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Tag: Modern Fiction

I write so much SF/F that I need a category for “not those things”


I wake up at 3am with Karl Marx looming over me. “There is a spectre haunting this bedroom,” he says, “the spectre of—”

I wave him away: I know the punchline. A communist! he’ll say and he’ll grin and spread his translucent hands wide, dadlike and expectant. He’s corny, but at least he’s not the other guy.


The Spirit of the Age is following me around at work. I have bags under my eyes; my performance is suffering, and my boss has noticed. The Spirit suggests I yeet my boss into the fucking sun. I click on the wrong spreadsheet tab and bite back a fuck—Susan across the table is a swear-narc.

Susan owns two investment properties in the Wairarapa. They are worth 500% of what she got them for in the 70s. Last night I caught myself eating a cold flour tortilla straight out of the bag. Susan’s investment properties gather dust.

The Spirit is flossing sadly, his hands moving side-to-side like the pendulum of a broken clock. I shoot him a smile. He half-returns it. I hope the kids are alright.


The three spirits of Christmas don’t have much to do this time of year. They sit in the corner of my lounge and play chess. Christmas Past keeps knocking over the board the instant anybody declares check. Christmas Present can’t do shit about it. Christmas Future is silent—you could cut yourself open on his bladelike cheeks. I looked into his eyes once: I expected a deep and endless void, but saw nothing, and heard only wind.


My phone buzzes at 6am and it’s the Ghost of My Youth with his daily bro did u make it y/n

I check my pulse, and text back “Y”.

It’s not quite a lie, and he’ll need it later.


We are looking for a junior marketing superstar to join our team! Does this sound like you?

  • Four years’ minimum experience
  • An appropriate postgraduate qualification
  • A flexible schedule

This is a 3-month contract.


A cute boy slides into my DMs. He loves my work. I wonder what his lips taste like, whether he’s just drank coffee, whether he will be bitter or sweet. I don’t respond, I close the app—I will disappoint him, and I don’t want to do that. The Ghost of Christmas Present peeks over my shoulder.

“Yeah mate,” he says, “that’s how it starts.”


Dear Sir or Madam, we regret to inform you that we will not be moving ahead with your application for [].


I take a cold flour tortilla out of the bag. There’s chicken in the freezer, but I forgot to defrost it; I have been forgetting to defrost it for months. I bite into the tortilla. It is dry. I try to put it back, but the bag is closed.


My phone buzzes at 6am: bro did u make it y/n

I do not text back.

Canto III

I wish my dad had drank himself to death. Instead, whenever he got mad, he’d grip his thumb inside his palm and his breathing would get weird and tight. After years of barely-suppressed anger, patches of his cheeks and nose went the purple-red of good beetroot – a whisky shine without the whisky. The coronary was the least surprising thing that ever happened to him: he’d been alone, sitting in his chair, watching the TV blare something about immigrant hordes. With nobody else to shout at – not me, not mum, not even old Ms Potts from next-door, who stayed far away from the fence – all his anger went inwards and popped his fucking heart.

He insisted throughout his entire life that alcohol was the devil’s brew. He didn’t drink, or swear, or jerk off. I know good folks like that too, but dad wasn’t good folks. Dad shouted his way through life, and he shouted his way through two marriages, and he shouted his way to an early grave.

There’s this thing called learned helplessness. You put a puppy in a box that it can’t escape. It tries and tries to break out, but the box is just too big. The puppy turns into a dog and now it’s much bigger than the box but it still can’t leave: it knows it can’t, so it doesn’t try. I tried to stop dad from shouting when I was a kid. It always ended up with me on the floor, and him towering over me and shouting. One time, he’d been watching the rugby and trying to eat mashed potatoes. Some went down the wrong pipe and I tried to hit him on the back, like I’d seen on TV. He spanked me with his belt so badly that I couldn’t sit down properly for days. I was twenty-five when he died.

I got him a copy of The Divine Comedy for his birthday once. Passive-aggressive, I know. I didn’t think he would read it. He did. He told me loved he Inferno. He told me about Mr Wilkins from the bowls club, who was a fat fuck; about young Ms Perkins who worked the desk, and how she was probably a whore; about the widowed Ms Potts from next-door who was a treasonous bitch and wouldn’t meet his eye at housie. Inferno had ‘em all, he told me. Each one slotted into their own hole where they’d be tortured until the Almighty had time to sort ‘em out. A circle for cowards and a circle for killers and a circle for little brown babies born to the wrong religion.

Dad never touched a drop but I know deep in my heart that if he had, it woulda fucking killed him. He would’ve taken to the bottle like a drowning man clinging to a raft. I never met a man more in-need of a drink, and less inclined to take one. I wanted him to drink so he’d just stop holding it in. Maybe he’d have killed me and then mum and then himself, and maybe he’d have collapsed inwards and left a pile of clothes and skin on the kitchen’s vinyl floor. Either way, we’d have been rid of him.

Dad got so mad that he just fucking died. I came home to find him, bug-eyed and purple, clutching at his chest with one hand and reaching out to me with the other. He was still twitching. He might’ve been dead but it was hard to tell. I couldn’t bring myself to touch him. learned helplessness, innit? I sat and watched him die, or maybe I just sat. The man on the TV shouted about the Deep State and dad didn’t shout at all; he didn’t even make a sound.

I’d get up to call for help, then get close to him, then spin around and sit back down and chew another fingernail until it bled. I watched him until rigor mortis kicked in – his shoulders squared and his knees stiffened, and for the longest minute of my life I swore he was coming back from the dead to beat me until I couldn’t sit down. His empty eyes rolled and his purple skin was black and glossy. He was a giant again, a monster with a bulbous wagging tongue, and I was a kid staring him down. The change in position forced him up out of his chair and he staggered, then fell. I swear, as he fell, I heard him cussing me out. He couldn’t have, but the sound made it to my ears anyway.

He loved Inferno, but I’m still not sure he read it. The fifth circle is for the wrathful, and the seventh is for the violent; cowards don’t even get through the gate. They’re non impegnato, uncommitted, unable to act or leave. Dad died, and I did nothing. There’s no place in hell for me, but there’s two for him so I think it shakes out.

Maybe he’s suffering somewhere. That makes two of us.

We Fight Monsters

Every day, Rose went out beyond the hawker stands –out beyond the torn-up fences and beat-up dock workers–  to the place where the water was clear. Every day, she went to the ocean to weep. The siyokoy took her son when he was out swimming: the niños ate her little niño. She would cry, and scream, and strike the water with her fists. Then, she would return home and cry, and scream, and strike her remaining sons while they cowered in the corner. If you’d asked her, she couldn’t tell you why.

Patti saw, and didn’t know what to do. She watched and hid in trees, on rooftops, behind a jumble of TV aerials. She walked on her hands to keep a low profile, and kept her wings hidden in the small of her back. Her guts got dirty as they dragged along the ground. When Rose wept, Patti wept too. She couldn’t tell you why.

Patti wasn’t a siyokoy. She hadn’t even been nearby when little Alberto got dragged down and eaten up – she was off in Cebu, lurking around a maternity ward. The modern world was good for manananggal: they put all the pregnant women in one place. Patti could spread her feeding around, and not hurt a soul. Her neighbours knew what she was. One of them would hang crucifixes all over the damn place and the apartment hallway always reeked of burning sage, but they left her alone.

She didn’t swoop down on them in the dead of night; they didn’t hunt her through the jungles with spears. They told their friends about the monster next door but never said anything to her face; she smoked weed and listened to old punk records, and only fed when she needed to. She followed Rose out to the docks every day she could, and watched, and wept.

It was near the end of the dry season when it happened. Patti sat on Mr Nunes’ balcony smoking a cigarette and listened to Rose shouting at her boys. She leaned across and peered in the window, and one of the boys (Lucas, the tall one, with his shaggy mop of hair) peered back. He was backed in a corner, almost in a squat. Patti had seen a lot of human faces. She’d seen them scream, or go white, or (in more recent times) turn away muttering a prayer. She had never seen this–  Lucas looked her dead in the eye, plaintive, and mouthed a single word.


While she stared, Mr Nunes ran up and hit her with a broom. She hadn’t even seen him coming. “Aswang!” he shouted “go away! Get out of here, Tik-Tok!”

She took flight while Mr Nunes shouted some bullshit about Our Mother Mary. She hung in the air for a moment, hissed at him, then gave him the finger and swooped off into the night.


Every day, Patti followed Rose down to the water. Every day, she remembered Lucas’ sad eyes and crept a little closer. As the dry season came to a close, Cadiz was going insane– after six months without rain, a sick pressure builds in the air that makes men wish for a flood. Patti felt it in her skin, and in the space between her eyes. Rains made it harder to fly, but also easier to move around undetected. She knew in another six months she’d be praying for the rains to stop. Funny how that worked. Patti had left her legs behind: lower profile, harder to be seen. She had a good view of Rose from the roof of the Port Authority office. A dock worker noticed her, made the sign of the cross, then went back to stacking boxes. She took a deep breath, and swooped down.

She wanted to scare Rose–  to bite her and scratch her. She spread her wings wide, and bared her sharp teeth, and opened her mouth to roar. Rose turned, and saw. She did not scream, or go white. Her eyes were plaintive, and filled with tears. Patti lowered her hands, only a little. Her jaw hung open.

“Are you going to kill me?” said Rose.

It wasn’t fear: Patti knew fear. It was almost begging.

“No,” said Patti. She slumped, and let her guts touch the sand.

“So,” said Rose, “we’re monsters.”

She stared out to sea. The sun hung low over Cadiz, and painted the clouds in fire-orange and bruise-purple. They sat in silence. Patti took out a cigarette, then realised she’d left her lighter in her pants. Without speaking, Rose proffered a green plastic Bic lighter, and lit the cigarette.

Patti smoked it down to the filter, then held it between her thumb and forefinger and flicked it into the ocean. It floated, and sent ripples out into the water.

“We don’t have to be,” she said. “The world hurts. It hurts in big ways and it hurts in small ways, and it twists your spine until you find yourself hurting it back. That’s the trap. You’ll hurt your sons, and they’ll hurt their friends and their wives, and their wives will hurt their sons and it’ll keep on hurting until the clouds and the rapture takes us all.”

“You think it’s that easy?” said Rose. “Just stop hurting?”

“No,” said Patti. “It’s the hardest thing I ever did.”

Rose didn’t reply. They sat, and watched the sun set. Patti took out another cigarette. It was the last one in the pack.

“You never really quit,” she said. “You just go longer between relapses.”

“Cigarettes?” said Rose.

A pause hung in the air.

“Yeah, sure.”

“Maybe,” said Rose, “that gap gets big enough that you forget what tobacco tastes like.”

“That would be nice,” said Patti. Her voice broke, only a little. “Really nice.”

They sat, and watched another day turn to night. Patti smoked her last cigarette. She left embers in the sand, as the disappearing sun left streaks of fire in the sky.


Some highways run for so long that they’ve gotta turn gradually to match the curvature of the earth; it’s a solid 200 miles along the I-94 from Bismarck to Fargo with barely a corner in sight, but the world turns quietly beneath your feet the whole way. In the early spring, the melting snow turns the dirt on either side into a sucking quagmire – your tire gets stuck in that and you could end up out there for days before you see another passing car.

“I want to go home,” said Jan. “Take the 52, dad! Can’t be more’n an hour.”

“52 don’t exist,” said Willem. It was true: North Dakota highway 52 existed on road signs and in memories, but nowhere else – not on state or federal paperwork, not on the highway patrol’s routes. It got buried under US Route 281 and forgotten, except by those who drove it; some slick n’ pretty man from Washington just rolled into Bismarck one day and said the 52 was now the 281, and everybody took him at his word.

The car’s heating system gave a brrrrrrrrr. Will wiped the windshield with a loose glove, clearing away the thin layer of condensation. He cracked the window. It was that awkward point in the spring when it was too hot to have the heater on, but too cold to have the heater off.

“Does so,” said Jan. He buried himself in his parka. He was turning eleven in less than a week, and suddenly he thought he had all the answers.

“Play your gameboy,” said Will. They passed a small lake, barely not-frozen; ducks and geese circled around in what little water they could find. Jan crossed his arms, and the thick padding of his jacket crunched against itself.

“Nah-uh,” he said. “I wanna go home. I wanna go to Minnewaukan. Mom’s there. I wanna see mom. I wanna see mom.”

She was there, it was true; no more’n an hour north along the highway that didn’t exist. They were coming up on Jamestown, where the road-that-wasn’t turned off the I-94, and then it was a straight run up to Minnewaukan and Devil’s Lake; Willem would sooner take the car into a ditch than take that detour home. He wasn’t sure whether Jan was still too young to understand, and he damnwell wasn’t yet ready to find out. He needed to believe his son had some innocence left.

“I’m gonna ask her what Minneapolis was like,” said Jan. He chewed his words for a moment. “I heard ummmmm it’s real big? It’s so big it’s gotta be two cities.”

Of course they hadn’t told the kid. It would have to happen some time, but nobody was ready to have that conversation.

“We’re not going home,” said Will. “We’re going to Fargo, to stay with your Uncle Grant. We don’t own the house in Minnewaukan no more.”

He squeezed the wheel a little too hard, and felt the hot blood go to his fingertips. It hurt, but the pain gave him something else to think about.

“I hate Grant!” shouted Jan. He squirmed in the back seat. “He’s always talking about dumb hockey and his house smells weird. I wanna go watch Sliders with mom.”

Jeanette had loved that show. It was the only reason they’d held onto the old DVD player, though the discs were scratched to shit. Will didn’t get it, but he knew better than to interrupt while she was watching. It was their show: her’s and Jan’s. He’d never seen the appeal of jumping to another reality, but the idea was starting to grow on him. He didn’t have a wormhole, though: he had a shitty run-down ‘94 Corolla that he couldn’t afford to repair.

He pulled over. The car’s engine spluttered to a stop. The heater went brrrrrrrrrrrrrrtktktk, then died.

“We’re going to Fargo,” said Will, “and that’s the end of it.”

Jan started to cry. Will got out; closed the door behind him; took the cigarettes out from his jacket pocket; took the last one left (filter facing down, of course – gotta have a lucky); lit it; took a drag, sucked it down; didn’t quite cough.

Maybe there was another world where there was still a North Dakota Highway 52; where a slick man from Washington didn’t paper over it with the 281. A world where Jeanette didn’t spend her last six months in an oncology ward in Minneapolis because there weren’t the right kind of doctors in-state; where they hadn’t spent every cent keeping her alive, until the house went into receivership; where there was anything in Minnewaukan besides a closed casket and a foreclosed home.

Well, shit. He dropped the cigarette into the mud, then stomped on it for good measure. Jan stared at him through the foggy window. His eyes were red. Will got into the back seat beside him.

“I’m not stupid you know,” said Jan. He sniffed. “I’m not a little kid. Something happened to mom, didn’t it? Are you guys getting a divorce? She’s sick – you can’t leave her now.”

The words hung in the air. In another world, Will got back into the front seat and didn’t speak until he hit Fargo. In the world-that-was, he bit his tongue.

“She’s not sick any more,” he said. The words hung in the chill-muggy air.

“Oh,” said Jan. He frowned. Kid was getting too smart for his own damn good.

Jan drummed his fingers on the car-seat. “So that’s why she went back home?” he said.

Will took a deep breath.

“Yep,” he said.

In yet another world, he got back into the front seat and didn’t speak until he hit Fargo. In the world-that-was, he slumped down in the seat and barely held back tears.

“You wanna go see her?” he said. “Take the 52 at Jamestown and it won’t be more’n an hour.”

His throat hurt.

“Can’t,” muttered Jan. He was curled up inside his parka now: almost lost in the woolen collar.

“Why not?” said Will.

“52 don’t exist,” said Jan. He glared up from inside his little leather cocoon.

“Sure it does,” said Will. “In a whole buncha different worlds.”

Jan peered up, then squinted at Will.

“Like Quinn and Max?” he said.

“Yeah,” said Will, “like those guys. We ain’t got a wormhole though, so we gotta drive. You good for it?”

“Mmk,” said Jan.

Will got out, then walked around to the front seat of the car. His hand lingered on the handle for a moment. In another world, he couldn’t do it. In the world-that-was, he got in; turned the key; pumped the gas pedal a few times. The car roared to life. The heater came back on with a brrrrrrrrrr. The open road lay ahead of them: running for so long that it had to turn to match the curvature of the earth.

“Let’s go home,” said Will. He stepped on the gas, and the world turned quietly beneath them.

Jan was already asleep.


The clouds were a problem. Hemi tried not to look at them, but they’d changed the whole shape and outlook of the sky. His hands shook. He took a drag on his cigarette, watched the smoke gyre skyward: the wind tore it apart, and it was lost.

He shut his eyes for a moment. The insides of his eyelids were smashed tv screens – dark, showing only static, carved up by a dull network of red capillaries. He didn’t throw up.

He stared down at the dry grass. It still hurt look at, but it wasn’t as monstrous.

“You alright bro?” said Chris. “Tripping out?”

Hemi nodded, then took another deep drag, and coughed at the burnt-plastic taste of filter. He spat it out, then sighed, lay back and stared down the sky.

The clouds had an identity — castles, mansions, comfortable little starter homes. The wind tore at them, but they held their shape. The static didn’t go away; the whole sky was sick with it.

“You need me to do any– “


They lay on the hillside. Hemi smoked another cigarette, and another. Chris didn’t say anything about it.

“You know what’s fucked up?” Hemi said, when he was ready to speak again.

“What’s fucked up?”

“My tipuna told me nobody owned land before the British came. Like, land wasn’t a thing that could be owned any more than the sky, or your heartbeat, or your thoughts. She told me we came from the land like, literally — man emerged from the earth, and the earth is his mother, and cutting somebody off from the earth is like cutting off a limb. You couldn’t say ‘this bit of land is mine’ because it belongs to everybody who came up out of it–  

Now it’s the most valuable thing in the country, and we’ll never own any. It’s not even that we were torn away from it, it’s that we never had a connection to begin with. It’s like we’re all born missing a limb and we just have to pretend that it’s normal, because there’s people getting rich selling prosthetics.”

Chris nodded. “That’s super fucked up,” he said. “You wanna do something about it?”

The houses in the clouds would not budge. Hemi’s fingernails were short and ragged.

“Do what?” said Hemi. “I can’t get a job, I don’t qualify for disability. If I did get a job, I’d be sitting in my cubicle all day worrying that my brain is gonna take me somewhere I don’t want to go. Anything could set it off: carpets, wallpaper, clouds. One or two bad choices, and now I’ll be landless forever — cut off from the only holy thing we’ve got left.”

His voice cracked. Something inside him twisted. He spat onto the grass –  stained it yellow with saliva and nicotine.

“They cut off my welfare,” he said. “Failed drug test. I was having a panic attack and I smoked a joint to calm down. Two months later, they’re pulling me aside and saying I’m very lucky the cops aren’t involved, and now I’m on my own.”

“How much have you got left?” said Chris. He sat up. His worry was written plain on his face, but Hemi knew that his friend couldn’t afford to help — maybe a floor to sleep on, but money was too tight all over the show. Hemi turned the pack of cigarettes over in his hand.

“Rent went out yesterday and that’s $147, then these are $22. That leaves– “

He pretended to run the numbers for a moment.

“Nothing,” he said. “Less than a dollar.”

“Well, shit,” said Chris. “You can crash on my couch if you want. I think. I’ll have to ask the landlord.”

“Thanks,” said Hemi. There was one cigarette left, stuck backwards in the box: the lucky. He took it, and lit it. A trickle of smoke escaped his mouth, and went skywards. The castles in the clouds didn’t move, not did they get any closer. They floated overhead: implacable, impossible.

The cigarette burnt down, and neither man spoke.

doors I don’t open

There’s memories where I don’t go no more.

It’s like, uh – fractured.

There’s a house where I lived, and the door is locked. In autumn, in years gone, I made a wending way down a bridge my father made. It creaked and swayed beneath my feet, but I never once got wet. You know what lakewater smells like? It’s a little smell –  so light in your nose you could mistake it for nothing. There’s thousand-dollar whiskey that works its ass off to bring you that smell, and it never quite feels like the real thing.

I caught a frog once. Usually you just caught tadpoles and let ‘em grow in a fishtank, but I caught an honest-to-god frog. It had been raining all night. The house was only big enough for me and dad, and the roof was corrugated iron he beat out himself. When it rained, the pattering jig of raindrops on that roof was our entire world. I went outside after the rain had cleared. Frogs all over the damn show – their dark little shapes hopping in and out of the mist. Real frogs don’t ribbit, they krrrrrrrrRRRRREEEE. Grabbed me the biggest frog while he was puffing himself up. He tried to lurch outta my grip, but I had him good. Ran inside with a croaking and wriggling frog, and dumped him in the fishtank.

By next morning, he’d eaten all the fish then died. Dad told me not to cry, because it was just a damn fish, or damn frog, or whatever. He checked the fishtank for damage, and found none.

School was an hour away. No busses or trains in our part of the world. There’d been a train station in the 60s, but it shut down when everything got privatised. I had to walk through the cold, and hug my cheap plastic raincoat tight. Dad showed me the way on my first day, then never again. Not once, for years. He said it cut into his work but I never saw him do anything but hammer nails and drink whisky. He didn’t hit me much, so that was good. He built things, and occasionally somebody from town paid for them. It kept us afloat, though never comfortable.

Came home from school one day and–

The memory just ain’t there. The door’s locked. I walked across the bridge, and it creaked beneath my feet. Creak creak kreeeeeeee

There’s a house with red walls, in the middle of a lake. The door was locked. My father was inside, because of course he was. Drinking and hammering nails, with a faint smile on his face. I didn’t see him, but that’s what he always did. I crossed the bridge and opened the d–

Trying to remember is like punching mist; like dancing through waist-high water. I opened the door to see my father and he was–

‘twenty years I’ve tried to open that door. Sometimes I go years without dreaming it, sometimes I can barely get a night’s respite. I walk down the bridge and it moves beneath my weight. The little house is in front of me. The door is locked, but it isn’t. There was a frog, and it was too damn big for the fishtank so it ate all the fish and died. I don’t know how it died or why it needed to take the fish with it, but that’s just how things played out. Big frog, little tank — going mad surrounded by all that water and all those walls, then just gave up living. I know what my father did: people told me afterwards. I found him in our house, apparently. I walked an hour back to town and told my teachers.

I don’t remember any of it.

I remember a house on the lake. I remember rain on the roof, and frogs in the mist. I remember the bridge that creaked beneath my feat, and a door I opened–

the Dance, the Dancer

The rain came first in spears – fierce long streaks lit silver by moonlight. As the night was pulled further and further apart, the rain went soft, and the wind took it in all directions; fuzzy halos coalesced around the harsh glow of the streetlights. You stood in a hooded oil-coat and pretended not to mind; there was something perverse to electric light — a single light should not have stood against the rain; a single light surrounded on all sides by the sea, when its fire should’ve been quenched in moments. You remembered when there were feeble gas lights, and scurrying link-boys, and when there was only fire, and even before that when darkness squatted upon the face of the earth.

In Vienna, a boy died that night. He was transfixed by the electric streetlight, and did not see the oncoming carriage. It ran him down, and did not slow –  he was only a boy. You saw it, from the corner of your eye, and did not intervene. You took his body in your arms. There was no light in his eyes. The rain made his wool coat stink. His eyes were brown, his hair was brown, his skin was pale and bloodless, his neck went the wrong way. He was heavier than you expected.

He stood outside his body, and did not understand: he cried when you took his hand. The children were always hard to deal with, but an eternity steels the soul to a few tears. Still, there was a pang to it–

All men die, but not all children. There is no peace in it – no inevitability. The boy in the wool coat cried when he saw your face, as they all did. You took his cold hand in your own cold hand, and tried to hush him, but it only made him bawl louder. He would’ve been a cooper, like his father. A dying profession, heh.

You felt guilty for laughing but you were human once, and a little of it was still there. You had a name, and a face. In that moment, you had neither. In that moment, you stand sentinel at the gate between the living and dead. The scythe no longer made sense — the farmers used great machines now that could harrow a whole field in a matter of hours. So much for metaphors, but you’d always been always a traditionalist.

You knelt down.

“What is your name, child?” you said.

You knew, of course, but perhaps hearing your voice -like brass nails pounded into wet earth, like the rumble of a mountain before it is taken into the sea- would calm him.

It did not.

“Do you like toys?” you said, and took a wooden horse from inside your coat.

“Neigh,” you said. “Neigh, so goes the horse, as is its way. The horse, like you, is dead. See, it’s not so bad? The nice horse died too. If you come with me, you can have the nice horse. Neigh.”

He did not like the horse. It was, to be fair, not a very good horse. You were the death of people, not of horses — you weren’t familiar with their shape. There had been horses in your life once, but it was so long ago. The toy had too many tails, and too few colours. Anatomical issues aside, with hindsight it was probably not the right animal to show to a child who had just been run down by a carriage.

You snapped off one of its heads.

“See,” you said, “now it has the correct number of those bits.”

Behind you, visible only to the boy and yourself, was the door. The boy had to go through the door. If he stayed, something would come out of the door. That’s why you were there – to ensure the right things went into doors, and nothing came out of them. It was a small door, this time: apposite for a child, difficult for a skeleton who’d been pretty big in life anyway.

The door whispered in the voice of many hungry children. They told the boy to stay. They told him they would let him see his father again, and eat all the candy he ever wanted. Of course they would say that, and of course a child would believe.

The boy bawled.

“Child,” you said, “if you come with me, I will tell you a wonderful jest. You will laugh heartily. We will laugh together, like you once laughed with your father. If you are good, I will return for your father and you can be with him in a nice house forever.”

The boy stopped. Good, mission accomplished.

His eyes were very wide.

“You gon’” he said, “you gon kill my dad?”

“I do not kill anybody,” you said. Your skull gleamed. “I simply collect.”

The subtlety was clearly lost on the boy. He tried to turn, to run. You moved, as you do, between raindrops, and appeared in front of him. You grabbed his wool coat, which stank of wet and blood. The whispers were so loud now, so hungry. You dragged the child’s soul, screaming, towards them. He tried to dig in his toes, but they found no purchase on the wet cobbles.

You threw him through the door. It closed neatly, without ceremony.

You stood alone, in the rain. You lingered for a moment, and considered the broken horse in your hands. The rain came down sideways, in a windtossed almost-mist. You squeezed the horse, and felt its pieces snap, and fall onto the cobbles. For a moment only, you felt sorry.

A lonely wind blew through the streets of Vienna, and you went on your way. There was nothing to see but rain, and the harsh glow of the electric light.

The Turk

I was Nan’s favourite, apparently. That’s what people tell me. She was a blunted battleaxe – a mighty woman curled double by age. Her English was perfect, but she never lost the accent – two parts Greek, one part Italian, one part everything-else-in-between. She’d chew her words, then they’d fall out of her mouth with the emphasis in the wrong places. She always kept her hands under a blanket that she’d knitted herself. Her fingers were swollen and scarred – twisted in all the wrong directions. She told everybody she’d been a nurse in the war. When nobody was looking – when mum was busy fighting with her brother over who would get what – Nan would tell me stories from the old country; Eurydice, Persephone, the twelve labours of Heracles. She told them the best, because she didn’t spare the gory details, and the good guys won in the end.

“The snake,” she said, thi snik, “the snake sank his teeth right into her and pumped her full of poison. The poison filled her up, and made her blood go thin, and it slowly squeezed the life out of her. She screamed and screamed, and Orpheus held her hand but there was nothing he could do to stop it.”
It was okay though, because Orpheus went down into hell and played his lyre, and she followed his music all the way home. She told all the kids these stories, as they clustered around her feet. She would do all the voices, though to be honest they all sounded a bit like various degrees of Nan. My favourite story was about Prometheus, who stole the secret of fire so that all mankind could benefit from it. He got chained to a rock by the gods, and the birds pecked at his guts, but then Heracles came and saved him, and they went off to fight monsters together.

She fell down in the hallway once. Everybody was fighting, but the muffled crack of woman-on-carpet stopped them dead. It was a stroke. The doctor gave her six months, but she took another seven years. It wasn’t the same after that, though. It took her another year to get her speech back properly. She didn’t tell any more stories. The fighting got worse, and her face got stonier as she sat in her little chair and rocked back and forth. There was always a backgammon game half-done next to her chair, but I never saw anybody playing it. I asked her to teach me once when I was younger, but it was too complicated. She kept dropping the pieces.

“Are you from Athens?” I asked. I’d seen pictures of Athens in mum’s books. I imagined a whole city of pristine ruins jutting up from between blue-rooved houses – a place trapped in amber, so rich in history.
Nan shook her head, then smiled. “I am from a city that doesn’t exist,” she said, “in a country that doesn’t exist. I am an Ottoman, from Constantinople. My mother was Greek, my father was Greek, I lived my life in Greece, but my home is gone. It’s lost to history. This happens, when you live long enough. Names change.”
“Are you Turkish, then?”
She laughed at that, and shook her head. “No, no. You shouldn’t say that to a Greek, agoraki mou. I don’t mind, but some of my brothers would be furious.”
“Are the Turks bad men?”
“No, no,”she said. “We’ve fought them a lot. Perhaps they’re bad neighbours, but so are we. We’ve fought a lot of people. You can’t hate forever, or you’ll go mad.”
“Did you fight the Turks?”

She didn’t speak for about twenty seconds.
“Never,” she said. She looked at the backgammon board, then pushed a piece slowly across it. After a few moments, she placed a single gnarled finger against the corner of the board, then turned it around.

“Who did you fight?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Fascists,” she said. “Germans, Greeks, Italians. They wore different uniforms, but they were all the same beneath them. They were scared, and proud, and easily led.”

I didn’t ask any more questions.

“Tell me about Promethius again,” I said. It was perhaps two years before the end. Every passing year, I got bigger and she got smaller. By thirteen, I was taller than her. By fifteen, she almost disappeared into my shadow. The doctors did what they could, but it seemed like medicine wasn’t was keeping her going less than her own strength. She refused to take painkillers, though she screamed in the night. She rarely left her chair.

“He didn’t get free you know,” she said. “I made that up. He’s still on the rock. He’ll always be on the rock. He was a good man, and he was punished for it. That’s how these things go. That’s the stories my people tell – of good men brought low. It helps, you see. We drink and we screw and we shout and we tell stories because it helps us to understand our pain. You want to know about Promethius? He’s a story we tell when we see bad things happen to good people. It hurts, but it healthier than hiding.”

It was the most she’d said in years. I didn’t know what to say. “Nanna,” I said, “you can’t talk about screwing. You’re old.”
She laughed, and the tension fell away. For a second, she seemed much younger. “Of course not, mou,” she said.

She told me stories again, and me only. Not old stories this time, but stories of the war. Of valiant Greeks being run down by panzer tanks, of patching up resistance fighters in dingy alleyways, of German parachutes opening overhead like so many dark blossoms in the spring. She told me the Nazis had placed a bounty on her head – that they’d called her Häkchen -little hook- after the tool she used to suture wounds. The Greek Resistance never left the same mark on the history books that the French did, but they were hunted no less fiercely. She had to run all the way to Cairo before they stopped chasing her.

Nan hated the retirement home. She told me she hated the smell the most – that it reminded her of the field hospital in Cairo where all the dying British soldiers went; all antiseptic fug, and everybody shambling around in a sedative haze. They put her in a room next to a German woman called Anne. Apparently they got on fine, though I never saw them talking. In her last year, she moved back into her old house and hired a full-time nurse. She rarely spoke, or left her bed. The backgammon game sat next to her chair in the lounge, unplayed. I noticed she’d made a few more moves since I last checked, but a thin layer of dust covered the board.

She told me one last story before she died. She was lying in her bed, her eyes sunken in their sockets, her skin like wax paper – you could see all the veins beneath it sluggishly pushing blood around her body, as if the life were slowly being squeezed out of her. The nurse had gone home for the day, and everybody else was asleep. The curtains were open, and a sparrow sat outside, curled up on the windowsill, pressed against the glass. The room stank of antiseptic.

“There was a Turk who lived in a house by the sea near Izmir,” she said, “who had no reason to care whether I lived or died. The Nazis had been passing my description out at every checkpoint. That’s what happened when you worked with the resistance. The Turks had no part in the war, but the reward stood for them as much as it did for any German or Greek. I spoke to him in Turkish, and told him who I was. He’d seen the posters. He needed the money. We drank, and played backgammon. He offered me his attic for one night, but no longer.”
She sat up, and I could see how much such a small movement took out of her.
“Two Gestapo men came in the night,” she said. “They tied him to a chair, and they smashed his kneecaps. I saw it all through a crack in the boards. He told them I had left the night before, so they burnt him with cigarettes. He owed me nothing, but he stuck to his story. They broke three of his fingers, and he did not change his story.”

She lay her head back on the stack of pillows and took a deep breath. Her arthritic hands were curled into claws. The words seem caught inside her, as if they’d been buried so long that they had become a part of her body. She muttered something in a language I didn’t recognise. Her hands shook.

“Then they left,” she said, “and he was fine.”


“Really. The Nazis left, and I fixed him up, and I left the next morning.”

She was so weak, and the every word seemed to cost her. I got up and closed the curtains, leaving the little sparrow out to brave the night wind. Then I left, and let her sleep. That was the last story she ever told me. After she died, the backgammon board stayed on the little table beside her old rocking chair. The game was never finished.


“Behold Hadrian’s dead old wall!” said Liam. He hopped up onto the ruined stone, then got out his cock. It was semi-turgid from his little liason with Nigel; Nigel who was lying in the bushes on the Scottish side, his hand on his fat, hairy belly. He smoked a Marlboro Red. His prick stood up and proud in the chilly autumn air.

Liam jiggled his knee, a little, and stared up into the open sky. Tension, then release – a golden arc flying over Hadrian’s wall and splattering all over the frosty English soil. A little pagan pillar of steam rose up, coiled around itself, mingled with the fog and got lost.

Nigel took his cigarette out of his mouth. “Fuck the English,” he mumbled.

“Aye,” said Liam, “fuck the English”.

“Fuck you,” said Nigel.

“Aye,” said Liam, “fuck me.”

Nige shook his head, and took another puff of his cigarette. “Later,” he said. He paused, and cocked his head to the side. “I love you,” he said. “Is that weird?”

“Nope,” said Liam. “I’m pretty great. I have a Netflix account and all my own teeth. I barely even did junk that one time.”

Silence fell – heavy, leaden. Wind whistled through the old Roman stones. The proud bulwark between North and South was now low enough for a man to sit on, and have his feet still touch the ground.

“Don’t even joke,” said Nigel. “Don’t you fucking dare, you knob.”

Liam squeezed his bicep – lightly, but it hurt. There would always be scar tissue there. How long had it been since his last time? Not long enough for Nigel, clearly.

“I’m just having a wee bit of fun,” said Liam.

“A wee bit of fun?” said Nigel, “oh aye it was a wee bit of fun for you back then wasn’t it? Because you were high the whole time. You didn’t have to -”

his voice broke. “Fuck,” he said. “Fuck. Look, I’m sorry. It’s been almost a year and I still dream about it sometimes. You don’t know how close you came. You put a needle in, then you woke up in the hospital. Me? Fuck mate, your missing time was a hell of a night.”

Liam pulled up his pants, went to zip them closed. The mood was, to put it lightly, dead. “Do you really love me?” he said. Funny word, love. Noun and verb; state and flux; stone and wind. A snake that eats itself every night, to be reborn in the morning; a coiling pillar of steam, lost in the fog.

“Always” said Nigel. He wasn’t quite crying. His cigarette was a flameless stump, doing a lazy circuit of his mouth. He sat up. Liam hopped off the wall, then went to him and lay down. Nigel’s skin was a minefield of goosepimples.Trust a Scotsman to want to fuck outdoors in the cold.  He didn’t pull away when Liam touched him. He smiled, just a little.

“Love’s an act, innit?” said Nigel. “It’s a process. It’s something you do every day, until you stop doing it. I love you – love, verb. You know who told me that?”

Liam shrugged. He had a suspicion, but he didn’t want to give it words – to make it real.

“You did,” said Nigel. “You said it while you were barely conscious, strung out of your mind, strapped down in the back of an ambulance. You were muttering it over and over: love’s a verb love’s a verb. Ain’t that the fuckin’ truth: I pulled the needle out of your arm, I called the ambulance, I hauled your ass out into the street even though I was convinced you were deid. I did love. Did, see?”

Liam saw. He bit his lip. “What can I do, then?”

“You can lay off the jokes for a few more years,” said Nigel.

“Aye,” said Liam, “I can do that.”

They lay together in the bushes, and they loved.


“Coma is such an ugly word,” said Becca. “I prefer corporeally challenged.”

She tried to curl her hair around her ring finger, but it passed clean through with a liquid little scccchig. Force of habit. Human body gets very accustomed to, you know — physicality. Heft. The human spirit may be divine etcetera etcetera but it has all the physical integrity of cotton candy in a hurricane.

“That was a joke,” she said. “You can laugh now. Annie? You can laugh, okay?”

Annie was crying. Not pretty TV-crying, but a makeup-ruining, throat-stinging burble. She was trying to talk, but the words kept getting stuck behind the tears. She was talking to the body.

Becca’s body, of course, said nothing. She barely even recognised herself – she covered in bruises, with some sorta life-support jammed down her throat; squatting on her face like a clear plastic spider. The whole room was a bustling misery of beeping, and tubes, and antiseptic-reek.

“It’s my f-f-fault,” said Annie. She sat on a chair beside the hospital bed, almost bent double, leaving graceless little mascara smears on the sheets.

Maybe it was her fault if you wanted to get all technical, but accidents are accidents – you might be able to blame a woman for losing control of the steering wheel, but not for a patch of black ice on the road. Ain’t that a shitshow? Mother nature gets a bit too chilly, and all of a sudden you’re upside-down in a barren cornfield. Buh-bye to corporeal existence, hello to food from a tube.

“I wish you could hear me,” said Becca. She wanted to make another joke, but she couldn’t find the words. She wanted to hold her friend’s hand, and tell her it was okay. That wasn’t how it worked – that was against the rules. Once you pierce the veil, you can’t go back. It was something she knew in her soul, in the same way a living breathing human knows where their hands are, or when they’re hungry. She reached out anyway, and lay her hand across Annie’s.

The woman jerked back. Her eyes were wide, and tear-filled. She shivered, and rubbed the back of her hand, then muttered something under her breath.

B-but, there were rules

That –




A piece of paper fluttered, and fell to the floor. The lights flickered on and off. Becca’s echo bounced off the walls –the real walls– but the words were lost. Annie was sitting bolt upright now, with her mouth wide open. “Please Becca! I know you’re in here, and you’re mad!” she said, “forgive me!”

“I, uh -” said Becca. Okay so, time for plan B. They’d found her grand-dad’s old morse tapper in the attic when they were kids, and spent afternoons pretending they were heads of state sending Important Telegrams. Becca pulled her arm back, then punched the wall with all her might. It went [size=small]tap[/size]. She hit it three more times, then paused, then twice more. Short short short short, short short. Hi. She rapped out the morse code for chill.

Annie’s chin dipped, and she counted the hits out loud. “Chill,” she said. She bit her lip. “You’re cold honey, I know. So cold. Don’t go into the light.”

God DAMN it.

“You’re taking the whole ghost thing pretty well hon,” said Becca, “but you need to take it a bit less seriously. It’s not like I’m dead or anything.”

She cocked her head. “Give it a few hours.”

The words weren’t received, of course the weren’t. Force of habit. Probably for the best. She grabbed Annie’s hand, and squeezed. Annie didn’t pull back this time. She smiled, just a little, through her tears. Her eyes lit up a little.

“One squeeze yes, two for no,” she said. “Are you angry?”

There we go. Good on ya, Annie! Squeeze squeeze. Annie shivered. A line of goosebumps ran up her arm. A few errant hairs stood up on end.

“Do you blame me?”

There was no squeeze for OF COURSE NOT, so two squeezes had to do; two hard squeezes. Annie’s hair looked like it was trying to make a break for the ceiling. A few strands were going white. Right, foot off the gas; too much ghostiness and her friend would end up looking like Doc Brown.

Not a great summer beach look.

“Are,” said Annie. She stopped, and didn’t quite sob. “Are you coming back?”

Well, shit. The machines beeped their beeps and the tubes pumped their fluid through the grotesque plastic affair on Becca’s face – her body was still alive, but it had gained that waxy corpse-sheen. She knew she wasn’t going back in there, in a way she didn’t have words for. She knew, but telling somebody else would make it real. Somewhere between one soul and another, truth got mediated. Somewhere between one soul and another, ideas stopped being ideas and started pushing against reality. Two squeezes, then gone – bought the T-shirt, rode the roller-coaster, buh-bye Becca.

In all the stories, ghosts held on because they had unfinished business. They had somebody wicked to haunt, or a friend to console. Becca knew one thing, looking at Annie’ tear-streaked face: she’s never forgive herself until Becca was gone; while her presence was in the air, so was guilt, and shame.

“Becca?” said Annie.

One squeeze. Becca took a deep breath. She smiled, Annie’s eyes were wide now.

“I know you can’t hear me,” she said, “but I’ll see ya later, I hope. Be good.”

Two squeezes.

“Goodbye,” said Annie.

There was light –  

perfect and beautiful light.