open pen

GREASE GUN

By Harry Gallon

Stephanie stood in the workshop doorway, holding the padlock, sucking the key. Before she crossed the garden to the workshop she stood by the fireplace, looked out of the window and wondered what her youngest son was doing after school. Before she stood by the fireplace and looked out of the window she’d poured a glass of wine and then gone upstairs to her bedroom to get the workshop door key. Only she knew it was there, tucked under the old newspaper lining her drawer, weighed down by the vibrator wrapped in a sock that was no longer a pair.

Stephanie signed out of the psychiatric wing and walked slowly back up the hill, past oncology, past the bright yellow medical waste bins, past the new student accommodation that yesterday she’d read were beginning to slide down the hill, even though they’d only been built in the summer. Several undergrads were smoking cigarettes by the pub next to the outpatient clinic – a gray portacabin that’d been forgotten and left to rot.

Stephanie stood in the workshop doorway, breathing slowly, savouring the smell of the workshop air like you savour the smell of the sea. The workshop doorway was low because it was built into a larger set of double doors. The keys tastes like blood, thought Stephanie. She thought that every time she stood with one foot on the wood at the base of the door, one hand being caressed, as she half-entered the room, by cobwebs that were weighed down with dust. Stephanie breathed through her nose and looked at the grease gun.

The main hospital building was old. It looked more like a Victorian train station, thought Stephanie, as she followed the main road past the garden centre, the lawnmowers, the chain smoking paramedics and the wheezing security guard. It looked more like an old station for an abandoned railway line. At least the psychiatric wing was relatively new, not red brick and chip board, not hired-out portaloos, thought Stephanie, walking slowly. It was quicker to go through the cemetery. But it was also the second time her eldest son had been in the psychiatric wing, and she had the afternoon off.

A blob of black grease had been gradually leaking out of the end of the grease gun. Lava flow. Stephanie had noticed it a while ago, but hadn’t bothered to wipe it up. The blob had been leaking out for so long it’d become covered in dust and turned brown. All its moisture would eventually soak up and it’d turn hard. Then she could pick it off, roll it in her fingers, drop it in the pond to see if it floated. Stephanie tried to forget the pond. It needed work. And the rhododendron bush had nearly doubled in size over the summer. Stephanie could see her breath. She took a sip of wine, and entered the workshop.

It was quicker to walk through the cemetery. And nicer. The cemetery was full of wild flowers and long grass. It was dug into the hill, which was rich and loose, rolled over and over like tired sand dunes, caught the wind across the valley and teased the nostrils of mourners and commuting student doctors with the smell of the sea. It wasn’t fear which made Stephanie walk around it. Stephanie was used to graves by now. She was used to the walk to and from the car, which she always parked at the top of town, and the psychiatric wing. The gravestones are still comforting, thought Stephanie, though Luke had died years ago.

When she stepped through the low doorway into the workshop, her shoulder caught the bike chain that hung on the wall by the door. The thick bike chain. The grey bike chain. Like the blob of grease, it’d it was covered with dust, and Stephanie smiled when she saw that, as always, there was a faint, slightly sticky black smudge on her jumper. She touched the chain, gently at first, with just her fingertips. It didn’t move. Then she took the whole thing in her hand, and it moved a little. It was a heavy chain. A motorbike chain. There were several others like it, jammed with dust and hanging up from nails that her husband had hammered into wooden blocks on the workshop walls. When she let the chain go and opened her hand, the creases of her skin were black too, and she held her hand up to her nose.

Stephanie sat in the car with the door open and one foot on the ground. It hadn’t been a particularly good visit. It could never be a particularly good visit. Stephanie had walked through reception to sign in. They recognised her. She knew they had to recognise a lot of mothers, too, and she thanked an orderly who’d told her that her son was in the courtyard. Stephanie walked out through the big glass doors to the lawn, and sat with her son on the grass. The reception area had wooden panelling, and looked like an old community swimming pool, thought Stephanie. All it was missing was the shallow foot pool for containing verrucas and spreading athletes’ foot. Stephanie’s son was cross-legged in the grass, smoking a cigarette and pulling the heads of daisies. ‘Hello you,’ said Stephanie, and he smiled, but didn’t look up.

Stephanie held her hand up to her nose for 16 seconds. Then she took it away again. Then she held it up again, smelled the grease deeper, then had a sip of wine. She’d left the bottle in the kitchen. Her hand smelled like Luke. She swallowed more wine then steadied the chain, which had begun to swing. Stephanie turned and looked further into the workshop, towards the small wood burning stove. There was a chair there, next to an old pile of logs, dusty, like everything else in the workshop, and dry. I should burn those, thought Stephanie, longing for smoke.

Stephanie’s car was parked next to the entrance to the cemetery, which was a large metal gate painted black and a small brick gatehouse with a sign that said owned and maintained by the council. There was an old horse chestnut tree there too, halfway through shedding its leaves. Conkers lay squashed on the road, their shells getting less and less green. The leaves had been swept into piles and left on a patch of grass by the gatehouse. Their shapes were imprinted in tanned little patches on the concrete. The first time Stephanie’s eldest son had been in the hospital’s psychiatric wing, she wasn’t sure if being so close to the cemetery would be good for him. But Robert had been cremated too, though more conventionally than Luke. All that was left of her husband and brother-in-law were slightly discoloured shapes on the floor. Stephanie shook it off. She always shook it off, because it was never a good visit. Her son, like his Uncle Robert, had barely spoken at all.

The chair wasn’t covered in dust like everything else in the workshop. Stephanie walked over to it carefully, past the skeletons of unfinished motorcycles, past workbenches and hydraulic jacks and unopened packages addressed to Luke that contained air filters and exhaust pipes. She wanted to pick up the chair. It was one of those old church chairs. Wooden. The kind that line the nave, with room to hold a hymn book, in the unlikely event that the congregation grows so massively that there aren’t enough pews left to seat everyone. Stephanie always left the chair by the wood burning stove, where the kettle was. And she always picked it up, but not to move it. It was as though she wanted to weigh it, as if the older she got, the lighter the chair would feel.

Stephanie only smoked when she was stressed, which was often. She’d smelled the cigarette on her son as soon as she’d sat down with him on the grass. She kept a pack of Marlboro Lights in her handbag, would smoke them out in the garden, by the rhododendron bush, at night. Both her sons knew. While she sat in the car her mouth felt like an ashtray. First cigarette of the day. First nicotine high. As she indicated to pull away, a police car slowed down to let her out. That poor girl, Ruth, whose father had abused her, had come over and sat with them in the courtyard. Stephanie had brought her son a book. ‘What’s that?’ Ruth had asked. It was a collection of American short stories. Stephanie’s son looked vacant. Stephanie said, ‘I’m sure he’ll let you borrow it, Ruth.’ Oh, she remembered Ruth. Her son remembered, too. He turned to them and said, ‘Can you even read, Ruth?’ Fucking little shit, though Stephanie, as she coasted down the hill past the cemetery, one eye on the police car behind, unsure if the nicotine had made her over the limit to drive.

On a hook behind the wood burning stove hung some overalls. They were Luke’s overalls. Stephanie had tried so many times to wash them, but he’d always grabbed them out of the pile and hung them back up. The chair weighed the same, and Stephanie put it back down in exactly the same place. She reached over the stove and took the overalls off the hook. Then she sat on the chair and lay the overalls on her lap. She held the collar up to her face, smelled the worn-in sweat from the back of his neck, and unbuttoned her trousers.

Their cat, Rodney, had gone missing again. Ruth was sitting beside her son. She was sobbing. ‘I’ve been up and down the village,’ said Stephanie, trying to lighten the mood. ‘I’ve put up all the same posters again. Posted statuses on Facebook asking if anyone’s seen him, though no one’s replied yet.’

‘That’s good though,’ said Ruth.

Her son said, ‘I don’t know why you bother.’ He’d never liked that cat.

Stephanie shook her head. She was angry. She was always angry, at this point, driving down the hill from the psychiatric wing of the hospital. She wasn’t sure if it was the traffic on the one-way system in the centre of town, or if it was just how much her eldest son reminded her of Robert.

Luke had been her mechanic. That’s how they’d met. When they were young. When Robert, Luke’s younger brother, had been away, in his first year of university. Stephanie had been driving to work. She’d stopped at a red light, and when she started again there was a deep, loud voice, accompanied by a guttural scraping sound. It lasted for 30 yards before she stopped the car and a police officer who’d been passing knocked on her window. ‘Think your exhaust’s fallen off, love,’ said the police officer. ‘Sounds like a bloody tank.’ She gave Stephanie a piece of string to tie it up with, and Stephanie drove four miles to the nearest garage. There’d been sparks. At the garage, there was a young mechanic. There’d been sparks. Stephanie slid her hand into her knickers.

Robert hadn’t been in the psychiatric wing of a hospital. Robert hadn’t needed to talk to anyone. Not even after the crash. And it wasn’t that her eldest son looked like Robert. Why would he? He looked so much like Luke when he was born. Everyone said so. But Stephanie had never been able to shake the feeling that he was becoming more like his uncle. She felt it more after the visits. It’s probably just in your head, thought Stephanie. It’s not like he accidentally killed anyone, is it? She turned off the one-way system and pulled up outside the Co-op. She went inside to buy a bottle of chardonnay. The man queuing in front of her was reading a local newspaper. The headline said new halls fall: students in uproar. Stephanie began to laugh. She didn’t feel angry anymore. After Ruth had walked off, no longer crying, her son had tried, once again, to convince her to start dating. He’d taken her phone, while they sat on the grass, and started downloading a dating app. But there wasn’t enough storage space left. ‘Fuck sake,’ her son said. ‘You’ve got to delete some stuff, mum.’ When Stephanie walked back to the car, it had started to rain.

They’d bought their first house together after their eldest was born. Luke wanted somewhere that had enough space to build his own workshop. Somewhere close to the sea. The garden was a mess. The remains of an old panel fence decayed gracefully at the end, by an elder tree. The lawn was full of weeds and wire and pieces of plastic that had broken of old toys. The lining of the pond was cracked. There was a large rhododendron bush in the middle, which they’d tried digging up several times but which always seemed to grow back. It’d become a family ritual. They’d have a bonfire every year, or used to. Eventually, Luke built the workshop behind it, so that when it grew big in the summer, its branches almost covered one side of the large double doors from where he’d wheel out the motorbikes to test them. Luke hadn’t got round to painting the inside of the workshop. He wanted to work inside it instead. The day it was ready, Stephanie had been gardening. She popped the cheap bottle of Prosecco she’d bought at the Co-op on the way back from work. Their first son was lying in his pushchair in the garden. Stephanie said, ‘I’m proud of you,’ to Luke, who put down his glass and kissed her. He put his greasy hands on her shoulders, her neck, her cheeks, and they conceived another child against the wall.

Stephanie laughed on the drive back home. She didn’t really know why she was laughing. It wasn’t the dating app thing. She wasn’t laughing at her son’s situation, or how much she just fucking hated him sometimes, or how much more she hated not being able to help him. The first time it’d happened he’d disappeared for three days. None of his friends knew where he’d gone. The police found him on the edge of a reservoir. The second time her youngest son had been with him, at home. Something had happened. Some episode. Her youngest had called the ambulance. Stephanie had been working a late shift, and spent the night in the hospital, talking, again, with specialists. She came home to find her youngest son clearing up the glass from a window that’d been broken. ‘He just went mental, mum.’ There was blood on the floor. Muddy footprints. A spade by the back door and a square of almost perfectly replaced turf at the base of the rhododendron bush. Stephanie sighed. Her youngest son didn’t tell her about the cat.

She moved her hand slowly, wanting it to last. She held the overalls more firmly against her nose, and breathed in. She breathed in hard, savouring the smell of old sweat, the damp of the grease which the cold of the workshop would never truly allow to set. It felt heavy. She wanted to taste him. The overalls kept her pinned to the chair. She curled her toes then stretched her legs out as far as they would go. She held the collar more firmly against her nose and mouth until they choked her.

It had begun to rain quite heavily. Stephanie had always been a cautious driver, especially since the crash. And it had been such a violent crash. There hadn’t been any ashes to scatter. What’d been left of Luke after the car had stopped rolling had been incinerated in the passenger seat, while Robert lay unconscious and broken at the side of the road. She didn’t blame him. How could she now, anyway? After what then happened, he was clearly just as much of a victim. Stephanie took the country roads carefully, avoiding large piles of leaves in case they were hiding potholes, pressing the horn for three seconds when she went round sharp bends, flashing her lights. The sky had become a disorienting pink, the air thick and cloying, as though, when she finally pulled into the driveway, stopped and opened the door, she was constantly in the presence of a dead body. Stephanie stepped over the junk mail behind the front door. She took off her scarf, put the wine on the kitchen table next to the glass jar of dried lavender, then removed her coat. The basket under the stairs where Rodney occasionally slept was still empty, but at least the window to the garden had been replaced.

Stephanie breathed heavily. She sat, slouched, in the wooden chair by the wood burning stove in the workshop. Her eyes were closed. When she opened them she saw that it was getting dark outside. Her breath had slightly misted the windows. She refastened her trousers, stood, and hung the overalls on the hook on the wall. She walked over to the workbench and touched the dusty blob of grease. Still wet, she thought, and smiled. Just then a light went on in the kitchen window. Stephanie saw her youngest son leave his school bag on the side then fill up the kettle. Stephanie finished her glass of wine, put the glass back down then picked up a gardening fork. When she stepped back through the workshop doorway her youngest son was standing at the other end of the garden. ‘Mum, what are you doing?’ he said.

‘Just thought I’d have another crack at that rhododendron bush,’ said Stephanie. She looked at the bush. It was smaller than she remembered. ‘Looks like someone’s already had a go.’

Her youngest son coughed. ‘Bit dark for that,’ he said. ‘Come inside for some tea instead.’

*          *          *

Harry Gallon is the author of The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes, out on Dead Ink Books.

Every Fox is a Rabid Fox, his next novel, is out this year, also on Dead Ink Books.

Twitter: @hcagallon @DeadInkBooks

Iconography

By Gary Raymond

He knew when he lied to her about what he did for a living that he would feel guilt, but he hadn’t expected the relaxation to come, the relief. I work in marketing. He didn’t know where that had come from. Everything he had planned to say to her when he finally found the right time to approach was forgotten in an instant, and he said, Could I just say I’m a big fan?

She smiled at him with a honed sincerity, the lean of the head, the hand to the hairline. He had been terrified that this moment would only go sour, that she would recoil from the interruption of her virgin cocktail, her virgin mimosa, the kind of interruption that must have happened to her too often. But she was warm to him, her smile was relaxed and he saw crows’ feet at the corners of her eyes that the glossies never showed. They looked good, Lash thought. Her voice, it was smooth and considered, and it sounded so much more mature now he wasn’t listening to it through those tinny headphones. Her voicemail, after all, was surprisingly formal, surprisingly flat, and it wasn’t this that had fascinated him about her. It was the testimony he had been enlivened by, the gratitude for good deeds, small and not so small, that grew and grew – her friends, her mother, her manager, her producer, her co-stars, her young son, former university friends, an old teacher. In the sixteen weeks Lash had been hacking her voicemail he had heard them all say thank you to her for one thing or another.

A few words about his working day at this point may shine a light on his willingness to be drawn to the silent good. He would make a point of not spending more than five hours going through voicemails, not more than that in one day. It corroded the soul, even more so if he found something rotten. Rot meant gold. Gold was the rottenest thing there was in Lash’s experience. So no matter what was being said, no matter how close to gold it may have been, at five hours the headphones were removed and the switch flicked off. But with her he had forgotten himself, forgotten his rule. There had been no gold, no rot.

He had practiced broaching a conversation over and over again. Could I just say I’m a big fan? And then he would laugh, exhale, drop his shoulders, bend his knees, he would become a bashful teenager. Would he shake her hand, hold his hand out for her to shake? Twelve hours and he removed the headphones. Brushed ash from his sleeve. She would not wave him away. She was too good-a-person for that. It seemed like the right time to meet her, seeing as she had just put an end to a not-very serious relationship with a co-star, and Lash’s editor had called him to say he was a week late with the story and shit rolls down hill blah blah blah. When you work for a newspaper you are always thinking about your ideal reader, but that reader has a million faces and a million tongues and when that reader goes to bed at night your words are resting in a million heads. And here was Philip Lash, with just one voice, wanting to spend time with just one person, one soul. Some nights Lash lay in bed and tried to crush those voices, tried to listen only to her. Some nights he played her voicemail message over and over, not because he wanted to, but because it gave him hope. He got drunk and almost left his own message. Thank you.

She declined the offer to buy her a drink, as she doesn’t drink alcohol and there is really no gift, no chivalry, in lining up virgin mimosas. Is it a virgin mimosa? he said, and she smiled and frowned and said well spotted and Lash didn’t mention that he had never even heard of a virgin mimosa before he started listening in on her, never mind been able to identify one in a bar. And how could he anyway? Why assume it had no alcohol in it? Alcohol is the invisible ingredient and it was absent. The invisible absence. It was the middle of the afternoon, sure, but it was still a wild assumption, but she didn’t seem to linger on it and Lash quickly moved the conversation on. He had been terrified of making a mistake like this, letting slip that he was anything other than a random stranger who had happened upon an actress he admired from her roles on stage and screen. That morning he walked around his apartment and said over and over again, Hello, my name is Philip Lash and I’ve been monitoring your voicemail for sixteen weeks. He was hoping it would get it out of his system.

Dirt dirt dig up the dirt. Lash had made himself a little jingle that at first was composed to mock his editor, but became a chant, a mantra, a lament. With her he wondered if there was a chance to start over. He wasn’t an idiot. He wasn’t expecting someone like her to go for someone like him, but my god, just a touch of a real person, someone who keeps all this poison at arms length. Dirt dirt dig up the dirt. Dirt is the task, why don’t they realise that? There’s no dirt on her. Even her co-star, with whom she had recently ended that non-serious relationship, spoke in soft and appreciative tones when he said she had been unfair and that she had led him on and how his wife had found out. Lash waited for the shoot to be over, and for her co-star to be back home in Beverly Hills, before approaching her that mid-afternoon in the bar. So you got nothing? his editor said. Nothing.

Lash was part of a very closed group. There were six of them who knew what was being done. And his editor had talent. He knew to put Lash on the morality cases, because Lash had a strong sense of ethics, he said. Lash is no good for chasing down murder victims, for instance. Where will he stand if we find out the mother of a murdered schoolgirl has been having it off with the milkman? He won’t like that. He won’t be able to turn those one sentence paragraphs into a moral judgment on the mother, and how she most likely contributed to her daughter’s murder with her own lack of morals. Pushing her away, making her unsafe with her own floozy behavior. Lash isn’t up to that. He’d say there are shades of grey, let the woman mourn. Put Lash on the celebrity infidelities. Just who the fuck do these people think they are? They play the game and we will take them down. They need us. They must be squeaky clean. And if they are squeaky clean, well then we’ll wait for them to fart in church and then we’ll kill the fuckers. They’re all fuckers. Everyone was a fucker in that office. No warmth, no love, no respect. Just how can we make somebody miserable? That was how Lash would describe it if he was ever put up on the stand in court and asked to describe the atmosphere, ethos, and mission statement of the editorial meeting rooms: How can we make somebody miserable?

It had never been in his mind to make people happy. He recognized happiness, but it just wasn’t for him, it wasn’t part of his world. And that’s the only world that matters when it comes to it. But he wanted some air, he wanted to prick the bubble now he realised it was a bubble. He knew she wanted out of a bubble too. The co-star with whom she had been having the non-serious relationship said that he understood when she said she was through with dating actors and that he understood the look in her eye. She was getting further from happiness rather than closer to it. She was in a spiral, and every man she made a connection with had no interest in her normality, just her talent and her passion and her darkness and her glamour. Lash wanted to get away from the corrosive swirl of the newsroom. She wanted to have normality. Poison all round. They talked for a while. She teased things out of him. He did most of the talking and everything settled, like sand on a plain. I know this is crazy, but would you like to get a coffee sometime, or a non-alcoholic cocktail? Why would that be crazy? Well, you know, who you are, and I’m just a guy in marketing… I’m not from Mars… I know I know… So let’s have a coffee… or a non-alcoholic cocktail… you can have alcohol… I can?… Sure, I’m a very gregarious tea-totaller, y’know… well, that’s good to know… So I’m saying yes to the date – you did just ask me out on a date didn’t you?… Ha well yes I did, although I don’t know how… Well, don’t worry about that for now, you write your number down here and I’ll write my number down here and we’ll check our diaries and go from there… yes, that would be good, I’d like that. And Lash wrote down his number on the napkin, and she wrote down hers, even though he already knew her number.

      *          *          *

This story was shortlisted for Open Pen Issue Seventeen.

Gary Raymond is the editor of Wales Arts Review.
@GaryRaymond_
@WalesArtsReview

REVIEW

Scott Manley Hadley Reviews
The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes  (Dead Ink)  by Harry Gallon

[Buy Now]

Arguably the most self-involved book review of all time.

This might be a long one. I feel ready to digress.shapes-of-dogs'-eyes

Buckle up!

Harry Gallon’s The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes is a novella, a gritty, earthy, boozy, druggy, sexy novella set all up and inside of Hackney in about 2014.

It’s all craft beer and cocaine and marijoowuanwua and sleeping on sofas and fucking with condoms and smartphones and Tinder and Twitter and pubs and bars and clubs and stubs and fags and cash and theft and middleclass, mid-20s angst about turning into an adult, the central conceit (theoretically) being that dull domesticity is brought about by dogs (all of who[m][i] are sentient) for the propagation and comfort of their own species. This idea, which flows in and out of the novel’s text like a hangover at a picnic, is not fully explained, and the phrase “The shapes of dogs’ eyes” recurs throughout, moving from an idea to an ideology to a presumed piece of prose – is the character within the novel writing the novel in our hands? Is this real life? Because it feels real, it feels like taking a short from where I live and it feels like many, many adventures I’ve had myself, because I too am an East London dickhead[ii], as every single character in the book is and – I’m afraid – there’s a pretty high likelihood you are too. Are you? Are you suuure you’re not?

I’ve lived in Gallon’s hipster bartender scene, so close that a friend of mine is listed in his acknowledgements. I messaged her and asked what the connection was, and she informed me that Harry Gallon is her boyfriend’s brother. This is even closer than I’d imagined. The only important difference is that his alcoholic interest is craft beer, and I’m more Cocktail.[iii] When I was a wannabe writer working in bars, I saw myself as this:

(That wasn’t what I looked like to outsiders, and that isn’t how that period of my life looks in hindsight.)

The difficultly I had with The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes is that it felt like a terrifying flashback to my own past. I’ve been in most of the situations in the novel – I’ve worked in bars with cockroaches and broken equipment, I’ve gone from bar to bar to bar to party, I’ve passed out on strange sofas, I’ve coasted through months at a time doing nothing to develop my life, I’ve been to Pub Watch meetings, I’ve had conversations with chefs about GP[iv], I’ve been on holiday to Tuscany, I debated getting a dog for years whilst doing bar work, and now have a dog and am not doing bar work. The first change has been wonderful, the latter not so much.

Bar work is great. Like, I mean it, it’s the best job [I’ve ever had]. Gallon captures bar work excellently – the routine, the poor diet, the sleeping in, the constant drinking, the huge prevalence of theft[v], the normalisation of constant use of legal and illegal intoxicants[vi], the self-importance, the belief that knowledge about booze is the best kind of knowledge and a rising snobbishness that gets validated every shift by the shared snobbishness of your colleagues.

#craftbeermatters

#ginmatters

Eee Tee Cee.

And Gallon gets it. He’s clearly lived it, he imbues his scenes with a vivid, visceral, realness. There’s dirt and damp and insects, there’s drug use and fucking and dog turds under furniture[vii], there are all the right street names, all the right beers, all the right pubs and parks and fences, the managerial and compliance procedures he details are standard industry practice, and that’s all great for gritty social realism, but, and this is a big but for me: is it interesting?

Was I deadened to the excitement of The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes because it was all so familiar, because I know these places and these people[viii] and these lives? Would it be exciting for office drone 9-to-5ers in the same way I enjoy watching (though not reading, I’m almost 30) Game of Thrones? Because I cannot deny that it’s evocative, and a lifestyle different from the average UK experience, despite it being one I’ve known first-hand. Gallon’s writing is full of description and emotion and energy, and is often quite funny, quite witty.

BUT where that wit comes to the fore is in places quite traditionally middle class. There’s a good joke about it taking as long to get to Florence from London as it does to cross the city in rush hour. That’s not a bartender gag, that’s a middle class dinner party quip, and I felt in a few places that the novel missed a trick by the level of comfort the unnamed narrator seems used to. We meet his parents and they seem affluent. He sleeps on other people’s sofas, never paying rent, and no one ever questions him about this. Reminiscent of that line from Withnail & I:

In fact, the whole thing is reminiscent of Withnail & I, especially the idea of choice. All of the characters are living in squalor as a lifestyle decision. Let’s go to another pop culture reference and bang in Jarvis Cocker’s line “if you called your dad you could stop it all”. For all the Hackney hipsters in The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes, comfort is available, is there, is at a reach. Tuscany is a common holiday destination, their parents live in nice houses in rural England if they wanna get out of the city. Domesticity as presented as an evil by Gallon’s narrator is very much a middle class domesticity. Getting a dog, the evil action that signals the end of youth[ix], is a middle class signifier, a pet is intrinsically a luxury, especially one that is a breed, not a mongrel, as every dog in the text is. Pedigree dogs aren’t cheap, I know because I’ve bought one[x], the idea of working in bars as a precursor to something more “serious” or “worthy” or “adult” is a little patronising to people who spend their whole careers in hospitality.

The narrator’s life is an adventure, he has parents and a home to go to, a girlfriend he can move in with and a dog-filled future ahead of him. He isn’t trapped in the city, homelessness and unemployment aren’t fearful things for him because there is always somewhere he can crash. So although I initially described this novella as “gritty”, it’s not, because there isn’t really any threat. The threat – if one exists – is in the narrator succumbing to a heteronormative nuclear family life, which he kinda does, happily. The idea of dogs controlling people is an entertaining metaphor, or a fun idea, but Gallon doesn’t hold onto it or go into it any deeper than that. The narrator has his suspicions about sentient dogs, he decides it’s correct, refers to it throughout, never expands.

If I sound overly critical, I apologise, but I’ve a) been asked for an honest opinion and b) I find it difficult to give praise without also giving criticism, and I’m about to get pretty praisy.

There are moments of great joy and real emotional depth within The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes. In fact, there were a few sections I circled in my copy of the book that work as great little vignettes. This, looking back, was my favourite:

Evan came in looking jowly. He brought his short Scottish hair and black glasses with him, eyes you mistake for a frown but they’re smiling in faint autistic consternation. ‘5am Saint and a-’
‘Malbec?’ I can still finish his one sentence for him. Pint of ale and a Malbec for his wife. When I started there she had long blonde hair. By then she was bald. Chemotherapy, said Dee. Rumours of leukaemia, maybe, cap on, blue scarf. ‘5am Saint-’
‘And a Malbec?’ Of course I was already pouring it. Evan smiled. Pleasurable state of late night hesitancy. Glancing over at his wife perpetually. Did his eyes frown? Lips in a constant state of pursing. He’d hold her gaze across the room and hold her hands across their table.

This works on its own, and that last sentence, oof: a beautiful piece about love and mortality, capitalised Art’s two great themes. If Gallon can write so touchingly of love, it’s clear he doesn’t believe in romance as a horror, and this belief seeps into the text. A man railing against the end of his youth is a common theme, but the nameless narrator doesn’t really rail, he accepts it before he has to, it’s almost like he’s trying to persuade himself to feel an anger he doesn’t feel. The narrator is charmed by a life he claims to hate far too easily: he’s ready for it and he wants it: his interest in dogs’ eyes and their “power to control” never becomes fully formed because he doesn’t believe in it. The narrator wishes he didn’t have the small c conservative leanings that are inherent to him and his middle class peers: they all kinda want the nice, cushy, life their parents have, and for all of them it’s an option.

I enjoyed The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes, I liked its dirt and its truth and its tone and its use of language.

If you want to experience East London hipster bartender life like it actually is, read this book. This is exactly it. If you want a portrait of working class London, you’re in the wrong place. This is the London of artsy, hipsterish, over-educated, self-important, middle-class wasters like myself. If you’re interested in that, Gallon gets it down as accurately as anyone could.

Gallon’s at his best when he writes about people and places and things. The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes succeeds when there is no pretence, just descriptions of life as lived. Gallon is a keen observer and expert chronicler of hipster East London. Whether that’s the “real” East London is someone else’s argument to have, and not one – rightly or wrongly – that the text engages with.

Buy it for your bartender housemate with three degrees, or your favourite middle class drug dealer.

An interesting read and definitely not boring.

I’m off to walk my dog and bang a negroni. Until later: keep reading, folks!

BUY THIS BOOK

*          *          *

About the dickhead who wrote this review

Scott Manley Hadley blogs at TriumphoftheNow.com and is currently writing a series of articles about being young and bald for Huffington Post.

[i] I don’t know how and when to use this form of who. I suppose I should, given that I have two English degrees. I’m gonna leave it like this and hope the guys at Open Pen make me look more literate than I am.

ED – Would then have to actually edit. Would also render this notation redundant, which would be a shame because I like it when you mention that you have two English degrees all the time. [It’s whom.]

[ii] I’ve recently received online abuse to this effect. Here I respond to someone trying to offend me by anonymously messaging me: “kill yourself, you hipster faggot”: https://triumphofthenow.com/2016/07/25/kill-yourself-you-hipster-faggot/

[iii] There’s one reference to negronis in the whole book, though, which either dates the text or shows that me and Gallon aren’t quite so similar after all…

[iv] Which means “Gross Profit”, though Gallon doesn’t say and doesn’t seem to acknowledge this might be something a reader wouldn’t know. Likewise, the afore-mentioned Pub Watch meetings. What are they? I reckon you could work it out from the context, but I didn’t have to, because I’ve been to several. I almost miss them, they evidenced that no one else working in hospitality in the area was half as tired, half as hungover or half as articulate as me. Created simultaneous senses of “I’m better than this” and “I’m not good enough for this”, which cancelled each other out and allowed an easy forgetfulness of my own stagnation. As did all the booze.

[v] I myself am honest to a fault, but am very good at thinking of ways to steal. I found a glitch in the till system in the last bar I worked in whereby it would’ve been possible to steal cash without leaving any trace (i.e. stock discrepancies), but rather than exploit that, I told the bosses like a good boy. What a man.

[vi] The main legal high I’m referring to here is caffeine. People who’ve never ridden the brown donkey don’t how deep you can go. When I used to do dull office work I figured out that the most wasted I could get at 9.30am (without suspicion or judgement) was to drink an entire, strong, cafetiere of Taylors of Harrogate’s ‘Hot Lava Java’. If you’ve never done that, you haven’t lived.

[vii] When my dog was a tiny puppy, he did a bit of diarrhoea in a hidden spot that I didn’t discover for months. I couldn’t clean it as it’s permanently fused to the exposed floorboards. Here’s a picture:

[viii] What the earlier-mentioned point about my friend living with Gallon’s brother means is that I know people who know Gallon, our degree of separation is one at best, in fact we may have even crossed paths or piss streams in a warehouse in Hackney at some point over the last few years. We may have made friends, we may have chatted, too intoxicated to remember, over a pile of books on a handmade coffee table. Gallon is so close to me it is genuinely possible that we have already touched. And that’s actually a bit creepy. The characters in his book are also based on people I may have met. The narrator – no name – has a friend called Max who works in a craft beer pub [before his music career takes off]. I have a friend called Max who works in a craft beer pub.

ED – And he writes too, of course, and he writes well.

[ix] I’ve had a dog since the winter and I am still as selfish and reckless as I ever was, I just have a furry bundle of fluff to cuddle as I lie on my bed, staring at the ceiling, hungover, shaking, in the middle of the afternoon. Help me.

[x] Expensive, but worth every fucking penny. If I could, I’d buy one every week. Check out my Instagram feed for shitloads of pictures of my dog, plus loads of videos of me singing Tom Jones songs. @smanleyhadley

Stories

By Eddie Willson

From the beginning, Patrick disliked making home visits. The estate depressed him. It didn’t surprise him that it was to be demolished, and replaced by a low-rise development. Glum-faced towers loured over waste ground speckled with fly-tipped junk.

Most tenants wouldn’t let him into their homes. He’d breathlessly explain that he’d been hired as the estate’s writer in residence, and was gathering material for an anthology of tenants’ reminiscences. This information was usually greeted by silence and a closing door. Patrick partly blamed the ID card he’d been issued, which made him look like Sir Laurence Olivier playing Richard III. But what depressed him most was what he encountered on the rare occasions when he was invited inside. In his journal he wrote, I used to be so impressed by Greene’s facility at revealing character through the details of inhabited space. These flats reveal nothing. The same Argos sofa in front of the same Argos television, tuned to the same daytime pap. The people seem to have no stories. I plonk the Dictaphone in front of them and get next to nothing; no plot, no punchline, no point. Only one useable bit so far. One Barbadian old dear, on arriving here and being appalled that white people had their bread delivered unwrapped, left on the doorstep for any passing dog to Christen. Sort of stuff they’re after, if I can get the voice right. Would variant spelling be alright? Got lost again today. This place is worse than the Barbican.

His duties were listed in a glossy folder which bore the slogan, ‘Valuing yesterday, today and tomorrow.’ He would run fortnightly drop-in sessions for tenants. Two days a week he’d make home visits, collecting reminiscences. And he’d submit regular reports to a woman from the council who wore Doctor Marten shoes and had a job title that sounded to Patrick like some Burroughsian cut-up. In his first report he wrote that there was a clear need to be proactive in involving tenants. He’d be emphasising outreach work initially. He felt confident the tenants had a capacity for storytelling, but it needed exercise, like an underused muscle.

Then he met Rex. He was sitting on a deck chair on the top landing of Mallard Tower, a frail-looking man in a blazer. Patrick gave his foot-in-the-door spiel. The man stood shakily, folded the chair and, smiling, said ‘You’d best come in.’

Patrick looked around the living room as the man made tea in a brown pot. A curtain of coloured plastic strips hung at the kitchen door. On the wall was a painting of a bottle green woman in a bottle green forest. There were antimacassars on the armchairs and a chrome ashtray on a stand by the fireplace. Later, Patrick wrote in his journal. Rex’s place is like some museum of retro kitsch. Does it count as retro if you’re not doing it deliberately? No television! I sneaked a look at the kitchen. He’s got a larder! With tinned peas in!

With the strong sweet tea poured and the Dictaphone in place, Rex settled himself. ‘I hope you’ve got plenty of tape.’

Patrick sighed. Gently but clearly he said, ‘You know, I don’t want to take up too much of your time.’

Then Rex began. About his time in music hall, working with the Crazy Gang and others. ‘Not much of an act to be honest. I’d come on dressed like Widow Twankey, do five minutes of gags. Then I’d sing ‘Rule Britannia’ and flash my drawers. They had God Save the King embroidered on them.’

He talked about the end of the halls and his move into working as a film extra. ‘If you ever see that film Brighton Rock, look out for the bit on the pier just before Kolley Kibber gets killed. You can just make me out, walking past the amusements; grey jacket, black trilby.’

That evening Patrick made it to the video shop in Blackheath just before it closed. At home, he paused the videotape over and over at the shot Rex had described. He peered at the slanted, flickering scene. There was a man there of roughly the right build, with a similar profile to Rex. It could be him. Quite possibly.

On the next visit, Rex was wearing a tie and a newer cardigan. The living room looked different, as if tidied for visitors. This time, there were fig rolls with the tea. ‘Help yourself. I’ll only have the one. They give me wind if I’m not careful.’

Above the fireplace was a painting that Patrick hadn’t noticed before. It showed a middle-aged woman, naked except for a towel, reclining on a sofa. In one corner, the lines of an initial sketch were visible, where painting had apparently been abandoned.

Rex pointed at it. ‘I did that. That’s my girlfriend. My daughter Helen don’t approve of her.’

‘Really?’

‘Don’t see much of Helen. Too busy. She’s an actress. When she can get the work.’

Taking the Dictaphone from his pocket, Patrick headed Rex off. And that would always be the pattern. Patrick began to have more success with the other tenants, but still he returned to Rex like he was an unfinished story. He’d sit transfixed by Rex’s tales of National Service and concert parties, of a full life. He’d been scared half to death fighting unremembered battles, he’d whitewashed coal, and he’d queued in back-street brothels. He’d taught himself the piano and recited Shakespeare to squaddies miles from home. The tales ran on and the light of the tape recorder would seem to grow brighter as daylight faded in the room.

Occasionally Rex would sigh and say, ‘Got nothing to show for it now of course.’

And Patrick would say, ‘You had those experiences though. Nobody can take that from you.’

The second drop-in session went much like the first. Nobody disturbed Patrick for a solid two hours. Happily, he tapped away on his laptop, sketching ideas for a soap opera set on a run-down housing estate. He’d just run out of steam and begun playing solitaire when a skinny woman with gold earrings poked her head round the door.

She introduced herself as Doreen and said she wanted to get involved in the reminiscence project. She said the word involved as if there was no l in it. Patrick gestured to her to sit at his desk. They chatted for several minutes, then she took a scrunched fistful of paper from the pocket of her puffer jacket. She flattened the old envelopes and takeaway fliers and laid them out in order. She began to read. ‘One year me and my girl Lindsey went this caravan place in Dartmoor. There wasn’t hardly any shops or people round there. Lindsey was good as gold all week. She liked the ponies.’

Patrick listened. He thought of his job interview, where he’d waxed lyrical about making the out-of-the ordinary out of the ordinary. He’d enthused about the project’s potential for healing and empowerment at a time of upheaval. He found himself wondering what to cook for supper.

Doreen’s piece ended with a flat, ‘Then we went home. That was the best holiday we had.’

Carefully Patrick said, ‘I’m not getting much sense from this of why the holiday was special.’

Doreen glared at him. She pursed her lips. ‘It’s all in there if you know what’s what.’

Patrick’s back straightened. ‘Well, please trust me that as regards writing, I do know what’s what.’ He shuffled the scraps of her story into a pile. Looking at it he said, ‘Please don’t be offended if I say that as it stands, this piece doesn’t warrant inclusion in the anthology.’

Doreen pulled a face as if she didn’t care.

Patrick grimaced and said, ‘I suppose some people’s lives are more eventful than others. I met this fascinating older guy, Rex, in Mallard block, who just had so many stories.’

Doreen’s face tightened into a sneer. ‘Rex? What, Rex on the top floor?’

‘That’s right. Used to be in showbiz. Travelled a lot. Got a daughter who acts.’

She laughed out loud now. ‘Travel? I doubt he’s ever been further than the Isle of Wight. He used to work at Citibank as a messenger with me dad. And I went school with his daughter. Last I heard she was working in a bar in Shoreditch. She couldn’t stand him.’

Patrick leaned back in his chair. ‘What about his time in music hall?’

Doreen inspected her nails, triumphant. ‘First I’ve heard of it.’

Patrick walked home through the market as it was closing. The man from the junk stall was tossing an old painting into a green wheelie bin. Patrick remembered Rex’s painting of his girlfriend. If, of course, it was his painting and she was his girlfriend. Perhaps Rex, like some dorky teenager, had invented a girlfriend to make himself seem cooler and more attractive.

Near his bed-sit Patrick bought biscuits. He curled up on the sofa, wrapped himself in a duvet, ate digestives and drank pot after pot of tea. It was Doreen’s fault. Later he wrote in his journal, I can imagine her at Tenant’s Association meetings, pointing and shouting, her face bulging with petty resentment. If a word’s got more syllables than she can be bothered with, she leaves some out. Kept going on about Vietmese people. She likes Danielle Steele. I asked what she liked about her. She said, ‘The way she uses language.’ As if she’s going to like her for her punctuation.

He thought of Rex. He’d developed an image of him, and now that image was wobbling and shimmering like the freeze-framed figure on the tape of Brighton Rock. Who knew how much truth there was in what he’d told him? There may have been some exaggeration involved, but surely it was natural for somebody to present themselves in the best possible light. There was always a story behind the story.

He remembered his job interview again. He’d talked the panel through his CV. He mentioned his time at Middlesex University but didn’t mention he’d failed to complete his degree in Writing and Publishing. After all, he’d reasoned, F. Scott Fitzgerald dropped out of college. He realised however that he was being selective in choosing his role models. He wouldn’t have dreamed of going to work in a bank on the basis that if it was good enough for T.S. Eliot it was good enough for anyone.

His account of his editorship of Another Story Altogether, the magazine he’d launched after Uni, was similarly slanted. He chose not to reveal that the magazine had hit the buffers when the temp job he was in had ended, terminating his access to free photocopying. And he’d felt it unnecessary to admit that his list of publishing credits largely derived from a kind of literary pyramid selling where other writers running similar magazines returned publishing favours.

He hadn’t even lied exactly. Not even when asked what he did at the publishers where he was then working part-time. Breezily he said, ‘I read novels all day! And they pay me!’ Actually he was paid to sit at reception, sign for the odd parcel, and greet people arriving for appointments. But that left plenty of time to read, and nobody complained.

On landings and walkways, in the launderette and the off-licence, the estate’s bush telegraph was buzzing with spite. People who’d previously been indifferent to the reminiscence project, now stirred like wasps in winter. Nodding vigorously above their folded arms they agreed it shouldn’t be allowed. Something should be done. The poison seeped down to the infants and toddlers. They poked their heads out of the stairwell on Rex’s landing and sang ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire!’ Rex stopped sitting out in his deckchair.

Patrick’s drop-in sessions and home visits continued. Perversely, the gossip was generating more interest in the project than any amount of fliers and posters could. Soon there was enough material and the editing could begin.

At the final drop-in session, he sat proof-reading copy for the anthology. There was a knock at the door. Doreen jutted her face into the room. She sat opposite him, placing a blue carrier bag on the desk. She said, ‘I know you don’t want to put the thing I wrote about the holiday into your book, but I want you to know something.’ She took an exercise book from the bag and pushed it towards him.

He read. There in block capitals was the story of Doreen’s daughter, her descent into addiction and her death, alone in a squat in Dalston. The last few sentences froze him. ‘I blame myself. I spoilt her rotten from day one. Never taught her to do without.’

Patrick laid his hands either side of the writing, stared at it as if some words to say about the piece might float up from the page.

‘It’s very powerful, moving. I’m sorry. About it all.’

They sat in silence for a time. Eventually he said, ‘Would you want this in the anthology?’

Doreen made the familiar jutting motion with her chin. ‘Course I fucking don’t. I don’t want everybody knowing my business. Not everybody’s like that; all the lights on, no curtains.’

‘It throws another light on the holiday piece you read to me. Perhaps we could include that if there was some way of giving a bit of context.’

Doreen looked doubtful. She pulled a piece of paper from the bag. ‘There’s something else you need to see.’

He only needed to scan it quickly to know what it was, even though she’d spelt the word petition with an ‘a’. On the paper were the signatures of about half the contributors to the anthology. And at the top was the polite threat that they would withdraw their contributions if the anthology contained anything that wasn’t ‘real memories about real things that happened.’

Patrick shook his head. ‘I’m not sure I can agree to that.’

‘Nobody’s asking you to agree to anything. It’s just telling you what’s going to happen.’

Patrick tilted his head on one side. ‘Why does it bother you so much?’

She paused as if considering the question for the first time. ‘Because you’re asking us to share something. And he’s getting a free ride. He gets the attention and it hasn’t cost him anything.’

Patrick managed to wrap up the conversation with a vague promise to ‘think of something’. He felt like a victim of the school bully, promising to bring in all their pocket money the following lunchtime. In his next report to his employer he wrote that after some initial hesitancy many tenants had become quite passionate about the project.

The lift was broken. He was glad, because it allowed him to delay further the thing he was dreading. Even as he reached Rex’s flat he hadn’t finally decided what to say. He’d rehearsed a few opening lines but each one tripped and fell before it went anywhere. The language wasn’t the problem; the problem was deciding the right thing to do.

A woman answered the door. Patrick peered at her. She was too young to be the woman in the painting. He introduced himself.

The woman nodded. ‘Thought so. He’s always going on about you.’

‘Are you Rex’s daughter?’

‘His daughter? No, love. I’m the home help. I’m just packing a few things for him.’

Patrick frowned. ‘Why?’

‘He’s had a fall and cracked his hip. He’s up St Thomas’s. He said to let you know.’

‘That’s a shame. I hope he’s okay’

The woman leaned against the door jamb, weighing him up. ‘You are going to visit him, aren’t you?’

Patrick nodded. ‘Of course. Yeah.’

For a time, it felt like proper work. He’d wake early and spend a few hours on his own writing. Then he’d settle to editing and proofing the anthology, tweaking and tightening, forcing himself not to regularise the grammar. He’d then phone or visit the contributors to okay any changes. And then, in the evenings he’d see Rex. He’d listen to him talk until Rex grew tired, then he’d listen to his breathing as he slept.

Patrick stood by the fire exit of the library, smoking a last cigarette before going into the function room. He thought of what Rex had said when he asked how he felt about going into sheltered housing. He’d shrugged and said, ‘I could do with looking after.’

He imagined him now, arranging the ephemera of a life in his room, then going into the dining room for his first meal in the new place. He would eat with a fork in one hand and the anthology in the other, waiting for someone to ask him. And when they did, he’d explain and say, ‘Yes, I am actually. Borrow it if you like.’ He would present to them his written self, a Rex that suited him, fitted him. Or was that it? Still Patrick hadn’t established the truth of Rex’s life. But if everything he’d told him was just a story, he wasn’t sure it mattered. He couldn’t blame him for wanting to be remembered as something other than a solitary old man with sad eyes and bad breath, who’d spent his life aiming at himself and missing. And who really would have been made happier by the truth?

This thought turned his attention to the task at hand. He stubbed out his cigarette, shut the fire exit and straightened his tie. He would have to go in now.

In the function room were local councillors, the Doctor Martens woman and her colleagues, contributors and other tenants from the estate. And, on a table was a pile of copies of the book, as yet untouched. Patrick walked steadily down the corridor to the room. He knew the shit was about to hit the fan, and he felt proud of himself for the first time in ages.

 *          *          *

Eddie Willson is alive and well and living in Deptford, England. In real life he’s a library assistant as well as doing voluntary advice work. His short stories have appeared in numerous magazines in the UK and the USA. ‘Stories’ has been long-listed for the Bridport Prize.

An Extract from Starstruck

An Extract from Starstruck
By Rajeev Balasubramanyam

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Mala Iyer
First of all, it is sad and painful when anyone dies of cancer in their early fifties, but I’m troubled by the reaction to Steve Jobs’s death. It feels like success is our only real value, that consumer goods and design have taken the place of art, that we care only about style and cool, about our possessions instead of our relationships. I really don’t see how having ten different Apple products makes us happier, no matter how sleek or clever they are, and I don’t see how Steve Jobs, an entrepreneur, and design/innovation manager, can be compared to Einstein, Moses, or Edison. RIP Steve Jobs, but let’s not forget that all you did was sell consumer goods to a debt-ridden, addicted population. If you did change the world, I have to wonder if it really was for the better.
Like Comment 9 October, 2011 at 07:52 near London
Nathaniel Jacobs
Mala, you have a point for sure, but speaking for myself, what I admire about Jobs and his products is the humanity behind the design, rather than just the design itself. It’s the same humanity that leads to great music, literature, or social movements. I can honestly say that these products have allowed my own humanity to better express itself and I cannot believe the same isn’t true for you. You have an iPod, I’ve seen it. And did you write this on a Mac?
9 October, 2011 at 08:21 Like
Christian Seleko
Mala, I think it is way too soon for comments like this. Did you think, for one minute, about Steve Jobs’s wife and children, or the Apple family he has left behind. This man changed the world and left his mark in the hearts of minds of, literally, millions of people. Please have more respect. RIP Steve. We miss you.
9 October, 2011 at 08:33 Like
Hardeep ‘thin Jim’ Singh
@Christian Seleko. Christian, you are quite right. We all love Mala, but this is unacceptable. Both Jobs and his products defined our generation. Now he is gone it feels like there’s no magic left in the world. Apple will continue to develop and release wonderful products, but I wonder if anyone will ever capture our imagination the way Steve did. Rest in peace.
9 October, 2011 at 08:48 Like
Lucy Manningtree
Omg, Mala, what has got into you? Can’t you see people are mourning? Take this down or get off Facebook all together. You spoiled my breakfast. RIP Steve. And sorry.
9 October at 8:58 Like
David Kohli
Mala, GFY. I mean it. My son saw this.
9 October at 9:21 Like
Claire Yahlty
If it wasn’t for Steve Jobs, you wouldn’t even be able to write this, you ungrateful b**ch. You probably wouldn’t even be able to recognize the world around you if we removed his contribution from it. That’s right, we’d be back in the Stone Age. Smart alecs should think twice before making comments that hurt innocent people and mock the very individuals that allow them to live in a free society. Steve Jobs was a million times the person you are, Mala. Grow up and get a life.
9 October at 9:24 Like
JD Richey
there is a love called let go, there is a genital called whiskey, there is a king called Robert II
9 October at 9:29 Like
Frank Sorrell
Da Vinci, Edison, Jobs. Goebbels, Nixon, Iyer. Enough said.
9 October at 9:34 Like
Mala Iyer
Thank you to the two who PM’d me to say they agreed. To everyone else, if this is indeed a democracy, then I can write what I like about Jobs or, for that matter, his family. The truth is, I wish them all well. Death is never easy, especially a premature one from disease, but I resent people telling me I don’t have the right to make my point out of some sort of misplaced respect for the recently deceased. Let us not forget that Apple products are made in exploitative in sweat shops, and second of all, I’m sorry, but Steve Jobs was no Edison or Da Vinci. He was *not* a scientist or an inventor. He was an innovator at best, and a CEO. My point is that we are worshipping innovation and design at the *expense* of science and art. We’ve made a cult around image and branding. Let your friends and families put magic into your lives, not a bloody phone.
9 October at 9:54 Like
Mala Iyer
@Claire Yahlty Don’t insult me, Claire. I am not your enemy. @Frank Sorrell How dare you compare me to Joseph Goebbels, responsible for millions of deaths! I hardly think a post on Facebook can be compared to the Final Solution. Sorry, Frank, that’s just plain ignorant. @David Kohli. David, GFY2. Your son can think for himself. You should try it.

We, the Apple-using Community, Believe that Mala Iyer is a Bitch and Should Apologize to the Late Genius Steve Jobs and his Family and Friends
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Peter Cummings
Seriously, isn’t there a law we can nail this woman under? We have laws in Britain, right? cos surely she can’t get away with this? I mean, if you say something bad about the holocaust, not that I would want to, they put you away for life. And god forbid anyone say anything about gays or blacks. But celebrities, even ones who were practically saints? It feels like someone turned out all the lights in this world and it’s getting darker fast. I just feel so powerless.
Like Comment Follow post 13 October at 15:32
Hiroki Kawabata, Jim Tale and 42 others like this.
Richard Clivesdale
Who else wants to meet tomorrow night? Message me for location.
Like Comment Follow post 13 October at 16:21
Charles ‘Xavier’ French
Does anyone know why the Macbook Air does not have an optical drive? The Air Superdrive costs £60, which is reasonable, but can I rip audio CDs with it? And can I use it on my Macbook Pro?
Like Comment Follow post 13 October at 16:35
Richard Clivesdale
Charles, understand that this group was set up for the exclusive purpose of holding Mala Iyer to account for her despicable behaviour, and not for the purposes of general discussion re: Apple products, software etc. But in answer to your question, yes you can rip audio CDs, but you can’t do anything with Blu-ray. And no, it will not work on your Macbook Pro, not due to the current requirements but rather to the custom daughterboard (which is swappable).
13 October at 17:03 Like
Anthony Daniels
Charles, the Macbook Air can also read CDs and DVDs wirelessly from a PC or Mac. I really wish it had an optical drive too. It’s a flaw, which is inevitable in any groundbreaking product or technology, or maybe they thought it a worthwhile sacrifice in order to keep the notebook thin and sleek. I must say, it is one of the most beautiful pieces of equipment I have yet laid eyes on.
13 October at 17:22 Like
Kenny Baker
The whole point is that Apple are phasing out technology they know will become obsolete. This is what they have always done, like with the 5.5″ floppy drive, and now with the ethernet port, FireWire port, microphone socket. These are not ‘design flaws’. This is simply indicative of Steve Jobs’s legendary ability to predict the future. RIP Steve. Just roll with it.
14 October at 10:24 Like
Peter Cummings
Could somebody please repost MI’s original post. Anyone still friends with her? (We need at least one person, or we won’t have access to her page.) Let us not forget that this is a group and requires each and every member to take responsibility and share in the labour burden. Many thanks.
Like Comment Follow post 14 October at 13:11
Sheila Giggins
Point taken, Peter. Yes, it does feel as though many of us are not pulling out weight. But my question is, and sorry if this comes across as defeatist, can anything actually be done? I firmly believe justice will out in the end, but for the moment, this does seem hopeless. Yes, we can all PM that ghastly woman, but will it have any effect apart from bloating her already swollen ego? I can’t be certain whether she’s even seen this group. Wouldn’t she have posted something? I don’t know, it just seems fishy to me. Perhaps she’s no longer on Facebook. Or perhaps she just doesn’t care. Either way, I think we need to consider alternatives. Apologies for the vague post. Just ‘thinking out loud’.
14 October at 23:42 Like
Shahid Khan
@Sheila Giggins Are you thinking what I’m thinking…?
14 October at 23:45 Like
Sheila Giggins
In all probability. Don’t really want to be the one to say it.
14 October at 23:47 Like
Shahid Khan
Then I will. Strongly suspect she works for Microsoft.
14 October at 23:51 Like
Peter Cummings
Can I suggest we all take a step back here. These are serious accusations and probably not appropriate for the Facebook platform. We can discuss in person at the meet.
15 October at 00:01 Like

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Mala Iyer
I’m sorry, but this has gone too far. A few days ago I posted a perfectly reasonable critique of the response to the recent passing away of Apple CEO, Steve Jobs. Instead of my right to free speech being respected, I have been the recipient of hate messages, including emails to my personal and work addresses, including from anonymous, or pseudonymous, ‘haters’. It has also been brought to my attention that there is a Facebook group dedicated to abusing me, on which I have been called names and even threatened. Obviously this is not acceptable, and I have emailed Facebook about the problem, demanding they remove this group. To any of my so-called ‘friends’ who leaked my original post, kindly unfriend me. To those of you who have been supportive, and there have been several, I thank you, but too many people have turned against me in recent days, many of whom I considered genuine friends. Frankly, I have been
Like Comment 15 October, 2011 at 10:19 near London
Mala Iyer
shocked by the reaction to what I maintain was a perfectly *innocent* post. I am a PhD student and used to the spirit of free inquiry and debate. What I am not used to are these deliberate attempts to silence me through threats, intimidation and abuse. I do not take well to being publicly called a bitch or being compared to murderers and Nazis. This kind of behaviour is as immoral as it is idiotic. I never met Steve Jobs but I am sorry that he died and I do wish his family and friends the very best. But I continue to believe that it is my democratic *right* to say that Apple products are over-rated and that the outpouring of grief over his death is misplaced and hysterical.
Like Comment 15 October, 2011 at 10:26 near London
Hardeep ‘thin Jim’ Singh
Mala, you are not doing yourself any favours with these posts. Simply apologize and let us all move on. I, for one, do not like having to read these updates and don’t want to be continually dragged into the mire of this debate. I’ve always had a lot of respect for you, but I’m sorry, Malaji, in this instance you are simply wrong. Do the right thing, apologize, then kindly shut the f– up.
15 October at 10:35 Like
Lucy Manningtree and Ola Martin like this.
JD Richey
i love all the animals, for they never compete in any eating contest, they never kill when they are not hungry, they never sleep with the girls they don’t love (for you never know what love is) and they are no Christians. but we, human beings, are better than them anyway, for we drink, and we get drunk, mamafishermamamamiiiiiiiiiia
15 October at 10:42 Like
Mala Iyer likes this.
Christian Seleko
Mala, I agree that many of the responses to your post were distasteful, over-hasty and sensitive, but this is often the way with grief. Please allow me to explain how I am feeling, and perhaps from this you will gain an insight into the emotions of others. Six months ago, I converted to a Mac, and I can honestly say it changed my life. All I ever wanted was a reliable computer that didn’t freeze, make loud noises, delete my important documents, overheat, or break into pieces. Now, finally, I have it. A month ago a friend of mine sent me Steve Jobs’s ‘Find What You Love’ speech at Stanford University. I felt inspired and motivated by his words and his message. I am deeply saddened by his passing as I know he had so much more to contribute to this world. Here is to remembering Steve.
15 October at 11:02 Like
Lucy Mannigtree and Hardeep ‘thin Jim’ Singh like this.
Mala Iyer
An hour ago my laptop was stolen from the Grand Café on Oxford High Street. The thief left a note saying, ‘Next time buy a Mac.’ Wtf is wrong with you people??? These are broad daylight hate crimes, and that was MY PROPERTY. How dare you!!!! I have taken the matter to the police who are investigating the ‘I Hate Mala’ Group. Facebook have not yet responded to my complaint, but as the police are now involved, I hope they will take this matter as seriously as I do. To whom it may concern, I AM SICK AND TIRED OF THIS!!! You cannot wilfully attack me because you disagree with my opinion about a celebrity. Yes, CELEBRITY, not SAINT.
15 October at 13:48 Like
Frank Sorrell and David Kohli like this.

We, the Apple-using Community, Believe that Mala Iyer is a Bitch and Should Apologize to the Late Genius Steve Jobs and his Family and Friends
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Mala Iyer
I, Maya Iyer, publicly and unreservedly apologize for all the offense I have caused Steve Jobs’s friends, family, admirers, and second family at Apple. My comments were motivated by malice, ignorance and stupidity, and I fully retract all the slanderous comments I made about Mr Jobs and the Apple Corporation whom I recognize have made outstanding contributions to humanity. I can only hope to accomplish one iota of what they did and am truly humbled by this experience would like to thank everyone who has intervened to help me see reason. I sincerely apologize and will make amends in any way possible. Mala Iyer.
Like Comment Follow post 15 October at 14:32
Peter Cummings, Jim Tale and 42 others like this.
Peter Cummings
Mala, I am delighted and relieved that you have come to your senses. The adolescent spirit of contrariness, while valuable at a certain time in life, has no place in the adult world where real feelings and real people are concerned, particularly those so recently deceased. You have caused deep, deep hurt to hundreds, if not thousands, of people, and the pain you are currently feeling is, I am afraid, nothing compared to the pain you have caused. In future, please try to consider the consequences of your actions. We are all in this world together, and creating a harmonious society was the life’s work of men like Steve Jobs, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama. Please refrain from ever causing such discord again. You have been warned.
15 October at 14:57 Like
Shahid Khan
Hear hear, Peter! But tell me, how are we to accept the sincerity of Ms. Iyer’s ‘apology’? Many people crack under pressure, especially those whose character is weak. I for one am not convinced.
15 October at 15:02 Like
Peter Cummings
Shahid, may I suggest we do not presume to know what is in another’s heart. Mala had no right to doubt the sincerity of Apple’s much-loved CEO, but neither do we have the right to pre-judge her. As far as I am convinced, her apology is genuine. I cannot forgive her, but I am prepared to accept that she has apologized. Do try to find it in your heart to do the same.
15 October at 15:40 Like
Shahid Khan
You are a bigger man than I am, Peter. Peace be with you.
15 October at 15:45 Like
Peter Cummings likes this.
Richard Clivesdale
OMG!!!! Shame on you, Peter. You are a tough, street-smart guy, and you can’t see through this rubbish? Come on!!!! If that’s a genuine apology, we might as well give Gaddafi the peace prize. I know b.s when I see it, and this stinks to high heaven. If she’s really prepared to make amends, then let her make a donation to Apple and upload the receipt. I’ll believe *that* when I see it.
15 October at 16:01 Like
Mark Wycliffe
Bitch just trying to make friends. LMFAO.
15 October at 16:09 Like
Richard Clivesdale likes this.
Sheila Gibbins
Sorry to harp on about this, but am I the only one who sees a more dangerous level to all this? Insincere? Obviously! But insincere in what way? I know this is an open group, Richard, but do I have to spell it out???
15 October at 16:15 Like
Peter Cummings
Sheila, I just don’t know. I’m sorry if I’ve wasted everyone’s time, but I’m only trying to be fair. And surely everyone, no matter how misguided, deserves a second chance.
15 October at 16:33 Like
JD Richey
Free AiWeiwei, free Tibet, free porn!!! Every motherfucker deserves a second chance, but does every second chance deserve a motherfucker? Weakness is not necessary in life, cowardice is. You know it’s true. You know it’s you. Uhohuhohuhoh…
15 October at 16:34 Like
Jim Tale
Sorry everyone, but I believe her and, unlike Peter, I can forgive her. Welcome, Mala.
15 October at 16:50 Like
Peter Cummings and Stephanie Weather like this.
Stephanie Weather
May I propose we close this group then? If it’s over, then let’s move on. @Sheila Gribbins Even if she is, so what????
15 October at 16:54 Like
Mala Iyer
OMG, you people are such IDIOTS! Quite clearly, I DID NOT WRITE THIS APOLOGY! My lap-top was stolen by some fanboys in turtlenecks while I was logged in to Facebook. Do all you losers have nothing better to do than this? Why don’t you go down to the Apple Store and buy yourselves a fucking life?!!!??
15 October at 16:57
Peter Cummings
Ms. Iyer, the Apple-Using community are not impressed by your foul language, and flagrant callousness over the death of one of the great inventors of our times. Kindly refrain from posting again on this site. We, as a community, are in mourning, and the least you could do is to respect that. I did, btw, go to the Apple Store this morning, but I did not buy myself a life as I already have one. It is you who are missing out, and sour grapes are best eaten with humble pie. RIP Steve, and if you are watching us, I am truly sorry.
15 October at 17:12 Like
Jim Tale
@Mala Iyer. Post on this site again and I call the police. Shocking.
15 October at 17:30 Like
Mark Wycliffe
Yeah, post on this site again and I’ll stick you like a pig you fucking whore. Pieces of shit like you should be dead.
15 October at 17:38 Like
Richard Clivesdale, JD Richey and 12 others like this.
Mala Iyer
@Mark Wycliffe Is that the best you can do? Pathetic!!! Why don’t you grow some i-balls.
15 October at 18:04 Like
JD Richey likes this.
JD Richey
Smash those cameras, security cameras. Do them in like pigs in a vat. Brick them, skewer them, kick their nuts out, take a bat to their snooping skulls. Come on let’s do it, let’s spill some aluminium blood oh yeah oh yeah oh yeah
15 October at 18:10 Like

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Mala Iyer
My arm post-hospital
Mala Iyer added 2 new photos to the album mobile uploads.
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Like Comment Share 5 hours ago via Blackberry
Ameena Iyer
Omg, Mala honey, what happened? Are you all right? xxx
3 hours ago Like Add Friend
Ashish Iyer
Mala, call me as soon as you see this. Mum’s upset. What the hell happened? Call! We love you.
2 hours ago Like Add Friend
Christian Seleko
Shocking, but oddly beautiful. Where did you have it done?
58 minutes ago Like Add Friend
Mala Iyer
I didn’t have it done anywhere, Christian, can’t you see that? Two men broke into my flat and did this to me. @Ashish Iyer Called Mum. She’s all right. Why the hell did you show her the picture? Yes, I’m OK. Will call later. I have to be at the hospital till 9. Phone off till then.
40 minutes ago Like Add Friend
Ashish Iyer
Sorry. Please call as soon as pos. Want us to fly over?
52 minutes ago Like Add Friend
Mala Ayer
@Ashish Iyer Will call tonight don’t worry. No, I don’t need you to fly over. I can take care of myself. But thanx.

We, the Apple-using Community, Believe that Mala Iyer is a Bitch and Should Apologize to the Late Genius Steve Jobs and his Family and Friends
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Mala Iyer
Listen up, all of you. Yesterday, at around 3 in the afternoon, two men broke into my room in Brasenose College, Oxford. I think they were the same ones who stole my laptop. They were all dressed like Steve Jobs, anyway. They tied me to a chair and branded my arm with the Apple logo. That’s right, BRANDED. I’ve described them to the police and as two of them (and I KNOW they are in this group) were dumb enough to put their masks on *after* I’d let them in, the police will find them soon enough. But what I really what to say is this. To all of you who told me I had no right to my views, to all of you who called me names, who joined that vile hate group, who posted abuse on my page… YOU DID THIS. Don’t say you didn’t, because you did. You know who you are.
Like Comment Follow post 16 October at 11.01

*          *          *

Starstruck was originally serialised on The Pigeonhole, the social reading platform that turns your phone into a book club. To read more of Rajeev’s work, just click here and join the reading revolution.

Illustration provided by Mido Diez.

OPEN PEN NOMINATED FOR SABOTEUR AWARDS

saboteur awards 2016

It’s been our biggest year in the five years our free short fiction magazine has been in print. We’ve got more stockists than ever, more readers than ever, you can now subscribe to Open Pen, and we’ve published The Open Pen Anthology. So we’re left pinching ourselves that on top of all that, we’ve been nominated in two categories in the 2016 Saboteur Awards. ‘Best Magazine‘ and ‘Best Anthology‘. If you nominated us in these two categories, we heartily thank you. Back up those nominations with two votes and our hearts will swell thrice over.

VOTE HERE

You’ll notice a few other categories too. Personally, we fancy Liars’ League for ‘Best Regular Spoken Word’ night and Nothing here is wild, everything is open by Tania Hershman for ‘Best Poetry Pamphlet’. Check both of those out if you get a chance.

In What Capacity

By Mazin Saleem

So it was towards the end of the party and there was just me and this older girl left in the living room, pretty well out of it, so I got on the settee close to her and we started chatting, and I fiddled about on the laptop so we’d have the right kind of music playing in the background. I’m asking her how long it’s been since she moved to the city, how she’s finding it, who she lives with etc., when she jumps back but from the laptop. She’s raising her head to look over the top of it like when you’ve walked in on someone naked, and she even starts shooing at it and asking me to close it. The laptop’s on screensaver: a slideshow of space photographs.

Obviously I thought this was a bit weird and awkward. Plus if I closed the laptop it’d switch off and the music with it, but she looked scared, like she was going to cry even, and she kept saying ‘please’ in that firm tone of voice that when it comes from someone you don’t know too well it always comes across as a little bit rude. I didn’t want her to get stressed out though, so I compromised and turned the laptop round to face the other way. When she saw me looking at her she must have thought I wanted her to explain.

“When I was a girl, my parents made me and my sisters go to sports camp, and you’d have to do different sports or exercises each week, and one week it was swimming. But because the camp had been really popular that summer, with parents at least, the pool had two classes running at once, one going widthways, the other going lengthways. Our class was on widths, doing lifesaving practice. I was on my back, with someone’s hand under my chin pulling me as if I’d been drowning. Except the teachers had messed up and our group ended up getting crashed into by the other one. In all the mess, I went under the water and kept getting kicked under. I think I must have nearly drowned, or had a panic attack or something, because I remember afterwards I couldn’t explain to the teacher what had happened because my breath was so short. What I wanted to explain was this: when I was drowning, I did not see a light. I saw a hole. Through the hole was deep space.”

I didn’t reply straight off, though I wondered whether I should shake my head and whistle. In the end, I went with, “Is that where you think we go?”

“That’s where I think we go back.”

Given her state and the whole situation, I said a fib about this guy who’d been hypnotised and reckoned he could remember being born, and how when he was looking back, past the umbilical cord, he’d seen the dark – maybe even space.

She said: “Yes.”

Too bad this gave her the go ahead to really go off-road. I managed to make out something about heaven and hell not being made up but coming from your memories and premonitions. Heaven comes from the memory of floating up to the stars. Hell comes from the fear of being stuck in a black void where you go mad from doing the only thing you can do: think about your life and everything you did wrong. I tried my best to look understanding.

Staring hard at the back of the laptop, she went, “I can’t help it but I imagine myself as an astronaut sometimes, on a mission in deep space. And I get cut from my cord and I start drifting out, and you don’t know what a fear of heights is till you’ve looked down during a space walk. There’s no bottom, or top for that matter. I can’t tell whether I’m completely still or flying at high speed. Weeks go by until I notice even a speck of light; then I realise it’s not a star, it’s not the nearest solar system – it’s the nearest galaxy. What’s more, with my suit being futuristic, with batteries and air tanks and nutrient tanks, I’m going to keep going for some time. I could just pop open my helmet. But I can’t build up the courage. But neither can I stand to carry on drifting. Out there.”

She pointed at the laptop, which, to be fair, with its back turned, did look like it was up to something. But there were other photos on it I wanted to show her, ones of Earth. I got closer and reached for the screen, telling her, “When you see it from space, aw: it’s so small and fragile-looking, but despite that – or because of it? – so precious and, you know, beautiful.”

Didn’t work though. Before I even got to the part about our island home, she’d caught my wrist. Her hands were all sweaty.

“Don’t you get it? The difference with Earth is it’s so full of things that when you’re surrounded by them it feels like they are the universe. But when you’re surrounded by deep space, when you see what space you’re in… Against that, before that – forget actions, how can even our words mean anything? Not mean as in matter, I mean mean? What are verbs even doing in the middle of all that darkness and silence? Darkness and silence, for millions of light years, till you reach one measly dot, where there’s arguments and minicabs and the royal We and nose hair removal and and fucking party snacks; then darkness and silence again for millions more light years. So how the fuck can anyone believe in connection, in love, in understanding-”

Things, it seemed, were getting properly flaky. I jumped in to try talk her down: “But since when does the fact that you’re small and space is big make you and what you do not mean anything? That’s like saying if I kill someone in a small room, it’s bad, but if I killed them in a big room, it’d be less bad. While if I killed them inside a room as big as the universe, it’d be meaningless.”

She said: “Yes.”

“But size doesn’t matter! Age isn’t the standard. The universe isn’t like this giant set of scales, with you as a bit of fluff that skims off it. It’s not something you’re up against – it’s not even something you’re in or on. You’re a part of the universe, aren’t you?”

“I suppose.”

“And you’re conscious, aren’t you?”

“I suppose.”

“Then you are the conscious part of the universe. The universe is conscious: through you.”

“I… Yes.”

Finally.

“See? So the universe can’t be empty or heartless.” She’d stopped staring at the laptop. I went for broke. “In fact, everything means something. Understanding has to happen! Connection is real! Love exists! And why?”

“Um.”

“Because you do. You’re the universe’s opening eye. You’re the-”

“Um, can you not do that please?”

“What? Oh, that.”

“That makes me feel really uncomfortable.”

“Sorry. But I thought. Sorry.”

*          *          *

Mazin Saleem’s fiction has appeared both online and in print in Litro MagazineThe Literateur, as well as The May Anthologies. He has also written non-fiction for Little Atoms and Medium.

A new flash fiction piece from Mazin Saleen appears in The Open Pen Anthology, available for purchase here.

ENVELOPE: BLUE

By Lisa Fontaine

Phase six. I skipped phase five.

A letter was delivered to me today. Wrong address. Stranger things have happened. Yusuf Patel: that’s who it’s for. I know vaguely where the house is, somewhere near the big Tesco I think. The envelope is pastel blue, address handwritten. Birthday card perhaps. I hold it up to the light, and, yes, it is. Outlines of cartoon animals, a badge: the number 8. Some glitter sparkles in the palm of my hand. Phase six: I think. After that, phase seven. Then. Nothing. The card is heavy and it must be because of the badge, oversized, inside. The other post: a court order over some woman I may or may not have assaulted, Chinese takeaway menus and a yellow envelope with the hospital logo on it. Knowing what the letter says I just chuck it in the trash. What good will reminding myself do me? I ask. I’m still fingering the other envelope, pastel blue, the number 8. Eight – I wonder if he’s turned eight yet. Perhaps it’s his birthday today. I make a mental note to put it on my to-do list and then remember I don’t have one: I have nothing to do.

Phase six. The world is now liquid and a kind of sea sickness keeps taking hold of me. Vision in and out of focus – nauseating. But the envelope is solid. It is in my hands, solid: pastel blue, the number 8. It is the only thing with gravity. Near the big Tesco Yusuf Patel is turning eight. A fifteen minute walk away. He is real to me. I pass the bin men as I go out, the letter from the hospital tipping into half eaten processed mulch that men who sell The Big Issue will finish later. Young with smokers coughs, both bin men are stocky. Recycling first, then landfill stuff. Lining the wheelie bins back up, one tumbles, knocking over a small gnome. Junk someone gave me. It shatters. Pieces of it scatter, shiny in the light. I reach down to collect the pieces, I feel them solid in my hand. Broken and solid. I smile at the bin men as I do so. He bends, grabs the bin handle and I place my hand on his with gentle touch. He flinches, like my hand is red hot, wipes it on his overalls and looks to his friend. They both walk on. Still smiling I press my hand to my forehead, feeling the temperature of them both. I guess they are both feverish. They don’t look back, just carry on walking.

Kids’ toys are messy in the gardens and the plants are being watered because it’s spring again. I’m walking through the streets thinking how unnecessary and sober it all is. And how much I feel like those acts: unnecessary and sober. Phase 6. I’m frantic: the nausea coming. My body. Ughh. That knot in my stomach again. I think of the boy: he is solid. I concentrate on his face, or, at least how I envision it, and forget about how the world is liquid. The envelope. I walk down the street, turn left. Pass a post box, I could post it, I look down at the envelope. But then I remember it is pastel blue, the number 8. 8 today? Yesterday? Tomorrow? I recall the to-do list. I will deliver it personally. Pigeons. Rats with wings. I’m passing where the park merges with the pavement and there’s an overflowing bin at its exit and they’re eating chips and other fat in food form, the polystyrene containers pecked half-open. I wish I had some bread to give them. Adjacent to me, a kid runs over to the swarm, kicks at them. They flap and then are in the air. One shits on me. The kid laughs hysterically. Shit runs white and brown down my shoulder. Splats onto my shoe. I look at the child, his big moon-face red and real in front of me. I smile at it. It is real and I offer a smile, but it is a liquid smile. On seeing the smile, all liquid, he scampers off, darting into the bushes. Looking down at the pigeon shit on my shoulder I watch it run for an uncanny moment. The colours are running into each other: white and brown and yellow. I touch it with my fingers, rub my fingers together and feel it moist between them. I’m rolling it around on their tips, then lift them to my nose and inhale. Smell. It has a scent. The liquid world doesn’t have smells, just sickness. I look at the creatures. They have returned, pecking at the polystyrene containers, processed and artificial treasures inside. They ignore me. The pigeons and the polystyrene containers. Two real things. I watch them interact. I bend, slowly open the container for them. All of them gather around the same one. I take one of the chips inside, hold it out to them. They take it. I repeat the motion. And I do so until the leftovers are all but one. This last chip: I shall try it. I sniff it, hold it to my bottom lip. Feel its texture. It is cold, I can feel that much. Cold like metal, a solid metal. It brings with it balance. I roll it across the length of my lip. After that I take a bite, cold in my mouth, a metal-like cold and I chew it. I can’t taste it but I chew it anyway and then swallow. I give the rest of it to a pigeon by my foot. It takes it and leaves. I exit the scene, walk on. And in doing so that balance sinks under that liquidity, that seasickness. I look at the bin: the pigeons and polystyrene real around it. It is an island. My head spins again. I finger the envelope in my hand: pastel blue, the number 8. Solace comes like a chemical and I can walk on, forward. This is a one-way street.

Phase six. Eight. The number: 8, glittery and solid in the card. Eight years old. Ten or eleven minutes’ walk away now. Above, the sky is an unnatural blue. I think of it, all the water vapours and particles – unsolid. My stomach turns. Peering down at the letter in my hands I make sure it’s still there, tightening my grip. Badges and birthday candles. Eight. I remember when I was a boy. The choices I made, why do we make the choices we make – what makes us, chose them? I try to understand it for a while. High concept stuff, and I try to think of when I used to be a young boy. Can’t imagine him. Was I ever young? I can only remember being alone. Much is learnt in your own private loneliness. Much ages in your time of learning. I remember him, smile at him. All the years taste bitter in my mouth. I swallow them, the back of my throat burns. I concentrate on less nauseating ventures. That kid now: eight. A birthday card. Other people in the world sending cards. Less lonely.

A queue at the bus stop as I go by, the bus has pulled up, taking fare charges. Last on the bus: straining to lift the Zimmer frame from kerb to bus. I find myself reaching for her arm to stable the movement. The woman grabs her purse, shifts it to the other side of her body and continues to struggle. She is at the summit, pays – the bus door shuts. Drives away. I watch the wheels turn, they are circles, the same motion. They cannot move any other way, it is certain they will move as they do now. Even when they turn onto the next road, they shall move the same way. I always thought a circle less solid than a rectangle or a square but now I’m staring at the movement, round and round against the black and solid road and I begin to reconsider that conclusion.

I walk along the road now after seeing its black and solid. Above the sky is unnaturally blue. Traffics coming in the opposite direction, not much of it, narrow road: one-way street.

Phase six. I can feel that I am separated from the road, slick, like oil on water. My body. I feel disassociated with it yet I’m am very aware of it and this withdrawal from it. Blood from the street rolls over my foot and then back off as I step through the crimson streets and I am aware of the action as this solid thing washing over my foot with its solidity. The solidity of permanent jobs and mortgage plans and child trust funds. It’s all very stable and I take each step slowly, feeling the stability and letting it ground me. But it doesn’t. it makes me feel like I’m a great distance from it, more like those particles in the unnaturally blue sky, all liquid, instead of solid. Some cars are beeping. I drift in and out of the middle of the road. They come head on. The tide also against me, gentle as it is.

Six: I think. Phase six. Then seven. After that, well, after isn’t the right preposition. I am moving forward, towards my destination, a real person: eight. Numbers and calendar months and dates of birth, things that can be counted and put in records and on certificates – things that define solid things. Code and data in the computer, things that define what is real. Eight: a measure, definition – his face will add shape to it. I imagine it is big and round, like all children’s faces on their birthday. I’m walking downhill, deeper into the blood. Leaden against my foot, I bump into something submerged beneath the crimson. I fish for it, almost dropping the envelope in doing so. My heart races fierce. But it is still in my left hand, prints of pigeon muck on it. With my fingers I can feel its shape beneath the blood, I lift it partially out of the crimson, and it’s heavy. A burn barrel. Rusted and thin. With some effort I turn the cumbersome thing upside-down, pouring the crimson out. Sounds like a fountain. I study it, feel the dents, the rough edges, the formations of rust and charring. Digging my hand in there I’m fishing for something in the bottom but there is nothing – anything must have been washed away. I hold the burn barrel to my chest, the object calming my heart rate. Hoping it will help nullify the sickness. Dizziness persists, but in a manageable dose. Sticking out my tongue, now against rust of the burn barrel, I try to channel a sensation through my taste buds. Nothing. Then I’m trying to replicate a taste in my imagination, on the organ of my tongue – nothing. My tongue is red now, the red tasteless. Scentless too. The red tasteless, scentless substance red and real on my clothes, the stain the formation of what you could almost make out to be letters, and if you could take these patterns for letters then they could only spell: ERROR.

There are some people on the pavements, with sounds coming out of their mouths. My mouth, mute. The sickness has liquefied my tongue, the organ now soft inside me and melting into my throat. Obstructed. Air scarce. These people, people with voices, have watched the scene unfold. I try to signal to them and there are those voices again, from their mouths. Concentrate hard. I’m trying to make out what they’re saying, the formation of letters I can ascertain from studying their mouths. Nothing. But then I remember that I have never really heard a person speak, not ever really speak. Perhaps their tongues have dissolved too. I smile to them. One of them is holding a child in its arms. I think it’s a woman as through a dim and wobbling vision I can decipher a blurred apron, tight around her bosom. It is though I’m under water. I can feel the water inside of me, swelling and swishing, it keeps dipping above my throat and entering my mouth. The blurred woman shields the child, turns and disappears into her house. I am smiling and they vanish. Little splashes can be heard across the expanse of crimson.

Alone again. Phase six. A foam fills my mouth. Clinging onto the envelope tighter, pastel blue, 8, solid, a badge inside. The foam slides back down my throat and is gone. Almost there. A centre of gravity around the envelope, pastel blue. Soon I will be at source of all this solidity: 105, Richmond Road East.

I’m passing everything, looking at all the houses on the road, my steps zigzagged. Odd houses are on the left. Two minutes. A big round face of a child, his birthday today, yesterday, tomorrow: someday, any day. Regardless, the envelope is still pastel blue and solid in my hand, 8 inside. A child is eight, a fact a number: balance. I’m hauling my liquid self along and the street is barren. 103. The next house will be his. There is no effort in my steps now, the pull of the house strong. 105. Birthday. I’m going up some steps and am all a sudden at the door. I lift my fist and go to knock, bring it back again. The thing fidgets about in my pocket before repeating the process. It wipes itself on my jackets, it is damp, and it falls back to my side. Both hands: I’m holding the envelope with both hands now. Handwritten. I study the scrawls for some time and go to knock again. I clutch it tighter and feel it solid in my hands. What happens when it is no longer there, solid in my hands? Phase six I think. Shake my head. Eight I think, ‘eight’ muttering it aloud. That’s why I came here. Before I know it my hand is reaching for the letter-flap of its own accord. Push, the fingers push it in, I feel it go, the balance of it all. Seasickness cripples my body and I grab on to a garden gate, nauseated and my vision failed. Through the sound of it all, ten feet underwater, I hear a door open somewhere and the liquid of my body swells again, lapping father and father over my tongue and I open my mouth, the liquid of my body emptying onto the lawn as the boy steps out smiling, card in hand: cartoon animals, the badge: 8.

 *          *          *

Lisa Fontaine is a writer living in Greenwich, London. This story was first published in Open Pen Issue Eleven. Lisa’ flash fiction appears in The Open Pen Anthology, available to buy here.

Birdwatching

By Anton Rose

The body falls towards the river, cutting a pattern through the rain. It hits the water, and I shiver. I wipe the raindrops off my binoculars, and focus on the spray. The entry was messy, with no great shape to the dive. A six, perhaps. And that’s being generous. More like a five and half, now I think about it. As it fell, the arms began to flail, as if in a tragic moment of doubt. Too late.

I didn’t get a look at its face. Judging by the shape, I’d guess it was a girl, but it’s difficult to tell in these conditions. Questions like that don’t seem to matter now, anyway. Now the body is one with the water. The height of the drop from the bridge is enough to ensure there will be no thrashing underneath, no final, desperate fight as bodily instincts take over. Several broken bones, yes. Often a severed spine. From that high up, even the smoothest-looking water is like concrete.

In a few hours, someone will begin to worry. That’s if there’s anyone to worry, of course. But most people have at least one other person who might notice their absence. Then there will be telephone calls to waterlogged phones with no answer, attempts at contact over email or social media. There will be wild swings between doubt and reassurance, of thinking the worst, and holding onto hope. Eventually there will be calls to relatives, to colleagues, and finally to the police. Then search parties, and posters on lampposts, occasionally even an appeal in the local news. Depending on the weather, the body might turn up downstream, but most will be swept out into the estuary, and beyond.

Today is the fourteenth of February. My favourite day of the year. Christmas is a good one too, and New Year’s Eve is usually reliable, but there’s nothing quite so powerful as loneliness magnified by a day of cards, flowers, and displays of affection, all partaken in by other people.

Lost in my appreciation of the performance, I have failed to notice a man walking towards me. I’m standing next to a large iron girder, at the point at which several struts intersect. I thought I was well out of sight. Apparently not.

The man looks at me suspiciously, but there’s nothing in his eyes to indicate that he saw what I just did. He must have missed her go. He’s wearing a high-visibility jacket over some dark blue overalls. The rain splatters against his hood, which he lifts slightly to get a good look at me.

“Can I ask what you’re doing here?” he says, raising his voice to compete with the weather.

“Birdwatching.” I reply.

“You what?”

“Birdwatching. Looking out for rare birds.”

“I know what birdwatching is.” He says. He narrows his eyes.

I reach into my pocket and pull out a small, well-worn book. Scotland’s Best Birds. I open it at a page where the corner is turned in, and I hand it to him.

He holds it in his right hand, his thumb pressed up against the inner spine. With his left, he tries to shield the pages.

“White-throated Needletail,” I say. “This is the best time of year to see them. And they love this kind of weather.”

He stares at the book for another minute, and then hands it back to me.

“Well it isn’t really safe to be out here in these conditions.”

“Noted,” I say. “I was planning to be on my way soon anyway.”

He studies me again for a few more seconds, and gives half a shrug. He turns and begins to walk towards a van parked only a few metres away. How didn’t I hear a van approaching? And why did he park so close to me? I suppose he could have seen a reflection from the binoculars

I wait for him to leave.

When he’s gone, I put the book back in my pocket. I’ve never seen a Needletail in my life. Not that I would be able to recognise one if I did.

I make my way towards the edge of the bridge, climbing over the railings.

As I stand peering over, my body and my mind engage in a familiar dance. My knees tense and loosen; my toes grip the fabric of my socks. Another time, perhaps, but not today. I glance to my left. A hundred metres down the bridge, there’s another figure. Tonight really is the night. They teeter on the precipice. I wipe the raindrops from my binoculars.

*          *          *

Anton Rose lives in Durham, U.K., with his wife, Beth, and their dog, Rosie. He writes fiction and poetry while working on a PhD in Theology. His work has appeared in a number of print and online journals, including Structo, theNewerYork, and Jersey Devil Press.

@antonjrose

ONEOFFZINE

The one-off zine we’ve called ONEOFFZINE is guest edited under a mentor scheme, working alongside young editors in the making from the London boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Newham.

Printed by the good people at Rockland Lit, ONEOFFZINE is thirteen pieces of microfiction with something to say. It feels like Open Pen, it reads like Open Pen.

There’ll be a few ways you can pick up a copy in the coming weeks, but for now, any order placed for The Open Pen Anthology today will include ONEOFFZINE with your delivery. The only other way, if you’re feeling flush, is to pick our The Open Pen Anthology boxset for a cool £49.99.

Its authors include:

ONEOFFZINESimon Pinkerton
Pia Patel
Thomas McColl
Jac Lewis
Terence Corless
Paul Paranchikis
Christoper P. Mooney
Tamara Jones
Laura Gabrielle Feasey
Jo Gatford
Martin Cornwell
Fiona Marshall

*  *  *

Edited by

Matthew Neal & Pia Patel