It started small, at first. The bed was a bit crunchier than before. There was sometimes wet sawdust, like a porridge, in the shower tray. She had a few splinters in a row. I thought nothing of it. You know how it is: even the most paranoid people struggle to see what’s going on in their own back garden. She used to cry sometimes. She kept these wood shavings the size of ringlets in her bag, and I thought they were just rubbish.
She was out a lot. She’d done this BTEC, you see, to give herself something practical to make some money on the side. At first it was useful. She straightened bits of furniture. She’d fashion supports for the back of a bookcase to sober up its drunken lean. She stabilised a desk that shook when you sat down to it, varnished chairs and hushed whinging hinges.
But after a while, it was hard for her to hide how much the carpentry course was taking over her life. She used to sing ‘Knock On Wood’ so often I had to ask her to stop. And the wood shavings were everywhere now – and I mean everywhere. I would wake up in the night with a dry mouth, coughing, and on sunny afternoons the air between us was so thick with dust motes I could hardly bring myself to reach across it, or speak. We never slept together any more. She’d stay up late doing her coursework. What is it, I’d ask sometimes. Nothing, she’d reply, in varying degrees of nonchalance, grief, defiance, insecurity and fury.
I wouldn’t have said anything, but it was getting in the food. She’s a smashing cook, my girlfriend, but dinners were coming coated in wood dust. Eat something like a lasagne and a bit of dust in the bechamel doesn’t bother you, but it wasn’t just that. Cups of tea had particles floating in them like old biscuit crumbs. There were woodchips in the pesto. I found offcuts in sandwiches. In a matter of weeks I was raking through curries, checking for rawlplugs.
I started to date a girl from work with big pale blue eyes. She had a sand timer on her desk. I walked over most days, and one day I began to play with it. She fixed me for a minute with those eyes of her, then giggled. After work she took me to the pub.
Everything alright at home, she asked.
Fine, I said. She took me back to hers and made me toast. She burned it but handed it to me anyway, thinking I was too drunk to notice. Oh, I noticed. I felt sorry for myself, then, tucking into that toast: one in a series of ruined meals in my life.
With a friend, I texted my girlfriend.
I thought maybe my girlfriend would let it slide. No. It all came to a head when I found a nail in my birthday cake.
When my teeth hit metal I immediately opened my mouth. I heard the spit-wet sponge clatter onto the plate. My head hung there for a moment and her eyes swivelled to the glistening mouthful.
Was that a nail? she asked.
I think so, I replied.
We sat there in silence for a while as she felt for something to say.
I’m sorry, she whispered.
There shouldn’t be a nail in the cake, I pointed out.
I know that, she replied.
I could have impaled myself on that, I shouted.
I know, she said, I’m mortified.
After a moment, she said: You know I never wanted to hurt you?
Then there were tears welling in her eyes. Rivulets ran new tracks down her cheeks and her skin shone through a layer of dust.
I’ve been building, she gulped, a cabin.
It was a shock. She let the words sink in.
Ah, I replied. That’s where all the sawdust came from.
I think I should move in.
Out? I asked.
Yes, she replied, out. Into the house.
Cabin, I corrected.
She looked at me like she was waiting for something, then got up and went to the back door, and looked at me again. I got up and went over to her.
It’s in the garden, I realised.
It’s in the garden, she explained, and opened the back door. I could smell, faintly, the musk of cut timber.
I could see it already, out of focus, its warmth flooding my gaze.
But actually I heard it before I saw it. Before it came into focus I heard a deep, towering creaking, and I could hear a picture of it clearer than an image.
It’s not a cabin, I realised, sinking.
She walked over to the house, and put her hand on its flank like it was a wild animal she’d tamed.
Still touching it, she turned back to me.
I’m sorry, she said, in a voice like an exhalation.
It’s OK, I replied.
Behind her, the house sighed and settled, creaked and cracked, and stood.
o o o
is a writer and journalist from London. Short stories that she has written have been published by The Cadaverine, The Learned Pig, and Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and she has also had non-fiction published in Elsewhere Journal.
To be invaded is a penetration. If not bodily, by blade or flesh, then mentally by a wiping of history, a corrosion of culture, a banishing of the familiar. Invasion takes more than it gives, aggravates the womb of home until even the things you did not know you had are gone, after which you are left feeling empty and strangely stretched. Implanted with the residue of some other landscape.
We do not talk about our invaders – we still cannot process it – but if you dream in the dark, in our last stone halls, you will wake to find a friend’s arms around you.
“I saw them, I saw what happened.”
“But it did happen.”
“Yes, I know. I think I saw it too.”
All of us returning to the same conscious pool, but unable to explain what we find there. I know. I think I saw it too.
Root and leaf, down from the plucked mountains and up from the narrow, dry valleys, the last of them came. They felled our houses and grew brittle in the places where we used to work, until humanity’s cogs were tangled up in weeds and ceased turning. We were left to our once-sacred places, clinging to each other in the dark as our weapons failed to break branch or stem. What is a bullet compared to a petal? A bomb to a seed, or a sword to a stamen? Who were we to stand against the fruits of renewing life with our earnest metal and cocky stone – when we knew all along the miracle of a soft fungus growing through concrete paving slabs?
Always history is written by the victors, but no one now among the legion above could raise a pen between twig and bark – and increasingly, I suspect that they did not fight for a footnote or a furlong in any case.
Some clever fool said I should write something instead, to preserve the passing lest it should fall away before chance commits it to memory. “Didn’t you used to write before?” It is no use to explain this history is a fiction I couldn’t have imagined.
I try. I struggle. A kernel of shame grows inside me, a question over whether our victors might have saved us from a darkness far greater than their wrath. Looking back, I think we cast the first stone, standing on the field of prehistory, building the first house and firing the first arrow. Smoke-stacks and plastic-wraps. Fighting a cold war with a wilful blind eye.
They sang as their roots came down on us, and their words come back to me over and again. It was not a refrain of conquest and glory, but of autumn sap rising, one last rebellion in the face of shadows: We are not the invaders. We are the rebellion. We are the many and you are the few.
Defeat came to us suddenly, at the height of our powers, delivered by the underdogs. How strange that in defeat we – the self-proclaimed idols of freedom – have been given a second chance to ally ourselves with something true and worthy. The invaders that infect us have none of our haste or passion, only the steady, creaking inevitability of wood, the soft sigh of a passing cloud. The violence of a blooming flower. They are quite unlike any empire in history, wanting for nothing but room to breathe.
In this encroaching clarity, I think perhaps our history should be but one note sang in a minor key, a tomb of apology, with “sorry-sorry” penned on every page.
Some of you might recognise me from my past performances. Others might know me from theatre, or TV, or more likely, adverts.
But ALL of you will recognise my hands!
What if you imagine them made-up? The addition of a few liver spots, the carefully shadowing of the creases to mimic aged furrows, the way I hold the fingers slightly crooked, an ancient echo of a childhood disease?
I see I’m going to have to explain my main source of acting income in considerably more detail.
I think it was David Duchovny, in Zoolander, who popularised the idea of body part models. People employed for their perfect pearly white teeth, their pleasingly proportioned feet or, more commonly, for their petite hands; elegantly holding aloft a glittering bottle of perfume, a manly aftershave, or a small-mortgage wrist watch.
I’m one of them. Though not just a model. I, am a hand actress.
What I do isn’t all that dissimilar to a stunt double, standing in for a big box-office name during fight scenes or other feats of cinematic daring-do. Except I was a stand in for a octogenarian celebrity chef and instead of being set alight and thrown out of a window, I had to whisk eggs and fold batter.
You don’t really expect Mary Berry to rub butter into flour for the full twenty minutes, do you? Of course not. That was my job.
Though it took me much longer than twenty minutes.
First was the aforementioned make-up. Fact is, I’m thirty-ahem! years Mary’s junior. It takes an hour per hand to add those decades. All in waterproof–and cake mixture proof–makeup. Even then eagle-eyed OAPs occasionally write in to ask what Mary uses to keep her hands so supple.
A hand actress, that’s what.
Then came costume. An exact copy of whatever Mary was wearing that day. Continuity kept busy checking for identically arrayed jewellery, for sleeves rolled up to just the same degree.
And then I’d sit and wait and watch, twiddling my now ancient thumbs as Mary Berry did her bit to the camera, before being whisked off for a nice cup of tea or something stronger. Then I’d step forward, for take after take of beating and chopping and rolling and whatever else the recipe and artistic director called for.
Let me tell you: muscles like an arm wrestler, me. I challenged Paul Hollywood over mince pies at the BBC Christmas party a few years back and he’s been avoiding me ever since.
I was well paid for my work and well fed on the fruits of my–well, our–labours. The finest cakes, biscuits, and pastries. Bloody delicious. I had to be careful not to get too well fed; didn’t want those wrists and fingers to plump up, did we?
So I guess we’re up to date now. As far as July, anyway. Thing is, after the Channel 4/Great British Bake Off debacle at the tail end of last year, I have to admit I was rather nervous. It had been a long, fallow nine months with not a sniff of paid work and the coffers were getting desperately low.
Plus, shortly before the Beeb lost the contract, I’d put in an order for a deluxe new kitchen. The workmen got as far as trashing the old one before the funds dried up. I’d been living out of a microwave ever since and it was my turn to host the extended family’s annual Yuletide party.
So, when the call came in for a one-off Mary Berry special, I was mightily relieved. Christmas was saved, along with the granite work surfaces.
If there was any residual uncertainty, it was because the special wasn’t the GBBO. Whoever the TV company was, it was a ramshackle, shoddy affair. A long way from the production values I was used to. When the glitter and candles and soft focus came into play I supposed it’d look all right, but adrift in the midst of a British summer the tinsel-bedecked location house in deepest, darkest Deptford looked distinctly tawdry.
A new company meant a new makeup girl, working off the latest photos of Mary’s hands, faffing around wanting to do a good job. Then a cock-up in costume; a mislaid pale blue cashmere cardie. All of which meant that by the time I was ready Mary Berry had pissed off to the local pub.
Or so I was told, anyway.
As the Eastern European director–a mono-syllabic, grizzle-faced brick shithouse of a man who gave his name as “Jakub”–instructed me in the required actions, things began to get a bit… weird. Rolling pins, fine. But rolling pins covered in motion capture dots? A rolling pin that needed lubricating? That’s just…
And piping bags not shaped like the usual funnels but domes. With pink nozzles. Almost mammary.
Weirdest of all, where was the cake mix? You can’t do much with just squirty cream, surely?
When the next item came out I nearly threw myself out of the fake French windows. I guess Jakub had been waiting for my reaction, because he beckoned me over to wardrobe, now vacated. Indicated a chair in front of the mirror. Stood behind me, solid girth reflected in triplicate, meaty hands drenched in gold sovereigns gripping the back of my seat.
“Before you ask, two thousand pounds.”
“For what?” I asked, while I thought longingly about my free standing kitchen island.
“For not asking.”
Well, after that, my task became a heck of a lot simpler. Whatever they gave me I kneaded or pulled, stroked or polished.
Mostly, I have to admit, with my eyes firmly closed.
Despite having been in showbiz since winning a beauty contest at Butlins at the tender age of sixteen, despite being a chorus girl for two and a half seasons, despite having been invited to road test the springs on far too many casting couches, I suppose I’m a relative innocent. I didn’t know anything about Virtual or Augmented reality. It didn’t really surprise me to hear that these new technologies had already been turned to the dark side, had warped from entertainment to porn, though it was news to me that anyone would want to imagine being tugged off by an imaginary Mary Berry.
Each to their own, I say. My name doesn’t appear anywhere on the downloadable Oculus Rift application and my beautiful kitchen was finished well before the annual feast. I even put in one of those instant boiling water taps.
And so now I watch, proudly, as the catering firm peel away the last sheet of protective cling film. In half an hour or so, the first family members will arrive. I can’t wait to see their envious faces.
Though it is a shame that the cakes are unadorned and there seems to be no room on the custom cut counter for the traditional sherry trifle.
You see, I’m afraid I can’t bear to even look at whipped cream.
Not until next Christmas, anyway.
o o o
is an Oxford Physics graduate and award winning London based writer. His short story “Ana”, appears in Best of British Science Fiction 2016 (NewCon Press) and his twisted fantasy collection, “Happy Ending Not Guaranteed”, is published by Arachne Press. Find out more at http://happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk/, or tweet @LiamJHogan
I asked my son Toby what he would like for Christmas. Usually I select a present on his behalf, but at almost four years old, I noticed he was beginning to form his own opinions and tastes; It was time for him to have a say in the matter and write a letter to Santa Claus.
‘What would you like from Father Christmas?’ I asked him one day in front of a festive Peppa Pig.
He was adamant: ‘Chainsaw. Please Daddy.’
I thought this was a strange idea, so I asked him again.
‘Well, I’m not sure if I want a chainsaw, or Spider-Man costume,’ he replied. ‘…but I think I want chainsaw.’
Toby is an intelligent child, so I pressed him further, asking him to tell me just how much he wanted a chainsaw.
‘Well, Daddy,’ he told me. ‘Forty-eight percent of me wants a Spider-Man costume, and fifty-two percent of me wants chainsaw.’
It seemed to me to be an intelligent enough response, and Toby had been a good boy that year.
‘Very well. A chainsaw it is! I shall have a word with Santa.’
I immediately settled back in my chair and returned to my newspaper.
Later, after Toby had gone to bed, my wife asked me if I had any thoughts on our child’s Christmas present. I beamed and told her everything was already in hand. In accordance with his wishes Toby would be getting a chainsaw from Father Christmas.
My wife stared at me. Her lips began to purse and a small, but noticeable vein began to throb in her head.
‘You’re doing fucking what!?’ she asked.
I explained to her that I had asked Toby, Toby wanted a chainsaw, and that was that.
‘Christ!’ she exclaimed, ‘How could you be so irresponsible? Do you even realise how crazy that sounds? Giving a chainsaw to a child? What do you think is going to happen?’
I explained, again, that I had asked Toby, Toby wanted a chainsaw, and that was that. After a lengthy debate and much screaming, neither of us were in a position to relent. I ended the argument by calling my wife a traitorous whore, and a bad parent for not obeying the legitimate will of our offspring. I also made a note to orchestrate a hate campaign against her on social media once she went to bed.
That will convince her, I told myself.
The next day she asked Toby what he wanted from Father Christmas, in full view of myself and in nothing less than a transparent gambit hopping the child has changed his mind. To my delight, Toby began dancing around the room shouting “Chainsaw!” repeatedly.
‘Are you sure?’ asked my villainous spouse.
‘CHAINSAW!’ screamed Toby, ‘CHAINSAW MEANS CHAINSAW!’
I smiled at my wife, pleased that my son’s outburst should stop her fear-mongering once and for all.
‘Sorry darling. Spider-Man lost. Chainsaw won. Get over it.’
As I hoped, she has barely spoken to me since.
I explained the situation to my friends at the pub. They all agreed with me.
My best friend Rupert, said yes, I should definitely buy Toby a chainsaw. He even offered to sell me one, as by a fortunate coincidence he happened to own a controlling stake in the local chainsaw factory.
My other friend Boris was hesitant at first, but then followed everyone else. I suspect Boris is an idiot, and had probably been drinking all day. He’s always to be seen propping up the bar and starting fights for the hell of it, but I’m pleased to be vindicated by him nonetheless.
Tim – the pub landlord – also thought this was a good idea, and immediately began to draw chainsaws on all the beermats. He regularly writes a humorous newsletter for his customers, and he promised me he would make sure the next issue would be full of pictures of children holding chainsaws. I have no idea why Tim is so passionate about this, but this is all grist to my yuletide mill.
Nigel, the local bus driver, overheard and also chipped in, telling us that he’s been saying that children should be able to play with chainsaws for years, and that this is a great opportunity to take control over who tells us whether it’s safe to buy a child a chainsaw or not. Sure enough, on the following day, Nigel’s bus overtook me on the high street. He had painted a giant chainsaw on the side. He gave me the thumbs up as he passed.
His purple gargoyle face radiated pure joy from underneath his festive hat.
At home, my treacherous wife made me watch a BBC news report on why giving chainsaws to children could be considered dangerous. I laughed at her and wrote a stern letter to the broadcasting ombudsman, complaining about such flagrant bias in the media.
Shortly afterwards, Toby came downstairs crying: Through mostly unintelligible sobs he told me he’d seen other children playing Spider-Man, and had decided that he needed a costume of his own so he didn’t feel left out in the playground.
‘Daddy!’ he cried. ‘I don’t want a chainsaw no more. Can Santa give me a Spider-Man costume?’
‘No,’ I told him. ‘You asked for a chainsaw, and now you’re getting one. Besides, I’ve already placed the order with Santa and his elves. It’s on its way. There’s no going back now.’
I noticed my wife had started sobbing too, but I think this is due the all the threats she’s been getting on Twitter rather than anything I’ve done wrong.
My son’s chainsaw was delivered by a woman whose name badge read “Theresa”. She initially looked a little hesitant, as if she didn’t agree with giving a child a chainsaw, but eventually she handed over the package without any meaningful fuss.
Toby was very excited on Christmas morning.
My wife was not excited at all and seemed to be cowering in the corner as if expecting something very bad to happen.
‘You are an enemy of this family,’ I told her as my son greedily tore the wrapping paper and began to open the box.
Toby was initially cautious, but once I got the saw blades going for him he seemed to be having a whale of a time. He tried out his new toy on the coffee table, reducing it to splinters and matchwood within a matter of seconds.
My wife wasn’t paying attention. Her hands were in front of her eyes, shielding her sight as Toby moved on to attack the corners of the footrest before shaving off random chunks of the television stand. He was having the time of his life.
I’m not sure what happened next, but I think Toby tried to lift the chainsaw higher so he could attack parts of our mantelpiece. The weight of the tool got the better of him. He lost his balance and toppled backwards, with the chainsaw following after him. Out of control, it began sawing at his left arm, just above the elbow, sheering through his juvenile flesh and bone instantaneously. The harrowing pain made him convulse and jitter on the floor, bouncing the saw across his body, causing further deep lacerations before it settled on the opposite limb.
My haemorrhaging son jived wildly in pain. Thick rivulets spouted from his arteries as his Christmas present jerked itself loose and began working on another extremity.
It was only when the chainsaw cut its own power cord that the carnage was over. Its mighty teeth finally ground to a halt.
I found myself thinking that I should have asked for a receipt.
My wife was on the floor, screaming and cradling our son’s bloody torso. Her cascading tears mingled with the weakening jets of bloody spray. The child was bleeding out, and would eventually end up a quadruple amputee at best. She screamed at me that she knew this was going to happen all along.
I looked at my wife and what was left of my son as he pumped out wet arcs of scarlet. After a few moments of shock I decided to pack my bag. My wife would have to clean up the mess on her own, or perhaps she would find another husband in about five years who would be able to deal with the problem.
As I was putting on my coat, she was still holding what was left of our son in one hand, while trying to call for an ambulance with the other. I explained that medical help would not be coming because I had cancelled our health insurance in order to pay for Toby’s Christmas present. Neither of them seemed even remotely grateful for the sacrifice.
I slammed the door behind me, muffling the screams and bloody chaos. It occurred to me that even if we could save my son’s life, the damage done to the lounge will be tremendous, and there’s no way I was going to scrub the wallpaper, let alone mop up. It’s not like I even liked Toby anyway.
I waited for the bus to take me as far away as possible, but after a while it was clear that it wasn’t going to turn up. Apparently they don’t run on Christmas day, so Nigel had gone on holiday to America to see a pen pal of his.
They stayed in a big hotel with a golden lift.
o o o
is a fiction writer. You can find his short stories online.
December 1st took off the cellophane wrapper and opened the first box, and immediately the Santa spoke to me, he said, your job is to do as I fucking say.
2nd If you’re going to eat my chocolate, he said, you’re going to have to give something back. Cut a finger and make it rain into the space where it was.
3rd Don’t even open this one, he said. Leave the perforations undamaged, you contemptible piece of shit. Reflect on why you’re not worthy of my chocolate today.
4th Eat the chocolate from yesterday as well as today. You’ll need the energy. Go to the station and see who needs to be pushed onto the tracks. You’ll know him when you see him, or her.
5th You’ve got 20 of my delicious chocolates left. Why didn’t you push anybody yesterday? Go sit on the wall outside, all day. Don’t come in until after midnight. Don’t move from the wall. Piss in your pants, and don’t you dare ask a stranger for a drink.
6th Ego is a damaging part of the psyche. Shave half your head. Then get out there and tell them what their jackets and their shoes and their haircuts really say about them.
7th Are you enjoying the taste of my lovely chocolate? It’s not enough. I don’t care if someone tried to assault you. They barely got anywhere. It’s not enough. Cut off a piece of earlobe and place it in the box.
8th You may eat of my chocolate unmolested. Contemplate why you are deserving.
9th Many times have I visited your realm. Your stories have reduced me to a cartoon character, but I’m so much more. Eat my chocolate and inhale a can of hairspray. You’ll have to steal one from the shop in town.
10th Where the fuck have you been? he asked. I said I was out for assessment on this tenth day, and I could feel his rage boiling my stomach acid.
11th You did not get permission to leave me untouched yesterday. I don’t believe you forgot. I believe you deliberately ignored me. Don’t do that again. Sit in the entrance to McDonalds in town. Beg them all for spare change like the garbage you are.
12th You eat my body when you eat my chocolate. The energy drink you quaff is my blood. Wear Santa’s beard and don’t take it off. Tonsure yourself completely, get rid of that ridiculous half-haircut. You may take my facial hair off after Christmas, but not before. Show your devotion like all those dirty consumers, who mock my legacy.
13th Shoplift a turkey and throw it at a wall. Do not get caught. You must be back here tomorrow, for I have an announcement.
14th Mine is the only way. All others are condemned to circular lives, but you will live with me in my grotto. I’ll do things to your body, but you’ll like it. In eleven days there will be a reckoning. Eat my chocolate now, child.
15th The chocolate must not be eaten today, for today is for fasting. You must smear my chocolate on your face, all over, and get out there, and preach my word. Yes, it is as you suspect—the carol singers anger me. Any you see, disabuse them of their ideas that blasphemous chanting about him does any good.
16th Of course there will be barriers to overcome! Of course, child. What did you expect? The tools of the state will sharpen and attempt to pierce you, and you must be strong. Stay in comparative warmth with me today. Wrap yourself in red and care for yourself in this small home. Eat and drink.
17th It approaches! And lo, you got your bennies paid into your account. Celebrate with drink, strong drink, and be my shaman out there. Spread the word, far and wide!
18th Office parties are sinful, the most sinful. I was a saint, once, and I would not tolerate profit and materialism. You will find practitioners of infidelity and fornication at many of the local public houses, and you will teach them that their way is flawed, and you will welcome them to my bosom. Cut one of them. Escape.
19th Cut more. I demand it. Cut the consumers, let them shed blood as the toy makers shed sweat. That shop, The Toy Chest, is a node of evil consumerism. Douse them in drink, and cut them twice, and run, run home to me.
20th I am disappointed you didn’t cut more. Your fear is hardly a fitting tribute to my power. But you still have five days to atone. Today we prepare. Steal a string of lights, any colour, that is of no importance. Eat my chocolate, and remember, I am always watching, and always loving, as long as you don’t disappoint. Only good boys and girls are rewarded.
21st Tonight there is a concert in the town centre. You will urinate on the tree while the disgraceful singing is taking place. Cause them to scatter. Shout and yell and show your anger, as he was angry at money lending, as I was angry at exploitative labour. Escape, escape.
22nd Yes, they are watching you now, but they were always watching you. They know who to watch, and they recognise my greatness through you. You are my one true disciple. They believe in him, but he is a fucking joke. I will provide for you. My grotto is filled with unspoiled toys and roasted fowl and virgin girls under mistletoe. Spread my gospel like you will spread the virgins’ legs in my grotto. Avoid all their deceitful eyes, preach my chosen fucking wonder, outside the high school near the station.
23rd Eat, child. Someone needs pushing onto the tracks. But eyes are everywhere. In and out. Then hide, hide, and watch them scatter, and watch them fear for their own unworthy lives, for they are not pure!
24th You did well. Eat of my final chocolate, for tomorrow, you join me. They are out there looking for you now, and you must not leave the house lest you be captured. Fulfil your earthly whims, for tomorrow you will be freed. Explore yourself. Let the neighbours see you do so. Open the curtains and let them witness.
25th You must loop it tightly, that’s right. Once secured, plug them in. Plug yourself in. Stand on the chair and kick, kick it down, and swing. They’re coming, but all they’ll find is your pretty, lit shell. My angel. Join me in my grotto, child.
“Nous souffrons par les rêves. Nous guérissons par les rêves.”
We apologise for the long waiting times at the tills as I’m pushing or pulling my zebra-patterned trolley. Pushing or pulling with my left hand, my right hand with its fingers wrapped around the handle of a shopping basket. There must be thousands of us, moving chaotically and in different speeds, a whim of hungry and thirsty people who left everything until too late. And the sound of the wheels and the music playing in the background: dizzying, a weird muzak-like mantra sprinkled with dissonant overtones, barely audible over the noise, yet there. And the voices, muffled, and the mobile phones ringing unattended. And the faint infant shrieks and the unrecognisable growls, of joy or despair. And the other voices barking through the tannoy, accented and contrite and we apologise for the long waiting times at the tills, Sainsbury’s would like to assure you that everything is being done to guarantee that you have a great shopping experience; Merry Christmas! Someone, actual people and not a recording, over and over, every other couple of minutes, word by word. It could be unnerving, yet an endearing hint of humanity can be discerned in these messages, in their tiny imperfections, in the repressed alienation and boredom of those sending these repetitive bottled messages into the void, for the minimum wage, on December 24.
Now by the vegetables section, by the cabbage, unable to move in any direction. An old lady with furious blue hair a couple of metres down is blocking the way — she’s surrounded by trolleys — she seems trapped. It looks bad but we’re all taking it rather well: no arguing, no pushing or shoving, no scenes of panic or collapse of the social order. Nothing save the occasional tut — there must be tut-tuts going on; timid tut-tuts and huffs masked by the ambient noise. We tut and huff unheard and wait for the old lady to figure out how to manoeuvre out of this mess. We wait, resigned.
Several minutes elapse and my phone battery goes from 91 to 73 while I read an opinion piece about a gadget that can detect your B.O. and tell you if you need a deodorant — very useful if you happen to lose the sense of smell, according to the writer. To stop the battery from reaching zero I check my list, a crumpled blue A4 sheet of paper: asparagus, shallots, parsley, coriander, nu potatoes, organic quinoa and some other stuff. And suddenly the old lady summons the courage, leaves the trolley unattended for a couple of seconds, grabs a bag of broccoli, comes back to her spot, and continues to move forward, pushing the other trolleys to the sides with hers.
We are free, the knot unknotted — we’re moving.
And soon some meat products ahead, we apologise for the long waiting times, we would like to assure you that everything is being done so that you have a great shopping experience. Turkey fillets, minced beef. But I’m going too fast and I slow down a bit and I feel a bump: a guy following me close has hit me with his own Sainsbury’s trolley. He doesn’t apologise and I don’t say anything. I just redistribute my weight and my trolley gets heavier and he can’t push anymore, while I move slowly closer to the left, feeling the weight of all his shopping, and then cut across to the other side, almost barging into a large woman with two large twins, seven to eight. I block their way with my basket, placing it at children’s face height. The two identically bloated gammon faces stop and then my body follows and after my body the trolley.
I grab two packs of turkey fillets and suddenly a hunch hits me as we apologise for the overcrowding and the long waiting times, once again, Merry Christmas! The list: asparagus, shallots, parsley, coriander, nu potatoes, organic quinoa, turkey fillets, mince beef, cream, cheddar, butter. Down: toilet paper. Further down mustard. Even further down: methylated spirits or firestarter fuel. A question mark next to these, I turn the page over. Chicken fillets, I knew it.
The chicken fillets are lying a bare metre down. I get two packs. British chicken, Union Jacked.
I make it to the end of the aisle and take a right turn. Trolleys here move with the order that arises out of chaos, given chaos enough time and space.
And then a left turn.
This aisle promises a world of dairy and cold meats and then cheese on my side and microwaveable foods on the other. Not many people round here — cheese people are now a diminishing demographic, suspiciously continental. I get a pack of cheddar — there is nothing but cheddar. Cheddar will have to do. I get three extra packs, in different shades of orange.
Now there are three lanes: two slow lanes by the fridges, where people move with difficulty, their direction and movements decided by the products; and one in the middle, a fast lane. In the sides, people wait with their trolleys in the ready position and then throw themselves seagull-like into the first available gap and disappear towards the fruits section, we apologise for the waiting times at the tills. I find a gap and disappear too.
More stasis. I rest the basket on my trolley, by the red grapes and the bananas — I gauge their curvature and don’t know what to think, my mind consumed with thinking of ways of getting out of this jam. I’m trapped between an abandoned fully loaded Sainsbury’s trolley and two old ladies chatting behind me. I have tried several times to push one of the abandoned trolleys without success, as the wheels are locked and end up banging against the aisle — I can’t move it from this angle. And it would be impolite to interrupt the old ladies’ conversation to make a move towards the other end — they seemed to be talking about religious fundamentalists, although now they seem to be talking about the weather.
I look at my phone: 65 percent and then at my list: all pretty straightforward until mustard. Which mustard? Dijon? English? American? Methylated spirits or firestarter fuel? Do they still stock Dijon in this supermarket we apologise for the long waiting times at the tills, we would like to assure me that everything is being done to guarantee that you have a great shopping experience, Merry Christmas? And where are you supposed to find methylated spirits or firestarter fuel? Another five minutes go by until a big bald guy wearing a puffed-up Arsenal jacket pulls his trolley and starts moving. Now I’m free and walking aimlessly and soon I find myself not too far from the tills.
There are long queues — hundreds trapped in lines that end at the checkout and start somewhere in the middle of the supermarket.There are many men and women dressed with Santa Claus outfits, walking along the lines, handing chocolate to those waiting. Whoever thought of this chocolate ruse is a genius.
And now I’m walking down a fast lane and the products turn into a blur to my sides. I should stop someone from the staff and get directions but there’s no way I’ll be able to stop here so I keep walking, almost running, until suddenly and against all odds a clearing, by the cereals, a space between people trying to rejoin the circulation and I shove my trolley and then myself and it’s a tight space but big enough for one or two. Now I can breathe and watch the faces pass before me and feel nauseous.
I try to stop one of the Santa Clauses and I miss him by an inch as I have to move my trolley just in time to stop a woman from taking the place I’m keeping for the supermarket clerk when I manage to stop one, thank you for shopping at Sainsbury’s. Soon the woman is dragged by the flow and a she-Santa comes rushing in my direction. I grab her by the arm when she passes by and pull her next to me. She looks at me and smiles, I guess, for taking her out of that mess
“Hi,” I say.
“Hello sir,” she says. “Merry Christmas,” and she hands me a bonbon.
“Oh, thanks,” I say and I put it in my pocket.
“How can I help you?” she asks.
“Methylated spirits? Do you know where I can find them?”
“Yes, it’s the thing used to light the fondue oven, or whatever you call that thing.”
“Never heard of such a thing. Let me check with my manager,” she says and gets a walkie talkie out of her pocket. She’s pretty: brunette, fine facial features under her Santa Claus’ beard. “Barney… Stock enquiry… Over… Barney… He can’t hear me,” she explains.
“It’s OK. I’m not in any rush,” I say.
“Barney… Stock enquiry please… Over…”
“Reading you loud and clear… Over…” says Barney.
“Stock check, please… Over…”
“Methylated spirits… Over…”
“Say again? Over…”
“Yes: methylated spirits. Mike-Echo-Tango-…” I show her my list. “Hotel-Yoke-Love-Alpha-Tango-Echo-Delta. Spirits, as in spirits. Got it? Over…”
“Roger. Never heard of it. I’m checking the system now… Over…”
“Thanks. Over… He’s checking.”
“Great,” I say. “Busy?
“Very busy,” she says, “I apologise for the waiting times and the overcrowding and I would like to assure you that we are doing everything we can so that you have a great shopping experience.” She takes a breath of air. “Merry Christmas,” she adds, and smiles.
“Merry Christmas, Virginia. Thanks for helping me, Virginia,” I say. She seems surprised that I know her name and then remembers that she’s wearing a name badge and her face relaxes.
“It’s OK. We’re here to help,” she says. I think I blush. She looks in the other direction.
“Vee… Do you copy? Over…” She lifts the walkie talkie.
“Reading you five Barney… Is it stocked? Over…”
“Can you try firestarter fuel? Over…”
“Sure… Firestarter as in fire starter? Over…”
“Yes… Over… Maybe we have more luck this time,” she says, Virginia.
“I appreciate your help, very much, Virginia,” I say and find out I like saying her name.
“Would you like another chocolate?” she asks.
“No, I’m OK, Virginia, I still have the other one.”
“Vee… Copy? Over…”
“Loud and clear… Over…”
“Also negative… Over…”
“Thanks Barney… Over…”
“Anything else Vee? Over…” She looks at me. I move my head to indicate a “no”.
“No, thanks, Barney… Over and out…”
“You’re welcome… Over and out…”
“Sorry, sir. No luck.”
“No worries, Virginia.”
“Maybe you can find something round the cleaning products section…” she says. “Something similar.”
“Or in the hardware shop next door.”
“I might try there,” I say. I don’t want the conversation to end.
“Anything else sir?” I think for a couple of seconds but unfortunately can’t think of anything.
“No. That’s all.”
“OK. I have to go. Merry Christmas,” she says.
“Merry Christmas, Virginia,” I say. She smiles and then turns around and disappears into the fast lane.
I try to spot her in the flurry of people coming and going but I can’t. She might have gone past me five thousand times already. She might have turned into particles.
The alcohol aisle. The smell coming from what could be broken bottles but could also be sweat. There are almost as many people here as there were near the tills. There are clerks everywhere and policemen carrying guns, ordering the lines of shoppers, directing them into the aisles, from either side into a sort of human funnel. Everything is incredibly efficient and the lines move fast and fearlessly. You can tell these people have been doing this for ages — it’s in their DNA.
I stop in a clearing and study the situation. They step into the aisle and they walk fast and their hands move from the shelves to the trolley and from the trolley to the shelves with determination, while the bodies circulate in a never ending stream. It reminds me of the Buddhists I saw walking around a praying wheel once in a temple in Katmandu. They would touch this or that other bell, they would avoid touching other ones. A Knowledge illuminated their practice. I lacked it there and I lack it here. But these people have it, the Knowledge. There they knew which bell to touch and here they know if white wine follows cider, where whisky is located in relation to brandy. They can recognise the labels, the semiotic clues. Or maybe they just grab whatever they can.
And suddenly the unforeseen: a bottle falls and apologies for the waiting times, Merry Christmas, and keep moving waves one of the policemen, and everyone just walks over the broken glass. A deflated look on the dropper’s face, for a millisecond, because he quickly grabs another bottle, and no longer looks deflated. At that moment I have my epiphany: obey the policemen, follow their gestures, get in, move fast, grab anything, and then get out on the other end of the boozing wheel. I rearrange my basket and zebra-coloured trolley; I will have to pull the trolley and carry the basket with the same hand. I’m ready.
I wait for the right moment while people of indeterminate class and age and gender pass before my eyes in a never ending parade, leaving no space for me to join them. And then a guy with coiffured hair, brown furry anorak — there’s a gap between him and a fat and slow guy wearing a tracksuit, walking after him. When the first one passes by my side I squeeze behind him. I can almost smell him. I CAN smell him — I can smell Kenzo for Men. And as we walk towards the booze “I won’t drop anything” I tell myself, and soon the policemen are just a couple of metres away, the closer one to me ordering people into lines, pointing the way with his Heckler & Koch MP5.
“Left. Right. Left. Right. Left. Left. Left. Right. Right. Left,” says the brave Authorised Firearm Officer, a huge guy with his cap all the way down to his eyes. “Left,” he shouts at Kenzo for Men. “Right!” I get. And I’m in.
The first bottles fly fast before my eyes and I don’t grab any, too close for visibility, too many brands, too many colours, too many names for my illiterate eyes, thank you for shopping at Sainsbury’s and merry Christmas, and soon I’ve reached the end of the aisle without booze and turn right, grab a bottle, the first that comes my way, and shove it into one of the sides pockets of my trolley, and another right turn and two more bottles and cans, and when I’m half way through the aisle I grab some more things of whatever and put the things of whatever in my basket and soon I’m out, moving towards distant aisles, walking until I find a quiet spot in the deserted world foods section.
I’ve managed to bag a bottle of sherry, two alcopops, four cans of weak lager, one rosé wine, and a half-litre bottle of dessert wine.
And now I’ve walked the aisle from end to end several times and there’s no sign of anything remotely close to methylated spirits or firestarter fuel, no sign of anything flammable. I walk back to my trolley carrying a bag of toilet paper and kitchen rolls while I look around trying to identify the closest till. The closest one will have to do because I know for a fact that there won’t be a less busy one.
There’s a queue a few feet down. It’s ridiculously long and the shoppers are queueing by the purposely empty shelves. I grab my basket and my trolley, look in both directions and rush towards the queue. When I get there I rest the basket on top of the trolley and soon I’m not the last one any longer: a blonde young woman stops behind me. She looks blushed — perhaps she’s had a hard time looking for her own version of methylated spirits or firestarter fuel, or perhaps she’s like that. Then I recognise Kenzo for Men in the line leading to the other till — he’s red too. That’s when I clock that everyone is red and that I’m feeling quite hot. Just to confirm my discovery, a metallic voice announces that Sainsbury’s regrets to inform you that the air conditioning has stopped working but we would like to assure us that everything is being done to get it back on so that you have a great shopping experience, Merry Christmas! I take my jacket off and leave it hanging from my trolley. The others don’t do the same as they’re all carrying baskets. I feel a sense of solidarity and turn around.
“Do you want to rest your jacket here?” I ask the woman. She’s wearing headphones, the white cables popping out of her ears and disappearing into her clothes.
“Do you want to rest your jacket here? It’s hot.”
“I’m fine, thanks,” she says and I feel stupid. I turn back to face the front of the queue. I feel a pat on my shoulder.
“You know… this is a basket only till,” she says, poker faced.
“Yes,” she says and points to a sign at the end of the aisle. It looks like a basket and has some letters that I can’t read from here.
“When I started queueing that sign wasn’t visible,” I say.
“Sure,” she says and puts the headphones back on and looks at her phone.
I focus again on the sign. I can’t really tell if it says it’s for baskets only, but I’m certain that the drawing is a basket. And everyone around me only carries baskets. She must be right but I’m also right — I didn’t see the sign when I joined the queue. She might have been here before, she must know the place. But I won’t get out of the queue now that the tills are already in sight. I’m sure that this sign isn’t valid on a day like today. She taps me on the back again.
“I think you should go to the other tills. You’ll queue all the way to the front and then they’ll send you somewhere else.”
“Thanks for your concern,” I say.
“It’s unfair,” she says.
“I might have fewer things than you anyway!” I say, looking at her basket, overflowing with sweets and Nurofen, and all sorts of little things in small plastic bags.
“That’s not the point,” she says. “I’ve got a basket. This queue is for baskets only,” she says.
“I’m not going anywhere,” I say but I can’t be sure if she hears me or not because once more she’s wearing her headphones and staring at the light in the palm of her hand.
By now the other people in the queue are aware of our conversation. I can feel their red faces staring in my direction. It’s tense and I should go but I won’t. I’ll queue all the way up to the tills and if I have to go somewhere else afterwards, I’ll go. Another tap on my shoulder and I turn around with hatred bursting through my eyes.
“Hi,” says Virginia, with her Santa beard pulled under her chin.
“Oh, hi!” I say.
“Did you have any luck with what was it?
“Methylated spirits or firestarter fuel?”
“No luck,” I say.
“Well, try the hardware shop.”
“I’ll do that.”
“Would you like a bonbon?”
“Sure,” I say. “Thanks a lot!”
“My pleasure.” She passes me a bonbon and I put it in my pocket, where I put the other one earlier.
“Can I ask you something, Virginia?”
“Sure,” she says and smiles.
“I’ve just realised that I’m in the wrong queue. Apparently this one is for baskets only.” Virginia looks at the end of the line. “I couldn’t see the sign when I started queueing. It was too far away,” I say.
“Oh!” she says.
“It’s not my fault,” I say.
“It’s not your fault,” she agrees.
“Because the lady here is adamant that I’m in the wrong queue,” I say and nod towards the woman, who pretends she’s not listening.
“Where did you start queueing?” asks Virginia.
“Over there,” I point. “At the very end of this aisle, by the toilet paper.”
Virginia walks to end of the line, when she gets there she points to an imaginary space with both her index fingers. I give her a thumbs up. She looks in the sign’s direction. Then comes back to my spot.
“It’s true. There’s no angle,” she says. “Stay in this queue. I’ll tell the cashier.”
“You’re amazing! Thanks a lot Virginia.”
“You’re welcome,” she says.
“Great,” I say.
“Would you like another bonbon?”
“Sure. Thanks,” I say.
“There you go. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Virginia.”
“Great. I need to get going,” she says.
“Right. Thanks for your help.”
“I’ll tell the cashier now to let you go through.”
“Thanks. Zebra pattern — unmissable.”
“True,” she says and chuckles. “Bye!”
“Bye, Virginia…” She walks away. I watch her disappear towards the tills. I turn around to face the woman behind me.
“Did you hear what she said?” She takes her headphones off.
“Yes. Did you hear that? She said I can stay in this queue.”
“Sorry. I wasn’t listening.”
“I think you were listening.”
“Whatever,” she says. I don’t answer back.
The guy before has laid several bags of peanuts on the belt, more than ten, we would like to assure you that we are doing everything we can to fix the air conditioning, merry Christmas! Peanuts, only peanuts. The belt moves a few millimetres forward. I start unloading my shopping in the free space, a couple of bottles that I lay horizontally. When the belt moves again the bottles rattle. He turns back to look at them. I continue pulling things from my trolley. He seems irritated — he looks at my dessert wine and my alcopops with anxiety. Suddenly he moves forward and gets a plastic divider and shoves it in between my bottles and his peanuts. Then he looks at me. I don’t look back at him and just continue to unload. The belt continues to move and I slowly finish emptying my trolley. A couple of minutes pass in which the belt doesn’t move. Then it moves just a little bit and then it stops again. I hear huffing and I raise my head. The guy is tapping his feet on the ground, the woman before him has stopped bagging her items. The cashier is looking around with a concerned expression. There are some blue lights flashing on top of the till.
“The till system is down. It’ll only be a couple of minutes. Apologies for any inconvenience caused!” she says. The guy huffs and I huff too and the woman at the front huffs too and the woman behind me huffs as well. The cashier stands up from her seat and looks around. She waves her hands in the air towards the end of the checkouts. “Sorry!” she says to the old lady and sinks back into her seat. I get my phone out and check the time: it’s late, the hardware shop must have closed already. What will happen if the system can’t be fixed? There’s no way I’ll go back to the end of the queue. I’ll probably just walk away with an empty trolley. I put back my phone in my pocket and get my hand dirty with the melted chocolate, from the three bonbons, now an amorphous mass. I get the blob out of my pocket and throw it on the floor: it explodes into a brown stain.
Time does what time does and nothing really changes but the fact that we are two minutes older. The lights keep flashing and the cashier keeps moving her head in every direction. I feel sorry for her because it looks as if her head could become unscrewed from her neck. She seems pretty much near meltdown and I wouldn’t be surprised if she started crying and walked out of her job, thank you for shopping at Sainsbury’s, merry Christmas! But I can’t help huffing in unison with everybody else. And to make matters worse I can feel Peanut Man inspecting my things, again. He won’t stop glaring over my products. At first I thought it was paranoia, the unfounded suspicion that I might want to get him to pay for my things, but now I realise his is simply the lowest and mundanest form of resentment. I can feel his eyes going over my stuff. Stopping at the olive oil. Jumping to my Dijon mustard. Moving towards the washing up tablets. Coming back to the alcopops. The olives. The grisini. Chicken. Salmon. Organic quinoa. Perhaps he’s mentally calculating my bill. Perhaps he sees me as the paroxysm of the Metropolitan Elite. God knows what he’s thinking but I can tell he hates me. Suddenly the lights stop flashing.
A red chubby guy in a Santa costume is standing next to our cashier now. He’s touching the screen. Our cashier seems more relaxed. He gets a set of keys from somewhere below his huge Santa belly and inserts them next to the printer. A loud noise and the belt advances a couple of centimetres. I feel like cheering — everyone must but nobody does.
“Thanks Barney,” says the cashier. Thanks Barney.
“You’re welcome,” says Barney and he walks away, in his Santa outfit, a hero without a cape.
The cashier goes back to her normal position, the products fly from her hands to the ramp and from the ramp to the polyethylene bags and the belt moves and the system is functional again and I pull my basket from the depths below the till, and I gradually empty it, oblivious to Peanut Man, and soon the old lady pays and leaves. Charging ten bags of peanuts mustn’t be that hard as I’m soon facing the cashier.
“Hi. Merry Christmas. Thanks for waiting and apologies for the delay,” she says.
“Merry Christmas. Don’t worry. I’ve got a trolley,” I say. “It’s that OK? Virginia, said it was OK.” She gets up slightly from her seat and checks my trolley out.
“Oh, it’s you,” she says and smiles. “Yes, it’s fine! Don’t worry. She said the sign wasn’t visible from the start of the queue, right?”
“Exactly. Thanks a lot,” I say and I turn around to face the woman behind me: she’s gone.
“No problem,” says the cashier and starts moving my shopping over the laser. “Do you need any bags?”
“Just one or two,” I say.
“Sure,” she says. “Nice trolley.”
“Thanks!” I say.
She seems quite happy. She must be heat-struck in that costume but she’s happy.
Wine. Chicken. Mustard, Dijon. Tuna. Olives. Organic quinoa. From her hands to the ramp into the trolley. Heavies always go at the bottom; lights on top. Eggs will be waiting for a while, to go on top of everything else. Toilet paper and kitchen rolls in bags, hanging from the side, rattling noiselessly all the way home. And so on and everything must end and I’m finishing my packing. Before putting away the Italian antipasto selection I fan my face with it.
“It’s so hot in here,” I say.
“Terribly hot,” she says. Have you got Nectar card?” she asks, smiling.
“Nope. Sorry.” I always say sorry.
“It’s two-hundred—eighty-four fifty-eight,” she says and I shove my Visa Debit in the card reader. “Thanks for shopping at Sainsbury’s, have a merry Christmas,” she says, scratching her Santa beard.
“Merry Christmas,” I say. And then I walk out into the cold night.
Today, we finally reached the much anticipated San Luis valley. For weeks we’ve been watching the footage on YouTube of the UFO, as Jake sees it, or just the weird lights in the sky, as I keep telling him. You have to admit, Jake says, it’s freaky. I agree, it’s abnormal. Jake is more convinced because the valley is the number one place in the whole country, maybe even the world, for UFO sightings and abductions. It’s not a coincidence, he says, there’s hardly anyone here who hasn’t seen a UFO or had some sort of ‘contact.’ Jake tells me that according to the experts on the ‘forum’ it has something to do with lots of fresh water wells in the valley, but I don’t see what fresh water wells have to do with UFOs or why aliens from other worlds would care so much either way. They’ve got spaceships, right?
We stop for the night at a Motel 6 near the interstate, a few miles out of Alamosa. I have a shower and when I come out, Jake’s on his mobile. He’s standing in the car park, phone jammed to the side of his head. I stand in the doorway with a towel wrapped around myself and watch him walk and talk. He’s too far for me to make out any words clearly and what I can hear is constantly drowned out by trucks on the Interstate, but he seems animated, striding this way then back again, making gestures as he speaks. He realizes I’m watching him and ends the call. Who was that? I ask. No-one, he says. Then, I phoned the credit card company. His expression darkens. You know I hate that. Show me the number, I say. I’m not showing you the number, he says. I know he’s lying. He called Caitlin. I can tell by his face, by the sort of glassy expression he assumes when he’s on the defensive, the way his little eyes won’t settle on anything, least of all me. I know I’m right, but decide not to push the issue. It’s like my therapist tells me: take a deep breath then stop, think and take your time.
We go to a drive thru Taco Bell and return to the motel. Jake wants to watch the footage again. We sit in front of the lap-top. The two minute clip has now had over a million YouTube hits. I’ve seen it so many times, I know everything that happens: first, nothing, just the night, the dark smear of the road and the low houses. A single porch light above a front door. Then, after a bit, a glow in the sky; at first it’s quite faint, like a slightly brighter than normal star and for a while it’s like this and then, suddenly, it gets much, much brighter, almost like a flare, but it’s too focused, too fast. Do you see that, says Jake. Yes, I see it. The light splits into four smaller lights and these lights then hover, yes, that’s right, they hover in the black sky for ten seconds or so and then slowly descend to the ground, or rather disappear, one apparently landing some distance behind the nearest house, the others moving from view. It’s very hard to tell exactly what is or is not happening. On the footage, silent up to this point, we hear a man exclaim, “Sweet Jesus!” A woman starts to answer him but then it ends. Jake winds it back to the moment when the single light explodes into four and pauses the footage. Would you look at that, he says again. The light is very bright, the footage grainy. I lick sauce from my fingers. It’s often this way.
When Jake is finally asleep, I check his phone. He’s deleted all recent calls. I’m sure there is a way around, a better way, but it’s late and I can’t think.
The next day…
The old guy says this is where the UFO landed. He’s Mexican or something like that and has a red baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, which are narrow and squinty in the sun. We’re in a field behind a house on the outskirts of town. Jake’s convinced it’s the house we saw on the footage, but I’m not so sure. The house is part of a recent development of ‘Ranch Houses’ built around dead end streets. Most are unsold, some unfinished, just the foundations sticking out of the earth. Construction company went bust, I imagine, same as everywhere. I wonder if Jake would like to live here. For a minute I think he would but then no, I guess he probably wouldn’t. He gets restless. That’s why he moved to California from Oklahoma City. That and the tornados. One pulled the roof off the condo where he used to live. He said he hid under the bed as it happened and that he was fortunate, because he lived on the ground floor. I laugh and say he swapped tornados for earthquakes. We used to talk about this stuff. I said I’d take a tornado any day but he said, wait until one destroys your home. That’s why I met him the first place, because he kept coming to the coffee shop, because he had to do something, had to go somewhere. He had just lost his home. He says he’s more settled now, but he isn’t settled.
The old man takes us into the scrubland behind the development. It’s tough, the country out here, empty wastes of silvery grass and dusty grey soil and in the distance, hanging in the sky like clouds, hazy mountains with snowy tops. The air is crisp, but the sun feels hot. It was over there, says the man. They kill our cattle. He spits on the ground. His face is worn and brown like a pair of old shoes. They suck all the blood out the cattle, he continues, with gestures, and they leave the bodies behind, just skin, just like a peeled banana. He makes a peeling motion. I worry about how much Jake is going to pay him, if this is the right thing to do. I think not. The guy could be telling us any old crap. Here? says Jake. Look at the ground, says the old man, can’t you see it? Jake gets out his camera. His pride and joy, he says. If there was a fire… he says. All I can see are tyre tracks, I tell him, dusty tyre tracks. The old man says something about scorch marks but I’m tired of this. Jake points the camera at the ground and starts photographing the dirt. I want to be sitting down, drinking an ice cold coke.
You might think, listening to all this, that I don’t believe. But no.
I grew up on a smallholding north of Eureka. When I was sixteen I saw a light coming from behind the barn. I can’t remember where Dad was, gone on one of his binges probably. Mom was watching TV, I imagine. I could see the light from my room and it spread until it seemed to fill the world – an endless, emerald green light. I remember that I couldn’t move. I was caught in the tractor beam. They told me I was in their spaceship and that I shouldn’t be afraid. Their voices sounded a bit like wind-chimes, but I could understand the meaning of what they were saying quite clearly. I think they had an English accent. At least, it reminded me of one of those old actors I used to see on TV. They told me not to be frightened. It’s hard to say just what they looked like. Everything was vibrating. I’m not sure if I want to say what they did to me.
It’s not that I don’t believe. Oh no. I believe.
The next day
Why did you call Caitlin? For some reason, I decide breakfast is a good time to bring this up. Jake is pouring maple syrup over his pancakes. He stops what he’s doing and gives me his glassy look. As if I’m here and not here. Just leave it Meg, he says. He only calls me Meg when he’s serious. I love you Meg, he’s most likely to say in a moment. You weren’t calling the bank. The credit card company, he interrupts, I was calling American Express. You could at least tell me the truth, I snap back. You could at least tell me if you’re calling her instead of lying to me. What kind of man are you? You could tell me the truth, I wouldn’t mind. I know what I’m saying isn’t true. I would mind. I mind like hell. I have that hot metal taste in my mouth. I hope I’m not going to get a migraine.
You haven’t eaten any breakfast, he says, gesturing at my ham and eggs with his fork. I’m not hungry, I say. I think I’ve got a lead on the people who took the footage, he says. I don’t respond. The waitress brings us a coffee refill. We’re looking in the wrong place, he says a bit later. I put on my sunglasses and stare out the window. I can see the Taco Bell and a Subway. The parking lot is mostly empty apart from a couple of Mexican guys standing around near the bins, waiting for something. Trucks keep hurtling by on the Interstate and the air is full of faint grey dust. The sky is such an intense blue, even with my glasses on, it hurts my eyes. We’re closer to the heavens, out here. The sky isn’t so far away.
Jake has been corresponding with other UFO fanatics or “ufologists” as they like to call themselves and is following a couple of leads. The leads have sent us out to this tiny town – really just a cluster of clapboard shacks, a few remote farms and a gas station strung out along the highway. The landscape is flat and dusty and the sky is so clear and empty, it’s almost abstract, like the idea of ‘blue’ before blue was invented. Out there, past the fields, there’s a national park with sand dunes that stretch hundreds of feet high. I tell Jake that we’re wasting our time. We won’t find anything, we won’t see anything, but Jake ignores me and tries to wipe dust from the camera lens.
When we get signal, his phone starts to buzz with in-coming texts. I’m sure some of them are from Caitlin. The migraine I hoped wouldn’t come comes: a wobbly haze clouding around the edges of my vision and a feeling like fingers boring into either side of my skull. I remember the green light, the way I couldn’t move.
Apparently some Mexicans took away a bit of the UFO, Jake tells me. He’s all excited. They thought it was a fragments of a satellite or something like that and want to sell the scrap metal. Uh-huh, I say. I guess this is what the “ufologists” on the forum have been saying. Ninety-nine per cent of the forum is bullshit.
We drive around some more. I have to close my eyes to get rid of the floaters. The migraine intensifies. My vision gets as foggy as a steamy car window.
Jake stops to speak to a couple of guys selling peaches from the back of a pick-up. Estamos buscando las luces en el, um, in el cielo? They shake their heads and exchange a look that says, is this dude crazy or what? Jake’s phone vibrates – someone is calling him – but he kills the call. Who was that? I want to know. Someone I didn’t want to speak to. He makes a big deal of turning the car round, pulling the wheel, aggressively yanking the stick back and forth. We drive the way we came, his phone between his legs. Let me see the number, I say. Give me a break, he says. It’s Caitlin isn’t it? Tell me. He gives a slight nod with his head and grinds his teeth. Why is she calling? I don’t know Meg. Sometimes she calls. What am I meant to do? I don’t answer that. It’s hard to argue with the migraine invading my head. Can we go back to the motel? I say. I need to lie down. I don’t speak all the way back, just slump in my seat like a dead person and leave it up to Jake to worry about how upset I am. He feels guilty, I can tell. He puts a hand on my knee to try and make me feel better. With a sigh, I swat him away.
I close the blinds and lie on the bed, arm over my eyes. What do you want me to do? says Jake. Just go away. I can sense him, hanging around, like a dog that feels guilty after plundering the garbage. He’s waiting for me to give him a sign that I’m not angry about Caitlin calling, but I am angry. He can suffer. I lie on the bed. He checks his email and says he’s been sent the name and address of another farmer whose cattle keep being killed under mysterious circumstances. He tries to show me a couple of pictures, but I tell him the screen is too bright, it’s playing havoc with my floaters. Jakes says he’s going to check it out but he hangs around some more. I know he’s waiting for me to give him a smile and say something like, I love you, but I don’t. I’m not doing that. Shouldn’t you be going? I ask. Finally, I’m left alone. I wait until I hear Jake drive off and then I get up and drink several glasses of water. My migraine has almost entirely disappeared. Take a deep breath and think.
I open Jake’s laptop and resume trying to crack the access password. I’ve been trying for a few weeks now. One way or another, I’ll get to the bottom of it. I try the name of his first pet (which I only recently got him to reveal to me). No. His high school. No. His favourite band. No. His mother’s maiden name. No. His mother’s name. No. UFO. No (I’ve tried that before, I admit). ET. No. Star Trek. No. Star Wars. No. Jedi. No. Aliens (I must have tried that before). No. I stop a moment.
After they’d finished with me, the aliens, they left me in a field a couple of miles from home. I remember waking up wet with a sore head like I’d drank a whole bottle of JD and a sharp pain between my legs, dried blood down there and crusted over my thighs. Thirty six hours had passed and my Mom had reported me missing to Sherriff Cooper. For days afterwards it hurt when I peed and my period was over a month late. When it came it was so heavy and painful that I sometimes wonder, thinking back, if I was having a miscarriage. Maybe they gave me a half-human, half-alien baby? I was so young then. There were these odd burn marks on my clothes and a strange red circle, like a tattoo but not, at the top of my left arm. It’s about the size of a dime. When I first showed it to Jake he got really excited. Apparently, a lot of abductees have it. We’ve been ‘branded’ like cattle, he says. A DNA harvest. Well.
Then it comes to me. Area 51. I’m in! Laptop unlocked. The thing is I’ve long suspected Jake has secret email conversations with Caitlin. They’re corresponding all the time, I’m sure of it. He’s probably calling her right now, with me out the way. I’ve also thought he must have pictures of her, photos stashed on the laptop, or somewhere. I told him he had to delete them all. He said he did, but I know he didn’t.
The password for his Gmail is different. Think Meg, think. I take a deep breath. What would my therapist do? I type Caitlin. No joy. I try a couple more, but still nothing. I guess cracking one code is good enough for today. Instead, I start to search his laptop for pictures of her or of them, together. I’ll get to the bottom of this. I don’t feel bad doing what I’m doing. Not at all. Already I think through what I’ll say to Dr Adams, how I’ll explain to her the way I was feeling and why I did this. There’s a lot of shit on his machine and it takes a while. I look up and realise the light has changed. An amazing, beautiful pink sunset bathes the room in a gentle, rosy glow. I take a moment to look outside. A couple of pick-up trucks and an SUV are parked near the motel entrance and I can see a few guys standing around, talking to each other. Several keep pointing to the back of one of the pick-ups. My phone buzzes. A message from Jake. You won’t believe this, it says. A picture message arrives. A photo of a dead cow. The bottom half of the cow is just bones. Another text. Something melted half a cow! U see? Weird, I guess. I decide not to reply. I’m clicking through Jake’s photo albums. I’m on one entitled ‘Sightings 3.’ It mostly consists of pictures he’s taken of suspicious lights in the sky. Most of the pictures don’t show anything. A few interesting clouds, that’s all. Jake’s never seen shit. I can hear the men outside, arguing in Spanish, but I pay them little mind. I keep clicking. Blue sky; blue sky; moon; vapour trail; stars; nothing at all; nothing; more stars; sunlight through clouds; Caitlin.
I knew it. I fucking knew it.
She’s wearing a white vest top that shows off her breasts and she’s smiling. Her arms are skinny and tanned. She’s so much prettier than I am, it’s no wonder Jake is sometimes disgusted by me. Click. In the next picture, she’s taken off her vest top. She’s not wearing a bra and her breasts are bigger than mine; firm, round and paler than the rest of her with nipples like milk chocolate discs. My face feels like it’s on fire. In the next picture she’s squeezing her tits together to make them look even larger and she’s sticking her tongue out as if to say ‘I’m a dirty little bitch.’ In the following snap she’s lying back in the bed, one hand pushing her white g-string aside to give a glimpse of the pink between her legs. In the one after that she’s got something in her mouth – the angle is odd and the quality is not great – but I realise it must be Jake’s stinky, dirty cock. My face is burning but I keep going through, all the way to the end, when Caitlin has a big smile and she’s holding Jake’s dripping cock, trails of cum all over her tits and lips.
I close the file and slam shut the laptop. Well, I think. Well I never. I knew this to be the case. I knew it. Being right gives me a sharp burn of satisfaction. There will be hell to pay for this, I think. Hell to pay. I wonder if I should keep quiet or confront Jake directly, the moment he comes back to find his lap-top open, a photo of his cum-smeared lover smiling back at him. Stop and breathe.
I decide to leave the room. Don’t think about Caitlin. Go outside. The air is surprisingly cool for June and I remember Jake saying how we’re nearly ten thousand feet up. That’s high. The men I saw earlier haven’t left. They’re still standing around the pick-ups and the SUV, having some sort of argument. They all stop, when I come out, and look at me in the way men do. I don’t really care. One of them, a boy who I guess must be about twelve or thirteen, starts to wave at me. Senora, senora, he shouts, come, look! He’s pointing to something in the back of the pick-up. Look, come. It’s probably just a Mexican scam, I think, but I go over anyway. The men stop and watch. Look, see, says the boy. He has a runny nose and a gap between his middle teeth. Look, senora, you won’t believe it! There is something covered in a dirty blanket in the back of the pick-up and dusty smears of what looks like oil over the sides. I get a whiff of rotten eggs, the bad smell lingering and small flies crawling across the warm metal hulk of the truck. I flinch and try to wave them away. Extranjeros, says one of the men in a thick accent. Hombre del espacio. One of the men climbs into the back of the pick-up. His clothes also smeared with black oil. He grins at me. You want to look? You want to see? He pulls away the blanket. Underneath is a black, twisted body about the size of a ten year old, but it’s all burnt-up, the gender lost, weird and warped like a charcoal sculpture of a little man. You see? They’re all shouting things at me, in Spanish and English. No photo, says the boy. Then, you want it, you take? Ten thousand dollars! I don’t have any money, I tell him. I look at the body again, if that’s what it is, because it looks more like an assemblage of burnt sticks pulled from a fire. The smell is horrible and I brush flies from my face. The men keep shouting.
After a while I go back to the motel. Eventually, I hear the Mexicans leave. I don’t know where they’re going. I lie on the bed and wait for Jake to come back.
o o o
is the author of ‘Lost Boys’ and ‘Sunshine State’. His new book, a collection of interlinked short stories called ‘UnAmerican Activities‘ is available now, published by Dodo Ink.
JIM returns with two beers and his friend (TOM) puts his phone down on the table as Jim puts the pints on either side.
Jim: What you up to this weekend, then?
Tom: Me mammar’s still up in hospital after her accident so I’ll probably go nd see her and then Kelly’s been having loadsa jip at work so I think I’ll take her out ta cheer her up a bit. Gotta do yer bit, ant ya. What about you, mate?
Jim: (shakes head) Nowt much, this weekend. Probably just ger a bitta writing done.
Tom: How’s that writing stuff going?
Jim: It’s alright, pal. I just had one accepted by this mag called Open Pen from down shitty London. It’s alright though, they send it to bookshops and that nd they give it our fer free.
Tom: (Trying to sound sincere) Yeah? Nice.
Jim: They emailed me the other week actually asking fer me to write em summat about why and how I write, I can’t remember exactly what they wanted.
Tom: (half interested, half taking the piss) What did you put?
Jim: Just the usual shit really, that I write cos my mind gets all clogged up if I don’t, that I, like, think in stories nd that. I mean, I said it better than that but ya get the gist. Just a loada crap really, I mean, it was all true but it just sounds so shit when you read it back. I think I just write cos I see stories all around me and they’re more interesting than most books, not always nice but more unbelievable, like that man that thinks he’s the best dancer in town, what’s his name?
Jim: Yeah, that’s him. He’s, what, 58? In the pub every night, thinks he’s the best dancer in town, jumps in everyone’s grill and a coupler hours ago Ben tells me he’s got done fer being a nonce nd flashing a kid. I mean, it’s grim but there’s a story in there. And the way he talks! Man.
Tom: I don’t think he’s really a nonce yer know, I told Ben that cos I heard it in The Social but it turns out it were a loada shit. Big Terry’s always making shit up.
Jim: Well that just shows it then.
Jim: (eyebrows raised) Stories, man. It’s a world of stories, they just need to be written. Big Terry’s a man of stories he just dunt know how ter write, don’t see the point in it. I just take everything, then open me pen and let the ink flow out.
Tom: (showing the palms of his hands on the table) Open Pen.
Jim: Ha, never thought of that! (Scratches the back of his head) Wish I’d put that in the write up now.
Tom: Do yer think you’ll ever make owt out of it, though? Ya always seem to be in one mag or zine or whatever yer call em nd that.
Jim: Nah, it’s not about all that kinda shit. I just like aller these zines nd mags cos ya can find other people whose writing yer like nd if they like yours ya can talk about it nd that. It’s good to know you’re not alone, ya know? I mean, think about it, I sit writing in me back room whenever I can and, well Soph reads it, but apart from that, it’s quite isolating. It’s just good to have a bit of camaraderie, if ya know what I mean. When I was out skating every night you had your thing ya loved doing but ya had people to talk about it with nd that; it’s not like that with writing. You’ve been to the nights that we’ve put on; I love all the nights mags put on. It’s a real world thing, like, not just a back room thing. Plus, these little places aren’t full of stuck up nob-eds, which is a bonus.
Tom: (Looking around the room) I don’t get it, mate. Seems a bit fucking hipster to me.
Jim: (tuts) Fuck off.
Tom: Look over there, (nodding to one side) ya seen who Petey’s wi?
Jim: I recognise her; who is it?
Tom: Rachael, Damo’s bird.
Jim: They finished then? I fucking hope so the way Petey’s hand’s going.
Tom: He’s in pen. Got pulled in that fucking banger of his. Off his twat on Phet wi a loada baggies. He not get long.
Jim: He’ll be fucking fuming when he’s out.
Tom: Too right.
Tom: Gu on then.
Exit to beer garden.
Jim Gibson grew-up in the feral plains of an ex-mining village, Newstead. Editor and
co-founder of Hi Vis Press, he tries to encourage the lesser voiced truths of our society.
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.”
“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!”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.
“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?”
“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.