From Shakespeare to Stephen King, writers have long plundered the memory of ghosts past and present to inject fear into the hearts of their readers, and this fault line of human existence has conjured up some of the most memorable moments in English literature.
What are ghosts, if not the dark residue of memory? Their form is shaped by our own, their fears our fears grotesquely inversed. They mirror our own lives—a warning, or a promise, of how things may come to be.
But take them away from the occult and into the realm of the living and they become freakishly sinister, and even familiar. They become the moments that slide between wakefulness and dreaming, that gnaw away at the soul of human experience. From Daniel Knauf’s eerily unsettling and nightmarish horror fable “Bye, Bye Blackbird” to “Flat Pack Pirate”, Sabrina Mahfouz’s slick and chilling tale of domestic paranoia, there’s something to chill even the hardened ghost lover. And if you want your shot of horror laced with a hint of violent realism, we have an exclusive extract from Sam Hawken’s Tequila Sunset to see you through into the morning hours.
It’s been a blast mixing this collection together. We hope the issue disturbs and delights.
Mohsen Shah & Alex Goodwin
He knew he’d put them there. The bunch of keys had been on the side. Where they were supposed to be.
He wasn’t going to lie. No, nor forget.
Well, maybe they were gone now, but what did she want him to do about it?
[private]She slammed the bathroom door and the rushing sound of water followed. He swallowed the rude words that had formed at the edge of his tongue and instead began to light candles around the open-plan living area, in an attempt to make the Wapping riverside, new-build, shared-ownership, bargain, mid-recession, third-floor, generic cream-painted, luxury fittings-filled flat seem atmospheric, romantic. He planned it so that when she came out of the bath, all squeaky clean and warm, she’d smell the Waitrose marinated chicken and rosemary new potatoes he was about to get out the oven and all would be forgiven and forgotten. A half-hour later, it worked a treat. She even kissed him on the nose and she hadn’t done that since they’d signed the Land Register. But even as he ran his fingers down her soft, curved back, it pestered him still. Where were the keys?
The next morning, as usual, she left for work earlier than him: pinstriped skirt suit and Nike Air running trainers on black-tighted feet. Rucksack packed full of nutritious flaxseed-sprinkled salad. He was expecting a goodbye kiss, a peck at least if his morning breath was too much to bear. Instead, with a dramatic swoosh of blow-dried hair she threw the ‘lost’ keys at his head as he was enjoying his late-start lie-in (a big benefit of being a media creative).
She told him he needed to give his life a really good think; the keys had been in the Hulsta tray they’d got for Christmas from her step-mum. The tray was right by the door. How could he not have seen? Idiot.
She left, leaving him pretty sure that all his dirty talk that had made her moan and clench the sheets last night would be erased from her mind before her first profit-margin meeting. He’d better get to Waitrose.
He rose from bed, hair scraggly and boxers saggy, and went into the bathroom. It was humid in there like the greenhouse at Kew, where he’d asked her to marry him. His view was actually affected so much he took tiny steps to find the shower, afraid of bumping into anything, causing a breakage and her bad temper to flare. Before he got there, he glanced at the mirror and the mist seemed to miraculously clear a little. There was still some mirror-stuck steam obstructing a view of himself, and wait! Something else as well. Writing. Wobbly writing like a child’s. And a smell. A smell like the sea. Picked-up pebbles and webbed feet. He looked at the wobbly writing, read it, and almost fell over.
‘She don’t love you anymore’
That’s what it said. But it wasn’t true. She couldn’t have left that for him, not after everything they’d been through and wouldn’t she just tell him straight, to his face, or at least via email?
But then, she had been particularly pissed off with him recently, mainly due to all the things that seemed to go missing every day and it somehow always seemed to be his fault. But what a note to leave on the mirror. And in third person too? He knew she hated that. If she’d have written it, she’d have definitely put a capital ‘I’ and then ‘don’t’. She certainly wouldn’t have been so grammatically incorrect as to put ‘She don’t’. There was no chance of that happening. He decided not to wipe it off and leave it. When she got home he’d steam up the bathroom and show her, confront her… beg her to love him again.
Then he felt a rush of wind in the windowless bathroom and he slipped. Everything went black.
When he woke up, she was above him, like an angel. A sweet, kind smile on her beautiful ebony face. It quickly turned into a snarl as she saw his pupils focus.
‘When did you decide you’d had enough of us? Hey? Hey? Was it when I made you pretend to be my boss in bed on my birthday? Or when I chose the mauve curtains instead of the pine blinds?’
‘Wha-what are you talking about?’ He was confused. She grabbed him by the arm—he was sure it would bruise—and dragged him to the bathroom. She turned the shower on full blast as hot hot hot as it would go.
The steam soon appeared on the mirror, along with the words that had made him fall head first into a black hole. She pointed at them with a toxic-free painted nail:
‘He don’t love you anymore’
Was this supposed to be funny? He blinked. Couldn’t think clearly. She was right, it said ‘He’. But earlier it had said ‘She’, hadn’t it? Explanations rushed around his bumped brain: maybe she’d come home, embarrassed at what she’d done, guilt overpowering her as she’d seen him on the floor, and changed it herself, erased the ‘S’. But the fire in her eyes told him that was probably unlikely. He had nothing to say, he knew she would dismiss his story as a lie. He just wanted them to be happy like they had been in the old flat.
Late that night when the river outside was black like octopus ink and inside the only noise was the low buzz of the boiler, he heard a scratching sound and found that she was not next to him. Her clothes were abandoned on the floor by the bed. He followed the scratching, got closer closer closer… until he screamed with terror as he saw what was happening.
Ten minutes earlier, she had awoken with a very dry throat. She slipped on slippers and walked sleepily to the kitchen. She walked with the heaviness of not being sure if she was loved and with the hardness heaped onto someone who had to fight every day to keep a job she was great at. She sat on the recliner with a glass of water, feeling shivery despite the tropical combi-boiler heat. In the study room the laptop was on. Strange, she swore she’d turned it off when she’d gone to bed. Going to investigate, she saw his Facebook page was up. Great, she knew that now she’d have to look at it. There was an open message in the inbox from him to some trashy-looking girl with curly bleached hair and a tattoo on her thigh, posing in a turquoise bikini on a beach somewhere, probably about 23. He was asking her on a date, telling her not to be late, as his dick was aching to meet her.
Oh. My. God. She couldn’t breathe. She felt her neck getting so hot and her throat closing in on itself, she couldn’t tell if this was anxiety or… a rope. She swore she felt the rough edges of weaved hemp brush her veins and squeeze in slowly, although her fingers scratched and grappled and found nothing but flesh.
As her breath got tighter, her fighting subsided as she realised she was no longer seated, her feet no longer touched the floor. Her toes soared above the sanded, varnished boards and the air was moving past her frozen fingers like she’d poked them out of a car window on a winter road trip. She gripped the nape of her neck, but still could only feel flesh between her hands, even though the tug was so surely a rope, pulling, scratching, pulling, strangling and angling her towards the recycled milk-bottle light fittings that had just been installed.
She couldn’t scream. Her knees were weightless jelly and as she struggled with the invisible rope her acrylic fingernails scratched the statement wallpaper as she tried to push her way out of the torturing tornado. It didn’t work. Her neck was a cranberry-sauce mess of mushy flesh clawed away.
This was when he saw her, his love who he thought didn’t love him and who was convinced he didn’t love her, hanging by her fingernails onto the gold-painted lilies on the wall without the flat screen. He couldn’t scream either as he helplessly watched her float along to the aforementioned light fitting in the middle of the ceiling. Her hands grabbed the glass and she swung. He hung around below wanting to catch her, tell her he loved her very bones—but the yells made his throat cold and he still hadn’t spoken when she landed on top of him with a very expensive, crunchy crash.
The detective at the scene was perplexed. It was certainly a mystery. Such a good-looking, successful couple—dead. He was especially confused when they checked inside her mouth and found an article from a paper maybe 300 years old, all about pirates being hung by the river in Wapping, to set an example. Popping his head out the front-room balcony and taking a deep breath of the cool autumn air, he guessed he could see exactly where that had happened.[/private]
Bye, Bye Blackbird
[private]Dale was eating breakfast, reading the Times. About halfway down the front page, he sensed something wrong. He peered over the paper and almost choked on a swallow of coffee. Across the chipped Formica table was a second plate of sausage and eggs, a second cup of coffee going cold. Bleary-eyed, he looked at his own plate, wondering vaguely why he’d prepared breakfast for two.
“You idiot,” he said aloud in a bored tone.
He scraped the dish into the garbage, set it in the sink and sat down to finish his eggs.[/private]
“Maybe you’re getting lonely,” said Frank, packing brake shoes into a cardboard box.
Dale glanced at the clock. Ten minutes to quitting time. “Maybe,” he said, “I’m going nuts.”
Frank smiled knowingly and shook his head. “You need a woman, Dale.” He held up his left hand, pointing at his wedding ring. “A wife.”
Dale snorted. “Gimme a break. What do I want with a wife?”
Several days later, on his way up the steps to his apartment, Dale heard a woman singing. The tune was familiar, but it took him awhile to peg it: “Bye Bye Blackbird”. He moved down the dark hall, a sack of groceries cradled in one arm, absently humming along. He was outside his door before he realized the singing was coming from inside his apartment. Dale gently set the bag down on the floor.
“Pack up all your cares and woes…”
Holding his breath, he pressed his ear to the door. Yes. Definitely inside his place, the wood vibrating minutely against his cheek.
“…here I go, singing low…”
He pulled out his key ring.
“…bye bye blackbird.”
Slipped his key into the deadbolt, turned it slowly, quietly. He cranked the knob, threw his shoulder to the door and burst into the apartment.
“Where somebody waits for me—”
The singing cut short, the echo of her voice still ringing off the casement windows. Dale frantically searched every room. He leaned against the sink in the kitchen, sweating, telling himself it must have been a radio outside, maybe a television in another apartment.
“So I guess you’ve lived here a long time,” said Dale.
Dale’s landlord, Ralph Kowalski, stopped clipping the hedge. He pulled a red handkerchief out of his back pocket and mopped the sweat on his forehead, the back of his neck. Ralph was about eighty. His face resembled a crumpled lunchbag. He wore horn-rimmed glasses, one lens thick as a telescope element, the other smoked black. Ralph lived with his wife, Edna, in a small duplex out back.
“Damn near fifty years,” he said. “Useta have a pie fact’ry around the corner. It’s gone now though.”
Dale nodded. “You ever have any trouble?”
“You know. With tenants.”
Ralph peered at him with distrust, as if the very question might be an indication that Dale was planning something nefarious.
“Trouble?” he asked.
Dale shrugged. “I mean, I figure a guy like you’s seen a lot, huh?”
Ralph set his clippers down on the porch step. “Damn right.”
Dale nodded vigorously. “Yeah, I mean, I bet you’ve seen some pretty crazy shit come down around here.”
“Had some niggers bust up a bunch of windows once. It was when they was riotin’ down in Watts. Decided to do some riotin’ up here. I called the cops.”
The old man nodded. “Damn right. Threw ‘em in the can too. Nowadays, they’re scared of ‘em, but back then the cops didn’t take no shit. Beat ‘em up. Beat ‘em with sticks.”
Ralph laughed, picked up the shears and began hacking at the gardenia bushes. Dale watched him, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, wondering how to phrase the question he’d really wanted to ask, the old man becoming oblivious to his presence.
“You ever have anybody die on you?”
Ralph snapped the clippers together. After a moment’s silence, he continued his pruning.
“Not that I rec’lect,” he said without turning.
Dale caught a movement in the corner of his eye. He glanced at his apartment window, and saw her for the first time.
Perhaps twenty years old, long, dark hair, an expression of sorrow furrowing her pale brow. He realized immediately he was seeing a ghost. He felt no fear or awe, only surprise at how mundane, how natural the experience seemed. She was as real as the grass under his feet, the hot Santa Anas tugging his shirt, the children jumping double-dutch across the street.
He followed her gaze down to a point directly in front of Ralph.
At the old man’s feet lay a white gardenia, slashed and scattered across the grass, the edges of its petals already curling brown.
That night she touched him.
Dale was sitting in bed in his boxers and a t-shirt, reading the Racing Form, when he felt a small, cool hand brush his naked thigh.
He jolted out of bed, covering himself with the paper. He looked frantically around the room, then at the spot she’d touched. He rubbed it, tentatively at first, then more vigorously, as if trying to remove something foul.
Fear turned to anger.
“Who’s there?” he shouted. Then quietly, almost a whisper: “Who are you?”
Silence. Only the distant hum of the freeway.
Stumbling into the bathroom, he threw some cold water on his face and took a couple of aspirin. He started at the haggard reflection in the mirror, forcing himself to breathe slowly, normally.
A woman’s voice, very close to his ear, perhaps inside his head, said one word: “Beth.”
He felt his gorge rise. Clapped one hand over his mouth, then vomited in the sink.
“What’s wrong?” asked Frank.
Dale squeezed the receiver, considered hanging up.
“I dunno. Flu I guess. Just tell Churchill I’m gonna be out again today.”
“He’s gonna be pissed,” said Frank. “I mean, we’re already short of help and we got that big Pep Boys order goin’.”
Dale closed his eyes. “What do you want me to do? I’m leaking out of both ends.”
“Okay. Right. I was just sayin’… you know.”
“Yeah. I’ll be in soon as I’m feeling better, okay?”
The virus took a leisurely tour through his digestive tract. He spent hours on the toilet, emerging tired, legs quivering, an angry red ring on his ass, only to return minutes later. It moved up into his throat and sinuses for a day or two, then settled deep in his lungs, spurring a rasping cough that brought up pale, yellow sputum.
As his condition worsened, Beth became bolder. Sometimes she was a rustle of fabric; sometimes a whiff of perfume, sweet and musty. Once he heard her voice, far away, calling the iceman.
Then the fever came.
She was with him every night as he drifted between sleep and delirium. He heard her coo softly, a cool hand on his forehead. Even when his cough settled deep and bubbling, every breath an act of will, fever pounding and smoldering inside his head, when he knew it was no longer flu, but pneumonia, Dale refused to call a doctor, afraid that by relieving his symptoms, he would somehow banish her.
He’d been out almost a week when his supervisor called to tell him he was fired.
After that, Dale took the phone off the hook.
She told him things, hints Dale forgot as soon as he heard them. He lost himself in her whispers, her voice dark and soft with a child’s lilt. It wasn’t until the eleventh night that she revealed herself completely.
At first, Dale thought she’d gone away. The apartment was still, the air heavy. He lay in bed sweating, breathing in frantic, shallow bursts. Outside, the street was filled with Saturday night sounds: a car engine gunned, followed by laughter; a dog barking, joined by another, a third; ranchera music; distant sirens. Somewhere, a game-show host was giving away thousands of dollars in cash and fabulous merchandise.
As sunlight on water hides the trout, the noise was an intangible yet impenetrable barrier against his perception of her. Under the hustlers, the animals, the television sets, the shiny new cars and condos and golf courses existed another world, a place where a man could peel away his flesh in thick, curling slabs, step outside and breathe for the first time. A place where dead women wept.
In Dale’s closet she wept.
He rolled over, pitched himself off the bed, landing hard on the point of his hip. His sweat made the hardwood floor slippery as he dragged himself toward the closet door, struggling for breath, his body wracked by shivering spasms.
He pressed, held his breath, listened. The only sound was a rhythmic creaking. He reached up for the knob with one palsied hand. Pushing himself away from the door, he paused a moment, then threw it open.
Beth was in there.
Dale scampered back, his mouth open so wide his jaw hurt. All his constricted throat would allow was high-pitched mewling, the whistling cry of a crushed kitten. His back slammed against the side of the bed and still he pushed away, drawing himself into a tight, sweating ball. He felt a hot gushing in his shorts, smelled the wanton bitterness of his own piss.
A splash of moonlight illuminated her legs, the hem of her white cotton slip. Her chipped painted toenails dangled four inches above the floor. Blood had pooled inside her hands and feet, stretching the skin purplish red, like overripe figs. The rope around her neck crushed tissue and cartilage tight against vertebrae. The soft flesh under her jaw was bloated wineskin; her mouth a silent, shrieking hole.
Behind a cascade of limp, black hair, bulging obsidian eyes reflected sparks of moonlight.
The fabric of her slip rippled, shifted as if touched by a breeze. One side of her belly bulged, then withdrew. Dread gnawing at his bowels, Dale realized there was something inside her, something alive. He traced its frantic struggle under the satin as it kicked and squirmed, its movements becoming more insistent, purposeful.
In a moment that was forever, Dale became the tiny thing inside her, unable to breathe, clawing at slippery, yielding walls of cold flesh. No thoughts. No memories. Only pain and pain and pain. Her sin exploded into his primitive consciousness, not as a narrative, but a revelation. He pressed unformed hands to his huge head, struggled in vain to close lidless eyes in a feeble effort to keep it at bay, but still it flooded in white-hot.
Her bleeding harvest.
With a final shudder, he was delivered into darkness, left only with the knowledge of what he must do, and the terrible certainty of his own damnation.
“I brought my tools,” Ralph said.
Dale motioned for him to enter. Without a word, the old man hefted his greasy wooden toolbox and shuffled in. As they walked through the bedroom, Ralph stopped and took a long look at the clutter. The bed was stripped, soiled linen and clothing strewn in twisted piles. Although the windows were wide open, the room still reeked of sour illness.
“Heard you was sick,” Ralph said, wrinkling his nose.
Dale kicked a t-shirt under the bed. “Yeah.”
The old man nodded sagely. “Shit’s going around. The wife’s feelin’ kinda punk.”
Ralph lugged his toolbox into the bathroom. “You say the toilet don’t work?”
Dale stood at the threshold. “Won’t flush.”
“Well we’ll have it fixed in a jiffy, then.”
With a grunt, Ralph removed the lid of the tank and set it in the tub. He opened his toolbox and rummaged around, pulling out a large monkey wrench. Turning his back to Dale, he began examining the inside of the tank. “I ever tell you how I was a ship-fitter in the Navy?”
Dale silently toyed with the cord of his alarm clock. He pulled the plug from the extension cord. “She died in that closet,” he said.
“Whassat?” he asked in a shaky voice, still looking at the guts of the toilet.
“The girl. The one who lived here. She died in that closet.”
The old man didn’t reply.
“Why’d you lie to me?” asked Dale.
Ralph glanced over his shoulder. His face was ashen.
Dale pulled the extension cord from the outlet. “She was pregnant, wasn’t she?”
The old man turned away. After a moment he nodded.
Dale began wrapping the cord around his right hand, then his left, leaving a length of eight inches between his fists. “With your baby.”
Ralph’s shoulders sagged.
Dale quietly closed the distance between them. He leaned forward gently as if to kiss the old man, and then stopped, his lips almost touching Ralph’s ear.
“Say her name,” Dale whispered.
“Say her name. The one you gave her.”
A croaking sob. “Beth.”
“Your daughter. Your little girl.”
The old man nodded. A fat tear rolled down his dry cheek.
“You knew I’d come someday,” Dale whispered. “You knew I’d come for you.”
Ralph looked sideways at him with one bulging, cataract-shrouded eye. “You’re dead.”
Dale whipped his arms over Ralph’s head and yanked back the cord, planting one knee against the base of the old man’s spine. The monkey wrench clattered to the floor. Dale closed his eyes and smiled beatifically and began quietly singing.
“Pack up all your cares and woes…”
This poem was commissioned especially for Litro’s October 2012 “Ghosts” issue.
Each night, the voice miles
down the line was soft. It’s Keith I want.
Keith from Black Diamond Garages.
The broken clock, the lean-shadowed settee
and me. Sorry, there’s no-one here.
The only Keith I knew could run the mile.
He’d sprint out of the playing fields
come back wearing a crown of frost,
once with a gang of horses chasing him.
When they hung up, I’d take my walk
behind the house to where the village’s excuse
for woods becomes the backs of terraces.
The ground cut deep with tyre marks and there,
facing the trees, a row of moonlit cars,
their bonnets wide, like mouths in song
and him ducking between them
in his evening-coloured overalls,
his thin Alastian rising from her blanket
as I stopped, not close, but close enough
to see the small black diamonds of their teeth
his oil-spill hair, the way he looked at me.
Extract from Tequila Sunset
Tequila Sunset is out on 1 November 2012 in the UK, in paperback, from Serpent's Tail.
El Paso and Ciudad Juárez sit across the Texas/Mexico border from each other. One gang claims territory in both: Los Aztecas. This single criminal organisation is responsible for most of the homicides committed in Juárez, and Felipe Morales is one of them. Recruited in prison, and now on the streets of El paso, "Flip" has no choice but to step further into that world, but he has a secret that threatens his life. A witness to murder and intimidation, he tries playing both the cops and the outlaws in a bid to escape. On the American side, El Paso detective Cristina Salas struggles to balance the needs of single motherhood with those of life in the city's anti-gang unit. When her path crosses with Flip, their relationship will spell the difference between a life behind bars for the young gang member, a grisly death, or freedom.
In the summer it was hot, in the winter it was cold and all year round the halls and cells of Coffield Unit were busy with the business of incarceration. This day it was not so bad, teetering between two extremes. The ceiling-mounted fans did not turn and the big heating units that blew and blew, but did little to chase away the chill, were silent. Flip lined up with the convicts, dressed in their white cotton uniforms, waiting for the COs to open the door and let them out onto the yard. Barred windows let in sunshine to compete with sallow fluorescents. It would be good to be outside. [private]When the door opened the COs counted them off. Already they had been counted before getting into line and they would be counted again when it was time to go back inside. Counting was a constant and if ever the numbers didn’t jibe everything stopped. They went out mixed, but as the cons distributed into the yard they broke into their component parts. White boys congregated by the weight pile, blacks by the half-court basketball blacktop and the Latinos by the handball court. Within each division were individual cliques, but the most important grouping was by race. The colors approached one another’s domains only when certain dictates had been observed. In this way the facilities could be shared without it coming to blows. Flip was not the youngest Latino on the yard. That honor went to Rafael Perez, eighteen years old, doing four for sexual assault on a child. He was shunned, and when anyone took notice of him it was bad news. The other Latinos didn’t even let him find a corner to hide in; he was forced to stand away from the walls in the no man’s land between handball and basketball courts, exposed to everyone. He seemed smaller now than when he came.
Today Flip stood with Javier who was doing thirty-five and Omar who wasn’t ever getting out. Both men were old enough to be his father. They kept close and they let no one touch him, not on the yard or on the inside, because he was one of them. Flip was an Azteca. They called each other Indians. Javier was tattooed from his navel to his collarbone and on his arms, too. The marks showed on his wrists where his cuffs pulled back. He had his initials over his left eyebrow. Many of his pieces he had done on himself. He did good work. Flip hadn’t ever gotten anything from Javier, though Javier offered more than once. None of Javier’s marks were a gang patch and he didn’t do gang patches. They were Aztecas, but no one could prove it. That’s how they all stayed out of Administrative Segregation, where gang members went and never surfaced again.
If anyone asked, they were all just good friends. Old-timers watched out for new fish and new fish did favors for the old-timers. There was nothing the COs could say about that. No Indian would give up another Indian. From time to time one of them would be picked off, sent to Ad Seg, but that was just bad luck. In all there were two hundred and fifty men out of four thousand in Coffield on the yard. They were watched on the ground and from the towers. Double rows of thirty-foot cyclone fencing and yards and yards of densely coiled razor wire stood between them and a tall concrete wall. There were flatlands beyond. It was two hundred yards from the wall to the first tree and the COs in the tower were excellent shots.
Enrique Garcia was one of the last out. He’d been in the hole for sixty days and now he was free of the belly chain and ankle cuffs. His size was intimidating though his waist was thick. The COs were careful watching him when he came on the yard because there was trouble before and there could be trouble again. In the time Flip had known him, Enrique spent more days in the hole than out. The sun reflected off his bald head. When he came close to the others he smiled from under a mustache that made him look like a bandito. He rapped knuckles with Javier and Omar and Rafael and César and all the other Aztecas. And Flip, too. His fingers were tattooed. Under his shirt he had ink of an Aztec warrior in full headdress and a bare-breasted maiden beside him. Flip had seen it once. A scorpion crawled up his neck. That one didn’t stand for anything.
“What’s the word?” Enrique asked.
“Nada, jefe,” Omar said. “It’s good to see you.”
“It’s good to be seen. Flip, ¿cómo estás?”
“I’m doing my time,” Flip said.
“Not much longer, right?”
“A week? So soon.” Enrique looked up at the sky and let the rays of the sun fall on his face. He breathed in the cool air like he was thirsty for it. Flip had never been in the hole, but he could understand. A group of convicts took over the handball court and broke out in pairs. They did not mix with the Aztecas because they were La Eme. There was longtime peace between their cliques because Enrique had brokered it. Flip stepped off the corner of the court to give them all the space they needed. Before long they were playing, the echoes of the ball bouncing around their corner of the yard.
“How’s that motherfucker Danbury?” Enrique asked.
“He got out of the infirmary, took protective custody,” Javier said. “Ain’t nobody seen him since.”
Enrique showed his teeth. “Teach those negros to talk shit. He shows his face again, it’ll be his ass. ¿Sabes lo que quiero decir?” Flip looked across the open ground to the basketball court where the blacks held together. They were watching Enrique and talking among themselves. There was no peace between the Aztecas and them. There could be no peace. They had Danbury to answer for and Danbury to avenge and there was no easy way to work that through. Flip was glad he would be out of it soon.
“Flip,” Enrique said and his put his hand on Flip’s shoulder. “The first thing I did when I got out, I made some calls for you. When you get home, you’re gonna be looked after. Everybody will know your name.”
“Gracias, jefe,” Flip said.
“It’s nothing. Blood don’t stop at the gates. José, he’s my boy, he’ll watch over you like I would. You got no worries.” The blacks weren’t looking their way anymore. Some of them shot hoops.
“No worries,” Flip said.
Enrique squeezed Flip’s shoulder, shook him gently. “No worries.”
“Number ten!” the CO called. Flip got out of his bunk. He had the top, Daniel the bottom. When Flip was gone, arrangements would change. Flip’s things were in a white cloth bag with a string tie.
“Time’s up,” Daniel said.
“Adiós,” Flip said. “See you on the outside.”
“Not if I see you first.”
They laughed. The CO stopped at the cell door. He was one of the new ones and Flip didn’t know his name. “Number ten, open up!” he yelled down the line and somewhere a buzzer went off. The CO put his key in the lock, turned and pulled. “Step out.” Outside the row of cells there was a yellow line painted on the concrete. Flip grabbed his bag and walked over the line, stood facing the wall while the cell was locked up again. When he felt the CO’s touch on his elbow, he turned and marched, the CO at his back. The convicts in their cells called out to him. See you, man. Hasta la vista. Good luck, hermano. Flip raised his hand to them until they came to the end of the line.
“One prisoner coming out,” the CO said.
Danny Mascorro worked the gate. He buzzed the lock and the CO used his key to get them through. Now they were in a dead zone between gates, Mascorro behind reinforced glass. They were under the eye of closed-circuit cameras. Flip nodded to Mascorro and Mascorro nodded back.
After the second gate they proceeded down a long hall with no windows. At the end was a steel door. A CO peered through a slot at them and there were more buzzers and more locks. They left Flip in a big cell with benches along three walls. He was in there for a long time, until finally another CO he didn’t recognize came to get him. The CO took him down a passageway to another, smaller cell adjoining a large room with desks and computers. Women in TDCJ uniforms were at work there, clicking away on keyboards, and they ignored him. Flip sat down and waited. There was a window in the room beyond his cell and through that window he could see a tree. He didn’t know if he was looking at something beyond the walls or if there was a garden spot just past the glass. In his imagination it was a yard with concrete benches and flower beds and a flagpole flying the American and Texas banners. Maybe there was a little plaque dedicating the space to somebody or the other. Quiet and peaceful. He was daydreaming when one of the women called his name.
“Huh?” he said.
“Let’s get you out of there.”
Flip waited until a CO could come and unlock the cell, and then the woman had him sit in a plastic chair by her desk. She was black and had extra long nails. Her hair was straightened and braided.
“I’m going to do your release processing,” the woman said.
“There are a lot of questions, but we’ll do them just as quick as we can so you can be on your way.”
“All right, let’s get started…”
The whole interview took an hour and a half. The woman gave him an envelope with bus fare and a few extra dollars besides. He had to sign his parole certificates. After that Flip had to go back into the cell again for another hour. He could see a clock from where he sat. It made time go more slowly, the sweep hand going round and round, and the minute hand edging forward. His palms itched and he wanted to be out of there, but everything in prison took time, even getting out. A CO brought him a bag and pushed it through the bars. When Flip opened it up, he saw the clothes he wore on the day he went inside. He hardly recognized them. No one looked as he changed out of his uniform. The clothes fit loosely on him because he was leaner now. He folded up the uniform and set it on the bench beside him. The CO did not come back to collect it. “Felipe? It’s time,” the woman said at last. “Kurt, could you take him? The van’s out there.”
The CO, Kurt, let Flip out of the cell and walked him out of the room. They passed through two short hallways and into a broad area with rows and rows of plastic chairs locked together, lots of fake wood paneling and a big counter. On one side there was a security station set up with a metal detector and a table for searching bags. Two women were going through the process right then. In the plastic chairs there were more women and a few men and a bunch of kids, from babies on up. On Flip’s side there was just a velour rope like the kind that closed off the line at a movie theater. Kurt unhooked it from the stanchion and let Flip through. They moved past the rows of plastic chairs into a relatively narrow foyer. When Kurt opened the door for Flip a blinding crash of sunlight rolled over him and it took a moment for his eyes to adjust. The sky was cloudless and pale blue and the sun was like an unblinking eye. On the yard there was some grass, but it was patchy and mostly trod away to dirt. Out here there were two squares of neat green bracketing a concrete walk. Here was the flagpole with the banners waving and here was a wrought iron fence that could keep in no one and an open gate. A tan van with the TDCJ logo stamped on the passenger door waited on the asphalt roundabout. The driver was an older man. He came around and hauled open the van’s cargo door. The windows had metal mesh on the inside. “Hop on in,” the driver said.
“Good luck,” Kurt said and he offered Flip his hand. They shook.
Flip climbed in the back of the van. There was more metal mesh between the seats and the front of the cabin. The cargo door locked from the outside.
“Next stop, Palestine,” the driver said.
“Where’s that?” Flip asked.
“You don’t know?”
“Doesn’t matter. You won’t be seeing much of it.”
The van carried Flip fifteen minutes through greened country until they reached a scattering of houses along the little highway. They passed a sign that said TENNESSEE COLONY, POP. 300. They passed a simple white church with a mobile home next to it. The letter board out front read: PASTOR ON VACATION. GOD ON DUTY!
They found a bigger road and even some traffic. Flip just watched the miles slip by. Palestine seemed to grow up right out of the countryside, a busy small town with broad streets and clean buildings. The driver navigated without pause. He had done this a thousand times before. “Bus station,” the driver said and they slowed to the curb. The building was compact and had a Greyhound-logo sign on the front, benches for people to wait out of the sun and a snack machine. The cargo door was pulled aside and Flip stepped out onto the sidewalk. The driver shut the van up behind him. “And that’s it. Get your ticket inside. You’re headed to El Paso?”
“I’ll be all right.”
The driver produced a little clipboard the size of an open hand.
“Just sign off. Here’s a pen.”
Flip put his signature to a green form and got a yellow receipt back. He crumpled it up and put it in his pocket.
“Stay out of trouble.”
The driver got into the van and pulled away. Flip stood on the curb with his bag and watched him go. When the van was out of sight, he went into the ticket office. No one looked at him strangely at all.[/private]
You can become blasé about almost anything. Walking back through the verdant grounds of the hotel, I pass monkeys, monitor lizards and vultures and yet I barely eye a batlid. The ghost of heat haunts my peripheral vision.
[private]Let me try and explain the heat. You know that first blast of hot air you get when you first step off a plane and into a foreign country? Here, it’s like that all day long. It wrings you out. Especially just after lunch, when you’re at you’re meltiest anyway and there’s really not much else for it but to head to the room, flop by the fan, and wait it out.
Outside, the air doesn’t feel natural. There’s something manufactured about it. As though it’s part of some process, the bi-product of some work of filthy creation in some sweatshop or factory in the arse-end of the world. It thrums like an engine.
This is my first proper beach holiday and I’ve skipped the middle-of-the-road stuff like Greece or Spain. Headed straight for the centre of the sun, it seems. Thought I’d do something completely different this year. Clean break from the past and all that. Mark and I took winter holidays. Skiing. Snowboarding. The like. On account of him being ginger with the complexion of biscuits.
Clean break, she says. Like anything could be clean here. Wriggle a toe out the shower and already you’re sweating like you’ve spent a day toiling on a farm.
Can’t even think clean. Think in, like, these weird phrases. Phases. Can’t quite maintain a train of thought without it being baked out of me. Like I say, heat haunts me.
I thought here would give me time to reflect on some of the choices I’ve made over the past couple years. Choices which have led me to, well, here. But here I’m just as confused as I ever was back at home. Only here, I can’t scurry around at a hundred miles an hour busying myself like I do at home and so it feels as though I’m wasting time, lots of it.
I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m depressed—seen depressed every day in my job. I’m not it—but I’m something. Not me, I suppose. I’ve lost something about myself and I thought being here would help me rediscover it.
I’m uneasy. The heat’s haunted me into something transparent. Anybody could just look at me from their balconies and see my mistake inside me; something rotten and diseased. Heat’s made me uneasy too because of the rolling news they showed in the dining room over lunch. The kidnappings in Kenya. It has crossed my mind that there is nobody in my life who would stump up a ransom for me like the man did for his mother… It has crossed my mind Kenya’s not that far away. Right continent.
My unease works its way into my hands as I fumble the key into the lock on the balcony door, my fingers feeling like thumbs, my thumbs like knuckles. But it just won’t open and the sun’s beating down fierce on the back of my neck and…
And I realise that the reason the key won’t click just right in the lock is because the door’s already open. And suddenly it’s not hot any more. Suddenly, my arms are cloaked with goosebumps.
I slide open the door. Step into the room, imagining machete-wielding kidnappers crouched under coffee tables and gun-toting madmen hidden behind the curtains.
And what I see matches the new chaos inside me because it looks like an incredibly localised storm, or a poltergeist, has hit the room. My suitcase upended and clothes—dirty and clean—scattered everywhere.
Quietly, carefully, I check around for the intruder.
But there’s nobody here. I’ve entered the scene of the crime too late to hear the bump in the night (or day). Holding my breath, I move to the big wardrobe in the corner, and I’m amazed and gratified to see the safety deposit box is untouched.
My nostrils flare, because almost this is worse than kidnapping. Because this now seems like common or garden vandalism. It’s pick on the weak woman who’s come here on her own type-stuff.
I flick my bikini top off the phone and call reception in a fit of pique. It’ll have been the cleaner. I know it. He lurks like some baddie from a horror novel. I scream out the receptionist as soon as she answers. The ghost-heat on me now like almost never before.
We’ll send someone straight down, confirms the receptionist, once she manages to get an edge in wordways.
After a good ten minutes, a man turns up wearing the hotel’s standard uniform. Sand-coloured. Epaulettes on the shoulders. He walks up looking unhurried in the extreme and bows his head as he addresses me. First thing I do is I check his name badge, just to be sure he is who he says he is. Lately, I’ve been having trust issues.
He asks me what seems to be the problem and for a moment, I’m speechless. I whirl round, gesture to the room.
And he just stands there. Looks as though he’s slouching against something even though he isn’t. Then he asks me what’s the matter and I’m like wow, I’ve already explained this once. But I bite back my hot temper and start to tell him about the break-in. As I do though, the man decides to really take the biscuit. Amazingly, he starts to smirk.
My voice comes out like Cerberus’ bark. What’s the problem?
And so he tells me about the monkeys. Happens to nearly everybody he says. If they leave their balcony doors open. They’re only looking for food. They’ve learned how to open suitcases and make-up bags. And then he laughs.
And really it should be funny, but it’s just too hot, and I feel haunted out here, with my smalls on display all across the room like some world-stopping night of passion has taken place inside.
He asks me whether there’s anything missing.
Flustered, I tell him I’ll check. He follows me into the room. Stands at my shoulder like he’s my epaulette as I check everything against the itemised Master Packing List which is stuffed in the front of my case. Nothing seems to be missing.
He cracks a smile, tells me not to leave the balcony door open again.
And I start to explain that I didn’t, and I don’t know why it’s so important to me that he understands, but it is. It’s as though he’s read me, psychically, and I don’t like it because I can’t read him back. Not any more.
I can’t stay in the room now. It seems tainted, somehow, even though it was only monkeys broke in. Or was it? A shiver runs up my spine whenever I think on it…
I can’t sit round the pool either. Too awful. They host water-aerobics sessions every hour on the hour. The lithe instructor—one of the few hotel staff who doesn’t wear the sandy uniform—zigzagging through the beds trying to drum up interest, bawling, ‘Wakey, wakey don’t be lazy,’ at the tourists flopped like globules of fat round the edges of a frying pan on their beds.
And some of the sights. The family whose five-year-old is dressed in a t-shirt with BITCH ON HEAT emblazoned across it. The women doused in oils reading Heat magazine, their feet rocking off the end of the sunbed in time to beats which are only in their head. The fat men talking loudly on their mobile phones using their very best I told you so voices.
So I set out for the beach. A private beach, dontchaknow. Though it’s not as idyllic or expensive as it sounds. The private beach is like a roughly constructed mezzanine level, its purpose to ensure none of the locals can properly pester the guests. I lie down and try to read my book, but I keep catching sight of the locals walking by, like spirits. Tops of their heads, at any rate. They are selling all sorts. Macheted-open coconuts. Beaded bracelets. Paintings. Voodoo mobile phone covers. Whenever I look up, I meet the eyes of one of the sellers. Have to say, politely but firmly, as though I’m training a dog, NO!
Eventually, I decide to go for a walk on the public beach. It’s crowded. More sellers. Men from the juice stalls—little more than shacks—trying to entice me over for a pineapple juice or whatever. I ignore them all. Nice to be nice, they say, as I pass, and part of me wants to tell them that I am being nice. I could stop and talk to them but that would make them think there was a sale to be made when there is actually squat-diddley chance of that. I’m not carrying any money. Nowhere to put it. No chance I’d keep it anywhere near my skin. The money is so dirty, the bureau de change at Marks’ won’t stock it. It’s like it’s been buried, and dug up, like that telltale heart in the Poe story. After touching it, it’s tempting to apply some hand gel to wash away the germs.
So I perfect the head-down walk-on. Thankful that the sunhat almost covers my eyes. I walk and I listen. Listen to the soundtrack of Africa today: tinny mobile phone ringtones, the clatter of a vulture’s claws as it glunks down on the tin roof of a juice stall, hawkers shouting their wares, the muted crash of the waves. Things that go bump in the night, like I say.
When I open my eyes, I find I’m walking not far behind a young couple. Hawkers flock around them like flies. The young man is wearing a football shirt with the name ROONEY on the back. They want Rooney to go on a fishing trip with them. I see them gesturing off to their boats bobbing over past the breakers in the sea. Others want Rooney to have a drink with them in a bar which is just up the road. Others still want Rooney to give them some money because their sister/mother/daughter is ill and needs medicine.
Still others run on ahead, and drop down onto the sands. Start doing press-ups as though the beach is an army assault course. I know what they’re doing. They’re trying to prove their virility. Some men and women come out here and pick up more than a tan. Some come here looking for husbands or wives. The idea makes me feel a little queasy. All that horrible auditioning for a life which surely they wouldn’t want. Or maybe they would. How should I know?
Other things on the beach make me feel queasy too. Seabirds haunt an area where the contents of a bucket have been tossed. I see fish-heads. Entrails. Farther along, I almost step on a dead jellyfish. Its skin is transparent. Ghostly. Reminds me of the clear plastic bags they issue at security in the airport. I can see all the wiring inside it; looks like telephone cord. Like it has a circuit board inside it.
I used to think people were like that. That I could see right through into the heart of them. That I understood them. Thought that was what made me a good social worker. All it took was one misreading and everything fell apart.
I should have realised things were not as they seemed with Denise. And with Boy A. I should have realised the uncle wasn’t an uncle at all. I should have seen Mark wasn’t what he appeared too, waaaaaay before I did. But I became complacent. Heat of the job, heat of married life. Made me blasé. Blasé as in blazingly oblivious.
I peer into the washed-up jellyfish and for a while my mind floats off elsewhere, into darkness I don’t know. It’s like my mind’s a timeshare and somebody else occupies my body for a while, someone from beyond… I’m thinking about when I was young. Family holidays to Wales. There always seemed to be an infestation of something on those holidays. Ladybirds one year, greenfly the next. One year it was jellyfish. Hundreds of them atop the white horses riding down onto the shingle beach. Tide went out, me and my brother would go look at them. Scared and intrigued at the same time. There was one type of jellyfish called a medusa. These were the ones had a body shaped like an umbrella. And I remember thinking that the name was apt. Because of the sting. Could turn a person to stone, like Medusa could in the Greek myth. I suppose that’s what happened to me in the end. I was turned into stone, and only now am I realising what a mess I made of everything.
I’m drawn out of my reverie finally. A family have now clustered around the jellyfish with me. The dad pokes at it with a stick. The woman cringes and says don’t do that Mark, and the name gives me a sting. Then the kid chucks a stone right into the middle of the jellyfish. The dad tells his son that if a jellyfish stings you, the only way to cure it is to whack the old wanger out and whizz right on the sting.
I walk away from them, farther up the beach, drawing closer to depression as I go. Heat weighing down on my hat, on my head, like I’m Chicken Licken and the sky has fallen in.
There are fewer people now and I start to think maybe I should head back because this is becoming kidnapping territory and have you heard the one about the stupid, ignorant Englishwoman who thought she’d be okay on her own until she stepped right into the crocodile’s jaws?
And then I start to think maybe I’d be safer if I walked back along the road because maybe I could catch a taxi if desperate, and surely one would stop for me because the heat’s now making me bedraggled and there’s probably desperation chalked on my features now.
Soon as I think about how I look, the desperation becomes panic. Because there’s nobody on the beach at all now. It’s like the scene has suddenly become post-apocalyptic, ghost-story territory. First little rutted track leading off the beach I see, I take it, and head in the general direction of the road. There are various signs I think are vaguely familiar. Adverts for mobile phone providers. Messages of support for the president: THANK YOU MISTER PRESIDENT and ELECT HIM PRESIDENT FOR LIFE!
After a while, I hear a car. I stop in the dust at the side of the road and watch it creep past. It has tinted windows. And I think about being kidnapped. I think about being important enough to be kidnapped. It accelerates away from me and leaves me in no doubt about any of it. And it’s as though the world’s suddenly revealed itself to be much larger, much emptier, than I ever thought it was.
Apart from my ghosts, I am alone.
I stumble onwards. Sweat, tears and dust stinging my eyes. I pass a man resting in the shade of a tree. He might be asleep. He is lying on top of a sack of onions, as though they’re comfortable as a mattress. Soon as he sees me, he stands up, like he’s a stickler for manners and tradition.
I start to walk a little bit faster. My legs already starting to burn.
He draws level with me without even breaking a sweat. And now he’s so close I can smell the sweat of him, I see he’s only a little taller than me. Taller, but made of a different type of material somehow. Wicker maybe. His arms and legs look spindly. As though I could snap them easily.
He brushes the dust off his hands on a simple blue shirt, and proffers his right hand for me to shake. Very formal. And now I look at him properly, I see he’s not an old man at all. He’s young. Don’t know how young. But the way he keeps blinking like that, the nervous twitches to his mouth…
I ask him his name and he seems grateful. Salomon, he says. And he asks where I’m from. Where my husband is. I tell him I’m not married anymore, and it seems to confuse him. He asks me who looks after me then. I tell him I work. That I provide for myself. Which seems to confuse him even more.
So I start to tell him about my job. Usually, I’m rather tight-lipped about my work. I’m aware of the reaction the words ‘social worker’ elicits in people. They’re suddenly on their guard. Careful what they say to me. You know when I said I gave the boy a clip round the ear for being cheeky… I wasn’t being serious… Esther Rantzen put the cause of social workers like me back decades. Made us seem like witch-finder generals. Or the witches themselves. Current government put us back centuries. Laying off good workers here there and everywhere.
I look into people’s hearts, I tell him, finally.
And he smiles. Nods. Asks, and how is that working out for you?
I sigh. Not very well.
But you try, yes?
I did… do… Will…
People show you what they want you to see, he says.
I look off into the distance. Ghost-heat shimmers off the road, making everything seem blurry. I turn around, the words you’re a good boy hot on my lips. But when I turn, Salomon, my spindly boy, is gone.[/private]
The Ghost in the (Fruit) Machine
I think my brother writes computer games for Jesus because, for a long time, he thought, and maybe still does, that our father was a fruit machine.
You may have heard of some of his games. Exodus, where you take the character of Moses; in each level you gather objects to visit a plague upon the Egyptians. The main character resembles a pixelated Rock Hudson, since the digital rights to Charlton Heston’s likeness were deemed too expensive. His other top seller is a first person shoot-em-up; you play Jesus, fighting your way through Romans, using special move combinations to turn water into wine (press A then B on the console), produce fish from nowhere (C, D & X) and heal the sick (A + R1).
[private]Whilst the gameplay is fast and the character of Mary Magdalen is voiced by a former pornographic movie star, the games (and others in this stable) are not meant to be fun. They have a Purpose. Evangelism first, entertainment second. In the twenty-first century the battle for young minds and their imaginations is fierce and the road to salvation is rendered with digital distractions.
My brother is a convert; a true believer in the faith of ones and zeros, heaven and hell, and the binary state, but if there was any form of baptism it was not in the sea but rather above it, on the south coast of England.
We lived with our mother just outside the peeling seaside resort of Hastings. Under the unblinking eyes of a mournful, black statue of Queen Victoria, as she presided over offerings of last night’s salty vomit and rancid chip wrappings, Hastings had expanded from a fishing village to a poorer man’s Victorian Brighton, and over the twentieth century had continued to decline gently as a refuge of last resort. In the nineteen sixties the central government paid increased benefits to those who chose to move to Hastings to not look for work. In the eighties it became the suicide capital runner-up for England, narrowly beaten by Manchester in the young male category. As one letter writer wryly observed in the local Rye Observer, ‘Why can’t we ever win anything?’
It was this blend of economic hardship, depression and the trappings of a decayed Victorian holiday camp that had made the place. Nowhere was this more obvious than on Hastings Pier. It had been half closed for two decades and the chief adult attraction amongst the local cognoscenti was a three-bar portable gas heater, advertised by word of mouth and a cardboard sign proclaiming in black felt tip the legend, “Free and Warm.”
The twin aims of human existence were here, available to anyone. The prime positions right in front of the heater were always reserved for local dignitaries, of which my father was one. Three deck chairs were in permanent residence. The central position of honour was kept for Len, the pier manager. At his right hand sat our father, who notionally ran the Penny Arcade. To the left was Pat, a shaggy redhead of no fixed abode or employment who resided solely by dint of cronyism since he had gone to secondary school, briefly, with the other two men. He had been expelled for selling stolen wristwatches, but not before he’d let Len have one for cheap for his dad’s birthday. Len had never forgotten this small act of generosity.
I had always been closer to my mother so my parents separating had less of an obvious impact, but evidence of my brother’s distress was obvious. When at home he was withdrawn, hardly unusual for an eleven-year-old boy, but his withdrawal was not just verbal but physical. He was increasingly absent from school. My mother resorted to taking a day off from work, something any of us could little afford. Waiting outside the school in a borrowed car she followed him slowly in a pair of superfluous sunglasses down to the seafront and the rusting pier.
My father, apparently, treated him in the same way on every visit, barely stirring himself from his fireside banter with the cream of Hastings’ vagrant greybeards. Often without a word he would dip his hand into his pocket and produce a bag of assorted coppers, and if feeling especially paternal would pat his son, with what he imagined was affection, then gently shove him in the direction of the Penny Arcade.
It was there that the father-son relationship was nurtured by proxy, though increasingly as my brother approached puberty, the attractions became less familial and more like lovers. He would murmur to them, fondle them, coax them deftly to pay out their meagre jackpots with all the attentiveness of a young man in love for the first time. He became a virtuoso, learning their moods, their patterns, their rhythms; when they’d pay out, when they’d clam up. Warm copper coins eased gently into their gaping slots, with a tenderness and patience uncharacteristic of his gender and teenage years. My brother, the Casanova of copper coins.
And then my father died, buried by an avalanche of broken bones and coffins on his way to work. The cliffside graveyard in St. Leonards, as had long been foretold and ignored, after a particularly violent storm, had surrendered its dead; disgorging its contents, which had fled, along with much of the cliffside, at the earliest opportunity, to inter the one living person on the Undercliff path below. My father, thou art in Hastings.
He was buried with the rest, by far the youngest corpse there, in a new plot on the Ridge. For my brother this was not the end, only the beginning. The absenteeism increased until one day he came home red-eyed, with a bruise like a storm cloud just below his left eye. My mother made a lot of noise and fuss, the sort you think is unnecessary when you’re not yet grown up but will miss forever when it’s no longer there. My brother, uncharacteristically, gave what was, for him, an explanation:
‘They’ve banned me from the arcade. They won’t let me see Dad.’
In death it seemed my dear departed dad had become something of a model parent, albeit mechanical. He was utterly reliable, and with time, predictable. He made all the right noises at the right time, and rewarded good behaviour with a series of high-pitched noises and flashes and, if played correctly, was a dependable source of pocket money. My brother had it in his head that my father’s ghost had chosen to inhabit a two-penny one-armed bandit—in itself not the most harmful psychosis, at least until the middle-aged caravan couple who now ran the arcade accused him of nudging the machines, and tried, with success, to ban him.
He fought. He lost. He was physically bruised but emotionally broken. My mother pleaded on his behalf to Len, the manager, my father’s old boss and school friend. His price was too high; he’d made a similar suggestion to my mother at father’s funeral, reeking of cheap spirits as he pressed against her hand-me-down black crepe dress. Whilst she was a devoted mother she was unwilling to prostitute herself indefinitely and he wouldn’t budge his considerable bulk, so that was that. My brother had nowhere else to retreat to and gradually a stilted normality resumed. His absences were now exclusively mental and he attended school mechanically, present to all physical purposes.
It was the closure of the pier that saw hope rekindled in my brother’s eyes. He wrote articulately, politely and unrelentingly to the local council. How were the games machines being disposed of? Would they be sold off singly or en masse? Eventually he received a curt, typed reply: ‘obsolete’, ‘no resale value’, ‘to be scrapped, wholesale.’ Their destination was a local junkyard and there at the bottom, best of all, was the name of the dealer.
So, on my brother’s twelfth birthday we made a family pilgrimage to the tip. My brother was wealthy by juvenile standards: hoarded pennies seduced from the machines had turned into pounds, placed with care in a post office account for an unspecified occasion, until now.
There in a corner, illuminated by a solitary ray of sunshine, on its side, was my father’s immortal remains. My brother, usually soft-spoken, haggled with the fierce and unrelenting tenacity of an Old Town fishwife. The owner knew almost immediately when he was beaten and we returned in the borrowed van bearing our prize with something like triumph. My brother was given permission to restore and maintain our father in the shed. A not entirely novel experience for him if immediate family history was to be believed.
A year or so later and his visits to the bottom of the garden became less frequent. He’d met a girl at the local church. Later still he beckoned me into the shed.
‘I don’t think it’s him,’ he said, not looking at me, ‘but I’d like it to be. I’d like there to be something left.’
And, reflected in the glass of the machine, perhaps there was.
‘The thing is, I’ve brought Sarah down here a couple of times, and whilst it’s good to have him here, would you help me turn him around. I just don’t want him watching us when we’re…’
‘I don’t think I want to know.’
‘It’s nothing bad. We’re just kissing.’
‘Give us a hand with this, if only to stop you talking. I don’t want to know the details, sordid or otherwise.’
A few days later I was surprised to find my brother, red-faced, clearly from crying but now trying to hide it by frowning unconvincingly at a rhododendron bush.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘Nothing. Sarah dumped me.’
‘Bad luck. What did you do?’
‘Nothing, it was because of dad.’
It seemed my brother’s faith had been misplaced: when she asked about the presence of the fruit machine facing the wall in their chaste love shed, he had made the mistake of telling her the truth. She split with him, not because he was the sort of person who believed his father was an electrical entertainment appliance, but for blasphemy. Paternal ghosts were reserved for Christianity’s first family, not the likes of him. The sad thing was not that they broke up; thirteen-year-olds break up, it’s what they do whenever they’re given the opportunity, and it’d be a stranger world if they didn’t. No, the sad thing was that, via Sarah or her family word got back to the church my brother had been attending. One Sunday soon after, the vicar took him aside after the service, much to Sarah’s father’s highly visible approval. Reverend Little was insistent; faith was a matter of belief, and that belief was quite clear. There was, in his philosophy, one less thing in heaven and earth than in my brother’s and if my brother wished to keep attending the church he had better audit his belief system to the sum of one surplus father. That evening I helped my brother turn the one-armed bandit around.
There it stayed. Girlfriends came and went, though Simon (that’s my brother) became more circumspect about whom he told, if at all. There was also a slight but lingering resentment towards the machine; in some ways he blamed it for his first break up and would continue to do so for any subsequent disasters in his love life. We both went away to university; me first, to London, then him, down the road to the University of Sussex, and the certainties of the Computer Science department. Dad’s remains remained with mum. I don’t know what she thought of it all. I had never asked. I suppose I had assumed she was indulging Simon the same way I had. Was it still wish fulfilment and nothing more? Perhaps I was jealous. In all the time since he had bought the bandit I had never found even the faintest hint of what my brother claimed to perceive. I had always assumed it was because there was nothing there.
My brother’s feelings towards the machine and mine towards him, for seeing something I didn’t, took a long time to percolate, but it happened at Christmas, at the end of the millennium. We had both moved out and my mother had sold the house and moved into a smaller flat in nearby Bexhill. I was in a one-room palace in central London and my brother had bought a house outside Eastbourne. He was doing pretty well in the games industry, even then, and since his place was bigger he kindly invited us to spend Christmas with him. I arrived at his on Christmas Eve and everything was congenial, until I stepped into the front room. It was warm and cosy with a cast-iron log-burner pulsing heat. My mother sat there awkwardly and the cause of her discomfort was clear: in the middle of the room, sporting a Santa hat, was the fruit machine. Mum and I sat uncomfortably whilst my brother fussed around, oblivious to our raised eyebrows and theatrical shrugs.
‘Dinner will be ready in a few minutes.’
‘Thanks, can I help with anything?’
In the dining room we chatted easily; mum had been quietly seeing Pat. Apparently dad’s death had really shocked him and the closure of the pier had literally got him off his backside. He worked in the local tourist attraction (The Smuggler’s Life, a permanent exhibition in nearby caves) gift shop and did tours. It was company for her and she was bored just being on her own.
My brother was quiet through this exchange. I can only assume he had not known. In a way that he had clearly seen on films to denote vast reservoirs of self-control, he very slowly placed his cutlery on the table cloth.
‘What about dad?’
Mum looked at him, genuinely puzzled.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, don’t you think it’s a bit disrespectful.’
‘Well, we were divorced.’
‘No, I mean talking about this when he’s in the other room. He still loves you, you know.’
‘He told me.’
‘How?’ I interjected. ‘I mean how does he do it. One jackpot for yes, three lemons for no?’
Simon ignored the sarcasm.
‘Not quite, it’s more of a feeling. You wouldn’t understand.’
I nodded, saying nothing, but that was the moment I decided to do something. I wasn’t sure what, but something, if only to remove the look of self-satisfaction from his face. I couldn’t see the desperate sadness of someone who had never got to terms with his parents’ divorce, robbed of any chance to by his dad’s premature death. All I saw was a smug prick with his home-made religion. The rest of the meal and most of the evening continued in virtual silence. It was uncomfortable but my brother again appeared not to notice. Mum decided to head back to Bexhill and I offered to give her a lift, neither of us had had a drink and no one felt like sticking it out until tomorrow. Even so my brother made a big show of disappearing off to go and get our Christmas presents. Whilst he did this, I am not proud, but not particularly ashamed to say I swiped a couple of the fruit machine’s fuses. It was childish and I’m not sure why I did it; on reflection I think it was jealousy. Not of his relationship with the one-armed bandit, but what I perceived to be an impregnability about him. I envied that, and rather spitefully I wanted to take it away from him, however briefly, over Christmas.
He didn’t notice the theft, so intent was he on fetching our gifts. They looked bulky, identical.
‘Well open them now then.’
Mum hadn’t noticed what I’d done, and neither of us had the heart to refuse him. They were laptop computers, identical, expensive.
‘I got them through a guy at work I know. Top of the range. E-mail, the internet, everything. We can all stay in touch much easier.’
He seemed childishly enthusiastic, I hadn’t seen him this way since the penny arcades.
‘Oh that’s really kind love, really thoughtful.’
‘No problem. Well, bye then. See you soon.’
I drove mum home. We talked, by unspoken mutual agreement, about everything except Simon and I wasn’t surprised to see Pat waiting at the flat to buzz her in. I declined the offer of a coffee or a bed for the night and drove back to London. The flat seemed very small and empty and I had already regretted taking the fuses. I popped them in a jiffy bag and addressed it to my brother, no note, and went to bed. The next morning I woke refreshed and with nothing planned, plugged in my brother’s gift. It was a thing of beauty—slim, light, sleek, metallic design. Elegant. I felt clumsy even switching it on. As it booted swiftly and silently I noted the operating system had come pre-installed, clearly by Simon, and the desktop showed an image of the fruit machine. There waiting for me was a solitary e-mail:
Dad’s not in the fruit machine anymore, I built an emulator and transferred him. He’s on the ‘net, he’s on your computer, he’s everywhere. I’ve spoken to him though and we both forgive you. I pity you Jude and I love you.
Outside, snow began to fall. On the screen the reels of the fruit machine simulation began to spin. If there was a pattern I couldn’t see it.[/private]
This is Giles Anderson’s first fictional submission.
Listings: October 2012
Bob Marley: Messenger Mezzanine Gallery, 24 July – 24 October 2012 Following a successful run at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, where it was on display for over three months, the exhibit will now be available to audiences from Britain and around Europe. Visitors will witness Bob Marley as a private, spiritual man, as a powerful performer who used his lyrics to give a voice to the disenfranchised and as a legend who has inspired legions of fans in the years since his death.
Dickens and the Artists Watts Gallery, 19 June – 28 October 2012 Dickens and the Artists will explore the significant connection between Charles Dickens and visual art. Dickens was interested in both contemporary artists and the art of the old masters which he viewed and commented on in his tours of Europe.
Bob Hope: A World of Laughter Greenwich Heritage Centre, 13 July – 28 October 2012 The Heritage Centre will be the third institution to host the touring Bob Hope exhibition which has been produced by the World Golf Hall of Fame & Museum with the support of the Bob & Dolores Hope Foundation.
Tino Sehgal to create Turbine Hall commission for London 2012 Festival Tate Modern, 17 July – 28 October 2012 Tino Sehgal has been commissioned to create a work for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall as part of London 2012 Festival, the finale of the Cultural Olympiad. The artist’s new work is one of two projects which are part of the Cultural Olympiad, the other being the Tate Movie Project, supported by the Legacy Trust UK, BP and CBBC, the nation-wide film animation project for children which will culminate in the production of a fully animated film. The Tino Sehgal 2012 commission is part of The Unilever Series.
Summer at the National Theatre National Theatre, June – October 2012 The National theatre is presenting two very special performances. Timon of Athens, as part of the World Shakespeare Festival, directed by Nicholas Hytner with Simon Russell Beale in the title role, will run from July to October; and The Last of the Haussmans, a new play by Stephen Beresford, directed by Howard Davies, will play at the Lyttelton Theatre from June to September.
Designed to Win Design Museum, 25 July – 18 November 2012 This exhibition celebrates the ways in which design and sport are combined, pushing the limits of human endeavour to achieve victories of increasing significance and wonder. From the design of F1 cars to running shoes, racing bikes to carbon fibre javelins, the quest for enhanced performance and function is endless. By examining celebrated sporting moments and the sense of shared celebration and spectacle, the exhibition will look at, not just how design can influence sport, but also how sport has influenced design, art and culture.
Designers in Residence & This is Design Design Museum, 29 August 2012 – 27 January 2013 The programme includes a series of events, offering designers the opportunity to interact and engage with the public, whilst using this platform as a test-bed for ideas, designs and innovations. Using key items from the collection, the display will also be supplemented with high-profile loans and new acquisitions.
David Nash at Kew The Royal Botanic Gardens, 9 June 2012 – 14 April 2013 David Nash, one of the UK’s most prolific sculptors, will produce and exhibit his work across the Gardens. The exhibition will open to members of the public, with sculptures, installations, drawings and films in place throughout the Gardens, glasshouses, and exhibition spaces. Nash will work at Kew on a ‘wood quarry’—the first he will have done in ten years, creating new pieces for the exhibition using trees from the Gardens that have come to the end of their natural life.