A new short story

Troll

He was walking along toward the last but one mission target, and he stopped, and looked around to make sure no one could see him. He put his hand to his face, because he could feel that water was coming from his eyes. The tears. He stopped, and wiped them, and then he moved on. He felt this way every time: the lack of love. It had been years since he had felt love, and now, he was worried he would fail to gain it, to ever have it in this world, or to recognise it if it came to him. He had forgotten the way it worked. In HTML, he could write:

 

<!DOCTYPE html>

<html>

<body>

<h1> LOVE </h1>

 

– but, then, what next? That was a heading. What would the body of the text be? Give a little. Take a little.   Was love that? What were the reasons for love? What were the steps? He shook as he sniffed, spat, wiped his nose on the back of his jacket.

 

Gift looked at the address on his phone, so he got the right flat: A, not B. It was a sizeable Edwardian house, on a side street in Hackney, running parallel with the main high street. It was a place full of little people, strutting in ridiculous clothing, as if newly rich, like people from the villages in Zimbabwe who came to town in their finery.

 

‘A’ was a ground floor flat. No stairs to climb, so immediately, he gathered himself, pulled up into his powerful shoulders, blew out a stream of air through pursed lips. He tried the stained glassed front door of the house. It gave. Inside, there were two doors, on each side of the hall. ‘A’ was to his right. He could see it was on a latch. Pure luck. Perhaps the man was expecting a guest. Gift should be quick then. He pushed open the door and walked in.

 

Inside, creams and whites. He wiped his feet on the doormat, listened, and heard a radio in the kitchen, and some noise: the clinking of cutlery on bowls and plates. It was six or so. The man – Brian – sounded like he was preparing his meal, not eating.

 

He stopped at the door, and looked round the sitting room. A rug in front of the fireplace was reds and greens and blues, cascades of checkers leading from one colour to the next. He was hypnotised by the greens, as they started in the middle then faded toward the end of the rug, into a plain of green, into a nothing of pale green. When he saw the rug, it was a challenge of analysis. He imagined the encoding to make this a continual pattern on the background of a website, starting with the red at the top: but he would use chevrons, not checks. He would…a cough.

‘Can I help you?’ A man stood by the door that led into the open plan kitchen next to the sitting room. He held a knife. He was an ugly, little, man. About five foot two, shoulder length, white hair, with small, round glasses. His face was raw looking, with purple patches of acne, and old scars so deep they looked black inside, open still. His eyes redeemed him: their blueness was turquoise, through the steel frames, unnatural. As Gift took him in, the knife wavered in the air between them. ‘Get out,’ the man said. Gift walked toward the man, and the man backed up into the kitchen, looking over his shoulder toward the phone on the side. Next to the phone were bags: Cheese Emporium, one said. Another – organic bread, on its side, and inside was a see-through box with two small cakes.

 

Who needs organic cakes? Gift thought, and he sucked his lips, leaning toward the bag, and crushing the cakes with a tightly aimed fist. With the same blow, he pushed the phone to the ground, and it popped open, its belly disgorging its sim card and battery at the man’s feet. Gift took a swipe at the man, a knock to the side of his head. The man dropped the knife and whimpered. The man steadied himself against the black granite worktop.

‘You want money?’ he said quietly. Gift said nothing, but leaned down and picked up the knife.

 

His size made everything easy: no dark walk in an underpass in the roughest council estate could shake him. He slept easy on the street, when he had to. None of the gangs bothered him. They vied for his attention, in fact. They wanted him on their team. Gift stepped nearer the bags and looked into a pink and green pastel shaded shiny thing, pawing at the fabric inside.

‘What’s this?’ he asked.

‘Oven glove,’ the man said, dazed.

‘Oh.’ He put it back. ‘What you making?’ he asked, pointing at the rolling pin and the already rolled dough on a neat, round board on legs.

‘Indian bread. I’ve made a paneer masala, and…’ The man sat heavily onto a breakfast-bar stool, black wood, revolving as he stretched his small legs to balance. His ugliness somehow completed the mission, Gift thought.

 

The mission had started five years ago, when Gift’s sister had died, and now, finally, he was on his second to last troll, his second to last time he would hurt anyone. A thought came: after this, I’m only one person away from finding love. It surprised him, this thought. He sucked air through his teeth at his own stupidity. He looked at the man.

‘You’re Brian, right?’ Gift asked. The man gasped.

‘How do you know?’ He had been holding his head where Gift had hit him, but he sat up, stared. Gift watched him: there was some swelling around his eye.

‘Your handle is EastEndSnob, right?’ Be stupid to beat up the wrong guy. He’d done that once, been jailed for it. Rightly so, he thought now.

‘Yes…but…’

‘You been using the same handle all these years, bruv! And the same password: Tiddlecat333, right?’

‘Yes,’ the man said, coldly now. This was where they started to cry, usually. One of them peed. It was weird. Fear is like this, Gift realised, like he was learning it again: fear is when coldness comes over you, washes up inside you, like an illness, like you’re about to die. ‘Mate,’ Gift said, ‘you really need to change your password. Seven years you’ve had that password.’

 

This guy, Brian, was, thank God, simplistic. He cried, he slid off the chair and sat down on the floor. Gift leaned down and gently pulled him up by the elbow. He said quietly into his face: ‘You make comments on websites, right? I mean, on the Daily Mail comments boxes and the Guardian sometimes and on people’s blogs, right?’ Brian cried out loud:

‘Yes,’ blubbing and spurting snot. His ugliness was his pocks, and now Gift saw the purple scars flowed down his neck and onto his chest. His small head, his miniscule hands, his tiny feet.

‘You’re a killer,’ Gift said. ‘You don’t just criticise, I mean, you don’t just say what you think. You want people dead. You want the women raped: you’ve said it hundreds of times. You should be gang raped, you’ve said. I counted how many times you said it: you’ve said it eighteen times this year, on Twitter. You want to damage people.’ Gift stopped a moment. This was the most he had heard himself speak for months. He didn’t like the sound of his voice in this kitchen: it sounded like his dead father, it sounded like upright men of his past. What Gift did, these intimate moments, were against everything his father believed in.

‘It’s not what I mean.’

‘Sorry?’ Gift was startled. No one else had ever tried to deny they meant to maim and hurt.

‘I don’t mean it physically. It’s just a game.’

‘You’re a killer,’ Gift said shortly, pulling Brian up from the floor and punching his mouth, hard, to take the teeth out. Two teeth came away – two bottom teeth, sadly, so he punched again, and again, hearing the crunch of the nose breaking, like when you bite the cartilage of a chicken leg, that soft, giving, crunchiness. When he knew Brian had passed out, he let him slip from his grasp. An audience on the radio laughed. He took the cheese bag, a few already made Indian breads warming in the oven, also organic apple juice from the fridge, and the oven glove, to staunch the bleeding on his knuckles. As he passed the rug in the sitting room, he stopped and stared at it again, loving it, wanting it, memorising it.

 

He remembered Brian’s phone. He went back to the kitchen, tiptoeing over the prone body and lifting a leg to retrieve the sim card. He put it back together, wiped its memory clean, removed the sim card and left the thing there. So often, during a mugging, people said – keep the phone – but can I have my sim card? And so often, when they were strangers, he would oblige – he just needed the phone for money, after all – and that little kindness bought him another day in this world, less heavy with guilt. But this guy, Brian, he needs to start again, Gift thought. This guy needs to reset his password. His handle. His life.

 

X

 

Really, what he did was about love. The search for it, the lack of it, the understanding of it, the control of it, the freefall emptiness of not having it: love was everything to him, because there was nothing of it, anywhere, in his days. He imagined it sometimes. A woman’s face close to his, smiling black eyes, skin warm and smelling of oil, the smell of his one girlfriend in Zimbabwe: he would nudge at her with his nose, he thought, nuzzling into her cheeks, her hair, her body, seeking the warmth, the deep colour of her skin the same colour as love. He had nothing of it.

 

Inside, there had been a prison visitor, a small man, who had done time himself – but for a crime he didn’t commit. His name was Kumar. He saw Gift alone, at his computer and asked to visit him. Their first few meetings, Gift had been silent, rude, not wanting help or understanding. But Kumar came back a second time, a third time, specifically for Gift. When Gift talked, finally, Kumar was grateful, patting Gift’s hand, making quiet sighs. His kindness had been an example. Kumar had shown him it was better to change someone, better to try to change someone. At least, he thought that’s what Kumar had taught him.

‘Sometimes,’ Gift said once, ‘I think – when will we be punished for wasting this hot water? I’m washing the outside of the pot in the dirty water, right? And I’m saving the water from the inside, to wash the outside, but then I open the tap and more beautiful, fresh, boiling, scalding water comes out – and it’s like – am I allowed to use this? And I look round…’ and Kumar said:

‘It is what it is here. In this land, it is allowed. You must enjoy it. It is part of the life here – you must learn to forget people starving and people thirsty and dirty –‘ and then he smiled. ‘Or you’ll never get rich.’

‘Is that what it’s about?’ Gift had asked, startled.

‘What?’

‘Life?’

‘Life?’ Kumar had laughed. ‘Of course not! Life is about love, of course. But living here is about making money.’

 

X

 

Brian, had troubled him, because Gift had stayed after the attack, and watched Brian’s door to see if police were called, and they were not. Or if an ambulance would arrive – it hadn’t. He had always been arrested within a few days of his attacks, in the past. Twice, he’d been put away. But Brian took no action. He was troubled because Brian had passed out. He was troubled because Brian may be dead. Gift had never killed anyone.

 

He would Javascript the rug. Who for? He could put his vision of the rug onto his sister’s website: the blog he had built for her at school. It was in a file in a dropbox, not live on the internet anymore. Gift had taken it down, after she died. She had written about their life ‘back home’ – how they’d belonged to a vast family who loved them. She’d written about the African plains – the greens, the yellows, the reds of sunset; about their education, their standing in the community. Those plains, those grassy plains, he thought – just as good as England.

‘We are middle class. We are educated. We are as good as you.’ By the time she wrote this, she was mournful, wretched. He looked at those words rarely: like looking at pictures of a corpse. She died alone. Her solitude in death kept him going. It kept him alive. He looked at the comments beneath regularly. He ticked them off, one by one.

 

He sat in Jamal’s front room, using Jamal’s redundant PC. In exchange for a sofa to sleep on, Gift picked Jamal up from the giant academy, watching at the gate as the newly built barn of a building disgorged uniformed black children, talking, laughing, kicking balls. Jamal would limp out, his eyes pointing in different directions, and Gift would raise his eyebrows as greeting. Jamal’s mother was a smackhead when she was pregnant with him, the boys on the street said. Gift would put his arm around Jamal’s shoulder as he walked out of the gate, so the kids in his school saw. Around the corner, they separated off.

 

Jamal’s phone pinged. He looked at the screen. Gift watched as Jamal sighed. He went to the brown laminate kitchen, tripping on the broken lino flooring. On a shelf, he pulled neatly labelled bags of white powder.

‘Where you taking that?’ Gift asked.

‘Chicken shop. Want something?’ Jamal said. Gift gave Jamal a two pound coin. Jamal had a new scar on the back of his neck. He always looked frightened. If Gift cared more, he would go with the child: carrying what had destroyed his brain. But he couldn’t care for him, he couldn’t. He watched as Jamal took his blazer off and put a hoodie over his white shirt and tie and armed himself with a kitchen knife and his phone. Gift waited to hear the door, and watched the child through the grey murk of the front window as he picked up a battered bike and cycled off. He was back fifteen minutes later, and they ate fried chicken and cold, nasty chips from the box, silently: Jamal, with his headphones on, crouched down in front of a Sponge Bob, and Gift, writing the Javascript for a chevron pattern. Going from reds to mauves to blues to greens, and in the greens, breaks in the pattern, the fractures of dark and light like leaf shadows, until the pattern gave way into nothingness, paleness, a plain of grass, a single line of a chevron like a single check on that rug.

 

X

 

She lived at the end of the train line, the last tag. Near to a major road. Gift could hear the cars, as if he was below a bridge and people sped above him. It felt as if each one wanted to kill him. He was lost and cold, and it was raining. If he had needed to manufacture anger and fear from his grief in his previous attacks, he didn’t here. Crouching outside the single bungalow near some woodland, watching the silhouette behind pale curtains, he felt the acid of his stomach burn down into his guts, caustic, a sudden virus. His body turning against him. He watched for some time, listening, crouched next to a fence. When he put his hand down to balance himself in the crouch, he realised too late the mud on his knuckles was animal shit. He wiped his hand on grass by the fence. Time to be a man. He stood, squared his shoulders. An owl hooted in the wood. The cars whooshed above him, beyond him, over him, like a wave of nausea.

 

He lifted the iron bar on the gatepost, but as it fell back, he misjudged it, and it fell hard onto his fingers. He didn’t cry out, but the shot of pain made tears come, and he bit his lip. He pushed the gate, went in, and as fast as a car, faster, it seemed, a dog was on him, lithe and vicious. It was smooth coated, he could feel, the musculature prominent just beneath the hot skin, the undercarriage bones rounded, warm, like a whole rack of ribs straight from an open fire, as if the animals he had hunted in his youth had all come alive to maul a revenge. Its teeth were already buried in his knuckles, then it lost its grip as Gift span away, and it gripped again with a short, tight jaw onto his upper arm. He felt the material of his bomber rip, and the teeth sink deeper into the skin. In the rain, he felt as if he were fighting a shark. The animal snarled, panted, but the fight was near silent. He could hear his own loud breathing, and the animal’s, hypnotically fall into time with each other, and he looked toward the house as he fought and saw the door had opened. She was watching. She was watching them fight, as if they were both animals, and this spurred him. He pulled the animal from his arm, allowing the teeth to rip his flesh. He didn’t feel it – he pulled the animal by grabbing at the whiteness of its back feet, and whirling around again, he held the head with the other hand and snapped the spine in mid air. The dog cried out, like a real foe would, and Gift threw him to the ground, where he lay panting, moaning. The woman stepped forward. She was thin, like a skeleton is thin. She was about twice his age, he could see, but no older. She seemed to walk like an old person though. She said nothing, but as she came along the path to the dog, she brushed past Gift, who still panted in time with the dog. When she reached the animal, she lifted her right arm, and stepping back, but leaning forward, she shot the fellow between the eyes. Then she turned back to Gift and pointed the gun at him.

‘Stay or go. Your choice.’ In the moonlight, her face was iridescent: she looked as if she had no eyelashes, no eyebrows. She wore a pale scarf tied to her head. An owl hooted, another answered. Too easy to imagine she was a ghost, he thought. She is not a ghost, Gift.   They stared at each other until she began to shake in the cold. The rain was heavy enough to sting his wounds. She turned her back on him, and walked toward the door. ‘If you stay, I’ll clean you up,’ she said.

 

X

 

 

His sister had been a speculative speaker.

‘I wonder,’ she would say, ‘if Aunty will ever marry again? I wonder if Aunty could ever marry a white man?’ He remembered that: their Aunty who wore towering, colourful dhukus on her head on Sundays, to match her church best, was irrationally allergic to men. The thought of a white man on her arm (it would be that way round) made his sister prone with laughter, and Gift had giggled with high laughter too. Through his gasps, he had whispered ‘Darren!’ – the useless boy in his class, with too large feet and spots like a dot-to-dot picture of a rocket, on his ugly face. Aunty would eat him as a snack before lunch. His sister had asked other, harder questions: ‘Do you think we will ever understand?’ or ‘Do you think they will ever see us – I mean, not just a colour?’ Or ‘Do you think the police know you now? They stop and search you every week. Do they think they know you’re a college boy now?’ He had been irritated by her questions. Once or twice, she offered opinions:

‘I think there is a secret to the way to live here. I think you have to know the tricks. Not benefits and that,’ she said. ‘I mean: you have to find a way of getting rich and staying rich. And then that’s all the secret is: when you’re rich, that’s all you need in this country. When you’re rich, you’re free.’

‘And what about love?’ he had asked her. Because she was always talking about love. When they were in their shared bedroom in the flat high above London, lying in their beds, in the dark, their dreams were lofty and airy, to match their views from the twenty fourth floor. She would tell him how many children she would have, how loved she would be, how much her husband would care for her. She had only been twelve or something when she said all that, but he had wanted to believe it.

‘Oh, they don’t like love here. Only money.’ And then she’d turned over blithely, and fallen asleep.

 

X

 

A warm towel. A fireplace. Soft white bread, toasted with butter and something brown and salty. It tasted like poison, but when in his gut, it eased the acid, the fear. Even inside the warm bungalow he could hear the owls. She had turned the TV down when she came in, but the people glittered and danced in the corner, the blues and golds and pinks like fairy lights. The room was long and wide. The kitchen at the other end, was brown, laminated wood. As she boiled the kettle, he stared at it and it looked almost the same as the kitchen at Jamal’s house: chipped here and there, worn out. But she looked after it – she wiped down the surface when she made the tea, even though she had not spilled anything. She brought the tea, and took the towel from him. When she walked, she seemed weak. The cup she brought seemed profoundly heavy, and she put it down hard onto the table, and flexed her wrist after. The gun had disappeared, but he was wary of her now. He would drink the tea and go. The dog outside seemed still alive, in its death: a problem to be dealt with, a hole needing digging. A commitment he would have to fulfil.

‘Thank you,’ he said.

‘Good to come in from that rain,’ she said.

‘Yes.’

‘My dog. He didn’t…poor Bullet. I rescued him. He was scared, all the time. He’s bitten the postman. Poor Bullet…’ She wandered toward the sofa, and fell onto it, closing her eyes. Her headscarf was pushed sideways off her head, and he saw a shiny baldness. ‘I’m dying,’ she said. ‘It’s spread.’

 

Her handle was Sooze-the-Flooze. Her name was Susan – Suzie for short. He knew it was definitely her: he didn’t need to ask. She’d been a journalist on a paper in London. There were pictures of her on the internet, wearing the dresses and the high heels, too thin, her hips jutting toward the camera. She had written an article about his sister’s blog, when it went viral, after she’d died. He would have left her alone, he thought now, if he’d known she was ill. She hadn’t said anything that anyone else hadn’t said. And no, she hadn’t talked of rape. But she had commented on his sister’s blog. She shouldn’t have left a comment. ‘Sooze-the-Flooze, London, UK, 2 hours ago’, the comment box said. It was two hours and five days after his sister died. She shouldn’t have said it:

‘Rest in Peace, but seriously, one less immigrant…you know what I’m saying?’ – and then a yellow, winking, emoticon.

 

He watched her to see if the exhaustion was a show – if she held the gun, somewhere. He remained still, watching her, and when her breathing was calm, steady, almost non-existent, he stood, and covered her with a chevroned blanket lying on the sofa. She didn’t stir.

 

Gift, holding the towel against his arm, went to the back door, tried the handle, but it was locked. If he were to go to the front door to leave, it would wake her. A woman who he wanted to hurt, he now could not disturb. He went back to the seat where she had tended him. He examined his cuts. The wrist looked battered: flesh revealed, skin hanging off like torn leather. He dared not look at the bicep. She had looked and had drawn in her breath and winced. He waited, and then he slept too.

 

When he woke, he saw the extent of the house in the just pale light. Picture windows at both ends showed views across fields. Through a gap in the front curtains he saw crows emerge through mist to a newly woven sun, a whitening ball rising behind black trees. Through the back window, across ploughed and frosty ground, he saw a deer gallop, then stop centrally as if knowing it was perfectly framed for Gift. It turned, stared back over its shoulder. He saw the sky leech away its darkness from reds to mauves to blues, the fractures of dark and light, until the pattern gave way into nothingness, paleness… Gift coughed, spluttered, and stood. He was weak. The towel was soaked with blood.

‘Oh, God, you’re so hurt. He damaged you,’ the woman said, waking.

‘I’m going,’ he said quietly.

‘You can’t,’ she said, swinging her body round, placing her feet onto the ground. He sat down again.

 

X

 

He found a spade in the shed outside, and he buried the dog later that morning, in a corner of the field, opposite the house. She didn’t want Bullet in her garden, she said. When she died, she was going to be scattered here. She stood against the fence, watching him, breathing mist into the clear morning.

‘I wanted to love that dog,’ she said, ‘but I hated him. They said he was just scared. Yes, he was just scared, but he was unlovable. Some people, you can love, especially when they’re scared, can’t you?’ He looked toward her, and saw the bones of her eye sockets, the way the shadows made the eyes all staring, larger: as if she were the skeleton itself, and he remembered the night before and was scared. The gun, yes, but more: the way she held him there, the way he had not considered leaving, the way she told him what they would do next, and he followed.

 

The earth was difficult to dig. It was rocky ground, with white, crumbling stone getting into every shovelful he dug. The earth was hard like metal, and the spade slid and rang, as if he whacked a bell with a stick. It hurt his arm, the digging. It hurt his belly too, and he realised he was hungry. He needed to leave, he needed to stop feeling whatever he was feeling. He needed to stop feeling.

‘Have a break,’ she said. ‘I’m not a slave driver.’ His eyes involuntarily jumped to her face: but she had realised her mistake and had quickly turned away. ‘Cup of tea?’ she said over her shoulder. He continued to dig. It took almost an hour to dig a big enough hole. He went back to the garden and saw the dog’s body was draped with an old, dirty blanket. He spooned the body and the blanket on to the spade. It was difficult. It had frozen tight, the body, fossilised with rigor mortis and cold. He pushed the heap of mud back down into the hole. He saved a nice slab for the top. When the dog had flipped into the hole, he had averted his eyes, but he had still seen its grim mouth covered in his blood. He had no pity for it. It had his blood on it.

 

He looked back toward the house. He picked up the spade, took it into the garden. Everything he came with, he had on him. He could walk away, but he didn’t.

 

X

 

 

Suzie spoke like this:

‘I’m really funny,’ or, ‘I’m crazy,’ or ‘I’m normal,’ or ‘I love laughing,’ or ‘I’m always busy,’ or ‘I’m conservative,’ or ‘I’m boring.’ In that way, she was like his sister, defining and seeking definition. Were all women like this? He couldn’t remember his Aunt saying a single thing about herself. She went to work during the week, in the morning and through the night; on Sundays she went to church.

‘Work hard,’ was all she had said to them when they were young. She provided for them, physically and spiritually.

‘I’m the sort of person who…’ Suzie often said. She didn’t ask him questions, and he was glad of this. He walked into the woman’s life, in order to hurt her, but seeing her hurt already, the disease virulent within, as if her own words, her own actions had maimed her, there was nothing for him to do but wait. She said once: ‘Why did you come? Were you going to rob me?’ and he’d replied:

‘I was hungry. I was just going to get some food.’   She’d found this acceptable.

 

There had been a Macmillan nurse, Suzie said. But Bullet had tried to bite her. They’d asked Suzie to move to a hospital, allow them to rehome the dog. She’d told them to piss off. She was going to die in her own home, with her dog, she told them.

‘I’m like that,’ she said brightly, ‘stubborn.’ Now he was here – ‘like a gift,’ she said, laughing. Now he was here, all her problems were solved. ‘You can help me! You’ll help me, won’t you? I don’t have anyone,’ she said once, and she spoke quietly.

 

When she was asleep in the afternoons, he cleaned the house, scrubbing the already clean surfaces of the kitchen, and the dirt in the grout in the bathroom. It gave him time to recollect his sister, his family in Zimbabwe, his time in prison. Moments in time. Once she said:

‘Are you ever homesick?’

‘No.’ He had said it loud, and fast. The noise seemed to echo long after the conversation moved on. He hadn’t known how he felt, but when he thought about it, he realised he missed nothing of it. He knew he had lived there – but in a different life, as if his memories were false. He couldn’t speak this out loud. When she’d asked him, it was the morphine speaking, so he had known she wouldn’t remember his answer, and his answer wasn’t important.

 

It is habitat that defines us, he realised. When I was there, I was free. Here, I have always been trapped. Until now…this land, this place. Was it the freedom of the fields that made his shoulders relax down, his belly become rounder? He could breathe here, and as the trees greened themselves in new, unfurling cloths, he realised: land, air, space to roam – these are what had defined him in Zimbabwe, and he had never allowed himself the ambition to imagine he could have that in this country, where to be free, everyone had told him you had to be rich.

 

That night, when he lay down by her side, she asked him again –

‘Do you miss home?’ and he told her about the grassy plains, the colours, the fading of the sky from one colour to the next.

‘…from dark night, to purple and blue to red to orange to white and the white fades onto the plain, and there’s green, like the grass outside, but brighter in the sunshine. And I don’t know if its real, or if I made it up.’ And she patted him, comforted him, hushed him as if he was a child, and they kissed. He had not wanted to cross the world to come here. His parents had sent them to Aunty. He had not wanted to cross the world, he thought, and he held her body close to his, holding her almost all the way around the waist with one hand, she was so thin. She felt like a walking stick, an inanimate thing that could come alive should he need her.

 

Once, he fired up her computer, and looked at the website he had built for his sister. He looked at the comments box and the article Suzie had written, and it was so far from the woman dying on the sofa behind him, that he closed it down again. It was time to let it go? He wanted to say to Suzie –

‘I am… this,’ or ‘I am that,’ – he wanted to give her a definition of himself. He wanted to tell her – we are here together, because of my sister, because I wanted to do to you what you did to her. When he switched the computer off, he stood, and watched her tiny closed eyelids flickering, dancing, in her worn out face. He realised he could not do anything to Suzie. He certainly could not leave her to die alone. When Suzie eventually started to take her last breaths, he would tell her about his sister. He would tell her why he had come. He would tell her who he was. And then the project would be complete.

 

X

 

Every morning, when they woke, he loved to watch the colours of the night fade into the day. She would lie in his arms. Not love, no, but warmth, kindness, he gave her. She would say,

‘My Gift,’ and smile against his chest. He would hold her. He would try and get her to eat something, and for a few weeks, it seemed that she almost rallied. It seemed that she would get better, and he wanted that. His will would make her better. As his skin knitted itself back into place, rounding off the jagged edges, so her organs, eaten away from the inside, also seemed to cease their vituperation, and calm, so they could walk out into a sunny day and sit at the edge of her garden to watch the birds. It was here that he felt happy, and kind, though he heard the cars in the distance, beyond them, over and over them, running them down, it felt.

‘I’m giving you this house,’ she said. ‘I called my lawyer when you went to the shops yesterday. I’m like that: I’m decisive.’

‘I don’t want no house,’ he said.

‘Well, it’s yours if you want it or not.’ She smiled at him. Reached for his hand and traced the scars on his wrist. ‘I’m dying, you know,’ she said, as if for the first time. He knew it would be soon.

 

X

 

His sister had used a pair of her school uniform trousers, tied them to the high handle of the wardrobe in their council flat. His Aunt had found her, and that was lucky, because she was a nurse and had seen it all before.

‘I’m not one to make a fuss,’ Suzie said, smiling. He sat next to her, on a chair. She wanted him on the bed with her, but she was too delicate.

‘Drink something,’ he said, putting a glass to her lips. She took a sip. She was fevered, her mind wandering. Her hands fluttered up to her face, touching it, touching her head to feel the pathetic down that had come back in the last few weeks. She opened her eyes and stared at him. It was torture, because now he loved her. But also, he had waited for this moment. He had waited to tell her. ‘My sister died alone,’ he said. Her eyes were shut. ‘She killed herself.’ He watched her face. She nodded.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said. He didn’t tell her anymore.

 

He realised: this is love.

 

 

X

 

 

Brian’s flat was locked from the outside, when he went back, so he rang the bell. The man came to the door, held it on its chain.

‘I came to see if you’d died,’ Gift said.

‘No. I didn’t.’

‘Yes. I see that.’ He nodded slowly. Brian started to close the door. ‘Wait.’

‘What?’ Brian said. His face still had fading bruises. His wrist was still bandaged.

‘You didn’t call the police?’

‘Yes. The people who found me did. But I didn’t want to take it any further.’ He tried to close the door again. Gift wanted to say more. He couldn’t think how, or what.

‘You better?’

‘I’ve lost the sight in my right eye.’ Brian didn’t say it resentfully. Gift put his hand to his forehead and rubbed.

‘I’m sorry, man.’ He looked around the front yard. A skip by the garage held a lot of furniture: even the bright white kitchen was stacked neatly on the top. ‘You decorating?’

‘I didn’t want to be reminded of…’ Brian closed the door and Gift saw him walk away. He watched through the stained glass window. Brian walked back to the door and flung it wide. ‘This is what it feels like,’ Brian shouted. ‘How you feel? That’s because you haven’t been punished. You want it, don’t you? You want someone to take you away – you want someone to say: you’re bad. Naughty boy!’ He started to laugh. ‘And no one is. This is what it feels like when there’s no consequences. Feels good? Feels like you could do it again? Come on then. Come and hit me.’ When Gift did not respond, Brian became brave: ‘Go back to where you came from. I hope you die a painful death. I hope everyone you love….’ Gift had stopped listening, because something had caught his eye in the skip.

‘You throwing out that rug?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Can I have it?’

‘Help yourself.’

‘Thanks.’

 

Gift knew Brian watched as he lifted the white doors of the kitchen units down and leaned them against the skip, then pulled the rug gingerly from the brick dust and mess. He shook it into the skip, then having taken it out, he flapped it up into the air, flicking it back and forth above his head, letting it snap in his hands, and watching it against the brightness of the sun, seeing the colours meld into the world around him. He would take it home, he thought. He had a perfect spot to put it, next to the bed.

 

 

 

 

I dreamt the Queen laughed at one of my jokes as Dolphins flew with ducks through the air, and I looked at silk bras in a shop.

March 11th

Queen Dream for blog

It was Mother’s Day. I got the poshest slippers, a beautiful portfolio for my work from 19 year old,  a pair of cashmere wrist warmers (orange) bought and paid for by 17 year old, a book of Muriel Spark quotes and some beautifully hand made cards.  17 year old drew Arthur from the Peaky Blinders. It made me very happy.

We went bra shopping.  I told the guy at H&M that I’d dreamed that the Queen and I and one of her footmen were watching ducks in the sky and eating cake and I was making jokes and the Queen really laughed at the jokes, but then there were dolphins flying with the ducks and we thought that weird.  The H&M guy laughed.

Wales v Italy was a fine game. They both know how to play.  I liked the way the ref, a French guy called Jerome, smiled at the players.  He was very fair.

It was so nice not to do anything for the house today.  When we were looking at bras, Tom finished the fencing.  After lunch, I cut both daughters’ hair.  I do that.

The card said ‘Happy Mother’s Day from the Peaky Fockin’ Blinders’.  That was the best thing ever.  I love my 17 year old. She’s top.

But my friend Ellen’s daughter Tabby who is 5, did a naked rendition of Heads Shoulders Knees and Toes for her, with a dance, and I was quite jealous.

 

 

Lying on the sofa watching Morse, eating a giant sandwich, as if there is nothing to do

9th March

 

Green Ro

 

Yesterday we had two viewings.  I spent the morning clearing the mess and cleaning.  This meant putting away a basket of washing, mainly by putting my clothes where they go and piling Tom’s washing, his jumpers, his belts all into the bottom of his wardrobe.  To be fair, I put his socks away. The rest, well, I take the newspapers and the books and the stray socks and throw them into cupboards and chests.  We will never find some of these things again, I’m sure.  I always put fresh  tulips in two vases – one on the stairs, one in the kitchen.

I’d bought Flash with Bleach, so spent a good half hour on my knees, spraying, scrubbing and wiping away dried on Bird poo – the cockatiel sits on top of doors.  He is the 19 year old’s cockatiel, and since she’s been away to university, I have tried to be kind, loving even, but he is now semi-wild, though he still whistles the Archers theme tune at 7pm.  He’s a creature of habit.

I put the dogs in the car, drove to Stroud, spent an hour wandering around buying Mother’s Day gifts and sending them off in a post office box.  I took another hour and a half to walk home with the dogs, long enough for two viewings to happen.  I ate an egg for breakfast and some almonds, so with a heavy coat and sudden sunshine on my back, and a heavy backpack of shopping, I was exhausted.  I began to resent the people who came to view the house, but also hoped for miracles.  They’ll fall in love with it, and they’ll buy it.  Full price. No questions asked.  And then my life can begin elsewhere, in Oxford, where everything awaits me.

There were no feedback cards when I got back.  Nothing but a bird squawking.  I made a giant hummus, Halloumi and carrot flatbread sandwich and lay on the sofa with a flask of tea and watched the first ever episode of Morse.  Whenever there were crowd scenes, I paused it, went slow – we lived in Oxford in 1987.  I want to see Tom and I holding hands, walking in our place.  Though I wouldn’t recognise us – we were both two stone lighter.

I often think this manifestation of myself is a ghost of me, dreaming, colourless, while the Ro who lives in the pasture of Oxford is green with the reflection of it, floating above, ready to hold out her hand to pull me into the dream of my new life.

The floor was unfeasibly clean.  I could have eaten my sandwich off it.

 

Bootless in the mud as Rita flies above me

8th March

Anita Klein inspired

Today I dug up 15 bamboo plants from the front border and placed them around the edge of the cave, because prospective buyers have been worried about the bare rock – is it safe for their children? It is a frustrating notion, as my children played long summers in the garden, the youngest when she was only 3, sliding down from the top to the bottom of the inside of the cave. It feels like a travesty to cover its craggy face with the bijoux fronds of bamboo. While the bamboo wait to be planted (I couldn’t pickaxe holes big enough yesterday because I was worn out carrying the plants from one place to another), I see the ghost of the cave that has stood there for the past 14 years we have lived here, majestic and dignified. It will be like covering the life scarred face of a poet with a designer beard.

My friend Rita died today. She was a tiny woman, thin and petite, her hair cut close to her scalp, but longer pixie strands haloing her face: she dyed her hair pink quite often. She was in her seventies, I think, though her attitude was of someone much, much younger. She was a devout Catholic, but espoused Buddhist theories, and liked a joke. Her accent was Liverpudlian. She had a sweet, kind sense of humour and a willingness to cheer everyone on. I shall miss her.

Ghosts fly above us. Ghosts enter us as we work. I miss all my dead people. They were all funny and kind. The good die young? Or the people more in touch with life and the world – laughter and kindness are truths in themselves, and hard to carry.

I fell, dragging two bamboo plants. I was backing up and forgot there was a rock behind me. I fell back and bruised my back and my arse and my palm and my knee. I looked up at the cave and wanted to cry at the sting of it.   Often, it’s when we’re struggling to carry on, that we forget to see how others are – and they slip by and slip away, and we missed them going. I shall never see Rita again, and that feels appalling.

This house that we’re leaving is like that friend. In trying desperately to sell it and move on, we’re missing the friend that it was – we’re letting it slip away. I need to honour it.

We’re moving!

Over the next months, I am focusing my blog on our move.  We started the process back in January, when the agents came and we signed the documents.  I have painted the house from top to bottom, and Tom and I have started to clear the detritus of 14 years of living.  During this time, I have been continuing to do an MA in Illustration.  As a way to combine my work and my thoughts, I have been writing a blog about the move, and illustrating it.  It is a way of coming to terms with an enormous step away from the large family life in the countryside, to a very much downsized family and property in a city.  We are hoping to move to Oxford.  If all goes well, we hope to do this by the summer.  Wish us luck!  Thanks for dropping by…

Structure

I’ve been thinking a lot about the systems we buy into.  Everything – everything – is a structural system.  The internet has made structural systems into the general rule of success.  Whatever we do, whatever we are, whatever we want to be: there is a system to buy into.  It strikes me that those who are successful have a system, and those who want to be successful are trying to buy a system.

If you want to lose weight: there are a hundred thousand million people on the internet and in the bookshops who will sell you their system.  From Weight Watchers to green/clean eating, to veganism to lots of fat or no fat, cooking well, eating raw, only eating potatoes.  Every one of these has a website and a system of guilt – a way to be successful and a way to lose.  The website for each of these systems is a structural system – lots of food preparation photographs, with highly manicured hands showing you how to cut an onion just so or how to whisk an egg in a chrome, Danish bowl bought on the King’s Road.  We all believe that by clicking through and buying in to these systems, we will have the perfect life on offer.

Big business is obviously based on a structural system and the selling of this.  B2B is a thing, people! Businesses used to be: I make something, I sell it.  Then it was: I made a machine that makes something, I sell the machine.  Now it is: I sell the way to sell the machine.   Structures upon structures upon structures.  They get smaller and more refined, the higher up they go.

The key I’m trying to get to is: perfection in business, in bodies, in art or even in writing doesn’t come from doing what they say.  It comes from doing what they do.  You need a system.  I’m trying to do three jobs at the moment, while contending with more work being done on the house.  If anyone needs a system, it’s me.  And yet, because of my age, and my ability to juggle due to always having a complicated life (four children will do that to you) – I seem to get by with very little systematic structure.  I look at people who are working successfully within the worlds I work in: writers and illustrators have ways they gather information and disseminate information.  They advertise their work on websites, they share working practice, they are selling of their work from a very early point in their working lives.  Me?  I seem to pause, think, move forward in tiny, snail like slides, and I often wonder why that is.

So.  Today I shall buy box files.  I shall unpack my study and repack it so it is neat, and all ideas are accessible.  I shall start to use my computer to notate the way I work.  I shall…oh, GOD it sounds exhausting.  It sounds like I am archiving my life into an automated process.  But it is what is needed.  Watch this space.  Who knows? In a few weeks, this blog could have pictures of my hands cutting onions, pouring them into stainless steel bowls, and my mouth smiling with shiny white teeth, selling you a lifestyle dream… of what? Nothingness. I will sell you nothing.  That’s what it’s all about: we are in a new world, where our time is taken up with people selling us nothing.

Which is why I am now going to do you an enormous favour.  When you finish this article, I suggest you take the best structure of all and spend time with it.  You are surrounded by them.  Remove one – any one – from the nearest shelf to you.  Pour yourself a cup of tea/coffee/wine.  Find a comfortable chair.  Sit down. Open the structure, trying not to crack its spine…enjoy.  This, my friend, is what life is for.

 

Nice Guys?

We are all gathered in that dead time zone: Saturday night, drizzle outside, nice warm sofa and nice supermarket curry burning a hole into impetus to move. We are staring at Apple TV menus.  It is a ritual: we are all film fans.  I hold the buttons, but always make concessions to the younger bretheren.  I want to watch ‘Son of Saul’ – but 15 year old says

‘Not a fucking Holocaust movie.’  I then zap to foreign movies and show them the preview of a French romantic comedy about a really short guy going out with a tall blonde.  When you’re talking over the preview to work out how they did it –

Me: ‘Green screen?’

Son: ‘CGI. They put his head on a short guy’s body, look…’ then you know the movie is done for, as far as this family is concerned.  There was a look of slight shock that they’d do that to a short guy.  There is another Holocaust movie with Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan, but 15 year old says

‘Dad needs to laugh. He’s feeling down.’  Which = ‘I need a laugh because I’m 15 and I don’t want to watch your stupid Holocaust movies.’

Last time we were in this zone, I conceded and we watched ‘Spy’ starring Melissa McCarthy.  I said after

‘NEVER AGAIN.  I am never watching a Hollywood movie again!’  The random, mad killing, the idiocy of the jokes, the single hero’s journey through the movie… I couldn’t do it.  So we’re at a crux point where we should really move to the DVD cupboard and hoist out a Hitchcock, or a 50’s musical, or a Cary Grant.  But because I am weak, we rent ‘Nice Guys’, starring Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling.

It is a 1970s-set private detective yarn, with lots of laughs.  It has many gags, and lashings of whisky drinking, cigarette smoking capery.  They beat up on each other regularly, and Ryan Gosling has a daughter who looks ten but is apparently 13, who drives his vintage open topped Merc for him, and turns up at all the set pieces in order to provide him with an innocent to rescue.  The family all roar with laughter throughout.  I am not inured to a little bit of slapstick, so I laugh along, but about two thirds through, I find it all a little dull and start to nod off.  It is too long, as all these action Hollywood movies are, and after a wee -break, I am fully awake for the denouement.

This morning, I wake to the full horror of what that movie was about.  You have two, down on their luck, white males walking through glamorous parties, searching for a porn star beauty on behalf of her older, in government, bitter, twisted Mom.  The two males shoot and fight their way through most scenes, taking guns out very early on, and accidentally killing people who are then not accounted for at all.  It has become a trope in Hollywood movies such as this and ‘Spy’ to utilise the mass killing of super hero movies as part of the entertainment.  This sits very badly with me.  If each death is part of the entertainment, and in fact, often laughable, then how are we expecting the youth whose culture this is, to understand that death is real, that killing a person is always killing someone with family, with background, with worth?  Dr Robert Hare, in an article about the Columbine killings, says this:

None of his victims means anything to the psychopath. He recognizes other people only as means to obtain what he desires. Not only does he feel no guilt for destroying their lives, he doesn’t grasp what they feel. The truly hard-core psychopath doesn’t quite comprehend emotions like love or hate or fear, because he has never experienced them directly.‘ (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/assessment/2004/04/the_depressive_and_the_psychopath.html)

In the movie, Russell Crowe is seen to kill, early on, a villain who has been chasing him.  The guy, a strange, goofy man who could be lightly called ‘a weirdo’, with dark, long hair, is hit by a truck.  While lying in the road, the child goes over and holds his hand.  Russell Crowe sends her off to flag down a car to help.  While she is away, he kills the guy by strangling him.  Later, when he is about to do this act again at the denoument, with another villain, the epiphany comes: the 13 year old says ‘You don’t have to do this!’ and Russell Crowe stops himself, saying ‘Congratulations…a 13 year old saved your life.’  The people Crowe and Gosling are fighting are either weirdos, dark haired, or black, incidentally.

I am reading a fascinating book: ‘KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps’ by Nikolaus Wachsmann.  Right from the beginning, in 1933, there were camps in Berlin – 170 of them – of varying degrees of brutality.  It is clear that Nazism grew out of a grassroots movement of lack of education, victimhood and hysteria.  The reaction of every person who was detained was to give some sort of account of what happened.  One man, very early on – Fritz Solmitz, a Social Democratic journalist, was treated brutally, and reacted y writing an account of this brutality on cigarette papers, which he hid in his watch.  He was murdered fourteen days after his detention.  The point here is – the way that he controlled what happened to him was – he was in control of the story.  The truth of his history is preserved.

So, sure, what we watched last night was just a movie, right?  What am I carping about?  Let me ask you this: if each young mind watching that movie thinks – ‘there is an element of truth in what I am watching’, what are we selling to them?  We are selling them a singular journey of two white males who see themselves as victims within their own lives.  In order to survive within their world, they must battle and kill many bad people who come at them with knives, bombs and guns.  They must be brutal and not care about the victims.  The Columbine killers, it is claimed by one of their mothers, Sue Klebold, were copycatting a movie: ‘Natural Born Killers’. (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/feb/14/mother-supposed-know-son-columbine-sue-klebold)

So what do we do about this?  Our family are going to stop watching the movies, for sure.  That is a good first step, as far as I’m concerned.  We bring to the attention of 15 year olds and 17 year olds that the movie they have just watched has fatal, terrible, flaws.  (On another matter: the movie has a scene where the 13 year old is introduced to a porn movie by one of its stars: a classic grooming technique.  All the time, she is at the mercy of older women and men of questionable character – because, it’s the 70s! That’s what it was like!  I was there.  It was like that.  Except, it wasn’t funny.  And rarely was there a father figure rescuing the smart, sassy girl.)

If you think clearly about what has happened in the recent months in the USA: you have a white male who feels down on his luck, rallying crowds by telling them he will lock up the villains who look different than him.  He’ll throw them out, or build a wall.  He’ll not allow the brown, different religions in.  When someone disagreed with him at one of his rallies, he watched gleefully as they were beaten up.  His singular journey as the hero of his story is what he sells to other white males: we have been down trodden, and we will be great again.  The movie last night had Kim Basinger thwarted in her attempt to win, the incumbent governor brought down by her own corruption.

Soldiers are suffering from PTSD, working in the Pentagon because they are droning ‘the enemy’ in places like Afghanistan – those inverted commas because they are often killing civilians, often women and children.  Those soldiers are judge, jury, executor – and historian.  The people they kill do not give eyewitness accounts.  Similarly, in other war zones, it is becoming clearer that international humanitarian rules of war are becoming murkier.

A movie like last nights can’t possibly have an affect can it?  And yet, there are shootings all the time in the states.  A man takes his gun out of his checked bag at Fort Lauderdale and shoots five people, wounding eight more.  The terrorism attacks across Europe by young men who often grow up in the west, cannot only be down to a misplaced idealism and religiosity that has nothing to do with Islam?  If you see it in what you watch and what you play onscreen, surely it must be easier to carry out?

And this brings me to this question:  what is art for?  A stupid movie like ‘Nice Guys’ is art, I’m afraid – it is someone’s interpretation of a story, and of deeper truths of the human condition.  What I saw was a movie about psychopaths. A small step toward making the unacceptable acceptable.  It is strange, and wild to imagine that we have come to this point in our human existence – that killing and hurting is watchable, funny entertainment.  We’re an intelligent, liberal family, and we guffawed.  I mean, we laughed so hard we were finding it difficult to draw breath at times.  The bitterest pill can be swallowed with sugar: the moral is, be careful about what pill you swallow.  Be careful it isn’t poison.