#FridayFlash: Mono No Aware

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monoWith slow precision, Yuko pressed the knife down through the white roll of narutomaki. With each pass of the blade, a delicate sliver of gelatinous fish paste fell to the chopping board, exposing the pink spiral at its centre. She lifted the noodles from the rolling pan of broth and placed them in two white bowls. Scattering a handful of spring onions, she stopped to admire the colours of the emerald rings nestling in the golden steaming tangles. Beauty, she thought,
was often found in the simplest and most impermanent of places.

“Mono no aware” her grandmother had called it – an understanding of the beauty in the sadness of things. “Always remember Yuko,” she had said as they sat on the riverbank, trailing their toes in the lapping waters of the Tama “the cherry blossom is at its most beautiful when it’s falling.” Twenty years ago, plum juice trickling down her chin, although she could not give words to it then, Yuko had understood.
She wrapped the fish roll in foil and walked to the fridge. As she opened the door her eyes caught the crumpled note that hung from a magnet. The words were already cut into her memory; “I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox”.
Something was wrong between them. After eighteen months as a couple and six months sharing the same space, domestic bliss had faded into a complacent emptiness. When she and Hiro had first moved in together, even when silent, the apartment seemed full of laughter.
Now the silence of their evenings was not the hush of contentment but an echoing void of disconnection. It felt as if all that there was to be said had been said.
His theft of the plums was indicative of this malaise; a small thoughtless action, but one that had disturbed her disproportionately. It wasn’t just the fruit that had been taken from her, but a morning ritual, a moment of quiet with which she would armour herself against a day in a city of perpetual noise and motion. After Hiro left each morning she would stand on the balcony high above Harumi Island and search the distant haze for the white crown of Mount Fuji. Here she would eat two plums, the taste reminding her of the days spent with her grandmother
watching the cherry blossom fall.

Could Hiro not have seen the fruit as anything other than food? Did they see the world in such opposing terms? Was the space they shared now all they had left in common?

The sound of a key turning disturbed her thoughts.In the hallway they kissed efficiently and after a brief report of their days’ activities, together they carried the meal to the table. The ramen was gone in five minutes, devoured in silence.
She cleared the bowls away and returned from the kitchen with two plums that she had bought at the supermarket that afternoon and placed one purposefully in front of each of them before sitting down again.

Hiro looked puzzled; their usual dessert during the week was a shared tray of fruits or jellies.

“I had plums for breakfast.”

“I know you did.” She tried to hide the sharpness in her voice but a hint of acidity caused him to raise an eyebrow.

“What do you think of when you taste a plum?” she asked.

He lifted the fruit to his mouth, closed his eyes and bit down. A squeak of enamel on the polished skin, then a wet crunch as his teeth pierced the fruit. He chewed thoughtfully, swallowed and opened his eyes.

“Winter is coming.”

It was her turn to offer a questioning gaze.

Without breaking eye contact, he leaned back in the chair.

“Have you noticed how the taste of plums changes with the seasons?” he asked, “Like the way that the mountain comes out of the haze when the air starts to cool. You can tell the time of year from that, you can tell the season from the taste of a plum.”

She nodded for him to continue.

”In Spring they’re sharp and perfumed, like bitter blossoms. They bite back like they’re not ready to go. In the summer they mellow, they’re sweeter and easier but after they’ve gone down they leave a slight sting in your mouth. But these ones are the best.”

He took another bite and held the dripping fruit up between them.

“The Autumn plums are the sweetest and the richest. They’re ready to say goodbye and their taste  is a gift of thanks for their long life – beautiful but sad.”

Yuko looked into Hiro’s eyes and there she saw what she had always loved – a sensitivity to the small things.

“Mono no aware.” She said.

He nodded.

“The sadness of things”

She leaned over the table and pressed her lips against his. In this connection she tasted in the lingering juices, the beauty, the sadness and the plum’s final gift of thanks.

The next morning before he left, she handed him a plum and led him by the hand to the balcony. In silence they stood eating, their free hands clasped between them. As they savoured the sweet juice, they could see the feint outline of Mount Fuji rising like a ghost through the haze in the distance.

Winter was coming.

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#Friday Flash: Easter

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Three brightly painted eggs sat on the windowsill, colours bleached to silver by the moonlight. Symbols of the Resurrection, his mother had said. But instinct told Jack they were tokens of something darker, wilder and older than the Bible stories.

He had always feared the nocturnal intruders that crept with supposedly benign intent into bedrooms. While the other kids at school talked excitedly of coins and stockings, Jack knew that the Tooth Fairy had pliers and Santa had claws. But it was the thought of the Spring visitor that froze his blood.

He pulled the covers tightly over his head. As any child knows, if you can’t see it, it can’t see you. Barely breathing, he listened for the creak of floorboards as the scraping footsteps crept closer.

Creak. Creak. Creak.

Then silence.

Jack waited…and exhaled. Could he have survived another year?

Slowly he lowered the covers.

And screamed.

Long twitching ears and a bone-white eyeless face cracked by a crescent grin. Two rows of jagged shark teeth splitting wide to receive him.

Then silence.

On Easter morning, while Mr Williams made a frantic call, his wife sat dumbfounded and weeping on their son’s empty bed. The detectives were baffled – there was no sign of a break-in, but no trace of the boy either.

Over the following months they scoured their memories for any detail they might have missed. They never gave the slightest thought to the four painted eggs that still sat on the windowsill.

#FridayFlash: An Escape

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On the concrete walkway outside I can hear the lads shouting, but that doesn’t matter. They can’t hurt us any more. I ignore them and carry on.

A film of sweat coating his naked body glitters in the candlelight. His chest a golden landscape of ridges and shadowy valleys where the flames illuminate the contours of his ribs. I dip the brush in the china bowl and start to paint the symbols on his chest, the same screed of secret names and impossible numbers that he’s already scrawled on me.

“We’ll be alright, won’t we?” His voice is heavy, slow and slurred. The drug’s already taking hold.

I silence him with a soft kiss of confirmation. He tastes of bile and cinnamon.

I continue painting. With each stroke of the brush he lets out a gentle whimper through barely parted lips – he always was so ticklish.

I finish tracing the last few lines and concentrate, holding back the fog for a last few moments to check that everything has been done according to the instructions. I place the ink and brush on the floorboards next to the spoon and empty syringes. I’m careful not to break the chalk circle

I lay my head on his chest listening to his heartbeat slowing.

As my eyelids succumb to heaviness, I wonder how long it’ll take them to find us. But that’s not important. Tomorrow we’ll be back. Reborn and dancing in the stars.

And we’ll piss on this stinking city from above.

Angels of the Rain – Audio Version

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Thanks to my old mate Richard Watkins, I’m overjoyed to present the audio version of “Angels of the Rain”. Looks like Rick and I will be doing some more collaborations in the future, so watch this space or follow the project on Soundcloud. Download, listen, enjoy and share.

The Mercy Beat

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There’s a high wind blowing and the stars are shining bright. Heading south, chasing the storm, hotwire trails of taillights stretching out ahead of me, spinning rubber throwing up blooming coronas of light in wet Tarmac spray. Impatiently tense, I’m drumming on the steering wheel along to skittering electronic bleeps broadcast by some late night DJ – a counterpoint to the soft rhythmic pulse of motorway lights above, marking out the beat as they flash past. Not far to go, but far enough for the adrenaline to build and curdle. Foot to the floor. Fight or flight? No option but to punch ahead. We both know what it’s going to come to. Kill or be killed.

Five years we’ve been playing this game of hunter and hunted. Five years since the diary fell like a stone slab through the letter box. Leather bound and battered, ‘2001’ in worn gold letters on the front. This was ‘96.

A joke present from a friend, I thought, alluding to the popular myth that I was unable to be on time for anything. But no, no one knew anything about it. It sat by the phone for days until, distractedly leafing through it while listening to tinny hold muzak, I found an entry on the page for June 23rd.

“Midnight. You’ll know where.”

The phone dropped from my hand, swinging on tangled cord. Waves of disconnected but tantalisingly clear images rushed past, déjà vu for the past or fractured shards of some future memories vanishing like smoke as soon as they formed, leaving insubstantial imprints, impossible to recall or understand. Swimming in a spiral of vertigo and nausea I collapsed on the chair and held the book to my face at the open page, inhaling a scent of salt and hot sugar, as fleeting as the memories but a physical enough sensation to recall.

Back on the road the car approaches a footbridge. Two kids stand above the traffic, ghetto blaster between them. Arms raised, fists clenched in a gesture of triumph or defiance, they’re still assured of their immortality, holding their faces against the howling wind, the rush of traffic and the passage of time. As I pass under, a glimpse of a third figure, shadow of the long coat and broad-brimmed hat. Here already?

I first saw him two weeks after receiving the diary, standing on the corner of Great Newport Street, long coat defining a triangular silhouette lit up in a rainbow of arcade-neon glow. Just a glance, then gone. Logic said just another West End flâneur prowling the streets of Soho on a Saturday night in search of chance encounters and intoxication. Yet deep inside my subconscious, a silent voice told me he was something more. Something out of place and out of time. Primal instinct raised the hairs on the back of my neck and my flesh crawled, gooseflesh and sweat painting my skin with fear.

Then again, six months later, a shadow disappearing behind a stall on Dean Street market. Not that the appearance of the same person twice in a week should seem odd, particularly in Soho, but again a tide of fear and recognition crashed upon me and left me reeling and retching, tongue stained bitter with bile.

From then on, his appearances became more frequent, first monthly, then weekly and by the beginning of 2001, it was almost a daily occurrence, on the tube, in galleries, at gigs – always on the periphery, half in, half out of view, face hidden by darkness and each time the fear gripped me with an increasing depth and sharpness like a scalpel scraping on my bones.

As the days lengthened, my obsession with the stalker had led me to give up my job. I was sleeping fitfully through the days, venturing out into the city at night, stalking the streets for my tormentor fuelled by nervous energy and vodka. Some nights I’d see him in the distance, a crow-black figure darting among the crowds, other nights he was closer – a sudden glimpse before he disappeared down an alley and by June all reason had deserted me and finally a course of action became clear.

I’m snapped out of recollection by a sharp bend in the road, just in time I turn the wheel, the tires screaming on the wet road beneath me. As I straighten up I can see the curved silhouettes of the South Downs ahead, the storm clouds hanging over the sea lit up dirty orange by the grubby pleasure beach lights of Brighton. I fumble for a cigarette and as I contort to reach my lighter, the handle of the knife in my pocket digs into my side, I take it out and place it on the passenger seat next to the gun.

Two weeks ago, meeting Richard in a bar. “A gun? What makes you think…”
“Come on Rick, with your connections it can’t be difficult.”
He shifts uncomfortably in his chair.
“Look Adam, I don’t mind sorting you and your mates out, but I’m dancing on the edge of what I feel comfortable with anyway. What kind of trouble are you in?”
“Can’t say, I just need some protection.”
Rich stares into my eyes, holding my gaze as long as he can bear.
“Shit. You’re serious.” he pulls a scrap of paper out and scribbles a name and number before sliding it across the table to me.

A week later I’m fishing the plastic bag out of a toilet cistern in the Tartarus bar, weaving my way out through the crowd of drinkers, timing it right to avoid the gaze of the plain clothes cop sat at a table grilling a skinny rent boy. As I leave, the shadow’s waiting for me on the corner of Old Compton Street. The temptation to end it there and then was overwhelming, but this was too exposed, too public. For the first time he acknowledged my presence, touching the brim of his hat with two fingers in a salute before slinking into the darkness of an alley and evaporating.

Finally I reach the seafront in Brighton. I park up by a parade of shops set back from a loggia of iron pillars and arches, duck-egg green paint peeling under the onslaught of wind and waves, colour sickened by neon. I leave the car, not bothering to lock it. The stormfront’s coming in across the channel, I can smell the static in the air, copper taste of blood and ozone fills my lungs as the pressure drops and the sea breeze banishes the cloying summer humidity. The wind is picking up, licking the edges of tarpaulin covering a merry-go-round. Pulled from the ropes holding it in place it flaps against the gaudy paintwork, the word “Pleasure” over-elaborated in fading gold leaf above a leering clown’s face.

Ahead of me the ironwork frame of the Palace Pier stretches out into the foaming water – a maze of girders and wrought ironwork decorated with a thousand twinkling bulbs that rotate and vibrate on fairground rides. Shouts and screams of late night pleasure seekers carried on the wind with that familiar scent of brine, boiling chip fat and candy floss. From my overcoat I pull the bottle of vodka and take a deep swig, the tasteless spirit warming me and sharpening what remain of my senses.

I walk along the promenade until the voices of the tourists fade into the distance and the rain starts to blow in from the sea. Driven by the wind the water batters the white façade of Regency terraces that mark the boundary between man and nature. To reduce my exposure to the wind that’s now threatening to knock me into the road that runs alongside the coast, I walk down a set of slippery concrete steps to the beach. My feet slip against the pebbles darkened to gunmetal grey by the receding scum-foamed waves.

A tide mark of deposited flotsam, bottles, carrier bags, stained ropes and condoms, sketches a trail along the wet stones. I have no choice but to follow. Ahead of me the West Pier rises, creaking out of the water, once a palace of glamour, now a rusting skeletal home to flocks of starlings whose rasping, chittering shrieks pierce the roar of the ocean and storm.

Ahead of me on the beach, just out of reach of the crashing waves, lays the wooden shell of an ancient fishing skiff. On the prow, under mottled clouds of slime, the faint outlines of stencilled letters reveal its name – “The Mercy” and from a rowlock a fraying rope leads to grids of iron girders under the old Victorian ballroom. Through the driving rain I can see him standing on the walkway, hands grasping the railings.

The storm’s now lashing the beach, drenching the shore and turning the field of pebbles into glass jewels sparkling by the glow of the promenade lights. Driven on by some fatalistic impulse I clamber into the boat, my hands splintered by the planks half rotted by salt and time.

Pulling the rope I drag the boat, creaking and cracking across the torrent, it’s not far to go, but the wind clutches at the rope pulling it through my hands, the spray coating the fibres driving salt into the blisters developing on my palms. I struggle to drag the vessel to the iron ladder that hangs down from the pier’s structure. Finally reaching it I stretch up and grasp the rust-scabbed surface of the bottom rung, as I pull myself up the current smashes the boat against the pylons . No turning back now.

As I reach the top of the groaning ladder, I feel a movement at my hip and turn quickly just in time to see the diary slipping from my pocket. Though I have no need of it now, superstition deep inside imbues the battered book with some talismanic power that I have to cling to and I make a futile grasp in the air too late as it falls to the swirling waters below, disappearing into the sea among the matchwood wreck of The Mercy. Unbalanced by this action, my feet slip from the rungs and I’m dangling by one aching hand, the spray-heavy gale threatening to dislodge me and send me the same way as the book and boat. Every is muscle screaming in agony, but survival instinct kicks in and flailing my free hand I finally beat the combined assault of the wind and gravity, catching hold of the eroded maintenance hatch above me, the sharp metal edges carving a gash in my palm. I swing my feet back onto the ladder and rest for a few seconds, blood starting to stream down my arm blossoming on wet skin. I haul myself up through the hatch onto the decking and lay, gasping like shipwrecked sailor.

Slowly, aching, I climb to my feet, and walk through a doorway into the crumbling remains of the Ballroom. As I enter the building, a ripple of cackling excitement sweeps through the court of starlings that perch on the shit spattered rafters above.

He’s standing with his back to me, staring out through the ballroom window across the channel, coat flapping in the wind that howls through the shattered glass panes. Reaching into my pocket I feel the handle of the knife.

“You know that’s not going to work.” his voice is as I expected it, flat, expressionless. “There’s only one way this can end.” A dizzying wave of recognition and more pieces fall into place. I remember there’s no way out of this.

Even so I raise the blade and advance. He stays motionless, as I slowly walk towards his turned back, my feet crunching on the window fragments that litter the floor . When in striking distance I bring my arm down towards a point at the base of his neck, but before the knife connects with its target, a double flash of lightning strobes movement to slo-mo and he feints to the left. The blade tears through time-brittled leather, cutting the flesh below before glancing off his shoulder blade. As I lash out again, his hand whips backwards, a streak of light in the gloom, and a wet gash opens on my arm and my weapon falls clattering amongst the iron rivets holding the rotten floorboards together. Salt spray sting screaming like iodine on the open wound. Above us the starlings croak and scream, circling like vultures.

This is the closest I’ve got to him and now I see that his face is masked by a black fabric hood, eyes peering through a slit, voice muffled.

“Why fight? You know how this ends. You remember.”

“I know how, I just don’t know why and that’s why I’m fighting”

He shrugs.

“Does there have to be a reason? Would you take some comfort from a grain of logic in this situation? Would it make it easier for you to believe that you’re something more than the rest of the frightened animals shivering in the dark? Surely now you realise that none of this makes sense. Just one of the universe’s bad jokes. Do you really think you can go back on your decisions now?”

“Please.” I’m begging now, screaming above the wind, the creaking of the corroded joists and the waves crashing below. “You don’t have to do this. We can walk away now.” but even as I speak I remember his response.

He shakes his head.

“We made our choices when we started playing this game.”

As the truth of the situation dawns on me, I fall to my knees, but in desperation, fighting against the inevitable, I reach inside my sodden jacket for the gun. Pulling it out I point it towards him, the cold metal weighing heavy in my trembling hands as he advances.  My heart’s thumping, the blood pounding in my ears like the drumbeat of a dirge, the blisters, cuts and grazes pulsing out pain like morse code.  I’m breathing hard and fast, all my body’s rhythms matching the cacophony of nature.

He inclines his head, questioning.

“Interesting. Is that your final move?”

The scar on my shoulder starts to throb and all resistance and energy deserts me. I lower the gun.

“At least let me see your face.”

He nods and as he reaches up to the mask, I raise the gun to my own head, the cold wet steel pressing hard against my temple. The mask falls to the floor and finally, here at the end we’re face to face, victor and victim united in the final gambit of an insane game that neither of us had any hope of escaping since the first move was played. A sense of peace descends on me as outside the storm abates.

“You win.” he says.

I gaze up into his face, into my own eyes and pull the trigger.

(Inspired by The The’s The Mercy Beat. Photo by Peter Beck)

Angels of the Rain

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I’m always thankful for the rain on nights like this. Warm and heavy, it cleans away the pollutants that stick to your skin after a day on the streets like a greasy film of Vaseline. Seeking shelter I zigzag down the street from awning to awning, brief punctuations in the torrent until I reach the alleyway.

Down here in a maze of sodden litter, the pavement is pitted with potholes, miniature seas of black oily water swirling rainbow currents disrupted by islands of scummy froth and dog-ends. In a window above, bedsit silhouette of naked girl, smoking and weeping. Fluorescent light behind her throws a cone of dirty yellow beams down through fire escapes, a cage of light sketched onto the red brick walls scarring the babble of paint sprayed tags and slogans with no more meaning than territorial pissings.

“Voidboy”, “dave7”, “Nuthin is ultra”.

The door of Tartarus is unassuming, unmarked. Gateway of cracks in peeling red paint camouflaged against the crumbling grids of decaying mortar. Simple entry procedure; you knock, hatchway slides back and you’re fixed to the spot by a freezing gaze as she sizes you up. They call her Medusa, a ferocious muscular bull-dyke with eyes that would make a plague rat curl up and die. She welcomes me with a sneer of recognition, sharp tourettic twitch of the head wordlessly directing me upstairs. I abandon all hope and enter.

The kid’s already here. Sat at a table by the window, he’s staring out into the night, bottle of some chemical blue kindergarten cocktail in one hand, the other reaching up to tame a ragged piss-blonde fringe away from his eyes. Under the table, one knee’s bouncing along double time to the soft slow dirty beat of scratchy sampled blues that hangs in the air like a failing pulse.

No need to approach just yet. Check out the room, watch him react. Match subject with surroundings, map cause and effect. Take my time.

Above the bar, an antique print of a Doré illustration from the Inferno, a relic of the days Tartarus was a haven for the literati. The old gang of lettered rakes and dilettantes are now long gone, so the reference is as unheeded as the club’s name, but still Virgil and Dante stare down on the flatterers drowning in shit.

To get out of the boy’s direct line of sight, I move around the edge of the bar behind a group ofSohomedia bohos who are leaning against the chipped formica, braying and yelping. All Cahartt, Abercrombie and hair gel, they’re nothing more than hedonism tourists as full of saccharin and baby milk as the cheap cut coke caked in dried snot round their nostrils. They’re not regulars, but their tribe are always in here, wearing the same uniform, rubbing up against the underworld to attain enough of a taint to make them feel edgy but never really diving in.

“Found this great bar last night, full of whores and thieves. So real man, so real.”

They pause from knocking back candy coloured vodka shots as I pass, eyeing me with nervous suspicion. They may be fresh off the tit, but they can still taste the stink of a badge when it gets close enough.

The regulars know that I’m murder not vice, not interested in their petty deals and pleasures. Pills and powders, booze and skin, it’s all the same to me, just different commodities on one side of an equation of need, we consume therefore we are. But these kids don’t know that, and they turn the volume down to whispers, self-consciously flicking manicured fingers under their noses to shift the residue of Columbian Cow and Gate.

From my new vantage point I can watch the boy’s sepia tinted reflection in the nicotine-smeared mirror behind the bar. He’s looking round scanning the room for me, or maybe potential customers. A young entrepreneur is never off the clock. Unnoticed I’m now free to continue my observations.

Stick-thin arms poke from a faded blue t-shirt, and worn jeans a couple of sizes too big hang on his hips even when seated. But malnutrition hasn’t quite yet eaten away the puppy fat from his face and a cherubic roundness smothers all but the ghosts of cheekbones making him look younger than he probably is. It’s a look that goes down well with his target market. Even from this distance I can see him shaking. Withdrawal pangs are pinching at his nervous system.

I catch Denny’s eye. He’s been behind the bar at Tartarus about five years. Late twenties, used to be a street boy, one of the rising stars of the nocturnal economy, but then his pimp found out he was holding out on him and got him on the wrong end of a can of battery acid. From the right angle, in the right light, you can still see the beauty that made him the best cut on the Piccadilly meat rack, but now he’s only got one nostril, the other dissolved. An intricate web of scar tissue creeps like a skeletal hand across his right cheek and top lip. In truth he’s probably better off, he’s got a home now and a regular income which he supplements with tips and the occasional high price trick he turns for a select clientele with a taste for the grotesque.

No words spoken, but he sticks a double whiskey in front of me. I knock it straight back. Tastes like the air in the room smells. Old sweat, mildewed wood and pheromones. Catches the back of your throat, sharp and rough like drinking powdered glass and bitter aloes. Good kick, makes you focus.

With two fingers I beckon and Denny pours again, this time though I stop him with a glance.

“And a brandy”

He nods and turns back to the optics. A clank of glass against glass and he puts another tumbler in front of me. As before, no money changes hands.

I walk slowly across the room through the smoke to the table where the boy’s sitting. Standing behind him, I reach over and put the glass down on the table.

“Here.”

He looks back over his shoulder and up at me, curtain of fringe swaying over his red-rimmed eyes. A look of, what? Relief? A plea for help? Whatever, he’s trying to mask it with a thin skin of bravado.

I walk round to the opposite side of the table and sit directly across from him, mimicking the arrangement of the interview rooms back at the station.

He glances at the Star Wars watch that hangs loosely on his wrist in a tangle of wire bangles and plaited leather thongs.

“You’re late.” he says. Voice flat. Middle-class south eastern standard only slightly coarsened by his time in the city

“Got somewhere else to be?”

“No, it’s just.. I mean..” he trails off, not wanting to say what’s on his mind. Mask slips, frightened eyes cast down into his glass.

“Time is money yeah? Listen kid, you’re gonna earn more for half an hour talking to me than for ten turns getting your arse wrecked up against the wall in some piss drenched alley.” He recoils. It’s brutal and blunt, but there’s a strategy. Confront him with the truth of his existence. Punch a hole in the armour he’s built around himself.

He mumbles a “Sorry.” still not looking up. I soften my tone and reach out a hand to his.

“Look, what’s important is that we catch whoever sliced up your friend, and if you give me some decent information, I’ll double what we said, then you can take the night off and maybe even get yourself some new clothes. Wouldn’t that be good?”

This does trick. Mask falls to the ground. He looks up and meets my gaze with an almost smile.

“Yeah.” he lifts the brandy to his lips and takes a swig. He blinks, surprised at the strength of the spirit, but then relaxes as the warmth begins to spread, softening the gnawing bite of cold turkey and steadying his hand.

Up close, I study his face for more details. He’s not that long on the street, fresh enough that his eyes aren’t yet fully dulled, but long enough that they’re ringed with dark circles of exhaustion, the left with a slight tinge of purple fading to yellow. His mouth is slightly pushed out, the practiced pout of his profession now second nature. Thick as velvet ropes, his lips are kissed with crystalline scabs of drying blisters, marking him out as a hive of infection. A map of scars and tracks trail up his skinny arms.

“So then, tell me about Matt.”

He nods down at the table over the top of the glass.

“Aren’t you going to take notes, or record this or something?”

“Off the record. And I don’t think these guys would appreciate it anyway.” I flick my eyes round the room.

“Oh yeah.” He half-laughs into his brandy, ackowledging his naivety.

“So then. Matt?”

He draws in breath and looks out of the rain streaked window, thinking of what to say. Without turning back he starts.

“We lived together, in the squat. He was my… I…” Too quickly the sob catches in his throat, “I loved him.” He steadies his voice. ”We had plans. Saving money for a proper place” His head’s still turned, trying not to let me see the tears, but red, bar-lamp light glints on jewels of brine gathering in the corner of his eyes.

It’s a story I’ve heard before. It’s not love, just misrecognised companionship as a shield against the storm, just two souls stitched together by grasping comfort as they’re thrown about in the whirlwind. And the plans? Just fragile ghosts of hope that’ll dissolve over time in a tide of tears, spunk and blood.

But I play sympathy and nod reassuringly.

“Had he made any enemies on the street?”

He turns back from the window, but doesn’t meet my eyes.

“No, he was sweet, gentle, funny. He was never in any trouble, well apart from..” he hesitates, unable to give a name to it, that would make it just a bit too real, “what we do..I mean did.”, his eyes are glassing over again, ”Everyone loved him.”

“Dealers?”

Instinctively he hugs his arms around himself, a tight straight jacket embrace to hide the needle tracks. He shakes his head firmly.

“He didn’t do any of that. Not even weed. He hated it when I…” he stops himself before the admission.

“Shot up?”

A short staccato nod, and his arms unfold onto the table, no need now for concealment. Another layer of armour falls away and the tears flow freely. I pass him a fast-food napkin from my pocket.

“I need to go..” a tilt of the head towards to door to the gents. I wave a permitting hand. He wipes his eyes, gets up and crosses the room hitching up his low risers by the belt as he goes.

Cheap-suited guy on the table behind watches him, probably some suburban husband living a lie, picking up rough trade to make himself feel alive. As the boy goes through the door he sees me watching and hurriedly turns to the window.

I light a cigarette as the music changes to tinny piano backing track, in the corner, a haggard drag queen sways to her feet. It’s cabaret time, presenting the Siren, Miss Poison, as toxic as her name. Eyes turn as she starts to slur her way through a torch song.

“Come sail your ships around me, and burn your bridges down.”

She pauses for breath, lungs probably speckled with cancer cells biding their time. Practised showtune grin cracks open thick plastered render of whale fat and dusty powder to expose a row of pearl tombstones. Teeth so white you know they’ll be in her pocket later when she’s blowing the bloated businessman whose vulpine leer snarls hungrily out of clouds of cheap cigar smoke and week old body odour.

“We make a little history, baby, every time you come a-round”

Boy emerges from the door and walks back awkwardly trying to avoid the constellation of eyes that follow him, carnal gourmets checking out his back view. He sits and cradles his glass. I offer the crumpled Marlboro pack. He smiles his thanks and takes one, I lean forward with the lighter, flame illuminates a landscape of acne scars.

“You Ok now? Good. Tell me about the last night you saw him.”

“Said he had a job, good money. I was worried ‘cos we usually worked together, you know for safety and…” again the specifics of his work are too much for him to say aloud.

“Guys pay more for the two of you at the same time. The opposite of ’buy one get one free’”. He laughs, a string of snot escaping his nose, wipes it away with the back of his hand.

“I thought it was something…you know, specialist, but he said no, nothing like that, not even sex. We argued.”

Miss Poison howls over the pause.

“But when I crawl into your arms. Everything comes tum-bling down.”

The boy wrinkles his nose in distaste at the harpy, her song or both. I raise my eyebrows, urging him on.

“I was worried, so I followed him. Not that I didn’t trust him. Just…” he seems ashamed, “Went down to Soho Square, I hid by the Astoria, you know, where the stage door is. Watched him for a bit. Then this car comes up.”

“What sort of car?”

“I dunno the make, black, or maybe blue, difficult to tell with the rain and the lights.”

“Expensive?”

“Nah, not expensive. But not cheap, kinda…middle. Sort of..family car I guess.”

“Go on.”

“So he gets in the car. Didn’t see the driver – no conversation, no….negotiation, and that was it. Didn’t see him again ’til..” the dam breaks and the tears start to flood. “I should have stopped him.”

I put my hand on his arm. Comforting.

“Nothing you could have done.”

When he’s stopped sucking in the foul air through his sobs, he looks up and grins bitterly through the tears.

“But I did.”

“What?”

“Do something.” Leaning back, he reaches into his pocket and withdraws a scrap of crumpled paper. Smooths it out on the table between us. “The license plate.”

I stare at the seven smudged characters. The best lead so far.

“Nice one kid. This could be just what we need to stop this maniac. Anything else?”

An almost imperceptible twitch of the neck and he looks back down at his drink.

“OK. Get out of here.”

He blinks, surprised.

“But, you said on the phone…the money.”

“Yeah yeah. You think I’m gonna give it to you in here with all these guys watching. You wouldn’t get halfway down the street. You know the alley off Ferryman Square? Head straight there, I’ll meet you once I’ve picked up the cash.”

He looks unsure.

“Look it’s OK.” I fix him with a steady gaze “You can trust me Michael.” the first use of his name convinces him. He nods, downs the brandy in one go and heads to the door.

I light another cigarette, and draw on it slowly, marshalling my thoughts. Miss Poison’s song is reaching a crescendo.

“When I must remove your wings. And you, you must try to fly”

Nine boys dead, each on a rainy night. The psych guy said it was a ritual. Getting more complex with each kill. Said killing was like a language he was learning, each time a voice more sophisticated than the last. A new phrase added to a poetry of atrocities.

I stub out the Malboro, finish the whiskey and stand. My mind sifting facts and theories as I walk to deposit the glasses on the bar.

An educated man, the profile says, but not a high achiever. A man with an empty hole inside that could only be filled with murder.

I nod at Denny, who raises an eyebrow in farewell and I turn to leave the upstairs den. My eyes flick to the table where Mr Suburbia was sitting, but he’s gone, just shadows in his corner now.

Blood starts to pump, pulsing in my ears. Through the door and down the stairs, I break into a run past the stone-faced guardian, across the threshold of Tartarus and into the hammering rain.

I tear through the dirty streets, water soaking through my clothes, feet slipping on the wet pavement as I make the sharp turn into George Street. Dodging pedestrians and I charge on, the exertion starts to take its toll. Sparkling aura like migraine starts to cloud my vision, and my heart is thumping in the back of my mouth.

Ferryman Square is deserted as I race past the wrought iron fences, the offices of lawyers and film companies shut down for the night hours ago. Gasping I pause to catch my breath at the corner of the alley, propping myself up on the lamppost, stitch clawing at my sides and then I see him.

Sprawled amongst the puddles.

I walk to him and bend down to place two fingers at his neck. Pulse is still there but weak, slowed by the morphine and valium I’d put in his drink.

The voices in the rain start to sing now, the pain in my side vanishes and the physical exhaustion lifts, replaced by the first hint of ecstasy. I drag his body into position aligned North to South, spreading his arms like wings.

I pull the bundle from my jacket, unroll it and select two scalpels. I hold them to the sky in outstretched hands to receive their blessing in the water and then kneel in supplication. One swift movement across the wet fabric and I pull his shirt apart. The choir urges me on.

One cut down, one across. The cardinal points mapped. For Uriel. For Gabriel. For Raphael. For Azrael. I peel back the skin in four neat triangles and reach for the butcher’s knife. I hold it aloft, head bowed, muscles straining, tendons stretching to breaking point, shoulder blades touching.

Entranced, I wait as the song continues. Nine voices in rapturous harmony, nine Angels of the Rain.

“Now” they sing, and the blade comes down and pierces the boy’s sternum. He makes a slight burping sound and a rivulet of blood trickles from the corner of his mouth, blackened by the sickly orange light. Pulling the blade towards me, I saw up and down to free the bone from cartilage and pull back the ribcage with a wet crack. As curls of steam rise from the hole, his body heat dissipates into the downpour, and I reach in to take my prize.

I stand, and offering a prayer of thanks to the gods of the city and gods of the sky. I place the warm heart to my lips. As I sink my teeth into the sweet meat I feel his life slipping down my throat and a new voice joins the chorus as the others sing a joyous, triumphant canticle of welcome.

I finish the ritual, swallowing the last of the flesh, at one with the concrete, the air and the rain. My communion finished, I rinse my sacred tools in the stygian puddle, blood mixing invisibly with the water. I stand in silent contemplation, as the choir, now ten voices, fades. I wait as the storm washes the traces of my presence down the grate of a storm drain to be carried to the oceans in a river of sewage, then turn to leave the alleyway, cleansed and reborn.

I’m always thankful for the rain on nights like this.


The Curator

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Yes? Good Evening. Who’s there?

Oh it’s you Sir. I’m sorry, I couldn’t see you out there in the fog.

Please, please, come in, come in.

Get in out of the cold. We’ve been expecting you.

That’s it, in you come. Mind the step.

Can I take your coat? Unseasonably cold out there tonight isn’t it?

How did you get here? Ah yes, most people are a little disoriented after their journey. Along the road I suppose. Yes you can see it behind you there. But that’s not important, despite what some people say I always think the destination is more pertinent than the journey, don’t you? Much more interesting to know where you are rather than where you’ve been I always feel.

Oh, but where are my manners? Welcome to the Museum of Stories.

Introductions? Yes, please forgive me Sir, it’s a lonely life here in the Museum and I do tend to forget social niceties. I know who you are of course, all the details are on the paperwork. And I am the Curator, a humble profession, but one of some importance in its own way, not in the grand scheme of things obviously, but in my own little corner of the world…  Well this is my world I suppose.

Yes, I did say you were expected. I’ve got the paperwork here somewhere. Oh where is it? Too many pockets these days don’t you think? Ah yes here we are. See – there, there and there. I think you’ll find that’s all in order, “signed and sealed” as they say.

The Museum of Stories. Yes it is an unusual name isn’t it? An unusual name for an unusual collection, but one that we’re quite proud of.  The greatest collection in the world of the lost, the strange and the forgotten.   All stories end up here eventually.

Well, they have to go somewhere when people stop telling them – can you imagine the chaos out there if they just stayed where they fell? The world would be a terrible mess.   But we really must get going, there’s a lot to see, so, as vulgar as it may seem I fear we’re going to have to walk and talk.   But please do ask any questions as we go, and of course feel free to ask me about any of the exhibits that catch your eye. Do watch your step though; we don’t tend to keep all the lights on. So few visitors these days you see and even here we have to think of the overheads.

So then, – The Great Hall. Magnificent isn’t it? Here we put on temporary exhibits, usually centred around a piece or pieces of particular prestige. Showing off some of  our “Greatest Hits” if you like.  Draws the visitor in, you see. A shame in a way, as personally I think that some of our less…well, immediate pieces are infinitely more rewarding to contemplate, but first impressions count so you have to make a ‘splash’ so the marketing people tell me.

Yes, the geometries are a little odd.  The Architect was an interesting man. Straddled the line between madness and genius. Eventually stopped straddling and fell on the wrong side as you might say. He still lives here somewhere, rocking back and forth, dribbling and cackling, poor fellow, but he’s well taken care of I understand and perhaps he draws some small comfort from the knowledge that this stands as a testament to his mastery of the mason’s craft.

It is quite high isn’t it? Never seen the ceiling in all my time here, I’ve always just assumed it just goes all the way up. You do ask the difficult questions, Sir. I can see you’re going to keep me on my toes.

Aaaaah. Now a lot of people are drawn to that piece.

Yes, a coffin. Looks quite mundane doesn’t it, Suji wood, I believe it’s called, the Japanese cedar. Before we put it in the case for conservation, you could smell the forest. Rain and vanilla.  But if you press that button there…yes, that’s it. I’m not that keen on all this new fangled technology, back in the old days we’d have an attendant to open it for you, but, well, the cuts you know?

That’s it, peek inside. Here let me just shine the torch on it for you. Can you see? A thousand paper cranes. The man who made them was a great Origami master. He travelled the world with his creations. Could turn a single piece of paper into the most delicate flower or most intricate portrait. I’ve heard it told that he once created a model of the Sagrada Familia from a single sheet of newsprint. They called him the Paper Magician.  Then his wife and child died in a house fire and he was so struck with grief that he never made anything again apart from those simple little birds, every fold a measurement of his sorrow. It’s said that they were his wife’s favourite and that somehow he thought he could bring them back to life by offering them to the spirits. In the end they found him after no-one had seen him for months. He’d been working night and day to fill the coffin; never sleeping, never eating. They couldn’t tell whether he’d died of starvation or exhaustion. So sad, so moving.

And on we go.

A good question. You are a sharp one Sir.  Well, every story has a crux; a nub if you like, and when its time comes, that’s what stays when the rest melts away. An object, a taste, a word, a sound, even a scent.  They’re all in here, sorted and categorised. We have quite a rigorous classification system here in the Museum. Of my own devising in fact, and, if I might say so myself,  there is a certain poetic elegance to its construction. I can tell Sir, that you’re a man of a logical and scientific worldview, so I feel I can permit myself this minor boast as I’m sure you appreciate the beauty in a well designed system. I’d happily show you if time wasn’t pressing upon us. This is just between ourselves if you don’t mind though Sir, it would not be good for morale if the staff were to catch me taking credit for something that is, after all, but a minor part of our collective enterprise.

Ah now, how timely since we have been discussing classification. Here we are in the Hall of Words. Some spoken, some written, some only imagined. I must direct your attention to this object. Isn’t it exquisite?

The Book of Sighs, a catalogue of the erotic dreams of angels as dictated to Simon the Blind. To unburden themselves of the guilt they felt, they recounted their desires in nocturnal whispers to a man who couldn’t read what he had written in his sleep.

See how the pages turn on their own.

The pages, Sir, are made from fibres gathered from the celestial beings’ wings, from individual barbs stripped from their fallen feathers woven and pressed together between mountains.

The ink? Well, I hope you won’t be shocked Sir, were you not a gentleman of intellectual enquiry, I would, I’m afraid, dodge the issue with a little fancy footwork, but the ink was made from the… ehem, fluids of the angels’ nocturnal outpourings. You must excuse my awkwardness, I am an old fashioned man, and I am a little uncomfortable with such base topics, even if their origin is divine.

Well, as I understand it Sir, they believed that such a pigment would be invisible, which it was at first, but as a man of the world, I’m sure you know how such…emissions tend to colour over time. So there they are, the secret longings of the Sacred Choir laid out for all to see.  It’s quite an educational read to be honest, strangely innocent desires for all the lengths they went to to hide them. Now let’s move on. This way I think.

How do the exhibits get here? Well most just turn up, they find their way here somehow. But there are some that get lost on the way. Actually that’s becoming a more common occurrence since that…infoweb is it?

Yes. Internet, that’s it. You see Sir, that’s so full of stories, and they move so quickly that it’s all too easy for our little strays to get lost in it. Tangled up with all manner of nonsense, worse than a Gordian Knot. We have a whole team working on that, takes them ages to rescue the poor things.

And of course there are some stories that are just so stubborn that they don’t recognise when their time’s up, they hang on, clinging on to life. You know, some of them even adopt complex new disguises and hide out there in the world hoping nobody notices them, old stories with new faces.  We have another team for those ones, but they are, by necessity I suppose, a little more aggressive in their approach. Find it a little distasteful myself. I do hope that’s not speaking out of turn Sir.

Now then, The Corridor of Creatures Only Imagined. Quite a nice zoological display by one of our newer interns. Here’s a scale from the Jabberwock’s tale, a toenail from the last Sciapod King, the horn of Asterius…

Asterius? The Minotaur Sir, a most maligned beast.

Yes, he had a name. I can see that surprises you, Sir. Yes Asterius, The Starry One, now there’s a tale that’s been twisted over the years, it could have ended so differently but politics came into play and that young Athenian upstart became the hero. That’s the trouble with stories, sometimes those with a thirst for domination recognise their power and use them to their own ends. Poor old bull.

Here’s a finger bone from the hand of Cackling Jack.

I’d rather not tell that story Sir. A child’s fantasy made flesh from playground rumour and bedtime whispers. A thoroughly nasty creation. Children’s tales are often the most dangerous. They don’t have that protective shield of cynicism you see.  They’re vicious and anarchic and have a tendency to come back to life at the slightest provocation, a misplaced thought and bang! Off they go, charging about the place bellowing and knocking over the exhibits. We really don’t want Jack waking up, last time that murderous old scarecrow went on the rampage one of the staff was ripped to shreds. We eventually cornered him in the grounds, hiding in the Pavillion of Shivering Foes, munching on the bones. Terrible business.  I hope you’ll understand my caution.

We’re nearly there Sir, just a couple more rooms to pass through. This one we call The Camera of the Maybe, originally the Italian for ‘room’ as I’m sure a gentleman of your education knows.

On the walls on this side of gallery you can see photographs of places that are normally only ever glanced from the corner of your eye.  I’m sure you’ve noticed them Sir, as perceptive as you clearly are. Little streets and alleyways that hide between shops and houses at angles that can’t be described. The ones that seem to disappear when you turn to look at them. Great houses that you think you see in the blur as your train speeds through the countryside. Look, here is the Palace of The Moths, The Street of the Empty Men, The Liminal Gardens. Aha, do I see a flicker of recognition in your eyes for that last one?

And over here, Daguerrotypes of buildings that were not constructed. Imagined but never executed, their ghosts haunt their intended sites and their images can only be captured by a complex chemical, or should I say alchemical process known only to a few artistes of the most experimental persuasion.

Oh I don’t know all the details Sir, though I am led to believe that the process involves a developing fluid made from the tears of complex numbers that do not exist in conventional mathematical theory.

Now permit me to draw your attention to this particular triptych. Three spires designed by our own dear Architect early on in his career. See how they appear to be leaning and on the verge of falling? Impossible geometries again, and, I like to think, putative precursors to this very building. It’s a sad indictment on the world out there that he never found commissioners of enough conviction and vision to see his designs through to completion. Still I suppose that makes our own building here unique and, if I may say, his crowning achievement.

Now then, if you’d be kind enough to follow me. This way I think. Oh. They’ve done it again. You must forgive my hesitation, the rooms occasionally move without warning, sometimes they fall out with each other, sometimes they just get bored and seek new company. Well I suppose after a few years they run out of things to talk to each other about and fresh conversation is so important to keeping the mind active, don’t you agree?

So then where are we now.? Ah yes, The Auditorium, the room of sounds. Perhaps we’re stretching the definition a little from it’s conventional usage, though arguably not its etymological roots, and anyway we are, as I’m sure you’ve come to realise a cabinet of curiosities not certainties. No room for absolutes here in the Museum of Stories.

Well it wasn’t a planned part of our itinerary, but I must admit to being a little pleased, as it gives me the chance to show you these, one of my own finds from when I was newly appointed to the museum staff. Now then, what do you think they are?

Piles of fluff? Oh Sir, I think you’re being deliberately obtuse to pull my leg. Shame on you for teasing a dusty old academic. No Sir, not ‘piles of fluff’, but earplugs. Earplugs made of fur from the wings of the last Antarctic Bat.

Yes indeed Antarctic Bats. A long extinct species, as white as the unwritten page, for centuries they hid in the vast ice wastes, feeding on the light of the Southern Aurora – if you look closely you can see traces of opalescence, the light caught on their wings as they grazed. Anyway these were found on the body of explorer who had, let us say, not planned as well as he should. Evidently he made it to the pole, but sadly not the return journey. Quite how he’d come into the possession of such magical objects is beyond me, I assume he encountered some Shaman on his travels and I can only hope that they were a gift and not taken by force. Such objects do I’m afraid inspire such avarice in men as to lead even the greatest saint into previously uncontemplated atrocities.

Magical? Oh yes Sir. If you were to place those in your ears, you would find all sound blocked out bar the songs of the snow. It is indeed a great shame that your arrival has not coincided with the Winter or I would have been happy to allow you a demonstration, the songs of the snow are sounds of such rare and unearthly beauty that I’m not ashamed to say that even I wept upon hearing them for the first time.

Ah now that is a piece of luck. The Auditorium seems to have settled right next to our destination. I must say it strikes me as a strange arrangement, I would have thought that such an old and venerable chamber would find it’s new neighbour a touch too flighty, a bit of a whippersnapper, but there you go, this place still offers the unexpected after all these years. I do hope that it’s a lasting and happy relationship, at my age it’s difficult to keep up with all the comings and goings and people do expect the Curator at least to know where things are even if the rest of the staff are all wandering around in a state of blissful confusion.

So anyway here we are at last. Recent Acquisitions. Not exactly poetic I grant you, but the contents change so quickly that anything more specific would be out of date by the time we had the sign painted. I did toy with ‘The Novellatique” for a while but people either expected to find books or a gift shop, so what can you do? ‘Recent Acquisitions’ it is. A trifle dry maybe, but concise and to the point.

Goodness. Look at the time. I really must hurry you to this exhibit as much as I would love to show off some of our newer items, but ‘Time and tide’ as they say. So follow me quickly if you don’t mind.

Now then. Yes here we are. Now I can see what you’re thinking. “After all these wonders, why is he showing me a perfectly ordinary bed?” And yes it does look unremarkable doesn’t it? But perhaps if you’d like to try it for size, oh I must warn you to duck down as you enter the case lest you bump your head. I’m sure you’re more than intelligent enough to work that out for yourself, but I’m afraid to say that the tyranny of Health and Safety has reached even us out here on the very edges of the world. “Why can’t we treat people like adults?” I ask them, but no, “Risk and Procedure” they say. Risk and Procedure! I ask you, what have we come to?

That’s right, just lay down there while I shut the case.

Oh no Sir, don’t worry you’ll be able to breathe. Quite how the air gets in I’ve never understood, I presume the glass is in some way porous at some microscopic level, but none of our exhibits have suffocated yet. There we go, completely sealed now, I couldn’t open it again even if I wanted to.

What’s that Sir?

Oh yes. “Exhibit”

Now don’t get excited Sir, and I beg of you, there is no call for such words, I confess I’m a little disappointed that a gentleman of such clear breeding and education as yourself would stoop to such language. If this is the way you are going to carry on I shall ensure you are displayed in one of the rooms that I visit only infrequently. But no, I shall be charitable and chalk this outburst up as nothing more that an emotional aberration.

Yes of course I realise you’re a person Sir. I would hardly have been talking to you all this time if you were not, I am not given to the fanciful behaviour of those who address conversation to inanimate objects. Surely you must realise that your status as a person does not preclude you from being a story.

Of course you have a consciousness Sir, but what is a consciousness but the meeting point of a multitude of stories that tell themselves? Now I really would like to stay and discuss the whys and wherefores with you, but I have to make my report to the Museum Authorities and they really do not like to be kept waiting. Might I suggest that you have a rest sir, I always find that any situation seems better once you’ve slept on it. I’ll have a word with The Auditorium as I leave and ask it to keep the noise down so your slumber is undisturbed.

Goodbye Sir. Sleep well.

Oh, and welcome to the Collection.

(Note. This story was heavily inspired the Coil track Batwings (A Limnal Hymn) which in turn was inspired by Sir Thomas Browne’s Museum Clausum both of which are worth investigating if you have an interest in the esoteric and arcane. Thanks also due to Peter Beck for the photo.)

A Trip To Kew

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Peeling the tarpaulin back, I looked through the smeared glass. The sun was already filtering through the web of cracks casting distorted snowflakes of light onto the soot stained and cracked plaster behind me. Below me the courtyard of the Four Towers Settlement was striped with fingers of shadow thrown by the power station’s chimneys.  I quickly dressed, pausing to splash my face with water from the plastic container in the corner of the room, shouldered my rifle and headed out, pulling the rusted bars across the door to my room behind me.

Sam passed me on the stairs dragging a crate of empty bottles.

“Mornin’ Richard. Any news?”

“Some trouble over in Clapham last night by the look of it. Fires and smoke all through the night.”

“I guess we’ll hear eventually. There hasn’t been an attack for weeks so I guess one was due.”

I shrugged, the attacks were an occupational hazard of living in the cities now, while we were drawn by the safety that the small emerging communities offered, not to mention the scavenging opportunities of the wrecked metropolis, the downside was that the concentrated pockets of people and resources made us prime targets for attacks from the Nevers. Last month a few ragged, bloodied and bruised survivors from the Hackney settlement staggered across Battersea Railway Bridge, weighed down by the wounded and belongings that had survived the onslaught.

I nodded at the crate.

“New collection?”

Sam was an inveterate hoarder, his living space cluttered with junk, or ‘archaeological finds’ as he described them, relics of a culture now gone forever.

“New windows” he explained morosely “Bloodhawk crashed in through mine last night. Feathers and bird puke everywhere.”

“Really? What the hell was it doing?”

“God knows. Trying to get away from something bigger I think, saw something else flapping away out there.” he gestured into the courtyard. “Anyway, it’s a bit early for you isn’t it?”

“Meeting Claire.”

A look of realisation spread across his face.

“Blimey, has it been a year already? Well, give her my best.”

“Will do. Well I better get going, a good few miles to cover.”

“Take care mate, be… well, you know.” he clanked off up the stairs dragging his bounty.

A few of the settlement’s children were playing in the courtyard, one team brandishing sticks like guns defending a fort that Sam had built for them from cracked wooden pallets against a second team who squealed and keened, impersonating a swarm of Nevers. I smiled ruefully, knowing that it wouldn’t be long before their game became integral part of their daily lives.

Confirming this gloomy prospect, Alison was manning the sentry post at the gate. Barely a teenager herself, her arms already bore the scars of an encounter with a young Never.   Her face was streaked with gun oil and hardened by the realities of life in the city.  She was deep in concentration, stripping and cleaning her spare rifle.

“Hey Ali.  Just nipping out to the shops. Do you want me to pick you up anything?”

She looked up from her work and stared at me seriously.

“You shouldn’t joke about it Rich. You might not come back.”

“Well that’s encouraging. Thanks for your faith in me.”

“Sorry. Long, lonely night. Just me and my thoughts. Seriously though Rich, be careful, we can’t afford to lose anyone else.”

She unlocked the web of chains and padlocks and together we heaved back the gate, a ramshackle but solid construction of corrugated iron, plastic window frames and wooden slats. A scraping screech echoed around the red brick walls as the bottom of the gate dragged obstinately against the concrete floor.

“Well, bye then.” she said flatly.

I knew what was going through her mind; it was easier to be pessimistic about anyone stepping through the gate than to expect them to return.

“Bye Ali.”

From opposite sides we dragged the gate back and I waited as she pulled the chains back into place. Once I was sure the compound was secure again, I started to walk away, when I was stopped by a shout.

“Hey Rich!”

I turned back to see Alison’s head poking about the barricade.

“If you’re anywhere near Knightsbridge, can you pop into Harrods and pick me up a new party dress?”

I laughed.

“I would, but I don’t know your size.”

“Bloody useless. Typical man.”

I waved over my shoulder and headed towards the railway line.

Across the river, the rusted skeletons of buildings whose crumbled concrete skins now lay in decaying piles at their feet clawed upwards, their silhouettes thrown into sharp relief against the sky by the blazing December sunlight which glinted on the shallow water, the Thames now reduced to a sluggish swampy trickle. It was only mid-morning but already the heat was scorching the back of my neck, sweat trickling down my back gluing the fabric of the backpack and my shirt to my shoulders.

I walked quietly and slowly down the centre of the tracks, rifle readied and alert for any movement. Here and there were traces of previous travellers along the line, spent ammunition, torn clothes and an occasional pile of bones, chewed and shattered to the extent that determining whether they were human or animal remains was impossible.

At Mortlake I left the railway and headed north to the river, rumours had been going round lately of raiders looting the once prosperous homes of Richmond, and while, aside from the rifle and the meagre supplies in my rucksack I offered poor pickings compared to the homes of bankers and minor celebrities that once inhabited the Upper Richmond road, it was not unheard of for these wild children to take pot shots at unwary travellers for sport. All things considered, a journey along the riverside this far out of town was only likely to involve a minor encounter with a solitary stray wild animal and was therefore the most sensible option.

At Chiswick Bridge the waterway was blocked by an embolism of bone knotted together with livid pinkish weeds that slithered up from below the scum and stinking skin of the Thames. The surface of the raft pulsated and teemed with life, writhing sharp-toothed worms tunnelled through the ulcerated scraps of meat that still clung to the human remains, a chorus of bloodhawks perched shrieking as they tore at the fleshy succulent leaves, viscous threads of gelatinous sap dripping from their beaks. The mass was probably the remains of the corpses that had been thrown into the river when the first epidemics had hit and the infrastructure could no long cope. Washed downstream, the bodies of the dead had become a new architecture, a city of parasites.

Startled by a sound of movement in the litter-strewn bushes that ran alongside the pathway, I crouched down behind a ruined bench tattooed with the graffiti of loves and hates long lost and forgotten. Holding my breath I lifted the rifle to my shoulder. I tensed as the undergrowth shook, but relaxed as the foliage parted and the pointed muzzle of a young deer cautiously emerged. Blinking it stood on the concrete path. Presumably separated from the now fragmented herds that had once made their home in Richmond Park but now roamed across South West London in small bands somehow surviving against the odds.

I was torn. Meat of any kind these days was a rare commodity and venison an unheard of luxury, a single shot and a quick bit of butchery would fill my backpack with a few days worth of good meals. And yet a memory made me hesitate. A greetings card I found when scavenging a ruined house in Battersea, a dappled faun standing in a snow blanketed forest clearing, loose glitter glued to the branches. It was a scene that seemed a different world and time to the young animal now standing oblivious in my sights in the baking December sunlight. A sting of mournful nostalgia for happier, easier times froze my finger on the trigger and brought a prickle to the back of my eyes.

As logic and emotion fought inside me, the decision was made for me. Without warning the bushes parted again and at lightning speed a Never scuttled towards the faun. A sickening crunch as chitin sheared through bone and the deer’s headless body crumpled to the pavement. I held my breath as the blind horror turned its head in my direction, twitching crimson-painted mandibles tasting the air for fresh game.

My mind was now racing, a million survival strategies competing for execution, all nostalgia and romance banished. It was a young specimen, its carapace still partly translucent. That the corpse was not already been torn to pieces in a frenzy of clacking pincers made it a safe bet that there were no others nearby, like the faun, the Never had probably become separated from its kin.

Doing nothing was not an option, even the young could somehow sniff out a warm body nearby and it wouldn’t be long before it noticed me. Running was out of the question, the Nevers could pursue at breakneck speed and I wouldn’t make more than a few yards before I’d feel those savage mouthparts around my neck.

These two courses of action discarded, only attack was left to me. Since childhood the procedure had been drilled into us, first shot at the pincers, then the body, that way if you missed, at least the Nevers chief weapon was disabled and a second shot could be taken. If you missed though…well you didn’t think about that.

On autopilot I aimed at the point where the pincers joined the head a soft patch of weakness in the armour, and fired. Years of practice paid off, the creature’s jaws shattered. Shrieking, it swayed from the impact rolling its head from side to side, trying to sense where the assault had come from. As it homed in on me I took a second shot. A direct hit in the centre of the head, a shower of shattered shell and it fell. Slumped across its prey, stinking ichor flowed over the faun from the creature’s ruined head in a delta of rivulets, staining the fur and pooling in a black oily puddle on the concrete.

I left the corpses in their bleeding embrace and continued my journey.

The iron gates of Kew Gardens were long gone, salvaged for defensive barricading at some settlement, now only the concrete pillars that had once held them in place remained, the decorative carvings now mottled with paint, blood and patches of moss, chipped and pockmarked by bullets. Deprived of their function they looked like ancient monoliths, decayed monuments to the long dead monarchs who had once ordered these gardens to be planted as their haven from the world of deprivation that lay beyond its boundaries.

I walked along the potholed tarmac past the rusted iron skeleton of the Palm House. The new sweltering humid climate proved a ideal environment for the botanical specimens that had once sheltered from the English weather under the shattered panes of glass the remnants of which hung like glinting knives from the building’s ribs. From inside, the fronds and branches of mutated plants spilled out over the stone steps, grasping and choking everything in their path. Of the Queen’s Beasts, the stone heraldic statues that once guarded the building, only the head of a griffin remained in sight, the rest drowned beneath a torrent of purple vines which polluted the air with a cloying sickly perfume; a fog of sour honey and rotten watermelon so thick that it seemed to stick to your skin.

I made my way through the silent causeway of trees towards my destination. Ahead of me the Pagoda rose up into the sky, around me I could hear the rustle of small animals in the rough grass that now grew and thrived unfettered from the careful stewardship of the army of gardeners that had once scoured the lawns for an out of place blade. Reaching the building I climbed the wooden stairs inside, my heart beating faster as I ascended the nagging fear that she would not be there nibbling at the corners of my mind.

But of course she was there, as she had been for the last five years. Once again she’d made the perilous journey into the city from the suburbs, leaving her family and risking all for this one day, this one chance to feel like we were in control of our lives. She sat on the northern edge of the platform, swinging her legs over the edge, a bottle of her father’s homemade wine on the wooden floor next to her. She heard my footsteps and turned her head, a look a relief spreading across her face.

She stood and came up close. We embraced wordlessly and lost ourselves in a long kiss before turning back, hands clasped to look out over the ruined city. Here, high above the pain, the disease, the fear and the daily struggles of living, the landscape of London took on an unearthly beauty. The watery light of the dying sun coloured by toxic clouds rose-tinted the crumbling concrete and cracked pavement patchwork that spread out in front of us. In the silence, in this moment it was just the two of us protected from the world in the bubble of this ritual.

“Happy Christmas Richard.”

“Happy Christmas Claire.”

And for once, for that one day of the year, happiness felt possible.