DAVID ALLAN

For his birthday David Allan was going to get a cake, a big one with chocolate sponge and nuts and fondant icing, and a tongue with which to taste it; he was going to have candles on his cake, one for each year he’d lived, and a tongue that could curl into a little tube through which he could blow air and puff the candles out; he was going to get presents, and a tongue with which he’d say thank you. So many different tonguey tasks! And David might have thought all that required three different tongues, but he was assured that a single tongue could do the lot of them – it was a very versatile piece of flesh. Indeed, it could do all that and more besides, it could do rather adult things. He was too young to be told what they were yet, but he’d find out for himself soon. Very soon now, this year. This year was his time, they were certain.

David was so excited he could barely sleep the night before. Or was he nervous? No, excited, what did he have to be nervous about? He lay in the dark for hours staring upwards at the bedroom ceiling, and he’d put his fingers into his mouth, and feel about inside – and it seemed like such a very small space, what with all the teeth hanging down like stalactites from above and thrusting up like stalagmites from below. He wasn’t sure how anything else could be expected to fit in there. He mouthed the words ‘stalactite’ and ‘stalagmite’, and tried to visualise how the tongue would help pronounce them just like Mrs Dempsey had taught him. Mrs Dempsey had been teaching him lots of long words recently; they wouldn’t be easy to say out loud, granted, but this year he really ought to aim to impress. “Throw in a few extra syllables,” she’d told him, “and you’re going to knock this one right out of the park.” Mrs Dempsey knew what she was doing, she’d helped hundreds of kids get their tongues. David had a crush on Mrs Dempsey. Sometimes he imagined he would tell Mrs Dempsey he loved her. Sometimes he imagined this would be the first thing he’d say when he could speak for himself.

He must have fallen asleep eventually, because his mother and father were shaking him awake, and were standing right over him, and their smiles were so wide and hopeful. “Happy birthday, champ!” said Daddy; “happy birthday, darling!” said Mummy. They enunciated their happy birthday wishes so clearly and precisely, David could see their tongues flicking about with such practised ease. They had presents for him to unwrap. He was given a tongue straightener, and a tongue brush in David’s favourite colour (green), and a little box in which David could keep his tongue brush. Mummy laughed; “I know it’s a bit premature, but I just know you’re going to nail it this year!” – and Daddy laughed; “He certainly is, this is going to be his best birthday ever!” Their tongues wagging away all the while, as if urging David on.

They had him put on his second best suit. They had him wear a tie. No school today, not on his birthday, and maybe never again. Yesterday Mrs Dempsey had made a special announcement at the end of class, and said to everyone that David Allan was turning thirteen tomorrow, and that she had a treat for him. Then she presented him with a good luck card, and she had signed it, and she’d had all the kids sign it too, and inside everyone said that they’d miss him. David was the biggest boy in class by a head, and all the younger children looked up to him. He was going to miss them too. But he thought it’d be embarrassing if he was forced to come back and ever see them again. “Don’t you worry, dear,” said Mrs Dempsey, “I’ll be there tomorrow night, in the front row, cheering you on!” David rather wished she wouldn’t be in the front row, and would have told her so had he been able.

The government buildings were grey concrete, and didn’t look as if they housed anything magical at all. Maybe that was the point, David didn’t know. The guard at the front desk demanded to see David’s birth certificate, and Mummy and Daddy handed it over, and the guard gave it a cursory inspection. “Happy birthday, lad,” he said. The guard had a dark commanding sort of voice; David hoped he’d get a voice like that. He told them to take seats and wait to be called. They sat down with other families, lots of birthday children in their second best suits, and mummies and daddies looking flushed with pride. Some of the children could barely sit still for all the excitement, some of them were still very young. David was old enough now that he could sit still and keep his back straight, he could hide his nerves. “Keep your back straight,” Mummy whispered to him, which seemed a little unfair, because it already was.

“David Allan?” And at last there was someone for him, a woman all in black, and wearing small round glasses that made her look like an owl. David thought she might have looked quite friendly if she’d only wanted to try. She asked to look at his birth certificate, it was given another brief inspection. She smiled. “Happy birthday, if you’d like to follow me?” She led the family down some corridors into the very heart of the building. “Is this your first time? If so, there’s nothing to be worried about.” She must know it wasn’t his first time; he was older than all the other kids, perhaps she was being nice. Perhaps it was just something she was paid to say. The narrow corridors opened out into a wide courtyard; the ceiling was a glass dome that let all the light in, and it shone down upon the tongue.

“My, my,” said Daddy. “That’s a big one, isn’t it, champ?”

And so it was. David had never seen a tongue so huge. The one he’d visited on his last birthday, that must have been half the size, surely? And that one had been stood about thirty feet tall, and David had refused to be frightened of it, no matter how much it twisted and coiled, he’d just pretended it was a tree. But this new tongue was more like a thick wall of red meat, David couldn’t even see round the trunk of it, and it stabbed up high into the air, the very tip of it was licking at the ceiling. “Some of them do grow pretty big,” the woman agreed. “In this job I’ve seen some that are even bigger!” Mummy told David to stand a little closer to it, and the woman nodded, and Daddy gave his most encouraging smile. David took a couple of steps forward. And as soon as he did so, the tongue seemed to spasm, it thrashed about wildly from side to side, and David saw saliva spray off it as hot steam. “I think it likes you!” said the woman.

And a man came up to them, he was wearing a white laboratory coat and carried a clipboard and looked really very scientific. He asked to see the birth certificate, it was shown one last time. “Happy birthday,” he said to David, “now, you want to get up real close, you don’t want to be nervous of old Tommy here. Tommy Tongue, do you see, he’s the oldest we’ve got, aren’t you, Tommy?” And he actually patted an overarching stump of tongue, and smiled with what looked like affection. “Truth is, Tommy doesn’t even know we’re here, most like. He can’t see, he can’t hear, can’t smell. As far as we can tell, all he can do is taste. Take a look at him. What a beauty.” And David couldn’t help but look, could he, he was right up next to it, and Daddy was close behind him, he had his hands firmly on his shoulders. David could see now that the tongue wasn’t that red after all – or, if it were red, it was a dead red, there was something lifeless to the hue, something flattened out. But there was blue, there were thin blue veins crisscrossing all over the tongue surface, and there were motes of speckled white, there was green. It wasn’t as smooth as David had supposed either; chunks had been torn out of the flesh, and David thought that probably wasn’t natural, that would have been the birthday children who had queued before him. And there was saliva pooling in the holes that had been gouged out, and dripping forth, and down; in fact, now David watched, he saw that saliva was dripping everywhere.

“You know what to do, right, kid?” And the scientist handed him a knife.

David looked back then, and there was Mummy and Daddy, both looking so proud, and the woman with the owl glasses, she was looking proud too, David couldn’t even guess why.

“Reach up, and there’s a nice bit just above your head,” said the scientist. “Yes, reach up,” said Mummy, “up on your tiptoes,” Daddy said. Some people believed that that the higher from the tongue you cut, the more intelligent it would be. But Mrs Dempsey had told David that was a nonsense, that he mustn’t worry about things like that, it was the man who maketh the tongue and nor the other way around. And besides, David had always cut high before, and it had never done him much good.

So this time he bent low, he actually stooped. Daddy protested, but the scientist said, “Each child gets to choose his own tongue. That’s the way it’s always been.” David remembered just the way he’d practised on apples and grapefruit, to make one clean single slice – “You’ll have to dig deep, the dermis is a bit thick down there,” the scientist said – and David stuck the knife in, and felt all the wetness ooze around the incision, and he pulled the blade down, three jerks of the wrist the way he’d been taught – in, down, and out. And there it was, flapping about in his hands like a fish. “Well done,” said the scientist, “well done,” said everybody else, and they clapped the birthday boy, and the scientist took the hunk of meat, gave it a slap, and washed the blood off.

“Now, open wide,” he said, “as wide as you can go!” And David did his best. He drooped his chin towards the ground and aimed his nose towards the sky, and the strain made his jaw hurt. “I’m coming in!” said the man, and he chuckled, and suddenly David’s mouth was full, so full it made his eyes bulge, and there were fingers and there were knuckles and there was tongue and he couldn’t tell which was which. “Steady, it’s a bit stiff,” said the scientist, more sternly now, “it’s always a bit stiff with these older kids,” and so David rooted himself to the spot; the scientist stuck his own tongue out in concentration as he felt for the right slot. “Got it,” he said at last, and there was a snap as the tongue locked into position, and out came the knuckles and out came the fingers. And there was some relief to that, but horror too, because David thought his mouth was still full, the tongue was too big, he’d never be able to breathe, and it was darting about all over the place, dabbing at each of his teeth, dashing at his palate, writhing about and knocking against the small confines of its new prison. And spraying spit everywhere it went. David gagged, he began to choke.

“Looks like we’ve got a lively one!” said the scientist, and he didn’t seem too alarmed, so David tried to force his panic down, maybe he wasn’t going to die after all. And there was a hypodermic needle in the man’s hands, quick as a flash, and in a moment the fingers were back inside David’s mouth, and other fingers were wrenching the mouth wide, there was no time for niceties now. And they were grasping at the tongue, they’d got it, they’d grabbed hold of the tip, and the back of the tongue lashed about in fury. Something sharp. The smell of something acid. And then the tongue flopped dully down against the jawbone.

“What was that? What the hell was all that?” Mummy was upset, and the woman was doing her best to reassure her, she said she’d seen this happen a hundred times. Mummy said, “You’ve tranquilised his tongue! You do realise it’s got to make a speech tonight?” Of course they realised, everyone knew the importance of it, and Daddy tried to calm her down, and put his arms around her. Mummy shook herself free. “Get off me.”

“The tongue is fine,” said the scientist. “Some at the base can get a bit frisky, that’s all. And it’s not knocked out, I’ve just calmed it down a bit, I’ve shown it who’s boss. The boy here can use it right away if he wants to.” And it was true, David could feel the tongue flexing again, the extrinsic and intrinsic muscles starting to pull and stretch. It was a little sulky, maybe, but it was quite definitely awake.

“Go on, son,” said Daddy. “Give it a trial run.”

“Say something,” said Mummy.

“Try saying your name,” said the woman. “Whenever I don’t know what to say, I always give my name a go.”

And so David took a deep breath. If he concentrated he could stop the tongue roaming about of its own free will, he could tell it there was work to do. It stopped, stood still, waited for instructions.

“My name,” he said slowly, “is David Allan.” And he liked the way that felt in his mouth, the parts of the palate the tongue had to tickle to get it sounding right. Every time he had to tell someone who he was, he realised, it would give him a little buzz of pleasure.

The scientist smiled. The woman stepped forward, shook hands with David formally. “We’re very pleased to meet you, David Allan,” she said. “Speak well, and speak wisely.”

Mummy said, “His voice has got lower, did you hear that?” Daddy said, “I suppose that’s because his balls have dropped,” and Mummy said, “David, did your balls drop?” And David took a deep breath, and concentrated hard, and visualised the word, and said with great precision, “Yes.”

*

He blew out all of his candles, one by one by painstaking one. The tongue took no interest in that, he had to blow them out in the usual way, but David didn’t let on. And he ate his birthday cake. It had chocolate sponge and nuts and icing, all as promised. It also had lemon rind, and raw onion, and David was pretty sure the chewy bits were bacon. The tongue recoiled at the lot of it. “I wanted to give you a taste sensation,” Mummy explained. “Not just sweet, but salty, and sour, and bitter.” David nodded, finished his plate, raised his hand to indicate he really couldn’t manage another slice.

He got up to clear the table as normal, but Mummy said, “No, don’t do that!” And Daddy said, “Not on your birthday.” So he stayed sitting where he was, and the both smiled at him expectantly.

“You’re not too worried about this evening, champ?” asked Daddy.

“How about a sneak preview?” said Mummy.

David smiled, shook his head.

“Come on,” said Mummy. “Just a few sentences. What are you going to talk about?”

“He probably wants to keep it as a surprise,” Daddy suggested.

“I don’t want a surprise.”

“He probably wants to practise on his own.”

“No, he can practise in front of us.” Mummy took hold of David’s hand. “You don’t need to be shy with me. I love you. You know that, don’t you?”

David took a deep breath, opened his mouth. Closed it again. Nodded.

Mummy let go of his hand. She got up from the table, walked to the sink, slammed her hand against the draining board. “Christ,” she said.

“It’ll be all right,” said Daddy. “You’ll see. She’ll see, won’t she, champ?”

“It won’t be all right. It’ll be just the same as last year. David standing up there on stage. Opening his mouth, closing it, opening, closing. Like some bloody goldfish! Not coming out with a bloody word.”

“I know,” said Daddy gently.

“Not even a bloody syllable! I nearly died. Do you hear me, David? I’m not exaggerating. I actually nearly died of shame.”

“He knows, we both know…”

“My heart nearly bloody stopped.”

“Don’t, love,” said Daddy. “You’re frightening him.”

“Am I? Well. Well then. Maybe that’s what he needs.” And in a moment she was away from the sink, she was back at the table, back grasping on to David’s hand, only this time it was much too tight, and she was hissing straight into his face.

“Listen to me,” she said. “We can’t keep doing this forever. This’ll be the last time. This will be the most important thing you ever have to do.”

“Love, please…”

“So don’t fuck it up.” At that she let go of him. “What Helen and Nigel make of you, I don’t know.” Helen was David’s younger sister. She’d got to keep her tongue when she was ten, and now she worked at a bank. Nigel was a prodigy, everyone had agreed. He’d won his tongue the very first time, and he’d been only six, and that was two years before kids were even supposed to try. But the school had recommended he give it a go and he’d dazzled the audience and been given a standing ovation. Nigel was a barrister now, somewhere in the city, one of the big cities far away; David never saw his little brother much, only at Christmas.

“I know you think I’m being unkind,” Mummy said, and her voice was softer now, and David looked up at her, and hoped that the worst was over. He felt dead inside, and his eyes were starting to water, and even his tongue felt limp and ashamed. “I only want what’s best for you. I want you to be happy. I want you to go out into the world and be the best that you can be. I don’t want you to end up as one of those muteoid cretins. Cleaning streets and stacking supermarket shelves. I want you to have a life.”

She smiled at him, big and wide, and her tongue touched lightly upon her top lip. She looked at Daddy for support, and Daddy smiled too.

“What do you say?” she asked.

David forced out a word. “Sorry.”

Mummy snorted. “You’re going to have to do better than that.” And she left the kitchen.

Daddy smiled at his son, wider now Mummy had left, but the smile was embarrassed and sad.

“She shouldn’t,” he said. “She shouldn’t use her tongue to say such things. She used to be nicer. Do you remember? Of course you remember.”

David said nothing. Daddy sighed. Daddy seemed to struggle for words, David could see him forcing a deep breath, trying to visualise the words in his head, trying to concentrate.

“The thing is,” he said. “She doesn’t love me any more. That’s the truth of it. She’s met someone else. She’s told me she wants out. But she can’t leave. Not with you here. Not whilst you’re still a child. She can abandon me. She can’t abandon her child. Do you see?”

And he smiled. “I think you see.”

David nodded.

“So you’ll try your best tonight, won’t you, champ? For her sake. Because I want her to be happy.”

“Yes,” said David. It took him some effort, but he got there. “Yes.” He repeated it, for good measure. Daddy beamed at him, and stood up, and ruffled David’s hair.

“I used to,” said Daddy. He stopped, had to start again. But this time it wasn’t his tongue that was playing up, it was the eyes. “I used to be able to say such great things to her. I used to make her laugh. I don’t know how to do it any more. I can’t find the right words.”

David didn’t know what to do. He looked away. He looked right down at the table, and didn’t look up again until after his father had left.

Now David. All on his own. Except for the tongue.

Stalactite, he mouthed stalactite. His teeth hanging down like stalactites, and the tongue rising to the teeth, glancing over the back row for the first syllable, flicking lightly against the soft palate for the ‘l’, rolling into a ball and hissing loud for the grand finale. “St,” is what he said. “St. St. St. St. Stop. Stop.”

And out came the tongue, as far as it could stretch, rigid and firm and forming a right angle to his upper lip.

David went to the bathroom to see in the mirror. The very end of the tongue seemed to wiggle at him, a little cheekily.

He tried to remember all the exercises he had been taught to bring the tongue to heel. They didn’t work. He tried to roll it up by hand, grabbing it wetly between his fingers. He might as well have been trying to fold an iron bar.

If he could just get it back inside his mouth. That would be a start. Don’t worry about it having to speak. Or it having to taste anything. But if it could just stop sticking out like that, it was so rude. Please, he thought.

And the tongue screeched.

He stared at it in horror. And yet it screeched – it let out all its frustration and loss and pain. And somewhere, distantly, he could feel it too – the tongue was a part of him now, he could feel how it had been ripped from its home and from its family, and it was now angry and confused and so very very frightened.

He couldn’t see at first where the screech could be coming from. The sound wasn’t using David’s mouth, or David’s breath. And then as the tongue flared, trying to stand as tall as the huge parent out of which it had been sliced, rearing up on its hind tendons like a panicked horse, David could see the underside of it – those blue veins looked thick and were straining now, the white specks seemed to bulge out like rivets, and there was a hole – there was a hole – there was a mouth – and inside it, he could see were little teeth, and there behind the little teeth the tongue had a tongue of its own.

David tried to yell for help, but he couldn’t. Tried to clamp his mouth shut but there was no give. Jammed his fingers in his ears so he wouldn’t hear the noise but the noise was all in his head now and it wouldn’t st st st st stop.

And then the tongue fell limp. It had given up. It had screamed out its misery to the world, and the world didn’t care, no one had come to rescue it, no one could do anything. David tentatively opened his mouth wide to let it back in. It pulled inside, almost guiltily.

He closed his mouth. He wasn’t sure he’d dare open it again for a while. He wanted that tongue locked away.

And he felt the mouth fill with water, so much water he had to open up anyway to spit it out, and David knew it was just saliva, but somehow he believed that the tongue was crying.

*

They had him put on his very best suit now, they gave him a better tie. Daddy looked smart. Mummy looked beautiful, and she seemed quite calm, as if there had been no upset before. She wore dark shadow around her eyes.

The town hall was packed. There must have been over a hundred children there, each of them full of birthday cake, and speeches to recite, and new tongues with which to recite them. And with the children came two parents each, always two parents, and the smell of musk perfume and aftershave hung in the air like a cloud.

The stage was small, but surely still bigger than it needed to be, it was only children who would be performing tonight. Downstage centre there stood a little lectern, with a microphone in front. At the side of the stage there sat a jury of six. David thought he recognised the scientist. And wasn’t that the woman who’d taken them to the tongue, it was hard to tell, she wasn’t wearing glasses and her dress was pink and she no longer looked like an owl.

David sat between his parents. His father took his hand, smiled at him. With the other David reached for his mother’s hand. She accepted it.

The chairman got to his feet. He addressed them all, and spoke with a tongue that was masterfully assured. “Greetings to you,” he said. “And especial greetings to our children, and happy birthday. These children are the voices of our future. All our hopes and dreams lie in what they may achieve. And tonight, for some, that journey will begin. Tonight they will be given an opportunity to speak. And, if they are ready, they will go from here, as adults, to fulfil their destinies. So. Let us hear what the future has to tell us! Speech is a privilege. And to be allowed that privilege, we only ask that our children tonight speak with clarity, and with the same forthright confidence of their parents. That they say something worth listening to. That they are interesting, and original.”

“Interesting and original,” Daddy whispered to David. “Mummy and me, we were interesting and original once! Can you believe it?”

Since its outburst in the bathroom the tongue had been as good as gold. It was as if it had only wanted one moment of protest, and now it had had its say. It had been a little listless, and David had had to use the straightener on it to improve his diction. But he had managed to practise his speech no less than five times, and each one had been better than the last. It was a speech which expressed a love for speleology he did not feel, but which pronounced ‘stalactite’ and ‘stalagmite’ most impressively.

“We shall begin,” said the chairman. “Best of luck to you all. Speak well, and speak wisely!”

The children were called to the stage at random. It had always been done this way.

The first child got up behind the lectern and spoke coherently for three and a half minutes about his love for his country. It was met with a round of applause, and he shone with pride, and he was now a man.

The second child spoke about her love for her country, and good family values.

The third child focused mainly upon family values.

“Do you mention the family at any stage during yours, champ?” asked Daddy. David didn’t; he was wondering whether there was a way to crowbar it in.

And for the first hour each child passed. It was easy. David saw that the jury wanted them to pass; they wanted more adults in the world. The odd stutter or mumble, that didn’t matter; who cared if the speech was boring? If you got rid of all the boring adults, where would the world be? One child got up and spoke for barely two minutes about the battle of Waterloo and his analysis was frustrating simplistic, and only once did he use a word of more than two syllables, and that was ‘Waterloo’. Still, he was applauded, and was passed.

I’m going to be all right, David told himself. This year, at last, I won’t let anyone down.

Then, the first failure.

The little girl was just too young. Anyone could see that. The audience was on her side right from the start, she looked so pretty with all her ribbons and bows, and everyone loves an underdog. The chairman too was positively smitten. He helped her up on to the lectern, and he’d not done that for anyone else. “All right, dear,” he said to her kindly, as he adjusted the microphone towards her babyish face, “we’re all rooting for you.” And she stood there, and she stared out at the crowd, and tears began to roll down her face. “I want my Mummy,” she said. “I want to go home.” She said it quite clearly, to be fair.

The jury looked so sympathetic. “Never mind, sweetheart,” said the chairman. “Next year for sure!” And they took the little girl, and held her down fast, and the red hot tongs were in her mouth before she even had a chance to scream. The microphone picked up the wet hiss, and there was lots of smoke, and then – yes! – the tongue was yanked right out of her head. It wriggled there on the tongs for a moment, high for all the world to see, and then it was cast down upon the stage, and one of the jury stamped on it. And the little girl was crying still, crying for all she was worth, but David thought it was in relief, she didn’t have to be a grown-up yet after all. She could go back home with her Mummy and Daddy and play with her dolls and be tucked into bed at night and be a baby for another whole year. – Or maybe she was crying with the pain, they always said the tongs didn’t hurt, but they really did.

There were some more rejections after that. Maybe the jury had realised they’d been too lenient, and had too many children pass already. One boy got up and gave an account of his passion for stamp collecting; the chairman said, “All very pleasant, I’m sure, but so what?” He tried to run, but they caught him, they ripped the voice right out of him. And as the rejections began to outnumber the passes, and the stage began to be strewn with a whole carpet of spent tongues, David thought he might have missed his chance. He should have been picked first. Then he’d have been safe.

But as the evening wore into its fourth hour, the jury began to get lazy again. They just wanted to go home. All of the audience, they wanted to go home. An end to this.

“David Allan.”

And David had almost nodded off. In a flash he felt a surge of adrenalin, he got to his feet, he wished he had time to go to the toilet. He made his way to the stage, the applause by now polite at best, most parents saving their energy for their own kids.

Close up the jury seemed like such very small people. Not great figures of authority at all, just older children in older clothes. The chairman was positively leaking nostril hair. “Speak well and speak wisely,” he said to David.

David looked out into the hall. His Daddy waved, his Mummy waved too. And there in the front row was Mrs Dempsey, just as she’d said she would be, and she gave him a brave smile.

David leaned into the microphone. “Stalactites,” he said. It was a good start, nice and clear and full of hard consonants. He could almost feel the keen anticipation of what the second word might be. Would it be as challenging as his first? – the audience seemed to move forward in their seats in their eagerness. What about stalactites, what could he tell them?

David gulped. He tried to free his tongue. But it was locked in position. After that first, promising, brilliant word, it had shot up, bolt upright, and was now full vertical in his mouth like a pillar. It had become both stalactite and stalagmite there. And it wasn’t prepared to budge.

David stole a look at the jury, who were beginning to frown. Dramatic pauses were allowed, certainly, but they had their limits. He looked at his Daddy, whose face was anguished.  At his Mummy, who looked just as composed as before – she’d known this would happen.

“Yes, son?” said the chairman.

And David could now feel the tongue tip pushing further. As if it were trying to break through the palate. As if it wanted to go straight up, higher into the skull. It pushed with all its might.

David closed his mouth, opened it again, shook his whole head from side to side. He’d have put his fingers into his mouth, but finger contact was expressly forbidden.

It was trying to drill. It wanted to drill up into his brain. David could feel the urgency of it. It wanted to lick at his brain, it wanted to tell the brain something vitally important.

“We’re going to have to hurry you.”

It couldn’t do it. Of course not, it wasn’t strong enough, for all it strained and battered against the top of David’s mouth. But it would get stronger. Would it be strong enough to do it one day?

David thought it might. He could imagine it now, the day it’d break through the bone – and then the tongue would drive upwards like a bullet, past his nose, all the way to the brain, all the way through to the top of his head if it wasn’t careful, bursting free through his crown like it were an egg.

The tongue had something to say.

Maybe he should let it.

And even then David knew, that one little boy’s tongue couldn’t change anything. Not on their own. But maybe other tongues would speak freely because of his. Maybe this would be the first steps towards revolution.

You had to start somewhere. David knew this. His tongue did too.

“I’m very sorry,” said the chairman. “Better luck next year.” And there were sympathetic groans from the audience, some kindly applause.

David relaxed. And the tongue allowed him to speak.

“No,” he said, calm, clear. “No. Wait. Listen.”

They waited. They listened.

And David thought, all right, you’re on your own. And he emptied his mind. He let his brain go blank. His mouth opened, and he wondered what he was going to say.

 

 

DEBBIE MARKEY

Whilst crossing the road James was distracted by an impressively lifelike picture of the actress Debbie Markey, tattooed upon the midriff of a young woman wearing a top so small it could almost be considered a bikini; and, in truth, James’ attention was not any sexual desire he might have had for the young woman or for Debbie Markey, but instead was an expression of concern for the amount of bare flesh subject to the elements, for although it was a summer’s day the weather was unusually inclement and the wind was chilly and blew so hard against Debbie Markey’s tattooed face that the ink seemed to ripple; he stopped; he stared at it; a car ploughed straight into him and he was killed instantly.

And ever since, his widow Angela had always held a grudge against Debbie Markey. She didn’t like her movies. She wouldn’t read a fashion magazine that had Debbie Markey on the cover. She actually booed during the Oscar ceremony that year Debbie Markey was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and then toasted the TV screen when Debbie Markey lost the award to Judi Dench. Angela kept her grudge hidden – she’d watched the Oscars alone, she and James had often watched them together, or the edited highlights at any rate, James had always said it’d help them to decide what to rent from the video store, the range on display was so bewildering, and he could never work out what was what and time after time he’d come home with something shit – but now Angela had no one to watch the Oscars with any longer, she didn’t even bother with the popcorn that she and James had always shared, James saying, “It’ll be like we’re really there!”, though Angela didn’t think any of those Hollywood stars ate popcorn. No one knew about Angela’s grudge against Debbie Markey, and had anyone known to ask about it, Angela would have admitted it was unfair (probably), that the photogenic beauty of Debbie Markey that so lent itself to distracting tattooed tributes was hardly the fault of Debbie Markey herself. But Angela needed someone to blame. Sometimes when she got up in the morning, all alone, that need to blame was a bitter taste in her mouth. Someone to hate. Debbie Markey would do.

So it happened, Angela’s sister Noreen hated Debbie Markey as well – although she did not know who Debbie Markey was, Noreen had little interest in the cinema. Had Angela ever confessed  her Debbie Markey hatred to Noreen, Noreen would have made no connection to the Debbie Markey hatred of her own. There was no name she gave to the object of her hatred, she was just the woman whose giant face had leered down on her that moment she’d weakened and fallen into temptation.

And it’s a shame, perhaps, that Angela did not try to tell Noreen regardless – because ever since James’ death Noreen had found her sister increasingly hard to relate to, Angela seemed to glory in being a widow in a way Noreen could never quite put her finger on, it wasn’t as if Angela mentioned her dead husband all that often, nor did she ever seem to ask for pity – she was coping, that was it, and Noreen thought there was something rather smug about all that coping, and she hated herself for minding she had a sister who coped. But Noreen wasn’t coping. Noreen couldn’t cope even with a husband who wasn’t dead, because she was bored with Frank, she was bored with him in a numb way that came over her every time they ate dinner together, shared a conversation, shared the bed – she wanted to cry out at him sometimes, for God’s sake, don’t you see that you’re losing me! Don’t you see that you’re pushing me away! – And into the arms of John, who worked with her at the library, who’d smile at her over the stacks of books and monthly periodicals, who one day said to her, “Let’s both take the afternoon off!” Not suggestive even, not even a hint of that, but naughty, like he was a naughty schoolboy, and here was Noreen, invited to be a naughty schoolgirl! – it had been so many years since Noreen had been a schoolgirl, naughty or otherwise, what else could she say but yes?

And they’d went off to a cafe and had lunch, and conversation had been hard, there were no jokes they could make there about the ugliness of library patrons or the Dewey Classification System, but at least it wasn’t hard like Frank was hard, awkward and fumbling at least wasn’t boring. “Let’s go and see a movie,” John said, because it had started to rain, and they both ran there beneath his umbrella, and there was nothing suggestive about that either, but there also was, quite. All the while John had been the perfect gentleman, and he even bought her ticket – she tried to object, but he said she could pay for the tickets next time, and the promise of a next time thrilled her – and they didn’t even sit at the back, they were just two friends innocently watching a movie together in the middle of the theatre where all the world could see. What was it, some awful romantic comedy, oh, it didn’t matter. She wasn’t thinking about the film, she was thinking about John, and trying not to think about Frank, and wondering whether he might brush against her in the dark – John, not Frank – and getting a bit cross with herself because she was a married mother, not a little girl – and then, and then he was touching her, he’d reached for her hand, and she’d grabbed on to it a bit too eagerly – and she watched the pretty actress on the screen being smart and cute but didn’t listen to a word she said – and then, and then she moved their hands, together as one fist, she moved them on to her lap. And he began to flex his hand. He began to rub at her. And she hadn’t meant for that to happen, or had she? And she thought of Frank, Frank came back into her mind then, Frank with his usual bad timing, thank you, Frank. And John made a little whimper noise, and she didn’t know why, it wasn’t his lap that was getting such attention, and the whimper ought to have put her off, but it was really rather sweet. And up on the screen Debbie Markey’s giant face beamed down on her, and there wasn’t a freckle on it, not a hint of a single blemish, it was as if her whole skin had been airbrushed, and Noreen beamed up at her in turn, for a moment there was a whole lot of beaming going back and forth, one face so large and so perfect, the other small and a bit plain and flushed with guilt and joy in the dark – and then, and then Debbie Markey turned her back on Noreen, she was talking to Joaquin Phoenix now, and Noreen felt dismissed. And John moved his hand away, and she realised he’d had enough, he was done, he was spent, and she’d barely got started yet.

And they watched the rest of the movie, and at the end of it the giant woman found true love, good for her.

They went back to the library. And as the days passed, Noreen wondered whether John would ever discuss what had happened, but he never did, and she never did, and she began to wonder whether it had even be real, and John would still make jokes about the Dewey Classification System and sometimes Noreen would almost laugh. Noreen would think about John some nights in bed; she’d think about Frank; she’d think about Angela who was free to have anyone she wanted; she’d think of the no-named Debbie Markey and hate her. If only she could have told Angela of her hatred. They would have had something in common, it would have been nice.

Some days Aidan would hate Debbie Markey, and some days would love her with a passion so hot it made his cheeks burn bright red and his parents would wonder if he was having an allergic reaction to something – and the funny thing was, even Aidan couldn’t predict how his feelings towards Debbie Markey would shift, some days he’d wake in bed and lie there for a minute trying to work out which of the two extremes he had today; and he’d get up, brush his teeth, go to school, and whether it was love or hatred she was in his head always. He couldn’t remember a time he hadn’t cared about Debbie Markey, although he knew there had been one; her first film had only been released seven years ago (Look Who’s Flirting – Debbie Markey makes a spirited debut in this ensemble comedy – she’s one to watch), and Aidan was nearly fourteen, so that was a whole half of his life he had never even known there was a Debbie Markey in the world. Those years seemed impossible now. He wondered if he had been happier then. He suspected he had been.

Neither of his parents knew about Debbie Markey – Aidan kept all magazines and press cuttings carefully hidden in the secret space at the back of the wardrobe – and they certainly didn’t know about Debbie Markey Time, no one knew about that, no one must ever know, Aidan would die of shame, or maybe just kill himself, whatever worked. Noreen wouldn’t be back from the library until half past five, and Frank for home even later still – and if Aidan ran straight home from school, if he didn’t stop and talk to any of his friends, then he could be in his bedroom by quarter past four, he’d lock the door behind him, he’d turn himself into Debbie Markey. He’d put on the lipstick first – at the beginning he’d experimented with his mother’s, but mother never wore much make-up and whenever she did it was always beige, and Debbie Markey’s lips were plump and blood red. (They were even blood red in Pride and Prejudice – Debbie Markey lends firm support as the flighty Lydia, acting with great gusto and making this most wayward of the Bennet sisters rather loveable – and Aidan wasn’t sure lipstick like that could be historically accurate, but never mind; Debbie Markey looked good even in a bonnet.) Aidan would put on eyeliner, mascara, nail varnish too. He often didn’t bother with the nail varnish because it was hard to get it off before his parents got home, but sometimes they would both work late, or go on a shopping expedition at the weekend, and then Aidan would let rip and give himself the glossiest Debbie Markey nails he could – and he liked the way that even after he put on the remover his nails still seemed shinier to him, and he’d rub them with his thumb and they were so smooth – he bought his own make-up now, and that had been embarrassing at first, but no one in the chemist’s ever seemed surprised – maybe they thought they were presents for his mother, maybe he wasn’t the only one, maybe all the men the whole world over were painting their faces and pretending to be Debbie Markey. He’d be aroused, but he wouldn’t do anything dirty, that would be an insult to Debbie – and he’d say some of her lines, and pout at himself in the mirror, and when he lit a cigarette it wasn’t Aidan who was smoking, it was Debbie Markey in Bad Girl Feelin’ Good (Debbie Markey does her best to make this depressingly stupid romantic comedy watchable, and at times almost succeeds), he’d puff the smoke carefully out of the window and make sure there was lots of lipstick on the filter. He hated Debbie Markey. He hated Debbie Markey.

Some days Frank would look at his son and say that he was becoming quite the man now, he’d have to start shaving soon, look at that stubble! – and Noreen would laugh, and brush her fingers over his chin, and say it was so soft and fair, like teddy bear fur, and she hoped it always would be – his parents were great, they had such a wonderful marriage, they were always smiling, Dad was such a Man, Mum was such a Woman, where did that leave him? Because he didn’t fancy boys, none of the boys in his class, it was Debbie Markey he fancied, he worshipped her, he loved her completely – but sometimes to get right inside her head he became Debbie Markey, and she fancied boys, so maybe he should too, maybe he should try. She wouldn’t fancy him, though, he knew that. Not some lipsticked pervert standing naked in his bedroom pushing out his breasts. She’d laugh at him. She’d snap on her bonnet and walk away. How he hated her.

Aidan’s cousin Mark had once snogged Debbie Markey, or some girl who looked like Debbie Markey; Mark never believed it was the real Debbie Markey, what would some Hollywood starlet be doing at all night service station in Peckham?; and had Aidan known that, it might have made the fantasies in his head harder to hold on to, it might have meant that each time he posed for the mirror he would suddenly picture the boy who six years ago had put stinging nettles down his trousers being stuck to the other end of his blood red puckered lips. It might have put him off for good. Possibly. Mark hadn’t been working at the service station for long, and he didn’t much enjoy it, but it meant that he got a bit of cash, and had a reason to sleep during the day – and that meant he didn’t get to see so much of his mother, and that was good. That was good because Mark didn’t think she was dealing as well with his Dad’s death as everyone else seemed to believe; oh, she put on a bright enough smile when people were around, but she didn’t bother for him, some days she’d look at Mark with frank disgust, as if she were annoyed to find he was in the house, as if annoyed that he hadn’t been the one knocked over whilst ogling some girl in the street; he heard the way she sometimes cried in the bedroom; she sounded so angry. Mark didn’t know how he felt about his father’s death, but when Nathan had said there was a night job going at the service station he’d jumped at it, and that surprised him – he didn’t want to work – he hated work – maybe, he thought, he was growing up at last, maybe that’s what a dead parent had done to him, and he couldn’t but help feel a little proud.

It was boring in the service station. But if no customers were there, and there rarely were, Mark could play his music pretty loud, he just had to keep an eye on the door to make sure no one came in, and that the manager didn’t make a spot inspection, but otherwise, yeah, it was cool. And he could steal free chocolate from the stock room. When the girl who looked like Debbie Markey came in Mark wasn’t paying attention, she came in so quickly that he hadn’t got a chance to turn the music off; he apologised, but she didn’t seem to mind. “I like it,” she said, so Mark turned the volume up again, though not as loud as before, that had been taking the piss a bit. Debbie Markey bought a Snickers bar and a can of Pepsi Max and ten Marlboro Lights. “Thanks,” she said, and Mark said she was welcome; “Can I stay here?” she asked. Mark didn’t know what she meant by that – “Can I stay here for a little while? It’s so dark out there, and cold. I want to stay here.” Mark said he supposed that would be all right, for a while at least, and the girl nodded, walked down one of the aisles, looked idly at the stack of breakfast cereal boxes. She ate her Snickers, she smoked a cigarette, and Mark didn’t have the heart to tell her she wasn’t allowed to do either, not really – but it meant he didn’t feel so bad about the music. He watched her on the security monitor. She looked so thin, but she was beautiful, she might be eating sweets and smoking fags but there wasn’t a blemish on her face like all the other girls had; and it was as if she realised he was looking at her, she turned to the camera and smiled straight into it.

She came back to the service desk. “Is there anywhere I can lie down?” she said. Mark said there was a staff area, but she couldn’t go there, because she wasn’t staff, he didn’t have the authority. She looked sad, though, and she said she was so tired, and Mark supposed it would be okay if she lay down on the couch out back, just for a bit; “If anyone comes, though,” said Mark, “you’re my sister, right?” Debbie Markey thanked him. He showed her to the staff room, he showed her the couch. He moved all the crap off it so she could rest. “You look like that actress,” he said, and she said, “I get that a lot,” and she put on a proper American accent, it was pretty good, it made him laugh. “What’s your name?” she said, and Mark told her; “What’s yours?” he said, but at that she just smiled. He wondered if she were drunk or stoned or something, but she didn’t seem to be, maybe she was just what she said she was, a girl who was tired of the dark and the cold and the night. “Would you hold me?” she asked. “Just hold me for a little bit, I want to be held.” Mark explained that he’d already left the service desk for too long, there might be a queue of angry motorists out there demanding to pay for petrol and snacks; “Come here,” she said, and he obeyed, and she kissed him on the mouth. “Look,” said Mark, “look.” She raised her eyebrows at him expectantly. “Look,” Mark said, “you seem nice. Maybe after the shift. Or. I don’t know.” But Debbie Markey was smiling, shaking her head, and then she gave a yawn, it made her look like a little girl. “You don’t have to be Debbie Markey,” said Mark suddenly. “You know? You can be your own person. You don’t have to look like her. You don’t have to try so hard. You can be anyone you want to be.” Mark was so surprised; Debbie Markey made no reaction, she just drank the words in, then nodded. “I want to sleep now,” she said.

Mark turned off the light and left her. He didn’t get another customer the rest of his shift, and at five in the morning Nathan came to relieve him. Nathan stank a bit; Mark thought Nathan had been drinking. “Hey, there’s a woman in the back, sleeping,” said Mark; he tried to say it lightly, not to make too much of it; Nathan laughed, “She some sort of skank?”, and Mark laughed too, and felt a bit guilty, because the girl had been nice, hadn’t she? And the kiss had been just that, nice. “I’m going to take a look!” said Nathan, and Mark laughed again, and told him not to, let her rest, just let her be for a bit. Nathan said it would be okay, he just wanted a peek. “Come on!” said Nathan, like this was the biggest adventure, “let’s see what she looks like!”, and Mark followed behind. “Well, where is she?” said Nathan, because the room was empty; “She must have left,” Mark said, “yeah, I remember now,” although he hadn’t seen her leave, and the back door didn’t work, it was jammed, it had been jammed before Mark had started working there, the only way he could imagine she had got out was through the window in the staff toilet. “Whatever,” said Nathan, and he put on his overalls, and went to the counter. Mark said he’d follow him out in a moment. But first of all he went to that toilet, and sure enough, the window was open, but it was a lot smaller than he’d thought, could she really have got through it, even as thin as she was? And he pictured her now, scrunching in her shoulders, standing on the bog bowl so she could crawl through that tiny space, covered as it was with dirt and dust and shit, the girl who looked like a famous Hollywood actress, who was on the cover of magazines, who was on the cover of magazines they sold out front right now, most probably. Mark felt sad. He felt sad she hadn’t wanted to say goodbye, that she’d wanted to avoid seeing him again quite that much. But mostly he just felt sad, for no reason at all, just the same sadness he’d had when he’d arrived for the shift six hours ago – and he got his crap together, put on his jacket, and went home.

*

It was all over the news that Debbie Markey was dead, killed by an overdose of drink and drugs. No one could say whether it was misadventure or suicide, but why would it have been suicide? – she was young and successful and brilliant, and quite blemishless, she was beautiful, she had her whole life ahead of her. But who understands how these Hollywood stars behave? They’re not people like you and me.

When Mark heard the news he was actually glad, and not just because he was high. He hadn’t thought of that girl in the service station for months, and now he did. She would be free. She could be herself, and not just a lookalike of someone luckier and more talented. – And if she had been the real Debbie Markey after all, well, there was an end to it now. There was an end. And he didn’t think her about her again. Literally, he never thought of her again.

Aidan was at school when he heard his alter ego was dead. The headmaster used her death in assembly as a warning to them all of the dangers of pleasure and excess. Aidan wanted to throw up right there and then, but he held it together – by morning break he’d swallowed down the nausea, by lunchtime he was quite composed. He didn’t run home for Debbie Markey Time. He walked back thoughtfully. He went to his bedroom as always, locked the door as always. He looked at himself in the mirror. “We’re on our own two feet now, baby,” he said; it was the tagline for the Debbie Markey movie that had been named, appropriately enough, Own Two Feet (a wretched mix of whimsy and sentiment, do yourself a favour, avoid). He smiled, and in the reflection it was Aidan who smiled back, not Debbie. And when he put his lipstick on, it was in his own unique style.

“What’s the matter?” Frank asked Noreen that night. As if it wasn’t obvious, as if what had happened to Angela hadn’t been enough, let alone Debbie Markey – because Noreen now knew Debbie’s name, she couldn’t escape it, the giant face was everywhere, on every news bulletin. No Angela, just Debbie, but that was the way it should be. Because just look at that girl’s career, how many movies she had appeared in, the wonderful luck she had had – Noreen should never have hated her, she should have been inspired by her, and it was all over now, it was gone. But it wasn’t too late. Because Debbie had died at twenty-six, and that was tragic like all the TV people said – and Noreen was thirty-three. Noreen knew her life had to begin right here, right now, Debbie Markey had died so Noreen could live, Debbie Markey had packed a lifetime of achievement into such a tiny space and Noreen had to meet that challenge. She wouldn’t be like her sister, what had her sister achieved? She would leave the library, quit a job full of people who sniggered at her behind her back, with a man who changed shifts just to avoid her. She would leave Frank. “What’s the matter?” Frank said, and Noreen said, “Nothing at all.” – She thought maybe she would get a tattoo. Something for all the world to see.

Angela had heard the news on the car radio. And for a moment she felt jubilation, true jubilation. The bitch was dead. And it was as if a cloud had passed overhead, a cloud that had been there so long that Angela hadn’t realised the sunlight was obscured – and now the light was there, and it was warm, and it was dazzling. And all the grief of the last years just falling from her. All the hatred was gone, there was no use for it any more. And she thought maybe this was shock, maybe at last this was the weight of James’ death catching up with her, maybe this wasn’t a good thing after all, maybe the joy in her heart wasn’t relief and the laughter in her throat was hysteria, and who would she hate now? Who would she hate? Who would she hate? James’ memory? Mark? Herself? Maybe herself? And she was still laughing as she drove straight through the red light, she saw no red light, only this brand new blinding sunshine, and it was only the sound of the pedestrian smashing into the front of her car that stopped the laughter dead, and she watched the body as it flew upwards, high into the air, like magic, like a shooting star.

MIKE BELL

Michael Bell died, and went to heaven, and was told by the man on the front desk where he could collect his seventy-two virgins. “Oh,” said Michael, much surprised, “I don’t think I’m entitled to… There’s been a mistake… I mean, I’m not a Muslim,” and the man on the desk looked cross and said that if Michael had any complaints could he please take them up with someone else, it was a busy day, and he had a lot of corpses to process. So Michael apologised, signed the register, took his room key, and set forth into the afterlife.

He had been assigned his own apartment. They called it an apartment, but it was more like a mansion, really – there was a garden with a swimming pool in it, and a billiard room, and a study, and a kitchen full of all the latest mod cons, and a basement with a swimming pool in it. It would have been too big for Michael all on his own, so at first he was rather pleased there were seventy-two virgins to help fill it.

Some of the seventy-two virgins were useless. He could see that in an instant. Eleven of them were babies. Eighteen of them were men. Four of them weren’t even human; he’d been given two virgin cats, one virgin goldfish, and a virgin grey squirrel. But that still left him with thirty-nine virginal women – young (mostly), ripe (he supposed), and his for the taking. “Hello,” he said to the throng, a little shyly, “my name’s Michael, but, uh, why not call me Mike?” He asked them their names. “Goodness,” said Michael, “I’ll never remember all those. Maybe you should all wear name badges?” So, for a while, they did.

He told them they should feel free to use all the facilities. The swimming pools were at their disposal, and if anyone ever wanted to join him in a game of billiards, all they had to do was ask. None of the virgins liked swimming, apparently. And no one fancied billiards. They would instead crowd into the sitting room around the widescreen television set. They would squabble for space on the single sofa, and shush each other when the ad breaks came to an end. Michael sometimes watched TV with them, but they never seemed to want to watch any of the programmes he liked, and besides, he was never fast enough to get a spot on the sofa. Sometimes he’d hang out in the kitchen and make himself toast. He couldn’t work out how to use most of the mod cons, but the toaster was nice and easy. Or he’d go to the billiard room, and he’d roll all the balls from one end of the table to the other, and then walk to the other side, and roll them all back again.

*

He got to know Eliza quite well. Eliza was fond of toast, and would sometimes come into the kitchen when Michael was making some. She wouldn’t say much, but her fingers and his fingers might collide taking slices of bread out of the bread basket.

Michael began to think about Eliza a lot. He wondered if she ever thought of him too. One day he asked her why she didn’t watch TV with all the other virgins, and she blushed, and said she didn’t like TV much, and that besides, she’d rather be with him. She wasn’t especially pretty, but she looked as if she were in her teens, and Michael was pushing seventy, and he felt guilty for flirting with her until she told him she’d died of scarlet fever in the 1860s and was therefore older than his grandmother.

He asked her whether she’d like to be his girlfriend, and steeled himself for a rejection, and she kissed him gently on the cheek and said that that’d be all right.

He was intimidated by his own bedroom. Sweet incense and crushed silks and pillows that were fleshy – he couldn’t sleep like that. He’d kicked the pillows on to the floor. Before they got into bed together, Eliza stacked the pillows high again.

She said, “I’m scared. Is that silly?”

He said, “Of course it’s not silly.”

She said, “You won’t hurt me?”

He said, “I promise.”

“Tell me,” she said. “What it was like. Your first time. Were you scared?”

“No,” he said, wanting to be brave for her sake, but he had been terrified. He could remember the circumstances now, and the basic sequence of events that had got the girl from the dance floor to the car seat, but there were events missing, the bits that linked a to b to c. He remembered now only the urgency, the desperate urgency, the need to be a man and abandon his childhood as fast as could be, and that he wasn’t sure during the whole thing whether he was in the right hole or not, the girl seemed to have grown holes all over the place, was she going to laugh at him? – and then afterwards the dull realisation that the world hadn’t changed, everything was just the same, he may now be a man but nobody cared.

“But it was nice?” she said.

“It was very nice,” he said.

They had sex then, and it had been so long since he’d done it with Barbara that frankly he felt just like a virgin too.

And after he was out of breath and was sweaty and his heart was going like the clappers, and he wondered whether he might be having a heart attack but supposed he couldn’t die twice. He stroked at Eliza’s hair, kissed her softly. He asked her if her first time had been all right.

“It was very nice.”

He fell asleep then, with Eliza in his arms, and he dreamed of Barbara, and he hadn’t dreamed of Barbara in ages, really not much since the divorce at all. And there were some bad things in the dream, inevitably, but it wasn’t quite bad enough to be a nightmare.

When he woke in the morning Eliza wasn’t there. He thought she might be making some toast. She wasn’t.

He asked the other virgins if they had seen her. They were watching The Jeremy Kyle Show, they didn’t want to be disturbed.

Michael went back to the man on the front desk. He explained the situation. The man didn’t look very sympathetic, he spoke to Michael as if he were an idiot. “You get seventy-two virgins,” he said. “She’s not a virgin now, is she? She’s gone.” Michael could see the logic of that. But he asked whether he could have Eliza’s address. Even if they couldn’t be anything more, and why should she want to be, with an old man like him, he’d be a fool even to think it – even so, he hoped they could still be friends. He’d like to see her still, as a friend. The man rolled his eyes. “When I say gone, I mean gone. That’s it. One bang, and she’s gone forever.”

*

From the remaining seventy-one virgins there came one morning a deputation of ambassadors to his bedroom. “We want you to get rid of Cheryl,” they said.

Cheryl was big and blousy and so fat she took up space for two upon the sofa. She talked too loud during the programmes and had an annoying laugh and would fight for the remote control, and, moreover, was an utter bitch.

They brought Cheryl to his bedroom later that evening. There was a sack upon her head. There was some evidence of a struggle, her legs were bleeding, and she had had to be dragged to him. But she was quiet now, accepting. They pushed her into Michael’s arms, and shut the door on them.

Michael pulled the sack off her, asked her to sit down, tried to be as nice as he could. “It’s all right,” he said. “We don’t have to do this, you know.”

“No,” she said. “I suppose I’m going to have to pop my cherry sooner or later, may as well be with you.”

They both got undressed in silence. He tried not to look at her, all drooping bust and tummy. She had no such qualms. She stared at him, grimly, as if staring at an execution block.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I know I’m not much to look at.”

She shook her head.

“So, what?” she said. “You get killed in a war, or something?”

“Me? No.”

“To get all us virgins.”

“No.”

“But you did something heroic, right?”

“No.” Michael’s death hadn’t been especially heroic. Up to the end in that hospital pleading for even one more day of life, and all of the nurses trying to reassure him that it was going to be all right – and he’d felt, he really had felt, that they had never seen this happen before, that he was the very first man in the world who was going to die, that he was special. “I didn’t go to war. There wasn’t any war on.”

Cheryl sniffed. “There’s always some war on somewhere, if you just look.”

“I suppose I was too scared.”

She nodded at that, seemed to accept it. She got into bed. She seemed resigned now, not too nervous, neither of the loss of her virginity, nor of the oblivion that would happen afterwards.

She kissed him on the lips, almost by way of experiment. He kissed back. It was nice. She kissed at his neck then, and he nibbled at her ear, and he’d never thought to be a nibbler before, not ever, not even when he and Barbara had been happy. She moaned a bit, and he was worried for her, but she said it was a good moan.

“You’re wonderful, Cheryl,” he told her. “Do you know that? You’re wonderful.”

And she smiled at him, and she cried a little.

“I’m going to make the very best love to you that I possibly can,” he said, and she thanked him, and true to his word he did his best.

*

He tried to remember the last time he and Barbara had slept with each other, but there hadn’t been a last time, not as such, but then, there had to have been a last, surely? But it had been nothing momentous. It hadn’t been so bad that it had caused either one of them to have been banished to the spare bedroom, there had been no tears or anger. One night he and his wife had had sex, and, as it turned out, they’d never bothered to try it again.

In the same way, nothing specific had ever caused the divorce. Looking back, he couldn’t even decide which one of them had brought the matter up. – No, it had been her, definitely her. Still.

One night as he dreamed of Barbara he realised he’d given her Cheryl’s face. And try as he might, he couldn’t recall what Barbara had looked like. And one night, whilst he dreamed, he realised he couldn’t recall Cheryl’s face either.

*

He killed Eunice quite by accident. She’d suggested they just fool around for a bit, and Michael had never been much good at foreplay, he just told her he’d follow her lead. They didn’t do anything worse than kiss and squeeze at the other’s genitals, and yet in the morning she was gone, and there was no way of getting her back.

And Natalie was unhappy, she had attempted suicide any number of times, she had tried drowning herself in the swimming pools, she had stuck a fork into the toaster. Nothing had worked. Before she impaled herself upon him, Michael asked her what she was so upset about, and the poor woman had burst into tears – “It’s my babies, I miss my little babies.” Michael asked her why she had ever been given to him, she wasn’t a virgin at all then, surely? – and Natalie shrugged, she really wasn’t interested in discussing the finer points of her employment contract, not now – and she flung herself upon him, all lactating breasts and crude stretch marks, and she was gone.

The other virgins kept their distance. Michael didn’t blame them. It wasn’t that they were afraid of death, it was simply that they didn’t like him very much. Even the squirrel gave him a wide berth.

And in the summer the eighteen young men lay out in the garden and sunbathed, and they bronzed there naked, and their muscled limbs gleamed golden in the heat, and their tackle looked thick and firm like barbecued meat, and Michael thought he had never looked as good as that, not when he’d been young, not his entire life.

One day he came up from the billiard room to find all the virgins were having an orgy. To be fair, they asked him if he wanted to join in, but he could see they were just being polite. There was a lot of sucking and suckling and squelching, everybody was trying to find ways of inserting themselves into another so that they became some writhing wall of flesh, even the goldfish was throwing herself into it – and as they did so the virgins began to break apart and pop like soap bubbles. Michael went and hid in his room for a while. When he came out later, he was entirely alone.

*

Michael didn’t see anyone for quite a while. He ran out of bread to toast, and so moved on to cereal.

*

They came for him one night, put a sack over his head. They said, “You’ve been reassigned, handsome.”

He was taken with seventy-one other virgins to a new, bigger apartment. They called it an apartment, but really, it was more like a palace, it had everything, Jacuzzis and saunas and an entire beauty salon. The virgins were mostly young men, but there were a few girls thrown in, and some babies, and half a dozen squirrels. Michael said, “There’s been a mistake… I mean, I have had sex, really.” They told him to shut up.

And Barbara arrived, and inspected her entourage, and seemed pleased by the young men, and bemused by the squirrels – and when she reached Michael in the line she just stopped, and stared, and swore. “I’m sorry,” said Michael. “Just keep away from me,” she hissed, “and I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

Michael could never get a seat on the sofa, let alone get close to the remote control. But Barbara cut a swathe through her virgins, showing a sexual voracity now she was dead she’d never hinted at when she’d been alive. She got through all the boys, then the girls, then the babies, then the squirrels, and didn’t even spare a glance at her ex-husband. Michael was a little hurt, but soon enough he was able to stretch out wide and comfy upon the sofa and watch whichever channels he liked.

*

They muddled along amiably for a while. They’d potter about in separate rooms during the day, in the evening they’d sit together silently and watch television. Then they’d say good night, and go to different bedrooms. It was very safe, very familiar.

One evening Barbara turned off the television. Michael looked up at her in surprise. It had been Coronation Street, it was one of her favourites. She went without a word to the kitchen, returned with two glasses and a bottle of rose wine.

“We’re going to have sex,” she said. She poured two glasses, both to the very brim. “Whatever it takes.”

They drank three bottles before Barbara was in the mood. She fell off the sofa flat on to her arse, which she found hugely funny. “Sod it,” she said. “Too much wine. I’ll know better tomorrow.”

The next day they drank only the one bottle, Barbara was strict about that. They drank it very slowly, and Barbara said they would have to wait for it to take full effect. Some half an hour after the last dregs were drained, Barbara nodded primly, said, “It’s time,” pulled Michael up from the sofa, pulled him into the bedroom.

The sex was quite nice, and their bodies sort of fitted together in all the right places, and Michael wondered why they’d ever stopped doing it all those years ago.

Afterwards she looked at him intently, and Michael wondered whether she was wanting to say something loving. Then realised she was just waiting to see if he would pop.

“How do you feel?” she said.

“Fine.”

“No, I mean, how do you…?”

“No, I know, fine, fine.”

“Okay.”

They lay there for a bit. He said, “Would you like some toast?” She nodded. He got out of bed. She watched him carefully, as if to see whether his weight upon the carpet would be too much for him, whether at last his structural integrity would break. It didn’t. He brought her in some toast. He’d buttered it thick, the way she’d always liked it. She munched upon it gratefully.

“What are you going to do today, then?” he asked her. She didn’t know.

They got up eventually. He sat down on the sofa, watched afternoon television. She stared at him for a bit, then went off to the kitchen to wash up his breakfast things, clear up the mess he always made.

She went out shopping later. Before she went she kissed him on the cheek, said goodbye, just in case he wasn’t there when she got home. When she returned she looked annoyed by his continued existence – but as Michael helped her put away the groceries, he noticed she’d bought ready meals for two.

That evening they watched television. And she sighed, and said, “One more try. Okay?”

“Okay,” he agreed.

She fetched the wine. She seemed somewhat impatient this time, they barely had more than a glass each.

They got undressed. This time they watched each other. They’d not bothered before – either they’d been too drunk, or too disinterested, or both.

He said to her, “I’m going to make the very best love to you I possibly can.” And at those words a faint memory of Cheryl stirred, it’s true. But Barbara didn’t know.

“I’m going to miss you,” Barbara said.

They made love very gently this time, hoping against hope they wouldn’t damage the other.

“Are you done?” Michael asked her, and she smiled, and said yes. He didn’t pull out. He thought he’d wait.

And he felt something for her that was a little like love – but it wasn’t love, was it? It was relief. And it soared inside, he felt it fill his body up, he filled up like a balloon. He looked at her, and she was still smiling, and he could see that she felt the very same thing. And they both held on to each other, and waited, to see which of them would burst first.

STEVE HERBERT

I don’t usually get to do kids. I don’t know why. Kids are just as fragile as their parents, after all – even more so, maybe, the way they fling themselves at the world so hard as if nothing is going to break them.

I suppose, with kids, some find it hard to be dispassionate. Adults, I think, generally respond well to calm frankness, even when the news is bad, especially when the news is bad. Because when they’re faced with mortality, they don’t want it clouded by hysteria. They don’t want my sympathy. I’ll say ‘I’m sorry’, but it’s a matter of form, it acts as a sort of verbal stepping stone between the verdict and the inevitable questions that follow: the how long untils, the will it hurts, the is there anything to be dones? And there’s panic, I’m sure, but all that comes after, that’s nothing to do with me; if I’m calm, then they’re calm, and I believe that they’re grateful for that, and the moment I pass judgment and sentence them to death I treat them like equals, I give them the illusion we’re all in this together. And in that togetherness, as we seem to collude against the illness and the suffering to come, I’ve surprised them, I’ve shown them how dignified they can be. And that dignity is something they can look back on and aspire to in the darker days ahead.

Kids don’t do that. Kids are unpredictable. Some cry, some call for their parents (because their parents can fix everything), some ignore me altogether and stare out of the window, stare down at their socks. Sometimes they laugh. They even laugh. What’s up with that?

I know people who say there is no greater tragedy than the death of a child, and some of them are even quite intelligent, some even quite good doctors. They talk about all that wasted potential. I, respectfully, disagree. I see only people who haven’t done anything yet. I would far rather mourn an elderly man, say, who has spent a lifetime learning through experience and achievement – just think how much further he could have gone! The cure for cancer isn’t going to be discovered by a twelve year old, it’ll be discovered by an adult long in the tooth with the weight of years on his shoulders, by an adult lucky enough to get as clever as he can be and not be felled by some silly disease or another along the way. I suppose it’s just a different way of looking at it. I can’t mourn a child. It’d be like mourning an embryo or a pupa. I don’t mourn the elderly, I must admit. I don’t mourn anyone. But I would mourn the elderly, I think, in principle.

And when I first met Steve Herbert I saw nothing to be impressed by. He had flung himself hard against the world, he’d had an accident on his bicycle, or scooter, or some such thing, and the accident no doubt had been his fault, and there he was in the emergency room grinning from ear to ear like it was all some big adventure. I suppose it was, at that; his whole body had been X-rayed to check for broken bones, and I imagine the sort of kid who gets his kicks from scooters is probably one who’d get kicks from X-ray machines too. There were no bones broken, he’d escaped with bruising. I didn’t know why I’d been called in to look. Nurse Johnson showed me the X-rays; she didn’t tell me what else they had found during the examination, she said she’d let me see for myself. And then she looked on, hopefully, as if I would tell her that she was wrong, as if my second opinion could make everything bad go away.

At first I didn’t think it was a real cockroach. For a start, cockroaches aren’t as big as that – certainly not in this country, at any rate. And secondly, how had it got inside? The kid couldn’t have swallowed it, he’d have choked. I assumed it must be some strange growth on the heart that just looked like a cockroach. But then I checked against successive X-rays and I could see that the wings had moved, that the mandibles had flexed somewhat – this was a giant cockroach, about the size of my fist, and it was clinging on hard to the boy’s pericardium, its wings obscuring the whole of the right auricle, its pincers piercing both of the atria. And it was alive.

I asked the boy whether he’d noticed any discomfort in his chest. He told me he didn’t, much; sometimes, if he went running, he’d get out of breath, he’d start wheezing; recently, if he lay in bed on one side for too long, he’d have the same problem. But there was no discomfort, really; certainly, no pain. I told him I was surprised. That there was a large hostile parasite fixed fast to his insides that was lacerating his vital organs. That I had never seen such a thing before, and wasn’t sure there was much I could do about it, and the chances were he was going to die.

He didn’t cry. I’ll give him that. He didn’t ignore me, and he didn’t laugh. Nurse Johnson said his parents had been called for, and I asked Steve Herbert whether he’d rather wait until they got to the hospital before we discussed the matter further, and he thought about it, and he said that he would.

As I say, I don’t usually get to do kids.

*

His parents were dreadful. The calm frankness didn’t work on them at all, it was tears and pleading right from the start. And I recognised the type, too; had I been telling either of them they were the ones about to die, they’d have been as dignified as could be, they’d have kept all that fear bottled up for form’s sake. But for their child, though, they just couldn’t rein the emotions in. The mother began to sob, and it was quiet enough, but somehow all the more irritating for that, all the more embarrassing – and the father kept on saying, “But why Steve? It should be one of us! Why isn’t it one of us?” And, privately, I agreed. If only it had been, everything would have been so much less dramatic.

I admired the boy. He was patient with them both. He took his mother’s hand and squeezed it. To his father he said, “I’m sure the doctor will do his very best.” I said I would.

The parents calmed enough that I could run them through the various options available. We could put Steve on a course of radiotherapy, and try to kill the cockroach with radiation. Or there were various drugs we could administer with chemo. Both treatments would have side effects, of course – we could attack the cells of the invading pest, but inevitably some healthy cells belonging to the patient would be destroyed as well. Or we could try direct surgery, but I pointed out that there were severe risks to that – from the pictures we could see that the roach had punctured the heart in several places and the tissue had actually grown over it, and that pulling the creature free might cause extensive damage, that ironically it might be the very presence of the insect keeping Steve alive, blocking his wounds, keeping the heart beating – “Rip it out of him!” the mother positively snarled, “just get that fucking thing out of my son!” And the father nodded, and the boy shrugged assent, and that was that.

Before the operation I read up on insect anatomy, and it didn’t take long; they really are remarkably simple creatures. I had removed all sorts of lumps and bumps from inside people’s chests, but I had never performed a dictyoptectomy before – I saw no reason to tell the Herbert family that. We opened up the chest, and there was the cockroach, bigger than I’d even expected, it had wrapped itself right around the heart and now that it was exposed to the light it unfurled itself, and opened its wings wide, and quivered. I had no desire to harm the cockroach, but it wasn’t my patient. I cut through its legs with a laser scalpel, until I felt the insect had loosened its grip sufficiently so I could lift off the bulk of it without much force – still, though, it found a way to cling firm, it hugged into the heart with an obstinacy that seemed almost possessive, and when at last I managed to pull it free it came out with a sick sucking sound. Then I had to remove the leg stumps that were still embedded in the myocardial layer; I had not appreciated how deeply the cockroach had punctured the heart until I pulled that first stump with a pair of forceps – out it came, long and sharp and wet, and quivering still, as if there was life in it yet, as if this weren’t just some reflex action. The holes that had been gouged in the heart now seemed big and black, but there was no blood, and for all the tissue damage I hoped that they might heal and that young Steve might affect a full recovery.

Steve was very proud of the new stitches on his chest. He called them his war wounds, and said he couldn’t wait to show them off to his schoolfriends. The skin was swollen and enflamed, and I could tell it must be sore, but the boy was having none of it, he told me he felt fine, he thanked me for all my hard work. The parents demanded to know whether their son was cured now, whether he was going to be all right, and I told them I didn’t know. He’d have to come back in a week so we could X-ray him and find out. The parents looked sulky and betrayed. Steve gave me a smile and said he would look forward to it.

I was annoyed that Steve brought his parents back for the consultation, but he was only twelve, and I suppose he needed someone to drive him. I showed them all the X-ray. “That,” I said, “is what I was hoping not to see.” I explained that we had tried to remove the whole cockroach, but it seemed we’d been unsuccessful – part of the insect had been left behind. And now the pictures clearly showed that what looked like hairy twigs were poking out of the gashes in Steve’s heart; one of the legs had grown back so fast that it had even begun to taper out at the end into some sort of carapace. In only a week we could see that the cockroach was rebuilding itself, and at this speed I didn’t doubt it’d be at its full size once more by the end of the month.

I pointed out the positives. The heart was still basically healthy; if it weren’t, the cockroach would have no means for sustaining itself. The shock of the operation alone would have caused a weaker heart to fail, but Steve’s was strong, and that could only be a good thing for the long battle ahead of us. Mrs Herbert cried again, of course; she didn’t like the use of that word, ‘battle’.

We bombarded the cockroach with radiation, but if anything it seemed to thrive beneath it; it grew at still greater speed, and even under X-ray I could see how its body glowed with a new smooth sheen. I had read, of course, that a roach could outsit a nuclear war, but I had still hoped that a concentrated blast would have been too much for it. We pumped it full of poisons, some of them highly experimental, and the roach seemed only to get fatter. It seemed to me that with each X-ray it gazed out with even greater triumph; it was fine; it was sitting pretty; it would squat in its new found home forever. Steve wasn’t doing as well. His hair fell out, and his skin got pasty and paper thin. I asked him if he was in much pain, and he would smile at me, and I could see that his gums were bleeding, and he assured me it was nothing he couldn’t handle. I could see it wasn’t true. He’d make jokes with me, one time he said his veins must be more acid now than blood, and he laughed, and when he did so he couldn’t help it, I saw he winced terribly with the effort. He told me, when I pressed him, that he threw up a lot. That was the worst thing. He hated all that throwing up. He hated all the mess. He hated being a burden on his parents. They had enough to worry about already.

One day I had to tell Steve that we’d failed. There was nothing more I could do for him. We would have to let nature take its course. The parents wept, both of them this time; both got angry. Steve hugged them, and told them it was going to be all right. He told them that he’d grown to love his cockroach. When he tried to sleep at night he could hear it hissing to him, deep inside; he thought it was trying to encourage him on, or just trying to communicate; he thought maybe it was lonely too, and confused, and just wanted to have a friend. He said it was all right. The cockroach was a part of him now, and he called it Tony. Steve said, “Please, I want to speak to the doctor alone.” His parents left.

He said to me, “Don’t feel too bad, Doc.” And I wanted to tell him he was mistaken, I didn’t feel bad at all, this was the sort of thing I did every day. But my eyes were brimming with tears. I told him I was so sorry. Had it been a giant housefly on his heart, or some sort of woodlouse perhaps, then we’d have beaten the bugger, I was sure. But cockroaches are such tenacious beasts. He said, “We did our best, didn’t we?” And he offered me his hand, and kids never offer you their hand, and I accepted it, and he shook mine, strong and hard. “You take care now,” he said to me.

I never saw Steve Herbert again. And I like to think that maybe he’s still all right. Maybe he found a way to coexist with that cockroach perfectly happily. Maybe the two of them are out there, and both thriving. I suppose that’s unlikely.

*

I went back home that night, and my wife said to me, what’s wrong? She can read me like a book. And I said that nothing was wrong, on the contrary. I told her that I’d been thinking it through, and I’d decided we should have a kid. I wanted to have a kid. I wanted a kid who was just like Steve Herbert, who was the bravest kid I’d ever known. I thought my wife would be happy. When we’d first got married it was the biggest problem, for a while I thought she’d divorce me over it. She’d wanted a baby, I didn’t. I didn’t see the point of them. “I see the point of them now,” I said. But she told me it was too late. She’d got used to the marriage we had already, she’d grown to like the compromise, she had made it work for her. I couldn’t now just come along and open up wounds that had healed over. It was too late. She told me, you can’t meet one brave child and assume all children are going to be brave, it doesn’t work like that. Any more than it had when I’d met children I’d despised, and had assumed ours would be a child too I would despise. That’s not what people are, she said, you can’t predict them. I begged. I actually begged. “Please let me have a brave little boy,” I said. And she said she was too old now, anyway; she was forty-five; I was a doctor, didn’t I know that the chance of birth defects rose substantially in older mothers? And I wanted to tell her that’s what I had wanted. I wanted a child with birth defects. I wanted my wife to drink a lot whilst pregnant, and smoke, even though she didn’t smoke already, maybe she could start? I wanted a child who would be brave. I wanted a child who would grow up needing to be brave.

*

I said I never saw Steve Herbert again, and that’s true. I did phone his house a couple of times. He didn’t answer, once it was his mother, the other his dad. I didn’t want to ask how their son was, I thought that would be impertinent, it wouldn’t suggest quite the right level of dispassion. I didn’t say anything and waited until they got cross and hung up, and then I put the phone down. Oh, and one time I parked outside his house. I was a little drunk, I think, and I sat in the car and waited to see whether he’d come out. And then I realised it was late and he’d probably be asleep, he was only a little kid, so I thought I’d wait there til morning, I’d wait until he left the house to go to school. I just wanted to make sure he was all right. I wouldn’t have even spoken to him, probably. But in the morning he didn’t come out. And that doesn’t mean anything, he might not have had school that day, it might have been the holidays, I don’t know when school holidays are.

*

Over the next couple of years I had three more patients who had cockroaches on their hearts. They were all adults, they’d lived their lives, one of them was an old man, what was he still hanging on for? They were all very upset when I broke the news. None of them had cockroaches even half the size of Steve Herbert’s cockroach, I told them, what they had was nothing; I once met a twelve year old with a cockroach who was twice as brave as you! They didn’t take much comfort from this, they were scared like little babies, and, to be fair to them, not a one of them survived the surgery.

*

My time will come. Of course it will, and for all my experience, I have no idea what to expect. I’ll be there with some doctor, and he’ll ask me to sit down because it’s always better to hear about death if you’re sitting down, and he’ll be the one to break the news to me, and he’ll be dispassionate, I suppose. He’ll show me the X-ray, and maybe I’ll look at my own cankered innards with the same detachment I felt for everybody else’s, maybe I’ll assess my own chances for survival with calm frankness. I now know how to behave. I’ll behave like Steve Herbert. Steve Herbert has shown me the way. And I want a cockroach. No, I want two cockroaches. I want to do better than Steve Herbert. He was only a kid, I have to be better. I want two cockroaches, and they’ll be nestled around my heart, one each side, my heart will be enveloped between their embrace, maybe they’ll be spooning? No. I want an egg, I want to see on the X-ray a big white egg, my heart has gone altogether and what’s hanging there is just this egg, and it’s starting to crack, you can see it’s already hatching, and maybe, maybe, from the crack you can glimpse the odd leg wriggle out towards life and freedom. I want to hatch a dozen cockroaches, more. I’ll be a father after all. And I’ll listen to the doctor deliver the judgment with dispassion, always such dispassion, and I’ll thank him, and explain to him why I think in this instance further treatment would be unnecessary. And I’ll phone my wife, and tell her the good news.

Taking a break!

Hello!

I’m about to release the fortieth of the one hundred stories. (It’s a charming one about insects and open heart surgery. It is not necessarily going to be to everyone’s tastes. Be warned.)

Reaching 40 stories feels much the same as when I reached 40 years old. Full of energy up to the milestone itself – and then I sort of collapse panting for air, with my hair turning grey, and my heart beating nineteen to the dozen, and wanting to pull the duvet cover over my head and go to sleep.

So I’ve decided to take a month’s break, just to let my batteries recharge a little, and to make sure there are enough story ideas churning around in my brain. And I’ll be back, on Monday June 18th, fit as a fiddle, sharp as a knife, and any number of similarly exciting similes, I’ll be bound.

In the mean time, thank you for reading – especially if you’re one of the 100, and for being so patient and good-humoured as I make merry with your name! I hope you enjoy the next 60 stories – I’ll keep ’em coming, I promise you – and I’ll do my best to make them worth your while.

Rob x

 

 

 

 

GREG MILLER

They’d found seventeen new Shakespeare plays, in the back of a fish and chip shop in Stratford upon Avon. No one had ever staged them before, or written critical studies of them, not a single academic had heard of a single one of them – they were brand new, as new as anything could be said to be that’s four hundred years old. Everyone was very sceptical at first, but the manuscripts were submitted for carbon dating, and graphological analyses, and the words were put through computers to assess how similar the writing style was to the plays we already had – and the results that came back were pretty conclusive, they said that these new texts were authentically Shakespearean, and indeed more authentic than quite a number we already took for granted. The couple who ran the fish and chip shop had found them down the back of the fridge, and in the local paper said they were ‘fair flummoxed’ as to how they’d got there. They admitted that they weren’t especial devotees of the Bard, but on a Friday night once the pubs were shut they’d serve kebabs to drunken actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company. “We support the arts,” they said.

There was a mad scrabble to get the plays before the paying public. Both the National Theatre and the RSC scrapped an entire year’s worth of programming to push the new Shakespeare texts into rehearsal. But a small theatre in Southend pipped them to the post, cutting back on set, lighting, and actors, and presenting their production as raw as it could be. The world’s critics traipsed on down to the seaside to judge it; they bought their ice creams, sat in their seats, and waited impatiently for the lights to go down. And maybe the simplicity of the production actually helped – they saw the play in its purest form, uncompromised by interpretation or directorial dickering. The play that had been chosen was ‘Whate’er You Want, My Mad Masters’, and at first glance it seemed to be a rather unpromising piece about starcross’d lovers, identical triplets, mistaken identities and poisoned handkerchiefs. The uncut text ran at a full four and a half hours, and at the curtain call there was a long silence, and for a while the management worried they might have a flop on their hands; and then, as one, the audience rose to their feet and applauded; there were tears of joy rolling down the cheeks of hardened journalists who had doubted they’d see a play that could move them again, that anything in life could ever move them; strangers were turning to each other and hugging and kissing, united in perfect camaraderie, because they had shared this moment, they were part of something magical and it could never be taken from them; the standing ovation was like a cry against the dark, against an uncertain future, and whatever the world might have in store for us, whatever the fates may bring, it is all right, it’ll be all right, we have this, we have this; people fell in love that night, friendships were restored, hearts mended, lives changed.

No one had expected the plays to be any good. Even the most optimistic of academics had already drafted theses referring to the missing texts as necessarily minor works: they had been written, and then discarded, maybe; they had failed to shape our understanding of art and thought the way Shakespeare’s other plays had, they had made no impact. In 1613 Shakespeare had retired, and it was supposed that these discovered manuscripts were the jottings of an old man who had got bored with nothing to do in the afternoons. What was realised instead was that this was a Shakespeare who was no longer worried about audience reaction, or critics, or box office, or marketing, or the painstaking niceties of getting a play into production, of actors’ egos and keeping stage management happy and making sure the boyfriend of the sponsor got enough lines. This was a Shakespeare who was having fun. These new plays were just plain better: his kings were more kingly, his lovers more loving, his evil tyrants more evilly tyrannical; the very rhythm of his iambic pentameter bristled with a punchy verve no one had ever heard before; even his comedies had a few funny jokes in them. ‘Fortinbras, His Life and Times’ was a sequel to ‘Hamlet’ that not only gave the original play a new perspective, but, as the Sunday Times said, ‘pissed all over it and made it redundant’.

And England was happy. Because what was more quintessentially English than William Shakespeare? The country basked in patriotic fervour. At the general election the Government swept through to victory, even though under his term the Prime Minister had slashed arts funding by forty per cent, even though, privately, the PM admitted he wasn’t too sure about this Shakespeare chap: how English could a man really be, if he kept writing about Danish kings and Roman wars and merchants who came from Venice?

One morning the entire second act of ‘Troilus and Cressida’ went missing. This included the somewhat overwritten exchange between Ajax and Thersites, in which Thersites insults Ajax, and Ajax beats him up. It vanished from every single edition of Shakespeare’s complete works, the Cambridge editions, the Oxford editions, the cheery children’s editions that had on the cover a grinning Shakespeare wearing a funny ruff. No one much noticed; for the first time in a hundred years there was no production of ‘Troilus and Cressida’ in rehearsal. By the end of the week, though, the rot had spread, and it claimed the whole of ‘Troilus’, and into the bargain substantial parts of ‘Coriolanus’ and ‘Henry VI Part Three’. Some academics were upset, in principle – but for all their combined intellectual efforts none of them could quite remember what the affected plays had been about. There were attempts to make copies of other Shakespeare texts they felt might be endangered – ‘Pericles’, ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’, any in which a clown popped up during the proceedings to sing about the weather – but it was to no avail, their words faded from the scribbled pages just as surely as they did from the printed texts.

But in truth, no one much minds. We have seventeen plays to enjoy that are better than those dry, old-fashioned ones. We don’t need any of them. Within a month they had all gone. People have vague memories of them: ‘Macbeth’, wasn’t there something about a dagger? ‘The Tempest’, something about a storm? And some of the phrases survive: ‘break the ice’, ‘in a pickle’, ‘dead as a doornail’ – what does it matter what they had once referred to, who cares which pickle, which doornail? The universe has given, the universe has taken away. And when what’s been given is so rich, and what we’ve lost something we’d grown used to and taken for granted and forgotten, shouldn’t we be happy? Aren’t we happy? We put up with it. It’s all right. We put up with it, we let it happen, and there were no complaints, the earth did not crack, we did not shake our gory locks at it, the deed was done and every dog had its day, and the rest, so inevitably, so thuddingly, was silence. Just silence.

Or so we thought.

*

Greg Miller had only been to see a Shakespeare the once. When he was eleven years old his English teacher had suggested she take the class to see ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, and his parents, who were always supportive of any extracurricular school activities, coughed up the money for the ticket. Greg had remembered very little of the evening, even before the old plays had faded from the world, but burned upon his brain forever was a group of fat middle-aged men dancing about dressed as fairies, and he’d never before known you could be both so bored and so terrified at exactly the same time. That night, when he got home, his mother had asked him whether he’d enjoyed it – Greg was always a polite boy, and knew that the expedition had not been a cheap one, and had cost more than his parents could easily afford – but he was so frightened that if he gave even the slightest impression the experience had not been an awful one then he might at some point be forced to see the fairies again. He told her it was a ‘bloody bugger’, and his mother said she’d never heard such language, and smacked him, and sent him straight to bed. But it worked. He was never sent to a Shakespeare again.

He’d met Moira via a dating agency. He’d met lots of women at the dating agency. And some time, usually around date three or four, the women would suggest that next time they should go to the theatre together. At that point Greg would make an excuse, tell them he was sick, anything, tell them that he’d be in touch – and he would never call again. He knew logically that not all theatre was Shakespeare, and not all Shakespeare had fat fairies in it, but why take the chance? On his third date with Moira he waited all evening for the inevitable theatre proposal; they were eating at the local Italian, and the prospect quite put him off his lasagne. He eventually got so tired of the suspense he put himself out of his misery, he jumped in with it, cut across the conversation, he asked her: “Do you want to do some theatre?” And Moira had looked down at her pasta, and suggested instead they just go back to hers for sex. She said it very politely too. And they’d gone back, they’d had the sex, and Moira was very good at it, and Greg wasn’t too bad either. And then he’d married her, and together they embarked on many years of domestic bliss, and funnily enough, they’d somehow managed to bypass the whole theatre date altogether.

One night Greg stirred in bed. A couple of hours before he’d had some of that sex that Moira was so good at, and he’d felt warm and safe. But now he was cold. He couldn’t work out why, had they left a window open somewhere? He snuggled against Moira’s back, and she grunted happily in her sleep, turned, put her arms around him. But still he was cold, it was bitterly cold, and now he felt too a wave of nausea pass right through him, it made him shudder, and for an awful moment he thought he might actually throw up. He panted for breath, the nausea steadied, that sickness still clung to him, he could feel it tight within his chest – and all the time still so cold, his skin pricking with goosebumps, and there was a nameless dread to it. And then it wasn’t nameless any more. Then he found the words.

He climbed out of Moira’s arms, out of bed. He went to the bathroom. Took a swig of tap water. He looked at his reflection in the mirror, and he seemed suddenly so old and frightened – frightened, and cold, bitter cold, and sick at heart.

He went down to the kitchen, and wrote down the words. He didn’t stop to think about what they meant. They flowed out of him, and then they stopped, just suddenly stopped – and he felt so much better, the sickness had gone, he’d got rid of some poison. Better out than in, he thought, the same way he felt about bad fruit and shellfish. He went back to bed. Moira hadn’t noticed he’d gone.

The next morning he felt lighter, happier. He didn’t even think about the sadness of the night, it was as if he’d dreamed the whole thing. He ate his breakfast, chattered with Moira – she was off to her job at the supermarket, he was off to drive his bus. “I’ll pick up some shopping,” she said, and he agreed; she picked up the little notebook on which she wrote her shopping lists, looked at it, and frowned. She handed it to her husband.

He read. And as he did so a memory stirred, and so did that rush of nausea, and of that cold all over his skin – he felt it as the words came back to him, the words he could barely understand.

This is what he’d written:

Who’s there? Nay, answer me, stand and unfold yourself. Long live the King! Bernardo? He. You come most carefully upon your hour. Tis now stuck twelve. Get thee to bed, Francisco. For this relief much thanks. Tis bitter cold, and I am sick at heart.

 “But what does it mean?” Moira said.

Greg had no idea. He thought about the words all day as he drove the bus. That evening, when he got home, he went to find the notebook, and he read them again. Who were Bernardo and Francisco? He’d known a Bernard once, he’d been laid off from work after he’d made a pass at a ticket inspector. He’d never met a Francisco.

That night Moira and he had sex again, and the sex made him drowsy, and he fell asleep easily.

But after it had struck twelve, he felt it again – yes – and it was as if a wind was blowing through the room, a harsh wind that blasted every inch of his body and crept into every crevice and made him hurt. Although the windows were shut. Although the radiator was on. Although the curtains were still, and Moira beside him slept warm and happy.

He got up, wrote again. Wrote out these new words for a full hour.

When he returned to bed, Moira was awake, concerned. “What’s the matter?” she said.

Greg just hoped that Bernardo and Francisco would get off the battlements soon, it was perishing cold up there.

This was a Tuesday. On Thursday the word ‘Denmark’ was first revealed. It wasn’t until Friday that Horatio mentioned the name of Hamlet. And by this time there was a ghost, and talk of an invading army, and Greg was hooked.

He’d take pen and paper with him to bed for when inspiration struck. By the end of the week Moira had stopped making love to him. By the end of the next, she had moved to the spare room.

*

So, there was this guy called Hamlet, and he was a prince, but he was also a student, and that made sense, he was always talking to himself and trying to be too clever, just like the students Greg saw on the buses. Anyway, this Hamlet was depressed, and it wasn’t too hard to see why. His dad was dead, and his mum had shacked up with his uncle, and the ghost of his dad was walking about and saying that it was the uncle who had killed him, and asking Hamlet what he was going to do about it. And Greg felt sorry for Hamlet, felt sort of a connection to him – though, really, that was rubbish, they had nothing in common, Greg’s dad was still alive and well, and Greg’s mum hadn’t run off with his uncle, she’d run off with a steelworker named Ken.

He worked on the story each night, and it often ended on an almighty cliffhanger. Hamlet preparing to kill Claudius at prayer. The stabbing of Polonius behind the arras. Greg would hurtle the buses fast around the town, living only for the time he could get back to his pen and paper and find out what would happen next. He sometimes missed out entire bus stops; passengers complained.

And this was his story, and he didn’t know where it came from, and he didn’t want to question it too much. By day he felt himself to be ordinary, just ordinary, nothing special, nothing worthwhile – not a bad man by any means, but he’d never known what Moira had seen in him, why had she married him when there were so many better men out there? But by night inspiration soared, words flowed, ‘Hamlet’ poured out. Some mornings he would look back upon the poetry he had written, and he would literally gasp at its beauty. Some mornings he’d need to use a dictionary to find out what the poetry meant, but he was always impressed.

And it was a curse, too, all those words in his head, fighting for space, fighting to be let out. He could think of nothing else, Hamlet would chatter at him all day long, and Gertrude too, and poor Ophelia, and even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (though Greg couldn’t tell them apart). It was a curse, the words spilling out, and he couldn’t stop them, no matter how hard he might try – and he did try, he’d promise himself, he’d promise Moira, no more, not tonight, I’ll watch the telly, I’ll relax, I’ll sleep – and then the headaches would start, and the ice chill ran over his body, and the sickness swelled his heart, and he felt that certainty, that sure certainty, that if he didn’t write right now the words would be lost forever. It was a curse. But if it were a curse it was the one thing that gave his day meaning. And sometimes he would actually cry in gratitude for it.

One night, three in the morning, maybe four, Moira came to find him, and said, “I can’t cope with this, I’m leaving you, I’m going to my mother’s.” And Greg was at a really tricky part of the iambic pentameter, and the interruption was the last thing he needed, and he turned to her, and he snarled. He didn’t actually say, “Get thee to a nunnery,” what would Moira want with a nunnery? But for once he didn’t actually need to let the words out, they were written plain to see on his face. And Moira went.

*

The play was ending, it was obvious, the cast were dropping like flies. Ophelia, Gertrude, Claudius, Laertes. And still, Gary hoped that he might be able to turn it around, maybe Prince Hamlet would live happily ever after. It looked increasingly unlikely.

And then Hamlet died, and gave a pretty little speech that made Greg feel both sad and elated at the same time, and he was a simple man, he wasn’t used to such contradictory feelings, and he had to stand, and hold the back of the chair, and grip it tight so he wouldn’t fall over. Horatio grieved. Ambassadors appeared. Fortinbras took the throne.

The end.

There were no more words. Greg waited for some to appear, he even tapped at the side of his head to dislodge any that had got stuck, something, anything. Nothing.

He’d finished. He stacked all the sheets of paper, his handwriting growing more excitable and confident as the play had gone on, he enjoyed the weight of the script, he let all those pages ripple through his fingers. And then he went to bed. He slept properly for the first time in months. He slept through the entire day, and most of the next, and it wasn’t until it was dark that hunger forced him to get up and go down to the kitchen in search of food.

He put some bread into the toaster. He got out the margarine from the fridge, looked for a knife to spread it with, found a dirty one, rinsed it. He went to look at his play again, the manuscript still stacked proudly on the table.

The pages were blank.

The toast got burned.

It wasn’t that the paper was pristine. You could tell that it had been used, once; not for writing, perhaps, because there were no words on it, were there? But it had been used, yes, definitely – someone had worked hard on all these pages, you could see where they’d been scuffed beneath someone’s elbows, you could see the pressure made by, what, a pen, a pencil? – but there couldn’t have been a pen, because if so there’d be words, wouldn’t there, where are the words then, where are the words? – there are no words, no words at all, not a single word, not even a little one.

Greg went to the sink and threw up. He thought of Hamlet, of Osric the gadfly, of the comical gravedigger, loyal Horatio, the Player King, all lost, all gone. And threw up once more.

He shivered.

He wanted to call Moira, but he didn’t know what he could say.

He shivered, his stomach lurched again.

It was bitter cold, and he was sick at heart.

The words hadn’t gone. They were in his head, all of them, rattling around in his head.

He raced back to the empty sheets, picked up his pen. He had to set the words back down on the paper before he forgot them. But he wasn’t going to forget them, was he, they were there, they were part of him, they burned inside him, they weren’t going to let him go until he’d set them free.

He wrote.

Who’s there? Nay, answer me, stand and unfold yourself. Long live the King!

 *

He took the week off work, called in sick. If he only took a few hours’ nap, and barely paused for eating, he could write the whole of ‘Hamlet’ out again by the weekend.

He finished on Saturday afternoon, and no sooner were the final words down, than the entire text faded from the pages once more.

Greg refused to be beaten. The following week he wrote it out again, more forcefully, angrily even, using a thicker pen and blacker ink, underlining key speeches as if to give them protection.

Exhausted, he killed off his sweet prince. Exhausted, he watched as the dead prince dissolved into thin air.

He didn’t write it out again. It was in his head. That would have to be enough.

*

He first decided to find some actors. Not professional ones, he couldn’t afford them, but there was an amateur dramatics group that met on Thursdays. He met with them, told them he had an exciting new play, full of ghosts and swordfights and bucketloads of dead bodies. They asked to see the script, and he tapped at his head: “It’s in here.” He proposed to recite the lines for them, over and over until they had them memorised. They showed him the door.

So he’d have to perform it himself. He wasn’t an ideal choice. He was shy, and he muttered, and his voice was nasal, and his face went red every time he thought people were looking at him. Still, it couldn’t be helped.

He wrote to the National Theatre and the RSC, asking whether he could perform his play for them. When they didn’t reply, he wrote to all the other theatres he found listed in the phone book. At last he was told he could rent the village hall for five hundred pounds a night. He gave it some thought. Decided it only needed one night.

For a costume, he took from his wardrobe his smartest suit. It was navy blue, and came with a matching tie; he’d last worn it at his wedding, and as he put it on he felt a pang for something lost. It didn’t fit properly any more, his belly rolled awkwardly over the trousers.

He advertised his show in the local paper; he left leaflets in the libraries and upon the bus seats; he flyposted telegraph poles and phone boxes.

The audience came. It was free, after all. Greg didn’t want to make any money from this.

He went out on to the stage, shyly thanked them all for coming, cleared his throat, and let Hamlet out on an unsuspecting world.

From the very beginning the audience was confused. Which one was Francisco, which one was the ghost? Bernardo, was he anything to do with that bloke who’d been sacked from the bus garage?

By the time Hamlet made his first appearance, the back rows had already fled.

Greg had hoped that Hamlet’s soliloquy about suicide would move the crowd. “To be or not to be,” he asked them. Some cried out, “Be!”, others voted for “Not to be!” Greg heard the vicar in the second row waspishly say to his wife that if Hamlet didn’t know what was going on, why the hell should he?

And somehow it didn’t matter. As Greg heard the words out loud for the first time he realised this wasn’t just a bunch of Danes chatting, there was genius to this, and the power of it made him cry – there he was on stage, his face burning with embarrassment, and talking of hawks and handsaws, and there were tears streaming down his face – and up to that moment he’d liked to pretend this play had something to do with him, that he’d written it, that these words were his – and he realised that they weren’t his, they were everybody’s, they belonged to the whole world.

He dragged Hamlet on to his death. And, at last, he paused for air.

It was dark out there in the audience. With the lights on his face, he couldn’t see a thing.

And then, the applause. One person clapping. Just one, a woman, getting to her feet, and cheering him on. The one person left in the auditorium, giving him the standing ovation he deserved.

He stepped off the stage, and went to Moira.

“Was it all right?” he asked her.

“It was beautiful,” she told him.

“Thank you.”

“Is it over now?”

“It’s over,” he said. He thought hard, and there wasn’t a single word left in his brain. Not a word that wasn’t about Moira, and how he’d missed her, and how sorry he was.

“Good,” she said. “Let’s go home.”

They talked that night, and he apologised, and she forgave him, and they made love, and it was sweet and comforting.

In the night Greg felt the coldness again, and he sat up, and there were words now, words he didn’t understand, the beginning of something new. “Now, fair Hippolyta,” he whispered to himself, “our nuptial hours grow apace.” And he shivered, and there was a presentiment of fairies he hadn’t felt since he’d been a little boy.

“Let it go,” he heard Moira say. “Just let it go.” And so he lay back, closed his eyes, and he did.

SARAH HADLEY

Sarah Anne Rachel Hadley did not like her grandmother’s bathtub. Whenever she visited her grandmother, the bathtub was something she took great pains to avoid. She’d try very hard for the duration of that visit not to pee. And if she needed to pee, she’d tap with her feet really quickly to try to drive all the pee away. But sometimes she couldn’t help it, she really had to pee. And when she did, she wouldn’t look at the bathtub, she would walk straight to the toilet, eyes fixed forward. And after she’d peed she’d have to use the sink, and to do that she’d face the wall, press her feet up right against the skirting board, and she would shuffle around, and that way she’d be as far from the bathtub as could be.

There was hair in her grandmother’s bathtub, coming out of the plughole. It looked like they were growing out. They were thick, like spiders’ legs, but spiders don’t have that many legs, so it was like lots of spiders had been mushed together. They were black. And that was wrong, because her grandmother didn’t even have black hair.

*

Sarah Anne Rachel Hadley really liked her name, Sarah Anne Rachel Hadley. She liked it, because if you spelled out the first letters, S A R H, that was very nearly her first name back again. It was only missing a second A, and she could pretend that it was there. It made her feel secure. And when the kids at school spoke to her, or her mother, or her father (when he was there), when they called her Sarah, she would feel that, yes, she was doubly Sarah, she would think, I’m Sarah through and through.

Sarah Anne Rachel Hadley’s mother was called Sophie Maureen Hadley, and that wasn’t any good, that didn’t spell anything.

Sarah’s grandmother was called Eunice Pinnock. Sarah didn’t know if her grandmother had a middle name. She’d never asked.

*

Sarah liked her grandmother well enough, but she would sometimes try and hug Sarah, and Sarah didn’t like that. Whenever Mummy told her they were going to visit her grandmother, Sarah would get sad, and she’d ask her Mummy to stop all the hugging from happening, and Mummy said she’d do her best, and she had told Granny, but Granny sometimes forgot. Granny was old, old people forget things. So if Granny hugged Sarah, Sarah would have to be a brave little girl and put up with it, and not cry, and not shout, and Mummy would reward Sarah with a treat.

Her grandmother was always forgetting that Sarah was a special girl, and that her skin was very soft, and that hugging was very bad for soft skin because it would leave marks on it, or even worse, lots of grandmother’s skin might get left on Sarah’s skin, and then maybe it’d get sucked through the pores, and then grandmother would be inside Sarah. Sarah didn’t want that. Sarah wanted to be Sarah through and through.

When her grandmother hugged Sarah, she’d smell of cigarettes and cinnamon. Sarah would sometimes see her grandmother smoking cigarettes, but she never saw her eat cinnamon. Sarah liked the smell of cinnamon, but not when it was on grandmother. And she didn’t like the smell of cigarettes at all.

*

And another thing about the bathtub was the taps. The taps were too big. Something could be hiding inside the taps. Sarah would sometimes look at the taps. Because she didn’t want to, but she would sometimes look at the bathtub, she couldn’t help it, not for all her precautions, she would just stare at the bathtub, it was like an itch in her mind – she’d stare at those giant taps, those ogre taps, she’d wonder why they had to be so big.

She didn’t like the pipes either, which were rusty, bits of rust would get in the water, it’d make the water dirty. She didn’t like the cracks in the side of the bath, they looked like dirt too, but they wouldn’t wash away. She didn’t like the colour of the bath. It was a green bath. Sarah liked green well enough. But it was the wrong colour for a bath.

*

For that second A, S A R A H, Sarah would make up lots of names. Sometimes she would be Antonia. Sometimes she would be Adelaide, she’d read that in a book once, she thought that was pretty. Sometimes, when she felt bad, she’d be Anne. Sarah Anne Rachel Anne. She’d rattle it through her head, it sounded like a train on the tracks.

Most days Sarah didn’t put much thought into which name she’d pick. She was a sensible girl, really. She thought choosing her new name might be silly.

She sometimes wondered whether which name she chose affected anything. Whether she had better days as Antonia or Alexandra or Adelaide or Alice or Agnes or Anne. She’d thought about keeping a diary to see, it would be interesting. She hadn’t got around to it yet.

*

She was trying out a brand new name the day that Mummy gave her the news, she was Amanda, and maybe that had been the problem.

“Pack some toys,” Mummy said. “We’re going to Granny’s for a while.”

Going to her grandmother’s made Sarah sad, mostly because of the hugging, but also because of the cigarettes and the cinnamon. But she liked the journey to Granny’s. She’d learned it by heart. They’d catch the 23 bus to the train station. Then they’d catch the train. Then they’d catch the 32 bus to grandmother’s house. Sarah liked the way that 23 was 32 backwards, and that 32 was 23 backwards, and the train bit could be sandwiched in the middle.

She’d sometimes ask Mummy whether they could go to her grandmother’s house, but not actually bother seeing her grandmother, they could just turn right round when they got there and go home again, they could get off the 32 bus and get another 32 bus going in the opposite direction, then get the train, then get the 23 bus, and that would be good. And Mummy always said no.

Sarah said, How long are we going for?

Mummy said, “I don’t know, as long as it takes,” and that wasn’t an answer at all, but Mummy sounded cross, and Sarah didn’t like it when Mummy was cross. Sarah had only been trying to work out whether they’d be there so long that at some point she might need to go and pee, and Sarah grimly concluded they probably might be. She cried at that.

She cried too when Mummy said they were going to get there by car, because that would miss out the only good bit. Sarah said, I want to go by bus, and train, and bus. Mummy said, “We’re going by car, we’ll be carrying too much luggage,” and Sarah didn’t like the sound of that.

*

And another thing about the bathtub was that it made a noise, a sort of whispering noise.

And another thing about the bathtub was that it smelled of cigarettes and cinnamon.

*

The good news was that grandmother didn’t even try to hug her. Grandmother hugged Mummy, and Mummy held on to grandmother so long and so tight, and grandmother just forgot.

Sarah went into the sitting room whilst Mummy and grandmother talked in the kitchen. Sarah sat down on the sofa. She counted the tiles on the ceiling, and there were fifty-three complete ones, and sixteen half ones, and three which were partially obscured by light fittings. The same as always.

After a while, her grandmother came in to see her. She stood in the doorway. “Do you want to take your coat off, dear?”, and Sarah said, No, and grandmother left.

After a while, Mummy came in to see her too. “Take your coat off, Sarah,” she said. Sarah did, and Mummy took it, she left the room to hang the coat up somewhere, Sarah didn’t know where.

*

Sarah began to fidget because it was Tuesday and Tuesday was bath night, and they never visited grandmother on Tuesday because Sarah was too busy at home doing ordinary things and having her bath. But she didn’t want to fidget too much, she didn’t want Mummy to notice, because then Mummy might ask what was wrong, and Sarah was very bad at lying, and she’d have to tell her, and then Mummy might say she’d have to have her bath at her grandmother’s. And the idea of missing bath night distressed Sarah, but the idea of grandmother’s bathtub with its pipes and taps and spider legs distressed her more, she’d rather have the one distress over the other.

And at seven o’clock sharp Mummy said, “Time for bed, little lady,” and Sarah thought she might have got away with it. She’d lie in bed all night and be covered in dirt and the dirt would be soiling the bed sheets but that would be okay. And her grandmother said, “Do you want to use the bathroom, dear?”, and Mummy said, “I’d forgotten, it’s bath night!”, and Sarah hated her grandmother so much.

Mummy went upstairs to run the bath. Sarah thought she would stay downstairs, if she stayed downstairs as long as possible then maybe Mummy would forget who the bath was for, and at home Mummy never needed Sarah to be in the room whilst the bath was being run. But this time she said, “Come along, Sarah,” and Sarah had to follow her, and as she climbed up the stairs it seemed to her that her body was getting heavier and heavier and that she was walking through glue. Mummy didn’t seem to notice the dangers of the bathtub, she walked straight up to it without even taking a deep breath or anything, and she turned on the taps and the taps whistled and spat out water, spat it out in thick gobbets, then the water began to flow.

Mummy said, “I’m sorry about this, darling, I know this is all very confusing. But you’ll understand one day, and I promise you, it’s for the best.” And Sarah was looking straight at her, and nodding, just so she wouldn’t have to look at the bathtub, and hear what the bathtub was whispering.

Mummy turned off the taps. Steam rose out of the water. “You’re all set,” she said. It’s too hot, said Sarah. “It’s fine,” said Mummy. Sarah said, it’s too hot. Mummy said, “You want to wait until it cools down? Okay. Don’t be too long, I might need the bath myself! Here’s a towel.” And Sarah wanted to say, don’t go, don’t go, don’t leave me, don’t go – but she’d been having baths on her own now for years, and Mummy left.

Once they were on their own, the bathtub whispered even more. Sarah put her fingers in her ears.

She looked at the bath. She supposed the water in the middle wasn’t too bad. The water in the middle wasn’t touching any part of the bath. If she could just get into that bit, she’d be fine. If she could just get into the bath, and not touch the bath, not the sides, not reach the bottom, she’d be okay. If she were the size of a little mouse, she could bob about on the surface, safe.

But she was a sensible girl, really. And that might be silly.

She peered over the side, carefully, not too close, in case the bathtub leaped up, caught her, pulled her in. The plug was in the plughole. That was good. Because all the spider legs were in the plughole, and now they were hidden by the plug. But if she got in the bath, the plug might come free. The bathtub would pop it out, maybe the spider legs would kick it out, and then the water would be sucked down the drain, and she’d be sucked down too, she’d be sucked into a whirlpool going round and round and down and down. And Sarah didn’t mind so much the thought of going down the drain, but she’d have to brush against so many spider legs along the way.

She looked at the ogre taps. She knew what was hiding inside the taps. Fingers. And the fingers would crawl out, once she was in the bath, sitting in the bath an touching it, touching the cracks with her bare skin, the fingers would come out and prod at her. And then they’d pull the plug chain, and out of the plughole would come the plug. And the fingers would be hairy too, probably, with thick black hair, like spiders’ legs.

The water had a smell.

Cinnamon. Cigarettes.

She refused to listen to what the bathtub was whispering, but she had to take her fingers out of her ears to stop her nostrils fast against that smell.

She went to the sink. She ran water into the sink. She had no problem with the sink. The sink wasn’t cracked. There were no hairs in the sink. Hardened lumps of toothpaste, but toothpaste was good for you. The sink was green, but Sarah liked green well enough.

She got undressed. She splashed sink water all over her body, cupping her hands, and trying to get it on to her before it trickled out through her fingers. She kept her back to the bathtub, she wouldn’t look at it any more.

She dried herself, went down to Mummy.

She knew if Mummy said, “Have you had your bath?” Sarah couldn’t lie to her. Sarah was no good at lying.

Mummy and her grandmother were in the kitchen. Her grandmother was smoking. Mummy was clasping on to a cup of tea with all her might. Neither of them were speaking. They didn’t notice Sarah standing there for a little while. Then Mummy looked up.

“Are you washed?” she asked.

Sarah said, Yes.

*

Sarah slept with her Mummy that night. The spare room was right next door to the bathroom, but Sarah wasn’t frightened, she knew her Mummy would always protect her.

*

In the morning, Sarah woke alone.

She went downstairs to the kitchen. Grandmother sat at the table, on her own, and she was smoking, and clouds of blue mist hung around the room. She saw Sarah, and smiled. “Hello, dear. Do you want some breakfast?”

No, said Sarah.

Grandmother got up. She opened her arms. “You poor thing. Come here.”

No.

*

She looked all over for her mother, until the last room to try was the bathroom. Sarah took a deep breath, and went in.

Mummy was there. She was in the bath. She wasn’t washing. She was just sitting there, in the bath. She wasn’t even using the soap. She was in the bath, and the water was right up to her neck, and she was just sitting there, very still, and staring ahead, and Sarah wondered whether she might be dead, whether the bath had killed her, and she was excited, and not frightened yet, but she knew if she were dead she would get very frightened soon.

“Hello,” said Mummy. She wasn’t dead.

Sarah said, What are you doing?

“I’m having a bath.”

Okay, said Sarah.

She turned to leave.

“You don’t have to go,” said Mummy.

Okay, said Sarah. She stayed a bit longer. They didn’t say anything else. So Sarah left anyway.

*

Sarah Anne Rachel used to be much worse! She couldn’t remember now, but Mummy and Daddy once sat together on the sofa, and they told her this story. About how when she was very small, they had all gone on holiday together. They’d driven all the way to Cornwall, and Sarah had been as good as gold, just looked out of the window the whole way, hadn’t made a fuss. But when they got to the hotel, oh, it was a different matter! Oh, she’d been a nightmare! She didn’t like the bathroom there. She screamed the place down, they didn’t know, maybe she’d thought it was haunted or something. They’d booked this hotel months ago, mind. And they had to ask the manageress for another room, on another floor, with another bathroom. And Sarah hadn’t liked that one either! They had to leave the hotel, they lost their deposit. And they drove around for hours, checking out all the hotels. And it was tourist season, so most of the hotels were fully booked, and the ones that weren’t, she didn’t like the bathrooms there any better! So eventually they had to give up, no holiday to be had. They drove all the way back home that night, Mummy and Daddy taking turns at the steering wheel, and all the way Sarah sleeping soundly in the back, good as gold, not a fuss. You’d never have known, they said. You looked so peaceful, you’d never have known.

Mummy and Daddy were cuddled up together, and they laughed a lot at the story, and Sarah laughed too, but she couldn’t see really what was so funny.

Mummy and Daddy said they were just thankful Sarah had got so much better.

She was better now, it was only the bathtub at her grandmother’s house she didn’t like. But she never told her parents. She couldn’t. She didn’t listen to what the bathtub whispered, but sometimes the words seeped into her head anyway. And the bathtub warned her, don’t you ever tell your Mummy and Daddy, don’t you dare tell anyone. Or I’ll come and get you, and make you mine.

*

They told Sarah to go and play, but she’d already counted all the tiles on the ceiling of the sitting room. She counted them again, and then went to find Mummy. The kitchen door was closed. They had closed it on her. And there were whispers going on behind it. Sarah knew she didn’t want to hear the whispering, but she stood outside the door, ear jammed right up against the wood, and the words seeped into her head anyway.

She opened the door, and her grandmother and her Mummy stopped talking.

There was even more smoke in the room now, grandmother was holding a cigarette, Mummy was too, and Mummy didn’t ever hold cigarettes. Mummy’s face looked puffy like she’d been crying, though Sarah couldn’t see any wetness on her cheeks now, and the puffiness made Mummy look old, and wrinkled, and a bit ugly, she looked just like grandmother. She had become grandmother.

Mummy started, looked a bit guilty, and Mummy never looked guilty, she looked less like herself than ever. She’d had a bath and she looked worse, she wasn’t wearing any lipstick, her face was dull.

And Sarah understood, it wasn’t grandmother who made the bath smell so, it wasn’t grandmother who was bad, it was the bathtub, this is what it did to people, it made them ugly like Granny. I’ll come and get you, it had said, I’ll make you mine. And she knew she must never get into that tub, not ever. Or she’d lose herself, just as sure as she’d lost her Mummy.

“I’m sorry,” Mummy said, and put her cigarette in the ashtray, and got up, and came towards Sarah, and yes, she was going to give Sarah a hug, she was opening her arms out wide, and Sarah didn’t mind hugs from Mummy, but she minded them now, and Mummy pressed Sarah close to her, and she smelled like cinnamon.

*

And another thing about the bathtub. It doesn’t make you clean. It makes you a different sort of dirty.

*

Grandmother suggested they all deserved a day out, they should all go to the shopping mall. And Mummy agreed, but then, she would have, wouldn’t she? Mummy put on her make-up, and it made her look a bit more like herself, but Sarah wasn’t fooled. They went to a department store, and grandmother liked a dress, but it wasn’t in her size, and she ordered it, and she gave her name, Eunice Pinnock, and Sarah still didn’t know what her middle initial could be, but she didn’t much care. And Mummy admired the dress, and grandmother said, well, why don’t you get one for yourself? You need a treat, all you’ve been through. And they didn’t have it in Mummy’s size either, and so Mummy ordered it too, and gave her name as Sophie Pinnock, and that wasn’t right, that wasn’t right, that wasn’t right. It made her new name Sophie Maureen Pinnock, and that was SMP, and that still didn’t stand for anything, but it had been better before. And grandmother said, do you like the dress, Sarah? And Mummy said, you like the dress, don’t you, Sarah? Have a treat. You need a treat, all you’ve been through. And the shop did have the dress in Sarah’s size, and grandmother bought it for her, and it looked very nice.

They had drinks in the cafe. Grandmother and Mummy had coffees, Sarah had a milkshake.

And Sarah wondered if she’d have to change her name now as well. She’d be Sarah Anne Rachel Pinnock. A sarp. What was a sarp? A sarp wasn’t anything.

Mummy told Sarah to thank her granny for her dress and for the shake, and Sarah did. And when they got back to grandmother’s house they hung the new dress in the wardrobe, and Mummy promised they’d put more clothes in there soon, this was only the beginning, and Sarah thanked her too, thank you, Mummy, she said. She wanted to fidget, but she also didn’t want to fidget, she didn’t want Mummy realising anything was wrong. Mummy and grandmother went back into the kitchen to make it smell all smoky and sweet. They closed the door on Sarah. Sarah took all the money from Mummy’s purse, because she didn’t know how much she’d need. And then, very quietly, she went to the front door, opened it carefully, stepped outside, and left.

*

Sarah went to the bus stop, caught the 32 to the train station. At the station the woman behind the ticket window asked her where she wanted to go, and Sarah gave her her full address. “Which station?” asked the woman, and Sarah told her. Sarah got on the train, and she enjoyed the journey, the tracks seemed to be singing to her, Sarah Anne Rachel Anne, Sarah Anne Rachel Anne – and that was good, because today was an Anne day, today was very much an Anne day. Sarah got off the train, went to the bus stop, caught the 23, got off the bus, went home.

She rang her own doorbell to her own house, and a woman she didn’t recognise opened the front door. She was younger than Mummy. “Yes?” the younger than Mummy woman said. Sarah said that she lived there. The woman blushed. “You must be Sarah,” she said. Sarah told her name was Sarah Anne Rachel Hadley. She didn’t tell her her whole name, she didn’t know her well enough.

The woman seemed frightened of Sarah. Sarah didn’t know why. “Come in,” the woman said. “Please. Your father’s not here. He’s at work. I don’t know when he’ll. He’ll be back soon. I’ll call him, I’ll get him. So. How did you get here? Do you want anything? A coffee, you probably don’t drink coffee, there’s milk, there’s juice.”

Sarah said, I want to have a bath. My bath is overdue.

The woman blinked, and said, “All right.”

Sarah thought back to some of the whispering she’d heard. Not the nasty whispering from the bathtub, the nastier whispering through the kitchen door. “Are you going to end up my new mummy?”

The woman said, “Well. Well, I. No.”

Sarah said, Good.

Sarah went upstairs, and ran herself a bath. The bathtub was pink, the way bathtubs are meant to be, and it didn’t talk to her.

*

Sarah was still in the bath when Daddy got home. “Where is she?” she heard from downstairs. She didn’t hear what the woman said in reply, her voice was too feeble.

Daddy entered the bathroom without knocking. This would have upset Sarah once, but she hadn’t seen him for a while, she’d forgive him anything.

“Does your mother know you’re here?” he said.

Sarah didn’t know what her Mummy might know.

“Oh God.” He took out his mobile phone, and left the room. He didn’t bother to close the door, and it let cold air in, and that was annoying. Sarah heard her father downstairs, and his voice was raised.

When he came back, his voice was softer, kinder.

“What are you doing here, poppet?” he said. “You can’t just. You know.”

Sarah said, I came home.

“You can’t,” he said again. “Not for a little while. Okay? Mummy and me. We have things to sort out. Okay?”

Sarah said, Don’t you want to see me?

Daddy said, “It’s not a question of what I want, poppet.”

Sarah said, Don’t you want to see me?

Daddy said, “Not right now. Not like this. No. No.”

Sarah said nothing.

Daddy said, “Get out of the bath now, poppet.”

Sarah said, No. No.

*

The longer she stayed in the bath the more wrinkly her fingers got. She looked old, like her grandmother.

The water got cold, but to reach the taps and run more hot water in she’d have had to get out of the bath, and Sarah didn’t want to get out of the bath.

There was a knock on the door at one point, very gentle, and Sarah thought it would be her father, maybe he’d come to say sorry, maybe he’d come to say he wanted her. But it was the scared woman, the younger than Mummy woman, and she asked whether she could get Sarah a glass of milk or juice. Sarah didn’t want milk or juice. Sarah thought the woman seemed rather nice, and probably would have made a nice mummy, but she was glad she wasn’t going to be hers.

The water was very cold by the time her real Mummy arrived, and it was dark outside too. Mummy didn’t ask, she just said, “Out of the bath, now,” and Sarah was happy to oblige.

*

In the car, Mummy said, “I’m very cross with you. That was a very mean and selfish thing you did.”

Sarah thought for a while, and said, I’m cross with you too.

Sarah wondered what the noise was, and realised it was her Mummy starting to cry.

*

It was gone midnight by the time they got to grandmother’s. Sarah was dozing.

“Wake up,” said her mother, roughly, but the way she stroked Sarah’s hair was gentle enough.

Grandmother was awake, waiting for them, and the ashtray was overflowing. “What happened? Did you see her?”

“Yes,” said Mummy.

“What did you say to her?”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Mummy.

“What was she like?”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake. For Christ’s sake, Mum. Stop it. All right? Stop it.”

“I only…”

“Go to bed. I’ve had enough of it now. I’ve had it up to here. All right?”

“All right.”

“To bed with you, Sarah. Mummy will be along soon. I’m just going to have a bath.”

“Now?” Granny dared to ask.

“Now. I just need to. I want to, I. I need to wash the dirt out of me. I want to get rid of the dirt.”

Sarah lay in bed, and although she was very tired, she couldn’t fall asleep. She was listening to the water as it splashed into the tub, as it thrummed through the rusted pipes. She was listening to the whispering, and it wasn’t just whispering now, she could hear every word loud and precise and clear.

*

Sarah knocked on the bathroom door gently. She went in.

Mummy was lying in the bath. She turned her head. She looked surprised to see her.

“Go to bed,” she said.

But Sarah stood her ground.

“Oh, what do you want, Sarah?” Mummy sighed.

Sarah thought. Said, honestly – I don’t know.

Sarah then said, He doesn’t want me.

“He doesn’t want us,” said Mummy.

He doesn’t want me.

“No.”

And then: “Sorry.”

Sarah said, Is this going to be our new home?

Mummy said, “Just for a while. Not forever. You don’t mind, do you?”

No.

“This was my home. When I was your age. This house. It makes me feel like me.”

Sarah wanted to give her mother a hug, but she didn’t give hugs. And Mummy was in the bath, the bath was all around her. Sarah didn’t know how to hug her without the bath touching her. Sarah didn’t know how to offer a hug, so she didn’t.

“I want you,” said Mummy, quietly. “I promise. I do.” And Sarah gave her a hug anyway, just a little one around the neck, and the side of the tub brushed up against her, and Sarah was revolted, and Mummy was wet, and Mummy left damp patches on Sarah’s nightie.

“Get in,” said Mummy.

I can’t.

“Yes, you can. There’s plenty of room. It’s a big tub.”

So Sarah took her nightie off. Mummy sat up to make more room, and the water sloshed about a bit, and the waves seemed big and menacing, and then the water settled down again. Mummy held out her hand, and smiled. And Sarah took it. And Sarah put first one foot into the warm water, and then the other, and both feet hit the bottom of the tub, and then Sarah lowered herself into the water, and her bum hit the bottom of the tub too.

Mummy put her arms around Sarah’s waist, pulled her back, pulled her into her soapy body, and it was slippery, it made Sarah want to laugh.

“We’ll be all right, you know,” said Mummy.

And the bathtub continued to whisper. And it didn’t say such reassuring things. But it was all right, it was.

And Sarah had such soft skin, and she could feel the water leaking in through her thin pores, swelling her up fat like a balloon. The bathtub had got her now. And she would be her grandmother, she would be her mother, she would be SARP. She would learn how to hug, and to smoke, and she’d smell of sweet cinnamon. And it was all right, all of it. And she put her head back upon her mother’s chest, and she closed her eyes, closed them against the cracks and the spider legs and the fingers coming out at her from the taps, she closed her eyes, and she felt safe.

LURA POLAND

When they reached the hotel room, both of them had the urge to flop down upon that queen size bed and spread out like starfish. But neither of them did, and neither quite knew why, but it may have been something to do with not wanting to seem silly in front of the other. Daniel set the suitcase down and said, “Well, this is nice,” and went to inspect the bathroom. Susan opened up the suitcase, opened up the wardrobe and drawers, and began finding new homes for all their clothes and travel accessories.

Daniel pulled open the curtains, looked out of the window. “Come here, Susie,” he said, and Susan obliged, and they stood there, looking down upon the streets of Gdansk, so close they could be nearly touching. “We’ll get a nice view, at any rate,” said Daniel. “Once the rain stops.”

This was their anniversary present, and now they were here both of them made up their minds to enjoy it. George had given it to them. George had said he wanted to give them something special for their thirtieth. He was always taking foreign holidays with his wife, and when they came to visit every other month or so George was always full of the exciting places they had been, Paris, Barcelona, Rome, and neither Susan nor Daniel quite knew where he got it from, when he’d been a child they’d never taken him anywhere more exotic than Skegness. He had phoned them up, wished them happy anniversary, told them he was going to treat them to three nights in Gdansk; he’d just been, it was lovely, and not too overrun with tourists yet, and it was high time the two of the got out and did something, they weren’t getting any younger! They could take the holiday any time they wanted, just let him know, he’d arrange everything. And Christmas had come and then Susan’s birthday had come and then Daniel’s, and George had phoned up and said, aren’t you going to take that holiday soon, it’s nearly been a year since I offered it to you! And Susan and Daniel decided they had better get their thirtieth anniversary present out of the way quickly before they got given a thirty-first.

George had booked the flights, he’d found them a hotel he’d heard recommended, he even arranged taxis to and from the airport. The only thing he couldn’t do for them was go instead. The flight was quite comfortable, really, and Susan didn’t need the air sickness bag as she’d feared. Gdansk looked nice out of the cab window, big and old-fashioned and stony, and everywhere there were signs in foreign lettering.

They had dinner in the hotel. It was too wet to go out. Afterwards Daniel sat on the bed and read through the little guide book he’d bought at the airport, frowning at it seriously as if it were a Bible whose hidden meanings he had to interpret. “It all sounds nice,” he said. “There’s an Amber Museum, and a museum celebrating solidarity. And Soport Pier is the largest wooden pier in the whole of Europe.”

Susan found a piece of white card on the dresser by the bed. She picked it up and looked at it. She showed it to Daniel.

“Pillow menu,” he read.

“What’s a pillow menu?” asked Susan.

“I suppose,” said Daniel, and laughed, “it’s a menu for pillows. Well, I never!”

This is what the Pillow Menu said:

We understand everyone has their own personal pillow preference.

 If you would prefer a different type of pillow than is on your bed please refer to the menu overleaf. To make your request, at any time of the day or night, please phone reception on extension 0.

 Daniel said he had never really thought to have a personal pillow preference, in spite of what the card so politely asserted. Susan agreed. “Refer overleaf,” she said, and Daniel did.

Pillow 1:

 Soft & Slim Pillow!

 A soft and slim pillow offering a slight incline.

 Pillow 2:

 Feather / Duck Down Pillow!

 A feather and duck down pillow to provide dreamy soft support.

 Pillow 3:

 Firm Pillow!

 An extremely supportive firm pillow.

 Pillow 4:

 Poland Pillow!

 A large square pillow offering excellent back support for reading in bed.

 “Well, I never!” chuckled Daniel again.

“What will they think of next?” Susan agreed.

Daniel felt at the pillows that were on the bed. They felt very efficient, and very ordinary. “Let’s do it,” he said.

“Oh, Daniel,” said Susan. “We can’t. They’ll be having their tea.”

“Any time, day or night,” said Daniel. “Look. I think we should have special pillows. It’s our holiday. I think we can do whatever we like!”

He picked up the phone. Susan giggled – “Oh, you really mustn’t!” Daniel winked at her, rang down to reception.

“Hello?”  he said. “My wife and I were looking at your, uh, menu. For pillows. Is it really true that…? Well. Well, I think we’d like some pillows, yes, if it isn’t too much trouble. I don’t know.” He held the receiver to his chest. “Susan, what pillow would you like?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Pillow number one?”

“My wife would like pillow number one. And I think I will go for pillow number two. Yes. …Oh, can you? Really?” He held the receiver to his chest again. “He says we can have all four pillows, if we want.”

“Don’t be silly!” she said. “What would we be wanting with four pillows?” But she was laughing.

“Well, yes,” said Daniel, into the phone. “Yes. Go on then. Let’s, let’s go for all four, um. If you’re sure that’s all right. In your own time. Don’t let us spoil your tea. Thank you.”

He put the phone down, and Susan very gently hit his arm with one of the pillows they already had.

“What?” said Daniel, and grinned.

“Daniel Evans,” she said. “You really are the limit!”

And presently there was a knock on the door. “Room service!” called a young woman’s voice, kind and polite. “That was quick,” said Daniel, and Susan echoed him, “that was quick,” and Susan got up to answer the door. There stood a maid with thick black hair and dark brown eyes and the sweetest of smiles, and she was laden down with pillows.

“Oh, you poor thing!” said Susan. “Let me help you with that,” said Daniel.

“Is no need,” the maid continued to smile. She put the pillows down on to the bed. Daniel took out some euros, offered them to her, and she waved the money away. Her name badge was now visible – her name was Lura.

“Thank you, Lura,” said Susan.

“Yes, thank you, Lura,” said Daniel.

Lura said, “Thank you!” too, though there was really no need, and her pretty smile somehow contrived to get prettier still, and she all but bobbed a curtsey, and she left.

The couple turned to their new pillows. “Which do you think is which?” said Susan, because really, they all looked exactly the same, just like pillows. Daniel gave them each a squeeze. “I think this is number three,” he said, “this one feels a bit firmer.”

Daniel selected pillow three, and Susan pillow two. They got into their pyjamas. Daniel said, “Maybe we’ll do that amber museum tomorrow, and I wouldn’t mind a look at that pier.” Susan turned off the light. Susan liked the feel of her pillow. It was very soft, it was as if her cheek was gliding down on it, and she thought it had the faint whiff of lavender.

“Good night,” she said.

“Good night,” said Daniel.

“I’m glad we came,” she said.

For a while she heard nothing but the raindrops against the window, and her husband’s breathing, and both were soothing.

He said, “I love you.”

“I love you too,” she said.

It wasn’t something either said very often, and that was because they didn’t really need to. But it was nice to hear, all the same. There in the darkness, in a foreign land, with something so soft against her cheek, and lavender in the air.

She waited to see if he’d say anything else, but he didn’t, and that was perfectly all right. She heard he was asleep, and then, very soon afterwards, she was asleep too.

*

It was still raining the next morning when Susan woke up. She didn’t mind. She watched the raindrops spatter upon the windowpanes, and she thought, they’re Polish raindrops, and that made them rather exotic. The pillow beneath her head was still so inviting, and she felt she could very easily just drift off back to sleep.

“Good morning,” said Daniel. He’d woken up too. She hadn’t realised.

“Did you sleep well?”

He chuckled. “With my special pillow? I did!”

“Me too.”

They both lay in bed for another half hour, they both watched the rain. Susan knew that Daniel was close enough that she could reach out and touch him, but she was so snug as she was, she didn’t want any part of her body to traverse the cold untouched sheets between them.

“We should get up,” she said, at last.

“There’s nowhere to go,” Daniel pointed out. “We could just stay here.”

“No, we should get up.”

So they did. Daniel shaved, and once he was out of the bathroom, Susan had a shower.

Susan was drying her hair when there was a knock at the door. “I come later?” Lura said.

“No, no,” said Daniel. “We’re just going out.”

Lura pointed at the window, and at the wet, and gave an apologetic smile. Daniel smiled back, shrugged. Susan said, “Thank you for last night’s pillows,” and Lura nodded, said they were welcome.

Daniel and Susan went down to the hotel lobby. Susan took some knitting, Daniel took his guide book. They found a couple of comfy armchairs, and settled down to enjoy themselves. Daniel occasionally would tell Susan some interesting bits of historical information about places it was too wet to see, and Susan would shake her head in wonder. He pointed out some pictures of the Amber Museum. “That’s very nice,” he said.

They had lunch at the hotel. When the rain hadn’t eased off by evening, they had dinner there too.

They went back to their room, and found that Lura had cleaned it very well, and it had the same sort of pristine perfection they’d found on arrival. It seemed to Susan that all trace of them had been erased, and she had to open the wardrobe to check their clothes were still hanging there, that they belonged.

They stood by the window, and watched lightning arc over the city. “Come here,” said Daniel, and he gave her a little hug, and something that was very nearly a kiss, he brushed the top of her head gently with his lips. “Never mind, old girl,” he said. “Not much of a holiday, but never mind.” And Susan said it didn’t matter, she was quite all right, and so she was.

As they were getting ready for bed, Daniel idly picked up the pillow menu from the dresser. He gave a little cry of surprise, and Susan stopped brushing her hair and looked around, none of the glittering delights Daniel had read about in the guide book of Gdansk had sparked so enthusiastic a response.

“There are new pillows!” he said. “Look!”

And there were.

Pillow 5:

 Emperor Pillow!

 The soft innards of leaves found in the deepest parts of the Bolivian rainforest, glazed with honey and tree sap.

 Pillow 6:

 Empress Pillow!

 Lovingly sculpted from whipped asses’ milk, to ensure a peaceful night’s sleep.

 Pillow 7:

 The Little Princeling!

 Extract of cloud.

 These special pillows didn’t come free. The prices were written clearly underneath. The Emperor and the Empress were twenty-five euros each, the Little Princeling went for a cool fifty.

Neither Daniel nor Susan spoke for a while. And then Daniel said, “Well, we are on holiday…”

And Susan said, “We’ve saved so much money not going to the Amber Museum.”

And Daniel was on the phone.

Only minutes later there was a knock at the door, and there was Lura, her smile just as pretty, and she carried a large silver platter. She removed the lid, and with tongs placed each pillow gently upon the bed. Pillows five and six looked no different from each other, or indeed from the pillows the couple had already enjoyed. The Little Princeling, though, was about the size of a bathroom flannel, and Lura took it from the platter with particular delicacy, as if afraid she would break it.

She waited patiently whilst Daniel fished in his pocket for a hundred euros. She tucked the notes down the front of her dress, bobbed a little curtsey, said good night, and was gone.

When Susan pressed her face upon the Empress, she could feel the milk lap about her cheeks, and it was warm, and she was Cleopatra, and this wasn’t the sort of milk she kept at home in the fridge, not the milk she’d waste on cornflakes, and it reminded her of the milk she’d enjoyed as a child, and the way her mother would warm it for as a treat, if it were cold outside or Susan felt poorly, and the way Susan had warmed it for little George, that had been such a long time ago, and it made her feel safe, she felt protected. And she thought her milk pillow was wet, a thick wet, but when she put her hand to her face it seemed dry, and softer than it had ever been.

When David laid upon the Emperor, he heard the beating of life within it, gently beating away, of something as old as the world and something that could never die, not really, not whilst there was still air and land and sea, still a planet for life to cling to – and he heard too the beating of his own heart, and the air passing through his lungs, and the blood gushing in his veins, and he realised it was the same thing, it was all exactly the same. And he wasn’t such a bad man. He wasn’t bad, after all.

And the Little Princeling was the best pillow, and all through the night they shared it, they passed it back and forth, like a spliff, and they had forgotten they had ever done that, so many years ago, before they were married, just the once, they had forgotten they had ever been so naughty and so young.

They kissed, and they hadn’t done that for so very long either.

They took off their pyjamas, and they’d seen each other naked, of course – but not as something to look at, to enjoy. They held each other. She’d wrap her arms around him, then they’d turn over, he’d be all over her. They wouldn’t do more than that, they’d kiss and spoon, but that was the pleasure of it, knowing it could go no further, that the anticipation was there, it was like before they were married, when they had the rest of their lives ahead of them. Susan felt soft and beautiful, and David proud and brave, and they were.

*

By the morning the rain had stopped, and sunlight streamed in through the window, and Gdansk lay outside fresh and dry for them. But they didn’t want Gdansk today. They stayed in bed.

At some point Lura knocked upon their door. “Room service,” she called, softly. They didn’t bother to reply, and she left.

They dozed the whole day, and when they woke at last it was dark outside. And they saw that the room had been cleaned. Lura had at some point tiptoed in and made up the bed around them. And they didn’t know whether they should be alarmed by that, but then Daniel laughed – “Well, I never!” – and it didn’t seem to matter.

By the bedside there was another pillow menu.

They read it.

It didn’t take long. It was very simple.

Pillow 8:

 ?

 That was all.

This time it was Susan who made the phone call, and she didn’t worry that the staff might be having their tea, she wanted pillow eight brought to them right away.

Lura opened the door, and it was only then that it occurred to the couple that they were still naked, and they pulled the sheets over all their extremities. But Lura didn’t seem to mind. She smiled at them, and it was a maternal smile, it really was her prettiest smile of all. And she said, “Is good day?”, and they told her that it had been.

“Pillow eight,” she said.

And from the corridor she wheeled into the room a large chest – no, not merely a chest, this was a sarcophagus – surely there couldn’t be a mere pillow inside it, there had to be diamonds or gold or an ancient pharaoh at the very least – and Daniel looked at Susan, and saw that she was licking her lips, and he realised his mouth was dry with excitement and he was then licking his lips too.

“What sort of pillow,” Daniel asked, “have you got in there?”

Lura wagged her finger at them, but she wasn’t telling them off, it was all in play, and she laughed.

“Twenty thousand euros,” she said.

There was silence, a sort of dumbfounded silence. And then Susan and Daniel both spoke at once.

“We’ll take it,” said Susan.

“We can’t afford it,” said Daniel.

Susan stared at Daniel, and Daniel stared at Susan, and both seemed equally surprised by the other’s reaction.

Lura waited.

Daniel turned back to Lura. “We can’t afford it,” he said again. “I’m sorry.”

And Lura smiled, as if this were the response she was used to, and it probably was. She shrugged, as if to say, never mind! As if to say, it is a lot of money! As if to say, your loss, you silly old people.

“Let’s talk about this,” said Susan. “Just for a second. Let’s talk about this.” She could have pointed out that they had the money, it was sitting doing nothing in their savings account, and what were they saving it for, they were never going to spend it, there was nothing they were ever going to do together that was so exciting or so intrepid that it was ever going to be used. They didn’t even go on holidays. Did they, they didn’t even go on holidays. They would die, they would just die, one after the other, it didn’t matter who went first, and it would get left to George, and George didn’t need it, George went on holidays already. Susan could have said, this is our chance. This can be for us, at last, after all these years, for us and for no one else.

She didn’t say any of that. She just gazed at Daniel, hoped he would understand. And perhaps he did. Probably, he did.

He looked down. “I’m sorry,” he said again, and it wasn’t clear whom he was talking to. And Lura wheeled the sarcophagus away, and the pillow that was locked within.

*

They weren’t angry with each other. But they slept apart that night. Even the Little Princeling was no help.

In the morning it was raining. Susan packed the suitcase. Daniel went down to reception and checked out. The desk clerk asked if Daniel had enjoyed his stay, and he said he had, thank you, very much. Daniel said, “And please pass on our thanks to Lura,” and the clerk frowned, then smiled, and said he would.

As they drove by taxi to the airport, Daniel was able to point out some of the buildings he’d read about in the guide book. They didn’t pass the Amber Museum or the pier.

Susan said, “I feel so old.”

Daniel said, “Well. We are old.”

Susan said, “I feel old inside.”

He bought them both sandwiches at the airport. They talked a little on the flight. They didn’t talk much in the car home.

And Daniel looked at his wife, and wished he knew what to say to put things right.

And Susan looked at her husband, and she knew that she loved him, and she was certain he loved her back. But she didn’t know that they had anything in common any more. And that was a shame.

They both wondered what the question mark pillow might have been.

They got home. There was a message on the answering machine from George. “I hope you guys had a good time! Did you see the Neptune Fountain? What did you make of the Neptune Fountain?” Daniel hadn’t even read about the Neptune Fountain, and now he took out his guide book, and stared at it in some confusion.

Susan took the suitcase up to the bedroom, unpacked what she had packed only a few hours before. She put away in wardrobes and cupboards clothes and travel accessories. Only when the job was done did she look at the bed she had shared with her husband almost every night for thirty-one years.

Daniel heard the urgency in Susan’s cry, and he thought maybe she was hurt, and that terrified him, and he realised in that instant he loved her with all his heart. And he dropped the guide book he would never bother opening again, and he ran upstairs to find her.

She was smiling. Thank God, she wasn’t hurt, she was smiling. She hugged on to him, she smiled, and her face lit up, and all the years simply fell away.

“Look,” she said.

There was their bed, cold, and harder than the one they had enjoyed in Gdansk. And there were their pillows, flat and ordinary. They’d left in a rush, Susan hadn’t straightened them properly, the pillows were still imprinted with the weight of their heads. And Susan and Daniel looked at one pillow, and then the other. And the imprint on both was the same. They looked like question marks. Exactly like question marks. As if the pillows were asking them something, and they couldn’t be sure what, and they would have to get into bed together to find out.

CRAIG BOARDMAN

Craig Boardman’s dad has joined the circus. Craig Boardman told my son all about it in the playground. My son came home in tears, apparently Craig had been boasting about it rather. “I thought you were friends with Craig,” I said, and my son sulked, and said, “Not any more,” and I’m not sure who he was most angry with, Craig Boardman, or me, for not understanding why.

I’d only met Craig Boardman’s dad once, after I picked up my son from Craig’s birthday party. He seemed all right, he worked in the city, he was a bit up himself, actually. I couldn’t imagine why he’d have thrown away a career like that to go and work in a circus. “He’s a clown,” said my son, as if that explained everything. “The clowns are the best.” He asked me whether I would go and work in a circus – preferably as a clown, but it was up to me, whatever suited. I explained I had a job already. I worked in a bank. My son said that wasn’t as much fun as working in a circus, and I thought about it for a while, and I said he was probably right.

My wife made us his favourite meal, and I let him play an extra hour on the X box, but my son refused to be cheered up. I admit, I thought it would soon blow over. Craig Boardman had always seemed like quite a nice kid whenever he’d popped round to play, he always spoke to me politely and ate with his mouth closed; to be honest, he always seemed a rather better catch than my own son; to be honest, taking into account all the sulkings and temper tantrums and refusals to go to bed, there were times I rather envied Craig Boardman’s dad. But it didn’t blow over. If anything, the situation got worse. My son came home with news that other schoolfriends’ parents had all followed Craig Boardman’s dad’s lead, and they’d all joined the circus too. Andy Wyman’s dad had become a clown, Rachel Pinnocker’s dad had become a lion tamer, and in year four Tommy Puce’s dad now every night took his life into his own hands and allowed himself to be fired out of a cannon. And their kids had all formed a gang, with Craig Boardman at its head, and they went around the place lording it over the other kids, and bullying those that got in their way. One day my son came home and there were Chinese burns all over his arms, and my wife and I agreed that this had to stop.

I went round to Craig Boardman’s dad’s house right away. I rang the doorbell. Craig Boardman answered. “Hello, Craig,” I said, “I’d like to speak to your father.” As I’ve said, I’d always got on quite well with Craig, he seemed to be a well-brought-up sort of boy, but now he smirked at me insolently, before going inside to fetch him. I suppose if you’re the son of a clown you don’t need to defer to anyone, but I think that’s rather a shame. And then Craig Boardman’s dad came to the doorstep. He was wearing a white face, and thick painted lips, and he had a red shining plastic nose that flashed every few seconds or so. I presumed he was on his way to work. I told him that my son and his son had had a bit of a falling out, and that I knew boys could be boys, and they’d be friends again soon – but would he speak to Craig about the Chinese burns, because that really wasn’t on. And Craig Boardman’s dad didn’t say a word. His painted lips curved downwards, dramatically, to show me he was sad. He rubbed away mimed tears with his fists. And he indicated I should smell the flower in his buttonhole. I thought it was a peace offering, so I leaned forward as bidden. He squirted water in my face. Then he laughed – but silently, it was a mimed laugh, which seemed all the merrier somehow – and he honked his nose, and he closed the door.

My son didn’t seem surprised when I returned home. “He’s a clown, Dad,” he said, “why would he talk to the likes of you?” And the worst of it was that my wife seemed disappointed in me too, disapproving even. That night in bed she put down her Mills and Boon and fixed me with a serious look. “I don’t see why you can’t join the circus,” she said. “It’s not as if there’s not part time work going as well.” My wife, who had always said she’d loved me for me, banker and all. I asked her whether she’d really rather I worked in a circus than in the third most solvent banking conglomerate in Western Europe, and she said, “If you won’t do it for your family, at least do it for yourself,” and I wasn’t sure what she meant by that. Our lovemaking seemed pointedly pedestrian, and I wondered whether my wearing a red plastic nose would have put a bit more life into her. I agreed to go to a circus audition. She smiled at last, made something approaching the right sort of sexual effort. And for my part, I rued the day we had let the council tear down the local library and erect that big top in its place.

I put on my best suit, I went to the circus. There was a line outside. It was composed of nervous middle-aged men all trying to look entertaining, I recognised a lot of them from school Parents’ Evenings. We were auditioned in groups of six. The man in charge asked us one by one to explain what we thought we could offer a circus; I assumed he was the ringmaster, but he wasn’t wearing a red suit or a top hat, and his T-shirt was stained and he kept picking at it. I told him I wanted to be a clown to impress my son, and he said that, yeah, they got a lot of that.

He led us out into the circus ring. I gazed up at the seats all around, and imagined they were full of paying customers demanding to be amused, and at the thought butterflies started swirling round my stomach most unhelpfully. My feet sank deep into the sawdust, and I looked down, and saw that it was fake and plastic. “Let’s see what you can do,” the ringmaster said.

First, he had us juggling. I had never juggled before, I didn’t think I could. But it was easier than it looked, or maybe I had a natural proclivity for it, I don’t know – the three balls were soon dancing through the air, and I knew really that I was the one making it happen, I knew I was catching them and throwing them, but it seemed to me that it was all taking place independently of me, without any effort, the way I keep my heart beating or my lungs heaving without having to think about it, all I was doing was patting the balls on the back in friendly encouragement and sending them on their way. “More balls, more balls!” called the ringmaster, and then I was thrown a fourth ball, then a fifth, a sixth; then he threw in a glass of water, a plastic spoon, a brick – and still I could do it, still I could keep them all in the air, in one increasing circle, as if they were all cars on some invisible ferris wheel and my hands were the fulcrum, no, not so much science, as if it were magic. And I dared to believe that I was good at this, and I dared to believe that my son and my wife would be proud of me. I stole a glance at all the other dads. And they were juggling too. And they were juggling a dozen balls each, maybe two dozen even, it was hard to see because they were spinning through the air so fast, so much faster than mine, my balls now seemed to me to be meandering through the air as if stunted by arthritis and wheezing for breath. And some of the dads were juggling knives and chainsaws and burning torches, and was that a grenade, was the man next to me really juggling a grenade? They were better than me. They were all better than me. And I lost control, I admit it, I lost confidence, so did the balls, everything came crashing down. The ringmaster looked at me, frowned, didn’t say a word, and made a little mark upon his clipboard.

He made us try all sorts of things. Custard pies, collapsing cars, pratfalls – oh, I tell you, I pratted my very hardest, I tried to be the best prat I could be. And at the end of every test he would take out that clipboard, make more marks against it, and at the end of the final test he made the biggest marks on his clipboard of all. “Right,” he said, looking through the results, and then looking at us, through us, as if he could see our very clowning souls. “Right, I’ve reached my decision. You,” and he pointed at me, “yes, you, one pace forward.” And I couldn’t believe it, and I burned with pride, and I knew I would never go back to the bank again, and I knew this was what I had been born for, after all, to do stunts and japes, and make silly noises, to make people happy, to be spectacular. I began to thank him. “You can go home,” he said to me. “The rest of you, welcome aboard. Go through that door, you’ll find your barracks. You’re in the circus now.”

I begged the ringmaster to reconsider. And he listened to me, and his face softened, he seemed even quite kindly. But I knew he’d had men beg in front of him before. “It’s not your fault,” he said. “It’s your face. The whole point of comedy is that we can laugh at another’s suffering without feeling guilty about it. These other guys, life shits on them, and their faces puff out so amusingly, there’s nothing you can do but laugh! But you. There’s something tragic about you.” To illustrate his point he poured water down my trousers and hit me round the head with a frying pan. “You see?” he said. “The way you look now, so humiliated and pathetic, it makes me want to cry.” And indeed he wept then, tears rolled down his cheeks, and he asked me to leave.

I got home, and my son was so excited; he was bouncing around the room, singing, “My Daddy’s joined the circus, my Daddy’s joined the circus!” My wife looked excited too. And I had come up with all sorts of excuses why I hadn’t got the job, racism, sexism, flat feet – but when it came to it, I just told them the truth. “I wasn’t good enough,” I said. And I thought my son would throw one of his tantrums, but he didn’t; he looked at me soberly, even touched my shoulder, and said, “That’s all right, Dad.” And I saw that a certain light had gone from his eyes. He went to his room. My wife said, “Oh, for Heaven’s sake,” and put on her coat. I asked her where she was going, but she didn’t reply. About an hour later she was back; “There!” she said, rather smugly really, and dropped a sequined dress upon the kitchen table. She’d got herself a job as a trapeze artist, and I must admit I was surprised – my wife had never been what you’d call svelte, not even when we’d first met, and that was years and years ago.

The next Saturday I took my son to see his mother perform at the circus. I hadn’t seen a circus show since I was small, and I felt very excited in spite of myself. I bought us some tickets, and some hot dogs, and we took our seats. There wasn’t much of an audience, just little patches of sad looking men like me sitting with their kids, and I was disappointed, I thought the circus would have been more popular than this. Then the lights on the ring went up, and on to the fake sawdust bounded every one of our friends and neighbours. Near us, all alone, sat Craig Boardman. He looked rather lost. My son told me he didn’t think Craig Boardman’s dad had much time for Craig Boardman any more. I asked my son whether we should invite Craig to sit with us, and my son shrugged, said why not? Craig seemed pleased, and said thank you very politely. I gave him a hot dog, and he ate every last bit of it with his mouth closed.

The ringmaster looked so much more impressive with a hat on his head and a whip in his hand. He brought out the first act. It was the clowns. Craig Boardman’s dad was the chief clown, and he was ribticklingly funny. He was also very good when he came back later to lift weights, and he rode a horse standing upright, and he spun plates on sticks, I must admit I began to fall a little in love with Craig Boardman’s dad. “Do you see your mother?” I asked, and my son said he did, and pointed – and there she was, at the very top of the tent, climbing on to a swing, squeezed tight into that sequined dress so that all her bits were bulging. We applauded her. She looked so graceful up there, and my heart swelled large and proud. She leaped from the swing, arms stretched out, aiming herself right where Craig Boardman’s dad was waiting to catch her, and she missed, and she plummeted to her death fifty feet below.

They said afterwards she wouldn’t have felt much, it must have been very quick – though I’m not sure, that fake sawdust was awfully sharp, and it impaled her body in a thousand different places. But at that moment I’m afraid I leaped to my feet. And I cried out, and even to me the cry didn’t sound quite human, it was so full of grief, I think, or maybe it was just shock. To think that at one moment my wife had been in the circus, and the next she was lying flat on the ground before us like a squashed jam doughnut. I cried out against the world. I cried so hard. And they turned the lights on me. And everybody began to laugh. The audience, the performers, even my son, even Craig Boardman, even Craig Boardman’s dad. Because somehow, in that epiphany of suffering, I had accidentally pulled the right face. A face for comedy, a face everyone could laugh at guilt-free. And I saw the ringmaster, and he was clapping me, and nodding, as if to say, “Fair play, sir, fair play.”

That night I made my son his favourite dinner. He helped me, quietly, in the kitchen. I wondered whether he felt ashamed that his mania for the circus had pushed his mother to her death. He said he didn’t. He said he felt a certain ennui. He recognised that at some point in any child’s life one has to accept the fallibility of one’s parents. With me, it was my failure to get a job at the circus, with his mother, it was when she so ineptly made a pig’s ear of an elementary trapeze act. “But,” he said to me, “with you, at least you tried. But Mum? I’m sorry, but she didn’t just miss Craig Boardman’s dad, she was nowhere even near.” He did seem more adult, and I asked him if he was all right, and he said he was, and I think he was lying, but that’s the adult thing to do. I was proud of him, but I didn’t say. And we sat down to eat.

ANDREW KAPLAN

Andrew Kaplan was coming home, at last, and it’d be for a real holiday, not like that time last August when the company called him back to work after only four days’ leave, they’d guaranteed he wouldn’t be needed in until January 5th, that would very nearly give him two weeks. “Great,” his wife had said, when he’d phoned her and told her the good news, and Andrew asked whether his daughter would be excited too, and his wife assured him that she would be. The flight from Boston was packed with British people who’d be getting to see their families, and there was a revelry in the air, nothing too outspoken, nothing drunken or boisterous, they were respectable denizens of middle management – but there were polite smiles everywhere, everyone seemed to be sporting a smile, and the stewardesses were wearing tinsel on their name badges, it all seemed very festive.

The aeroplane took off half an hour late, but Andrew wasn’t too worried, he knew that nine times out of ten any delay is made good in transit. But when the pilot came over the intercom and apologised once again that they were going to have to circle Heathrow for the fourth time – “The runways are all full, everyone wants to get back for Christmas!” – Andrew began to worry about his connecting flight from London to Edinburgh. By the time that all the passengers had filed off the plane and made their way to baggage claim no one was smiling any more. Andrew was almost resigned to the idea that he’d missed the connection, but then he dazedly realised that his suitcase was the first on to the conveyor belt – and that never happened! – and if he ran he might just make it to the check-in desk on time; and so that’s what he did, he ran, and his case was heavy, laden down with so many special presents for his family, but he didn’t let that stop him – he raced down the travelator from terminal three to terminal two, apologising as he pushed other passengers to one side – and it was going to be okay, if he kept up this pace he was going to make it with minutes to spare, and he burst into the departures hall and looked up at the monitors for his flight details – and there they were, it hadn’t taken off yet! – and there was a word in red right beside it, and the word was ‘cancelled’.

And for a moment he felt quite relieved, because it meant he had no reason to run any more, and he’d done his best, hadn’t he? And for another moment he was quite angry. And then he just didn’t feel anything very much, he was just so tired.

No more flights to Scotland tonight. Sorry. Yes, the inconvenience is highly regrettable. There will, of course, be compensation, and somewhere for Mr Kaplan to rest until service resumed in the morning. But Andrew didn’t want an airport hotel, or, God knows, did they just mean some sort of darkened lounge he could sit in? – it’s all he had thought about on the flight over, that after three months away he was going home. He remembered what his wife had said, one of those last times he’d managed to get through to her on the phone – “We’ve never been apart so long before.” He’d asked her whether his daughter was looking forward to Christmas, and his wife had said, “Of course she is, she’s five years old, Christmas is all she thinks about!” And she’d explained that they had already decorated the tree together, and sent out the cards, and been carol singing – all the things they’d always done as a family, and this time he’d been away for them, and she didn’t press that point, she didn’t try to make him feel guilty – but then, she didn’t need to. And Andrew stood in the airport terminal and fumed; by rights he should be flying home right now, by rights he should be somewhere in the air over Birmingham. “I need to get back,” he said to the woman behind the counter, “I need to get back tonight, whatever it takes.” It was Christmas Eve tomorrow, he needed to know that when his daughter woke up on Christmas Eve her father would be there ready for her.

He was told there was a last train to Edinburgh, leaving from Kings Cross station within the hour. He joined the queue for a taxi, then pleaded with the people in front to let him go first, then paid them all ten pounds each. The taxi fare cost him fifty quid, but by this stage of the proceedings Andrew didn’t care about money any more – on the radio there was playing a non-stop medley of Christmas hits, and Andrew wasn’t in the mood for them, and the driver seemed quite put out when Andrew told him to turn them off. Andrew apologised with a healthy tip that used up all his spare cash. Andrew tried to call his wife to tell her he’d be late home, but his mobile phone was confused, it was still hunting for a signal from an American network provider. He asked the taxi driver whether he could use his phone. The taxi driver refused.

He bought a ticket with his credit card. The train was already filling up. He dragged his suitcase down the platform, and carriage after carriage he couldn’t spot an empty seat. He was starting to despair – and there, at the very last compartment, there were seats galore, the train was almost deserted. He couldn’t see why, he looked for a sign that said it was a different class, or required special reservation, but no, nothing. He climbed aboard, heaved his case into the empty luggage rack, plopped himself down wearily into a seat. He had a whole table to himself. He smiled at the people around him – “Pretty lucky!” he said, but they didn’t reply. There were a couple of businessmen sitting together, a young mother with a girl, an elderly mother reading a magazine, a middle-aged man who was asleep. Andrew decided to take his cue from this last passenger; he closed his eyes, and by the time the train pulled out of the station Andrew was snoring gently.

*

“Bang!”

And Andrew was awake, and there was the little girl, and she was leaning over his table as if she owned it, and she was pointing a gun at him, except it wasn’t a gun, it was two fingers, with a third wiggling underneath as a trigger. “Bang! Bang! Bang!”

Andrew wasn’t sure whether to respond or not. With his own daughter he tried to play along as much as possible, no matter what strange pretending game she flung at him, that was what a daddy was supposed to do. But this wasn’t his daughter, and he didn’t know whether he should encourage her, frankly he didn’t know whether he should be talking to her at all. So he sort of half went for it; he clutched at his chest, he said, “Ugh!” quietly, as if he’d been shot, as if he were dying, but it was all a bit pathetic, and even as he did it, Andrew could feel himself blushing red with embarrassment.

The little girl didn’t seem to mind. She looked delighted by this unexpected piece of playacting. “Bang! Bang!” she went, she shot him twice more for good measure, and Andrew didn’t know what he was supposed to do this time, he was already dead, wasn’t he? And she laughed out loud, and then, with a scream, turned and ran down the aisle to the other end of the carriage. She didn’t shoot at any of the other passengers, and Andrew didn’t know how he felt about that, whether he was annoyed or just a little bit proud.

He looked towards the girl’s mother, but she didn’t appear even to have noticed, she was staring dully out of the window. He looked around the rest of the carriage, with a rueful smile – kids! – but no one caught his eye. The old woman was still reading her magazine; the businessmen had run out of things to say, and were looking away from each other; the middle-aged man was still asleep.

Andrew rather envied him, because here came the girl again, running back down the aisle, whooping. Andrew wondered how anyone could sleep through a racket like that.

His head felt muzzy, he knew he was teetering upon the edge of sleep, and if only he could fall in the right direction he’d be dozing soundly all the way home. Why wouldn’t the girl shut up, why wouldn’t she just sit down and shut up – he’d never let his daughter run riot on a train, especially not when it was late at night, especially not when there was a passenger onboard who was clearly fighting jetlag – and he felt a resentment for the mother who was still not doing a thing to help, still just looking out of the bloody window, really! – and he tried to force the resentment down, because he knew if he let it the resentment would keep him awake, it’d growl away at his innards, he’d be unable to relax. And here came the girl again –

“Ssh!” he said, and glared at her, and put his finger to his lips. And she stopped dead, and looked surprised, and a little hurt maybe that her one playfellow, the one person who had given her a damn, had turned against her. Her bottom lip trembled. She began to cry.

“No, no,” said Andrew, “ssh!” And he put his finger to his lips again, but this time with a smiley face, see, all smiles, he wasn’t cross with her, not really. But it was no good. The tears were in full flow now, the girl let out a misery that was profound and was sincere, and was very very loud, she began to scream the place down. He hadn’t realised you could scream tears out like that.

Andrew panicked a bit, looked quickly at the other passengers. But no one seemed to mind. The woman didn’t raise her eyes from her magazine. The businessmen turned their heads in the child’s direction, but with supreme indifference – and then quickly turned away again, as if annoyed that the pair of them had been caught looking at the exact same thing.

And the mother said, very softly, but stern, “Come and sit down.” And for a moment Andrew stupidly thought she might mean him. But the girl sulkily turned, and went back to her seat. “Get out your colouring book. Play with your crayons.” The little girl was still crying, angry little sobs, but she did what she was told. And all the while the mother didn’t so much as glance at her, her attention still upon the window and whatever she could make out from the darkness.

The little girl took out her crayons. She looked down at her colouring book. Grim, not a hint of a smile. The crying had almost dribbled to a halt, there was just the odd little moan punctuated with sudden sniffs. Andrew watched her, carefully; the little girl didn’t seem to notice he was spying on her, but then, then, in one instant she turned her head towards Andrew, right at him – and what was that in her smile? Rage? Triumph? Something adult anyway, something almost sneering, and it made Andrew feel small and ashamed.

And then she was at work with her crayons. She wasn’t colouring anything in, she was attacking the book, stabbing down hard with the bright blue stick, slashing at the page. And now, in her left hand, she produced a yellow crayon, and she was stabbing down with that too, she was showing no mercy, the crying had stopped, she was instead giving grunts of effort as she stabbed as hard as she could. And Andrew realised only he could see this, mother took no interest whatsoever, and Andrew thought he should alert her, because this was wrong, something was terribly wrong – and as the child spattered blue and yellow cuts deep into the paper she looked at him again and he could see there was spit bubbling out of her mouth, was it even foam? And Andrew opened his mouth to say something, he didn’t know what, but before he got the chance –

– the woman had turned from the window. She didn’t look angry, or annoyed, or frustrated – that was the oddness of it – her face looked perfectly composed and neutral. “Enough,” she said, calmly, and stood up, and she was pulling the little girl up too, by the shoulders, and up into her arms. And the little girl began to scream again, and this time it was a scream of fear, she knew she was in trouble now – and the mother didn’t care, she was into the aisle, and carrying the girl up to the other end of the carriage, the girl struggling and kicking and lashing out, and yet for all that still holding on tight to her crayons and her colouring book. And the mother and child were gone.

The sudden silence was a shock. Andrew closed his eyes right away, to see if he could find that drowsiness again, but the silence rang right round his head.

He looked out of the window. It was black out there, just black. He couldn’t see a thing, not a single house, or a tree; it was as if someone had painted over the windows, and there was a glossy shine to the black that began to give Andrew a headache.

Presently the woman came back, and sat down in her seat. Andrew was pleased to see the noisy little girl wasn’t with her.

He closed his eyes again. A couple of minutes later, when he opened them, he saw that one of the businessmen had fallen asleep. He closed his eyes once more; when he opened them, a few minutes after, he saw that the second businessman had succumbed too, and his head was lolling against his partner’s, and they seemed huddled together for warmth and protection. It almost made Andrew laugh out loud – and he decided that he’d like to take a picture of them with his phone, and send it to his wife. She would find it funny, and she could show it to their daughter too! He took out the phone, but it still hadn’t found a signal.

Next time he closed his eyes he wanted to see whether he could make the old woman fall asleep too. But she didn’t, she remained forever glued so sourly to her magazine. Never mind.

The mother was staring out at the blackness of the night.

He wondered where the little girl had got to.

The mother then took a thermos flask out of her bag, and poured herself a cup of tea. She sipped at it, turned back to the window.

Andrew closed his eyes one last time, tried to fall asleep. The train rocked from side to side as it sped down the tracks, it made him feel like a baby, it made him feel drowsy. But all the while he listened out for the return of the little girl, he knew the little girl would be back soon, must be, he was tense with anticipation of the noise she would make.

He refused to open his eyes for a good ten minutes. He kept himself busy by reciting, silently, and in strict chronological order, the captains of the English cricket team since Len Hutton. When he reached the present day, he opened up – and looked – and the girl still hadn’t returned. The mother had put away her tea now, the old woman was still reading, the businessmen and the middle-aged man all still asleep.

Where was she?

He got to his feet. No one looked up. He walked down the aisle to the end of the compartment. The electronic door trundled open for him with a hiss.

The girl wasn’t to be seen. He tried the far door, but it was locked, this was the end of the train. A sign said the toilet was vacant, and Andrew knew that little girls aren’t always very scrupulous about locks. He hesitated, then knocked gently upon the door. “Are you all right?” he called.

There was no answer, and that annoyed him, she must have been in there for twenty minutes now, twenty at the very least, time for him to recite the English cricket team and back again! And he realised he needed the toilet anyway, he hadn’t been since halfway over the Atlantic Ocean, and so when he knocked again it wasn’t just as an interfering busybody, but as a man who had waited long and patiently for the lavatory and was now claiming his due right to pee.

He pushed upon the door, very tentatively, and it swung open, and he peeked his head around the door, fully prepared to make protestations of surprise when he saw the little girl inside – but there was no one there – and he supposed that was a good thing, he hadn’t really wanted the embarrassment of a girl with her undies round her ankles – but where was she then? Where had she got to? And the answer crept over him, and any urine that had been nestling in his bowels froze to ice and was never going to come out now, not ever.

The mother had thrown her overboard. She must have thrown her overboard. She had had enough of her tantrums, and had picked her up, and marched her down the aisle, and to the window, and chucked her out. And he could imagine the little girl’s screams being cut off as she was sucked into the night, and how her body would have fallen down the side of the speeding train, as if she were flying, as if she were a witch, a little witch who’d lost her broomstick, falling until her head smashed against the track.

And then the mother had calmly returned to her seat. And all the while since had been staring out into the blackness. The blackness into which she had tossed her child.

No.

That couldn’t be it.

Think.

He had had his eyes closed. And what had happened, surely – yes – was that the girl had walked past him to the other end of the compartment – tiptoed past, probably, unusually quietly, but girls were peculiar things, weren’t they, maybe she was playing some sort of game? – she was now no doubt terrorising another compartment altogether. And the mother? The mother who had just sat in her seat the whole time (half an hour more like, really) whilst her daughter ran amok somewhere without supervision? That made her a bad parent, perhaps, but he could live with that, he wasn’t the best parent in the world either, was he, was he? She could be a bad parent, that still made more sense than that she was a murderer.

He sighed with relief, and only then realised he’d been holding his breath, that he’d been scared. And he actually went to the toilet; he couldn’t do anything especially useful in there, but he splashed some lukewarm water on to his face, he wiped it off with a paper towel. It was better than nothing, better that than he’d had a wasted journey.

And with full confidence he walked back down the aisle to his seat at the other end of the compartment. And he was going to sit down, he really was, and that would have been the end of the matter – but there was just a moment’s hesitation, the need to satisfy some stupid lingering doubt – or maybe it was something to do with velocity, he was already on a trajectory to the next compartment, why stop short, why not walk straight on and look?

The electronic door wouldn’t open for him. He tugged at it. It wouldn’t budge.

It wasn’t locked, nothing like that, what would be the point? But it was jammed, very definitely jammed, and there was probably nothing suspicious in that, no cause for alarm, it wasn’t as if his compartment had been deliberately segregated from the rest of the train (why on earth did that pop into his head?). But he pulled at the door with all his might, he grunted with the effort. Until he became convinced that all the passengers behind him were watching, and laughing. And then he stopped, and he turned about, and of course no one was watching, no one even cared.

He stood there, bit his lip. Tried to work out what to do.

The girl was small, maybe she was hiding somewhere in the carriage? (Silently, for over half an hour?) He walked down the aisle again, and he looked this way and that, he looked underneath the tables and upon all the rows of seats. And he thought, has she got off? Could she simply have got off? The train hadn’t stopped at any stations yet, it was two hours’ journey until York – but maybe they had reached York; he hadn’t thought he’d fallen asleep when he’d closed his eyes before, but maybe he had without realising it, he was jetlagged to tiny bits, maybe they’d passed a dozen stations and he hadn’t even noticed, maybe the train had stopped and the little girl had got off – late at night – on her own – and her mother had stayed onboard and waved her goodbye – for some reason – and –

“Excuse me,” he said softly to the old woman with the magazine, “has the train stopped anywhere yet?”

The old woman looked up, at last, and stared at him, and she didn’t reply – and it didn’t seem to Andrew that she was being rude, there was utter blankness in that expression, maybe she didn’t understand English? (Although the magazine was in English, wasn’t it?) She continued to stare, she wouldn’t look away.

And he said, “What happened to the little girl?” And at that her mouth began to open, very slowly, it was almost as if he could hear the creak of those old lips parting, and muscles that had lain dormant for so long began to grind as they were forced into action – and suddenly Andrew didn’t want to see what would happen next – he didn’t want to see that mouth open – he didn’t want to see what might be inside – and he whipped his head away from her, he backed off, he fought down a sudden swell of panic and breathed and breathed again and felt his heart steady. He looked back at the old woman, he forced himself to, and she was once more staring intently at her magazine, it was as if he’d never approached her in the first place.

He saw that her eyes weren’t moving, she wasn’t reading anything, it was all staring, just stares. He walked past her and turned around to look at the pages, and saw that across the centrefold was a picture of a young woman, a model, prettier than the old woman could ever have been. He wondered if she’d been gazing upon this one picture for the entire journey. He wondered why.

He went back to the end of the carriage. He pulled down the window, and took a deep breath of fresh air, and felt better.

And he could see that it was possible, look. See how the window opened nice and wide? A little girl could squeeze through there, no problem. He himself could squeeze through, probably, if he hunched his shoulders a bit. That was all it would take, and then he’d be with the girl, they’d both be off this train and the wretched journey would be over. And the blackness was perfect, he could see the beauty of it now, this close up, his face so close it was grazing it. So shiny, new even – and the little girl hadn’t suffered, he could see that now, she had just flown away into the dark and would never have hit the ground, the wind so fast and carrying her off safely. And he knew then that he would do it too. He would do it. He would do it. He would step out into the blackness. He would do it. He would never see his wife or daughter again, but then, was he ever going to have seen them anyway, what, really? Because he couldn’t believe that, he couldn’t picture that, the three of them together, around a Christmas tree, laughing, hugging, it was beyond imagining, it seemed so fake – and there was nothing fake about the blackness, that was the only truth, why not accept it? He would do it. And the wife and daughter might be sad, for a bit, he wondered if they would. But they’d never find his body, it’d be lost within the black. – And he wondered whether his luggage at least would make it home, he had Christmas presents for his family, he’d like them to have something nice to open on the big day.

He stepped forward. He felt something hard under his foot. He toyed with it for a moment, rolled it under his sole, then frowned, wondering what it was. He lifted the foot to see.

There were two crayons. One blue, one yellow.

He picked them up. He looked at them for a while.

When he walked back into the compartment the lights seemed dimmer somehow. As if the darkness had seeped in from somewhere, or was it just because he was tired? Because he was so tired. And the old woman was asleep now, her head slumped awkwardly, uncomfortably, and she’d dropped her magazine on the floor – and Andrew thought he should pick it up for her, but he never wanted to go near her again, and as he passed her down the aisle he pressed his body hard against the opposite row of seats.

Everyone was asleep. Except the mother, who was no longer looking out of the window, she was looking at him. And smiling.

“Ssh,” she said, and she put her finger to her lips. “Let’s not wake them.”

“No,” said Andrew.

She tapped at the seat next to her. “Come and sit down,” she said. And Andrew did.

*

The woman took out her flask and poured herself a tea. She asked whether Andrew would like one. He thanked her, said no. And she nodded at that, as if that was what she’d been expecting, and smiled, and sipped at her tea, and looked back out of the window again, as if her audience with Andrew was at an end.

Andrew felt he should leave her, get up, return to his own seat. But he felt so heavy.

He was still holding the crayons, bunched together tight in his fist.

“Excuse me,” he said, and the woman looked at him. “Excuse me,” he said again, and held the crayons out to her.

He wondered what she’d do. Whether the woman would look shocked. Or remorseful. Whether she’d get violent, or cry, or confess. But her face didn’t change at all, it was most disappointing.

“Is that some sort of Christmas present for me?” she said.

“Yes,” said Andrew. “No. I mean. For your daughter.”

“Do you have a daughter?”

“Yes.”

“Then why don’t you give your presents to her?” And her eyes twinkled, because she was teasing him – was she teasing him?

“No,” he said. “I mean. You don’t, I. I thought. I think your daughter may have dropped them.”

She took them from him then, looked at them hard, studied them even. “I don’t think these can be my daughter’s,” she concluded finally, and handed them back.

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t have a daughter.”

Any more, thought Andrew – he dared her to say it, any more. “Oh,” he said.

The woman smiled. And went back to the window.

“No,” said Andrew. “I mean. Hey.”

She looked back.

“You don’t have…?” – and he so much wanted to ask directly, he’d seen her with her, hadn’t he, the whole carriage had – although he knew that if he woke them up they would all deny it, he knew that with sudden cold certainty, if they even talked to him, if they even acknowledged him at all. He wanted to say, but I saw you with the girl, the girl you got rid of, what did you do to her? And instead he said, “You don’t have a daughter? Well, have, have you ever wanted one?”

The woman raised her eyebrows at that, amused, and Andrew blushed.

“I don’t have anyone,” she said. And she held his gaze this time, daring him to contradict her – but, no, it wasn’t that, she wasn’t daring him at all, she spoke with the confidence of utter truth, she knew he wouldn’t contradict her, why would he try?

“I’m sorry,” said Andrew. “So, you’ve no one to spend Christmas with?”

“No.”

“I’m sorry.” And he felt an urge to invite her home, she could stay with his family, she could be his family, he felt it rise up inside him, if he had been breathing more freely then it might even have popped out.

She stared out at the night. He stared at it too. And it seemed to him they were hurtling through a void, they were nowhere at all, nowhere, that the tracks would end and the train would fall into the void deeper and deeper and they would be lost, it seemed to him this may have already happened.

“Are you seeing your family for Christmas?” she asked.

And he told her.

He told her of the presents he had for them in his suitcase. For his daughter he had some dolls bought specially in Boston, all of them famous figures from the American Revolution, she wouldn’t find them anywhere else! And for his wife he’d picked up some perfume at duty free. But now these gifts felt a bit paltry. What would his daughter want with a figurine of Paul Revere? But little girls were so good at playing games, weren’t they, he had seen her have hours of fun with a cardboard box, she had pretended it was a car, and a dinosaur, and a spaceship, and she’d said to Andrew, play with me, pretend with me – but Andrew wasn’t very good at pretending, when his daughter shot him with her fingers and Andrew fell over he always tried a bit too hard and he was sure she was embarrassed by his efforts; she had taken that cardboard box, pretended it was a time machine, and a zoo, and a father, he’d come home once and she’d got a box and was pretending it was him. He didn’t know what to do with his own daughter, and each time she’d grown, and aged, and changed. And what would his wife want with perfume? But he had a better present for them, something he couldn’t wrap, should he tell? He’d be coming home for good. For good. No, not this time, but soon, very soon. Because for the last year and a half he’d been doing these trips to the States, and his wife had said to him, you’re missing out on your daughter’s childhood! and he had said, but it’s my job, I have to go where they tell me, do you think I have any choice? But now he was coming home for good, by April he’d be back in Britain, they said some time in the spring, it’d be May at the latest. He’d be home, and his wife had said, you’re not only running out on her childhood, you’re running out on me – and she wouldn’t be able to say that any more. She wouldn’t be able to complain about a bloody thing. And when he told them both, and he’d tell them on Christmas morning, he’d keep it as a proper present, how happy they would be! Because his wife was wrong, he wasn’t trying to avoid her, that was ridiculous, he loved her, he was pretty sure he loved her, being at home with her again would take some adjustment but it would be worth it. He was scared. Of course he was scared. He couldn’t remember his wife’s name. How odd. The jetlag. His own wife’s name, and he was fairly certain she’d had one. He couldn’t remember his daughter’s name. He wondered whether he might have written them down somewhere, maybe they were on his mobile phone, along with the names of his bosses and his secretarial staff and all his clients, but no – no – he’d call them now, he’d ask – but there was still no signal, the phone said it couldn’t find a network provider. And he was scared, because he knew when he got home there would be that conversation, because that conversation always happened when he got back, sooner or later. And when he’d tried calling his wife recently she’d been so curt with him, she sounded so very far away – and when he told her he’d be home for Christmas for a whole two weeks she sounded almost sarcastic – “Great,” she’d said – that was all – “Great.” And she never let his daughter come to the phone any more, she was too busy being asleep in bed or playing with cardboard boxes or being dead. And he knew then. Oh God, he knew then. His wife didn’t love him. Not any more. She had once. Not any more. And his daughter. His daughter, his daughter was dead. She was dead. And his wife hadn’t even told him! She hadn’t told him, because he was in Boston, what good would it do? She hadn’t told him because she was angry with him, she’d had a daughter, and she’d slipped through his fingers, she’d got lost in the blackness of the night. Though, to be fair, maybe she had told him, didn’t he remember that time – wasn’t there a phone call – wasn’t there a conversation, and a lot of tears, and he’d had to go to a meeting, they were waiting for him, he wasn’t going to listen to this shit, “Bastard!” she’d said, she’d screamed her tears out, he hadn’t realised you could scream tears out like that, “now, now,” he’d said, “I’ll be home for Christmas, we can talk about it properly then.” “Great,” she’d said. Oh God. Oh God. He’d had a daughter, and she was lost, and he was lost too.

The woman who had never been a mother and had never had a daughter took his hand. She smiled. She asked if he would like that cup of tea now. He said yes.

“Wipe away your tears,” she said.

“Yes.”

She poured him a cup. It was steaming hot. It tasted bitter.

“You get some sleep,” she said. “Don’t you worry. I’ll wake you when you get home.”

“Yes. Thank you. Yes.”

He settled back in his seat. It felt so soft suddenly, and it was peaceful, there wasn’t a sound. And the train rocked from side to side as it sped down the void, it made him feel like a baby, it made him feel drowsy.

“Can I keep the presents?” she asked. He didn’t know what she meant for a moment. “The crayons?” He gave them to her. She put them in her pocket. She smiled again, took his hand again, squeezed it. She let him sleep.

*

It wasn’t the woman who woke him up. It was a station guard, shaking his shoulder gently. “Come on, mate, end of the line,” he said. There was no one else in the compartment, and the lights were on full. “Come on, some of us have Christmas to get home to!”

Andrew fetched his luggage from the rack. It felt lighter than he remembered. He stepped out on to the platform. Edinburgh was icy, and wet, and right, and home, and he breathed the air in, and felt awake.

He caught a taxi. The taxi driver was playing a medley of Christmas songs. Andrew didn’t mind.

He couldn’t find his keys. He hammered at the front door. “Let me in!” he cried. And then, to take the desperation out of his voice, “Let me in, it’s Santa Claus!”

And his wife opened up. There she was. Oh, there she was.

“Do you love me?” he said, and he could see that she did, her eyes shone with it, he hadn’t realised how very obvious love could look. “I love you,” he told her, “I love you,” and decided not to add that he couldn’t remember her name.

“Where is our daughter?” he said. “Is she all right? Is she alive?”

He didn’t wait for an answer, he ran up the stairs, ran to the bedroom. His daughter was in bed, and stirred at his noise. “Daddy?” she said. She rubbed at her eyes. “Daddy? Is it really you?”

“Yes,” he said, “yes, darling, I’m home, I’m home, and I’m never leaving again!” He wouldn’t leave, sod the job, sod Boston, he’d found something he thought had been lost, he wouldn’t let go. And she was better than he remembered, she’d reached the age at last where he would never feel uncomfortable with her, or anxious, she was perfect, she was shiny, what luck.

He pulled her out of bed, right by the shoulders, held her, hugged her, and he kissed her head and he kissed her hair. And he knew her name, it was all right. She smelled to him of earth, and mud, and dead leaves, but it was all right. He rocked her in his arms. And after a while he stopped, but the rocking just kept on going, and he didn’t know what it was.