It was the middle of the fucking party season and the emphysema was starting to become a problem again. He knew it wasn’t a matter of life and death (he couldn’t die) but it was still pretty annoying to cough up thumb sized gobs of blood every time he tried to do anything remotely athletic. He hated too having to deal with the health sector – medical practitioners worldwide had an obsession with the kind of bureaucracy that really pissed him off – but though he could keep surgeons permanently employed on his staff, getting hold of a pair of good sized lungs had been a problem more than once before. Also, as a very heavy smoker, he was never top priority for any going spare.
Father Christmas, then, was stood on a frosty December morning in the car park of a small GP’s clinic in rural England. He leant against a windowframe so that he could peer at the electronic display while he chain-smoked in the cold, kept warm by a thick red suit lined with polar bear fur. When his pseudonym (Danny Twatt – he was young at heart) pinged up, he crushed a smouldering Camel Blue into the asphalt and strolled inside.
The doctor was sat behind his desk and didn’t shake his hand. He stared for a bit, the recognition dawning slow and heavy like a shag on morning wood. Early thirties. Dark hair. Good eyes. Maybe a Spanish grandparent. If Father Christmas hadn’t come less than five minutes ago, he’d have definitely tried to bone him.
“Sir, it’s an honour.”
Father Christmas was staring with a sneer at the “No Smoking” sign behind the GP’s head and ignored the younger man’s sycophantic entreaty.
“You’re good with confidentiality, right? Don’t want the fucking paps outside when we’re finished in here.”
“Of course, of course.” Starstruck. Or maybe shocked by the language. “What’s the problem?”
“Don’t want any bullshit, Doctor. I want a set of lungs as I’ve been-” he paused and exhibited his symptom into a ragged handkerchief, leaving a dribble of blood in his white stubble. “I’ve been doing that a lot. Needs to stop.”
“Are you a smoker?”
“How many a day?”
“As many as I feel like. Feel like one now, if it matters.”
“How many cigarettes do you smoke on an average day?”
“Ten to twenty packs… Sorry, not packs, cartons. More if the weather’s good, my missus doesn’t like me smoking anything but hash in the house.”
“10 to 20 cartons?”
“I travel a lot, buy ‘em in duty free, so it’s not as spenny as you’re thinking. I know, doc, why my lungs are damaged, but as you’re probably aware from the stories that circulate about me in popular culture – i.e. not Tim Allen films, hahahaha – I cannot die. So, I’m going to keep on smoking.”
“I’m afraid I should advise you to cut down.”
Father Christmas didn’t like this. He spat dark yellow phlegm onto the floor.
“Who the fuck do you think you are?”
“I understand it can be difficult to talk about these things, but”
“-It’s not unpleasant, it’s fucking simple. I need a set of lungs and my naughty lists have got you down as a – a – a-”
His words turned into a series of coughs, and Father Christmas bent over the arm of the chair and started spraying strings of blood onto the linoleum floor. The mess seemed to calm his anger.
He sank back into the chair, breathing heavily. “Sorry about that, doc. As you were.”
The GP paused for a second, floundering. “You’re fourhundredandeightyseven?”
“And you can’t die?”
“No. Blessing and a curse.” Pause. “Can I smoke in here?”
The smug prick ignored the question. “Well, I’ll have to refer you to a specialist.”
“Buddy, I’m here because I heard you are a specialist.”
“I don’t quite-“
“You’re the man in town to go to, I hear, for any “medical needs”.” Father Christmas made finger quote marks like a 90s teen. “And don’t deny it, I’ve got lists and-“
“If you’re referring to the arrangements I have with a couple of shall we say “independent pharmacists” then I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong end of the stick.”
“I’m sure I don’t, doctor. It’s pretty simple: you sell things, I want lungs. I’ve got doctors at home. I just need the lungs. I’m very rich, you know.”
“Why have you come to me?”
“I’m in town quite a bit. I’m shagging the MP’s wife. And their daughter. And once the son. And the MP, if we’re being honest, mate, but he’s probably gonna get deselected because he’s proper Blue Labour innit and I can’t see myself getting hard for an ex-MP or a fucking commie, so-”
The doctor interrupted, either bored or genuinely annoyed. “I’m not going to assist you in illegal organ trading.”
“But you’ll sell to criminals?”
“I do not sell organs to anyone.”
“What do you sell them?”
“Well, y’know, Mr Christmas, I don’t sell them anything. I merely provide some of my patients with large prescriptions for certain pharmacological products that happen to have high black market values and, coincidently, those patients merely provide me with a large consultancy fee for my work on their – as yet unproduced – wine podcast, Grapes and Wrath.”
Father Christmas rolled his eyes.
“You’re just a fucking GP-dealer? Christ, gotta get these forms updated, you’re in the same fucking naughty list as Burke and Hare. I’ve got silos of medication at home, you’d be surprised how many kids write asking for drugs.”
And then came the brainwave.
“Do you smoke, doc?”
Then came the epiphany.
“No? And how much exercise do you get?”
Then came the remembrance of complete diplomatic immunity.
“So, your lungs, mate, they’d be-” big cough “-much better than mine?”
They laughed together.
“Not much point in me sticking around then, is there?”
Father Christmas stood up to leave and shook the doctor’s hand. As he did so, he reached with his left up to the back of the other man’s head, grabbed a fistful of hair and in one movement slammed the doctor’s head into the corner of the desk. For safety, he repeated this three times until the medic’s pretty face had completely caved in. Father Christmas pulled a large red sack from one of the cavernous pockets of his overcoat and pulled it over the corpse.
After a pause for a prolonged spasm of retching coughs, he tied the head of the sack and threw it through the wide, single glazed, window. He climbed through afterwards and dragged the cargo across the carpark and stuffed it in the back seat of his sleigh. There was a bloody streak across the asphalt, and though he was aware that the sack would probably leak all over his upholstery, he was unfazed as he knew the leather had seen much worse during the slave trade.
He climbed into the driver’s seat and cracked his whip. As the reindeer knew the way, he sank into the chair and lit a blunt, pulled out a can of Stella and put some porn on his dash-mounted iPad.
It had been a while since he’d killed (comparatively) and it had given him a very real, very physical buzz. He’d got what he’d come for. And he had new lungs and a week of morphine to look forward to.
As Father Christmas pulled out his cock and saw that even his herpes was behaving itself, he grinned. Happy fucking Christmas.
December 1st took off the cellophane wrapper and opened the first box, and immediately the Santa spoke to me, he said, your job is to do as I fucking say.
2nd If you’re going to eat my chocolate, he said, you’re going to have to give something back. Cut a finger and make it rain into the space where it was.
3rd Don’t even open this one, he said. Leave the perforations undamaged, you contemptible piece of shit. Reflect on why you’re not worthy of my chocolate today.
4th Eat the chocolate from yesterday as well as today. You’ll need the energy. Go to the station and see who needs to be pushed onto the tracks. You’ll know him when you see him, or her.
5th You’ve got 20 of my delicious chocolates left. Why didn’t you push anybody yesterday? Go sit on the wall outside, all day. Don’t come in until after midnight. Don’t move from the wall. Piss in your pants, and don’t you dare ask a stranger for a drink.
6th Ego is a damaging part of the psyche. Shave half your head. Then get out there and tell them what their jackets and their shoes and their haircuts really say about them.
7th Are you enjoying the taste of my lovely chocolate? It’s not enough. I don’t care if someone tried to assault you. They barely got anywhere. It’s not enough. Cut off a piece of earlobe and place it in the box.
8th You may eat of my chocolate unmolested. Contemplate why you are deserving.
9th Many times have I visited your realm. Your stories have reduced me to a cartoon character, but I’m so much more. Eat my chocolate and inhale a can of hairspray. You’ll have to steal one from the shop in town.
10th Where the fuck have you been? he asked. I said I was out for assessment on this tenth day, and I could feel his rage boiling my stomach acid.
11th You did not get permission to leave me untouched yesterday. I don’t believe you forgot. I believe you deliberately ignored me. Don’t do that again. Sit in the entrance to McDonalds in town. Beg them all for spare change like the garbage you are.
12th You eat my body when you eat my chocolate. The energy drink you quaff is my blood. Wear Santa’s beard and don’t take it off. Tonsure yourself completely, get rid of that ridiculous half-haircut. You may take my facial hair off after Christmas, but not before. Show your devotion like all those dirty consumers, who mock my legacy.
13th Shoplift a turkey and throw it at a wall. Do not get caught. You must be back here tomorrow, for I have an announcement.
14th Mine is the only way. All others are condemned to circular lives, but you will live with me in my grotto. I’ll do things to your body, but you’ll like it. In eleven days there will be a reckoning. Eat my chocolate now, child.
15th The chocolate must not be eaten today, for today is for fasting. You must smear my chocolate on your face, all over, and get out there, and preach my word. Yes, it is as you suspect—the carol singers anger me. Any you see, disabuse them of their ideas that blasphemous chanting about him does any good.
16th Of course there will be barriers to overcome! Of course, child. What did you expect? The tools of the state will sharpen and attempt to pierce you, and you must be strong. Stay in comparative warmth with me today. Wrap yourself in red and care for yourself in this small home. Eat and drink.
17th It approaches! And lo, you got your bennies paid into your account. Celebrate with drink, strong drink, and be my shaman out there. Spread the word, far and wide!
18th Office parties are sinful, the most sinful. I was a saint, once, and I would not tolerate profit and materialism. You will find practitioners of infidelity and fornication at many of the local public houses, and you will teach them that their way is flawed, and you will welcome them to my bosom. Cut one of them. Escape.
19th Cut more. I demand it. Cut the consumers, let them shed blood as the toy makers shed sweat. That shop, The Toy Chest, is a node of evil consumerism. Douse them in drink, and cut them twice, and run, run home to me.
20th I am disappointed you didn’t cut more. Your fear is hardly a fitting tribute to my power. But you still have five days to atone. Today we prepare. Steal a string of lights, any colour, that is of no importance. Eat my chocolate, and remember, I am always watching, and always loving, as long as you don’t disappoint. Only good boys and girls are rewarded.
21st Tonight there is a concert in the town centre. You will urinate on the tree while the disgraceful singing is taking place. Cause them to scatter. Shout and yell and show your anger, as he was angry at money lending, as I was angry at exploitative labour. Escape, escape.
22nd Yes, they are watching you now, but they were always watching you. They know who to watch, and they recognise my greatness through you. You are my one true disciple. They believe in him, but he is a fucking joke. I will provide for you. My grotto is filled with unspoiled toys and roasted fowl and virgin girls under mistletoe. Spread my gospel like you will spread the virgins’ legs in my grotto. Avoid all their deceitful eyes, preach my chosen fucking wonder, outside the high school near the station.
23rd Eat, child. Someone needs pushing onto the tracks. But eyes are everywhere. In and out. Then hide, hide, and watch them scatter, and watch them fear for their own unworthy lives, for they are not pure!
24th You did well. Eat of my final chocolate, for tomorrow, you join me. They are out there looking for you now, and you must not leave the house lest you be captured. Fulfil your earthly whims, for tomorrow you will be freed. Explore yourself. Let the neighbours see you do so. Open the curtains and let them witness.
25th You must loop it tightly, that’s right. Once secured, plug them in. Plug yourself in. Stand on the chair and kick, kick it down, and swing. They’re coming, but all they’ll find is your pretty, lit shell. My angel. Join me in my grotto, child.
“Nous souffrons par les rêves. Nous guérissons par les rêves.”
We apologise for the long waiting times at the tills as I’m pushing or pulling my zebra-patterned trolley. Pushing or pulling with my left hand, my right hand with its fingers wrapped around the handle of a shopping basket. There must be thousands of us, moving chaotically and in different speeds, a whim of hungry and thirsty people who left everything until too late. And the sound of the wheels and the music playing in the background: dizzying, a weird muzak-like mantra sprinkled with dissonant overtones, barely audible over the noise, yet there. And the voices, muffled, and the mobile phones ringing unattended. And the faint infant shrieks and the unrecognisable growls, of joy or despair. And the other voices barking through the tannoy, accented and contrite and we apologise for the long waiting times at the tills, Sainsbury’s would like to assure you that everything is being done to guarantee that you have a great shopping experience; Merry Christmas! Someone, actual people and not a recording, over and over, every other couple of minutes, word by word. It could be unnerving, yet an endearing hint of humanity can be discerned in these messages, in their tiny imperfections, in the repressed alienation and boredom of those sending these repetitive bottled messages into the void, for the minimum wage, on December 24.
Now by the vegetables section, by the cabbage, unable to move in any direction. An old lady with furious blue hair a couple of metres down is blocking the way — she’s surrounded by trolleys — she seems trapped. It looks bad but we’re all taking it rather well: no arguing, no pushing or shoving, no scenes of panic or collapse of the social order. Nothing save the occasional tut — there must be tut-tuts going on; timid tut-tuts and huffs masked by the ambient noise. We tut and huff unheard and wait for the old lady to figure out how to manoeuvre out of this mess. We wait, resigned.
Several minutes elapse and my phone battery goes from 91 to 73 while I read an opinion piece about a gadget that can detect your B.O. and tell you if you need a deodorant — very useful if you happen to lose the sense of smell, according to the writer. To stop the battery from reaching zero I check my list, a crumpled blue A4 sheet of paper: asparagus, shallots, parsley, coriander, nu potatoes, organic quinoa and some other stuff. And suddenly the old lady summons the courage, leaves the trolley unattended for a couple of seconds, grabs a bag of broccoli, comes back to her spot, and continues to move forward, pushing the other trolleys to the sides with hers.
We are free, the knot unknotted — we’re moving.
And soon some meat products ahead, we apologise for the long waiting times, we would like to assure you that everything is being done so that you have a great shopping experience. Turkey fillets, minced beef. But I’m going too fast and I slow down a bit and I feel a bump: a guy following me close has hit me with his own Sainsbury’s trolley. He doesn’t apologise and I don’t say anything. I just redistribute my weight and my trolley gets heavier and he can’t push anymore, while I move slowly closer to the left, feeling the weight of all his shopping, and then cut across to the other side, almost barging into a large woman with two large twins, seven to eight. I block their way with my basket, placing it at children’s face height. The two identically bloated gammon faces stop and then my body follows and after my body the trolley.
I grab two packs of turkey fillets and suddenly a hunch hits me as we apologise for the overcrowding and the long waiting times, once again, Merry Christmas! The list: asparagus, shallots, parsley, coriander, nu potatoes, organic quinoa, turkey fillets, mince beef, cream, cheddar, butter. Down: toilet paper. Further down mustard. Even further down: methylated spirits or firestarter fuel. A question mark next to these, I turn the page over. Chicken fillets, I knew it.
The chicken fillets are lying a bare metre down. I get two packs. British chicken, Union Jacked.
I make it to the end of the aisle and take a right turn. Trolleys here move with the order that arises out of chaos, given chaos enough time and space.
And then a left turn.
This aisle promises a world of dairy and cold meats and then cheese on my side and microwaveable foods on the other. Not many people round here — cheese people are now a diminishing demographic, suspiciously continental. I get a pack of cheddar — there is nothing but cheddar. Cheddar will have to do. I get three extra packs, in different shades of orange.
Now there are three lanes: two slow lanes by the fridges, where people move with difficulty, their direction and movements decided by the products; and one in the middle, a fast lane. In the sides, people wait with their trolleys in the ready position and then throw themselves seagull-like into the first available gap and disappear towards the fruits section, we apologise for the waiting times at the tills. I find a gap and disappear too.
More stasis. I rest the basket on my trolley, by the red grapes and the bananas — I gauge their curvature and don’t know what to think, my mind consumed with thinking of ways of getting out of this jam. I’m trapped between an abandoned fully loaded Sainsbury’s trolley and two old ladies chatting behind me. I have tried several times to push one of the abandoned trolleys without success, as the wheels are locked and end up banging against the aisle — I can’t move it from this angle. And it would be impolite to interrupt the old ladies’ conversation to make a move towards the other end — they seemed to be talking about religious fundamentalists, although now they seem to be talking about the weather.
I look at my phone: 65 percent and then at my list: all pretty straightforward until mustard. Which mustard? Dijon? English? American? Methylated spirits or firestarter fuel? Do they still stock Dijon in this supermarket we apologise for the long waiting times at the tills, we would like to assure me that everything is being done to guarantee that you have a great shopping experience, Merry Christmas? And where are you supposed to find methylated spirits or firestarter fuel? Another five minutes go by until a big bald guy wearing a puffed-up Arsenal jacket pulls his trolley and starts moving. Now I’m free and walking aimlessly and soon I find myself not too far from the tills.
There are long queues — hundreds trapped in lines that end at the checkout and start somewhere in the middle of the supermarket.There are many men and women dressed with Santa Claus outfits, walking along the lines, handing chocolate to those waiting. Whoever thought of this chocolate ruse is a genius.
And now I’m walking down a fast lane and the products turn into a blur to my sides. I should stop someone from the staff and get directions but there’s no way I’ll be able to stop here so I keep walking, almost running, until suddenly and against all odds a clearing, by the cereals, a space between people trying to rejoin the circulation and I shove my trolley and then myself and it’s a tight space but big enough for one or two. Now I can breathe and watch the faces pass before me and feel nauseous.
I try to stop one of the Santa Clauses and I miss him by an inch as I have to move my trolley just in time to stop a woman from taking the place I’m keeping for the supermarket clerk when I manage to stop one, thank you for shopping at Sainsbury’s. Soon the woman is dragged by the flow and a she-Santa comes rushing in my direction. I grab her by the arm when she passes by and pull her next to me. She looks at me and smiles, I guess, for taking her out of that mess
“Hi,” I say.
“Hello sir,” she says. “Merry Christmas,” and she hands me a bonbon.
“Oh, thanks,” I say and I put it in my pocket.
“How can I help you?” she asks.
“Methylated spirits? Do you know where I can find them?”
“Yes, it’s the thing used to light the fondue oven, or whatever you call that thing.”
“Never heard of such a thing. Let me check with my manager,” she says and gets a walkie talkie out of her pocket. She’s pretty: brunette, fine facial features under her Santa Claus’ beard. “Barney… Stock enquiry… Over… Barney… He can’t hear me,” she explains.
“It’s OK. I’m not in any rush,” I say.
“Barney… Stock enquiry please… Over…”
“Reading you loud and clear… Over…” says Barney.
“Stock check, please… Over…”
“Methylated spirits… Over…”
“Say again? Over…”
“Yes: methylated spirits. Mike-Echo-Tango-…” I show her my list. “Hotel-Yoke-Love-Alpha-Tango-Echo-Delta. Spirits, as in spirits. Got it? Over…”
“Roger. Never heard of it. I’m checking the system now… Over…”
“Thanks. Over… He’s checking.”
“Great,” I say. “Busy?
“Very busy,” she says, “I apologise for the waiting times and the overcrowding and I would like to assure you that we are doing everything we can so that you have a great shopping experience.” She takes a breath of air. “Merry Christmas,” she adds, and smiles.
“Merry Christmas, Virginia. Thanks for helping me, Virginia,” I say. She seems surprised that I know her name and then remembers that she’s wearing a name badge and her face relaxes.
“It’s OK. We’re here to help,” she says. I think I blush. She looks in the other direction.
“Vee… Do you copy? Over…” She lifts the walkie talkie.
“Reading you five Barney… Is it stocked? Over…”
“Can you try firestarter fuel? Over…”
“Sure… Firestarter as in fire starter? Over…”
“Yes… Over… Maybe we have more luck this time,” she says, Virginia.
“I appreciate your help, very much, Virginia,” I say and find out I like saying her name.
“Would you like another chocolate?” she asks.
“No, I’m OK, Virginia, I still have the other one.”
“Vee… Copy? Over…”
“Loud and clear… Over…”
“Also negative… Over…”
“Thanks Barney… Over…”
“Anything else Vee? Over…” She looks at me. I move my head to indicate a “no”.
“No, thanks, Barney… Over and out…”
“You’re welcome… Over and out…”
“Sorry, sir. No luck.”
“No worries, Virginia.”
“Maybe you can find something round the cleaning products section…” she says. “Something similar.”
“Or in the hardware shop next door.”
“I might try there,” I say. I don’t want the conversation to end.
“Anything else sir?” I think for a couple of seconds but unfortunately can’t think of anything.
“No. That’s all.”
“OK. I have to go. Merry Christmas,” she says.
“Merry Christmas, Virginia,” I say. She smiles and then turns around and disappears into the fast lane.
I try to spot her in the flurry of people coming and going but I can’t. She might have gone past me five thousand times already. She might have turned into particles.
The alcohol aisle. The smell coming from what could be broken bottles but could also be sweat. There are almost as many people here as there were near the tills. There are clerks everywhere and policemen carrying guns, ordering the lines of shoppers, directing them into the aisles, from either side into a sort of human funnel. Everything is incredibly efficient and the lines move fast and fearlessly. You can tell these people have been doing this for ages — it’s in their DNA.
I stop in a clearing and study the situation. They step into the aisle and they walk fast and their hands move from the shelves to the trolley and from the trolley to the shelves with determination, while the bodies circulate in a never ending stream. It reminds me of the Buddhists I saw walking around a praying wheel once in a temple in Katmandu. They would touch this or that other bell, they would avoid touching other ones. A Knowledge illuminated their practice. I lacked it there and I lack it here. But these people have it, the Knowledge. There they knew which bell to touch and here they know if white wine follows cider, where whisky is located in relation to brandy. They can recognise the labels, the semiotic clues. Or maybe they just grab whatever they can.
And suddenly the unforeseen: a bottle falls and apologies for the waiting times, Merry Christmas, and keep moving waves one of the policemen, and everyone just walks over the broken glass. A deflated look on the dropper’s face, for a millisecond, because he quickly grabs another bottle, and no longer looks deflated. At that moment I have my epiphany: obey the policemen, follow their gestures, get in, move fast, grab anything, and then get out on the other end of the boozing wheel. I rearrange my basket and zebra-coloured trolley; I will have to pull the trolley and carry the basket with the same hand. I’m ready.
I wait for the right moment while people of indeterminate class and age and gender pass before my eyes in a never ending parade, leaving no space for me to join them. And then a guy with coiffured hair, brown furry anorak — there’s a gap between him and a fat and slow guy wearing a tracksuit, walking after him. When the first one passes by my side I squeeze behind him. I can almost smell him. I CAN smell him — I can smell Kenzo for Men. And as we walk towards the booze “I won’t drop anything” I tell myself, and soon the policemen are just a couple of metres away, the closer one to me ordering people into lines, pointing the way with his Heckler & Koch MP5.
“Left. Right. Left. Right. Left. Left. Left. Right. Right. Left,” says the brave Authorised Firearm Officer, a huge guy with his cap all the way down to his eyes. “Left,” he shouts at Kenzo for Men. “Right!” I get. And I’m in.
The first bottles fly fast before my eyes and I don’t grab any, too close for visibility, too many brands, too many colours, too many names for my illiterate eyes, thank you for shopping at Sainsbury’s and merry Christmas, and soon I’ve reached the end of the aisle without booze and turn right, grab a bottle, the first that comes my way, and shove it into one of the sides pockets of my trolley, and another right turn and two more bottles and cans, and when I’m half way through the aisle I grab some more things of whatever and put the things of whatever in my basket and soon I’m out, moving towards distant aisles, walking until I find a quiet spot in the deserted world foods section.
I’ve managed to bag a bottle of sherry, two alcopops, four cans of weak lager, one rosé wine, and a half-litre bottle of dessert wine.
And now I’ve walked the aisle from end to end several times and there’s no sign of anything remotely close to methylated spirits or firestarter fuel, no sign of anything flammable. I walk back to my trolley carrying a bag of toilet paper and kitchen rolls while I look around trying to identify the closest till. The closest one will have to do because I know for a fact that there won’t be a less busy one.
There’s a queue a few feet down. It’s ridiculously long and the shoppers are queueing by the purposely empty shelves. I grab my basket and my trolley, look in both directions and rush towards the queue. When I get there I rest the basket on top of the trolley and soon I’m not the last one any longer: a blonde young woman stops behind me. She looks blushed — perhaps she’s had a hard time looking for her own version of methylated spirits or firestarter fuel, or perhaps she’s like that. Then I recognise Kenzo for Men in the line leading to the other till — he’s red too. That’s when I clock that everyone is red and that I’m feeling quite hot. Just to confirm my discovery, a metallic voice announces that Sainsbury’s regrets to inform you that the air conditioning has stopped working but we would like to assure us that everything is being done to get it back on so that you have a great shopping experience, Merry Christmas! I take my jacket off and leave it hanging from my trolley. The others don’t do the same as they’re all carrying baskets. I feel a sense of solidarity and turn around.
“Do you want to rest your jacket here?” I ask the woman. She’s wearing headphones, the white cables popping out of her ears and disappearing into her clothes.
“Do you want to rest your jacket here? It’s hot.”
“I’m fine, thanks,” she says and I feel stupid. I turn back to face the front of the queue. I feel a pat on my shoulder.
“You know… this is a basket only till,” she says, poker faced.
“Yes,” she says and points to a sign at the end of the aisle. It looks like a basket and has some letters that I can’t read from here.
“When I started queueing that sign wasn’t visible,” I say.
“Sure,” she says and puts the headphones back on and looks at her phone.
I focus again on the sign. I can’t really tell if it says it’s for baskets only, but I’m certain that the drawing is a basket. And everyone around me only carries baskets. She must be right but I’m also right — I didn’t see the sign when I joined the queue. She might have been here before, she must know the place. But I won’t get out of the queue now that the tills are already in sight. I’m sure that this sign isn’t valid on a day like today. She taps me on the back again.
“I think you should go to the other tills. You’ll queue all the way to the front and then they’ll send you somewhere else.”
“Thanks for your concern,” I say.
“It’s unfair,” she says.
“I might have fewer things than you anyway!” I say, looking at her basket, overflowing with sweets and Nurofen, and all sorts of little things in small plastic bags.
“That’s not the point,” she says. “I’ve got a basket. This queue is for baskets only,” she says.
“I’m not going anywhere,” I say but I can’t be sure if she hears me or not because once more she’s wearing her headphones and staring at the light in the palm of her hand.
By now the other people in the queue are aware of our conversation. I can feel their red faces staring in my direction. It’s tense and I should go but I won’t. I’ll queue all the way up to the tills and if I have to go somewhere else afterwards, I’ll go. Another tap on my shoulder and I turn around with hatred bursting through my eyes.
“Hi,” says Virginia, with her Santa beard pulled under her chin.
“Oh, hi!” I say.
“Did you have any luck with what was it?
“Methylated spirits or firestarter fuel?”
“No luck,” I say.
“Well, try the hardware shop.”
“I’ll do that.”
“Would you like a bonbon?”
“Sure,” I say. “Thanks a lot!”
“My pleasure.” She passes me a bonbon and I put it in my pocket, where I put the other one earlier.
“Can I ask you something, Virginia?”
“Sure,” she says and smiles.
“I’ve just realised that I’m in the wrong queue. Apparently this one is for baskets only.” Virginia looks at the end of the line. “I couldn’t see the sign when I started queueing. It was too far away,” I say.
“Oh!” she says.
“It’s not my fault,” I say.
“It’s not your fault,” she agrees.
“Because the lady here is adamant that I’m in the wrong queue,” I say and nod towards the woman, who pretends she’s not listening.
“Where did you start queueing?” asks Virginia.
“Over there,” I point. “At the very end of this aisle, by the toilet paper.”
Virginia walks to end of the line, when she gets there she points to an imaginary space with both her index fingers. I give her a thumbs up. She looks in the sign’s direction. Then comes back to my spot.
“It’s true. There’s no angle,” she says. “Stay in this queue. I’ll tell the cashier.”
“You’re amazing! Thanks a lot Virginia.”
“You’re welcome,” she says.
“Great,” I say.
“Would you like another bonbon?”
“Sure. Thanks,” I say.
“There you go. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Virginia.”
“Great. I need to get going,” she says.
“Right. Thanks for your help.”
“I’ll tell the cashier now to let you go through.”
“Thanks. Zebra pattern — unmissable.”
“True,” she says and chuckles. “Bye!”
“Bye, Virginia…” She walks away. I watch her disappear towards the tills. I turn around to face the woman behind me.
“Did you hear what she said?” She takes her headphones off.
“Yes. Did you hear that? She said I can stay in this queue.”
“Sorry. I wasn’t listening.”
“I think you were listening.”
“Whatever,” she says. I don’t answer back.
The guy before has laid several bags of peanuts on the belt, more than ten, we would like to assure you that we are doing everything we can to fix the air conditioning, merry Christmas! Peanuts, only peanuts. The belt moves a few millimetres forward. I start unloading my shopping in the free space, a couple of bottles that I lay horizontally. When the belt moves again the bottles rattle. He turns back to look at them. I continue pulling things from my trolley. He seems irritated — he looks at my dessert wine and my alcopops with anxiety. Suddenly he moves forward and gets a plastic divider and shoves it in between my bottles and his peanuts. Then he looks at me. I don’t look back at him and just continue to unload. The belt continues to move and I slowly finish emptying my trolley. A couple of minutes pass in which the belt doesn’t move. Then it moves just a little bit and then it stops again. I hear huffing and I raise my head. The guy is tapping his feet on the ground, the woman before him has stopped bagging her items. The cashier is looking around with a concerned expression. There are some blue lights flashing on top of the till.
“The till system is down. It’ll only be a couple of minutes. Apologies for any inconvenience caused!” she says. The guy huffs and I huff too and the woman at the front huffs too and the woman behind me huffs as well. The cashier stands up from her seat and looks around. She waves her hands in the air towards the end of the checkouts. “Sorry!” she says to the old lady and sinks back into her seat. I get my phone out and check the time: it’s late, the hardware shop must have closed already. What will happen if the system can’t be fixed? There’s no way I’ll go back to the end of the queue. I’ll probably just walk away with an empty trolley. I put back my phone in my pocket and get my hand dirty with the melted chocolate, from the three bonbons, now an amorphous mass. I get the blob out of my pocket and throw it on the floor: it explodes into a brown stain.
Time does what time does and nothing really changes but the fact that we are two minutes older. The lights keep flashing and the cashier keeps moving her head in every direction. I feel sorry for her because it looks as if her head could become unscrewed from her neck. She seems pretty much near meltdown and I wouldn’t be surprised if she started crying and walked out of her job, thank you for shopping at Sainsbury’s, merry Christmas! But I can’t help huffing in unison with everybody else. And to make matters worse I can feel Peanut Man inspecting my things, again. He won’t stop glaring over my products. At first I thought it was paranoia, the unfounded suspicion that I might want to get him to pay for my things, but now I realise his is simply the lowest and mundanest form of resentment. I can feel his eyes going over my stuff. Stopping at the olive oil. Jumping to my Dijon mustard. Moving towards the washing up tablets. Coming back to the alcopops. The olives. The grisini. Chicken. Salmon. Organic quinoa. Perhaps he’s mentally calculating my bill. Perhaps he sees me as the paroxysm of the Metropolitan Elite. God knows what he’s thinking but I can tell he hates me. Suddenly the lights stop flashing.
A red chubby guy in a Santa costume is standing next to our cashier now. He’s touching the screen. Our cashier seems more relaxed. He gets a set of keys from somewhere below his huge Santa belly and inserts them next to the printer. A loud noise and the belt advances a couple of centimetres. I feel like cheering — everyone must but nobody does.
“Thanks Barney,” says the cashier. Thanks Barney.
“You’re welcome,” says Barney and he walks away, in his Santa outfit, a hero without a cape.
The cashier goes back to her normal position, the products fly from her hands to the ramp and from the ramp to the polyethylene bags and the belt moves and the system is functional again and I pull my basket from the depths below the till, and I gradually empty it, oblivious to Peanut Man, and soon the old lady pays and leaves. Charging ten bags of peanuts mustn’t be that hard as I’m soon facing the cashier.
“Hi. Merry Christmas. Thanks for waiting and apologies for the delay,” she says.
“Merry Christmas. Don’t worry. I’ve got a trolley,” I say. “It’s that OK? Virginia, said it was OK.” She gets up slightly from her seat and checks my trolley out.
“Oh, it’s you,” she says and smiles. “Yes, it’s fine! Don’t worry. She said the sign wasn’t visible from the start of the queue, right?”
“Exactly. Thanks a lot,” I say and I turn around to face the woman behind me: she’s gone.
“No problem,” says the cashier and starts moving my shopping over the laser. “Do you need any bags?”
“Just one or two,” I say.
“Sure,” she says. “Nice trolley.”
“Thanks!” I say.
She seems quite happy. She must be heat-struck in that costume but she’s happy.
Wine. Chicken. Mustard, Dijon. Tuna. Olives. Organic quinoa. From her hands to the ramp into the trolley. Heavies always go at the bottom; lights on top. Eggs will be waiting for a while, to go on top of everything else. Toilet paper and kitchen rolls in bags, hanging from the side, rattling noiselessly all the way home. And so on and everything must end and I’m finishing my packing. Before putting away the Italian antipasto selection I fan my face with it.
“It’s so hot in here,” I say.
“Terribly hot,” she says. Have you got Nectar card?” she asks, smiling.
“Nope. Sorry.” I always say sorry.
“It’s two-hundred—eighty-four fifty-eight,” she says and I shove my Visa Debit in the card reader. “Thanks for shopping at Sainsbury’s, have a merry Christmas,” she says, scratching her Santa beard.
“Merry Christmas,” I say. And then I walk out into the cold night.
Today, we finally reached the much anticipated San Luis valley. For weeks we’ve been watching the footage on YouTube of the UFO, as Jake sees it, or just the weird lights in the sky, as I keep telling him. You have to admit, Jake says, it’s freaky. I agree, it’s abnormal. Jake is more convinced because the valley is the number one place in the whole country, maybe even the world, for UFO sightings and abductions. It’s not a coincidence, he says, there’s hardly anyone here who hasn’t seen a UFO or had some sort of ‘contact.’ Jake tells me that according to the experts on the ‘forum’ it has something to do with lots of fresh water wells in the valley, but I don’t see what fresh water wells have to do with UFOs or why aliens from other worlds would care so much either way. They’ve got spaceships, right?
We stop for the night at a Motel 6 near the interstate, a few miles out of Alamosa. I have a shower and when I come out, Jake’s on his mobile. He’s standing in the car park, phone jammed to the side of his head. I stand in the doorway with a towel wrapped around myself and watch him walk and talk. He’s too far for me to make out any words clearly and what I can hear is constantly drowned out by trucks on the Interstate, but he seems animated, striding this way then back again, making gestures as he speaks. He realizes I’m watching him and ends the call. Who was that? I ask. No-one, he says. Then, I phoned the credit card company. His expression darkens. You know I hate that. Show me the number, I say. I’m not showing you the number, he says. I know he’s lying. He called Caitlin. I can tell by his face, by the sort of glassy expression he assumes when he’s on the defensive, the way his little eyes won’t settle on anything, least of all me. I know I’m right, but decide not to push the issue. It’s like my therapist tells me: take a deep breath then stop, think and take your time.
We go to a drive thru Taco Bell and return to the motel. Jake wants to watch the footage again. We sit in front of the lap-top. The two minute clip has now had over a million YouTube hits. I’ve seen it so many times, I know everything that happens: first, nothing, just the night, the dark smear of the road and the low houses. A single porch light above a front door. Then, after a bit, a glow in the sky; at first it’s quite faint, like a slightly brighter than normal star and for a while it’s like this and then, suddenly, it gets much, much brighter, almost like a flare, but it’s too focused, too fast. Do you see that, says Jake. Yes, I see it. The light splits into four smaller lights and these lights then hover, yes, that’s right, they hover in the black sky for ten seconds or so and then slowly descend to the ground, or rather disappear, one apparently landing some distance behind the nearest house, the others moving from view. It’s very hard to tell exactly what is or is not happening. On the footage, silent up to this point, we hear a man exclaim, “Sweet Jesus!” A woman starts to answer him but then it ends. Jake winds it back to the moment when the single light explodes into four and pauses the footage. Would you look at that, he says again. The light is very bright, the footage grainy. I lick sauce from my fingers. It’s often this way.
When Jake is finally asleep, I check his phone. He’s deleted all recent calls. I’m sure there is a way around, a better way, but it’s late and I can’t think.
The next day…
The old guy says this is where the UFO landed. He’s Mexican or something like that and has a red baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, which are narrow and squinty in the sun. We’re in a field behind a house on the outskirts of town. Jake’s convinced it’s the house we saw on the footage, but I’m not so sure. The house is part of a recent development of ‘Ranch Houses’ built around dead end streets. Most are unsold, some unfinished, just the foundations sticking out of the earth. Construction company went bust, I imagine, same as everywhere. I wonder if Jake would like to live here. For a minute I think he would but then no, I guess he probably wouldn’t. He gets restless. That’s why he moved to California from Oklahoma City. That and the tornados. One pulled the roof off the condo where he used to live. He said he hid under the bed as it happened and that he was fortunate, because he lived on the ground floor. I laugh and say he swapped tornados for earthquakes. We used to talk about this stuff. I said I’d take a tornado any day but he said, wait until one destroys your home. That’s why I met him the first place, because he kept coming to the coffee shop, because he had to do something, had to go somewhere. He had just lost his home. He says he’s more settled now, but he isn’t settled.
The old man takes us into the scrubland behind the development. It’s tough, the country out here, empty wastes of silvery grass and dusty grey soil and in the distance, hanging in the sky like clouds, hazy mountains with snowy tops. The air is crisp, but the sun feels hot. It was over there, says the man. They kill our cattle. He spits on the ground. His face is worn and brown like a pair of old shoes. They suck all the blood out the cattle, he continues, with gestures, and they leave the bodies behind, just skin, just like a peeled banana. He makes a peeling motion. I worry about how much Jake is going to pay him, if this is the right thing to do. I think not. The guy could be telling us any old crap. Here? says Jake. Look at the ground, says the old man, can’t you see it? Jake gets out his camera. His pride and joy, he says. If there was a fire… he says. All I can see are tyre tracks, I tell him, dusty tyre tracks. The old man says something about scorch marks but I’m tired of this. Jake points the camera at the ground and starts photographing the dirt. I want to be sitting down, drinking an ice cold coke.
You might think, listening to all this, that I don’t believe. But no.
I grew up on a smallholding north of Eureka. When I was sixteen I saw a light coming from behind the barn. I can’t remember where Dad was, gone on one of his binges probably. Mom was watching TV, I imagine. I could see the light from my room and it spread until it seemed to fill the world – an endless, emerald green light. I remember that I couldn’t move. I was caught in the tractor beam. They told me I was in their spaceship and that I shouldn’t be afraid. Their voices sounded a bit like wind-chimes, but I could understand the meaning of what they were saying quite clearly. I think they had an English accent. At least, it reminded me of one of those old actors I used to see on TV. They told me not to be frightened. It’s hard to say just what they looked like. Everything was vibrating. I’m not sure if I want to say what they did to me.
It’s not that I don’t believe. Oh no. I believe.
The next day
Why did you call Caitlin? For some reason, I decide breakfast is a good time to bring this up. Jake is pouring maple syrup over his pancakes. He stops what he’s doing and gives me his glassy look. As if I’m here and not here. Just leave it Meg, he says. He only calls me Meg when he’s serious. I love you Meg, he’s most likely to say in a moment. You weren’t calling the bank. The credit card company, he interrupts, I was calling American Express. You could at least tell me the truth, I snap back. You could at least tell me if you’re calling her instead of lying to me. What kind of man are you? You could tell me the truth, I wouldn’t mind. I know what I’m saying isn’t true. I would mind. I mind like hell. I have that hot metal taste in my mouth. I hope I’m not going to get a migraine.
You haven’t eaten any breakfast, he says, gesturing at my ham and eggs with his fork. I’m not hungry, I say. I think I’ve got a lead on the people who took the footage, he says. I don’t respond. The waitress brings us a coffee refill. We’re looking in the wrong place, he says a bit later. I put on my sunglasses and stare out the window. I can see the Taco Bell and a Subway. The parking lot is mostly empty apart from a couple of Mexican guys standing around near the bins, waiting for something. Trucks keep hurtling by on the Interstate and the air is full of faint grey dust. The sky is such an intense blue, even with my glasses on, it hurts my eyes. We’re closer to the heavens, out here. The sky isn’t so far away.
Jake has been corresponding with other UFO fanatics or “ufologists” as they like to call themselves and is following a couple of leads. The leads have sent us out to this tiny town – really just a cluster of clapboard shacks, a few remote farms and a gas station strung out along the highway. The landscape is flat and dusty and the sky is so clear and empty, it’s almost abstract, like the idea of ‘blue’ before blue was invented. Out there, past the fields, there’s a national park with sand dunes that stretch hundreds of feet high. I tell Jake that we’re wasting our time. We won’t find anything, we won’t see anything, but Jake ignores me and tries to wipe dust from the camera lens.
When we get signal, his phone starts to buzz with in-coming texts. I’m sure some of them are from Caitlin. The migraine I hoped wouldn’t come comes: a wobbly haze clouding around the edges of my vision and a feeling like fingers boring into either side of my skull. I remember the green light, the way I couldn’t move.
Apparently some Mexicans took away a bit of the UFO, Jake tells me. He’s all excited. They thought it was a fragments of a satellite or something like that and want to sell the scrap metal. Uh-huh, I say. I guess this is what the “ufologists” on the forum have been saying. Ninety-nine per cent of the forum is bullshit.
We drive around some more. I have to close my eyes to get rid of the floaters. The migraine intensifies. My vision gets as foggy as a steamy car window.
Jake stops to speak to a couple of guys selling peaches from the back of a pick-up. Estamos buscando las luces en el, um, in el cielo? They shake their heads and exchange a look that says, is this dude crazy or what? Jake’s phone vibrates – someone is calling him – but he kills the call. Who was that? I want to know. Someone I didn’t want to speak to. He makes a big deal of turning the car round, pulling the wheel, aggressively yanking the stick back and forth. We drive the way we came, his phone between his legs. Let me see the number, I say. Give me a break, he says. It’s Caitlin isn’t it? Tell me. He gives a slight nod with his head and grinds his teeth. Why is she calling? I don’t know Meg. Sometimes she calls. What am I meant to do? I don’t answer that. It’s hard to argue with the migraine invading my head. Can we go back to the motel? I say. I need to lie down. I don’t speak all the way back, just slump in my seat like a dead person and leave it up to Jake to worry about how upset I am. He feels guilty, I can tell. He puts a hand on my knee to try and make me feel better. With a sigh, I swat him away.
I close the blinds and lie on the bed, arm over my eyes. What do you want me to do? says Jake. Just go away. I can sense him, hanging around, like a dog that feels guilty after plundering the garbage. He’s waiting for me to give him a sign that I’m not angry about Caitlin calling, but I am angry. He can suffer. I lie on the bed. He checks his email and says he’s been sent the name and address of another farmer whose cattle keep being killed under mysterious circumstances. He tries to show me a couple of pictures, but I tell him the screen is too bright, it’s playing havoc with my floaters. Jakes says he’s going to check it out but he hangs around some more. I know he’s waiting for me to give him a smile and say something like, I love you, but I don’t. I’m not doing that. Shouldn’t you be going? I ask. Finally, I’m left alone. I wait until I hear Jake drive off and then I get up and drink several glasses of water. My migraine has almost entirely disappeared. Take a deep breath and think.
I open Jake’s laptop and resume trying to crack the access password. I’ve been trying for a few weeks now. One way or another, I’ll get to the bottom of it. I try the name of his first pet (which I only recently got him to reveal to me). No. His high school. No. His favourite band. No. His mother’s maiden name. No. His mother’s name. No. UFO. No (I’ve tried that before, I admit). ET. No. Star Trek. No. Star Wars. No. Jedi. No. Aliens (I must have tried that before). No. I stop a moment.
After they’d finished with me, the aliens, they left me in a field a couple of miles from home. I remember waking up wet with a sore head like I’d drank a whole bottle of JD and a sharp pain between my legs, dried blood down there and crusted over my thighs. Thirty six hours had passed and my Mom had reported me missing to Sherriff Cooper. For days afterwards it hurt when I peed and my period was over a month late. When it came it was so heavy and painful that I sometimes wonder, thinking back, if I was having a miscarriage. Maybe they gave me a half-human, half-alien baby? I was so young then. There were these odd burn marks on my clothes and a strange red circle, like a tattoo but not, at the top of my left arm. It’s about the size of a dime. When I first showed it to Jake he got really excited. Apparently, a lot of abductees have it. We’ve been ‘branded’ like cattle, he says. A DNA harvest. Well.
Then it comes to me. Area 51. I’m in! Laptop unlocked. The thing is I’ve long suspected Jake has secret email conversations with Caitlin. They’re corresponding all the time, I’m sure of it. He’s probably calling her right now, with me out the way. I’ve also thought he must have pictures of her, photos stashed on the laptop, or somewhere. I told him he had to delete them all. He said he did, but I know he didn’t.
The password for his Gmail is different. Think Meg, think. I take a deep breath. What would my therapist do? I type Caitlin. No joy. I try a couple more, but still nothing. I guess cracking one code is good enough for today. Instead, I start to search his laptop for pictures of her or of them, together. I’ll get to the bottom of this. I don’t feel bad doing what I’m doing. Not at all. Already I think through what I’ll say to Dr Adams, how I’ll explain to her the way I was feeling and why I did this. There’s a lot of shit on his machine and it takes a while. I look up and realise the light has changed. An amazing, beautiful pink sunset bathes the room in a gentle, rosy glow. I take a moment to look outside. A couple of pick-up trucks and an SUV are parked near the motel entrance and I can see a few guys standing around, talking to each other. Several keep pointing to the back of one of the pick-ups. My phone buzzes. A message from Jake. You won’t believe this, it says. A picture message arrives. A photo of a dead cow. The bottom half of the cow is just bones. Another text. Something melted half a cow! U see? Weird, I guess. I decide not to reply. I’m clicking through Jake’s photo albums. I’m on one entitled ‘Sightings 3.’ It mostly consists of pictures he’s taken of suspicious lights in the sky. Most of the pictures don’t show anything. A few interesting clouds, that’s all. Jake’s never seen shit. I can hear the men outside, arguing in Spanish, but I pay them little mind. I keep clicking. Blue sky; blue sky; moon; vapour trail; stars; nothing at all; nothing; more stars; sunlight through clouds; Caitlin.
I knew it. I fucking knew it.
She’s wearing a white vest top that shows off her breasts and she’s smiling. Her arms are skinny and tanned. She’s so much prettier than I am, it’s no wonder Jake is sometimes disgusted by me. Click. In the next picture, she’s taken off her vest top. She’s not wearing a bra and her breasts are bigger than mine; firm, round and paler than the rest of her with nipples like milk chocolate discs. My face feels like it’s on fire. In the next picture she’s squeezing her tits together to make them look even larger and she’s sticking her tongue out as if to say ‘I’m a dirty little bitch.’ In the following snap she’s lying back in the bed, one hand pushing her white g-string aside to give a glimpse of the pink between her legs. In the one after that she’s got something in her mouth – the angle is odd and the quality is not great – but I realise it must be Jake’s stinky, dirty cock. My face is burning but I keep going through, all the way to the end, when Caitlin has a big smile and she’s holding Jake’s dripping cock, trails of cum all over her tits and lips.
I close the file and slam shut the laptop. Well, I think. Well I never. I knew this to be the case. I knew it. Being right gives me a sharp burn of satisfaction. There will be hell to pay for this, I think. Hell to pay. I wonder if I should keep quiet or confront Jake directly, the moment he comes back to find his lap-top open, a photo of his cum-smeared lover smiling back at him. Stop and breathe.
I decide to leave the room. Don’t think about Caitlin. Go outside. The air is surprisingly cool for June and I remember Jake saying how we’re nearly ten thousand feet up. That’s high. The men I saw earlier haven’t left. They’re still standing around the pick-ups and the SUV, having some sort of argument. They all stop, when I come out, and look at me in the way men do. I don’t really care. One of them, a boy who I guess must be about twelve or thirteen, starts to wave at me. Senora, senora, he shouts, come, look! He’s pointing to something in the back of the pick-up. Look, come. It’s probably just a Mexican scam, I think, but I go over anyway. The men stop and watch. Look, see, says the boy. He has a runny nose and a gap between his middle teeth. Look, senora, you won’t believe it! There is something covered in a dirty blanket in the back of the pick-up and dusty smears of what looks like oil over the sides. I get a whiff of rotten eggs, the bad smell lingering and small flies crawling across the warm metal hulk of the truck. I flinch and try to wave them away. Extranjeros, says one of the men in a thick accent. Hombre del espacio. One of the men climbs into the back of the pick-up. His clothes also smeared with black oil. He grins at me. You want to look? You want to see? He pulls away the blanket. Underneath is a black, twisted body about the size of a ten year old, but it’s all burnt-up, the gender lost, weird and warped like a charcoal sculpture of a little man. You see? They’re all shouting things at me, in Spanish and English. No photo, says the boy. Then, you want it, you take? Ten thousand dollars! I don’t have any money, I tell him. I look at the body again, if that’s what it is, because it looks more like an assemblage of burnt sticks pulled from a fire. The smell is horrible and I brush flies from my face. The men keep shouting.
After a while I go back to the motel. Eventually, I hear the Mexicans leave. I don’t know where they’re going. I lie on the bed and wait for Jake to come back.
o o o
is the author of ‘Lost Boys’ and ‘Sunshine State’. His new book, a collection of interlinked short stories called ‘UnAmerican Activities‘ is available now, published by Dodo Ink.
I am often surprised by the way in which life pushes a person forward. Sometimes it happens so naturally that it almost feels like a passive experience, were it not for the excitement and enjoyment of living it, being part of it with others.
I picked up my first copy of Open Pen from News from Nowhere in Liverpool. Something in me made me email the magazine. I reckoned that I’d like to help out. It was right to see a group of people whose sole aim it is to publish others, though not in any way that could be deemed charity. I couldn’t say I was much help at first, though it did feel good to assist in my own small way. I contacted the odd bookshop, emailed the odd person who had submitted, read the odd story. Over time I have tried to increase my involvement as much as I can, and feel a great joy in seeing the words on paper. It was an abstract thing to do back then, as I didn’t know who was on the receiving end of all of this. I suppose that it will always feel this way with the readership, but to be unsure of whose endeavours I was aiding unnerved me. Perhaps this is apt, given the disconnect of the connected world.
It was over a year of my time helping out with the magazine before I ever met anyone involved with it, Open Pen staying true to its London-based credentials, and me staying true to whatever it was I thought I was staying true to by not liking London. It was unusual then that I moved down as soon as the offer was made by a friend, just a few weeks before the launch of The Open Pen Anthology. As it turns out, I did like the place. ‘Like’ isn’t the right word for a city so all-encompassing. Nor is it the right word for those in Open Pen’s sentiments towards writing, seeing how they revel in the processes of literature, enabling and witnessing the ambitions of many writers to be gratified.
I came to the book launch early to help prepare for the event, unable to put a face to a name. I sat down on my own and began reading a Michel Houellebecq novel. I looked around often to see who the chief architect of this whole thing was. I immediately knew Sean Preston when I saw him arranging some books and magazines on a cloth table with a consideration that only someone who cares has. ‘To love without being loved’, as Henry Miller said, ‘is the most difficult thing’. Though it is exactly this which begins the forward movement of art. Were these books and magazines several years older I could imagine Sean wearing white cotton gloves. Although perhaps not, considering the word ‘rag’ that he is so keen on using when talking about his project. We said hello to each other and began discussing our agreements towards Houellebecq with some guilt. We moved on with the night. Before long the readers and those giving the readings arrived. The bar contained more people than it was capable of filling. Sean introduced me to some writers and we drank.
Then the stories began. I could see that Open Pen was being loved.
Later we got drunk and went back to Sean’s. We talked about books and politics and people as though they were questions that could be answered. We’re still trying to answer them, with no conclusion in sight.
o o o
is an Open Penner and writer/editor/reader. He has been poisoning the Open Pen editors for several years now and soon this empire of free fiction will be his and his alone.
404 Ink is a Scottish, independent publisher, and Nasty Women is a 2017 collection of essays that aims to describe “what it is to be a woman in the 21st century”. The pieces included evoke all elements of the female experience and the ways in which female identities coexist with other identities that may be considered non-cis-patriarchal-hetero-white normative. There are essays on what it means to be a woman and Muslim, a woman and working class, a woman and a punk, a woman and a witch, a trans woman, a woman and depressed, a woman and gay, a woman and black, a woman and not able-bodied, a woman and pregnant, a woman who doesn’t want children, and several other topics. Although the essays vary in their style, tone and form, they all have one thing in common, this link, this cohesive (almost accidental) sense of community: that of shared womanhood.
To be honest, there’s probably not much more I can write about Nasty Women that will convince you to buy it other than the above description. This is a link to the website where it can be purchased. If you want to engage with a plethora of female voices raised in unison to describe their experiences and the joys and pains of womanhood, then I promise you will love this. I loved it, it’s great. If that doesn’t sound like the kind of book you want to read, you’ve probably clicked this link expecting Nasty Women to be either the title of a cod Martin Amis-type collection of short stories, or perhaps some picaresque fun, a book to Fernando Sdrigotti’s Dysfunctional Males (La Casita Grande, 2017) what Slaves of New York was to Bright Lights, Big City. But no, as I was desperate to scream in response to all the disapproving looks I got while reading this on public transport, that is not what Nasty Women is. This is a serious, unsentimental, intelligent collection of essays on a very significant subject. I think you should read it, especially if you don’t want to. Because it is anyone who doesn’t want to that probably most needs to.
The highlights – for me (as a class-anxious individual with mental health problems lololol) – were a stunning essay on being working class in a middle class industry from Laura Waddell, and an unexpectedly compelling piece about Courtney Love and depression from Becca Inglis. However, to be honest, I feel a bit uncomfortable singling out any particular writers, as the reason why Nasty Women is so potent is the fact of its polyphony (¡¡¡WEEEAAAAAEEEEE FANCY WORD ALARM!!!).
Nasty Women is a rallying cry, a call to arms, an assertion of existence and a firm, uncontested statement of intent and existence. Women exist, women’s voices matter, and their lives and their experiences should be shared.
Nasty Women came about in the wake of America’s shameful election of – for want of a better phrase – the dickhead’s dickhead, Donald Trump, as president last year. Conceived, edited and published with a very fast turnaround, the team at 404 Ink managed to get a cover quote from Margaret Atwood, and justifiably so. The writing in here is energetic and diverse, impassioned and personal, angry and sad, optimistic, mournful and urgent. There is a multiplicity of tone that is refreshing in an essay collection, and although there is perhaps a skewed percentile of punks, Nasty Women contains voices and statements and fears from women of many origins, in terms of class, education, race, nationality and religion.
Gender politics as they exist in the world force these women together. This seemingly detached group of individuals becomes a community because of this uniting idea of gender. Many of the problems women face are near-identical the world, but they are exposed and explored and facilitated in different ways. Pregnancy and giving birth*, conflicting ideas of body image and behaviour, male violence and sexual harassment are all fears common to women internationally.**
The Right Now is a charged time to be reading about – and engaging with – ideas revolving around gender (I saw a fascinating show over the weekend about gender, sexuality and race, called Sexy, look it up, I think it’s touring, I’m too repressed to type the word “sexy” into google, though, so you will have to do that yourself), and I believe that 404 Ink have produced a valuable document here, evidencing what it is that is shared and what it is that differs in female experience across the planet. It’s a significant, important, read. It’s evocative and often painful to engage with, especially as a man, but it is true and it is honest and it is real. Buy it. Here’s that link again – and do buy it direct from the publisher because THEY GET MORE MONEY THAT WAY.
Now, I’m going to do what I do most of the time in these “reviews” and break it down into something more personal, something more emotive. The book review is over, if you only want my opinions on Nasty Women, stop reading at the end of this paragraph. Nasty Women is great. I’ve recommended it to many friends irl and will continue to do so, I’ve even lent my copy to a friend, though as I believe in encouraging independent publishing maybe that was the wrong thing to do? That’s a different debate. Go on, stop reading, the rest is ALL ABOUT ME.
I DELETED IT.
I wrote 1500 words here, all about how too many men are both reviewed and reviewing, then got sidetracked into a discussion about Knausgaard vs Ferrante and I essentially did the most “Guy in your MFA” writing of my life (post creative writing degree). I’ve deleted it because it was an example of what it in itself was critiquing, male words overshadowing women’s.
Open Pen, yes, probably should have got a woman in to review this. But it is valuable for men to read Nasty Women, to empathise with and understand better the lives of more than the women they meet in their day to day lives. It is not good enough for men to only consider the thoughts and feelings of women who they are related to, fucking or friends with, but it is essential than a common humanity is understood between all of us, globally. It is important, too, that non-white male voices are represented in literature, but even more so that white men don’t shout over these voices when they do appear, like this bloody bastard was about to do. (And even now still has done for a bit.)
Nasty Women is an important, moving, collection. Highly recommended.
* Except for trans women. This is a contentious issue, I know. I want to be good, I want to offend the least amount of people, but I’ve also noticed that the people being most vocally abused for not being pro-trans enough are all women, and that makes me uncomfortable.
**Whenever I write about gender for Huff Post Man UK Edition (yes, it’s niche, it’s unpaid, but it’s exposure innit) I always get men in the comments saying, “but men get sexually harassed too”, yeah, and maybe some do, but most of the time it’s other men doing it and it’s not a global fucking epidemic, so men should just shut the fuck up and listen rather than shout. (He writes in a discursive, autobiographical, footnote of a review of a feminist book.)
o o o
Scott Manley Hadley
was shortlisted for Best Reviewer at the Saboteur Awards 2017. He blogs at TriumpoftheNow.com
I don’t believe in ghosts. Unless I’m talking to someone who says they’ve seen one, or thought they saw one, or knows someone who thought they saw one – and then I one hundred per cent do.
It’s the same with writing. I know it’s all about technique and, ultimately, trickery. Language. Structure. Editing. More editing. I’ve read the billion “advice for writers” articles, done courses, exchanged work with other writers for feedback. But if I read an incredible story online or in one of the many fantastic lit magazines out there, I’m like, holy shit. It’s haunted.
I do think it’s possible for a short story – fiction of any kind – to contain something supernatural. A ghost that’s crept into the machine. I’ve read things that just stick. Characters whose names and authors I can no longer remember, but who come back and whisper to me in the night about why they did what they did.
For me, that’s the thing. I want to be haunted by fiction. I want something more than the sum of its parts to have slipped inside. The whole reason I write is because I want to be able to do that for other people too. For my story to stick. To haunt them.
How is that actually done, though? I have no idea. Someone probably knows – or thinks they do. But it’s about as much of a mystery to me as whether it really was a ghost caught on camera in series whatever of Most Haunted, or just one of Yvette Fielding’s stray hairs.
I just write, rewrite, edit, tinker, over and over, and I hope for the best. Some people swear by having a special space – like a desk – which they can slink off to. With a toddler around I just write whenever and wherever I can. I did some of my better stuff in bed in the middle of the night when he was new and sleep deprivation had broken me. (Or it could be that my “inner critic” had just fucked off to bed).
I don’t think there’s a formula, and I’m glad of that. To be honest, even if there is one, I’d rather not know it. It means I can keep experimenting.
This is also what’s great about magazines like Open Pen. They proffer emerging writers the space to experiment. The good ones say bollocks to formula. They welcome in the misfits: characters whose stories aren’t often told. Most don’t care about writing credentials – at least I hope not – and to get in one actually provides the credentials.
Importantly, to be featured in a lit magazine like Open Pen can really boost your confidence. (I don’t know about you, but mine can always do with boosting). They give voice to the many Frankenstein’s monsters out there too: stories that are strange and beautiful in their unique ways – and haunting because of that.
As for ghosts? Honestly, I don’t care whether they exist. Not really. Likewise, I don’t mind if truly haunting stories simply come down to a case of smoke and mirrors, as long as I can still feel something because of them – both in the reading, and the writing.
won the Flash 500 competition with story ‘Carousel’. Right now she’s working on a children’s book (longlisted by Mslexia). She lives in Bristol.
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?
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.
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.
Tom: Gu on then.
Exit to beer garden.
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.
Ask 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.
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 Orphans, Gutter, 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.