Magnolia

“What could you bring to the company?” Michael mulled this question over and over in his head. It wasn’t a personal request from man to man, it was an automated machine looking for the correlating code to add to its vast library. An open source database mining individuals with the right ideas, values and responses. The man asking the question was a piece of software trusted with access to more critical information, and to make more critical decisions, for the company.

The man may have believed in the company and that he was a representative of its values, but each piece of software fills its objectives before becoming obsolete; no-one is irreplaceable. His life is unimportant to the company, not because he is undervalued as a member of the team but because only its continued existence matters. But it is important to stress that the company does not discriminate, it treats all as machine-like individuals until their organic matter corrupts the process for which they were designed.

That was why it was important in answering the question. Because without following a script consistent with the companies values, Michael could be seen as an unnecessary risk.

He hesitated, before mumbling about the protocols and procedures he had undertaken in previous work, how and where he had previous experience of the company systems, and why he had sought out employment for the company. None of this mumbling was factually accurate, but it was the correct automated response.

The man looked at him blankly, before looking down to the piece of paper in front of him. The magnolia painted walls conveyed the emotion in the room.

Magnolia

Copyright

I twisted the silencer gently. Standing on tiptoes, staring up at the spiralling staircase. The floor was carpeted, meaning I could tread lightly without making a clacking noise, like heels on concrete. It was quiet; so far so good.

Sure a gun to someone’s head was less subtle than a poisoning, but it was 100% effective. I could be certain they were dead, I could ring my employer immediately and he’d get the news to the publishers who’d contracted us. Everyone knew it was a contract killing, but to prove whodunnit in a court of law was another matter.

Sometimes three or four companies were in cahoots, and they’d each take turns in making the bidding process look legitimate. If an artist hadn’t released any new material for a reasonable amount of time, they’d probably be advised to start distributing profitable material. Or hire a guard dog, a really sodding loud guard dog. I hate shooting guard dogs, it’s inhumane.

They usually don’t see it coming, asleep in the middle of the night. Soundly dreaming up their next musical failure, an avant-garde number about the futility of life, or a modernist musical about the making of musicals. Terrible things. Terrible things that need to be stopped.

In one of my early encounters, I had a waker, pleading desperately. Shouting absurd things like “I’ll do a duet with Beyonce” and “I’ll write a hundred 4 chord pop songs tomorrow.” Totally delusion, a has-been. It’d been 20 years since he’d even picked up a guitar, let alone written a song. He’d stalled on his autobiography that the publishers had kindly paid an advance for, quite simply: his time was up.

I walked carefully up the first couple of steps, trying to judge the pressure required to avoid the creaking. One that could set off a light sleeper with a mobile phone next to the bed.

I rounded the spiral to find a man pointing an object at me. Maybe I’d been a bit too confident in my ability, maybe he’d been awake the whole time. It didn’t matter, with a couple of quick shots it was all over. I didn’t have time to decipher what he was carrying, it looked gun shaped but I suppose it he’d have wanted me to believe that to stop me from shooting. I’d checked for a pulse, but he was dead, my work was done. I phoned up my boss to confirm and left the house as quietly as I’d arrived.

It’s a misnomer that there’s no such thing as a famous contract killer. The ones everyone’s heard of are all shit at the job, languishing in prisons trying to sell their stories for an early release.

So it was certainly a surprise to be awoken with the news that I was incompetent. On the plus side, I shot the man twice and both bullets would have killed him. Unfortunately, the man was the boyfriend of my target. Had I not glossed over the details, or had I done a quick online search, I would have learnt that Taylor can also be a girl’s name. I had a shitstorm being vocalised down my inner ear that I didn’t care to be part of.

But it was too late, a memo was sent to every news agency describing me as a disgruntled employee, along with a rather fetching photograph of me snarling for the camera.

I actually walked into the police station myself. I sat down in the waiting area staring at coffee stains along the browning dark blue carpet, no doubt infested with 30 years of more intelligent colonies than our own. Nobody came for hours. I began to think I ought to have fled the country. I filled out a job application form, even offered to clean the carpet. The receptionist sat in her glass house, pupils hidden by the bright white light reflected back from the computer. Every breath she took was in exasperation, I didn’t have the heart to tell her I was dangerous.

I headed back out into the dusk light, the lampposts sparking into life the colour of my lit cigarette. I saw the police cordon surrounding my apartment, guns ready. Armed and dangerous.

According to the reports I shot first, and I was the only fatality. Over 100 bullets to subdue me, I’d take that as a compliment if I didn’t know the truth. I shook my head in disbelief at the news report, they’d ruined my apartment. I’d paid good money to fix that place up. I wondered who the poor sod was. Set up, tied into place, and target practice for a PR exercise.

I finished my cigarette and checked my messages. Time to go back to work.

Copyright

Fire

I wasn’t there when the fire started. I didn’t feel the waves of burning matter on my skin. I didn’t watch the clutter disperse into smaller pieces, or see walls blackened by the process.

I received a calm phone call the morning after, one that left me several hundred pounds out of pocket. After rushing for a fast train, I was there, breathing in the fumes. It didn’t destroy everything, boxes of old junk survived untouched, memories written in pencil and ink. Memories I no longer recall, their importance no longer affecting decisions I make. I set fire to them all.

It was the first time in years I’d felt tears running down my cheeks, somewhat involuntarily. I buried a lot of the past under floorboards and in loft space, building over it until I had to bend my neck to walk through the house. It’s not that I missed my possessions and notes to myself, but watching words crumple into nothing is to mourn years of love and laughter and joy and sadness. It is as if hoarding those memories kept them alive, and actively throwing them onto the woodpile was killing them. Did I still want to read my 9th birthday card from a grandparent who’d been dead for 25 years? Or was the memory of knowing it had existed, at one time, enough to remember someone I barely knew?

A few days after my visit, I received a second phone call. The end of a cigarette rolling underneath the garage door and catching a disused mattress was the likely cause. A bit of luck that took a flick of someone’s wrist, a favourable breeze and the slight descent of the narrow driveway. It wasn’t a supernatural act, or the deliberate intent of an arsonist, but accidental damage. I felt conflicted, a character who should be liberated by the destruction, but instead flaps at the flaming pile of junk in a desperate attempt to rescue a memory. A memory I never cherished, a memory rewritten by time, a memory starved of oxygen.

Fire

Brass

Evenings were slow after long hard days of ploughing the fields and picking fruit. We were simple people, I was a simple boy. Stories passed the time, the tellers used to scare us with great fantasies of a man said to feast on the flesh of the living, with a single scream he could make our heads explode. They said he could smell our fear, see through walls and hear us breathing from upon the moors.

It was said he led the greatest orchestra in the world and toured lands across large pools of water. But my world started on our farmland and ended where the horizon bowed in the distance. I had no need to venture across the moors when friends came and shared these tales. No orchestra came here with their queer sounds, and I would not go out there to meet them.

But trouble will find us all if we wait long enough. On the outer perimeter of our land as dusk was falling, they found a body and placed it before the whole village. Dried blood across his mutilated cheeks and mouth gaping.

Later that evening, we heard a long piercing frequency from afar. The melody was gentle afterwards, but its slow inevitable rise in volume was a sign for most people to run. I did not fear it though. Call it naivety, or arrogance, but I didn’t want to leave my home.

A meeting was held in the old square for the few of us that remained, we prayed to the gods of fire that they would extinguish our enemies and the sun would rise in the east tomorrow. But they were quicker and stronger than us. I’m not certain I ever knew what our plan was, but it hadn’t worked. Cacophonies of surround sound brought us to our knees, the music abrasive and brash. Victorious wolves howling in their new territory. I thought I was going to die, I took deep breaths and tried to prepare myself. But just as suddenly as they had appeared, they fell silent all around, and he came before me. He pulled my chin up with his right hand, my bottom lip quivering fighting the tears.

His eyes were dark brown, sad eyes. Greying, shoulder length hair and well defined forehead lines could not draw my attention away from his mouth. A saxophone hung from it, amplifying his breathing. It wasn’t just hanging there the way rope dangles from a branch, it was stuck there. I must have let out a small cry when I realised that because he punctured both my cheeks with two quick flicks of his wrist.

He pulled a Tuba from the case upon his back and pushed the reed into my mouth, I winced as he intricately fastens it through the small ruptures. His eyes brightened as mine avert his gaze. Each breath a deep rumble comes out, and he gestures for me to play.

My cheeks swell and he tends to them carefully, he feeds me freshly pressed fruit and crushed pastes through the gaps. I try to avoid eye contact but he is insistent, encouraging me to do the same to him.

Every conversation is a musical phrase, a language with a steep learning curve. But I can’t remember what it was like to think without it, sentences soon hum between synapses and neurones and contain the quirks of each of our personalities.

There’s the Laugher, most of his conversations start with exaggerated low rumbles and small silences. Like deep belly laughter from a big set of lungs. Cocky, sometimes overly so.

Or, the Talker. Quick to fill in gaps with elaborate verbosity, rarely leaving room for anyone else. Gets shouted down, often. Answers back to everything. A friend with an exaggerated anecdote, the sniggering accentuates the phrases, colouring in the texture.

The only one who can leave the Talker speechless is the Pondering Man. He follows everyone else’s lead for the majority of the time, keeping his head down and hiding in the backline before bursting out with a short and concise point, lasting usually no more than 4 bars. A silence forms around us, until the Laugher starts up and we go again.

There isn’t always time for talk though. There are marches, motifs, chases, and hunts to work on. Familiar tunes that came from the moors. I look forward to the hunt the most. We stalk and corner runners, a chorus crescendos from mono to surround sound. A terrified man or woman kneels to the ground, weeping or praying and covering their ears. But we drown them out, our song is a buoyant. Until he comes, then we fall silent.

I can’t tell what he thinks. I just see his sad eyes, like he’s continually disappointed by us but trying to make the best of it. The first time I saw him snap took me by surprise. He belted out an the greatest melody I have ever heard, shaking with rage or the sheer feat of musical ability, he stopped suddenly and swung his instrument into the temple of one of our quieter members. Pulling out a hammer from his tool belt and smashing the temple. He was probably dead after the third or fourth hit, but at least fifteen more followed, some from others who’d joined in.

Afterwards, he pulled me to one side and played a soft melody, he opened his hand signalling he wanted me to follow it. We played in unison for five minutes or so, before he stopped and stared at me with those sad brown eyes. He put his hands up to the top of my head, ruffling my short brown hair with his left hand. He was reassuring me that I was fine, and he wouldn’t hurt me. He handed me a trombone, warm and still full of spit and blood. I washed out the reed and the instrument till it gleamed, a masterpiece of craft filled with horror. Up close, I noticed the slight dents in the fading daylight. I wondered how many other men and women had worn it, how many of them had been buried in an unmarked grave for a cause they were forced into. I wondered how many had worn mine. I shuddered and began to play that familiar tune. If I hum it over and over it is less awful. Is it awful? My eyes and ears are in dispute, the sounds I hear make me feel alive but the world I see isn’t the world I thought I believed in. A cognitive dissonance pushing at moral boundaries I once thought I knew. If I believe in it does it make the trauma disappear? My exterior shell is filled with holes, and blowing through them doesn’t stop the chill getting in.

Outwardly, I remain calm. I know what happens if I do not. He does listen to suggestions, but his wisdom is usually final. Any dissent, inward or outward will be punished. But maybe he is right. These small hamlets strive and suffer in silence and our calls will ring from them till they see that the only way is the path we have chosen. They are scared of war, but only because change is terrifying. If we nurture them, they will grow into us. The joyous raucous of one sprawling metropolis. The fresh food, the sharing of wealth amongst all as equals.

It was hardly a war though, the hamlets hidden in the valleys could not see us before they heard us. The long calls like howls. My brothers and sisters and unknown brothers and sisters waiting to be liberated by the call of music. The rhythm and the melody, the harmony and the texture, the question and the answer. I ask how many hamlets must we pass to be victorious. He says the path is long and the enemies are willing us to die, but that we must fight and never fall silent. I play joyously for a second and he gestures that he is also pleased. He says he’s happy that I have become fluent, that he once had his doubts on me. Never doubt me, I said in a bassy tone.

I heard others ask if there could not be peace. If we could be left meats at the sight of the full moon, to indulge our desire to eat. But how could they ever understand our demands if they could not speak to us? How were we any better than them if we lived corrupt lives bought by greed? No, we ransack. We charge down and we convert others to our way of living. Jubilant in our new territory, checking every corner for any silent enemies. For silence is submission and we do not intend to fall silent.

Brass

An Imaginary Conversation

I stared into my laptop, my eyes perceiving the screen as translucent waves. I dived in head first expecting to crack the screen. But I saw white noise in 4 dimensions and rooms where the code spoke to me in logical parameters.

But while I was there, I got angry. But anger sometimes comes with anxiety, I shake like a leaf and vent my emotions like an insular keyboard warrior, pushing the giant buttons across the four walls. But most of the time it ends when I press delete.

Then the episode is wiped from my memory and the stain doesn’t blemish my irregular contact with the outside world. I’m reluctant to jump into a debate when being certain means being assertive, or aggressive, and often vindictive against anyone who questions that certainty. My feelings swap sides when popular movements leave chunks in their arguments the size of an ozone layer and are insidiously smoke bombed by carbon enthusiasts.

But I pressed send for a change, I even felt a hit of dopamine when I did. Now I sit and imagine that a man, or a woman, is asking why I wrote those things. Why I refused to obey the polite format of office decorum. Why I felt the need to refuse to answer a question posed by its recipient? Why I felt the need to respond at all?

The anger doesn’t come from this isolated incident, it feeds on any nudge of encouragement and grows each time I suppress it. When my body resists, I grit my teeth and atoms vibrate, inaudible frustrations call general meetings inside my head. The voices shout across a large wooden table engraved with my face.

I’m sat in the dock with no defence counsel, and at first, they don’t notice me. But one by one they shake their heads, each leaving an insult with no hint of constructive wit, just the plain old economics of biological self-interest. I’m reluctant to seek help at the best of times, I’m stubborn and I hold grudges. I use them as fuel to create things that keep my bunker safely armoured, from above or underneath, to keep those callous words from vibrating indefinitely.

But when the vibrations become sharp punches landing between the weak points of the cage, my bunker becomes a shrinking safe space with speakers insidiously installed to yell uncomfortable truths about mortality. Leaflets rain down my deficiencies through the gaps in my one-roofed republic. Does propaganda stop being propaganda if I believe it?

Sometimes, the feeling is overwhelming. I want to apologise, be forgiving, in case I hurt someone else’s feelings. I can never be certain of a words repercussions. Sure, I can be flippant or brush off things that may affect others, but I can also obsess over the tiniest detail, making starship fleets out of molecular biology. Imprisoning myself in a sealed envelope just to know whether I’m being read by the recipient.

But other times, when backed into a corner, fighting feels like the only option. Swinging accusations and hoping for a quick knock out blow. But I’m afraid of the reply, so inside I have crisis discussions and plan for the worst. A conversation with an imagined idea of a person, a conversation that cannot ever become real.

An Imaginary Conversation

The Trouble With Not Knowing

It came to me in a dream. I was in a church, on a pew at the back, sitting alone in silence, head bowed but occasionally looking up towards the altar. Black suited, the best dressed I have ever been, freshly polished designer leather shoes. About four or five rows at the front of were full of people, all dressed in white suits and shoes. They were weeping softly, which echoed around the high beams, buzzing and distorting the grief. One of the men comforting the woman beside him turned around, saw me at the back, shook his head and got up to confront me.

“What are you doing here?”

A sharp intake of breath and I awoke to the sound of birds yapping in the early spring darkness. A feeling caught my gut, synapses sending signals across my body. An internal wound. Laying in the darkness, I thought of you. I buried my face into the pillow and hoped to smell the residue of your perfume, but my sweat had collected where yours may have once been.

Maybe I dreamt the whole thing. The girl I thought I fell in love with, the girl who used to laugh at my jokes and listen to the music I liked. It does sometimes feel like you were an apparition, a fuzzy ghost of some head trauma I’d suffered.

It could have been 5 days or 5 months. I stare at the words we wrote to each other, I can’t see any sign of change in your tone. I won’t send you more than two messages in a row in case you think I’m over-bearing, but I’m still thinking about it. I won’t say hello, it’s your move. I’m telepathically sending signals but you’re not receiving, I wonder if your ears are burning. Is it the right or the left that’s supposed to be about your lover?

I’d once told you that I worried it wasn’t you who messaging me, but an incredibly elaborate plot against me. “I do like to question everything”, I’d joked. You’d laughed lovingly and kissed me on the forehead, “Why would anybody do that?”

I didn’t answer.

I could feel the inhalations and exhalations when you slept beside me. Sometimes, I’d get up and look for traps in amongst your things. I’m not paranoid, I just wanted to make sure it was real. How do I know that there aren’t a team of writers and producers waiting when you leave the room? Discussing your next move as you shower and retch at the feigned enjoyment of sharing a bed.

Maybe you are oblivious to everything, or there’s a really good explanation. It’ll seem obvious when you say you’ve been teaching tourists to scuba dive in the Pacific ocean and you didn’t think to write because everything was fine. I’ll smile in joy and relief and you’ll laugh and kiss my cheek, waiting for it all to be lost in the clumsy extradition of our clothing from body to the floor. The quantum entanglement of germs waiting to be re-acquainted.

I watched a funeral procession ride past from a first floor window on a late-autumn Sunday afternoon. The wedding hats had been dyed black, each sporting a white rose. Everyone wore white suits, a large group of people walking alongside the car, and the rest lined up behind it on the narrow street. The short trip from the funeral directors to the church was filled with ghosts. Maybe it was symbolic, a wish of the box dweller, the only one not to see it as the traffic further back in the line honked, less in support and more in annoyance, before apologetically offering condolences when confronted by the pall bearers. I was an overhanging branch in this solemn looking picture. But in my best black suit, I didn’t ask whose body we were following.

The Trouble With Not Knowing