Into 2013…!

Hello, everyone!

I’m notoriously bad at keeping time. Partly because I like to play with my watch strap, and so keep taking the watch off, and leaving it all over the house, and forgetting where I put it. I am a watch-owning individual, but for days on end I walk about London with my wrist completely watchless, because I left the watch somewhere underneath a pile of papers or in the cupboard with the breakfast cereals.

However, even I can tell that it’s now 2013. Happy New Year, all! I hope you’re enjoying it so far, and it’s shaping up to be a good one. And that you’re prepared to continue this mad little journey I’m making through this short story project – I’m grateful you’re out there, reading them. A story is nothing without an audience – it’s just a bunch of words until someone engages with them.

I love writing these stories. But they require a degree of self-absorption that is almost supernatural. I was walking around the city with my notebook during the London riots and didn’t notice anything untoward was going on at all. I’ll come in from a good afternoon’s bash with my notebook (I do love writing outside), and only when my wife points out to me that I’m soaking wet, or shivering cold, or bleeding profusely, does it occur to me that it’s been raining / snowing / hailing jagged pieces of meteorite.

It’s a happy place, writing. It’s also a naturally selfish one.

Three months ago I was blindsided somewhat by family illness. I kept on expecting I would be able to write, and carried around my notebooks with me most dutifully – but the truth of the matter was, the illness was serious enough that it required all my attention, and I was needing to act as carer. I don’t want you to feel alarmed, or send words of awful concern – things are going to be fine. Recovery is taking place – it’s slow work, but it’s happening. But up until now I’ve not been able to get back to writing. Even email has been tricky (so apologies to those subscriber friends who have been wondering why I’ve not been in contact – I will soon, I promise).

All of this is not in any way asking for sympathy, or trying to make elaborate excuses. It’s simply an explanation of why this project has taken a little longer to resume this New Year than I’d anticipated. I’m back writing now, and I’m enjoying it, and I think the stories coming out are good ‘uns. And this blog will resume some time in the spring, and I hope you stick around to read it.

I can promise you, I think, lots of merriment in these remaining 40 stories! Or, if not, merriment, at least great swathes of oddness.

In the mean time, and because it’s still so cold outside…! I was rather honoured over the Christmas period to discover that one of my short stories has been adapted into a prog-rock song! My stuff has never inspired anything musical before. It’s taken from a rather strange little tale of mine called ‘Cold Snap’, which you can find in Everyone’s Just So So Special published by Big Finish in the UK, or in my new best-of horror anthology, Remember Why You Fear Me, published by ChiZine in Canada. So, to tide you over for the little while longer before I give you new stories, is Alex Newsome’s wonderful song of snow and ice and evil Santa Clauses.

Enjoy! Thanks – and apologies – and thanks again. See you soon.

Rob xx

LUCY ZINKIEWICZ

There was little magic left to those dark times. The world seemed cracked somehow, too weak for the magic to hold; latterly, as he’d performed his tricks, he’d begun to doubt they would work at all, he’d stand before his audience behind his patter and his sheen and a beaming smile that was well-oiled and ready practised, and he’d felt himself starting to sweat, he’d felt the fear take over – the magic wouldn’t hold, the magic would fail. Lucy never seemed to notice. Lucy never seemed to get nervous. And he supposed that if Lucy couldn’t see how frightened he was, then neither could anybody else. The magic had held. Still, it worried him.

They hadn’t performed for a month. It would be better, he supposed, when they reached the town. The villagers wanted nothing to do with their conjuring. They had no coins to waste on such a thing. But he had strong arms, they said, he could work alongside them in the fields – and the little girl, she could join the other children, there were always berries that needed picking. Sometimes the coins they earned were enough to buy them shelter for the night, and sometimes not.

And in the meantime they’d keep on walking, trying to keep ahead of the darkness. Because what choice did they have? He pulled the cart behind them. It would have been much quicker without the cart, but then they couldn’t have performed their magic. She walked by his side, and matched him step for step, and kept him company, though she never spoke.

“Is this the town?” he said one day, and Lucy of course didn’t answer, and he knew already that this couldn’t be the town, it wasn’t big enough, it was little more than a street with a few houses either side. But maybe it might have grown into a town, one day, had the blackness not come.

One of the houses was marked ‘inn’. He put down the cart, and beat upon the wooden door with his blistered hands. There was no reply, but he knew that someone was inside, he could hear breathing just an inch away, someone trying very hard to be quiet, someone scared.

“Please,” he called. “We mean you no harm. We’re two travellers, we just want a room for the night.”

“This is no inn,” a woman’s voice came back. “And the people who called it one are long since gone, or dead most like. There is no room for you here.”

“If not for my sake, then for the little girl’s.” And at that, as if on cue, Lucy lifted her head and flared her dimples, and opened her eyes out wide and innocent. It was an expression she could pull at a moment’s notice, and it had been a useful trick in the old days, to gather about a sympathetic crowd, to persuade the crowd to part with coins. He saw no signs that that anyone inside could see them; there must have been a secret window somewhere, or a crack in the wood, because next time the woman spoke her voice was softer.

“D’ye have money?”

“We are, at present, financially embarrassed,” confessed the man, but he puffed out his chest, and his voice became richer – somehow Lucy putting on her pose beside him gave him a little swagger too – “But we propose to pay you with a spectacle of our arts. We are magicians, conjurors, masters of the illusory and the bizarre. We have dazzled the crowned heads of three different empires with our legerdermain, the only limits to what we can surprise you your own imagination. I am the Great Zinkiewicz, and this, my assistant, Lucy!” And at this he delivered a sweeping bow, directed at where he hoped his audience was watching him.

There was silence for a few seconds.

“You can come in anyway,” the woman said.

The inn was dark and dirty, but welcoming for all of that, and warm. The woman showed them both to the fire, and the magicians stood before it, and baked in it, and the man hadn’t realised how cold he must have been. But now the heat was on his skin he realised there was a damp chill inside him it would take more than one night’s shelter to rid.

“My cart?” he said.

“It’s safe. No one will touch your cart.”

“It contains everything we own.”

“No one will touch your cart.”

The man nodded at that, turned back to the fire, turned back to Lucy. Now that they were at rest, he realised once again what an incongruous couple they made. For all that he spoke like the gentleman, his clothes were ripped and mud-spattered, there were ugly patches in his grey beard and his face was bruised. Burly and broad shouldered, he stood nearly seven foot tall. Lucy, by his side, somehow still looked refined. The mud of the fields had never clung to her quite, and as ruddy as his face was hers was as pale as milk. She seemed dwarfed next to him, she seemed small enough to be folded up and put away in a little box – exactly, in fact, as one of their tricks required.

“There’s no food for you,” said the woman. “But there’s a room upstairs, just for the night, you and your daughter are welcome to it.” So, she thought Lucy was her daughter. Perhaps that was for the best.

There was noise on the staircase, and the man looked up, and realised why the woman had taken pity on them. Grinning at them in wonder was a little girl, surely no older than Lucy. And she was a proper little girl too, the man could see that, she had somehow managed to keep her youth, unlike Lucy who just pretended. She was dressed in pink; there was some attempt still to curl her hair.

“My daughter,” said the woman, and she said it gruffly enough, but the man could see she was trying to hide her affections, he could sense how she burned with love for the girl, he didn’t need his magic arts to tell. He was glad for them. He wondered if there was a father. He knew better than to ask.

Her mother said, “We have guests, Make up their bed.”

The little girl’s eyes widened. “Like in the old days?”

Her mother hesitated. “Yes,” she said. “Like in the old days.”

The innkeeper and her daughter ate their bread and cheese. The innkeeper wouldn’t look at her visitors, but the daughter couldn’t help it, she kept stealing glances in their direction. The man knew not to make eye contact yet, not to ask for a single crumb of food. Lucy just stared into the flames, as if fascinated by something she saw there.

“What’s your name?” the little girl suddenly asked her.

“She’s called Lucy,” said the man.

“How old is she?”

“How old are you?”

“I’m seven.”

“Then Lucy’s seven too.”

The little girl liked that. And the magician looked at her directly, and held her gaze, just for a few seconds, and he caused his eyes to twinkle. Lucy never looked up from the fire.

“The magic you perform,” said the mother. “It’s an entertainment?”

The man nodded gravely. “Madam, many have told us so.”

“But it’s not real magic? I wouldn’t have real magic in my house.”

“I assure you, it is nothing but tricks and sleight of hand. There is a rational explanation for everything that we do.” The woman nodded at that, slowly. “We would be happy to give you a demonstration.”

At this the little girl became quite excited. “Oh, please, Mama!”

The woman looked doubtful. “But what good can it do?”

“It cheers the soul somewhat. It amuses the eyes. It nothing else, it makes the night pass that little bit faster.”

“Please, mama!” The little girl was bouncing up and down now. “I do so want the night to go faster!”

“No magic,” promised the man. “Just a little trick. So simple, your child will see through it. I give you my word.”

Words counted for nothing in those days, but the woman chose to forget that. “All right, if it’s just the one.” And then she smiled wide, and the man could see how beautiful she was when she did that, and how much younger she looked, and how like her daughter, and how she wasn’t that much older than her daughter, not really, nor so different either.

Lucy rose from the fireplace, stood as if to attention. The man said, “We’ll get changed into our costumes.” The woman told him there was no need for that. The man said, “Please, madam, you must allow us to present ourselves properly, presentation is what it’s all about!”

The magicians went outside to the cart. They changed into costume. No one was in the street to see, and besides, there was no moon that night, it was pitch black.

When they went back to the inn, the little girl clapped her hands at the sight of them, and her mother’s smile widened even further. What a pair they looked! The Great Zinkiewicz wasn’t a tramp, how ever could they have thought him so! – he was a lord in a long black evening coat, and his blistered hands were hidden beneath white gloves, and the top hat made him taller still, my, he towered over the room! And he looked smoother, softer, he was charming. Lucy was in a dress of a thousand sequins, and when she moved even the slightest muscle the sequins seemed to ripple in the firelight.

“The Great Zinkiewicz will ask his beautiful assistant to give him a pack of playing cards.” His beautiful assistant did that very thing. Zinkiewicz held the pack between his thumb and forefinger. “I shall now ask a member of the audience to confirm these are just ordinary playing cards. You, little madam? Would you do me the honour? Would you be so kind? Would you tell everyone, we have never met before?”

The little girl giggled. She inspected the cards. She confirmed they were very ordinary indeed.

“I shall now ask you to pick a card. But don’t let me see it. Don’t let my assistant see it. Trust neither of us, keep it secret from us. Yes? Good. That’s good. Now, put it back in the pack. Anywhere you like, good.”

He handed the pack to Lucy. Lucy fanned the cards in her hand, held them out. The Great Zinkiewicz produced a wand, and tapped at the deck once, twice, three times. “Abracadabra,” he said.

“What does that mean?” asked the girl.

“I’m glad you asked me that. I don’t know. No one knows. That’s what’s makes it magic.”

“All right,” said the girl. She seemed unconvinced by that, so he winked at her.

He took back the cards from Lucy. He shuffled them. He removed one. “Now,” he said. “Is this your card?”

“No.”

“Oh.” Zinkiewicz pulled a face. He looked at Lucy. Lucy pulled a face back. It was so perfect an imitation, and was so unexpected, those blank passive features suddenly contorting like that, really, you had to smile. “Oh. Well. I’ll try again. Hmph. Is this your card?”

“No!”

“This one, then?”

“No!”

“Then this one!”

“No!” She laughed, she could see something good was coming.

“Well then,” said Zinkiewicz. “Well, I’m stumped. Lucy, do you have any idea?”

And Lucy sighed, a big mock sigh, why was she saddled with such a dunce for a partner? She walked up to the little girl. She reached behind the girl’s ear. She seemed to tug at it, gave a little grunt of exertion. And then out she pulled a piece of card, and it was all rolled up tight like a straw. She opened it, presented it to Zinkiewicz.

And, as if taking credit for the magic himself, Zinkiewicz then presented it to the little girl, with a bow and a flourish.

“Yes! Yes, that’s the one!” She clapped, so did her mother.

There were a few more tricks performed, for as long as it took for the fire to burn out. And, at length, the innkeeper offered the magicians some bread and cheese. Zinkirewicz thanked her, and they ate.

“I know how you did the trick,” said the little girl.

“Oho! Do you, indeed?”

“Yes.”

“Well, we have to keep these things secret. You better whisper it in my ear.”

The little girl laughed, looked at her mother for permission, and the mother nodded, laughed too. So the man got down on his knees, and the girl bent close, putting her lips right up to his ear, and whispering softly, and covering her mouth with her hand so no one could see. She told him the secret, and the man rolled his eyes, slow and despairing.

“You’ve seen right through me!” he wailed. “You’ll become a magician too, I’ll be bound, like my Lucy!”

But the little girl had got it wrong. The man had broken his promise. There had been real magic tonight, he had felt it flow right through him, he had felt the old confidence back, and it had been good. There had been no fear at all, it had been so very good. And the innkeeper and his daughter need never know. Lucy would know, but she’d never say.

“Does she ever say anything?” said the woman suddenly. “Is it just part of the act, or…?”

The man shook his head, put his finger to his lips, as if it were something mysterious he wasn’t allowed to divulge. But the truth was, he had no idea.

*

They sat up late that night, into the small hours, the magician and the innkeeper. The children had gone to bed. The woman fetched an old bottle of Madeira wine, she said she’d been saving it for a special occasion. Maybe this was one.

He said to her, “Aren’t you going to run away?” And then he blushed bright red, because he supposed that would sound like an invitation to accompany him, her and her kid, and he didn’t want that.

“We’re going to stay,” she said. “We’ve decided. We’re happy here. There’s nowhere out there that’s better. And maybe, maybe they’ll leave us be.”

The man nodded, and finished his glass, and went to bed.

*

In the morning, the magicians left. The woman gave them some bread for their journey. The little girl gave Lucy a hug, and Lucy didn’t quite know what to do with it, but the girl didn’t seem to mind she wasn’t hugged back.

They never saw the innkeeper or her daughter again. In the weeks to come, as the blackness overtook them, the man would suppose they were dead.

*

For there was little magic left to those times, not since the demons and angels had gone to war. No one had seen a demon and lived. And yet some said they were monsters, giants, dreadful to look upon, so terrible that if you so much as glimpsed one your heart would stop in terror. And other said they looked just like us. They looked just like us, except if you got close you’d find out their eyes were sharper than ours, and redder too, maybe; and they had little bumps on their head, just small, not quite horns, but maybe, no, horns, small – they could be hidden beneath hair, or a big hat; and when they spoke sometimes fire and brimstone would come out their mouths. But they looked just like us. No one had seen an angel either, but they were just as deadly, and they looked just like us too, like every stranger coming into town, like everyone you do not recognise. There were no wings, nothing so easy or giveaway, no holy trumpets playing to herald their arrival. Some had halos, but they were very ordinary halos, a little grey, a little rusted. The angels and the demons, they could be everywhere, anywhere, all about us. And yet no one had ever seen one. Not seen one, at any rate, and lived.

No one could guess why the demons and angels were at war. But it wasn’t about us. They didn’t care about us. And wherever they met in battle a blackness would descend, and it would engulf everything, and nothing could escape it, and it was spreading across the land.

The world seemed cracked, somehow, too weak for any magic to hold; or happiness; or faith; or love.

Still, he pulled his cart onwards, and sometimes he faltered, and Lucy never faltered.

One week away they found a road sign directing them towards the town, and it wasn’t even damaged, it was in one piece, and the man felt his spirits lift.

Four days away they found the old road itself, and there were some holes in it, and it wasn’t strictly straight, but it was still easier going for the cart.

One day they arrived at the town. There were bridges and churches and statues and shops. The road was choked with old discarded vehicles. There was litter. There was a theatre. They went into the theatre. It was big and imposing and the roof was still on.

The man took Lucy’s hands, and he made her look at him, directly, into his eyes. And he said, “Listen. We don’t have to stop. We can keep going. We can just outrun the blackness. We can keep going.”

And Lucy didn’t even shake her head. She pulled free, began to unpack the cart.

It was all in good condition, considering. The Sword of a Thousand Cuts had rusted, but that could be put right with a good dose of varnish. A trick mirror had fractured, but just a little, it needn’t spoil the illusion too much. The Cabinet of Vanishments was soaked with rain water, and one of the doors had warped slightly with the wet, and they sat it upside down on the stage to let it dry out. But it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter, they didn’t use the Cabinet any more. They only kept the Cabinet for show.

The man unrolled the pack of posters. He walked over the town, stuck his posters up against the sides of buildings, walls, the disused telegraph poles that stuck out of the ground like dead tree stumps. Really, he stuck them up against anything that was still standing. He didn’t see anyone, but they saw him, he knew; he knew that once he’d moved away the people would come out from their hiding places and see what he had to sell. They were old posters, he’d stuck them up and pulled them down from any number of towns upon his tours – he looked younger in them, photographed in his full costume, in days when he filled out his clothes better and his smile was more fluent – “The Great Zinkiewicz Entertains!” it said, and beneath, “With His Glamorous Assistant, Lucy!” – but this was the old Lucy, the Lucy from before, buxom and beaming, almost as tall as he was, standing proud in her sequined gown and her feather head dress, gesturing towards him in the picture in a display of pride and awe. His assistant, his best friend, his wife, back before he’d lost her, and the blackness had swallowed her soul. How he missed her.

By the time he got back to the theatre the sun was already starting to set, and he could sense that the townsfolk were on the move, in spite of themselves they wanted to be dazzled and entertained. Little Lucy was already in her dress. He put on his white shirt, black trousers, white gloves, black hat. He stood with Lucy in the wings as he heard the auditorium fill, and he felt a sudden sickness in his stomach, performer’s nerves. And he wanted to run away, and he wanted too to do what he was born for, and stand in front of the crowd, with all those eyes on him, all expectant, all hungry, all making him the centre of their diminished worlds for a couple of brief hours.

“Break a leg,” he muttered to Lucy, and together they stepped out into the lights.

The lights shone in his eyes, he couldn’t see his audience, couldn’t see how large they were, how apprehensive. He gave his smoothest smile and hoped it passed as confident. He spread his arms out wide, as if inviting everybody in for a special hug.

“I am the Great Zinkiewicz,” he cried, as if challenging anyone out there to deny it. No one did.

The patter went well. He felt he had a real rapport with Lucy that night, their little rehearsal at the inn those weeks ago had sharpened them both. He was garrulous, the bigger the tricks he performed the more grandiose the metaphors he used to describe them, he’d never use one syllable when five would do. And beside him Lucy in all her blessed muteness struck such a comic contrast; she’d never open her mouth, she’d talk to the audience in her own way, she’d roll her eyes, she’d shrug, she’d flop her arms once in a while as if to demonstrate the physical heaviness of having to work with such a braggart. The audience began to chuckle. This was one way in which little Lucy always scored over her glamorous original; his wife had often tried to top his jokes, and she’d never been a funny woman, it had never worked.

So they chuckled, then they laughed outright. At some of the tricks there were even admiring gasps, and there was lots and lots of applause.

There was no real magic. Not tonight, it seemed. But that didn’t matter.

And at some point the mood shifted. The applause seemed thicker somehow, not crisp like clapping should be, thick like syrup; the laughter… what, more ironic? Crueller, even? He didn’t know what had caused it. Had it been him? It might have been him. Because the fear was back. Everything had been going so well, and he couldn’t believe the signs as the fear first stole over him – a coldness in his heart, a slight loosening in his bowels – no, he thought to himself, why now? He heard his jokes for what they were, and they were just words, pointless words; he felt how forced his smile was, could feel just how far it stretched across his face and no further; he began to shake, and sweat. He could see himself, one man caught in the lights, pretending that there was still something magical to the world when all about him was darkness.

The darkness, the darkness had come. The proper darkness, solid, weighty, and it lumbered across the theatre towards him. And he could hear his audience die, every one of them, and the demons came in, or was it the angels, or was it both, were they both here together, had they put aside their differences and stopped their war and come to see the show? His audience were lost, the angels and demons were in their seats now, crushing down their corpses. And the darkness, all the darkness, all about, unyielding, and pure, and the only light left in the world shone down upon him and Lucy.

His patter dried. He stumbled over his words. Stumbled over his feet. He panted, he licked his lips.

From the void came a voice, a single voice, and it was sharp like gravel, and he didn’t think there was anything human in it at all.

“Give us a good trick, magic man. And maybe we’ll spare your life.”

*

It was in just such a theatre that the Great Zinkiewicz had first seen the darkness. It had not been a good show. The audience weren’t attentive, he thought some of them were drunk. And Lucy was talking too much again, in spite of what he’d said to her the night before: it was all in the rhythm, he kept explaining to her, gently, the act only could work in a very exact rhythm. “I just feel there’s more I can offer,” she’d said. “I just stand about looking decorative, and getting sawn in half, and stuff. I’m worth more than that.” And he had promised he’d try to find a better way to include her in the show, and they’d kissed, and then made love. And, do you know, he thought he’d probably even meant it.

As they’d trudged towards the grand finale, he’d given her the signal, and she’d nodded, gone into the wings. And out she had wheeled the Cabinet of Vanishments.

“Behold,” said Zinkiewicz. “The Cabinet of Vanishments! Now, my wife will vanish before your eyes. When she gets locked up in my special box, and I tap upon the door, and say the magic word – yes, you all know it, abracadabra! I don’t know what it means, no one knows what it means, if we knew it wouldn’t be magic – I’ll say the word, and my wife will be gone!”

He’d felt at last a flutter of interest from the audience.

His wife had said, perkily, whilst wagging her finger at him, “And just you make sure I get back in time for tea!” Audience death once more. Jesus.

He closed the door on her, and he felt a relief that she was out of sight. And a sense of something else, deep inside, some new confidence. Or power.

He tapped on the door three times with his wand. “Abracadabra,” he said.

He opened the door. She’d gone. There was some half-hearted applause.

He closed the door again. “Now to bring her back,” he said. “I suppose!” And there was some laughter at that, and he thought to himself, you see, Lucy, one can improvise comedy, but only if one’s a professional.

“Abracadabra,” he said. He opened the door. The cabinet was empty.

He closed the door. He turned to the audience, smiled, but he felt it was a sick smile, and he could feel himself beginning to sweat.

“I’ll try again,” he promised them. “Abracadabra!”

Still nothing – but no, really nothing – and this time it seemed to Zinkiewicz the cabinet was not merely empty, it somehow seemed to have no inside at all. Black, just black, a darkness. That would spill out into the world unless. Unless he slammed the door shut.

He did. He held the door closed. He felt it, he felt something beat against it, thrum against his fingers. He didn’t dare let go. He didn’t dare hold on either, he didn’t dare stand so close, because he knew that for all its fancy design and name the cabinet was just a bit of plywood a few inches thick, it wouldn’t be enough to contain what was growing within. And at the thought of it he pulled away, as if he had been burned – and for a moment he thought he had, and he stared down at his fingers, expecting them to be charred and black. They weren’t. They weren’t, but he stared at them anyway – and for too long, he could hear behind his back the audience stir from stultified silence and begin to heckle.

He turned back to them. He didn’t know what to say. His tongue felt heavy, sick, and yes, his fingers, they still burned. “I’m sorry,” is what he came out with. “I’m sorry.”

And behind him he heard it, and he knew now he wasn’t imagining it, there was a knocking from within the cabinet, something impatient to be released. And then there was a voice to it – “Hey!” Muffled, but still sounding perky, so annoyingly perky. “Hey, let me out! Is it time for my tea yet?”

There was some polite laughter, they thought it was part of the act. He opened the door. There was Lucy. He took her hand to help her out, she had to bow so her feather head dress wouldn’t get caught, and her sequins sparkled as they came out from the dark. They made their bows together. They went for two bows, although the applause didn’t really warrant it.

That night in their digs they had argued. She told him this wasn’t what she had expected from their marriage. It wasn’t just the act any more, it was the entire marriage. She was bored with the constant travelling. It wasn’t as exciting as she’d expected. She thought they’d be on television by now. “Do you still love me?” he’d asked. She’d thought about it. “I don’t know,” she’d replied.

She turned away from him in the bed, and he wanted to reach out towards her, but he was too proud, or too frightened he’d be rebuffed. And he lay there in the darkness, and it seemed to him that it was a darkness so profound, and he wished they’d left the bathroom light on, or had the curtains open, anything, the darkness was beginning to hurt his eyes. And he felt that surge of power inside him again, and he knew she was right, he should be better than this, it was all supposed to be better.

He didn’t know her any more. He didn’t know her. Their magic was gone.

And he realised all the darkness in the room was her, it was her, it was coming from her. He could feel it now, it was pouring out of her. With every breath she made she was spitting more of it out, and it lay heavy on her, and it lay heavy on him, and it was going to suffocate him unless he stopped it. He’d lost her. He’d lost her. She’d been swallowed up whole.

He got up. She didn’t stir.

He packed the truck with all the props he needed for his magic act, his costume, the takings from the last three weeks of performance. He drove off into the night.

Within a few days the truck ran out of petrol. There hadn’t been a petrol station. There was barely even a road any more. He abandoned the truck. He found a horse cart amongst the rubble that lay about, so much rubble, things thrown away and no longer wanted. He loaded the cart. He picked up the handle. It was so heavy. He had to be strong. He walked.

The world was cracked, and the darkness was pursuing him, and he had to outrun it. And in some towns there was talk of war.

He did a few tricks for coins and food. Most of his tricks didn’t work without an assistant.

Some nights, if the ground was dry, he slept underneath the cart. He could pull the canvas covering down for added warmth or shelter. One morning he woke to find a little girl was curled up, at his feet, like a dozing cat.

“Oi!” he said. “Wake up!” The girl did, stretched, looked at him without shame or curiosity. “Who are you?” he demanded. “Where have you come from?”

She didn’t answer.

And he didn’t ask again, because he felt somehow if he did she would go away.

When he pulled the cart along, she walked beside him. And the next town he reached, he played his act, and she was there. She knew the tricks just as well as he did. And she had her own sequined dress, it fitted perfectly.

The distance between towns seemed greater and greater. Sometimes they’d walk for weeks before they’d reach a new one. And when they did, the people were hostile, or hid from them altogether. The paths were hard to walk, the ground rough, chewed up even, and no matter how much it rained the mud beneath their feet seemed so hard and sharp and unyielding. “I can’t go on,” he’d say to the girl, “I don’t see why we’re going on,” and he might cry, and then the girl wouldn’t look at him, as if she were embarrassed. One day he dropped the handle of the cart. “I’ve had enough,” he said, “if we must walk, I’m not carrying this any more!” Without missing a beat she went to the cart, tried to lift it herself, tried to drag it behind her. She was such a little thing, but she managed it; he could see her grit her teeth with the effort, and then force one foot on in front of the other, so slowly, too slow – she was going to pull the cart no matter how long it took. Shamed, he went back, relieved her. She smiled at him then, just a little smile, and it was of triumph, but it was not unkind. On he walked. On she walked, always keeping pace.

He called her Lucy, it was what it said on the posters. And sometimes as she slept beside him he thought he could see something of his wife in her face. Sometimes he liked to pretend this was his wife, but small, and silent, from the years before he’d met her. And sometimes he didn’t need to pretend, he knew it was true.

*

“Give us a good trick, magic man. And maybe we’ll spare your life. You, and that brat of yours.”

He tried his best. But the cards kept slipping through fingers damp with sweat.

“Haven’t you got anything better?”

He pulled a rabbit out of his hat. He pulled a hat out of a rabbit.

“Last chance, magic man.”

He didn’t know what to do. He looked at Lucy for help.

Lucy didn’t seem afraid. She seemed as blandly unaffected by this as she was by everything else. And for a second the man rather envied her. And for a second he was rather frightened of her too.

She held his gaze for a moment, then turned, and left the stage.

He thought she’d abandoned him. And he couldn’t blame her.

But she came back, and when she did, she was wheeling on the Cabinet of Vanishments.

“No,” he said to her. “No.”

She shook her head at that. She set it down centre stage. She presented it to the audience. And so, he went on with the act. He cleared his throat.

“I shall say the magic word, abracadabra. I… I don’t know what it means. No one does. What it means, I.” His voice cracked. “Maybe that’s why it’s magic.”

There was laughter. Real laughter, or were they mocking him?

He opened the cabinet. There was no darkness in there, the darkness had all got out long ago.

And Lucy gestured that he should step inside.

“No, I’m the magician,” he said.

She ignored that. With a bow, with a flourish, she once more waved him towards the box.

“No,” he said. And this time he was quite firm.

She stared him down for a little while. Then she leaned forward, and he thought she was going to speak at last, he thought she was going to whisper something in his ear. He bent down to listen. She kissed him lightly on the cheek.

“Get on with it,” came the voice from the audience.

They got on with it. Lucy climbed inside the cabinet. She looked so tiny there suddenly, you could have fitted five Lucys inside, more maybe. He closed the doors on her. One didn’t shut properly, the rain water, the warping – and there was laughter again, and this time they were definitely mocking him. He had to hold the door to keep it flush.

“Goodbye,” he said to her. And he liked to imagine that inside she mouthed a goodbye to him too.

He tapped on the box three times with his wand. “Abracadabra,” he said. He stepped away from the box, the warped door swung open and revealed that the cabinet was now empty.

“Can you bring her back?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Bring her back.”

“No,” he said. “I’m not bringing her back. Not to this place.”

They came up on to the stage then, and took him by his arms, and bent him over backwards so his spine hurt, and held him tight. He saw that they were demons and angels, both – that they had little lumps for horns, and lapsed haloes, both.

“Bring her back,” they said.

And he felt such a power surging through him, the magic was back, even in a world as cracked as this. And he thanked them, sincerely – he thanked them that they had helped him give his best performance, that they had made his act at last mean something. The fear had gone. The fear had gone forever, and they could now do what they liked to him.

*

They bit him, and punched him, and pulled at his skin and hair. And he didn’t cry out, he laughed, he barely felt a thing, he was so full of magic now, he was invincible. This enraged them still further. They shut him inside his box, and they set fire to it, and he didn’t cry out, not once, and he looked deep into the flames and fancied he saw in them what Lucy had found so fascinating, and it didn’t hurt, not very much, right up until the end.

*

And Lucy turned about, and opened her eyes, and there was noise, and people, and the buildings stood intact, and the smell in the air may not have been clean but at least wasn’t sulphur.

Her sequined dress was ripped, and spattered with mud.

There was a pack of playing cards in her hand.

There was a tongue in her head.

She began to speak, and the more she said the better she got, and the better she got the louder she became.

She fanned out the playing cards to the world.

“Roll up, roll up,” she said. “Prepare to be dazzled by the Great Zinkiewicz!”

For a while no one paid any attention. But then, even in a world so cracked, the magic began to hold.

 

Hello! Rob again!

This story was first published in the anthology ‘Magic’, edited by Jonathan Oliver for Solaris Books under the title ‘Dumb Lucy’, and has been reproduced here by kind permission. It’s a fantastic book (in every sense of the word) and I’m very proud to be in it, especially because I rub shoulders with friends and heroes like Will Hill, Gemma Files, Christopher Fowler, Alison Littlewood and Audrey Niffenegger. I’m thoughtfully going to provide you a link to it on Amazon – do take a look! http://www.amazon.co.uk/Magic-An-Anthology-Esoteric-Arcane/dp/1781080542/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1352095781&sr=8-1

Lucy’s is the 60th of the 100 stories. I never expected to take a break every twenty stories, but it has seemed to work out that way – and I must say, it’s something of a lifesaver, giving me a chance to breathe and to recharge the brain a bit. I’ll be back again for the next stint in the New Year – so let me be the very first to wish you all a merry Christmas, and to say thank you for reading along with me this far. The oddest stories are yet to come…

YASMIN TIMOTHY

Mrs Timothy never wanted Yasmin to be frightened, not of anything, and she made sure that in all her picture books the lions had nice smiles and the crocodiles came with blunted teeth. Mr Timothy disagreed, and that was predictable enough, since Yasmin’s birth her husband seemed to have found a way to disagree with his wife about everything. “You can’t protect her from the world,” he said. “It’s big and it’s scary and it’s right outside the door!” Mrs Timothy knew this was true, but it was a scary world Yasmin needn’t have to confront just yet—and when it came to kindergarten, and school, and college, and all the other horrors her husband kept throwing at her, then they’d have to see, wouldn’t they?—maybe some careful control would be in order. Maybe they could just do their job as loving parents and make sure Yasmin never had to mix with the wrong sort.

When Yasmin was put to bed at night Mrs Timothy would leave the light on. And she’d read her her favourite stories—about very hungry caterpillars, about beautiful princesses, about kindly folk who would never do her any harm. Mrs Timothy was not an especially good reader, and her voice inclined towards a flat monotone, so before very long Yasmin’s eyes would get heavy and she’d fall asleep. And that was good, that was right, and the final image with which the story would leave her would never put her into a state of anxious suspense.

One night—only a few months ago, was it really so recent?—Mrs Timothy heard screams coming from Yasmin’s bedroom, and she ran to see what was wrong. Yasmin was sitting up in bed, and she seemed to be shrinking away from the sheets, from the windows, from the wardrobe, from everything; she held her little pillow out before her as if it were a shield. “Don’t let the giants get me,” she said. It turned out that earlier that evening Mr Timothy had read her a story himself, quite against his wife’s instructions, whilst Mrs Timothy was busy cooking dinner. The story had featured giants galore. Mr Timothy said, “She seemed to be enjoying it at the time,” and Mrs Timothy opened the book and was horrified by what she saw there: men as big as houses, and stamping upon the little fairy folk, and pulling them apart like Christmas crackers, and eating them whole and raw. It took two readings back to back of Robbie the Happy Rabbit to calm Yasmin down again, and even then Mrs Timothy had had to edit out the bits where Robbie had chewed at his carrots, Yasmin didn’t need to hear any more about chewing that night.

It wasn’t the incident that caused the break-up, but it hadn’t helped. “You don’t love me any more,” Mrs Timothy said one day, and Mr Timothy thought about it, and agreed, as if it were a revelation. “And you don’t love Yasmin either,” sobbed Mrs Timothy, “or you wouldn’t have frightened her so!” Mr Timothy said nothing to this, but he didn’t deny it, so it was probably true. And that very same hour he left, he didn’t even bother to pack, and Mrs Timothy was left to cry with her daughter and wonder why there was so much wickedness in the world.

 *

 Back before Mrs Timothy had become Mrs Timothy, long ago, when she’d believed everyone in the world loved her and no one would let her down, she’d had an Uncle Jack who would read her bedtime stories. Uncle Jack would come to her room after lights out and sit on the edge of her bed, and say, “Time for a story, my pretty princess.” She didn’t want to hear his stories, but the pretty princess always won her over—and she couldn’t but help like Uncle Jack, he smelled so unlike her parents, and she couldn’t work out why—maybe he smoked a different brand of cigarettes, or drank a different sort of beer—it was a strange smell, a sweet smell, as if her Uncle Jack was full of sugar—and sometimes, if she listened to one of his stories without making a single sound, he’d ruffle her hair as a treat. She knew when he began a story she should keep quiet, she mustn’t scream or cry out, she mustn’t even whimper—if she did, he’d simply stop the story, turn back the pages, and start all over again.

He brought the book with him. An enormous book, when he sat it down upon his lap and opened it up it was wider than he was, and she could only imagine how many stories there must be in there—hundreds, no, thousands, no, all the stories in the world. The pages were thick and heavy and as he turned them they creaked like old floorboards. He didn’t turn on the lamp, he read to her by moonlight. Sometimes if the moonlight was bright enough she’d steal a look at those pages; they were dense with long words, and the words crushed tight on to the paper, and there were no pictures.

The stories frightened the girl.

One night he told a particularly terrifying story. And she tried not to, but she kept gasping out loud with fear. And each time she did, no matter how softly, Uncle Jack would hear her, and he’d stop, and back would creak all the pages, and he’d begin once more. He never seemed angry. He never seemed impatient. He read just as before, the same pace, the same wet hiss, the same emphasis on the most disturbing of words. And it was always at the exact same point that she’d gasp—five times, six times now, she could never get beyond the moment where Little Red Riding Hood admired the size of the wolf’s mouth. She knew that all that was waiting for Little Red Riding Hood was death, the same horrible death that had befallen her grandmother, and she didn’t even know what death was, not properly, only that it was big and black and would consume her, and once it had consumed her she’d be lost and no one would ever find her again.

Six times, seven times, eight. All through the night he read to her the same story, over and over, and each time the girl would jam her fist into her mouth, she’d hold her breath, she’d try to lie in bed stiff and hard and not move a muscle—anything, so long as the story would continue, so that the story would at last come to an end.

She fell asleep at last, for all her terror she was too tired to keep awake. And then she sat up with a start, and it was so dark, and the moonlight had gone, it was as if the moon had been switched off, and she was still terrified, and Uncle Jack was gone. His book, however, was lying on the edge of her bed.

It was her one chance to be rid of it. And yet stretching out her hand to touch it seemed such a dreadful thing. She could feel her heart beating so fast it would pop, and she wondered if that’s how her parents would find her in the morning, lying dead on the bed, her fingers just brushing the warm leathery cover of a giant book; she wondered if Uncle Jack would be sad she was gone, or even care.

The book was so heavy she thought she would never lift it. Still, she did.

The house seemed different in the dead of night. The stairs made noises that sounded like warnings as she stepped on them—or maybe they weren’t warnings, maybe they were threats—maybe they were calling out to the strange shadows on the wall to turn on her and eat her. The book filled her arms, as she walked ever downwards shifting its bulk from side to side it seemed she was dancing with it. She reached the back door. She unlocked it. She opened it. The blackness of the outside seemed richer and meatier than the blackness of the house, and in it poured.

She dropped the book into the bin. She slammed the lid down, in case it tried to get out again.

And then, back to her room, this time running, as fast as she could, no time to shut the back door, let alone lock it, back to her bed and under her covers before anything could eat her alive.

She had a temperature the next day, and her mother was worried, and kept her in bed. And all day long the little girl looked out of the window and hoped it would stay daytime forever and wouldn’t get dark. Because as soon as it was dark, she knew, Uncle Jack would return. And what would he say when he found out she’d thrown his book away? He wouldn’t be pleased.

She couldn’t sleep that night. She waited for him. But Uncle Jack didn’t come.

 *

 Mrs Timothy was worried Yasmin might be disturbed by her father’s disappearance, but she seemed to take it in her stride. It was her mummy who dressed her in the morning, who fed her, who read her bedtime stories. “Sometimes things just end,” Mrs Timothy offered as explanation, and Yasmin had nodded slowly, as if she were a grown-up too, as if she could understand such things. But maybe the mistake was that Mrs Timothy had used the same phrase to explain why the next door dog had vanished after being hit by that car; one day Yasmin frowned at her mother, she had something to ask that had been on her mind for quite a while. She said, “Is Daddy dead?”

“Good god, no.”

“Not dead?”

“He’s just away. Somewhere else. For the time being.”

But Yasmin wouldn’t let it go, and eventually Mrs Timothy had been forced to call her husband. She hadn’t spoken to him in a month. Damn him, she thought, and she felt lightheaded and girlish as she waited for him to pick up, and she was angry with herself for that, and angry with him too.

She didn’t bother with a hello. “Yasmin thinks you’re dead, can you talk to Yasmin and prove you’re not dead?” She handed over the phone to Yasmin before he could give a reply. Yasmin listened. Her eyes went big. She said, “Okay.” She handed the phone back to her mother. Mrs Timothy put it straight to her ear, but her husband had already hung up. “What did he say?” she asked.

“He’s coming back soon,” said Yasmin, and smiled, and went to watch something wholesome on the television.

This is all your fault, Mrs Timothy thought, and gripped the phone tight and hard and pretended Mr Timothy could feel it, pretended she could make him hurt. She wouldn’t even know what death was without your stupid giants, if you hadn’t walked out on us, if you hadn’t been someone different to the man you promised to be. And now he was causing more problems, making promises to Yasmin he wouldn’t be able to keep.

She phoned him again, straight away. He didn’t answer.

 *

 When the little girl grew up and became Mrs Timothy, she understood that most of the fairy tales we know today as pantomimes and Disney cartoons were much more violent and disturbing in the original. She read some of the Brothers Grimm, just to see. They were darker, it was true. But they were nothing like the gruesome stories she’d heard from Uncle Jack.

Because he’d told her of Sleeping Beauty, and how when the princess had fallen asleep for a hundred years even the maggots had thought she was dead. And some of those maggots had got sealed fast behind her eyelids, and they were hungry, so they had to feed upon the soft jellies of her eyes, and then when the eyes were gone, they burrowed their way deep into her brain. And when the prince woke her with a magic kiss the princess gazed at him with empty sockets, and her brain had turned to Swiss cheese, and she no longer knew how to speak, or how to think, or how to love. And in the summer months when the weather was hot her brain would start melting and bits of it would dribble out fat and greasy from her ears.

He’d told her of Cinderella, but that she’d had twelve wicked stepsisters, not just two, and that each night they would take turns to beat Cinderella with wire and flay off her skin. And when the prince married her, Cinderella got her revenge. And for a wedding gift she begged for the right to punish her stepsisters by whatever methods she chose. She sought counsel from all the wise men of the land, they would help her devise new tortures never before experienced by man, they would invent machines capable of prolonging each and every agony. And the stepsisters fled; and the soldiers were sent after them; and one by one they’d be caught, and tortured, and killed, and their broken corpses would be hung side by side on the castle battlements for everyone to see. But only eleven stepsisters were ever caught. One got away. And each night Cinderella would lie in bed with her Prince Charming, and she wouldn’t sleep for fear that her last sister was coming to get her, that for all the guards she had posted on the door she would find a way in.

He’d told her of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was unspeakable.

One day, as an adult, Mrs Timothy dared to ask her parents about Uncle Jack. They had no idea who she was talking about. Her father was an only child, her mother had only sisters. Her parents didn’t seem very concerned, though. This Uncle Jack, he’d probably been a family friend.

 *

 There was a scream that woke Mrs Timothy up—“Yasmin?” she called—and only then did she realize there was a heavy storm; thunder roared above the house, lightning flashed, and rain battered hard against the windows as if it were trying to break in.

“Yasmin?” She reached her daughter’s room, and the room was dark, and she tried the light switch but it was no use. “Sweetheart, it’s just a power cut, it’s all right, don’t be scared.”

And as her eyes adjusted she could make out Yasmin, sitting up in bed, quite composed, pert even. “I’m not scared,” she said.

“Did the thunder wake you? Did you see the lightning? It’s all right, nothing can get at us in here.”

Yasmin didn’t say anything. Mrs Timothy felt strangely embarrassed, as if she should leave. Instead she sat down on the end of her bed. “I’ll put you back to sleep,” she said. “I’ll read you a story, would you like that?”

“Yes,” said Yasmin.

“I’ll read you one of your favourite stories.” She took from the shelf the tale of the very hungry caterpillar, sat back down again. Reaching for the bedside lamp she checked herself, remembered that the electricity was out. It didn’t matter. She’d read the book so many times she probably knew it all by heart, and besides, there was moonlight. She opened the book, strained to make out the text. Her voice was not only monotonous, it was halting, even Mrs Timothy could hear how boring she was. Reading by moonlight was harder than she’d ever thought, she wondered how he had ever—and then she stopped herself.

“I don’t want to hear about the caterpillar,” said Yasmin.

“No. Fair enough.”

“I want a different sort of story.”

“All right.”

“Let me tell you a story.”

“Yes. Yes. You tell me a story, sweetheart.”

Yasmin’s story wasn’t very good, but her voice was clearer than her mother’s, and so much more confident, and she didn’t hesitate over any of the words. And Mrs Timothy wanted her to stop, but she didn’t think she could, she froze, and she knew that she had to keep quiet, if she made even the slightest sound Yasmin would start all over—and no, that was nonsense, of course she could make it stop, she only had to tell her to stop, this was a four year old girl, stop, stop, stop.

Yasmin stopped.

“Where did you hear that?” Mrs Timothy asked, trying to sound calm, trying to sound as if everything was normal.

“I don’t know.”

“You didn’t just make it up. You couldn’t.” Yasmin just stared at her, her mother could almost feel her eyes boring into her. “Who’s been telling you this stuff? Who have you been talking to? Was it your father?” And she thought that, yes, maybe her little daughter was making phone calls to her husband, all behind her back, they were ganging up on her, laughing about her, Yasmin was taking sides. It was awful. It was awful. But still so much better than—“I asked you a question, Yasmin! Was it your father?” And she was shaking her, perhaps a little too roughly.

And it was at that moment the electricity chose to come back on. And Mrs Timothy blinked in the sudden light, and saw herself grabbing on to her daughter, and she let go, ashamed. And she saw her darling little daughter’s face, and it was glaring at her.

“Well,” said Mrs Timothy. “Well.” She got up to her feet. “Do you think you can sleep now?”

Yasmin nodded.

“Night night, my darling.” And—“You have lovely dreams.”

Still Yasmin wouldn’t say anything, but she did nestle deeper beneath the sheets.

“Night night,” Mrs Timothy said again. And made to leave the room. “Mummy?” she heard, and turned around.

“Mummy,” Yasmin said, “I’m sorry about the story.”

“That’s all right. Never mind.”

“I’m sorry about what it’s let in.”

Mrs Timothy didn’t know what to say to that.

“Please,” said Yasmin, “would you turn off the light for me?”

Her mother hesitated. Then did as she was told.

 *

 The hallway back to her bedroom seemed longer than usual, and Mrs Timothy felt cold. A flash of lightning blazed through the house for a moment, it startled her.

She reached her room, closed the door behind her.

She got into bed.

The bed was very cold, and there was a sort of dampness to the cold. It was as if the rainstorm had got in, danced lightly about her bedspread, and got out before she’d returned.

It seemed such a big bed, stupidly big, so empty without her husband, and for the first time since he’d left she wished he was there to help fill it.

She wasn’t frightened by Yasmin’s story. But nevertheless she decided she’d turn the light on, just for a little while. Her fingers tugged at the cord above her head. Nothing, still darkness. The power must have gone off again.

No, she wasn’t frightened, that would be absurd. Indeed, she could barely remember what the story was even about now, it was already fading away like a dream—and she tried to grasp on to the memory of it, and then she made herself let it go, no, let go.

It wasn’t the story that was frightening. It was what the story might have let in. The words popped into her head like a cold truth, and she didn’t even know what that could mean—let what in? Still, it made her shiver.

She pulled up the sheets to her throat. She felt the wetness on her chin, it was damp. Disgusted, she threw the sheets off again. They formed a huddle on the floor by the side of the bed.

She looked around the room. She knew the room so well. She’d slept in the room for nearly four years, ever since they’d moved here, ever since she was pregnant with Yasmin. There was nothing to fear from this room. This room was her sanctuary. She had slept in this room over a thousand times, she had never been hurt here, had she? She’d never once been haunted by ghosts, or attacked by monsters, or bitten by vampires, or killed. She wished she hadn’t thought of that word, ‘killed.’

The shadows were bleeding out from the corners towards her. She knew why that was. The storm was doing strange things to the light, it was causing it to distort somehow, to break it into weird shapes. If she didn’t like it, she could always get up and close the curtains. Get up then, close the curtains. Get up.

She didn’t want to get up.

 She was frightened of what the story might have let in. What had Yasmin done? She wanted to run to her bedroom, wake her, demand that she take her story back. Unsay it, make it all go away. She should get up and find her.

Oh, but she didn’t want to get up, did she? Why didn’t she want to get up? Think.

Because there was something under her bed. There was something under her bed. She knew it. She could sense it. If she listened closely, she could hear it whispering to her. Yes, and the moment she put her foot over the side, it would grab her, pull her under and into the darkness. Look at that body on the floor, it whispered. That could be you.—There isn’t a body on the floor, that’s just the sheets I kicked off, I did that myself.—No, it’s a body on the floor.

From downstairs she heard a knock against the door.

It was just the wind, of course—but there it was again, and this time there was a rhythm to it, a tattoo of three beats, thump-thump-thump. And again.

It must be her husband. And she’d wanted him there only a few minutes before, but now he seemed a very real and present danger, and she wanted him gone, she wanted him off her property—he couldn’t just turn up whenever he felt like, he’d made his choice, he’d made his bloody choice, and she’d go and see him and tell him just that—and she nearly got out of bed, this was something real, and she was just putting her foot down to the carpet when she felt it brush against her, it was too smooth and too oily, and she realized that the darkness had a texture to it now, the shadows were alive, the shadows wanted her.

She pulled her foot back to safety. The door kept knocking. You knock away, she thought, I’m staying where I am.

 She closed her eyes. She tried not to think of all the darkness in her head when she did that, that the darkness she had within her might be the same darkness waiting for her without.

Thump-thump-thump—and then stop.

And nothing. No more of that.

And she kept her eyes closed, and stilled her breath, and listened for the slightest sound.

She heard nothing, but she felt it, a new weight on the end of her bed.

Her eyes snapped open, and there was nothing there—it was all right, of course there was nothing there—and she gasped with relief and thought she might even cry—and the door, her bedroom door, had she closed it?—the door was open.

She hadn’t closed it. That was it. She could go and close it if she wanted to. She would, just get up and close the door. Get up. Get up.

 What had Yasmin’s story let in?

And at the doorway she saw the darkness harden, and grow denser, and turn into the shape of a person, and she thought her heart would pop—and she thought, this is how my little daughter will find me in the morning, slumped dead against the pillows, my eyes open so wide in fear, oh, Yasmin.

Yasmin?

“Is that you, Yasmin?” she made herself ask.

And the figure said, quietly, “Yes.”

She wanted nothing to frighten her, not now, not ever. “Were you afraid of the thunder? It’s all right, darling. You sleep with me. I’ll protect you. This bed’s big enough for both of us.” It was too big, that was a certainty—and now she’d have someone to hold again, and she’d be brave, and all the ghosts and monsters could come and she’d see them all off.

The figure came in, the figure wasn’t bothered by the shadows, or the darkness under the bed, or the sheet body on the floor—and the figure climbed in beside her, and Mrs Timothy had one last terror, that maybe this wasn’t Yasmin after all—but it was, it was, and she could now see her clearly, this was her own little angel.

Mrs Timothy hugged her. She smelled nice and sweet. “Don’t be scared,” she told her.

“I’m not scared,” her daughter replied. She whispered it in her mother’s ear.

“Good.”

Such a sweet smell, she recognized that smell. And Yasmin was slightly damp too, as if the rain had got to her. And Yasmin was right by her ear. “Shall I finish my story?”

And Mrs Timothy pulled away from her, just for a moment, and she saw that Yasmin’s eyes were too wide, and her mouth was too big for her face, and then Yasmin pulled her back, she held on to her mother’s head tight so it couldn’t move.

She told her story. She made her understand that there were so many ghosts, you could never tell who was a ghost and who wasn’t. So very many—and some of them want to tear you apart, some of them want to drag you down to Hell—and some, if you’re lucky, just want to tell you stories.

The smell wasn’t of cigarettes and beer, it was of soft decay. And her touch was moist.

She told her mother her story, and her mother was good, and kept quiet during the whole thing. So she ruffled her hair before she got out of bed. And Mrs Timothy’s mind still had some room to think, to wonder at how much bigger Yasmin had become, why, she looked quite the grown-up.

Yasmin stood there, and they were both standing there, she was holding hands with a man without a face who had just leaked out of the shadows, perhaps he’d always been there, perhaps he had been waiting all this time.

They were holding hands, they looked down at the frightened little girl in the bed like they were mummy and daddy.

It was the daddy who said, “Sleep well, my pretty princess,” and the mummy who said, “There’ll be more stories tomorrow.” And they shrunk away into the darkness of the hallway, and closed the door, and locked it.

Hello! Stepping out of the story here.

This creepy tale has also just been published in issue 4 of Shadows & Tall Trees, and is released here with kind permission of its editor, Michael Kelly. I’m very proud to appear in the latest issue, alongside such names as Reggie Oliver, Gary McMahon, and recent Man Booker Prize nominee Alison Moore – and it also has the sort of cover that’ll make your head spin! 

If you’ve enjoyed my story, do consider checking out the other contributors – it’s a really terrific anthology. You can find more details at http://www.undertowbooks.com/issues/

 Happy Halloween!

DAVID KINNE

1

This is a tale about my dear Dadda, and for my Dadda too. It is set years ago, when my Dadda wasn’t as old as he is now, nor was I so old neither. And it’s about how he was so brave, and saved our lives from the cold, twice.

I have never written it down before. I have always told it to my father straight, using the sort of words that come out of my mouth. I think it’s a tale he used to enjoy. He seemed to recognise the exciting bits, his eyes used to water. He doesn’t show much interest any more. It may be because he’s getting on. It may be because it’s the only tale I know, and he’s tired of hearing it, that’s a possibility. I try to keep it fresh, I’m always putting in new bits. But still.

I’m setting it on paper now, so that if I don’t tell him it again, if he never finds the appetite for it, it’ll still live on. In some way. And I’m cutting out all the bits I know I’ve made up, this is the truth as it really happened – or, at least, as far as I can recall. If it feels a bit too bald when I’ve finished, why, I’ll just come back to it, put in extra detail. It’ll be all right.

2

I say it’s a tale about how he saved us from the cold, but we never called it the cold back then. Cold was what you felt when the fire went out, or what the porridge turned if you didn’t eat it fast enough. Cold like that didn’t kill. We had another name for the killing cold.

But nowadays the cold is different, smoother, nicer, I suppose. It comes regularly enough, it seems to fit it in somewhere between the blissed out heat of summer and the coming of spring. There might be snow, and there might be ice, but they’re not cold as I understand cold. And for a start, the snow looks soft and peaceful like a blanket, and in a sheen of white, and the ice might be see-through like a mirror. The snow and ice of my childhood didn’t have colour. Colour is just Nature’s way of trying to talk to you, to let you know when something is tame or good to eat, so animals can tell when another is randy and up for a bit of fooling. The snow and ice of my childhood were colourless because they had nothing they wanted to talk to us about – they didn’t care about us one way or another.

Dadda used to call the cold, the proper killing cold, Jack Frostington – or The Slap – or Old Man Kinne. I don’t know whether that’s what everyone called it, or they were just names he made up himself. Maybe he did it to make the cold less scary. It didn’t work. “There’s a bit of Old Man Kinne on the wind,” he’d say, or, “Do your chores or Old Man Kinne will get you,” or, “Old Man Kinne stole the life out of your Mamma last night.” I always used to imagine Old Man Kinne as a thin bastard, you know, thin and cruel? And in his hair would be icicles, and his eyes would be dead and staring, and he’d have long talon fingers, and tusks for teeth. And if he got too close, his very breath would be sharp enough to gut you. But then, I used to imagine that the Devil had a forked tail, and God was an old man sitting on a cloud, and I don’t suppose I was right about them much neither.

He killed my Mamma in the night. He could do that. You had to be careful. You had to wrap yourself up snug and tight underneath the bed clothes. You were allowed to stick your head out, just so you could breathe, but nothing else. Mamma had had a foot poking from beneath the sheets, or maybe just a toe, and he’d had his way with her, and when my Dadda woke up beside her in the morning she had turned to ice so thick we had to chop her up with an axe to bury her.

I don’t remember Mamma well. I ask David sometimes about her. David is my brother, he’s a little older. I ask him to tell me about Mamma. “She was quite nice,” he says.

I’d ask Dadda, but of course he can’t say anything now. And I don’t think he remembers much. I don’t think he even remembers my tale when I tell him it, his eyes water up at the exciting bits, and if he doesn’t remember it’s hardly fair he gets so bored.

3

Sometimes Dadda would take us fishing. Up the big hill, then down the big hill,  straight on to the fishpond. It isn’t far, maybe two or three miles. Dadda had made David a fishing rod almost as big as his own. And he’d made me a little fishing rod, because I was still just a babby.

I’ve been fishing thousands of times since, of course, but those fishing trips with my father and my brother are my fondest. I suppose it was because there was no pressure. Dadda would catch fish, and David might catch a few fish too, and that would be our supper for a week. And no one expected me to catch any fish, but if I did, and I did sometimes, Dadda would laugh and look so proud and he might carry me on his shoulders all the way home.

One day we were fishing, and Dadda suddenly said, “Old Man Kinne is coming!” And we thought he must be joking, because Dadda joked about Old Man Kinne sometimes, even after Old Man Kinne had killed Mamma. And it was a warm day too, it wasn’t yet summer, but it was the height of spring, and there was so much colour about as animals tried to fool with each other, and Kinne liked to keep away when the sun was burning, the sun and Kinne had never been the best of friends.

But Dadda was in earnest, and he pointed, and we could see for ourselves. There in the distance the sky was broken, and its fissures were edging their way towards us like skeletal fingers. And beneath the fissures, for miles around, we could see that the earth was churning itself up, that the trees were being blasted hard into statues, or blasted right out of the ground. We saw deer caught in that blast and turned to ice, we saw birds crash down like stones.

“Run!” cried Dadda, and he started fast up the hill. And David and I were right behind. And I remember the distant air being frozen, and the sound it made was like a dull crack, not like the crack you get when you put your foot through ice crust on a puddle, there is something delicious about that – no, this, there was such a lifelessness to it, as if the air had just given up, as if the whole world had resigned itself to death and the still and the unfeeling unending cold.

We ran for our very lives. Though I knew we could not outrun Old Man Kinne. Though I expected at any moment to feel his talons stick sharp through my back, and then I would be frozen to the spot, then I would be dead just like Mamma was, and I wondered whether it would hurt, and I wondered whether it would burn. And I think too I was so excited, it was almost fun, I think David and I whooped with the very thrill of it. Though I might be wrong about that.

Then Dadda halted right in front of me. And I thought, that was it, he’d been caught, he’d been frozen. And I wondered why it had overtaken me, how it had reached him first. But he wasn’t frozen. “Stop!” he said. “Both of you. We’ll never reach shelter. There’s no time.”

And he was right. Home was miles away yet, and all we had in front of us was the hill, which now looked so steep and slowing, and all we had behind us was the pond and the fish and Old Man Kinne outstripping life itself.

“I’ll keep you warm,” he said. “You’ll have to trust me.” And we did, we always did.

Dadda took a deep breath, as if he were trying to steel himself. And then he opened his mouth wide. I thought he was trying to scream, but no sound came out. And then he gulped, and I saw him strain some more, and the mouth got wider still – his jaws drooped down to his chest. He began to cry. Silent tears rolled down his face, down his elongated face. Another gulp, and the jaw fell yet further, and this time I heard the bones splinter with the force of it, his mouth fell open down past his waist. One more breath, his last breath, because the cold was nearly upon us, I could feel it begin to prick at my skin, I could feel all the heat to the day being scorched lifeless close by, the storm was coming, the storm was coming fast. One of last breath, and he couldn’t help it, my poor Dadda, he gave a cry of pain that was muffled through the distorted parody of his face, and his mouth reached the ground, the chin flattened hard against the grass and the tongue flapped like a dying thing and seemed to pool out rather.

He couldn’t speak to us. He couldn’t even gesture – I think every spare reserve of his strength had gone into opening his mouth that wide. But it was clear what he wanted asked to do. David and I looked at each other, there was nothing else for it. And we pulled apart his stretched taut lips, and we climbed into the warmth.

4

We were very lucky. The storm raged for no more than a few hours. If it had lasted longer, and the wind had turned, we would have been done for. Kinne would have reached inside the shelter of our father’s mouth, and grabbed us, no matter how snug we hid beneath the blanket of his tongue with only our heads peeking out.

I had caught a fish. Even in all the panic, I hadn’t dropped it. We ate it now. I had never eaten anything that tasted so good.

At one point David tried to leave, he thought the storm had passed, and I grabbed hold of him tight, begged him to wait a little longer. I was right to do so. The storm had lulled, but I think only as a trick, as soon as we’d stepped back through those lips it would have fallen upon us. An hour or so later David tried to leave again, and I once more tried to make him stay, but he shook me off. This time it turned out he was right. We were safe.

5

I used to think David resented our Dadda for saving our lives that day. He told me once that in that moment his childhood ended. Now he had to be the one who went out fishing, and kept house, and took care of me. He could no longer allow himself the luxury of being a little boy, and he hadn’t done with being a boy yet.

I remember how angry he used to get. Sometimes he would take me fishing, but there was no sport to it any more. He took me fishing because he said it was high time I learned how to do it properly. He didn’t talk to me much, and rarely kindly.

That was all long ago, of course. David left one day, he wouldn’t look after me forever, not once I was old enough to look after myself. He went into town. He comes back and visits Dadda and me at Christmas, brings his wife and his two little kids. He’s got a job in textiles now. I ask him, “So, how’s the world of textiles?” – he laughs when I ask him that, and it makes him happy to try to explain, but I don’t really follow it.

I sometimes ask him about what happened that day in the storm, and that’s the only time he gets impatient with me the way he used to.

6

At first I thought my Dadda was dead. But this is a tale set years ago, when he wasn’t as old as he is now, and when he was so much stronger. His eyes had frozen into hard pebbles, and all over his body jutting out were jagged icicles that made him look like a porcupine. But, “He’s alive,” said David, as he inspected him. “We need to get him home so he can thaw.”

But how to get him there? He could hardly walk back, even if we managed to free his legs, which were now heavily encased in ice. His distended mouth dug deep into the snow and this meant his body couldn’t even stand upright without tottering.

David considered. Then, without asking me for my opinion, because what was my opinion worth, I was still the little boy – he went over to Dadda and gripped him hard by the shoulders. He struggled with him, rocking him back and forth, and I thought at first he was wrestling with him, and David gritted his teeth with the effort, it made him look so angry. Then with a grunt he succeeded, he pushed Dadda over on to his back. Dadda crashed to the ground, and I heard something smash, and I hoped it was just the ice about him shattering, I hoped it wasn’t any of his bones.

“Help me,” said David.

And he took hold of Dadda by the bottom lip. I didn’t like to do it. He glared at me. “Help,” he said again, so I did. I took hold of Dadda too. I gripped on to his lip tight. I dug my nails in deep for purchase. The ice on the lip was thin, and underneath it what I felt seemed warm and blubbery.

“I’m sorry, Dadda,” I whispered, and I thought David tutted, or maybe it was just the wind – and David didn’t look at me the whole while. And together we began to climb that hill, steep and frozen as it was, dragging the weight of our Dadda behind us.

It was slow, painful work. I sang a song to lift our spirits, but David didn’t join in. David barely spoke to me. I think even then he knew his childhood was over.

By the time we reached the summit, it was nearly dark.

We could see our house directly beneath us, right at the bottom of the valley. But David despaired. “It’s all been for nothing,” he said. Because from this vantage point we could see the storm was coming back. And this time it was coming from both sides – Old Man Kinne was all around us, we hadn’t escaped him, we were in the palm of his hands, and he was going to clap them together and squish us flat.

But even in all the panic, when I hadn’t dropped my fish, I hadn’t dropped my fishing rod neither. And I had an idea.

I wrapped the line around Dadda’s neck, tight and fast so the knot couldn’t loosen, the way Dadda had always taught me. And we climbed on board Dadda’s chest, and we used that fishing line as a rein, we rode our Dadda right down that hill like a sleigh.

Dadda’s frozen body’s sped down so fast, and there was wind in my face, and tracks cut into the snow, and the snow was spitting up into my face too, and we yanked on the rein from left to right to avoid trees. Dadda took us safely home. It was the second time he’d saved us from the cold, and I think the most fun.

Because for all our fear, and all our grief, it was fun, somehow, I think David and I whooped with the thrill of it, and it was the last time we could be young and silly and free.

7

It took a few days for Dadda to defrost. His icicles snapped off. His eyes warmed and softened and turned to water. (And his eyes can still water now, sometimes they water at the exciting bits.)

In time his mouth began to shrink back as well, but that was slow progress. By the end of the year it had retracted as far as his ankles. A year later, it was brushing against his waist. It didn’t seem to budge so much after that.

David was a good brother. He taught me how to fish, to cook and to clean. And when the storms came, as they always did sooner or later, then, then at least, he would be kind to me and give me comfort.

Dadda couldn’t speak, of course. Not whilst his mouth was so big. I sat by him. I told him stories. I told him the story I thought he’d most like, the one where he’s a hero and saves his sons from harm.

One day his mouth will finish shrinking back, I know. Then he’ll be able to talk again. He’ll tell me stories, it’ll be his turn. He might tell me a story where I’m the hero, where I stay at home for years and years and years to save him. That might be nice.

I’d listen attentively, and react at all the exciting bits, and I’d never be so bloody rude as to look bored.

8

It’s not just Dadda who gets to hear my tale. David used to bring his children over at Christmas, I might tell them too. David’s wife doesn’t like me doing that, she says it scares them – but I say there’s nothing to fear from the truth. David hasn’t brought his children the last few Christmases. This year, once more, he came quite alone.

He was up to his old tricks again. “Come back with me,” he said.

“I can’t,” I said. “I can’t leave Dadda.”

“Dadda left us a long time ago,” said David. “He did his best, but he left us to it, and there’s an end to it.” But I don’t want to think about that.

David then said, “Do you think this is what he wanted? Do you think this is why he sacrificed himself for us? So that you could sacrifice yourself right back? What do you think he would say?”

This made me angry. And when I get angry I don’t shout. I can be as quiet as Dadda, I don’t have to say a word for ages.

David didn’t stay long this year. “Come back with me,” he said again. And then he left. That was yesterday.

9

This is a tale about Old Man Kinne, and for Old Man Kinne too. It’s a tale about how he fought my dear Dadda, and how he bested him. And how he bested my brother David, and how he bested me.

When it’s dark, and it’s cold, and the snow is on the ground, I go outside to tell my tale. I think it’s a tale he used to enjoy. He seems to recognise the exciting bits. He’ll howl and blast and freeze, whenever he feels it appropriate.

He’s not as strong as he once was. His ice is see-through like a mirror. His snow looks like icing sugar, it looks like a soft blanket, there’s colour to it, like it’s randy and is ready for a bit of fooling.

I tell him Old Man Kinne my tale, and then I say, “Tell me a tale back.” And this time he does.

NICK MILTON

I am dying, but there are compensations.

Firstly, I have already read my obituary, and I think it’s rather fine. It pays tribute to my distinguished career in glowing terms, and concludes that I am ‘arguably one of the finest actors ever to walk upon the British stage.’ I like that use of ‘arguably’, it sounds so modest, and yet doesn’t brook argument at all. I also like the use of words like ‘neglected’ and ‘undervalued’, and the phrase ‘criminally undervalued’. I did not write my own obituary, but I did suggest a few areas that the journalist might like to pay particular attention. I have spoken to the editor of ‘The Stage and Television Today’, and he has given me no reason to believe the obituary will be trimmed.

Secondly, I have left in my will a grant to my old boarding school, the money to be put towards the creation of an award given out every prize day. It is to be presented to the boy judged that year to have made the most notable contribution towards the excellence of theatre, and there will be words to that effect inscribed on a silver cup, and my name will be upon the cup too. I am hoping it will encourage some resurgence of interest in drama at my alma mater; when I last visited, a few years ago now, their Christmas production of‘Twelfth Night’ was desultory at best. I think it’s important to give back. I have had a long and successful career – even if not quite as successful as my talents promised, but hey ho – and if I can make some children benefit from that, and have good reason to thank my name, all to the good.

And thirdly, and finally, and most frivolously – I am looking forward to those final moments when your whole life flashes before your eyes. For all these years I have given pleasure to untold thousands of audiences, sitting in rapt and respectful silence as I dazzle them with my arts. The one person, alas, who has never had the opportunity to see me on stage is I myself. But now, at last, as my entire existence passes in front of me, I can afford to settle back and experience my greatest successes, one after the other, watching from a front row seat.

I am especially looking forward to my celebrated performance of King Lear, as given at Hornhaven Playhouse in the summer of 1979. We had a full house every night, and people travelled far and wide to see me, some travelled from as far away as Shaddock. It wasn’t a perfect production by any means, and Anna Walker-Smith made a rather adenoidal Cordelia, but the critical notices regarding me were especially warm. The Hornhaven Gazette said I was ‘definitive’. Bless.

It’s my heart that’s killing me. But I never take much notice of it. It’s not giving me any pain.

*

It starts to happen. I can feel it. I am not afraid. I am prepared.

I prop myself up high on my pillows, and watch as the house lights go down and the curtains pull apart.

My childhood is unremarkable. As I play with my school chums at hide and seek, cowboys and Indians, cricket, you can see my talent is there, all that imagination, that innate sensitivity. But it is as yet without discipline. I resist the urge to shout out and tell my younger self to project, but I doubt he’ll be able to hear me. It doesn’t matter; this is what my three years of voice training at RADA will be for.

It’s nice to see my parents again, though they are not quite as I remember them. My father, I thought, was taller than that – but I suppose all performers look shorter close up than you expect; oh, that season I worked with Larry Olivier in the sixties, and my shock on finding out he was a borderline dwarf! I hadn’t realised my mother had such a lantern jaw.

First kisses, first sex. Some of the girls I vaguely recall. Most I don’t.

It’s not until I get my first job, as Merriman in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, with ASM and light understudy duties, that I recognise something is wrong. Merriman doesn’t appear much in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, he’s just a butler who turns up once in a while to announce the arrival of gentry and dispense cucumber sandwiches; it takes until act three before I get enough of a glimpse of Merriman to assess him properly.

The actor playing Merriman isn’t me. Or, rather – the actor playing me isn’t me.

My heart may be weak, but my brain is a sharp as ever, thank you very much. I recognise him, vaguely. I know I’ve seen him before. I think maybe I’ve even worked with him. But it’s been a long time, and it takes me past the curtain call and into that first night party where I felt up Angela Dunstall before I’m able to put a name to the face.

And then it hits me, hard – and there is a coldness on my heart, and I think that’s it, I’m bowing out early, I’m going to die right here and now of shock, or disappointment, or simply rage. I breathe deeply, and slowly. I steady myself.

I get out of bed. I pace a bit. I’m not going to die, not like this. No death until I’ve sorted this matter out.

To discover that I’m not seeing my life pass before my eyes accurately is galling enough; it’s just a reconstruction, this is someone’s interpretation of it. But to realise that I’ve been so woefully miscast, that the actor who is representing me in my dying moments is so grossly unsuited to the job – it feels like a calculated insult.

Because it is Nicholas Milton, the very same Nicholas Milton I worked with for an entire season of weekly rep back in 1978, the same Nicholas Milton who was my enemy. He looks a bit older, yes, a bit greyer, certainly – but it’s him, it’s him, it’s him.

I think I’m going to be sick. I’m not sick. I need all the strength I can muster.

*

Nicholas Milton was a very bad actor.

I think I shall be remembered for a certain generosity I display towards fellow performers. I do not call someone a bad actor lightly. I accept that good actors can have bad performances in them; they can be miscast, they can find themselves out of their depth, they can lose their way in rehearsal because of insensitive direction or unflattering costume choices. Anna Walker-Smith may have given the world a Cordelia stymied by adenoids, but the following week her Lady Sneerwell in ‘The School for Scandal’ was perfectly adequate. Even I myself – I accept that I may have got the wrong end of the stick with ‘Waiting for Godot’, though I do maintain that at least my portrayal of Estragon kept the audiences amused.

But Nicholas Milton was a very bad actor; more than that, he was the worst actor I ever worked with; more than that, he was the only bad actor I ever worked with, all the others excelled in comparison.

Alan St John cast him in the 1978 summer season, but I do not blame Alan. I always told Alan I’d leave all the casting up to him – if he wanted any help he could always ask, but I had every faith in his abilities. Alan took me at my word and never asked. Every year, around May time, he’d give me a ring – he’d say, “Dear heart, are you free for another spell treading the boards under the thumb of yours truly?” He was joking, of course – I was never under his thumb; Alan may have nominally been my director, but in rehearsal he always looked to me for guidance. We’d do a season of eight plays in weekly rep, the whole commitment lasting two and a half calendar months; two weeks of preliminary rehearsals, followed by a block of performances, acting the latest show in the evening, breaking in the next one during the day.

I’d say to Alan, “I shan’t commit yet, something better may turn up,” and that was my little joke too really, I always kept myself free for a St John season, he and I went back such a long way. I’d ask him whether he wanted me to give my King Lear to the masses, and some years he’d say it was too soon after the last one, we didn’t want the audience to take it for granted – and some years he’d say yes.

And each season Alan would cast new actors into the troupe, some straight out of drama school. He knew the value of fresh blood, that these baby-faced hopes might be stars of the future. He knew too that when I wasn’t on stage giving it my all the audience would need something young and pretty to look at.

I thought nothing of Nicholas Milton at first. He was just another juve, a bit wet behind the ears, a bit gauche – bless their hearts, I liked meeting the juves, how I’d tease them the first days of rehearsal, I’d instruct them on all their supernumerary duties which involved making me tea and calling me sir, until, laughingly, Alan would tell them I was joking.

They’d come to the rehearsals with lots of things they’d learned in class, of course, but practical experience would soon drum that out of them. You can’t learn how to act from a book, or from a ‘workshop environment’ – you stand up on stage before a crowd of strangers, with nothing more than a doublet and hose and spotlighting for protection, and you soon find out the hard way when they’re enjoying themselves and when they’re not. There is no sound more deathly, I tell you, than the sound of an audience that’s bored. You stare into the darkness, you can’t see anyone out there because the lights blind you a little, but you can hear them – you can hear how still they become, how numbed they are, how in each cough and rustle of sweet paper that they long only for the interval and a chance to escape. It’s the sort of silence that any good actor dreads. It’s the sort of silence that gives you nightmares.

Nicholas Milton was all fancy theories. He told me, I think it was on the first day even, he told me that in order to act our parts successfully we had to discover some inner truth to the characters. I told him, quite amiably I thought, that the most important thing we had to do was to face out front, talk loudly, and not bump into the furniture. And if we could get the odd laugh now and again, that was a bonus. He smiled at me then, and I remember his smile well, it was wide and friendly. I think, looking back, that smile was the best bit of acting he ever did.

Those first few days of rehearsal went well. It was a season Alan wanted my Lear, and of course that suited me like an old glove – and it was nice for the other actors too, there was a ready-made production they could fit around. And in breaks, in the green room, if the cast had done well, I’d sit in my armchair and treat them with a few anecdotes about my life on the stage. They were funny stories, I could always make them laugh, and I’d tell them of times I’d worked with Ralph Richardson, or John Gielgud, back in the days when none of us were knights. And if they listened closely, the clever actor would realise there were useful lessons to be gleaned from these anecdotes too, handy little instructions that would give a juve something to feed off when he had to be on the stage.

I’ll admit, I enjoyed telling stories in the green room more sometimes than I did the actual acting. Those young faces, so full of spirit and idealism, with years of performances ahead of them, of Restoration comedies and Feydeau farces and Lears of their very own – they’d look up at me, they’d hang on my every word. And I liked that old armchair too. It had been officially mine since the season of ’74 or ‘75 – it was the only comfortable chair there, really, all the others were the plastic sort you’d get in schools or village halls – and we’d been doing a rehearsal of ‘King Richard II’, and I’d be especially good in the first half run through, and as we traipsed into the green room to put on the kettle and have some char Martin Dempster (who was playing Bolingbroke) pulled out the armchair and waved his hands over it most amusingly, and said, “Your throne, my liege!” And we all laughed, and I played up to it, of course, and I sat down in it with all due pomp and ceremony, and from that point on it became my chair, at the very top of the room, and there I would tell my stories and make jokes with the cast and dispense some useful advice.

I remember that first day of rehearsal, and it may have been before Nicholas Milton came out with that arse about inner truth, but it may have been after – and there I was, I was telling them all some anecdote about my time in the London West End and how I once met Sir Terence Rattigan. And then, even before I’d properly reached the end of it, Milton started speaking. And I thought for a moment he was building upon my anecdote, trying to explain it to his fellows, and that was bad enough – I don’t need any help, thank you very much – but then I realised that no, worse, he was telling an anecdote of his own! This scrap of a kid who hadn’t even done anything yet! I gave him enough rope to hang himself. I let him finish his story, trivial as it was. His fellow actors laughed politely. And then I continued with another story, a better one, one of my all time classics. Milton didn’t seem put out by this. He smiled that smile he had, and I recall a faint feeling of triumph – he’d realised he’d been bested, and I felt a little sorry for him, it was rather like using an elephant gun to swat a fly. And I finished my story, and brought it to the punchline, but before I’d even taken breath to start another there he was again, telling some new yarn of his own, something about his days doing a school play of all things! I got up and left. I didn’t want to punish the whole cast. It wasn’t their fault one of their number was speaking out of turn. But I had no choice.

I spoke to Alan at the end of the day. I told him what the problem was. He said he’d see what he could do. I have no idea what he did, but Nicholas Milton never interrupted an anecdote of mine again. Indeed, he usually wasn’t in the room during the break at all.

He was a bad actor, as I say, and this wasn’t merely because of his behaviour in the rehearsal room. He had a sort of earnestness about him on stage that doesn’t reach an audience – any seasoned actor knows that it’s what you can push out to the dress circle that counts, not all the sotto voce mumbling you do in the name of verite. The audience loved him, and the poor fool hadn’t the wit to understand they loved him because he looked nice, it was nothing to do with the impassioned sincerity of his emoting. In ‘King Lear’ he was playing Oswald. It’s a nice part, Oswald. Not many lines, but a bit of sneering, a joke or two, and a lovely death scene, it’s a fine part for the right juve. Whenever Oswald made an entrance the audience straightaway would start to laugh at him, and he wasn’t even supposed to be that funny; at the curtain call when he stepped on stage for his bow the clapping would get louder, and there’d even be cheers. There wasn’t much applause left for the rest of us, the crowds got all clapped out. It was embarrassing. Milton’s popularity was overwhelming the production.

He had to be taught a lesson, and only I could do it. One evening, in act one scene four, I cut a page or two of the script altogether. I cut out Oswald’s first major entrance, and his subsequent exit. One moment I was chatting to the Earl of Kent, the next I was calling for my Fool. Donald McDermott was playing Kent, and he looked a bit horrified, but I squeezed his arm so he’d know it was all right, and Nicholas Milton was left stranded in the wings without any chance of coming on and stealing the limelight. He would turn up later in the play for his death scene, but now it would be without any context, he’d just be another oik getting stabbed in the carnage. I apologised to Milton later, and pretended it had been a mistake. But I said to him, “Lear can do without its Oswald, but it can’t do without its Lear.” And I tapped my nose for emphasis, yes. I think he got the message. I think it was a point well made.

That must have been the Thursday, or the Friday, I think. It would have been on the Monday before that we’d had the technical rehearsal, and during the break Alan asked if I could go to see wardrobe about a wig fitting. I suppose the rest of the cast thought I’d be gone for longer, but the Lear wig was a simple matter – we’d had one made a couple of seasons before, five minutes with the hair tongs and we were done. When I went into the green room, all the cast were laughing – not just the juves, all of them, even the Goneril I’d served with for five seasons, even the Duke of Gloucester. And there was Milton, and he was sitting in my chair, sitting in my throne – and he was telling a story to them all, some stuff about how he’d met Henry Irving which couldn’t possibly be true since Irving had died a hundred years ago, and his voice was different, and I wondered why he sounded so old and so queasy, and then I realised he was impersonating me.

Some of them had the decency to stop laughing when they saw me there. (Some of them later apologised, although I told them there was no need for that – young Milton had been very funny, it certainly got the measure of me!) Milton stopped talking. He stopped, at least. But he didn’t get out of my chair. He didn’t get out of my chair and let me sit down.

Nicholas Milton was a very bad actor, and a charlatan, and a man of mendacity, and a shit.

*

I haven’t seen Nicholas Milton in over thirty years. Not in the flesh – once in a while, back in the eighties, he’d turn up on television, and as soon as I recognised him, I’d change channel. Never anything very fancy – bit parts in sitcoms mostly, or turning up as some victim in ‘The Bill’. I had to change channel quite frequently for a while – and then, as the years went by, less and less.

I haven’t thought of Nicholas Milton in several years either, I’m sure, not actively. I don’t know. It’s hard to tell. Once in a while your memory will just toss random stuff at you, something will just flit unexpectedly back into your mind, it has nothing to do with you. How am I meant to stop that happening? It’s not my fault.

I don’t know, after so very long, why Nicholas Milton has managed to pop back into my life, right at its very centre, to take all I have ever done and make a mockery of it. I have to find out. I’m not standing for it. It’s too late at night to call anyone, I should go back to bed, but I don’t want to do that if it means I’ll die accidentally in the process. I’ll keep myself awake, and keep myself alive. I go down to the kitchen, drink lots of coffee, take some vitamin pills, one or other should do the trick.

I would call Alan St John, I know he would have helped me find him. But I remember reading that Alan himself died only a year or two ago. He didn’t get a very big obituary in ‘The Stage and Television Today’, and on balance I think that’s right – he was a nice man, but not a very good director, his only real skill was in steering actors around the set, he had no verve, no imagination, you could hardly say theatre is poorer for his loss.

For the first time, though, I miss him, and wish he was still around.

As soon as day breaks, I phone Equity, the actor’s union. I tell them I’m trying to contact an actor called Nicholas Milton. They tell me he hasn’t been a member of Equity since 1994. They tell me which agency he was with. I phone the agency. I tell them I’m looking for Nicholas Milton. They tell me they stopped representing him in 1994. I say I know that. I say I’d like to contact him anyway. They tell me they can’t give out his home address to just anyone, and I tell them I’m a famous actor who used to work with him. I give them my name, but they don’t recognise it until they look me up on the internet, idiots. They tell me the last address they have on file; it’s in Hull.

I’ve never been to Hull. I wasn’t looking for any new experiences in this lifetime, and if I had been, visiting Hull would not have been on the top of my list. I go to the train station. I buy a ticket for Hull. It’s a five hour journey. I hope I don’t die on the way.

*

I didn’t hate Nicholas Milton, I don’t want to overstate the matter. Really, he was beneath my contempt. But I think I have demonstrated ample reason for my hatred had I bothered to harbour any, even before the incident with Maureen. It was Maureen that was the final straw.

Maureen and I had an arrangement. She didn’t run the nicest theatre digs, nor, it must be said, the most convenient. Her bed and breakfast was a good twenty minute walk from the theatre – fine if the summer weather was living up to the name, frustrating if, as common, it wasn’t. But since 1972 Maureen had only charged me half price. And in return I got her front row tickets to all the shows, and had a port and lemon waiting for her at the interval, and I shared her bed.

And on Sundays, I remember, they were the nicest – no performance in the evening, and no rehearsals either, and we could just stay in bed til noon. She’d have to get up early to make the breakfasts for all her other lodgers, but she’d soon return, bringing me my own breakfast on a tray, and she’d have cooked me extra sausage. And then we’d doze, or read the Sunday papers, or we’d have sex, or I’d tell her some of my theatrical anecdotes. She liked my anecdotes. But you had to be careful with Maureen, she didn’t know much about theatre, she didn’t care a rat’s arse about Ralph Richardson or Gielgud, the stories I told her had to be rather fruitier than the ones I’d tell the actors in the green room. She used to laugh with me. She was a pretty little thing.

That was the arrangement – ten weeks each year, and nothing more. Not even a card at Christmas. We’d have celebrated birthdays had they coincided with the summer season, but my birthday was in March, and hers was heaven knows when, so it was never an issue. On the final night of the eighth play I’d say, “Well that’s it for another year, ducks,” because she liked being called ‘ducks’; she’d ask me if I would be back the following year, and I said I’d see if something better turned up, but I expected I would. Then sometime around May, after Alan St John called me, I’d give her a ring – I’d say, “Do you have a room for the forthcoming season?”, and she’d say, “Yes,” and I’d say, “Our usual arrangement?”, and she’d say, “The usual.” She always sounded happy to hear from me.

She told me we had to keep it secret. This was just a bit of fun. I agreed. I didn’t want the cast to think less of me. I’d told them tales of dalliances with Peggy Ashcroft and the young Judi Dench, I didn’t want to disillusion them.

And the best nights of the show were always the one when Maureen was in. I’d get her a seat right on the front row, so that if I stood downstage centre for my big speeches I knew I was just in front of her. And then that night in bed she’d tell me how good I’d been.

Maureen was predisposed to dislike Nicholas Milton, of course. I tried not to gossip about rehearsals with her, I’m not really a bitchy sort of actor. But I’m sure that Nicholas Milton cropped up in conversation every once in a while. To the point, I remember, that when we went to bed after she’d seen ‘King Lear’, and told me how regal and tragic I had been, I was almost as keen to find out what she had made of Milton’s Oswald. “Oh,” she said, “I didn’t like him too much,” and that pleased me.

Milton’s big break was as the titular inspector in the Priestley potboiler, ‘An Inspector Calls’. He played the part too young, and with too much charisma. Maureen saw it three times, once on the ticket I gave her, and on two subsequent visits she paid for herself. I assumed she was taken with my comic turn as Arthur Birling. Even then, I wanted to believe the best of her.

She stopped wanting to have sex with me during ‘A Murder is Announced’, and right in the middle of ‘Easy Virtue’ told me she didn’t want me even sharing her bed. She said she was having a relationship with Nicholas Milton, she wasn’t sure how serious it was, but she wanted to find out. She said she didn’t want to hurt me. I said, “You little idiot, you think he cares one fig for you? He only wants to spite me!” That made her cry, and I’d never seen her cry, we’d never had that sort of relationship. She said that I was talking nonsense, we’d kept our arrangement secret all this long, Milton wouldn’t even have known about it. But of course Milton knew about it – I talked about Maureen in the green room – I dropped hints – couldn’t she see, I was so proud of her?

She said I could take another room in the house, but I said no. I found a room in the inn just out of town, it was a half hour walk, and uphill, but what of that?

There were only two shows left to the season. It was a wonder I got through them, but I’m a professional. We did ‘Gaslight’, and ‘Gaslight’ was no trouble, I’d ridden the back of that old warhorse so many times I could have acted it in my sleep, there could have been earthquakes going on all about and I’d still have given a solid performance.

The final show was another matter. It was a new play, or a newish play at any rate, I’d never heard of it. It was billed as a comedy, but it was one of those modern comedies but doesn’t have many jokes in, and everyone stands around looking miserable. You know the sort. Once in a while Alan would choose a play he thought could ‘push the boundaries a bit’, and I never knew why, audiences pay good money so we’ll keep our hands off their boundaries altogether.

I didn’t have a big part, but it was, of course, significant. And I don’t know, maybe it was the noise at the inn I was staying in, maybe it was my own little irritation with the Maureen incident, but whenever I tried to learn the lines they just wouldn’t stick.

During one rehearsal, Milton stopped me mid-speech, and said, “I say, I’m afraid you’re paraphrasing.”

I said that I never paraphrased.

He said that I was paraphrasing, and that it made it rather hard to him to find his cue.

I said that if I were paraphrasing, it was only because the play was no good, and I was making the lines better.

He said that that was fair enough, but could I just decide what paraphrase I was going to stick to. Unless I would rather he just take pot luck every night. Unless I’d rather he just jump into my improvisation whenever he thought best.

He said it all quite affably, as if he were giving me considered options, as if he had only my best interests at heart. He gave that friendly smile. I told him he could do whatever he dammed well choose.

For weeks I had contrived never to be on my own with him. I would avoid the pub when he was there, I would change my entrances so I came on from opposite sides of the wings. I didn’t worry about that any longer. Indeed, after performance that night, and I’d said good night to everyone, I doubled back to find him alone in the dressing room.

He looked up in the mirror at me when I came in. He was sponging off his eyeliner. “Hello, old man,” he said, “what can I do you for?”

My first punch took him off his chair. I couldn’t reach down to punch him again, so I just kicked him a couple of times.

He didn’t cry out. And he didn’t retaliate. I thought that maybe this was because I was beating him so hard, but I knew I wasn’t, really; I’d never hit anyone for real before, and even now I was resorting to stage fighting techniques, I was making my own sound effects. Then I thought that maybe he felt guilty, that he was getting only what he deserved.

And I looked him in the face, and I saw that actually he just pitied me.

I kicked him once more and left. I kicked him in the stomach – I remembered the stage directions of the new play had said the hero had a clear and handsome face, and I didn’t want to do anything to compromise the show.

I thought he might tell the company what I’d done, but he didn’t. He didn’t say a word to anyone. Except, perhaps, to Maureen. I wouldn’t put it past him.

*

The following May I had the annual phone call from Alan St John. “Me again, dear heart,” he said. “Fancy getting back into harness for another eight weeks of fun and merriment beneath the aegis of yours truly?”

I said I would like that, on condition that Nicholas Milton wasn’t part of the company.

Alan went quiet at that. Then he said to me, “But I’ve already offered him the season. He’s doing Orsino.”

I said that he had better unoffer him the season then. That it was Milton or me.

There was silence, and I went cold, and I thought – he’s going to take him, he’s going to take him after all. The bastard – and then Alan said, “All right.” He was quiet and rather flat, and I’d never heard Alan sound like that before, so lifeless.

I asked him whether he’d wanted me to give my King Lear again that year, and remembered as I was doing so that of course he wouldn’t, we’d had it just the season before – but Alan just sighed, and said in that same flat voice, “Sure, why not?”

That would become the proudest King Lear of my life, in fact, and even Anna Walker-Smith couldn’t spoil it.

I stayed at the inn again, and found that once you got used to it, it had its own particular charms.

Maureen had taken her name off the digs list, and didn’t come to any of the performances. I supposed that was just as well, though she missed a terrific season.

*

I don’t die on the train to Hull, and that’s a good thing, although looking out of the window as we pass through Grimsby I’m sorely tempted.

I get a taxi to take me to Nicholas Milton’s last known address. It doesn’t take long.

And only now I am wondering – what am I going to say to him? Am I going to have to hit him again? Do I suppose that this time he’ll just lie there on the ground, and take it, and pity me – because he’ll have to, if he hits me back it’ll kill me, I think the exertion of my swinging a fist may finish me off. I don’t feel angry any more. Confused, yes, and a little sad. And lost.

I ring the doorbell, and only then do I realise who’s going to answer it. She opens the door, and there she is, small, and still pretty, in her own way. “Hello, Maureen,” I say.

She is surprised to see me, of course she is, but not as surprised as I might have expected.

“I’m sorry to trouble you,” I say. “Is your husband there?”

She hesitates. She says, “You’d better come in.”

She shows me into her sitting room. It isn’t as nice as the one she had in Hornhaven. Naturally enough, I don’t tell her this. “Nice,” I say.

“Nick is dead,” she says, and there’s no emotion to it.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “What did he die of?” And she doesn’t answer that, and why should she, it’s none of my business. “But he was so young,” I say, “wasn’t he?” And to this at least she reacts, she twitches one of her shoulders into a half shrug, and I look at her, and she’s old – and I think, quite right – really, is anyone I ever knew young any more?

“What do you want?” she asks me, and it’s not unkind.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you want a cup of tea?”

“A cup of char!” I say. “Yes. Yes. Thank you. Yes.”

I sit down at her kitchen table. She tells me that Nick has been dead a long time. She tells me he died eight long years ago.

I am going to ask when it was that he recorded my life story, and who approached him, and how much he got paid for it, but I’m distracted when Maureen puts my tea in front of me, and that’s just as well.

“He gave up acting years ago,” Maureen tells me. “He helped me run my b and b. We had two kids. We did all right.”

“He was a good actor,” I say. “This business can be very cruel.”

“I don’t think he was a good actor,” she says. “He wasn’t an actor like you.” And I look for something cutting in that, and I don’t find anything, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there, and I thank her cautiously.

“What do you want?” she asks me again.

“I was thinking of Nick,” I say. “I’m sorry. I came to say sorry.” And it doesn’t feel like a lie, it’s what Nick would have called an inner truth. “I miss you, ducks,” I say. And I reach out and take her hand, and she doesn’t resist, and that’s not quite the same thing as accepting it, I know, but it’s better than I am hoping for.

She says, “Come to bed with me.”

“I miss you,” I say again.

“I miss him,” she says. “So much. And you knew him. At least you knew him. Come to bed with me.”

I don’t want to tell her that I’m on the point of death, I really don’t want to put her off. But she’s very gentle with me, and sweet, and when my heart starts to speed it’s as if with new life.

We lie there in her bed, holding each other. Maureen begins to doze.

I close my eyes too.

When I do, my life starts to flash before my eyes. Back from the beginning.

And now I’m on the lookout for it, and of course I recognise my father! That’s Alfred Potter. He began his career in the days of music hall, and he was in my first professional season, already an old man, and a kind one – I remember him saying to me that he thought I would go far. And that lantern jawed mother of mine, that’s Mildred Hewitt, I worked with her on ‘Hobson’s Choice’, she was delightful, and used to cheat at cribbage. Both long dead, I can’t even guess how long. It’s so nice to see them again.

I’m not scared of death. I know that whatever happens next there still will be a job for me.

I shake myself awake, I force my eyes open. It would be so easy to sleep, and sleep forever, but not here. Not beside Maureen. She deserves better than that.

I kiss her on the forehead. She doesn’t stir.

I leave her a little note, put it on the dressing table. It says ‘Thank You’.

I get the taxi to the station.

*

The evening train from Hull has been delayed by engineering works, and by the time it finally arrives and I clamber on board with all the angry commuters I am so tired. I had wanted to finish the story of my life in my own bed, but I don’t think I’m going to get there. It doesn’t matter. I hope I don’t alarm anyone. I squeeze myself in opposite couple who look hale and hearty and unworried by fears of death, and I put as peaceful an expression on my face as possible.

Nicholas Milton is dancing before my eyes before the train has even left the platform. His King Lear is quite good. Subtler than I’d have played it, and the boy could work harder on his projection – but he’s good, he’s got something, he’s got talent.

I settle back, and I smile, and start to enjoy the show.

NATHALIE GALLAGHER

So, was the house haunted? Probably not; but it certainly had some peculiar quirks, and Mrs Gallagher always felt obliged to tell her guests of them. She’d warn those taking the box room that they might be able to hear weird whispering sounds in the night – but there was no doubt it was simply an effect of the wind coming in off the North Bay, sometimes in the winter the wind off the coast could be pretty fierce. There was a spot in the breakfast room, she said, upon which if you stood for too long you’d get a chill right down to your very marrow; I never found that spot, although I looked hard enough, I might have felt a chill in any number of different places but never anything that touched my marrow even closely.

And there was the staircase, and that was harder to explain. There were fifteen steps leading upwards to the first floor, the first nine straight up, the tenth curving around to the left as you ascended. They were covered with a thin shag carpet, and supported by wooden bannisters. Fifteen steps in all – but if you went downstairs in the dark, there, at the bottom, you would find a sixteenth.

It only happened in the dark. If you put the lights on to count, there’d always be the fifteen, looking perfectly ordinary. If you took a candle downstairs with you, the sixteenth couldn’t be found, and nor on nights when the moonlight was pouring in neither. But if it were pitch black, if when you looked down you couldn’t see your feet or where they might be leading, then that extra step would be waiting for you. And only as you went downwards, never on the way up.

It was a strange thing, but not especially unnerving. Mrs Gallagher only told her guests of it so they wouldn’t stumble, not so they should feel spooked or scared. Especially in the holiday season, she said, when the arcades were open late, and the sea was warm enough for night time paddling, guests might come back once she’d gone to bed, and she didn’t want anyone waking her if they tripped. They’d be fine if they went straight to bed themselves, of course; it would be if they came down afterwards for a glass of water, say, that they might run into problems.

You’d get guests trying it out, of course. Especially the young ones, newlywed husbands trying to show off to their wives, squaddies on leave egging each other on. We could tell the sort. We could tell that, first chance they’d get, they’d brave it for themselves. We were smart. We’d encourage them to get it out of the way on the first night, we’d do it before anyone had gone to bed so it wouldn’t disturb. We’d turn out all the lights and pull the curtains and let them have their fun. Down they’d come, counting off the stairs as they did so, maybe laughing a bit, may be trying to scare each other. They’d reach the sixteenth step, they’d laugh a bit more, they might even kick at it to make sure it was real. We’d give them a minute or two, and then they’d lose interest, and we could turn the lights back on and get on with more important matters. It wasn’t as if the extra step did anything once you’d found it; it was just a step, after all.

George and I tried it too, the first night we arrived. Mrs Gallagher asked whether she should turn off the lights so we could check for ourselves, and George smiled in that charming way he sometimes had and said he was quite sure he didn’t need to put her out. Even I was fooled, I assumed he wasn’t interested. But late that night, once he’d had his business with me, and we were lying in the dark, he said that we should go down the stairs and see what this extra step palaver was all about. I couldn’t sleep either, the waves were noisy; in years to come I’d realise there was no more reassuring sound in all this world, but I wasn’t used to it yet. I was a bit afraid, and I told George so, but he pooh-poohed that; he said it would all be nonsense anyway.

George was in his pyjamas, I was in my nightie, and I remember neither of us wore slippers. He held on to my hand, and told me to count the stairs off with him. I was frightened, yes, but it wasn’t a bad frightened, and I told myself it was like all those things at the funfair on the beach, this was the dodgems and the ghost train, all rolled into one. George was even whispering jokes at me, and he had a nice voice when he whispered. We reached the fifteenth step, and George said, “Shall we go on?” And I was going to say no, let’s not, let’s turn back and go to bed, but he was only teasing, of course we went on; he took another step downwards, and he pulled me after him. We stood on the impossible step. “It has to be a trick,” said George, and he sounded a bit angry, the way he did when he thought the foremen was cheating him. My bare feet were cold. The carpet had run out at the fifteenth step – this one beneath seemed to be made of stone – but then, no, not stone, because it wasn’t so hard as all that, and it was getting smoother, like it was old mud breaking under our combined weight or even loosening to our body heat, it was getting softer, even liquid now, and I was sinking into it, and yet it was still so very cold.

I tried to pull away, but George was still holding me. So I pulled harder, I wrenched myself out of his grip, and that’s when I stumbled. I felt myself beginning to fall and I couldn’t stop myself, and all I could see was the black and I didn’t know how far away the ground might be.

It was just a few feet, of course, and I was more shocked than hurt. And there was suddenly light, and there was the landlady, holding a candle, and leaning over the bannister down at us. “Are you all right?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Sorry.”

“I did warn you. Please go back to bed.”

She stayed on the stairs so she could light our way. As we passed her she didn’t bother to hide her disapproval. “Sorry,” I said again. George didn’t say a word.

George was cross with me that night. I told him about the cold step, but he said he’d felt only carpet, just like on all the other steps, and that I was being stupid.

*

You asked me for the truth. And this is the truth as I understand it.

George was not a good man, but he was not a bad man either, not entirely. Mrs Gallagher would say I was justifying again. She said I did a lot of justifying, and I suppose she was right. But I know what’s fair, and I want to be fair to George. I’ve known some bad men. There’s no tenderness to bad men, and George, he could sometimes be tender.

He said what we did wasn’t theft. We’d come into town, and would stay at a little hotel, a bed and breakfast may be, nothing grand. And then when it was time to move on, we’d sneak away without paying. He said that proper theft would have been if we’d taken the silver with us as we went, but we never did that, George had too much pride. But the idea was there in his head, wasn’t it? He’d spoken it out loud. With George, I knew, if it was in his head, if that little seed of an idea was planted, it was the beginning of everything.

But for the time being it wasn’t theft, not really – and we would come into a town, and George would spend the days out looking for work. He’d go to the factories, he’d go to the warehouses. He said that as soon as he got a job he’d return to the bed and breakfasts, every single one, and he’d pay them back. I’m sure at the start he even meant that.

George would come back to the hotels and tell me there was no work to be found – but he’d heard talk of work a few miles away, the next town along, just over the hill, just across the moors, wherever. And off we’d go chasing it. I hated it when we had to move on, but George always looked so much happier, he’d suddenly beam with hope, and that made up for it. He might carry my bags as we walked; he might even sing.

One day we reached the coast. And there was nowhere further for us to go, not unless we changed direction.

“I could be a fisherman,” George said. “I would enjoy catching fish all day long. Good honest work. It’s all going to work out. You’ll see.” As far as I knew, George hadn’t been inside a boat his whole life, but it was wiser not to say anything.

There were lots of bed and breakfasts to choose from. It was a holiday town, but off season, everything was empty. I don’t know what brought us to Mrs Gallagher’s. Fate, I suppose. Who knows why things happen, they just do.

George rang the doorbell, and doffed his hat, and gave that smile he was good at. I did my best to look like the respectable housewife on holiday that I always wanted to be.

Most landladies would ask for a deposit. We had to hand over the deposit without appearing to mind, as if there were plenty more where that came from. Sometimes it was the hardest bit of acting I had to do. Mrs Gallagher didn’t want a deposit.

“No deposit?” said George. “Well, well.” And he smiled wider, but he also frowned, as if suspecting he was being conned.

“No deposit,” agreed Mrs Gallagher. “All my guests pay when they leave.”

She told us about the whispering in the box room, but the hotel was empty, we could pick any room we wanted, and I was glad George allowed us a room that wouldn’t scare me. She told us about the strange chill in the breakfast room. She told us about the step you could only find in the dark.

*

In the morning she served us breakfast. She didn’t mention the night’s disturbance, and nor did we. She asked us how we wanted our eggs. “Fried, and runny,” said George. I told her I’d like mine poached. She gave a curt nod, then went into the kitchen.

She brought us out plates of sausage and bacon and fried bread. I had a poached egg. “Where’s my egg?” George demanded to know. Mrs Gallagher said she only had one egg, and apologised.

George glowered. He managed a few bites of sausage, then pushed his plate away. I knew how hungry he must be, but he had such pride. He lit a cigarette, stared at me through an ever thickening cloud of smoke. I pretended not to notice. I wanted to eat as much of my breakfast as I could. I hoped that, if I ate fast enough, he wouldn’t say anything until I’d finished.

“You enjoying that?” he said too soon, softly, dangerously softly.

I knew there was no right answer. I looked at him. I tried to keep my expression as neutral as possible.

He took my plate. He held it up, as if to inspect it closely, as if to ensure it was fit enough for his queen. He spat on it. Then he put the plate back down on the table, and ground out his cigarette in the middle of the food, in the middle of the egg.

“I’ll be back later,” he muttered, got up, and left.

I was still so hungry. But I didn’t want to eat from my plate, even though the spit was only my husband’s, and I loved my husband. And I didn’t want to each from his, in case he came back.

Mrs Gallagher took away the plates, and if she was surprised they were still heavy with food, she didn’t comment.

I stayed the day in the bedroom.

That evening George came back, and he was all smiles. He said maybe he’d found a job after all – a fisherman had said he would take George out on his boat in the morning, try him out for size. He’d brought back a couple of bottles of beer, I don’t know where he’d got them, and he let me have a little bit. When that night he did his business, he was kind and quick.

The next morning he left early. I got to eat my breakfast on my own. It was delicious.

That same night George came back to the hotel angry. The fisherman hadn’t waited for him. It had all been some bloody big joke. I asked him where he’d been all day, and that was a mistake. Later that night he apologised. He said the fisherman had waited for him, he’d gone out in the boat. But the waters had been very rough, and he hadn’t been well. The fisherman found it funny. He supposed it was funny, come to that. I mean, he’d get used to the sea if he had to, but in the mean time, it was funny. Didn’t I think it was funny? It was all right, he said, he didn’t mind if I did, we could laugh at it together, like we used to laugh at things. I gave him a kiss, and that made him feel better.

He said he try his luck again. Maybe another fisherman would take him out. Maybe the first fisherman wouldn’t have told all the others. We had breakfast together. Mrs Gallagher asked how we wanted our eggs. He said he wanted his fried, but runny. I said I’d have mine poached. She brought me a plate of sausage, bacon, and a poached egg. She brought George a plate of fried eggs, and nothing but fried eggs, the yolks all broken and pooling thickly into one another. George stared at the plate, and didn’t say a word.

*

Mrs Gallagher asked me my name. I hesitated, and she saw I hesitated – but then I told her my name anyway, the real one, not the one George liked me to use.

“Mine is Nathalie,” she said.

“Natalie?”

“Nathalie. It’s French.” She didn’t look very French. Her arms were big and thick, her face rough like sand; in years to come I’d think that sand must have blown off the beach and got stuck deep in her skin and she hadn’t been able to scrub it out. Not my idea of French at all; George’s mother had shown me some fashion magazine, back in the days we were allowed to visit, and there were French women inside, and Nathalie Gallagher was nothing like them. “You’re in trouble,” Nathalie Gallagher said.

“No, I’m all right.”

“You’re in trouble. I could help you. You could stay here with me. I can run this place alone if I have to do, but I could use an extra pair of hands. I couldn’t pay much, but you’d get bed and board.”

“And George?” I said.

She didn’t say anything to that.

“George wouldn’t like it,” I said. I knew all he wanted to do was get his own job, and be able to look after me.

“I had a disappointing husband too,” said Mrs Gallagher. She told me that her husband had brought her back to England after the war. She didn’t say which war, and I presumed it was the last one, but it was so hard to tell how old she might be. I didn’t like to ask. “He said he had some property, I thought he must be a duke or something. Turned out he owned a hotel. I had to spend my days learning how to make full English breakfasts. Yes, he was a disappointment.”

“Where is your husband?” I asked. “Is he dead?” The words seemed so blunt, I could have bitten my tongue.

Mrs Gallagher didn’t seem offended though. Indeed, she gave my question some thought. “No, I don’t think so,” she said at last. “He’s probably still alive.”

I kept the job offer in my head, turned it over and gave it a good prod whenever things were bad. Things were bad a lot that week. I thought I would tell George when he was in a good mood, maybe he’d see the value in it, even if it were just short term, even if it could just tide us over a while and give us some sort of home – but George was never in a good mood, there was no work out there, and the mood just got worse and worse, so I decided I’d just have to tell him quickly and get it over with and trust to luck.

He didn’t shout, that was good. He turned from me, and lit a cigarette, and stared out of the window down upon the cliffs and the sea, as if in deep thought, as if giving it actual consideration.

“It’s time we left,” he said.

“So soon?”

“There’s nothing for us here. We’ll go tonight.”

We packed our stuff, waited until it was dark. Past midnight I said to George that we should get going, but he shook his head impatiently, it wasn’t time yet, he had a feeling for these things. We sat there on the bed, side by side, in silence, and George listened out for noise. At last he took my hand, and squeezed it, and that was the signal, and I think it was done in affection too.

It was pitch black. George carried the bags, he told me to walk ahead of him. I clung on to the bannister rail. I counted the steps downwards, one, two, three, four, and at five the staircase curled around towards the final descent to the front door. Now, we both knew about the extra step that was waiting down there, and neither of us mentioned it, and I dare say we’d both factored it into our calculations, sixteen stops until we reached the bottom. But now I was in the dark I thought of it only with dread – and I mean that, a hard, heavy dread – I didn’t want my feet to touch that step – I didn’t want any part of my body to come into contact with something so cold and so inexplicable – and here I was, inching further towards it, another step down, then another, then another, as if I were falling somehow, as if I were falling and there was no way to climb back up, I couldn’t change my mind, I couldn’t turn around, my husband was behind me blocking my way and he would never let me free. And another step, and another – and I wondered if I’d miscounted already, were there two steps to go, or three? Three before…? I didn’t want to reach that step but I didn’t want to get past it either – and it sounds silly but it suddenly seemed to me that step was a dividing line between all of my sorry past and all the future before me – and if I got past the step, then that was it, the future waiting there in the darkness was just more of the same, just more of the same. Two steps. One. I had miscounted, but there was no delaying it now, that step in front of me had to be the extra one. And then there was light from up above, and the darkness was spoiled, so there was no extra step at all, and the relief I felt was so overwhelming that it took me a moment to realise we must have been discovered.

The candle didn’t give much light, but it was enough. Mrs Gallagher stared down at us.

George said, “We’re leaving. We don’t want any trouble.”

Mrs Gallagher said nothing.

George said, “We’re not going to give you any trouble. We’ll just leave, and be on our way.”

Still nothing.

He said, “When I get a job, I’ll come back. I’ll pay you then. I’m not thieving.”

Mrs Gallagher said, “Just go. But don’t you ever come back.”

“Well then,” said George. “Well! Then I won’t. You bet I won’t.” And he actually grinned at her, and doffed his hat.

I wanted to say I was sorry. I couldn’t find the words, as easy as they were. I tried to smile at her, something, but she didn’t look at me, not the whole while. That’s what hurt.

George opened the front door, and we stepped out into the wind, the night, our future together.

*

I thought maybe he wouldn’t come looking, maybe he just wouldn’t care, and would let me be. I thought maybe he might even be relieved, one less mouth to feed, I wouldn’t slow him down any more. But still I’d keep checking behind me as I walked on, still I’d keep off the main roads, hide sometimes in bushes – because whether he wanted me or not, of course he’d come looking. He had his pride. That’s all he had.

I didn’t even know which direction I was headed in. And so I shouldn’t have been surprised when I reached the coast, but I was. I thought we’d travelled so much further than that, that the coast was weeks behind us. But there it was, the cliffs at my back, the sea in front, and I trudged my way along the beach squashed between the pair of them.

I certainly hadn’t expected to find Mrs Gallagher again. If I had looked for her house I’m sure I wouldn’t found it. But I gazed up, and there it was ahead of me, it was the only place in miles that seem to give off any light, maybe I fancied the only place in the world.

I knocked at the door.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

“You’re in trouble,” said Mrs Gallagher. And at last I understood what she meant. Because I was in trouble, and I hadn’t quite dared believe it until then – but of course I’ve known, that’s why I’d run away, wasn’t it? Because it was all right, my being trapped with George for the rest of my life. Maybe that’s all I deserved. But not my child. Not my child. Never.

“You’d better come in,” Mrs Gallagher said.

*

I arrived just before the holiday season, and there was a lot to learn.

I learned how to make beds, not in the ordinary way, but in the hotel way.

I learned how to clean a room quickly, so that you could give the impression everything was spick and span on the surface, and not draw attention to the real dirt underneath.

I learned how to make a proper cooked English breakfast. I got quite good at them, but Mrs Gallagher was always better, so she stayed in charge of the kitchen. “My husband taught me, said he cooked the best fry-ups in Yorkshire,” she said. “His only promise that was worth a damn.”

I was given a room on the ground floor, and at first I was happy about that, it meant I didn’t have to use the staircase at night. But I was never very comfortable there. The little window looked out on to the street, you could hardly tell we were by the sea at all. And sometimes in the night, I could hear noises under the floorboards – like distant footsteps, shuffling about beneath the ground. I told Mrs Gallagher about them, but she just shrugged, said she’d never heard of that before. But she moved me upstairs to the box room. There was that whispering sound in the box room, but it was just the wind and the ocean spray, and I liked it, and soon I found the strange echo it made in the darkness very comforting, like the elements were trying to send me to sleep.

When the hotel packed out, and it did most of July and August, even the box room had to be let. Then I would share a bed with Mrs Gallagher. It was a large bed, and quite comfortable, and there was plenty of room – and I was a little afraid at first that a big woman like Mrs Gallagher would snore, George snored something chronic and he wasn’t half her size. But she slept so still, sometimes it was though she was hardly beside me at all.

I want you to know nothing untoward ever happened between me and Mrs Gallagher. And when August was over, somehow I just didn’t move out from the room, and I just stayed with her. It meant there was one less bed to make.

And when the pregnancy was full on and I couldn’t do much work, Mrs Gallagher never minded. She said I could stay in bed, or sit downstairs, whatever made me most comfortable, and she’d bring me cups of tea, and slices of cake, anything I wanted. “It’s nearly time,” she said to me one day, and I asked whether I should go to the hospital. “You don’t need a hospital,” she said, “I can do this. Do you trust me?” And I did trust her, and I was glad, I hadn’t wanted to leave.

She fetched hot water and towels, and you came out, and it was easy, I think your birth was the easiest thing I had ever done. You were the simplest, most natural thing in my entire life. “It’s a boy,” said Mrs Gallagher, and she looked happy, but I think she may have been a little disappointed. She helped me name you. Did you know that? Do you like your name? It was Mrs Gallagher who picked it.

She told me that I shouldn’t call her Mrs Gallagher, I should call her Nathalie. And I did so, from time to time, just to make her smile. But I thought of her as Mrs Gallagher, and I liked her that way – not formal, you understand, but protective, and strong, and better than me.

*

I started in my sleep, I couldn’t breathe. I opened my eyes and saw a figure was standing over the bed, and I was held down, there was a hand tight across my mouth. I couldn’t call out.

“Hello,” whispered George, genially enough.

I opened my eyes wide, and blinked, in what I hoped he’d take as a fond greeting.

I didn’t know how he’d found me, and I never did know. I suppose he might have broken into all the bed and breakfast establishments across the country until he’d got the right one. That seems quite likely.

He said to me, “I’ve got a job! It’s all going to be all right. I’ve got lots of money, and it’s all going to be as it was, and you can come back with me now, and you’ll never be hurt again!” That sounded fine, but his hand was still on my mouth, and pressing down hard, and his fingernails had curved round and were digging painfully into my face.

You started to cry. You didn’t care about being quiet, I don’t know whether you were disturbed by the intruder, or just hungry – I’m guessing it was hungry, you were always hungry. George hasn’t even seen the cot, I think; now he whirled around, and he let me go.

“He’s yours,” I whispered.

“Mine,” he said. And he sounded amused, he seemed to like the sound of that. “You’re both mine,” he said. And he wasn’t bothering to whisper any more, and that was bad, it meant he didn’t feel the need to be secret any more.

Mrs Gallagher didn’t stir. “Is she dead?” George asked bluntly, and laughed.

“No,” I said.

“I want to talk to her.”

Mrs Gallagher’s eyes opened at that. She was already awake.

“I didn’t steal from you,” George said. “I didn’t steal from you.”

Mrs Gallagher didn’t say anything to that. Neither did I. George considered.

“Get up,” he said. “Both of you.”

“I’ll come with you, George,” I said. “But you don’t need her, let’s just go.”

He slapped me around the face then, and it wasn’t especially hard, but I hadn’t been slapped for a long while and it hurt.

“We’re all going outside,”  he said.

“What are you going to do with her, George?”

“I don’t know,” said George, “I don’t know.” And he sounded genuinely worried about that. I thought he was going to cuff me again, but he didn’t bother.

Mrs Gallagher got out of bed. She struck a match, and lit a candle. And it was brighter than I expected, too bright, surely; and I saw two things that startled me. One was George himself – his clothes with torn, and he had a ragged beard that seemed in the flickering light a scar across his face. And I realised he had no pride in anything any more. And the second thing – that was the ugly little knife he was carrying.

“Get moving,” he said.

We walked down the stairs ahead of him. Both of us were in our nightdresses, and I thought how cold it would be out there in the dark, and that maybe that was the least of our concerns; the shag carpet was at my bare feet; and you were in my arms, and bless you, you’d gone back to sleep, you weren’t scared of anything, you were with mummy and you felt safe.

I asked George once again what he was going to do, and I tried to find the right things to say that had always made him feel better, the ones that calmed his rages – but it’d been too long ago, I couldn’t remember any. George didn’t reply, and that was just as well, because it meant I heard Mrs Gallagher plainly when she hissed at me: “Jump.”

We were in sudden pitch black. She must have blown out the candle.

And I felt her then leap into that black, and I didn’t know how far off the ground we were, I couldn’t judge it at all – I couldn’t tell how many steps there might be, or what was waiting for us at the bottom. And I didn’t care, I leaped too.

George gave a cry of – what? Surprise? Anger? Probably a mixture of both, and he started down the stairs after us, and then he shouted out again, and this time it was fear.

Mrs Gallagher struck another match. She lit the candle. The glow seemed to take an agonisingly long time to reveal anything.

George had hit the sixteenth step. And then had carried on going downwards. He had found a seventeenth, maybe an eighteenth too. The floor was up just around his knees. It looked as if his legs had been severed, and he was balancing his body on two unbloodied stumps; no, it looked like the downstairs floor had become a lake, and he had sunk below the surface. And Mrs Gallagher and me, we, we were walking impossibly upon water.

“Help me,” he said. The light seemed to give him some courage, he even dared show impatience. “Get me out of this.”

He grunted, tried to turn himself about, but there was nowhere for his body to go – nowhere, but onwards. And so doing, he took another step.

For a moment I thought his body was in freefall, but it came to a stop, the line of the floor now was across his chest. He looked so frightened. He grunted again, his face contorted with effort, and he pulled one of his arms free, and waved it at us. At me.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Please. Help me. Please.” He reached out to me. And I think I would have gone had it been for my sake alone. I would have pulled him out. Or he would have pulled me in, more likely, in and under, just as he had done over and over for all those years. I loved him. But there was more than my love to think about now.

He saw that I wasn’t going to help. And I thought he might threaten me. I thought he’d tell me he’d kill me. I think that would have been better. But his face just fell, that’s all, and he looked so very sad.

He tried to pull up his second arm. He couldn’t. He put his free hand flat upon the ground, tried to use it to prise himself out. It was no good.

One more step forward. And now only his head was peeking out, and he had to tilt his face toward the ceiling so he could speak. He said, so softly, as if in awed wonder – “The steps are so steep. Oh God. Oh God. They’re so steep.”

Mrs Gallagher stepped out. He looked at her with such hope. He thought she might want to save him, even now, in spite of all. I knew she wouldn’t.

She stood right beside his head. If he’d wanted to, he could have bitten her feet. If he’d wanted to. He looked up at her, and she looked down on him, and she didn’t gloat.

He opened his mouth to say something, and she shook her head, and he closed it again.

She blew out the candle.

*

When the guests came, we’d tell them of the noises in the attic, and the cold chill in the breakfast room, and of the extra step the staircase would grow in the dark. We didn’t talk of the strange footsteps under the house, the ones you could hear just sometimes, when the sea was quiet and the wind was at lull. They didn’t need to know everything.

*

I said that nothing untoward ever happened between me and Mrs Gallagher, and nor it did. But I wouldn’t have minded.

I told her too late. She was dying, and fading so fast – she’d started the holiday season with the same no-nonsense energy as always, but then she’d got so slow, and so tired, and eventually we just asked our guests to leave and closed the doors on them. She lay in the bed, and I gave her all the space I could, I’d have moved to another room, but she told me she wanted me to stay by her in the night. I said that I loved her. I said that I had loved her for so long, and wanted to show her, wanted to do anything to her that would make her happy.

She smiled at me. She said, “That would have been nice.”

And I kissed her. I kissed her sand studded cheeks, her skin was so coarse beneath my lips and there was nothing I could do to make it soft.

Still she never snored, still she slept so peacefully that some nights I woke up thinking she might already be dead. And there was that one night I woke, and she wasn’t there beside me. She hadn’t moved from the bed for over a week, she hadn’t the strength, and I was so frightened, I thought maybe she’d died and her body had simply melted away. I left the bedroom, went out into the darkness of the house, I lit a candle, I called for her. There I found her, down the staircase, on the bottom step, and she was stamping down on it weakly, without stopping, as if she couldn’t stop, not until I spoke to her. She turned up to me, up to the light. “I can’t get through,” she said. “Why won’t it let me through?” It was the only time I ever saw her cry.

She died only a few days later. I wasn’t there for the very end, but I don’t think it would have mattered much to her, she didn’t know where she even was by then, and if she called out a name it would be Thomas. Her missing husband, maybe? Even a son? Who knows? At the end of the day there was still so little I knew about her.

We found her body, you and I. You weren’t scared at all. You are still so young, and so fearless. You don’t even remember, do you?

I know you don’t remember Mrs Gallagher. My Nathalie. My own. But she was good to you. I wish you’d ask about her, and not about your father.

*

You know most of the rest of it.

Mrs Gallagher had left the house to me in her will. I had no idea, she had never discussed it with me. But I was not a blood relative, of course, and certainly could not have been considered a spouse, and after the death duties were paid there was no way I could afford to keep it. I sold it on.

Bed and breakfasts were all I knew now, that and the sea. I didn’t want to stay in the town, too many people seemed to know about me and my relationship with Mrs Gallagher, and I had no shame of it, but I wanted nothing to do with them. That’s why I moved us to the south coast, so far away, and bought our little hotel here. The sea here is warmer, the wind not as fierce, but I don’t mind, I’m getting old too.

I want you to understand this. You are not your father.

Your father was not a good man, though he wasn’t a bad man entirely. And you, I know there is good in you. I know you are better than he was. You must try to be better. The path you are treading, it isn’t the way. You have been caught stealing once, and we were lucky that charges were not pressed, and I know that if you’ve been caught once, you’ve got away with it a dozen times before. And I know your business with the girls down town too, you think I don’t hear? Mary Suffolk, and that Annie girl. And I don’t judge. But you mustn’t be cruel to them. Please, not cruel.

And you despise my hotel, and you despise me, and you want to leave, and I understand that. And all you want to know about is your father.

I have told you what I know.

And in the night sometimes, in the pitch black, I have gone down the stairs, and counted them off. I know you have heard me. I know that you have heard, but don’t like to ask. I shall tell you anyway. Because Mrs Gallagher told me. That when all those years ago she lost her husband. Thomas, or whatever his name was, when he found that extra step, and all those steps leading downwards from it, ever on downwards with no bottom most likely. She told me that it wasn’t in that house that she’d lost him. She moved away, and bought another hotel, right at the edge of the land, where she felt she could be free of him. And the extra step had followed her. Her husband had followed.

Because maybe we can’t just bury our mistakes, and move on. Maybe we carry them around with us, regardless. Maybe I’ll never be free of George. That seems right. That seems just. He’s had his punishment, I’ll take mine.

I go down the stairs. And there are twenty-one steps in the daytime. I can feel a twenty-second in the night.

You’re not your father, and you’re young, and you need to make your own mistakes. So go make them. But don’t make too many. I have come too far, and sacrificed too much. I will not tolerate it.

I want to make sure you never have to join your father.

You’ve complained about sounds beneath the floorboards in your bedroom. Stamp your feet hard, that’ll usually shut the bastard up.

News

Hello, everyone!

Apologies – I missed a update on Monday. I was in Brighton attending the British Fantasy Convention, and the hotel came with a wifi service that worked beautifully in all respects save actually allowing one to get internet access. And moreover, there were distractions in the form of book launches and alcohol. And disco dancing. Oh yes.

A new story will be posted for this Monday. I’ll try to make it a good ‘un, to make up for it.

Besides seeing old friends, making new ones, and strutting my middle-aged stuff on a dance floor, there were two reasons I was at the convention. The first was the release of my new book of short stories, from the wonderful Canadian press ChiZine. Called Remember Why You Fear Me, it’s a collection of twenty-one of my darker tales, the ones usually written later at night or when the weather outside looked especially threatening. Ten of the stories are from my first three books, the remaining eleven have never been collected before – some of them revisions of tales from this very 100 stories blog! And one of the stories is ‘Alice Beneath the Plastic Sheet’, currently shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award. Here’s what it looks like. I think it’s rather pretty: http://chizinepub.com/books/remember-why-you-fear-me.php

And talking of awards…! The second reason I was there was to attend the British Fantasy Awards. I am proud as punch to tell you that my *last* book, Everyone’s Just So So Special, won the gong for this year’s Best Collection. I’m not only proud, I’m also flabbergasted, delighted and peckish – though I’m pretty much always peckish. I was genuinely convinced there was no way I could win this, because every single one of the other nominees are terrific writers who had turned out collections at the very top of their game – I know this is the sort of thing everyone always says, but it also happens to be true. Three days after the announcement and I’m still grinning from ear to ear. (I’m still peckish too – I may have to go and deal with that in a moment.)

I think it’s a wonderful thing when you can launch your fourth collection of short stories one evening, and then get such acknowledgement for your third a few hours later. It’ll spoil me. I know it will.

But I’ll try not to let it spoil me before the forthcoming story on Monday.

Thanks for letting me share – and thanks, as ever, for your support in reading my tales in the first place! I’m very grateful.

Rob xx

 

KATHLEEN JACKSON

Did anyone actually like that monkey on Friends? I was never a huge afficionado, but I’ve seen a lot of the episodes, who hasn’t? And I saw lots of the ones featuring the monkey. I remember that bit where the monkey keeps getting hold of Ross’ hi-fi system and playing his own CDs, that was pretty clever. But clever isn’t funny. We can admire clever, but we never love it. Funny is funny; clever puts us off.

The monkey’s name was Marcel. There were two hundred and thirty-six episodes of Friends, but Marcel only featured in eight of them. The character was written out at the end of the first season, because the producers claimed there was just one too many cast members. Apparently it had been a toss-up between Marcel and Lisa Kudrow.

I’m no expert on the monkey from Friends, okay? I make no claims for that. But there was this one time I met someone who was.

I was at a television convention in Toronto a few years back. I was representing some British sci-fi series you probably haven’t heard of. There were meant to be more members of the production team there, but someone looked on the map and found out it was in Canada. I’m sure the Canadians would rather the BBC had sent an actor, any actor, but they’d been sent a writer instead – and they were very polite, being Canadians and everything, but it was a pretty chilly politeness. I felt quite lonely, and so when I wasn’t doing panels for my own show I would check out some of the others. They had Lost there, they had The Sopranos, they had all the different incarnations of Star Trek, past, present and future. There was one panel that advertised Friends, apparently the cast from Friends were at the same conference as me, and I was intrigued. I went to the Friends panel. When I got in, though, and took my seat among all the Friends fans, I saw that up on stage there was just this one woman I didn’t recognise, sitting next to the monkey.

The audience would ask the monkey questions. The monkey seemed to consider them carefully, and then chittered at the woman, who’d lean into her microphone and offer a translation. Yes, Marcel had loved his brief stint on Friends! Yes, he was still in regular contact with all the other cast members, they hung out sometimes and always exchanged cards at Christmas. Yes, if he could go to Central Perk his favourite coffee would be a monkey macchiato.

The monkey never acknowledged the woman, and when the panel ended and he thanked the audience for coming, he didn’t even look at her, let alone tell us her name. I saw her in the bar that evening, and no one was talking to her, I thought she might very well be the only person there less famous than me. I asked if she’d like a drink. She said she would. She looked grateful. She gave me her name. It was Kathleen Jackson, or maybe it was Johnson, or maybe it was Katherine.

It didn’t take many drinks before Kathleen Jackson was telling me the truth. Marcel had had a miserable time on Friends. The rest of the cast had never made him feel welcome. Jennifer Aniston, Matt LeBlanc, Courteney Cox… as soon as the cameras stopped rolling, they wouldn’t even speak to him. Lisa Kudrow and Matthew Perry actually bullied him; they never laid a finger on him, but it was psychological bullying, that was worse somehow. They’d hide his bananas, they’d call him ‘apebreath’. Only David Schwimmer was nice to him – and that sucked, who’d want David Schwimmer being nice to you? When Marcel was sacked he was almost relieved. Almost – but sometimes, Kathleen told me, he’d drink too much, and then he’d get maudlin, and he’d shout at Kathleen, he’d say he was a washed up chimp and he’d missed the one chance he’d get for superstardom. Sometimes, she said, Marcel couldn’t cope with all the questions on stage about his time on the show, and he’d snap, and come out with stuff that was borderline obscene. Sometimes, she said, she didn’t merely translate, she had to make up his answers altogether.

She was a monkey wrangler, she told me. That was her official job description. She had been a monkey gaffer, but she’d worked her way up.

“Must be nice to work in Hollywood,” I said.

“My parents are ashamed,” said Kathleen. “This is what you do with your life, my father says, you wrangle monkeys? And not even a successful monkey, a failure, a faded star. And what does that make me? If he’s a faded star, and I’m a flea on the back of a faded star, I’m not a has-been, I’m a never-was, I’m a never-gonna-be. And at nights, oh God, he gets so bad, sometimes he gets so very bad.”

“Yeah, I said. “But Hollywood, right? That’s got to be nice!” The BBC filmed most of my stuff in Cardiff.

“And do you know what’s saddest?” she said. “That he’s often quite sweet. When he lays off the booze, and the pills. When he stops trying too hard to look smart, when he stops worrying what everyone thinks of him, he’s actually kinda funny.”

She asked me back to hers. She asked casually enough, but when I said I might as well she looked so delighted and her eyes began to water. Outside her bedroom door she gave me a kiss on the lips, and that was very nice, and she said, “I won’t be long, you’ll wait here, won’t you?” I said, “What about the monkey?” She sort of snapped, “I said I’m dealing with it, aren’t I?” She left me out in the corridor for about ten minutes. Once in a while people would emerge from the lift, and I would pat at my pockets as if trying to find my keys.

The bed looked big and soft, and Kathleen had got undressed and there was a lot of flesh on display. But I couldn’t help it, my attention kept being drawn to that little cot by the television. Inside I could see Marcel the monkey, lying stretched out on his back, and once in a while his paws would start to pedal the air. “Forget about him,” said Kathleen, “what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.” We began making out. But, I don’t know, whenever I closed my eyes I always pictured the monkey’s face, I thought it was the monkey who was nibbling at me, the monkey who was grunting – and perhaps the grunting was the monkey’s, because, drugged to the eyeballs as he was, he was clearly having vivid dreams of some sort of another. “This is for me, this is for me,” Kathleen kept saying over and over again, as she ground away, and I could understand the sentiment, sure, but it sounded just a little selfish.

At length I just had to push her away. “I can’t,” I said. I told her I just felt sorry for Marcel. He’d been betrayed all his career, and now here he was, and we were betraying him as well. He deserved better than that. He deserved better from us – she, his wrangler and best friend and only confidante – me, a guy who’d quite liked the episode where he played with Ross’ hi-fi. I said I thought I should leave.

“Bullshit,” said Kathleen. “You don’t feel sorry for him, you feel ashamed of me. You wouldn’t leave if it were Lisa Kudrow I’d been wrangling.” And I didn’t say so, but I suppose she had a point.

For all that, we parted on good terms. I told her that if she were ever in Cardiff, for some inexplicable reason, she should look me up. And she said that would come to my panel the next morning, she’d sit on the front row with Marcel the monkey, and they’d both cheer me on. I knew she meant well, and I told her how nice that would be, but when she didn’t show I was relieved.

A few years later I read in the newspaper that Marcel had killed himself. He was doing a stage adaptation of Disney’s Tarzan, it was only a small part. They found him hanging in his dressing room during the interval, and it’s hard for monkeys to hang themselves to death, hangings are pretty comfortable positions to adopt for the average monkey, so Marcel must have really put some effort into it. Right to the very end, he’d been very clever – but not necessarily very funny. Marcel had never got that balance right. I felt sorry for him. I hoped he had found some peace at last. I told people I’d met him once, and it was truly surprising how few of them cared.

Of Kathleen Jackson no mention was made, but that didn’t mean anything. She might have found another job ages ago.

ROBERTA FLEISHMAN

My great aunt Roberta was blessed with the second sight – or so she claimed; as a child I used to joke that she ought to have been given some first sight to go along with it, as she was nearly blind as a bat, and had spectacles so thick you couldn’t see her eyes through them. (I remember being told off quite a lot for making that joke. One day she actually beat me. Every single blow found its mark.)

Anyway, the particular properties of this second sight were that Roberta Fleishman could tell when a person was going to die, just by standing next to them in bus queues, or shopping in the same supermarket as them, or walking past them down the street. And not just when, but the manner of it too. She would tell them her visions in painstaking detail. There was nothing, she said, that they could do to avoid their fate. It was all predestined. I asked her once why she bothered to tell them then, since it was of no earthly use to them, and she sort of shrugged. And beat me again.

As she grew very old and infirm, she found she couldn’t get out as much as she’d once liked to, and so no longer was able to meet anyone. And so instead she would leaf through the telephone book, and randomly pick out people’s names, and call them up, and pronounce judgement upon them. And she’d save up some of the best deaths, and at Christmas she’d copy out their postal addresses from the phone book, and send them festive cards reminding them of their forthcoming demises, and just how much pain and anguish they should expect.

We all used to help her. My sister would lick the envelopes. I’d put on the stamps. And as a family my parents would help us take them all down to the post office, to make sure all the cards got there in time for Christmas Day.

She knew her own death too, of course. And she got the exact date right. Though – and here’s the ironic thing – not the means by which she died. She always told me she’d hang herself. In fact, she died of an overdose, a fatal cocktail of anti-depressants and laxatives. I don’t know why destiny changed its mind. Maybe when it came to it, destiny couldn’t help Great Aunt Roberta find a rope.

Christmas traditions are hard things to break. They’re the pieces of our past that have the most nostalgia, and remind us of when we were young and innocent and full of hope. I know my sister carries it on; last year, she told me with pride, she’d sent out a hundred and fifty Christmas cards; I think that was some sort of record for her; she gathered around all her children, she’s got five of them, and her adoring husband, she’s been so lucky, she’ll never die lonely when the time comes; they all helped her pick the names, they listened to the deaths, they all applauded the really grisly ones.

I don’t have second sight. I don’t know what I’m doing from one day to the next. And I have no one to share my predictions with, no one to console me when they don’t come true. But I do my best. I open up the phone book, pick out some random strangers. I write in their cards, “You’re Going To Die Some Day,” because it’s the most precise I can get. I hope they derive some comfort from that, if nothing else I hope they appreciate the accuracy. And I hope too, that wherever she ended up, Great Aunt Roberta looks upon me, and is proud.

GARTH REYNOLDS

And there was that time that Johnny and Garth went to the moon. Johnny had passed all his moon exams with flying colours, they said that he was the best moonanaut there’d ever been, and Garth hadn’t even taken an exam, but he stowed on board the rocket anyway. And as Johnny steered his rocket straight out of the atmosphere into deep space he heard a plaintive little oink come from his satchel, and there was Garth, and Johnny was so pleased to see him! Johnny and Garth set foot upon the moon, and they bounced up and down a bit because there wasn’t much gravity. And then Garth remembered he’d forgotten to pack any sort of spacesuit, and so he couldn’t breathe, and his fat pink face turned quite puffy and bright red! Johnny was excellent at holding his breath, which was why he was the best swimmer there’d ever been, and could do more lengths in the school pool than anybody else. So he took off his spare helmet and gave it to Garth, and saved Garth’s life, and Garth was ever so grateful. Then they went back into the rocket and got home for tea.

And then there was that time that Johnny and Garth went to the dentist’s. And the dentist said that Johnny had eaten too many sweets and wasn’t brushing his teeth properly, and Johnny said sorry and promised he’d do better, only please don’t give him a filling, and the dentist said he was going to give Johnny a filling anyway. The dentist gave Johnny an injection, and promised it wouldn’t hurt a bit, but it did. And Johnny was told to open his mouth really wide, it would be over in just a few minutes. Johnny wanted to cry, but he wouldn’t – he wouldn’t, because he didn’t want to scare Garth. Because Garth was going in after him, and Garth was going to have twenty fillings, no, a hundred probably – and Garth was such a scaredy, and Johnny just thought, if I screw up my eyes tight and I don’t cry out, so long as I’m brave, then Garth can be brave too. And he was brave, and the filling was done before he knew it, and it felt weird when he stuck his tongue against it, and his bottom lip felt rubbery like the bung in Garth’s bottom. Mummy bought him some sweets because he’d been such a good boy. And Johnny shared them with Garth, although Garth hadn’t been brave during his fillings, Garth had screamed the place down.

Johnny loved Garth best in the whole world, even though he was, frankly, a pig. Johnny would sometimes pretend Garth wasn’t a pig but his brother, because Garth was much nicer than Mark and never gave him Chinese burns. And sometimes Mark was cruel to Garth too, for no reason, and would hide him, or stick him out on the roof where Johnny couldn’t reach, and Garth would get so frightened, and Mark would just laugh. Garth made a much better brother, and Garth liked it that way, and he’d pretend he wasn’t a pig as well. But once in a while Johnny would lose his temper and he would take it out on Garth, he’d say he was nothing but a useless rasher of streaky bacon, and they weren’t going to play together any more. He’d put Garth in the cupboard and slam the door. He always said sorry afterwards, and Garth always forgave him. “It’s all right, Johnny,” he’d say, and he’d give him that strange broken smile he had, “let’s play a game!” Johnny knew Garth must love him best in the whole world too, or else he wouldn’t put up with him.

Johnny had already had his birthday three days ago, but Mummy and Daddy said they’d got him another present. He’d been given so much money by his aunts and uncles and by Granny Reynolds that there was no way Johnny could spend it all at once. So they had bought him a little piggy bank. The pig was pink and fat and its trotters were splayed out as if better to balance when weighed down with coins; there was a little slot on his back, and Mummy demonstrated how Johnny could put a ten piece inside the pig, and how it clattered about its stomach. And just in case Johnny ever wanted to see his coins again, there was a rubber bung on the pig’s underside that could be pulled free with the reverse end of a spoon. “What do you say, do you like it?” asked Daddy. Johnny considered, and then decided he wouldn’t merely like the pig, he would love it. He called him Garth, even though the pig didn’t look much like a Garth.

He had a broken smile. That was because of the day Johnny and Garth had used the bed as a trampoline, and Garth had jumped too high and fallen off the bed on to his face. Half of Garth’s mouth had come off, and Johnny was in tears that evening when Daddy tried to glue it back on but said that it just wouldn’t stick. But, for once, Garth was very brave. “It doesn’t hurt at all,” he said. “In fact, I prefer it this way!” And Johnny decided he preferred the smile that way too, it looked more conspiratorial, like a smirk, like it was Garth asking to play games that might get them into trouble, like it was a smile just for him. Garth also had eyelashes that rubbed off with fingers and spit, and a little corkscrew of a tail that wouldn’t snap off no matter how much Johnny bashed it against the floor. “Try harder, Johnny!” Garth would say, and the end of it got a bit blunted maybe, but that was all.

Johnny took Garth on all his holidays, pressing him up against the car window so he’d get a good view. Garth would sleep with Johnny at night, too, nestling snug in the middle of the spare pillow. Johnny asked Garth what it was like to have all that money rattling around his insides, it was so noisy sometimes, and Garth gave a smirk and said it gave him indigestion, so Johnny prised out Garth’s rubber bung and took all the money and went and bought lots of sweets without telling Mummy or Daddy, and then he got indigestion too.

“I wish you were a pig,” Garth said to Johnny one day. “We’d be proper brothers then.”

“We are proper brothers,” said Johnny.

“Let’s do it for real,” said Garth. So Johnny raised his palm to his mouth, and spat on it, hard. Garth wasn’t able to spit, of course, so Johnny had to do the spit for him. And they pressed hand to trotter, and the spit mingled, Johnny’s spit, and the spit that was sort of Garth’s spit, and their brotherhood was sealed forever.

When it was time for Johnny to go to Big School, he wanted to take Garth with him in his satchel, just as he had when he went to the moon! But Mummy said that school wasn’t a place for pigs. And Garth waited for Johnny all day on his bed, and listened to all his adventures when he got home. Garth had had some adventures too, but he admitted that Johnny’s were much more exciting. Johnny started bringing home new friends from Big School, and for a while they were happy to play with Garth too. But some of them asked whether they could play with Johnny on his own, and Johnny went to their houses so Garth wouldn’t have his feelings hurt.

Some of Johnny’s friends were much better than Garth. They weren’t as reliable, and Alex would sulk if he didn’t win at everything. But Alex also had an Atari games console, and it was worth coming second for getting to play Space Invaders.

When Johnny was twelve, his parents told him he was old enough to have his own bank account. He was taken to meet a nice smiley woman who explained that when he put his money inside her bank it would earn interest. It didn’t seem interesting at all, but Mummy and Daddy looked proud, and bought him an ice cream sundae afterwards.

Mummy gave away Garth to Oxfam, and it took Johnny a couple of weeks to notice. “Where’s Garth?” he said one day, and Mummy explained he’d gone to give pleasure to a little boy who didn’t have real friends and didn’t have an interest earning savings account. “You’re a big boy now,” she said. Johnny thought about crying, but he liked the idea of being a big boy, and so he didn’t.

And a few days later Mummy took him shopping in town for new school trousers. Whilst she queued up at the bank, she agreed that he could wait for her in the toy section of Oxfam. And there he found Garth. “Hello,” he muttered to Garth. He had half a mind to apologise to Garth, but he thought that would look stupid, talking to a toy pig. Garth just sort of smirked at him, and Johnny hoped there was nothing too sad about that smirk, nothing too self-pitying. He’d have stayed with Garth for longer, but that’s when Mummy came into the shop, and Johnny moved away, and felt a little embarrassed.

 *

 And there was that time that Johnny and Garth went to the funeral together. Granny Reynolds had died, and Daddy was very sad, and when Johnny asked whether he could take Garth to the service Daddy got cross. So Johnny took him anyway, in his little satchel, with Garth’s snout poking out of the top so he could see what was going on! They watched the ceremony. Johnny knew he’d never see Granny again, and he was sorry for that, she’d been nice. Johnny supposed she was in the box, and wondered why no one liked to mention it, they kept on talking as if she wasn’t there. “I don’t understand any of this,” Johnny whispered down to Garth. “Nor me,” said Garth, and Johnny felt a little better.

 *

 John hadn’t thought of the pig in years, not until he was sitting through another funeral. His parents were on either side of him, as if flanking him, as if making sure he couldn’t run away – and Dad was already crying, and Mum was beginning to as well. And there was some vicar saying that Mark had gone to a better place, and that was such bullshit because Mark hadn’t even believed in God, and saying that Mark had died too young, but that was just obvious, wasn’t it? John had been brought back from college for this, and he hadn’t even been allowed to bring his girlfriend. “I think it should be family only,” said Mum, and John said that was such bullshit. But, if truth be told, he wasn’t that sorry his girlfriend hadn’t come, he wasn’t sure they were getting on all that well any more. When he’d told her his brother had died she’d just sort of frozen, and had stuck her bottom lip out. And she’d said, “I don’t know how you want me to react to that.”

John thought of his little pig some time during his father’s eulogy, and remembered how he’d accompanied him to that last funeral he’d sat through. He didn’t think of the pig with any particular nostalgia, the memory didn’t comfort him. It flashed into his head for a moment, just as he was being told to close his eyes and think of his brother he thought of the pig instead – flashed in, then flashed out again, and by the time they were all on their feet singing a hymn John had forgotten all about the pig once more.

His parents said it would be nice if John could stay home with them for a little while, but John wanted to go back to college. “You can at least spend a couple of days,” said Dad. “You can spend a couple of days, and keep us company, and watch television with us, and gave family dinners with us,” said Mum. So he’d give them a couple of days, and they ate dinner around the same table John had sat when he’d just been a kid, and he was made to help with the washing-up afterwards. But then he’d go to his bedroom. It was weird being in his bedroom again, the bed seemed too small and the wallpaper too childish. He’d look through the cupboards and find an old stash of comics, The Beano and Whizzer and Chips, he’d lie there on his too small bed and read them and if his parents called him he’d pretend he hadn’t heard, that he’d been wearing headphones or something.

There was lots of talk about Mark, too much, until Mark seemed even more unknowable than he’d been before. “You do know we love you very much,” Mum and Dad would say to John. “Yes,” said John.

One afternoon Mum asked John if he’d catch the bus into town and pick up some shopping from the supermarket. John did it in poor grace, but he was actually relieved to be out of the house. There was a certain unexpected pleasure to be had wheeling a trolley up and down the aisles, and filling it with tinned vegetables. He didn’t want to go straight home, he thought he’d look around the town first. He peered listlessly into shop windows. He peered into the window of the Oxfam.

There, on the display shelf, right out front, squatted a little fat piggy bank.

John was amused to see it there. It looked just like the one he’d had when he’d been a kid – he supposed it was an antique now, did anyone even use piggy banks any more? He smirked, and the pig smirked right back, with that broken half-mouth it had.

It was then that John realised this wasn’t just any old piggy bank, it was his. And a name popped into his head, as if he’d never really forgotten it.

“Garth,” he said.

Garth seemed to grin back at him in approval.

It was like the pig had only just been given to the charity shop, though John knew it had happened years and years ago. Could it have been sitting here, unsold, for all that time? No, that was ridiculous. If no one had wanted to buy it, Oxfam would eventually have just flung it away, even a charity shop had standards. And even if, by some miracle, it had sat unnoticed and untouched in the same shop for nigh on, what, seven years, it wouldn’t have been sat out front, in prime position, for all the world to see – they’d have buried it somewhere at the back of the shop, surely, amidst all the damaged lampshades and the gramophone records and the cobwebs.

So, this is what must have happened: someone must have bought it all those years ago, perhaps for a little kid of their own. And that kid had now grown up, and the pig was being donated back to the same charity shop it had been bought from. It was a coincidence, of course, but it wasn’t that great a coincidence; in fact, it was rather apt; in fact, almost touching.

John had no intention of going into the shop. He was lugging three bags of groceries, he was getting tired, all he wanted now was to get on the bus home and get back to his comics. And when he went into the shop, he had no intention of buying the pig. “If it’s three pounds or under,” he said, “I’ll buy it, just for a laugh, but not a penny more.” The pig was going for seventeen pounds fifty, the manager seemed very proud of it, and said Garth was a collector’s item. “The mouth’s damaged,” said John, but he felt bad haggling for a toy pig whilst pictures of starving Africans were looking on, and he paid the seventeen pounds fifty, every penny of it.

On the bus home he began to feel like an idiot, like he was the victim of some stupid trick. He took out the pig and looked at it, and ran his fingers over the broken mouth and the stunted curlywurly tail. Turning it upside down, he realised it was missing its rubber bung; you couldn’t have used it as a piggy bank even if you’d wanted to, the money would all fall out. And John felt a sudden surge of real anger, the first proper anger since Mark’s death, and he punched the back of the seat, and some of the other passengers turned to glare at him. He wanted to turn right round and go back to the Oxfam and complain – but he couldn’t be bothered. He wanted to throw the pig away, he’d just leave it on the bus. But he didn’t.

When he got home he took it up to his bedroom quickly, he didn’t want his parents seeing what he’d bought. He put it in the cupboard.

“I thought we could go on holiday together,” said Dad that evening over dinner. “I thought that might be nice, as a family. Nothing too far away, I thought we might rent a caravan or something.” Mum said that sounded like a great idea. John pointed out, quite reasonably really, that he couldn’t afford any more time away from college. “Who’s paying for college?” Dad suddenly said. “Where do you think that money’s coming from?” “Please don’t,” said Mum, and she burst into tears. “Just stop, both of you.” “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to,” Dad told John, “you just do whatever you like.” John didn’t say a word, he went to his room, and he wished he could cry as easily as his parents could, and he tried, he honestly tried, he lay on his bed and screwed up his face, but it didn’t work, and besides, he wasn’t really sure what he wanted to cry about.

 *

 When he woke in the morning there was a familiar smell to the room – a bit plasticky, and soft, although plasticky wasn’t really a smell, and nor was soft either, he supposed – and there was something else too, something farmyard, something faintly like shit.

“Johnny!” said Garth. “It is you! I couldn’t be sure, not until you opened your eyes, but they’re the same eyes! Oh, Johnny, how you’ve changed, you’ve got so big and everything! But it’s so good to see you!”

“You’ve changed too. And it’s John, not Johnny.”

“I have changed, I have, I admit it!” laughed Garth. “Age has caught up with me, yuk yuk yuk!” The pig was now full size, and on his hind trotters he stood a full head taller than John. And he’d grown wider, he was no longer merely fat but morbidly obese. He’d greyed too, the Garth John remembered had been as bald as a baby, but now John could see that tufts of hair had sprouted out all over, never enough to give much cover, never enough to suggest that the body had thought this hair project was worth pursuing with, just scrappy little patches every which way, as if Garth had been attacked by a blind barber, and the patches were grey, some of them were even white.

“And what are you wearing?” Because Garth had never worn clothes before; he had always been a proper pig, never anthropomorphised, for all that he had a rubber bung and a slot and could talk and go on adventures. And now he was in navy blue trousers, a navy blue jacket, a striped navy blue tie.

“It’s for the adventure! Some adventures,” said Garth, and he whispered the next bit, as though in confidence, “some adventures need the right clothes. You see? Yuk yuk yuk!” John didn’t know where this yuk yuk business had come from – he supposed it was a laugh, but he didn’t remember Garth laughing that way, and besides, Garth was saying it, it was silly.

“I’ve had enough of adventures,” said John.

And for a moment Garth’s face fell, and his porcine eyes opened wide in sad surprise. And then that broken mouth twisted into a smirk. The smirk that said, who are you trying to kid? And he offered John a trotter. And John took it.

His parents weren’t awake yet, they were sleeping in later and later, John didn’t know what to make of that. So no one was there to see him leave the house with a pig in a suit. “Where are we going?” said John.

“That’s a surprise, Johnny!” And Garth took him to his car.

It wasn’t a very good car. It was old, the windows weren’t electric and it didn’t have a radio, and it was small – Garth had put the driver’s seat back as far as it could go, but he still looked uncomfortable, squashed against the steering wheel.

“You can drive?” asked John.

“Sure, sure, I passed the test.”

“When have you ever passed a test?”

“Ssh for a moment, Johnny, I can’t talk whilst driving. I need to concentrate, okay?” Garth turned the key in the ignition, and put his hooves up on the steering wheel. He took a deep breath. “Mirror, signal, manoeuvre,” he muttered. “Mirror, signal, manoeuvre.” And he lurched the car out into the road.

Only at the traffic lights did Garth dare turn to give John a reassuring smile. “We’re not driving all the way there,” he said. “We’ll get the train. The office doesn’t have a car park, and I don’t like some of those dual carriageways.”

“Office? You’ve got a job?”

“I work in finance,” said the piggy bank. He grinned. “What did you expect?” But with that the lights turned green, the car bolted forward, and stalled, and Garth struggled to get the engine started again whilst all about them other motorists honked their horns angrily. John thought it best not to interrupt.

John bought a ticket at the station; Garth had a season pass. The train was full of commuters, all of them refusing to look at one another; there was nowhere to sit, everyone was packed in tight, John was pressed hard against Garth and he felt some yielding of his plasticky body and he felt too that already the armpits of Garth’s suit were starting to pool with sweat.

No one seemed surprised they were sharing a carriage with a fat pig. Several people tutted, though, that the pig was taking up so much valuable space.

Dozens of workers in smart suits pushed their way through the revolving doors, each one of them wearing a face hard set with teeth gritted. Only Garth seemed excited, and John couldn’t tell whether that was because he had a friend to show off to, or because Garth really loved his job. They crowded into the lift. “We’re on the tenth floor!” said Garth. “We get such a view!”

“Is it all right I’m here? Won’t you get into trouble?”

“There’s a pretty high staff turnover,” said Garth. “If anyone gives you a second glance, just pick up a phone like the rest of us.” He told John that most only lasted a few weeks. “But I’ve been here for years! Longer than anyone! In fact, I’m sort of senior to all the others, I expect!”

The tenth floor was an open plan office; thin flatboard partitions gave the illusion that the cubicles were separated. “That’s Geoff, that’s Pete, that’s Libby. They’re my best friends here!” Geoff, Pete and Libby were already making phone calls, they nodded at Garth noncommittally. “Guys,” said Garth, “this is Johnny, an old friend from way back!”

“It’s John,” said John.

Garth explained his job. It was very simple. He’d be given all these phone numbers, and he had to dial them all up, and speak to whoever might be on the other end. And then Garth would ask them if they wanted money, any money at all, in exchange for talking about any accidents they might have had for which they could claim compensation. “It’s a nice job. Very caring. And you get to chat to such interesting people!” He dialled a number, said a hello, asked politely whether there’d been any recent incidents involving falling over or car crashes. He stopped; he replaced the receiver. He smirked at John. “There obviously wasn’t.”

About half past eleven Garth said to John, “It’s lunchtime! Let’s get going!”

“So soon?”

“Come on! We have to get to the pub! Before the eleventh floor beat us!”

The pub was already heaving by the time Garth and John arrived, but there was a table at the back occupied by people John recognised. Garth raised a friendly trotter to them. “Geoff and Libby are here already,” he said. Geoff and Libby were talking, they only looked up when Garth set his haunches down on the table hard between them. “Guys,” he said, “either of you want a drink?”

Geoff and Libby already had drinks. “No, thanks, Piggy,” said Geoff.

“No, Piggy,” said Libby. “Oink oink.”

Garth grinned at John. “Cheap round, can’t be bad! What you having, lager? I’ll get you a lager.”

John sat down next to Geoff and Libby and waited for his drink.

“So,” said Geoff. “How do you know Piggy?”

“Garth,” said John. “Oh, you know. I don’t really. Not well.”

“Was he always like this?” said Libby.

“Maybe,” said John. “I don’t know. Yeah. Yeah.”

Garth came back with a couple of pints of lager on a tray. “You’re sure I can’t get you a drink?” he said to Geoff and Libby.

“Yeah,” said Geoff.

“Yeah,” said Libby.

John sipped at his pint. Garth raised his to his face. It was an awkward business – the pint didn’t grip well in his hooves, he had to clench both of them either side to get purchase on the glass. Having got the drink to head height, Garth took a deep breath, he’d completed stage one of the procedure, on to stage two. And then he stuck his snout into the glass, as deep as it could go, and sucked – and the lager overspilled, of course, it rained down upon the table – and Garth now tilted back his head, and tipped the dregs of his pint towards him, and some of it poured into his mouth, and some of it didn’t.

Garth smacked his lips. “Want another?”

By the time the lunch break was over Garth was a little drunk, and John was positively reeling; he hadn’t been drinking much, not since he’d got back from college, and he realised how much he’d missed the happy deadening sense of being pissed. Being drunk in the office made so much more sense of what everyone was doing, and he listened to the comforting hum of all the phone calls around him, the false enthusiasm and energy, and he began to feel drowsy. He may have closed his eyes for a bit. And when he opened them there was Garth, and Garth was good at his job, John could see how patient and soothing he was, if Garth had ever phoned him he’d have invented an accident just to keep him happy, and Garth raised a trotter to John and John gave him a thumbs up in return.

On the return train journey Garth got them both a seat. John sat opposite, and looked at Garth – his clothes seemed damp, and that may have been the lunchtime lagers, it may have been the sweat that had long ago soaked from the armpits down his back and around his waist. A woman squeezed into the seat next to Garth. For a couple of stops she squirmed around, and kept scowling at Garth, and Garth pretended not to notice – or maybe he was truly unaware, he was gazing at his old friend Johnny and smirking happily after a good day’s work. She said to him, “You’re taking up too much room. You’re too fat. You’re a pig.”

Garth slowly turned to the woman. He seemed to process the information dazedly. Then he raised a hoof to his head, as if to doff his hat, which was ridiculous, he wasn’t wearing a hat, it made him look pathetic. “I do apologise, madam,” he said. “I do apologise for any inconveni… I’m sorry. I’ll stand.”

John said, “Don’t talk to him like that. Don’t you dare talk to him like that.”

“Johnny, it’s all right.”

The woman glared at John unrepentantly. “He’s a fat pig.”

“Just leave him alone. He’s worked hard today. He’s been good. He’s been good.”

“Johnny, I am a fat pig, the dear lady is perfectly correct.”

“He may be a fat pig,” John said. “But you’re a cow. You’re an ugly, selfish old cow.”

“Johnny!”

And Garth seemed angry. John had never seen Garth get angry before, not even when he’d accidentally left him out on the lawn all night, not even when Mark had drawn spectacles on him with a marker pen. And it wasn’t strong, this anger, that was the pity of it, it was sad and pleading.

“Johnny, you mustn’t be rude like that. She’s my friend.”

“Your friend? Garth, she’s not your friend!”

“Yes, she is. Yes, she is. She rides this train with me every day. She gets on at Overton at five fifteen, she gets off at Padstock at five thirty-six. All these fine people here, all around, they all ride with me. Ever reliable. We’ve never spoken, this dear lady and I, but we’re friends regardless. She’s been a constant to me these last few years.”

The woman said, “I’ve never seen this pig before in my life.”

“Oh yes,” said Garth gently. “I’m always here. Sometimes you wear a green skirt, sometimes it’s blue. Sometimes you wear your hair in a bun, I like that, it suits you. So, you see, we know each other well. Johnny,” he said, and he turned to his old childhood chum, “you mustn’t embarrass me in front of these people. They’re here for me and you haven’t been.”

“It’s not Johnny,” he heard himself say. “It’s John. It’s John.”

They didn’t speak again until they were sitting in the car. John was sulking, he knew he was; he wasn’t sure what Garth was doing, whenever he’d had arguments with him as a child and Garth had fallen silent it was simply because he had nothing to say, he never really seemed to understand how to do the sulking thing properly. And so it was now. “Well,” said Garth at last, cheerfully. “Quite an adventure!”

“I’m sorry,” said John. “You know.”

“What for?”

“You know.”

Garth looked genuinely baffled. Then his face broke out into that easy smirk. “Hey,” he said. “You don’t need to say sorry. Not for anything. We’re brothers, right? Brothers, remember?”

John did remember. He raised the palm of his hand. He spat on it. Garth smirked still wider, nodded, yes, that’s the way. John prepared to do some spit for Garth too, but Garth didn’t seem to need it; he lifted his trotter to his mouth, hawked, spat, and a whole puddle of phlegm flew out. Garth held up the soaking hoof. John, slowly, held up his hand. They pressed them together.

“Brothers forever,” said Garth.

“Yes. Do you have a…?”

“What?”

“Tissue, or…?

“Oh yes…”

“Thanks.

“Here.”

“Thanks.”

“We can go on other adventures, Johnny! Better adventures, good ones, I’m sorry. At weekends, when I’m off work, we could go to the bottom of the oceans! We could climb mountains, visit Mars, visit the Moon. Would you like that? Yuk, yuk, you’d like that, yeah?”

They sat there in the car for a little while. And then John said that he supposed Garth had better drive him home. Would Garth be fit to drive? – he had drunk really rather a lot. No, it was all right, Garth assured him, he was less nervous driving when he was drunk. So, back home it would be then. Yes.

“I’ve an idea,” said Garth suddenly. “Why not have dinner at mine?”

“I don’t think so.”

“I want you to meet Heather. You’d like Heather.”

“Who’s Heather?”

“My fiancée. Well, not fiancée. Not yet, because I haven’t proposed. But I will, girlfriend before then, wife after. Yuk yuk yuk! She’ll be so sorry to miss you. She’s heard all about you. Yuk yuk yuk!”

John said no, and Garth said all right. But it was funny. As they drove through the traffic lights, and each time with ever greater confidence, John saw they weren’t following the route back to his house at all, they must be going to Garth’s. And John realised he didn’t mind.

 *

 Garth’s house wasn’t to John’s taste, but it was all right, he supposed – the carpets were beige, there was beige wallpaper, and there were a couple of paintings above the stairwell, not real paintings, just prints, one of a clown, one of a ballerina.

“Honey, I’m home!” called out Garth merrily. And there was barking, and an Alsatian dog raced down the stairs. John thought, is this Heather? – because why wouldn’t it be? – and he steeled himself to be very polite. But, “Here, boy!” laughed Garth, “here!” Garth stopped, and rubbed at the dog’s fur. “This is Bonzo! Who’s a good boy? You’re a good boy!”Bonzo barked again, and licked at the pig, and John thought that he was salivating.

“And this is Heather,” said Garth.

What sort of girlfriend could a pig expect? Dumpy, plain? Blind, even? Another pig? But Heather was beautiful. John stared at her, and thought he might very well be in love, even before she’d spoken, even before he knew the first thing about her. Heather tried a smile, failed, looked at Garth quizzically.

“Honey,” she said gently, “if you want to bring friends home for dinner, you should call ahead!”

“I’m sorry, honey,” said Garth. “But you’ll never guess who I bumped into! Guess!”

“Hello,” said John.

“You’ve heard me talk about Johnny, haven’t you? You remember Johnny?”

“Yes.”

“Guess who this is!”

“Hello,” said John again. “Actually, I’m John.”

“Hello,” said Heather. “Well. It’s nice to meet you at last.” She offered her hand, and John saw that there was a little tattoo on her wrist, a butterfly probably. Her hand was cool, and did she squeeze his? He thought that she had.

“Hello,” said John, for the last time.

“It’s only meatloaf, I’m afraid,” she said. “If you’re happy with meatloaf.”

“I don’t want to put you out,” said John.

“It’s only meatloaf,” she said, and shrugged, and managed a smile then, or maybe it was just a half-smile, like a smirk.

She wasn’t happy. John could see that immediately. Why couldn’t Garth see it too? Why couldn’t Garth see that he was with a beautiful woman, who must be wondering what she’d ever done that she’d ended up with a fat pig? And he felt a flash of contempt for his old friend then, and anger too, that he didn’t realise how lucky he was, and how selfish.

“You’ll love Heather’s meatloaf, it’s very good,” said Garth.

Heather went back to the kitchen. Garth led John through to the sitting room. The sitting room was beige, too, but the sofa looked very comfortable.

“A drink?” said Garth. He beamed at John, he was so happy to be showing off his home to his friend, his beige home, his drinks cabinet, his girlfriend. He struggled with the decanter, and John could have helped him, but he didn’t, and besides if Garth wanted to be master of the house, let him be. He poured a couple of whiskies. John thanked him. Garth sat on the sofa, gave a groan of pleasure as he sank deep into it, John wasn’t sure how he could be prised out again.

“Well,” said John. “This is very nice. Well done. You’ve done all right for yourself.”

“Oh, this is all Heather’s handiwork,” said Garth, and John, of course, had known that. “I don’t have any taste!”

“You have lots of taste,” said John. “Heather’s stunning.”

Garth winked. “She’s quite the catch!” he agreed. “Yuk yuk yuk!”

“Don’t say that, stop saying that. If you want to laugh, just laugh, if you don’t, don’t. For Christ’s sake. For Christ’s sake. When you say it out loud, you sound like a spastic.”

“Yes,” said Garth quietly. “I’m sorry.”

Heather came into the sitting room at last. “Dinner is served.”

“Thank you, my lady!” said Garth. “That didn’t take long!”

“It didn’t,” said John.

“It’s just meatloaf,” said Heather. She gestured to John for help, and together they pulled Garth out of the sofa and back on to his feet.

Heather sat three places at the table. At the head, she laid lots of old newspaper on the floor. Garth sat down. Then Heather went back into the kitchen, brought out three plates of steaming meatloaf. She nodded at John to sit down too, frowned that he hadn’t already done so.

“This smells delicious,” said John. “Thank you.”

“This is such a treat,” said Garth. “Dinner with my two favourite people in the entire world.”

“Eat before it gets cold, honey,” said Heather.

“But you are. My two favourite people! The entire world! I love you both. I’m not ashamed to say that.”

“It looks delicious too,” said John. “Yum!”

Garth smirked the widest smirk he could, then fell upon the food. Meatloaf sprayed down on to the newspaper. It was gone within moments. He chased a last morsel around the plate, as if teasing it, and then with his tongue scooped it into his mouth.

And John turned away from Garth, and looked at Heather, and he saw that Heather was looking right back at him, quite shamelessly. He smiled, and she gave another one of those little smirks, and maybe blushed a bit.

“How did you two meet?” John asked.

“It sounds like a cliche. We met at a dance!” said Garth.

“A dance,” agreed Heather.

“Not a proper dance, you know the sort. It was for charity.”

“I didn’t know pigs could dance,” said John.

Garth laughed. “Ah, that’s just it! You got me! I think I trod on poor Heather’s toes!”

“You weren’t too bad,” said Heather.

“I think I crushed those pretty toes of hers! Beneath my clumping ugly hooves!”

“You were better than you thought,” said Heather.

“It was a charity thing,” said Garth, and winked at John, as if that explained everything.

“And what do you do, Heather?” asked John.

“She’s in marketing,” said Garth.

“I am.”

“What do you market, Heather?” asked John.

“She’s very good!” said Garth. “Oh, do you remember that time, honey? When we went to the moon together? And I’d forgotten my spacesuit?”

“That wasn’t me, honey. That was Johnny.”

“Actually, it’s John.”

John finished his meatloaf.

“I’d like to raise a glass,” said Garth, “to my two favourite people in the entire world. Thank you,” he said. Heather poured him another drink, helped him to hold it. “Thank you. Thank you.”

Heather cleared the table, cleaned the debris off the newspaper into a dog bowl, the dog got very excited. “Would Johnny give me a hand in the kitchen?” she said.

“He’s our guest,” said Garth.

“I don’t mind helping you in the kitchen,” said John. Heather nodded, left – and John picked up a few stray pieces of cutlery, followed her.

He wondered whether she was going to ask him for help. To escape, to get out of this mess. Or just for advice, what should she do? Or a shoulder to cry on, or someone to talk to, some human contact.

She said, “Do you know what you’ve done? Do you even care?”

“What, I don’t…?”

“You broke his fucking heart.”

She was still talking quietly, but her eyes were blazing, and she was standing so close to him, and he could feel how hot she was, and he thought it was all fury. He thought for a moment she might spit at him. He thought she really might.

“He’s trying so hard,” she said. “We’re trying. And he’s getting better. With all the drinking, and that. And he’s a good person. He doesn’t deserve…”

“I’m sorry,” said John.

“Shut up,” she said. “What I’m saying is, are you back? For good, this time? Or are you just going to walk away and leave me to pick up the pieces?”

“I don’t know,” said John.

“Well. Well. At least you’re honest. I’ll give you that much.”

“I never meant to hurt anyone,” John said.

“Oh, no one ever means to do anything,” said Heather.

“He wants to marry you.” And he realised it wasn’t a butterfly on her wrist, it was the face of a pig, upside down, so only she could see it properly.

“And I’ll say yes,” she said. “When he gets the nerve to ask me. When he gets his confidence back.”

Heather gave the smirk again, that broken little smile. And for a second John thought he’d been forgiven, or understood, at the very least – but it wasn’t for him, she turned around and left the kitchen and went back to her boyfriend.

“What do you think?” laughed Garth, when John followed her through. “Aren’t I one lucky pig?”

“You are a lucky pig,” said John.

“Aren’t I, though?” He belched, apologised. His eyes were brimming over with tears. “All the adventures we three can have together. We’ll have such fun.”

“Let’s wait and see,” said Heather.

“Did I ever tell you? About our trip to the moon?” And Garth leaned forward, and put one trotter on Heather’s hand, and one on John’s. “I was such a silly piggy. We went to the moon. And I had forgotten my spacesuit! And there we were, on the moon’s surface, and I suddenly realised, I couldn’t breathe!” He laughed briefly, a proper croaky laugh this time, he didn’t have to say the words. “Oh, Jesus,” he said. “I was so scared. I was so fucking scared, Heth. I thought I was going to die. And Johnny saved me. Johnny saved my life that day, so I could be with you.”

“No.”

Garth turned to look at John.

“No. You’ve got it all wrong. Don’t you remember? Garth. You got on that rocket because you knew I’d get into trouble. You brought the spacesuit. There I’d go, off on my adventures, and you were the one looking out for me, keeping me safe. It was you.”

Garth stared at him with the widest eyes. “It was me?”

“It was always you.”

“It was me,” Garth said, slowly, as if trying the words out for size. And he nodded. “It had to be me, because I wanted to take care of you. I’ll always take care of you, Johnny.”

“But you need to take care of Heather now,” said John. “She needs you.”

Garth gestured that John should come closer. John leaned in. He smelled alcohol on the pig’s breath, and something plasticky, and something like farmyard shit. “I love her so much,” Garth confided.

“I should go,” said John.

“I’ll drive you back,” said Garth.

“I’ll call you a taxi,” said Heather.

“I’ll walk,” said John. “It’s a nice evening. I’ll be okay.”

It wasn’t a nice evening, as it happened. It was raining. But that didn’t matter.

 *

 On his way back from Garth’s he got lost, and when he reached home he was drenched.

His mother and father had already eaten, and were watching a movie on television. He stood in the doorway, dripping.

“You missed dinner,” said his father, eyes not leaving the screen.

“Yes. I’m sorry. I should have called. I’m sorry.”

His father opened his mouth to say something else. Then changed his mind.

“I’m not going anywhere,” said John.

And he didn’t mean that he wasn’t going back to college, or wouldn’t go out and get an office job maybe, or would one day not find someone who could love him, someone good, someone who wasn’t imaginary. And they knew what he meant.

No one said anything for a while. The statement just sort of hung there.

Then his mother said, “You’d better not.” And she moved up to make space for him on the sofa.

They watched the rest of the movie together. It was a romcom. It was quite good.

 *

 And the next day, both his parents went back to work. “It’s time,” they said.

John said he’d stay home. He thought he might tidy up his bedroom. Mum laughed, and said that in all these years she’d never heard him tidy his bedroom willingly! Was he feeling quite well? He laughed.

He took a cardboard box upstairs. He emptied the cupboards, took out all the comics. There was a game of snakes and ladders missing the dice, a teddy bear he didn’t know he’d owned. He put everything into the box, forgotten toys, and toys he’d never really forgotten, all of it. Everything he didn’t need any longer, and everything that didn’t need him, he set it all free.

 

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