She stopped time

A friend has laid down a challenge to a few of us, we’re to enter the Scottish Book Trust’s monthly 50 word competition until one of us wins it. March’s prompt was a watch; here’s my first attempt, not sure it works but things can only improve:

He tilted his watch towards the smattering of light escaping the streetlamp; forty minutes late. She’d demanded to meet, then left him freezing in the night. He cursed her, and flagged a taxi.

“You’ll be quicker walking, traffic’s no’ moving. Bus’s hit some lassie just up the road.”

Hasta Siempre, Comandante

So Chavez is dead.

I was in Venezuela during the run up to the 2005 elections and I found it nearly impossible to get a balanced opinion of the man. In my experience the poor and some of the indigenous peoples (only some, the others were so remote they couldn’t give a fuck who was in charge) worshipped him. The middle and upper classes appeared to hate him and  they were exceptionally suspicious of his relationship with Cuba. I’ll never forget one embittered and unemployed Venezuelan teacher telling me he couldn’t get a job because he wasn’t Cuban.

If I found it difficult to get a clear picture of an apparently divisive man in his home country, then it was even more so to form an opinion through the international media who painted him as a modern day, Bolivarian messiah flicking the finger to the imperialist yankees.

Maybe I’m just a champagne socialist; or maybe I’m a silly, naive romantic; or it might just be the contrarian in me mourning the passing of a fellow contrarian but I’m sad to see the maverick go.

Not that it matters what I think.

I never had to live under his government or experience the hardships of so many in Venezuela.

For what it is worth, I hope a beautiful country and the amazing people who live there get the leadership and government they deserve, and I truly hope his passing doesn’t lead to destabilisation and pain.

The beginnings of a noir thriller…

The cold steel of the railings condensed the fog and turned the black paint graphite. The sodium lamps blurred as they fought a losing battle of enlightenment against the dark soul of night. Damp gnawed at Harris’s bones and a wind whipped his unkempt hair across his face. He leaned with his hands on the bridge, his head was bowed as he looked at, but didn’t see, the river below, oblivious to the machinations of man, as it cut a swathe through the city lights. Stepping back and turning to face the road so he could see both ends of the bridge; Harris pushed the hair out of his eyes, drew the cigarettes from the inside pocket of his jacket, lit one and watched the smoke couple with the fog.

He checked his watch. Again. Then, in an attempt to calm himself, took another deep drag on the cigarette. She was late and he didn’t know what it meant. In truth he didn’t know her at all, not beyond an insistent voice on the other end of the telephone.

If he stopped to question too long Harris knew the doubts would become fear and he would be dancing to someone else’s tune once more. The same fateful soundtrack that had been playing since before he knew this, whatever this was, had began.

The day it began, or at least the day he became aware of it, was no different from any other. The radio dragged him out of sleep and he lay in bed longer than he should, making promises to himself: up after the news, after the next sports bulletin, after the traffic report. Until he begrudgingly accepted he was late and everything then became a barely controlled but finely honed routine.  Out of bed; shower; get dressed; eat breakfast; style hair; clean teeth; check wallet, keys, pass for the office; and then a final look in the mirror to make sure the tie was straight and the hair perfectly imperfect.

It was as he spun away from the mirror after the final inspection that he kicked the suitcase and stumbled. It was an old style case, a rectangle with a looped handle on its long edge. No wheels, navy blue canvas with faux leather bands and a gold, plastic logo: Marco Polo. Harris couldn’t remember where it had came from, it had moved from house to house with him so often it was a wrench to actually get rid of it but it had become so out of sync with the rest of his life it was now incongruous. So he had filled it with old clothes and had intended to take it to the nearest charity shop at the weekend. Now he cursed himself for only doing half the job, and used his foot to push it hard against the wall. It was only when he did so that he registered the case was heavier than one would expect for a contents of some sweat stained shirts and a shiny suit. Then he noticed the smear of red, vivid against the pale laminate flooring.

Harris cursed again, realising he had thrown the black bag of clothes in the communal waste bins and placed the rubbish bag, complete with the remains of a beetroot salad, into the case. Another curse, he was going to be late, he knew if he didn’t take the rubbish out now he would come home to the fetid stench of decay. Flipping the case on its back Harris undid the buckle and unzipped the top, throwing it open with no small amount of irritation.

That was the moment he became aware of it beginning.

There was no black bag. No rubbish. No beetroot. Only two legs, each cut in two just above the knee; two arms; a torso with a head nestled just below the breasts, and blood. A lot of blood. Blood which now stained his shirt and hands.

Harris stared at the head; it had been at least six months since he’d seen Kath. Six months since their not so amicable split when she kicked him out of her house, forcing him to take refuge in an upmarket, west end apartment. They’d never spoken again, only exchanging a few terse emails to sort out the car insurance and shared money. Now here she was, staring at him with lifeless, glassy eyes out of a bloody suitcase in his living room. Disbelieving he sat back on the floor, reached out and tentatively touched her face with an index finger. It was cold, it was clammy and it was real. He barely even had time to consider how she’d ended up there, when, simultaneously, the door buzzer and his mobile phone cut through the shock.

Automatically he jumped up to answer the door, fumbling with his phone as he did. The phone showed withheld number and the grainy intercom video screen unmistakably displayed two police officers. Harris never took his eyes off the police on the screen as he answered the phone, they buzzed again.

There was no introduction or preamble, her tone was urgent and her accent clipped but she resonated calm and control:

“If you don’t want to die in a prison accident you need to leave now.”

“Wh-who is this?”, Harris stuttered back.

“Stop fucking about Harris. Leave the flat, go down the fire escape and over the back wall”, she instructed. “They don’t know for certain that you’re in here so they’ve only sent two, the rest are heading to intercept you at your work. Leave your phone; your credit cards; keep moving; and don’t meet anyone you know. I’ll meet you on the bridge in the city, three am, two nights from now.”

Then the phone went dead, Harris stared at it as he tried to comprehend what was happening but another impatient buzz on the door sent him down the fire escape and over the wall.

The walls close in

Attacks against the senses. Damp seeps into my bones and shadows snatch from the cold. Buildings loom, endlessly leaning out from darkness. Infinite seas of angry faces buffet me as I struggle through the flow. Relentless hammer blows of noise beat down upon me. My eyes flash, watching everything, seeing nothing. Desperation takes hold. My thoughts become swallows darting in the race for sanity. Hope escapes once more. Life assaults the soul.

Let me go.

Watching you watching me

Grey skies, grey streets, grey faces all darkened by the relentless smur of rain – a grey day for grey times.

The first one was standing at the top of the steps down to the station beneath the street.

He was new.

Chunky trainers, baggy jeans, oversized vest, hooded top with open zip, gold chain, diamond stud, mobile phone to his ear. But he stood too straight, the phone call was only one way, he watched people like a raptor following its prey, too often his eyes passed over the second one.

He wasn’t new.

Suit, shirt, shoes were different enough from the usual work wear. I had to look twice – just another businessman heading back from lunch. I’d long since stopped being surprised at finding them wherever I went, I’d even stopped being surprised at how easy they were to spot, so I confess to a pleasant feeling upon discovering I’d almost missed him. They were getter better, learning, raising their expertise to close the gap between hunter and quarry.

I continued my walk past the subway entrance, and the suit-wearing builder, just far enough to draw Tupac off his stand. A pirouette, a skip, a smile, down to the station: protocol took them both out of the game. Easy.

Rain and grime had turned the cream tiles charcoal, an oil slick in the concourse forcing me to slow. No queue for a ticket machine, paid cash, moved on, no hood necessary, CCTV already had me. Shop in the ticket hall, the kind I was after: phone cards, cases, handsets, unlocking and SIM cards. All unregistered. Untraceable. Rules kept us both in play, but blind obedience to rules constrained them, whilst freedom to bend set me free.

It wasn’t the time to bend.

I needed untraceable phones but it wouldn’t matter how untraceable they were if they knew I had them. Now was the time to follow the plan.

Through the barrier, down the escalator, left for northbound trains, fate lends a hand, walk straight onto a train, doors close, no familiar faces, respite. A deep breath.

They knew I was on the train. The CCTV would monitor where I got off but the cameras on the train didn’t broadcast, they only record. No way to live monitor every face at every station, they wouldn’t know where I got off until after the fact. Away from the main arterials omnipotent eyes don’t look into the side street shadows.

Refuge.

Only for a short time, but still refuge.

Beyond the out of date A to Z I hadn’t recced the area. No way for them to guess where I was headed. No way for me to be certain I’d find what I was looking for. Know your terrain: a rule I could break, a gamble. The calculated risk success demanded.

Hood up, head down, off the train, right, left, left again, up the escalator, through the barrier, ignore the charity bucket, grey light, steel rain, fight against sea of people crashing off the bus.

Then slower, there was no need to rush: no need to stand out from the commuting crowd. I turned left once more, moving away from the station and into the dusk racing towards darkness. I was careful to walk with purpose, playing the part of a man knowing exactly where he was going just for the cameras. I crossed the road at the junction before heading straight up the hill towards a sanctuary of fleeting anonymity. I couldn’t help but feel a rush of amusement at imagining their confusion when a sudden right took me out of sight and into a dark warren, a nameless estate taut with deprivation, despair, disgust. No one watched here. Out of sight, out of mind.

I continued away from the eyes, deeper into the abyss, a backlit yellow sign, an off license. Phone cards? Phones? Yes. Two. Not as many as I needed. Not enough to raise suspicion.

Ahead again.

The Boxer

I love Irvine Welsh and James Kelman’s writing, their use of Scots dialogue breathes life into their characters and immediately places them geographically.

This is an attempt, my first, at writing in dialogue, it’s an older piece (the middle of last year I think). It wasn’t easy and reading it again I’m still not sure I’ve achieved what I was aiming for, maybe I need to read Trainspotting again.

I should probably say the photo of the wrapped hands uploaded with this post isn’t one of mine.

Anyway, here’s a short piece in Scots followed by an English translation:

Scots Version

Smack.

Smack.

Smack.

It’s fuckin’ quiet in here. Quiet enough tae hear the blid and sweat hittin’ the flare, wee puddles o’ pain. Ah can feel ma hert thunerin’ in ma ears. Ma left eye’s jist aboot shut, there a gaping gash on ma right cheek bone, an’ ma body aches. At least it’s stopped fuckin’ screamin’.

It’s a lang time since ah’ve bin in this room. Nowt’s changed. Dunno why it should. The grey plastic flare still has its chips an’ cracks, the peint’s still peeling aff the wa’s and the corner o’ the mirror is still missin’. The wuden bench micht be smoother on account o’ a few mare years o’ use but ah’m pretty share the missin’ coat hooks were the yins missin’ when I was here last. But it could be ony skeell changing room. But it’s here.

I ken they telt me no to blaw ma nose, sumthin tae dae wi’ no breakin’ the seal in case it’s broken again, but ah need tae fuckin’ breathe! A finger on each nostril, a blaw, and a couple o’ strings o’ snot and blid join the rest o’ ma body fluids on the flare. Ma yin and bit een are workin’ weel enough ta see ah’m still wearin’ these han’ wraps, they’re ay the last tae come aff. Unravelling them turn by turn unwinds ma mind, it brings me back doon. It’s sumthin’ aboot the intricate pattern at odds wi’ the violence no lang past.

Hark at me! Whit the fuck ah’m a on aboot? This place dis ma heid in, it ay did. I push masel’ up aff the bench feeling the stren and hobble for the mirror. Whit a state. The stupid silk shorts stained wi’ sumone’s life. Mibbe mine. Ma face is a fuckin’ ruin. The smile hurts ma jaw. But it disnae metter, it’s a winners smile. A winner here. A winner in this fuckin’ room. At fuckin’ last.

English Version

Smack.

Smack.

Smack.

It’s fucking quiet in here. Quiet enough to hear the blood and sweat hitting the floor, tiny puddles of pain. I can feel my heart thundering in my ears. My left eye’s just about closed, there’s a gaping gash on my right cheek-bone, and my body aches. At least it’s stopped fucking screaming.

It’s a long time since I’ve bin in this room. Nothing’s changed. Don’t know why it should. The grey plastic floor still has its chips and cracks, the paint’s still peeling off the walls and the corner of the mirror is still missing. The wooden bench might be smoother on account of a few more years of use but I’m pretty sure the missing coat hooks were the ones missing when I was here last. But it could be any school changing room. But it’s here.

I know they told me not to blow my nose, something to do with not breaking the seal in case it’s broken again, but I need to fucking breathe! A finger on each nostril, a blow, and a couple of strings of snot and blood join the rest of my body fluids on the floor. My one and bit eyes are working well enough to see I’m still wearing these hand wraps, they’re always the last to come off. Unravelling them turn by turn unwinds my mind, it brings me back down. It’s something about the intricate pattern at odds with the violence not long past.

Hark at me, what the fuck am I on about? This place does my head in, it always did. I push myself up off the bench feeling the strain and hobble for the mirror. What a state. The stupid silk shorts stained with someone’s life. Maybe mine. My face is a fucking ruin. The smile hurts my jaw. But it doesn’t matter, it’s a winners smile. A winner here. A winner in this fucking room. At fucking last.

Obligation

Time had been racing but it jarred to a shuddering halt when I walked back into this room and threw my bag in the corner; my was head swimming and the swirling floral designs were preparing to attack. There were ghosts in this town and demons in this room. The posters and haggard blue wallpaper were gone, replaced by the delicate but predatory floral print. The matted carpet was now tastefully neutral, and the bedding muted yellows and browns. I sat perched on the end of one of the single beds, jack-knifed over, elbows on knees and head in hands. I had to get some air. I had to get out. I jumped up, grabbed my coat from the other bed and spun out the room and away from the past. I half ran down the stairs and headed for the door, stopping only to shove my head in the living room and tell the old man I was off out. He grunted something unintelligible. The décor had changed but the ambience remained the same.

I stepped out the door, the wind snatched at my hair and the rain cut my face. I fastened the buttons on my coat and turned up the collar as a futile defence against the onslaught of the weather. I raised my head for the first time since I’d got back. Across the road Heather was in her garden. It was no coincidence, she would have seen the car and, knowing the circumstances, guessed it was mine. A bit of rain was not going to stop a hardened gossip like her being the first to confirm my return. I gave her a wave and shouted a greeting, turning away before she could snare me in a remorseless inquisition.

I’d never seriously expected to get in and out undetected but all hope of that was blown away on the wind as it carried news of my return. The dice were out of the cup now.

I walked aimlessly, or at least I thought I was travelling without a destination. I could have walked out the town towards the sea, the salt air could have cleared my head but I was pulled towards the town. I had never been patient and if I was going to have to face the ghosts of the past then I’d rather do it sooner than later.

It didn’t take long. I’d barely turned onto the high street, saddened at how little it had changed, when I was pushed in the back. Not hard enough to knock me off my feet but hard enough to make me stumble and hard enough to make it clear it was far from friendly. Warily I turned around and found myself looking at Sly; he was older, heavier and his face was worn like those on the castle ruins but it was him alright.

“I wondered if you’d be back but didn’t actually think you’d be that stupid” he spat venom.

We’d been tight once, grew up on the same street and shared in the same nonsense but his narrowed eyes and clenched jaw told me he wasn’t ready to forgive. At least the thirteen years had tempered his desire for violence; otherwise I’d be lying in the gutter praying his fist hadn’t broken my nose and his boot my ribs.

I turned fully to face him and stretched my arms like Christ upon the cross. Logic told me he was right. It told me I should walk away, get in the car and head back south but I’d never been a slave to logic.

“You all knew I’d be back someday so don’t act like you’re surprised”

He almost looked rueful as he shook his head and walked away, never looking back. I stood with my hair plastered to my face and the rain dripping off my nose, arms still outstretched, waiting for my salvation to deliver me from this world. Salvation didn’t come, it never does and just I’d willingly walked back into hell.

I could have stayed away but obligation brought me back.

An obligation others expected, not an obligation in which I believed.