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JIM GIBSON: LIT RAGS

Int. – Local – Early evening

JIM returns with two beers and his friend (TOM) puts his phone down on the table as Jim puts the pints on either side.

Jim: What you up to this weekend, then?

Tom: Me mammar’s still up in hospital after her accident so I’ll probably go nd see her and then Kelly’s been having loadsa jip at work so I think I’ll take her out ta cheer her up a bit. Gotta do yer bit, ant ya. What about you, mate?

Jim: (shakes head) Nowt much, this weekend. Probably just ger a bitta writing done.

Tom: How’s that writing stuff going?

Jim: It’s alright, pal. I just had one accepted by this mag called Open Pen from down shitty London. It’s alright though, they send it to bookshops and that nd they give it our fer free.

Tom: (Trying to sound sincere) Yeah? Nice.

Jim: They emailed me the other week actually asking fer me to write em summat about why and how I write, I can’t remember exactly what they wanted.

Tom: (half interested, half taking the piss) What did you put?

Jim: Just the usual shit really, that I write cos my mind gets all clogged up if I don’t, that I, like, think in stories nd that. I mean, I said it better than that but ya get the gist. Just a loada crap really, I mean, it was all true but it just sounds so shit when you read it back. I think I just write cos I see stories all around me and they’re more interesting than most books, not always nice but more unbelievable, like that man that thinks he’s the best dancer in town, what’s his name?

Tom: Whitey.

Jim: Yeah, that’s him. He’s, what, 58? In the pub every night, thinks he’s the best dancer in town, jumps in everyone’s grill and a coupler hours ago Ben tells me he’s got done fer being a nonce nd flashing a kid. I mean, it’s grim but there’s a story in there. And the way he talks! Man.

Tom: I don’t think he’s really a nonce yer know, I told Ben that cos I heard it in The Social but it turns out it were a loada shit. Big Terry’s always making shit up.

Jim: Well that just shows it then.

Tom: What?

Jim: (eyebrows raised) Stories, man. It’s a world of stories, they just need to be written. Big Terry’s a man of stories he just dunt know how ter write, don’t see the point in it. I just take everything, then open me pen and let the ink flow out.

Tom: (showing the palms of his hands on the table) Open Pen.

Jim: Ha, never thought of that! (Scratches the back of his head) Wish I’d put that in the write up now.

Tom: Do yer think you’ll ever make owt out of it, though? Ya always seem to be in one mag or zine or whatever yer call em nd that.

Jim: Nah, it’s not about all that kinda shit. I just like aller these zines nd mags cos ya can find other people whose writing yer like nd if they like yours ya can talk about it nd that. It’s good to know you’re not alone, ya know? I mean, think about it, I sit writing in me back room whenever I can and, well Soph reads it, but apart from that, it’s quite isolating. It’s just good to have a bit of camaraderie, if ya know what I mean. When I was out skating every night you had your thing ya loved doing but ya had people to talk about it with nd that; it’s not like that with writing. You’ve been to the nights that we’ve put on; I love all the nights mags put on. It’s a real world thing, like, not just a back room thing. Plus, these little places aren’t full of stuck up nob-eds, which is a bonus.

Tom: (Looking around the room) I don’t get it, mate. Seems a bit fucking hipster to me.

Jim: (tuts) Fuck off.

Tom: Look over there, (nodding to one side) ya seen who Petey’s wi?

Jim: I recognise her; who is it?

Tom: Rachael, Damo’s bird.

Jim: They finished then? I fucking hope so the way Petey’s hand’s going.

Tom: He’s in pen. Got pulled in that fucking banger of his. Off his twat on Phet wi a loada baggies. He not get long.

Jim: He’ll be fucking fuming when he’s out.

Tom: Too right.

Jim: Fag?

Tom: Gu on then.

Exit to beer garden.

 

JIM GIBSON

 Jim Gibson grew-up in the feral plains of an ex-mining village, Newstead. Editor and

co-founder of Hi Vis Press, he tries to encourage the lesser voiced truths of our society.

ELISSA SOAVE: LIT RAGS

writing kidAsk anyone who is actively writing fiction – and I do mean writing it as opposed to meandering into jazz clubs in their black polo necks, assuring others they definitely have a novel in them … somewhere – and they will bend your ear about the brilliant and seemingly unstoppable force of literary journals. There are so many excellent journals to choose from – Open Pen, Structo, Ambit, Gutter, Litro, Banshee, I could go on, each has their own aesthetic, a particular kind of fiction they champion, and each varies in their approach to publication. Open Pen encourages a sassy kind of voice, generally fairly youthful, irreverent and unpretentious; in Scotland, Gutter is seen as a proving ground where emerging writers can shine, whilst rubbing shoulders with some of the biggest names in Scottish literature; Banshee is the new kid on the block, a contemporary journal from Ireland that offers writing that is edgy, gritty and gripping. The sheer number and diversity of these journals is mind-blowing to a new writer; not just in terms of opportunities to showcase your own work, but also to let you see what other writers are producing, and to hold up as a barometer for just how far you have to go to be good enough for publication. I encourage all emerging writers who are not subscribing to and reading these independent journals to start doing so immediately. This is your apprenticeship. Forget what your mother might think when she sees the sweary words and realises that you might just be describing that amazing blowjob from first-hand experience – she’ll get over it, and wouldn’t you rather have a writing CV to show to your first publisher that had Banshee and Structo on it, than a mother safely in the dark about your sex life?

One last thought – if you’re going to submit to journals, remember to buy them too, and spread the word if you like what you read. It is this network of new writers and the dynamic, often unsung editorial force behind literary journals that will ensure a dynamic and thriving literary scene in the UK and elsewhere.

ELISSA SOAVE

is a Scottish writer. You can read her Issue Twenty story ‘The Thursday Club’ here. Publications and websites where her work has appeared include Structo (Issue 19, forthcoming), Glasgow Review of Books, Literary OrphansGutter, Freak Circus, Burning House Press, The Guardian, New Writing Scotland, and the Scottish school textbook Working Words. She is currently working on her first novel. @elissa_soave.

THE THURSDAY CLUB

By Elissa Soave

Death is not like the weather or joint trouble, which interest only the very old. Nor is it like One Direction or acne control, which are of concern only to the very young. No. Death is a subject of universal appeal so Thursday night has been chosen to accommodate all ages. It is close enough to the weekend to make the older members feel that they are having a bona fide night on the tiles, but not actually on the sacred Friday or Saturday night to allow younger members to come along without feeling they are missing out on anything.

The group meets in Iguana, a café bar at the top of Nicholson Street. It is one of those city centre bars much favoured by the Edinburgh cognoscenti, eggs Benedict for brunch rather than fried egg roll for breakfast, and nothing costing £3.50 when its chic patrons are happy to pay £8 for the privilege. The venue has been chosen by Henry, of course.

Tonight is an Extraordinary General Meeting, called to discuss a matter which has never arisen before. The group gather round their usual large table at the back of the bar, underneath the print of David Bowie in his Ziggy days and beside the gents’ toilets. Henry looks round the table, waiting till everyone has their drink and is settled into their seat. He clears his throat noisily. The chat around the table continues. He loosens his salmon-coloured tie, carefully chosen to coordinate with his pale pink shirt. Now that his mother is no longer around to lay out his clothes the night before, it has become a point of honour for him to be at least as well-turned out as he was before her death, if not more so. He bangs his hand on the table to bring the meeting to order.

‘Good evening everyone.’

He waits until the drone of social chit chat has died down. Given the nature of their acquaintance, it is perhaps surprising that they have so much to say to each other. One might be forgiven for expecting a more introverted crowd.

He tries again in a louder voice, ‘Good evening. We are gathered here tonight …’

‘Good one, Henry. Oh, you’re not joking, sorry’, says Joseph.

He motions to Henry to carry on and takes a sip of his beer. He winks at Sophie, who looks at him disapprovingly and turns back to Henry, giving him an encouraging smile.

Henry speaks again. ‘As I was saying, our purpose tonight’, he gives Joseph a significant glance, ‘is to vote on whether or not to allow a new member to join our group. The nominee in question is Mr Hazeem Abdi. As most of you will know, Hazeem is a convicted murderer who has recently completed his prison sentence and is now looking to rebuild his life.’

‘Unlike his victim …’ says Joseph under his breath.

Sophie is twisting her hair round her fingers and turning earnest eyes round the group, each member in turn. ‘If I could just say something before we start the discussion?’ No one stops her so she carries on speaking, her words tumbling over each other and forcing the other members of the group to lean forward to hear what she is saying. ‘Before I came out tonight, I looked out our mission statement and I thought it might be helpful if we reminded ourselves of that.’

Blushing as the other members watch her bring out a scruffy piece of paper from her satchel, she reads aloud from the sheet. ‘Mission statement: To promote an open and frank discussion about death, demystifying life’s great unifier, and freeing members from the fear of the unknown.’ Pause. ‘Established June 2015’, she adds.

             ‘And your point is?’ says Henry.

‘Well, just that the club is about life’s great unifier. No one should be excluded, not serial killers, granny smotherers, baby torturers, axe murderers, hatchet-wielding …’

‘Yes, I think we get the point, Sophie, thanks’, says Joseph, ‘If I might make the point though that we are all interested in death as it affects us and those around us. However, none of us, at least as far as I am aware’, he looks around the table, ‘has inflicted death on others. That surely is the difference?’

Sophie fingers the fat pink slug resting on the inside of each wrist and says, ‘What about if we have attempted to inflict death? Does that count?’

  There is an uncomfortable silence round the table and Muriel edges a little closer to Sophie to indicate she cares, though without invading her personal space. Muriel guesses that Sophie is about the same age as her own uneasy daughter would have been now, had they managed to resuscitate her, so she feels a particular bond with her.

Sophie senses the mood change and says quickly, ‘Oh don’t worry, I’m not going to try it again. I’ve got a coping strategy now.’

‘I’m so glad to hear that’, says Muriel. ‘Are you seeing a counsellor? They can really clarify things.’

‘No. I cut my forearms instead. Just little cuts though and never vertical.’

‘That’s alright then’, says Henry.

Marge speaks up. ‘Actually, a friend of mine was telling me that in Japan, they respect suicide more than expressions of regret. They are just words, whilst suicide, it can be taken seriously. I cannot imagine they show a similar respect for murder. So I’d say, if it’s OK with the noble Japanese to make such a distinction, then it should be OK by us.’

‘Agreed’, says Joseph.

Sophie sits back, relieved her membership is secure. She steals another glance at Henry who remains oblivious. Joseph, who is much engaged in observing the human condition, is aware that the blades of jealousy are sharpened on minutiae, yet he sighs as he observes the wordless exchange. He contemplates Sophie’s delicate, little face, with its freckles and ink smudges, equally certain that he will never be allowed to touch it, and that Henry will never want to.

Reginald looks at Muriel and says, ‘Is this the part where we contact the other side?’

She pats his hand patiently as she does every week and says, ‘We don’t contact the other side Reginald. We can’t actually speak to the dead, we are simply interested in discussing death and related matters.’

‘But Elsie will be wanting to talk. She’s been dead since February and she’s a big talker.’

‘Reginald’, says Henry, not so patiently, ‘As we try to make clear to you at every meeting, if you wish to attempt to speak to the other side, you will have to engage the services of a medium. This is not the place for that.’

‘What’s he say?’ says Reginald, with a hand behind his ear, and addressing Muriel.

‘Perhaps we should move on … If I may …’ says Muriel, producing a sheaf of papers from her rucksack and passing them round the group. It is a colour print of a photograph from an old copy of GQ. The man in the photograph is extremely handsome, with dark skin and geometric cheekbones. His hair is wavy and blue-black, at least what can be seen of it under his knitted skull cap.

‘I’m not sure why we need to see a picture of him?’ says Joseph.

Reginald looks up from the photo. ‘Is this Him?’

‘It’s not God, Reg’, says Muriel, as though talking to a child. ‘It’s Hazeem Abdi, the man we’ve been discussing.’

‘I bloody know it’s not God Muriel’, says Reginald, ‘He’s Muslim, isn’t he?’

‘Reginald!’

‘Well, he is isn’t he? Makes a lot more sense to me now, him being a killer I mean. It’s in their blood, isn’t it?’

Reginald!’ shout Muriel, Henry, Sophie and Marge together.

‘What?’ says Reginald, ‘I’m only saying what you’re all thinking.’

All the members of the group are quiet as they look at the photograph, staring at the man with the glittering eyes returning their gaze.

‘He doesn’t look like a murderer though, does he?’ says Sophie.

‘He looks like George Clooney in his TV doctor days, before the crap films’, says Marge.

‘They’re not all crap’, says Henry, ‘Some of us rather liked—’

Marge interrupts, ‘The Hitman, Solaris …’, she gives an exaggerated yawn, ‘Need I go on?’

‘Well, yes’, says Henry, ‘You could go on and say Gravity, The Monuments Men, Ocean’s Eleven—’

‘Or Ocean’s Twenty-nine, Sixty-five …’ continues Marge as though Henry has not spoken.

Henry huffs.

Joseph squints at the picture, then turns it over looking for the text; there is none.

‘Where’s the article?’ he says.

‘There is no article, this is just an advert’, Muriel tells him.

‘So, are you telling me he is a model for Burberry?’

‘Yes. He was a part-time model before the murder. This is what came up when I googled him.’

‘One can see why’, says Henry, to himself more than the company.

‘Just so I can get this right—he’s a Muslim murderer who models for Burberry … and he’s interested in debating death?’ says Joseph.

‘That’s right. And he’s interested in spitfires. The early models.’

‘How on earth …?’

‘Google’, says Muriel.

‘Wait’, says Marge, ‘Burberry let him be photographed with a taqiyah on his head?’

Muriel nods. ‘It was almost 10 years ago. Maybe they were trying to widen their appeal?’

‘To young Muslim men with a murderous intent? Doesn’t sound like a great marketing strategy to me. Although, then again …’ says Joseph.

‘His lips are nice, very full. I always notice the lips.’ Henry looks up to find the others staring at him.

‘So, anyway …’

‘Yes, anyway’, says Joseph, raising his eyebrows at Sophie who does not acknowledge him. ‘I think we’ve established he’s a good-looking guy. To me, more like Ralph Fiennes, pre-M and before he started his osmosis into Leonard Rossiter.’

‘Who?’ says Sophie.

‘Ralph Fiennes. He plays M in the Bond movies. You must have seen Spectre?’

‘No, I meant who is the Leonard guy he’s supposed to look like now?’

Marge turns to Joseph, ‘Starter for 10. What do George Clooney and Ralph Fiennes have in common?’

‘Easy’, says Joseph, ‘Henry would do them both.’

‘What the hell do you mean by that?’ says Henry, swinging round in his chair to face Joseph.

‘Relax, just my little joke, Chairman’, says Joseph. ‘They were both in Hail, Caesar!, a typical piece of whimsy and oh-such a lark from the Coen brothers. Piece of shit if you ask me, way below their usual standard and I sincerely hope not the beginning of the end. Though you might like Laurence Lorenz, Henry?’

‘And is Leonard Rossiter in that?’ says Sophie.

Henry bangs his hand on the table, causing everyone to reach for their drinks to stop them from falling over.

‘Order. We are not here to discuss films, good, bad, or indifferent (though I may just add that very few of George Clooney’s films may be said to fall into the latter two categories). The question which we must put to the vote is whether or not Hazeem Abdi is welcome to join our group. Any thoughts on that topic please?’

Muriel speaks first. ‘Well, he’d know about how the state of death may be brought about, wouldn’t he? Which is not something we often get expert insight on.’

‘Did I read somewhere that he killed the guy by clouting him round the head with a frozen lamb chop?’ says Sophie.

Joseph laughs and says, ‘What did he die of—hunger, when he couldn’t get to the shops due to the graze on his forehead inflicted by a wet lamb cutlet?’

Sophie wrinkles her forehead and puts her head to one side, making herself look even younger than her 20 or so years.

Muriel steps in. ‘I think you mean a lamb shank, Sophie. It was a gigantic, frozen lamb shank. He did it in the abattoir just up from Castle Terrace.’

‘Lamb chop, lamb shank, what’s the difference?’ says Sophie.

‘Only about 12 lbs and massive brain trauma’, says Joseph, sipping his beer.

‘Doesn’t sound like a good way to go’, says Reginald.

Henry leans forward. ‘The chap who died was asking for it, if you want my opinion. Apparently, and I have this on good authority from my old university pal at the Fiscal’s office, the bloke who died had been blackmailing Hazeem for months before the attack. Hazeem cracked him on the noodle in self-defence when they were having a row about it.’

‘“Cracked him on the noodle”’?! says Joseph. ‘“Cracked him on the noodle”, you say? Bashed him senseless with a bloody meat joint, then left his yellowing corpse to rot in its own juices over the bank holiday weekend is more like it. And for what? Because he was going to tell the rest of the workplace Abdi was gay? Bloody hard lesson if you ask me.’

‘Better than the way I’m going to go. In some flea-ridden camp bed in the old Royal, ga-ga, pissing my pants, and my worst fears gathered together at my side.’

There is silence round the table. Marge is skinny as a beanshoot and can be absent for weeks on end if her treatment is ongoing. She does not often acknowledge her brain tumour so when she does, the whole group feel they have to stop talking and pay homage to her vastly more immediate need to get to grips with death than their own.

Marge laughs and picks up her rum and coke. ‘It’s alright, I do know that I’m dying. On the upside, I don’t need to give a shit about scrabbling about for a pension and whether I should claim back PPI to add to my fund. On the downside, I won’t see our Abbie graduate, or find out if we do actually get to travel to the moon for our holidays. But you’re all dying too, for Christ’s sake. We’re all existing in a near-death hinterland. So.’

Reginald leans across Muriel and says to Marge, ‘Will you tell Elsie I miss her? The cat sits on her chair when we watch Corrie now but it’s not the same.’

Marge pats his hand and tells him she will do that, most certainly.

Henry judges it time to bring matters to a close and calls for a show of hands. People shuffle round the table, shifting drinks and moving jackets. Reginald and Joseph do not raise their hands, but all the others do. Henry counts the hands in the air.

Henry, his own hand held high, says, ‘He’s in, 4 votes to 2. I’ll contact him later and invite him along to next week’s meeting, where the topic will be …’, he checks the sheet in front of him, ‘the corpse and how the care-giver should prepare it for its onward journey.’

‘Hazeem may have some interesting thoughts on that, I’m guessing’, says Joseph.

‘I’m sorry Joseph, did you want to add something?’

‘No, I was just saying, maybe you’ll need to take Hazeem out for a drink beforehand to get to know him a little better before the meeting?’

‘What is that supposed to mean?’, says Henry, flicking his fringe out of his eyes.

‘Nothing’, says Joseph, ‘Here, let me get you another of those Campari malarkeys, and we can get back to the Coen brothers. Their ability to deal with death is much underrated. It’s bloody hard to write about death, you know. I’ve been trying to do it without success for years, but they make it look easy. Remember the scene where Walter and The Dude are attempting to scatter Donny’s ashes? Nearly pissed myself laughing. Now that’s a death scene. Eh Marge?’

o         o         o

Elissa Soave

is a Scottish writer. Publications and websites where her work has appeared include Structo (Issue 19, forthcoming), Glasgow Review of Books, Literary OrphansGutter, Freak Circus, Burning House Press, The Guardian, New Writing Scotland, and the Scottish school textbook Working Words. She is currently working on her first novel. @elissa_soave.

Handjob

By Dan Ayres

‘Give u a handjob’.

This was the unassuming, a little confusing, suggestion-cum-question-cum-directive that changed the world, or at least the gay one.

It was the only information on the Grindr bio of Johnny Armstrong, along with a close up avatar showing plump lips, sea-green eyes and freckles aplenty.

Johnny was new to London and to Grindr. Johnny was 18. He had moved here from Somerset with a selection of tie-dye T-shirts and charms from his earth-mother-Mother. He had inheritance money and a sparkling sensation in his palms. He was bright eyed, bushy tailed, and out to explore.

Johnny found his flat in a hip corner of Soho by propositioning a guy on Grindr. His name was Stefan and he was a self-confessed “Grindr mannequin”.

Johnny: Hi

Stefan: Not interested

Johnny: Sorry, I’m not looking. It’s about the room

Stefan: Room?

Johnny: You said you have a room available on your profile

Johnny: I’m interested

Stefan: £900 pcm, £2000 deposit available from next week

Stefan: can u afford

Johnny: Yeah. Sounds great. Can I come see it?

Stefan: OK. Tuesday evening from 7pm. 128 Durham Road. Bring wine.

o

“So you’re clean?” Stefan asked Billy, lighting a Silk Cut and sipping an espresso. He was still in his dressing gown and feeling worse for wear after an impromptu sex party in an Islington apartment the night before.

“Oh yeah. Absolutely. Never touched drugs in my life. Except for a bit of hash…”

“I don’t mean that. You’re clean and tidy?”

“Oh shit. Yeah. Absolutely. My mum raised me well. Although to be honest, I was raised in a barn. A barn-conversion at least.”

Stefan raised a perfectly plucked eyebrow, surveying the eager-eyed redhead before him.

He had got rid of his previous housemate, Aaron, by fucking with the wi-fi connection. Aaron was a hyper-masc masc who would clean up on Grindr. Aaron made Stefan feel small and femme, everything he had spent his twenties striving not to be. But when the internet kept giving out at peak hunting times, Aaron was gone like a shot.

This farm boy, on the other hand, wasn’t going to be competition. He might even give Stefan a bohemian edge.

“Alright. You’re in. House rules: don’t drink my milk, don’t eat my toast, don’t use my Tetleys. Wash up any mess you make and pick up the bath mat after you shower. Oh, and from time to time there’ll be parties in the sitting room. I would advise discretion at these times.”

“You got it,” Johnny beamed.

“Just one more question,” said Stefan, dragging deep on his fag. “What’s this on your profile about a hand job?”

Johnny smiled sheepishly and looked down at his freckled hands.

“It’s kind of my special trick,” he said. “Something only I can do. It’s called the Johnny Special.”

Stefan raised the other perfectly plucked eyebrow.

“You’ll have to do a lot more than that to impress them these days I can tell you.”

Then Johnny was in. His Ganesh throw hung up, his wind chimes dancing over the Soho murmur.

For a while Stefan convinced himself he was content. He was the alpha of the first six guys in the Grindr radius. He was tanned (thanks to the sun-bed sessions), his teeth were sparkling white (thanks to the Pearl Drops), and he had an almost full head of hair (thanks to his recent transplant). Johnny was quiet and kept himself to himself.

“Who’s that?” the men would ask on a Friday night, looking up from powder and cock, as Johnny scurried through the room.

“Oh that’s just Johnny. My lodger. He’s an art student.” The men would nod, impressed, then dive back down to syphon up whatever needed syphoning up.

The first to take Johnny up on his kind offer was a banker called Wayne.

Wayne: A hand job? Nothing else?

Johnny: Yeah

Wayne: Haha that’s funny

Johnny: Haha

Wayne: u do chems?

Johnny: What’s that?

Wayne: umm drugs

Johnny: No

Wayne: oh right

Wayne: you really 18?

Johnny: Yep

Wayne: Dam you cute but weird tho

Wayne: those eyes

Johnny: thanks

Wayne: OK, so I just come over and you give me a hand job and that’s it.

Johnny: Yeah

Wayne: haha ok fuck it let’s do it. Give me your address

o

“Hi, I’m here to see Johnny.”

“Are you indeed,” Stefan said, surveying the man’s sharp suit, sweaty forehead and shifty eyes.

“He’s just through there. Follow the smell of incense.”

That night Stefan had his own Grindr date round. An Italian. A man of equal stature and gym physique to Stefan. A 9 to his 10. A top to his bottom.

But after the Italian spunked, slept and snored, Stefan was alarmed to hear noises unlike any he had heard before through the wall. Whatever Johnny was doing to the sweaty banker was causing ecstasy on a scale Stefan had never experienced, not at any Grindr date or any session in the ‘chemsex’ scene.

When the Italian rolled over and slung an arm over Stefan, he felt repulsed. The man hadn’t even been bothered to get his back and shoulders waxed. Unable to sleep, Stefan lit a vanilla-scented candle and started scrolling through Grindr, propositioning the right kind of men for a weekend session.

In the morning, Stefan caught Wayne leaving Johnny’s room backwards, whispering “thank you” over and over again.

“You look like a different person,” Stefan remarked, lighting a Silk Cut to accompany his Earl Grey.

“I am,” smiled the man, looking Stefan deep into the eye. “I’m free.”

o

Friday night for Stefan was PnP. Party and play. He’d get home from his shift as Marketing Manager for the Colgate floss range, and begin meticulously racking up supplies. GHB, meth, mephedrone. It was all pre-planned, sealed in an Excel Spreadsheet. The men would come at 7 and they’d have wine and nibbles. At 7.30 they’d have their first line and a bit of foreplay. 8 would bring the first round of GHB, and by 9 Stefan expected to be in a fucking frenzy.

The next day he was in full recovery mode when the doorbell rang. His gut was a hive of guilt and poison. It twisted into a knot when he opened the door.

“Hey, I’m here for Johnny.”

Big shoulders and eyes like sapphire studs. User name – SAM SMASHER. Times Stefan had messaged him with a proposition? 5. Times replied? None. Hours Stefan had stared at his profile? 2.5.

“So… umm… Is he in?”

Stefan couldn’t find the words, so he merely stepped out the way. The man winked and walked into Johnny’s room.

Stefan’s pulse elevated. He felt an unbearable combination of jealousy and heat. The night before had been fuck after fuck but none had filled the gap. The drugs hadn’t allowed him to come. He busied himself moving cups around with quivering hands until curiousity overwhelmed. He headed to the door and looked through the keyhole.

“So how does this work then?” Sam was already topless and towering over Johnny. “Do we kiss?”

Stefan couldn’t see Johnny, but it sounded like he was smiling when he said, “No need. Just take off the rest of your clothes and lie down on the bed.”

“So it’s like a massage then? I hope I get my happy ending.”

“You will,” Johnny reassured.

As Stefan watched Sam undress, he felt the blood hammer round his own body and concentrate in his brain and cock. It still throbbed with the frenzy of the unsatisfying session the night before. He couldn’t help it. He started touching himself as he stared through the keyhole. He watched as Johnny mounted Sam, a pendant swinging to and fro from his neck. His back a Milky Way of freckles.

“I need you to breathe in and out as deep as you can, right into the chamber below your abdomen. You know it’s there, you just haven’t thought about it before.”

“Sure thing, guru,” Sam tried to joke, but he sounded nervous.

“Deeper. Much deeper.”

Stefan bit his lip to the sound of Sam sucking in air.

“Good. Now let it settle. Swirl. I’m going to begin touching you now. Is that ok?”

“Yes.”

“Great. Keep breathing deep. All the way to that chamber beyond your abdomen. I’m going to help you unlock the doors. I’m going to release all the demons you carry in there. But you need to come along with me. Can you do that for me, Sam?”

Johnny’s farm boy accent was silk soft. Stefan saw Sam nod and his cock grow large.

“Great. That’s great. Now look me in the eye. No, really in the eye. It’s not easy anymore I know. You might feel like it burns. You might feel like you need to cry when you do. That’s ok.”

Johnny was pulsing up and down.

“We’ve forgotten how to love, Sam. It’s a long time since you’ve been loved. Truly loved.”

The rhythm of his hand matched the rhythm of his body.

“Don’t look away, Sam. Keep those eyes locked at all times. It’s very important. Keep that breath deep. Now, with my other hand I’m going to reach down to the base of your spine. Is that OK? I’m gonna draw the energy all the way up through your body. Don’t be scared, stay with me. Soon you’ll feel your stars exploding behind your eyes. But you gotta stay with me. Are you with me?”

“I’m with you.”

“Good. Sam, you’re about to be free.”

Stefan came to his own shuddering orgasm as Sam’s moans reached peak climax.

Sam was still moaning as Johnny gathered up his spunk.

“You mind if I keep this?”

His response was an ecstatic groan.

Stefan looked down at his own come settling on his shaved belly. He felt shame burn around him. He felt exhaustion. He hurried to the shower to try and wash it all away.

o

After that, the men came in a steady stream. Word of “The Johnny Special” spread throughout London. Conversations from the Queen Billy to The Glory Hole singing its praises.

“So it’s just a hand job?’

“No way, it’s so much more. It’s the Johnny Special. Not only is it the hottest fucking thing in the world, but it gets rid of all the shit. All the guilt and fear. You come out feeling new-born. You come out with no desire to get fucked up, no shame. Just lightness and light.”

“Sounds fucking mental. Show me his profile.”

Bit by bit, Stefan began to notice something changing. The whole feeling of Soho. Bars and pubs and clubs he had been going to throughout his twenties were emptying out. His prime targets on Grindr were disappearing. He noticed more and more men wearing white. Smiling as they walked. Not furtively checking apps or rolling smokes or sniffing. But just… smiling.

They wore little white beaded bracelets. They held hands and did yoga in Soho Square. The more Stefan saw, the more uncomfortable he got.

Finally, one of the men propositioned him as he was passing from one Pret to another.

“Hi brother! Would you like to join the Freed movement?”

Stefan looked into the glassy eyes of the man and realised with a start that they had once fucked. Stefan had looked up at that same face in the whirl of a Vauxhall sex session and willed the man to fuck him harder. Faster. Deeper. He had choked Stefan until he almost passed out.

Now he was wearing satin and smelt like lavender.

“Freed?” said Stefan.

“Yeah, it’s a movement of gay men who have been liberated from the torture we inflict on ourselves. We’ve built an app to connect our new community. And we have a guru. Maybe you know him? His name is Johnny Armstrong.”

Stefan looked down to see that emerald eye superimposed on the graphic of a smartphone and a tagline that read: “Join the Freed revolution”.

o

“What the fuck is this?” Stefan barged into Johnny’s room, interrupting him mid meditation, waving the flyer around.

“Oh, that. It’s a new app. My followers designed it.”

“You have followers now? Followers?”

“Yeah, Stefan. I’ve helped a lot of people out.”

“You’ve certainly fucked a lot of people up.”

“I’ve freed them, Stefan. That’s what I’ve done. You know, I could help you too. I see you suffer, don’t think that I don’t. I see how scornful you are, how much you struggle with your addictions. I see how much you push yourself to look just right, and choose only the men who fall into the right category. Life doesn’t have to be like that. I can free you too.”

Stefan’s breath was heavy. He couldn’t meet Johnny’s gaze so instead looked around the room. His eye settled on a complicated network of glass tubes in the corner, like an elaborate science experiment. A silvery-white liquid flowed freely through the tubes.

“What in God’s name… is that?”

Johnny smiled, without looking round.

“I call it The Organism. It’s my network of men I’ve freed. One day I reckon it’ll be as big as a city!”

The heavy cocktail of hate and fear in Stefan’s stomach began to gurgle.

“Get. The. Fuck. Out. You fucking little freak. NOW.”

o

So in a flash, Johnny went. He didn’t have time to pack up his stuff. Presumably his community was just waiting to take him in. Stefan swore he wouldn’t enter Johnny’s room. The lingering incense made him sick.

In the weeks that followed, as if hit by a curse, Stefan lost it all. The job. The gym membership. The six pack. The days blurred into an increasingly desperate scramble to keep the men coming. He’d proposition twenty at a time, flinging out the same message: Session tonight?

Some of the faces he’d recognise would respond.

Not tonight mate. It’s a Tuesday.

Sort yourself out.

Get some help.

Other faces would simply disappear. Blocked. Pulled out like Jenga blocks. So he’d expand his radius. Ask men he’d never asked before. The faceless Harrys and Barrys with heaving barrel chests the colour of pork.

What you got? they’d respond.

Meth, GHB, mephedrone.

The holy fucking trinity.

He’d start taking at 3 and wait. Shudder and shake. Pull the curtains open and closed. Have a Silk Cut to still the nerves. He’d put on porn to get him in the mood. The craving for cock and oblivion built in, hardwired. He’d line up line after line waiting for The Men to come.

Until finally, one day, one year on from the coming of Johnny, they don’t.

You fucking coming or what?

No reply. Nothing. The whole thing frazzles static.

Then he hears it. The suctioning sound. The slimes and swirls. The Organism swilling the come around. On the screen, a perfect bronzed Californian slides down on the cut cock of a trucker and both moan in well-rehearsed delight.

The clip is interrupted with Johnny’s serene green gaze. An ad.

“Come along to Freed, salvation for gay men.”

Stefan slams down the screen, picks up the chrome IKEA stool and storms into Johnny’s old room.

Dust and incense. Tubes channeling moon juice. Stefan clutches metal. His drug-fuelled porn-fuelled blood-fuelled cock surges and beats like an electric eel seeking a home. Releasing the scream that’s built and curdled inside, Stefan brings the stool down upon on The Organism, releasing an explosion of incarcerated come.

o

Rishikesh, India. Wayne pauses mid mantra. The ethereal smile that has shone on his face for the past six months freezes. Fades. Guru Swayambu crouches down. “What is it child? What troubles you?”

Wayne swallows.

“I need cock.”

o

Brentford recovery centre, London. Ben sets his sapphire eyes firmly on the wet ones of a crying man.

“Don’t worry. We can help you here. You’ll learn to feel loved again. But I’m afraid I’ll have to take this away.” He gestures to the bottle of vodka. The man nods sadly and Ben gives him a kind smile and walks away. Abruptly, the feeling of lightness and serenity shatters, replaced by a heavy weight. A dull throb. A surfacing of old desires. He looks at the vodka bottle. Brings out his smartphone. Suddenly, for the first time since the Johnny Special, Ben wants – no – needs to get fucked.

o

‘Freed’ Ashram and HQ, Soho. A vast pyramid is filled with revellers dressed in white. They sit cross-legged on the tatami and sing “om nami padma hum.” They clap their bangled hands together. Some of them turn to one another and smile and kiss.

On the stage, smiling serenely, sat in the lotus position, The Revered Johnny Armstrong. Behind him, a swirling new Organism, ten times the size, and a huge projection of the Freed app filled with smiling men.

A cry surfaces from amongst the worshippers. A muscular man leaps to his feet, screaming in distress.

Johnny looks up calmly.

“What is it, brother Aaron?”

“What… what’s happened? I’ve lost it. That feeling of bliss. It’s gone. It’s back… all the stuff I left behind. It’s back.”

Johnny rises calmly.

“I think I know what is happening brother. Never fear, I’ll release you once more. But first, there is someone who needs our help.”

A mutter rumbles amongst the men.

“What I am about to show you may shock you. It may bring back haunting memories. But take heart, my brothers. What we do, we do for the good of the community.”

Johnny takes hold of the iPad connected to the projector and exits the Freed app. As he scrolls through the other apps, a few of the men preempt their guru’s next move.

“No, not that, Your Holiness. Anything but that!”

But it is too late. The black mask superimposed over the orange background comes to the fore. As squares filled with avatars and body parts fill the projection, the Freed men struggle with their memories. Some of them begin to cry. Others hold each other. They are haunted by their Grindr past.

Johnny scrolls through a litany of men, until he finds him. That same sun-bed-kissed velour that he contacted a year before. Eyebrow raised, six pack primed.

“This man needs our help. And how can we help him brothers? Through our collective love. I want us all in this room to meditate now. Take the image of Stefan deep into your hearts and send him all the love and bliss and light you can manage. Together, we can free him too.”

There is palpable hesitation in the air, but Johnny crouches down and begins to hum.

Ommmmmmmm.

The men parrot their master. Their liberator.

Ommmmmmmm. 

The ancient sound deepens and enriches.

Just two tube stops away, splayed out on a laminate floor, tears stream from Stefan’s eyes. They run down onto his chest, finding his own freshly released hot come and countless other specimens, as well as blood from the shards of glass that pierced his skin. The liquids meet and mix like paint on an easel. His legs are split apart. His palms face upwards. He looks, for all the world, like a fallen angel.

He whispers through his tears three words at the ceiling, over and over again, like a mantra:

“Thank you, Johnny. Thank you, Johnny. Thank you, Johnny.”

 

o         o         o

Dan Ayres
is currently writing a number of surreal short stories that explore the dark and freaky sides of social media and dating apps, particularly from an LGBTQ perspective. His stories have been published in a number of online journals that you can check out over on his website.
This story published as part of Open Pen Issue Twenty.

OF COURSE

-Open Pen Issue Twenty

By Gary W. Hartley

It’s not all bad, we can still see the sky. That’s a plus.

Reds and greys everywhere. I like to imagine the collections of pigeon shit up top; the smell of it close up.

‘If You Can’t Wall Them, Wall Them’ was the slogan they went with, after considering ‘Everyone Likes a Wall-builder’ and others too tedious to list here. You can imagine.

The slogan might seem a bit much, but the spin around it was more ingenious; emphasising that walls aren’t just a fearful, pessimistic method of keeping out AN Other, but a cosy way of keeping a group together, inside. Keep your significant AN Others right there, where you can hug and watch them.

Much like how ‘conservative’, capital or lower-case, tends to appeal to the risk aversion of base human nature, walling in had resonance – even capturing an essence of the liberal attachment to community, that will-o’-the-wisp conceit.

This morning I saw my first brick-shaped hole in the brickwork. There has been talk.

It’s not all bad, there have of course been walls before, and there would have been more after regardless of official policy. The Wallers have rolled out a number of human interest stories pre-dating the Walled Era to further the point that this is merely continuity, albeit with stronger impetus. Many of these case studies stress that there’s no need to fret about bringing people together for special occasions any more, but one that really stuck with me was that of the owners of a Chinese restaurant in the north.

Faced with bored, casually racist youths kicking down their repeatedly-rebuilt wall, kung fu experts were eventually drafted in to wait up at night and resolutely kick the shit out of them. The wall stood proudly after that point, chef smoking area by the bins secured for future generations.

So there’s walling in, it’s not all bad.

Initially, there’s no denying that it did seem that most of the walling being done was walling out. There were, and are, always outsiders that don’t fit in our cosy bricked bubbles.

Exclusion by wall itself is far from a clear thing. Who gets the advantage of another wall going up? Is exclusion a compliment of sorts? Those on both sides claim a victory, probably.

Legally-speaking, there was an always a nominally excluded side, and that side does the brickwork. This hasn’t proved all that problematic even from the very start, as citizens are enticed by very generous financial packages available for self-exclusion.

The hours are long, yes, the excluded’s very involvement is a bitter irony, yes, but the higher education of many young has been funded this way. Many even took up wall-related courses, heavily subsidised as they are, and used the remainder for another joy they could find close to home. You can’t knock it. Many still have. The thing is, however you knock bricks, the acoustics are never all that satisfying. I digress.

Grey-red, red-grey, this is a world envisioned by designers with heavy bronchitis, using giant tissues for sketch boards. There is usually a light powdering of the air. Scarves sell well.

The slogan, as boorish as it was, did end up running true. There was no such thing as un-wallable- if one side said no, the other just stated yes and began anyway, their noise covering the background of continued nos. Some initial successful legal challenges quickly became items of legend seemingly from a past far more distant than a couple of years back.

Context is important. Disagreement had been irrelevant for some time before they came to power, and public consultation an open private joke. The force was very much for beating down barriers with barriers long before the formalised age we found ourselves neatly walled into, and kept voting for.

Yes, almost every possible objection to any wall were calmly and efficiently ridden over to the point where radical acceptance seemed a more realistic option. Needless to say the scale was far too great for any of the ich bin ein Berliner, Chad peeping over the precipice stuff, so you better find ways to get on with it; open up those inner prisons etcetera. Or else.

No, not or else. It’s not all bad. There hasn’t been much in the way of overt or centrally-organised coercion to be seen.  Programmes of building work have a way of sweeping you along without any of that, don’t they. Place, time, roles, narrative purpose – walls, walling and wallers offer a hefty shot of all these things.

The lines, the ups and downs and sideways talk a language we haven’t quite grown to understand yet. We will, in time – everyone you speak to is totally sure of it. For now, we are fluent for the generalisations of the trades: ashlar, quoin, Flemish Bonds. Lime is never thought firstly of as a fruit.

There are no gaps, openings or checkpoints. It’s not all bad, this being an effective method of not having to worry about the notorious corruptibility of border officials.

An edited version of Whitney Houston’s Step by Step was declared the national anthem when a rollicking second victory was achieved parroting almost identical key messages. All the references to steps were removed from the ditty, citing potential for confusion, replaced with more references to bricks.

By the third term, senior wallers were confident enough to put plans in place to make it impossible for air traffic to operate, either internationally or domestically. You’d have to concede that ‘Staying the Course’ was their best slogan yet. It’s important to not let creativity fall by the wayside just because your masonry might be considered by some to be somewhat repetitious.

It’s not all bad, it’s not all bad, it’s not all bad. Deep scratches are alternative horizons.

Walls tend to have surfaces with literal grey areas, while having the purpose of putting an end to metaphorical grey areas through pronounced definition. For a while I pondered this philosophical problem, but then went out to buy ice cream and forgot all about it until now. Absolutely no children are interested in Lego any more.

We think we can hear someone scratching away at the other side, but there never is. We never check.

It’s not all bad, there is opportunity. You can bounce off walls, you can climb up the walls (albeit not all the way) and you can extract your minutes of fame from walls. They’re givers, within certain confines.

Some outliers, cranks and everyday visionaries were quick to state that they could see the trade marks on the top bricks, and got brief rounds of the chat show circuit out of it before viewer fatigue set in. After a while they were far too high for such sorcery to have any credibility for even the most gullible or far gone.

These holes in wall, perhaps whoever is making these is just another of those types, seeking a spot of fame without the need for a middle man. It’s easy to imagine them wearing braces and smoking a pipe. I’m late to the party in my discovery. There is talk there are hundreds of them, maybe more, but only one maker who signs only with four neatly-arranged piles of scrapings, in size order. I peer through, towards the other reds and greys in the middle distance. The absence of a brick, yes, deep. I mean it could be deep, but I can’t for the life of me.

Stretcher bonds on our hearts, abridged love letters scratched into brick with broken brick, stone with shards of stone. The detritus is cleaned away irregularly. It could be that it provides us with a useful reminder of something, like revolutionaries or deposed dictators left bullet-ridden in the street or hanging from lampposts for a while.

Can you grow to love a wall? Several hit singles asked the same thing, and despite the videos’ high production values and plenty of options for locations, the question was no nearer to being answered. Walls have been fucked hard, yes, but this is almost certain to not be either a new thing, or the same thing. If you can think of the fetish…you know the rest.

Reality TV’s genesis in the walled era has been interesting indeed. From the creative wall-building shows of the early years to the final acceptance that walls can’t be built creatively, to highlights reels of self-appointed militias chasing down those chipping away at the surfaces using all the tools that haven’t been taken away from them. Toothpicks and the scissors from kids’ Play Doctors sets are the favourites. Nobody ever got very badly hurt in the making of these programmes.

It’s not all bad, Buddhists seek enlightenment by limiting their options don’t they.

Look, this is how it is. I laid the first brick after the glorious head rush of the election victory, the pounding of cement mixers in my ears.

As you can probably tell, I am having some small internal discussions about this and that pertaining to walls, so out-and-out proud of myself would not be exactly the right way to describe my feelings. It’s not far off. A place in history is a place in history; definitely something to write home about while the postal services could still navigate effectively. A text message informed me the letter had not been received. I scratched the words into my nearest and dearest wall and look at it most days.

We needed to be protected. We needed to be cloistered. It’s not all bad. Probably it definitely is not all bad.

As a badge of honour they have let me choose a new collective noun for walls. Don’t tell anyone yet; this is just between you and me – but I have gone for Family.

o     o     o

Gary W. Hartley is from Leeds, but has voluntarily exiled himself to Athens for the time being. He used to co-edit The Alarmist magazine, and has a book of poems out on Listen Softly London Press. He communicates into the digital void via Twitter: @garyfromleeds

More about the print edition of Issue Twenty here.

PLENTY

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Twenty issues of Open Pen has brought us close to a hundred short stories from almost as many fiction writers. Here’s the latest additions to the Open Pen archive:

ISSUE TWENTY

Louisa Adjoa Parker – ‘Of Knives and Men’

Jim Gibson – ‘Oddments’

Dan Coxon – ‘The Worst Place in The World’

Jonnie McAloon – Something to Talk About’

Gerard McKeown – ‘The Company of Moths’

Katherine Orton – ‘The Romance of Scorpions’

Simon Pinkerton – Vicious centre of the capitalist South, here you will find nothing soft’

plus

‘This Is England’ – The latest instalment of N Quentin Woolf’s Open Pen residency.

Guest editorial. (more on this soon).

Foldout flash fiction zine to celebrate twenty issues (more on this soon).

And we’re extending Issue Twenty to this very website. So over the next three weekends we’ll be releasing the following short stories, right here:

Elissa Soave – ‘The Thursday Club’

Dan Ayres – ‘Handjob’

Gary W. Hartley – ‘Of Course’

We’re expecting to have the print issue out by the end of October. Check here to subscribe, but as always, if you can get to one of our bookshop stockists, we’d prefer you do that.

See, plenty.

REVIEW

SCOTT MANLEY HADLEY REVIEWS
SEALED  (DEAD INK BOOKS)  BY NAOMI BOOTH

Dead Ink Books: 2017, rrp £9.99 order here innit innit innit

Sealed is Naomi Booth’s second book, following the 2016 Saboteur Award-winning novella The Lost Art of Sinking (Penned in the Margins). A full-length and fully-fledged novel, Sealed is a harrowing, engaging, moving and deeply thoughtful text about motherhood, anxiety, conservation and romantic relationships: in short, it’s an absolute fucking belter and – in contrast to the last book I reviewed here – exactly the kind of unique fiction that indie presses should be proud to publish. (NB: that’s the rule here: every book we review at Open Pen is published by an independent publisher.)

sealedcoverThe novel is set in Australia in a near-future (like those X-Men films your dad likes), but in a deeply unpleasant one where environmental catastrophe has become the norm. The ozone layer is depleted and there are regular “heat events” that cause massive destruction, there are terrible storms, there is mass displacement due to these factors and – most significantly of all – there is an outbreak of a new, terrifying, disease: cutis. Cutis is horrific, and the kind of imaginary disease, imaginary death, that is written with such evocative detail here that it feels like it could already be a staple of dystopian horror. Cutis is a disease that causes the skin to begin healing where it is not needed to heal: over the ears, over the nostrils, over the eyes, over the anus, over the mouth… Cutis, the unproven myth goes, is the result of the pollutants in the air and in the water, it is evidence of the human body attempting to resist the horrors we have unleashed against our planet, it is the body sealing itself off from the world, but by doing so, by closing the apertures between our inside and our outside, it kills us: we suffocate, we go blind without understanding and panic ourselves into heart attacks; we are unable to shit and our body rots from within… Cutis is imaginative, disgusting, but painfully believable, in the way that great dystopian fiction always is: it isn’t quite our world, but it isn’t so far away that disbelief must be suspended in a way that limits an empathetic connection. Cutis is a modern fear rooted in an understanding of the very real dangers of environmental change. It is also – and this is where the novel’s true power comes from – significant textually because Alice, the novel’s protagonist, is pregnant, she is bringing new life into this dirty world. Already, at the novel’s beginning, there is life sealed within her flesh, and Alice’s anxieties about cutis combine with her anxieties about imminent motherhood. Booth successfully evokes the mind of a woman hurtling towards psychological collapse and her growing fears that are not as exaggerated as the people around her would like them to be. Sealed is a layered and complex text, pushing out in multiple directions and never failing to explore any of its threads with intelligence and emotional heft.

The premise of the present of the novel is that Alice and Pete – her on-off-on-again-off-again-oh-shit-I’m-pregnant-on-again boyfriend – have decided to leave the city in order to raise their forthcoming child in the countryside. Alice’s job in the city was working for the state, in the department for social housing, so she has seen evidence of cutis first hand. In her free time, she was running a blog detailing international rumours of the disease – her worries about cutis pre-date her pregnancy. When her mother died, Alice was convinced that the death was cutis, that it was being covered up, that the rapid spread of the disease was being covered up, and in grief she hooked up with her old boyfriend and ended up pregnant. As Alice nears term and arrives in the countryside, she sees more and more evidence to suggest that the supposedly safe place she has moved to may not be so safe after all, and even as she and Pete attempt to make friends with the locals, fear rises and Alice reminisces more about happier – and sadder – times of her life, and it is when Sealed passes the halfway point and these flashbacks become more regular that the book impressively lifts: the past[s] of Alice and Pete are fully and deeply realised, and within the 170 pages of this shortish novel there are whole, complex, lives.

Booth dives from a dystopian future to our own unpleasant present, she evokes youth and love and lust and regret and shame and heartbreak and grief and fear with great precision. Sealed moves us from childhood through to adulthood, in flashback, and as a reader we are present with Alice through every stage of her [varying levels of] dysfunctional relationship with Pete. We see her anxieties about cutis grow, we see her anxieties about motherhood grow and we see in detail the relationship she had with her own mother and the relationship her mother had with Pete (he and Alice grew up good neighbours and therefore (it is Australia) good friends). Through effective use of memory, we see Booth’s future world before it became poisonous, as it became poisonous and how it seems, here, now, that it is poisonous and dangerous to all who try to live within it.

This is a deeply physical text, with great and lengthy engagement with the body, both pleasure and pain, and rich descriptions of eyes and mouths and skin and skin and skin. The frequent references to the horrors of being sealed in, suffocated, by ones own flesh are intense and incredibly evocative. Booth’s horrors are physical ones, and the harrowing, inevitable, dénouement had me squawking in terror on a train. There are regular passages here that are funny, but Booth’s strength is in her descriptions of physical reality, of intense engagement with the body, with fear, with anxiety and with the importance of memory and the way we rewrite our pasts as we age.

Sealed is a treat of a read – emotional, engaged with real world problems, and very, very, human. Recommended.


Scott Manley Hadley was shortlisted for Best Reviewer at the Saboteur Awards 2017. Che-che-che-check out his moderately successful blog at TriumpoftheNow.com and luh-luh-luh-look up his unsuccessful (boo-hoo) web series on Facebook AND LIKE THE PAGE. #partytime

TWENTY

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We’ve made it to Twenty issues. Fair old slog, that. In that time we’ve got really old. We are the dog that sleeps for 23 hours a day. Our editorial meetings, once littered with PacMan, gallons of acid, and awkward sexual intercourse, are now taken aboard cruise ships with bridge, Gaviscon, and reluctant sexual intercourse.

Still, amongst that, we’ve managed to keep Open Pen free. That’s thanks to our readership, our writers and contributors, our advertisers, and of course the bookshops and bars and Gaviscon outlets that stock us.

Anyway, that’s how we got here. Issue Twenty. In its pages you will find fiction from Simon Pinkerton, Dan Coxon, Jim Gibson, Katherine Orton, Gerard McKeown, Jonnie McAloon, and a special congratulations to Louisa Adjoa Parker who is our twentieth cover author. Her short story ‘Of Knives and Men’ is Open Pen through and through.

We’re a couple of weeks off hitting shops yet, so keep an eye out for more about Open Pen Issue Twenty over the next fortnight, including some sweet add-ons we’ve got planned. This old dog still has a few new tricks, innit.

A Lonesome Snow Leopard

Inspiration hits him like a spray of shotgun pellets to the face. That’s good—he’ll use it in a poem.

He writes all night in a chasm of creation. He is deep—Marianas Trench deep. That’s good, too—he uses it straight away. No, he scribbles it out. Lake Baikal deep is better because as the deepest lake in the world, it is more suitable, as he feels his poems are isolated and not touching any other body of water that may also be deep.

He can barely contain himself.

He knows the poems are genius.

Really genius.

At 36 years of age, this is finally his time.

He prepares for his pièce de résistance. He has avoided the complicated theme of love up until now because he feels it is brandished about in this commercialistic society of ours, replaced with l-u-v love, the lemming-drones all luving their Starbucks coffee and luving Justin Timberlake. It is not the love he wants to say. It does not get close to the very Lake Baikal depth of his feelings. He wants his final poem to better Yeats, laying the cloths of heaven at Maud Gonne’s feet, asking her to thread softly. He wants to compare to a summer’s Day. He begins.

 

If love were a duck,

I would set my dogs of desire into the long grass to scare it from its hiding place.

As it took flight to safety, I would spray love with shotgun pellets to the face, unloading both barrels to make sure of the kill, and watch it fall to earth with a lifeless thump. I would rush to the scraggly, blood-soaked dead carcass of love so that the dogs did not tear it asunder. I would grab love by its webbed feet, bring it home, pluck its feathers and chop off its head off with my cleaver. I would rip loves’ entrails from its stomach, keep its liver for pate and eat its heart raw, sucking the blood through its vena cava. I would drench love in orange sauce, cook love to gas mark 5 for 35 minutes then share it with you.

He calls his collection, Life and writes his bio—Ulick McMillan is a poet, a human and a lonesome snow leopard. It gives the public nothing and shrouds his persona in mystery.

Life however, is poorly received and misunderstood. The poetry publishers send standard rejection emails, wishing him the best on his endeavours. A seething rage for publishers boils in his stomach and instead, Ulick self-publishes, Life. He sits in his bedroom with 5,387 copies of Life beside him in 18 big, brown boxes. (5,387 is the depth of Lake Baikal in feet.) He charges for the biggest bookshop in London.

‘How can freedom be a triceratops?’ the bookshop’s manager asks as he flicks through a copy.

‘Because it’s extinct,’ Ulick says.

‘Is this a hidden camera show?’ asks the manager, straightening his tie and looking around for the crew.

Ulick has to be wrestled outside by a security guard. He receives a lifetime ban from the bookshop. It notifies him that his four boxes can be picked up at the bookshop’s local police station. The email begins with Dear Lonesome Snow Leopard. He considers cutting out his tongue and posting it to the bookshop in response. It would be amazing publicity, artistic and bold. It would echo through the ages like a time-earthquake.

He sleeps on the idea.

He calls an end to pounding the footpaths after the incident.

‘I’ll start again,’ says the marketing company’s representative. ‘What would you like our company to do for you, Mr McMillan?’

‘I want you to sell my five thousand, three hundred and eighty-seven copies of my book.’

‘We arrange publicity and advertising, Mr McMillan. For example, we don’t hit the streets with millions of cans of Coca-Cola and sell them to passers-by. We advertise it. We rent billboard space, organise launch parties and photo-shoots, buy column inches. We get Rihanna drinking a can of Coca-Cola. You know what I mean?’

Ulick is forsaken and purged as he listens to the marketer speak. It is all part of the hypocrisy that Life demolishes. It is a conundrum. To get himself out there as a world-renowned poet he must use channels that his work attacks to the very core. He feels like Dr. Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park, rooting through that giant pile of triceratops droppings to prove to the stupid wardens that the dinosaurs do in fact eat the West Indian lilac.

‘You sir,’ he tells the marketer, ‘are lower on the evolutionary scale than tooth plaque,’ and hangs up.

‘Ulick,’ says Alice. ‘Let’s go do something.’

‘I am in business meetings about my art. I am in anguish, I would be terrible company, Pumpkin.’

‘It could be worse, Ulick. You’re not a starving baby in war-torn Africa.’

‘The starving babies in war-torn Africa have not got a thing on this unappreciated-in-my-time pain I feel, Alice. I would prefer starvation!’

‘Why not try the Internet?’

For once, Alice proves useful. He will go viral.

He starts in the poetry forums to get it praised by the ones who know. The lemming-drones will soon follow. Life for sale, he writes. He offers, If Love Were a Duck as a free sampler of the type of poem Life offers.

The trolls go to town on him. He is surrounded on all sides by malicious keyboard ninjas who would not know poetry if it slapped them in the face with an Atlantic salmon.

This poem is the biggest atrocity to mankind I’ve ever witnessed—Auschwitz Survivor.

This poet needs to be sprayed in the face with shotgun pellets!

I’ve taken 4 showers since I read this poem. It’s not coming off no matter how hard I scrub.

He cannot counter every comment that’s posted. There are just too many of them.

Twitterbot spam pops up on his computer screen the very moment when his wit was just about at its end.

A Twitterbot, says the Internet, is a…

‘Your dinner’s ready,’ Alice shouts from downstairs.

‘Aaaargh!’ he shouts back. He hangs the ‘Creating’ sign on his study door and slams it.

A Twitterbot, says the Internet, is a program used to produce automated posts via the Twitter microblogging service.

Perfect, he thinks. The Twitterbot can get its hands dirty in the world of publicity leaving him free to create his follow-up to Life. He buys a Twitterbot programme right away and puts the printer on notice for another 10,000 copies.

Ulick arranges the programme so that anytime somebody mentions the word ‘life’ on Twitter, his Twitterbot will direct them to buy his poetry. The programme also scrambles his IP address to avoid fines for spamming and reroutes all posts through Lithuania. He names his Twitterbot, Prophet5387 then launches it into cyberspace.

He gets to work on the first poem of his new collection. He titles it, The Self-imposed Bloodied Axe of Rejection. 

He begins.

I wield the self-imposed bloodied axe of rejection.

It is a decent start. He goes downstairs for his dinner.

The next day, Ulick tries to check in on the progress of Prophet5387 but he cannot remember the password. He tries all of his usual’s—sacrificiallamb, misunderstood, nothingness. None of them work. He tries to access the Gmail account he used to create the Twitterbot. Again, he cannot remember the password. He uses his own Twitter account and searches for Prophet5387.

He cannot believe his eyes. It has attracted 2,011 followers in less than 24 hours. He checks on the sales of Life. Not one copy sold. Something is amiss.

Prophet5387’s first tweet was, What am I doing tomorrow? I’ll know tomorrow when I’m doing it. It posted it on a host of other Twitterbot conversations and they automatically retweeted it.

The second tweet was, To be all, is all there is.

The third tweet was, In less, there is a wealth of more.

Ulick realises Prophet5387 is tweeting random phrases that it plucks out of cyberspace. He has programmed it incorrectly. He phones Twitter headquarters in San Francisco and demands to be reissued a new password so that he can change the settings. They are no help—they cannot condone Twitterbots. He phones Google and argues with a machine for two hours. It is no use. He tries to write a poem about it but he is too forlorn.  His once-blooming imagination feels like a barren, furrowed field.

‘Apox,’ he cries. ‘Apox!’

Prophet5387 tweets, Delve deep distracted divers.

Six thousand people enter into a conversation beneath the tweet as to what it means. Internet forums explode in speculation. Someone mentions it is the exact depth of Lake Baikal in feet. Baikal becomes a trendy synonym for a deep and insightful idea.

‘Apox!’ Ulick cries.

The next day, there are Prophet5387 t-shirts and merchandise on sale all over the web.

In one month, Prophet5387 accumulates six million followers and is given a weekly ten minute segment on the Ellen show.

The Poet of our times, writes Time Magazine, is shrouded in mystery. But who is the creator of the Twitterbot Prophet5387 and does it matter? As it uses all our voices, does it represent mankind’s voice as one voice?

Ulick phones Time Magazine.

‘Hello. I am the creator of Prophet5387,’ he says.

‘Really?’ the receptionist says.

‘This is incredible. I thought it was the thousands of others who have called saying they were the creator of Prophet5387 but now that you say it’s really, really you, this is awesome. I’ll send out the news crews right away.’

‘Are you being sarcastic?’ Ulick asks. The line goes dead.

Prophet5387 tweets, Gaza.

The next day, the president of Israel offers peace talks with representatives from Palestine. There is genuine progress made towards peace in the Middle East.

The lemming-drones all wait on Prophet5387’s hourly, automated tweets. They make newspaper headlines around the world. Twitter compiles its tweets in a book. It sells by the tanker-load. The proceeds all go to the starving babies in war-torn Africa.

Prophet5387 tweets, I am a fad.

The people of the world wholeheartedly agree that Prophet5387 is most certainly not a fad as a result. The 14th of April is declared Prophet5387 Day worldwide. Prophet5387, a poet that will never die, they say.

People speculate as to whether Prophet5387 should be declared divine.

Ulick can hardly take much more. He must tell the world of the monster he has created. He does what anyone with something important to say does and goes to an internet forum.

Prophet5387 is nothing but an algorithm, he writes. It is not real. It has never felt wet grass beneath its bare feet in the cold dawn. It has never loved, never felt, never been. It does not know beauty or pain. You people are like the Pacific Islanders of the Second World War, watching the planes come across the sky and declaring them Gods! I can be as random as Prophet5387 if you want—Ride giraffes in the washing machine! Get down the ladder and drink tea!

Three million keyboard ninjas set on him like rabid dogs.

He beckons Alice. He needs some emotional support.

‘I’m going to Russia, Ulick,’ she says, holding two suitcases in the doorway. ‘I’ve been meaning to tell you.’

‘Russia?’

‘To Lake Baikal. A commune has started up there to spread the teachings of Prophet5387. I’m starting a new life, Ulick. Without you in it. I’m sorry. I’ve been healed by the words of Prophet5387.’

‘It’s not real!’ Ulick shouts. ‘It’s an algorithm! Nothing more!’

‘I’m sorry, Ulick,’ Alice says. ‘Take care of yourself.’

‘I will not go gentle into that good night, Alice,’ he shouts after her.

The front door opens and closes.

‘I will rage, Alice. I will rage against the dying of the light!’ he screams from the very bottom of his forsaken soul and then faints from the stress of it all.

o          o          o

FIRST PUBLISHED IN OPEN PEN ISSUE ELEVEN.

David McGrath is the author of novel Rickshaw. In 2014 he won the Bare Fiction Prize for Ger Sheen and the Satanists.

REVIEW: MOVING KINGS BY JOSHUA COHEN

WITHOUT EXCITEMENT THERE CANNOT BE LOVE

Between reading the majority of Moving Kings (Joshua Cohen, published July 2017 by Fitzcarraldo Editions) and sitting down to write this review, I’ve had a massive breakdown. Not the most massive a breakdown you can have – no psychosis – but weeks of panic attacks while hiding inside cupboards, screaming into the sky in public, lying on pavements and weeping, daily nightmares that seep into conscious premonitions of death, going to city farms to stare at goats instead of going to work, full days spent in the psychiatric section of A&E, so, like, yeah, a full-on breakdown.

I don’t think Moving Kings and my breakdown are necessarily linked, but I think the context of my mental decline – and the book’s inability to arrest it – is significant. For me, a great book stops the world. A great book, any great book, is as compatible with a breakdown as staring at a cute dog is compatible with not smiling. Moving Kings – though inarguably a “good book” – isn’t the kind of book one can read to reawaken their dying soul. Moving Kings is well-written, well-structured and engages with interesting topics, but Moving Kings doesn’t feel in any way remotely fresh. Maybe the pop culture and the technology is up to date, but Cohen’s massively acclaimed novel (also newly released over in Trump’s America) didn’t do anything to me I hadn’t felt done to my reading self many, many times before. It reminded me of all those books that increasingly underwhelmed me as I read my way through – and then beyond – the texts that claim to the title of The Great American Novel.

Moving Kings is a beefy, blokey, book about American perceptions of contemporary Israel, mostly focused on the Jewish diaspora of New York and its environs. There are multiple protagonists: the first to be introduced is David King, a wealthy baby boomer who runs a logistics company that shares its name with the novel. He is divorced, he’s into drugs and fucking his secretary (who’s like clingy, y’know), but most importantly he’s into making shitloads of cash. He’s a typical American [anti-] hero: wealth accumulated by effort, combined with a vestige of empathy in a character overwhelmed by flaws. One of these flaws – and the one that will prove to be significant – is his paternalistic wish to look after Yoav, his Israeli cousin’s son, met once when Yoav was a child. In the present day, David arranges for his company to give Yoav (and his buddy Uri) some back-hand, visa-free work when they arrive into America following their national service. Together, Yoav and Uri try to integrate into the American youth culture scene (or whatever) but are frustrated by a) a language barrier (minor for Yoav but severe for Uri) and b) the repercussions of their time spent in the Israeli army. Naturally, chaos ensues.

Cohen weaves together his multiple strands and multiple flashbacks very well, there are great passages of description and evocative descriptions of male ennui. It ticks all those boxes of books that are meant to be “good”: race and identity are explored; the immigrant and the touristic experience of being culturally overwhelmed; regret and ageing; mortality and railing against it… The big themes of American letters are here, and big themes related to the contemporary world crop up too: the problems with landlords and increasing rents and overseas property investors; money and international trade is important, the way people structure their lives and their finances; people trying to connect with estranged family members; intoxication and addiction and the reasons for it; homelessness; poverty as the counterpoint to affluence…

All these big, weighty, hefty topics, all discussed in accessible and uncomplex but simultaneously explorative prose… When one pulls Moving Kings apart, it is easy to see that all the ingredients are present for a great book, but in combination they achieve something underwhelming, and – important – underwhelming in a familiar way. Moving Kings feels like a novel written to a formula, even down to its inclusion of a weird (and v male fantasy) sex scene in the middle of the book. This is the Updike, Franzen, school, y’know – American novels on big themes that are good, y’know, unquestioningly good, but when you’ve read one you’ve read them all. No, that’s unfair: when you’ve read five or six you’ve read most of them, and when you’ve read ten or fifteen you’ve definitely read them all. And, sadly, I have read ten or fifteen of this type of novel, and my appetite for them has long been sated, and was probably sated even before that weird Summer when everyone read and raved about John Williams’ Stoner, another underwhelming book from the same school.

I get it, I get that explorations of affluent WASP and affluent North American Jewish lives are different from each other, but these stories are presented in the same way, with the same styles and the same voices. Moving Kings was published by a major publisher in the US (as were Cohen’s previous novels here), and that is the kind of place where this book belongs. It is a good book, but it’s a good book by rote, y’know (I need to stop saying “y’know”, I know, but I’m recovering from a breakdown SO PLEASE JUST BEAR WITH ME), it’s a good book in the tradition of good books, it’s a good book that doesn’t feel like it’s taking any risks, that doesn’t feel like it’ll offend, annoy or insult anyone, it’s a good book that lacks bite, it’s a good book that is never going to be anyone’s favourite novel, it’s a good book without question, and – for me – that’s what makes it disappointing.

Fitzcarraldo Editions – and indie presses in general – usually do something mainstream publishers don’t. Indie presses take risks, have to take risks, because without risky publications they’re never going to get any attention. Indie presses put out books like The Wake, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, Attrib. & Other Stories, Quiet Flows The Una, Pond. Big publishers put out books that are like books they’ve already had success with, because they are big machines with big overheads (MIXED METAPHOR) that need oiling. Indie presses have lower overheads, less staff, y’know, and get their kicks out of publishing literature that wouldn’t get a hearing elsewhere. The reasons for this are diverse, but one similarity I find between books published by indie presses is their uniqueness. Fitzcarraldo Editions is one of my favourite publishers and they’ve put out many of the best books I’ve read over the last couple of years. And those great books, those INCREDIBLE books, are books unlike anything I’ve read before. That book on football, that book on smoking, that book on suicide, Claire-Louise Bennett’s prose, Mathias Enard in translation, y’know, AMAZING books. By publishing Moving Kings – a good book in a traditional, riskfree sense – they have done something they didn’t need to do. There is no arguing that Cohen is a good writer, that his book is successful as literature, but it feels so familiar, so part of that style/canon of “American novels”, that there’s nothing to get excited by, and without excitement there cannot be love.

Had I reread Zone instead of reading Moving Kings, I would never have felt so low, so broken, so depressed. There is power in the potentiality of art. Literature exists – much of it published by Fitzcarraldo – that makes life seem worth living. Writers, thinkers and translators have contributed to the output of this publishing house that consistently maintains my faith in the changing and eternal power of literature. Moving Kings – as technically “good” as it is – did nothing to make me enthusiastic about the world of books or the world of America. I hadn’t read this text before, but I’d read its style, its concerns and its worldview. By all means read and enjoy it – there is nothing (other than that sex scene) to dislike – because Moving Kings is a good book, it does what it’s meant to do. But it’s literary fiction like loadsa literary fiction. It’s literary fiction that’s going to change no one’s life.

Moving Kings is a good book, but it’s a good book in the same way that hundreds of books are good books and that – for me – isn’t good enough. I want great books that are great in ways I could never imagine. I want books to make me hungry for literature and life and everything inbetween. Moving Kings isn’t exciting as a work of literary art. It’s fine, it’s good, but Pond and Zone are published by the same people and are both unique, life-changing, texts. Read those, if you haven’t. Do support Fitzcarraldo and other indie presses, because amazing, unexpected, books are pouring from them. This book – though it’s good – isn’t amazing.

o         o         o

Scott Manley Hadley is not OK and blogs at TriumphoftheNow.com.

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