short story

AREA 52

By James Miller

Today, we finally reached the much anticipated San Luis valley. For weeks we’ve been watching the footage on YouTube of the UFO, as Jake sees it, or just the weird lights in the sky, as I keep telling him. You have to admit, Jake says, it’s freaky. I agree, it’s abnormal. Jake is more convinced because the valley is the number one place in the whole country, maybe even the world, for UFO sightings and abductions. It’s not a coincidence, he says, there’s hardly anyone here who hasn’t seen a UFO or had some sort of ‘contact.’ Jake tells me that according to the experts on the ‘forum’ it has something to do with lots of fresh water wells in the valley, but I don’t see what fresh water wells have to do with UFOs or why aliens from other worlds would care so much either way. They’ve got spaceships, right?

Later

We stop for the night at a Motel 6 near the interstate, a few miles out of Alamosa. I have a shower and when I come out, Jake’s on his mobile. He’s standing in the car park, phone jammed to the side of his head. I stand in the doorway with a towel wrapped around myself and watch him walk and talk. He’s too far for me to make out any words clearly and what I can hear is constantly drowned out by trucks on the Interstate, but he seems animated, striding this way then back again, making gestures as he speaks. He realizes I’m watching him and ends the call. Who was that? I ask. No-one, he says. Then, I phoned the credit card company. His expression darkens. You know I hate that. Show me the number, I say. I’m not showing you the number, he says. I know he’s lying. He called Caitlin. I can tell by his face, by the sort of glassy expression he assumes when he’s on the defensive, the way his little eyes won’t settle on anything, least of all me. I know I’m right, but decide not to push the issue. It’s like my therapist tells me: take a deep breath then stop, think and take your time.

We go to a drive thru Taco Bell and return to the motel. Jake wants to watch the footage again. We sit in front of the lap-top. The two minute clip has now had over a million YouTube hits. I’ve seen it so many times, I know everything that happens: first, nothing, just the night, the dark smear of the road and the low houses. A single porch light above a front door. Then, after a bit, a glow in the sky; at first it’s quite faint, like a slightly brighter than normal star and for a while it’s like this and then, suddenly, it gets much, much brighter, almost like a flare, but it’s too focused, too fast. Do you see that, says Jake. Yes, I see it. The light splits into four smaller lights and these lights then hover, yes, that’s right, they hover in the black sky for ten seconds or so and then slowly descend to the ground, or rather disappear, one apparently landing some distance behind the nearest house, the others moving from view. It’s very hard to tell exactly what is or is not happening. On the footage, silent up to this point, we hear a man exclaim, “Sweet Jesus!” A woman starts to answer him but then it ends. Jake winds it back to the moment when the single light explodes into four and pauses the footage. Would you look at that, he says again. The light is very bright, the footage grainy. I lick sauce from my fingers. It’s often this way.

When Jake is finally asleep, I check his phone. He’s deleted all recent calls. I’m sure there is a way around, a better way, but it’s late and I can’t think.

The next day…

The old guy says this is where the UFO landed. He’s Mexican or something like that and has a red baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, which are narrow and squinty in the sun. We’re in a field behind a house on the outskirts of town. Jake’s convinced it’s the house we saw on the footage, but I’m not so sure. The house is part of a recent development of ‘Ranch Houses’ built around dead end streets. Most are unsold, some unfinished, just the foundations sticking out of the earth. Construction company went bust, I imagine, same as everywhere. I wonder if Jake would like to live here. For a minute I think he would but then no, I guess he probably wouldn’t. He gets restless. That’s why he moved to California from Oklahoma City. That and the tornados. One pulled the roof off the condo where he used to live. He said he hid under the bed as it happened and that he was fortunate, because he lived on the ground floor. I laugh and say he swapped tornados for earthquakes. We used to talk about this stuff. I said I’d take a tornado any day but he said, wait until one destroys your home. That’s why I met him the first place, because he kept coming to the coffee shop, because he had to do something, had to go somewhere. He had just lost his home. He says he’s more settled now, but he isn’t settled.

The old man takes us into the scrubland behind the development. It’s tough, the country out here, empty wastes of silvery grass and dusty grey soil and in the distance, hanging in the sky like clouds, hazy mountains with snowy tops. The air is crisp, but the sun feels hot. It was over there, says the man. They kill our cattle. He spits on the ground. His face is worn and brown like a pair of old shoes. They suck all the blood out the cattle, he continues, with gestures, and they leave the bodies behind, just skin, just like a peeled banana. He makes a peeling motion. I worry about how much Jake is going to pay him, if this is the right thing to do. I think not. The guy could be telling us any old crap. Here? says Jake. Look at the ground, says the old man, can’t you see it? Jake gets out his camera. His pride and joy, he says. If there was a fire… he says. All I can see are tyre tracks, I tell him, dusty tyre tracks. The old man says something about scorch marks but I’m tired of this. Jake points the camera at the ground and starts photographing the dirt. I want to be sitting down, drinking an ice cold coke.

Later

You might think, listening to all this, that I don’t believe. But no.

I believe.

Later

I grew up on a smallholding north of Eureka. When I was sixteen I saw a light coming from behind the barn. I can’t remember where Dad was, gone on one of his binges probably. Mom was watching TV, I imagine. I could see the light from my room and it spread until it seemed to fill the world – an endless, emerald green light. I remember that I couldn’t move. I was caught in the tractor beam. They told me I was in their spaceship and that I shouldn’t be afraid. Their voices sounded a bit like wind-chimes, but I could understand the meaning of what they were saying quite clearly. I think they had an English accent. At least, it reminded me of one of those old actors I used to see on TV. They told me not to be frightened. It’s hard to say just what they looked like. Everything was vibrating. I’m not sure if I want to say what they did to me.

It’s not that I don’t believe. Oh no. I believe.

The next day

Why did you call Caitlin? For some reason, I decide breakfast is a good time to bring this up. Jake is pouring maple syrup over his pancakes. He stops what he’s doing and gives me his glassy look. As if I’m here and not here. Just leave it Meg, he says. He only calls me Meg when he’s serious. I love you Meg, he’s most likely to say in a moment. You weren’t calling the bank. The credit card company, he interrupts, I was calling American Express. You could at least tell me the truth, I snap back. You could at least tell me if you’re calling her instead of lying to me. What kind of man are you? You could tell me the truth, I wouldn’t mind. I know what I’m saying isn’t true. I would mind. I mind like hell. I have that hot metal taste in my mouth. I hope I’m not going to get a migraine.

You haven’t eaten any breakfast, he says, gesturing at my ham and eggs with his fork. I’m not hungry, I say. I think I’ve got a lead on the people who took the footage, he says. I don’t respond. The waitress brings us a coffee refill. We’re looking in the wrong place, he says a bit later. I put on my sunglasses and stare out the window. I can see the Taco Bell and a Subway. The parking lot is mostly empty apart from a couple of Mexican guys standing around near the bins, waiting for something. Trucks keep hurtling by on the Interstate and the air is full of faint grey dust. The sky is such an intense blue, even with my glasses on, it hurts my eyes. We’re closer to the heavens, out here. The sky isn’t so far away.

Later

Jake has been corresponding with other UFO fanatics or “ufologists” as they like to call themselves and is following a couple of leads. The leads have sent us out to this tiny town – really just a cluster of clapboard shacks, a few remote farms and a gas station strung out along the highway. The landscape is flat and dusty and the sky is so clear and empty, it’s almost abstract, like the idea of ‘blue’ before blue was invented. Out there, past the fields, there’s a national park with sand dunes that stretch hundreds of feet high. I tell Jake that we’re wasting our time. We won’t find anything, we won’t see anything, but Jake ignores me and tries to wipe dust from the camera lens.

When we get signal, his phone starts to buzz with in-coming texts. I’m sure some of them are from Caitlin. The migraine I hoped wouldn’t come comes: a wobbly haze clouding around the edges of my vision and a feeling like fingers boring into either side of my skull. I remember the green light, the way I couldn’t move.

Apparently some Mexicans took away a bit of the UFO, Jake tells me. He’s all excited. They thought it was a fragments of a satellite or something like that and want to sell the scrap metal. Uh-huh, I say. I guess this is what the “ufologists” on the forum have been saying. Ninety-nine per cent of the forum is bullshit.

We drive around some more. I have to close my eyes to get rid of the floaters. The migraine intensifies. My vision gets as foggy as a steamy car window.

Jake stops to speak to a couple of guys selling peaches from the back of a pick-up. Estamos buscando las luces en el, um, in el cielo? They shake their heads and exchange a look that says, is this dude crazy or what? Jake’s phone vibrates – someone is calling him – but he kills the call. Who was that? I want to know. Someone I didn’t want to speak to. He makes a big deal of turning the car round, pulling the wheel, aggressively yanking the stick back and forth. We drive the way we came, his phone between his legs. Let me see the number, I say. Give me a break, he says. It’s Caitlin isn’t it? Tell me. He gives a slight nod with his head and grinds his teeth. Why is she calling? I don’t know Meg. Sometimes she calls. What am I meant to do? I don’t answer that. It’s hard to argue with the migraine invading my head. Can we go back to the motel? I say. I need to lie down. I don’t speak all the way back, just slump in my seat like a dead person and leave it up to Jake to worry about how upset I am. He feels guilty, I can tell. He puts a hand on my knee to try and make me feel better. With a sigh, I swat him away.

Later

I close the blinds and lie on the bed, arm over my eyes. What do you want me to do? says Jake. Just go away. I can sense him, hanging around, like a dog that feels guilty after plundering the garbage. He’s waiting for me to give him a sign that I’m not angry about Caitlin calling, but I am angry. He can suffer. I lie on the bed. He checks his email and says he’s been sent the name and address of another farmer whose cattle keep being killed under mysterious circumstances. He tries to show me a couple of pictures, but I tell him the screen is too bright, it’s playing havoc with my floaters. Jakes says he’s going to check it out but he hangs around some more. I know he’s waiting for me to give him a smile and say something like, I love you, but I don’t. I’m not doing that. Shouldn’t you be going? I ask. Finally, I’m left alone. I wait until I hear Jake drive off and then I get up and drink several glasses of water. My migraine has almost entirely disappeared. Take a deep breath and think.

I open Jake’s laptop and resume trying to crack the access password. I’ve been trying for a few weeks now. One way or another, I’ll get to the bottom of it. I try the name of his first pet (which I only recently got him to reveal to me). No. His high school. No. His favourite band. No. His mother’s maiden name. No. His mother’s name. No. UFO. No (I’ve tried that before, I admit). ET. No. Star Trek. No. Star Wars. No. Jedi. No. Aliens (I must have tried that before). No. I stop a moment.

After they’d finished with me, the aliens, they left me in a field a couple of miles from home. I remember waking up wet with a sore head like I’d drank a whole bottle of JD and a sharp pain between my legs, dried blood down there and crusted over my thighs. Thirty six hours had passed and my Mom had reported me missing to Sherriff Cooper. For days afterwards it hurt when I peed and my period was over a month late. When it came it was so heavy and painful that I sometimes wonder, thinking back, if I was having a miscarriage. Maybe they gave me a half-human, half-alien baby? I was so young then. There were these odd burn marks on my clothes and a strange red circle, like a tattoo but not, at the top of my left arm. It’s about the size of a dime. When I first showed it to Jake he got really excited. Apparently, a lot of abductees have it. We’ve been ‘branded’ like cattle, he says. A DNA harvest. Well.

Then it comes to me. Area 51. I’m in! Laptop unlocked. The thing is I’ve long suspected Jake has secret email conversations with Caitlin. They’re corresponding all the time, I’m sure of it. He’s probably calling her right now, with me out the way. I’ve also thought he must have pictures of her, photos stashed on the laptop, or somewhere. I told him he had to delete them all. He said he did, but I know he didn’t.

The password for his Gmail is different. Think Meg, think. I take a deep breath. What would my therapist do? I type Caitlin. No joy. I try a couple more, but still nothing. I guess cracking one code is good enough for today. Instead, I start to search his laptop for pictures of her or of them, together. I’ll get to the bottom of this. I don’t feel bad doing what I’m doing. Not at all. Already I think through what I’ll say to Dr Adams, how I’ll explain to her the way I was feeling and why I did this. There’s a lot of shit on his machine and it takes a while. I look up and realise the light has changed. An amazing, beautiful pink sunset bathes the room in a gentle, rosy glow. I take a moment to look outside. A couple of pick-up trucks and an SUV are parked near the motel entrance and I can see a few guys standing around, talking to each other. Several keep pointing to the back of one of the pick-ups. My phone buzzes. A message from Jake. You won’t believe this, it says. A picture message arrives. A photo of a dead cow. The bottom half of the cow is just bones. Another text. Something melted half a cow! U see? Weird, I guess. I decide not to reply. I’m clicking through Jake’s photo albums. I’m on one entitled ‘Sightings 3.’ It mostly consists of pictures he’s taken of suspicious lights in the sky. Most of the pictures don’t show anything. A few interesting clouds, that’s all. Jake’s never seen shit. I can hear the men outside, arguing in Spanish, but I pay them little mind. I keep clicking. Blue sky; blue sky; moon; vapour trail; stars; nothing at all; nothing; more stars; sunlight through clouds; Caitlin.

I knew it. I fucking knew it.

Caitlin.

She’s wearing a white vest top that shows off her breasts and she’s smiling. Her arms are skinny and tanned. She’s so much prettier than I am, it’s no wonder Jake is sometimes disgusted by me. Click. In the next picture, she’s taken off her vest top. She’s not wearing a bra and her breasts are bigger than mine; firm, round and paler than the rest of her with nipples like milk chocolate discs. My face feels like it’s on fire. In the next picture she’s squeezing her tits together to make them look even larger and she’s sticking her tongue out as if to say ‘I’m a dirty little bitch.’ In the following snap she’s lying back in the bed, one hand pushing her white g-string aside to give a glimpse of the pink between her legs. In the one after that she’s got something in her mouth – the angle is odd and the quality is not great – but I realise it must be Jake’s stinky, dirty cock. My face is burning but I keep going through, all the way to the end, when Caitlin has a big smile and she’s holding Jake’s dripping cock, trails of cum all over her tits and lips.

I close the file and slam shut the laptop. Well, I think. Well I never. I knew this to be the case. I knew it. Being right gives me a sharp burn of satisfaction. There will be hell to pay for this, I think. Hell to pay. I wonder if I should keep quiet or confront Jake directly, the moment he comes back to find his lap-top open, a photo of his cum-smeared lover smiling back at him. Stop and breathe.

I decide to leave the room. Don’t think about Caitlin. Go outside. The air is surprisingly cool for June and I remember Jake saying how we’re nearly ten thousand feet up. That’s high. The men I saw earlier haven’t left. They’re still standing around the pick-ups and the SUV, having some sort of argument. They all stop, when I come out, and look at me in the way men do. I don’t really care. One of them, a boy who I guess must be about twelve or thirteen, starts to wave at me. Senora, senora, he shouts, come, look! He’s pointing to something in the back of the pick-up. Look, come. It’s probably just a Mexican scam, I think, but I go over anyway. The men stop and watch. Look, see, says the boy. He has a runny nose and a gap between his middle teeth. Look, senora, you won’t believe it! There is something covered in a dirty blanket in the back of the pick-up and dusty smears of what looks like oil over the sides. I get a whiff of rotten eggs, the bad smell lingering and small flies crawling across the warm metal hulk of the truck. I flinch and try to wave them away. Extranjeros, says one of the men in a thick accent. Hombre del espacio. One of the men climbs into the back of the pick-up. His clothes also smeared with black oil. He grins at me. You want to look? You want to see? He pulls away the blanket. Underneath is a black, twisted body about the size of a ten year old, but it’s all burnt-up, the gender lost, weird and warped like a charcoal sculpture of a little man. You see? They’re all shouting things at me, in Spanish and English. No photo, says the boy. Then, you want it, you take? Ten thousand dollars! I don’t have any money, I tell him. I look at the body again, if that’s what it is, because it looks more like an assemblage of burnt sticks pulled from a fire. The smell is horrible and I brush flies from my face. The men keep shouting.

After a while I go back to the motel. Eventually, I hear the Mexicans leave. I don’t know where they’re going. I lie on the bed and wait for Jake to come back.

o          o          o

JAMES MILLER

is the author of ‘Lost Boys’ and ‘Sunshine State’. His new book, a collection of interlinked short stories called ‘UnAmerican Activities‘ is available now, published by Dodo Ink.

JIM GIBSON: LIT RAGS

Int. – Local – Early evening

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

Jim: What you up to this weekend, then?

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

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

Tom: How’s that writing stuff going?

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

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

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

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

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

Tom: Whitey.

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

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

Jim: Well that just shows it then.

Tom: What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim: (tuts) Fuck off.

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

Jim: I recognise her; who is it?

Tom: Rachael, Damo’s bird.

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

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

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

Tom: Too right.

Jim: Fag?

Tom: Gu on then.

Exit to beer garden.

 

JIM GIBSON

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

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

Perpetual Margaux


By Adam Kelly Morton

Producer Gaston Chevrey called me at a time when I was dead poor. Nearly all of my three-hundred or so dollars a week I was making as a waiter were being swallowed up by rent, credit card interest, and Milwaukee’s Best. In fairness, most of it was the booze. When I wasn’t waiting on tables, I was either boozing, or writing while boozing. The call came just after 11am on a blustery winter morning in 2006. I was in my cold, cat-smelling apartment, in my bathrobe, when Gaston told me that his film company, Shooting Étoile, was interested in optioning my play about school life called Hallowed Halls, to support their French language feature, Institution—and that he especially loved the scene I had written about a boy and his acne (one of the weakest scenes in the play, I thought). “How would twelve-hundred-and-fifty dollars suit you for that, eh?” Gaston said.

My first thought was that twelve-hundred-and-fifty dollars would buy me a lot of booze. “Lemme talk to my agent,” I said. I didn’t have an agent—apart from my mother.

“Whoa, whoa, agent?” Chevrey said. “Who is your agent?”

“Lemme talk to them,” I said, and hung up.

Getting a literary agent in Montreal is practically impossible. They aren’t into you unless you have done a lot of work—but you can’t get the work until you have an agent. I had already made countless calls, queries, and submissions only to get either a standardized rejection, or no response whatsoever.

In my new, leveraged position, I began searching the internet for the best French agent in town. While I was doing that, I cracked open a beer and called my mother to celebrate.

“You know what you should do,” she said, “you should find the agent of that guy who wrote Meatballs: The Musical.”

“I hate musicals,” I said, typing ‘Montreal, Agent, Film, Meatballs’ into the search engine.

“You are such a Philistine,” she said.

“Thanks Mom. Love you.”

“Love you too. Are you drinking?”

 I hung up. I had located four agents in Montreal who dealt in French, including Émilie Bonenfant—the agent of Gru Garsupio, author of Meatballs. I saved her for last.

The first agent I called had a secretary who dismissed me the moment I said, “Hi, my name is Alan Norton and I’m a writer seeking representation. May I speak with—”

“I’m sorry. We are not seeking any new clients at this time.” She hung up.

It was the same at the next two agencies. I left messages with them, but needed a new approach. With the last agent on my list, the secretary answered, “Agence Émilie Bonenfant, est-ce que je peux vous aider?

Oui, hello,” I said. “May I speak to Emily please?”

“May I ask who’s calling?

I tried to sound like a big shot: “My name is Alan Norton. She doesn’t know me. I’m a screenwriter.”

“I’m sorry. Émilie is not currently seeking any new—”

“Yeah, yeah. Just tell her that the Shooting Étoile production company wants to option my script for their upcoming feature, Institution.”

A pause.

“Give me one moment, please,” the secretary said.

Another pause. Muzak by George Thorogood. I sang to the tune. Lord she was lovey-dovey.

“Hello Alan?” a voice said. “This is Émilie how ARE you?”

She was so nice. Over the course of our lovey-dovey conversation, I put her on hold twice; both times, it was one of the other agents in town trying to get a hold of me. Word was getting around.

“People are after you,” she said.

“They sure are,” I said. I liked having people after me.

Of all the Montreal agencies, Émilie’s had the smallest roster, the biggest names, and charged the most: 11.5% commission instead of the usual 10%.

Mom was right.

Immediately I gave Émilie all the particulars of the script, and of my preliminary discussion with Monsieur Chevrey.

“I think I understand,” she said. “Let me talk to Gaston.”

Good, she had dealt with him before. “Yeah,” I said. “You do that, Emily.” I took a good pull of my beer and lit a cigarette.

“I’ll call you back,” she said.

For the next hour or so, I waited and drank more beer. When the phone finally rang, it was my mother.

“I hope she’ll make you famous like Gru Garsupio,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said.

Call waiting beeped. “That’ll be her, Mom. Gotta go.”

“Good luck, my only son. I love you!”

Click. “Hello?”

“Hello Alan? This is Emily how ARE you?”

She laid out the deal for me: instead of getting paid twelve-hundred-and-fifty for Shooting Étoile to option my script for Institution, I was going to receive ten-grand as a consultant, and my script was not to be touched in any way whatsoever.

“Are you satisfied with that?” Émilie asked.

I told her that I was, and busted open my last beer.

*

My first meeting at Shooting Étoile, HQ’d in a stylish penthouse office near the Cathedral, was with the Executive Producer, Martin (Marty) Lemieux, and lead actress Imogène Pétace. She, predictably, was tiny, bubbly, and beautiful. Gaston was there too, as was Imogène’s plump personal assistant, Véro(nique). The four of them—seated in huge, red leather swivel chairs around a massive ebony table—seemed genuinely delighted to have me in the room. Notepads and copies of my script sat before them, each with under-lined passages, hi-lites, notes, and side-notes. If there was anything I wanted—a cigarette, an espresso, a croissant, a scotch, anything at all—I had only to say so. I asked for an allongé, and Véro bounced up to oblige me.

Marty offered me a Davidov cigarette, which I took, and he took one for himself.

“Alan,” he said, “let me start by saying that I love your script. We all do.”

I smiled. Marty smiled. Everybody smiled.

“Here’s what we want from you,” Marty continued, “we want you to use your expertise to make Institution the best film it could be. We currently have investments of five-million from the Canadian government. We really want this film to do well, and we hope you can help us.”

I was thrilled to help them, and felt confident that we would win an Oscar, at the very least.

They had sent me an early draft of Institution; I had read it thoroughly, and made notes before the meeting. I told them that Institution was a good script, but that it was missing an important question; that rather than being just a sequence of events, our film should ask something of the viewer—to which they agreed wholeheartedly. I gave them several more things to think about, and to research. Whenever I spoke, they scribbled furiously in their notepads.

Afterward, they treated me to a smashing luncheon in a rooftop garden bistro in the Old Port. Beautiful, well-dressed people lounged everywhere, sipping fine beverages amidst potted cedar bushes. We drank several bottles of Margaux, and complimented each other on various things. I felt like five-million dollars.

Over the next few months, they would relay the results of our bi-weekly meetings to the director—an up-and-comer named Henri Gilles—and to his associate writer, Michel Courtemanche. I said to Marty, “Why not all meet together to save time?”

He agreed, and finally, we were all brought together into the big office: Marty, Gaston, Pétace, Véro, Henri, Courtemanche, and a few of Marty’s secretaries. Everyone was standing, coffees in hand, chatting away like Thanksgiving. Courtemanche’s wife Joanne was there too, and when introduced, she scowled at me. With the exception of her, and the always-introspective Henri, everyone was regaling madly.

Nothing much was accomplished at the meeting, but for a bottle of champagne after the coffees. It was agreed that I would accompany Marty, Pétace and Véro on a fun writing retreat in order to hash out new ideas, while Henri and Courtemanche would continue to work independently. On my way out of the office, I turned back to see Joanne, flute of champagne in hand, glaring at me some more.

*

The writing retreat took place on one of Marty’s estates in the Laurentians. It was a lovely late-spring day, and there were plenty of canapés and Montrachets. We discussed a great number of exciting inevitabilities for Institution, and Pétace and Véro wrote a scene themselves—involving two female characters having a laugh at (something to do with) panty hose.

It was all very la di da, until it was revealed that an English version of the screenplay was being prepared for me to work on. I asked Marty if that meant I was going to be actually writing, instead of just consulting.

“Yes,” Marty said, patting me on the shoulder. “A treatment. We’ll leave you to get started.”  He then rushed off to play golf with Imogène.

As soon as I got back to Montreal, I called Émilie. I told her specifically what was happening, and she said she’d call me back.

Meanwhile, I called my mother. She was delighted. “I wonder how much they’ll pay you now,” she said.

“Me too,” I said, while pouring a Stella Artois into a pint glass.

“I guess that’s why that Courtemanche and his wife don’t like you.”

I stopped pouring. Mom was right again.

Another call. “Love you, Mom.” Click.

It was Émilie. She had spoken to with Gaston, and now, I was going to get five-grand for the treatment, five-grand on the first day of shooting, and another ten-grand once the film opened.

Debts gone. Perpetual Margaux.

They sent me a translated version of the script (having hired a translator just so that I could work in my langue maternelle) and I read through it. I thought for a long time about cutting out all the cheesy shit, like the lengthy image descriptions about coming darkness, and the spoon-fed character motivations.

So, I cut all the cheesy shit, like the lengthy image descriptions about coming darkness and the spoon-fed character motivations; then I added some characters who I thought were important to Institution; then I attempted to ask the question I felt needed asking; finally, I sent in my draft—minus the scene with the panty hose.

A few days later, Marty called a meeting that all would attend, including Henri, Courtemanche, and even his wife.

My script had not been well received; Marty wanted more action scenes where SWAT teams with battering rams smashed holes into the school; Gaston didn’t like how minimalist it was, and referred to the scene he loved in my original script—about the boy and his acne—as something to think about for inspiration; Pétace and Véro liked all the cheesy shit that was in the script, like the lengthy image descriptions about coming darkness, and the spoon-fed character motivations, and wondered why I had cut them— they were especially distressed that the panty hose had gone missing; Courtemanche said something about my treatment being, perhaps, a bit untimely, and thought more time was needed for my treatment to evolve, considering everything it was implying, over time, and that, all things considered, that we probably didn’t have that kind of time—at which time, his wife smiled and nodded in agreement.

Finally, all turned to get Henri’s input. He was the director, after all. The final decision should remain with him. He had been staring in silence at my draft all the while.

“I think,” he said, looking up at the circle of compelled viewers, “there is a lot of work that still needs to be done. It’s true that we don’t have a lot of time, but I want to use Alan’s treatment as the basis for how the film is made.”

Nobody said anything. Outside, the Cathedral bell tolled noon.

I smiled meekly. Joanne was about to flip the ebony table. Little did I know, it was to be my last official meeting with Shooting Étoile.

Thanksgiving was over.

*

Months later, the new draft was sent to me by Véro. They had ignored virtually all the work I had done. Months after that, shooting on Institution began. I did not receive my next instalment of money, so I called Émilie. She said she would speak to Gaston, then call me back. I waited. Beers flew by. The phone rang.

“Hello?” I said.

“Hello, Alan? This is Émilie how ARE you?”

“Hi, Emily.”

“Good… So, I spoke with Gaston Chevrey, and he said that Shooting Étoile don’t want to pay you the remaining money they owe.”

I took a sip of Stella Artois. “Why not?”

“Because he said the work was not good.”

“Not good?”

“Yes. That’s what he said. I’m going to wait until next week then talk to him again. As far as I can tell, they are entitled to not accept the treatment you did. But for the five-thousand on the first day of shooting, they’ll have to pay you that, it’s in your contract.”

 “And what if he doesn’t want to pay that either?” I said, watching one of my cats take a piss beside the litter box.

“Well,” Émilie said, “they have a grant from the Canada Council. And the policy of that grant is that if any kind of non-payment scandal happens, then the Council can withdraw their support. I’ll just tell Gaston that he has to choose between five-thousand and five-million.”

And that’s what she did.

I got my money, and spent it.

When Institution came out, it received brilliant reviews in the francophone press; the anglophone paper was less enthusiastic: their critic gave it one star, and wrote, ‘Institution should ask an important question, and it doesn’t.’

The night of the premiere at the Regal, I happened to be walking by on my way home from a lunch shift at the restaurant—where I had stayed for Happy Hour.

There were crowds outside the theatre, with red-carpets under the marquee, and the entranceway all lit up with big, rotating lights. I approached and looked through the window. Surrounded by cameras, more lights, and scores of people, there they all were: Marty, Pétace, Véro, Henri, Courtemanche, Joanne—even Émilie Bonenfant. All stood gaily in their tailored regalia, sipping Moët poured from magnums. Gaston Chevrey was there too. He saw me and held my gaze for a moment, then returned to the festivities and raised his glass.

I turned and started walking across town towards my apartment. The cats needed to be fed. All my tip money was gone, but I knew that the dépanneur across the street from my place had tins of cat food, and accepted credit.

Plus, they had twelve-packs of Milwaukee’s Best for only ten bucks.

*           *           *

Living a life of mayhem in Montreal, Canada with his wife and three kids aged three and under, Adam Kelly Morton is an acting teacher, filmmaker, actor, and writer when he’s not dealing with other shit (literally). He has been published in Urban Graffiti, Danforth Review, Untethered, Menda City Review, Transition Magazine, and Mulberry Fork Review, among others. His one-man show “The Anorak”, about the Montreal Massacre, has received numerous citations, and was performed most recently in London, UK.

He is the editor of The Bloody Key Society Periodical.

Find out more at www.adamkellymorton.com

EVEN DEAD, I’M NEUROTIC

By Nick Black

“Saul Rubinstein! Did they cover the mirrors before you died?” – these my late wife Leigh’s first words to me in twenty-five years, as she spits on her fingers and rubs at a grease spot on my shirt. I scratch my ear. She slaps my hand away without even looking up.

“So!” she says, finally meeting my eye. “What age did you make it to without me?”

I think back. It was Fish Night. “Eighty-six,” I tell her. “Did you marry again?”

“No.”

“And showgirls?”

“By the busload.” She smiles, or snarls, an expression I’d remembered fondly, either way. Even her happiness has teeth, this woman.

She walks me through an orange grove drenched in warm, syrupy sunshine. The oranges are huge, like grapefruit. All very beautiful, but hazy, like walking through a projector beam on the way to your cinema seat. Leigh, of course, is more solid, her flesh still beige. When we’re close, I can smell her hair lacquer.

“… It’s like I saw you yesterday,” she’s saying. “But I did miss you… Look at you, head swelling by the second! I should never open my mouth.”

“Is anyone arguing?” Just like old times. I look at her looking at me while we laugh, her eyes darting behind her specs, all over my face. I can see my reflection in her spectacle lenses. I look green.   Behind the glass, her eyes are narrowing. I’m done for.

I was less alone after she died than I might have led her to believe. I couldn’t cope so well in the later years, so I found myself an Irish woman to come once a week, help out. Paula. From County Cork. Leigh’ll ask if she was young, if she was pretty, if she was Jewish. The fact is, she was none of these, but she had hair the colour of salami and a rump you could bounce pennies off, though it cost you a pound for the pleasure. I’ll not add that detail. I forget who suggested it first but after a while, Paula and I came to an arrangement and she moved into the spare room, rent free, where she continued to entertain her men friends, always giving me notice so I’d stay out the way and keep the bathroom noises down.

Her presence didn’t pass my neighbours’ notice. What’s with Rubinstein, the recluse, suddenly people are coming and going there, day and night? Eventually, the rabbi popped ‘round, a first, and we sat in the front room, with the TV on low. ‘Deal Or No Deal’. I should have turned it off, I know, but had I invited him? Anyway, we’re both half-watching while pretending not to, and he’s asking about my health, my guttering, who knows?, when in walked Paula with three cups of tea she’d just made us.   The rabbi’s eyes popped out his head so hard they nearly knocked his glasses off. I didn’t acknowledge her at all, took my tea and stared at the carpet. “Are you not going to introduce me, Rubie?” asked Paula, standing behind my armchair, laying a heavy hand on top of my head. “This is my wife Paula,” I muttered. I don’t know why I had to add those two words. Maybe someone was saying them on the telly and I repeated them, without thinking. Maybe it was witchcraft. The rabbi was out of there before his lips had touched his cup, Paula doubling over in hysterics the second the front door was back in its frame. After that, he seemed to always be there, hovering on the street outside, whenever I was taking the rubbish out and Paula stood behind me in her nightie. On the blue moon she and I ever went to the bookies together, there’d be the rabbi, walking out of the drycleaner next door. “You do realise you’ll have to marry me now?” she said over sandwiches one day. “Make an honest woman of me?” Reaching over to take the last of my salmon paste.

All of this I decide I have to confess to Leigh when suddenly she says, “You know Elliot’s here, too?” and the breath to speak dies right in my throat.

The orange groves… Forget the orange groves. Apparently, we’re on a stony beach, now, the sea a sheet of rippling gold.   Beyond us, standing side-on by the water’s edge and frowning a little: Elliot Siegel, with his blue-black inky hair, the light shining off his pale waxy forehead. Just like Tony Curtis, everyone used to say. He’s in a tux, shirt open, no tie, one hand in his pocket, the sea foaming over his bare feet… He died young, so of course he’s still going to look good, there’s no talent to it.  I can hardly stop staring. I wonder how they got his head back on after the crash.

Really, I don’t know why I should be surprised to see him. Leigh had told me on our first date, some five years after he’d widowed her, “I’ll always love him, Saul. I’ve never believed in ‘til death do us part,’” urgently clasping both my hands. I’d taken her to see Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames at the Flamingo Club, and her face and make-up were dripping in the heat. I think that’s when I fell for her. Vwoompf. A lift with its cables cut. Elliot Siegel, then, is inevitably here, though he doesn’t look too happy about it. I knew him vaguely, in our teens, to raise my chin to across a crowded room. He’s barely older now. If Leigh and I had had kids, he could be our grandson.

“Let me go talk to him, Saulie. Your dying’s going to be a shock to him,” Leigh says, just about brushing my cuff with her fingertips as she goes. ‘A shock to him?!’ I think, as memories of someone trying the Heimlich Manoeuvre on me flash to mind.   I watch her walk away toward this handsome young man, her dodgy hip throwing a kink in her gait every few steps. I listen to the waves shhhh over the stones, and I suck on my back tooth.

I think there’s a bit of cod still stuck in my plate.

The beach reminds me of Brighton. Leigh always liked Brighton, though we never went together. She’d spent her first honeymoon there and it was too painful, I was told.   I went a couple of times with a girl from the salon next to my shop. Jackie Goldwyn. I probably told Leigh I’d gone to the races. It was perfectly innocent, jokes and ice creams in the afternoon, that’s all.  I was happy with that.

Me and Leigh’s honeymoon had been in Torremolinos, where we both got food poisoning.

The boys at the golf club gave me grief about dating the widow Siegel. Our first Christmas together, I’d bought her a fur jacket, sable, butterscotch lining, which of course I couldn’t afford. Every hour not spent in my father’s shop, selling off-the-rack suits for the discerning cheapskate, I was at the club, caddying by day, waiting at night. Most of the members and their wives and girlfriends I knew from shul but they looked less pious sat in the smoke and roar of the dining room. Squeezing between tables with hot, heavy tureens, picking up dropped forks, napkins, replacing empties, whipping off tablecloths, I’d be constantly looking around, running a mental finger over what everyone was wearing, guessing its price, wondering if any of that was bought on the HP, too.

Washing up at the end of a night, my friends Tony Feldman, Terry Gold with the runaway eye, Spencer someone I can’t remember, always the same song. “…Working so hard for another bloke’s woman….”

“But one with experience…” You could almost hear their hearts stop. Tony raised his hand, he’d gone too far.

Terry’d jump back in, “There are plenty of girls barely off their ponies waiting for us, Sollie. Waiting for us! You don’t need to marry the first one not to laugh in your face.”

It got tired, week in, week out, but I didn’t mix with girls who owned ponies, and besides, Leigh frequently laughed in my face. Who’d want anything else?

I’d roam the course at the crack of dawn, collecting lost balls to sell back to the pro shop. The dew’d soak my slacks walking through the rough. When the sun was high enough, I could look back and see where I’d been by the darker colour of the grass, like the wake of a ship. Wood pigeons cooing and that laugh of Leigh’s in my head: those are the sounds I put with that picture.

My parents weren’t any keener on me seeing Leigh.

“She can kill off as many husbands as she wants, so long as none of them are my son” – my mother.

“Not a lucky woman,” shook my father’s face from side to side. That Elliot was killed driving through a red light at three o’clock in the morning, while Leigh was fast asleep, counted for nothing. “What sort of wife lets their husband travel round on his own like that?! She should have been with him!”

They’re both notably absent here.

Leigh’s parents I’m not so sure about. It was never a secret they’d preferred Elliott, and sometimes she disappears with him to who knows where. Elliot tried to mouth something to me over Leigh’s shoulder on one of these occasions. I saw his face moving, turned to see who he was talking to, (I couldn’t believe it would be me), and when I turned back they were gone.

I’m ranting, for a change. Leigh and I are in a garden, night-blooming jasmine frothing around us, moonlight trickling through the trees. They seem big on outdoor scenes here: building rents must be ridiculous.

“… Twenty five years behind my back, while I’m busy mourning you?!…”

I’m laying it on a bit thick, but I’m hungry. No-one ever seems to eat here. Leigh’s been trying to convince me that the poor boy Siegel’s insecure, jealous of the thirty-six years she and I spent together, and he doesn’t know how he’s supposed to compete with that and…

I tuned out.   Her eyes, it might be noted, are shining like good gravy to have not one but two husbands chewed up at the same time because of her. I regret my outburst. She’s enjoying this too much.

“Don’t be silly,” she says, “ ‘Twenty five years’! Time….” She looks around and raises her hands in the air, palms up like they’re weighing scales, up, down, not knowing how to finish the sentence. I grunt, conceding.

How she died, I don’t even want to think about, but it took a lot out of this woman. Watching her doing her hand dance, all of the mischief suddenly drains of me, and I bat at the jasmine for something to do.

We had no kids, the doctors could never work out why, but there was a dog.   I had the shop, Leigh did some secretarial work, and we had some money for a few years. Despite Leigh’s concerns, I bought a Rover P6, low mileage, Cameron Green, that I promised to keep under 40. I figured if I never looked at the speedo, that was more or less keeping my word.  We bought a house in Finchley, with a garden.   I bought Leigh a fondue set and an Afghan hound, Lenny, stupid thing, long silky hair. He reminded me of Björn Borg.

The dog came with us everywhere. Leigh was always complaining I paid him more attention than I did her but we were both soppy about him. Leigh used to tie ribbons in his hair until I pointed out he was a boy dog and might not like that. Next morning, I woke to find my own bonce festooned with pink silk bows.

Lenny loved being driven around, his head out the back window. Whenever we took him out, people would stop to admire him, stroke him, Leigh and I kvelling like we’d made him ourselves. We took him to Hampstead Heath when the fair was on, Lenny pulling Leigh through the crowds. I stopped to chat to one of my customers. I saw the two of them up ahead of me, Leigh squatting down to talk to a little boy who was touching Lenny’s snout.   The kid had the darkest head of hair, jet black and bushy. Pale little face. He kind of reminded me of Elliott, maybe how Elliott might’ve looked at that age. I guess Leigh was having a similar thought because suddenly the boy was walking off through the crowd, holding Lenny’s lead, and I was excusing myself from my conversation and pushing through, trying to catch up. There were too many people between us. Thousands of lightbulbs heating the air, onions and burgers sizzling.  Machinery swung into the corner of my vision, out again. Everyone screaming. By the time I finally got to her, Leigh was alone, her cheeks damp, her mouth wobbling all over the place. She said, “I’m sorry, Saulie. He loved Lenny so much, I didn’t know what else to do.”

I searched the whole fairground, snatching at the arm of every brown- or black-haired kid I passed, calling Lenny’s name, Leigh behind me calling mine. I spilled out of the fair and onto the Heath as dusk became night. I couldn’t see a thing. I never found them. Leigh caught up with me on East Heath Road, watching the lights of the traffic crawling up and down the hill.

I know it sounds crazy but I slept with Lenny’s bowl under my pillow that night, possibly the one after too.   I did run it under hot water first.

Even dead, I’m neurotic. I have to stop myself worrying whether Pauline’s turned the outside light out overnight. That’s a hard habit to break. When we married, she converted and changed her name to Sarah. Sarah Rubinstein. It fitted her like a watermelon for a hat. I think she was running from something, debts, the law. If I asked too many questions, she’d laugh off my concerns and threaten to stick me in a home. She brought her two adult sons over from Ireland, men I’d never even known existed, though I hardly ever saw them. Occasionally I might hear one or other of them on the roof. I think they might have been tilers.

There was a home, right at the very end, but I was only visiting. Old Terry Gold, with the runaway eye, we’d stayed in touch all those years (and I still didn’t know where to look when I was talking to him.) Once a week or so, I’d go see him, chat about the old days, play some cards, stay for supper if there was one going spare.   “That’s Malcolm’s,” Terry would tease as my fork poised. “They wheeled his body out this afternoon.”   Terry had never got married himself, been too busy playing the field, he always claimed. People said he was in love his whole life with his first cousin, Rita. A knockout, she was. Ran away and joined the theatre, if I remember rightly.

So. Terry Gold’s care home, Fish Night. That’s where I bit it.   Surrounded by orange furniture and Caribbean nurses, every one of whom I knew by name.

I’m no philosopher. I sold womenswear in Temple Fortune. Nonetheless, it occurs to me that if this is Heaven, we’ve been sold a bill of goods.   For one thing, and I don’t mean to be lewd, the only woman here is sixty years old, and already married.   Hips courtesy of the NHS. Teeth, too. Then there’s that other husband who, for all his chin dimples and unstained tuxedos, looks tortured. Tortured! Imagine looking like that and having to spend the rest of eternity with a woman who’s sixty years old and, again, here with her husband. I swear I caught Elliot shooting her a look earlier that would have copped a life sentence if it had come true. ‘Life sentence’, I’m saying. He wishes. I’m just glad she didn’t see it.

The two of them have gone riding this afternoon – which reminds me of Tony’s pony girls comment, all those years ago – so I’m sitting in a meadow picking bluebells, waiting for her to get back. There’s no-one else here. Nowhere to go. I could kill myself with boredom, if etcetera etcetera.

For all I know, I’m here picking bluebells for centuries. Perhaps this is Leigh’s Heaven is what I’ve been thinking, sat here. I wonder if I have my own Heaven somewhere, and if Elliot has his, and what they’re like, and which of us is having more fun.   I wonder if Leigh’s in mine, too, or if it’s all dolly birds and circuses.

This field should look like a plucked chicken by now but still I’m deep in bluebells.   My mind drifts to Elliot, earlier, Leigh squeezing a riding hat onto his head. Even from a distance, with my old kaput eyes, I could see how nervous he was, eyeing the horses.  Huge things, everywhere muscles, sweat, hooves, chompers. Leigh could never get me on one, are you kidding, but maybe he was raised to respect his elders and couldn’t say no. She’ll have him listening to Cleo Laine next.   One of the horses suddenly tossed its head and snorted and the poor kid nearly fell over backwards.

The memory of it lifts my mood, I can’t deny. Naughty Saul, I smile to myself. Butterflies puff up around me, into the soft sunshine. I tug another bluebell out of the ground and suck on my back teeth. This bit of cod seems to be lasting forever.

*           *          *

Nick Black’s stories have been accepted by literary magazines including the Lonely Crowd, Spelk and Litro. They’ve also won several flash contests and been listed for competitions including the 2015 and ’16 Bath Flash Fiction Awards.

SEVENTEEN

Out in just a couple of weeks, we can now announce that Issue Seventeen is mixed and in the oven.
Ingredients:

Guest ed: Marianne Tatepo tempers the stories within with her guest editorial that focuses on recent events and how they tie into creativity and placelessness.

Cover fiction: But it’s congratulations to Fernando Sdrigotti, whose Only Up Here emblazons the cover of the teal-coloured issue. His pubby, grubby, eastish adventure feels like a real Open Pen piece; a return to our primary intention to publish fiction that is relevant to a mixed, always different, encouragingly bizarre London.

Illust.: Josh Neal of course. He is a magician with a pen. Check out his website. Check out his Instagram. Follow him. Force him to draw you. He can’t say no. He loves to draw.

Other fictions:

Nick Black – Even Dead, I’m Neurotic

AJ Tuppen – Report on the Orange

Katherine Harrison – Please Shower Before Entering The Pool

Sarah W – Mr. E

Jack Sanderson Thwaite – Two Months on a Boat

and of course, our resident fictioneer, the pepper of Open Pen, N Quentin Woolf. His property farce The Gap is as realist as it is [sic]-fi fantasy.

Flash: We’ll have a couple of these for you too. We call it microfiction because we’re desperate to be different.

So, to return to the cooking/baking theme attempted above and not really carried through with any real conviction, if we were a cake, we would be some sort of monstrous looking beetroot cake, seeping with burgundy slime, unconvincingly offered up as “alt-red-velvet”. But I tell you what, it wouldn’t be fucking gluten free.

More news on release to follow. But you can bet that you’ll catch a couple of the Issue Seventeen authors at our live event at the Jamboree, Limehouse, on Wednesday, 28th September. There is a bar there which will soften the bluster of the Open Pen Beat Jazz House Band. If you’ve seen them in action before, you’ll know that you’re in for a treat (one similar to the aforementioned alt-red-velvet cake).

To good writing, happy reading, and fiction with something to say!

READ. WRITE. SUBMIT.

Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 15.07.50

A War

First published, The Third Script (Transportation Press)

By Siamak Vossoughi

There was a young man and an old man at war, and they were the same man, seventy-nine-year-old Rahim Hashemi. The war was on his face. It was beautiful and terrible to see. The war could be seen by his wife and his children and the plumber who stood in his kitchen telling him that it would cost eight hundred dollars to clear out the pipes below his house. The plumber did not know how or why it was a war. He was a white American man who wanted to go home to his wife. He did not know that for seventy-nine years Rahim Hashemi had not been the kind of man who said ah, the world is full of men who will lie and cheat. He had not said it because he knew what happened to the men who said it. It was as clear as day: The men who said ah, the world is full of men who will lie and cheat lost hope. They became heartbroken and lonely, although they did not know that was what it was. He did not know how they met a single day with the full force of life, to be honest.

He could only remember dimly how he would’ve seen the plumber as a young man. The money aside. It was not really the money he was worried about. It was the world they would be left with. He could remember that as a young man he would’ve somehow been able to see the desperation in the plumber. And that would’ve helped Rahim to hate a system that had made him desperate. He knew that the system thrived on man’s suspiciousness of man, on making men small and desperate and rat-like. And so it was defeating a system to not hold a man’s desperation against him. It had almost been easy to do it: You built yourself up every time you refused to believe that man was small.

But he could not see any desperation in the plumber standing in the kitchen. He looked young and fit and strong, and sure in himself that the cost was eight-hundred dollars. Rahim wondered if the system had become so entrenched that men did not show the desperation on their faces anymore. At the same time he felt a great desperation on his own face. Maybe he had lost somehow. Maybe he should’ve been one of those men who said the world is full of men who will lie and cheat all this time.

He looked at his wife and children. They must remember, he thought. They must remember what we could do when a family refused to believe that man was small. He looked on their faces to find some reflection of that old belief. But they were too occupied by seeing that war in him. They knew it was bigger than any war in them. In their own ways his wife and his son and his daughter had all refused to believe that man was small, but none of them with his stakes and none for so long. None of them had tried to take the belief that man was not small and build a new system with it back in their own country. They did not know if they were qualified to help.

But he could not look past the man standing before him the way he once could. He does not care, Rahim thought. He does not care if he leaves and I say that the world is full of men who will lie and cheat. He does not care if I take that belief with me to another man, or to my wife or to my children.

Why don’t they see it, he thought. Why don’t they see that we are all connected to each other, and that what one of us gives to another, the other will give to someone else? Meaning that it is all in our hands, this whole business of life is in our hands.

If only the plumber was not so blank-faced, he thought. If only he had that little twitch of desperation and life that revealed that he wanted more from the world than this too. That was what he remembered from back home. They wanted to be more than small and afraid, even if they did not know how to get there. And so it had been very natural for Rahim and the young men he knew to say, we’ll do it by being big and unafraid. Maybe that will mean death. Okay. Death is just death. It is not a man being small.

Those were the stakes that made his wife and his children afraid to say anything. They watched in awe at how the plumber didn’t know any of it. It was hard to know what his stakes were. He worked for a company that had decided that this would be an eight-hundred-dollar job. He wanted to hurry up and go home.

Seventy-nine years old, Rahim thought. How many men have I known who have lied and cheated? I don’t know because I never kept track. I had a brother who kept track. And I saw that that became all you did if you did that. But there was something else of which I wanted to keep track.

He looked at the people in the room to remind him what that thing was. It had a human face, he knew that much. He remembered faces from his youth, faces that hadn’t looked small even when they were standing across from death. So why was an overcharged plumber’s estimate doing this to his face now?

It was because all that stuff hadn’t added up to anything. Seventy-nine years old and man was just as desperate as when he was a boy. So what had his life meant? The young man he had been would never have believed it. He would’ve laughed at the thought. Man? he would’ve said. We’re going to show what he can be.

“Eight-hundred dollars?” Rahim Hashemi said.

“That is the price, sir.”

Didn’t he deserve to say it? Didn’t he deserve to say out loud after all this time that these men were crooks? Didn’t he deserve to say it in front of his family so that they would know what kind of a world they were dealing with?

They made it very hard to remember that other thing. That was what he wanted the plumber to know. You are making it very hard for me to love man. That love could survive anything when I was young, but now I am old. It could survive anything because I didn’t think it would be a question of survival when I was old. I thought it would have a chance to do more than survive. I thought it could sit back and breathe. But it’s the same world. It’s the same world and man is still desperate and clawing and the worst part is that he is at ease with his desperation. You don’t even see it on his face anymore.

“I cannot pay this,” Rahim Hashemi said.

“Sir, the pipe will get backed up again if it isn’t cleared out.”

“I am sorry.”

He looked at his wife and children with a hope that they understood. He was too tired to fight a war. At least if the plumber left, he could fight it on his own terms. He could remember the young man, and the ease with which the young man would have glided over the situation. The young man would have said it is not the plumber, it is the manager in an office making a decision. And he would have said it is not the manager in an office, it is the owner of the company. And it is not the owner of the company, it is the man at the top. And the man at the top, we’re just going to get rid of him, that’s all.

No need for any dramatics.

He felt embarrassed about his own dramatics now, but it wasn’t just embarrassment for himself. He felt embarrassed for man. If men weren’t going to show their desperation on their faces anymore, somebody had to do it. To remind them, in case they didn’t remember, that at the end of this thing was death. He looked at the people in the room and he thought that they must know, even the blank-faced plumber. So there was no point in not going to the heights of a love for man. He’d had to spend his life there because it seemed like the only other option was to spend it at the depths. That was how it had looked to him. If there was some place else, he wanted them to know, I didn’t know what it was. Maybe I should’ve. Maybe I should’ve been the kind of man who would let the plumber do his job and then pay him and then grumble to anybody who would listen about all the liars and crooks. But my life couldn’t go that way. I had to take a side. I know it seems crazy to take a side when it comes to the cost of unclogging a pipe, but this is the side I’m on just now, and it’s the side of life. Believe me. I’ve taken that side before. Man is not a liar and man is not a crook. I set out with that belief a long time ago and it has gotten me here. Seventy-nine years. You have to show the men who have given up that you have not given up. That is the only way. It does not matter that he is young and I am old. He has forgotten how to be desperate. He does not know that I learned from beautifully desperate men how to be desperate. From men who were so desperate that you could not find a trace of desperation on their faces. That kind of desperation has to survive. We will call up another plumber tomorrow and he will offer us a reasonable price, and if he does not, we will call until we find someone who does. This is the time to be strong. Anybody can grumble about man, but this is the time for action.

It didn’t matter if he lived to see the time when men showed what man could do. It only mattered that he believed in it. He was an old man now and he could not take the kinds of actions he could when he was young. But it was the young man and the old man coming together when he told the plumber politely and respectfully that he could not pay eight-hundred dollars to unclog the pipe. His wife and his children saw the fire he had had back then. Just for a moment though. He had always believed in the low, constant blaze. He knew that man already counted for something without him. He was there just in case. Just in case anybody in the world forgot, which they did every day, that man was not born to be a thief. If it took a war inside himself to do that, that was all right.

 

*          *          *

From THE THIRD SCRIPT, stories from Iran, Tasmania & the UK. 

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 introduction to Clark Zlotchew and ‘Going for the Gold’

One of the peculiarities of running a submissions-based magazine is an unexpected one. You end up with pen pals. Lots of them. You’ll know this if you run a magazine that accepts art from around the world. You get oddballs, lots of ‘em, weirdos too. I’m fine with both of those things because I’m happy to fall under both categories myself, even if I’m only reaching to attain the status of weirdo. You get Smart Alecs, I like those too. I think I might be a Smart Alec. And you get those people that wind you the fuck up. Because they moan at you like you’re responsible for the existence of Line Rental, like they’re paying for some sort of service, or like I’m being paid to provide some sort of service. And there are racists, buffoons, clowns, donkeys, doughnuts, and there’s hundreds and thousands of different people telling you about Ruth, Avrim, Marlow, Damian, Kwame, Eustace, Dean, Vershit, Iain, Bet365, Clark, Nicky, Winnie, Poppy, Poppy, Poppy, Poppy, Poppy, Poppy, Poppy-Anne and then one of them just interests you and you’re not sure why and you’re writing,

Hi Clark,

Nice to hear from you. I liked the old photo you sent through.

And then you get into it with Clark. You find out that the photo he sent through is from the fifties, which is about the time he started writing. It’s a picture of him in one of his favourite places, Cuba. You talk about Spain, speaking Spanish (you don’t, he does). He wants to know what sort of material you publish and you like that he asks that because it means that Clark’s not the sort to just send his stuff anywhere. He doesn’t want to waste my time and he doesn’t want to waste his time. He says it’s curious that we’ve got a stockist in Havana. That should be an interesting story, he tells you. It sort of is, and you tell him. In detail. Clark is Clark Zlotchew from New Jersey. His Grandparents settled in America from where they called Russia. That part that we now call Ukraine, for now, at least. Like most of us, there’s immigrant in him. He’s Professor of Spanish at a university out in New York, and he retires a year from now, in the Summer of 2017, after seeing work in seven decades. You just like Clark, and you like his short story that he sends through, but it’s already published in a collection of his fiction. So you put it on your website, instead. And people will read it and people will like it and some people won’t like it as much and that suits Clark as much as it suits Sean Preston, you’re sure. It’ll stay there, or somewhere on the Internet, forever, for as long as that is. And in the meantime, you’ll chat about Cuba, Castro, unlikely bookshops, Europe, and whatever else your pen pal wants to chat about, because it feels good to keep talking to people.

– Sean Preston

    *     *     *

Clark Zlotchew is a short fiction writer from New Jersey, USA. The below story is one of the seventeen from his collection, Once Upon a Decade: Tales of the Fifties (Comfort Publishing, 2010).  The book was one of three Finalists in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards, 2011.

“It’s one of my favorites. It’s very strange, actually inexplicable, that I never personally knew a man like that lost soul in the story, and I certainly am not like that. Recently, when I re-read it, I feel tremendous emotion, pity for the poor SOB. I didn’t feel it when I wrote it. Weird.” – Clark Zlotchew.

clark 1958 Havana

Clark Zlotchew, 1958, Havana, Cuba.

 

GOING FOR THE GOLD

 

         Joe Sims sat sprawled on his stained and tattered easy chair, a six pack of Budweiser at his feet, one of the bottles in his left hand, the remote in his right. He took a long gulp of beer, laid the remote down next to the pink teddy bear on the metal tray table before him, and reached for the Big Mac. He closed his eyes and savored the succulent beef patties, the cheese, the lettuce, onion, pickles, sesame bun, and the secret recipe “special sauce” that Sims was sure contained mayo, ketchup and relish. He let his taste buds bathe in the savory juices as his teeth and tongue caressed the food before he gulped the mass down. Then he felt its bulk pass satisfyingly all the way to his stomach where it came to rest, producing a feeling of contentment. This contentment faded when he looked at the pink teddy bear. He sighed deeply, then tore his eyes from the stuffed animal.

         Joe Sims had just returned from the Lakeland Ice Cream Factory to an empty house. He had sweated the day away on the production line in one-hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Yet his hands froze numb while packing those ice pops as fast as he could so his supervisor wouldn’t yell at him. In fire and ice, he thought. All that’s missing is the Devil jabbing my ass with a pitchfork.

            He felt shame and rage when Mr. Hanson, in front of his co-workers, called him a lazy slug. Just like his father used to do. Except his father would smack him around too, and later tell him it was for his own good, because he loved him. Joe would have dearly enjoyed smashing Hanson’s round, pink face into mush, but he needed the job.

            He took another slug of the Bud from this, his third bottle. The first is for the thirst, the second one to make sure, the third is to relax… He felt the bitter effervescence change to sweetness on his tongue, the cold liquid in his mouth to a soothing warmth in his belly. He told himself he felt good. Good food, good drink, and the Olympics on the little screen. Eat, drink and make merry. Or is it Mary? What more could you ask for? He belched contentedly. He unbuckled his belt and unzipped his fly, to give himself breathing space. Hell, in high school he had to put extra holes in his belt so his pants wouldn’t fall down. He still had the muscles, he reassured himself, they just weren’t quite as hard as they used to be. But he could get back into shape easily whenever he wanted.

            The men on the T.V. screen were frying fresh-caught fish, drinking beer and smiling ecstatically at each other. Damn commercial. Now, what brand is it? Ah, who gives a flying…? Beer is beer. Screw those fat cats on Madison Avenue. Look at that: those good old boys seem to be having a great time just sitting around, eating, drinking and grinning at each other like assholes. “It just doesn’t get any better than this,” one of them said. What the hell do they know? Bunch of faggots, probably. He tossed the empty bottle onto the floor, one more dead soldier, and reached for the fourth bottle. The fourth is for… Damn, I can’t remember what the hell it is for. Well…The fourth is…to relax even more. He twisted the cap off, skinning his finger, and took a long swallow.

            On the screen the runners were burning up the track. God, he felt good watching them run. As though he were watching himself when he ran in high school, when he was trim and in good shape. He watched the screen and saw Michael Johnson shooting ahead. And Joe Sims was Johnson, running effortlessly, in perfect physical condition, his mind clear, confident in his abilities. And it was he, Joe Sims, running, breathing deeply in and out, sweating a healthy sweat, flying. The crowd was cheering him on. They were proud of him, all America was proud of him as he kept at it, plugging away, passing the others, leaving them in his dust, one foot after the other, left, right, left, right…

            He crossed the finish line first, broke his own record and won the Gold Medal. The crowd was on its feet, screaming, delirious with joy. They loved him. He could feel the love enveloping him. All America loved him. The whole world loved him. Because he was strong and courageous and most of all, determined. How good it felt. How good…

            Dave Thomas, the CEO of Wendy’s, spoke to him soothingly, homey-like. Like an old friend. Someone you could trust. Good old Dave told him how delicious his product was and how much you got for your money. And Sims could see how great it would taste. It made his mouth water. In his mind’s eye –his mind’s mouth?– he could feel his teeth sinking into it, as Dave’s actually did on screen, the juices soaking into his tongue and bathing his taste buds. He had just finished his Big Mac (Sorry, Dave.) and here he was, hungry again, looking at sly old Dave, that conceited son of a bitch, grinning in that self-satisfied way, chomping away, smacking his lips, telling him to go out and get one of those whatever-you-call-them just so the rich bastard could make even more money. Yeah, well, go screw yourself, Davey boy. Funny thing is: Sims knew he would have gone out and bought one or two of them if he weren’t so damned comfortable in his easy chair watching the Olympics and drinking beer.

            If Janey were there she would have gotten him something from the refrigerator. She would’ve had all kinds of good stuff in the fridge. He glanced at the pink teddy bear lying on the tray table. He loved Janey so much, damn her. But she had to go and get mad and run away. He hated her for leaving him, the bitch. Just because I smacked her around a few times. Spoiled brat, it’s her folks’ fault, they babied her too much. …I wish she were here, though.

            He tossed bottle number four to the floor and reached for the fifth. The fifth is for… Is for… He unscrewed the cap, not noticing the pain as it cut deeper into his finger. Shit, who cares what it’s for. He giggled and was surprised at the sound. It’s for making me feel good, that’s all I need to know. He took a long drink, then belched with satisfaction.

            He frowned. He recognized that sappy music and knew the suckers were going to tell him that you needed to give your lady a goddam diamond if you wanted to show her you loved her. The music sounded kind of classical and inspirational, the bastards, to make you think people who could buy diamonds were more cultured and made love in a more refined way than ordinary folks. Like it was something sacred, for Chrissake. Well, okay, maybe it was sacred, but what the hell has that got to do with diamonds? Huh…! I bet if I gave Janey a diamond she wouldn’t have run off on me. But I just can’t afford a diamond… No, I can’t, damn it! He pounded his fist on the arm of the chair, raising a puff of dust. Well screw you, Mr. wise-ass DeBeers money bags. And you too, Janey, if what you needed was a diamond.

            The boxers were banging away at each other. Go on, go on, go on… Keep punching, Antonio, keep punching. I’m blasting away at the Cuban guy. He can’t hurt me. I’m made of iron. His fists feel like friendly pats when he manages to land a punch, which he doesn’t do too often, ’cause I’m fast on my feet, and I duck and weave. Jack be nimble Jack be quick… But I’m punching the hell out of him. I’m creaming the bastard, creaming the Cuban, creaming my old man… –WHAT??!!–… I mean I’m creaming my boss, that son of a bitch Mr. Hanson. Yeah. I’m knocking the shit out of him. I’m banging away, mashing him into a pulp. For an instant he saw Janey at the receiving end of his fists. — AGAIN!–. He pushed the image from his mind. It was Mr. Hanson. It was the Cuban champion. And the crowd was cheering. They were on their feet and screaming. They love me. Yes, they love me. Yes they do. They really do.

            Tears streamed from Joe Sims’s eyes. He was disturbed to find he was weeping. What the hell am I crying about? Mohammed Ali, feebly lighting the Olympics torch, flashed through his mind, followed by that scene of the people crowding around him, asking him for autographs… Mohammed Ali was smiling, but he was in bad shape, couldn’t speak, couldn’t answer people’s questions. Could hardly move, it looked like. But he smiled. A dumb-looking smile… What the hell was the poor bastard smiling about? Joe was overcome by a sudden sadness. A guy like that, the way he once was, and look at him now… Joe began to sob. Goddammit, what the hell do I give a damn about Mohammed Ali? He made his millions. He did all right. What the hell do I give a damn! And he sobbed even harder. He raised the fifth bottle to his lips, tossed back his head, closed his moist eyes and drained the bottle. Then he flung it to the floor. He felt a little better, calmer.

            The women gymnasts were performing. Women…? They’re tiny little girls is what they are. And that giant of a coach, the Romanian guy, hugging the crap out of them, getting his jollies right in front of the cameras as if it was okay. Who’s he kidding? But those tiny little girls sure have skill. And guts. Not afraid to get hurt. And they’re cute. They have beautiful legs too. Yeah… Really beautiful. And the Ukrainian one, with the name nobody can pronounce, the one that knows how to dance like a ballet dancer, she’s even sprouting real live boobs. You could see them bounce. Boy, when they get a couple of years older…

            And perfect control over every damn muscle in their little bodies. They’re so bouncy, so…rubbery, so damned… What’s the word…? Flexible, yeah, that’s it. And supple. That’s what they are. Supple. Good word. And the one from China, what a great smile to go with the legs, what a wonderful, bright smile. It makes you feel all warm inside to see her smile. She’s smiling right at me. I can feel her eyes on me. Janey used to smile like that… Used to… Back then… At me… But not lately… Just because of some lousy bruises once in a while. And a chipped tooth. That’s no reason to run off and leave a guy, when a guy loves her like I do. Damn her to hell! I hate her! I’d like to kill the bitch!

            Joe Sims registered what was taking place on the screen. There was that nice family –mother, father and little daughter– visiting Disney World. Probably cost them a mint: the trip, the hotel, everything… And the kid looking so sad, so damned disappointed, after having dragged her mom and dad all through Disney World. What the hell does the little brat want, anyway? Oh, yeah… She looks up and her face brightens like the sun shining through the clouds. What does she see? Her dear old grandpa back in the land of the living? The face of God? Looks like she’s having a religious experience… Oh, no…! Jesus Christ, it’s Mickey-freaking-Mouse!

            And then she whines in that sappy way that could make you puke, “I’ve been WAITING –my WHOLE LIFE– to meet YOU!” Then she runs over, the stupid little airhead, and hugs the goddamn asshole in a mouse suit like he was the dearest thing on earth, her eyes closed the way Janey used to close her eyes when we kissed, to feel the kiss better…

            Who the hell are they kidding? Mickey Mouse…! She should be hugging her mom and dad, not that stupid son of a bitch in a mouse suit. What kind of values are they teaching kids, damn it! What kind of family values…? A little girl like that, pissed off at her folks after they spend all that money getting to Disney World, just because she hasn’t seen her big-deal hero, Mouse Man. And then she goes all syrupy and weirdo when she sees him. And she forgets about her folks and runs over to big-eared Mickey the Moron, who’s nothing but a $5.25-an-hour jerk in a mouse suit, and then loves the hell out of him. The little bitch.

            …Damn, I could’ve had a nice little daughter like her, maybe, if Janey hadn’t gone and made me so mad that time when I punched her in the gut and she couldn’t catch her breath for a while. And then she bled and had to go to the hospital…

            The tears streamed down his cheeks once more. His body shook. That’s when she lost the baby, and I know it was my fault. But she shouldn’t have gotten me so pissed off! She shouldn’t have. It was just a little punch, that’s all it was… I didn’t mean it… He sobbed, took a deep breath and held it. Then let it out.

            He glanced at the pink teddy bear on the tray table, then reached for the sixth bottle, and cursed when he saw it was the last one. He opened it by reaching across to hit the top against the window sill. Then he brought it to his mouth, head back, eyes closed, and chugged it down. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, emitted a long series of belches, and tried to focus on the screen, the screen that was hard to see because it was so misty. Why does it look so misty? Things looked out of focus and bent out of shape as though they were under water.

            The red-headed Italian with arms like Hercules was on the stationary rings, muscles bulging, body rigid, face blank, not showing any strain, looking like it was a piece of cake, the conceited bastard. Joe Sims was on the rings, felt his own iron muscles bulging, the deltoids, the biceps, the lats, the pecs, the abs… He felt the power in his trim hard body, every move perfect. The crowd went wild, they felt admiration for him, they felt love. They all loved him. Janey would be sorry now. But wait… He saw Janey among the cheering crowd. She wasn’t cheering; she just stood there quietly. On her face a look of admiration, of pride, of awe, of love. Then she slowly glided down out of the stands, strode across the field, passed in slow motion through the delirious throng and came up to him. She looked adoringly into his eyes. Then she held out her arms…

 *        *        *

            Joe Sims awoke at 6:3O A.M. to Ann Curry on NBC News. She was talking about the TWA explosion, showing color footage. Then she reported the latest news on the bomb at the Atlanta Olympics. She even managed to look concerned, like it really mattered to her, the phony. …Death and destruction… Every day, every miserable goddamn day. That’s all there is. What the hell’s it all about?

            Ann Curry told him it was 6:4O. Christ! Time to get my ass in gear for my shift at the ice cream factory, where it’s a hundred damn degrees all day long, even though I’m grabbing cold ice pops and sticking them into boxes, one after the other, after the other, after the other, hour after hour, day after day…

            He was in his tattered and stained easy chair, still wearing yesterday’s clothes, reeking of sweat, sour ice cream and stale beer. And the taste of shit in his cottony mouth (get the blue mouthwash) and a sledge hammer bashing in his skull (grab the Aleve). He looked down and saw the empty bottles littering the floor. Janey would have gotten rid of them, cleaned up. Then he noticed he was clutching the pink teddy bear to his heart, the one he had bought when Janey told him she was pregnant. And he felt, along with his dry mouth and his aching head, the sensation of falling down an elevator shaft straight to hell.

               “Oh, momma, momma…!” he whimpered aloud. “What’s happening to me?”

            Muscles stiff and cramped, he forced himself to get up out of the chair. With great effort he lurched toward the bathroom. He pushed himself. He would make it to work on time. He could do it. Yes, he could. He would. He’d make the 4OO meters, and come in first, because he was a winner, a champion. He’d be awarded the gold medal. And everybody would cheer for him. And would admire him. And would love him. Yes, love him. Even Janey. He’d just keep running and running and running…

*        *        *

            Joe Sims kept running along the tree-lined sidewalks past the single-family dwellings where he knew happy families lived, couples with children who rode tricycles and boarded the school bus every morning pushing and shoving, making a cheerful racket. He was running against the clock. He had to get to work on time. He hardly noticed the leaves that were starting to turn from green to pale yellow and red. He hadn’t even had time to pack a bologna sandwich for lunch. He’d make do with the ice cream employees were allowed to eat on the job.

            He heard the train whistle as he jogged toward the tracks he would have to cross on his way to the Lakeland Ice Cream Factory. The factory, two blocks past the rails, loomed before him in all its dirty grayish-yellow bleakness. Looking at the windowless mass made him queasy. And he was out of shape, he acknowledged. He was no longer running as fast as when he left the house. He was no Michael Johnson. He was panting, sweating, slowing down, staggering. His heart was pounding, his temples throbbing.

            He turned his head to the left. The train was in sight, gleaming in the sun. It came from far-off places, was going to far-off places, places he had never seen, never would see. It was shiny, beautiful, as it sped smoothly along the tracks, free as the birds overhead. The birds didn’t have to work. All they did was eat all day long. Their food was everywhere, free for the taking. They didn’t have a boss. Didn’t have a care in the world.

            He looked ahead and saw the factory. Felt the factory as a blow to his stomach, as a weight on his chest. He could already feel the hellish heat, see Mr. Hanson’s pink face, hear Mr. Hanson’s grating voice calling him a lazy bastard. Joe Sims felt sick. His stomach was twisting into a ball. His breaths came in gulps. His pace slowed further. He felt as though he were running in a dream, his legs weighing a hundred pounds each, moving in slow motion.

            He was almost at the tracks.   The silvery locomotive with the red stripe –gleaming brightly, reflecting the morning sunlight– was cheerfully blowing its whistle in greeting. It made Sims feel better, almost happy. He reached the rails and paused to catch his breath. He stood on the crossties panting, and looked at the factory with dread. He shivered from cold sweat as a light autumn breeze stroked his shirt. He felt an invisible wall beyond the rails, a force field emanating from the factory. A presence that would not let him pass. Joe Sims turned to face the beautiful train that merrily whistled as it rushed to meet him. He could see right through the locomotive into the passenger cars, into the car where Janey sat with their daughter, the one who loves Mickey Mouse. They forgave him. They were smiling at him. They would pick him up on the way to Disney World. He opened his arms wide to receive them.

 *        *        *

 

 

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.

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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.
Mobile uploads
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
Open group – appleuser@groups.facebook.com
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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

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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.

BIG CITY LIGHTS

By Elliot Egerton

I grew up in a new town. The one-way systems enforced a general linear perspective but my planned existence made me feel wanted. This lethal concoction coerced me into shutting the fuck up and playing my role. My father worked at a factory that made cogs and my mother was a midwife. At school I listened, remembered and regurgitated well, that was until my teenage years when I rebelled in all the traditional fashions. One night I got drunk and walked right up to where the town met the motorway and sat on the bank watching the cars go by; I felt jealous, then guilty. I thought about every person in every car that went by and how they were superior to me. I sat there for a good hour as countless whizzed past; almost punishing myself for the guilt.

A lot of days happened… Occurred… Then out of nowhere I woke up on a Tuesday. I wasn’t even drunk this time. I had to forget about my jealousy of the motorists. Acceptance would have meant further admittance that would snowball out of control causing a chain reaction throughout my whole belief system. Next thing I would be thinking: Hold on, the chip shop on my estate does not make good food, the food is really bad but I put it in my mouth, chew it and feel rewarded because it’s just there, down the street. I can’t do a life affirming jump off a jungle waterfall every Tuesday, it’s a convenient delusion. However this was that Tuesday. The first Tuesday of the rest of my life.

I was always first on in the morning and last off the bus after school because of where I lived. This Tuesday I was on the way home, just me, all alone, back seat, old bus. The seats looked and felt a bit like optical illusion office carpets I could imagine staring at with my head between my knees before vomiting in a bin. My stop was approaching, every weekday of that year I had stood up, alighted, got a chip barm and went home. I just didn’t move this time. Kept my arse planted, my inaction was my liberation, the revolution was televised after all. A shiver went up my spine as my bus stop flashed past in my peripheral; I couldn’t bear to look… Eyes ahead like a gang across the street was staring me down. It was barely 4pm but because of the time of year and the whereabouts of my birthplace it was near pitch black. This was the first time I had really been out these ways but the country lanes weren’t very well lit either so I couldn’t see fuck all. That actually made it cooler, in fact all I could really see was my own reflection, looking pretty excited… I could really see myself here.

The bus came to a halt and quickly turned off the engine and its lights: “Last stop…” the driver divulged. You never realise how noisy a bus is until it turns off, and then you’re like: “Oh shit, someone has been screaming in my ear this entire time, now I can hear my heart beating and shit.’ My stomach was also growling to an amplified degree, partly due to the aforementioned phenomenon but mainly due to its rigorous chip barm routine of being knocked for six. As I alighted I noticed a group of shops including what seemed to be a dimly lit chippy over the road.

I had rocked the boat enough at this point, so upon entering the establishment (after a short while spent humbled by the vast, all-encompassing Chinese/English menu which could swallow said boat like a dingy in the eye of a Pacific swell) I ordered a chip barm. This gave me at least one constant I could latch on to during the madness, like checking the time during a bad trip. However, as it was being prepared, I was left alone drumming on the counter, and it wasn’t long until my eyes were drawn to the big sexy fridge in the corner. It was the brightest light in the room, even more powerful it seemed than the ‘big light’. A vast array of colours caused a sensory overload, distorted my vision and almost hurt my eyes, which had acquired the capacity to long divide grey into a seventeenth of a decimal point. I had never seen anything like this before, even Burma has Coca-Cola now but some of the fizzy juice on display here was awe-inspiring. I was squinting with my hands on the desk, so enthralled that I didn’t even hear the door open behind me.

As the elderly Asian woman who served me reappeared and announced a sequence of numbers I assumed must be the price, I realised I wasn’t going to come this far and stop now, I needed to try one of the juices: “Erm, I would also like to try… that can there please…” my finger aimed squarely at a weird-arse fruit that looked a bit like a vagina. It was at that moment that laughter erupted from behind me, the gang let their presence be known and I turned around as someone mockingly repeated what I had just said: “That can there, please!”

The hyena-like laughter felt disingenuous, sycophantic, facetious, tactical and devoid of any joy. The ensemble of male adolescents I was greeted with were pale, had poor posture and dressed in a monochrome uniform. Their faces were either covered, or they were facing away, or they were looking down and they stayed constantly moving, trading positions like a five-a-side team. “Where are you from, lad?” one enquired, although I couldn’t tell which one, and I think it was a hypothetical question, he didn’t really want an answer. Before I had time to reply, “On ya bike!” another concluded.

That was more of a statement, and I didn’t have a bike so I didn’t really know what to do with that information. Midway through this thought my perspective of the room rapidly changed and I realised that I’d been hit. I was on the floor now, somehow it all happened so fast, but in slow motion. I felt like I should have been able to save my fall but I didn’t. Similarly, I thought I could spring back up, but by the time I had my feet planted and hands in position, I had been hit a second time and I was completely unguarded and open due to my stance, or lack thereof. I got that horrible burny feeling in my nose that makes you want to sneeze and my head ricocheted off the floor as I fell back. I felt super-concussed and woozy. The black splodges in my blurry peripheral backed off slightly and allowed me time to stand. So I tried the same manoeuvre again, getting to my feet this time but lurching wildly to the right.

I managed to grab on to a pillar and remain on my feet, slumped against it: “Don’t be a faggot!” a shrill, lost voice cut through the ringing in my ears as I felt something hit me in the ribs.

Each blink became harder to perform, I dropped straight to my arse without lowering myself, I couldn’t breathe, I felt really scared, I wanted air and to be outside, I wanted my mum there, I wished I had just stayed in bed this morning.