Scream In Dolce
(In italics after each date, the 1918 diary extracts of bandsman, James McPartlin, No11 Coy D. Batt, Machine Gun Corps (Suicide Club). He was my grandfather but due to his injuries he died too young. I never met him.)
January 10th 1918
Operation at Stoke
Lungs to blast music filled with poison gas,
You laid down your instrument,
Took the shrapnel blast.
Steal a breath…
January 29th 1918
Operation war hospital
Lie there, alive
While your bandsmen march
The tempo of death.
The sepia ensemble on watch
On your bedside table, tap
The beat of guilt
In your heart.
Steal a breath…
February 6th 1918
23 years of age
Celebrate, old man, the passing
Of your youth through bloody wounds.
Blow out your candles,
If you can -
Play the second cannon
As a softer tune.
Steal a breath…
May 3rd 1918
Stone Red Cross Auxiliary Hospital
And as you heal, forget the distant battle
Drums and horns, tend to your heart
For there lives hope -
Sound the Reveille, rehearse
The last post.
Steal a breath…
Left Stone Red Cross Hospital
Pack your kit bag once more
To bear false hopes.
The suicide club fights to the death -
Operations are not finished with you yet.
Steal a breath…
Scream in dolce as they whisper,
Instruments still shine.
Another theatre waits.
The twist of a knife lays open
A weeping wound for life.
Steal a breath…
October 18th 1918
Discharge from Hospital
Carry instructions for a lifetime of pain,
A daily dress down parade.
A small sacrifice to return home,
Sow seeds in your garden, watch them grow.
Steal a breath…
October 31st 1918
Left Stoke Staffs
Turn your back -
For your war is ended.
Lament in solo, when the sonatas cease.
The bandleaders abandon the trenches
As the Corp take their final applause
Steal a breath…
November 1st 1918
Accept the fanfare, the
Garland of blood dried flowers.
Your life will be short, others’ shorter yet,
And still we forget.
And still we forget…
Short Story - How To Play The Game
I gag the alarm after one beep. 4.30am signals the beginning of the game.
The air has a chill to it, but the early morning haze over the Kilpatrick Hills promises another scorching day of this Indian summer spell. One British Airway’s check in girl stares with blank eyes at the queues waiting to use the only two eTickets machine left working. Gold cards flash in anger at the human attendant as she tries to fix another machine. Through to the security hall and we early morning risers are threaded in and out of the blue taped control point. At Gates 19, 20, and 21 passengers wearing resigned expressions, sit nursing their half sipped cups of machine brewed coffee, no doubt wondering why it is necessary to be put through this torture. Don’t they know it is one of the rules of The Game?
The female to male ratio in the lounge is predictably 1-10. Dark suited men leave wafts of in trend, expensive aftershave in their trail as they pass through the gate; they try to look interesting in their sickening, strawberry milkshakes coloured shirts, which stretch across their growing paunches. In the line for boarding I notice a young woman with dull eyes and a sour red glossed mouth. I smile sympathy towards her as our eyes meet, but she lowers her head to avoid acknowledgement. Perhaps the cut of my attire offends her? Her serviceable Marks and Spencer suit is similar and one size smaller to the one I have hanging in my wardrobe and I’m glad I didn’t wear it today.
The plane takes off on time after the flight attendants have yet again reeled off their safety demonstration to 150 broadsheet newspapers. I rest my head back and close my eyes while I wait for the breakfast fare to be handed round. I had a Financial Controller once who, immune to the law, wouldn’t employ anyone unless they looked like a BA stewardess. Suitability for the job was never a factor. I look around me and wonder at the Finance employment chances of this sorry lot with their forced smiles and cake faces. Airline breakfasts always present me with the same paradoxical puzzle. I am hungry and need to eat, but as the microwave sausage and bacon scald the roof of my mouth, I consider whether I really fancy touching that awful eggy goo, which takes on a greenish hue above twenty thousand feet.
Thirty minutes into the flight and Captain Tim Double-Barrelled-Name announces that, on this ‘glorious morning’, we will be placed in holding above the ‘delightful Oxfordshire countryside’ before being given permission to land. Six times we circle with the other five planes I see glinting at a frightening proximity from us.
At last we are on the ground and the minute the plane engines cease one hundred bleeps, Mozart and Mission Impossible ring tones reverberate around the plane. Poor dears have just endured the worse part of their day, one hour without the comfort blanket of their mobile phones. Chip loads of laptops are heaved from overhead lockers. Stage one of The Game ‘Early morning flight’ complete.
The next stage is a decadent, all expense paid, fifteen minute Heathrow Express journey into Paddington Station. There she is again, Miss M & S, sitting two rows in front of me, reading notes. As I gaze out of the window at the shoddy suburbs, I rehearse my part in what is to be the hardest part of The Game: 'The Work Stage'. My management tool kit is dusted down and arranged in a neat row ready for use. Feel the fear, chant the mantra and remember this is just a game.
The sun is fully awake now and burning the night’s sleaze off the capital’s streets. The queue for a taxi is horrendous, so I push down against the wall of bodies leaving the underground station. On the escalator I scan the wall lined with tempting posters for musical shows and wonder if I will ever find time. The air I breathe mingles with a mass of one surging in the same direction, the heart of the city. From the corner of my eye I spot a pretty girl, who looks immaculate in her open toed sandals, flowery print skirt and neat vest top. Then I notice white deodorant rings crusting the edge of her underarms. Maybe she too had to dress in the dark,
The tube is heralded by the cold rush of air whooshing down the tunnel, the masses pitch forward to cram into this tiniest of spaces. ‘Mind the Gap!’ Some chance. I hug my bag and laptop close to my body trying desperately to gain an extra millimetre between myself and the armpits above. Someone somewhere in this carriage has had a curry last night.
After two stops the mob thin out and I notice M & S waiting to step off at the next station. She has a rip in the back of her stockings, starting at the heel, unravelling to her mid calf. I should tell her, I could tell her, but I don’t.
The tube spews me out at Waterloo, and here I experience my usual compulsion to continue onto the Euro Star and head for France leaving The Game behind. In three hours I could be sitting enjoying coffee and crêpe in a pavement café round the corner from the Gare de Nord, but then what?
Instead I do what I always do.
The ‘Work Stage’ level one never varies. Constipated pleasantries, continental kiss-kiss accompanied by knuckle breaking handshakes. As I am sketched in with the deals already struck in the pub last night I realise my tool kit has already begun to rust. Before kick off I stare at myself in the toilet mirror. The young black cleaner wipes round the sinks, sings to herself and averts her eyes.
‘Lovely day outside,’ I say. ‘When do you finish?’
I am rewarded by the first genuine smile I have seen in days. ‘Ten.’
‘Oh well, enjoy the sun.’
I detect pity in her parting smile. She knows I have a game to play.
Level two starts with every one of us trying to be ‘the Smartest Man in the Room’.
‘Cost need to be cut in the Eastern zone,’ opens The Über Expensive Consultant.
‘We could move ‘So and So’ to cover both East and West,’ puts in the coffin dodging Spanish ambassador
‘The old guy from Sweden could go to the south,’ adds the Austrian mousefrau in the corner
‘That might not be good for moral,’ the boss cuts in and the mouse shrivels.
‘Oh then, one of them might want to leave,’ adds the spotty Smarty Pants MBA graduate. ‘That would save us a redundancy’
The US wake up at one and join via teleconference
‘Well, Bubba will retire next spring, we can absorb his role.’ The American hard nose warms to the task. ‘But what can we do to keep him out of harms way until then?’
Each decision we make is about people, with families, mortgages, and fears, who loyally carry out their jobs secure in the knowledge that we will make the right decisions about them. And we are willing to make these decisions knowing that the outcome will influence other decisions, about our futures, made down the hall by superior beings with lighter laptops, iPhones and darker circles under their eyes.
I lay out my controversial stall with a prepared slide pack and a financial prediction to back it up.
‘We need to consider the granularity of the situation and gauge the appetite for change,’ I begin.
The boss smiles.
The Game continues with the pawns moving in and out at different levels. Miss Portugal is playing to win and decides to play dirty. To prove her point she rattles her talons on the table and glares at me, I watch the Latin passion quiver her mascara. Her mouth is pinched so tight it makes her eyes bulge. I hold her gaze, I’m on a roll. I hold her gaze for a century and smile just enough so she will notice. Someone coughs, breaks the spell. One to me, Portugal nil. Level two complete.
I leave the office at three thirty to reverse my morning journey. The heat built up over the day is oppressive for suited players. My progress is punctuated by the closure of one of the tube lines; some poor bugger has thrown themselves onto the line at Baker Street. Maybe he blinked when the rules were being dished out.
Despite the disruption to the tube line I manage to catch a cab to Paddington without much trouble. The clock is still ticking on my game.
The airport business lounge is filled with the rumpled remnants of the day. My game has almost ended, just one more task. With my laptop put to bed, I reward myself with a G and T and a novel. I look for M & S with a touch of guilt, and wonder if she noticed her stockings before she faced her own Miss Portugal.
At five to five the ball drops as hungry eyes turn towards the swing door. Free sandwiches arrive on time and are pounced on by the starving hoards who prefer to miss their lunch in order to look good for anyone who will notice them.
Some of the stale smelling crumbled suits on the return flight are familiar from this morning; after take off their laptops still burn, earning their keep. I slip the shoes off my tired feet as I sip my ‘complementary’ red wine and gaze out of the window at the lowering pink polluted sky. My toolkit served me well. I won many points and lost others, although I still struggle sometimes with the rules. I look forward to home. The children will be bathed and fed by their patient father and waiting for me to tell them a story. I look forward to the time when they will be curled up on my lap, soft and cosy, their hair still damp and smelling of peaches.
I think of the envelope the boss passed to me as I was packing up. I would have to apply, of course, that was the rules, but I was the preferred candidate for this promotion. A move up to the next level and earn more points. More challenges, more travel and more gravitas.
As the plane breaks through the cloud I see the city lights below, like orange sequins winking on a grey velvet cloth. My one last task of the day will kick off a different game.
Published in Brittle Star (Spring 2011)
Short Story - The Girl in the Burgundy Boots
The old man shuffled along the slushy path that cut through Margaret Island, pausing only to rummage in the bins and wait for his limping dog, Orsi. They were dodged by the shimmering red, lime and yellow Lycra of the early evening joggers trailing a circuit round the island, rainbowing the snow in their wake.
'Almost home, Orsi, girl,' Laszlo encouraged. 'Just one more stop.'
Snow had fallen on the city all day. Deep troughs of powder lay where the wind had whipped it through the trees. The salt and grit on the paths turned the snow to mush, no doubt stinging the old dogs cracked pads. Laszlo lurched forward with his head bent against the biting wind, hugging his carrier bags to his chest. Fresh flakes piled on top of his woollen cap and clung to his long grey trench coat as it dragged along the ground.
As Laszlo trudged up the steps onto the road bridge he noticed a pink glow in the heavy sky. Harsh phosphorous lights from the towering office blocks cast their familiar corporate identities, in ghostly hue, upon the murky waters below. A neon display panel on the corner of one building informed Laszlo that it was minus eight degrees. A collar of ice fringing the river's edge hissed and sang with the undercurrent that swept towards the muck spewing from a factory further downstream; the factory where Laszlo had toiled before it had been sold for western dollars all those years ago.
'Twenty five years, Orsi, hey. What do you say to that?'
The dog pulled back her ears and looked at him as she crept up the last step.
Twenty five years since he had lost his job? Twenty five years since his Magda had left him taking their babies to a better life. Twenty five years since he had been tossed out of his home to live first in a crowded men’s hostel, then forced onto the city streets when that too had closed. Twenty five years of memories stirred by the girl in the burgundy boots.
Laszlo eased himself down onto the hard cold concrete of the underpass and he wondered if he would see her again tonight.
'Come Orsi, one more hour,' Lazslo said patting the blanket beside his cardboard seat. He cradled the old dog’s face in his rough hands, her milky blue eyes smiled up at him as he wiped the tear tracks that matted her grey muzzle.
'We'll catch the hotel guests for a few more cents, hey!'
Today had been a good day in their doorway next to the American burger joint. Not too many tourists came around in winter, but the locals gave more these days. He jingled his pocket at Orsi, the handful of coins they had collected gave a satisfied tinkle; she pricked up her ears and thumped her tail twice.
'Tonight we have some bread and sweet tea, hey!' Laszlo enthused rustling a carrier bag in her face.
Marianne pulled her coat up around her ears, stuffed her hands deep into her pockets and prayed that none of the staff caught this tram home. Today had been horrible, facing all those wide angry eyes of the bright young managers who’d snatched the opportunities presented to them so few years ago.
“The company can no longer ignore the wage arbitrage between here and other labour markets. The operations in this site will be moved to India. All employees shall be rewarded for their cooperation in a smooth handover.” Marianne had tried to remain detached as the local manager read out her prepared words in their own language and she watched their expressions change. Their initial quizzical looks turned first to disbelief then to anger.
“We will of course try to assist in anyway we can in your search for alternative employment and will issue you with an official statement to deliver to your staff tomorrow.”
They lowered their eyes from her as she left the meeting, but she could smell their hatred.
Why was it always winter here? Marianne rubbed the condensation from the tram window with the back of her leather gloved hand and stared at her reflection. She looked old and tired. She couldn't believe she was back in this dump. Nothing had changed much since she had migrated four hundred finance jobs here from Glasgow three years ago. A few more high street shops maybe. She had known then the prosperity would be short term, but now wondered if persuading her client to move the jobs again so soon had been too hasty. She stared around the crowded carriage. A woman wearing a brown marl coat clutched her shopping bag and sniffed, men with frowning foreheads studied newspapers, a teenager nodded his head in time to an iPod beat. Office workers dressed in shabby suits stared at nothing, their hard faces set. No one chatted, no one smiled. They looked defeated. She closed her eyes to imagine the warmth of India.
As she stepped off the tram onto the platform she turned her ankle and winced. Her feet were killing her. The powder blue shoes worked well with her blue pinstripe, but were impractical in this place. The grit patched pavements grew more treacherous as she neared the hotel.
She teetered through the underpass towards the welcome lights at the other end, dragging her wheely case behind her. Bile rose in her throat when she noticed snot dripping uncontrolled from the tramp's nose into his matted beard. A mangy dog lay curled beside him. Marianne remembered them from before. As she hurried past she held her glove up to her nose and mouth. She would need to rush. In half an hour she was meeting with the translator who had flown in last night and had spent the day visiting her relatives.
Laszlo sat motionless to conserve his heat and waited. Week after week they passed him by. The Indian gent with the brown brogues and the sharp clipped step would often drop a cent. The small oriental gentleman with the shiny black moccasins skipped past Monday through Thursday, without a look.
Laszlo heard the trut, trut, trut of the wheely bag and recognised the skinny one, with the unsuitable shoes, from years ago. He felt an unfamiliar sinking in his stomach and wondered why she was back. No hope of a coin from that one.
It was yesterday the girl came. Two beautiful burgundy boots had stopped in front of him, her feet pressed together as she leaned down and handed him tea in a polystyrene cup.
'This is for you,' she said in his own tongue. He noticed that her lush coat and gloves matched her boots, then felt his heart race when he looked up into her face. For he looked into the face of his Magda as she was when they had wed. Thick dark hair escaped from under a black fur hat, framing a broad forehead and nose that betrayed Mongolian ancestry. Soft hazel nut eyes narrowed with concern as they peered down at him. A small furrow appeared on her brow before she blushed and rushed towards the hotel, lugging a heavy bag behind her.
But tonight she did not appear.
Laszlo rolled over onto his knees, then placing his hands on the wall pulled up; his bones creaked and cracked like a dying fire. He bent again to lift Orsi to her feet. Her back legs wobbled and Laszlo doubted if she would last this winter. The old pair hobbled towards home setting in motion the hotel's automatic doors and catching the blast of warm expensive air as they passed.
Ahead loomed large blocks of prefabricated concrete apartments that overlooked the hotel. Along each grey wall, graffiti preached political statements to anyone who cared to notice. A covered walkway beneath the apartments housed inadequate shops and amenities for the locals. The old sofa that crouched in the shadows of the walkway provided a home for Laszlo and Orsi. The pair caused no trouble so they were permitted to stay.
The temperature had dropped in the last week and Laszlo was grateful for the extra blanket left out for him by one of the residents. He spread the blankets over the sofa, arranging them round the sides, ensuring all the edges were tucked in before he prepared their supper.
As Orsi and he huddled together, sharing their warmth he thought again about the girl in the burgundy boots.
'Maybe tomorrow, Orsi, hey?'
Marianne lathered cream into her body after her shower and glared at the bed. She remembered the state of her skin from the last visit. The strong starchy chemicals they used to launder the sheets had penetrated her delicate skin while she slept leaving it raw and weeping. Thank God she’d come prepared this time.
Although Marianne had never encountered Ildiko before, she knew the young woman sitting at a low table, legs crossed at the ankles, was her translator. Marianne made a mental note to ask her where she found her gorgeous burgundy boots once business was concluded. The girl's youthful looks and western clothes outshone the brassy painted escorts the hotel tolerated as an additional executive service. Marianne groaned when she remembered her last visit, the hotel walls were thin and these ladies liked to give their money's worth.
'I'm not looking forward to tomorrow,' Ildiko said as soon as the cool introductions were over. Her gentle refined accent took Marianne by surprise.
'These are my people, my mother was born here,' she stressed. 'Her family still work here.'
'Yes, but the staff don’t need to know that, do they?' Marianne hoped Ildiko was up to the job. 'You will be perfect,' she said 'You have enough detachment, but can empathise with their plight.'
Marianne began firing up her laptop. 'Although most of the workforce speak English it is necessary to have a translator present at all meetings to pick up on side remarks and evidence of sabotage.' Marianne stared earnestly at the translator. 'We need you Ildiko.' She patted her arm. 'Come on I'll show you the presentation that
explains the economics and convince you it’s the right thing.'
As Marianne settled into her silk sheet sleeping bag she had remembered to pack, she tried to blot out the exuberant grunts and moans filtering from the room next to hers.
There had to be a better hotel in this damned town. Her picked-at green salad and warm glass of Chardonnay lay outside her bedroom door awaiting collection. She shut down her lap top, and attempted to shut down her mind and not think about tomorrow.
It had snowed in the night, leaving the city with another pile of slush to clear from the streets; the pavements would wait.
Lazslo carried Orsi towards the underpass. The old dog was slower in the mornings and he didn’t want to miss the hotel guests as they left for work. As he approached the hotel he noticed a city taxi idling at the door. The skinny one with the impractical shoes came out, handed her wheely bag to the driver and waited, facing the hotel. Laszlo knew who she was waiting for. The girl in the burgundy boots carried her own bag and hoisted it in the trunk as the skinny one jumped in the back seat. The young girl turned and looked at Laszlo with the same regretful eyes Magda cast on him the day she left. As the taxi door closed Laszlo knew he would never see the pair again.
It was still early and he had already caught a good many pennies from the guests. Orsi was curled up beside him at peace for once from her aches. He rubbed her warm ear and she thumped her tail without opening her eye.
‘Maybe we stick to the underpass for a while, hey Orsi. Wait the winter out here.’
Published in Crannog Magazine (October 2010)
Ah can almost hear Archie in the next room, faffing and pacing – his disapproval reachin’ me fae the grave. The flair boards might be creaking but ah know it’s jist the hoose settling hersel’ doon fur the night.
Ah cannae believe this is ma last night in this room, ah’ve slept here fur as long. First as a child sharing wi Archie, that wis until he got too big and wis moved intae the kitchen recess. When the parents went, wan efter the ither, Archie took up residence in their room, through the wall fae me. It wis jist the two o’ us then, left tae git oan wi things. He always wis a night pacer and ah niver did get used tae the silence when he deid.
Ah expect that Edinburgh bitch ‘ll be here at the toot the morra morning; champin’ at the bit tae tear the hoose intae her way oh likin’ and ah know jist where she’ll stert.
Ah wonder wit Faither wid huv said aboot me sellin’ the croft intae a holiday home. Ah couldnae count the generations o’ MacKenzies that lived and worked this place. It wis bad enough when Help the Aged poked thir nose intae oor business a few years ago. Ah could hear Faither’ birrlin in his grave when they came in and covered up a’ the tongue and groove walls wi’ padded wallpaper tae stop the drafts. And he wis that particular aboot keeping the peat fires goan in a’ the rooms, but Help the Aged insisted they wir a fire hazard up the stair and pit in they useless electric things.
Mind, Faither widnae huv believed the interest ah’ve hud in this place. Ah even had a pop star flew up here in a helicopter fur a look, but he wisnae interested when he heard aboot the iffy internet connection.
It wis jist a shame that nice couple fae the village couldnae huv afforded mair money, they’d huv done something wi the place.
‘Anither nail in the coffin of the community’ the meenister said. He didnae say that when the pub wis revitalised by that Yorkshire wummin, did he? It’s a’ right fur him in his fancy new manse wi its fitted carpets and electric central heating. He disnae huv tae pit up wi the scuttlin’ invasion o’ field mice behind the skirtin’ the minute the temperature drops below zero ootside, and he disnae huv tae hirple ma auld bones oot tae the coal hoose every morning and freeze until the kitchen fire catches.
Well, the deed is done. This is the last night ah’ll huv tae lie in bed and look at the peeling wallpaper roond that botched job the Help the Aged plasterer made o’ the fire place. The Edinburgh bitch spotted it right away the first time she came tae view. Niver said a word; jist rubbed her hand o’er the wall. That type think we’re a’ donnert up here. Ah could see her calculating dippin’ and strippin’ the doors and scourin’ the wallpaper doon tae the tongue and groove, but it wis the promise o’ fireplaces that sold her the hoose.
Next time she came she asked if the fireplaces were boarded up.
‘Search me,’ says I, wi ma fingers crossed behind ma back.
Little dis she know ah got the plasterer tae take the fireplaces oot and ah took them tae auction tae be selt on tae folk like her in the cities. That money came in right handy tae buy a new rug and a swish marble mantelpiece fur ma nice wee, central heated flat in the toon. Ah’ll jist huv tae live wi Archie’s disapproval.
Published in Northwords Now (Summer 2010)