Do Unto Others

He felt his fists balling in anger as he watched the Alsatian deposit its feculent pay load, the third of the week, on the pavement between his gate and the road. It’s owner, a bald, badly dressed mouth breather with faded green prison tattoos and a violent criminal stare, sucked vacantly on a vape contraption. He looked like an ape orally exploring a piece of alien technology. The fucking unthinking cunt.

3ea83fe5-bd13-448b-83ab-d2204a2d2999-215-0000003e2e870d93_tmpThe dog finished its crap and lurched off. The man followed, although not before sending a lump of spit hurtling into the hedge. No thought to bag up his dog’s business. A gift to the neighbourhood, a freshly squeezed little tower of shit to surprise unsuspecting shoes and pramwheels. Well, not quite this one. This one was bagged up. With the man and dog still in sight, he followed behind at a discrete distance, the little orange bag of warm crap swinging from his fingers.

He followed his quarry a couple of streets away, where they went into number 25 Staunton Terrace. Biding his time, it wasn’t long before he saw a light go on upstairs. Swiftly he made his move down the driveway. At the door he tore open the bag, lifted the letterbox open with his index fingers and gently jiggled the turds through. With a satisfying ‘phut’ they hit the carpet inside the hallway. Nervously, excitedly, he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out several flat but heavy stones, which he also dropped through the letterbox. As they hit the dog shit they squashed it deep into the carpet fibres, ensuring maximum disgust and difficulty to clean out.

Walking home he felt buoyed by a warm surge of righteousness. Natural justice had been dispensed, a wrong had been righted. Biblical, perhaps, but no less just for that.

a375b65e-df9e-4c0c-a642-b68a2697cbb2-215-0000003dcfad6a16_tmpRounding the corner of Parson Drive, he slowed his pace to watch a young woman size up the gap between a badly parked car and a hedge. Adjudging it too narrow, she had no choice but to push her pram around the car on the road, her mouth drawn tight with frustration. As he crossed over he reached into his coat pocket and clutched his door key tightly. Manipulating it between his middle and index fingers, like some covert prison shank, he slipped his hand back out of his pocket and pressed the key hard into the pristine paintwork of the selfish areshole’s Audi, holding it on to leave a good foot long scratch, in one smooth movement as he walked by. Untraceable. Expensive. A just dessert.

At around 8 o’clock it started again. Mr Mayhew next door always seemed to come to life every evening about this time. The cavity-less 1930s wall that divided their dwellings might well have muffled much of the sound of that analogue age, but it was no match for the decibels kicked out by Mr Mayhew’s Bose bins. Classic rock filled his living room, almost as clearly as it did Mr Mayhew’s. It was a maddening intrusion, an unforgivable encroachment into his private sanctuary. Mr Mayhew couldn’t have affronted him more if he’d let himself in the kitchen door, popped the kettle on and fixed himself a sandwich.

There was none of the instant karma he was used to with this one. No, this was a slow burn, a long game. The first symptom was a ringing in the ears. He knew Mr Mayhew was suffering from tinnitus because he heard him speaking to his family on the phone, when he would complain, rather loudly – no doubt as a consequence – of his aural disturbance. Some months after the onset of the tinnitus he had been delighted to see Mr Mayhew fall over in the street. It wasn’t icy out and it was barely 10 in the morning, so booze wasn’t a likely candidate. No, he was sure that it must be the next symptom. Loss of balance.

730b683e-6b21-4d94-9527-e8d46eb8c4d1-215-0000003f62db286d_tmpMr Mayhew’s inner ear was under attack. The cells that regulated his hearing and balance were losing a protracted and covert war being waged by a cocktail of ototoxic medicines that were being syringed into his gold top every morning. The aspirin was easy enough to come by. Six of those over-the-counter little bad boys every day. The neomycin he liked, an antibiotic with particular toxicity for the cochlear. That, along with the ethacrynic acid, the viomycin and the chemotherapy drugs were hard to come by, but not impossible. Very soon, if it were not already the case, the nerve damage would be permanent. Irreversible. And then there will be no merit in playing your music, will there Mr Mayhew. And our living rooms will fall silent. Yours, dispiritingly so. Mine, blissfully.

He felt a dull twinge of conscience. Once or twice. After all, this wasn’t anything a good scrub with bleach or visit to a car body shop could fix. But it was really the only fitting punishment. This was, beyond doubt, the most heinous of all selfish behaviours. That which invades, pollutes, makes intolerable another’s private space.

The guinea, the rat and the mouse.

img_0191Once upon a time there was a little guinea pig, his name was White. He lived in a cage and he liked to eat hay, and he was sitting on some hay and a rat came along and he was sitting on some soap. And the rat went on the wheel. And the guinea pig took it away to somebody, and somebody said thank you. A mouse came and gave the soap to nobody. Somebody was right and nobody was wrong. And that’s the end.

As told by little P, aged 2 ¼

And why not?

It started quite innocently, just a mundane mistake. As the minute hand on the boardroom clock jolted to three past nine, the Chair of the Change Management Project Steering Group meeting got proceedings underway.

The last to arrive, Terence sat down next to Gordon Mayhew. His right ankle resting on his left knee, Terence glanced down to witness an anxiety dream made flesh. He could see flesh. Terence wasn’t wearing socks.

img_0188Between the black leather of his brogues and the grey pinstripe of trouser leg, there was a strip of pink ankle on show. All hair, bone and cracked desiccated skin. With great effort to appear casual and unflustered, he swung his leg back under the table and tried his damndest to focus on the overlong, dry-as-dust discussion that followed. But as jaws flapped and pens scribbled, Terence was dimly aware of a distant, almost imperceptible siren. It was not a sound, rather a feeling. A crescendo of something faintly pleasing from a hitherto anechoic part of his brain. The muffled, yet welling klaxon of liberation.

The next day Terence passed over his usual choice of charcoal grey tie in favour of a gold bow tie he remembered was squirrelled away in a box under his bed. It shared it’s forgotten Clarks time capsule with a host of desultory odds and sods from his early twenties, his life as an undergrad. As he clipped it round his chuckling gullet, he grinned at the memory of sharing a late night kebab with Sarah Gough somewhere in Manchester. He, resplendent in a crimson shirt, bootcut orange corduroys and a gold bow tie, she, at the intersection between laughter and aneurism as he baffonishly, drunkenly knocked back a table top condiment bottle of arse-melting chilli sauce. The kind that makes you wonder whether you’ve been kicked up the fundament by a horse while you were sleeping.

img_0186Terence was delighted to note the looks, some odd, some approving, most bespeaking of a dim judgement. He was replaced by Neil McCulloch for an important presentation to the Senior Management Team. On the grounds that “Neil has been working with the data very closely and just has a greater familiarity with it, really, that’s all”. But Terence knew it was the bow tie.

By week seven Terence had drawn the focus of his line manager’s line manager. The golden bow tie sparkled against the obsidian night of a jet black cowboy shirt, all embroidery and rhinestones. Pinstripes had been superseded by salmon pink shorts, which allowed for the full display of white knee socks complete with Morris Man bells. On his head a granny style plastic rain bonnet, bulging at the sides with shaggy ginger mutton chops. Today was the maiden outing for his homemade makrami cape, made up of Celtic knots and vaguely phallic shapes.

He had been warned. In writing. By Human Resources. But it seemed that there was ultimately nothing the company could do. Terence had muttered some mischievous nonesense about his right to express his “gender dysphoria and atypical transvestism” which seemed to inject just enough doubt into the situation to effect inertia on his employer’s part.

img_0187Seventeen years later, as Terence arrived home from his retirement bash, he ‘birthed’ from his erotically decorated Zorbing ball, opened the front door and slumped on the sofa.

Casting off his silver matador jacket, unwinding the neon green electrical tape from his arms, kicking off his spherical shoes and removing the preserved whale foreskin hat from his head, he sat naked for a good hour.

Eventually he pushed himself up from the sofa and plodded upstairs. In his room, he opened the wardrobe and took out a white shirt, charcoal grey trousers and a slate grey tie. He admired himself in the full length mirror. A picture of unremarkable corporate officialdom. A well-pressed, bland yet respectable company man. The very outfit he was buried in six years and seven months later. The outfit he had worn, through a rotation of near identical variations, since the moment he retired.

And why not.

Silk sheath

‘Fix me a bourbon’ Pam barked. She ran her hands down her hips, like she was miming climbing out of a chimney.

Jim went over to the antique oak drinks globe and poured her a measure. He felt his hand trembling with the anticipation of the evening. With growing member squashed in his trousers and balls writhing like a nest of newborn mice, he handed her the glass.

‘Give me four fingers, goddamit man’. Jim quickly poured her more bourbon. He liked her stern tone. It was powerful, dominating, chiding. He felt excited and frightened, like a naughty boy at a nude firework display. He glanced back to see Pam slip out of her custard yellow dress to reveal strawberry jelly neglige. Pink and diaphanous, like a see-through twat.

img_0183‘Ever done it in a hotel, Jim?’.

‘Never’.

‘I have. I’ve been entered in every Ibis in London. Come to think of it, I lost my prison purse virginity in a Benfleet Travel Lodge’.

Pam necked her drink like a stressed cop in an American movie, in the bar scene following the bit about his domestic chaos, just as the narrative arc is taking him to his nadir.

‘She’s hungry, Jim’ she growled, looking down at her midrif. ‘What’s on the menu?’.

Jim almost reached for the room service leaflet next to the phone, but checked himself and grinned broadly.

‘A big pork banger for main’.

‘And for pudding?’ Pam whispered.

‘Bollock yoghurt’.

img_0185Jim dropped his cream cords and kicked them across the room. One flailing leg knocked a cup of tea onto his Exchange and Mart. Jim made a mental note to request a hairdryer from reception later. Advancing towards Pam, he whipped off her bra to reveal enormous nipples, two mighty rivets holding together steel-hard breasts. They were amazing, two beautifully engineeed pleasure domes straight out of a Kingdom Brunel wet dream.

Kissing every square inch of her body, Jim struggled to control his obsessive compulsive disorder. ‘I want your chod rod to prod and sod my love pod’ sang Pam, to the tune of the Dad’s Army theme.

Feeling impish, Jim waggled his bloated phallus.

‘You filthy fuck metronome’ gushed Pam, licking her lips, her facial lips.

‘I only go one speed, Pam’ said Jim. ‘Allegro’.

‘I like it low and dirty, Mr composer, lots going on down the bottom end’.

img_0184‘Get ready for the bassoon solo. I call this next piece, Flight of the Bumhole Bee’.

Jim and Pam locked soft parts for about an hour. Afterwards Pam watched a fascinating edition of How It’s Made all about the manufacture of moulded pulp containers. Jim dried his car magazine with a small hairdryer and did a couple of sodokus.

Bowling at one stump

The training room was on the fourth floor of a characterless office block overlooking the river.  A dull, dirty grey concrete carbuncle probably thrown up in the 1960s, he pondered, as he pushed his way through the revolving door and into a time warp vinyl-floored, neon strip-lit lobby.

‘Enterprise House’ the cliched, faintly ironic name of the building. Ironic since it’s prefab uniformity spoke of automation, ugly efficiency, a dispiriting artlessness that was as far away from the spark of human creativity and dynamism – the true hallmarks of enterprise – as it was architecturally possible to be.

img_0170The bowls of the building were as humdrum as the dermis. The lift was out of order, so he climbed the stairs to the fourth floor, passing a rather forlorn looking – and presumably lost – soft bunny rabbit, slumped against the water damaged wall where it had been dropped by a sleep-slackened hand.

‘Hello, I’m here for the Distraction Training. The name’s Peter Curtis’.

‘One moment please, sir’ replied the girl behind the reception desk, without looking up. Peter went up on tiptoes to take a surreptitious snoop over the counter, and was a little peeved to see her finishing off a text with a flourish of emojis. She smiled to herself as she poked the screen to send her little e-missive off into the ether. To her boyfriend no doubt, Peter thought, his annoyance provoked as much by the realisation that this thought-derailingly beautiful girl was spoken for, as much as it was by her churlish ignoral of him.

‘Go on through, it’s room D16 on the right. Go through the double doors, follow the corridor round to the right and it’s the second door after the lift’. She smiled the sort of smile one squeezes out when someone in a position of power, whom you loathe, says something they deem funny.

‘Thanks’ he muttered, already walking away. Peter could feel himself shrink. He was a very sensitive soul, like a blank photographic plate onto which other people projected themselves, he often thought. It was as though his frame of mind or sense of self were governed by, connected to everything in the outside world by millions of microfine wires, and every little tweak on them, good or bad, sent impulses racing into him, each one recalibrating his psychological state. A marionette boy, jerking and jigging to the tweaks of the world.

The training room was a large, square space with an old oak desk in it’s centre. Three chairs faced one chair, the standard interview set up. Around the edge of the room women sat on chairs with young children on their laps, or crossed legged on the floor, eating or drinking, reading books, a few asleep, five or six running around. The sleeping ones awoke when a large wooden door at the other end of the room swung open and vomited forth three besuited men who were engaged in raucous and jocular conversation. The women, children and Peter all gave the men their full attention as they seated themesleves in the three chairs. The panel.

‘Good morning all, and for many of you welcome once again to another Distraction Training session. There are a few faces I don’t recognise, including – of course – yours’ he gesticulated towards Peter. ‘I think the basic premise of today’s training bears elucidating, for which I look to my colleague here, Mr Brownlaw’.

A few of the children, who were all aged somewhere between 2 and 3, started to lose interest in the men, occasioning their mothers to hiss some stern words of rebuke, and no doubt sanction, into their wandering little ears.

‘Yes, thank you Mr Pepperdew. Mr -?’ he aimed interrogatively at Peter, who swiftly responded. ‘Curtis. Peter Curtis’.

img_0171‘Mr Curtis, I do beg your pardon. Mr Curtis is here for a 30 minute session of Distraction Training. The scenario he has specifically booked onto is our Distraction Interview Training. Myself, along with my colleagues Mr Bronwnlaw and Mr Renshaw, will be delivering the interview part of the bargain. You -‘ he said, pointing around the room at the mothers and toddlers, ‘will be providing the distraction’.

At this point the women got up, coaxed their little ones across the room towards Peter, and went to leave. A few of the children tried to follow them, one in tears, but they were soon distracted again by the cry of ‘who would like some chocolate?’. It was Mr Brownlaw. The children swarmed to him, wide eyed and palms outstretched in hopeful supplication. ‘Mr Curtis over there’ he pointed ‘has the chocolate’. The children came padding round the table. ‘Can you tell me a bit about yourself, Mr Curtis? What is your professional background?’.

The interview had started. Some of the children were still hovering around Peter, expecting treats. The rest were now running about, shouting, playing with the toys that Mr Renshaw had just dumped in a pile around Peter’s chair. The decibel levels were rising, and so was Peter’s heart rate.

‘Well, originally I studied English Literature at -‘

‘What are you saying?’. A little pug nosed boy was pulling at his shirt sleeve.

‘Oh, I’m just telling the man-‘

‘Focus on the interview please, Mr Curtis’ bellowed Mr Pepperdew, looking reproachful with knitted brows.

‘Yes, of course, sorry. Well I subsequently went on to train as a -‘ there was a loud scream, as two little girls fought over a plastic pirate toy. Peter instinctively wheeled round to attend to the sound of infant alarm, but again he was chided, and he turned his attention back to the mock job interview.

After an exhausting half hour, with his ears ringing and his head swimming, the women came back in to collect their little gems.

‘By the way, I should say there’s a toy rabbit on the stairs’ Peter tannoyed to the room, and an appreciative lady gave him a broad smile and a mouthed ‘thank you’.

When the room was emptied of everyone except Peter and his three interrogators, Mr Pepperdew led the feedback.

‘Well Mr Curtis, after a shaky start I’m pleased to say that you did very well and showed admirable concentration and focus under the most testing of circumstances’.

‘Indeed’ concurred his colleague , Mr Renshaw. ‘If you can conduct an interview as expertly as that without the distraction of twelve rambling, babbling, chivvying, mithering toddlers, then I’m convinced you’ll ace the real thing sans distractions’.

Peter walked back out into the street, feeling enlarged, recalibrated, at peace. His Distraction Training had been a success. He knew the job was his.

The hedgehog and the mushroom

IMG_0154.JPGOnce upon a time, in the deep dark wood, there was a hedgehog and he found a mushroom. But a rabbit came and ate the mushroom up. The hedgehog felt very sad. But the hedgehog found another mushroom and he ate it all up and he was really happy again.

The end.

Verbatim transcript of little P, age 2 ¼

Animus

When Dorothy was born, he couldn’t have been happier for him. Rob was the first of his friends, his real life-long thick-and-thin friends, to have a child. They both understood, instinctively and unspoken, that things would never quite be the same, but it was too big and important and defining a moment for anything other than celebration and support.

Liam and Rob’s relationship was underpinned by a cut and thrust banter; they shared a deep and indigenous love of whimsy, a mutual desire to give the mundane the slip. They enjoyed a sort of competitive intellectual sex, rooted in humour and dripping with inventive prowess, the kind most close male friendships thrive on. The fleshless homoeroticism that mystifies girlfriends and wives everywhere, who console themselves with mutterings about ‘bromance’, feeling threatened but trying to mask the feeling beneath dismissive ridicule.

Rob had a child, a baby daughter. Liam had to make his peace with the fact that he was now a once a fortnight outlet, a hastily grabbed bit of respite when the maelstrom of new parenthood permitted. For his part, Liam tried to assume the uncle mantle – which he wasn’t – but despite his best efforts to show interest, arrange midday boozeless meet ups, Rob remained aloof. He knew that Rob and Mirzia were shaky, in fact their relationship had come within one harsh word of shattering irreparably on countless occasions, but for some reason they stayed together. Mirzia was a cold fish. It was bad enough she couldn’t find it within herself to support Rob’s art. Far worse was the attitude of mild contempt and derision she seemed to display. A sort of eye-rolling when will the scales fall from his eyes? sneer. Sour bitch.

Rob’s relationship with Mirzia was terminal. At first the shockwaves of the split didn’t seem to reach baby Dorothy. She was 18 months and, apart from daddy not being around as much, and mummy and daddy never taking her out together, some semblance of normality abided. A mature, grownup attempt on both their parts to ensure continuity for the kid’s sake. But slowly, as Mirzia’s inner life began to disintegrate, her hatred for Rob – a corrosive acid rain – began to eat away her sense of duty, of right, of proportion, of everything.

It started with Rob being denied access. He would call round for pick ups as arranged, but Mirzia simply wouldn’t open the door. Rob suspected she was in on these occasions, and he tried to stay calm and toe the increasingly painful line she was setting him. But then, one unremarkable day, his own Hiroshima. Mirzia dropped ‘Little Boy’ when she took his little girl.

Middlesbrough was a long way away. Two trains and just over three hours. A six hour round trip every time he wanted to see his daughter. Which would have been doable, bearable, no impediment at all since he would get to spend time with his illuminating, soul-sustaining doe-eyed sweetheart, his little Squigglepig. But then Mirzia stopped answering the door.

Tribunals and family court hearings didn’t seem to spook her. If anything they made her more intransigent, even more bitter and hell-bent on snuffing out his happiness. The cruel and unusual punishment she was meting out had long since passed the point of proportionality for any of his notional ‘crimes’. Weeks turned into months, months become a year, and the absence of his daughter hit him like a bereavement. He mourned his living, laughing, lovely little girl every waking moment. As he said to Liam, jailbirds doing porridge for spousal abuse get better access to their children than him, more recourse through the courts. The message seemed horribly clear. So long as Mirzia was a fit mother, the system had no fight on behalf of the father.

Two years drifted by. Now it was Liam’s turn to experience the vertiginous symphony of joy, discovery, hope, fear, angst and love that is first time fatherhood. A girl. Poppy. A blue-eyed, heart-flooding little baby girl.

At first he felt a weird nervousness around Rob. Oddly inhibited by the prospect of talking about his little girl. Rob tried to pitch in with advice, tips, the mutual support of one who has been there, but after the first few months his interest was generally little more than a polite show. Once, when they were having an open and unfettered pow-wow about Dorothy, Rob’s long nightmare, and how Liam felt it had coloured his attitude to Poppy, Rob fixed his eye: “Would I be heartbroken if I came round your house and saw you playing with your little girl? Of course I would”. It explained everything. Sixteen months after Poppy was born and Liam’s longest and most favourite friend had fled to a parallel universe of self-preserving denial because he was still in mourning.

In time Rob moved to Bristol, leaving Liam in landlocked Derbyshire. They rarely communicated, met up a couple of times a year, still made each other laugh. But it wasn’t the same purity as before. Their relationship had been cut with something that left a bad taste, the lesser high of a drug adulterated. But there was no bad feeling. There had been several lifetimes of that already and, besides, Liam had a new, diminutive, doe-eyed best friend.