Open Pen London

New Start

I don’t know why I let ‘em talk me into coming out. Having to pay to get in a fuckin’ pub. Liberty. I hate this shit. I feel like an alien spectator. Are they really having that much fun, or are they just pretending to fit in with everyone else pretending to fit in? I don’t fit nowhere. Don’t feel like pretending either. They’re all excited about the night and I don’t get it. I feel nothing. What are they celebrating? Another year gone? Another year to fuck up? Another year closer to death.

I’m not even sure this is real. Everything’s like a strange dream since I got better. Did I really get better? Wouldn’t be surprised if I’m dead, or in a coma. Or in some nuthouse somewhere, delusional. I only came out to see if I could get hold of some drunk bird for a snog. Everything’s changed since I last went out. The music’s shit. I’m not even sure how to pull anymore. Girls look better than they used to. Probably because they’re not all chewing their own faces off and gurning on a rush.

I split with my girlfriend just after I got better. Had a bit of a downturn and she couldn’t take anymore. Glad really, she was a pain in the fuckin’ arse. I was gonna dump ’er anyway when I fully recovered. Just holding on for a bit of support, like a parasite. My nerves are too raw without my forcefield for a moody cunt like that.

I’m trying to make eyes at a cutie, but I might be staring with a crooked leer. She turns away. There’s a fella here, mate of a mate who keeps offering me cocaine. He’s doing my fuckin’ head in, but I know he’s just being polite, or sellin’. I see him coming near again. On his way to the bog.

-Alright mate?

-Yeah… you alright?

-Yeah mate, having a good time mate. How you been keeping?

I feel like a spotlight has lit me up on stage and I’ve forgotten me lines. I look at him for what seems a long time, but time might just have stopped dead for all I know. He looks uneasy, or is it me? I know I’m supposed to just say, yeah mate, I’m good, but that don’t want to come out. I grab his head with both hands and bite into his face, the blood running down my chin. He stands there looking at me in awkward realisation that I’m not looking at him, but through ‘im and offers me a line.

-Mate, I told ya, I can’t touch that shit man. I got a problem with it.

-Yeah, tell me about it. Ain’t we all?

-I ain’t talkin’ about a few grams on a Friday, I got a serious problem with it. That shit drives me round the fuckin’ bend. I can’t stop.

-When d’you last do it?

-Years ago, but it don’t matter.

-You’d probably be alright now.

-you sellin’?

-Yeah.

-You got no idea what would happen if I had it. You wouldn’t want to be in the same room. I’m alright.

He moves on. I try chatting up the girl next to me, but I can’t hear much of what she says. What I do hear’s making me think of smashin’ her face out through the back of her head instead of kissing. Nice looking though.

There’s a countdown. Everyone’s joining in except me. I feel like they’re all looking at me. They know I’m an imposter. I’m not like them. It occurs to me that the countdown might end with them all attacking me. This is a set-up. No no no, that’s not what’s happening here. They’re having fun. It’s me that’s wrong here. They’re escaping their hell and I can’t. I can only see the meaninglessness of it all. I can’t access their fun. I can’t fake it.

The countdown ends and the bird I was chatting up is all over me. Something odd about kissing a stranger on a night out. Her hands are everywhere, so I keep up. She’s wearing a flimsy skirt and I’m rubbing her through her knickers and she’s wet. At least I got something sorted. We part and she gives me a sex look. Someone shoves past behind me and I turn round and shove back. There’s a moment of stand-off and then he carries on his way. I look round to see the girl I was just kissing snogging somebody else. Oh well. I ain’t got no claim on that. Fuck it.

Matey with the coke’s here again. Why did I stay near the toilet?

-D’ya want a line?

-Yeah, fuck it. Let’s go.

In the cubicle, he chops off a couple of small lines. I feel the excitement of terror well up, as I go down. I sniff it up, stand straight and it hits me. Good gear. I see a flashing image of myself, naked with blood all down me. I rub my face like I’m wipin’ it off. He bends down to do the other line and I bring an open palm down on the back of his head, smashing his face into the cistern. He crumples, as I punch ‘im over and over. He’s lying in piss, blood making patterns in it. I go down his pockets. Money, gear. Here we go. Sorted. I chop out a proper line and do that too. I leave the cubicle. Busy at the urinals, but nobody notices me holding on to a basin staring at myself in the mirror. Eyes, like black holes to nowhere. Fire in my veins.

-Happy fuckin’ new year, cunt.

o          o          o

ROB TRUE

was born in London 1971. He left school with no qualifications, got lost in an abyss and spent a decade on another planet. He returned to earth just in time for the new millennium and married a beautiful, strange girl. She taught him how to use paragraphs and punctuation and his writing has been a bit better ever since.

He has work out in 2018 in Granta, and tweets now and again at @RobTrueStories

AN OPEN PEN CHRISTMAS: L’esprit de l’escalier

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We were talking, me and Sue, about why ghost stories were a thing at Christmas, when we got on to what scares us, really. I said playing out the same stuff in every job, relationship, hometown; subconsciously finding people that let me play out my patterns as I let them play our theirs, being stuck doing this. Each New Year’s Resolution really a cover story. Stuck, especially those times that I thought I wasn’t, that I was breaking the cycle, realising too late that the breaking out was just another, subtler way of staying in. For these cycles to be the fabric of your existence, running until your last breath, so that you will not know that you have lived. Suzy said snakes.

Bringing us back down to more everyday fears, Roger, who’d been listening while he dish-clothed the post-grad bar, said why don’t you girls try the A-Block stairs. What’s haunting them, I said. The stairs, he said. I said, That’s the location. Sue said, What’s the story. He told us it wasn’t any ghost story – the undergrads in A-Block had come up with a dare. (The stairs hadn’t been called haunted till then.) At night, you walked from whichever floor your room was on down towards basement level. Except before you started, you had to stay still till all the lights blinked off. Then you walked in the dark, see how far you got, if you could reach the bottom. But whenever the lights come on, you see something. Like what, I said. Just something the stairs show you.

Hoping for a story to tell, we let Roger shutter up, and we crossed to A-Block, with its glass spine of a lift, motionless, and four lit rooms – the only students who’d not gone back for the holidays. I blinkered my hands on a window and pointed out the abandoned entrance hall. Swiping us in, Sue said that when I shat myself, she’d not be able to give me a lift home. She lead the way to the stairwell door: four flights per storey, eight steps each, diagonally completing the sides of a cuboid, other than that, pipes and banisters. Picking off a piece of plaster oddly made my pulse run faster; throwing it at Sue I asked her “Is it just me or did something…?” Her face paled as she stopped to listen, then with a mock-offended laugh: fuck off mate. The way up was still dark, while the way down we’d already illuminated. Hoping to hint at my reluctance, I made the case for either option in a shrugging kind of voice: we could take the lift and start from the top, which would mean we’d done it properly, or save time by going from ground level to basement. Dreamily, despite my chatter, next I said it didn’t matter: pick the former or the – lateral thinking – third option, another option. Wincing like I was dragging myself out of a current, I said we could always pretend we’d gone up or down, and get out of there. I waited for her response, holding the door, telling myself it was to let out the tremendous echoes. Deafening with childish laughter, she leapt in, and I crept after

Clicking fingers at the rafter with the motion sensor light

Step by step, at first, then three-in-one I steeply started leaping

Bounding round the corners keeping Suzy from my line of sight

.

Half for balance, half for feeling concrete’s weird and half-appealing

Smooth and pocked, almost congealing surface did I touch the walls

But to soothe a rising tension did I call to Sue and mention

Being scared? Her condescension made me doubt my wherewithal

.

Tense because the steps kept going, levels’ minus numbers growing –

Hear the student pranksters crowing, giving us the runaround

Yet we’d been for half an hour ravelling this sunken tower

When my instincts overpowered: “Take us back to solid ground!

.

“Peek and cringe round every corner. What was that! We could’ve sworn a

Shadow moved! We tried to warn her someone’s coming. Be prepared!”

At that urgent mental screaming ‘leaps and bounds’ took on new meaning

Looking back I came careening, knocking Suzy unawares.

o

Getting to her feet she knuckled brick dust from her eye and chuckled

Shrilly (courage in me buckled) “Let’s try going back one flight.”

We ascended, smiling, slowly – smiles to prove our shakes were only

Self-aware performing shows; we whispered, “Something’s not quite right.”

.

For the steps went up unceasing; plus the door was gone, releasing

Not just fear but calm, decreasing both our paces to a crawl

Thinking that it might inspire problems for our stairway mire

I went lower, she went higher (Make it crash and reinstall?)

.

Suzy would find “nothing more than ceilings, steps, and walls and floors and

Lights” – she paused to form an extra pale and livid frown

By herself, so faintly humming, gaining height while I’d been plumbing

Sure enough I’d met her coming up; she’d met me coming down

.

Panic sent its prickling flushes down my arms, in upward rushes

Through my brain, a flood that pushes reason into wretched prayers:

Had I piped up even forty, thirty, twenty steps before, we

Might have had a chance to bore free from the mineshaft of these stairs…

o

Could it be, though, locomotion moved the stairs like wind moves ocean?

Might this superstitious notion save us from our plodding plight?

Like a treadmill minus motor, we were boat and frightened boater

Drop an anchor and we ought to pin the water, hold it tight

.

So we slumped down on a stooping step or other, worn to drooping

By the trampling and the looping of a billion drawled footfalls

Firstly, nothing, only distant roaring as of non-existent

Thunder, but then quite insistent: Windows and an entrance hall

.

Frightened, hopeful, we departed – just like that, the trap outsmarted!

Grabbing her I laughed wholehearted; she played quiet; I played the clown

Peering back into the building with the morning sunlight gilding

Banisters and pock-marks filled in gummily, she kissed my crown

.

Held her lips there, started crying – What had been most horrifying?

Knots that tie from their untying? – “Yes,” she sighed into my hair

Roger doing inventory sensed we had a scary story

“Hardly clothed ourselves in glory…” More than that we didn’t share

o

Life went back to ‘something’ normal, as a lover’s passing scorn will

Leave behind a mute, informal threat that disarrays your nights

What that threat was would elude me; Suzy offered doctors whom she’d

Used for “dizziness” she shrewdly put it so I wouldn’t bite

.

Nothing bodily affected anything and yet I texted:

“Aren’t you feeling unprotected? Can’t you sense it?” / “Not at all.”

Though I couldn’t speak it plainly, truth insisted, from the way the

Rhyming nightmares nightly plagued me: Somehow, you are still enthralled

.

Suzy tells me that we’re freely living, moving. Can’t I feel the

Blatant substance of the Real she points to as we drive through town?

Smiling in her car politely, only words I say are ‘Might be!’

Concrete white and grey inside me, spiritually rust-pipe brown

.

Years pile up without real changes (surface merely rearranges)

“What’s today? The blues or rages?” reads a text – see, Suzy cares

Don’t mind her, I’m past offending: whether climbing or descending

Walking circles, never-ending. I’m OK – I’ll take the stairs

o          o          o

MAZIN SALEEM

is a fiction writer. He tweets from @maybemazin

Mazin’s Christmas song for Open Pen:

AN OPEN PEN CHRISTMAS: As we drove a kind of madness came upon us

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As we drove a kind of madness came upon us so that we didn’t regret what we had done. In fact we never did regret it. We didn’t have time. From then on there was never a moment long enough to allow us reflect to consider the solemn awfulness of what had happened. What had happened to us. Been done by us. I used to think that if we had just stopped and considered pulled up by the side of the road one day and thought, a horrible realisation would have arrived. And I think now that the moving was deliberate. Exhausting and necessary.

But to explain so that someone could understand appreciate the tenor of our mistakes and the urgency of our flight I would have to go back very far right back to the point from which we were fleeing when we took to the coastal road when I was only nineteen. And for you to understand truly would require a genuine effort to appreciate our mode of thought and very particular circumstances. An openness and sympathy which in my experience is rare indeed. So rare that I have experienced it perhaps once or twice in the past five months of our flight and on neither of those occasions did I stop long enough to consider carefully and truly the people I suspected had it in them. They helped us long enough to know that it would cost them. But I truly think that they did not live to regret it, from my consideration of their understanding. Of us and the tenor of our experience. But they did not live, and that is true too.

To go back by five months is not an easy thing.

On the coastal roads the days were very very short and the faster we drove towards the sun the quicker it leant into the sea. At that time we set our pace by the length of the day. We had a little time. Those days we drove through many nights and at the side of the road great lumps of snow gathered wanting to lean but always tumbling.

With five months distance I can see we picked a bad time to take to flight. The drive was hard. At times we ran about on compact ice and I gripped myself in silencing despair. But I dared not drive and had nothing to offer but the smallness of my demands. I was driven and it made more sense that way. In the night days of our first driving when things dawned and did not dawn we also set the limits of our understanding. Don’t look that way we always said, when our gaze glanced the tops of gaudy trees. We always looked ahead or towards the sea. Never back or at each other which was the same.

We didn’t pick the time of year ourselves but it was a cruel time to do what we did. The light had a kind of hardness to it with little sympathy. The weather tried to slow our pace but we set it as swift as the coming down of night. We set it just about as fast as we could go.

Yes those first night days were about the worst when we drove so fast to stop the snow from settling with our wheels.  The cold has its way of keeping the living moving, just as it stops the dead and makes them linger.

When we took the coastal road it seemed the natural way to go. Away from everything away maybe even from the madness that had come upon us. Something about the time of year something about all the coming together had made us recognise in each other a need to pull apart. On the road we were each alone with trying not to think of what we’d done and at that time of year too.

Wrong is wrong and bad is bad but driving through the snow, winds at our flank that didn’t see us and kept going through it made the wrongness of it a matter of practicalities of lack of planning you couldn’t plan a thing like that though they might say otherwise if they could say. We stopped when we had to stop only long enough to put it down to timing, never longer.

Looking back I’m not sure either of us thought we’d make it but not knowing where we were heading makes it hard to judge. The coastal road stretched forever as far as anyone knew and as far as we planned we planned to go beyond that. When we rarely saw others they always wanted to greet us but eventually we put that down to the time of year and greeted them peaceably back. It was a bad time of year to have done what we’d done but we were always friendly. Took what was offered. Never more.

The coastal road went through the fir forest more than once and when it did bushes of holly far taller than I had seen before scraped themselves along our windows with messages we couldn’t grasp but felt we knew and he said without turning round this is only going to get harder to get through and as he said very little it was something I remembered. And actually the road took us back towards the sea that I liked to watch but that wasn’t what he had meant at all.

Looking back five months is likely longer than he thought we’d get at all. But we never considered turning back, only pursuing flight until we forgot what we were trying to outrun. We had a silence battered only by the sea and noisy coldness of the ground, we had a lack of expectations, we had an absence of hope so grand it didn’t need acknowledging. We cut ourselves free and yet refused to drift. We had both been heavy a very long time and then with all the coming together on the cusp of weighting ourselves down even more with food and comfort – ours or other people’s – we glanced across and caught each other’s need to pull away.

What takes an instant can prove hard to sustain. A thing to learn at nineteen. What takes an instant can be harder to shake off, that too. We took an instant and we dragged it out behind us as we drove the coastal road felt it bounce and shudder and scrape behind us as we went. We never looked but it was tethered there it swung wide with every corner pulling in the direction we wouldn’t go colliding with banks of snow that cascaded in our wake.

Now I am twenty and I see the road from June’s approach I am more hopeful for the flight. We’ll keep the pace and when we find ourselves at Christmas’s edge we’ll have got far past it by then.

In Spring the days are longer they give more time and light and once or twice I’ve seen him take deep long breaths I’d never seen before. Spring is busy with other things it asks much less of you and all the snow and wind that tried to block our way is dissipating and the further we go the further people are. The pace is exhausting and necessary but all around us things are waking up and taking flight casting off the things that held them to the ground. This sense of company is energising funny to have it now and not at that cruel time of year we left.

o          o          o

SARAH W

lives, works, studies and writes in London.

Sarah’s Christmas song for Open Pen:

AN OPEN PEN CHRISTMAS: Merry Christmas

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On a hilltop in what would become known to some as the Holy Land, two shepherds lift their eyes into a clear night sky, and it is a shockingly clear night sky, for before all the cars and planes and factories began clogging up the space we breathe and all the lights we leave on began dulling the darkness, you could really see the stars, I mean really see the stars, but then I write stars again, mainly because they’re sparkly, and it’s exactly this kind of slip, this kind of slide from the clearly demarcated ski-slope of my prospective narrative that has the illusory magic these words should be engendering within your synapses pop like a balloon at a child’s birthday party, and then, as happens, one kid starts bawling, and that sets the rest off, tears running down their little ice-cream-smeared cheeks, the game of musical statues we were half-way through pretty much forgotten about, and by now no amount of jolly, happy faces you, me and the other adults try to make will snap them out of it, as thank God, at least as grown-ups, we can all be snapped out of it, and at least sometimes find within ourselves the ability at the root of our being to stop, take a breath and bring ourselves back outside the room to creep around the door and catch me in the act of trying to write this, say, or back at the sink, the pansies blooming in the garden through the window but you can’t get this stain off of the saucepan, or back behind the wheel of the car I’m driving, a gas-guzzling four-wheel-drive monster, as it happens, and easily capable of mowing down this little old lady dragging her tartan shopping trolley toward those trendy lads in their slicked-on trousers and these lasses here in their fashion tracksuits and that young mother persuading her charge that it really was a good idea to have left the party as they congregate at that bus stop just in front of us there as I reach over to prod at my iPhone in an attempt to stop Tori Amos blaring from the speakers and embarrassing me in front of the person in the passenger seat, whom it turns out I do fancy a bit, and I know what you’re wondering, but I can’t go and describe, exactly, what this person looks like without disclosing my sexual preferences, which I don’t want to, frankly, as it’s none of your business, so I won’t, suffice to say they are looking pretty hot right now, sitting in the passenger seat smiling and laughing at all my silliest jokes, and seeming to be really interested in me as well, like really, really interested in me and not just feigning interest so that they can climb inside my underwear, though it’s reasonably clear that they want for the two of us to get it on, that is so obviously mixed up in there, but they’re also interested in me as a person, as a complete human being, but you know, what really sets my fancying them in an amber created from the tree-sap of my desire is the fact as they lean over to say something to me, lean over and ‘accidentally’ brush the outside of my thigh with their hand, I can smell their breath and it smells minty fresh but not so minty fresh that it seems like they’ve put any effort into it, an effortless minty freshness, and their hair is clean, so there’s that, but then there’s also a thud as the car mounts the kerb and smacks into the bus stop, and as I stagger from the car, screams mixing with the ringing in my ears, I can see parts of what were once living entities, real people that just a moment ago were grumbling and moaning along with the rest of us but now lay broken on the pavement: an unattended and blood-splattered tartan trolley, an arm still sleeved in its track-suit’s three-stripes, a bent leg, skinny-jeaned, and the person, that special person I’d thought might just be the one, the one so vivaciously in the passenger seat of my motor just a moment ago, is now resting on the car bonnet, having been thrown through the windscreen in the crash, the contents of their head spread over said car bonnet as if I could just scoop up the sludge of their subconscious and pick our shared dream from it, as yes, now they seem like they are snoozing, waiting for me to arouse them with a gentle word in their lughole, or a kiss like in a fairy tale, and then I feel a small child, down by my left, gently slip a hand into mine and asks where its mummy might be, and oh dear, it would seem its mummy is one of the mushy, squidgy blobs of an ex-person that are currently staining the bonnet and undersides of my Land Rover, but I don’t say so to the child, not yet, and I realise then this is what we all are, really, blobs of mush, like frozen raspberries accidentally left out of the freezer, or, more likely, the egg-shells and onion leavings and banana skins that sit and rot in the food waste box of our corporeality, underneath the slowly defrosting raspberries of all our hopes and dreams, all held together by the compostable liner of our skin, a jumble of hard bits and sloppy flesh wrapped up in next week’s laundry, ambling about, thinking ourselves and our experience unique until you find yourself pulling once, twice, three times on the emergency parachute cord but nothing is released and you’re still spinning head-over-heels toward the cold, hard earth as fast as you always were or you’re sat in your GP’s surgery paying more attention to the picture of the flowers on the wall behind the doctor’s head until the doctor clears their throat and says, ‘I’m afraid it’s…’ or you’re stood at a bus stop, waiting for the 23 bus to come and pick you up and trundle you onward on your journey, past all the stops that you thought were already all planned out when BAM, upon you falls a great darkness, a darkness like the night sky, though without all the light pollution, so more like the night sky if looked at with your eyes closed, like standing out in the high street with your head tilted back and your eyes closed but without the noise of the traffic, or the smell of the kebab shop, so not really like standing out on the high street at all, but then ‘Up there!’ cries the child, pointing into the heavens, and up there I can see a twinkling lambency sparkling in the evening gloom, getting brighter and brighter as the day fades, much like the bright light that is glowing in the sky that is being gazed into by the two shepherds, neither locally nor contemporaneously of course, as has already been inferred they were sat on their hillside some way away both chronologically and geographically from the sight of my bus-stop carnage (which, incidentally, will also be the headline in tomorrow’s local newspaper), but they too are staring at a luminescence high above their heads and are filled with this same teary-eyed and mysterious sense of something as I am and the child is, too, a down-home and warmly sense, a sensation like a Christmas afternoon, a let’s just watch ’Enders like always cause I can’t be faffed not to feeling of peace.

o          o          o

Jack Houston

lives in London with his wife, his two young sons, and the feeling he’s left it a bit too late to be starting a literary career. You can follow his band’s tour dates @bugeyeband and his lazy poetry-based retweets @jackmhouston

Jack’s Christmas song for Open Pen:

AN OPEN PEN CHRISTMAS: The Last Christmas of the Cold War

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1 StudentenWerk 

At Wittenbergplatz, he changes to the U2.  He rides the U2 to the university – the only university in West Berlin – where he will spend the day at the training in the auditorium.

This is the year that he is going to be Santa – traveling from house to house to distribute gifts on Christmas Eve – employed by StudentenWerk, the student employment agency. He had never considered it before.  His Christmases in Berlin have always been quiet – a day spent reading or running his route next to the wall, alongside the graffiti splashed barriers guard towers blocking the other side’s no man’s land (there was less traffic that way).

Tourists photograph him there, call attention to him as he makes his way to and from the residence hall.

The residence hall is filled with foreigners, like him, except for Dagmar, who is from Spandau, the Berlin neighbourhood that embarrasses her with its lace curtains and flowered table cloths and meals of sausage and potatoes.

StudentWerk has sent him to moving jobs, to lightbulb factories, to chocolate factories where the cocoa dust rises in clouds and settles into everything.

The Santa assignment, he learned in the pub, is the best-paid student work: 300 marks for one night’s work.  And that’s not including tips from the families he’ll visit.  A group of them will do it.

The other Santas will also be foreign; the German students will be hitchhiking to Swabia and Bavaria, stuck in family-filled homes with roast goose and schnapps toasts until late into the evening, faking interest in long walks along snow-packed roads and fingering their rolling papers and plastic bags in their pockets.

Dagmar isn’t going home this year.  They will all stay in the hall. They’ve painted the walls bright blue.  Dagmar found them an old sofa and they now spend evenings together in the common space sometimes, cook one another meals.  There are jalapenos growing in pots on the window sill.  There’s lentil dal that one of the students was taught to make before he left India for Germany.

He’ll get a route in Spandau; Dagmar will help him plan it.

Outside of Thielplatz Station — a shingle-roofed  ticket hall that looks a cottage plucked from a fairy tale — protesters line the streets, their spraypainted banners announcing the formation of a liberated uni.   A lecturer is delivering a class to hundreds of students assembled on the plaza.  Clouds of mist rise from the students’ mouths.  There’s a newsprint pad on an easel, covered with equations. On the edge of the crowd, a woman in an anorak and kafiyah explains to a TV reporter that the university’s facilities are underfunded and unfit for purpose.

The Santa training is in the Henry-Ford-Bau, a pale stone and glass rectangle raised soon after the war ended.  When he steps inside, his glasses mist up.  He takes them off to wipe them, puts them on again, and sees hundreds of students in Santa suits.

A Santa sitting at a table ticks his name off a list, reminds him about the fee for the costume, and hands a burlap sack to him.  He takes the sack and pulls out a fur-trimmed jacket, a white wig and long white beard.

He puts the costume on in the lecture hall.  It is cold there, the heaters weak and hissing.  The jacket makes the cold tolerable.  He tries on the beard and looks around.  They all do – smiling, twinkling – the foreign Santas. Finally part of a crowd.  In this city where it is always possible to be outside, always possible to be removed if you are not from here, they are all now visible and invisible, a part of the scenery that everyone will approve of.

2 The Route

“The most important thing is the route.  Unless you plan your route carefully, you will never get to all the houses – you will never deliver all your gifts.”

They bend over the maps of West-Berlin in their red jackets, their hats off.  The maps show the city’s streets in black and white, the U-bahn lines in red; the bus lines in blue.   And around the city limits, there is a territory marked in beige — East Germany and the east of the city defined as irrelevant territory.  The East German map, which he bought during one of his day trips to East Berlin, show the street grids and transport links of these places, a tangle of roadways and rail lines in which West-Berlin is a white splotch – an island of nothing without any streets or landmarks.

The families will hide the presents in a bush, or behind the basement door, or underneath the staircase of the building.  And he will have to put them into his burlap sack, ring the bell, and distribute the gifts to the children.

“The children will ask where you are from,” a big-bellied man in jeans and a Santa jacket advices.  “Please do not answer Nigeria.  You are Santa.  You tell him…”

The Santas look at their cheat sheets and read:

From out the woods I now appear

To tell you Christmas is now here!

“This is the best job you will ever have,” the instructor reminds them.  “You’ll make more than 300 marks for a night’s work.  You’ll get to give away presents all night and you don’t even have to buy them.”

He gestures for them to start again, and they read the whole first stanza of the poem — about fir trees and lights and heaven and the Christ child.  They are advised to memorise it.  They are advised to read Luke 2 if they are not familiar with the Christmas story to learn about it.  They are advised that, if a family asks to have a white Santa, they family will be told that these requests are not accepted.  This is an equal opportunity Santa employer; families that insist upon a white Santa will not be visited by Santa.

Santa is offered schnapps, they are advised.  Almost every family will insist; you must not take it. If you accept the schnapps, you will not be able to complete the route.

He imagines the navigation; the trip from house to house.  He will be covering Spandau.  Dagmar is from there; she’s going to help plan the route.  He’ll take the 45 bus from Bahnhof Zoo.  Dagmar is going to leave a bike chained up for him waiting by the first house; she fishes abandoned bikes out of skips and repairs them.

Spiessig Spandau, with its squat sand-coloured apartment buildings.  The first time he hears this word, he is told it means: square, smug, stuffy.   A neighbourhood re-assembled after the war; a neighbourhood that ends at the Wall.

3 Bahnhof Zoo

In Bahnhof Zoo, he begins his journey.  He has the red fur-trimmed jacket on to keep warm.  The long white wig and fake beard are in his burlap bag.  He has the list of houses.

Bahnhof Zoo smells like piss and cigarette smoke, and on Christmas Eve —  in the fluorescent light of station that tinges everything yellow — the rough sleepers slump against the wall staring into space, Pen and ink signs nearby ask people to be kind.  And every now and then, a coin drops down with a clink and a thank you is called out.

On Jabenstrasse, next to the station, rent boys stand waiting, wild-eyed smack-users stand waiting, and the kids who left home because they couldn’t stay stand waiting.

He gets onto the bus bound for Spandau.  On the upper deck, old ladies in woollen coats sit with their packages, children insist to their parents that they’re getting off soon.  Charlottenburg slides by; tiny white lights on trees eek out festivity in the grey afternoon.  And  then they cross the canal and reach Rathaus Spandau.

And he gets out with the others, and he turns down a street, and then another, and he looks into the clutch of bushes, and he finds it: the bicycle that Dagmar has left for him.

The key to the lock is in his trouser pocket.  He unchains the bike, leans it against the shrub.  Then, he takes the rest of his costume out of the sack.   He shakes out the wig and fits it over his short brown hair.

During his first years in Germany, he had a beard; he had hair past his shoulders.  One day, walking home with friends who looked like him, an old man in an overcoat saw them and spat something at him.

“Did you hear that?” His friend checked.

He hadn’t; he was still learning German.

“He said Hitler should have gassed us.”

He puts on the beard, and he climbs on the bike.   Just then a boy walks by, so small that he must hold his mother’s hand.  The boy’s mouth opens, his eyes grow wide.

“See,”  his mother says.  “I told you he was real.”

Cycling to the first house, he is heckled.  A group of men standing outside a bar shout after him: “Someone steal your sleigh?  Where’s your reindeer, Santa?  Come back here, Santa!”

He keeps cycling as fast as he can.  And then, he reaches the first building.  It’s a low slung altbau.  Through the window facing the front he can see an enormous tree covered with lights, and old man filling everyone’s glass, a boy climbing on the back of a sofa.

He rings the bell very briefly, just a touch.  The old man, smelling of schnapps and cigarettes,  opens the door to the building, gestures for him to come inside.  He can hear a din of music and laughter coming from the apartment, shouts.  The old man points to a bag under the stairs, winks, and slips back into the apartment.  The entrance hall is still now.

He stuffs the gifts into his burlap sack and looks at the list that shows who will be here.  There are so many names, it will be impossible to remember them all — perhaps these are two or three families together.  Then he rereads the rhyme he is supposed to recite and bangs on the door.

The old man opens the door, this time wide. “Look!”

The smell of roasting goose wafts over, the smell of pine needs.   A fug of cigarette smoke wafts.

The children – one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine of them – run over.  They are shouting, “Santa!”  They squeal impatiently, stand before him reciting a rhyme to welcome him, shouting over one another.  One of the men in the family – a father? – comes out and tells them to shush.

He tells them he’s come out of the woods.  He recites the poem to them.  Then he reaches into his bag and begins to pull out gifts, reading the names on the packages.  The children take them, calling out, “Thank you, Santa! Thank you!”

They rip off the paper immediately, roaring their approval.

There’s a tap on his arm.  The old man holds a glass of schnapps out for him.  He refuses, explains that he has other houses to go to.

Then he is handed a little bottle of sekt, walnuts, oranges.  He puts the stash into his burlap bag.  He takes an envelope from them; his tip.  The envelope goes into his pocket.

The children are absorbed by their gifts:  Simba Bears, pink plastic horses, Nintendo cartridges.  He wishes them a good Christmas, and shakes hands with the adults, and as he slips out he hears the children calling after him, “Bye, Santa!”

4 Spandau

Spandau is street after street of mass-produced housing, apartment houses assembled quickly after the war, their smooth fronts and boxy balconies repeating again and again.  He has to look at his list of addresses again to find the building number.  The sack, used to deliver gifts, has now filled up with things he has been given: liebkuchen, tangerines, little bottles of schnapps, oranges and walnuts.   The sky is dark and starless now, his fingers cold as he grips the burlap sack.

This will be his last house for the night.  It is the visit he is most nervous about.  When he phoned the parents to arrange his visit, they had explained all the things that the children had done wrong: they had broken things, disobeyed their parents, and spoken back rudely.  The parents asked him to tell their children they have not been good this year.  And then, they repeated it all again, until he said, he’d heard them, and he understood.

He reads the number on the glass door – one more neubau identical to the others –  and, behind a shrub next to the building, finds the plastic bag filled with gifts.  He takes the wrapped boxes out, puts them into his burlap sack.  Then, he rings the bell, is buzzed in, and he walks up the stairs, sack on his shoulder.  He can hear a door opening – already – upstairs.  But there is no music coming from the house, no shouts, no squeals from the children.

And he reaches the landing, and there is a man in a white shirt and black trousers, his short brown hair neatly combed.  There is a woman beside him with straight blonde hair wearing a dress and a cardigan.  They smiled at him stiffly, warily.  They are no older than him.  The man beckons him inside.

The apartment is quiet, neat, perfectly neat.  There is a tree that’s been uniformly decorated, lace on the armrests of the sofa, prints of flower bouquets on the wall.  He thinks, this is not how a house should look if there are children in it.

But there is a boy and a girl – young enough so they have perhaps just started school – and they look at him wide-eyed.  Then they recite the rhyme:

Dear, good Santa Claus, don’t look at me that way.

I’ll always be good from now on.  Put your cane away.  

It is the same poem that all the children say.  But he cannot help it – he has to swallow.  He turns to his burlap sack and takes out a gift.  He answers:

From out the woods I now appear

To tell you Christmas is now here!

The parents take a step toward him, then a step back – like soldiers on reconnaissance.  They are expecting a speech for him, and admonishment of their children for their bad behaviour.  Instead, he hands the girl her gift.  And then he finds another gift in his bag.  And another.

The children thank him, and they go to the sofa with their gifts while the parents clear the wrapping paper away, resigned.

He tells them he has to go.  He wishes them a happy new year.  And the parents give him an envelope – his tip.

Then he is out again in the night.  The bike he has used to ride from house to house is locked up, hidden in the bushes to collect later.  He walks toward the bus stop, down the silent streets, and as he passes the houses, he can see into the apartments  — all the people laughing and drinking in a golden glow.   And he reaches the bus shelter, empty and dark.

He has visited 13 families.  He has given out dozens of gifts, and winked at the older children to get them to play along and pretend he is really Santa.  He has been plied with schnapps, and cake, and shaken hands over and over.

A group of teenagers pass, laughing and singing, a cloud of cannabis rising as they pass.  One calls out, “Hi, Santa!  Happy Christmas!”

He smiles wearily and waves at them.  And then the bus arrives, a cylinder of light gliding down the street, coming to take him back to the centre of the city.  It stops and its doors open with a sigh, and he steps inside.  The driver waves his money away when he tries to pay his fare, and the driver calls out:

Dear, good Santa Claus, don’t look at me that way.

I’ll always be good from now on.  Put your cane away.  

He nods and says thank you and happy Christmas, and he walks down the aisle of the almost empty bus.  Sunk into his seat, his sack by his side, hetakes off the wig and beard.

The streets are dark and silent; the shops all closed, the traffic gone.  Lights are strung across the streets, taped up onto tower block windows, droop of off balconies where they blink slowly and sadly.

5 The U9 Platform

At  Bahnhof Zoo, he walks through the cold, filthy station to get to the U-Bahn platform.  There is hardly anyone there now.  A slumped over man and his dog sleep against a wall on one side.  A teen-age girl in a down coat looks crestfallen, then sees him and smiles.  He realises he is still dressed as Santa.

But the night of being Santa has exhausted him – the children running to him with expectation, the treacly music and the cigarette smoke, the snippets of family life either sad or sodden with forced merriment.

“Happy Christmas, Santa!” someone calls to him.  On the U9 platform, three men sit together on a bench, passing a bottle back and forth, torn plastic bags and bedrolls by their side, dressed in jackets that are filthy.

He wishes them a Merry Christmas back, feels the weight of the burlap sack in his hands, and opens it.  He pulls out oranges, cakes, clementines, lebkuchen, bags of walnuts: the gifts he has been given by the families throughout the night.

The rough sleepers take the gifts, laughing.  “Thank you, Santa!”  He is offered the bottle, but says no.  He does not offer the little bottles of sekt he has been given, the miniatures of schnapps.

The man with the swollen face asks him, “Have you had a long night?”

“Of course,” he answers.

They clear a space for him on the bench.  He puts the sack on his lap, and he takes another clementine out.  The rough sleepers want to know his evening has been.  They want to know about the elves.  They want to know the North Pole is like.

Every time a train pulls in, a spurt of travellers trickles out.  And he, like the rough sleepers, is ignored, or he is admonished for sitting with them, or he is smiled at benevolently. Once, a group og middle-aged couples arrives, dressed in their Christmas-best suits and dresses, and shoot him a look of consternation as if he is besmirching the reputation of Santa.

Each of the rough sleepers has a story to tell – how something terrible happened to them, how they were wronged, how an injustice led to them being here, on the train platform, at Christmas.

And, finally, he announces that he has more houses to go to that night.  And he boards the next train and rides it to Turmstrasse Station.

The residence hall is empty when he arrives.  In his room, he empties his pockets and counts the cash – 357 marks – which he places in an envelope and slides into a desk drawer that has a lock on it.  He takes off his boots and socks and puts on his Birkenstocks.  Then he picks up his guitar and his amp and carries them down to the pub, down in the cellar.

They are all there: Dagmar, Ben, Moussi.  And the other Santas.  Moussi takes his guitar and asks if he can play it.  Dagmar gives him a hug and a kiss and asks him what kind of beer he wants.  Maher is behind the bar and fills a glass with Berliner Kindl for him.

Ben and Moussi begin to play.  The Santas in the pub all come together now, in this city surrounded by a wall.

At the checkpoints dividing the country, there are West Germans rushing back from visits to family in the East, returning to the West before their visas expire at midnight.  There are British, French, American, and Russian military stationed in their sectors.  There are bored bureaucrats stamping passports.  The Santas lift their glasses.

o          o          o

Linda Mannheim

Linda Mannheim’s most recent book is Above Sugar Hill (Influx Press).  She is also the co-host of Why, Why, Why: The Books Podcast,  which asks writers why they wrote the books they wrote, editors why they decided to publish the book, and readers why they picked the book up and read it. Originally from New York, she is based in London and in Berlin, where she is doing research for her next project.

Linda’s Christmas song for Open Pen:

AN OPEN PEN CHRISTMAS: Mary Berry’s Festive Handjob

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I, am an actress.

Some of you might recognise me from my past performances. Others might know me from theatre, or TV, or more likely, adverts.

But ALL of you will recognise my hands!

No?

What if you imagine them made-up? The addition of a few liver spots, the carefully shadowing of the creases to mimic aged furrows, the way I hold the fingers slightly crooked, an ancient echo of a childhood disease?

Still no?

I see I’m going to have to explain my main source of acting income in considerably more detail.

I think it was David Duchovny, in Zoolander, who popularised the idea of body part models. People employed for their perfect pearly white teeth, their pleasingly proportioned feet or, more commonly, for their petite hands; elegantly holding aloft a glittering bottle of perfume, a manly aftershave, or a small-mortgage wrist watch.

I’m one of them. Though not just a model. I, am a hand actress.

What I do isn’t all that dissimilar to a stunt double, standing in for a big box-office name during fight scenes or other feats of cinematic daring-do. Except I was a stand in for a octogenarian celebrity chef and instead of being set alight and thrown out of a window, I had to whisk eggs and fold batter.

You don’t really expect Mary Berry to rub butter into flour for the full twenty minutes, do you? Of course not. That was my job.

Though it took me much longer than twenty minutes.

First was the aforementioned make-up. Fact is, I’m thirty-ahem! years Mary’s junior.  It takes an hour per hand to add those decades. All in waterproof–and cake mixture proof–makeup. Even then eagle-eyed OAPs occasionally write in to ask what Mary uses to keep her hands so supple.

A hand actress, that’s what.

Then came costume. An exact copy of whatever Mary was wearing that day. Continuity kept busy checking for identically arrayed jewellery, for sleeves rolled up to just the same degree.

And then I’d sit and wait and watch, twiddling my now ancient thumbs as Mary Berry did her bit to the camera, before being whisked off for a nice cup of tea or something stronger. Then I’d step forward, for take after take of beating and chopping and rolling and whatever else the recipe and artistic director called for.

Let me tell you: muscles like an arm wrestler, me. I challenged Paul Hollywood over mince pies at the BBC Christmas party a few years back and he’s been avoiding me ever since.

I was well paid for my work and well fed on the fruits of my–well, our–labours. The finest cakes, biscuits, and pastries. Bloody delicious. I had to be careful not to get too well fed; didn’t want those wrists and fingers to plump up, did we?

So I guess we’re up to date now. As far as July, anyway. Thing is, after the Channel 4/Great British Bake Off debacle at the tail end of last year, I have to admit I was rather nervous. It had been a long, fallow nine months with not a sniff of paid work and the coffers were getting desperately low.

Plus, shortly before the Beeb lost the contract, I’d put in an order for a deluxe new kitchen. The workmen got as far as trashing the old one before the funds dried up. I’d been living out of a microwave ever since and it was my turn to host the extended family’s annual Yuletide party.

So, when the call came in for a one-off Mary Berry special, I was mightily relieved. Christmas was saved, along with the granite work surfaces.

If there was any residual uncertainty, it was because the special wasn’t the GBBO. Whoever the TV company was, it was a ramshackle, shoddy affair. A long way from the production values I was used to. When the glitter and candles and soft focus came into play I supposed it’d look all right, but adrift in the midst of a British summer the tinsel-bedecked location house in deepest, darkest Deptford looked distinctly tawdry.

A new company meant a new makeup girl, working off the latest photos of Mary’s hands, faffing around wanting to do a good job. Then a cock-up in costume; a mislaid pale blue cashmere cardie. All of which meant that by the time I was ready Mary Berry had pissed off to the local pub.

Or so I was told, anyway.

As the Eastern European director–a mono-syllabic, grizzle-faced brick shithouse of a man who gave his name as “Jakub”–instructed me in the required actions, things began to get a bit… weird. Rolling pins, fine. But rolling pins covered in motion capture dots? A rolling pin that needed lubricating? That’s just…

And piping bags not shaped like the usual funnels but domes. With pink nozzles. Almost mammary.

Weirdest of all, where was the cake mix? You can’t do much with just squirty cream, surely?

When the next item came out I nearly threw myself out of the fake French windows. I guess Jakub had been waiting for my reaction, because he beckoned me over to wardrobe, now vacated. Indicated a chair in front of the mirror. Stood behind me, solid girth reflected in triplicate, meaty hands drenched in gold sovereigns gripping the back of my seat.

 “Before you ask, two thousand pounds.”

“For what?” I asked, while I thought longingly about my free standing kitchen island.

“For not asking.”

Well, after that, my task became a heck of a lot simpler. Whatever they gave me I kneaded or pulled, stroked or polished.

Mostly, I have to admit, with my eyes firmly closed.

Despite having been in showbiz since winning a beauty contest at Butlins at the tender age of sixteen, despite being a chorus girl for two and a half seasons, despite having been invited to road test the springs on far too many casting couches, I suppose I’m a relative innocent. I didn’t know anything about Virtual or Augmented reality. It didn’t really surprise me to hear that these new technologies had already been turned to the dark side, had warped from entertainment to porn, though it was news to me that anyone would want to imagine being tugged off by an imaginary Mary Berry.

Each to their own, I say. My name doesn’t appear anywhere on the downloadable Oculus Rift application and my beautiful kitchen was finished well before the annual feast. I even put in one of those instant boiling water taps.

And so now I watch, proudly, as the catering firm peel away the last sheet of protective cling film. In half an hour or so, the first family members will arrive. I can’t wait to see their envious faces.

Though it is a shame that the cakes are unadorned and there seems to be no room on the custom cut counter for the traditional sherry trifle.

You see, I’m afraid I can’t bear to even look at whipped cream.

Not until next Christmas, anyway.

o          o          o

LIAM HOGAN

is an Oxford Physics graduate and award winning London based writer. His short story “Ana”, appears in Best of British Science Fiction 2016 (NewCon Press) and his twisted fantasy collection, “Happy Ending Not Guaranteed”, is published by Arachne Press. Find out more at http://happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk/, or tweet @LiamJHogan

Liam’s Christmas song for Open Pen:

AN OPEN PEN CHRISTMAS: Holy Night

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The Coca-Cola truck’s coming to town, and Donner and Blitzen, all blazing white neon, dance across shopping mall roof tops, and drive-thrus serve burgers in holly-stamped boxes and polythene mistletoe garlands the entrance to stores where you kiss all your overtime money goodbye, and Santa’s elves work at the carwash.

Brightly shines the light o’erhead of Easyjet, the red-eye flight, and unto us a child is given from a far-off land, no place to lay its head. Twelve hundred of them. We’ll take a few, an old converted prison for a stable.

The streets here are all paved with blankets and cardboard, where those without shepherds came looking for gold while the gatekeepers closed all the doors on them. And it seems that for now there are no wise men.

And the cityscape glows nuclear white and red as hell, and blue lights flash and twinkle, where they still find drivers. Until, quiet into a carpark falls a snowflake. Then another, and another, ‘til, unseeing and unique they overfill the air and whitewash chip shops and the multi-storey, soften acid streetlights, halo them, and muffle all to silence, still the night.

And til the gritter lorry cometh, all is bright.

o         o         o

Helen Rye

has stories in various journals and anthologies, online and in print. She has won the Bath Flash Fiction Award and the Reflex Fiction prize, been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and nominated for Best Small Fictions. She lives in Norwich, UK.

Twitter: @helenrye

Helen’s Christmas song for Open Pen:

 

AN OPEN PEN CHRISTMAS: It’s a Wonderful Christmas Chainsaw Tale

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I asked my son Toby what he would like for Christmas. Usually I select a present on his behalf, but at almost four years old, I noticed he was beginning to form his own opinions and tastes; It was time for him to have a say in the matter and write a letter to Santa Claus.

‘What would you like from Father Christmas?’ I asked him one day in front of a festive Peppa Pig.

‘Chainsaw.’

He was adamant: ‘Chainsaw. Please Daddy.’

I thought this was a strange idea, so I asked him again.

‘Well, I’m not sure if I want a chainsaw, or Spider-Man costume,’ he replied. ‘…but I think I want chainsaw.’

Toby is an intelligent child, so I pressed him further, asking him to tell me just how much he wanted a chainsaw.

‘Well, Daddy,’ he told me. ‘Forty-eight percent of me wants a Spider-Man costume, and fifty-two percent of me wants chainsaw.’

It seemed to me to be an intelligent enough response, and Toby had been a good boy that year.

‘Very well. A chainsaw it is! I shall have a word with Santa.’

I immediately settled back in my chair and returned to my newspaper.

Later, after Toby had gone to bed, my wife asked me if I had any thoughts on our child’s Christmas present. I beamed and told her everything was already in hand. In accordance with his wishes Toby would be getting a chainsaw from Father Christmas.

My wife stared at me. Her lips began to purse and a small, but noticeable vein began to throb in her head.

You’re doing fucking what!?’ she asked.

I explained to her that I had asked Toby, Toby wanted a chainsaw, and that was that.

‘Christ!’ she exclaimed, ‘How could you be so irresponsible? Do you even realise how crazy that sounds? Giving a chainsaw to a child? What do you think is going to happen?’

I explained, again, that I had asked Toby, Toby wanted a chainsaw, and that was that. After a lengthy debate and much screaming, neither of us were in a position to relent. I ended the argument by calling my wife a traitorous whore, and a bad parent for not obeying the legitimate will of our offspring. I also made a note to orchestrate a hate campaign against her on social media once she went to bed.

That will convince her, I told myself.

The next day she asked Toby what he wanted from Father Christmas, in full view of myself and in nothing less than a transparent gambit hopping the child has changed his mind. To my delight, Toby began dancing around the room shouting “Chainsaw!” repeatedly.

‘Are you sure?’ asked my villainous spouse.

‘CHAINSAW!’ screamed Toby, ‘CHAINSAW MEANS CHAINSAW!’

I smiled at my wife, pleased that my son’s outburst should stop her fear-mongering once and for all.

‘Sorry darling. Spider-Man lost. Chainsaw won. Get over it.’

As I hoped, she has barely spoken to me since.

I explained the situation to my friends at the pub. They all agreed with me.

My best friend Rupert, said yes, I should definitely buy Toby a chainsaw. He even offered to sell me one, as by a fortunate coincidence he happened to own a controlling stake in the local chainsaw factory.

My other friend Boris was hesitant at first, but then followed everyone else. I suspect Boris is an idiot, and had probably been drinking all day. He’s always to be seen propping up the bar and starting fights for the hell of it, but I’m pleased to be vindicated by him nonetheless.

Tim – the pub landlord – also thought this was a good idea, and immediately began to draw chainsaws on all the beermats. He regularly writes a humorous newsletter for his customers, and he promised me he would make sure the next issue would be full of pictures of children holding chainsaws. I have no idea why Tim is so passionate about this, but this is all grist to my yuletide mill.

Nigel, the local bus driver, overheard and also chipped in, telling us that he’s been saying that children should be able to play with chainsaws for years, and that this is a great opportunity to take control over who tells us whether it’s safe to buy a child a chainsaw or not. Sure enough, on the following day, Nigel’s bus overtook me on the high street. He had painted a giant chainsaw on the side. He gave me the thumbs up as he passed.

His purple gargoyle face radiated pure joy from underneath his festive hat.

At home, my treacherous wife made me watch a BBC news report on why giving chainsaws to children could be considered dangerous. I laughed at her and wrote a stern letter to the broadcasting ombudsman, complaining about such flagrant bias in the media.

Shortly afterwards, Toby came downstairs crying: Through mostly unintelligible sobs he told me he’d seen other children playing Spider-Man, and had decided that he needed a costume of his own so he didn’t feel left out in the playground.

‘Daddy!’ he cried. ‘I don’t want a chainsaw no more. Can Santa give me a Spider-Man costume?’

‘No,’ I told him. ‘You asked for a chainsaw, and now you’re getting one. Besides, I’ve already placed the order with Santa and his elves. It’s on its way. There’s no going back now.’

I noticed my wife had started sobbing too, but I think this is due the all the threats she’s been getting on Twitter rather than anything I’ve done wrong.

  My son’s chainsaw was delivered by a woman whose name badge read “Theresa”. She initially looked a little hesitant, as if she didn’t agree with giving a child a chainsaw, but eventually she handed over the package without any meaningful fuss.

Toby was very excited on Christmas morning.

My wife was not excited at all and seemed to be cowering in the corner as if expecting something very bad to happen.

‘You are an enemy of this family,’ I told her as my son greedily tore the wrapping paper and began to open the box.

  Toby was initially cautious, but once I got the saw blades going for him he seemed to be having a whale of a time. He tried out his new toy on the coffee table, reducing it to splinters and matchwood within a matter of seconds.

My wife wasn’t paying attention. Her hands were in front of her eyes, shielding her sight as Toby moved on to attack the corners of the footrest before shaving off random chunks of the television stand. He was having the time of his life.

I’m not sure what happened next, but I think Toby tried to lift the chainsaw higher so he could attack parts of our mantelpiece. The weight of the tool got the better of him. He lost his balance and toppled backwards, with the chainsaw following after him. Out of control, it began sawing at his left arm, just above the elbow, sheering through his juvenile flesh and bone instantaneously. The harrowing pain made him convulse and jitter on the floor, bouncing the saw across his body, causing further deep lacerations before it settled on the opposite limb.

My haemorrhaging son jived wildly in pain. Thick rivulets spouted from his arteries as his Christmas present jerked itself loose and began working on another extremity.

It was only when the chainsaw cut its own power cord that the carnage was over. Its mighty teeth finally ground to a halt.

I found myself thinking that I should have asked for a receipt.

My wife was on the floor, screaming and cradling our son’s bloody torso. Her cascading tears mingled with the weakening jets of bloody spray. The child was bleeding out, and would eventually end up a quadruple amputee at best. She screamed at me that she knew this was going to happen all along.

I looked at my wife and what was left of my son as he pumped out wet arcs of scarlet. After a few moments of shock I decided to pack my bag. My wife would have to clean up the mess on her own, or perhaps she would find another husband in about five years who would be able to deal with the problem.

As I was putting on my coat, she was still holding what was left of our son in one hand, while trying to call for an ambulance with the other. I explained that medical help would not be coming because I had cancelled our health insurance in order to pay for Toby’s Christmas present. Neither of them seemed even remotely grateful for the sacrifice.

I slammed the door behind me, muffling the screams and bloody chaos. It occurred to me that even if we could save my son’s life, the damage done to the lounge will be tremendous, and there’s no way I was going to scrub the wallpaper, let alone mop up. It’s not like I even liked Toby anyway.

I waited for the bus to take me as far away as possible, but after a while it was clear that it wasn’t going to turn up. Apparently they don’t run on Christmas day, so Nigel had gone on holiday to America to see a pen pal of his.

They stayed in a big hotel with a golden lift.

o          o          o

DARREN LEE

is a fiction writer. You can find his short stories online.

Twitter: @DarrenLeeTwit

Darren’s Christmas song for Open Pen:

AN OPEN PEN CHRISTMAS: The Christmas Disco

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5pm

Mum is helping me get ready for the Christmas disco. I’m wearing a black velvet skirt with an orange velvet crop top and Mum has crimped my hair and sprayed it with glitter.

I’ve borrowed some of Mum’s perfume called Sunflowers. I’m not sure if I smell nice or not, because Jenny says that I smell like Toilet Duck. I think Jenny’s just jealous though. She has to stay in and look at the new Next catalogue with Mum and Nanny Pam all night, because she’s too old to come to the disco.

5.30pm

I have to get a lift with Grandad, Dad’s car broke down outside Londis last week.

Grandad is late! His car is full of all his usual junk from carboot sales, but this time there’s a load of Christmas stuff too. I have to sit with a Father Christmas doll on my lap that dances and plays “Another Rock N’ Roll Christmas” when you press his belly.

Grandad makes me hold the seatbelt in the socket the whole way, because he says it’s buggered, and he keeps singing the same line from a really annoying song about driving home for Christmas.

‘Driving home for Christmas… in me car… driving home for Christmas.’

When we pull up to the school, I can see Tom from my class standing outside the gate. I hide behind the Father Christmas doll, which starts singing and dancing again. Tom looks really good. He’s had his haircut; it’s all shaved apart from a fringe, which he’s gelled into points.

Grandad asks me what I’m hiding for, then looks at Tom and say’s, ‘There’s something you should know about boys, sweetheart, we’re only after one thing. You don’t want to end up getting knocked up like your mother did. Now, we like you love, but you and your sister were massive, massive mistakes. OK, have fun. I might be able to pick you up later.’

6.00pm

I walk into school. It feels funny seeing it in the dark. In the corridor outside the school hall some of the teachers are selling orange juice and sweets. The teachers are dressed in their normal teacher clothes except they have jeans on. The only grown up who’s made an effort is Mr. Haywood, the caretaker. He’s wearing a sequin waistcoat, a piano tie and a light up Father Christmas hat.

While I wait for my cousin, Amy, to come and meet me, I have an orange juice to calm my nerves. Amy hates school as much as I do and I had to beg her to come to the disco. I told her how much I wanted Tom to see me in my velvet outfit and that we could practice our dancing.

When Amy gets here I have another orange juice with her and we go into the hall together. The DJ is rubbish. He keeps saying stupid things on his microphone, like: ‘I can’t hear you guys having F-F-F-Fun’. I’m not even sure he’s a real DJ, I think he’s Natalie’s dad. The lights look really cool though, and me and Amy try and stamp on the same light as it moves around the room.

The DJ says, ‘Here’s your first slowy of the night L-L-L-Lovebirds’ and starts playing the song from Robin Hood. Me and Amy start singing along really loudly in a cheesy way, but everyone else starts to walk around slowly and boys and girls start dancing with each other. I look around for Tom and he’s dancing with Lisa from our class. My eyes start to sting a bit, so I ask Amy if she wants another drink.

The song lasts ages. I manage to have three orange juices before it’s even finished. When I get home I’m going to write “Robin Hood Song” on the list of things I hate in the back of my diary, it can go under “Cheese Strings” and “Liars”.

6.30pm

We drink one more orange juice before we go back into the hall to dance.

After “Y.M.C.A.” and “Wig Wam Bam” the DJ plays “Saturday Night” by Whigfield. Everyone gets into lines and starts doing the dance. I start to feel a bit weird but I keep dancing. Halfway through my tummy feels horrible, I do the bit where you jump and clap, then I start being sick all over the place. A lot of people don’t see and carry on dancing. They start slipping in the orange juice sick until it gets everywhere. Someone tells a teacher who evacuates the hall.

7pm

I’m sat on a bench in the hall with Amy, my teacher, Mrs Woods, and a bucket. Everyone else is in the corridor apart from Mr. Haywood, who is cleaning up the sick with a mop. He’s taken his sequin waistcoat off and is whistling along to Last Christmas.  I feel really sad watching Mr. Haywood and start to cry a bit.

7.30pm

Most people have gone home, but I’m still stood outside the school gate waiting for Grandad to pick me up. Tom is waiting by the gate for his mum. I’m not in the mood to try and show off to him, so I just concentrate on smoothing out the velvet on my skirt where the sick was.

Tom asks me why I was sick. I tell him I had too much to drink, which makes it sound like I was drunk, which I think sounds better.

Tom says that it looked really funny when everyone was skidding in the sick. I tell him I saw Mrs. Woods fall over in it (even though I didn’t). Tom laughs and says it was the best bit of the disco.

7.45pm

Grandad pulls up and shouts out of his car window, ‘She’s not interested in lads who can only afford half a haircut and can’t even give her a lift home.’ I get in the car. Tom waves at me and I wave back. I think that Tom can’t fancy Lisa that much if he likes me being sick more than dancing with her.

Grandad starts singing again, but I don’t even care. I think that this might be the best night of my life.

o          o          o

HOLLY WATSON

Originally from Coventry but now living in sunny Southend-on-Sea. Holly’s gonzo memoir blog “Coventry

Conch” follows a childhood growing up on the outskirts of the Coventry in the 1990s.

The Coventry Conch (blog)

Twitter: @CoventryConch

Holly’s Christmas song for Open Pen:

AN OPEN PEN CHRISTMAS: The Fortnight After Christmas

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Two chunks of Christmas cake are brought back to the house before the New Year. They sit uncovered on a large red plate in the kitchen with a knife to hand, so that anyone who wants to take a piece can help themselves.

There is one sliver left, and the house is in the grips of a politeness standoff. In an unspoken atonement for a year of domestic indiscretions, no one wants to be the one to take the last slice. After all, it is almost the new year, and resolutions of magnanimity are taking shape in everyone’s minds.

The cake hardens. The marzipan cracks and the currants and cherries shrink and wrinkle. The standoff becomes a silent collective refusal to bin it, because doing so would somehow be an admission of defeat. In turn, they go into the kitchen and stare at the cake while they wait for the kettle to boil, thinking, what’s the point of being generous if no one is going to appreciate it?

It’s January 5th, and the cake remains untouched. Everyone pretends not to notice it. It’s an embarrassment, a failure, an outstayed welcome; a relic from last year dragged awkwardly into the new, irrelevant and unneeded.

One night someone comes home drunk. The chicken shop near the house isn’t open, and he is starving. The only food in the kitchen belongs to others and isn’t the kind of food that you can sneak a bit of without getting caught (he knows that certain people count their crisp packets).

He eats the cake in two big mouthfuls. It is stale and disgusting and he regrets it immediately. He goes to bed unsatisfied and spinning out.

A pile of crumbs lingers on the red plate. Two days later someone else brushes them into the bin and washes up, tutting.  

o          o          o

Jess Conway
lives in London and has fiction forthcoming in OCCULUM, Jellyfish Review and elsewhere.
She is on Twitter @Jess_RConway.
Jess Conway’s song for Open Pen: