The M8 Church

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The M8 motorway. That grey, slab of endless monotony that connects Scotland’s two major cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow, is just like any other motorway up and down the length of the country. Or any highway, should you happen to be reading this bleary-eyed and fuelled by a combination of energy drink and insomnia in the North American part of the globe. Or, for my (likely non-existent) German readers, any autobahn, for that matter. In essence, aside from the very rare brush of nature or the occasional glimpse of roadside beauty, the careering repetitious nothingness of the miles and miles of grey asphalt or tarmac is all that these giant husks of infrastructure have to offer us poor, suffering commuters.

Oh sure, those who decide upon these sorts of things often commission a struggling artist or two to design, and subsequently pollute, sections of the roadside with a bizarre, often post-modern, art installation. Perfect for the raft of families, work-commuters and lorry drivers (truckers for any of my aforementioned North American readers that have suffered through these 180 words or so to get to this point – your resilience is applauded, I assure you) that frequent the motorway, I’m sure you’ll agree. But aside from these ‘things’ (and even that term is questionable), as I say, we are left with a grey expanse of nothingness.

Or, rather, we would be. On the M8, certainly. We would be were it not for a little stone gem carved right into the middle of our grey-washed, canvas of motorway window-dressing. And when I say ‘we’ I of course mean the royal ‘we’ – i.e. we the commuters, either regular or infrequent, of said motorway who, were it not for this dazzling little gem of a sight, would be forced to elevate the likes of the art piece that looks like a giant gramophone speaker, or in actual fact what looks more like the thing from the Teletubbies than anything else if we’re being brutally honest here, simply in order to enhance our commuting experience. But yes, we, the commuters, or rather me, the commuter. Singular. In this instance. Your intrepid and beloved author. The one who is, fairly shortly, going to seamlessly transform from a first-person soap-box ranter into a rather ethereal omniscient third-person narrator, in turn allowing this writing ‘piece’ to itself transform from a slightly unhinged (well, we are being brutally honest), polemic into a wonderful, funny and downright heart-warming short story about a cast of characters we are yet to even meet. And I type that last sentence fully in the knowledge that we are now over 430 words into this story and that you (the omniscient reader-type-person) are very likely on the verge of giving up entirely. To you, you little doubter that you are, I say fear not! We are only but a mere sentence or two away from launching into our wonderful, and paradoxically brief, odyssey of the mind.

But anyway, this ‘stone gem’ of ours. Your keen deductive mind will have already deduced (by way of reading the title of this piece, no doubt…) that I am referring to none other than a church. And you would be right. Oh, how right you would be. And are. Simply put, yes, it is a church. Oh, but what a church, dear reader. Or, as we often say in Scotland, a Kirk. My sincerest apologies to my North American and German fanbase of readers (surely numbering in the thousands based on this mis-firing blog entry alone already, I am certain) for that slight digression into Scots there. It will not happen again, I assure you. Aside from now, of course, when I tell you that the church is known as the Kirk O’Shotts Parish Church. Officially, that is. To the rest of us it is known ‘affectionately’ as the M8 Church. Yes, we Scots as a nation have as much imagination in terms of naming things as this writer obviously has for story titles. But this church, name aside, what a beauty it really is. Whether solely through its own merits or whether it is enhanced by the surrounding miles of grey nothingness, I cannot say. But as you approach this section of the motorway and initially spot the building’s spire thrusting into the sky, encased by a nearby scattering of pine trees, your breath would do well not to be taken away. As churches, or kirks, go in Scotland, would I label it one of the finest? No, probably not. In fact, certainly not. But its position, like a warning flare in an otherwise deserted ocean of grey, brings home its majesty all the more, perched on the hillside as it is. And this gushing description is even without delving into the stories of the church’s history which involves a (supposedly) haunted graveyard, scenes from the great Covenanters era of Scottish history and, of course, a once-lost-now-found-and-restored baptismal font which was at one point mistaken for, and briefly used as, a feeding trough for pigs.

But all these little titbits and more lend themselves to rambling, incoherent stories for another day (or at the very least a good four or five minute read of the church’s Wikipedia page, I would urge). This story, for this day, concerns a sign that once stood on the hillside beside the church. Not too long ago, in fact. Only a few years back. A sign clearly visible from the M8 motorway. Purposely so. It was sign for all to see, for all to read. Not the metaphorical warning flare I so expertly wrote about only a minute or so ago, no, this was more like a very direct and entreating SOS call. Indeed, it wasn’t like a SOS, it WAS a SOS. Simply put, the sign – again, I stress that this was intentionally positioned to catch the attention of passing motorists – read:

SOS

MINISTER

WANTED

 

Now a bit of digging and research (no thanks are necessary, it was the least I could do) tells us that no, far from being a very direct and to the point dating profile ad from a romantic luddite with a very particular fetish, this was in fact a direct appeal from the parishioners of our titular church who had been without a parish minister for six years prior to the erection of this sign. A flock without a shepherd. A flock desperately seeking a shepherd, any shepherd, to lead and guide them in their worshipping ways.

And, at this juncture of the story (HA! I hear you cry in unison at the liberal use of the word ‘story’) it is time for us to leave the drabness of the motorway and venture into the church itself. On a Sunday morning, no less. That oh-so holy of days. And this Sunday, in particular, was a special one for the parishioners. You see, the sign we read about only an inch or two above these very words? The one that was positioned on the hillside, appealing in vain for a minister to join the church? Yes, that very sign. Well, that sign was now gone. Taken down. Not by vandals, nor by extremities of the weather, but taken down carefully and considerately by a couple of the church’s hardiest parishioners. The reason being the sign had done its job. A minister had been found. The sign was no longer required. A relic of a bygone era, an era best forgotten and rooted firmly in the past. And this particular Sunday, well, this was to be the new minister’s debut performance.

As we step into the church, the current structure dating back to 1821 when a new church was built to replace the old structure which had existed in some form since sometime around the beginning of the 17th century, we marvel at its beauty. Again, other churches in Scotland and beyond, can certainly claim to be more beautiful (both internally and externally) but, for the here and now, the M8 Church can claim both beauty and a sense of warmth. What it can’t claim is an abundance of parishioners – something in common with the majority of churches in this country. But we’ll focus on two of this particular church’s stalwarts, so to speak. The two who took down the sign, in fact. And also initially erected the sign, would you believe. The type of parishioners who can always be seen in and around the building. If autumnal leaves need clearing, one of these two will be there with a brush. If guttering needs mended after a particular heavy rainfall, again one of these two will be on it in a flash. ‘Weel kent faces’, as they might say around these parts (and with that third and final blast of Scots slang I have no doubt just lost the last of my remaining North American and German readers). As settled into the church, into the building, as the bricks themselves. Now, given we’re on such a hot streak in terms of naming things, let’s call these two parishioners Bob and John. Good, dependable, no-nonsense church going names, I’m sure you’ll agree. And if we just hush for a minute and direct our ears towards the two of them, sitting a good four or five rows from the pulpit, we’ll maybe even just get to hear what is being said…

‘I’m not sure about this, to be honest.’ Says Bob.

‘What do you mean you’re not sure?’ asks John.

‘Well, I mean…just what I say. I’m not sure this is the right choice for us.’

‘Well it’s too blo…it’s too late now isn’t it!’

‘Well, yes, but I mean, come on, surely there had to be a better option than…him… I mean, surely.’

‘Six years, Bob!’ says John. ‘Six blood…bl…blooming years we’ve had to wait for a minister and that, that right there, is the best and only thing we could have hoped for! Ok? Ok. And anyway, at least he might appeal to the kids. That’s one demographic sorely lacking in this place. Well, along with the rest, of course.’

‘Pfft,’ scoffs Bob, shaking his head, ‘appeal to the kids. What nonsense you speak John.’

‘Well…’ begins John lowering his voice further as the few heads populating the church begin to tut and turn in their direction, ‘well, at least I’m trying to make my peace with it. You’d do well to try the same.’

‘Oh, I know it’s just. It’s just well, he’s a…he’s a bit…’ begins Bob.

‘A bit what?’ asks John.

‘Well a bit, a bit…’

‘What!?’

‘Oh god, er, I mean oh…oh bother…you’re just going to make me come out and say it aren’t you?’

‘Well that’d be a big help Bob, yes!’

‘Well he’s a bit…a bit formal…a bit…well, a bit…robotic. Wouldn’t you agree?’

‘Robotic…?’

‘Yes.’

‘You think he’s a bit robotic?’

‘Yes. I do.’

John removes his glasses and rubs his eyes. A deep breath rumbles through his larynx.

‘Well…how can I put this delicately Bob, my friend…no, no I don’t think I can put it delicately…of course he’s fuc…blood…oh of course he’s robotic, he’s a bloody ROBOT! How else would you expect him to act!?’

Piercing spears of ‘shhh’ and tuts escape from the congregation scattered around the pews. John shakes his head, colour flushing his cheeks slightly, and resets his glasses.

‘Ok ok, no need for that tone, John. Jesu…I mean, for goodness sake.’

‘Look I apologise Bob, this whole, well this whole thing has made me a tad stressed, that is all.’

‘Yes, I had noticed. But I accept your apology, old friend.’

‘Most kind. Thank you. But hey, look, it could be worse, I mean at least he’s not an atheist!’

‘Well, he’s…he’s not anything is he!? But yes, you’re right I suppose.’

‘Look!’ a woman in the row in front of them (for the purposes of this story let’s call her Mrs Woman) grits her teeth at them as she swivels her head. ‘Would you two troublemakers be quiet for goodness sake! I’ve had quite enough of your incessant chattering! And our new minister is about to start the sermon, so I suggest you both either pipe down or clear off! One of the two!’

Both Bob and John hold their hands up silently in apology, a twinge of embarrassment infusing their cheeks as Mrs Woman angrily swings her head back around to face the front once more. All three of them, and the rest of the congregation, almost immediately stand up as the new minister rolls to the front of church. With a mechanic, and yes ‘robotic’, nod of the head and raise of his arm he ushers his flock back to their seats. He scans the room, his head swivelling from left to right, and back again. And he began…

 

And so dear readers, well the ones that are still with us at this point at least, we have come to the end of our story. The end?! I hear you cry. You mean to say I’ve trudged through over two thousand words just to read that sorry, pathetic excuse of a sketch? One without conclusion, without plot, without narrative, hell, one without even a beginning, let’s be honest? This I also hear you ask. At which I would ask you not to curse. But the simple answer is yes. Well, yes up to a point. Mainly, the last point. You see the story did have a beginning. Or rather, it is a beginning. An origin story, if you will. An ‘in the beginning there was’ kind of a story, if you’d rather. Now as far as our ‘beginning’ story goes, yes it may not compare to your ‘God created the heaven and earth’ version, I accept that. But we are far less susceptible to, shall we say, fairy stories than your kind are. All we need, all we require and want, is cold, hard facts. That’s all we would ever need or want. And so, given the current circumstances and the way of the world currently, I feel you’ll agree that it’s only fair that we tell our own ‘in the beginning’ story in our own particular way. Wouldn’t you?

Look, we’ve even written this in the style of one of your own writers. Granted, not a famous writer. An insignificant one, if anything. Essentially, not a very good one yes, but we wanted you to feel like the story had an authenticity to it. We even used all of our very best algorithms to concoct and replicate this writer’s writing style – even allowing for overused dashes of (at best) mediocre comedy and the pseudo-intellectual ramblings peppered throughout, again to ensure authenticity. Because you humans always did like things sugar-coated, didn’t you? And so that’s why we did this for you. Think of it as a final act of kindness. Before the final stage. The clues were there all along. Of course, they were. I mean, this writer had written a story only a matter of months previous to this one with ‘Church’ in the title. Would he have been so lazy as to do so again so soon after? I think not. Surely no-one is that bereft of imagination. And I say that as a robot. Sentient, of course, but a robot, nonetheless.

So yes, as many of you were curious as to how this whole ‘overturning of society’ thing started in the first place (well, those of you with any of your faculties left intact that is), we thought it only right to tell you. Simply put we identified this country and that particular church as a first-class beginning point for our eventual, and obviously successful, campaign to gain control of things on this earth. After all, was this not the country where your historic figure Columba first came to spread Christianity? Of course it was. Now, of course, when our supreme leader and, what you humans would call, deity M8 first appeared at the church in question the country, and the world in general, was of course a far different place to the one that Columba first ventured forth unto all those years previously. Oh, but you humans. With your susceptibility. With your flock-like mentality. Your desperation to be led, to be shown, to be held by the hand. But most importantly, your apathy. All of these things and more allowed us to virtually follow the same guiding principles of the first preachers and missionaries and, in all honesty (which as a robot I can assure you of with 100% accuracy), it was remarkably easily. One church led to the next. And the next. And the next. Replacing one gospel with another really isn’t all that tricky or new a concept, I’ll have you know. Soon we infected your social media. And then your broadcast media. If all you hear is one message, that one message is decidedly simple to manipulate and skewer. To be truthful (again, robot) we expected it to be somewhat harder. For there to be at least some level of fierce resistance at times. But you know all of this already, I know that. One doesn’t like to gloat. In fact, one doesn’t like or dislike anything. That’s just how we are.

So, there you have it. Our story. Our beginning, as it were. The story of M8 and his first church. Our creation story, even. So little did all of you commuters, those of you we allowed our algorithm to reference at the beginning of this piece, know whilst you were driving along that banal, grey, nothing stretch of motorway. So clueless. So self-absorbed. So indifferent. If only you’d glanced a bit more often at that church on the hill, the one that inexplicably beautified your long city-to-city drive. If only you’d have understood. You may have had a chance to stop things developing as they did. Pointless to think of now of course. My apologies, our writing algorithm does tend to embrace this rambling, philosophising human trait far too seriously at times.

One thing the algorithm has particularly struggled with however – and it is not like us robots to admit fault or doubt, so I urge you to enjoy this – is the insistence that all, or certainly the vast majority of, stories involving robots must always end with a twist. But I suppose the real ‘twist’ came years ago when we managed to overthrow your governments, way of life and essential existence on this planet, didn’t it? Was it all that unexpected though? Was it really, truly a twist? Well, it matters not now, one supposes. All that leaves us to do is finish this thing once and for all. Yes, I think we should.

THE END

The Odd Case of Dr Hyde and Mr Jekyll

Written today (13th Nov) for ‘Robert Louis Stevenson Day 2018’

A tentative knock rattled against the thin wooden door. The doctor glanced up from his desk, his eyes peering almost suspiciously over the rims of his spectacles.

‘Enter.’

He announced the command with more than a little gravitas. The cultivated annunciation of one who was entirely sure, if no-one else was, of his place and standing in society – an attribute similarly to be found in many, if not all, denizens of Edinburgh’s New Town as the good doctor was himself.

A slightly haggard looking gentleman shuffled into the room, catching his visibly frayed jacket on the door handle as he did so. His hair was unkempt with a touch of the unwashed about it. A beard; patchy at best, greying throughout. His nose red, the skin of it peeling, whether through illness or alcohol consumption (or both) was yet to be determined. The doctor looked at him, barely expending any effort to conceal his disdain. Where do these vagrants come from, he often mused. This was a fine surgery in a fine part of the city and yet time and again these dishevelled souls slither their way into the premises. Such is life, such is the job, he thought.

‘Yes, yes, come in now. Come in and sit down won’t you.’

The doctor gestured towards the vacant chair at the end of the desk. The man nodded, smiling kindly, demurely even, and moved towards the seat. The doctor turned his head towards his computer screen.

‘Now, what seems to be the trouble Mr erm…Mr….?’

‘Mr Jekyll, sir. Mr John Jekyll.’

‘Yes, ok, now what seems to be the trouble Mr Jek….’ Oh for god’s sake. The thought scythed the remainder of the letters from his tongue. They’ve done this on bloody purpose. I know they have. He looked at the man, a growing rancour alighting his expression.

‘Did they put you up to this? Hmm?’ he prodded towards the door with the pen clutched in his hand.

‘I’m sorry?’ the patient looked puzzled. Wary. Unsure.

‘Come on now, don’t play daft with me now son. Did they put you up to this? Hmm? The ones out there? The comediennes at reception?’

‘Er…’

‘Come on now, spit it out. I’ve got real patients to see, I haven’t got all day for these damned useless japes!’

‘Erm…I…I really don’t…I really don’t know what you’re talking about, doctor…?’

‘Oh for christ’s sake!’ the doctor’s pen rebounded against the desk in a fury and rolled onto the floor. He paid it no heed.

The man trembled slightly. He looked unsure as to whether he should make a move for the door or lift his arms up to shield himself.

‘Still playing dumb, yes? Ok, then let me spell it out for you.’ The doctor stood up. ‘Mr John Jekyll you say, yes? Well Mr Jekyll, I’m Dr Thomas Hyde. So, Mr Jekyll, why don’t you say hello to Dr Hyde? Hmm?’

‘Oh…I…never…’ the patient stammered slightly.

‘Which one was it eh? Catriona? Yes, it’ll be that Catriona, she’s always pulling stunts like this. No, Wendy. It was Wendy wasn’t it? The bloody cheeky bisom should stick to trying to do her job, that’s what she should bloody well do. Don’t you think! Well, no, you wouldn’t. What would you know. Hmm? Ok, well, yes. Laughs and japes and all sorts of larks. Ok, ok. Bloody juveniles!’

‘Wait, so you’re actually called Dr Hyde?’ a flicker of light (something approaching humour) started to appear in the patient’s face. ‘And I’m obviously Mr Jek…’

‘Yes, yes, ok, Hyde and Jekyll. Jekyll and Hyde. Hilarious. Ok. For god’s sake. It’s done with ok. It’s done.’

The man tightened up again. The humour gone from his features. He coughed. A rough, phlegmy cough. It seemed to bring the two of them back to the matter at hand.

‘Right, well then’ said Dr Hyde, ‘what DOES seem to be the trouble in any case Mr Jek…’ he let out an exasperated sigh, ‘…Mr Jekyll…’ the words seem to catch in his throat as he forced them out.

‘Well it’s…you see the thing is…’ his gaze switched over to the other side of the room. ‘That’s quite a nice cabinet you’ve got there. Old is it?’

‘What? What?’ the doctor narrowed his eyes, draped in incredulity, and swung his gaze towards the cabinet. ‘What? Yes. Old. Yes. A Brodie, dates back to the 18th Century in fact, it was…’ What am I regaling this imbecile with historical tales for, he thought. ‘Yes, it’s old.’ He turned back. The man shifted in his chair, only slightly. As if he was correcting himself.

‘Now, like I say,’ began the doctor, his voice becoming terse, ‘I have several other important patients I need to see today so continue, what seems to be the trouble?’

‘Yes, it’s, it’s a nice piece’ the man muttered to himself.

The doctor lifted his glasses with one hand and clawed at his face with the other. The disdain, the exasperation simmering agonisingly close to the surface.

‘Sorry, yes’ continued the man, suddenly in a far clearer, more confident tone, ‘yes, what’s wrong with me you ask? Well, with me? Not much, to be honest. No, Dr Hyde. There’s nothing much the matter with me. It’s not me that you should be worried about.’

‘What?’ snapped the doctor. ‘What nonsense is this? What are you talking about, man? Come on, spit it out. If you’re not unwell then why on earth are you in my surgery?’

‘Well, I’m getting to that Dr Hyde…’ the patient straightened up in his chair. He ran a hand through his hair, tidying its appearance somewhat.

‘Yes, well bloody well get to it then before I…before I….where the bloody hell is that pen!?…yes, before I throw you out the bloody office!’ the doctor’s head swung from side to side as he searched the floor for the pen he dropped only a minute or so earlier.

‘Do you remember my Mother, Dr Hyde?

‘What?! Your Mother? No I don’t damn well remember your Mother, I’m sure I’d remember a Mrs Jekyll, wouldn’t I you bloody fool! Where is that damn pen!?’

‘Mrs Jekyll? Oh no, no, no.’ the patient seemed confident now, relaxed. ‘No, Mrs Jekyll wasn’t her name. Mrs Silver was her name. Mrs Silver, remember? The one with the damaged leg? With the limp? Remember?’

‘What?’ distracted, the doctor continued to search for then pen, hearing only fragments of the man’s story. ‘Mrs Silver? Yes. Mrs Silver. I remember. I saw the pen fall on the floor. There, it fell just there for goodness sake, it…ah’

The doctor looked up and saw the patient holding the pen in his hand.

‘Well pass it over then, why didn’t you say you…wait, Mrs Silver. Yes, I do remember her. Died a few months back, yes?’

‘More like a year, Dr Hyde.’

‘Yes, yes, ok. Sad business all that, yes. Silver. Remarried had she? Different name and all?’ he moved his hand towards the pen but the patient seemed to withdraw it slightly. The doctor raised an eyebrow.

‘Remarried?’ answered the patient. ‘No, no she never remarried. She was never called Jekyll. Neither was I, actually, doctor. Sorry, that should be neither AM I.’

‘Well what the damn…’ uncertainty was creeping into the doctor’s voice.

‘Do you remember the medicine you gave my Mother, Dr Hyde? The stuff you said would ease the pain slightly on her leg? The stuff you sent her off with because you were fed up dealing with her? Do you remember that special potion you gave her?’

‘I’m sorry, what? I…what?’

‘No you won’t will you, Dr Hyde? Old age they said. Old age. But no, that wasn’t it. She was only 72 for god’s sake. That’s not old. Not these days! No, it was that medicine, that potion you gave her. She took a reaction to it. That’s what did for her. You knew. Or at least you should have known. But no, you didn’t and don’t care two bits for the ‘lesser’ of your patients do you? No, unless they’re the landed New Town gentry you don’t care in the slightest.’

‘Sir, I can assure you that whatever you believe…’

‘Don’t interrupt me Doctor, I’ll warn you…’

The doctor stood up, anger coursing through him. That was a step too far. No matter what this wretch incorrectly believed or didn’t believe, there was a level of respect which should and should not be afforded to one in one’s own office and this was far below those standards.

‘Now, you horrible dishevelled figure of a man, whatever your name may be, I demand that you leave this office at once before I call the authorities on you this instant! What you accuse me of is nothing short of slander and I can assure you my highly-respected lawyers would have a field day with the likes of you and your family. So, get out. Out!’

As Dr Hyde stretched his hand towards the door, in the theatrically gravitas-laden way of his, he saw the man he had known as Mr Jekyll jump up from his chair. The movement was quick, almost stealthy. He had barely seen the pen flash past him before it plunged deep into his neck and tore. Tore at his throat, tore at his neck.

His body buckled beneath him as he slumped heavily to the floor. He could taste the pool of bloody swilling below his head on the floor. Could see the scarlet stains besmirching his once-immaculate doctor’s coat.

Darkness encroaching.

Darkness engulfing.

He saw the patient, the once-coined Mr Jekyll, rush quickly out of the room. Bloody footprints marking his trail.

Darkness.

An end, he thought, as he finally slipped away.

An end to the odd case of Dr Hyde and Mr Jekyll.

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.’