Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Pigeons Return to Death Hotel

There’s the hotel full of crazies. The manager is finding it hard to keep everything running smoothly, and, when no one is looking, he likes to slip into his office and slide open the middle drawer of the desk. Inside, where the catering bills are starting to collect, he hides a bottle with just enough in it to keep the edges smooth.

He has to keep an eye on all corners of the hotel, and, even though he shouldn’t go there, explore all of the personalities he’s hired so that he can coax them into productivity.

There’s the cleaning team. They have to make sure that things don’t pile up and become offensive. They must be trusted, as they methodically enter each room and rearrange it the way it would appear on the website. They can’t mess with the guest’s belongings, so there’s faith involved.

Without them, the hotel would, in all probability, collapse.

There are the guides: The bellhops who move things around, from the entrance to the top floor. They like tips, but they’re also proud of the way they can “fix” things. Someone has to know which corners can be cut, and what the fastest and most cost-effective ways are for getting from A to Z.

The guests? They aren’t meant to be around permanently. There’s a rhythm to their arrival and departure, and a certain amount of predictability in their activities. Every now and then, a rock band will blow in like a tornado and leave a trail of broken furniture to replace, and, occasionally, there will be someone who arrives depressed, drinks too much from the mini-bar and needs to be coaxed back from a window ledge, but, for the most part, there is order.

Business people breeze in with a lack of interest in the surroundings. Just looking for a place to recharge themselves and their gadgets.

Lovers leave a tangible haze in their wake- a cloud of perfumes and the smells of lovemaking- the drooping heads of red roses nodding over emptied champagne buckets.

Occasionally, a disgraced husband will arrive, his red eyes and thousand-yard stare gazing into a future of weekend-parenting and mounting lawyer’s bills.

There are conventions. Industrial equipment salesmen and their clients. Book publishers and their newest titles, billed as best-sellers before they’ve even hit the shelves. Once, the manager even accepted a group of people, mostly in their twenties, who swore that the science fiction novels of a particular author formed sufficient foundation for a lifestyle. The lifestyle appeared to encourage long black coats and poorly-managed facial hair growth.

The manager doesn’t mind. He likes to have something new going on all the time. He enjoys that he directs life here; that he has harnessed the predictability of hotel life.

His biggest fear is the lifts. They're designed to keep everything moving. The music he has piped into them is unbearable for anything more than the two minute’s duration of the trip, and that’s what he expects. In. Out. Up. Down. Nobody on earth wants to be stuck in a lift for even a few minutes. He makes sure to have them regularly maintained.

In one of the rooms there is a stain. A stain so deeply ingrained that he’d had to order a kilim from one of the passing salesmen to cover it up. A stain which tells a story of bad decisions and worse consequences. Fortunately, though, few people ask for that room, as it looks out over the local bar, and the unrelenting neon advertisements and driving rock music make potential guests ask for a different suite almost immediately.

He’d had babies born there, brides deflowered and even one or two deaths. Unanswered knocks on the door leading to the disappointing discovery of the ends of lives. One, a sleeping pill overdose, another, a man who had enjoyed sleeping so much, that he’d chosen it for eternity. Death wasn’t as terrible as it seemed. Discreet paramedics slipped the bodies into the servant’s elevator, and then the cleaning teams simply changed the mattress and sheets.

The manager prided himself on his decisiveness: He couldn’t afford to dither over minor details, and yet, his decision-making miraculously seemed to pay attention even to these.

Sometimes, when he is hiding in his office, the grating lid of the bottle twisting in his hand, he liked to read his own motto that he’d made into a sign. He’d printed it out, laminated it, and stuck it behind his own desk:

“If you’re just sitting on the fence, stand up. You’re bound to fall one way or the other.”

Then he’d laugh a little to himself, as he imagined teetering and toppling into the unknown. As if that would ever happen to him.

* * *

And so it went on, year after year. On the roof, the pigeons nested, cooing as they strutted about the concrete. Their droppings built up over the top of the lift shaft, paste and then dust, slowly eroding the aging rivets. No one could see them up there, but their presence would, in the end, inspire a spectacular end to the manager, the hotel, and several of the guests.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The call of the oven

You’re close. Just on the edge, in fact. The wrong word, a song on the radio- hell, a TV ad, even, can send you over into freefall.

That’s not all. If it’s bad, a phone call can have you striking at walls, shouting.

A balloon filled to its limits, a tooth, hanging by the thinnest sliver of gum.

The blood rushes through your neck, and collects somewhere near the top of your head.

A balcony is a threat, an oncoming train, a whispered invitation.

There it is: The inverted white casket in the kitchen, calling out.

Ugliness and shame is unveiled at every step. Love songs, played backwards.

Munch caught it.

Ingrid Jonker heard it, just beyond the breakers.

Van Gogh flicked his brush in its direction, but was caught by the old adage, “always check your weapon”, before slumping over in the wheatfield.

Too many naked roasts with their bland whiteness dripping blood came out of the same oven which told Plath its jokes.

Then, an earsplitting sunrise, with the call of nesting birds and the energetic racing of motors outside the window: Everyone’s going somewhere.

The oven’s just for cooking.

The oven’s just for cooking

Friday, September 2, 2011

Paisley Curtains

The gentle curls became sinister shadows in the dark. Scott sat with his action man against the wall on the side of the room farthest from the window. The toy was anything but active, though; it just sat with its lightning blue eyes glaring into the gloom.

The sounds were bad. The wind hissed in breathy drafts which lifted the skirts of the curtains and the dressing gown on the back of the door. It could have been a cat, Scott thought, that he heard padding across the roof. Yes, he decided, it must have been a cat.

But it was the curtains which terrified him most. The paisley fabric turned into thousands of eyes, watching, and mouths with razor-sharp teeth which seemed… hungry.

Scott tried to burrow even deeper under his duvet, but he recalled the warnings. Donald’s mum had insisted that they’d be smothered if they put their heads under their duvets whenever he slept over, and he knew the panic of pushing the boundaries- feeling the air grow moist and warm as he converted it to carbon dioxide.

He made a tube, a breathing hole so that he’d make it. Felt a little like that explorer he’d seen on television- the one who had gone in search of Tarzan, and slipped, instead, into a pool of quicksand. The reed he’d used as a straw to breathe through was left on the surface next to a pith helmet.

He could hear his little brother sleeping on the lower bunk, and the tick, tick, tick of his Hong Kong Phooey watch on the chest of drawers.

Downstairs, the house was silent, but the fridge shuddered every now and then, as if shivering from the cold it generated.

The streetlamp was lukewarm amber, and couldn’t penetrate the gloom. He listened more carefully. Somewhere in the house, he was almost certain he could hear crying.

A daddy-long-legs brushed across his face, and Scott whimpered. How would things be, when they moved to another country? Would there be quicksand in Africa? Would he have to sleep in a hammock, with the calls of jungle cats echoing in the distance? Would the curtains and fridge- the objects of fear for him now- even be there to comfort him when they climbed off the aeroplane?

The Action Man was ready. He sat in his World War II Arctic Fatigues, and prepared his rifle, the one which shot matches. He’d protect Scott. It was his pledge.


Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Day in the Life

Ever heard The Beatles song, A Day in the Life? Well, from the gentle sliding opening bars, to the tumultuous final, drawn out E-chord, it’s a chilling snapshot of the news.

“I read the news today, oh boy…”

There’s a promising young man who is killed in his car, strange potholes appearing all over Lancashire, and general confusion as the newsreader stumbles through life with his alarm clock hounding him.

“And though the news was rather sad…”

This past week has been an apocalyptic mess of news. Perhaps the past month. From every angle, the “stories” have been churned out by journalists, with sub-editors vying for the most clever or succinct headlines. Here’s my own “Day in the Life”:

A tyrant was said to be cowering in a bunker as rebel forces pounded his compound with heavy artillery. He wasn’t cowering, but appeared later on to call on his supporters to “kill the rebels like rats”. He’s a mass murderer, but news commentators discussed his penchant for silk robes and his choice in headgear. Gaddafi remains free.

Some rhinos were savaged by poachers, who cut off their horns, cut them brutally, and left them for dead, only they weren’t. Vets and animal enthusiasts wept, and wondered, why?

A bus overloaded with children slipped into a river near Knysna, killing many. They’d had nothing on their minds except playing soccer at break, exchanging sandwiches, or maybe blushing at the first exchanges of loving glances between na├»ve boys and girls. Children are curiously fearless and yet inordinately fearful. Who knows what they thought, as they slipped away.

On the horn of Africa, millions are starving, children are dying at a (measured) rate of ten a day. The figures are likely far higher. They totter in from the barren wastelands, their bow-legs struggling to keep them from toppling into the dust. The safety camps are sometimes just grotesque hospices, where the childrens’ eyes sink deeper into their fly-specked faces, and their mothers wail, or just sit, silently. These emaciated ones just fall asleep, never having known couches, television sets or restaurants, and are ticked off on lists by grim volunteer medics as they die.

“And I just had to laugh…’

And in my community newspaper?

Well, there were some commentaries on horse riders losing their favourite riding grounds. A letter complaining about telemarketers. Another, about a family facing eviction from a council house, and still another about children born in prison, whose mothers are finally allowed to provide entertainment, toys and education to them. My community newspaper finished off with an incitement to go and see a visiting Dutch reed quartet, and some advertisements telling me to hire people to help me rid my garden of moles.

It just wasn’t funny, this week.

“I saw the photograph…”

*Read more about the Beatle’s song, A Day in the Life, here.

Lyrics | Beatles lyrics - A Day In The Life lyrics

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Monstrous Truth

Don’t worry, I lied. There’re no such things as monsters. The things I’ve told my children when they’ve come to me with questions.

If you visit the source of a river, it’s usually unrecognizable. It may look a little like a mossy drinking fountain, burping up a steady curved stream from the earth. It’s hard, looking at that, to reconcile it with a mass of water alongside a city, straddled with bridges. That’s why it’s scary when the children come to me as if I’m a source of information. My trickle is sometimes polluted with a lifetime of experience.

Well, kids, I’d better put the matter right: There are monsters, lots of them. The truth is, you’re better off recognizing them, before they recognize you…

  • Vampires and other bloodsuckers: They’re the ones who come, not in a cape or covered in glitter, but in the guise of sly deception. They’ll feed of you until you’re dry and they’re sated, and move on, abandoning your desiccated emotions or finances. Watch out for them. They’re hard to spot.
  • Werewolves: Don’t be afraid of all dogs, or men with beards, for that matter, but if someone ever touches you in a way that makes you feel bad, or dirty, or you think it’s just not… right, then tell me. Don’t let anyone touch you on your private parts. A silver bullet won’t kill them- that’s another myth. Unfortunately, they’ll slip into the night, and target some other kid.
  • Axe murderers: They’re out there. People who react with violence to almost every situation- people who enjoy it. They’ll try and hurt you, maybe even kill you by accident, unless you step away from fights and escalating arguments. Walk away. Keep walking. An axe can be a fist, or a boot, or a brick or a gun.
  • Zombies: Dead people don’t really walk around, searching for braaaaainnnsss, do they? Yes, child, they do. They’re called “drug addicts”. They’ll seek you out, haul you away into an eternal night of mindless celebration, until your brain is eaten away. Your weapon? They’re dead, so all you have to do is use the magic word: No. Then run for your life.
  • Witches and warlocks: I won’t tell you how to think- you have the privilege of learning about all sorts of people, but I do hope you temper your intellect with common sense. There are some crazy ideas out there, and I hope that the “magic” of creativity you get to experience is based on reality, and not superstition.
  • Trolls: Sure, they exist. They’ll hate, and hate, and hate. You can be tricked into being one by forgetting compassion and empathy, and respect for others. Be kind, my child, and you’ll be safe.

There are other monsters out there, but I’m sure you’ll find that out. The rule-of-thumb is that you treat people well, and keep yourself from getting into the places where monsters lurk. I’ll always be there to help you, I hope, but you guys can also help each other, too. Stand up for what’s right, and stick to the truth.

I’ll try not to hurt you by shielding you from the truth too much.

And don’t, whatever you do, look under the bed: It’s horribly dusty, for a start.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Ace of Spades

Grace double-checked that all the addresses were right. Email wasn’t at all like the post- twenty years ago she’d kept a worn notebook with the street addresses for friends and family, made her lists from it when it was time to draw up the Christmas cards, each one personalized. No, email, she thought, was impossibly fast. People changed jobs, switched accounts, or just didn’t bother to check them. So much for the online address book. Still, it would suit her purposes today- she couldn’t wait two weeks. It had to happen by tomorrow.

It had been quite a pleasant morning. Not too bad for the last one she’d see. First, she dealt with the necessities: bleached the grouting around the bathroom tiles, rinsed out the bucket with more bleach, and checked that the fireplace was empty of ash. Then, she’d wiped all the other surfaces in the house. Three hours, all told. Plenty of experience, she thought, bitterly.

She tried not to think of the cellar, where the cement had finally set. All those awful months digging in the gloom, with the spiders and mice twitching in the shadows. Grace was glad that was out of the way. The cellar door had taken ages to board up and cover with carpet, too. Her fingers ached a little. Although just 45, she had felt her joints protest at the extra work.

The cat eyed her from the windowsill. Grace smiled. The poor thing was so dependent on her. It’d be hard for the authorities to find a place to keep a middle-aged cat, although, to Grace, Cleo would always be the kitten she’d found her as, teetering on legs no bigger than stubby crayons.

A noise made her think that the television was on, but that had ended abruptly two weeks ago, and she was actually thrilled not to have to listen to Don correcting it all the time. Disagreeing with the weatherman, mocking the talking heads during the news reports. She was quite happy not to hear Don, ever again, in fact.

The noise was just a roll of thunder in the distance. At the next blue flash, she counted: One hippopotamus, two hippopotamus, she counted until the thunder groaned again; it turned out that the storm was at least eight miles away.

She put on the skirt she liked. It showed off her knees, and she was proud of them. Knee-pride suddenly felt… silly. She chuckled to herself. A soft satin blouse made her feel warm, and showed just enough of her breasts to be both decent and a little daring at the same time. Grace was sad that the stilettos would have to wait for the next time she did this, but then she wouldn’t be around to see them.

Checking that the lights were off, except the one in the study, she thought again of the cellar. How easy it had been. Nobody had noticed Don’s absence. She had excuses and a fake sympathetic expression all prepared in case anyone had asked where he was, but no-one had. Oh, he’s gone to visit his aunt, she would have said. Very old lady that, it won’t be long now. She suddenly remembered, as she saw the glow of the screen in the corner that she needed to finish up.

Grace pressed “send”.

Grace was happy. Happy that he’d be blamed for everything. How many years of trays of food, expressionless lovemaking and then, towards the end, expressionless everything. He deserved what he’d get.

Going outside, she shivered. Not that cold was important right now, but it was taking the pleasure away from her.

She sat down on the side of the hole she’d dug over the past few nights, in the dark. It was a comfy fit. Launching herself into the damp earth, she looked up. Without all the other light, she could see the stars. None of them were shooting. They just twinkled, much as they had when she’d been born 45 years ago.

She grinned as she began pulling the dirt in on herself. Of how she’d made sure Don’s passport was gone, and how she’d asked a teenager to get the ticket in his name to somewhere tropical. Don! Don in the tropics! That was a laugh. He’d have moaned about the smell of suntan lotion, or the big ants, or something. Anything. That’s what he liked to do. Moan.

Taking her last few breaths, she looked up to see the cat, looking at her. The moon formed a halo against Cleo’s pointed ears. My angel, thought Grace. The last few chunks of earth slipped against her cheeks, and she thought that it was a little ironic: She’d struggled to get all Don’s angles completely secured in the cement, but she wanted at least her hand to be left for people to see.

The night disappeared as the soil toppled into the gaps.

Amanda’s computer made that alert signal she liked. It was the first notes of Fur Elise. She got up and walked over. New mail, it said. From Grace.

Hi, Amanda, I don’t have much time. Don’s been acting very oddly these last few weeks. I think he may be drinking again. He’s looking at me in a funny way, but I can’t describe it. I think he wants to hurt me. Please come and visit as soon as you can. Love, Grace.


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Parkour in Parkas in the Park

One of the first rules of storytelling is: If you introduce a talking kangaroo into the story in the first chapter, you’d better have made sure he was used by the third.

Fortunately, this isn’t a story, so the rules don’t apply.

And it may be that the rule applies to a loaded firearm, not a talking kangaroo, but I think any old writer can find something explosive to do with a loaded weapon.

It was sunny down at the park. Hannah stood on a tree stump, twirling the pink propeller toy in her hands and letting it go, to spin evenly out over the footpath where the owners were being led in crooked strolls by their dogs.

James took his skateboard, in his head he was defying gravity and hearing sonic booms as he scraped across the concrete skateboard track. When he tired of that, he and I explored an owl pellet. It looked like a dust bunny, with only the gleaming white jaw and hip bones betraying its origin. Probably a mouse.

Jonah? He was sitting with his knees braced on the rug, shielding his sandwiches from the dogs which trotted damply up from the stream now and then to explore.

Karen was happy to referee, keeping them moving through the long grass where small yellow flowers broke up the green expanse occasionally. I watched for the brown mounds which could end up stuck on shoes and transferred to the floor mats in the car, but the squirrels had devastated the pinecones in the park, leaving the husks scattered, confusing my eyes in the bright winter sun.

There were families and cyclists, runners and walkers. Sandwiches were rejected in favour of chips and juice, and an old woman stopped near us to straighten the tartan jacket on her poodle.

Two pied crows circled overhead, waiting for the activity to slow down so they could swoop on scraps and dead things.

Other families navigated their way around us the skatepark, the fathers encouraging their children and making sure that everyone got a turn. They kept half an eye on the one or two homeless people who had colonized benches, but generally everyone kept a polite distance.

That night, I dreamed I was living stranded on a rooftop. A neon blue kangaroo came to me, speaking deep words of wisdom. I don’t recall what he said.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Magic Hamburger

The young man tapped his foot against the railing in front of the counter. How long would it take to flip a coupla patties and stick em in a roll, he wondered.

The woman behind the counter eyed him warily. She hadn’t said anything to him yet, just nodded at his order. It was a long way from her native Latvia, and she was still nervous about her thick accent. Once, she’d said “Vont fry wid dot?” to a customer, and he had laughed at her. Brayed, actually, like a donkey.

Then the teenager had called his friends over and had told her to repeat herself. She had done so, blushing, and they’d slapped each other’s backs. One had mimicked her, and displayed his canine teeth in the way she’d seen TV vampires grin. “Bride of Dracula!” he’d quipped.

She reached into the pocket of the red overall and clasped the beads her grandmother had given her when she’d left. Smooth, round. Comforting. When she felt stressed, she could almost feel them heating up and calming her down.

Boba. Now there was a woman. She’d lived in the damp caravan most of her life, but was tougher than any of these city people. She was handy with an axe when it came to both wood and chickens, and was said to have the Eye.

The Eye wasn’t discussed over a bowl of beetroot soup, or chatted about during the bitter tea times they shared in the cold wintery mornings. The Eye was a whispered legend.

“Hey, how about getting a move on.”

The young man at the counter continued to jiggle his left leg and appeared to be sweating a little, the counter damp where he slapped his palm.

“Yes, Sor”.

She turned to the kitchen, but the cooks were laughing about something. One was digging in his ear.

She turned and smiled at the customer, who was slack-jawing at his phone, tapping the keys and mumbling to himself.

“Fat Cow”. She heard him say.

The beads boiled.

Smiling, she thought again of Boba: Boba with her sheath of herbs and her grey stockings which sagged off her knees. Boba whose body had aged, but had never lost that glint in her eyes. The look a young woman in love could melt the heart of a suitor with; the stare of a man going into battle with daydreams of heroism. Boba had that strange light that burned in the back of her black eyes.

The package came through the open window from the kitchen. She picked it up to hand to him, and was going to say “Thank you”, but the man snatched it and left, spitting in the bin as he got outside.

She panicked as she felt her apron burning, then, and patted it with her hands.

She imagined for a moment that she was Boba. Proud. Full of the mystique that centuries of tradition had laid upon her. Powerful. Dangerous. She muttered words that sounded rich and pregnant with meaning.

In her head, she saw the young man returning to the accountant’s office where he worked, filling in ledgers and flirting with secretaries. She pictured him polishing off the tasteless burger and feeling a little strange. Oh, how she laughed inside as she heard him say to his colleagues: “Moooo”.

He’d try and try again to bleat about the discomfort he was feeling, but all he could say was “Moo. Moo.”

The waitress spent the rest of the day grinning to herself, at the power she withheld. She forgot, just for an afternoon, how miserable she’d felt.

The young man went back to the office, and ate his food. He felt peculiar. One of the pretty secretaries noticed his face and asked him what was wrong. Nothing, he said. He didn’t see her turn the corner and laugh into her hand. She could hardly wait to mock him when she and the girls went outside for a smoke. What a jerk, they all thought. And they were right.


Monday, July 18, 2011

Lightbulb Moment

A withered teenager. He holds his daughter awkwardly, the frayed cuffs of his tracksuit brushing against the dirty pink of the donated blanket. His milk-dust moustache is an ambition, really; a glimpse of fake adulthood. His girlfriend squats, her glassy eyes not quite focused, her jeans-now too small- exposing the small of her back where the mountain range in miniature is laid out across her vertebrae.

The couple shift the tiny human back and forth, back and forth- a game of pass the parcel- as musical promises of lovin’, sex, and parties stream out of the radio. The boy scratches his elbows raw, and the girl plucks incessantly at her bra straps: They’re too loose. He cursed his mother quietly for being so damn poor- the toaster had only fetched twenty rands at the pawn shop on the corner. Nooo, the man had said, ignoring that the silver machine was almost new, I can’t sell this junk. Still. The note from Cash4Goods had sorted them out for today.

The girl elbows him. Hard. Come on, man, come on. She watches with the eyes of a wary bird, then, as he slips the small paper envelope out of his pocket. His fingernails are dirty and chipped, except for the ones on his pinky fingers, which he liked to keep long, for show. Couldn’t remember any more why that was supposed to be cool, and didn’t care. In another pocket he found the tiny globe he'd slipped out of the taillight of a Mercedes last night, the amber casing shattered with a paving stone.

A little blood appears as he snaps the head off it, the ball of his thumb dripping, but the floor is already filthy, so he doesn’t notice the scarlet orbs spiraling to the concrete.

In an instant he’s a chemist, a scientist- an honour-roll student showing off a technology project- as he slides the powdery crystals into the glass. A lighter and a tube appear in his girlfriend’s hands. Somewhere, the baby gurgles.

As they lay back and inhale, sharing the vapours the way the victims of a plane-crash in the Sahara would do water, they look in each other’s eyes and giggle. The laughter is like the hollow part of an echo, lost from its source, and full of…. Nothing.

In another house, not too far away, a boy looked around nervously. She’d definitely catch him this time, he thought. His hands wrapped around the warm ebony of his mother’s bedside table, and pulled the drawer open

In the drawer she kept all sorts of things: coins from foreign countries, postcards from relatives, a wooden owl her father had once carved as a child, and her cigarettes.

She didn’t smoke much- just when the boy had finished reading and turned off his light, maybe- a long slow ceremony on the balcony with a glass of the bitter wine that seemed to help her end the day.

Still, the boy felt it his obligation to try, at least once. He slipped one out of the box. It had gold rings around the filter, and an oddly manly smell. It hinted of grownups and parties, and of celebrations past.

Then, from nowhere, came the thoughts again. He remembered the pungent reek of disinfectant in the hospital corridor, and the broken, empty expression in his mother’s face as she had tried her best to comfort him, although words had failed her.

He opened the drawer and put the cigarette box back. No. Not today. Perhaps not ever.

Friday, July 15, 2011


The sheep bleated. It was midnight, and the moon lit up the pen. Far away in the fields, baby rabbits shuddered and huddled close to their mother for warmth. An owl refused to call, and a shadow crossed the path in front of the stone farmhouse.

The shadow seemed to be no more substance than that- perhaps a grey cloud, or the emptiness which fills the hole where the rotten roots of a storm-plucked tree used to be.

The shadow stopped moving, turned towards the window, and swayed. A rat skittered around the corner of the house, reconsidered and fled into the darkness.

The earthy smell in the air was overpowering, the freshness of it reeking of a newly prepared grave rather than the promise of a ploughed field.

The wood smoke curling out of the chimney thinned as the shadow watched, and the family dog sniffed and sneezed in its sleep.

Of course, there was no longer a family, just the old man and his photo albums. A runaway horse, a fire in the barn and an outbreak of smallpox had left him alone and haunted by memories.

The old man was curled uncomfortably into a chair, his chin resting on his jutting collarbones. Not asleep- it seemed as though he never really slept anymore, but waiting. He turned the scythe over in his hands, the blade curved and wicked-looking, but entirely blunt.

The old man rose and opened the door. Peering into the darkness, he let his eyes adjust and noted the presence of the shadow. Smiling, he moved forward, but was held back- pinned to the warm wooden frame by an odd sensation he couldn’t explain.

He thought then of dark things. Marmite. The pulpy hole in a mouth where a milk tooth used to be. The inside of a poor man’s pocket and the black wine gum.

He knew then who the shadow was, and why he’d come. As his knees gave way, and he tumbled down the steps where, a lifetime ago, he’d lifted his bride and then his children. The shadow drew closer, and gathered substance in the dim light which seeped out of the house.

As the old man lay, gasping, his mouth opening and closing in the manner of a surprised fish on a boat, he noticed something peculiar. The shadow appeared to have a logo on its shoes. Not hobnail boots, either, these were running shoes.

The thick cloak drifted apart, and a face smiled out at him. It was his wife. No, that was wrong. Perhaps his daughter, an adult the way an early death had meant she’d never be. And then, just as strangely, it was his son- no signs of the burns which had seared him out of the barn and his life.

The family-being took his hand and lifted him, steered him back onto his feet. He was unsure, then. It was the milkman, the postman. He couldn’t remember the word anymore. A… a… bark-bark. There were flashes of things he couldn’t name, and the deep fear that something was missing.

Come on, Grandpa, a voice said. Let’s get you back inside. It’s cold out tonight.


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

For a Friend on His Birthday

There’s the kid with the wild hair, running in the meadow. He’s just escaped a family portrait where he was forced to wear a restrictive pale blue and white checked shirt.

The family had posed for nearly half an hour before the photographer had released them, which was just as well, as he’d noticed the frown marks betraying the mother’s discomfort at having to sit still, when there were potatoes to be peeled and the porridge pot from this morning to be scoured.

The kid had jostled with his brothers, elbows jutting and hands slipping up behind their heads to show fingers to the patient cameraman and ruffle their still-damp parted hair. They were younger than he was, and drifted frustratingly between over-excitement and swift bouts of tears- no good as playmates.

He preferred the grass.

The green blades whipped at his shins even as his socks slid from their foothold on his calf muscles. He was wiry from endless forays into the hills, the exuberance he felt when he was breathing the fragrance of the wilds causing him to forget that he hadn’t eaten. Not that it mattered. He held a deep affiliation for the plants which hid amongst the boulders or waved their berries like sports fans from the hilltops, and could always find something to nibble on exploratively.

The sun was shifting behind the clouds sending down what his father called the “fingers of God”- beams which seemed to him more like spotlights as he crossed the green stage.

The photograph had been organized by his mother as an annual family boast to distant relatives. They’d comment each year on how the boys were starting to stretch- as if they were growing nodes and extra branches.

The kid settled in a clearing in the meadow, close to a huge oak tree. How the giant had come to be here in the middle of this African landscape puzzled the boy, and his eyes glazed over as he pictured men is strange outfits from centuries past kneeling in the dirt, their swine penned as they traversed the land, looking for somewhere to settle. An acorn dropped from one of the men’s pockets as he rested, the smooth nutty shell a comfort to him as he travelled.

A heavy boot crunched past, thrusting the acorn into the soil, and, with the drifting curtains of rain, it put down roots.

So lost was he in this daydream, that he was startled to see a white streak shimmer across the veld and into the oak. Blinking back his imagination, he saw that it was a squirrel. An albino marvel out here where snakes lurked on the open paths and the eagles drifted in endless circles up above.

The kid relished the stolen moments, and found the reward his father had slipped to him for staying almost quiet during the camera’s flash and the too-many calls of “cheese!” It was a box of smarties, and he lay back, letting them melt, one by one, over his tongue- lost in the reduction of the bright colours to the thin white shells before the cracks exposed the chocolate.

The smarties were deep brown inside, and the kid smiled as he imagined the albino squirrel dashing through the coming rains, his white fur being soaked away to reveal his true colour underneath.

A breeze made its whispering slalom through the blades and crowned stalks of the grass, and obscured the calls of his parents as they searched for him in the cool darkness of the house.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Scars, Marks and Happy Indentations

There’s the corner of the couch with the thicker wefts visible; slightly lighter in colour in two distinct ovals- a faint comfort-shadow of the time your backside has spent curled up- lost in a book, or flicking through a magazine.

The table with the scratches where you wrote love letters and doodled while on the phone to your lover, lighter circles are spectres of coffee mugs holding warmth and energy.

The dark and light patches on your keyboard, some keys having been worn smooth by dancing fingertips, the others faintly dusty. The “F” keys.

The carpet is fuzzier closer to the wall, and the tiles are lighter where your footsteps have walked.

Dust hasn’t settled on that one windowsill where you lean, looking up into the clouds or bursts of blue sky and sunlight most days.

There’s the soft toy with the balding ears, sucked until furless by a toddler’s puckered mouth.

The jeans with the knees with their Shroud of Turin negative kneecaps.

The shoes you wore too often, vanished wedges where your heels dragged most.

The dip in the mattress where you lay, dreaming, or overthinking things deep into the darkness.

The favourite novel, dog-eared from the many times you pressed it into the hands of friends, hoping that they’d love it too.

The scarred fireplace with the grey ash landscape.

The white space on the wall where a cherished photograph used to be.

But then, there’s the thrill of feeling the warm comfort of love, present and alive, perhaps even with a life of its own. It’s a feeling which will create memories- visible marks on the inside of your head. Sometimes marks of comfort, sometimes faint scars. That you love at all is a miracle, and you shouldn’t fear the shaping that comes with it.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Revenge at a Party

He hovered at the back of the room. Nervous. Not afraid- not anymore. He’d been at too many of these events to worry that he’d be next- watched as the father had laughed and snapped his brothers back and forth, before inflating them, strictly to the limits of what was advised on the packet.

They’d grown to immense sizes before the father had twisted their necks and hung them with string about the room; a collection of medieval gibbets.

The festivities had barely begun when a skinny kid took advantage of the way the larger kids were drooling over the snack table, and slipped a drawing pin into one of his kin. The tension had been unbearable, but, as always, there came the predictable BAM and the delighted shrieks of children as they coughed up chunks of cake onto the carpet.

The balloon wept a little- tears of moisture which dripped inside his translucent body.

The children had stormed off to play computer games, ignoring the magician who had been hired for the occasion. The man, dressed in his scuffed suit had consoled himself by folding what seemed to be strange relatives of the balloon’s into wonderful shapes- an amusing dog with a floppy nose, a man on a bicycle.

Knowing that his time was short, he decided immediately to get his revenge. Using a breeze, he drifted over to the magician, and settled near his ear. He puffed himself up, and began to whisper- a thin high voice that seemed as gentle as a leak.

The magician was good at keeping a straight face, and he didn’t let on, but the balloon could tell he was pleased.

The children returned, pushing each other and laughing. One was crying because his toy gun had been broken, but he’d been using it to shoot down some of the balloons bobbing, hanged, near the ceiling, so the balloon felt little sympathy.

The father came into the room, and the magician called him over, spoke to him quietly. Daddy nodded and laughed, amused at the tricks the magician was suggesting.

The magician didn’t say a word, but simply drew a gloved hand across his own face, and the children stopped talking. They sat as if he’d actually asked them to do so, still and patient.

The gloved hand gestured to the father- who pretended to be surprised, and mugged for the mother, who was taking pictures. Me? Ha Ha!

The balloon drifted nearer the open window, and wrapped the end of his string around something.

The magician suddenly grabbed the father and pulled his arm. The arm seemed to stretch. The father laughed uncertainly, and then squeaked as his arm was stretched a little more. The kids roared with laughter. Still more his arm was stretched until it was almost double its usual length. The father’s face was frozen- a huge grin stuck there, but a frown creasing his brow.

The magician tore at the father’s other arm, quickly doubling its length too. The father’s face seemed to bloat, then- he pursed up his lips and squealed as if in pain.

The legs followed rapidly, and he was left lying misshapen on the floor. The magician waved at the children. One or two of them had started to cry. He picked up the father as if he was weightless, and pretended to blow in his ear. As he did so, he tied the flexible limbs in a pretzel shape, and moved towards the door. The mother stood frozen, tea cups rattling on her tray.

The door opened, and, with a magnificent gesture, the magician hurled the father into the breeze. He bobbed twice, and lifted into the sky, quickly topping the house, and then the trees.

The balloon had nudged the window open, and leapt onto the currents of the wind, and was swept after the father.

A few moments, and the lighter balloon had caught up. Angling the end of his string carefully, he swung it into the father. The pin tied in the end glistened in the sunlight.

He managed to snag the father’s nose, and a hole appeared. Not enough for a huge blast, but there was a gushing sound, the flatulent burp of air escaping.

As if rocket powered, the father shot into the air, looped twice, and came to rest, flattened and deflated on the garden path.

The balloon nodded in the breeze, waved his string at the departing coattails of the magician, and headed towards the sun, feeling both the warmth of its heat, and the satisfaction of justice.