The Mound of Pluck

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Pluck loved his mound. He’d made it himself over the years, adding bits of skin here and there and laying Matilda’s babies safely inside when her time came. Flies aren’t that fussy where their babies hatch, as long as it’s warm and moist, with some form of breakfast nearby. Pluck always saved a bit of meat from the dinner table to put in his skin mound. Mother usually liked everything from a human carcass but she wasn’t that fond of elbow meat, so father didn’t mind if a few bits went missing while he was cooking. He even gave Pluck scraps of skin before crisping the rest up in the fire. Mother’s favourite!

One piece of skin had been taken from the forehead of the great crustie warrior Fionn MacCumhaill, so his father had told him. It had the dark shiny patch from the burns of his own spear, a technique used to keep himself awake to protect the citizens of Tara from the fire breathing man of Sidhe, which proved it was the genuine forehead, said his father. True or not, it did look pretty in pride of place at the top of his fleshy mound. Until he’d had to remove it to make a choker for a girl he’d liked at the Bodyarium. She was a trainee doctor and he’d served her some toe gruel in the staff canteen. She came over before she left to thank him for the lovely meal, which was unusual in itself. The staff canteen wasn’t renowned for its culinary prowess (blamed by the head chef on the doctors stealing leg, hand and feet ingredients from the cool tunnel). But it was the way she smiled at him, the way her eyes flickered slightly as she gazed gently upon him, and how she had touched his fingers like a whisper as she’d left that made Pluck sure she would pick him as a potential suitor, IF he got the gift EXACTLY right. He crafted the choker out of dried gut and hairhemp and prepared the story from the crust of the legendary MacCumhaill. He waited for ages until she finished work and gave it to her on the Bodyarium steps. She didn’t say much, and he didn’t see her or the choker again. At home his father had given him a large cut of shoulder skin, saying that Mother hadn’t fancied her human crispy that night. Unusual.

Anyhow, Pluck covered his mound entirely with that skin and vowed never to forsake his fleshy friend for a girl (or any subterranean for that matter) ever again. As he drifted off to sleep, Pluck caressed his clammy friend, and, in a way, subtle but affectionately, his mound snuggled him back.

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Inspired by Russel Cameron’s Fleshy Mounds, which you can find here…
http://russelcameron.blogspot.co.uk/
https://www.facebook.com/RusselCameronArt/home
https://www.instagram.com/russelcameron/

23 Sycamore Street

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Her father had died inside the spindles of a threshing machine. It was sudden, they said, like that was some sort of comfort. Molly didn’t want to leave her home, but her mother said they had no choice. The house had come with her father’s labouring job, and the land owners had to replace him which meant they had to leave. The small terrace house on Sycamore Street was waiting patiently for them as they pulled up. They entered through the green door of number 23 and Molly quickly marked her new home as “dark, dull, and depressing,” and she certainly didn’t want to be there. The long ride from the fresh, open countryside into the murky, claustrophobic city had worn them both out, and then they had to unpack the cart. Sleep that night was made more than welcome.

The next afternoon there were still cloth bags and chests blocking the scant hallway as Molly climbed the creaky wooden staircase to her bedroom. Her mother was still frantically cleaning every crevice of the house, almost oblivious to her surroundings. Molly spent the day putting together her toy theatre made of paper and card that her Aunt Sal had got her last Christmas. She played with the paper figures, defining their characters and imagining new scenes until she was called for supper. Her mother looked tired as they sat down to bread, butter, jam and a full pot of tea in front of the freshly blackened stove. Molly piled her slice of bread with homemade blackcurrant jam and couldn’t fit enough of it in her mouth at once. Her mother told her to wipe her jam encrusted face, and handed Molly one of her hand embroidered napkins. It smelled of tea chests and past times.

Tucked up in her bed that night, Molly shut her eyes and imagined herself back in her old room, small and cosy, with the smell of open fields outside. She drifted off as she remembered the old barn down the track, how she used to help her dad pile up the hay, then leap into its soft, crackly bosom. Her dad laughing at her, trying to maintain his authority whist secretly wishing he could do the same. She leapt into his arms and hugged him so tightly, enough so he wouldn’t leave her again. But then his grip loosened. She held on. What was he doing? She opened her eyes, looking for his smiling face. But it wasn’t there. It was ridged, cold, lifeless. She was on the cold floor of a white room, her father lying there, limp. A jolt went through her making her arms fling themselves away from this body, pulling her further and further away. The dark stranger lay there. Molly sobbed. That wasn’t her father! It wasn’t! She woke bolt upright, sobbing as she was in her dream. Her mother rushed to her side and cradled her within her soft shawl.
“It’s okay, Molly, I’m here,” she whispered.

The next morning Molly was wrapped up in her best coat and made to put on her black gloves.
“It’s getting cold out there, love. Warm hands, warm heart.”
Molly held her mother’s hand very tightly as they walked across the road to the bustling open market. They stopped at the fruit stall for a pound of apples.
“Sweet enough for the best apple pie in the county, ma’am,” said the round man as he poured the autumn gems into her mother’s bag. “I’m sure the young lady will test my claim, won’t you miss?” Molly gingerly looked at the flushed stallholder and wrapped herself round her mother’s arm. They walked through the market, stopping occasionally as her mother eyed the local produce. Molly wasn’t interested. She felt dizzy, her eyes kept open by the bitter breeze that whipped at the stall covers every now and then. She heard a rasping voice, children laughing, then a huge cheer. The colours bounced off her eyes like a bright sunrise. Mr Punch was cracking his truncheon, warning the alligator to keep away.
“That’s the way to do it!” bellowed the raspy voice.
There were a dozen or so children gathered in front of the makeshift theatre with rosy smiles. They cheered as Mr Punch waged a final blow to the alligator which bounced off the stripy stage. Molly laughed. The breeze whipped at her elbow, then she realised her mother wasn’t there. Panic began to rise in her gut. She turned, wide eyed, looking for the familiar figure…
“Hello, my name’s Arabella. What’s yours?”
A girl in a white pinafore with pink flowers stood in front of Molly. She had long black hair and the biggest blue eyes Molly had ever seen. A pink ribbon held her hair away from her face, the breeze trying it’s hardest to dislodge as many wisps as possible. Molly realised her mouth was gaping and forced herself into a kind smile. “I’m Molly. We’ve just moved here.”
“Thought I hadn’t seen you before.” said Arabella, her eyes perusing every detail of this new girl.
Molly looked down at her old grey coat that her dad had bought her last year for her birthday. It was grey and warm, and reached her knees. “Do you live round here then?”
“My dad owns the bakery on Compton Road, just round the back there.” She directed Molly’s gaze with her eyes. “I’ve been told to fetch salt, but I do love Mr Punch, don’t you?”
Molly smiled. “Yes, I love the theatre. My Aunt Sal took me at Christmas last year. I’ve got my own theatre at home.”
“Your own theatre! How do you fit it into your house?” Arabella’s cheeky face warmed Molly as they both giggled at the silly thought.
“You can come and see it if you like. I live over there, number 23,” Molly pointed at the house with the green door. “My mother won’t mind.”
“Number 23?” Arabella exclaimed with such disbelief that Molly’s brow wrinkled quizzically.
“Yes. Why? Don’t you believe me?”
Arabella realised her expression and smiled broadly, almost too broadly. “Oh no, of course I do, silly. It’s just it’s been empty for a while. Didn’t think anyone was ever going to take it.”
“Why wouldn’t they?” said Molly apprehensively.
“Oh, no reason.” Arabella paused, like she was weighing up something in her mind. “It’s just the man that was there before, he … well, he was a bit of a … my mother said he drank too much and I was to keep away from him. Something about war. I don’t know really.”
“Did he live there on his own?” asked Molly.
“No, he had a wife, but I only saw her once, on the market buying a big bunch of comfrey leaves. She must have left him ‘cos she wasn’t with him on the cart when he left. Just him. No one’s lived there since. Must be nearly a whole year now.”
Molly took in the information, but didn’t respond.
“Oh,” Arabella said, breaking the silence, “I’d better get back to the shop. Dad will be annoyed I’ve taken so long.”
“Oh, yes,” stuttered Molly, breaking her thoughts. “It was really nice to meet you. Will you come over to see my paper theatre? Maybe tomorrow?”
“I’d love to. I have to work until four. My dad says I’m the only one who can sweep the floor properly,” Arabella said proudly. “But I could come over after tea if you like.”
“See you then.” Molly’s eyes smiled as Arabella ran towards her shop waving. Had she just made her first friend? A hand on her shoulder made her jump and she whipped round to see her mother’s relieved eyes.
“I thought I’d lost you,” she sighed.
Molly swung on her mother’s hand as they made their way across the street to number 23. She felt warm. The breeze didn’t bother her any more.

Through the green door the smell of the unfamiliar house greeted them.
“Now, go and find me the pie dish,” said her mother, “I’ve got an apple pie to make for tea. It’s in the cellar in one of the tea chests.” Molly smiled at the thought of her mum’s apple pie. She slipped off her coat and took a candle from the mantle. Her mother lit it for her. Molly opened the old wooden cellar door. The black patchy latch was cold. The musty smell filled her nostrils and the damp air settled on her face. She walked into the gloomy darkness, the candle lighting a hazy circle of mottled bricks and spider webs as she turned the corner and felt for the stairs. Her hand passed over the coarse brickwork, prickling at her fingers. She descended the stone steps, her shoes crushing the sand like dust with each step. As she got further down something felt different. She stopped and held the candle upwards into the emerging room. The dark space glimmered dully in the circle of light. There was nothing there, just the old tea chests. She got to the bottom of the steps and shivered. It made her spine rattle, like all the nerves had jumped inside her at once. She walked over to the tea chests and put her hand inside one, scrabbling around in the inky newspapers.

Suddenly she couldn’t breathe. Her body went numb, and her knees left her. She fell, crumpled to the floor, the candle clunked to the ground and she was in darkness. She tried to shout out but no sound would emerge. She pushed at the floor but she couldn’t stand. Something was holding her there, holding her down. Her ears were screaming at her, a desperate, begging scream. She closed her eyes trying to block out the sound. The weight round her throat constricted further. Her eyes bulged open with fear. She wanted so desperately to scream, just scream. The wailing in her ears pierced the darkness; she pleaded with herself to do the same. Frantic, her voice escaped in explosive terror.
“No!”
She lurched up, springing through the black air. Away. Away from there. Her feet found the stairs – she didn’t know how – and she scrambled up, feeling the gritty ground beneath her splayed hands, grasping for the top, for the door, the latch, away from the pursuing dark.
“Mum!”
The cellar door burst open into the kitchen. Molly hung there holding the latch, breathing hard, gasping at the stewed apple air. Throwing down the cutlery in her hands, her mother rushed to her. Molly could feel her mother’s tight grip on her shoulders, but it was like they weren’t really there. No. It was like she wasn’t really here. She sobbed hard as her mother guided her to a chair and sat her down, unable to answer the questions through her uncontrolled breath. Eventually her mother held Molly’s blotchy cheeks in her warm hands, feeling the cold sweat on her terrified daughter’s face.
“Tell me!” her mother urged.
Molly sobbed as she spoke. “Something grabbed me, mother. Something’s down there. It held onto me. It screamed in my ears. I couldn’t breathe. Something’s down there.” She sobbed into her mother’s neck, her body convulsing with fear and relief.

That night Molly got into bed. As her mother drew the curtains in her bedroom, Molly slipped into her cold bed and drew the covers round her shoulders. Her mother sat beside her and stroked her mousey fringe.
“My beautiful girl,” said her mum, as her eyes searched Molly’s face. “We’ll be all right here, you know,” she said reassuringly. “Just you and me.” Her mother’s kiss was warm on her forehead. She smelled of apple pie, cosy and safe. Sleep took over quickly.

Molly woke again to the sound of the dark groaning house, cracking and creeping with corner of your eye noises. Alone. Only the street lamp shadow of her room was watching her. She hid under her covers until morning peeped through the drapes.

At four o’clock the next day Arabella was standing on the doorstep of number 23, the house she was always told to keep away from. Molly let her in and introduced her to her mother. They went up to Molly’s bedroom and set up the toy theatre.
“Where did you live before?” said Arabella.
Molly placed the main character into one of the side slots of the tiny theatre. “On a farm. My dad worked there.” She stopped. She had to. “Let’s do The Miller’s Maid. Do you know it?”
“Not really. But you can direct me, like I’m a proper actress.” Arabella knelt closer to the side of the theatre and picked up a stick with a paper lady stuck on the end. “Can I be this one?” she asked.
“You’re the leading lady then. I’ll be the man.” Arabella giggled at the thought. Molly smiled as she pulled the red curtain up from the front slot of the theatre making the sounds of a triumphant fanfare as she did so. “Ladies and gentlemen,” said Molly in her grandest voice, “Welcome to this evening’s performance of The Miller’s Maid.” Molly positioned her leading man centre stage. “My Lords,” said Molly in gruff voice, which made Arabella giggle again. “I welcome you to my humble home here in the land of…” Molly broke off in fits of laughter, mirroring Arabella. They enacted a play far from any ever seen before and made their paper people take a bow as the stiff red screen lowered.
“I know,” said Arabella, “let’s make a den.” “Yes!” said Molly excitedly, grabbing the covers off her bed. “Have you got any boxes we can use?” asked Arabella. “Only ones in the cellar,” said Molly, “but …”
“Well let’s go get them then.” Arabella said as she got up. Molly hesitated. She looked at Arabella, stuck between wanting to please her new friend and not wanting to go into that cellar again.
“What’s wrong?” said Arabella, looking into Molly’s worried face. “Nothing. I just don’t like it down there,” said Molly. “Why? It’s only a dusty old cellar with a few spiders. You’re not afraid of tiny spiders are you?” Arabella’s eyes smiled and she held out her hand to Molly, eager to get going. “Come on.”
Molly felt silly. She couldn’t tell Arabella what had happened, it would make her look like a baby. She got up and took Arabella’s hand. They clambered down the stairs into the kitchen. Her mother was hanging washing in the back yard. Molly stopped at the cellar door, unsure.
“Silly,” said Arabella, who pushed past her and undid the latch. The cold air hit Molly in the face as she watched her friend descend the steps. “Got a candle? It’s dark down here,” Arabella’s voice floated from nowhere. Molly grabbed a candle from the mantelpiece and lit it from the embers of the stove. She followed Arabella’s footsteps and found her in the middle of the stone stairs, the candle flickering at her pale features. They tiptoed down to the dark expanse of the cellar, lighting up the boxes as before. Something wisped at Molly’s neck and she turned abruptly, holding back a squeak as she did so.
“You really don’t like it down here do you?” said Arabella. “It is a bit spooky I suppose.”
“Something strange happened down here yesterday, that’s all. It was nothing though,” said Molly unconvincingly while she drew the dust covers off some of the old tea chests, hunting for a suitable box for their den.
“Look, what’s that?” said Arabella stood by the far wall staring at the brickwork. Molly brought the candle closer and looked where Arabella’s gaze was locked. Within the mess of cement encasing the red bricks there was a hole.
“Looks like the brick’s broken in half or crumbled,” said Arabella as she crouched to the floor. “But there’s nothing down here.” Arabella stood and ran her hand over the rough mortar. “Strange. Give me the candle.”
Molly handed the candle over, glad to let her friend investigate. Arabella held the candle to the hole and stood on her toes, straining for a better view. “It’s a hole!” she cried. “There’s a big cave on the other side.” Arabella poked the candle into the small hole trying to light up whatever was beyond it. “I can’t see anything. It’s too dark. Here, take this.”
Molly took the candle back. “Just leave it, come on, let’s go,” she said.
“No, I want to see what’s behind here.” Arabella stuck her small hand through the hole and into the dense blackness beyond. “Ooh, it’s cold,” she giggled. Then, suddenly, eyes wide, Arabella grabbed at her own hand. “Molly, help!” she cried, “help me!”
Molly pulled at her friend’s arm. It was stuck. They both pulled and pulled, but something pulled back. “Help me!” cried Arabella, tears streaming down her pale face.
“Push away, Arabella. Push!” Molly kept on pulling, unsure what to do. She was about to run for her mother when Arabella was freed. They both landed in a heap on the cold cellar floor. They shared a shocked look and both jumped up and scrambled to the top of the stairs. Molly pulled at the latch but it wouldn’t budge. Arabella joined in, they pulled and pulled. Molly screamed for her mother, but nothing. Something was coming at them from the stairs. It was dark. The candle extinguished in the flurry to escape. Something was there, getting closer.
“Mum! Mum!” screamed Molly at the locked door. Arabella clung to Molly, shaking, sobbing. The thick blackness was nearly to them. Just another step and it would be on them. The girls backed further into the corner of the door frame, willing there to be more room for them to escape, both scraping breath from the musty air. It was there! In front of them. It was there!
The door opened and the girls fell into the kitchen. Molly’s mother stared in disbelief at the heap of sweaty sobbing piles of dirty clothes at her feet. “What on earth are you both doing?”
“Mum, it’s down there, something, that thing, whatever it is. I don’t know. Something behind the wall. There’s something there. Mum, please.” Molly garbled. Arabella was clinging to Molly’s dress, her face buried in the dirty white cloth, shuddering shoulders and cobwebbed hair.
Molly’s mum shut the cellar door. “From now on you’re not to go down there, do you hear?”
“But mum, there’s something down there. We can’t stay here. Please get it out!” Then she noticed it, the black figure in the kitchen door. Slowly it turned as it entered the room. Molly got up from the floor ridged with fear. Arabella, still attached to Molly’s dress, followed her ascent. They both stared.
“Well, I’m sure I’ve never heard of such a fuss,” said the figure.
“Molly, this is Mrs Aston, our neighbour.” Molly’s mum shot a look that said ‘be polite.’ Molly didn’t say anything, but wiped her face with the cuff of her dusty dress. Arabella stood, staring at the kitchen floor where she’d just been.
Mrs Aston’s crumpled face studied Molly. “Well child, pleased to make your acquaintance, I’m sure.” Molly remembered herself, partly due to her mother’s look which said everything.
“Pleased to meet you Mrs Aston,” said Molly, curtsying. She’d never curtseyed before, but she felt this looming presence warranted it. Mrs Aston’s face crawled into a smile, her wrinkles making way for her yellowing teeth. She walked further into the kitchen, her stiff dress crinkling as she whooshed with every slow step. She sniffed the air, like there was something there, but she wasn’t sure what. “I just wanted to introduce myself, seeing as we’re neighbours now. It’s nice to have someone next door at last.”
Molly’s mum fussed into action.
“Can I offer you some tea, Mrs Aston? Please, sit down.” Mrs Aston gracefully took to a seat while Molly’s mum sorted the tea things.
“I do hope I’m not imposing,” said the old woman as she leaned her black gilded walking stick against the kitchen table. “I saw you in the yard and thought it a good opportunity.”
“Of course,” Molly’s mother said graciously. “We are neighbours after all, you should call any time.”
“You are kind. It is hard sometimes, on my own for so long in that house, since my husband died. Not much to do nowadays. Not much I can do,” the old woman smiled, then turned to Molly. “And you, young lady, and your friend there,” Arabella was still staring at the kitchen floor. Molly was stuck rigidly, not knowing if she was allowed to move, or if she dare. “What game has got you in such a tiz, hmm?”
“Oh,” Molly hid a shiver. She saw her mother’s monitory glance towards her. “Nothing. We just … saw a spider is all.”
“Oh, spiders won’t hurt you. More scared of you than you are of them.” The old woman chuckled once, like it was stuck in her throat.
“How long have you lived her, Mrs Austin?” asked Molly’s mother.
“Oh, for as long as is long,” replied Mrs Austin. “I moved here when I married. My husband has been gone for ten years now. But we still talk.”
Molly caught her mother’s gaze as the tea things were placed on the table with precision. “Sit down, both of you.” She said. Both girls obeyed.
“You still talk to your dead husband?” said Molly. “How?”
“Molly!” said her mother.
“No, no, it’s all right dear. No, we still talk. He visits me every so often and we catch up round the table.”
“Oh.” Molly said, unsure how to respond to such an explanation.
“Yes, my gift has spared some of my grief, for which I am grateful. You must attend one of my evenings, dear.”
Molly’s mother shifted uneasily, but busied herself with pouring tea. “Oh, thank you. I’m not sure …”
“Oh nonsense, dear. It’s nothing to be scared of. Spirits are just echoes of the past. You should see them as comforting.”
Molly could see her mother’s eyes glisten as she drew a napkin to her face. “My husband is not long passed and I don’t think it best to …” she stopped abruptly, hiding her face in her napkin. Molly went to her and cradled her shoulders.
“I’m so sorry, my dear. I didn’t realise. How terribly insensitive of me. And I claim to be a psychic! Ha!”
“No, please, you weren’t to know,” said her mother, stroking Molly’s arm. “We are getting on aren’t we Mol?”
Molly nodded, then stared at the old woman who’d upset her mother.
“It’s okay,” said her mother.
“Did you know your previous neighbours well, Mrs Austin?”
“Oh no. Well, not really. Not like this. They never had anyone in to entertain. No children. Hardly saw them. My husband used to see him stumbling back from the ale house, The Alma down the road there, every night. Hardly saw his wife, except at the market sometimes. Timid girl. Didn’t say much. You heard her at night though. My God, you heard her.” The old woman stopped, lost in a memory, her eyes saddened by the thought. “Anyway, he left on a cart a few months ago. She must have gone ahead of him. Or she left him. I didn’t see her to say goodbye either way.”

Mrs Austin finished her tea and collected her walking stick before rising. Molly’s mother followed. “I mustn’t hold you up any longer, dear. Thank you so much for the tea, and you really must visit whenever you like.” The woman moved towards the back door. Molly stood in front of her mother. “And you, girl, keep out of that cellar, away from those spiders.” She bent forward to Molly’s ear, her musty smell intensifying as she got closer, and whispered “Some things are best left unexplained to those that believe, child.” Molly’s nerves shivered. Mrs Austin’s foreboding eyes told more than her words. The dark figure turned and left for the gate in the back yard.
“What a nice woman,” said her mother.

Molly shuffled down the pavement, slowly but determined. Her old feet hadn’t given up on her yet and she was adamant they wouldn’t either. Her daily walk to the Compton Road shops kept them in check, and the steps in her modern apartment block made sure they worked hard. She walked past the market hall and remembered when it was all open air, no fancy roof, and the Punch and Judy shows she so used to enjoy when she was a girl. Her primary school class weren’t as impressed when she’d taken them to Blackpool for the day. Still, they’d all be in their 30s now and might appreciate it if only for historical reference. As she approached the newsagents on the corner she spied her old street, Sycamore Street, marked for demolition three years ago. Finally they were reducing it to rubble in front of her eyes. She remembered her mother always cleaning that step below the green door, proud as she was. In the newsagents Molly picked up a pint of milk and a local paper and stepped towards Mr Singh. “Morning Mrs Brown, lovely day.”
“Oh yes. It seems to cheer the pigeons anyway. Had one on my windowsill this morning, pure white he was, looking for crumbs.”
“Cheeky beggar!” said Mr Singh. “I hope you told him where to go, young miss.”
Molly brushed off the shop keeper’s sly blandishment with her hand. “Oh I don’t mind. He was quite beautiful actually. Had a story in his eyes, I could tell.”
Mr Singh fed the cash register some numbers and it rang out in a song of fiscal pride. “Not much in there,” he pointed to the Star Gazette on the counter. “All doom and gloom. Best not to bother with it if you want to keep that rosy smile.”
“I don’t really read it. I only get it for the crossword, and that usually takes me all week!”
Molly bid her local friend good morning. Leaving the shop, milk and newspaper safely in her red shopping bag, she gazed one last time at old Sycamore Street, nearly all gone. “Things move on I suppose.”

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No Brainer

No-Brainer

A dribble of spit hung between the corner of his mouth and the t-shirt he’d dressed himself in yesterday.

Yesterday.

The day before his brain fell out.

Julie remembered him yesterday, all words, facial expressions and functioning. When movements were second nature and there was no need to worry if he needed the loo.

The ambulance people, one woman, one overly tall man, had wanted to take him to the morgue. “He’s dead,” the woman had said, “Technically.” But even they couldn’t quite convince themselves. His heart still pumped. His lungs still drew breath. His eyes still portrayed some kind of soul within them, even if they didn’t seem to focus fully. But there was no denying the fact that his brain, like a washed up jellyfish on a rainy Blackpool beach, was lying on the bathroom floor. The overly tall man had scooped it up in his rubber gloved hands and put it into some freshly dishwashed Tupperware. Julie appreciated this. She wouldn’t have liked to do it herself. And they could have called the police, reporting a mentally disturbed wife who couldn’t accept her husband’s bizarre not-quite-death, asking them to please just leave him where he was and she’d decide what to do with him. But they didn’t. Instead they helped her move him onto the sofa, positioning his occasionally lolling head on a cushion and propping the rest of him between the arm of the sofa and a pile of nearly new fluffed up pillows from what was once her father’s room, now the spare bedroom. They’d advised her to call his GP before they left. An attempt on their part to feel they’d passed responsibility in a professional manner, thought Julie. Whatever made them feel better. They left in a baffled hurry, glad for another urgent call to attend.

Since then Julie had run a cycle of puréed food administration, awkward bed pan positioning, and dribble wiping. She’d thought her carer days were over when her father passed, and never considered it was to be good training for emergency husband-sans-brain care. She’d managed to find an endless supply of Top Gear on the telly, and even though he was mostly unresponsive, her husband developed a subtle twitch every time Jeremy Clarkson put his foot down. The faster the car, the bigger the twitch. So Julie decided anyway. For breakfast he’d had puréed marmite on toast. She had to tilt his head backwards slightly to make sure it went down okay. He could swallow, at least. His eyes didn’t move from the TV either. At lunchtime she puréed some beans. Her husband liked beans usually, although the aftermath from the other end was never pleasant. But needs must, thought Julie. She ladled a small amount onto a spoon and held it to her husband’s mouth. But he refused to open.

She tried scrambled eggs, mushroom soup, spaghetti with tinned meatballs, various cereals, even bacon sandwiches, all blended to a paste, none of which her husband would allow into his mouth. By tea time she’d run out of ideas. It was clear he didn’t want anything she offered. She stood in front of the dim light of the fridge and sobbed. Her husband’s brain sat on the top shelf in its Tupperware home. If he wouldn’t eat, how could she keep him like this? Maybe he didn’t want to be like this. Maybe he didn’t want to be alive. Half alive. Whatever it was that he is. Her thought process was interrupted by a gurgling sound coming from the front room and she rushed from the kitchen, leaving the fridge door wide open.

Half sat, half crumpled, her husband had somehow managed to get himself right in front of the TV. He seemed to be transfixed by the screen, and occasionally he issued a delighted grunt. Julie was amazed. He hadn’t moved an inch by himself since she’d found him in the bathroom yesterday. She didn’t think he could. She crouched next to him on the floor and said his name, looking for movement in his face. But there wasn’t any. Just a fixed stare, directed at the screen. A long gurgle, then a grunt. Almost excited, Julie thought. The screen’s contents had replaced Top Gear with some generic cookery programme. A stressed looking chef was dealing competently with a large plate of offal, handling the slimy blubber proficiently and chopping it into small strips which she then placed into a heated frying pan. The dark liver smoked as she did so. Then some bloodied heart. Some rubbery kidney. Then a slice of brain. Julie’s husband let out an excited gurgle again. The corner of his usually dormant mouth twitched.
“You can’t be serious?” said Julie, to no response.
The two of them watched the offal sizzling on the screen, trembling and popping within the hot fat. He didn’t react to the liver or the kidneys or the heart. Only to the brains. Julie didn’t need much more evidence of what her husband was thinking, and, without hesitation, and in some kind of manic haze, she collected her husband’s brain from the Tupperware in the fridge and heated a large frying pan on the stove top.

As consciousness came to her she recalled her last feelings of satisfied comfort at having got her husband to eat something before she fell asleep on the sofa next to him. The exhaustion had hit her almost as soon as he’d finished the last mouthful she’d fed him. She remembered how his arm had felt just as it did before, when she’d snuggle up to him in front of the telly, as if he was still normal, as if he was still the husband she’d married. The comfort of this must have sent her into a deep sleep, she thought. The low hum of a familiar tune brought a smile to her face in her dazy half-awake state. Her eyes were still heavy, but the smell of bacon and eggs tickled her nose, nudging at the sleepiness. As her brain kicked into full consciousness it started dealing with the facts it had been presented in its hazy waking. The humming was still there, ‘A Groovy Kind of Love’, she believed. One of her husband’s secret playlist tunes. The smell of bacon was still there, with overtones of frying egg whites, just about crispy, not burnt. Like her husband used to make. Her eyes snapped open, but before they could take in any more information to give to her poor confused brain, the living room door opened and in bustled her husband.

Her husband.

All standing up and walking.

All coordinated and not dribbling.

Carrying a tray.

“Good morning, my love,” he said, coherently. Julie couldn’t reply. It was all she could do to sit upright to get a better look at this phenomenal occurrence standing in front of her, smiling brightly.
“You looked so exhausted there on the sofa this morning I thought I’d make you breakfast. Not as much bacon as I thought we had, so you’ve only got two slices. Sorry.” He placed the tray on Julie’s thighs. “I’ve made you extra toast instead, and there’s some of that thick cut marmalade you like there too. Do you want coffee or tea?”
Her husband seemed confused at the lack of response from his wife, especially with the expression of disbelief she seemed to have on her face. Not one he’d seen of a morning before.
“Julie, coffee or tea?”
Julie stuttered an answer, but immediately couldn’t remember what she’d said. Then she said, “How are you feeling today?”
Her husband looked quizzically at her. “Well, I’m fine, thank you for asking.” He giggled slightly and kissed her forehead, then began rearranging the cushions on the sofa and moving the blanket he’d tucked his wife up in earlier that morning. “Bit of a headache actually, but some breakfast will probably sort that out. Are you all right, Julie?”
“Er, yes. I’m…” She wasn’t, but she said it anyway. “Fine.”
“You seem concerned about something.”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” she said, adjusting the tray on her lap. “I just wonder sometimes whether we know everything there really is to know.”
“Bit philosophical for this time in the morning,” laughed her husband as he left the room to finish the drinks in the kitchen, from where he shouted…
“You know, if you think like that too much your brain will fall out.”

 

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Walk On

Walk-On

She was still where she’d fallen, all that time ago. Such a time that she had no memory of ever being anywhere else. The pain blinded her. It stabbed and ripped. Invisible, yet the only thing in existence. It left no marks, nothing to display its might to the world, yet the torture it was busy making filled her so completely that others could surely see its ghost. Couldn’t they?

The figure wasn’t there. Then it was. She didn’t care either way. Somewhere she recognised a stranger. But it didn’t matter. The figure moved around her like a warm breeze looking for a draft to fill. Then, on the air that it carried, it left these words…

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As the last of her tears fell and the silence of the tempting end filled her mind, the figure reached with soft arms. Something forged within the smelting pot of her body, of a strength never felt. A new something. Something unexplainable. Something raw with reality. Something that took hold of her bones and her muscles and her tendons and pulsing bloody flesh, and made motion of them. And so she walked on…

 

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Garrison Hodge

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Garrison Hodge sat in the doctor’s waiting room wearing his best suit – a used teabag colour with various historic holes and stains – and a nicotine coloured shirt, mostly tucked in, with an unnoticed tomato sauce spot accompanying the second button down. This was okay though, because he was wearing a matching tie, which would have covered the tomato blob up, had it been straight, and had the last three buttons of his shirt not been left undone so that the bulging neck of Garrison Hodge could expand fully. The amalgamating neck-a-chin, thick with unbothered stubble of differing lengths, met his huge wobbly mouth within which sat remnants of last weeks’ meals. This was overseen by a substantial nose and bulging eyes with lids eager to get that bit closer to the sagging under-face, consistent in its gravitational pull. His rhythmic heavy breathing and unusual odour had detracted a small child’s attention away from the sticky wooden train he was once so enamoured with. The child’s curious concentration abruptly snapped into a wailing cry, and his mother lifted him to her comfortable jumper.

Doctor Blissmeed called Garrison into her room via the digital patient management system. He wasn’t a frequent visitor, but he was certainly a memorable one, and Doctor Blissmeed had prepared her room in advance by switching the Glade Plug-in from II to III.
“And what can I do for you today, Mr Hodge?” Doctor Blissmeed said in her usual well-practiced caring voice, while Garrison adjusted his mass in the armless, wipe-clean patient chair.
“Oh, I don’t know, Doctor,” said Garrison mournfully, “I’m just feeling sort of out of sorts, sorta thing. You know?”
“Hmmmm?” the doctor said, while clicking through the short medical record in front of her. “Feeling a bit down are we?”
“I suppose so, aye,” agreed Hodge.
Doctor Blissmeed contemplated Garrison’s form, which could be described as wobbly in general from his bulbous lips to his comfortably round bottom end, the swollen appendages about his torso grappling for purchase on the inadequate chair.
“Are you getting much exercise, Mr Hodge?”
“Well, I move about, if that’s what you mean. Always in and out of the garden, answering the call of nature, that type-a-thing.” The globular face contorted into puzzlement. “Why waste time moving about more?”
“It’s very good for mental health issues is all. Even a ten minute walk every day would be a start.” Doctor Blissmeed held an imploring look in her eye as she very competently stared with compassion.
“Takes ten minutes to walk to the off license and back, so obviously that’s not working for my particular ‘mental issues’, is it?” said Garrison.
“And have you been managing to bathe regularly,” continued the doctor, passing her eye over the grime covered skin. “Those fingernails could do with a scrub, couldn’t they?” With that, Doctor Blissmeed filled the room with flowery laughter, sweeter than a honey bee’s foot.
Garrison’s lips quivered to a large uncommitted smile, taking in his grey haired sausage fingers which were the centre of attention. “I s’pose, aye. But I has to look after me Fudge, don’t I? No getting away from dirty fingernails there.”
“Fudge?”
“Me worm. Fudge is his name. Lives in me pocket. Here, you wanna see?” The great mass of Garrison Hodge attempted to shift, but before it could muster enough motivation Doctor Blissmeed let out another slightly weeping flowery laugh. “No, no, that’s fine,” she managed, “honestly.” Not quite sure what to do next, apart from making a phone call to an appropriate authority, she ventured, “And have you had a worm in your jacket pocket for long, Mr Hodge?”
“Oh no,” he laughed, “of course not.” They both laughed, one with honest humour and one with relief. “No, no. I don’t wear me suit all the time. Had to make his home up special this morning for the trip out. Put some soil from me trackie bottoms in there, and he’s got a few beech leaves to keep ‘im goin’.” Garrison pulled at a yellowing leaf protruding from his right hand pocket. “Seems okay though. Settled in now, han’t you lad?”
If the doctor’s bottom lip could have screamed at its owner then it would have, it being the pained outlet for controlled worry. Finally it received respite in the form of a question of which neither the lip nor the rest of Doctor Blissmeed really wanted to know the answer. “So you usually keep ‘Fudge’ in your tracksuit bottoms then?”
“Usually, yes. He’s been there all me life, right from when I was a small boy.”
“Uh-huh.” The bottom lip once again took the brunt.
“Me mam was of the Dr Spock school of child rearing. From a very young baby I was put outside on account of making too much noise. I discovered my love of mess at the age of 18 months. My mother continued to send me outside to keep the inside clean, and during one of these moments I discovered soil, beautiful soil, and its uncanny ability to clump together when mixed with pond water.” Garrison’s face held the delight of the moment as firmly as its overwhelmed muscles could. “It clogged up so nice I got obsessed with squishing it into this and that, including the exhaust pipe of my dad’s car.” The muscles gave up. “They still don’t know it was me. That’s what caused the accident that made mam not care about mess anymore.” Garrison paused a moment as if about to relive a bad childhood memory, but pulled himself out in an experienced way and continued. “It was around then I found Fudge here, didn’t I lad?” He pulled his jacket pocket open an inch and smiled into the darkness.
Doctor Blissmeed decided to stick with the immediate issues, clasping her hands tightly as if they were her only hope of keeping on track with this unusual man and his worm.
“Bit unhygienic, don’t you think? All that dirt. Hmm?”
“Keeps him warm. Keeps us both warm really.” With his generous lips pulled tight in a grin, an affectionate chuckle spread through the ripples of Garrison Hodge. He gulped in a deep breath. Then another. But the ripples kept rippling. Like multiple tsunamis they enveloped and spat out the considerable excess flesh at its disposal. Hodge’s face flattened. His rolled pork-belly neck pulled at his eyelids, which had a ripple all of their own.
“Mr Hodge!” The doctor scrambled round the desk, failing to decide which part of the rippling mass would be safe to touch. She went for the left eyelid, but the tip of her dewdrop finger barely touched an eyelash before Garrison Hodge stood straight as a lamp post and opened his vast mouth.
“HOOOOORRRAAAARRRSSSSPPPFFFTTTtttsthpth..ph…tth…ftpsss,” said the gaping hole, without moving a lip.
“Cleanliness is what’s killing you all! Stupid fools.”
The voice was soft and swaying, the words took their time to form as it spoke.
“Everything is too clean, too neat. Tidy houses, tidy gardens, tidy minds.”
The voice rose into a frustrated growl that vibrated through Doctor Blissmeed and her consultation room like a thunder storm on a washboard.
“Ignorant species! Everyone needs mess. It’s the only way the really important things stand out.”
Garrison, still stupefied, didn’t move an inch while the voice of his possession oozed from him like warm caramel.
“Life IS mess. Life IS dirt. To live is to allow others to live, other creatures, other beings, that of which you humans do not wish to be aware. The creatures of the cycle of life, death, and resurrection.”
Doctor Blissmeed, stunted in speech and movement, beheld the starched body of Mr Hodge and the resonating voice that came from it with a terror that prevented any thought seeing progress to action. The voice had ceased, and a wet, splattering sound had taken over, as if it was gargling soil. It stopped suddenly, then whispered…
“You will see the way.”
A unfavourable bile based slopping sound came from Garrison Hodge’s gut. His eyes seemed to widen slightly, but it was hard to tell underneath the swollen, fleshy lids. Then, reaching from deep within, he belched, throwing a cloud of dense and slightly moist dust into the air. The dust indiscriminately covered the room, including the wipe-clean chair, the Glade Plug-In, and Doctor Blissmeed’s trembling body.

That night, Garrison tucked into his favourite tinned delight. He delved through the wriggly spaghetti mess to find the sacred meatball, which he ate whole, saving some on his chin for later. He opened the pocket of his tracksuit bottoms and carefully held a decaying leaf just within the small gap. “Here you go lad, sommit for you too.” The worm snatched the leaf from the sausage fingers, pulling it into the mulchy abyss, and Garrison grinned generously.

Christine Blissmeed was glad to get home. She couldn’t have wished away the hours of surgery and note-writing much more than that particular afternoon, and she certainly wasn’t going to stay there until 8pm as usual. She dumped her handbag on the shiny laminate floor, not on the first hook of the coat rack, and made her way out to the garden. Neglecting the steppingstone pathway that went neatly through the large back garden, she struggled with her polished black heels piercing the greener-than-green-has-ever-been grass. Without her Briers Lady gardening gloves (pink), she crouched unsteadily within the perfectly spaced bedding plants and collected a handful of soil and some decaying leaves and stuffed it gently but firmly into her tailored jacket pocket.
“There you go William, nice warm home, nice yummy food. Good lad.”

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Billy

 

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Outside the corner shop, lookin’ for my pot. Couldn’t find it. I was so out of it though I couldn’t find my own feet! Louise was there, and Zoe. Zoe felt ill, what with being six months’ pregnant. Not sayin’ she’s easy. Maybe a bit keen, and she still ain’t got no rock on her finger. But why not? Girls can have fun too. While Louise went to get some booze Zoe went to the hat shop doorway opposite to be sick. I was still trying to find my pot, and enough money somewhere in my pockets so I could buy some cigarettes. That’s when Billy turned up. He asked if I was going to Captain Zeez later. I really wanted to, but didn’t fancy it on my own. Zoe wasn’t coming, that’s for sure, and even if Louise came she’d always wander off. I think she was embarrassed to be seen with me. She can be frosty sometimes, and I know I can be kinda gloopy sometimes, too. So I said yeah. To Billy, that is. Louise came out of the shop. She gave me some money for cigarettes and ran to look after Zoe in the hat shop doorway. I think she was annoyed with me. Again.

I went in to buy cigarettes. I was so woozy, I can tell you. That pot was good! I swear I nearly collapsed on the floor. Somehow I came round a bit when I got to the tall counter. I nearly had to stand on tiptoes to reach it. It helped that they were changing over cashiers and I had to wait a bit for them to sort out the cash in the till. I smiled at them too. Always wins people over. I knew the woman behind the till with the downturned eyes. I don’t know how.

When I came out Louise and Zoe were gone. Billy was still there, leanin’ on the phone box with his red neckerchief below his double chin and full toothy grin filling his happy round face. His bit-too-tight t-shirt was printed with dark comic book scenes and his protruding belly made the stretched material shine under the streetlight. He kept his hands in his jeans’ pockets, ruckling up his brown leather jacket. His dark hair danced in the warm breeze. I said I needed to go home first. He said we should go to his first so he could drop his Triumph off and have something to eat, his dad will have made something.

I was sat there with Billy and his dad watchin’ some show on telly. I wanted to watch the show but not tonight. Tonight I wanted to go dancing. I told Billy, and then I said to his dad that we’d have to go because we were going out and we’d be late. His dad didn’t seem to mind. He’d made extra beans on toast for me, which was a shame because Billy hadn’t touched any of his. As I left I heard his mother say something and his father replied.
“She’s just a nice girl needs some comfort, let her alone.”
“You shouldn’t let her in,” I heard his mum say as his dad shut the door.

We walked up the street, all the cats were out in the sharp suits and duck-butt hair, piling out of the dance halls, off up to Captain Zeez. I was so cranked up! But I had to go home and get changed first. Billy said I looked fine, but I wanted to. So we found a bus. It was one of those bar buses that served drinks, with seats around the edge facing the middle. Billy sat on the opposite side to me, next to two mums. I shouted to him to come sit next to me, but he didn’t seem to hear me. I heard one mum say his name within a whisper, “Billy Ray Beans,” Cool name, huh? I sure thought so. Their whispers mingled with the clang of sherbet cocktails and the fizz of soda water, “That young lad. Poor soul. His mum works in Laycocks, that little corner shop down Miley Street.” Fizz! Fizz! “They say she looks awful sad all the time.” She said somethin’ else in a sad tone, but I wasn’t paying attention. Billy had disappeared. Couldn’t see him anywhere. I looked all round the bus. When I got back he was sat there, right where he was before. We got off the bus and I made it clear to him this was nothin’ like a date. I was only going to the dance with him because he’d said I was a bit of an oddball and he liked my kookieness, and I felt the same about him. Pure coincidence. And I liked banana and peach smoothies with lime. So did he. That was the only reason. Nothin’ else. He agreed it was too. I couldn’t see his face when he said it, but I think he sounded a bit disappointed.

I got changed and we went to Captain Zeez. It’s always a blast at Captain Zeez. I danced on top of the plastic boat. I could feel my petticoats swinging around me, and with my yellow fitted shirt I must have looked amazing up there. People tried to bash my ears, but I didn’t want to stop. Why should I? I told them to get bent. The music was still playin’. Billy was still there, watchin’ me on top of that plastic boat. No gingles for me! The song finished and I slid down the boat on my petticoats. My shoes had gone though, so I went to find them, and Billy. I couldn’t find either. I was still lookin’ when they found me, all concerned eyes and soothing voices.

I will always remember that night at Captain Zeez. It was only a few months after the accident, so the nurses told me anyways. Billy had said it was okay, so I knew it would be. When I flew through the air it was like slow motion. Riding on the breath of the world. The nothing of our lives. The nothing that Billy filled. I don’t remember the funeral, but everyone said it happened. I stopped going round to see Billy’s dad once the doctors took me over. I wonder now what he must have thought, sitting there with his beans on toast. I miss Billy. But he’ll always be with me, on the bus, or outside the corner shop, or watching me on that plastic boat.

I never did find my shoes.

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The Sighting

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Me and my brother were at our holiday bungalow on the edge of the world. Well, Whitehaven. He was nine. I was seven. Long after bed time we snuck out in our pyjamas, wind wrapping round our legs, whipping at our knees as if they were bare naked. It was pitch black dark, and cloudy. No stars. But the moon was in a clearing and lent a shadowy light to our edge and the rocks and sea below which roared beneath us like some monster climbing out of the darkness and up the cliffs to get us. We stood near the edge, daring each other to get closer, giggling at the fear.

My brother saw him first. He was just a black shape in the sea. His shadowy arms were flailing in the vast watery pit. We couldn’t hear him. Probably too far away. But we could tell he wasn’t safe. We could sense his fear. We knew what fear felt like. But we just stared. We didn’t know what to do, even if we should, or could. We weren’t supposed to be out here. The dark figure thrashed in the moonlight, trying to grab at something that just wasn’t there. Then suddenly it was gone. We went back to our beds quietly. We didn’t mention it again, like it would become a dream if we didn’t.

We never did find out.

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