There were sirens and flashing lights and men and women in heat-retardant gear standing and walking and half-running up and down the street. All the town’s fire engines must have been there. Every neighbour huddled and watched the firefighters at work. It was like a movie. So many things were happening at once to really know what was going on.
Arcs of water patterned the sky and the house was a vague shape, barely visible amongst a cloud of smoke. Tom stood like the rest of them, wondering whether this was the most inconvenient thing to ever happen to him.
“Tom,” Mike from No32 rested his hand on Tom’s shoulder before genuinely asking, “why is there a plane on your house?” Something exploded in the grey murk where Tom’s kitchen used to be.
Tom wanted to respond, he wanted to say something witty and shoot Mike down, but he couldn’t think of a single word. In truth, he had no idea why a fucking plane landed onto his home. Furthermore, what he was going to do about it. He shot Mike a look which didn’t really have any emotion linked to it. Mike from No32 grimaced as if he only then realised how much of dick he must have sounded. He muttered something to himself before turning back toward the flames.
There were children from neighbouring houses crying because they didn’t know what else to do. Tom didn’t know if he could even do that. A firefighter approached him. He was a mountain of a man whose face was dominated by a grey moustache.
“Looks like you lucked out,” the moustache said, “no-one inside. No fatalities. You’re fortunate that it was a small aircraft too.” The moustache curled into a grin as a hand slapped Tom on the back. Tom, still, was without words. How fortunate. His eyes stared at the pink-gold pulse and the black rising into the air and the broken wing of aeroplane jutting out like a makeshift balcony to his guestroom. Tom wondered if fire had the power to turn everyone around it into an insensitive tosser.
“And the pilot?” Tom found a question somewhere in his head.
“The pilot is about 8 miles west of here. Managed to ditch out before things got too hairy.” Some of the roof on the right side of the house collapsed out of sight. The house roared as if it was in pain. The firefighter turned away and barked orders at couple of young men using a waterhose.
An arm appeared, outstretched into the sky. Sandra, from No26, always managed to catch his eye in a crowd, even though she was 5foot nothing. Her hair was scrunched into a dirty blonde fist which spilt down into a messy fringe on top of a face which was mixture of relief and shock. She navigated her way through the horde of onlookers with a few swift jabs, pissed-off elbows and fierce looks. Sandra sarcastically thanked every person she coerced into moving before finally breaking through. She turned back to the collective of limbs and heads; and Tom just about made out what she said under her breath: “but when I throw a Christmas party none of you fuckers turn up”.
Sandra turned and strangely looked surprised to see Tom. “Oh, thank god. You’re alive. The Harrisons across the road told me were, you know, dead.” She didn’t know why she told him this. Surely, there were so many other things she could have said. Sandra tried to redeem herself, “but you’re not dead. Which is great.” Jackpot.
“Yeah, ain’t that something.” He appreciated that Sandra was trying to be nice, but he knew that there was no special combination of words which could de-plane his home.
Tom was, for today, a passenger. He went from person to person in his street sharing the same disbelief. He wanted to believe that they were ‘just as shocked’ as he was, but in truth they all still had somewhere to go home to. Thankfully, Sandra offered a place on her living room sofa for the night while Tom waited for his new rattan furniture to finish smoldering.
Maybe this needed to happen, Tom thought to himself. He was spending way too much money on shit he didn’t need. After hours of frenzied thought about all the calls he needed to make the next day, sleep dragged Tom away. That night the moon’s glow was undermined by the flames which ate away at Tom’s furniture. And there he laid, spread all wide and thin, under Sandra’s hanging potted plants, under the billowing smoke which left the stars unseen in the nightsky.
Some of Tom’s possessions arrived the next morning. They were all burnt-bordered, broken and clumsily stuffed into a single cardboard box which a young woman held under one arm. Sandra called for Tom from the front door. She was barely visible against the intense morning light.
“Someone’s here to see you” Sandra smiled and left them to it before disappearing into the kitchen. Tom heard the kettle flick on and water begin to boil.
“Are you Mr Jesper?” The woman asked shyly. She seemed to be very conscious of how she wanted to present herself. She was the bearer of bad news and felt sorry for this homeless stranger. She forced a smile in an attempt to dispell the awkwardness from the situation.
“Sometimes.” Tom needed to be nicer to people. “I mean, yeah. That’s me.” He tried to smile, but he knew it looked weird, so he ended up looking away.
“Here’s a few things we managed to save from the fire.” the firefighter said. Her arms pushed out straight and present the box of ash-black articles.
“This is it?” Be nice, Tom. The box rattled as has pulled it into his chest. He hovered his face over the contents, performing a quick stocktake.
The firefighter blushed, went to apologise before instead saying: “We’re all so lucky that no-one was hurt or killed.” She then declined a cup of tea from Sandra and left.
Sandra asked what Tom was going to do today and whether he needed help with anything. Tom should have been more appreciative, Sandra was the only person around him who seemed to have an inch of empathy for him. He could have been polite and thanked her, but instead he fiddled with the contents of the cardboard box. Old burnt books he had half-read, a lamp he haggled hard for in Marrakech and some heat-warped vinyls. We are all so lucky, Tom thought.
And then… hold the phone. What do we have here? Tom found something unfamiliar hiding amongst his reclaimed bits of crap. Sandra watched as Tom’s face changes and he stopped blindly rumaging. His brow dropped into a fold, eyes flicked to off to the side and he bit his bottom lip.
A ring. More specifically, a silver wedding band. It was quite large and thick with an elegant pattern engraved into it; seemingly celtic in origin.
“I didn’t know you were married, Tom.” Sandra handed over a cup of tea the shade of tan leather. Tom had to hand it to Sandra, she could make a hell of a brew.
“Me neither.” Tom replied, lost in the twists and turns of silver pinched between his finger and thumb.
Tom had been an expert in the art of remaining hopelessly single for the past four years, so he was in no doubt that this ring did not belong. This had to belong to the pilot. Maybe the firefighter would recognise it? Perhaps ring belonged to whoever sorted through the rubble of his home.
“Can you hold this for a moment?” Tom dumped the box of belongings into Sandra’s arms before she could respond. The door opened, the sunlight flashed and then Tom was gone.
Tom was a flapping mess of awkward shapes as he pursued the firefighter down the street. Luckily, she had stopped to talk to Mike from no32 on her way back to her car. Mike falsed a smile as Tom bursting into the conversation panting.
“Tom!” Mike performed pleasantries which were so rehearsed and sweet he could spread diabetes, “I was just asking our friend, Lisa, here what the update is on the fire.” Lisa turned and gave Tom a sad smile to say: Sorry that you have a plane in your house.
“I think the fire’s fine. It’s just my house which is the issue, Mike.” Tom saw Mike’s teeth clench into a weird smile, as if he didn’t know what to do with his mouth. “Lisa,” Tom’s attention moved to the most useful person around him, “can I talk to you about something? It won’t take long.”
“Sure,” Lisa’s smile pushed her cheeks into a plumpness which made her eyes smile too, “how can I help.” Lisa turned from Mike, who got the hint and disappeared back into his house.
“I found this in the box you gave me.” Tom pulled the wedding ring out of his pocket and held it up to the light. “Does this belong to anyone you work with?” Lisa’s face scrunched for a moment.
“Nope,” Lisa said with more certainty than Tom had expected, “maybe it’s the pilot’s ring. Are you trying to return it?”
Tom’s face relaxed into smile. Those who made him happiest were people who could skip all the fluff of a conversation and just ask the right questions.
“The pilot’s details must be somewhere on file,” Lisa seemed a little less guarded now she could be more useful to Tom. The awkward sympathy faded from her face and gave way to a decisive and thoughtful expression. “I’ll check and see what we have back at the office. Then I’ll stop around Sandra’s house later in the day.”
Tom was happy with this. He was happy with Lisa. She was competent and, at least, trying to be helpful. Unlike Mike. Seriously Mike, you can go do one. Hard.
It was around 5pm when Lisa showed up at Sandra’s with a print out of names and numbers. Tom was out in Sandra’s garden, sitting on a deck chair with his phone stuck to his ear. From the kitchen, Lisa could see Tom frantically debating with someone on the other end of the call as he held the ring up to the sun and inspected its shine.
“He’s been out there for hours, poor sod.” Sandra had greeted Lisa with a wonderful smile and led her through to take a seat at a long oak table. The kitchen was wild with exotic house plants; they bordered the windows and sprouted upward from a variety of pots on the table. Sandra continued to talk as she disappeared and reappeared from view, moving behind the greenery and searching through cupboards. “Change isn’t usually something that happens without hardship,” Sandra prepared a jug of water, poured out two glasses and took a measured sip, “however, change is a necessary part of life. It moves us and creates opportunity. And opportunity… Well, opportunity is everything we need to go on.”
Lisa let Sandra’s words settle before excusing herself from the table and joining Tom out in the garden. Sandra watched on as Tom smiled and thanked Lisa for the information she had delivered. The two of them shook hands before Lisa returned to finish her water and left the house. Tom followed a few minutes later and took a seat. His hands clasping a sheet of paper containing half-answers.
“What are you thinking?” Sandra asked, pushing the water jug close to Tom’s hand.
Tom lowered the paper and smiled: “There’s someone out there who is missing something pretty important to them. And I’m not going to keep it from them. I’m going to find them and return it.” Tom had no ties to this town now; no reason to stay. This was a reason to leave and to move away from the stagnent life he had built around him, which kept him safe from opportunities to try something new and different and exciting.
Sandra moved around the table and peered over Tom’s shoulder to see what he was seeing. “I suppose you’ll be gone a while then.” Sandra’s hand gave Tom’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze to let him know she agreed he should go. “I hear Mumbai is wonderful this time of year.”
Order wine; drink. End day. Repeat.
“We are too strict on ourselves,”
Her blouse makes shapes by itself;
Moving like a ghost, it slips between
My fingers, back into my life, unseen.
A press of lips –
Is more than we can stand
But less than we demand.
“I should go.” I say,
Unable to look away;
“You should really leave.”
Lip-bite, clutching at my sleeve.
He pours for himself,
Her cup: empty;
She reaches out,
With searching eyes, for tea.
Established initially as a marketing icon for Flintstone followers, McDonald’s have been literally shoving the McRib’s second coming – or is it third? – down everyone’s throats as of late.
This flat rectangle of pork laxsidasically dropped onto the floor and then between two stale Sainsbury’s basic range buns is what we have come to expect from culinary journey that is McMastication.
The sauce is seasoned in such a way as to hide the taste of the grey meat. The meat is, I am sure, of high quality – as advertised; it is just a shame that they McFucked it up into a mince of pigness.
I was sold a McRib, however felt compelled to return my sandwich. There was not a ounce of bone in sight! At least get that part right, Mr McDonald. I told the waiter: “I ask for a McRib, St. Louis style (of course), and you give me this?! A McMeataroundthebone?!” He was not amused and kindly asked me to leave.
On the whole, my experience was a good one, contrary to everything I have previously said, even though I can’t explain why. It seems that the McRib has an addictive quality much similair to smoking: we know it’s a dirty habit and makes our insides turn to mush but we just cannot stop ourselves. Look out for the launch of McRib Bbq sauce flavoured nictone patches and E-McRibs in all common goods stores in the near future.
Happy Birthday, I hope this gets to you. 20 years and you have formed into the most beautiful woman I have ever known. You’re more than the English channel from me, but you’re always close to my mind.
It’s been more than two months, yet I still see you in the dress you wore during my departure, bright red with sharp shoulders which seemed to push your hair into loose curls around your neck. I remember how the autumnal colours of your hair swept across your face and stuck to your cheeks with the wetness of tears. I told you to smile for me. I didn’t want my last image of you to be without that smile. You were so strong to do that for for me. Thank you. I love it when you smile; it influences the shape of your face. Your mouth takes a pretty form and pushes your cheeks into a plumpness which compliments the almond cut of your eyes. A smile starts in the eyes. I have always told you this and I will continue to tell you the same once I return home – if I return home. Ignore that. I will come home.
The mud is life here and I could really do with a shower. You’d really disapprove of the state of my fingernails right now; they look like they have been soaked in hena ink. I have certainly kicked the nail-biting habit whilst out here. Worms are the enemy and I can’t afford to be eating for more than myself.
I’m sure that you want to know how I’m doing. I’m feeling fine. The other men in my battalion are amicable and easy to get on with. We talk about books we have read and music. It passes the time while we wait through the thick silence. I hate it. I can sleep through a barrage of bombs, but it’s the silence that really gets to me. It’s because the silence isn’t really silence; it’s just the moments between the deafening assaults where you can hear a slight humming sound saturate the air. The sound is deep and can be heard on the edge of existence. It is ever so slight, the half-recognisable sound of flies on flesh. The buzzing and humming filling the fields between each thunderstorm of war and gently vibrates against the back of the brain. The ever-present reminder of death. I hum to myself when I am alone to drown out the sound. It does help sometimes.
I have dwelt too long on death and must rejoice in life, more specifically your life and the twenty years that you have blessed this earth and those around you. Thank you, Rose, for being alive and for being the reason to fight on and survive. I will be home to tell you Happy Birthday on your 21st, I promise.
I love you.
I speak in tongues of other men,
where echoes of history return again.
The mouth jars open yet remains still closed
And, in every word expressed, a void exposed.
Today, I am
a cluster of words
rip-roaring and strewn
like a flock of scared birds.
for I scatter easily
in the wordless wind
you breathe for me.
Modern life is insane. It jitters in an incomprehensible half-talk, spitting away sounds without meanings. We are walking, with open ears, down a busy street of faceless figures. We maze through the shadows and brush past shoulders. Brief is the breathe and it hits us in a ghost-like, fleeting contact.
“Jeremy, we’re going to be late. Have you got your -” “-bannanas! A bunch of them here for you, my lady, for the special price of-” “-salvation; he died to save us all from-” “-getting a loan out in order to pay for the boat he can’t afford. I told Tony to invest the ten grand into variable ISA accounts to maximise the interest he could receive, but no, he buys a fucking boat and now he’s complaining about the-” “-bad bacteria that you can’t see. Well, our product kills 99.99999999% of bad bacteria to ensure that good bacteria-” “-does not exist. How can He? If God was real, we would know, we would have a-” “-brand new car with the most innovative technology to improve your driving experience. Imagine gliding quietly through-” “-life. He was a man loved by many. George Turner will be greatly missed. He was a loving father, an attentive brother and a-” “-fuckin’ cunt! Say that again to mah face you spineless prick! How can you sleep with her and think that I won’t beat the livin’ shit outta” “-the prime minister held emergency talks today with representatives from both Ukraine and Russia. An outcome has yet to be established; however, what is clear is that-” “everyone is going to die when they see you in that dress, Jackie. You look fantastic. No-one will be able to tell that you’re-” “-an ancient relic, dating back to 10 AD, will be shown on exhibit in the local museum next to-” “-a 26 year old man who was found dead late yesterday evening outside the cemetery in-” “her knickers. That’s all I want. None of this official relationship bullshit. Sex, that’s what it’s about and what it will always be about.”
The city talks to itself. Today is a rush of syllables carelessly strewn among a fever of feet which all march towards money. It is 8.30am and we can only assume the majority of the people around us are on their way to work. Suits, umbrellas and ties. Ludicrously high heels dance around puddles which pulse to the constant battery from heavy lines of rain.
Our ears prick to the emerging sound of a confident stride. It breaks through the hiss of scraping soles with an audible authority. A pathway opens up, as the mass of bodies divides, for a tall figure with sharp shoulders who moves swiftly on through. The figure disappears from view as quickly as it appeared to us. The sound of its confident footsteps gradually fading behind the sounds of talking faces. We try to follow these footsteps, but are swept away in the current of bodies that push past us. The pavements thrive like a living thing; it is a mess of limbs with a unitary drive. We are hit by a barrage of insults as we try to work our way out from the crowd. Life feels too quick for us; it is a panic of clashing moments which seem to push us further into the crowd of people. We choose to walk with the crowd, to follow the current to see if it leads us to an escape.
We move with the other suits and end up at a train station. The platform is full of men and women stood in silence, staring at an overhead matrix screen. Breathes are held and, once the matrix reads: ‘CANCELLED’, those around us release into a synchronized groan. Our head turns to the exit in hope of an alternative route and, as we march onward, our ears rest on the fragmented conversations of our fellow commuters.
“You have got to be joking! Out of all the days they choose to cancel my train it has-” “-nothing to do with me, sir, I’m merely a ticket officer. If you wish to make a formal complaint or have your ticket compensated you’ll have to-” “fuck me. That’s the third time this week. Tom, I’m gonna have to call you back. I need to find another way to get-” “-no fucking signal. One bar everywhere I go. Perfect. Now there’s no way for me to-” “form an orderly line, so that we can empty-” “-your purse fell from your bag. You should be more careful. There are plenty of pickpockets at train stations these days.”
The gentleman’s words dissipate like smoke. Mouths become silent and eyes follow the backs of other commuters. No-one knows where they are going, only that they have to leave. The crowd reaches the exit of the station and disperses into the streets of the city like the seedpods of a dandelion when blown by the wind. Feet dart into the sunlight in a tense panic. Suits strewn themselves in a number of directions; all searching for a way to get to their destination.
The rain has ceased and the clouds have divided to reveal the warm glow of the sun. Loose coils of steam release from the drying asphalt and fade into a semi-existent state. The air is warm, heavy and wet. The rain hangs around our face like a ghost. Its history hugs our skin and is almost suffocating. We survey the scene to see ringlets of hair appear and work shirts drying into a two-tone pattern due to the rain. The crowd appear wild around the edges. Stray hair and ceased jackets surround us.
Our feet move before we think and soon we are in another part of town. We are closer to our destination. We aren’t late. We are, in fact, right on time and decide to stop in a small coffee shop. A medium latte with two sugars. We order the same thing regardless of the cafe. The tongue is trained and does not wish for change, so we do not pursue it.
The page turned, the paper made a crisp hiss and Alex gently raised his coffee to his mouth. He had been visiting this cafe religiously for weeks. He ordered the same food and read the same book. It was a pocket of peace where he could dive into another story and sink away from the buzz of the world.
Summer had finally arrived and with it came the incessant screech of children and empty chatter of their parents. Always talking about the weather and people Alex had never met. These people had begun to work their way into the pocket of peace and had attached themselves to Alex’s existence.The conversations of those around him would drag Alex from the forest of thought he had planted for himself. He found himself plunging in and out of the lives of others, hearing half-talk everywhere. Every lunch was now a story of broken sentences: “Did you hear-“”-we never want-“”-to be honest to with you”.
And who the fuck was Karen? The couple next to Alex seemed pretty certain that she was a ‘bitch who only cares about herself’. That’s not nice. He was sure that Karen was a lovely girl, just one of those people who make wrong decisions every so often.
Alex had given up trying to read his book. He had been stuck on the same page for the last few weeks. The last sentence he could remember reading was: ‘the dead were silent and polite, I have never had a fight with a dead person’. The lack of progression in Alex’s reading of this book meant that he could not remember anything that had happened before in the story. The entire book became associated with this sentence. These words were an artefact of the whole story and were to Alex the threshold between an old peace and the now ever-present shower of intrusive noises and names with no faces.
Alex’s coffee had grown cold and the delicate decorative heart design on the froth had warped into a ugly shape of dirty shades of cream. Two pound fifty is a small price for sociability. People were always saying that he needed to talk more, to get out more and be seen. He felt like a slut being seen. Alex pulled his collar towards his neck at the thought of others seeing into him. Those around him had already interjected themselves into his life and now they are seeing him? Alex felt sick at the idea that those around him had their own image of him. They could see him and in this act of seeing him they were stealing a version of his self that he could never regain.
An old man coughed and looked up at Alex. Their eyes caught momentarily before the old man left. Gone forever. A photograph of Alex was now installed in those ancient eyes, a photograph that he would never see. How many versions of him were there? Alex dizzied in the idea that for every one fleeting moment of contact with another being there is a reproduction of Alex; Alex is numerous as a social being. But did these versions of him even belong to himself? If they were unobtainable and purely the possession of the other person, surely he could exist beyond himself? Surely he was only a part in the totality of Alex? Was Alex as a whole a collage of these photographs – snapshots – that others took of him when they interpreted him? He cupped his face in his hands and scrunched up his fringe between his fingers.
“Too much thinking for my lunch break” Alex chuckled slightly to himself, trying to swim to the surface of his mind. He grabbed some coins of multiple values, shapes and sizes from his pocket; a collection of shining faces. He placed the small tip on the table, collected his unread book and made his way to the exit.
A waitress watched, from the far corner of the cafe, a man rise from his table, collect his unread book and make his way to the exit. The man had been quiet and rather polite. He had not touched his coffee. He seemed distant whenever he had visited the cafe. She did not know his name, but she thought he looked like a Michael, or perhaps a Mark . He stood for a moment at the cafe door before he plunged into the sunlight. Gone. Gone forever.
The waitress cleared what used to be his table and picked up a collection of shining faces. It was only a small tip, but she did not mind. She smiled as she dropped the coins into her purse and zipped it shut. Safe, secure and now all hers.