Shame

He boards, hands the driver money, takes his ticket. He turns towards us, head turning from side to side, avoiding any eye contact. He spots a seat on the aisle, halfway down, diagonally in front of me. He moves along, sits, places his backpack on his lap.

I study him. His kufi is colour-coded to match his kameez. Traditional clothing offset by everyday collared shirt and jeans. His beard is full but neat. Crappy trainers – probably from Sports Direct.

I watch him. His lips are moving. He’s praying, I think. He takes out his mobile. I think combinations of numbers. 9/11, 7/7. I start sweating. My pulse races. My breath comes in short sharp bursts. My bowels threaten to explode.

I think to press the button, sound the alarm, but I’m frozen, stuck to my seat. So this is what it comes to, blown up on a bus because I’m too scared to do anything about it.

His phone rings; I press myself against the back of my seat, cross my arms in font of my chest, braced. He says, hi mum, yeah I’ve got all the stuff, not forgotten the biscuits, and no mum, I won’t be late, I’m nearly there, only one stop away.

The same stop as me. He turns left out of the bus, I turn right.

Three of them step out of a doorway a few yards in front. They spot me, one of them points at me; they grin at each other.

I study them. The usual uniform – shaven heads, union jack t-shirts, a Tate gallery worth of tattoos. Seriously heavy boots. Steel toe caps? You just know they are.

They move towards me. I survey the immediate topography, checking for chicken-run alleyways and friendly open doors. My pulse races. My breath comes in short sharp bursts. My bowels threaten to explode.

I think to scream, to shout for help, but I’m mute. The gap between us closes fast and I can already taste the blood in my mouth. So this is what it comes to, head kicked in and busted ribs because I’m paralysed by fear.

The one in the middle cracks his knuckles – love on the left hand, hate on the other. You look local, he says. Know where the cinema is?

Unhurt I get home. I shower and quickly wash away the fear.

Addressing the shame will take a lot longer.

 

Written for Macclesfield Speakeasy open mic session

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Growing Pains

This wheel’s on fire, rolling down the road,” I sang along to the radio. Took another gulp of cheap whiskey. No grass tonight. Whiskey.

Shelley, beautiful Shelley, spoilt daughter of a rich mining mogul, slumming with us in Earls Court, was drinking too. Straight from the bottle. She was learning fast. Learning how to be cool, learning how to be hip, learning how not to be square. Or maybe not.

Earlier she had come with us to Notting Hill to score some dope. That was brave. The place had a reputation for being dangerous – full of Spades angry at the broken promises that the Empire Windrush reception had implied, angry at the way white men refused to give black men jobs, angry at being lumped together with gypsies and dogs.

We reassured her it would be okay. After all we weren’t like the rest. We were different. You could tell this from our hair, from our dress, from the way we spoke – our language and our mid-trans-Atlantic accents picked up from Dylan and Hendrix and Jim Morrison. We told her that there was solidarity between the Spades and the Heads because both groups were outsiders, were The Other, were part of the revolution. We told her the two of us, me Ralph, and him, Eric, were honorary Blacks. We told her it was cool, baby, cool.

We told her we had done this often (which was a lie – we normally scored from Victor Bec at the Kings Head who we suspected was in the drug squad watching for the big fish and so was a safe person to deal with) because we wanted her with us as we reckoned that if there was any trouble she could play the cut-glass upper-class Duchess thing with them and scare them into backing off.

We took a taxi. Shelley was paying. She usually did. We saw it as fees for the education she was getting. We sang, Eric and I to hide our nervousness, Shelley because she loved the song, “Best notify my next of kin/This wheel shall explode!”

The cab drew up outside a pub. The driver said, ”You get out here. I ain’t going no further. It ain’t safe.”

Shelley insisted on ordering the drinks. “Three of the best, my good man.” Best Swiss finishing school accent. Those few heads that hadn’t turned when two unkempt white men and one dressed-out-of-Vogue white woman walked in now joined the others, watching, waiting.

The barman stopped washing glasses and looked up. He looked around the half-empty, smoke-filled room, at his customers, his patrons, his audience. He slowly dried his hands on a brewery branded towel, reached for his cigarette which was smouldering away in a battered  ashtray on the bartop, and smiled a smile. “My best?”

“Yes, please, my good man, your best.”

Eric muttered something that despite the absolute stillness in the room I couldn’t quite hear, but I thought that the third word was “Fuck” and the first and second words sounded remarkably the same. I measured the distance to the front door and calculated how long it would take me to be one hundred yards down the street. Shelley would be okay; her dad made sure she had private health and accident insurance. As for Eric, well in this sort of situation he’d be way ahead of me.

“Oh Carolina,” playing softly on the juke box.

“C’mon, Stan,” a bear of a man seated in the far corner boomed out, “Give the princess three pints of the best, and make sure you fill the glasses this time.”

“Yeah, Stan,” rang around the room, “Three of the best and make it snappy,” with more than one of them supplementing their demand with a, “My good man”.

It wasn’t long before we were part of a large group. Everybody laughing and talking over each other and buying  rounds of drinks. Everybody excited. The bear was smiling quietly, modestly pleased with himself. Shelley sat next to him talking at him non-stop about daddy’s second home in the Lake District and her annual skiing holiday in Switzerland. “Don’t you think Windermere is just super?” she asked. And “St Moritz! Will you be there this winter?”

Stan came over and shook hands. His son was just about to go to university. “To do medicine.” His daughter had recently qualified as a nurse.

He asked the question. I said, “Studying law.” I didn’t say I had recently dropped out of the social studies course I had been doing (my parents/my next of kin didn’t know either). Stan looked impressed, pretended not to notice the lie.

We didn’t hear the van approach. We weren’t listening out for anything. No need. We were a roomful of good people, friends, enjoying an evening of entertainment. It was a good few minutes before they noticed Eric and Shelley and myself. By then it was too late. We had witnessed it all, had heard the language, seen the steel bars flying, and watched as heavy boots crunched into defenseless limbs.

One of them came over to where we sat. “You saw nuffink. You whisper nuffink to nobody, or youse dead. Not a word.”

Shelley! Shelley looks at him. Stands up. “You nasty little man, you. You rotten slug.”

I hear Eric saying something. I think I hear the word fuck again. Several times. Like a mantra.

The rotten slug stares at Shelley. Mouth open. He takes a step forward. Raises his hand. He hears a metallic click behind him. He freezes. The room is quiet. He turns around slowly. It’s Stan. With a shotgun.

Shelley again, “Shoot him, Stan. Shoot the little blighter. In his balls. Make it hurt.”

Eric mutters again.

The bear laughs. “Get out of here, you rotten slug,” with a passable Swiss finishing school accent, “And don’t come back too soon.”

And so they leave. And we return, sombrely, to our pints.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

And now, back in our damp and mouldy two bedroom South Ken bedsit with its  filthy shared toilet and a bathroom with barely a trickle of luke-warm water and forever-missing basin plug  and six weeks’ rent owing, Shelley drinks from the bottle and says, “Forget cool, forget hip, let’s be square.”

And the music played.

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Bent, broken and busted

Image copyright: Liz Young

Image copyright: Liz Young

Drain the swamp – you’ll find me.

I used to be important, used to have clout.

And then it all went wrong. I reached that age – you know, THAT age – that age when the boss calls you in, looks you in the eye/avoids your eye, puts on a sympathetic face and says, “Happy birthday.”

And you say, “But it’s not my birthday.”

And he/she says, “Human resources says it is, so it must be.”

He/she says, “Clear your desk. We’ll give you a good reference.”

But that’s no help. You’re THAT age now.

And soon you’re bent, broken and busted.

 

Written for Rochelle Wisoff-Fields’ weekly 100 word challenge found here.

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Case closed

Image copyright: Ted Strutz

Image copyright: Ted Strutz

The policeman sat on the very chair that Victor had used to ward off the lions in the ring.

The other performers couldn’t understand it. “Those beasts were vegetarians.”

“Victor would feed them cornflakes and milk in the morning,” said Coco the Clown.

“And then carrot and lentil curry in the evening,” volunteered Guilio, eldest of the Famous Nardini Flyers.

Barney, the Ringmaster nodded wisely, “Occasionally he would offer them chocolate treats, but only the vegan sort.”

The policeman snapped shut his notebook. He knew the motive, he knew the culprits. It was now up to the vet to decide.

 

Written for Rochelle Wisoff-Fields’ weekly 100 word challenge found here.

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Lilies for the dead

Image copyright: Roget Bultot

Image copyright: Roget Bultot

Revenge is best served cold, they say, and they are right.

He stared out of the window – not a soul in sight – not surprising when you think how many shots he fired in such a few joyous minutes. Cowboy-wise, he blew the smoke from the muzzle.

They’ll be here any moment, he knew, breaking down the door, demanding he lies on the floor, handcuffing him, reading him his rights.

He knew the jury would be on his side – those Friday critics had trashed his words, written cruel things, said worse things offline.

Tonight’s gonna be busy for St Peter.

 

Written for Rochelle Wisoff-Fields’ weekly 100 word challenge, found here.

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He knows

Image copyright: Al Forbes

Image copyright: Al Forbes

“The three guys in the back are shouting, ‘Faster, faster, overtake, overtake.’ They’re seriously wasted. We all are. Even Gemma, two weeks outta school, first tattoo still scabbing, first jaunt with us older dudes. Drinking vodka. Neat! Vodka – it’s a Russian drink.”

“I know,” said St Peter.

“Of course.

“And then we come to a long straight stretch and I give it some juice. The needle touches eighty. The front left tyre blows. Pow!”

“I know,” said St Peter. “Now, that’s enough about you. Move along. Collect your wings from Hut 3.

“And do something about that bird-cage breath.”

 

Written for Rochelle Wisoff-Fields’ weekly 100 word challenge found here.

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Tracks

Image copyright: C.E. Ayr

Image copyright: C.E. Ayr

He had to get away and take his family with him. He had satirized The Leader, mocked his tweets, doubted his ability to rebuild the country.

Only last night he had had a visit – men in sharp suits knocking at his door, asking him where he was born, reminding him they knew where his children went to school, pointing out the building where his wife worked, advising him to conform.

In the early hours they packed a pushcart, walked to the railway.

“Which way?” he asked.

“North,” said the doctor.

“We all go north,” said the teacher.

And they did.

 

Written in response to Rochelle Wisoff-Fields’ weekly writing prompt posted from a secure cave in the side of some remote and unnamed mountains. You can participate by clicking here.

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Food for Thought

Image copyright: Roger Bultot

Image copyright: Roger Bultot

Billy Barter got early notice that the Apostrophe Police were going to be out in force the week after. He stepped outside the diner, looked at the sign, went back in and called an extraordinary staff meeting – waiters, flippers, cooks and all sat sipping shakes, debating, agreeing. It was a rather civilized discussion.

Billy bust out the guns and ammo while the others started building the barricades. Customers were solicited for their support – the response was mixed – the bank manager and the school ma’am demurred, but as you would expect, the grocers were up for the fight.

 

Written for Rochelle’ Wisoff’-Field’s’ weekly 100 word challenge found’ here.

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Obituary: Danny Burlap

Danny Burlap was well known in the squares of central London. Each evening he would wheel his piano to his chosen places and spend thirty minutes or so playing anything from Mozart through Scott Joplin to Keith Jarrett. The public loved him and they filled his hat with coins and folding money night after night. But what they didn’t know and what the police could only suspect was that Danny Burlap was a dealer. But when he and his piano were knocked over by a runaway tuk tuk illegally imported into the country by a pop-up hamburger vendor and the contents of the false bottom on his baby grand spilled out its contents onto the cobbles just outside the Pig and Garter, haunt of traditional journalists and digital age bloggers, it became known that Danny was peddling out-of-print copies of twentieth century Penguin Classics.

Danny couldn’t handle the ensuing publicity and the accompanying wave of approbation and left London, moving to Leamington Spa where he lived out the rest of his life in relative anonymity.

The only beneficiary named in his will is Buffo, his much loved Yorkshire terrier, who stands to live the rest of its life in relative luxury.

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Never Trust A Nightingale

Image copyright: Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

Image copyright: Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

We got together around August last. At first we sang folk songs, sea shanties, some spirituals. And then a bunch of sheep said, Get yourself a teacher. We settled on a nightingale from the local wood. She agreed to work with us on carols for the Christmas season. We reckoned we could do a few gigs in return for some carrots, sweet hay etc.

We had bookings from the cattle shed, the pigsty and the chicken run. But then the nightingale flew south for the winter before we learnt the words.

Old MacDonald is a bit annoyed, but, hey, E-I-E-I-O.

 

Written in response to the Friday Fictioneers weekly 100 word challenge found here.

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Don’t look up, don’t smile

Image copyright: Lucy Fridkin

Image copyright: Lucy Fridkin

Nobody underneath the path of the drone could hear it as it cruised undetected over the bay, losing height as it approached the near-deserted beach.

A thousand miles away a tall man leant over the drone pilot watching the screen. He pointed. There, he said, that family with the red towels. The pilot examined the group, noticed the man’s heavy beard, the battle scars, the adoring family.

At that point the man looked up from the beach straight into the camera.

Now, said the tall man.

Click.

That’s what I call a great family portrait, said the tall man.

 

Prompted by Rochelle Wisoff-Field’s weekly 100 word writing challenge found here.

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Blues for Sammy

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Sammy had been a wrestler for a while but one gorilla press drop too many made him decide to pick up the drum sticks he had ignored since he was fourteen and go find himself a band.

So there he was keeping the beat at the back of a four piece blues set-up in a sleazy basement just off the main road, a gig they had for every Thursday from October to mid-December giving them just enough time to pick up a small number of regulars who thought their music was worth coming back to each week. Plus the beer was drinkable as well as being cheap.

Just before the last number of what was meant to be the first set of the evening, the singer signalled to the peroxide blonde behind the bar for the free drinks which were part of the deal. She gave him the finger. The singer pretended not to notice but Sammy jumped up, rushed forward and hurled somebody’s full pint glass at the mirror behind the bar.

There was no second set which was no surprise when you think about it.

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