Purple FF

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Purple

I close my eyes and return to Paris, Easter holidays, 1961. Algérie-française, Algérie-algérienne, the car horns tweet in the street as we drive the boulevards of a city divided. This is all new to me, a seventeen year old student in Paris to learn about French culture. My friends in the car have heard the tooting before and join in the fun.  Algérie-française the driver toots.

Turning a corner, flattened and blackened, still flaming against a fire-burned tree, the metal skeleton of a Deux Chevaux, a ‘tin of sardines’, bears witness to the car bomb that has laid its occupants low.

* * *

Hitching the highway, from Paris to Chartres, thumb stuck out to catch the wind, a purple Citroen stopped and offered me a lift. I trusted the car: a Citroen, like Simonet’s famous detective Maigret used to drive.

When the car stopped and the door opened, I got in and saw that the driver wore black leather gloves. His hand movements on the steering wheel were stiff and clumsy and he made exaggerated gestures when he changed gear.

“No hands,” he explained. “Lost them in Algeria. Listen: I used to be the driver for a top General. I drove him out of an ambush once. I lost my hands later, when the car exploded, caught in a crossfire. They teach you things in the Army. I can still drive.”

He accelerated and threw the car at four times the speed limit through the S bend that snaked through a small group of houses. I bounced from side to side, held back by no seat belt.

“You see,” he said. “They train you to do this before they let you drive. Ambush. The sniper at the corner. The Molotov Cocktail. You must always be prepared.”

I closed my eyes and returned to Paris.

Collateral damage: the young girl with her photo in the Figaro next day, scarred for life; her mother, legs blown off, lying in the gutter in a pool of purple blood.

Maman, maman,” the young girl cried. But her mother was never going to reply.

The Pom-pom-pompiers arrived in their fire trucks, sirens screaming. The ambulances screeched to a halt. The young girl cried. The mother bled out her life-blood in silence. Her blood turned purple and black as it flowed through the gutter.

Parisians emerged from dark doorways and stood there, bearing silent witness. Evening draped itself over the Paris skyline. The sky darkened and became one with the purple of the car bomb’s angry flame. Purple bruises marked my arm where I had gripped myself with my own fingers. An indigo angel squatted above the faubourg street, with shadowed wings, brooding.

* * *

I opened my eyes.

We left the village in our wake, travelling five times faster than the speed limit.

“They trained me for this,” the driver said. “I am prepared for anything.”

He stopped the car by the cathedral in Chartres. I thanked him and got out. He offered me his hand and I shook it. Inside the glove, the hand was hard and metallic. Alcohol sweated out through the purple veins that stained his nose and flowed in abundance over his sun-tanned face.

Teddy Bear Tales TBT 1

 

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 Teddy Bear Tales 1

 “Possessives are oppressive,” my Teddy Bear whispers in my ear. “I’m not your Teddy and you’re neither my owner nor my master. The world exists without you possessing it. It will continue without you. And yes, I hear you, especially when you talk in your sleep. ‘My wife,’ you mutter, ‘my daughter, my flowers, my garden, my lawn, my birds, my bees, my deer, my house, my grounds, my groundhog, my car, my TV, my team, my Teddy.’ Well, permit me to share a secret with you. None of them are yours. You may think you own them, but you don’t.”

My God …” I sat up in bed and held my Teddy Bear at arm’s length, staring into his button eyes.

“There you go again,” Teddy stared right back at me. “Whatever are you thinking? Those two little words, yours and mine, are a threat to the universe.”

Bistro

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Bistro is a finalist, one of three, in the New Brunswick Book Award (2016) for Fiction. The photo is an older one, taken by the local newspaper in my basement in 2014, and reproduced in the paper today. Funnily enough, I am wearing the same clothes today as I was when the photo was taken three years ago. Luckily, Clare has washed them for me, on several occasions, in the interval between then and now. Thank you, Clare, for all the little things you do to keep me alive and happy. Without you, I don’t know what I’d do. This book, like all my creative work, is dedicated to you.

Bistro is available online.

Double Trouble

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Double Trouble
“I’ll need some ID,” the guy selling Fred a new cell phone said. “Something with a photo on. May I see your driving license?”
“Of course,” Fred pulled out his driver’s license.
The salesman took it, glanced at the picture, walked over to the computer, and started to type in numbers. Fred watched him as he nonchalantly punched the keys. Then Fred saw him stiffen and straighten up as he held the license up to the light, double-checked it, and frowned.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the salesman said, looking very sad. “This license has expired. It’s more than two years out of date.”
“You’re joking,” Fred said
“No sir,” the salesman replied. “This license expired two and a half years ago.”
He handed it back to Fred who also checked it with care. At first, the figures seemed blurred. Fred took out his glasses and put them on.
“You’re right,” Fred said. “It is out of date. I must have the new one in here somewhere.”
He started to rummage through all the plastic cards in his wallet. But there was no new driving license.
“I must have left it at home,” Fred muttered.
“They usually shred the old licenses,” the salesman smiled. “They never let you keep them. You must have forgotten to renew.”
Fred placed his hands on the cell-phone counter, looked down, and saw his face mirrored in the shiny plastic. He gazed into his own eyes and they looked back at him. Then his mind flashed back two and a half years.
He had just been through the biopsy, a messy, painful, and unnerving affair, and the results had come back positive.
The urologist demanded a new battery of tests: X-rays, bone scans, blood tests, MRI’s, examinations, more examinations, questionnaires, discussions about possible forms of treatment …
The different treatments were set out like food in a self-serve restaurant and, like the strange foreign foods that Fred liked to try without knowing exactly what they were, their names meant nothing to him.
Then there was the travel: out on the road between his little place in the country and the major cancer hospitals in the province with an examination here, and a consultation over there. All the medical staff he encountered were kind and helpful and the suggestions they offered were sound. The winter road conditions complicated matters, though, and twice he was forced to cancel appointments because of road conditions.
Then, a week or so after the MRI, the allergic reactions set in and, over a three week period he lost all the skin, first off his hands, and then off his feet. He watched the skin bubble, then he saw it go very dry, and then it just flaked off. He remembered getting out of the shower one morning, drying his feet, and staring down at the little pile of flaked-off skin that had come away with the towel.
A little later on, came the injections, the tablets, and that was before the start of radiation treatment …
Now, two and a half years later, Fred’s driving license, the one that should have been renewed on his birthday, had expired. He remembered that birthday well. He lay on his side in the hospital and the specialist drove that first needle into his buttock … what a birthday present. And now, two and a half years later, he had another special gift from that birthday, an expired driving license.
He thanked the cell-phone salesman, put his expired driving license back in his wallet, and said how sorry he was that e would be unable to purchase the cell-phone at this time.
Early the next morning, Fred went down to the Driving License Renewal Center to discover his fate.
The lady on the counter was most sympathetic. She listened to his story and told him not to worry.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “It happens all the time. But I’m afraid you’ll need to take all the tests again, including the road test. That’s the law. I’ll need to see some documentation. A photo ID is preferable. Do you have your birth certificate or your passport with you?”
Fred nodded. He had checked online to see what he needed and had brought all the right documents. He handed the passport over.
The lady behind the counter took the passport, opened it, and looked up at Fred with a sad little smile.
“I’m sorry, sir,” she said. “You are in trouble. Your passport’s expired as well.”

 

Moonshine: FFF

 

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Moonshine
Flash Fiction Friday
Friday, 5 May 2017

Here, on the wharf, in Santander, I stand in the shadow cast by the Customs House and gaze at the moon path sketched out over the water. “Over the mountain, over the sea, that’s where my heart is longing to be.” I taste the bitter salt of homelessness and know that I will never belong in this world and that I will never find a place to call my own. Back home, I have a black and white television and a black and white dog. Here I have nothing. Back home, when I am home, I am a latch key kid. My parents leave for work at seven in the morning and my mother gets home about five every night. Those ten hours on my own are mine to do what I like with: but I must account for them. “What did you do today, dear?” And everything I say I do is checked. Did I make the beds? Did I do the laundry? Did I finish the ironing? Did I wash and dry the breakfast dishes? Did I clean the house from top to bottom?

Sometimes I strip and stand in front of the mirror in their bedroom and look at my naked body. It’s not much to look at. Once I stood there with the carving knife in my hand and deliberately cut myself across the ribs, just to feel the pain and watch the blood flow down. Other days I play cards against myself. That way one part of me always wins, but then the self I play against is always doomed to lose. Sometimes I wage battles with toy soldiers, moving them up and down across the carpet in front of the fire. Occasionally, I throw a soldier in the fire, just to watch him perish.

Sometimes I just sit on the back of the settee and press my forehead against the cool window. The rain is cold and cools the window pane. I know the sky is crying and sometimes I think I know why. I’ll go back to my boarding school soon. There, we are taught to be isolated and to live in isolation. The bullies will come and they will bully me. I have not grown much over the holidays and I know they will be even bigger, and even stronger, and even faster. I don’t want to go home. I don’t want to go back to that school. I don’t want to be bullied and abused. The masters cane me and the older boys beat me and the bullies force me to do things, unspeakable things, things that I don’t want to do. I have tried to run away but someone always brings me back and then they beat me for running away. “Don’t be a coward,” they say, “take it like a man.” And I do.

I look across the water. How beautiful is the Bay of Santander beneath the moon. I look up at the hills, at Peña Cabarga, at the hills from whence cometh my salvation. My grandfather walks towards me over the waves. He helps me choose stones and pebbles, helps me to fill my pockets with them. He takes me by the hand and gives me courage. He and I walk down the slip way, hand in hand, and then we walk out across the moon path and into the sea.

CROCODILE TEARS: FFF

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Crocodile Tears
Flash Fiction Friday
28 April 2017

The crocodile lives in the wind-up gramophone. The gramophone lives in the top room of the house. The boy winds up the gramophone with a long brass handle, round and round, till the spring is tight. A tight spring frightens the crocodile and he sits quietly in his cage. But as the record goes round and the spring loosens up, the crocodile roars and demands to be freed. He’s the Jack that wants to jump out of the box. His long-term dream is to eat up  the witch who looks out of the window and watches the boy as he plays in the yard.

Last week the boy decided to dig. He picked up a spade and dug a deep hole that went all the way down to his cousin in Australia. The little dog laughed and joined in the fun, scraping with his front paws and throwing earth out between his back legs like happy dogs do. The witch in the window cackled with laughter and the rooks in the rookery rose up in a cloud and cawed in reply. Only the boy is able to see the witch and he only sees her when she sits in the window. But he knows she wanders through the house, and the air goes cold when she enters and exits the rooms, especially when she brushes past the boy and sweeps his skin with her long, black gown.

When the boy got tired of digging, he drove the spade into the ground and left it standing by the hole. When his father came home it was well after dark. He didn’t see the hole but he saw the spade. So he didn’t fall in to the shaft of the coal-mine that went down to Australia. No free trip to the Antipodes for that lucky dad. He beat the boy for that, for digging that hole. Then he beat him again for lying: the hole didn’t go to Australia. Australia was too far away and the angle was wrong. The boy laughed when he saw that his dad didn’t know where Australia was.

“Ha-ha,” he laughed. And his dad beat him again, this time for laughing.

Sometimes at night the boy can hear rats running through his bedroom walls. They scuttle and scuffle as they hunt through the guttering. The crocodile growls from time to time in that upstairs room. The witch cackles with laughter. The boy puts his head under the blankets and cries himself to sleep. Sometimes he wishes the crocodile would come and eat up his dad. But he loves his dad like the dog loves his dad even though his dad beats both the boy and the dog. Sudden beatings, they are,  that arrive without warning: hail and thunder from a sunny summer sky.

“Well, you’re not laughing now,” his father announces. “A beating a day keeps disobedience away.  There will be no disobedience in this house.” When the father beats the boy, the dog cowers beneath a chair. The boy hears the crocodile growl and smiles through the tears as he wipes salt water from his eyes.

“Are you laughing at me? I’ll make you laugh on the other side of your face,” the father taunts the son and beats him again.

The crocodile growls. The old witch cackles. The rooks in the rookery rise up in the air and the father’s hair stands up on end like it does when lightning lights up the sky, and thunder rolls its drums, and the sky’s wheels rattle like an old warrior’s chariot whose wheels have not been greased. The veins stand out in his father’s cheeks as the old man raises his hand to the boy.

The old man tells the same old jokes again and again. The boy must always remember to laugh at them as if he had never heard them before. If he doesn’t laugh, his father gets angry. Some of the jokes are good, and the boy likes the one about the Catholic who goes into the bar in Belfast and asks the barkeep if they serve Protestants. Or  is it the one in which the Protestants go into the bar and ask the barkeep it they serve Catholics … anyway … whatever … one night, the boy dreams and it happens like this. The crocodile escapes from the gramophone. The witch hands the boy a leash and a collar and between them they restrain the crocodile.

“Walkies?” says the boy.

The crocodile nods his head and crocodile and boy walk down the street to the Kiddy’s Soda Fountain on the corner.  When the boy walks in with the crocodile, the waitress raises her eyebrows and opens her mouth.

“Do you serve grown ups in here?” the little boy asks her.

“Of course we do,” says the waitress.

“Good. I’ll have a glass of Dandelion & Burdock for myself and a grown-up for the crocodile. Please.”

The witch says grace, the boy sips his Dandelion & Burdock, and they all shed crocodile tears as the boy’s pet crocodile chomps on the fast disappearing  body of the boy’s dad.

Scarecrow

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Scarecrow

Flash Fiction
Friday, 21 April 2017

            Sometimes at night I hear nocturnal animals walking across the lawn outside my bedroom window. Intruders in the garden, they rattle the feeders, walk dark through the woods, and sometimes howl at the coyote moon. My heart pumps sudden blood, rapid, through my veins and toes and fingers twitch as I toss around, restless, in my bed.

            Below me, in the hall, the grandfather clock ticks the night away. I stitch myself up in my dreams, count the black sheep in the family, and iron old ghosts upon the ironing board until they are as flat as the white shirts we wore in boarding school on Sundays.

            If I close my eyes, they rise up before me, those Sunday shirts, flapping their arms, and mouthing their apologies for the sorry life they made me lead. No, I didn’t need to spend those days praying on my knees before the stations of the cross. Nor did I need to ask forgiveness for all the transgressions pulled from me, like teeth, in the weekly confessional.

            Marooned in a catholic cul-de-sac, I went around and around in rigid circles like an academic puppet trapped in the squared circle of an endless syllogism. Who locked me into this labyrinth of shifting rooms where sticky cobwebs bind windows, doors, and lips? Why does the razor blade whisper a love song to the scars crisscrossing my treacherous wrist? Who sealed my lips and swore me to secrecy?  And why?

            A tramp with a three-legged dog, I sleep beneath a pier at midnight and watch the waves rolling up the summer beach to catch me out. Sometimes I steal a deckchair, place it at the edge of the sea and bid the tide to cease its climb. The moon winks a knowing eye and the waves continue to rise. Toes and ankles grow wet with wonderment and I shiver at the thought of that rising tide that will sweep me away to what unknown end?

            Last night I wrapped myself in a coward’s coat of many-colored dreams. My senses deceived me and I fell asleep in a sticky web spider-spun by that self-same moon that hid among the clouds and showed her face from time to time. My fragile fingers failed to unravel all those knots and lashings and I was a child again walking the balance beam that led from doubt to knowledge.

            A thin line divides the shark from the whale and who knows what swims beneath the keel when the night is dark and the coracle slides sightless across the sea? I gathered the loose ends of my life, wove them into a subtle thread, and made myself a life-line that would bind my bones and lash my soul to my body’s fragile craft.

            What could I possibly have dreamed as I paraded the promenade a stone’s throw from the barracuda? I crossed my fingers and the beggar at the gate rolled up his sleeves and bore witness to my penitential wounds.

            “How many times,” he asked, “can you pay those thirty silver pence? Don’t they lie heavy on your eyes and heavier on your heart?”

            “Indeed they do,” I answered. “Yet the debt must be paid, but I don’t know how, and where, and when, and to whom?”

            Carnivorous was the carnival he promised and he turned my small world upside down. With coals for eyes and a carrot nose, a scarecrow descended and devoured my town in a clash of flashing teeth. Beneath the waves, the conga stamped its sudden feet of flame. A sea parrot scraped its red and yellow beak against a rainbow of crusty, feathered rage. I awoke to the dog’s sudden tongue in my mouth: an invasion of salt, saliva, and wet, crumbling biscuit.

            That night I opened a bottle of Scotch and drained it dry. I took no prisoners. Around me, the dead and dying licked their wounds as they sank lifeless to the bottom of the glass.

            “Hickory-dickory-dock,” said the mouse as he ran up the grand-father clock. But that particular clock stopped long ago, at midnight, when the Queen of Hearts tied a dead rat to the pendulum, the house slipped sideways, and my heart was filled with woe.

            This morning, fresh snow. The garden basks white beneath pale sunshine. The back porch bears no footprints. The raccoon has abandoned me and chipmunk and squirrel have turned their backs. Today, the scarecrow will scare those nightmare crows away and not a memory will survive to haunt my waking dreams.