Tuesday, 24 April 2018
Tuesday, 10 April 2018
Ichneumon eumerus by Andrew McCallum Crawford published by Interlitq - The International Literary Quarterly
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To read the story, go to the Interlitq website.
Tuesday, 3 October 2017
Trying to boil water in a small, long-handled pot. The flame was tiny, sputtering. There was hardly any gas left in the canister. The water had to be boiled, and boiled well. It was orange, the colour of old iron. He tried to tell himself it was nothing bad. There is nothing harmful about iron. It is supposed to be good for the blood. Maybe it would make a man of him. But he was careful. You never knew. Germs. It is never wise to give them a head start.
The flame wheezed. He would have to risk it. He added a teaspoon of coffee and stirred vigorously. Perhaps friction would speed things along.
Someone was at the door.
He wiped the spoon on his vest.
A woman was standing out in the passageway. She looked vaguely familiar. The expression she wore was tearful, apologetic. A suitcase was at her side. He became aware of his heart beating as vague familiarity welled up into something else.
‘You can’t be fucking serious,’ he said.
‘Bastard,’ she said. She leaned to pick up the case, but he got there before her, a real gentleman.
He squared the sheet on the bed. He made it last longer than necessary, tucking the corners in just so. He could feel her standing behind him, next to the sink, taking in the state of the place.
The canister gave a final pop. The flame died.
‘I’d make you a coffee,’ he said. ‘But, eh...’
‘No, fine,’ she said. ‘I’m not...can I sit down?’ She wasn’t asking for permission. There were no chairs in the room. There was nothing in the room apart from the bed and the wardrobe. The toilet was on the other side of a threadbare curtain. All mod cons. He reached out onto the balcony for the stool, which was filthy, the result of prolonged rain followed by a heat wave. She lowered herself onto the edge of the mattress.
He wasn’t good at small talk. He wasn’t good at confrontations, either. This one was of his own making. Not just his. They’d concocted this situation between them. It had been a long time coming. He sat on the stool, his knees up around his chin. It was ridiculous. He tried to read her eyes, but she wouldn’t look at him. The grate over the drain in the middle of the floor had her transfixed.
‘Look at me,’ he said.
‘What happened?’ he said.
‘Are you still writing?’ she said. She wanted to get down to it. Of course she did. ‘I haven’t read about myself for a while.’
‘No, I gave it up,’ he said. ‘It was causing too many problems.’
‘Yes, tell me about it,’ she said.
He hadn’t meant it like that. It was true, though. That was the problem.
‘So I’m no longer your Muse?’ she said. ‘No, hang on, how does it go? That’s right, I’m the oxygen that breathes life into your words.’
‘Sarcasm was never your strong point,’ he said. ‘How are your kids?’ He was relieved to note she hadn’t brought them with her.
‘They’re at my mum’s,’ she said. She looked at the drain. A cockroach scurried out of the grate and stopped, its antennae gyrating, next to her left shoe. It about-turned and scurried back again. ‘Thanks for asking.’
‘So, what happened?’ he said.
She splayed her fingers in her lap. Some of her nails were broken. The skin around all of them was chewed. She looked at him. She looked at him for a long time. Her eyes were dull, like neglected emeralds. ‘He found out,’ she said.
He knew all about jealous spouses. Well, one. He didn’t blame his wife for reacting the way she had. So much deceit, all those years of trust being cunningly, methodically, mathematically chipped away. Secrets cease to be secret, sooner or later. You have to deal with the consequences. Not that he had wanted to leave. He had been thrown out, quite literally. His wife’s cousins were large fellows impervious to his whining. And here he was languishing in this dump, skint, but at least he was safe. ‘How did you know where to find me?’ he said.
‘You emailed me months ago,’ she said. ‘When you moved in here. Then you disappeared. Have you given up the Internet as well?’
He’d been offline for a while. Had it been months? The laptop was out of sight, under the bed, probably covered in dust and worse. He used to get a signal through the wall, but they had wised up to it and put a lock on. He couldn’t afford an hour down the cafe, never mind his own connection.
‘Strange, that,’ she said. ‘Giving me your address. Very old-fashioned.’
‘I wanted you to send me flowers to brighten the place up,’ he said, lamely. There was only one reason for telling her where he lived. He was sitting looking at it. ‘How did he...I mean, what did he...’
‘He didn’t speak to me. He went out and came home drunk. He started shouting, breaking things. I dressed the kids and took them to my mum’s. I haven’t been back to the house since. He’s okay, though, if a bit hysterical, judging by the texts he’s been...’
‘So you decided to jump on a plane and come to me?’ he said.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Mad, eh?’
He looked at the drain. ‘I can’t help feeling responsible,’ he said.
‘You don’t say!’
‘Let’s not argue,’ he said. ‘I haven’t got the energy, believe me.’
‘I can see that,’ she said. ‘You look like shit.’
‘Yeah,’ he said. He couldn’t help himself. ‘So do you.’
She started crying, quietly.
He scratched the side of his face. ‘I haven’t eaten since Tuesday,’ he said.
Her fingers, blunt claws, started opening and closing as if she were trying to grab something to stop it getting away. What it was, he had no idea. It certainly wasn’t her dignity. She’d lost the last vestiges of that when she knocked on his door. She clenched her fists tight. He heard something break. He could have been mistaken. ‘God, what am I doing?’ she said. ‘You are so selfish.’
‘I know,’ he said.
She took a tissue from her pocket. Her nose. That way she had. Still the same. Delicate, but effective. ‘Could we go for a walk?’ she said.
It was an idea.
‘I’ll need to get changed first,’ she said. She hoisted the suitcase onto the bed. The lid flapped open. A pair of jeans. A white blouse with red roses. It looked new, the way it was folded. He should have given her some privacy, but where could he go? He leaned against the wall and rubbed the stain on his vest. It was damp. It wasn’t the first time he’d watched her undress. He wished it was. He wanted to feel something, he really did, but there was nothing sexual in the white cotton and naked skin. It was almost unreal, he was standing outside himself, watching these two desperate characters playing a scene; an excerpt from the jaded routine of married life.
His mouth made a sound.
She turned to face him. A challenge. Look at me. Look at all of me. He tried not to stare. Her breasts hung heavy, overripe, a vertical crease of wrinkles between them. His heart. His hand moved to his chest. Whatever dream he’d written her into, whatever it was they had shared, its time had come and gone years ago.
A crack like a gunshot as she pushed an arm through the sleeve of her blouse. ‘You’re some piece of work,’ she said.
‘What is it you want from me, for Christ’s sake?’ he said.
‘Don’t you dare shout,’ she said. ‘I can tell by the look on your face. Think about all those things you wrote.’
‘They’re just stories,’ he said. ‘I told you that.’
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘You’re a liar.’
She was right. For him, the line between fiction and confession was so fine it didn’t exist. He was fooling no one, not even himself.
‘Okay, I’m a liar,’ he said. ‘My wife could tell you all about it. But I never lied to you. Not once. Call it misplaced loyalty. If it’s the truth you want, look around you. There’s mould on the ceiling and bugs crawling out the floor. That’s the truth. That’s my truth. You’re welcome to it.’
She sat on the bed and stared at the grate. The cockroach had taken cover. Perhaps all the noise had given it stage fright. ‘I want it to be like it was,’ she said. Her words were measured. Controlled. As if she’d practised them. ‘I want to feel wanted, not owned. I want you. Most of all...’ She was struggling. ‘I want you to leave me alone.’
‘I didn’t ask you to come here,’ he said.
She buried her face in her hands. She was crying again. This time she meant it. ‘Yes, you did!’ she said.
He remembered a tumbler in the cupboard over the sink. It was still there. He held it close to the tap, which spat orange liquid, as he knew it would. What happens when two things, two good things, are attracted? Sometimes they make something bad. Iron is good for the blood, and oxygen is good for everything else. But when you put them together all you get is rust.
Water came into the equation somewhere. Offering her a glass of it was more than he was capable of.
‘I’m sick of this place,’ he said. She was climbing into her jeans. He pulled the curtain closed and used the toilet. She was waiting for him when he came out. Her perfume. He followed her down the passageway, all the way to the lift. There was a place he knew. Coffee and rolls. He hoped she had money.
* * * * *
I read this story at the Waterstones Sauchiehall Street Truth or Lies event in June, 2017. It first appeared in Northwords Now in 2012.
Sunday, 9 July 2017
Monday, 3 April 2017
To read the rest of the story, go to Under The Fable
Tuesday, 30 August 2016
By the time Large One, Derrick came on, the place was heaving. It had nothing to do with Large One, Derrick. The word was out that Shug Skinner was back in town.
‘HE-LLO FAW-KURT!’ Mooney bellowed into the microphone.
‘Freak!’ someone shouted.
‘I shagged your maw!’ shouted someone else. It was one of the Drive! fans, even though Drive! had already left the building.
‘I’d drink your pish!’ squeaked a wee lassie down the front. She’d been on the light box earlier.
Grant thumped out the tempo with a pair of brushes. He looked uncomfortable; he was trying to avoid the spray coming at him off the snare. Then Mooney came in on the guitar, and Stark on the fiddle. It sounded like The Dubliners meets Rising Damp. But nobody cared what it sounded like, not even the Posse. It was backing music for Shug. He didn’t, after all, have a clue about the lights, but he was a great dancer. He was swaying alone in the middle of the floor, cradling the syringe like it was his own true love. He danced expressively, almost balletically, pushing the hunk of metal away then drawing it closer, as if he couldn’t bear to let it go. It was quite a performance, Dug had to admit; Shug remained focussed even through Stark’s countless bum notes.
The applause was loud.
‘I! THANK! YOU!’ Mooney boomed. He pretended to tune his guitar till the noise died down. Then he stepped back to the mike. ‘This yin’s for my auld dear!’ he said. ‘It’s called The Slag!’ No one was listening. Shug was getting his photo taken with his fans. He’d be in the Herald next week. Again. Mooney turned to his brother. ‘Can ye no get this baldy fucker to sit down?’ he said.
There was a sudden ruckus at the door. Three men barged in. They looked identical: receding hairlines, bloodstained white T-shirts and arms like thighs. Dug found himself thinking of butchers, which was apt. It was the Bell Brothers. Their wee sister was with them, crying, getting dragged along by the wrist.
‘Where’s this Derrick Mooney cunt?’ shouted the largest brother. The meat cleaver he was wielding had bits of mince hanging off it. Shug shot a glance at Dug, who immediately pointed at the stage.
‘IT’S THE SINGER!’ Shug shouted, and led the charge. Grant scarpered. So did Stark. Mooney tried to vault the drums, but got his feet caught in the snare. He managed to get up before they reached him, though, his guitar banging off the walls as he legged it out the fire escape. The Bell Brothers kicked the drums out of the way, dragging their wee sister behind them.
Clatrell lost no time picking the microphone off the floor. ‘Anybody for a wee bit Rapper’s Delight?’ he said.
The joint was soon pulsating, The Posse, the whole lot of them, keening like a flock of Hasidic pigeons. Dug ordered another beer. He watched the remaining Drive! fans sink their pints and leave. Shug Skinner poked his head through the fire door. He walked straight up to Dug. ‘Nurse Buckle hasnae been in, has she?’ he said.
‘Eh,’ said Dug. ‘Don’t think so. Are you expecting her?’
‘Ye could say that,’ said Shug, and inserted his needle into the leg of his overalls. ‘I’m no really supposed to be out. Keep it to yerself, though!’
‘Got you,’ said Dug, and watched his new friend disappear through the back of the stage.
Half an hour later, Grant sloped in, followed by Stark.
‘Drink?’ said Dug.
‘Give us a hand with the stuff, will you?’ said Stark.
Stark’s car was parked round the back, next to a white Saab with a meat cleaver embedded in the bonnet. They laid the drums carefully in the back; the newspapers were already spread out. They had to leave the tailgate open – Grant’s bass drum was large. Dug was about to climb in when Mooney shoved past him. ‘Come on, youse,’ he said. ‘Handers. I want my money.’
They followed him through the back door of the pub, into the kitchen. It wasn’t long before the argument was in full flow.
‘Aye ye’re fucking right ye’ll be paying me!’ Mooney said. He was hyperventilating. His guitar was hanging off his shoulder, machine gun style. A few of the strings were broken. It was obvious the Bell Brothers hadn’t caught up with him.
Clatrell stuck his ladle into a pot and stirred. The bass line was thudding through the wall. ‘See this soup?’ he said.
Mooney was shaking with anger. ‘What about it?’ he said. There were bits of meat and carrot floating on the surface, just visible through the steam.
‘If ye don’t change yer tune,’ said Clatrell, ‘ye’ll be fucking wearing it.’
‘This is my Friday Night Delight,’ he continued. ‘Fuck the idiots through there in their baseball caps. Mutton broth, the kind of soup that sticks to yer ribs, and other parts of yer body, if ye get my drift. And ye know something else? I don’t need mouthy twats like you spoiling it.’
‘Fuck yer soup,’ said Mooney. ‘You booked us...’
‘You cheeky monkey,’ said Clatrell, and scooped a load into a bowl. ‘You’re asking me for money? Ye owe me five hunner quid for the fire door – mind you, you were too busy legging it down the road to see the Bell Brothers tearing it off its hinges. And ye can’t have missed the hatchet sticking out the bonnet of my new car.’
It was a case of mistaken identity. Stark coughed. ‘There’s a good panel beater in Denny...’ he offered.
‘What?’ said Grant. ‘Dalrymple Bash ’n’ Dash? They’ve been on strike since June.’
‘Eh?’ said Stark. He was blushing. ‘I didn’t know...’
Clatrell parked himself at the table and tore a hunk of bread off a loaf. ‘Stark,’ he said. ‘Get the Mooney contingent out of my sight. I can’t eat when there’s pricks like that watching me. Fancy a plate of soup, Dug? There’s plenty in the pot for folk with jobs.’
Sunday, 14 August 2016
Saturday, 13 August 2016
Tuesday, 10 May 2016
It was not a delusion. The fact that he could articulate the thought and stand outside it, appreciating it in all its complexity, was proof. For months he had been picking up signs, which he had come to interpret as signals, as gestures of intent. He was the target. That was his interpretation. All he had to do was reciprocate, but that was the problem, one of the many. Recklessness was not in his nature. It would have been easy to say it had been beaten out of him, stamped on, squashed; we look for people to blame. He had never been a blamer, if it came to looking for culprits he had always come back to himself. But now he was flailing at the bottom of a pit before he had even dug it, as if a censor had requisitioned the best part of his brain and was controlling him, controlling his imagination, the only thing that was keeping him sane.
Thursday, 11 February 2016
He tossed and turned till his wife told him to sleep downstairs. The rest of the night he spent on the couch, the lights switched off, the television tuned to the comedy channel, although he only caught fragments; it was difficult to concentrate on the screen. Too many things were running around in his head, disjointed images jostling for attention before shooting off on absurd tangents. Nothing made sense, after a while the scenes began to overlap, there was so much going on, too much information, all of it punctuated by the incongruous mirth of a laugh track.
His eyelids were closing. He fumbled for the button on the remote. It was time to get ready.
To read the complete story, go to the McStorytellers site.