Spyglass

I see a ship

Idle

Drifting

Shifting

Lifting, as the waves they rise

And fall

 

A single vessel

Lonely

Isolated

Stagnated

Castrated; as the storm begins

To maul

 

I see the wreck

Desolate

A frame

Defamed

Aflame, as the night creeps in

And crawls

 

I see a ship

Lost

Rotten

Forgotten

Misbegotten; I see it rise

And fall

 

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Gone

Ayla felt the harsh cold of the pillow against her face. The remnants of saliva, spilled during the night, pressing rudely against her skin, invading her slumber. Slowly, lethargically, she dragged her hand from beneath the crumpled mess of sheet and duvet, lodging it between her face and pillow before lazily wiping the damp patch from her cheek. When she felt it. A chill. A targeted, unforgiving chill. Clawing down her spine before splintering through the rest of her body. She shivered. She felt the goosebumps stand to attention across her flesh.

‘Another lovely Scottish summer’s day…’ she croaked to herself sardonically.

The words jabbed against the back of her throat, forcing her to reach for the half-full bottle of water sitting on the bedside table. She unclicked the bottle cap with her teeth before gulping down the majority of the drink. She grimaced as the warmth of the water, left sitting out all night, clashed with her tastebuds. Bleugh she thought as she hammered the bottle back down on the bedside table, the shape of the plastic crumpling slightly. Another flash of cold shot against her exposed arm. She jolted, taken by surprise, and quickly withdrew her arm, sending it back into the comparative warmth beneath the duvet. But even there she felt the cold, her body quivering slightly as she pressed her limbs against her torso. Her nipples hard, raw against the thin material of her nightdress. Her fingers and toes tingled, little pockets of ice threatening to invade the rest of her bones.

Why is it so bloody cold!? she asked herself as she pulled the duvet up to her chin. The forecast wasn’t great but it wasn’t supposed to be this bad!? Maybe the heating’s broken. Yeah that’ll be it. Just what I need. Another bloody bill to fork out for! So soon after that stupid bloody boiler had to be replaced aswell. The thought permeated in her mind for a good 30 seconds or so before she realised that she had, effectively, switched the heating off a month or so before as ‘summer’ – in the loosest definition of the word – had arrived in Scotland. Maybe I was too optimistic, she thought. But still. It’s never been this bad before. Even during the winter. She shivered again, the chill graciously bookending her period of scattered thoughts for her.

Phone. The thought came to her suddenly. The action was usually automatic. As her eyes flickered open of a morn she would instantly reach for her phone. An indifferent, choreographed grasp in order to apprise herself with the news or, more accurately, social media updates she may have missed out on in the preceding handful of hours. But this morning the cold had stifled any such thought. I’ll check the forecast, she thought. Must be another freak wintry wave from Siberia or something like that again. The phone was only inches from where her bottle stood. A quick reach, grasp, retreat. That’s all that was needed. It isn’t hard, she thought. No. One quick movement. The cold won’t matter. 3..2..1….reach. Her body remained still. Her arm refusing to budge. C’mon, she thought. Bloody hell. You’re Scottish girl! Get a grip. You’ve dealt with cold before. Ok. Ok. 1..2..3..REACH! Her arm shot out of the duvet and grasped. She felt the sharp cold of the phone’s casing collide with skin. Her hand recoiled slightly. She fumbled. Sending the phone sprawling to the floor below. She caught sight of it lying on the carpet next to a small pile of discarded clothes. Now a good three feet or so away from the foot of the bed. Shit!

Stop it, she thought. This is silly. Whether it was genuinely this cold, or whether she was coming down with something, the fact remained that she had to get out of bed at some point. At the very least she had to retrieve her phone. A resolve had started to inch through her veins, starkly at odds with the goosebumps continuing to form on her skin. Her legs began to tremble, naked as they were but for a small, light pair of shorts. She tried to pay them no heed. Trying to ignore the sensation burrowing away at her flesh. She’d had the right idea with the phone, she decided. The execution might have been wrong but the plan was solid. A quick, rapid move. That’s all that was required. Like stepping out of a hot shower on a cold winter’s morning and grabbing for the towel. That’s all it was. In a series of quick moves she would roll out of the bed, run to her wardrobe and grab her dressing gown. The fluffy winter one, not the thinner kimono. Yes, it might be unbearably cold for a few seconds or so but once it was done that would be it. Just do, don’t think. Do, don’t think. She repeated this simple mantra to herself, over and over again. Do, don’t think. Do, don’t think. The words, the thoughts, drowning out the first false start. And the second. And the third. Before she finally managed to emerge from beneath the duvet and rolled to the floor. An involuntary scream escaped from her as the malevolence of the cold tore at her skin. She scrambled towards her wardrobe, grabbing her phone on the way, and desperately threw open the doors. She grabbed for her dressing gown, sending a handful of dresses tumbling from their hangers in the process, and quickly wrapped it around her body. The freezing temperatures abating just enough to allow her to calm her nerves.

She grabbed at the pile of dirty washing on the floor and placed it next to her on the bed as she lowered herself onto the mattress. They would do for now. I’ll put some clean clothes on later when this Arctic cold spell buggers off. She readjusted the front of her dressing gown with one hand, wrapping it tighter around her body, as the other hand started flicking through her phone. She opened the weather app. It failed to load. Hmm. She checked the Wifi signal at the top of her screen. Not strong but strong enough. She closed down all her apps and tried again. Nothing. Just the continual whirring wheel that indicated no luck. No Dalgety Bay. No Inverkeithing. No North Sea. Nothing. Location services seemed to be lost. Disabled. Whatever.

Odd, she thought, as she folded one leg over the other instinctively as the cold threatened to sneak between her thighs. She scanned through her social media accounts, caring less and less for the myriad of late night updates that peppered her screen as each one rolled by. And anyway, she hadn’t posted. There was no sign. She closed them down. She glanced at her messages app. No red number cornered the green smudge yet she tapped on the icon anyway. Her name appeared. Melanie. The last message between the two appeared before her eyes. Sent a week or so previously. She’d read it several hundreds of times since its arrival. The words burned into her mind. Each letter, each syllable. The over-riding message clawing at her already shivering frame. Done. No more. Gone. Ayla felt the familiar gathering flood rising to her tear ducts. No, she thought, scolding herself. She locked the phone and tossed it onto the bed. No.

She stepped off the bed and walked across the room towards the window. Again she tightened the cord on her dressing gown, the cold refusing to abate any further. She drew the curtains and opened the blinds. An expected blush of sun and light failed to materialise. She cowered slightly, despite herself, as the room seemed to wallow further into the gloom. She stared through the window, decorated as it was with a smattering of condensation, and saw the fog. Mist. Haar. Whatever the correct term was. It was thin, almost peripheral even. It seemed to skirt the surrounding trees, the roads, the rooftops, without ever truly engulfing. It seemed…no, that’s ridiculous she thought…but it did all the same…it seemed…sinister. Somehow. She shook her head in self-derision and stepped back from the window, proceeding to slowly and delicately pull on the dirty clothes beneath the cover of her dressing gown. Shivering continuously, her teeth chittering along in a silent harmony. I’m definitely coming down with something, I must be. The thought repeated in her mind as she picked up her phone from the bed, automatically checking her messages once again, before stepping out of the bedroom.
She clicked the heating on. Ridiculous, she thought. In the height of summer. Or ‘summer’. The flat began to warm instantly, temporarily filling with the tame burning odour that accompanies the turning on of a radiator or electric fire as winter approaches after a handful of months out of action. That’s better. The mass army of goosebumps gradually began to retreat from her body, clusters at a time. Warmth crept through her skin. She frowned, feeling the unwashed clothes clinging to her flesh. She felt unclean. Restless. A shower, that’s what she needed. As soon as the flat warmed up properly she would jump in the shower and then put some clean clothes on. She glanced at her phone again. The signal seemed to be diminishing. No messages. Standard. She untied her dressing gown chord, feeling the heat begin to claw at her uncomfortably beneath the fluffy material, as she went from room to room in the curtain and blind opening routine that began each of her days. The thin layer of mist greeted her as each curtain was drawn. Pawing at the windows with long, wispy limbs and fingers. She walked into her living room, instantly feeling the cold of the wooden floor bite against the soles of her bare feet. She quickly skipped across to the window, resolving all the while to make her next destination the sock drawer, and loosened the cord for the blinds.

She furrowed her brow at the sight that unravelled before her. It was different. A variation on the usual canvas that greeted her of a morning. The familiar view that had essentially convinced her to settle on this particular flat sometime before. There had been other flats, bigger flats, for less rent, but Ayla’s mind had kept returning to the lapping waves of the Forth and the dazzling red brilliance of the Forth Bridge; the view that this flat had afforded her. It was unrivalled. In most places throughout the world, she guessed. It was inspiring, breathtaking and, after a while, it had become comforting. But this time, it was different. Yes, a thin mist still clawed at the window pane however beyond that it had solidified, for lack of a better word. In fact the mist appeared so dense, so thick, that half of the bridge appeared, quite simply, to be gone.

No, she thought, squinting her eyes at the developing site before her. A trick of the light, perhaps, a trick of the fog. It certainly wasn’t so unfamiliar, anyway. She had woken often throughout the months of winter and spring to discover that the bridge had been completely covered in mist. As if it had disappeared through the night. But the outline was always there if you looked hard enough. Like a thin underlying sketch appearing through the colours of a watercolour painting. But this sight was, somehow, entirely different. The Fife side of the bridge looked intact. Barely touched by the mist. The South Queensferry side however was, well, gone. Not there. As if a gargantuan solid greyish wall had been clipped in place halfway across the structure. No outline poked through the haar. No hint or suggestion of the red paint nudged its way into the foreground. Gone. Confusion reigned in her mind as she tried to compartmentalise, to rationalise, the vision before her.

Another check of the phone. Again, instinctively. This time she couldn’t even say why. She felt an urge within her. To see if they were alright. But who, she thought. To see if who were alright? Her? Melanie? Why would she need to check if she was alright? They’d broken up, it wasn’t as if she would want to…no, this was different though. Why though? Why did it feel different? Her self-interrogation was brought to an abrupt close as her eyes drited from the ‘disappeared’ bridge and latched onto the vision of roughly 40-50 men, women and children standing, gathered at the shoreline.

Who were they? Why were they there? How had she missed them? Again her mind raced, latching onto and then discarding question after question. The figures were huddled – even from where she stood Ayla could see them seemingly shivering against the effects of the cold. But still, their focus appeared fixed. Robust. On what lay across the shore from them. On the thick, impenetrable, blanket of mist. Why? It’s mist, she thought. Even on the most gorgeous of sunny days you’d only have a handful of passers-by soaking up the view, so, again she pondered, why? Where they lost tourists? No, surely they’d keep walking towards the bridge, or further into town maybe. But the bridge…the bridge. She looked up at it again. And again the image baffled. It was almost as if she was looking at the bridge as it had been mid-construction, far more than a century before then. Only…only…she could swear that another slight part of the bridge had been eaten by the fog in only the last minute or so. From her distance it seemed to be only an inch or so but in real terms, well…

She checked her phone again as she pulled on her jacket. Again, she elected to pluck her ‘winter’ garment off the hanger, neglecting the lighter jackets she had been used to in the preceding days and weeks. She emptied her pockets – a handful of receipts and a belatedly-received Christmas card from months earlier (when she had last worn the coat) spilled onto the counter. Phone. She opened up her Recent Calls list and selected her name, Melanie. She hovered over the Call button. Why wouldn’t she be ok, she thought, I’m being silly…she’ll…no, why am I doing this!? Stop. She slid the phone into her jacket pocket and scooped a woolly hat from one of the coat hangers. She caught a brief waft of dust, a musty scent, as it passed by her nose on the way to her head – again, a victim of clothing neglect in the previous handful of months.

She grabbed her keys, unlocking the door, and stepped out of the warm flat and into the cold of the morning. She’d managed only a dozen or so paces before halting slightly. Again, the spectre of Why hung over her. Why, she asked. Why was she going down there!? Why was she bothering? It was mist. Fog. Haar. Shit weather. That’s all. And who knows who these people were!? It could be a religious cult. Weirdos standing waiting to wave at a passing cruise liner, perhaps. Anyone. But still, something, something, she knew not what, told her to continue. To join the others. Ayla shook her head slightly. A seeming gesture of realisation, one that told her how irrational her actions seemed. But the urge, she thought, there’s an urge to walk on. To see. To discover. A purpose. Something she’d frequently struggled to obtain. More so in recent months. Move. She shoved her hands deep into her pockets, tightening the jacket around her, and walked forward into the increasingly thickening mist.

‘What’s…what’s going on…?’ she asked tentatively as she approached the group.
A host of silent faces turned towards her. They seemed to slowly eye her up and down before turning away again.
‘What’s going on…?’ she tried again. The faces remained turned away, continuing to stare at the dense block of mist across the water. ‘…anyone?’
‘Gone.’
‘Sorry?’ Ayla turned to see a small elderly woman standing next to her. She was wrapped in a thick grey coat, the hood of which obscured a large portion of her face. Her eyes, taught and fearful, peered out from beneath the cover, staring straight ahead into the mist.
‘It’s gone. All of it. Gone.’
‘Gone?’ she asked. ‘What’s gone?’
‘Gone.’
‘What’s…I mean, it’s not gone, it’s just fog, isn’t it? What do you mean it’s gone…?’
‘It’s not fog. Look at the bridge. Look at the mountains. They’re gone.’ Ayla turned towards the voice of a middle-aged man who, as seemed to be the norm, bothered not to turn towards her, staring straight ahead into the gloom as he spoke.
‘I…I don’t understand…’ she mumbled. ‘What is…’ she broke off her own sentence as she scrambled to pluck the phone from her pocket. No, this wasn’t right. It wasn’t normal. She’d have to call Mel. She’d…just call. She’d call her. Just quickly. Just to disprove…to disprove what she didn’t know…but she had to all the same. She headed straight into her Recent Calls list and dialled – shorn of any of the reluctance that had accompanied such a move in the previous weeks. She held the phone to her ear, the cold tingling down the slight piece of exposed skin on her wrist. Nothing. No ringtone. No engaged tone. No call failure beeps. Nothing. She pulled the phone from her ear and checked the signal. Miniscule. But there was a signal there. She tried again. She looked at the faces surrounding her as she waited for any sound, for any acknowledgment from her phone that a call was being attempted. They continued to stare. A mix of fear, confusion, resignation populating their gazes. Maybe she as right about the cult thing after all, she thought. Nothing. Still nothing. Shit.
‘Excuse me…’ she began.
‘Where do they live?’
‘I’m sorry…?’
‘Where do they live?’ the question snapped out from a woman roughly the same age as Ayla, late twenties she would say, standing a couple of feet to the side of her. Her hair was tied up in a just-woken-up-and-not-ready-to-face-the-general-public style but her eyes were glazed, once again staring straight ahead, imbued with that same mix of fear, confusion and resignation.
‘Erm…where do who live?’
‘Whoever you’re trying to phone?’ still not a flicker of a look towards Ayla.
‘I don’t think that’s…’
‘Is it Edinburgh?’
‘Sorry, what…?
‘Is it Edinburgh?’
‘It…’ Ayla looked at the woman’s unflinching stare as the words seemed to spit out from her mouth robotically. She thought about protesting, reasoning, pleading, anything. And then instinctively, somehow, thought or knew better. ‘It is, yes…Edinburgh.’
‘Then you won’t get through.’
‘I’m sorry?’
‘You won’t get through to them.’
‘Why…’
‘Or anyone south of here.’
‘South? I don’t under…’
‘We’ve all tried. You just won’t.’
‘Gone.’ Ayla shook slightly as the elderly woman repeated her mantra next to her. ‘Gone. Gone.’
She felt the fear rise in her as she turned frantically from the elderly woman and tried her phone again. Nothing. Nothing. Still NOTHING! Was she safe?! Of course she was. But. But they just said…they just said. No. The thought of something happening to her…oh, god, no…No! Confusion. Anxiety. Fear. Restlessness. Clawing at her. Within her. All explanation, all rumination falling by the wayside. Again she looked at those around her. The stoic deafness, the robust muteness remained. Again she glanced at the bridge. Gradually, incrementally fading into the mist. She looked again towards the mist itself – it was growing thicker, edging closer, of that she was convinced.

‘LOOK!’
The sudden shout shook her. A tremble of cold pierced her spine. She turned. All of those surrounding her seemed to be becoming animated.
‘Look’
‘Look there…’
‘Over there, yes…’
‘Look!’
Ayla followed their excited gazes, plunging her vision into the mist where, yes, yes, she could see an outline. Yes. A boat. It looked like, no, it was, a boat. A small wooden fishing boat, if she had to guess. Emerging from the grey canvas. And what appeared to be two figures on board. Headed towards them. Lapping lightly, rocking from side to side in time with the steady waves. The excitement, the anticipation grew. The faces around her shunting from the deadened masks of resignation into ones settling into something like hope. It was silly she thought. It’s…I don’t understand. It’s only mist, it’s surely only mist. There’s no cause for panic. Nor hyperbole. There’s surely no need for this kind of hope. And yet, in spite of herself, she felt herself begin to latch onto a feeling somewhere in the realms of hope. This boat, this small wooden vessel, bearing down on them, seemingly only just staying ahead of the approaching mist, seemed to infuse her with a warmth, a sense of future. She looked around the strangers next to her and felt a kinship, as irrational as that thought appeared. She saw the slightly contorted smiles, the jittery anticipation, the anxious hope and she understood.
‘Someone help them, get down there…’
She heard the call from amidst the group as several began to advance towards the edge of the shoreline to meet the boat as it drifted slowly to shore.
‘Here we are, here it comes…’
Ayla looked up as more and more of the assembled group made their way towards the incoming vessel. Out of the corner of her vision she caught sight of the bridge. Or what was left of it. The world famous red landmark had all but disappeared now into the fog. The structure almost completely submerging in the gloom. She felt her chest tighten as she followed the edge of the mist and realised how close it now was to their position on the coastline. Her fears flared up once again. This wasn’t just mist, she thought. No. She knew. This was something else. This was…this was. Her train of thought was broken by a gaggle of screams bursting from those gathered beside the boat. Her chest tightened further. She felt her stomach lurch.
Slowly, almost as if in a daze, she walked towards the boat, passing through the others, now in various stages of revulsion and panic. Tears dripped down the elderly woman’s face. The girl who spoke of Edinburgh was bent over, vomiting on the ground. The middle-aged man’s face was awash with a dread, the kind of which she’d never seen before. Dozens of others gripped by fear, twisted and skewered by the various stages of grief. But still Ayla walked on. Until she reached the boat. Gentle, indifferent, waves scratched at its base.

Even before she glanced up she knew what she would see. How, or why, she knew not. But sure enough as she lifted her gaze into the vessel, her eyes settled on the grotesque corpses of the two sailors. Their skin almost rotten, flesh singed very nearly all the way to their black, charred bones. A look of terror eternally carved into their expressions.
The screams loudened behind her. Unbridled levels of panic filled the air in a crescendo of fear. Her eyes slowly, almost lazily, inched down from the corpses towards the floor of the boat. She could feel her eyes widen in her own grasp of terror as she saw a thin burst of mist creep into the boat. Only temporarily obscuring the word scraped frantically into the wooden floor.
She mouthed the letters. She tried to scream but her lungs, her vocal chords, failed to respond. The word playing over and over in her head.
One syllable.
One word.
A warning.

‘RUN’

Murder On The Fife Circle

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8:29amA two-carriage train stutters into Dalgety Bay train station. 14 minutes later than its intended arrival time. A mass of commuters begin their slow traipse towards the doors in anticipation of their opening. Forming clusters. Ragged triangles of bodies judging their every step and move, waiting to burst onto the train and claim any available or seat or space in the daily space-deprived, sweat-inducing carnival that is the rush hour Fife to Edinburgh train service.

Trees, fully in bloom, resplendent in their greenery, in their foliage, surround the station’s northern platform. Unmoving. Silent. Ornamental.

Eventually the doors shunt open, signalling the stampede of bodies to follow. The crush. The swirl of selfishness as every man and woman nudge, bump and shove their way onto the train with varying degrees of success.

 

8:30amWith every seat already claimed long before, the aisles and gangways burst at the seams with standing passengers. The areas between the doors strain under the weight of bodies. Cheek to jowl, toe to toe; glum looking commuters come into contact with one another. Space to move, air to breathe; both are minimal.

As the train slowly sets off the merest jolt sets in motion a perilous balancing act for the standing passengers. With nothing to hold onto for support, the vast majority of these poor souls bump into one another. Those standing in the aisles judder, scrambling frantically to latch their hand onto the roof racks for support. All the while looking down at the seated passengers with more than a hint of resentment. And no little anger.

 

8:32amThe temperature throughout the train rises. Sweat begins to form and drip from many of those clustered together in the aisles and gangways. Annoyed sighs and murmurs audibly begin to trickle into the air.

 

8:33amThe rain speeds past its next scheduled stop of Inverkeithing. Several dozen passengers are left disgruntled, many hurling profanities at the passing train, as they linger on the platform. Those on the train look in with a mixture of bemusement and, for some, relief. No announcement accompanies this impromptu decision.

The temperature continues to rise. Jackets, shirts, dresses begin to lightly stick to the skin of some of those standing. Disgruntled, sleep-deprived, unsmiling sardines forced together in a joyless journey.

 

8:35amA passenger, a bespectacled male in his mid-to-late forties, cries out in pain and collapses in the space between the end of one aisle and the area between the doors. The mass of huddled bodies means no-one sees a blood-strewn penknife being withdrawn from the unfortunate victim’s lower torso.

Screams break through the carriage as blood is seen spilling from the collapsed man. He drifts rapidly into unconsciousness. His breathing laboured to the point of barely being there.

Panic begins to spread. Shouts of ‘Stop the train!!’ and ‘He needs a doctor…’ intermingle with others suggesting someone, anyone, makes their way towards the driver and/or conductor (should the latter even be on the train) to inform him or her of the situation.

But no-one budges.

No-one.

All seemingly too worried about giving up their space. All too concerned about losing an inch in this, by now, daily battle. The hysteria swiftly dies down. A few disgusted expressions emerge on the face of some before fizzling out to blend in with the mass of sheepish, slightly-ashamed-but-not-nearly-enough, faces turning down towards the floor.

In the aisle the stabbed man, lying in a dark pool of his own blood, splutters his last breath. Unaided or assisted in his death throes.

 

8:37amAnother passenger screams and collapses to the floor. Again with blood seeping from the torso. Again, the withdrawn pen-knife is not seen. This time the victim is a younger blonde woman, aged somewhere in her twenties. Blood trickles down her dress as she crumples to the floor not far from the dead man. The carriage maintains an icy, surreal silence. A muffled beat and vocals can be heard as her earphones fall lazily from her ears. Blood splutters from her mouth as she lies in agony.

A smattering of gasps and screams are heard throughout the train but just as swiftly die out. Glances are exchanged. But no action is taken. Aside from a slight shuffling of feet as the others adjust their footing to make space for the victims.

The woman attempts to cry out but can muster no more than a gargled noise that dissolves into silence.

 

8:39amThe train slows down as it approaches the North Queensferry station. There seems to be a collective brace amongst the passengers, possibly ready to spill out of the train as soon as the doors open. Fleeing in terror, in an attempt to get help.

But no, as the train stops and the doors open no-one moves. Paralysed less by fear and more by an irrational determination to complete their journey. A handle of passengers attempting to board the train are rebuffed, ignored even. Their angry remonstrations are met with silence. The doors close. An uneasy shared silence again tightens its grip within the carriage as the train slowly moves off towards the Forth Bridge.

 

8:45amThe train careers past Dalmeny station, again paying no heed for the multitude of passengers waiting to board. Angry, shocked faces are seen only in a blur as the carriages speed by.

Within the train three more passengers lie dead on the floor close to the first two victims. All three stabbed in quick succession. Two younger suited men and one woman in her late fifties. The floor swims with blood. The stench of death permeates the train. Still a bizarre, stifled silence holds dominion. But the faces. Once sheepish, many are now contorted in absolute fear. Silent tears stream from the faces of some. A gripping terror places its spectral hands around all.

 

8:49amAs the train rattles past the airport another passenger is stabbed. This time this particular victim (being seated at the end of the aisle) slumps forward onto the table in front of them, blood spilling from their side. The heavily bearded man, somewhere between his late twenties and early thirties, collapses to the floor of the aisle, his corpse careering against the legs of those tightly-packed together between the seats.

This time the bloodied-knife is spotted disappearing back into the mass of bodies by some. Violent cries greet this latest killing. Staggered lurches of fear escape from the throats of those up and down the train. Screams of ‘Help!!’ ‘No no no’ and other such exclamations pepper throughout the carriages.

 

8:50amSlowly, methodically, a small middle-aged man – bags skirting his eyes, his posture hunched ever-so-slightly – steps over the corpses and calmly sits himself down in the now-vacated, and blood-drenched, seat.

He casually places the bloodied knife on the table in front of him. For all to see.

He closes his eyes and slumps back into the air. A satisfied sigh accompanies this move.

The other passengers look on in disbelief.

Panic spreads. The volume rises.

Screams, shouts, cries, screeching fill the carriage as a contented smile spreads across the man’s face.

 

9:01am – Grief-stricken commuters file off the train at a busy Waverley Station. Many run, fleeing for safety. Others throw-up on the platform as soon as they step off the train. The stench of the dead victims, the horror of the situation, being too much for them to contain in the depths of their throats. The murderer remains on the train, sitting calmly as all others depart.

The British Transport Police rush onto the train almost immediately after the last passenger departs and apprehends the unresisting offender. He calmly gives his name as his arms are held tightly behind his back, the murder weapon pushed from the table. Les Mahagow. 54 years old. A long-time resident of Dalgety Bay.

As he is led from the train in handcuffs, surrounded by four policemen, he is smiling as he passes by the devastated passengers. Smiling calmly and with supreme satisfaction.

‘I finally got a seat’ he can be heard saying. ‘Finally. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. Just a seat. Not crammed in, not standing, just a seat. I never ever get a seat. Never. But now. Finally. Finally. That’s all I ever….

…all I ever…

“LES!”

…ever…

“LES! FOR FUCK’S SAKE. THAT’S YOUR TEA READY! STOP PLAYING WITH YOUR TOYS AND GET YOUR ARSE DOWN HERE! LES!!!’

Les’ attention is abruptly shaken. He stares down at the model train set beneath him. It runs the length of the attic. A sprawling, expansive model, complete with hills, trees, commuters and even a miniature replica of the Forth Bridge for good measure. The room is dark but for a small lightbulb draining its way down to the finish. He removes the old-style conductor’s hat from his head. Still in a trancelike daze. He looks at the train on the track below. The two carriage train. He can almost feel the sweat clinging to his body, virtually smell the scent of blood hanging in the air.

“LES!! THAT’S YOUR TEA READY!! FOR GOD’S SAKE!”

“Erm…’ he dusts himself down and switches off the light, allowing himself one last look at the train set. ‘I’m…coming. Erm…just coming.”

“WHAT!?”

“I said I’m just COMING!” his volume increases towards the end of his answer as his throat begins to regain some semblance of liquidity.

 

‘Just coming, aye’ mutters his wife as she strolls across to the cooker and turns the hob dials off. ‘I better you bloody are you dirty get. Away up there playing with your little fucking toys. A big child that’s all you are. Pathetic.’

She hears her husband’s footsteps slowly drifting down the stairs as she lays the two plates of food on the table of the adjoining dining room. She flicks on the small portable TV on in the corner of the room, automatically switching the channel to BBC1 for their annual nightly dose of Reporting Scotland.

She hears her husband’s footsteps slow to a halt as they approach the kitchen.

“C’mon Les, your tea will get cold if you dither any bloody longer!” she says as she shovels a forkful of food into her mouth.

Tonight on Reporting Scotland…

She listens with one ear for her husband as she keeps her gaze fixed on the TV. Still no sound. She shrugs, disinterested.

‘…and, Murder on the Fife Circle. We have the latest from the scene as several commuters were tragically murdered on their way to work this morning…

“Jesus…” she mutters, laying the fork down slowly next to her plate.

She stares at the TV. Transfixed by the horror of the story.

A flicker in the periphery of her vision catches her eye.

She feels a shiver creep through her as she looks up to see her husband standing motionless in the doorway.

The Mystery Of The Lost Cat

May2018

When the first poster went up, the town barely noticed. It was one poster. One singular, solitary poster. Sellotaped to a wet lamppost. And before long the poster had slipped from its lofty perch and drifted meekly to the ground, settling in the murky depths of the puddle below. Sodden. Faded. Forgotten.

But before long other posters started appearing. All around town. Stuck to shop windows, shop doors, car windows. Pinned to trees. Stapled to fences, gates, sheds. At that point the town couldn’t fail but sit up and take notice.

‘Lost Cat’.

That’s what the poster read. Lost Cat. Scrawled in, what appeared to be, childish handwriting. The words etched beneath, what again appeared to be, a childish, crude, sketch of a cat. The kind of drawing that would trouble no art galleries, nor even the upper echelons of a Primary School art teacher’s grading system, but that it was a cat was clear enough to anyone who took the time to scan the poster.

But that was it. Just the drawing of the cat and the words ‘Lost Cat’. Any other information required by the reader was not forthcoming. It oddly seemed to be left to the casual passer-by’s own imagination to decipher any further clues as to what the cat looked like, perhaps, or even whom should be contacted in the event that this unidentified cat should be found. Nothing. Nothing but the drawing. And the words. Lost Cat

So, in reality, the best thing for the town, and for those dwelling within it, would have been the wisest, most common-sense-driven, course of action; forget it. Simply forget it. Was it a childish joke without an obvious punch line? Possibly. Could it be that the person whom had put up said poster had simply rushed out the copies in a stress-induced panic and had forgotten to add pertinent information to the piece? Maybe. With the intention to produce a second draft complete with facts, names and any other points of reference for a team of would-be lost cat seekers and finders? Any of these scenarios could have been plausible. And all would have lent themselves to the notion that, in this instance, the best idea would simply have been to remove the posters, send them to the recycling bin and move on with their respective lives.

But no.

Not in this town.

This town was intrigued. Its interest was piqued. It was also, quite frankly, a little annoyed. Never mind the mystery that lay within these badly designed and produced posters but had anyone thought about the blemish that these images had inflicted upon the town? Had anyone seriously considered the damage this could do the town’s reining ‘Best Kept Small Town’ award status? This was littering, plain and simple. This was a wanton act of vandalism on the town. Lost cat or no lost cat. It was…it was…well, it was also quite sad wasn’t it? Well, I mean, it was obviously created by a small child who had lost their beloved pet, wasn’t it. No wonder the posters were lacking detail but were beyond generous in their sentimentality, it was the work of a child, obviously. Wasn’t it?

Well, was it? The town’s community council certainly didn’t know. They hadn’t heard any report or complaint informing them of a lost cat. And the local police? Well, let’s just say the local police had stopped taking calls or inquiries about the issue. Being bombarded by a deluge of the town’s feline population handed into the station, only to then be further submerged by a backlash from the owners of these incorrectly ‘rescued’ cats when they came to collect them, must have went some way to convincing the local police that the best route to take in this situation was to completely wipe their hands of those bloody posters and pass it back to the town’s community council.

So the mystery burrowed deeper into the minds of the town’s residents. Articles were written by the town’s self-deigned deep thinkers. Theories penned online by shady monikers. All speculating as to the what’s, the why’s and the who. The posters were left up. No, no, we can’t take them down, they thought, we must leave them up in anticipation of the happening. In anticipation of the event that was surely to occur. The one signalled by, and hidden within, the cryptic nature of the poster.

Then one day a lead. Yes, information. Nothing tangible, no, but a lead all the same. A hooded figure was spotted running away from the scene, caught in the act of pinning another poster to a tree by one of the town’s more senior residents as she took her mid-morning stroll. The figure looked smaller than average, that was all the witness could say. Young? Old? Who knew? The figure’s hooded jumper was fully zipped up, the hood completely obscuring his or her face. No words were exchanged. No she didn’t see what kind of shoes the perpetrator had on. No, how was she to know whether the person was acting in an angry, mischievous or distressed manner? And that was it. The first and only lead fizzled into nothing.

But the subject remained on the minds, in the hearts, of the town’s residents. Even as the summer’s rain became subsumed by the battering winds of autumn, damaging and scattering many of the posters in the process, the mystery of the Lost Cat continued to prey on the minds of the townsfolk.

Hairdressers, shopkeepers, janitors, mechanics, office-workers, teachers, the local clergy; all would use the posters as the first topic of conversation when meeting with their customers, peers or parishioners. They couldn’t remember a time when the posters weren’t in their lives.

And it wasn’t just the older members of the community that focussed on the posters. The obsession also spread to the younger members of the community. Geeks, goths, jocks, nerds; they all had their own take, their own theories, their own opinions on the Lost Cat.

Even the local musicians.

Like one particular band. Standing on stage. Poised to play their set opener at the town’s community hall. Looking out to a sea of…well, nothingness. No-one. Not one person. Not one ticket-owner. An audience of none. Even then the subject of the posters seemed to crop up. Even then, at such a crucial stage of their performance, the matter of the posters arrested their attention as the guitarist laid his instrument against the amp belligerently and snarled towards the singer.

‘I fucking well told you nobody would turn up!’

‘Well, I…I mean, how was I to know that…’

‘It was those bloody posters!’ chipped in the female bass player as her instrument similarly made the journey from around-neck to slouching-against-amp. ‘A stupid fucking idea.’

‘Oh come on…’ started the singer confidently, ‘it created mystery didn’t it? Am I wrong? No. It created an aura didn’t it? It’s all anyone has talked about in this town for the last few months. It worked.’ He flashed a smug smile to each member of the band.

‘But it didn’t fucking work did it!?’ shouted the drummer behind him, standing up from his kit. ‘Because no-one has a fucking clue that our band is called Lost Cat do they!? In fact no-one has a clue the posters relate to a band at all!?’

‘Well, no, listen…’

‘And no-one knows there’s a bloody gig! That’s why no fucker has turned up!? That’s why we’re sat here looking like twats!’

‘Well, yes, but you see the mystery it created is…’

‘Oh fuck your mystery!’ shouted the bespectacled keyboard player, slamming the keys with his fists for good measure. ‘Lost Cat for fuck’s sake. What a fucking joke.’

‘You know what,’ answered the singer, a surge of rage coursing through him, ‘if you think you can do any fucking better then why don’t you just go and fu….’

And even after a poorly-executed multi-band member fight broke out – one in which many innocent instruments found themselves damaged in the melee – the subject of the posters still seemed to be foremost in their minds.

‘Look,’ began the singer as he wiped a spatter of blood away from the corner of his mouth, ‘how about we just keep this fucking embarrassment to ourselves and never mention it to anyone ok? Agreed? Good. Fucking good.’

And so as the weeks became months and months became seasons, the mystery of the Lost Cat posters, and their origin and meaning, remained unsolved in the little town. Unknown to all but that small few.

Slowly their importance started to fade as more and more, crumpled and weather-beaten, began their descent to the often sodden ground.

Until just one remained. Pinned to a solitary tree.

A source of perpetual mystery, a source of intrigue.

A source of embarrassment.

Lost Cat.

Where Relationships Go To Die

‘Oh, a new one’

The slightly overweight and unshaven man pulled on his company-assigned fleece as he lowered himself on to the swivel chair in front of his designated checkout. The faded blue and yellow colouring on the fleece suggested several miscalculated spin cycles too many. It also suggested experience. Longevity. A scuffed plastic name tag crept out of the creased rubble as he adjusted the fleece. Barry, it read. He glanced down at it through his rimmed glasses briefly before looking across at the ‘new one’ sitting at the checkout across from him.

‘Hi there, I’m…’

‘You won’t have a name tag yet, will you.’ Barry ignorantly cut short the ‘new one’s’ overly pleasant introduction – the kind reserved and displayed by any and all new starts on their first day in a new job. Less a question, more a statement.

‘Erm…no, not yet…’ answered the ‘new one’ tentatively, his eyes narrowed slightly as the wheels in his mind began to decipher what kind of person his new colleague seemed to be. ‘But never mind, I’m…’

‘Don’t bother.’ Barry raised his hand in admonishment. ‘It doesn’t matter. Trust me. You’ll see.’

‘I’m sorry?’ the ‘new one’ asked, taken aback. The new start-in-a-new job eagerness rapidly wearing thin and crossing into the ‘who the fuck is this arrogant arsehole!?’ territory.

‘Look, I’m not being rude. Well, not intentionally. It’s just, well believe me, its better not to bother with all that. You’ll see.’

‘You’re being serious!?’ the ‘new one’s’ slowly percolating anger ticked up a notch.

‘Look, seriously, you can think I’m an arsehole…’

‘I don’t think you’re an arsehole’ replied the ‘new one’, all the while very clearly thinking this man is an arsehole.

‘…you can think I’m an arsehole, be my guest, but it’s far better and easier in the long run if I don’t know your name. Trust me.’

‘Suit yourself then.’ The new one swivelled slightly in his own chair, turning away from Barry, mentally noting never again to engage that particular mountain of arsehole in conversation should it be possible.

He glanced down the line of checkouts, briefly renewing the forced eagerness of his demeanour as he prepared to ingratiate himself with other (hopefully) friendlier colleagues. The smiling façade dissolved almost instantly. As he looked up at the line of checkouts all he could see was a succession of hunched, unsmiling, unwelcoming colleagues smothered in over-washed, un-ironed fleeces. Only the faded yellow and blue colouring of said fleeces suggested they were in fact at their place of work and not, as appeared more likely, participants in a funeral procession.

He swivelled back in his chair, staring at his till sullenly. He looked up slightly, above the till and into the vast expanse of warehouse beyond. Furniture (flat pack and/or built), lights, storage containers; all arranged or displayed in a seemingly unending array of ceiling high shelves or meticulously choreographed ‘room’ scenes. Oh well, he thought. Five minutes into the job and I despise the place already. That’s a new record. He drummed his fingers on the roof of the till and adjusted the plastic coiling on his PA microphone. Waiting. Waiting for a customer. Any customer. Any human being, in fact, to help lift him from this fresh suffocating portion of hell.

‘Can I just ask, why?’ the words shot out of his mouth before his brain had time to analyse their impact, surprising himself.

Barry sighed. ‘Why what?’

‘Why is it easier if you don’t know my name?’ he asked in reply, looking up at the mountain of arsehole sitting across from him whom, he now noticed, was not even giving him the professional courtesy of eye contact.

‘It just is.’

‘Ok, I get that. You’ve made that point. But why? Just tell me that and I’ll leave you alone. I won’t ask again.’

Barry sighed once more. A longer, deeper sigh than the one before. One that ignored all attempts at subtlety.

‘Because,’ he began slowly, ‘because, look, you’ve not had any customers yet have you?’

‘No.’

‘So you won’t know yet. But you’ll see.’

‘What don’t I know yet?’

Another sigh punctuated the space between question and answer.

‘What this place does. To people. To relationships.’

‘What do you mean? What does ‘this place’ do to relationships? What does that mean?’

Barry looked up at his new naïve, unlearned colleague, adjusting his glasses slightly as he looked him in the eye.

‘It’s where relationships come to die.’

The ‘new one’ narrowed his eyes. And then burst into a loud one syllable eruption of laughter. It echoed around the warehouse. He turned around towards the line of other colleagues, expecting to see them either smile in acknowledgement of the teasing or share his bafflement at the strange and nonsensical utterings – or ‘pish’ as he would usually refer to such drivel – flowing from this Barry’s mouth. He saw neither. All he did see was each of the colleagues look up gloomily in unison at the sound of the sudden noise only to then look back down again towards their tills. A slight shiver shot through his veins. He tried to shake it off, turning back to Barry.

‘Don’t talk rubbish,’ he laughed, aware that the laugh lacked sincerity, ‘what do you mean this is where relationships come to die?! What does that even mean?’

‘Trust me’ answered Barry, each vowel and consonant now somehow sounding as if they were infused with his, what would appear to be, trademark sigh.

‘Trust you?’

‘Trust me, yes. Look…’ yet another sigh, this time serving as filler as he deliberated whether to expand on his laconic answer, ‘look, you’ll see what happens when we get some customers. It’s still early, you’ll see. In fact…in fact look there, down at the bottom till. There’s a couple. Look at them. Look at their faces. Hatred. Pure hatred there. To each other. And you know what? I passed them on my way in here about twenty minutes ago. They were holding hands. Smiling. Laughing. Planning how to revamp their bedroom or living room or whatever. And now look at them.’

‘Come on now, I think you’re pulling…’

AAAGH! A short sharp shout echoed around the building.

‘Look, look!’ said Barry excitedly, ‘look for god’s sake. Look! She’s just run over his foot with that trolley! She’s laughing! Look! Snarling! I’m telling you, it’s this place. Relationships die here. They don’t stand a chance! Customers, co-workers, everyone. Relationships cannot survive this place.’

‘Na, come on, I’m not having that…’ his voice sounded unsure as he looked towards the couple, the man now limping and swearing, his partner holding aloft a wooden shelf in a combative, fighting stance.

‘Trust me. I’m telling you.’

‘Na…no, I can’t…’

‘Look, you’ll see. This place. It does something. It does, I don’t know, something. It gets under people’s skin. It clamps onto all those little problems and animosities bubbling away under the surface of relationships and brings them out into the open. I don’t know how. But it does. Maybe it’s the size of the place. Maybe it’s those stupid little arrows that usher you round the building should you, god forbid, decide to stray from the path. Could be it’s that bloody bypass and the nightmare drive to get here. Maybe it’s the Swedes, maybe they want to bring down Western civilisation?! Maybe they lured us in with the soulful sounds of ABBA to make us all docile and now they plan to finish the job with this place, befuddling everyone’s mind with irrational animosity and a tsunami of shitty instructions! I don’t know. But as sure I’m sat here now, this place will destroy any relationship. I’m telling you, it might be £30-odd for a home delivery from here but I would urge anyone, if they want to keep their relationship and sanity intact, and even though it would put us out of a job, to pay that charge every single time. This place does things man, it does things…’

The ‘new one’ looked up at Barry and saw that his colleague appeared to be genuinely troubled. Uneasiness trickled through his own mind. Was this a wind-up? Was this a nightmare? Was this dishevelled Barry character in the midst of a nervous breakdown? Had he stumbled onto the pages of a sub-standard dystopian short story? No, he thought, surely not. It can’t be that.

‘No, come on Barry. Seriously. Couples argue all the time. Especially in shops. You’re exaggerating.’

‘I’m not.’

‘Ok then, if it’s so bad then why stay?’

‘Why stay? The job market isn’t exactly in its prime is it? And anyway, since when was job satisfaction ever a realistic goal.’

‘Na…na, you’re at it. You’re pulling my leg here. You are.’

‘You’ll see. I’m telling you, you’ll see. Oh look, here’s another couple coming now. I’m sure that blood-stained box clutched in the woman’s hand and the man’s open, bleeding head wound is all perfectly innocent…’

Barry straightened himself on the chair and greeted the aforementioned customers to his checkout, keeping chat to a minimum as his new colleague looked on with open-mouthed awe. At one point Barry, in between the screams of ‘FUCK’ and ‘BITCH’ and ‘BALD PRICK!’ emanating from his warring customers, nodded over at his colleague. A nod which, slyly and smugly, said I told you, you’ll learn, you can see I’m right.

And he did learn, the ‘new one’. He’s not sure when exactly but at some point during that day he did learn. Maybe it was when his first customer smashed his newly purchased chest of drawers off the ground only inches away from his counter after a whispered, barely-audible argument with his significant other? Or it could have been when he swivelled in his chair at one point and looked towards the food area to see an angry couple viciously lobbing meatballs at one another’s head. Or, quite possibly, it may have been when one furious wife or girlfriend, clearly at the end of her rope, actually got behind the wheel of a momentarily abandoned forklift truck and tried to, albeit very slowly, run down her male partner. Or maybe it was a dozen other incidents that managed to convince him that, yes, maybe Barry was telling the truth after all. Relationships really did come to this place to die.

At the end of his shift as he walked through the automatic doors, head bowed in a cloud of gloom, a smiling fresh-faced, fresh-fleeced woman walked towards him, her arm out-stretched anticipating a handshake.

‘Hi there, I’m just starting my first shift, my name is…’

‘Don’t bother’ mumbled the now-no-longer-new-one as he ignored her outstretched hand and rudely walked past her into a car park full of angry beeps and blood-curdling shouts, ‘just don’t bloody bother, trust me.’

The Clock Tower

April2018

The clock tower sat lonely amidst the gathering gloom, the turret thrusting confidently into the grey sky as other nearby buildings and rooftops appeared to baulk at the challenge under the weight of the storm. Bare, lifeless branches from the cluster of surrounding trees clawed at the clock tower, their bony limbs swaying and grasping without success in the capricious breeze.

The clock faces, all four of them, pelted unrelentingly by the rain continued about their business calmly, ticking in unison, one second at a time, treating the elements with a derision bordering on contempt.

Within the tower, protected by the layers of tiles, stone, insulation and cladding stood Ian Donald. In one hand he vigorously clutched hold of a piece of chalk, worn down to no more than a stump. Pale, gaunt, the scent of ill-health about him, he stood staring intently at the wall only inches from his face. The rain rebounding off the tower, the creak of the floorboards, the constant mechanical clunking and whirring of the clock’s cogs and machinery, the scurrying of rats and the erratic fluttering of sheltering pigeons; none of the sounds made the slightest impression upon Ian’s mind.

His mind, every fragment of it, was focused solely on the walls encircling him. What little light had managed to creep in through the clock faces dimly illuminated portions of said walls. Writing. Words. Numbers. Declarations. Formulas. All scrawled maniacally across every spare inch of the damp-stained structure. The chalk quivered in his hand as his eyes, ablaze with fire and fury, darted from side to side, word to word, formula to formula.

‘Bah!!’ his outburst was sudden, the chalk striking harshly off the wooden floor and dissolving into dust. ‘I must get this, I must…I MUST!’

He crouched down, staring piercingly towards a myriad of etchings scrawled slightly above an-equally-as-covered skirting board. His body was still, perched almost in a combative pose, however his eyes once more betrayed the inner torment raging in his mind. The doubt, the despair, the anguish.

A spark of optimism suddenly glimmered in his eye, his hand raised in restrained triumph. A breakthrough of sorts it appeared. He reached out, grasping for the chalk, only to clutch hold of a handful of chalk dust.

‘No no no!’ shouted Ian as his crouched form instantly mutated into a frantic, desperate one as he scrambled in a futile effort to locate more chalk. He caught a glimpse of one of the inverted clock faces as the hour hand lingered tantalisingly close to the hour mark. Desperation became panic. ‘No no no! Time! I need time! We need time! TIME!’

As the last syllable fell from his lips the clock tower filled with the sounds of the hour. Cogs whirred, mechanics shunted into gear, bells peeled. Desolation filled Ian’s skeletal features. The despondency somehow seemed to cut further and further into his pale, crevice-strewn expression.

‘Time’ he muttered disconsolately as he fell back against one of the walls, slumping to a sitting position, ‘I just need more time. Time. That’s all. For the answer. For the true answer. To correct. To…to repent…’ His mumblings drew to a close, segueing into a dry, rasping cough that competed admirably against the increasing ferocity of the storm surrounding the clock tower.

‘Time…’

Sleep followed the final whispered mutter into the ticking, creaking, storm-heavy air. His breathing was laboured, sporadic. Each wheeze sounding more painful and drawn out than the last. Time indeed was what he needed. And ultimately what his body was running short of. With each wheezing, wrenching breath, his time was slipping away.

And as the storm slowly abated and the weak morning sun shone in through the clock faces Ian Donald did indeed run out of time. His body too frail, too deprived of sustenance, too short of life to survive. As he lay slumped on the floor, lifeless and defeated, the sun momentarily lit up the interior of the clock tower. Each cog, each pipe, each bell glimmered gorgeously in the fledgling morning light. And strewn throughout the room, sprawled on the wooden floor, lay corpse after corpse. Rotting, all. Each stripped to the waist, their ruined flesh covered in the same words, numbers and formulas adorning the walls. Only where chalk had sufficed for the latter, crude blood-soaked carvings had fulfilled the duty on the scattered corpses. Close to each body lay empty plastic cups. Signs of their own downfall, of their own folly.

Signs of Ian’s folly. The leader who had convinced them. The one who had walked them along the path of salvation and led them into the arms of redemption on the day of judgment. Or, at least, what Ian had calculated to be the day of judgment. What Ian was convinced, with all his faith, was the day of judgment. Only, when the moment finally arrived, and the other believers had unflinchingly taken their step into ascension, Ian had baulked. Uncertain, unconvinced, without faith. As he watched his fellow believers slump one by one to the floor of the clock tower, accompanied by the crushing realisation that end times were not upon them, he became fixated on time. On its scarcity, on its accuracy. Above all on its relentless, marching, taunting beat.

Time was what had failed him. And yet time was what had continued to mock him. Each tick reminding him of his failure. Each tick accompanying his increasingly starved and emaciated body to its premature end.

As the sun crept higher into the clearing skies, and the branches dripped generously with the remnants of the previous night’s storm, the clock tower stood proudly once more, thrust into the air with all the confidence and nobility it had always had. Ticking. Ticking through rain, through shine. Ticking always. The keeper of time.

A Life In A Day

Brian glanced down at Debbie’s hand resting on his thigh. Clinging to the fabric of his jeans. He reached out with his own hand, gently caressing and then covering hers. A move of affection. One of protection. But still he couldn’t bring himself to lift his head. To raise his eyes. He still could not, no matter how much he willed himself, meet her gaze.

A gaze that was in fact, similarly, not meeting, or looking to meet, his. Debbie’s own eyeline was also turned down, staring towards those entwined hands. A silent, bony, world of defiance. She felt separated, disconnected from her hand. It felt weightless, not of her. And still she watched it twist and twitch. It pulsed gently under the comfort of Brian’s. Unsure. Unsettled.

Both were struggling painfully to fight through the barren deserts that were their vocal chords, desperately seeking the vowels and consonants to form words. To convey feeling. But neither could. The strength, the words, both evading them.

Their hands squeezed simultaneously. An instinctive, unplanned gesture from both. One that prompted both Brian and Debbie to glance upwards. Their eyes met. Their respective gazes trapped by a fleeting movement and now rendered unable to avert. In Debbie’s eyes Brian saw desperation, hurt, appeal. In Brian’s Debbie saw the same along with a troubling darkness skirting the perimeters. One that threatened numbness. It threatened dominance.

She knew she had to speak. To allow the words to trickle from her mouth. She knew not what the words could or should be but she knew she had to be the first to wilt. He was struggling. He was slipping. She could see that. And soon she could lose him completely. However temporarily, she could lose him. And she would need him. More than ever. They would need one another. She could see he was trying, with everything he could muster, but he just couldn’t get there. She had to speak. She had to be the one to break the silence. If only. Just. The words. Words. Little things. So simple. So mundane. Transient. And yet the words. They failed to form. Stubbornly resisted. No she had to. She must. She…

‘What about…’ whispered Debbie slowly, shakily, her eyes fixed upon Brian’s, ‘what about…the time…what about the time our…our daughter…she took her first steps…she took her first steps and then fell back on her bum and landed on the cat…’

Brian looked at Debbie. A look halfway between bewilderment and incredulity. His eyes, once lost and weary, now full of the spark of confusion. Seconds, moments, of silence followed.

‘Remember Brian….?’ appealed Debbie, ‘please Brian…I need you to remember…with me…’

The look in Debbie’s eyes suddenly allowed the dimmest flicker of recognition to light up within him. Brian felt his heart sag. At the pain he felt. At the pain Debbie clearly displayed. He needed her. She needed him.

‘I do…yeah….I do.’ his voice was brittle. Strained.

‘You do…?’ something resembling hope propelled Debbie’s whisper into the realms of audible.

‘Of course I do…’ answered Brian, wrapping his hands around Debbie’s and strengthening his grip. ‘And…and…what about the time…the time when our son first tried spaghetti bolognese. Remember? It took us about month to clean that kitchen afterwards didn’t it…it was chaos…’

He forced the suggestion of a smile onto the corner of his mouth. Debbie’s eyes lit up as she felt her spirit warm. This was the Brian she needed. It was as if they were two isolated enemy soldiers slowly making their way across No Man’s Land to meet with one another in kinship and camaraderie.

‘I do,’ she said smiling, ‘and…and what about the time our daughter fell off that little slide at the playpark that day and bumped her elbow. We bought her an ice-cream from the van and then had to stock up the freezer with ice-cream and ice lollies for every other little bump she had thereafter. We could have opened up our own ice-cream shop…’

‘That’s right, yeah,’ Brian sniffed, his eyes suddenly more animated, ‘or what about our son’s first day at school. All dressed up, looking gorgeous and handsome in his immaculate new school uniform…only to find out it was the uniform for the school up the road! He was…he was mortified.’

Debbie laughed slightly, raising her hand to the area between her nose and mouth to stifle the small snort she allowed to escape.

‘Or when our daughter broke up with her first boyfriend. She cried on your shoulder so much that night I thought she would never let go of you. I thought you were going to kill the poor boy after that. Would have been harsh though. I mean, he was only 9…‘ she laughed.

‘And when our son scored his first hat-trick for the football team. I, who had coached him through years of training sessions in the back garden and stood with him through all weather for every game he had ever played, expect him to come running straight to me, his Dad, to celebrate, but no, straight to his Mummy. His Mummy who doesn’t even understand the bloody game!’

They both laughed at this. Both their grips strengthened further.

‘And of course,’ said Debbie, ‘the first time we had to pick our daughter up from a night out. She could barely walk. Underage and drunk. What a disgrace. But how funny was she in the back of the car that night? Laughing away and telling us how much she loved us. What a sweet girl.’

‘That’s true.’ nodded Brian, smiling. ‘Or when our son had his first lads’ holiday, away in Spain or Greece or some place, and he phoned us at about 4am in the morning, getting us all panicked, only for him to tell us he was missing us and wanted to come home. Haha. By the end of the week he didn’t want to leave that place did he!?’

Debbie’s smile widened further as droplets of water began to form around her eyelids.

‘That’s right’ she said with more than a little faux-affirmation. ‘And who could forget when our daughter went off to University and then came back after the first year to tell us she had met the love of her life and they were going to have a baby. Going to give us…a…
a…a grandchild.’ Her smile wavered slightly, creeping marginally over to sadness.

‘Yep…’ said Brian, struggling to catch his breath. ‘Or when our son…when our son…he…he…he got that promotion at his work. I was so proud…I was so proud of him. So proud.’

Brian’s gaze wilted, the strength instantly sapping from him as he looked back down at his and Debbie’s entwined hands. Once again unable to look Debbie in the eye. He listened though. And could hear. He heard as she spoke. Softly. And falteringly.

‘That was a good day…’ she choked. ‘No…a great day…’ she turned her head away as the tears arrived in waves. Her hand clinging onto Brian’s all the while for dear life.

‘Well…it…’ started Brian. ‘It…could have been…’

‘It should have been…’ exclaimed Debbie through sobs, ‘they all should have been’. Her eyes clenched tightly shut as she failed to fight the flow of emotion. Suddenly she felt the force of Brian as he collapsed against her. Both feeling their raw, contorted bodies writhing in sadness as they held onto one another.

As gradually the tears dried and the lights in the room became less obtrusive they felt their hearts beating back to life. Their hands still clutched together, they listened. They listened to the sympathy. They listened to the advice. They listened to the ‘you’re both still young, you’ll have another chance at this’. They listened to the ‘it just wasn’t right this time’. They listened to the ‘this is far more common than you would think’. They listened to the pity.

But they didn’t really listen. They couldn’t. What good could it do? Or would it do? All they could do was hold each other. And so they did.

They held. And still they held. To the memories they had created. To the stories they had concocted. To the tears that threatened to come in waves. And to each other. For strength. For comfort. For the lives they still had left to live.