A War on Dots and Dashes

 Above, A war on dots and dashes read by the author. You can follow the reading below.

A war on dots and dashes

Furious, she scored a diagonal through the page in blood-red ink. When would they learn? Spelling and punctuation mattered. Two out of ten. The mark fell like a death sentence but she had no regrets. She picked up the next composition. “There not their,” she muttered, circling the offending word in red. “Not there,” her parrot echoed. She glared at it, then squinted at the pupil’s name. He was one of the worst. Spelling awry. Punctuation amok. Sentences a shambles. Construction chaotic. Did he do it deliberately? Was there some perverse pleasure to be had in making her blood boil? “Weight!” You’d have thought it was a swear word, the way she spat it out. “Not wait!” she added. “Wait!” the parrot swore. She shook her fist at the bird but it just stared back, unperturbed.

A toffee could have written better English. Now there was an appealing idea. She unwrapped one of the harder sort and, tossing the paper on her desk, stuffed the sweet in her mouth. She read on, chewing with such vigour her jaws ached. If she’d had her way the youth would have been expelled long ago. Were not where she scrawled in red. The subsequent sentence was so drawn out and convoluted it had her gasping for air. “Breathe for God’s sake,” she spluttered. “God’s sake,” the parrot intoned. Such cryptic remarks were wasted on these dimwits. Exactly. Waste, not waist. The page was redder than a battlefield. All dead words and red gashes. She shut her eyes and ran a hand across her brow. Her skin was clammy, a migraine coming on.

In comparison, her feet were cold and wet. Wet? Her eyes flew open to discover she was standing barefoot in a pool of pitch black water. Perplexed, she dipped a cautious finger in the viscous liquid and sniffed. She knew that smell. That was no water. It was Indian ink. She stared in horror at her soot-black feet then flung herself sideways, only just clearing the puddle. Her trajectory left a dirty smear across the smooth white surface. She landed with a jolt, her stained feet skidding sideways, sending her skating along a straight path. It was not wet. To her relief. But black and slippery. Reaching the end, she swung violently to the right along another path akin to the line atop a ‘T’, only to halt on the verge of an immense ‘O’ where she fell flat on her face.

She sat trying to scrub ink from her hands to no effect. Giving up in disgust she scrambled to her feet. The moment she was upright, the nib of a giant fountain pen danced a red circle around her, knocking her legs from under her. She squealed as she tumbled into yet another puddle. Rolling free, she crawled out on all fours. Ink dripped from her hair and trailed from her clothes tracing a rogue path through otherwise neat forms. Hearing an ominous whoosh, she glanced up to see the nib plunging straight at her. She dived to the side as the tip scratched the soft surface where she had squatted only seconds before, splattering her red.

The nib rose, no doubt readying to strike again. Ignoring the black forms crisscrossing beneath her feet, she wove her way, darting left and right at random, her breath catching in gasps in her throat. Again and again, the nib struck, although ink was the only thing that hit her. The blows became ever more frenetic until the nib drove down with such force it buckled and impaled itself only inches from her. Red ink flooded from its broken tip forming an ever-growing pool. Scouring splotches of red from her eyes and face with blackened fingers, she scampered away, careening across the blotchy surface till it abruptly ran out. She had reached the edge of the page and the end of her luck. The notebook slammed shut.

The shock of that thunderous demise and the unending darkness that fell, like a final full stop that wouldn’t swerve from its resolve, undid her. She burst into tears, her whole being wracked by uncontrollable sobs. The fathomless grief jolted her back to the present and she cracked open blurry eyes. Tears rolled down her cheeks and fell on the disconsolate composition, mingling black and red in an incomprehensible muddle. All sense had been washed from it. There was no way she could piece it back together. Nothing of the wayward story had stuck in her mind. For all her strident complaints, she hadn’t really read it. A renewed wave of remorse rolled over her and bore her away. 

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Four flash soundscapes

I have published the first four flash soundscapes based on my short stories. I was inspired in doing so by the work of Dirk Maggs who, amongst many other productions, directed and was the sound master of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Douglas Adam’s Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Not that I have Maggs talent or possibilities, but it was fun.

 The Blinkin’ Box [460 words, June 4, 2014/Nov. 14 2017]
I peer out, my eyes pressed to the cold metal slit. The brick wall opposite often forms a landscape scarred with shadows, but today it is nothing but a red blur. It stings my eyes as I watch a…

 Dr Freud and the Rabbit [681 words, July 26, 2013]
“Frankly,” the rabbit said after a long silence, making a show of staring off into the distance, “are you sure it’s only my problem?”…

  God be Blown [489 words, February 2, 2015]
The blast flung Scott the length of the corridor, through the back door of the pub and all the way into the yard. When its force finally waned, he crumpled to the ground to a round of applause….

  Oratorio for a wreck [371 words, September 5, 2009]
It was Sunday. An invited Orthodox choir sang in the cliff top church: an Oratorio in memory of those lost at sea. A breeze blew off the bay bringing with it a strong smell of salt and seaweed….

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Smoke signals from a wordless world

The following short story was written with Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump and all the trigger-happy, so-called women-loving cowboys of this world in mind.

Whistling tunelessly, a sole figure rides east on an open plain.
His mind roams unfettered over soft curves and moist folds.
Galloping across that formless plain he spots a cloud of dust.
It swirls and grows, hastening westward in the treeless waste.
Abruptly it turns, speeds up and heads unswervingly his way.
Alert amid that endless expanse, the rider ceases to whistle.
Pushing up in the stirrups he shields his eyes from the rising sun.
Little after dawn and already dried grasses rustle in the breeze.
Taking on human form, the pounding of hooves reaches his ears.
The on-coming rider looms ever larger urging its horse to a gallop.
Still in the saddle, his hand shifts to his holster and readies his gun.
That there is a threat leaves no doubt. This stranger wishes him ill.
There can only be one solitary rider in those plains and it’s him.
An arm raised in menace, an outstretched hand pointing his way.
He draws fast, his arm poised, takes aim and fires. A single shot.
The recoil flings him back as a short, sharp detonation rings out.
A gasp of in-drawn breath replies to the imperious bark of his gun.
The figure flies from its horse, arcs upwards then falls with a thud.
Amid swathes of cloth lie the soft curves that peopled his dreams.
Sliding his gun into its holster, he stares bemused at the lifeless form.
The unarmed woman‘s eyes stare back, one hand raised in a wave.
He dismounts, running excited fingers along the curve of her cheek.
Her skin is soft and milky. The curls of her flaxen hair stir in the breeze.
Death has not yet frozen her beauty. She could almost be asleep.
Like admiring a picture, he scans the veiled curves that arose him so.
Wings flap close to his head and outstretched claws whistle by his ear.
Responding to a silent summons, birds of prey circle impatient above.
Her mount has fled, already little more than a cloud in the distance.
He clambers up into the saddle, turns his horse aside and plods away.
Hesitant hooves follow the trail, then he urges his horse into a gallop.
Whistling tunelessly, a sole cowboy rides east on an open plain.

Where was I?

Where did I put that paper? It was in here somewhere. What a mess. Always so much stuff in my bag. No idea where it comes from. A packet of cigarettes. Empty, of course. Shame. Could have done with a cig. No such luck. Against the doctor’s orders. Bloody know-all. Smug too. Young enough to be my grandson. All his diplomas strung out on the walls. Proud blighter. And rich too. What’s this? A glove. One. Where’s the other? No idea. Like me and him. Only one survivor. Pretty useless without the other. Should ditch it. But there’s always a chance a second’ll come along. Even if they don’t match. And this. A lipstick. Used up. Long ago. In efforts to please him. Before he died. Always knew he’d go first. Quirky heart. Just gave up. There he was collapsed on the floor at my feet. So much for looking good. Smells exotic. Bright pink. Not really my colour. Looked like a whore. Might as well chuck it. No use for good looks now. Ah. The keys. I was looking for them. When was it? Yesterday. Or maybe the day before. No matter. Thank heavens they aren’t lost. How will I get in when I reach home? Where was I? Ah yes. That paper. But why? An appointment? The dentist? A doctor? Or maybe a letter? A picture postcard? Don’t get many of them these days. No blighter bothers any more. As if I were tottering on the brink. Going, going, gone. Always was stubborn. Won’t give in so easily. Of course! My address.  On the paper. That’s it. Words. The keys to where I live. Must have lost it. Fallen by the wayside. Here maybe. Look at those feet. Black and blistered. Could have stopped hurting a while back. But the pain got worse when the shoes fell apart. I remember that. It’s the sharp stones that are the worst. The way is littered with them. So many paths to get home…

[330 words]

Protect Net Neutrality

Wednesday July 12th 2017 has been singled out in the States and elsewhere as a day of action in favour of Net Neutrality. If the Trump administration through the FCC reverses earlier decisions and gives the right to Internet access providers to pick and chose how they grant access to the Internet it opens the door to partitioning the Net between haves and have-nots, with ultra high-speed broadband services for the rich and pitifully slow Internet, if any access at all, for the poor and marginalised. In terms of content and content providers, it would give access providers the right to decide what is ‘acceptable’ and what is ‘unacceptable’, where acceptability may depend on the company’s commercial or political interests rather than any concern for the public good or for the underlying democratic nature of the Internet. To learn more about the question see (amongst many others);

Traces

On my walk, crossing so many traces of stories yearning to be told.
A misplaced golfball close to a golf course, its owner lost in the search.
The hoof prints of a small horse escaped or out for a Sunday caper.
The tyre marks of a tractor or a four-wheel-drive off the beaten track.
A paper trail of hankies left by a solitary jogger with a snivelling cold.
A family of water droplets having fun in the safety of some spiky leaves.
Finally a lonesome leaf proudly standing out amid brown counterparts.

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Sleepless Knights

A fly settles on the word ‘scar’. I cup my hand. Can’t squash the damn thing. It’s sitting on a book! Look at it! Twitching  its feelers in defiance. I brace myself for action. My lightening scooping movement sends the fly buzzing away and leaves me empty handed. Scar? The jagged mark on Harry’s forehead is a flag the author waves to make us sit up and pay attention, but like Potter, it’s getting a bit weary. The fly buzzes on a victory lap around my head. I wave it away but it lands on the word ‘Polyjuice’, a potion to make you what you are not, then sidles sideways and settles on ‘Scorpius’. Now there’s a name with a bite. Should never have eaten that black treacle chutney with the ham. My liver is complaining noisily. Why do we persist in doing what we know is bad for us?

Knock. Knock. “Come in.” My son stands by his bed enveloped in a cloud of ether. “What’s that smell?” I ask. He points to a small, portable computer on the bed and mimes pouring liquid onto a cloth. “I’m cleaning the jam from the keys.” Why do I have a feeling of deja vu? I look at my inexistent watch. Twelve-fifteen. “Shouldn’t you be getting some shut-eye?” He smiles. Guilty or guileless? Who knows? Who cares? “Try winding down,” I say. “I’m not a watch,” he retorts. “Breathe deeply then,” I reply, “and switch off your brain.” He laughs and picks up the cloth and a tiny bottle, holding them at arm’s length. “No smoking,” I say and smile as I close the door.

I’m sitting on the edge of the bed in my office reading the eighth tome of Harry Potter, the one that takes place nineteen years later. The former heroes have become  long in the teeth. Why do I imagine their children being played by a doddering cast of pensioners? Hope the Beastie film is better. It’s half past midnight. The door opens. My wife enters. “Can anyone explain why no one is asleep in this house?” “The phase of the moon, maybe,” I reply, wondering what phase it is, not having been out for weeks, and continue reading. She’s still staring at me, hand on the door handle, her head cocked to one side, so I add, “I’m keeping this fly company as it buzzes around my room. I’ll go to sleep in a few minutes. If it will.” She shuts the door and I hear her skipping her way across the living room, humming a song.

I lie in bed, mentally massaging my liver, soothing the pain. It’s a play. Plays are riddled with holes compared to novels, especially when there are so many characters. This one reads more like a film script. It’s the extravagant stage directions. A leftover from the novel. Makes you wonder what they’ll do on stage without the special effects. Anyway, the pain has gone. Should have made a career of it. Maybe not. Outcomes are always uncertain with magic. Better to stick to what you understand.

The Empty Box

Empty Box

This story is dedicated to my dentist who unwittingly gave me an almost empty box. Note that any resemblance between him and Hans is a mere coincidence.

“Do you know the one about the man who was balding?” George asked, setting his empty beer glass down on the table. It was early and the pub was still quiet. Apart from the bartender checking racing results in the evening paper, they were the only people there.

Hans shook his head. He certainly had no problem with hair loss. His curly locks hung down to his shoulders. Blond, like many people from his country.

“There was an ad in the newspaper,” George continued, “offering a solution for balding people to keep their hair in.” He couldn’t help grinning as he anticipated the punch line. “Well he sent off a cheque and was delighted when the postman delivered a parcel. But opening the small packet, he found only an empty box.” George burst out laughing. Hans looked at him perplexed.

“An empty box to keep his hair in,” George repeated.

Hans looked at him blankly.

“It’s ambiguous,” George began but immediately gave up. Jokes were never funny when explained.

“An empty box,” Hans said, pronouncing each word as if it were a rare wine to be swilled around his mouth but not swallowed. “It sounds like a koan,” he mused.

“A what?” George asked, waving his glass at the man behind the bar. When he caught the man’s attention he raised two fingers. The bartender shook his head but George motioned to the plaster on his leg. The man nodded.

“It’s Japanese. A pithy saying which doesn’t seem to make any sense. Yet on reflection it’s meaning is profound. That understanding changes you.”

It was George’s turn to look perplexed. How did Hans manage to jump from a joke to philosophy or was it religion when he had hardly finished his first beer? “Give us an example,” he said. “Something I can grasp. Not your airy fairy words.”

The bartender set out two new mats, removed their empty glasses and replaced them with full ones. George pulled out several notes and handed them to the man, saying “Keep the change.”

Hans clapped his hands together startling George who was about to savour his second beer. He hastily wiped the froth from around his mouth and said, “Why d’you do that?”

“You know the sound of two hands clapping?” Hans asked.

“Of course.” Why such an obvious question? Was the man trying to make a fool of him? Sometimes Hans was very strange. Maybe it was all that peering into people’s mouths that warped him. George was glad he was not a dentist.

“Well,” and here Hans waved one hand back and forth in front of him. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

George burst out laughing. “You Germans have such a funny sense of humour.”

Hans was not laughing. He wasn’t even smiling. Instead, his face was aglow. “The sound of one hand clapping reaches the highest heavens above.” He proclaimed the words with such fervour he could have been the vicar culminating one of his most inspired sermons, but unlike the vicar, Hans had no excuse for his madness.

“What’s all this got to do with an empty box?” George asked.

“Everything!” Hans exclaimed, a triumphant grin on his face. “Just like the apparent silence of one hand clapping is full of sound and meaning, so the empty box is brimming over with content.”

George made a mental note to change his dentist. The man was raving mad.

“Have you been sniffing ether again?” he asked.

Hans ignored the jibe and continued. “Silence and emptiness are akin. They are not an absence but a tangible source of richness.”

“I wish I could make money from emptiness,” George quipped, trying not to grin in case Hans thought he was poking fun. His friend could be touchy.

Hans shook his head, a look of determination on his face. “Bartender!” he called out. When the man came, a dish cloth in his hands, Hans asked, “Have you got an empty box?”

When the bartender raised his eyebrows, Hans said, “I’m trying to demonstrate something to my friend here.

“How big?” the man asked. Hans replied by placing his hands about a foot apart.

The bartender shared a knowing glance with George that said something like you have to humour madmen then disappeared behind his bar. They could hear him rummaging about for several minutes before he returned carrying a  plain brown cardboard box that smelt of crisps

“Great,” Hans said and thanked the man. He took the box, peered inside, upended it as if emptying out its non existent contents, then set it upright on the low table between them. “I’m going to show you that emptiness has a feel to it.” He moved George’s now empty beer glass to one side and placed the box in front of him. “To do this you need to close your eyes.”

George glanced around the pub to make sure no one was watching. The bartender had returned to his newspaper. George closed his eyes, all of a sudden feeling vulnerable. He steeled himself against a possible practical joke. None came. Instead Hans said, “Hold your hands out in front of you.”

George did as he was told, wishing he’d never mentioned the empty box.

“Without moving, feel the air around your fingers.”

George could feel nothing. Air was air. And unless it was moving or you were, it didn’t feel of anything.

“Take your time,” Hans said softly.

George’s thoughts wandered and he had to force his attention back to the air. He wasn’t sure if it was his imagination but he had the impression the air was thick and a little oily. If he moved his fingers they might produce ripples.

“Now I will put the box round your hands,” Hans explained. “Without touching them.”

George’s was surprised at the difference. He chuckled but kept his eyes closed. There was a tang about the air in the box. Salt, he told himself, and grinned. No. That was probably just the faint smell of crisps. So he searched further, peering behind the smell and beyond the image of the box he had in his head.

A thrill fluttered in his stomach as he realised there was something there, just outside his reach. Each time he stretched for it, the illusive presence slipped away. Frustrated, he gave up and just let himself sense the ungraspable. He was startled to discover his senses spreading out in every direction till he felt he could embrace the whole universe. No. He was the whole universe. He was connected to everything and everyone. He hung there not wanting the feeling to end, but his arms began to tremble and his eyes fluttered open.

With a jolt he saw that he was seated on a bench in a pub with his hands thrust inside an empty crisp box. How disappointing. He reached out for the feeling he’d just had but it was receding like a dream leaving only regret and nostalgia.

Hans put down the empty box and raised his glass, saying, “Prost.”

Mr. Hammer’s spell

Mr. Hammer

Mr. Hammer thumped his fist on the local newspaper sprawled across the kitchen table. The blow made a satisfying thud. If there was one thing he couldn’t stomach it was bad spelling. Like an insidious illness, it undermined the very foundations of his world. Every time the slightest mistake crossed his path he pounced on it. Naming and shaming was an art with him. He had a knack for ferreting out the most public forum in which to point a bony finger at each mistake, calling all to witness. Not that spotting spelling mistakes gave him any pleasure, but it did procure a sense of purpose and a deep feeling of satisfaction.

He uncorked a bottle of red wine from a neighbour’s vineyard, poured himself a glass and swigged a generous mouthful. Wiping the back of his hand across his mouth, he re-read the headlines in the paper. More refugees on the way. Flipping open a sharp knife, he sawed off several slices of a dried garlic sausage and slipped one into his mouth. Only one other cause moved him more than bad spelling: the battle against those who invaded his village. The thought of it sickened him. All the people of colour, all those who spoke other languages, who had been brought up with their barbaric traditions and their filthy habits. And they kept coming, an unending torrent, soiling everything he held dear.

A sharp rap had him grasping his knobbly walking stick and hastening to the front door. He’d beat the living day lights out of those brats from two doors down.  Ringing his door bell. Banging the shutters. Having their dog use his doormat as a latrine.

He swung the door open with all his force, hoping to catch one of the blighters as he did. But no one was there. He looked left. He looked right. No one. Just an alley of trees, a dribbling fountain and a mournful statue peering at him. Then he looked down and spotted the bag at his feet, like the ones doctors used, red and worn, with a single handle on the top, and it stank. He wanted nothing to do with it. It might be a bomb. He’d call the police. He’d call the fire brigade. He’d call the army.

Then he saw the envelope propped against the bag, his name scrawled on it. Only one ‘m’. Typical. What rubbish had they written? Taunts? Threats? He didn’t want to read it, but before he could stop himself the envelope was in his hand and he was forcing it open. A single sheet folded in four. Flattening out the page he was surprised to find a printed message. One paragraph. Neatly presented. In large script, as if for the old and infirm. He read.

Deer me ha mer. I Sanz You to no than se r vers up sett …

How exasperating. He shook his head and tried again. It made no more sense. As he read the line a third time a dreadful queasiness rolled over him. His stomach churned and blood pounded in his ears. Clutching the message in his hand, he staggered along the corridor to the kitchen, not bothering to close the front door behind him. Grasping the table, he lowered himself onto a chair and rested his head in his hands, staring down at the message on the table.

His eyes shifted to the newspaper, where he read:

Way World Antoine tory to fixe the votons …

He sprang to his feet alarmed and almost fell over when dark spots surged before his eyes and a roaring sound rushed through his head. He clung to the table with both hands, his eyes roving the kitchen in search of something, anything, to reassure him. Everything seemed normal. Then he saw the poster his ex wife had gifted him.

Notting IS betterave than home groin flouera …

He screamed and screamed. Lurching down the corridor, he staggered out onto the street, where he halted a moment on the door mat thrusting a fist into his mouth to stem the scream. To no avail. Windows were flung open, alarmed heads peered out, passers by turned to look askance. The shame of it. Nothing he did would stop the scream. Terror seized him. Glancing up at the statue, he willed his eyes to yell, “I’m bewitched.” The statue made no comment. Tossing off his slippers, he careened across the street, wove an unsteady path between the trees and flung himself headlong into the fountain where he tried to fill his nose and mouth with water. Anything to rid his head of the madness.

He choked and spluttered as a stranger fished him from the icy liquid and wiped his face dry with a dirty handkerchief. Mr. Hammer shoved him away and stood there dripping, his body wracked with shudders. He stared uncomprehending at the man, his bulbous nose, his fleshy lips, his shining teeth. The man was speaking.

Presse dont be sacré dit Will be ok …

Mr. Hammer sank to his knees, his hands clasped together in prayer. “Please,” he said. “Make it stop.” But the man just looked at him perplexed as if he didn’t understand.

Loooser

The jagged edges of the corrugated roof snagged a plastic bag that had blown against the bus shelter. It flapped like an enraged bird. George knew what it meant to be enraged. He gripped the tiny box in his pocket with clenched fingers.

The pane that backed the shelter had shattered, scattering shards that scrunched underfoot as he paced. The local Council had wedged a plastered panel where the glass had once been and someone had sprayed Loooser in blurred letters across it. They didn’t even know how to spell. The dustbin lay on the ground, half crushed, its contents splayed across the pavement. He pushed a syringe out of sight with the toe of his boot, twisting the needle as he did.

He wiped bird muck from the bench with a handkerchief then tossed the filthy tissue on the bin. Spreading a discarded copy of the Guardian over the mess, he sat down and rested his head in his hands. “Don’t,” he imagined his wife saying. “You’ll regret it.”

He drew the small box from his pocket, his fingers trembling as the clasp resisted his efforts to open it. The pill was bright red and so tiny for a substance that people made so much fuss about. “Please,” she whispered, a sob in her voice. “Think of the children.”

“Whenever did they think of me?” The wind blustered by way of reply. Enough. He grasped the pill between shaky fingers and brought it to his lips only to have it slip from his grip and roll under the waste bin. Down on hands and knees, he shoved the bin aside, but the pill was nowhere to be seen. Then he spotted it, a glint of red caught in a crack in the pavement close to a dark brown muck.

His hand flew to his nose to ward off the stench and he shuffled away crab-like, sinking to the ground with his back pressed against the bench. Splinters of glass dug into his backside, but he paid them no heed. She would be smiling, he was sure, but not out of malice, more from satisfaction. Why did she always get her way? Even now she was dead.

A dog nosing his trouser leg had him look up. It sniffed the brown pile, then its tongue quested in the crack between the paving stones. The man launched forward, pushing the animal out of the way and cutting his hands and knees as he did. It was then he caught sight of the red dot on the tip of its tongue before it disappeared into its mouth.

“No!” he shouted, shaking the dog’s shoulders as if that would make it understand. The cocker sank to the ground and keeled over on its side, it’s swollen tongue flopping out of its mouth.

George knelt by the dog, head bowed, eyes closed, one hand on its flank, sensing each convulsion as if it was a stab in his own flesh. He shuddered. Blasted chemist. “Quick and painless,” he’d said. What pathetic rubbish.

“Hey! You! What are you doing to my dog?”

George turned to see a stocky man dressed in charity-shop clothes looming over him. There was no way he could explain. Forgotten for a moment, the dog let out a grunt and its back arched up one last time before it sank in a heap to the ground.

“You bastard,” the man shouted, raining blows on George’s head and shoulders as he spat out insult after insult. George slumped over the dog’s rigid body, sheltering his head from the man’s fists. The man switched to booted feet, kicking ribs and back and legs like an unswerving madman bent on bruising every inch of George’s body.

“Whatever are you going?” George heard a trembling female voice call out. “Stop that immediately.”

“Bloody – nosey – woman,” the man retorted, punctuating each word with a kick. “Piss off or I’ll kick you too.” George cracked open one eye to see the man bearing down on an old woman, hunched in her black lace, a handbag looped over her arm, a silver object clutched in her hand.

“Stop or I’ll shoot,” the woman warned, her voice shrill. Another crackpot George thought, till a sharp detonation had the charity-shop man lurch sideways and topple on George. Squashed between man and dog, George struggled to breathe, his lungs choking on the smell of mothballs and beer. Surely the old woman would go for help. But why did she not enquire after him? Had she fled thinking he was dead?

“Be grateful she saved your life,” his wife would have said.

A cold wetness stole over George as the man’s blood pooled on his back. The wind was biting. He could do nothing to stave it off as it plucked at his clothes.

“But at least you’re alive,” he imagined his wife saying. For once her being positive didn’t annoy him. “I’m glad of that,” she said. Her reading his thoughts was another of her irritating traits.

“Fat lot of good it does me. I’m like a bruised chunk of meat sandwiched between two dead bodies.”

“You have such a weird sense off humour. I can’t say I like it.”

As blunt as ever. “Wasn’t that why you …?” He still couldn’t bring himself to say the words.

Night was falling and no one had come. Not even an empty bus or a stray dog. Feeling had long since deserted his fingers and toes. He tried to move them, but a numb absence was all that remained at the far reaches of his aching limbs.

“…of course you can,” she was saying as he drifted out of sleep. “Just hold on.” The world was as dark and as still as death. For all his bumbling, maybe he’d succeeded. But no. A distant throbbing grew till it filled the air with a wreak of oil and fumes and a bright light blinded him.

“You two havin’ fun? Or just lyin’ there passin’ the time o’ day?” a man called out over the pounding of the engine. “If it’s a bus yer wantin’, now’s the time.”

“I can’t move,” he wanted to say, but his mouth and throat were as dry as a bone abandoned in the desert. Not even a squeak could squeeze its way out.

“Right yer are then,” the man shouted. “I’ll be gettin’ along.” There was a creak as the brakes were released, then the engine roared and the bus pulled away, its headlights roaming the wasteland before returning to the road. And darkness and silence came rushing back.

“No! You are not giving up,” she said as he drifted towards oblivion.

“Wasn’t that what you did?”

“I was wrong. I’m not letting you make the same mistake.”

“What’s the point?”

He craved but one thing, release. Release from the pain. Release from the loss of his wife. Release from the unending drudge. Release from the struggle.  Release from life. And release came, all of a sudden, panting its way up to him, saying “I knew somethin’ was amiss”, buoying him up, casting off the weight of the dead man, freeing his lungs to breathe again, offering him a hand up and a shoulder to lean on.

“Are you all right mate? Sorry I took so long. Had to park me bus.”