Lost

It’s 3am, I’m sitting in a soggy field staring at a local map under the torch; I’m lost in the long grass. It’s a cloudy summer’s night, the breeze blowing grey clouds across the perfect moon. Besides the artificial light, it’s the only beacon as far as I can see. My phone is long out of battery and there are no streetlights, no towns, no cities, no bleating sheep.

In my rucksack I have several spare aa batteries, a few more empty ones, a black banana, an empty water bottle and the crumbs in empty crisp packets and pasty wrappers. My shoes soaking, I can feel my toes wrinkling inside but I’m not cold. The wind is a westerly one, my jacket waterproof, I did come here of my own free will after all and not unprepared.

I start to walk on in the dark, I’m looking for a path but I’m bouncing over the wild heather, trying to ascertain the direction I came. It all looks the same this countryside, a tree here, a plant there.

I sit down and stare at the map again. Squiggly lines pointing off in all directions, names of landmarks and old dead languages still influencing modern tongues. The further I abstract from the present here and now, the more difficult it is to see through the blurry mess of history. I see ancient settlers wrapped in thick cloaks of animal fur, carefully walking through the bogs and plants searching for something, food? A place to sleep? No place for a town, a stop-gap on ancient commute. I wonder if people ever stopped back then, to really think about the aesthetics of the landscape, or whether this amble of mine is a luxury.  A discovery of myself, a discovery of wet clothes and shit maps, and darkness.

My mind wanders, I am struggling to concentrate on heading one way. Questions I’d previously given no thought are breaking through with a dull sizzle of electricity. No ideas that will help.

I sigh heavily. I am comfortable in my own company, I always have been. No man or woman can come between my hard shell and I. It’s too late to change the way I think now, I don’t care how much plasticity scientists think my brain has, the mould is set. Blips of abstract philosophical thoughts are what sleepless nights are laced with. I could probably sleep here, there are no murderers on the moors; not tonight at least.

There must be some evolutionary purpose to being terrified by the world, a self-preservation mechanism, an avoidance technique, a learnt behaviour. I run from people, it’s more comforting to sit in silence than be silent in a room of chatter. The wind whistles lightly, gently speaking at a comforting cadence. It tries to usher me away from where I’m heading, “run with me” it says. But I’m treading on uncomfortable ground, forcing myself over the slippery moss-covered rocks, heading down for what seems the first time in hours.

But the relief is only temporary. I slip down into a large bush of brambles, or nettles, points all sticking into my clothes, pulling at the cotton or polyester, digging into my hands, piercing cuts send signals to my synapses. There could be miles of this, I can’t see far enough in front of me to judge. All we do as a species is bend nature to our will and yet, these spaces exist that simulate the wildness and starkness of the past. I’m annoyed at myself now, the inner monologue and the power of hindsight team up to lecture me on the benefits of remaining indoors, doors bolted, room locked, covers pulled over my head.

I can see through the black now, the darkest part of the night is over, the yellow streaks begin to form borders around the clouds. The brown moorland comes into view and I can see the trodden path, years of walkers flattening the undergrowth till it parted for us, like a bow of deference. We’ve walked through here and nature is ours. I think of clansmen and women, or hunter gatherers, waking and searching for a direction to take, towards food, towards the light, towards a stream or a river. Or maybe they didn’t walk over here at all, too absorbed in the stress of every day to find time to be alone, or content that their little settlement by the river has everything they need.

Not everything has a purpose, I’m not a rational actor in control. There’s a wild streak, an impulse to be spontaneous, to search for meaning in the landscape, or a computer screen. But there isn’t a meaning in either of those things, just stories I tell myself. Fiction that keeps the journey alive, like there’s a grand revelation at the end. I’m smiling to myself now, ready to find a cafe, to sit and enjoy the sensation of being alive, and after that the sensation of rest.

I see a man walking towards me, in period costume, like an imperial war re-enactment. He raises his right hand and hundreds of men appear from the tall grass, standing to attention with muskets pointed at me. My feet keep moving towards them, I doff my woollen hat, I’m not afraid. A shot fires out, I’m surprised because suddenly my shoulder throbs and I give a perplexed look at the men. They lower their arms and a group of five or six of them gather a net and walk towards me, I fall to the ground and mutter a few words of disbelief. And I think, I never saw it coming, I never saw anything at all.

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Lost

Rebel

My Dad pushed open the door to my room, ready to shout at a disobedient child but I hid myself well. Underneath the bed were built-in drawers I’d shut from the inside, I’d spend forty minutes, or more, eluding detection. Silent, but for gentle breaths and a pulsing heartbeat. The thud of the front door and a distant engine rumble was my cue to move, first to nervously peer out of my parents bedroom window onto the empty driveway, and then to head downstairs and out into the quiet after the morning rush.

School was not where I wanted to be, and what I wanted was more important than what other people thought was good for me. I was cynical, even at fourteen, to those with life experiences, what could they possibly tell me that I didn’t already know about the world? Trying was pointless, learning was pointless. All I could amount to was a feast for the bugs under a heap of dirt, it made no difference whether I worked hard or not. What was there to be gained from Business Studies, or Geography? I thought. Hiding underneath my turtle shell feeding the mind a defeatist philosophy.

In those days, a fourteen year old could get a pack of fags without ID, and since it could be assumed all the kids were at school, I could pass for sixteen with my hint of hair growing on the chin, saving up a couple of days bus fare to spend my parents money on rebelling. I wandered down sterilised suburban streets and housing estates for aspirational early 90s buyers, gardens all neatly pruned and driveways swept, winding left and right through little alleys that avoided the main road.

The lake was man-made, a nice spot for dogs to foul and grumpy morning walkers to curse. It was intended to join each end of the suburb, offering shortcuts away from the road and towards the local primary school. But in reality it was desolate, a dead space hardly anyone used. A tiny island perched in the middle of it untouched, trees flailing as their roots slipped closer to the still water, its murky brown shade rarely moved and the air only vibrated with an occasional quack echoing rippling across the lake. Duck shit covered the pavement that looped around it, and the grass was always boggy even in summer, as children we’d scrape our feet on the path to get rid of the mud, only to end up with muddy shit. I sat on a bench away from the main path, smoking and passing time. Out of boredom I’d smoked a second cigarette immediately after the first. The rush of chemicals went straight to my head and gave me a whiter complexion than usual. Heaving to spew, just phlegm emerging, a sharp migraine fizzled. I managed to stumble up to a wooded retreat and slumped over a tree, waiting for the sickness to abate.

Others I knew who’d avoided school desperately tried to covet attention, standing at the back gate waiting to be caught. Throwing stones at the water, being childish in shopping centres. I was never like that, I was always aware that I needed to blend in seamlessly, nobody needed to notice, leaving them on autopilot as they navigated the bland shopping centre tiles, leaving them to think about themselves. I liked being invisible, it is much easier when you’ve a white face and a masculine look, but I nonetheless appreciated the serenity of being left to my own thoughts.

But despite the care I’d taken in simmering the alarms over my fugitive status, the adults, with their network of contact details, had played their winning hand. My parents were furious and I was equally agitated by this conspiracy against me. They didn’t understand, the law didn’t understand, and it wasn’t fair. I went to my room and listened to loud, brash punk music, I cried and cried and thought and thought, but it wasn’t my parents I was getting back at.

Rebel

Family Man

I didn’t used to think about “us” as a collective, or a team. I used the children as an excuse to leave in the morning, and not return till dark. Dinner cold; a sleepless woman anxiously confronting me with raised whispers. My booming voice would wake the children, and she’d be disgusted. Heavily pregnant, she’d waddle through to check on them, while I lit a cigarette and blew the smoke towards her spitefully.

Some mornings, I’d wake up alone on a makeshift mattress in the narrow, caravan like kitchen. The sounds of three children, the pitter-patter of tiny feet and high-pitched shrieks of excitement. I used to bark at them, but now they fill me with guilt. And sorrow. The girls tug at each other’s hair, sprinting through a hallway and into their bedroom, with a small boy barely walking, trying his best chase them. They ask questions but they don’t linger on yesterday, it’s as if none of it happened. They trust in the truths their mother and I tell them about the world. The alternative is too hard to bear.

I’m told I’m too hard on the boy, too authoritarian. Forcing his cries to die down with a gentle tap across his mouth. His sisters wince, I tell them to go to their room and they shuffle off like frightened little girls. The way Irena tells it to her friends, sounds like a drunk is beating a child to near-death. She’s too soft on them, but I’m trying to be a better father.

I see her when I sleep. I see her take off and run towards the exit, a mischievous child ducking underneath the crowd. I should have barged through everyone, I should have kicked down all the doors. Run after her screaming her name. I don’t even remember her name.

I awoke to a hangover and a bar stool, in pieces around me. A couple of people asked if I was ok, and I grumbled and headed off to smoke. It had been five hours and I couldn’t remember where I’d been, I glanced up at the pub sign to check its name, it seemed familiar, I knew how to get home. I ambled across the road to the off-license and bought a few beers for the way, I vaguely remember kicking through a fence before I burst in through the front door and stumbled into picture frames and smashed the front room mirror. Irena screamed at me.

“Where is our daughter?”
“Who?”
“WHERE IS SHE?!”

I never told her I loved her, even when she let me sleep in our bed. For all the times when I was too drunk to be a real Father, the vicious words and abuse I’d yell, the daughter I’d let run off. She tenses whenever I touch her, I don’t fully understand why she’s still here or why the children are still here. I wonder if they have no place else to go and they’re biding their time till a man in a van can pack their things and drive them to a place where the roof is held together by slate and not patched up by tape, literally and figuratively. Maybe I’m being given a chance to redeem myself, to be better than the creature that ripped holes through our family for vacuous self-gratification.

We get visitors every so often, mostly coming to ask questions of where I was on that day. That day. I always tell them the same story, they always leave. I think they’re hoping I’ll tell them what they want to hear, a story they’ve assimilated from the grubby clothes, the beer belly and my accent.

They think I’m subhuman, a vicious piece of work. They expect to find a body, they expect I killed her. The girls always come through afterwards and hug me, ask who those horrible men were and why they keep coming back? The walls are not as thick as we like to believe. Their love is unconditional, hopelessly naive, truly a blessing. A reason to live, a reason to be a man.

Irena grinds her teeth and watches, pensive. Maybe she believes it. I wouldn’t blame her, but it does make me angry that she thinks I’m capable. I go for a long walk, skimming beer bottles like stones into the lake, eyeballing dog-walkers, hoping one of them catches my gaze long enough to say a few harsh words. Is that who I’ve always been? A ghastly man who threatens people as a tension release?

As my walk becomes an amble, a solitary street light burns too brightly for my eyes. A crash of silicone and glass falls back to the newly paved walkway. I crush them further with a couple of stomps of my oversized boots. I sit and wait, teary-eyed in the fading light, for my daughter to find her way back to me.

Family Man

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