I woke as the bombs dropped. The bed shook. Glass took to the air. The curtain pole dislodged, dropped the scarlet curtains like a matador taunting a bull. Sleep well and truly blown clear of my mind, muscle memory had my hand reach for the other side of the bed, only to be met with disappointment and a heavy heart as fingertip exploration registered nothing but cold, empty sheets. He wasn’t here. I knew that.
The wind stole in through the empty windowpanes and the hairs on my arms rose to salute its deathly chill. Pulling myself from the relative comfort of the covers was a trial, but one that had to be faced. There was breakfast to make and work to be done. Life goes on. As I shuffled into warm slippers and shrugged into a dressing gown, my thoughts slipped towards the dark place which questioned why, wondered whose war I was caught between. But that was quickly pushed away. Once power was back, the TV would no doubt reveal all… well, the most patriotic version of the truth, at least. For the moment my greatest concern was hunting down a milk bottle that hadn’t surrendered to violent force. I never could stomach dry cereal. My breakfast bowl was only slightly cracked, the cutlery still slumbered in ordered rows in its draw, untouched. I lifted a chair back on its feet, brushed dust off the tabletop and took my place. As I munched, I read the newspaper from yesterday, a morning ritual, although today the old issue’s lack of immediacy was more conspicuous than usual. No mention of war, not even the smallest of political slights. Instead, the front pages concerned with the success of a national tennis hero, the back with the whereabouts of a missing cat. There would be fresh “Missing” pages today, no doubt.
I dropped the dirty bowl into the sink without a thought for the crack, which took the hit and split the ceramic clean in two. The sound made me pause. My first impulse to throw it out was disregarded, my stomach churning on glimpsing the two halves. I left it behind in the sink as I threw on clothes and grabbed my bag, perched on the bottom step to tie the rough laces on my leather boots. The rubble behind the door offered more resistance to my exit that usual. I met the postman on the front path, his hat a little askew, a smear of soot across his cheek, but otherwise the same smiley, ruddy-faced man I had come to know well. He proffered my letters in response to pleasantries, and walked on to the next house, whistling a ditty out of tune. Well behind schedule, I ran for my bus, noting the lack of houses on the parallel row. The bus pulled up as I arrived. I should have missed it. Settled into a seat at the back, I shuffled almost unconsciously through my post, intermittently gazing out of the window, at the busy normalcy of Tuesday morning commuters. Nothing but unpaid bills.
The bus coughed me up in a cloud of acrid fumes, choking passers-by in the busy city centre street. People wandered by as if unaware of the hair matted to their heads by clotting blood. Injuries from flying debris. A man suffered alone, slumped in a doorway and nursing a bullet wound, spattered blood staining the wall behind him as his head bowed forward, unmoving. Another nameless civilian casualty to add to the toll on the ten o’clock news.
Automatic doors buzzed open, pockmarked but still functional, admitted me into the cool, air-conditioned building. The bloodstains on the carpet led me to her office, the well-manicured secretary waving me in.
“Doctor Herman’s waiting for you.”
Teenage revellers gyrated off-tempo under unforgiving UV light, animated by the irregular beat synthesised by a cocktail of legal highs, cut with a strong helping of MDMA. The romanticised drugs of the past, ecstasy, opiates, had fallen by the wayside, cut too well, more talcum powder than high, the new generation of “clued-up” kids too ping-smart to be cheated out of chemical paradise. And they wanted it cheap. Body mods were still expensive these days, or the popular ones, at least. Fingertips fitted with chemical sensors sent drug breakdowns and calorie counts to microchips fused into skull bone. Displayed feeds across a high-tech retina replacement, the information travelling along microscopic optic fibre masquerading as neural pathway. Uninterrupted by social notification bubbles, pre-programmed software tinted teen vision green or red in line with the desirability of chemical breakdowns, ending in a swallowed bomb, or a dead dealer.
Tommo cursed Rezik’s name as he pelted flat out down forgotten back-streets, through the gaping maws of dead buildings, bomb craters, still smoking stacks of rejected human flesh. The enhanced cries of his already pinging assailant echoed in the empty streets like the bark of a vicious dog. Warm blood dripped from a gash across Tommo’s pounding head, a killing blow interrupted by a clumsy tween high for a hookup. He jumped a battered garden fence and for a brief moment forgot Rezik to berate himself, feet pounding across rough concrete and barren dirt. He’d known this would happen. The new mod updates released last week had updated scanners to catch sugar levels in chem soups, revealing the trick behind the deals Rezik’s guys had been offering pingers for the past month. And, as always, it was Tommo that inevitably took the hit.
The tube train shivered and shook restlessly along its tracks, bumping the shoulders of the passengers crammed inside like tired, sweaty sardines. Suited and booted, headed home after a long day at work, the well-placed advertisements for retirement companies and pension schemes taunted each weary worker as they fought to avoid eye contact.
Alec’s every bone ached. His back twinged every time the train rocked too far to the right, and he’d managed to ruin his shirt. Again. His mother would kill him. The other passengers gave him as much of a wide berth as it was possible to give on a 6pm train out of London, eyeing the bloodstains on his collar when they thought he wasn’t looking. Alec focused his attention on the music blasting through his headphones, questioning for the millionth time the insanity that had had him drive drunk just one effing time, and worse, get caught at it. Of course, the council had provided a railcard free-of-charge, spouting some nonsense about valuable employees, but then they’d also cut his pay rate to account for the insurance overhead.
His was the last stop. The platform was fairly empty, a ghost town by London’s standards, the overhead lighting flickered and the benches were old and broken. The bare concrete walls proclaimed various colourfully misspelled phrases, buried beneath unoriginal artist tags. Alec and his battered suitcase made their lonely walk home, pulling his synthetic-weave duster coat tighter across his chest to ward off the deathly chill that snuck through the rip in the thin cotton shirt beneath. He paused at the park one street from home, carefully setting the briefcase in a pool of dim ruby light spilling from a streetlamp before settling himself on a swing. He relieved his pocket of the fag packet he’d been hoarding for a good month, only three death-sticks left, the far left turned over to indicate its luck. Alec glared at it. It sure hadn’t been doing its job all that great these last few months. His twitch got further than usual tonight, a Lucky Strike dangling from his grimace as he turned his Zippo between well-chewed fingers. Fuck. He ran a gnarled thumb over the grooves, the gold embossed logo stared back up at him, accusatory. With a weary sigh Alec shook himself out of his funk, shoving temptation back out of sight. This wasn’t the brilliant life his mentor had promised the young genius he had once been, but then Alec was no longer naïve enough to believe that was real.
The apartments were as riotous as ever. The couple at number three had yet to learn how to communicate in anything less than screams. Children re-enacted pound-shop movies and boot-sale comics in the stairwell while their junkie parents hot-boxed number seven. Somewhere a dog barked a beat. There was a stack of post on the doormat, the door only opened half way, the avalanche of paper blocking its path. His mother was in the kitchen. He chucked his suitcase on the table and kissed the top of her head, making the way back to his room with no care for her fussing over what was essentially a black eye. He’d buy another shirt. Washing off the dried blood, he changed into flannel stripe pyjamas and settled back at the kitchen table nursing whisky in a chipped mug and waving away his mother’s second attempt at concern. As she sighed and returned to stirring the ragu bubbling on the hob, Alec wiped off the butter knife and took to opening the post. They were late on rent. The electric bill needed paying again. The gas would be shut off without a transfer in the next forty-eight hours. His imprisoned car would be crushed if he didn’t pay the fine to collect it. The council had finally sent out their cheque from that big freelance job in the Eastend last week. Didn’t make for the most uplifting read, but he supposed it could be worse.
“Hey, can you drop this in at the bank for me tomorrow?” he waved the cheque at his mother, slipping it under a magnet on the fridge. “I won’t have time, it’s ComicCon.”
“Yeah, I guess I need to go in anyway, we need milk.” She gestured at the hastily scrawled shopping list also pinned to the fridge: carrots, shampoo, tissues, MILK. “Can you turn the radio up? I can’t hear it for the fan.”
“For the neighbours, you mean,” Alec said, hitting the volume. “You need any help?”
“Can you stir this while I start the pasta?”
Alec did so happily, most of his work colleagues were orphans, and a lot of time spent around their petulant god-complexes had only made him appreciate his own mother more.
He was laying the table when the second radio spat white noise. The forks in his hand hit the wood with a clatter as he leapt across the room to cut off his mother’s dinner music mid-track and snatched the police scanner off the top of the fridge to crank it up.
‘…masked men. Hostage situation in Shepherd’s Bush, we’re getting numbers but suspect thirty or so. Neighbours have heard screams and gunshots…’
Alec’s fingers flew to the buttons on his flannel nightshirt as he scooped up the pack of Lucky Strikes and turned for his case, but his mother was already there, dialling open the lock. As he shucked his pyjama pants she handed him the spill of red fabric with a kiss on the cheek. His heartbeat pounded, adrenaline pulsing through his veins at the familiar feel of the loose cloth between his fingers.
“Be safe!” his mother pleaded as he lunged from the kitchen window, four floors up, the cape snapping and billowing behind him in the wind.
He picked me up at eight. When I opened the door he gave me thirteen roses; one for every month we’d been together. He complimented me politely on the dress I’d umm-ed and ahh-ed over for a good hour, a stylish silk number filched from the back of mum’s wardrobe. We held hands as he drove, his fingers brushing the promise ring I so proudly displayed. Our second Valentine’s. We’d made it past the “honeymoon” year, defied all the naysayers, the no-longer-friends, my parents. So what if Jay was a little bit older? He loved me.
The restaurant was perfect, as always. A classy affair with suited waiters who “yes ma’am-ed” and a server just for wine, who asked Jay to taste before he’d pour the scarlet liquid into my glass. God knows what we talked about, while I played with a caesar salad and he sawed at a steak, I was so distracted by those eyes of his, eyes that were somehow, unbelievably, only for me. Maybe we had a glass or two more than we should, but we found ourselves unable to control our laughter as we climbed the gates to the park. Jay mimicked pirouettes beneath the trees to the tune of my delighted squeals. I chased him across the bridges in the Japanese gardens, and we rolled together down the grassy banks, damp with evening dew, children again beneath the stars. We waltzed in the light of the moon to music only we could hear, and for a moment I imagined myself in white satin, and he in a tux, twirling in perfect grace across a polished floor. Out of breath, we lay in the grass, cuddled close against the night’s chill. As we gazed into the empty night he told me stories, his childhood, his life so far, what ours together could be. I revelled in his bitter-sweet scent, the dash of expensive cologne discolouring his shirt collar, the birthmark cradled by the curve of his neck. Muscles in his arms shifted and flexed as he pointed out a constellation, told me it was mine. Virgo. He pulled me closer to press a kiss to my cheek as he gestured to his, the archer.
When my curfew grew close and he reluctantly returned me home, he kissed me sweetly, wary of the disapproving stare of my parents behind the curtains. Afterwards, as I turned to go, he caught my hand, pulled me close to whisper in my ear, to promise me the world.
I killed her at eight. Her blood dripped from my knife, blossomed into petals of gore on the concrete, stained white silk crimson. I took my pretty ring off her finger, for the next one, and laid her out across the back seats. Brushed the golden curls out of her peaceful little doll-face. As I drove to mine, I caught her eye in the rearview. My pretty little one. I’m taking you home.
Croatia was the holiday of a lifetime,
For the passengers and the crew, homeowners and
Firemen fought the flames that lingered on,
Fed by puddling
Paramedics shrouded fragmented flesh in yellow,
Formed a yellow sea.
Fighting their way through media microphones,
Roar of questions punctuated by the beat of helicopter blades
And broken hearts.
Picked over the plane’s carcass like ants,
Carefully dissecting scorched remnants, torn metal.
Desperately searching for answers.
For the voices of dead men.
I ‘member, the radio declared war in the morning. In the afternoon I went to see a guy about some smokes. All I’d ever heard from the fellas that had made it back from the last one was that the market for smokes was big over there, once things got going. I’d thought it was smart. I packed my haul up safe in a case, I gave ma a kiss on her cheek, and I signed up.
France was a pile of shite, no matter how you dressed it. We should have known, one look at the frozen faces of our pas, the empty space our lads should have filled, they said it all. What were we expecting, really? That eleven years would have turned graves to paradise? Sure, the ditches had been filled, grass had grown, wire had rusted to nothin’, but the tears remained. Wouldn’t have to dig far to find the bloodstains from the last war. I dunno what the hell the props guys were spouting back home, to get ‘em signing up for this, not with the state we were sending their brothers back in, but the steady stream kept coming. Every day a new face to pretend you didn’t see. It was easier that way. Kept your thoughts down on your boots and your mess and kept right on marching, one foot before the other, ’til it was time to stop. The mud sucked at your boots as the trigger sapped your soul, yet still you marched. Fought. Died. And marched again. An endless haze of brown, and grey, and red.
Until we couldn’t march anymore. Bloody Jerrys broke through Belgium, slipped the French bastards and came right for us. Caught us with our pants around our ankles, so to speak. There we were, marching on one minute, all soldier-like, an’ the next we’re burning our own tanks, trucks, food, shooting horses, fleeing like rats before the flood. It was messy. Real messy. Later, they’d try an’ call me a war hero when I lay in the dirt like a worm. Did you know there was a medal for that? Honoured for letting others die in my place. I asked them to. And they, brave boys, went willingly.
Here we gallant survivors were, cowering in marshland like rats, while they, the martyrs, stood tall and defiant, marching at the enemy. We were not brave men. Not as we brought hell to the town we cowered beneath, waiting restlessly for our turn to bail, to get the hell out of this blasted pit of a country. Laid in whatever dank cellar we had stumbled upon in the ringing haze, eyes screwed tight shut. With every rumbling impact, every shake of the walls, the opera of death played out across my lids, the face of a child blown in, the polished fingers of a woman in flight, a blue-eyed man-boy drowning in a soup of mud and blood. Opening ‘em did no good either, they were always there, one endless, accusing stare. Whose war was this, really? Not theirs, surely. What on earth had they done to deserve this? I lay in my makeshift cot, unable to find sleep to the lullaby offered by the orchestra of war, and turned that final battered pack of smokes in trembling hands. It was ironic, here I was, unable to bear parting with them, unable to bear smoking ‘em. Unable to do anything with em really, useless bastards, ‘cept stare at them laying there, nine pretty white coffins in two neat rows, mindlessly playing my grime-caked nails across their pearly tops, trying and failing to catch a breath.
Fat lot of good those smokes did me, fed to the sea. If only fish smoked.
‘So long as the English tongue survives, the word Dunkirk will be spoken with reverence. In that harbour, such a hell on earth as never blazed before, at the end of a lost battle, the rags and blemishes that had hidden the soul of democracy fell away. There, beaten but unconquered, in shining splendour, she faced the enemy, this shining thing in the souls of free men, which Hitler cannot command. It is in the great tradition of democracy. It is a future. It is victory.’
New York Times, 1 June 1940
When Ben came home from work that day, slowly unfolding from his battered company car like a man much older than himself, the apartment block was quieter than usual. The noisy children who frequented the driveway-turned-playground were conspicuously absent, their abandoned football left to roll unattended in the breeze. The hedgerows had been neglected by both council and tenants, equally more concerned with their own lives, families, incomes. They grew out of control, shooting out green spears at varying angles, swallowing up rose bushes and petunias alike in their path. A discarded BMX bike half-blocked the entranceway, propping open the door and rendering the keypad security useless. The frame of its back wheel was distorted, as if viewed through water or clouded glass, unrideable. The tea ladies on the second floor, on their lunch breaks after a busy day serving others, whispered gossip between half-open doorways. Fell awkwardly silent and dispersed as Ben rounded the stairs. As he rose through floors three and four, a pungent smell of marijuana clung to fibres in a well-loved coat, followed him to the top floor, where the young couple in 53 was communicating with each other the only way they knew how. In screams. He sighed, pausing for a second, resting head and shoulder on the wall to listen, the shouting a welcome hum in the dark silence that consumed him. Ben’s flat was empty and cold, the jingle of keys in the lock met by the silent stack of unopened post on the mat. Ben pushed them carelessly to one side with a foot, careful not to look. It took a while for post to get out sometimes. He couldn’t read a dead boy’s words. Not yet, not now.
I knew Sam when he was ten. Now look at him.
Sure, the ears are the same, but there’s just not the same innocence to that lopsided grin, the left side of the face now permanently tugged up, contorted. Drugs will do that to you. I used to see him from afar once we moved up to Secondary, separated into streams, “Y” did Spanish, “X” French. He was smoking even then, fingers tapping, playing some complex instrument only he could see. By the time my parents dragged me halfway across the country in search of greener fields, he was fourteen and fading. His BMX tricks neglected for a lazy meander to the nearest dealer-friend, whoever was hot-boxing that morning. All those smarts gone to waste. Look at him now, pushing the latest high at third-rate festivals, a McDonalds drop-out. Stealing from old friends just to get by. The darker side of life caught him too early, changed him. Got its hooks into flesh that healed over the years, deformed. Twisted.
He’s not even Sam anymore.
9AM the morning after,
Didn’t go to bed ’til 3.
Panda eyes, bird’s nest for hair,
Head as fucked up as can be.
Canvas for a map of faded linen,
Tattooed by soft caress upon a cheek.
That pungent love sweet scent.
A tequila that cannot feel for you
The way you wish it could.
Surrender to its bitter-sweet embrace,
Your unrequited love.