Human Resources

Human Resources

I knew something was up with MacInnes as soon as I shook his hand. He hadn’t been in my office for a few years. Time must’ve been ruthless with him. Deep gullies fell from the corners of his mouth making an exaggerated frown, and the majority of his hair was grey, the original red only a suggestion now, a souvenir. He looked exhausted, beaten.

His palm was sweaty as it met mine – anxiety, I guessed. I shake a lot of hands, so I know these things. To quote Tom Jones, it’s not unusual. The room was air-conditioned, but it was insane outside and he’d arrived late, flustered. My secretary had ushered him in immediately. He didn’t meet my eye as we shook, glancing down at our linked hands instead.

“Hello Leo,” he muttered.

I didn’t mind him using my first name. I’m cool with that. He’d started out as my boss, after all.

As soon as I relinquished the handshake – which always happens when I decide, not them – I sensed something was awry. I rubbed my fingers against my palm and felt something there, something damp and filmy. Although it was pretty uncool to do so, I examined it – it was a reflex, I guess – and saw that it was a layer of skin. His skin.

Freaked out but trying to retain my composure, I sat down, said nothing about it.

“Well, Paul, you’ve perhaps guessed what this is about,” I said instead. “There’s no easy way to approach it, I’m afraid. But then, you of all people know that.”

He slumped in the chair across the desk from me. Something fell from his head, bounced on his shoulder and slid down his upper arm before tumbling to the carpet. He turned his head to try and conceal it from me, but even though the desk obscured my view of where it had landed, I knew what I’d seen.

It was his left ear.

“Of course, Leo,” he said, putting his hand up towards the side of his head, trying to make out he was simply replacing a stray strand of hair, rather than stopping his glasses from falling off.

“I hope you won’t think I’m shitting you when I say it wasn’t my choice,” I continued, determined not to get distracted. “I’ve been getting squeezed by head office for months now. It’s just not…not happening here. Not the way they want. Not the way anyone wants.”

“No, no, of course. I understand, Leo.”

He crossed one leg over the other. As he did so, his lower leg came away at the knee – shoe and sock in place – and cartwheeled across the room, leaving an empty trouser leg dangling freely. The leg – his leg – came to rest over by the filing cabinet. Miraculously, it landed the right way up, shoe downwards, leaning against the bottom drawer. But for the ragged skin just below where the knee had been until a few seconds before, and the blood running down his shin, it could’ve been a prosthetic. Who knew he had such hairy legs?

Our eyes finally met. He said nothing, just uncrossed his leg – carefully – and cradled his head where his ear used to be.

“You’ll…er…you’ll get the standard package, Paul,” I said, peeling the extra layer of skin from my palm beneath the desk. My own hands had begun to dew with sweat.

He nodded, though only be a few degrees, like he was afraid what might happen if he was more vigorous.

“I tried to cut you a better deal, I promise you,” I lied. “What with all your loyalty to the company over the last – what is it? – twenty-five years?”

“Thirty-one,” he said.

“Human Resources just wouldn’t buy it,” I continued. “You know how things are. When it’s my turn, I’ll probably be lucky to get a thank-you.”

I thought he might at least smile at this, but he didn’t. Then I noticed a small crack beginning to open up in his forehead. It quickly grew, splitting his skull, following the centreline of his face, moving downwards. I could see shards of bone and brain flying off, then teeth pinging out of his jawbones.

“Paul?” I said. “Are you OK?”

His entire body was cleaving down the middle. Buttons flew from his shirt. Organs spilled from his torso as the skin opened, and flopped out – first into his lap and then between his legs and onto the carpet. I thought I recognised a liver, but then it could’ve easily been something else. His vertebral column parted like the teeth of a zipper.

He wasn’t going to answer. He wasn’t going to do anything at all. I could see why they were letting him go.

I stood up for a moment so that I could see beyond the desk. The right side of him had toppled forward and down to the floor, while the left had leaned over and was resting on the arm of the chair.

I picked up the phone, scrolling through the internal directory to find the cleaning department. They’d be really pleased. I was about to press the number but I stopped. “Priorities, Leo,” I said to myself.

I dialled H.R. instead. They weren’t paying me nearly enough for dealing with this type of shit.


Intensive Care

Intensive Care

Vinnie came to on a Thursday afternoon. He didn’t know this, however. It could’ve been a Monday morning for all he was aware. He had no idea how long he’d been out, but he instantly sensed it must’ve been a long time. And it was obvious to him that he was in a hospital. He couldn’t move much, but he didn’t feel any pain. That would come later.

There were four beds in the room, arranged in opposing pairs, but only two of them were occupied – Vinnie’s and the one directly opposite. The guy in that bed looked like he was well out of it. He was clearly younger than Vinnie, and had the same heavy-duty brace around his neck. Various bits of plaster cast covered most of his body, and all the bits that weren’t covered had serious bruising. There were tubes and wires everywhere.

Nurses fussed around from time to time. They were mostly young, mostly foreign. Vinnie noticed that the younger and more foreign they were, the friendlier they were. One was particularly sweet, and reminded him of a girl he’d had a thing for at school, apart from being foreign, of course.

“What happened?” he asked the doctor, who was also foreign. “I don’t remember anything.”

“You were at work,” she told him. “You’d climbed up onto a leaking machine to try and fix it. But the fumes made you pass out, and you fell.”

“That was a bit stupid,” he said.

“It probably isn’t the way you’re supposed to do things,” she said, smiling, a warmth in her voice he wasn’t sure he deserved.

Visitors came, but they mostly just got upset, leaving Vinnie more relieved when they departed. They brought him useless things, things you’d need two working arms for – magazines, bananas. Danny brought him a Rubik’s Cube, but he knew that was a joke. Days blurred into one another. He lost count of them. He would fall asleep not knowing if he was falling asleep, losing consciousness or dying. Other hospital staff buzzed in and out like flies, took readings, attended to him, chatted.

And all the while, the guy across from Vinnie lay there inert. You could’ve thought he was dead. Had everyone forgotten about him? Could only Vinnie see him? Was he really even there?

When the woman came, she crossed the room incredibly slowly, tentatively, like she was frightened to approach. She paid Vinnie no attention at all. She was young, quite glamorous, almost too much so for visiting someone in hospital. Her hair was all done up, and her make-up fresh, like she was going for a night out. She looked good, Vinnie thought. She wore a long, expensive-looking coat, and shoes that stabbed at the floor as she walked.

She pulled up a chair and sat by the bed opposite, her back to Vinnie. She bowed her head, like she was praying. Perhaps she was. He could hear no words.

Vinnie had no idea how long she stayed like that. Just like days, minutes and seconds were starting to become meaningless. He was on the verge of drifting off to wherever it was he went, when she rose from the chair and flicked off the light switch. She kissed the guy as close as she could get to his mouth. There was no response Vinnie could see, though it was gloomier in the room now, with only pale light filtering in under the blinds.

She hitched up her coat, slid off her knickers – appearing not to be wearing much else under there – and stuffed them into one of the pockets. She moved the guy’s right leg – which wasn’t covered completely in plaster – out towards the side, then climbed on, straddling and settling herself down onto his exposed foot. It took her a few moments of adjustment to get the position she was looking for, but once there, she began to rock gently to and fro, never hurried, never frantic. Vinnie could hear her breathing, but the room was so quiet he could hear almost anything. There was a shudder, and a series of noises on the edge of being groans, before she climbed off the bed and straightened herself out.

She left the room much more purposefully than she’d entered it, but only once she’d unplugged the ventilator, and – for good measure – every other machine surrounding the bed.

Vinnie watched in silence before drifting off to sleep.

The Goldfinch

the_goldfinch_by_donna_tartIt had been a gift – and a thoughtful one – yet it perched on my bookshelf for the best part of a year, intimidating me. Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” weighs in at 800-odd pages of reasonably small print, which is meaty by anyone’s reckoning, and I knew it wasn’t going to be tackled in a weekend. Tiny bird, enormous book. Like an ascent on Everest, or the running of a marathon, I would need to approach this in a resolute, professional manner, and arrive at the starting line with loins girded (whatever that actually means) and feeling seriously on my game.

But something else happened instead. I got ill. Not gravely – just the inconvenience of a chest infection, but it left me needing to take several days of bed-rest, and at the same time presented me with a window of time in which to tackle the book without any distractions, except for preparing occasional cold and flu remedies and wheezing painfully.

I hardly needed that long, when it came down to it. Right from the first few pages, I was completely hooked on the story of young Theo Decker’s unlikely and traumatic encounter with the titular work of art by Carel Fabritius, his opportunistic acquisition of it, and his subsequent struggles to both reconcile his situation and simply survive. I scarcely noticed being ill, and may have even given the impression of faking it! It’s a real gift to fall so utterly under the spell of a writer and their universe, and to be in that rare situation of wanting to devour the pages greedily, whilst also trying to make them last as long as possible.

“The Goldfinch” is one of those novels that inspires me to write, makes writing seem like the only thing worth doing, and it makes me want specifically to write novels, to create worlds equally as tangled, rich and real (ditto just about anything by David Mitchell). Yet at the same time, I find its scope and inventiveness quite daunting. I can’t imagine ever being able to produce anything quite so breath-taking, so daring. The consequent temptation to avoid even trying is one I’m constantly fighting off.

I came to “The Goldfinch” knowing nothing about it, about the stir it had caused when first published, not only for being Tartt’s first novel for over ten years. I had previously read “The Little Friend” and been impressed by it. Reading back now through some reviews of “The Goldfinch”, it strikes me how divided opinions have been about it, how polarised the views of its readers, bearing in mind its status as a Pulitzer Prize winner.

It is certainly not without its flaws. It’s a little flabby and over-indulgent in places, but hardly surprising given its length. I’ve never been to New York, never mind lived there, but using chance encounters on its streets to drive the plot more than once feels contrived – or perhaps it really is just like one big village? And the last few pages try too hard to explain what the ‘message’ is behind all that has gone before, all of Theo’s experiences.

But what struck me most about the critical reviews of the book was the debate about how ‘literary’ – or otherwise – it is; whether it is ‘grown-up’ enough to be considered truly great, and if it isn’t, whether it should therefore be considered terrible. This argument seems unnecessary to me. I either enjoy reading something, or I don’t, and the novels I most enjoy reading are usually those that sweep me up and along with their audacity and ambition. I’m just amazed by the imagination of writers – and also film-makers – who can invent a version of reality so convincing and absorbing, and have the courage to do so.

Sunday morning stream

Blank lined ringbound notebookThe corner table in Starbucks had uneven legs and wobbled unpredictably. It made writing a challenge. My eyesight had become so poor I could barely make out the words as they escaped my pen and fled across the page.

Where were they going? Did they have any clue? Or was freedom not an idea to them, but a reality only experienced in that moment, as everything must be. None of them made it beyond the page’s edge. If they did, I had no idea what they were and where they ended up.

Perhaps they had found their way onto other pages and assimilated themselves there as part of a broader narrative. With stoicism – and some concealed longing and regret – they had accepted their positions within new and unfamiliar sentences, trying their best to fit in, regardless of the inexplicable discomfort they caused the other words.

Other may not have been so lucky. They could never adapt, never find any peace. They would be condemned to standing out, their difference being the only defining character the other words could discern in them.

Or else they loitered on the edge of a page, lost but conspicuous in the margins, hoping to avoid being crossed out…


Footnote: I’m what I would label a “tight” writer. Too careful. I rarely allow myself the opportunity to simply go with the flow, scribble down the first thing that comes into my head and see where it takes me. This was an exception. I just had a spare twenty minutes and a notebook, and managed to switch the thinking part of my brain off for once. It may be nonsense, but it was fun!

Image: gratuit

Desire lines

June 5th

It always pleases me to find evidence of the tracks that animals have worn through the undergrowth by their passage. I can’t explain why. Perhaps it’s something about the reassurance of knowing those animals are there? This is only a small area of woodland after all, ringed fairly tight by estate housing and roads, yet within it there are clearly populations of undomesticated creatures leaving their mark, simply by doing what they do, going where they go, following their instincts.

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I also know they’re there because I see them. If I’m lucky, I’ll happen upon deer on a weekly basis, and more so in the winter when there is less vegetation to hide them. They typically freeze with what seems like fear, but will calmly hold your gaze until you realise you’re no longer breathing, often only fleeing once you move on again. Squirrels are plentiful but rarely on the ground. Foxes are more elusive, and tend to keep their distance – I smell them more often than see them. There are surely other mammals around – mice, rats, voles, hedgehogs (although the latter of these are easier to encounter in the garden than the woods). Badgers I’m hopeful but not sure about. I keep on the lookout for the telltale entrance to a sett, without success so far.

Humans beings have made paths too, but by the more deliberate, co-ordinated use of earth-movers, aggregates and vibrating whacker plates, rather than the gradual weathering action of their feet. An army of dog-walkers, pram-pushers, cyclists and joggers criss-crosses the woods every day, and largely keeps its feet and wheels free of mud. We’re well-behaved on the whole, going where we’re ushered, following routes that someone else decided we should take. There’s little incentive to do otherwise unless you’re determined to stray no matter what – the paths are well-made and extensive. And there are nettles and fallen trees everywhere!

A “desire line” (or “path”, though “line” sounds better and is more familiar to me) is the term used by landscape architects, parks authorities and planners to describe what happens if we don’t behave ourselves when going from A to B, and instead go off-piste, following our own course rather than the one suggested and provided for us. This usually means a lazy shortcut, cater-corner, directly through the middle rather than around the outsides. We’re creatures of habit too, it seems.


Image: Metro Centric

I don’t imagine that cutting lazy corners, seeking a swifter route, is what the animals who made the tracks in the three previous pictures were necessarily doing, whichever species they were. Not deliberately, anyway. They were, and are, probably looking for food, seeking safety or returning to a reliable source of water. They have probably been doing it for centuries.


Once bitten…

Once bittenI don’t think any of any of us had ever thought about Vicky before. Not in that way, anyway. There were plenty of others to think about – Maria Fairley, Jacqui Sellars. Lisa Williams too, of course, although she mysteriously lost it at the end of seventh year. I don’t know where it went, but once it was lost, it never came back.

When I say ‘us’, I should specify who I mean, because I don’t mean everyone. I mean the losers, the nerds, the retards and the irredeemably unhygienic. The ones who all the girls were so not ever going to even give a chance to, we had to experience it all vicariously, a reluctant yet fascinated audience for the couplings of the chosen few. We were a shudderingly desperate collection of cretins.

Not so Ash. He wasn’t especially handsome, with his uneven front teeth and Pontefract Cake hair that just couldn’t be cut into a flattering shape. When I saw him again in my early twenties, his hair closely-cropped, I understood that some guys’ heads are only designed for the crew-cut. He was also neither eloquent nor intelligent, although these were not considered advantageous at our school. What he was, was confident. And good at sports. And that was a killer package as far as all the girls appeared to be concerned.

I suppose Ash was also imaginative. As I said, no-one had thought about Vicky Chapman as potential girlfriend material, not until the rumour that he was going out with her reached escape velocity and entered the intoxicating orbit of school gossip. How had this happened? What had we missed? When I picture her now, I get it instantly. She had perfect olive skin and always wore her hair in a long braid you could moor a yacht with (until she had it tragically lopped to collar-length in the summer holidays between the eighth and ninth years). She also had these nut-brown, cartoon eyes that never looked far from playful, wicked laughter. Yet there had always been something equally fierce about her, and intimidating, more so than the girls who were intimidating just because they were universally reckoned to be desirable. And because they were girls, of course.

Another thing I should probably clarify, are the details of the going out with arrangement. Expectations were low. A typical first date would involve a walk around some of the town’s choicest alleys and lanes, with optional grunting. Hand-holding was on the menu for the brave and romantic. If all was progressing well, the evening could be capped by a shared bag of chips on a park bench, before the first exploratory snog at a safe distance from the girl’s house. Safe meaning either far enough away so that no parent would accidentally disturb the act, or close enough that a hasty exit could be arranged if necessary.

The morning after Ash and Vicky’s first date was one of rare anticipation. We all huddled at the usual location in the school grounds, hands in pockets, staring at our feet, waiting for something to catch our attention. When Ash arrived, he looked very pleased with himself. You could sense he was bursting with something.

Before saying a word, he took hold of his lower lip and pulled it down to show us its inside. There were two red marks, wounds of some description.

“She bit me,” he informed us. “When we were snogging.”

She’d bitten him. This was a new piece in an already complicated puzzle. Had she meant to? I’d never come close to kissing a girl before, obviously, but I’d seen it happen, and it did look quite violent at times. Was it normal for the girl to bite you though?

With his lips back in place, Ash resumed his self-satisfied, perhaps even boastful air. The urge to not seem even more stupid by asking the wrong question meant that a nervous silence gathered, but I’m sure I wasn’t alone in having my head filled for the rest of the morning by thoughts of that braid, of it being slowly and carefully unplaited.


Image: Nicolas Raymond



Next year’s holiday


Noel had been certain the bungee cords would be adequate. Boasted, even. Sworn on his life in the face of almost universal doubt and derision. And yet he understood that moments like these – right now – were the moments in a long, complicated life that truly made you die, more completely than anything physical.

He’d managed to bring the car to a halt on a gently-sloping verge of daisies, clover, dandelions with seed-clock heads bedraggled by the night’s rain and pasted to their stems. Each of the four suitcases had slipped from the roof and yawned their contents across the carriageway, decorating both lanes. You could see them for over a hundred yards up the road, arranged like fallen festival bunting.

The beginning of the trail was beyond sight, but the traffic was swerving to avoid them, or trying to, a long way back. Occasionally, a vehicle passed with an item of clothing clinging to its tyres, like it was spinning dry in a washing machine.

Mother wouldn’t look. Or perhaps she didn’t want to be seen. She kept her face wrapped up in her hands, as though it made her invisible. The girls were on their phones, taking pictures, thumbing away on screens, faces intent. Intermittent bleeps of notification coming from his trouser pocket told Noel that the scene was already on Instagram. Were either of them using Twitter yet? Did kids do Twitter? Or had it already become uncool?

Noel gazed across beyond the other side of the road. Families whose holiday luggage wasn’t going to be reported in traffic bulletins – even if it didn’t go viral online – were moving or settling into new homes dotting a half-completed estate. Above the noise of cars, you could still hear the rumbling of egg-yolk yellow bulldozers, the screeching of orange cranes swinging pallets of breeze blocks about like conkers. The routine violence of it all was presumably being co-ordinated from somewhere, no matter how random it appeared.

A truck growled by in the inside lane. Noel briefly caught sight of one of his shirts – a striped number he’d been bought last Christmas by Mother – partly obscuring the windscreen, though only on the passenger side. The driver hadn’t seen fit to decelerate as he’d carved his way through their new, open-plan wardrobe, and the car shuddered on the verge as it passed, tiny chips of aggregate pinging off the bodywork and skittling into the grass.  In the truck’s wake, smaller items of clothing circled like sparrows before landing unceremoniously – and no doubt only temporarily. A sock; something green and white he couldn’t place; and a pair of what Noel was certain were very insubstantial, very pink knickers. He was also certain they weren’t Mother’s.

Fifteen to twenty minutes, the emergency call centre operator had assured him. Half an hour had elapsed. Overhead, aircraft contrails and their peculiar shadows crossed the sky like spines, or the antennae of insects, yet no planes were visible anywhere.

Next year, he resolved – if there was a next year – they would fly.

The World According to John Irving

lastnighttwistedriverI’m currently re-reading John Irving’s epic novel “Last Night in Twisted River”. Actually, I should qualify this – the previous ‘read’ was in audiobook form, a library-loaned stack of CDs that I fed eagerly into the car stereo on a road trip from Maryland to Maine and back, four years ago.

As “Last Night in Twisted River” is set at least partly in New England – as many of Irving’s stories are – it felt highly appropriate to have it as a companion on that particular journey. Regrettably, both the road trip and the library loan came to an end before I had chance to finish the book, so I don’t know how the story ends (no spoilers, please!).

The great man is one of my favourite authors ever, someone whose style of storytelling I greatly admire. My first encounter with his writing came many years ago with “The World According to Garp”, which remains my favourite novel of his. I love the way he creates a complete universe the reader can believe in and immerse themselves in, no matter how off-the-wall or larger-than-life the characters that inhabit it. I’m also always impressed by the way his stories embark on endless, breath-taking loops backwards and forwards through time, both feeding in back-story, and providing teasers of what’s to come, without either clogging up the narrative or giving too much away.

The central character of “Last Night in Twisted River”, Daniel Baciagalupo, is – like his creator – a novelist. Writing about writers – and about writing – are two of Irving’s best known tropes (along with bears and wrestling!). At the back of my copy of “Last Night in Twisted River” there’s an author’s note; a few precious pages in which Irving gives some fascinating and generous insights into his approach to the craft.

Irving is completely unapologetic about how important plot is to the way he writes, even if some consider this an old-fashioned approach. What intrigued me most is his assertionjohn_irving that the process of writing all of his novels has begun with the final sentence, both as a captured moment in time and a feeling. He works his way backwards from that point – ‘a kind of roadmap in reverse’ as he describes it – and until he has the ending nailed down as a reference point to work towards, he can’t begin.

Although I enjoy trying to tell stories, I must confess that the theory or the process of how it happens are not things I’ve studied in great detail. I would like them to be. And I do think about it a lot! If anything, the stories I try to tell emerge initially as incidents or happenings – pictures I get in my head of events unfolding contrary to how they perhaps should. Certainly, the characters involved are rarely if ever the starting point, even though much of the reading I have done about the business of fiction writing emphasises the importance of characters and their development. But plot, planning, the structuring of any story – let alone one of novel-length – is all stuff around which I have a lot of work to do.

I do find it very encouraging, however, to read that Irving considers the three year period it took him to write “Last Night in Twisted River” to be ‘unheard of’. Apparently, the process is usually a much longer one than this!


Ash Dieback

May 10th

Wandering through the woods in early May, it would be a simple assumption to make that all is well with the world, and that spring is now unfolding furiously, just as it should, just as it always does. The understorey is becoming dense and complex, flowering plants, ferns and moss all competing for space, and feeding off a rich diet of accumulated organic matter. The canopy overhead is starting to colour itself in with new leaves, and soon the sky will only be visible as pinpricks between them, shifting at the whim of the wind.

But if you look a little closer – and I’m always trying to – you’ll see that in certain places, something is going awry. The picture is not as healthy as it appears on the first, cursory inspection.

The Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) is a stalwart of Britain’s woodlands, as well as our municipal parks, gardens and urban spaces. The bark of its new growth is a distinctive olive-green, its hard black buds bursting in the spring to form fronds of multiple leaf-lets. It can grow to 35 metres and live for 400 years. The tree and its timber have been part of life and folklore for centuries, evidenced by the regularity with which it appears in place names.

Ash Dieback

Young ash tree showing typical signs of the disease – discoloured stems and branch lesions

Since 2010, the fungal disease known as Chalara or Ash Dieback has been infecting Britain’s ash population. It may have arrived as wind-blown spores, or via saplings imported from mainland Europe. There is no cure for the disease. Common symptoms include discolouration of the bark, blotches on the leaves, and lens- or diamond-shaped lesions on branches and trunks. In Denmark, 90% of trees are reckoned to be affected, and the most pessimistic opinions predict the eventual disappearance of the ash from most of Europe.

I can’t tell you when Ash Die-back reached these parts. I can tell you that this is the first year I’ve noticed it in these woods. I’m sure it has been here longer. And the speed with which it has taken a hold – particularly amongst young saplings – is astonishing.

Ash is not the most well-represented species in these woods – it is easily outnumbered by sycamore and Scots pine. But it is one of the most prolific species when it comes to regeneration. In certain parts of the woods – usually where a mature parent tree is close by – ash seedlings reach skywards in spectacular numbers. Not all are destined to survive to maturity, of course, but in their first year, they can grow to human height and beyond.

Now you wonder whether any of them will survive at all.

And what would that feel like – to have such an emblematic species disappear almost entirely from the landscape? No doubt another opportunist tree species would fill in the gaps left behind, the biosphere never being a sentimentalist. The woods would not become full of holes.

I have no great knowledge about trees, and the diseases that afflict them – or how they might or might not be cured. Personally, I feel a tremendous sense of helplessness, like all I can really do is walk through the woods and try to enjoy the fact that these trees are here, for now at least.


Heron in flight“Let go,” Will said. “Let me go.”

His strangled voice was pushing at the edges of its limited range, threatening to break if its volume increased further. Stuart held on with both hands. It was an uncomfortable position, and his back was beginning to ache from having to bend.

“Let go, let go,” the boy said again. He was pleading now, starting to kick out with his feet in desperation.

The car park was almost empty. There were only three other cars, and none of them were parked close to Stuart’s. It was getting gloomy, evening approaching. The lights hadn’t come on yet, although even once they did, it would still be gloomy. There weren’t enough of them, and the bulbs were a pathetic, low-watt type, which it took the council ages to replace once they’d burned out.

“Let me go. Please!”

Will was almost in tears now, tears of fury.

Just like your bloody mother, Stuart thought.

“Look, Will,” he said, “how about this? I’ll let go with this hand, and then you can work the handlebars.”

Stuart released his right hand, so the boy was in complete control of the steering. He wobbled instantly, and the bike swung from left to right to left to right until he gathered some measure of equilibrium. Stuart thanked himself silently for not letting go with both hands, for keeping his left one securely on the stem of the seat, just below the saddle. The bike and the boy would never have remained upright if he hadn’t, although it did mean he had to continue stooping.

Will was only placated for a moment.

“No, daddy,” he said. “Let go properly. Please. Let go.”

“Will,” Stuart said, “you don’t have your helmet on.” He was starting to get out of breath, though he couldn’t see why.

They’d now negotiated their way to the end of the path leading down from the front steps of the community centre. Stuart put his hand back on the handlebar for a second, to guide the bicycle through the ninety degree turn it needed to take to enter the car park.

“Daddy, let go!” Will snapped again, grabbing at Stuart’s fingers to try and prise them off.

“OK,” Stuart said, peeling his hand away. They were already safely within the car park, facing the far corner, where the silver hatchback waited for them.

From behind, a dark shape appeared low in the sky, moving slowly, even clumsily, almost not dynamic enough to be airborne. As it moved past and gave a dinosaur screech, Stuart realised it was a heron, returning through the twilight to roost somewhere in the trees ringing the old quarry ponds. There were often herons there, though you rarely saw them flying; it was easy to forget that they could, and to forget how ungainly they were. Stuart watched it move beyond the field of tarmac, with its rows of identical straight lines marked out in white paint, and disappear between two poplars, gaunt now their leaves had fallen to earth.

He did a hurried calculation in his mind. What was it – thirty yards? Perhaps forty? Less. It might take Will no more than twenty seconds to cross the barely noticeable slope. What could seriously go wrong? The numbers collided in Stuart’s exhausted brain, in a part of it where the inevitable unknowns in the equation could be easily overlooked, or fall through the gaps; unknowns that would seem obvious later. But he’d seen the scene before, the one he was picturing, in dozens of movies. He was sure of it: unaware that he’s no longer being held, the boy carries on pedalling as before, made confident by the imagined security of the adult hand, the one he resents, the one that represents restraint, unfairness. Before he realises the hand isn’t there, and he’s free, he’s already far away, beyond the threshold, becoming a man.

Stuart’s hand released its grip on the bike, and he watched as Will sailed off and away from him down the slope. Somewhere over by the ponds, in the descending darkness, there was a commotion, another screech, a sudden shaking of branches, the briefest view of something taking flight.

Old habits

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMarianne had taken the least expensive room. The place was visibly dying, crumbling with a lack of genuine love. She’d passed it often enough, wondered who the hell would stay in such a cattle pen. Now here she was standing in one of its windows, gazing down at her Subaru in the parking lot. There were three other cars, none of them worthy of extended attention. It was almost dark.

She pulled the curtains tight together with a shudder. As she flopped back onto the bed, under the swaying ceiling fan with its faint metal-on-metal squeal, she thought about those habits that had stitched themselves into her, how hard they were to unpick. Even in a moment like this, in the whirlpool of it all, when it was so far from important, she’d still needed a bargain. She couldn’t simply forget the money, say “what the hell?”. She could almost hear Henry’s voice in her head, wanting to know what she was wasting their money on now. At least it made her smile, albeit bitterly.

The mattress was brutal – stony in some places, shredded in others, and never consistent, whichever way she arranged herself. Marianne was still in her uniform. There was blood on it. That old guy with the greaseproof-paper flesh – he’d bled like a gutted fish when she changed his dressings. Warfarin. She kicked off her shoes and felt pure physical pleasure for once. How long must it have been?

The suitcase she’d stuffed lay open next to her. She hoped to find comfortable underwear, and pyjamas, but in the few frantic minutes she’d had she’d just scooped things up randomly from anywhere. She’d needed to be out of there before Henry and whoever it was came out of the shower. It was another one from his office, she’d guessed, looking at the clothing strewn across the bedroom. That Linda bitch, probably, all big hair and tits. If she was braver, she reasoned, she’d have stuck around, confronted them, not fled. But she was too tired for that. She just wanted to curl up and sleep.

How that was going to be possible here she wasn’t sure. She mouthed quiet curses at herself. She hadn’t even looked in the bathroom, checked out who or what she might be sharing it with.

She upended the suitcase. She found the bottom half of a pair of pyjamas, but there didn’t seem to be a top, never mind a matching one. She had – unintentionally – grabbed Henry’s old college football shirt, the one she’d taken to wearing as a nightdress. She flung it across the room, though there wasn’t far for it to go. She picked out a sweater, then put it to one side, figuring it was going to be way too warm to sleep in without any air-conditioning in the room.

Then she found something she’d never seen before, something that certainly wasn’t hers. A small but very expensive-looking patent leather purse was nestling in the pile of clothing. It had silver trim reinforcing the corners, some kind of monogram design that didn’t mean anything to her.

She opened the clip. There must’ve been three, maybe four hundred in cash, easy. She slipped out a credit card and examined the name on it. Linda Franklin, it said, both in the raised lettering across the front, and a scrupulously tidy signature on the reverse strip.

Marianne lay back on the bed again. She tapped the edge of the card absent-mindedly against her nose. The whining of the fan seemed to be getting louder.

She leaned over and grabbed the phone, lifting the receiver.



Image by cygk