After Adulthood

After Adulthood

 

 

The dress was deep purple with a black velvet-lined scoop neck. ‘That leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination’ my dad had scowled from behind his copy of the times, a paper big enough to sleep under. My cheeks warmed with embarrassment and sentimentality. I thought of my dad in his hospital bed the day he died. ‘How are you feeling today?’ I’d asked, ‘Not great,’ he’d said, ‘I’m bloody freezing.’ I held the dress between my thumb and index fingers and stared for a moment longer into the neckline and images of my father. So many, but for a lifetime so few.

I laid the dress on the bed and patted it down. The creases shifted to avoid my hand and the lace hem shivered as it hung over the edge of the tea-stained mattress. The duvet was in a heap in the corner of the room below the window and the sheets and pillowcases were next door with Catherine and her family. I knelt at the foot of the bed, my knees protesting, and tickled the lace s if playing the piano from behind. ‘Thanks mum, but I’d rather not. It’s very nice and everything but I’d like to buy my own.’ That’s what Isabel had said in the weeks before her prom night when I’d shown her the dress. ‘I think the hemline is a little low for these days, you know?’ She was very tactful for a 16 year old. I had only offered out of a lingering nostalgia for my pregnancy. I had thought then with such conviction that the purple gown with the black scoop neck that I had worn only two years earlier would one day be worn by the little girl inside me. But I had matured by the time Isabel had turned 16 and knew she wouldn’t wear it. ‘It’s just, the style now, mum, you know, is a little shorter. Boys want to see your knees, you know?’ I smiled at how angrily I had reacted to that. ‘I’m sure they would like to see a whole lot more,’ both our cheeks flushed red, ‘but you wouldn’t walk around naked, would you?’ My voice was raised but hushed into a whispered shout and we were both embarrassed. I held my ground a moment longer and then stormed out of her room dramatically. Now I smiled, then I couldn’t. I wasn’t ready. Life hadn’t been about me for long enough.

My knees hurt so I moved back onto my heels and slowly rolled my bum onto the carpet. The fibres were worn and compressed but I could see a the dark green plushness of new carpet hiding under the bed. Untouched for half a century. Protected by five different beds. The paper-thin pathway around the bed worn down by two pairs of feet in countless pairs of shoes. Work boots covered in masonry plaster; hiking boots crusted in mud; dress shoes, black, brown, white polished to mirrors; heels for killing; wider heels for better balance; knee high boots; flower patterned slippers – far too young; brand new black and green infantry boots.

My friend at school had had a notion that the earlier you start adulthood the earlier it ends. ‘What happens after that, then?’ I asked her. ‘You die, I guess.’ But it’s not as clear cut as that. There are actually three eventualities. If you’re lucky you return to childhood – no responsibilities, people looking after you and responding to your every whimper. Sometimes you die – which isn’t so bad. And sometimes there is nothing. Adulthood ends but isn’t replaced. You breathe but it doesn’t matter. You see but nothing is new and the thinning of a carpet is far to slow for you to realise. This is the worst option. I had just told her I was pregnant. She was excited for a moment before hitting me with her philosophy. I didn’t believe her. But she hadn’t thought it through.

My back was bent and didn’t straighten as I leant against the foot of the bed. The wardrobe doors were open. One of my earliest memories was looking for Narnia among my parents coats and suits. I found it then but daren’t go too far from the door. If it were here now I would crawl in and never look back. There can be no fear of the future if there is no longing for the present. The space on the rail from where I had taken my prom dress pulled my gaze and I saw the wooden box beneath a pair of dusty white leather dress shoes. I knew it was there. It was not a surprise to see it. I thought about it almost every night before I slept. But the shoes stopped me from opening it and they would stop me now.

I slumped onto my left hip and slid onto my elbow and forearm – a strange position. It would look as if I had fallen, had an accident, but no one can see me and I am comfortable. My gaze is fixed on the box at the bottom of the wardrobe and my mind is already rifling through the letters. I am reading. I am smelling. I am laughing. I am stroking the rough paper on my cheek. I am crying. I am crying so hard. Tears are pouring down my face, dripping onto my cream blouse and my green flour covered apron. I am wailing. I am holding my knees to my chest. I am rocking back and forth. I am pulling at my hair. I am screaming at the top of my lungs. I am kicking the bed, the wardrobe, the bedside table. I am throwing the lamp against the wall. Smash. My daughter is shouting mummy mummy mummy.  I am apologising. I am holding her. I am whispering. We are crying.

The After Party

The After Party

The wormhole slurped and choked as it shut behind me. My knees were scratched beneath my skirt and my left elbow was bleeding profusely. I pushed myself over and flopped back against the breeze-block. I pressed my hand over the cut on my elbow and winced. The wall I was leaning against was maybe ten feet high and in front of me a brick and glass building raced upwards and into the black. To my right the narrow ginnel continued through plastic bags and crumbling parts of discarded home-makers. To my left I could see an old car-road with the occasional vehicle silently chugging past. The blood from my elbow was now leaking between my fingers and dripping onto my skirt. I groped uncertainly in the dim light for my satchel but couldn’t find it. Did I forget to pick it up as I raced across the lawn to the fading wormhole? The party was still raging when I saw it open and I definitely ran back into Mr. Marx’s house for something. Why would I not get my satchel? I checked my breast pocket – I had my knife. I stood up and my back twinged in revolt and I was momentarily dizzy. I kept my hand on the wall both for stability and orientation and slowly felt my way along the ginnel towards the car-road. I felt stronger but a long streak of blood now decorated my entire right hand side. I needed my satchel.

*

The sound of the lawnmower spluttering into life woke me with a jolt. Jack was in the garden and the sun was shining through the white linen curtains. The room was warm but I was cosy in bed. I pushed myself up into my pillows and felt around for my glasses. As vision corrected my world I discovered that Jack, the sweetheart, had left a cuppa on the bedside-table. He must’ve known I’d be woken by the mower and preemptively placated me. I sipped on the hot liquid and placed it back on its heat-retainer, the display maintaining a steady 88. Jack strode past the window with his ancient mower, focused, engrossed. I froze the silhouette he cast on the curtains in my mind. He was broad across the back and his muscular arms stretched the fabric of his undershirt, his obnoxious belt buckle stood out like the control box on a home-maker but his soul was older than most. He lived in the ancient world sometimes and I enjoyed seeing him passionate about it, it warmed my heart. I sipped my tea and warmed my belly. The thought of cleaning up the house after last night flickered and quickly died in my mind.

*

The scratching at the window was unusual. I ignored it once, twice. The sweat was building in the folds of my t-shirt and my neck began to itch. I slapped at the fatty skin and cursed the world. The VT-screen surrounded me but didn’t scream for attention. I stretched my left leg to relieve the itchiness behind my inflamed knee but that made my back hurt. I rearranged my pillows but when I turned back my neck clunked and yelped. I swore and slapped the box of wipes off my stomach and onto the floor where they settled among scrunched up McDonalds papers and boxes of coffee pills.

Scratch Scratch Scratch.

I spoke to my VT-screen and it died silently.

Scratch Scratch Scratch.

I took off my glasses and the room went from a binary green to deathly grey.

Scratch Scratch Scratch.

‘Hello?’ I said.

Bang Bang Bang.

I pulled at my sheets.

‘Who is it?’

Bang Bang Bang.

‘Go away!’ I screamed as loud as I could in the hope that the soundproof walls might be breeched and cary my plea across the hall to old Mrs. King and she would shoo whatever beast was at my thirteenth floor window.

Glass flew across the room, some caught by the curtains but some ripping the wallpaper and bedsheets. I felt a scratch across my forehead and threw my hands to my face. Then a pounding electrified my swollen leg and the sheets began to darken. A thin wispy creature crawled in through the broken window all greys and blacks. Long hair draped across its face but looked matted and sticky. I could smell the metallic stench of human blood and wanted to vomit. And I wanted to scream. The creature stood up, its back arching up slowly from a folded U, its neck last to straighten. It looked at me. One hand rose slowly and pushed its sticky hair from its eyes and blood dripped from its elbow. It leaped at me from across the room and landed on my throbbing thigh. Her body was light and fragile but she saw me wince. She squeezed her thighs and I screamed. The girl screamed too, her eyes boring into mine and the room shook and shook and shook.

*

Jack stood at the bottom of the garden where last night the girl had run into the woods and disappeared.

‘Call the police.’ He shouted across the lawn. I could see his face was serious.

‘What is it, Jack?’ My voice shook as it carried across the garden.

‘A body. Call the police.’ I started to rush towards him but he held up his hand for me to stop. ‘It’s no one we know. You don’t need to see it. Let’s let the police handle it.’ His hand touched my shoulder and as we turned towards the house I saw a great pile of flesh and dirt at the bottom of my garden. The image froze in my mind and I saw it and saw it and I still see it.

Hi Mum

Hi Mum

 

‘I’m having a tough morning, this morning, mum.’ I whimpered into my mobile.

‘Why’s that, my love? You struggling to wake up again?’ Her voice creaked like a badly hung door.

‘Well, I guess that’s part of it. I don’t really know why I go through these phases. One day I’m jumping out of bed then I can’t move like my duvet is made of lead.’

‘I’ve told you, my love, you’re not drinking enough.’ I smile as this crosses the miles to my cocoon. ‘Water, I mean. You know dehydration can make everything more difficult. Didn’t my doctor tell me the exact same thing…’

‘Mum…’

‘I’m just passing on the expertise, my love. If the doctor thinks water is the answer to ninety percent of peoples’ complaints in this country then who am I to argue.’

‘Yes. You’re quite right, mum. As is Doctor Smeldling.’ I hold my breath as my brain decides whether to continue or not. ‘And how is the good doctor, mother dear? Have you seen much of him lately?’

I listen to my mum’s forehead crack into an embarrassed scowl. ‘He’s quite well, dear, thank you for asking. I shall pass on your best wishes.’ I smile and it must be audible. ‘There’s nothing funny about this situation. The doctor is a good man and, admittedly, he is somewhat lonely. As am I for that matter. It doesn’t help that my daughter is fifty thousand miles away, judging me.’

‘Mum,’ I soften, ‘I’m not judging you. I’m sure the doctor is a wonderful man. He is a doctor for one thing. It’s just…’

‘I know, my love. But you can’t begrudge your old mum shopping around a bit. Your dad popped his clogs twelve years ago, now, and you beggared off over there four years ago.’ I can hear her voice creak a little under the weight.

‘Mum, do you have to use that phrase?’

‘What, popped his clogs?’

‘Well, that too I suppose. But I meant the other one. The shopping around one.’ I roll over and stare at the ceiling. Something black and leggy stares back. I slide under the covers. ‘I just don’t really think you should make yourself sound like you’re so desperate.

‘So you judge me for being lonely and you’re forbidding me to be desperate, now. What exactly is your objection to the doctor.’

‘Nothing mum. Nothing. I look forward to meeting him at Christmas.’

The miles between us stretch in the silence. Turquoise glass water; dry desert sand; a lone snow leopard transfixed; a torn up city; a burned village; a football match; a tropical storm screaming at bolted doors and bendy palm trees; a cruise ship; a fishing boat; a fifty foot yacht; coke cans in the tide lapping the beach; a field; a road; a bus stop; a house.

‘So, my love, tell me about your morning.’ She is reformed quicker than me.

‘Oh, it’s nothing. I’m still in bed. It’s eleven o’clock and I’m still in bed. That’s all. It’s just frustrating. I feel like there’s so much I want to do, that I want to get done, but I can’t even talk myself into getting up.’

‘and you know there’ll come a time…’

‘And I know there’ll come a time when I won’t have a choice. When I have to get up and probably do a whole host of things I really don’t want to do but I’ll do it anyway.’ I turn over again and put my pillow over my head. I avoid looking at my friend on the ceiling. ‘So why can’t I do it now and get on with the things that I want to do?’

‘I don’t know, my love.’ I hear her slurp at her tea and then gently clink it back onto the saucer. she rotates it slightly to align the handle with the stem of the rose printed on the china. ‘Have you tried putting your alarm at the other side of the room?’

‘Yes. I tried that. I told you about it. I got so upset with it I jumped out of bed, switched it off, threw it across the room and dived back in bed and went to sleep for another two hours.’

‘So that didn’t work, then.’ Obviously unhappy with the cup I hear it scrape on its saucer as it is realigned. ‘Oh, my love, I have no idea. Try Googling it. I really have to go now, the house won’t clean itself.’

‘Okay, mum. Speak to you soon. Take care. Love you.’ I tap the red bar at the bottom of my phone and push my face into the mattress. I can’t really breathe but I force myself to try.

I put the kettle on. I make tea. I slump onto the sofa. I pull my dressing gown around me and slide into the mist. My breath and the tea battle for superiority in the cold air. I pick up a book and disappear entirely.

The Shining Desert Sand

The Shining Desert Sand

Having stayed far too long at my sister’s house I packed my duffle bag with my handful of clothes, mostly unwashed, and threw them onto the back of the truck. The sun was barely scratching the distant Sierra Nevada in the east and the sound of my brother-in-law’s snoring was enough to hide the sound of my engine spluttering into life. The dog followed me, recognising the need for silence, as I rolled out of the driveway resisting the temptation to spin the wheels and spray the poor fella with sand.

I drove north towards Reno with no real plan. If the worst comes, I thought, I’ll have blown this $40 by six o’clock and will be sleeping in the truck. I can handle that. I smiled as the sun basked my face in warmth and freedom.

When there is nowhere to be and you have a truck with a tank the size of mine it makes little sense to blitz the highways. As it turned out, the backroads were hardly meandering country lanes and I soon found myself confronted by the mountains.

The sun was now behind me and had long since passed it’s peak. The road was as straight as an Indian’s top feather as far as the base of the mountains where I could see it begin to wind up like a rattler. To my right I caught a glimpse of an airplane sitting on the sand. Its wings were short and white and its fuselage was a deep red. I couldn’t help but be intrigued and pulled off the road. The sandy track took me past a small white house with boarded windows and into a car park where a lonely car sat abandoned and gently turning the colour of burning toast.

I killed the engine and swung my bad leg across the seat and onto the soft earth. I closed my cab door feeling a prescient inkling of the need to do so softly. The catch clicked. I walked towards the red and white plane I’d seen from the road. It was small; a single engine with propeller at the front. The tip of the wing came up just below my chin and for a second I let the hot metal brush my unshaven skin. I was suddenly overcome by a trip of self-consciousness and thought how bizarre I must look, hands in pockets, chin on plane wing. I turned a full innocent circle and surveyed the airfield. The sand was torn up and left dishevelled by the wind. Other planes, and parts of planes, sat at the far side of the deserted strip. I could see from this distance of eighty or ninety yards that they were in much poorer condition to my red and white one. They were brown and grey and wings had been left hanging at the side of rusting and hollowed trunks, propellers were crooked and rubber lay strewn at their feet as though their shoes had been ripped away in a mugging. They were sad; I payed them no more mind.

The wings of the red and white plane were around fifteen feet long and rounded into a perfect curve at the tips. Where they connected to the body was only a tires breadth from the sand and they reached up to my face and the to the cloudless sky. The white paint of the wings was smooth and unblemished by rust. I traced my hand along the edge until I was kneeling on the ground in the small plane’s shadow. The machine was faultless.

I stood and walked around the front to the propeller. It’s blades were sharp and polished to a high shine. I saw the blue in my eyes flash in the bright metallic shards. The other side of the plane was equally well maintained but on this side of the fuselage was inscribed the letters, the initials, H.B.W. For the first time I considered that I might be trespassing and glanced beyond the plane to my truck. It too looked abandoned; rust patches making friends with the rotten VW.

The glass dome of the cockpit, I found, was unlocked. The catch was resting on its lock and a gap between the rubber seals invited my fingers. I felt the clean rubber on my fingers as I slid them into the corner where the gap narrows to nothing. I lifted the glass and hopped onto the wing and then into the cockpit. The glass closed over my head with a soft click.

‘Hello.’

The glass in front of my face clouded.

‘Hello,’ I said looking forwards.

‘I saw you admiring my plane from your truck. It does dazzle the senses somewhat, I agree. A splendid machine.’

‘It’s like a shining beacon in the desert sand,’ I said and then instantly became unaware that I’d just spoken.

‘It really is, isn’t it? But, you know, not everybody notices it. Especially since they built the interstate at the other side of the dry river.’

‘That was forty years ago.’

‘Really now? That long, is it? Well, it feels like yesterday to an old fool like me.’

It was sharply cooler inside the plane and while the sunlight poured in through the polished glass its heat was somewhere absorbed before it reached me. ‘Does it still fly?’

‘Oh yes, of course. But do you think I can get it off the ground in this place? That was once a serviceable runway but I’d kill myself trying to takeoff on that mess if I tried now.’

‘Then how can you be sure it still flies?’ I asked the dials under my calloused fingers.

‘I see it in my dreams. Just like I’ve seen you stroking the wings and catching your reflection in my propeller.’

‘You’ve seen me in your dreams?’ My voice was controlled but my neck was stiff like I’d been sitting in a cold breeze.

‘Oh yes. Everyday, in fact.’

‘For how long?’

‘Since the day I died. But I haven’t grown at all bored with the dream. It really is quite an indefatigable dream. Always the same.’

‘Well, how do you know it’s not a dream this time?’ My palms were cold with sweat.

‘Does it feel like a dream, to you?’ His icy thick fingers stroked the back of my head and my neck and a numbness tickled my cheek as he stumbled over the hair on my face. My eyes closed with a thud and sealed themselves shut as I felt this breath on my ears and then my face. I couldn’t see but I felt him staring into me. His putrid, ancient breath seeped in though my nostrils and began to squeeze my insides. I coughed and tasted iron.

Thank you for reading. I’m always interested to here your thoughts.

The Old Home

The Old Home

The leaves outside the window reminded Tom of Ethel’s hair-do, only upside-down. She sat a few spaces to his right between the corner lamp and the TV and her protruding frizz cast a shadow across the screen. He thought about yelling over to her, telling her to shift her fat head but he didn’t bother for two pretty good reasons. For starters Tom’s voice had grown so weak over the last few years that any attempt to yell would not only be futile but would probably result in his voice box disintegrating in his throat and coming out in a violent sneeze. Secondly Ethel was as deaf as a post and even if by some miracle she was able to hear Tom’s shout, or perhaps his thorax splitting sneeze, her reaction would be minimal as her arthritis had practically welded her to the chair.

So rather than risk taking anything into his own hands Tom did what he always did and pulled his red string that hung next to his chair. The living room (ironically named in Tom’s opinion) was littered with these emergency strings and was what, Tom imagined, a Hollywood studio rigged for filming something with a lot of vertical laser beams might look like. Tom hadn’t seen a film since 1954, however, so he didn’t tell anyone about this theory.

Nurse Woakes came throbbing down the hallway. She was essentially a caricature of her own huge bosom and enhanced the stereotype of her profession two-fold by herself. Her footsteps sent mini tsunamis across the carpet as she approached.

“Yes, Tom dear. What is it?”

“Good Morning, Sandra,” Tom whispered.

“It’s three PM, my dear.”

“Yes. Well, quite.” Tom looked at the floor and then at his hands and then at Nurse Woakes. “Ah. Good morning, Sandra.”

“What can I do for you Tom? Are you sliding down your chair a little? It’s these plastic sheets isn’t it, eh? I tell you, Tom, if Nurse Horsefield could wash these chairs with petroleum jelly I think she would. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve come in in a morning and had to wipe them down again. Honestly, soap suds all over the place. You’d think she was preparing the place for It’s a Knockout. Honestly.” Nurse Woakes chortled to herself at this and then suddenly succumbed to the joke so profoundly that her hands planted themselves on her hips and her humongous breast were thrust forward and punched Tom full in the face.

“I wonder if I might have a bowl of that petroleum jelly,” Tom said from under the folds of Nurse Woakes as she pulled up his cushions and shunted him into a more upright, and decidedly less comfortable position. Tom’s request was apparently humorous enough to send the great big carer into a wobbling fit of giggles and, considering Tom’s partially asphyxiating position, resulted in what people of a younger generation might call motorboating, but what Tom could only describe as a facial pummelling.

“Oh, Thomas, you are a joker, aren’t you, eh? Give your string a tug if you slip down again my dear.” Said Nurse Woakes as she trundled back down the hallway and out of sight. And for Tom out of sight was out of mind.

Tom looked around the living room. The walls were draped with red and green tinsel that was so thin it was in danger of being mistaken for an emergency cord. Tom wondered what effect pulling a green emergency cord might have, he’d certainly never seen a green one before. The curtains were open and it was raining outside. The water dribbled down the last leaves on the tree and made Tom think of Ethel’s hair again. He looked back in the direction of the TV but couldn’t see the blasted thing. He reached to pull his red cord to call the nurse but paused for a moment as a memory threatened to reveal itself. Had he just spoken to the nurse about this? He couldn’t remember talking to anyone but his face ached in a way that convinced him he had recently been close to Nurse Woakes. He was also impressively upright. He lowered his hand and considered his options: he could shout to Ethel (low chance of success and high physical risk); he could try to get up and move his own chair (extremely low chance of success and very high physical risk); he could pull his red cord and hope that his encounter with Nurse Woakes was successful (low chance of success, high mental risk and considerable physical risk). But considering Tom had forgotten the first two options he pulled the cord. The light at the end of his cord blinked knowingly and the legs of his chair began to shudder. The threads in the yellow carpet wafted viciously like corn in the breeze. Tom looked around the room and wondered what might happen in the future. He also wondered what had happened in the past. His back ached and his face felt sort of flat.

And so this was life in the old home. It continued in much the same way day after day, year after year, Tom after Ethel after Bernard after Joan. Nurse Woakes smiled and suffocated. Nurse Horsefield continued to lube-up the armchairs until she too eventually found herself sliding around in a memoryless trance. The TV was on solidly between the hours of seven AM and eight PM and the walls of the old home absorbed the sounds and smells and flickering thoughts of the residents without commentary. There was no commentary and no memory but life still continued in the old home. For ever and ever and ever.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your comments!

The Centre of The Earth

The Centre of The Earth

What’s at the centre of the earth? I asked my dad. Molten lava, he said. Is that what comes out of the volcano? I asked him. My hand was wrapped in his and I could feel his heartbeat swim down my arm and into my chest to join my own. I smiled and looked up at the canopy of thick forest above my head in an attempt to locate a squawking bird. I couldn’t make him out but I knew he was there. A monkey swung across the low hanging branches and bared his teeth in our direction. Stupid monkey, my father shouted at it’s bright red bottom. I picked up a stone and through it towards the monkey. He was gone. The bird continued to squawk. I absent-mindedly allowed my hand to drift back into the clutches of my father’s. He was a tall slim man and his skin was darker than most. He said this was because he used to fall in the mud a lot as a child, but he always chuckled as he said this so I didn’t believe him. His laugh, too, was dark, but his eyes were as bright as stars. I never had bad dreams after looking into my father’s eyes at bedtime.

He dropped my hand as we slipped between two great trees, their tops hidden in the dark green blanket between us and the sky. How do you know? I asked him. Have you ever been to the centre of the earth? We can’t go to the centre of the earth, he said, and even if we could I don’t think I would want to. I thought he was probably right about this. I don’t suppose anything lives down there does it? I said. He agreed.

The forest thinned out a little and I wanted to hold his hand again but I resisted because today he was teaching me how to be a man. I’m sure I’m far too small and I’m definitely too skinny. My shoulder blades stick out of my back like the skinning knives hanging on over the stove in our house. But my father thinks I’m ready so today I will walk alone and today I’ll catch a big fat pig and today my dad will lift me on his shoulders and show his strong white teeth to all the other men and boys in the village and his smile will reach the ends of the earth.

My dad stopped and told me to sit on a small rock next to the trodden path. He sat on a much bigger rock across from me. He held his longbow between his thighs and the string pushed against his collarbone making a thin indent on his skin. He looked ay me and I looked back at his face. It seemed so much older than mine but so much younger than it usually did around the fire in our house. The soft light that filtered through the trees softened his creased forehead and the lines at the sides of his eyes seems to smile. He asked me what I knew about catching pigs. You’ve got to pierce it’s chest, I said, stab it right in the heart. He loved my enthusiasm and I could feel his pride radiating like a protective bubble.

The gap between us was new and felt strange but it was only small. I knew what I needed to do to close the gap and have my father take me in his arms. Let me win you back, I thought and my heart pounded against my chest with longing. Now we didn’t speak. My father reached to his back and pulled an arrow from his quiver. He handed it to me, with the lethal head pointing between my eyes. I took it from him and held it upright balancing the tail on my foot to keep it out of the mud just as my father had done. It’s heavy, I thought, but I knew I could not say that. He passed the bow, which of course was many times heavier, and he stood up and walked ahead on the path. After a moment we entered a clearing and he stood aside to let me pass.

I carried the bow over my shoulder and the string pressed into my skin. I pictured the arrow killing the pig. I smiled and the bow lightened. The path we were following was made by pigs and it was dotted with fresh prints, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I got my first chance. I could feel my father’s strength behind me pushing me forwards. I daren’t look round. My father’s bow and arrow was so much heavier than my practice one but that little thing would never kill a pig – and no man would ever use it unless he wanted to die of embarrassment. When I killed the pig today my father’s bow would become my bow and I would become a man.

There was a flash of brown hair as a pig darted across the path a few metres ahead. I saw white as well and knew it was a male. They were a lot more aggressive than the females but they tasted better and their heads were a hell of a lot more impressive. Without needing a hint from my father I tiptoed quickly down the path. The earth was soft and the leaves on the floor were damp so I could move almost silently. The pig was there, about ten metres away. It was nibbling on some yellow mushrooms at the base of a great tree. His back was facing me. It was almost perfect. I could easily get a shot away and that big behind was an easy target. But an arrow in the backside wouldn’t kill it and I may well lose it. I could feel my father’s energy but no longer had a desire to be in his arms. I was alive to only the movement of the wind and of the pig in front of me.

I stepped one leg across the other and moved slowly and silently in a semi circle around the pig. He was focused on the mushrooms but I knew I mustn’t go too far or I would enter his peripheral vision and he would scarper. I stopped and leant my weight against a thick tree. I could see his chest. I had the line to his heart. I picked up the bow and rested the arrow on my hand. I felt as calm as if I were shooting grass in the village but my hands were damp with sweat and my chest was rising and falling quickly. I breathed in deeply trough my wide nostrils and pulled the string and arrow back towards my ear. My small, feeble arms shook with the tension and just as I was about to let them flop to my sides in agony I released the arrow. There was a whistle of air and that flicking sound when a leaf is whipped by something and my arrow cut through everything and drove deep into the pig’s chest.

The pig shrieked but I didn’t watch. I turned and looked for my father. He jumped through the undergrowth like a wild monkey and he laughed and shouted my name. He was even younger than he had been on the rock beside the path. He danced towards me and whisked me up into his arms. I could feel his pride sweep through my body and it shot up out of the top of our heads like a great sun beam and pierced the sky.

Spell-Mageddon

Spell-Mageddon

Michael pressed the button on his key and heard the beep behind him as he walked across the car park towards the studio. It was a huge building, perhaps three or four times the size of the Best Western he’d stayed in on the outskirts of time. His stomach growled and he could feel the sensation deep down but the usual hunger pangs weren’t reaching his brain. The Chinese State Circus was in town and they had chosen Michael’s insides as their after-show party venue. Neon lights flashed inside him and drunken trapeze artists got naked and had raucous Chinese sex in his stomach. Each step across the cold winter tarmac brought him deeper into the shadow of the great building. His progress was glacial.

The front door was not what he had imagined and quite possibly only half as impressive as the front door to his Best Western. For starters there was no doorman and in fact when he tried the door he found it was locked. He scanned the grey concrete doorway looking for a clue. He held the gaze of the security camera for a moment considering making a facial plea for help. Instead he pulled a winning smile that when carried through the fabric of the security system to the small black and white television in the small office just through the wall to Michael’s left appeared more like the death throes of a bulldog after a facelift.

On the wall below the security camera was a great panel of buttons and labels. Michael studied the names on the panel but found nothing that helped him overcome this first hurdle of his television career. He checked the email on his iPhone. Front Door. This was that. No further clues. He scanned the doorway again. His stomach was wriggling like a horde of mice at a disco. A sign with a huge arrow and the words Spell-Mageddon caught his attention. The arrow pointed to a button on the panel. He thought for a moment and then decided that this was probably the button he was supposed to press. If he stood in the doorway any longer he may begin to look foolish. He pushed the button and told the sweet female voice at the other end that he was Michael Swift and was here to do some spelling. The girl laughed sympathetically. The door buzzed open and he went into the building.

Inside the trail was less problematic. Michael followed the signs to the block of lifts and went to the fifth floor as instructed. The lift was small and old fashioned and didn’t have any mirrors. The lift in the Best Western was at least twice as glamorous and had mirrors on three sides. Michael had woken at quarter past six to start getting ready. He had had a long shower and washed his hair twice (he hadn’t been able to remember if he had already done it and so did it again just in case). He had ironed his shirt and trousers the previous night but gave them another quick iron before getting dressed. He had been in the breakfast room by seven o’clock and had filled his plate with bacon and eggs in a vain attempt at crushing his nerves to death but had only managed a couple of mouthfuls. He drank four cups of coffee. He regretted that now.

The lift doors opened and he stepped out into the lobby of the fifth floor. An old tattered banner drooped across the front of the reception desk: Welcome Spell-Mageddon-ers! He walked slowly to the desk. A bald man sat on a cushioned bench to his right and the light reflected brightly off his head. Suppressing his nerves and sucking in his stomach Michael approached the young woman behind the desk. She looked up and smiled beautifully at him. He smiled awkwardly back in her general direction. ‘Michael Swift,’ he said to the clock behind her.

‘You’re very early, Michael. We won’t start rehearsing until eleven o’clock. But please make yourself comfortable in the lobby; there’s free tea and coffee over there and I believe a fellow contestant is already here.’ She leaned over the desk and craned her neck slightly in the direction of the bald man. Michael followed her example and contorted his body towards the shiny head in comprehension. ‘Please, take a seat, relax,’ she smiled.

The bald man was extremely bald indeed. Cueball. Michael sat diagonally opposite him and began his spelling warm-up exercises.

‘Hello.’

Michael looked up but the bald man was looking at his feet and didn’t appear to be trying to engage Michael in conversation. He resumed his warm-up exercises.

‘Hello.’

This time Michael looked up quickly and saw the bald man return to looking at his feet. It was definitely coming from the bald man. ‘Hello,’ said Michael.

‘I’m Clifford,’ replied the shiny tip of the Cueball. ‘What’s your name?’

‘I’m Michael. Very nice to meet you, Clifford. You’re very early, Clifford. I was told that I was early and you were here before me. Would you like a coffee?’ Michael stood up and regretted his offer. He certainly didn’t need another coffee but it would be very peculiar behaviour to get a stranger – a rival – a coffee without making one for himself.

‘Oh, yes please,’ said Clifford. (Clifford had been in the lobby since seven o’clock and had had four coffees himself and would have preferred to decline Michael’s kind offer but the situation didn’t really allow him to do so).

‘Here you go, Clifford.’ Michael placed the two cups on the small table next to Clifford the Cueball and sat in the other adjacent chair. Michael raised the cup to his lips out of sheer politeness. Clifford did the same.

‘So, which words do you think will come up?’ asked the top of the Cueball as the other side inspected the carpet.

‘Oh, I really don’t know. You can never know, can you?’ The men laughed quietly at something or other.

The clock behind the front desk ticked aggressively and Cueball breathed on his shoes.

‘I think I’ll go to the toilet,’ said Clifford.

‘I’ll come with you,’ said Michael. He immediately regretted saying that and thought, simultaneously, of all the ways it was inappropriate. But he couldn’t exactly change his mind about a toilet trip. The two men shuffled out of the lobby towards the toilet. Their untouched coffees sat steaming on the table and the girl behind the front desk bit her lip and raised her eyebrows. Michael’s stomach waltzed across the lobby in front of him to the vicious rhythm of the Chinese national anthem.