Restoke – Man Up

Last night I watched ‘Man Up’ from the wonderful ‘Restoke’, a group of artists and collaborators who work with the local community to craft music, dance and spoken word performances in various unusual locations around Stoke on Trent.

This was the first year I was able to watch a performance purely as an audience member, having previously helped out with the technical crew behind the scenes, and regrettably missing last year’s performance due to baby duties!

What a year I chose to come and watch.

‘Man Up’ was pitched as “A gritty, humorous & revealing performance from the frontlines of masculinity & mental health.” (https://www.restoke.org.uk/man-up/), a strapline that is entirely accurate, but could not possibly convey the emotional heft and punch that we felt in the audience.

Almost radiating from the stage, there was a palpable energy in that room as the cast shared interpretations of their struggles with the concept of masculinity, identity and mental health.

And for what reason? Well, that was made clear early in the night: Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50. The prison and homeless population is predominantly male. These facts are the surface reality of deep, social questions that we need productions like this to ask.

The received image of masculinity is that men are not great at talking, at sharing their feelings, at ‘connecting’ with their emotions. At worse, it is almost as if we should purposefully avoid doing so. Yet I just watched a group of men from all walks of life, who started this process as strangers, literally perform their anxieties, their stories, their hopes and fears, together, to yet more strangers.

If that’s not talking about your feelings, I don’t know what is.

This was exceptional in many senses. It was an exceptional production, but it was also an exceptional opportunity for those few who chose to share and see the process through. The hope, I would think, is that focussing on these issues will help conversations happen more regularly in ‘real’ life, whatever that means to each of us.

I certainly heard a lot of stories of audience members inspired to check in with friends, family, or even colleagues who might be needing an opportunity of their own to share, to reach out, to be heard, to be helped. And although these stories came from men who had experienced the extreme edges of mental health, there are none of us immune to the possibility of finding ourselves in those same places.

Mental health, like physical health, is a scale that we can all move up and down, and if society’s preconceived notions of gender identity are causing men to not seek the help they need, then we need to challenge and change society, in whatever way we can, even if that is simply telling someone that it is okay to talk about it.

Find out more about Restoke and their work here: https://www.restoke.org.uk/

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Pin the Devil.

It was something my grandma told me. I don’t know if it’s common knowledge, or a common myth, but I’m guessing she didn’t just make it up.

The way it goes is this: if you have lost something, simply take a pin (any type will do), and say out loud “I pin the devil”. Follow this by the name of the lost object and stick the pin in the back of a cushion. Leave it there for three days and the object will turn up.

To be honest, incantations over pierced furnishings wouldn’t have occurred to me, if it wasn’t for the ghost. Had my mind not already been on the supernatural, my grandma’s words would have remained a forgotten memory when I lost the ring. But I am getting ahead. Perhaps I should start with the ghost.

I don’t know when the ghost started. It was in the house before me I’m sure, so who can say? When I first moved into 32 Forge Lane, the landlady had neglected to mention that I would be sharing my little terrace with a poltergeist.

Maybe she hoped it would be masked by the plethora of other phenomenon the house presented. She would have been right to. For the first three months I accounted every strange going on in the house to faulty heating, dodgy wiring, and incessant drafts. But after a while, when all the doors had been oiled, all the cracks plugged, and your step dad has kindly given the boiler and the electrics a once-over, you start to notice the difference between a knocking pipe, and just plain knocking.

For a start, a knocking pipe doesn’t knock back. It may seem to, if you are prone to an over-active imagination, or chance so happens to time the random expansion and contraction of metal with your own signals. But that kind of chance, or whimsy, is not demonstrable to others. You know for certain when you can spend a whole evening with your sometimes-boyfriend, rapping knuckles with the other side, asking questions.

The problem with the whole ‘knock once for yes, twice for no’ system, however, is that it rather puts the emphasis on the person asking the questions. But it can get you so far, if you are persistent.

 

Isabelle

Do you want to talk to us?

Knock.

Isabelle

Good. We want to talk to you too. Did you use to live in this house?

Knock.

Josh

Did you die here?

Knock knock.

Josh

But you are dead?

Knock.

Isabelle

Is it you who opens the doors upstairs?

Knock.

Isabelle.

I thought so. And opens the windows?

Knock.

Josh.

See? I told you it wasn’t me.

Isabelle.

Shush! Are you happy here?

Knock.

Isabelle.

And do you mind me living here?

Knock knock.

Josh.

Does that mean no he doesn’t mind, or no he doesn’t want you here?

Isabelle.

He doesn’t mind, I think. Actually, are you a ‘he’?

Knock knock.

 

Call me a sexist, anti-feminist if you want, but something about knowing it was a ‘she’ made me feel better immediately. I’m sure you could argue that women are as free and equal to turn into spirits just as terrifying as men, but another female presence in the house reassured me. After all, how many tired ghost stories have you heard about dirty old misogynistic man that died in the battered armchair in the corner? That’s not what I wanted at all.

After our conversations, things settled down. If something ever happened that I didn’t like, or that disturbed me, I would ask very nicely for her to stop, and she always did. It just became normal to talk to the ghost when needed, but other than that, life continued as normal (at least for me). Then things started to go missing.

It was just little things, usually, and they almost always turned up. Josh’s tobacco, my hairbrush, house keys and whatnot. I know that you’re thinking: who doesn’t lose their keys? We all do, I know, but they don’t usually turn up on top of a six-foot bookshelf that you can’t even reach without climbing on your armchair.

It caused arguments between me and Josh, before we realised it was the ghost. He can be, let’s say, controlling, and I thought he was hiding things to put me off kilter, to make me feel like I was losing it. Josh said it was stupid to blame him when I was the one living with a mischievous spirit. He had a point, so I decided to speak to the ghost again, this time alone.

 

Isabelle

Are you there?

Knock.

Isabelle

Did you hide my keys?

Knock.

Isabelle

And Josh’s tobacco?

Knock.

Isabelle

I’m not angry, but can you please stop hiding things?

Knock.

Isabelle

Thanks. Also, I don’t know how you can answer this, but I still can’t find my grandma’s ring. Only, it’s valuable to me, and I really don’t want to lose it.

Silence.

Isabelle

Is it possible you can put it back for me, where you found it?

Knock knock.

Isabelle

Please? You did hide it, didn’t you?

Knock knock.

Isabelle

No? You didn’t?

Knock knock.

 

Of all the luck, I had an honest light-fingered ghost willing to return my goods, but the one thing I really wanted back wasn’t in her possession. I searched everywhere I could reach and clambered on furniture for those places that I would normally send Josh. He was having another of his ‘absent’ patches, so was no help at all.

The ring was an heirloom and was of more than just sentimental value. Mum had smuggled it out of my grandmother’s house when, in her dying days, long absent relatives suddenly started appearing like so many woodworm. It had always been intended for me, but with the hyenas around, Mum wanted to make sure it was safely out of reach from sticky fingers.

It was thinking of my grandma, and what mum would say if she found out I’d lost the ring, that trawled up the memory of ‘pin the devil’. It’s a funny thing, I’d only ever heard her mention it once, a long time ago when I still lived at home, but it had stuck with me. I think I’d lost something innocuous, probably my Walkman, and was scampering around the house in a blind panic. My grandma sat there watching and told me I should ‘pin the devil’, and exactly what that meant. Mum was there at the time, and for a rational sort of person, she didn’t bat an eyelid at the suggestion.

I never did it. The thought gave me the same chill as I got from playing Ouija with my friends, and a lost Walkman just didn’t seem worth the risk of dabbling with dark forces. But the notion that we could call for help on forces beyond our understanding stuck with me, as if there was a symbiosis at play between worlds.

It took a bottle of wine on a particularly lonely night before I plucked up the courage to give it a try. I had found out earlier that day that Josh had found somewhere else to hang his hat. He’d got his hands on some money, for a change, and no longer needed my social, sexual and financial subsidies. Apparently he was telling people it was my fault for being too overbearing. Presumably because I once asked him if he could bring some milk around, or some other torturous domestic request.

It’s funny how you can’t find a pin when you want one, and realise that you haven’t needed one since you were 12 and wanted to stick a Take That poster up on your wall. Fittingly for that teary night, the only pin I could find in the house was from the back of a badge that Josh had bought me at a gig. It was a black badge with a picture of a green skull in a bowler hat. I don’t even remember the band it was for. I never liked it, and had no issue with bending the pin back and probably ruining it forever.

I performed the ridiculous ceremony, calling for the ring and thrusting the badge pin into a sofa cushion. I went to bed expecting nothing, at least not for three days, but my wait was considerably shorter.

Now, I didn’t know if I had forgotten the added detail about the feathers, or if my grandma neglected to tell me, but it was a nice touch. At first I thought that Bart, my long missing cat, had returned with a present to say sorry for having disappeared three years ago. The feathers were dotted around the living room. There wasn’t hundreds of them, but enough that the eye noticed them straight away. I couldn’t honestly say what kind of bird they had come from, but they were white with black roots, and relatively small, about the size of my thumb nail.

I gathered them up one by one, following a trail of my own making, so I thought, until they led me up to the mantelpiece where I spotted the last one behind the carriage clock. And there it sat, the last feather, resting on Josh’s favourite lighter. He had kicked up a huge fuss when it had gone missing, accusing me of throwing it away to spite him. I remember how he’d been a miserable bastard all night after that, but wouldn’t leave because he knew I was making dinner and wanted to eat, basically.

Now I had found it, I actually did throw it away, along with the feathers. I checked everywhere and found no more. Okay, it wasn’t the ring, but it was something. A warm up. I resolved to leave the pin in place, and see if anything else turned up. Sure enough, the next morning, the feathers were back.

This time, they led me to the bookcase, and the last feather lay on one particular book. The book itself was not lost, evidently, but I opened it up and a photo dropped out from between the pages. It was a picture I had forgotten even existed, so I suppose in a sense, it was lost. The picture was one of me from back home, before I moved out here, when I wanted so much to get out and make my own world. I am kneeling on the sofa at Mums, throwing my hands out to the camera, and I have a look in my eye that I haven’t glimpsed in the mirror for a long time. It was a look of wide-eyed determination and hunger for independence, if such things can be gleamed from a Triple-Print Kodak.

When did I lose that look? If I was going to blame anyone, it would be Josh, but I’ve never been one to lay my shortcomings at other’s feet. Maybe, on some dark nights of the soul, I have been guilty of bitterly blaming my underwhelming existence on his toxic blend of possessive none committal. But I have always checked myself. I am more that the product of someone else’s whims, I know that, even if the hurt can occasionally make me feel otherwise.

I thanked the feathers for the discovery. To find something you weren’t looking for, but needed, is a gift indeed. I resolved to capture that look once again, and looked forward to what day three would bring.

I didn’t have to wait to the next morning, however. I woke during the night, for reasons unknown. There was no startling dream, no wind whistling down the terrace, and no bodily functions to satisfy. I was simply awake at 3am. Trying to find some reason to satisfy and return to sleep, I decided I must be dehydrated and went to get some water.

On the landing, my bare foot twitched as a tickle ran across it. I didn’t need to turn on the light to see the feather, the white down echoing the moonlight against the grey carpet. My eyes adjusted quickly, seeing the line leading down hall, past the bathroom, and terminating below the hatch to the attic.

The attic. That strange none-place in most houses where lost things are forgotten, and forgotten things are lost. I recalled the last time I was up there. It was Christmas, in the obligatory annual attic-opening to recover the old biscuit tin full of decorations and the bin bag with the plastic tree. It was possible that the ring had fallen off when I was up there.

I retrieved the stick from the corner that existed solely for the purpose of clicking the hatch up and off the magnetic catch, allowing the wooden door to swing open and the folding ladder to swivel on its hinge to a reachable height. It was okay getting it down. Putting it back up was another matter. Last time I was up here, Josh had to do it for me. As I pulled the ladder down to it’s full height, another feather drifted slowly down beside me.

I climbed the stairs, lit only by the night through the hallway window, knowing that a small switch on the inside of the hatch frame would illuminate the void above. I positioned myself half way up the stairs and switched on the solitary bulb. I was surrounded on all but one side by my hastily stacked decorations and boxes that I had never unpacked since moving in. Some were open, which I couldn’t remember doing. Maybe I had a taken a little look one of those Christmases, and decided that the memories were exactly where they needed to be, but I was sure I hadn’t.

Either way, as my eyes reached the level of the floorboards, more feathers came into stark contrast, leading through the gap to the small triangle of space by the apex of the rafters, where one could just about stand crooked by the water tank. I crawled up and around the corner, and that’s when I saw them.

Both birds were skewered to the boards by a single metal peg driven through the breast. I would say the pegs had come from my stashed camping gear, but these were thick, rough, mottled iron pins, the kind that you could imagine hammered into the hull of a boat. The poor beasts were dead, of course, their white feathers with black roots haloed around them. They both lay at his feet.

Just when and how Josh had found his way into my attic, and who it was that did that to him with the third peg, will forever be a mystery, if you believe these words. Don’t bother going to the house and trying to ask the ghost; the knocking stopped that night.

I submit this to you as my statement, as my declaration of innocence. I doubt it will help me now. When I pulled the peg from his chest, I swear it was only to retrieve the gold ring that was looped around it. In my shock I handled everything that has now incriminated me in his murder. All I wanted was my grandma’s ring back, and now it is locked up, like me, awaiting the exhibition of justice.

THE END.

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Garry.

Is Anybody There?

‘Is there anybody there?’ said Carla, curling her lip as she did so, looking like the idea was a bad smell. ‘Why?’

‘She doesn’t get it Baz’ said Simon.

‘Nah, she doesn’t Si’ agreed Baz. ‘Never mind. More for us.’

‘No, wait’ Carla said seriously, seeing the boys smirking and Baz’s shoulder turning her away. ‘I just don’t know what you mean. I’ll do it.’

Baz turned back to face her, studying her closely, looking her up and down, weighing her up. Carla fancied she caught him talking a little too long to bring his eyes past her chest, until the light from a passing car bounced off the bus shelter and he quickly snapped them back up, feigning disinterest.

‘It’s scary. You know? Like…’ Baz waved his hands and adopted a floaty, vibrato voice. ‘Is there anybody there?’ he repeated, ominously.

‘Alright.’ Carla flapped her arms and shrugged. ‘Is there anybody there?’ she said to the boys, the bus stop, and the raindrops.

‘Not here!’ Simon laughed, holding his hand to his mouth instinctively, like cool kids do when they risk showing some emotion. ‘It’s got to be someplace scary, and on your own.’

‘Like where?’ said Carla, looking down the grey, sodden street, past the yellow stain glow of the chip shop window and weak clementine streetlights.

‘The old house on Parsley Lane’ said Baz. ‘It’s haunted.’

‘You mean, the squatters place? That old wreck?’

The old cottage stood stoically at the end of an old lane that had once connected the village to the main road but had been cut in half and hidden away by a glisteningly dull concrete bypass. The other houses on that street had withered and died, as appendages of any severed artery must, but not the old cottage. It still stood, crumbling, but erect. It probably belonged to someone, somewhere, but it had long been the refuge of teen drunks and rural junkies.

‘You been there before then?’ said Baz.

‘Kind of, but it was in the day, and I didn’t go in very far.’

In truth, Carla had only gotten as far as the doorway before she was overcome with guilt and worry that someone would find out she was trespassing. Her so-called mates has been standing on the lane, egging her on and teasing her when she turned and ran back to them. But that was years ago. Now she was older and not scared of her mum, or anyone else, telling her what she should and shouldn’t do, like sneaking out with the naughty boys from school. Skulking off to get out of her mind and forget about everything going on back home.

‘It’s not haunted!’ Carla said, surprised that boys like Baz and Simon would believe in things like that or anything that wasn’t alcohol, drugs or girls.

‘Then it won’t be scary, but you still need to do it if you want one of these’ said Simon, unfurling his fist, revealing three blue triangular pills embossed with a dove in flight.

Carla’s eyes widened. She hadn’t really believed Simon had them, and didn’t think she should ask in case she seemed desperate. Part of her had almost hoped he’d been lying about it. They looked like sweeties.

‘Are they real?’ she said without thinking.

‘You calling me a liar?’ Simon snatched his hand back, thrusting it into his jacket pocket.

‘I’ve just not seen them before. They look like sweets.’

‘Yeah’ laughed Baz. ‘They are. Sweeties. That’s what people call them.’

The two boys laughed. Carla had got away with it. She was treading a thin line with this pair. She didn’t know them very well, other than by reputation, which was exactly why she had made it her business to know them now.

‘Let’s do it’ said Simon, heading off as he did so. Carla and Baz fell in behind.

‘Don’t you want to know?’ said Baz, glancing sideways from under his hood.

‘Know what?’

‘Why it’s haunted?’

‘Oh. Yeah.’ Carla didn’t really care. She knew they were testing her, for kicks. She just needed to get through this stupid game so she could get what she wanted. She was sure they’d get bored of winding her up soon enough and just take her money.

‘You know there’s an old bed up there?’

Carla shrugged.

‘Well, there is, on the top floor. People always think it’s the squatters, but what squatters bring their own wooden bed?’

Baz waited for a response. Carla waited for him to continue.

‘The bed was there before the house was empty. It’s the only thing left that was. It was a bloke and his son who lived there last, but the boy had fits, and his dad had to tie him down sometimes to stop him hurting himself. But the dad was like a proper slob, and a bit of an alky nutter, you know what I mean?’

Carla nodded. Yeah, she knew.

‘So one of these times, he tied him down, and went off to the pub.’

‘What pub?’

‘I don’t know. But he got proper wasted and ended up getting robbed and the shit kicked out of him. He was in hospital for three days before he died. Beaten up so bad, no one recognised him.’

‘But what about his…? Oh.’ Carla saw where this was going.

‘It was almost a week before they found out who he was and sent someone out to the house.’

‘I suppose they found the son dead in the bed then?’ said Carla, thinking this whole story was a crock.

‘Nah. All they found was a bloody mattress, the restraints, and on the floor, a severed hand, chewed off at the wrist.’

‘Whatever.’

‘It’s true!’ Baz insisted.

‘How do you know?’

‘Because, that boy,’ he looked at Carla with puppy dog eyes, ‘was me!’ He waved his arm in the air, his hand withdrawn into his jacket sleeve.

‘You’re an idiot’ Carla said, trying not to laugh.

‘Baz! Come here. You, wait’ Simon called out from ahead. He had reached the entrance to the alley that ran behind parallel rows of houses all the way to Parsley Lane. Baz ran ahead to join him. Carla hung back as instructed, worried he was going to change his mind and ditch the square that had tagged along.

Simon waited till Baz joined him, keeping out of sight around the corner.

‘When we get there and she goes in’ he said, ‘I’ll go round back and climb up the fallen floorboards. You go up the stairs after she gets to the top.’

‘Then what?’ said Baz, ever the eager pupil.

‘When she says it, we give her a scare.’

Baz laughed. ‘She’ll shit herself.’

‘I hope not’ said Simon. ‘Not if we’re gonna do it.’

‘Do what?’

‘There’s that bed up there, ain’t there? After she’s had one of these mate, she’ll be up for anything.’

‘Huh. Yeah’ Baz said, uncertainly. Simon seemed to notice, and gave him a jab on his chest.

‘What? You scared you might actually get some for a change? Here. Let’s take ours now. We’ll be up by the time we get there.’

Simon fished in his pocket and picked out two of the pills, handing one to Baz and immediately swallowing the other. Baz did the same, ever the faithful student.

‘Come on’ Simon shouted back around the corner to Carla.

On the small trek down the narrow passage, lit only by the occasional suburban security light and the second-hand glow of the moon, Carla tried to pick up her conversation with Baz. Until now he was just a lad, some guy whose mate could score pills. She didn’t even know Baz would be here, or that this whole exchange would take longer than five minutes at the bus stop. But Simon had insisted they all took the ‘sweeties’ together. He said it would be safer, cos she’d never had them before. She didn’t really care, as long as she got to scratch this itch, this idea that one small thing could take her away, if only for a short while, and make her happy again. Ecstatic, even.

This Baz though, had surprised her. That little tale about the house was not expected. She thought these guys generally communicated in grunts and insults, not elaborate jokes. Maybe she’d misjudged him. No, maybe she misjudged people like him. Then again, Simon wasn’t exactly breaking the mould so far. Since they’d met up he’d done little else but tell her what she needed to do to get his approval and directed her around his stupid little ritual.

‘You been in this house then?’ Carla asked Baz, while simultaneously trying to keep up with the boys who were walking quickly ahead in single file.

‘Erm, a bit, yeah’ he said without turning.

‘Of course you have, when you were strapped to the…’

‘I was just being stupid’ Baz snapped, this time throwing back the hint of an impatient sneer over his shoulder.

Never mind thought Carla. I’m not here to make friends.

There were no street or porch lights at the end of the alley. It dwindled away into a muddy path that led out to the puckered dirt and gravel track that was Parsley Lane. The rain gathered in treacherous star-speckled puddles of indeterminable depth at almost every step, and the scrub land on either side was overgrown with bramble and nettles. The rain had stopped, but the overhanging hawthorns still dripped noisily with its remnants.

The rest of the journey was silent, save for the occasional splashing of misplaced feet and cursing from the boys. The house was a welcome sight to Carla when finally they arrived, if only to get the conversation going again and break the monotony of silence in the dark.

They stood by what remained of the gate, the two posts that almost sarcastically opened the way to a garden that had long ago lost any fence that required a passing point. Hints of flagstones parted the long, limp grass of the front lawn in a straight line to the front door that hung desperately from one hinge. The frames of the two symmetrically placed front windows on either side of the door were smashed, cracked or absent entirely. The paintwork on the wooden sills was blistered and rotten, and the roof tiles, while mostly still in situ, had slid into precarious ceramic drifts in several places. Only the stonework of the exterior walls retained any of the dwelling’s former charm and glory, standing sturdy, mossy ,weathered and worn in that strangely desirable way.

Neither Carla nor the boys knew this place when it was occupied, when the grass was trimmed and the borders were in bloom and the fence freshly varnished. When the polished windows reflected the life outside and in. It had, for many generations, been a happy place, full of memories that it shaped and sheltered. It had also been an unhappy place at times, as almost all homes have.

Baz was not completely wrong with his half-remembered tale that had been passed down, chewed up, diced and deranged by the local schoolchildren. A father and son had indeed lived there once, and the boy was unwell and rarely left the house. The father was a drunk and met his end following a brawl, but by that time the boy was already dead and buried in the back-garden alongside the mother he’d never known. They had both died from tuberculosis, and the father’s alcoholism had followed the tragedy.

Perhaps, at the time, the boy and his father were mocked by jealous and suspicious neighbours who sowed tall tales of torture and neglect to keep idle minds busy. People can be cruel, and that cruelty has consequences, sometimes even beyond life.

‘Right’ Simon said, taking a deep breath through his nose, feeling an unnatural welling of energy inside him starting to build. ‘You’ve got to go in, go upstairs, stand by the bed and say ‘is anybody there?’ three times.’

Happy to get this over with, Carla stepped towards the house.

‘Wait!’ said Simon, his eyes widening, quite out of his control. ‘I haven’t finished.’

Carla waited, bored.

‘You’ve got to say it three times, and wait for, I dunno, thirty seconds after each one. Otherwise it doesn’t count.’

Carla considered asking him again if he wouldn’t just take her tenner and let her have the pill without this charade, but he had made it clear to her that wasn’t going to happen when she first asked at the bus stop. He wanted a read on her, she reckoned. He wanted to know she was compliant enough not to go crying to anyone about him should something go wrong. He wanted her to prove herself in some way, and if this was the best his stupid little head could come up with, she was happy to play along.

‘Alright, alright’ she said, and headed off again.

‘We’ll come to the door, so we can hear you’ Simon added, hopping behind her. He seemed agitated, animated. Carla noticed Baz seemed a little strange too, his eyes bulging slightly, his breath quickening. Maybe they were more scared than she was? It was their idea after all. Maybe they actually believed in this kind of thing.

Carla nonchalantly pushed her way through the diagonal door.

‘Whatever.’

Happy she was inside and out of sight, Simon grabbed Baz heavily by the shoulder.

‘You feeling it mate?’ he said, not really looking at him, but instead, at everything else in the Universe.

Baz nodded, or thought he did, it was more like a twitch.

‘Uh huh. These are strong. Proper…’ Baz trailed off, another wave hitting the back of his eyelids.

‘I’m going round back.’ Simon said, his jaw jutting out involuntarily. ‘You sneak up the stairs behind her. When she says it the second time, we jump out.’

‘What do we say?’ said Baz, trying very hard to focus on the instructions.

‘Boo?’ said Simon, instantly.

‘Yeah, alright. Boo. Got it’ Baz confirmed.

They would have laughed, had their minds not been too busy blowing at the time.

They heard Carla reach the top of the stairs, and scurried off to their mission. Despite the blood pounding through his heart and temple, Baz stepped as light as a burglar up the stairs, keeping his weight spread to each side of the steps that hadn’t perished, and steadying himself on the damp plaster at each side. He was half way up when Carla spoke.

‘Is there anyone there?’ she said quickly, unconvincingly, and with a sigh.

Simon had circled around to the back garden and jumped through the broken window at the rear of the house. He clambered up the broken boards that had created a ramp between the floors and was now cowering behind the door frame in the bathroom, waiting for his moment to pounce. He heard Carla’s first attempt too, and was angry that she wasn’t taking this seriously. He wanted her to be scared. He’d hoped she’d be scared already, let alone when they jumped out. But it didn’t matter. He had something she wanted, and she had something he wanted, and maybe even Baz would get lucky if he didn’t wimp out. Simon felt another euphoric crash come over him as he anticipated the coming moments. He was still trembling with the sensation when he heard her.

‘Is there anybody there?’ Carla said again, more impatiently than anything else.

Simon and Baz both moved into the corridor from their respective hiding places and spotted each other. They crept towards the opening to the bedroom. From each side of the empty frame they peeked in and saw Carla standing with her back to them, hands on hips, one knee slightly bent and ticking off the seconds under her breath until the next shout-out was due.

Just as she was ready to speak out again, Simon gave a small nod and they jumped up and out into the room, both forgetting the script and just screaming like maniacs when they did so. They really let rip. Baz squealed like a stuck pig, and Simon roared like an altogether more ferocious beast. Together it made quite the hellish chorus as they waved their arms, rolled their eyes and shrieked just inches from the girl’s head.

Carla just stood there and sighed.

‘Is there anybody there?’ she said monotonously for a third time, and then turned, walking past the boys without a glance or start.

They followed her out to the top of the stairs.

‘You deaf or something?’ Simon spat.

Carla looked down the stairs.

‘I’ve done it’ she shouted down, and then waited. ‘I said I’ve done it!’ she shouted again, louder. ‘Is there anybody there? Hello? Are you guys still there? Is anybody there?’

Then Carla seemed to notice something in the gloom below.

‘Baz? Is that you?’

‘I’m here!’ said Baz, standing right beside her, but still Carla looked away. He followed her gaze down the steps, and whimpered.

‘Is… is anybody there?’ Carla said one last time, reaching for her mobile phone.

Somebody was there. Two bodies, in fact. One slumped by the front door, and another, collapsed across the broken window looking over the back garden. Both had expired following a massive allergic reaction to recently ingested narcotics. The chances of such an extreme reaction, a coroner would later report, were several thousand to one, yet both boys had suffered the same fate the moment they’d crossed the threshold.

The house in Parsley Lane still stands derelict, but the stories have changed. Now, any playground raconteur will tell you that if you stand at the front door and call out ‘Is anybody there?’, you will surely hear the faint cries of two cruel boys who can never go home.

THE END.

A note from the Author:

Thanks for reading! I really appreciate it, and it would be great if you could help me reach more people by sharing this on social media by using the buttons below, or copying and pasting the web address far and wide.

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The Timeless Whirlpool of the Talkers.

I can still hear them, at night, long after the bell has rung and the doors are locked. I lay, restless and buzzing from the constant hum that has followed me to bed. The echoes of a hundred simultaneous voices still reverberate in my weary skull, punctuated by the chink of glass on glass.

Sometimes, when I am not so tired and lay alert and listening carefully, I can almost make them out, as if I have the ability to listen again to everything that was said that night, even those words I paid no attention to before. But somehow the utterances evade me. They crescendo and fluctuate with the familiar cadence and rhythm of a million well-worn conversations, but not one syllable can I decipher.

It’s not every night I hear them, just those evenings where the energy generated in the public house seems to overcome the natural order of the silence that should follow. You can tell, when you are down there, a night like that. It is when the edges of the various social bubbles meet and begin to merge. Ripples of mirth, mayhem and intrigue can spread from pocket to pocket, through lounge to bar and back again in a circle of electricity, growing ever more potent and powerful. Fuelled by flowing confidence from tap and optic, sometimes it can be frightening, but always exciting.

The weak willed like me get swept away with it, well past the end of the shift and the hasty clear-up and into the after-hours when tips are turned to drink, and drink is put to good use. Those remnant handfuls of workers and the few favoured regulars, leaching off the residual glow in the last illuminated corner of the now barricaded sanctuary. Here we tell on ourselves, and others. Here we share secrets we ought not. Here the accumulated gossip of a good night is doled out and dissected. We take more from you than your money.

And here, when those of us who don’t retreat because we work for our board (and maybe, board for our work?), are all that’s left, one last door is locked behind us as we ascend to our dowdy refuge. In my room, directly above the epicentre, I try to unwind and the murmurs begin anew.

Now, it appears, they are growing ever more frequent and raucous. Even in the quiet midweek, when fever pitch is seldom reached, I have begun to hear them. I wonder how long the auditory afterimage of the last searing evening can actually last. Is it there all the time? Have I partook in one-to-many extra-curricular sessions so that I can no longer shake them? Is it only when hush is mixed with dark that my senses notice the ever-present drone?

Here on a quiet and almost forgotten Wednesday, alone in the flat, punters long departed and lines well drained, I cannot catch that sober and elusive early-night, thanks to the infernal chatter from below. Yet I know no one is there. I turned the keys and set the alarms myself, but for all the world, beneath the boards the night continues. Without intoxication or high spirits to blame, there can be no doubt.

It’s 2am. It’s been 2am forever, it seems. Whatever the point was of lying here, it has long gone, and all I can think about is the chatter. A laugh breaks out of the mumble soup, as clear as the day will soon be. I swing my legs out of the sheets and pull on the jeans that lay waiting where I stepped out of them an eternity ago. I wrap the rest of me in the tatty gown that smells of smoke so stale it’s almost become fresh again, like everything here, smothered in an amber film of nicotine.

I don’t like to go downstairs after the furore has been sent home and its fallout contained behind the frosted door at the top of the stairwell. I don’t even like coming up those stairs with the cloying darkness on my heels. I never go down, usually, until the daylight has worked its normalising charm. But I’ve got to exorcise this madness from my mind and  give my eyes chance to lay waste to this myth in my ears.

I light up the stairs from the single switch at the summit and make the dash down to the extensive panel at the bottom, around the corner, groping in the darkness for the top row. I realise I have my eyes closed as I do this, a fire-with-fire defence against the heavy black. I click the switches and open my eyes. Only the inside of the bar is lit-up, as it must be at this time of night, should a passing lawman suspect some unlicensed frivolities peeking through the heavy curtains. Beyond the polished and worn oak, shadows prevail.

I tread the extended horseshoe that links bar to lounge yet never has the full view of either. I round the last corner to the far end of the lounge. The sticky, sickly orange glow of the bar lights barely penetrates as far as the upturned chairs resting uneasily on the squeaky red leather benches that run the line of the outer walls.

There is no one here but me, of course, and I hear nothing but the wind in the streets and the slight hum of meters and machines in the cellar. Suddenly I feel awake, stupid and thirsty. Why not pour myself a drink? After all, I’m alone tonight, for a change, and I can put it on my tab to be paid for later by the cheap generosity of clients with too many coppers in their change.

The optic drains into the tumbler, once, twice, hell, let’s make it three times. The ice machine has a few flakes left to push the whisky even further, and a cigar from the tin next to the limes tops it all off.

I don’t really want to go around to the other side, with the shadows, but my bare feet are cold on the dampish tiles behind the bar, and the high-stools are still out, customer-side. There’s a small envelope of pitch black where the hatch lets me out into a small corridor that joins the bar, lounge and services. I skip through it and back to the lounge, a shudder running with me all the way. I take the first stool I come to that hugs the last trap before the door, partitioned by thin, carved pillars.

My drink waits for me on the bar. It feels reassuring to sit facing inwards, like any lonely regular drinking alone at early doors, lost in thoughts, or found in their absence. The whiskey stings at first as it runs on dry, cracked lips. A slither of the ice remedies that as I work it around my gums before taking that first retching gulp. It makes me draw breath through my teeth, and now I’m ready.

‘I never knew him, not really…’ a woman says from behind, from the corner where we normally huddle after hours, cackling and gossiping. My bad habit of ear-wagging kicks in, and then I remember: I’m alone.

‘That’s not what I heard’ a guttural, male voice says, mirthlessly, almost menacingly. I don’t recognise it, I don’t like it, and I won’t, no, I can’t turn around. My glass is frozen at my mouth, tilted but not pouring, I can feel small discrepancies in the rim of the glass tremble sharply against my lips. I can’t move it, no, I daren’t move it.

‘You hear too much, and not half of it true’ the double-negative woman says. Is this it? Has the senseless chatter finally crystallised in my delusion? There is no doubt now. I can hear them, but they can’t be there. For one thing, the rear of the bar is mirrored, and although it is hard to see past my own pale reflection into the murk beyond the reach of the lights, I find not even a hint of a silhouette.

‘I know more than you think’ the man says. ‘I know he wasn’t alone that night, even if that was how they found him. Even if all the doors were locked from the inside, like they said.’

‘Oh yeah, detective?’ the woman says, sarcastically. ‘How’s that then?’

‘There was the glasses, for a start.’

‘Glasses?’

‘That’s what I said. Two glasses, on another table.’

The woman laughs in a breathy cackle I feel I’ve heard before, in the dusk chorus.

‘It’s a pub!’ she finally manages to spit out. ‘So what?’

The man doesn’t seem to find it, or her, funny.

‘It was after hours. The chairs were put up every night, the tables polished, the ashtrays emptied. Every night. Without fail.’

‘So he missed one.’

‘And didn’t notice it when he came down? Sat hardly a yard away?’ The man was speaking to her like she was stupid, barely tempering the contempt in his voice. Something tells me these two knew each other too well. Well enough to hate and abide each other’s companionship until the miserable sun burned out. The kind of couple who come to the pub every night to get away from each other, but end up spending each and every night in the same corner, trapped in contemptuous companionship.

‘And there’s more’ the man continued while the woman scoffed and gulped something down. ‘The mirror was broken.’

‘Which one?’

‘Behind the bar, over there.’

My spine locks. They’re looking this way. I can feel it, them, burning through the back of my neck. But in the mirror, nothing.

The woman grumbles, unconvinced, but curious.

‘I thought they found him slumped over there?’ she says. Now the burning is right on me, all over and around me. The man grunts in agreement.

‘So how did he smash the mirror? Unless he had a funny turn first.’

‘And then sat down for a whiskey and cigar?’ the man pointed out.

‘Maybe to calm his nerves’ she says, sounding unconvinced. ‘Anyway, he never lit the cigar, I heard.’ The pair fall quiet as both take slurps from drinks.

Calm my nerves? She might be right. That’s what these people are, my nerves, at devilish play. Nothing more. The mirror isn’t broken, and I’m not leaving this cigar untouched, I’m having it right now, except… The matches. Not here. Not in my pocket. Behind the bar. No problem. I take the cigar and break it in two.

‘It was snapped in half, though. What was that about?’ says the man, followed by a long sucking noise of moisture being drained from a presumably hairy top lip.

Oh come on! This is beyond madness now. This is a joke. A joke on myself. The mirror already confirms what I know. There is no one there. A quick glance over my tense shoulder will further validate this absence of reality. All I need to do is turn, but the thought of doing so, of actually peering into that dark corner, is the same thought as my heart stopping. But look I must. I must.

I turn my eyes first. Slowly my head follows, hastened by the confirmation from my periphery. There is, thankfully, no one, nothing. The voices have stopped. They haven’t just taken a break from their gossip, they have ceased to be present at all. I can feel the settled ambience of the empty room and my eyes have adjusted to the dimness. It is, as usual, just another corner of a smelly, locked, abandoned pub, save one. I shall take my drink, and another, and what remains of my cigar to bed. I swivel fluidly on my stool back to the bar.

‘Last orders?’

The shock is automatic, the snap of my hand to the drink beyond any conscious decision. The intense, sepulchral face is inches from mine and the bottomless eyes are absorbing my own. I hurl the glass at the craggy faced man who has appeared before me. I take in the dirty blue apron, sweaty white shirt and crooked teeth of the foul barkeep as the vessel passes through, and crack! I blink heavily at the shattering impact. My eyes open. The mirror is broken. The spectre has gone. The drink, somehow, is still grasped tightly in my white, blood-starved fingers.

I try to relax my grip, but the messages don’t get through. The tumbler is at eye level. The cold oak veneer is pressed against my cheek. Am I resting? Did I fall asleep? If so, why can’t I sit up? I can only feel myself tipping backwards from the stool, falling out of myself, away, into the baying crowd who ramble noisily behind me. They claw at me with their fingers and their words, tearing me cell by cell into the timeless whirlpool of the talkers. All that is left of me out there is a husk, broken, like the cigar, in so many fragments and tatters.

I understand now. If you hear them, their stories, their musings and mumbling in the night, then they have you. If you know their words, they know you. They have you.

I am with them now. This was my story. Soon we will have you too.

THE END.

A note from the Author:

Thanks for reading! I really appreciate it, and it would be great if you could help me reach more people by sharing this on social media by using the buttons below, or copying and pasting the web address far and wide.

If you’re feeling really generous, you can support my writing by buying any of my books advertised in the sidebar, or donating £1 (or whatever you can spare) using this link:

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Thanks. 

Gaz Facts #1 – Cheese is actually made of nightmares.

nightmarecheese2

It’s a little known fact* that the myth ‘cheese gives you nightmares’ is actually a mistranslation of the very origins of cheese itself: cheese is made of nightmares! Or rather, the concept of cheese originated from a nightmare.

Think about it. At some point in the ancient past, in the ‘pre-cheese’ dark ages, someone, somewhere, must have looked at a quantity of rotting milk and thought to themselves ‘hmm, those lumpy bits look nice’.

Who else but an individual plagued by nightmarish visions and motivations would have succumb to such an urge? I imagine a primitive dairy farmer, tossing in his straw bed, beads of sweat running down his furrowed brow as images of naked, toasted bread, danced behind his tired eyes, mocking him and shrieking for a delicious topping of some sort.

But where would he find such a thing? It literally didn’t yet exist. Perhaps he experimented with other mouldy produce before hitting on the all important milk-factor. How different our favourite snack would be now if that farmer had instead reached into a vat of rotting fish carcasses. But no! Thankfully he was prompted by the nocturnal whisperings of demonic muses to try and eat a mass of congealing cow’s lactic fluid.

And thank God he did! It’s delicious.

 

*This is not a fact. From a whole two minutes researching this on the internet, no one really knows how cheese was discovered, but was likely cured naturally from bacteria on cows teats and has been dated back over 7500 in Europe from remnants of rudimentary cheese straining equipment.

Fantastic Beast – And Where To Find Them Review

Using my Laughs, tears, cheese and cheers rating system, here is my spoiler-free review for ‘Fantastic Beast – And Where To Find Them’, with links below if you want to find out more.

Quick Summary

I am generally ambivalent about Harry Potter. However, as my wife is a fan of the books I have seen all the films and even been on the studio tour (which was actually quite fun). I haven’t read the books, and can’t say I intend to.

I didn’t mind the films of the book series. They were watchable at least, and got better as they went along. Still, I wouldn’t watch them again (willingly, though my wife might make me).

When ‘Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them’ came along, I can’t say I was tripping over myself to go and see it, but it was, alas, inevitable.

I’m happy to report I was pleasantly surprised. You can tell this instalment in the ‘Potter’ universe was written to be a film, rather than an adaptation, and for the casual viewer like me, it benefits greatly. I found it more accessible, engaging and entertaining that the book-based series, and it was a fun way to spend a couple of hours.

Laughs: 2/5

As the title suggests, the ‘Fantastic Beasts’ themselves are packed with personality that is well rendered and realised on the screen. The cheeky little devils get up to all sorts of mischief and mayhem, sometimes with giggle-worthy results. They are definitely the stars of the show here when it comes to chuckles, though the supporting cast play their part.

Tears: 2/5

I must admit, for a family film, it didn’t pull it’s punches when it came to emotional impact. Behind the cutesy beast premise, there is a lethal darkness. I can imagine a lot of adults had to have conversations about life and death after going to watch this film. As I remember, the Harry Potter films also weren’t afraid to massacre a few darlings here and there. In a strange way, it is quite refreshing that this isn’t dumbed down, and gives the film an edge it otherwise wouldn’t have had.

Cheese: 0/-5

I’m making allowances here on the presumption that if you’re watching this film you are aware that it is set in a world where wizards live in parallel with normal humans and go to schools with such names as ‘Hogwarts’, and call none-magic people ‘Muggles’, right? If not, and that’s a bit much for you, you may readjust this score accordingly. I still found the romance sub-plots and dialogue well pitched and underplayed, even within these expansive parameters.

Cheers: 3/5

This is a fun film, with a self-contained premise that quickly draws you in and gives you a lot to ‘get behind’ in terms of the ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ and the general fun of chasing around and capturing magical monsters (someone should make some kind of game where you can do that on your phone…). The action sequences benefit from the panoply of magical animal quirks that need to be overcome, and alongside it, there is a deeper, darker threat that needs extinguishing. This all leads to an agreeable way to spend a couple of hours of your viewing life.

Fears: 2/5

I’ve mentioned the darkness in this film already, and for kids, I expect it may border on ‘behind the sofa’ scary in places, so I’m giving it a couple of points as the fear-factor is a crucial part of what makes this not just a silly film about invisible sloths and pick-pocket platypus things.

Bonus Category: + 1 Going it alone

It would be easy to accuse J.K Rowling of ‘cashing in’ on the Potter franchise with this film. It has a loose link to a slim, charity ‘booklet’ she once wrote (with the same name), that was meant to be a handbook written by the main character of this film. But I’m told that the film itself is totally original from this, and not a stretched-out adaptation. Also, I’m told, there is enough of the Potter back-story in this to make this cannon with the wider universe.

All in all, I think what Rowling has shown here is that she can write films, too, and not just books that get made into them. This could, in theory, lead to a long and prosperous franchise.

Total: 10

(Check the Leader Board to see how it compares…)

 

Links:

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fantastic_Beasts_and_Where_to_Find_Them_(film)

IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3183660/

Agree / Disagree with my assessment? Leave a comment to let me know or submit your own scores for this or any other film listed in the leader board below to be aggregated into the ‘readers choice’ table on the main rating page.

And if you enjoy my reviews, please like/share this page link, and consider taking a look at my original science fiction books advertised in the side bar! Thanks for reading.

Arrival (2016) Review

Using my Laughs, tears, cheese and cheers rating system, here is my spoiler-free review for sci-fi linguistics-based thriller ‘Arrival’, with links below if you want to find out more.

Quick Summary

I’d heard good things about ‘Arrival’ but not really taken much notice at the time and marked it as a ‘one to watch when it’s available to rent’ type film (which to be fair, is the majority of my movie viewing). As I ordered it on Amazon, the words ‘linguistic expert’ flashed by on the description, and triggered a vague memory. Then, within about 20 seconds of the start of the film, it hit me… “I’ve read this!”.

Based on the excellent sci-fi short “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang that I read at some point in the last six months with no knowledge of this film’s provenance, the spirit of the story, and an almost unchanged plot, is captured well in this slow-paced but big-themed exploration of time, communication, fate… and aliens, of course.

Laughs: 0/5

I’m not going to even try and pretend there is any laughs in here. It is a sombre, serious and reflective movie, thankfully not ruined by any shoehorned smartarses or sidekicks.

Tears: 3/5

I’m scoring this high on tears, though my face was dry. I think that’s because I knew the plot before watching so had already experienced that first jolt of realisation that comes as the pieces are put together. That said, I did gain more insight into the original story from watching this, which often happens to me with good adaptations. Even as someone who knew the general idea, I still found it moving, especially after a little post-viewing reflectiveness.

Cheese: 0/-5

I think cheese, like laughs, would have killed this film dead, so thankfully, this is a fromage-free zone.

Cheers: 3/5

I’m scoring this a decent ‘cheers’ rating, not for action or easy plot arcs, but because it does a really decent job of weaving and resolving a consistent thread from the first scene to the last, without any wishy-washy ‘Interstellar’ style devices coming out of nowhere to try and round it all off and act all clever like because they ‘did some special fx’.

This is down to disciplined adherence to the strong source material that already did this well. If you watch this and don’t know what I mean, then think again about the ending in context of the whole film. You’ll get there eventually. Message me if you’re stuck.

Fears: 2/5

There is a certain creepiness about the alien ‘heptapods’ and the misty spaceship in which they reside… I don’t want to say more to avoid spoiling anything, but the almost hypnotic slowness of the encounters adds to the general unease. I think it’s okay to say though (in case you are worried) that this isn’t a horror. Don’t expect ‘Alien’ – but do expect aliens, and linguistics.

Bonus Category: +3 Say what?

I’m not sure if this is a credit for the original short-story writer, or the producers who decided to make it into a film, but you tell me the last time you watched a film where the main lead was a female linguistics expert who is tasked with deciphering a circular alien language?

It is such an unusual and unique plot (that actually works), you will find yourself wishing you had the skills and reason to try and unlock the mysteries of extra-terrestrial cryptograms. Not many films can say that, if any.

Total: 11

(Check the Leader Board to see how it compares…)

Links:

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrival_(film)

IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2543164/

Agree / Disagree with my assessment? Leave a comment to let me know or submit your own scores for this or any other film listed in the leader board below to be aggregated into the ‘readers choice’ table on the main rating page.

And if you enjoy my reviews, please like/share this page link, and consider taking a look at my original science fiction books advertised in the side bar! Thanks for reading.