show the world what they was standin’ for. He said that the only way to announce that they wasn’t gonna go away was to go back to that town an’ show them that they still as alive as ever.’

‘Helland is in control of this group?’ the Englishman asked.

‘Man, they was probably only fixed to drive up to the next town along and tie some negras in sacks, beat ‘em a bit, these boys. Helland wants them to go back to lynching. Public execution. An’ that ain’t the least of it. He said that he knows how to recruit The Law into the game. He said that he ain’t gonna stop until the land is rid of the negras. Thing is, I get the impression that when he’s done with them then he’ll just about go on killin’ anyone he wants.’

‘Mmm.’ Hunter heard an expulsion of air through the phone. ‘What else did he say?’

Hunter thought back to Helland’s last words, when the good ol’ boys’ whooping reached peak level. ‘He repeated that there was plenty of unfinished business to be done in this place Honahee, an’ that –’

‘Where did you say?’ the Englishman asked. ‘Honahee?’

‘Sure,’ Hunter continued. ‘He said that it’s a town that’s more black than white. He wants to take it back; said that it would be their new base once it was rid of the negras. A place to spread out across the south.’

‘Did he say anything about any individuals in particular? Did he mention names?’

‘No names,’ Hunter said. ‘Just that while he was there he had something personal to revenge. That they all did.’

‘Where are you now?’ the Englishman asked. ‘How soon can you be here?’

‘Clarksdale. Just gonna get me a coffee an’ I’ll be on my way,’ Hunter replied.

‘Get here now,’ the Englishman said. ‘Quicker than you can. I’ll have a coffee waiting for you.

‘I know exactly where Helland is headed.’

Chapter Nine

‘Honahee’

As soon as he was within sight of the Oxford Garden Hotel, Hunter could see that the tall English gentleman was waiting outside, standing close to the curb and the cars buzzing by. Bobbing up and down on his heels, he was staring long at each car that passed, assessing those inside, and then on to the next. A few of the locals passing by were wearing something close to apposite attire as the Englishman, but none looked quiet so well fitted and clean. Standing tall and pale, he stood out like the president at a southern rally. Hunter saw that the Englishman had a hand in one pocket, holding something in the other.

With his window already lowered to let the breeze blow out some of the humid air, Hunter pulled up alongside the Englishman, staring in at him. He saw the gold chain of a pocket watch leading into the waistcoat pocket. There were few places in any city in the country where a man could stand in the street the way that the Englishman was, advertising his wealth about him, no matter who he was.

The Englishman handed the cup that he’d been holding through the window. ‘There’s your coffee,’ he said. ‘Follow me.’ He turned and walked to a car a few paces away, a black Buick.

With the coffee gone in a sip, Hunter was happy to keep with the pace that the Englishman was driving at, not the usual way that he drove when heading to a job. If it wasn’t for the car in front, there was no way that he would corner at the speed the Englishman was. More than once the Buick skidded sideways, making use of the entire width of the road before powering onward. Hunter could see the figure jolting around as the car sped over mounds in the road. He noticed the faces of the folks out for a drive as the bulking black monster roared past them.

Within the hour, the car in front had slowed, breezing alongside the river, past ponds and flowering shrubs, past the town sign dotted with Magnolia leaves that welcomed them to Honahee. For a southern town, this was one of the prettiest that Hunter had seen. As they cruised onward, he saw honeysuckle and clematis growing up the front of the wooden buildings. People stopping to talk to each other as they passed; children hoop-trundling down the street, folks steeping out of their way with a smile and a pat on the head. A bunch of people were gathered outside a local store, Huck’s Place. Some were sitting on the steps of the porch, others in the street; some with frowns punctuated with quizzical expressions, others laughing behind their hands or openly smiling. With the sound of fife and drums, whatever band they were watching was sure making a hullabaloo.

Hunter wasn’t certain what expression crossed over his face when he saw a strange-looking little fella marching along, weaving through the crowd in time to the shrill sound he was blowing. There was a little lady standing nearby, barefoot, kicking a floor drum and rapping on a snare, her long dark hair jumping around her. He looked for the rest of the band, but could see no one else accompanying them. The Englishman was heading onward towards some taller, brick buildings. With a last glance at the street musicians and the entertained crowd, Hunter followed.

In the centre of the square of buildings, they skirted around a tree. The bright flora around the base of the tree could not disguise the ominous presence of the dark, twisted trunk. Redemption Square, a little plaque said. In a little southern town, the undertone of such a centrepiece required little explanation.

Beyond the far side of the buildings was like travelling into an entirely different town. The fronts of the buildings, also wooden on this side, were in disrepair. To fit into anything like the same town as they had driven through, it was desperate for gentrification. Fitting with the abundant divide, there were men lying in street outside juke-joints and bars; he saw a couple of men arguing, pushing each other, a girl grabbing at one of them; mangy-looking dogs were scavenging dropped morsels, their litter dotting the road; shifty stares on scowling faces. The sounds of the music on this side of the town beat with dangerous, lowering tones. Hunter wondered how long the Englishman and his pocket watch would be able to stand out here before being approached. The people in this underbelly of humanity were watching as the shiny Buick slipped between two buildings and down a side street.

Away from the main street, the houses were small; but the further that they headed, the streets were once more lined with trees, flowering gardens and painted picket fences. The Buick stopped outside one, a chinaberry tree in the yard with most of its leaves littering the floor by the trunk, and the Englishman stepped out of the vehicle.

‘We must move the motorcars in a moment,’ he said, meeting Hunter in the street. ‘I wanted to show you first where we will be waiting this evening for the arrival of Helland.’

For all of that morning, now into the afternoon, Hunter had not been out of his car. With his hands on the base of his back, he leaned backwards, eyeing the drawn curtains and the dust-covered windows. ‘By the look, ain’t no one home.’

‘You’re right,’ the Englishman replied, watching down the street. ‘There hasn’t been for sometime. There was family here. Because of Jacob Helland, that family had to flee. And because of others. But mostly him. They’re lucky to be alive.’

Hunter watched the Englishman, his head turning in all directions. When he looked along the street, he saw curtains twitching. The Englishman’s hands were restless in the pockets of his smart trousers. The Englishman pulled out his pocket watch, glanced at the screen.

‘We must move soon,’ he said. ‘We’ll leave the cars further up the road, and then return.’

‘You keep saying we,’ Hunter said. For the first time the Englishman looked directly at him. ‘You ain’t gonna stay around here, are you?’

The Englishman’s lips tightened. The lines beside his eyes snaked outwards. Hunter took a half-step back. ‘For the brief time that you have been searching for the man, all I could think of is that he’ll get away. Somehow. That somehow he’ll continue to spread his violence. I did not leave the hotel in the time that you were tracking him, hopeful that you would give word of his demise. Yet I did not think that I would ever believe it. That I could never rest easy without seeing for myself that Helland has reached his demise.’ The Englishman looked away, towards the street that they had driven in upon. He looked at the house, a couple more of the last leaves falling from the tree. ‘I realised that all I wished for was to see Jacob Helland die. And this night I shall.’

Chapter Ten

‘The Dying Light’

As the day continued to drift towards darkness, the Englishman had told Hunter of the link between Helland and this house. The then Sergeant had arranged the petition for the release of a convicted murderer and rapist, a horror of humankind in his image, and fed him instruction to travel to this house to commit a grave crime upon an innocent woman and child. It was providence that had saved the lives of the two innocents: a fellow convict, released by pardon, had arrived in time to disrupt the attack. The convict, Two Cell, had promised to deliver a message from the wronged woman’s husband that he was alive, illegally stolen from his life by The Law. On that night of terror, the Englishman told him, Two Cell had murdered the sergeant’s stooge before he could do his bidding. And for that he was now incarcerated on death row, the reason why the Englishman had remained in the state of Mississippi.

‘An’ all that happened here in this house, huh?’ Hunter asked, sitting across the breakfast table from the Englishman.

The Englishman nodded. ‘Which is why I am certain that this is where Helland is headed. He is the most hateful of men. He will not ever cede to anything but evil. Revenge is his byword.’

‘That don’t sound much like revenge to me,’ Hunter said, spitting tobacco into his hand and then disposing of it in a flowerpot, next the dried-out plant. The Englishman watched each movement. ‘I’ve seen revenge. Hell, it keeps me in work. If they was just innocents, sounds nothin’ but coldblooded to me.’

‘Helland has a sick mind –’

‘I’ve seen it myself,’ Hunter said.

‘Indeed you have. In the wildness of his diabolical judgement, he wanted to hurt my friend in compensation of his own sins.’ The Englishman unlinked his hands and closed them into fists. ‘He wanted to punish my friend for his association to my father.’

The lights were not on in the kitchen; the waning light through the window almost too weak to create shadow. Hunter looked down at his pistol, sitting next to the flowerpot on the table. When he looked up, the Englishman was staring out of the window. ‘Why’d Helland kill your ol’ man?’ Hunter asked. ‘What was that revenge for?’

‘A disagreement over the project that my father was working on.’ The Englishman was now looking at his thumb as it smoothed over the nail of his unadorned ring finger. ‘An excuse for disagreement. And it is pertinent to this situation; to my reasons for wishing the man rid of this world.’ Through the semi-darkness, he looked up. His finger continued its movement. ‘On the night that he murdered my father, somehow Helland had raised a mob to rally with him.’

Maintaining eye contact, Hunter leaned back in his chair. ‘The more I hear of Helland, and from what I seen, I couldn’t agree more; that he needs to extinguished.’ That same feeling that had plagued his guts when leaving the meet in the barn stabbed again at Hunter’s insides. He knew it for what it was. He noticed that he was grinding his teeth together. In attempting to make a fist, his strength felt beneath its custom. ‘Most of the time this is just a way to earn a livin’, for me. Nothin’ personal. Just bein’ paid to do a job. But with this man? After I first saw him I wished that I’d killed him cold, soon as I knew who he was. I had that chance. After I hesitated I saw the worst of man that I ever seen.’

‘You’ll have your chance this night,’ the Englishman replied. ‘He will come.’

The Englishman stood and walked to the window. Lifting the drawn lace curtains, he peered into the street. It was quiet, still, grey in the dusk. Lights showed in the windows of opposite houses along the street. A cat took his attention, darting in front of the house, beneath the chinaberry tree, and down the far side of the house next door.

Turning to face back down the street, a vehicle was travelling at low speed. The Englishman stood back from the window; a single finger lifting the thin material. With another finger, he signalled to Hunter to make no movement. The Englishman watched through the slither of a gap. There were two figures in the car, the passenger much smaller than the other. The windows of the vehicle were narrow; at this distance hard to glean anything of those inside. The figure that was driving was half-hidden, yet revealed enough for the Englishman to discern that he was wearing a hat. He narrowed his eyes, trying to gain better sight in the dying light.

The car was nearing the house; the pace consistent. On the street nothing else moved.

‘Is it him?’ Hunter whispered. The Englishman ignored him. A wave of the finger.

The car was now passing the house next door, down the street. The beam of the headlamps breezed through the curtains, speckled dots dancing over the walls. The noise of the engine rattled the windows. The Englishman pushed his head against the wall, biting his lips together. He could see enough of the passengers to discern that the passenger was also wearing a hat. The silhouette showed a bob of hair beneath it. And then he recognised her as a woman, little and old. Next to her, the driver was peering intently through the windshield, focused on the road ahead. The Englishman stepped back from the window.

‘It’s no one,’ he said. Picking up his cup from the table, he poured himself water from a jug. ‘We should get into position,’ he said. ‘Night is upon us.’

*

With Hunter waiting in the front room, the Englishman sat on the bed in the room at the back of the house. He had first turned the mattress to obscure the blackened stains. He looked at the heavy blanket that they had hung over the curtain rail. They had agreed that the only room that should have light, to show that someone was in, should be the bedroom, where he would stay hidden. Helland would approach through the front door, where Hunter lay in wait for his arrival.

The Englishman put the cup down on the floor by his feet. The bedroom door was open ajar, allowing the yellow light from the lamp to escape into the hallway. That he had never before seen Helland, had only had pictures of the man painted for him by description, that he would only ever see the man in death, didn’t concern him. By all, the portrayal of him had been of an unearthly spirit. Back home they said the same of the Führer, the antichrist, yet he was just a man. And he, too, would be defeated; of that the Englishman was sure.

It had been more than an hour since he had come through to this room alone. He looked around, to see if there was a book, anything to read to pass the waiting time. The house had been mostly left in the way that it had been vacated; only clothes and belongings that could be carried had been taken. In this room, other than the bed and the mattress, all that remained was a wardrobe, dresser, and the small side table that the lamp was standing upon. With his hands between his thighs, all that the Englishman could do was sit, watch the door, and listen to the steady rhythm of his breathing in time to the ticking of his pocket watch.

Soon, through the silence he heard a dull pop, a tinkling of falling glass as if broken by a stone. Standing, he adjusted his waistcoat. He opened his mouth to call out to Hunter. Held his words. He heard the front door open. Another muffled report, a little louder than the first. He heard footsteps. Heading towards the bedroom. He lifted his chin; hand in one pocket. A shadow filled the gap, lighting upon beige trousers. The door began to open towards him. The Englishman looked into the face of the man that he knew so much about. The man who had never left his thoughts since he had learned his name and his crimes.

The two men stared at each other. Beneath his leather hat, Helland’s head tilted to one side. He rubbed his chin; the sound of rats scratching behind a wall. His head tilted to the other side. The light of the lamp in what could be seen of his eyes, petals on oil. The pockmarks in his cheeks corrugated as a smile began to rise. He pointed his pistol at the Englishman.

‘I see you now,’ Helland said, nodding; punctuating the words with small gestures of the weapon. The light breathed shadow into the contours beneath his cheekbones. ‘You’re the son.’ He looked up to his right. ‘Wilmington,’ he said, smiling and nodding again, stabbing the pistol towards the Englishman. ‘That’s the name. Never do forget one. You never know when you might need it again.’

‘And I have never forgotten you,’ the Englishman replied. ‘I knew that there would be a day when we would meet.’

‘Bein’ truthful, I did too,’ said Helland. ‘Always thought you’d want to put some revengin’ on me some day. Don’t matter who you are, revenge is the most beautiful thing. Stronger than forgiveness; more inspirational than just hatin’.’

‘Not if revenge is inspired by justice, not hate.’

‘It’s interestin’ you say that,’ Helland said, the gun moving up from his side again, waving with his words. ‘It was for justice that we went to see your daddy that day. He was just so arrogant about not hearin’ what we all had to say that we had to give him some of our southern justice. I’d warned him first.’

‘You used violence to get your own way,’ the Englishman replied, the tone of his voice rising. A flush had risen high up on his cheeks. He glanced at the open doorway behind Helland. ‘You weren’t going to get your way so you murdered a good man. That is the stigma of this country. Even the state uses execution as punishment.’

Helland shrugged. He tapped the pistol against his leg. Again the two men stared at each other. Again Helland smiled. ‘So you’re just the same, then,’ he said. ‘That man layin’ dead out there?’ Helland gestured to the doorway with a tip of his head. ‘I knew that someone would be headin’ out for me before long. When I met with this small town crew an’ there was another new face suddenly shows up from outta town, no one knows his name, just that he’s on a hunt of some kind? You’d have to be some kind of stupid to not keep some vigilance about ya.’

Helland slipped his arms from the sleeves of his jacket. He stared at the Englishman, standing like a royal. The lamplight glistened on his teeth. ‘What a treat it is to find such a prize as you here, too,’ he said. ‘Just like your daddy. Don’t know where you’ve hidden that big nigger away what I come here for. But I’ll find him. That can wait for another night.’ He stood looking at the pistol for a moment, and then placed it on the floor. ‘Nah. This here’s a bare-hand job,’ he said.

Chapter Eleven

‘The Dark Surface’

He stepped out of the house and pulled the door closed. The wind had picked up, taking the last leaves on the tree from their final grip to life. He looked along the quiet street. Lights were on in most of the houses. But there was no soul on the street. Using his hat as a shield to the wind, Helland lit a cigarette. He saw the blood of the man on his knuckles. He thought of wiping it away. Instead smiled. At least the kid had given a little bit of fight. Helland didn’t like it when murder without a weapon just felt as easy as stepping on a bug. His hand was swinging as he strode up the road towards his car, parked behind the Buick and Plymouth.

It hadn’t been as Helland had intended to begin The Fury. Two could never appease hell’s gluttony for the fresh dead. But it was a satisfying start, just the same. The Knights had travelled with him, also to commence their new wave in Honahee that night, as he’d instructed them. Slipping into his car, Helland made his way to them.

Driving down the street, he thought about what was to come. When this town would burn. There were more sects of the Knights of the White Camellia to persuade to his ways. If he could turn those small town boys as quickly as he had, he knew that others would only have to see their achievements to want to join with. Those small town boys had responded dutifully to threat.

As he turned out onto the main street, his pistol started to appeal to him. He looked at the faces, this society of vermin. The potential that lay in his firearm. He eased off the gas. Keen for some kind of approach. Any excuse to kill. Temptation tickled at him. Yet no one paid any particular attention to the vehicle. Helland picked out faces; individuals to recognise when he returned for them. The walking dead. Not one of them would ever know that death had driven through their midst.

The town slipped away behind him until it became a dot in the side mirror, one that Helland could not take his eyes from. Eventually the view behind turned to black, his headlamps blazing into the dark ahead. It was not long before they lit upon a gathering of trucks by the side of the road, alongside a bridge. Helland slowed. The boys from the delta town were standing about the trucks.

‘Fuck you doin’ waitin’ here?’ Helland said, stepping out of his car. ‘Told you we’d meet further outside town.

‘Got you your revenge, boss?’ a man asked, looking at Helland’s hands in the headlights.

‘Arksed what you doin’ out here,’ Helland said, stepping up to the man.

They were of equal height. The man’s long hair and beard hid most of his face; the light creating pits in the shadow of his eyes. ‘We got somethin’ that’ll make you mighty pleased, boss,’ he said. ‘Down under that there bridge. Had us a little revengin’ of our own.’

‘What is it?’ Helland asked.

‘The body of a man not yet dead.’

‘Whyn’t you just kill him. Why do I gotta see you do it?’

‘It was you said to create the fear first,’ the man replied. ‘Before The Fury.’

With a glare at the man, Helland walked towards the bank. Flashlights showed him the way down. The other men followed him. ‘Just down under,’ one said. Helland turned to him, paused a moment until the man looked away, and then continued down.

He faced into the darkness beneath the bridge. A man stepped to his side, between the river and Helland. He shone his flashlight beneath the bridge, towards the water. ‘Here,’ he said, taking a step forward. Helland followed.

Out of the darkness, a pickaxe handle jarred into Helland’s face, breaking his nose and knocking him down. He was up again in an instant, withdrawing his pistol. From behind, another thick handle smashed into his hand, knocking the gun to the floor. From behind him, a handle hit across his head at the same time as one slammed into his legs, sending Helland to his knees. Two handles in his collarbone pinned him down, piking into the flesh each time he made to move.

The hidden man stepped out of the darkness, a tall, stooping shadow, the bandage over his nose stark beneath the depths of the bridge. ‘You come into my clan an’ think that you can start takin’ control, huh?’ He stopped the length of a man from Helland, looking down at him.

With his chin jutting out, Helland looked long at each face, storing the details. He shifted. The handles dug into his skin. ‘You think that you can kill me?’ he said, smiling. He coughed. Spat blood into the dirt. He spat again at the feet of the man. ‘You think that pussies like y’all is match for me? I’ll raise another crew an’ wipe y’all out first, even before the niggers.’

‘Your ways ain’t how we do down here,’ the man said. ‘We ain’t but one sect of the Knights. Plenty more boys out there doin’ their way an’ we do ours, stickin’ to our own agenda. We have our turf, an’ we do what we do just fine where we are. Ain’t comin’ out here an’ stormin’ a town.’ The man looked around at the other men. They nodded, lifted their handles, and hollered their agreement. ‘Say we pussies now, boy,’ the man said, stepping closer. ‘No? Well, okay.’ He turned from Helland. ‘Prove to the man that we can kill him. Just don’t do it too quick,’ he added.

The pack fell upon Helland. Handles beat down on him. He fought to stand. Attempted to pluck a handle from an attacker. He yelled. He threatened. He spat. And the handles rained down. His knees broke. His arms. Helland squirmed on the floor, still trying to fight back, screaming threats. Growling; spitting; lurching; grabbing. There were too many for him to cause harm; too fierce an onslaught. A handle landed on his back, creating a spasm in the writhing body. Another crumpled his jaw. And the handles rained down, one breaking upon his hip. And the handles rained down.

The leader of the Knights of the White Camellia watched on from beneath the bridge. Some looked to him. He looked back, impassive. He did not interrupt his men. Only when he saw that the man was nearly dead did he speak: ‘Throw him in before he’s all dead, boys. See if he can float with them broke bones.’

A glimmer of life returned to Helland as he broke through the dark surface. As his head splashed above and beneath the surface, gurgled growls rippled over the water. Flashlights shone on him, the men watching the helpless struggle. They laughed and pointed at the broken creature’s desperate failing lurches for life.

The leader of the Knights was watching from halfway up the bank. When he was saw that the struggle had ceased, Helland floating face down in the water, he spoke to his men. ‘We ride home now, boys,’ he said. ‘Ditch the sticks in the river.’

As he walked up the bank, the sound of the sticks plunging into the water followed him. At the top he looked one last time at the outline of the figure in the river, floating with the fallen leaves.

He stepped out of the house and pulled the door closed. The wind had picked up, taking the last leaves on the tree from their final grip to life. He looked along the quiet street. Lights were on in most of the houses. But there was no soul on the street. Using his hat as a shield to the wind, Helland lit a cigarette. He saw the blood of the man on his knuckles. He thought of wiping it away. Instead smiled. At least the kid had given a little bit of fight. Helland didn’t like it when murder without a weapon just felt as easy as stepping on a bug. His hand was swinging as he strode up the road towards his car, parked behind the Buick and Plymouth.

It hadn’t been as Helland had intended to begin The Fury. Two could never appease hell’s gluttony for the fresh dead. But it was a satisfying start, just the same. The Knights had travelled with him, also to commence their new wave in Honahee that night, as he’d instructed them. Slipping into his car, Helland made his way to them.

Driving down the street, he thought about what was to come. When this town would burn. There were more sects of the Knights of the White Camellia to persuade to his ways. If he could turn those small town boys as quickly as he had, he knew that others would only have to see their achievements to want to join with. Those small town boys had responded dutifully to threat.

As he turned out onto the main street, his pistol started to appeal to him. He looked at the faces, this society of vermin. The potential that lay in his firearm. He eased off the gas. Keen for some kind of approach. Any excuse to kill. Temptation tickled at him. Yet no one paid any particular attention to the vehicle. Helland picked out faces; individuals to recognise when he returned for them. The walking dead. Not one of them would ever know that death had driven through their midst.

The town slipped away behind him until it became a dot in the side mirror, one that Helland could not take his eyes from. Eventually the view behind turned to black, his headlamps blazing into the dark ahead. It was not long before they lit upon a gathering of trucks by the side of the road, alongside a bridge. Helland slowed. The boys from the delta town were standing about the trucks.

‘Fuck you doin’ waitin’ here?’ Helland said, stepping out of his car. ‘Told you we’d meet further outside town.

‘Got you your revenge, boss?’ a man asked, looking at Helland’s hands in the headlights.

‘Arksed what you doin’ out here,’ Helland said, stepping up to the man.

They were of equal height. The man’s long hair and beard hid most of his face; the light creating pits in the shadow of his eyes. ‘We got somethin’ that’ll make you mighty pleased, boss,’ he said. ‘Down under that there bridge. Had us a little revengin’ of our own.’

‘What is it?’ Helland asked.

‘The body of a man not yet dead.’

‘Whyn’t you just kill him. Why do I gotta see you do it?’

‘It was you said to create the fear first,’ the man replied. ‘Before The Fury.’

With a glare at the man, Helland walked towards the bank. Flashlights showed him the way down. The other men followed him. ‘Just down under,’ one said. Helland turned to him, paused a moment until the man looked away, and then continued down.

He faced into the darkness beneath the bridge. A man stepped to his side, between the river and Helland. He shone his flashlight beneath the bridge, towards the water. ‘Here,’ he said, taking a step forward. Helland followed.

Out of the darkness, a pickaxe handle jarred into Helland’s face, breaking his nose and knocking him down. He was up again in an instant, withdrawing his pistol. From behind, another thick handle smashed into his hand, knocking the gun to the floor. From behind him, a handle hit across his head at the same time as one slammed into his legs, sending Helland to his knees. Two handles in his collarbone pinned him down, piking into the flesh each time he made to move.

The hidden man stepped out of the darkness, a tall, stooping shadow, the bandage over his nose stark beneath the depths of the bridge. ‘You come into my clan an’ think that you can start takin’ control, huh?’ He stopped the length of a man from Helland, looking down at him.

With his chin jutting out, Helland looked long at each face, storing the details. He shifted. The handles dug into his skin. ‘You think that you can kill me?’ he said, smiling. He coughed. Spat blood into the dirt. He spat again at the feet of the man. ‘You think that pussies like y’all is match for me? I’ll raise another crew an’ wipe y’all out first, even before the niggers.’

‘Your ways ain’t how we do down here,’ the man said. ‘We ain’t but one sect of the Knights. Plenty more boys out there doin’ their way an’ we do ours, stickin’ to our own agenda. We have our turf, an’ we do what we do just fine where we are. Ain’t comin’ out here an’ stormin’ a town.’ The man looked around at the other men. They nodded, lifted their handles, and hollered their agreement. ‘Say we pussies now, boy,’ the man said, stepping closer. ‘No? Well, okay.’ He turned from Helland. ‘Prove to the man that we can kill him. Just don’t do it too quick,’ he added.

The pack fell upon Helland. Handles beat down on him. He fought to stand. Attempted to pluck a handle from an attacker. He yelled. He threatened. He spat. And the handles rained down. His knees broke. His arms. Helland squirmed on the floor, still trying to fight back, screaming threats. Growling; spitting; lurching; grabbing. There were too many for him to cause harm; too fierce an onslaught. A handle landed on his back, creating a spasm in the writhing body. Another crumpled his jaw. And the handles rained down, one breaking upon his hip. And the handles rained down.

The leader of the Knights of the White Camellia watched on from beneath the bridge. Some looked to him. He looked back, impassive. He did not interrupt his men. Only when he saw that the man was nearly dead did he speak: ‘Throw him in before he’s all dead, boys. See if he can float with them broke bones.’

A glimmer of life returned to Helland as he broke through the dark surface. As his head splashed above and beneath the surface, gurgled growls rippled over the water. Flashlights shone on him, the men watching the helpless struggle. They laughed and pointed at the broken creature’s desperate failing lurches for life.

The leader of the Knights was watching from halfway up the bank. When he was saw that the struggle had ceased, Helland floating face down in the water, he spoke to his men. ‘We ride home now, boys,’ he said. ‘Ditch the sticks in the river.’

As he walked up the bank, the sound of the sticks plunging into the water followed him. At the top he looked one last time at the outline of the figure in the river, floating with the fallen leaves.

~ the end ~

The Mobile Phone Terror Attacks

The Mobile Phone Terror Attacks

‘A new wave of terror has hit Europe in the past twenty-four hours,’ the Welsh newsreader was saying as Gwen continued knitting the beanie for her son. ‘So far, injuries have been reported in thirty countries, including the UK. While many of the surviving victims have suffered life changing injuries; most have lost their lives. These new attacks are unprecedented, implemented by targeting technology. A new mobile phone has infiltrated the online market, encouraging unsuspecting buyers by offering a year of unlimited “pay-as-you-go” usage for free . . .’

Now watching the newsreader, Gwen’s mouth had already gone dry before she heard him mention the name of the new brand: RADE. The knitting needles clicked against each other in her shaking hands. A few moments after realisation settled over her, she threw the knitting to one side and picked up her tablet.

‘. . . The phone is believed to be fitted with an explosive device that, when activated, emits a toxic gas. Although not much else is known at this time, early indications are that the explosion alone is enough to cause grievous injuries to the victim.’

‘Come on,’ Gwen warbled through gritted teeth as the blue bar stuck again, now halfway along the top of the screen. Only the header of the eBay site was showing. ‘You stupid bloody thing.’

‘Toxicologists who have had an opportunity to examine victims believe that the gas contained in the phones is sarin, perhaps the deadliest of nerve gases.

‘The phones have been sold through the online site eBay, who have now blocked sales of the deadly mobile phones, and are working with the relevant authorities, including the Ministry of Defence, to find those responsible for the attacks. So far, all they have been able to tell us is that the sales originated from somewhere in the Far East. They also tell us that more than four hundred thousand of the phones have been sold on the site, across the globe. The profits of which, it has been speculated, will be used to fund terrorist organisations . . .’

As the page showing her orders slowly revealed itself, Gwen was barely listening to the grave tones of the newsreader.

‘We move now to Gillian to tell us more about the affects of sarin. Gillian . . .’

‘Sarin. Invented in nineteen thirty-eight, sarin was discovered by German scientists as they experimented to create stronger pesticides than were currently available. Estimated to be more than twenty-five times more deadly than cyanide, sarin is extremely lethal, whether inhaled or if it comes into contact with the skin. Due to its deadly toxic affects, sarin was outlawed as a warfare agent in nineteen ninety-seven . . .’

There it was at the top of the page:

1 item sold by dealstomakeyoudie

RADE Mobile Phone – Grey *ONE YEAR FREE PAY-AS-YOU-GO* (for use with any SIM)

More than the confirmation that she had purchased one of the lethal devices, the thing on the screen that almost made Gwen’s heart stop was the day of estimated delivery: 28th July 2017. Today. She clicked on More actions on the right, and a dropdown box appeared. She clicked on Order details. And there it was, Toby Blissett, and the address of the student house that he shared in York.

‘I’ve got Terry with me.’ Gwen looked up at the reporter on the telly, standing next to a worried- looking fat man. ‘Now, Terry, you actually ordered one of these phones. Tell me what happened.’

‘Yeah,’ Terry said, now a touch guilty-looking. Sweat on his brow, a fleck of what looked like pie crust wedged in the corner of his lips. ‘Ordered it off the internet. Seemed like a good deal, it did. Fank goodness I ‘erd the news before the postman come.’

‘Thank goodness indeed. So what did you do when you received the phone?’

‘Er,’ Terry looked into the camera, then at the ground. ‘Left it in the garden.’

‘A decision that might have saved Terry’s life. Back to the studio.’

‘Thank you, Gillian. If you know anyone who has purchased one of these phones, do not, I repeat do not call them. It is the receiving signal of incoming calls that initiates the fusion of the compounds that combine to create the explosion. Even though, in a few cases, the compounds have failed to fuse together, it is not a risk worth taking. It is advised that, if you do know someone affected by these suspected terrorist activities, to call the number on the screen below and supply the address of the person who you think might be at risk. They will then be able to contact the relevant local authorities, who will go and collect any suspect packages . . .’

When the helpline number rang without answer for more than ten minutes, phone in hand, Gwen rushed out to her car. Instead she tried the police. When she explained the situation, they said that there was nothing that they could do, but advised Gwen to call the helpline number.

‘I’ve tried the bloody helpline number!’ Gwen screamed. ‘They’re no bloody help at all if there’s no one there to pick up the phone.’

‘I understand your dilemma, Mrs . . . ?’

‘Blissett. Gwen Blissett.’

‘Mrs Blissett. But there’s just nothing that I can do from here. You say that your son is in York, is that right?’

‘Yes!’ Gwen breathed deeply. ‘Yes yes, that’s right. He’s a student there. His phone broke so I said that I’d order him a new one. He wanted an iPhone, but there’s no way that I could afford one. So instead . . . Oh! What have I done? What have I done?’

‘Mrs Blissett,’ the operator said, ‘are you driving?’

‘Yes!’ she replied. ‘I am. I’m trying to save my son’s life!’

‘Gwen. I sense that you are in a state of high anxiety at the current time. I would suggest that you get off the road at the soonest available opportunity and see if you can phone the police in York. If you explain the situation –’

‘Fat lot of good you are,’ Gwen said after she’d cut off the call. She screamed, the harsh ring echoing around the interior of the car. It usually took nearly four hours to drive from Surrey to York. If the roads were clear, she’d make it sooner. With the hotline number still ringing without answer, it was all that she could do. Onward, Gwen left the phone ringing. Trying to keep her senses about her and her eyes on the road, she headed north. The news was on the radio as she drove, listening for updates, hoping that they’d admit that they were wrong.

She knew how late Toby could sleep when he was home from university. Hopefully he’d still be in bed when she arrived at about two o’clock that afternoon. That thought reassured Gwen a touch. That and the thought that Toby might have actually decided to break with habit and attend a lecture. ‘Why didn’t I just buy him a bloody iPhone?’ she yelled at the windshield. ‘Why did I have to buy the cheapest bit of tat that I could find?’

She thought of him opening the parcel. The disappointment when he saw that he hadn’t received the phone of his dreams. Instead one that would blow off his hands and then poison him, living out his last moments in excruciating agony and wondering why his old mum was always so tight. He’d asked for a grey phone; at least she’d succeeded in getting that right. Gwen turned up the radio. An update on the phone terror saga.

‘There has been another victim of the mobile phone terror attacks,’ the newscaster said, ‘this time in York.’ Gwen’s heart stopped. The car coasted forwards, a quick squiggle across lanes. ‘. . . Bringing the total number of confirmed UK casualties to two hundred and forty-seven. The latest victim was a thirty-four year old postman, found dead in his shared flat just after ten o’clock this morning . . .’

Gwen breathed again. Even though she didn’t know the man, had never met him and now never would, it could just as easily have been her son. And it could yet. After dictating a warning email into her phone, sending it to Toby, she put her foot down on the accelerator. Except for fretting and picking up a few speeding tickets, there was nothing more that she could do, no other way that she could get through to her son. She had none of his friends’ phone numbers; nor those of the friends’ parents. Toby’s fate now lay only in the arms of chance, and the Royal Mail.

Gwen had developed a slight dislike of postmen, irrational really, ever since Tobes’ birthday money had been stolen en route to York for two years running. It must have been the postman who took it; there was no other explanation. She didn’t believe that Toby’s housemates would have taken it: the discarded card and envelope, it just wasn’t the sort of thing that a friend would do. She wondered, in a vague kind of way, about the man who had just been killed by the exploding phone. She wondered if he might have been the one who stole the birthday money.