Monday, May 29, 2006

Dog Day

The children circled Ben, riding their bikes at all angles around him. Each time, when a kamikaze child appeared to be heading straight towards him, Ben changed direction. All about him were stumps of high-rise flats, washing flapping in the wind like an injured bird at the side of the road, like Ma Brewster's hands when she'd been caught shoplifting at the local supermarket. There were no escape routes and the children's laughter was mocking in its hilarity, the percussive coughs of an older boy puffing on a cigarette providing its back beat.

Ben went for a gap, but behind him, unseen, was a pair of boots, waiting for the precise moment when the target would be in range. Contact made, a squelch of flesh as the muscles compacted; bones cracking, one conceding completely, now a sharp stick poking incessantly at his side. Breath rasped. A small cough spattered the concrete path with blood.

Ben turned, teeth bared, ready for the fight that must surely now begin in earnest. The hunter and hunted could yet change places. Some boys backed away as Ben snarled, threatening to leap forwards at any moment; others came closer, moving in for the kill. Ben decided to make a last stand, launching himself at the smallest of boys and locking on to his wrist with his teeth. Howls, screams and shouts pierced the air.

The kicks rained down hard, but Ben kept on with his bite. He flinched at each kick, but slowly they were beginning to come to a stop. He let go, running for the larger gap that had opened up in the melée, a few final stragglers pushing their feet into his side, making the shard of bone stab at the skin of his Ben's chest. He dared a look over his shoulder as he ran, but there was no fight left now in the youngsters, bending as they were to tend to their own stricken and wounded. The young child was weeping, calling for his mother through waves of tears and snot. Adults had congregated now, shouting and pointing, many beginning to fumble with mobile phones to call the authorities. Ben kept running until he came to the small park at the edge of the housing estate.

Under a large oak tree Ben lay, breathing hard against the pain of his broken rib. He could taste the blood of the small boy on his tongue and throat, mixing with his own where he'd bitten his lip and coughed up the damage to his lung. He whimpered, wanting his own mother to be there; she was long gone, separated from him within weeks of his birth. It had only been a matter of time before he was abandoned again, left to roam the streets, to eat his meals from bins. That time was 16 years.

A long time passed before Ben felt strong enough to move. His side still hurt when he ran, but it was more of an irritation now. He limped along the road, popping sideways looks, just in case someone was looking for him or, worse still, the kids had regrouped. As he walked, the housing estate shrank in the distance. Ben began to feel hungry as he trotted along. He snuffled against bins, the front gardens of the houses surrounding him, but to no avail. He would have to starve tonight, he knew. It was like his sixth sense, his intuitive side that he'd learned after being on the streets so long. He no longer spoke to anyone, preferring to converse in howls, grunts and barks. He had discovered, often the hard way, that people didn't mind dogs raiding their bins, eating waste or shitting in their gardens; they couldn't handle it being a teenage boy. So, he had decided that the best way to stay alive was to behave like a common dog, a cur.

All had been fine, his disguise had lasted him a good six months, until that morning. Until they had set upon him like savages, calling him names, pissing on his back. They had chased him, throwing sticks at him, whatever they had to hand, until they had cornered him on the estate. He'd been lucky to get out alive. For the first time since he'd been kicked out of home, Ben was scared.

At every movement, every murmur from a window, a shop, Ben found himself jump in panic. He avoided the lights, avoided any contact with people. His rib itched where it pressed against his skin and he was finding it harder to breathe with each step. He wanted rest, to be left alone, to find some food; to be sheltered, part of a community, part of a family.

To be loved. That, more than anything else.

Sticks and Stones

It began with the stones.

He'd been startled, thinking it was hailstones peppering the windows. Rising to look at the sudden change in the weather, he'd had to duck as a brick, its slow arc belying its velocity, sailed through the pane, showering him with a spray of glass; his face a scarlet mask from the cuts criss-crossing his now shock-white features.

Herded under the table, Donald and his cats, shielded from the downpour of stones, of rotting sticks of wood, of hatred. Mewling, all of them. Gouges, scratches and ruts marked the table-top, bore witness to Donald's horror, told the story from above, from a different perspective. Sods of wet earth clattered through the gaping holes in the windows and then, silence. Shortly after come shouts, laughter - a malevolent cackle, like static electricity, giving him a further shock; someone had purposely done this.

Someone was out to get him.

During the ensuing interview at the police station - where they barely listened to him - the Desk Sergeant nodded, scratched his head, ummed and ah-ed in the right places, but his disinterest was obvious. He scraped his pen across the paper, like a toddler doodling with a crayon, the words indistinguishable from each other. Donald Preston, that was the only word that he could make out clearly; it was a name the Desk Sergeant knew, for he'd written it down only weeks before, except then, he'd taken the time to write down his words carefully on the charge sheet.

Two hours later, Donald was back in his home, the windows covered with a hardboard skin - to protect from the elements, the glazing company had said. It had taken less than ten minutes after the glazing company's red van had turned the corner for the local youths to spray their tags, to add their feelings to those shared by his neighbours. They couldn't spell it properly, but to anyone with an ounce of phonetic skills it was clear:


Paint brushes in hand, pots settled like dogs around his feet, Donald was outside staring hard at the word sprayed with what looked to be a delicate hand. Swift back and forth movements saw it covered with the whitewash. He knew that, come morning, the first shafts of sunlight would illuminate another version of the accusation, but still he ploughed on. Several times he thought about vandalising his own windows, painting his own venomous message in broad strokes, but instead got on with the job of wiping out the misspelled missive. This was the only way he could clear his name. Donald couldn't even raise a chuckle at the irony of his situation. He could barely raise the enthusiasm to continue, let alone any joy that may have been secreted in the depths of his body. Donald was broken.

Someone was out to get him.

It had begun with those stones, the shouts and cries; where would it end?

Stepping through over the tiled threshold, Donald was unprepared for the sight that greeted him. Pots thumped against the floor, a dull ring as they found contact with the antique tiles; brushes nipped at his feet, spilling tears of white over the hem of his left trouser leg, his shoes. What greeted Donald was a further shock to his fragile system.

They'd been the only things holding him together, they were his seams, his buttons and braces. There'd been no need, surely? What had his cats ever done? What kind of person would take a defenceless animal and commit such atrocities? Donald knew it was his neighbours, his neighbourhood. He pushed past the corpses of his cats, hanging by their tails, throats slit, notes pinned to each still-warm body threatening him, goading him.

Someone was out to get him.

By morning, the lifeless cats had attracted flies, maggots spilling onto the floor, squirming amongst the sticky mix of paint and blood. Footprints tainted the smooth surface of the liquids; a paintbrush, hardening slowly in the strip of sunlight that sneaked around the door frame, lay discarded, forgotten. An attempt had been made to break open the front door, but suddenly abandoned. The window panes created from the glazier's store of hardboard were blackened with soot, charred by small fires set at the corner of each frame that had failed to take once the initial fuel had been burned off. Further graffiti stained the brickwork. The area was silent, the birds' chirruping occasionally disturbing the air, punctuating the air every so often. There was no movement in the house and no one came investigating.

The stories had been told so often that no one could recall where it had started, how it had snowballed, got out of control; no one could remember who had cast that first stone. Mothers publicly scolded those that had been part of the witch hunt; privately spattering the memory of their neighbour with bitter remarks, unsubstantiated rumours and claims. It was always someone else's child, someone else's sick and twisted mind. It was safer that way. A mechanism, employed to cast shadows over the incidents. A way of pushing it back to the dark corners, those areas of the human mind that are sheltered by layers of cobwebs. Only one thing proved a common theme to each tale told, the single statement that could almost have been used as an epitaph:

Someone was out to get him.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Asking For Help

The crowds of central London, slithering past me, hurrying in the wet as if they too flow: like the water from a burst pipe that is no more than two feet from me. I stand back, let them pass me by and then I am stranded, an ox-bow lake of skin and bone. It’s an effort not to howl.

I want to be candy, wrapped up; to be wanted, to elicit excitement, to crackle in the pocket, to jangle with the loose change. I want to be the warmth of chips held in newspaper, blackening fingers with the print; I want to be more than just the person standing here, sheltering from the downpour of tourists, homeless beggars, clipboard-clad kids and blue-rinse wielding grandmothers. There must be more to being alive than this.

Isn’t there?

Listen. I don’t want to shout above the cacophony of voices, cars, diesel engines, so come in close: I’m drowning in smog; I feel like I’m a wound that needs to be sutured. Can you understand? My life is flooding away from me, running down the streets, naked and vulnerable.

All I’m doing is asking for some help here.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


On the table there’s a coffee stain that won’t be rubbed away. It has attracted a modicum of dust, pinning it down to the table as if it were a photograph, a butterfly. Or a map to be pored over. When I leave the windows open it attracts the neighbourhood flies – possibly even some from out-of-town – and they suckle at the stain. I swat at them, open cupboards, pull out cloths and potions. Still it won’t be removed, no matter how hard I rub, what cleaning fluids I use. It always remains.

Idly, I stroke my cat, Henry. A ginger tom, I found him scavenging behind the bins at the back of our block of apartments. He followed me home and I didn’t have the heart to kick him out. I went around the local area, looking out for posters saying: LOST. GINGER. CAT. I saw none. That was over a year ago; we’re both too settled now that even if his ‘real’ owners knocked at my door Henry wouldn’t leave. I like to kid myself that this is the case.

Sometimes I wonder if Henry thinks the same as me. Sometimes.

Henry keeps the fly population down in the apartment. His paws a swat team. He casts me glances that suggest if I were to rid my table of the coffee stain then I would need to find another way to bring in the flies. When I stare at his eyes I list all the things that could bring in the flies, all those that he could be thinking about:

  • Left-over cat food

  • No changing his litter tray

  • Dragging the corpse of a dead animal – or person – into the apartment

  • Shitting in the corner.

I do none of these things, of course. Henry regards my failure with narrowed eyes and mewling mouth. He tastes me with his roughened tongue, sneezes, licks my skin again. It reminds me of when mother used to towel me dry after hauling me out of the bath. It reminds me of the days when I was carefree, young, innocent. It seems so long ago now.

I’m too tired to rub at the stain anymore. It’ll still be there tomorrow, attracting more dust, attracting more flies, attracting Henry.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Visitor

There was a sharp knock at the door. Julie jumped. She placed her cup carefully on the coaster - sat in the middle of the coffee table, in amongst the magazines and torn envelopes - and strode towards the door.

Usually, she would check the spy hole, but a second knock caused her to forget her security procedures. London was not the place the media made it out to be. It was safe, she thought. It was safe.

Luckily, the chain was still on from the night before. This gave Julie time to react as the first blow from an unseen assailant's shoulder crashed against the door. The shock had caused Julie to stumble back, catching the back of her legs on the coffee table. She fell, hard. Her cup sloshed coffee over the papers on the table. It would stain, but that would be the least of her problems.

The door didn't last long, wood splinters cascaded across the polished floor of the apartment.

It was safe, London, that was Julie's mantra as a shadow fell across the room. She had no time to scream before a hand pressed across her mouth.

When she woke two hours later, Ray had his arm curled around her midriff. She moved away from him, rubbing at her wrists where the ropes had cut a little too deep. She liked this fantasy. Playing it out again and again never bored her and Ray was always up for the brutal decadence of the scenario. He had never once said no to her requests.

She looked back at him sprawled on the bed, the covers just keeping him decent. She smiled, remembering the first time she had picked him up in the bar down town. He had always been pliant. For her. Julie wondered if he had always been this way or if the show was for her alone. She mused on the point as she moved to make tea.

The kitchen was its usual mess of dirty cups, plates overflowing with tea bags, mouldy food. The sink had long disappeared beneath the grime of city living. Julie never threw anything away. Julie never cleaned. She found a cup, flicked on the kettle and wiped away the green scum around the cup's lip with a tissue. Some remained, but she took no notice. As long as nothing was floating, Julie would drink from anything. Ray didn't seem to mind. Julie certainly didn't.

She heard him stir in his sleep, peeped her head around the door frame to see if he wanted a coffee. But he was still fast asleep, a faint wheeze audible as his breath left his body, just before his lungs sucked up another gulp of air. For once, she let him sleep.