Something that Shouldn’t be Said

I think therefore I am.
Could our lives be nothing but
Intellect after screaming intellect?
Or what about
I am therefore I think
?

And we are born, we
Become an ‘am’
And we become what it
Means to become some
Thing that is not human.
And for those years we can
Sit on our animal-skin backsides
And gaze up at the sky and
The stars
And never think but
Know.

We can let our small
Fickle bodies wriggle into the grass
And dream dreams of our animal ancestors
While the wind whispers
The cheats to life in our ears.
And when we eat
Hand to mouth, no in-between
Tasting the food that
Keeps us alive.
And
Living
Living

Then:
Come. The question says.
“Let us take the air in a mechanical trance”
And we will conquer the world with our
Hands.
Leave your instincts,
Your whiskers, your claws,
Behind in the earth.
Bury them and
We will
Discover Again.

Know nothing,
Forget everything and
Let your small mind
Take over and give
Commentary on the world.
See not.
Hear not.
Your senses have lied.
Your mind tells truths so
Listen hard.
And you will learn

The

Right

Way.

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The Enemy

We waited for the enemy.

In our homes of earth and loose brick, we waited.  We took it in turns to trample through the powdery dust, to push ourselves against the wall and peer out of our city.  What we saw was clearly divided between flat plain earth and clear blue sky.  No room for enemies.  But still we waited; our friends and our women and our sons and our daughters waited.  Children who were too young to understand could still understand waiting.  We did not know how long we would have to wait.  We did not know when the enemy would arrive.  And so while we waited we prepared for his arrival.

When I was a boy, I watched the pastor dig graves.  He dug the graves himself because there was no gravedigger.  The gravedigger was dead.  We had a gravedigger when the enemy was coming, but still our neighbours dug and our friends dug and our children dug and I dug.  We weren’t digging graves.  Trenches, places to hide, although when we lay in the earth the steam coming from our breaths would surely give us away.  Only the dead hide underground.

And we moved.  The enemy moved us.

A great tide of people, we swept through the city.  Collecting things as we went.  Prams.  Telephones.  Books loaded onto a horse-drawn cart.  Bedding materials.  An armchair.  Thousands of people and items, mothers and babies and young girls.  A man carrying a cello.  We flowed in a single direction.  Somebody told us that the train station would be safe.  The long building that had once echoed with the mechanical, throbbing sound of trains became a people place.  A safe place, people thought, and their thoughts made it safe.  When every dusty corner was filled, when there was no room to stand or sit, when our women and our children had forgotten the comfort of their homes, only the men remained in the city.  And the city became hollow.

With no light, our city stopped being a city.  It was a cluster of shapes, a scattering of buildings barely rising up to prick the moon in the night sky.  We ceased to be citizens.  We slept outside our homes, with the night sky as our only roof, too afraid to light a fire and watch the darkness scurry away.  Like nomads, tribes in the desert or the hills, we lived outside our city.  And when we took the night watch we became rats, darting and scuttling over the cold stones on which we had lived out our lives.

Echoing voices stopped me and turned me around and cocked the gun in my hand and placed by eye at the sight.  Silence made me human again.  We worked without a sound.  Women had filled our work with song, children with laughter and now, without them, we were mechanical hands and feet.  We placed sandbags like corpses and turned our paddock fences into barricades.  We trembled as we walked, with one eye kept steadily on the boundary.  Waiting for the enemy.

We waited at night, we waited in the afternoon, while we ate our meals, while we slept.  In no action of ours was the waiting absent.  When we visited our families at the train station they asked us if we had seen the enemy yet.  They were waiting, too.

We never took our busy hands for granted.  We hammered and strengthened and bolted and nailed and hid and slept in places where no-one could find us.  Until there was nothing left to do but sleep.  And wait.

The war came from far away.  Drum beats and choruses of men awoke us from our sleep.  But when we woke, we realised that they were not drum beats, but bullets, not choruses, but shouted orders.  We peered out at the flat plain earth in front of us and there was no emptiness.  The earth was full, its horizon interrupted, a sack full of rice about to burst at the seams.  The people crawled like ants, the tanks like cockroaches.  And we lay pressed into the ground, waiting for them as they made their way slowly towards us.  We listened to the noise they made, and we were silent.  Our women and children were silent.  No sound existed in our city.  We barely existed.

We watched the enemy come.  They came slowly.  Great silver airplanes flew above them and dropped their loads on the tanks, on the people, like fiery seeds falling from a farmer’s hand.  Our enemy’s enemy was surely our friend, we thought.  But we could not be sure.  At night, from the battlefield, wolf-whistle sirens called like children caught in a nightmare.  We dreamed to this symphony of sirens and shots.  We imagined them burning our churches and our children, the snap of gunfire in our alleyways, the rivers of smoke and the shadows in streets.  When we woke we watched the fire consume everything, great bombs exploding, their flames unfolding like petals on a rose.  We watched and we watched and still they came but they did not arrive.  We were ready, our weapons in our hands, our shelters built, our barricades impenetrable, our nerves set. We waited until we thought the enemy would never come.

But one day he was there.  That day, the battlefield was silent, no children cried, no gunfire broke, no whispers, no words.  We looked about at one another wondering if the world still existed.  No words came from our mouths.  Nobody dared break the glass stillness, as if a broken surface would unleash a torrent to wash us away.

When noise came, every person heard it.  Scrabbling, like paws on ice, like boots on loose earth.  A man climbed our walls, our impenetrable barricade.  His hands grasped the ledge and we knew he was real.  He lifted himself up on shuddering arms and for the first time we saw the blood-streaked and dust-choked face of our enemy.  He did not look at us, but looked behind us and through us at something we could not perceive.  He reached up and stood tall, stood tall on top of our barricade.  And a long sound rolled off his tongue in a language foreign to us.  Then he advanced.  The enemy crouched and we readied our guns, he jumped down and our eyes found the sights, his boots hit the loose earth and we shot him down.  His corpse hit the wall and fell, bent and twisted, to the ground.  A bloody patchwork, a poorly-made human.  And we lowered our guns and stood, our weapons at our feet.  We stood for a very long time.  We waited and the enemy did not move again.  We left him there and we took our women and our children and we left that place.  We left the city and the battleground where grounded tanks festered like flies on a windowsill and orphans played in the empty skeletons of aircraft.  We left and found another place.  A new place, an impenetrable city where there was no waiting to be done.  A city that was full and alive with sound and people.  A living city to replace the dead one left behind.

BELOW: inspiration for this piece came from watching a documentary in history class a year ago about the Battle of Stalingrad.  Then it changed completely.  Feast your eyes.


Every Morning I Run Away

This one still needs some finishing touches.

I run in the mornings.  I wake up when it’s only dark and put on my clothes and debate with myself whether to leave my torch at home.  In the end I always keep it in my pocket but I never use it.  Then I open the door and go out and shut it again and lock it.  Now I’m outside and if I look up there’s a sheet of stars above my head.  They’re like hundreds of strings of fairy-lights except you can’t see the wires.  Then I carefully step back and put the key in my pocket.  There is no sound.  I feel as if the world is empty, except I am the only living organism and if I stay still long enough I won’t even be that.  So I don’t move for a long time, my chest barely moving when I breathe, my heart beating very, very faintly so that sometimes I think it’s not beating at all and I must be immortal.  But then something moves out there, a pair of headlight eyes or a cat hiding its misdeeds under a bush.  Then I move.

I start off slow just in case my legs aren’t working this morning.  I run out of the street and then out of the next street and the street after that.  I don’t even turn corners because I might get lost if I do.  But I know where I’m heading and I’ll go there in a straight line.  It’s where small hills like acne on the earth stand in front of bigger and bigger hills like the nose and eyes and ears of the earth.  The earth doesn’t have a mouth, but in my dreams one appears on a rainy early morning, a jagged fissure that eats the towns and the cities and crunches people with boulder teeth.  If I keep running towards the nose of the earth I’ll be far away when the mouth opens up.  Then I can watch.

I run for a very long time.  I run straight towards the acne hills and watch as they get bigger.  Today my chest isn’t hurting so bad so maybe my heart has stopped and I’m immortal now.  The streets become different the longer I run, the houses no longer sitting side by side, whispering in each other’s ears, now shouting distance apart with yards big enough for whole other houses.  Dogs bark at me and it startles me so much that I skip and jump like an Irish dancer until I’m on the other side of the road.  By this time, the night sky is beginning to lift slightly, like the crown of shell you lift away to peel a boiled egg.  It reveals a Tuesday morning underneath a chilled Monday night.

I think of the North Pole.  There are no towns and cities in the North Pole.  Maybe that’s where I’ll run to after I reach the acne hills.  In the winter the sun doesn’t rise at all and there is constant night, like a boiled egg waiting to be peeled except that nobody peels it for weeks and weeks until the spring comes and they crack the shell and search through the white and make the luminescent yellow yolk into the first sunrise.

Carlos went up north.  To the North Pole.  He had a small, prickly black beard like a clump of steel wool and eyes that were so light they could have been fairy-lights in the night sky without the wires.  But he doesn’t have anything now.  That’s because he is dead.

I had a dream last night where everybody in the world stood on the same flat plain and cracks began to move through, slowly first, and then faster, faster until they were coursing everywhere like a stampede of animals.  And everybody became divided with their own piece of flat land and a black, black sea around them.  And then one by one each piece of land teetered a bit, cracked in half and sunk along with the people they held.  I watched and around me people were toppling into the water everywhere.  Nobody made a sound, as if they were too frightened to scream.  Or as if they expected it all along.  Until my own piece of land, which was the only piece left, teetered on its little axis.  I watched sadly as it cracked down the middle and I lost my footing and plunged into the dark night of water.

The sun has risen now.  It will be another day before I will go to sleep wondering whether the mouth of the earth will eat me up before I wake.  I am beyond the houses, but now that the sun can see me, I am afraid.  I tell myself to run, run fast into the mountains.  Hide away and watch the city safe from a distance.  I pick up speed because today I am going to do it, I am going to keep running and running, run away from my house and my bed and the door and the key in my pocket that thump-thumps against my thigh as I run fast.  I run until my lungs claw for air and my toes feel bloody against my worn socks.  But the acne hills are still far away.  They are too far, they are out of reach and I am afraid because for all my desire I am still a civilised man and I belong in my house and my bed.  The fear puts a stopper in my throat and I can’t breathe and I can’t run any more.  I turn back and wish I was blind to walk the same route, where the houses begin to sit next to one another, the dogs bark and the cars flash in the new sunlight, and by the time I put the key in the door there are angry tears on my cheeks.  The stars have abandoned me.  The sight of my unmade bed and my room makes me feel sick.  I sit down and peel off my running shoes.  My feet are raw like meat and I stifle my cries as I walk.  Every day a new layer of scabs, blisters and burns.  Trophies in my collection.  Shameful.

Every day I run away, away to where the mountains are bigger than the houses or the streetlamps or the city buildings.  But I always run back again.

Claro and Angela III

Last one.  Read the other two before this one.

The airport was a place they both loved and hated at the same time.  Claro spent ten minutes looking at hte Departures board with infinite concentration.  He studied his own ticket carefully, though his eyes avoided the destination name.  He eyed other travellers, the currency exchange list, listened carefully as flights were paged.  It all intrigued him.

They sat down and began their share of waiting.  Angela had a coffee and was hurrying through her bag.  Claro hummed quietly.  He drummed his fingers on the arm rest.  After a while, Angela lifted her head up and asked him to stop.

“I’ve lasted a whole two weeks with your habits, I think I’ve had close to enough.”

Claro murmured sorry.  He said, “If I’d known it made you angry, I would have stopped.”

“Stopped everything?”

“Yeah.”

“All the changes in the itinerary?”

“Yeah.”

“And the talking to absolutely everyone?”

“Yeah.”

“And the ignoring me?”

“I didn’t ignore you.”

“You hardly paid me any attention.”

“I don’t know what you expected me to do.”

“I expected not to be ignored.”

“You expected me to fall in love with you, didn’t you?”

She stopped and so did he.

“You kept sleeping with people, Claro!” she hissed.

“They wanted to sleep with me!” he cried, a little too loudly.  “If you wanted to, you never showed it.” he added quietly.

Angela laughed.  “I thought you were gay at the beginning of this trip.  Then I saw plainly that you weren’t.”

“And you were jealous.”

“I wasn’t.”

“You always are.”

She sat back and looked at the ceiling.

“When we’re back home, we can start a relationship if you want.” Claro said.

“No.  I wouldn’t be able to put up you.  It wouldn’t work.”

“People in relationships accept each other’s faults.”

“I understand that, but it still won’t happen.”

“I wish we weren’t going home.”

“We have to go home at some stage.”

“It’s like a dream, isn’t it?  Travelling.  You leave everything behind and travel to a place you’ve never been to before and do things you’d never thought you’d do.”

“All my dreams are strange.”

“I’ve grown out of dreaming.” Claro said.

Their flight was called.  They boarded like sheep to a dip.  Claro slept the whole time, or perhaps just lay with his eyes closed.  The waking world hurt.

Thunderstorm/Death

Bit of a character sketch.  I’ve written this scene fifteen-million times, but this is my favourite version so far.

There are storm clouds overhead.  I can see them out the window.  The sky is slowly getting greyer and greyer.  It’ll be black soon.  And then the rain will come.  It comes heavy here, in great big slops like somebody’s put a bucket of rain up there and let it fall.  And quickly too.

At least I’m inside.  I’m stuck here, but I’m inside.  I’ve been here for fifteen days.  Door closed, nobody enters and the door is only not closed when they push food in.  Haven’t eaten much, though.  Haven’t talked to anyone for fifteen days.

Simon ain’t here.  All that shit in over now.

Sitting against the tiled walls, it’s nice and cold and my forehead is hot, and I’m watching the storm brew overhread.  That’s what is happening.  Not much else to do, really.  As if I’m waiting.  But I don’t know what I’m waiting for.

It’s twelve o’clock now.  The strap on my old watch is broken, but the clockface is still intact.  Lunchtime by any normal standards.  Havne’t seen a normal standard in a long time.  Nothing gets pushed under my door today.  Must be a meeting on.  Or a massacre.  Can’t hear anything here.  No news, nothing.  Everyone could be dead and I’d never know.  I’d come out one day due to curiosity and find myself sole survivor surrounded by rubble and bodies.  Not likely.

One o’clock, and all I’ve done for an hour is sit against a wall.  Haven’t the strength to get up.  Haven’t the means to get better to get the strength to get up.  Co-dependance is shit  Especially if everyone is liable to forget about you.  Rain hasn’t come yet, though the clouds overhead are thicker and moving fast.  Must be windy outside.  I’m still hungry.  There are rats in this place.  I heard them and lately I’ve seen a couple.  If they forget to feed me, I can go after them.  They’d probably scuttle away.  I’m too slow.  Sometimes when I’m here I think about Charles Darwin.  Learnt about him in school.  About how our species is evolving to be better, smarter, more successful.  But really we’re devolving.  Into something that stares at clouds all day and dreams of eating rats.  Someone walks past the door but doesn’t stop.  I’m still here.

Two o’clock.  Rain is falling.  It’s just started.  I knew the clouds would break soon.  Something in the air, probably.  Or just some sense I have.  They’ve forgotten to bring any food today.  They’re starting to forget about me altogether.  Soon the food will stop, then the people will stop walking past, stop using the rooms nearby, stop inhabiting this place completely until it crumbles to dust and me with it.  All the better.

It’s three o’clock and there’s noise.  Noise close.  Noise involving me.  The rain is pounding hard, rattling the window, so I can’t really  hear.  I thought the storm would’ve started by now, but the clouds are still boiling up there, waiting.  Like me.  I’m waiting.  How much longer can you stay in a bathroom, locked in by your own weakness, before you die?

There is a rap on the door, a sharper sound than I’ve heard in over two weeks.  Before now, the place was full of gunshots and shouts, but now my ears have dulled and a rap on the door is enough to make me jump.  A voice and then a boy.

The boy has shaggy hair like everyone.  Shirt painted haphazardly red like they all do in this place.  Black pants.  Black eyes.  He’s come to seek me out.  He’s come here for help.  Yes, seek help from the veteran, from someone who’s thought out this revolution, fought it out until they could no more.  Yes, everybody once knew my name.  But what have you done now?  What new turns have you taken without my guidance?  How much have you destroyed?

The boy looks at me and his weapon gleams in his hand.  I will destroy you.  We are young and will destroy everything of our predecessors.  You are older and you thought you could hide.  You cannot.  I have come to seek you out.

There are no ears to listen and I have no strength to cry.  All that comes out is a strangled gasp.  The storm breaks over my head.  I cannot see for the rain pelting down around me.  The lightning flashes like his weapon and the thunder fills my ears full.  The last this I see are his eyes, black.

This is the end of an era.

Claro and Angela II

Claro is fearless.  The way he dives into the open traffic, like a cowboy wading through a stampede, reckless but somehow he never gets hurt, or even scared.  He beckons me across but I shake my head and laugh until he takes my hand and pulls me along.  I’d never get across the roads without him.  The market place is in front of us teeming with people, both foreign and native.  Stalls are small and square and there are hundreds of them, stacked high with packaged mass-produce.  As if the stalls weren’t enough to choose from, there is a tiny lady with a sandwich-board filled with fake wallets, pushing things at potential customers.  If she had a dollar for every time she received a shake of the head, she wouldn’t need to go around with that sandwich-board.

Claro pulls me along and just like when we crossed the road we are plunged headfirst into the melee of the marketplace.  I want to stop and look at things, and Claro does too, but he has no money on him other than small change so I can’t see him being able to buy anything.  The marketplace residents doen’t know this, so they keep pushing things at him and I, like they do with all the tourists types.  Claro leads them on, he wants to know about their stock, what material is this, where does it come from, where did you get it from?  When the shop-owner starts telling Claro about his family, a cowlicked teenager comes up behind him, his hand snatching air out of Claro’s back pockets.

“Claro,” I warn, clutching my bag to my chest.  He turns and looks at me, then turns around to look behind him but the pickpocketer is gone.  He shrugs.  He has nothing on him, anyway.  The shop owner has gone to serve another customer with more money and a genuine interest in purchasing, so we move on.

“You left everything back at the hotel room?” I question.

“I’ve got some change.  Enough for a taxi.”

“Not your camera?  Don’t you want to take photos?”  He hasn’t taken any photos so far, even though everything seems to astound him.

He shakes his head. “When photos can capture sound and smell and the feeling of the crowd pressing around you, then I’ll be interested.”

“Suit yourself.” I take a quick snapshot of the marketplace (with Claro in the background politely refusing a wallet from the sandwich-board lady) and we head out into fresher air.

Before I know it, Claro has secured a free moped ride from a generous local.  He taps me on the shoulder.  “This guy can give us a ride.”

The guy in question sits on his battered moped, giving us a missing-tooth grin.

“He wants money.”

“He doesn’t, I asked him.”

“He’ll want a tip.”

“For a free ride, I thought I’d give him one anyway.”

Claro sits on the back, dark eyes grinning.

“Where you want to go?” the man asks.

Claro shrugs.  “Anywhere.  Can she come too?”

“Can this thing carry three people?” The seat looks quite narrow.

The driver shakes his head.  “But I go slow.” he assures us with a grin.

This reassures Claro very much and he pulls me on behind him.  I grip tight to Claro’s arms, encircling him in a bear hug as we speed off into the maelstrom of traffic.  If I fall off, I’ll die, so I hug Claro like a long-lost brother as he treats the guy in front of him as some sort of huggable saviour.

We disembark sweating at the park, full of green, leafy fronds and peddlers.  I shove a small note into the rider’s hands and he grins and says thank you in his own language.  Claro is oblivious, busy buying me some form of icecream from a street vendor instead.

“I don’t think we should trust street vendors, that’s what -”

“Alright, I’ll have it.” And he takes a big bite.

“You’ll get food poisoning.”

“The locals eat it.  Must be alright.”

“The locals will eat anything.” I laugh.

We sit in the park for a while, and I tentatively nibble at the ice cream while he looks around happily at the people.

“Do you think that’s the daughter of that lady over there?” Claro asks.

“I don’t know.  Why don’t you ask her?” I know how much he loves finding out the intricate details of these people’s lives.

“Can you imagine your whole family being peddlers?  Selling things day in, day out, having done so for generations.”

“Amazing.  And we can’t even imagine a life like that.”

“I wish I could speak the language.” he mumbles.  I can see how he feels, that the language is a barrier to an even finder understanding of a whole new way of life, a whole world.

“Maybe we shouldl go to an English-speaking country next time.” I suggest

“Maybe we should take lessons.” he says.

We get back late to the hotel.  We’ve just finished watching the sun set over the river, although our position on the bridge was a bit precarious.  He spreads himself out on the sofa, completely exhausted, and I head to the kitchen.  Coming back with two cups of tea, I set one down on the table in front of him and we drink slowly.  “Do you want to live here?” I ask.

“If I had a dollar for every country I wanted to live in…” he replied.

“I love the way you’re so fascinated.” I smile.  “Why aren’t you so fascinated at home?”

“I know everything at home.” he sighs.  “And also, home is stressful.  I’d rather be here.”

“Where you don’t have to think about university?”

“Where I don’t have to think about the future.”  He turns to me.  “Living in the present is wonderful.”

“Maybe you could think far enough ahead to our next trip?”

“… Maybe.” Very hesitantly.

“Where could we go?  South America maybe?  We’ve already done a lot of Europe… Russia, perhaps?  But if you speak Spanish, South America could be good.”

“My Spanish is terrible.” he laughs.  “Could we look at the Mediterranean?  Greece, Turkey, Morocco?” at this last one, his teeth show.

“We should look at Morocco, then.”

He falls back onto the couch, contented.  “I wish we could never leave.”  He says.  For about the fifteenth time.

Claro and Angela I

Written as a way of documenting my recent trip to Vietnam.

When the rain lifted, the streets shone.  So many colours, so many fragments of light.  Life flashed past at the speed of an elevator, a moped or a street bicycle.  People talking fast in a language neither of them could understand, but Claro loved it, loved the unfamiliar tones falling on his ears.

Angela wanted to go somewhere where they served good alcohol (anywhere, if you ignored the word ‘good’) and Claro wanted to go somewhere.  He could wander the streets forever, gaze up at the tall, tall buildings, feel the rush as ten million people walked past, meet unfamiliar clouds in an unfamiliar sky.  Eventually Angela would pull him into a place ablaze with fluorescent light where he would find other pleasures in meeting new people and making new friends.  Angela would wake up the next morning stormy with a hangover, but he would not.  The city beckoned, life, life beckoned.  “Let’s go.”

The river taxi out into the middle of the city, where they would take the car to the next place, ride between the traffic, then the cyclo, riding with the traffic, then attempt to play Russian Roulette with the pedestrian crossings.  Claro’s heart was in his throat, Angela yelped every time a moped sped at her, but they reached tehir destination laughing and in one piece.

“The history’s fascinating.” Angela peered at the guidebook.

“Everything’s fascinating.”

“Do you want to go out of the delta today or leave it for another couple of days?”

Claro’s head turned as a moped bearing a man, woman and child sped past.

“Do you want to go to the delta today?  Claro?”

He turned back to her and shrugged.

“We can’t stand here all day.”

“Why not?”

“I’m hungry, for one.”

“We should get some food and then come back here.”

She laughed.  “Crazy.” she called him.

White

White flecks landed on her dark fur jacket, crept into her hair, melted on her silk scarf.  She sat on the playground swing, catching snowflakes with her feet, gripping the chains with gloved fingers.  She pushed off the ground and swung herself high into the air, wincing as the cold air whistled past her uncovered ears.  She was flying now, her hair fluttering behind her and her scarf untangling from her shoulders to catch the wind.  She felt beautiful, free.

And the others looked on, their dark eyes despising.  She was too old for such beauty.  It was time for her to become an adult.  Why would she not let her childhood go, as they had?

Inside the classroom, she tried to watch outside through the foggy window.  She took the sleeve of her jumper and gently wiped a portion clean, gazing out at the bare, pencil shapes of the trees, the white flakes raining down.  She watched cars slowly being covered and an empty chip packet crumple under the weight of the snow.  Her teacher bade her pay attention and she snapped her head to the front.  The words on the blackboard blurred before her eyes, unintelligible.  She longed to turn back to the white of the snow.

At lunchtime, they hid her schoolbag in an empty locker.  They sniggered and scoffed as the wandered aimlessly without it.  Then she walked outside, her hands rubbing together to keep warm.  She didn’t let them heard the growling of her stomach.  She knew they would tease her if she went on the swings again, so she sat on one side of the see-saw, watching the other children sit in groups under the shelter, gossiping and laughing and talking about her.

When it was time to go home, her schoolbag was still hidden and nowhere to be found.  She looked for a little while, crawling under desks, opening secret drawers and carefully rifling through cupboards.  The teacher saw her and shooed her out before she could explain.  She walked home without it, pulling her jacket around her, her face hidden by the fur-lined hood.  She caught the white flecks in her open palm then rushed home to show her mother what she had found.  When she arrived on the doorstep, the white flecks had gone away.  She stepped inside and took off her shoes, unwrapping her scarf and hung her jacket on its hook.

Her mother had made her a cup of sweet tea.  She popped each of her special tablets in her mouth then took a steaming gulp of the sweet mixture.  It filled her with a good feeling.  She watched sleepily as her mother opened her letters.  She didn’t ask her why her hands started to shake or why her eyes welled up with tears.  Instead, she walked over and wrapped her small arms around her mother, wishing she could squeeze all the sadness out of her.  Her mother’s arms stayed limply at her sides and her eyes turned away from her daughter’s small form.  She hugged her mother tightly until her arms ached and then she started walking slowly to her bedroom.

This was where she lived.  It was a very small room; her mother’s was much bigger.  The window never opened and she couldn’t reach the curtains to pull them apart.  She lay on her hard little bed and listened to the snow brushing the window.  She wanted to go out and play but she knew her mother wouldn’t let her.  Her eyes searched the ceiling instead, following the maze of cracks and making shapes.

For a short while she fell asleep, and when she awoke it was dark.  She could see nothing around her at first, but then, slowly, she was able to make out her dresser, the small table and her box of stuffed animals.  There was a little light coming through the window so she thought it might be morning soon.  If she listened, she could hear the rats scuttling along the floorboards or the sound of her own breathing, or the snowflakes gently falling on the roof.

Silently, moving very slowly, she made her way out into the kitchen.  She packed a little bag with a few pieces of chocolate, a bread roll and a little packet of her favourite breakfast cereal.  Then slowly, she put her jacket on, wrapped her scarf around her neck and slipped her feet into her snow boots.  Carefully, very carefully, she opened the door, making sure it wouldn’t squeak and wake her mother.  Then she stepped outside.  The cold engulfed her, freezing her legs through her thin trousers.  She threw her hood over her head and stuffed her hands into her pockets.  Then, walking a few steps out into the open, she opened her mouth and allowed a few white flakes to settle on her tongue.  She was filled with a wondrous euphoria.  A wide smile spread across her face and she turned circles, throwing her arms out wide.  She felt completely, irrevocably free.  In the dark of night, nobody saw her, nobody laughed at her and nobody stole her belongings.  They didn’t look at her fearfully or treat her like a tiny baby.  They didn’t push her over on the playground or shout when she did speeches in front of the class.  They never saw her as she stole away from the house.  Nobody noticed as she disappeared into the dark.  But she liked it that way.

Yellow Light

The restaurant window is a square of yellow light.  Wine glasses on the tables, napkins folded, table cloths perfectly symmetrical.  In there it is warm like rice.  Out here it is cold like wine.

Street lights are staining the sky, cars swim past and their headlights flicker.

Next to the restaurant window, a cinema begins.  Inside there is royal red carpet and posters of faces and words.  Warm like a lounge room.

My hands are uncovered.  My thumbs are frozen.  If my date texts me, I won’t be able to reply.  The moisture in the air is curling my fringe.  It will be ruined by the time he comes.  My oppressed heels are trying to escape out the bottoms of my boots.  There are no seats out here, so I have to stand until he comes.

This top accentuates the line of my shoulders.  It curves around my hips until it meets the lip of my jeans.  I should have brought a jacket.  But the line of my top accentuating my shoulders was too convincing.  He’s missing it.

There’s a man standing in front of the yellow window now.  I envy him for his leather jacket.  His feet are moving about impatiently, his hands thumbing the insides of his jean pockets.  Hair combed back nicely.  He is looking lustfully at the red cinema.  He has his back to the yellow light restaurant, otherwise he would stare lustfully into there as well.  His lips are chapped like mine and he licks them as I lick mine.

He doesn’t notice my staring at him.  He thinks I’m just looking into the yellow restaurant.  Really I’m looking at the way his hair is beginning to curl like mine, the way his eyes paw the ground, the way his feet can’t be still, the way he licks his lips.  Then his brown eyes stop darting and look straight into mine.

This is a pretty empty street.  The restaurant and the cinema would probably both be out of business if they weren’t both so warm.  No one can see our eyes kiss, that miniscule second in which our gaze joins in the middle.  No one can tell my date and no one can tell his.  Not even the people in the restaurant and the cinema are looking at us.  They’re too busy with folded napkins and faces on posters.  We have privacy.

It’s a long moment.  It surprises me.  He smiles after a while.  I think our moment is up, but instead he stops licking his lips and opens his mouth.

“Waiting for somebody as well?”

I reciprocate his smile.  “That’s right.  He’s late.”

He looks at his watch, pulling back the sleeve of his jacket a little way.  “I’m early.  I’m always early.”

“Where are you going to go when she comes?”

“A restaurant across the road.  It’ll be warm in there at least.” He rubs his hands together.

“It’s better to be early than late.”  My hair is completely curly now.  He’s missed it all.

“It’s a Chinese restaurant.  I hate Chinese food.”

He is watching the second hand of his watch wander around the clock face.

“I wish men were gentlemanly again.” I remarked.

He walks over to stand next to me after a while.  Now we are both looking into the yellow light of the restaurant.

“It looks so warm in there.” He rubs his hands together again.

“Warm as rice.”

He chuckles and it is a deep, lukewarm sound.

“I hate waiting.”

“So do I.”

“When does the term ‘stood up’ apply?  I want to go home.”

“You could call him?” he suggests.

“My thumbs are numb.  And I won’t forgive him no matter the excuse.  It’s far too cold out here.”

He has waited for twenty minutes already.  He has not touched his phone either.  We both stand there, incomplete pictures not even looking for our other halves.

He pasted our pictures together.  Still staring into the yellow light of the restaurant, he slips his cold hand into mine.  His fingernails are short and stubby like mine.  His skin is soft.  And our clasped hands warm themselves.  I can tell he is smiling.  I am too.  The people in the restaurant and the cinema still aren’t looking, but if they were they would see our completed picture.

Very carefully, so that he wouldn’t notice, I turned my phone off.  I think he did the same.  Nobody interrupted us and no one passed us by.  Even the cars with their flickering headlights had stopped coming past.

Without discussing it, we decided on the warm-as-rice restaurant.  We sat in the corner so that nobody would look at us still.  Our hands clasped under the table so that my thumbs weren’t frozen any more.  His chapped-lipped smile was my favourite part of the night.  His embrace was warmer than rice and his lips colder than wine.  We walked past faces on posters in the cinema and watched the most expensive film.  Then we went home and wondered why we did it all.

Why not?

In the Forests of Leigh

Entered into a competition.  A story told in five stages.

Stage I

Paolo stole his father’s book from the tottering bookcase in the second-floor study.  It was heavy and large, quite too big to hide under one’s sweater or cleverly behind one’s back.  He thought himself lucky to get down to the first floor with it, after not being noticed once.  He imagined it would be speculated long after by historians.  They would scratch their grey beards in wonder of what sort of sequence of events could have placed into the small hands of Paolo Montorelli that book, The Origin of the Species, which would change forever human behaviour and compel this young boy to make history.

He sat on the wooden floorboards in his bedroom looking at the diagrams mostly, tracing the lines with his fingers and allowing his tongue to practice the names of all the various scientific words.  His concentration undisturbed by adult antics, he was left to study for hours the masterpiece.  Of course, he already knew what the bulk of it equated to, without even needing his eyes to stumble over the complex language, for they had gone over Darwin’s theories in science class the week before.

Survival intrigued him.  He knew now why he had been born a man, given strong bones, nimble fingers and a quick mind.  He was meant to survive out there, in the forests, in the wild, where food had to be hunted for and danger was a constant companion.  Where he was, in that ancient and enormous house, where everything was provided, even love, which he did not want, he felt suffocated.  He would have to leave.  In the space of that small, cold and sparsely decorated bedroom, Paolo dreamt up a plan.

 

Stage II

The next day he led them into the forests.

There were seven other boys in Paolo’s group of friends.  There was Jon, who was smarter than some of the others, and older too.  Tim was the same age, but not nearly as smart.  Hans was the youngest, and quite fat, though Paolo thought he might prove strong if he put his mind to it.  Mark was a shy boy who had a problem of some sort, which gave him no excuse to infuriate Paolo.  James was young, but as loud as someone twice his age.  Little Fred was somebody’s younger brother, Paolo could not remember who, and was dragged along for only this reason.  The last boy was Abe, who was good for nothing except following, the characteristic Paolo valued most in his friends.  A motley crew gathered from school, parent’s friends, friends of friends and from the local neighbourhood, they ranged in age from nine years old to fourteen.  Paolo was the oldest – fifteen, and his birthday in March, before midyear, making him one of the oldest in his class.  He was tall too and boasted of muscle on his arms and strong legs for walking.  In his mind’s eye, as he held a tree-branch as a walking stick, his feet finding footing easily amongst the flotsam surface of the forest floor and his legs pulling him through the strides uphill, he looked the picture of man as Darwin had imagined him.  His friends were not necessary – he had brought them along only to teach them.  He led the way now, and they trusted him, but he would teach them to trust no one.

Paolo had often walked into the Forests of Leigh, not too far away from the town, but far enough for the noise to fall away and for the stars to emerge each night without the competition of electric lights.  He walked further that day than he had ever been before, and the boys followed him.  They had brought with them a few loaves of bread, some cold meat and some stone fruit.  More important to them, however, was the array of hunting knives, arrows and trap-making utensils that Paolo carried in his own rucksack.  For did they think they could exist on fruit alone?  Men needed meat to survive.  Without it, they would be skinny, scrawny  beings, useless as rabbits, with not a bit of muscle between them.

They set up camp in between two massive conglomerates of rock, one which looked like a bear (they called this Bear Rock) the other which looked like a sneering face (this one they called Father Rock).  A large sheet strung between two trees served as a shelter in rain, a hole dug spontaneously by one of the boys as a latrine and the stars as the only roof over their heads.

 

Stage III

They stayed for two weeks before problems arose.  Despite Paolo’s attempts to foster some sense of belonging in the group, introducing a group whistle, a secret knocking code and giving every boy a group-name, unhappiness yet reigned.  Their food had lasted only due to Paolo’s furious rationing.  Jon-lo was perpetually hungry, Tim-lo’s rash was coming back, Mark-lo’s wounded knee (from a tumble in some scrub) had become puffy and sore and Little Fred-lo had been complaining of stomach aches for three days.  What was more, their food source was diminishing quite quickly, at a rate that alarmed most of the boys.  Paolo stayed placid.

“What must we do?” said Hans-lo.  Of course he was worried about food, Paolo thought.  He probably dreamed food, it was so constantly on his mind.

“We’ll have to get more food from somewhere,” James-lo caterwauled, “or we’ll all starve to deaaaaath!”  He had an irritating manner of lengthening words for extra emphasis.

“Gotta steal some from town.” Said Mark-lo, whose eyes never left the ground, not even when Paolo addressed him.

“No!” Paolo spat.  “We never steal anything from town.  It’s against the rules.”

“There are rules?” Little Fred-lo said, his eyes growing wider.  If he had been perhaps ten or eleven, instead of nine, then Paolo would have taken it as an insult.

“Of course there are rules!” Paolo barked.  “The rules of survival!  You do what you need to in order to survive and you never, never,” he repeated to Mark-lo, who continued to stare at the ground, “rely upon anyone.  If we go crawling back to town now, we’ll lose and we’ll break all the rules!”

“So it’s like a game?” said Abe-lo.

“It’s exactly like a game.” Paolo intoned.  “Survival is a game and whoever is the most cunning, the smartest and the best fighter will win.  Everyone else is a loser.”

“Only one winner?” a boy cried.

“Yes!  And if you’re a lousy wimp, you’ll be the first to go.”

The boys all lowered their eyes to the ground, shuffling their feet in the dirt.  Their shame gave Paolo time to think.  With Darwin’s theories pulsing through his brain, the answer came soon enough.  Of course, it was the right answer, for it put into practice every principle of survival that criss-crossed Darwin’s great book.

The next morning they had meat for breakfast, then for lunch and for dinner.  There was enough to last them for the next four days.  Men need meat, and the boys were happy, satisfied.  Hans, the pig, however, had disappeared.

 

Stage IV

For a long time they played this gave of survival.  They were growing strong on the meat that Paolo was bringing.  Every day it would be the same – meat would be roasting on the fire as they awoke, ready to be consumed heartily for breakfast, and one boy would have disappeared.  It was accepted by all the boys, none questioned, none complained.

By now, Paolo’s copy of The Origin of the Species had grown quite tattered, so he set to work carving select words and phrases into the trees.  He could not remember how to write letters very well, and his hand was so unsteady that the legibility of the words was hardly better than that of his soiled and broken copy.  But none of the boys ever minded, and none noticed that Paolo had added a few clauses of his own to Darwin’s manifesto.

“See here,” he told the boys, pointing to a tree trunk covered with his words, “it’s not enough to survive without anyone else’s help.  Any adult could do that.  But most adults won’t do it.  Society is weak.  A town is little more than a group of suckling babes.  We should teach them, shouldn’t we?  Teach them how to survive properly!”  The boys cheered and hoorah-d Paolo’s declaratory speech.  In the next few days, they sought to put it into practice.

One morning, they climbed up to the top of the hill.  Paolo had timed it carefully, so that the first signs of sunlight, the dull, washout grey of the dawn sky, were just beginning to appear.  Below them lay a little village, the first signs of civilisation they had seen for months.  Some of the boys were beginning to wonder if civilisation still remained beyond the Forests of Leigh.

“Look,” Paolo said, “this town is desolate.  No one moves.  You would think all of them were dead in their beds.  But you will wait and see.”

As the sky coloured to a more greyish hue, the first signs of life appeared.  First came the sound of a door opening.  Then, of a dog barking.  The metallic sound of a bucket being dropped, sawing in the distance and the slow, methodical sound of water being pumped.  Within an hour, the town had fully awakened.

“See how they crawl about like ants,” Paolo remarked, “every day is the same – fetch the water, go to church, clean the stable, shovel manure.  It’s pitiful.” He spat.  Then he turned his back to the town.  “We’ll go there tomorrow.  Go there and teach them the proper way to do things.”

Before they went to sleep that night, Paolo made a serious effort to clean the grime off The Origin of the Species, the other boys sharpened sticks and cleaned the blunt hunting knife.  Paolo spoke words of ferocity and leadership to them long into the night – the sort of words he could imagine warriors being made to listen to before going into battle.  He slept with a smile on his lips.

 

Stage V

The town looked bigger once they had reached it, much bigger than the model-village they had seen from atop the hill.  Nevertheless, it was quiet, dead.  Paolo continuously ran his finger over the blunted blade of the remaining hunting knife until he could feel a wound opening up in his skin.  He had prepared for a confrontation, a battle, a war.  But there was no one here.  Were they to ambush them?  He would kill them in their beds, like he had done to so many others.

They had formed one line now and were snaking between the houses.  Each followed the boy in front of them, and Paolo followed nothing but his own instinct.  He felt his bare feet in the mud, could smell the embers of the blacksmith’s fire, tasted the smoke in the air, heard when footsteps as cautious as his own were making their way steadily towards them.  He motioned for his group to stop, and they did, piling themselves awkwardly behind him.  Slowly, Paolo advanced forward in the direction of the sound.  A giant would be there, a giant of a man, probably the town blacksmith, with a white-hot poker in his hand.

The footsteps belonged to a boy.  He had bright red hair and large green eyes and stepped out when Paolo did the same.  He held in his hand a broomstick, and on his face, a fierce look.  Paolo’s expression settled into a disappointed frown.  He motioned the boys over with a look.  They encircled the red-haired boy.  Then the boy motioned his friends over.  Paolo’s boys stepped back.  They were outnumbered.

“Who are you?” Paolo demanded.

The boy answered immediately.  “Onslow.”

Paolo narrowed his eyes.  The intruder had a group-name already.  He was obviously a leader, too.

“You think you’re so great.” Paolo spat, unable to think of any other phrases.

“I’m in charge in this town.  You don’t belong here.” Onslow said quietly.

“Whoever is the oldest is in charge!  Isn’t that right?” Paolo looked to his group, and they cheered in response.  He would win this battle.  The other boy had an immature look about him – he had to be at least two years younger than him.

“I’m fifteen.” Paolo gloated.  “What about you?”
“Fifteen.” Answered Onslow.  Paolo showed no surprise, but pressed his wounded thumb again to the blade of the hunting knife.  Blood was beginning to seep into the pocket of his trousers.

“March.” Paolo replied.  His trump card.

“February.” Said Onslow, and the battle had shifted.

“You’re not in charge.” Said Paolo through clenched teeth.

“Whoever is oldest is in charge.” Onslow quoted him.
“I said that to trick you.  Whoever is the best at surviving is in charge.  What do you know about surviving?” he sneered.  “You live in a town.  You don’t need to survive.  Your mother makes your food for you and your father tucks you into bed at night.  We’ve lived in the forest for months now by ourselves.”  He poked Onslow’s small chest.  “You don’t look as if you’d last one week in the forest.”

The boys around Onslow eyed Paolo with looks of malice.  Onslow stayed completely placid.  “Are you going to teach us how to survive, then?” he asked Paolo.

“No!” Paolo laughed, and the other boys laughed too.  “Come back with us to the forest and we’ll see how long you last for.” A smile spread its way across his face.  Onslow still showed no emotion.

“Do you accept?” Paolo smirked.

“Yes.”

Paolo’s pocket was full of blood by the time they had returned to the camp.  He had almost lost his game, almost broken the rules, but despite this, he had managed to triumph.  But he told himself not to celebrate yet.  There would be hard work to come, but ultimately he would prevail.

 

Stage VI

Onslow never slept.  Paolo never once saw him close his eyes.  It was infuriating, unrelenting, impossible.  And as Onslow stayed inhumanely awake, so did Paolo.

At first, Paolo did not have the courage to show this intruder boy how it was they survived.  But soon he was fed up.  Tim-lo was annoying him, and there had not been meat for three days.  He waited until after the sun had set, the moon had disappeared behind the trees and the only face watching him was that of Father Rock sneering at him.  Onslow was staring into the fire.

It took one moment to slit Tim-lo’s throat, and one lonely cry from the dying boy to set Onslow’s gaze upon him.

“So that is how to survive.” The intruder boy intoned.  Had these words been laced with realisation, epiphany on Onslow’s part, Paolo would have been satisfied.  But they dripped with mockery, sarcasm and loathing.  The boy had to be dealt with.

Paolo first attacked the boy when he had wandered off to the far side of the camp, near Bear Rock.  Onslow had thrown him off and hastily picked up a large tree branch to defend himself with.  Paolo could not get anywhere near him.  The next time, he swung at the boy with a knife while he had his back turned, but the boy turned suddenly and Paolo missed, leaving him standing without explanation before Onslow’s searching eyes.

The only way was to lynch Onslow.  But Onslow’s group was far bigger than his – they would overthrow him, exile the rest of his group and live in their place.  The only way was for Paolo’s group to move away – but that wasn’t fair!  The camp belonged to him!  Or, if worse came to worse, Paolo himself could move away.  But he would be alone, with no one else around, no meat on the fire, no one to prey upon.  His hands began to shake when he thought about this.  Onslow was driving him from the hunter to the hunted, with nothing more than an unrelenting stare and a gift for luck.  He would have to kill him, or he would be killed by him.

He took the boy far away one day.  Far enough away so that none of his group would hear him cry out, no one would know to intervene and no one would know who had been the victor until either one or the other made it back to camp.  As he led the boy away, Paolo realised with a smile that there would be meat on the fire again the next morning – the best meat yet.

The boys waiting at the camp heard nothing.  They saw no sign of either boy from when they opened their eyes in the morning to when they closed them again that night.  When they rose the next morning, it was to the smell of meat.  Not an unexpected smell, though it sent a thrill through the boys.  The battle was ended and the loser in front of them.  Though it was impossible to tell from the disembodied pieces of meat which leader it belonged to, each boy had his theory.  But neither Paolo nor Onslow was present in the camp.  The boys waited until evening.  Finally, a party was sent to search for them.  Perhaps they were still fighting.  Perhaps they were both lost.

The party came back, incoherent and frightened.  Some had the dry tracks of tears on their cheeks.  There was no explanation for the report.  Both boys had been found, still locked in a final fighting stance, though both were dead.  One pair of glassy eyes stared into the other.

The boys eyed distrustfully the meat on the fire.  The same meat, human meat, that they had been eating for months.  But with all boys present in camp, both leaders dead behind Father Rock, the mystery sunk like a weight in their full stomachs.