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Ready to sell your writing skills? How to work out how much to charge

How-big-salary-to-ask-for-in-a-job-interviewOne of the most scary things about becoming a freelance writer was deciding how much to charge clients for my work. Like many writers, I found it hard to sell myself. Deciding to charge money was easy – but the act of sending an estimate to potential clients took me right out of my comfort zone. I had to re-evaluate how I valued my skill and work out how to sell that value to clients. Then, asking for money felt more natural. So how did I get to a point where asking for money became easier?

Don’t think in terms of money – think in terms of time

A former colleague enjoyed telling me a story about a street artist who charged people in return for a portrait sketch. It took him less than five minutes to do an incredible portrait for which he would ask £20. When one potential customer questioned how he could charge so much for just a few minutes’ work, the artist replied, “But it’s taken me 20 years to learn how to do this.”

This is the point about attaching value to your work. If you really don’t know where to start, try and think how long it would take the client to write to the standard you will write. How long would it take the artist’s customer to draw a sketch to the same standard? Value your work in terms of time. I know I can write a 12-page website in a day, maybe less, while a client might twice that amount of time. How much does that client charge an hour? How much “billable time” would he lose if he did the writing? There’s your starting point for setting a value.

Less is more – though some clients find this difficult to understand

A favourite question of journalism tutors is, “Which is the more difficult newspaper to write for, The Guardian or The Sun?” The typical response is The Guardian, but in fact The Sun takes a greater degree of editing skill. Why? Because you have to tell the same story in fewer words. That’s difficult. Headline writing is a real talent. Writing taglines and catchy slogans takes a lot of time and effort. Advertising agencies charge £1,000s.

The best way to discover how hard writing short, tight copy is, is to try it for your own business or web page. You’ll write plenty of rubbish before you end up with a shortlist, and even then there’s hard work to do. Can you get across what the product or service is and does in five or six words? Can you tease without giving everything away? Could it be too vague? Does it use the right words and tone for the client’s audience?

I still get clients asking me, “Can you just come up with a slogan for my website?” and I always answer no. Even now, with 20 years in this game, there is no “just” when coming up with slogans, taglines and headlines. Convincing the client of this is the hard part. When you know how long it takes, charging for it is easier.

Research the competition – but don’t be frightened by it

It stands to reason that if you charge twice as much as someone else, you’re less likely to get work. But don’t be scared to be more expensive. I despair at the dreadfully low rates some bloggers appear willing to work for. If you don’t value your work, why should any client? Let’s face it, if writers thought that price was the only reason for choosing to work with them, we’d all be billing at a fraction of Minimum Wage. They don’t, and that’s because most clients (not all, I’ll tell you) know that low price often leads to low quality.

So when you research the competition, be honest with yourself about the quality of their work. If it’s on a par with yours, then you’re competing on price and customer service. The latter can make the difference. If you think you’re the better writer, be bold, charge more, and tell clients yours is the superior service.

Clients will go elsewhere, don’t worry. I’ve lost plenty in my time. I used to reduce my prices to get work. Now I stick to my guns, believe in my quality and customer service, and wish clients that go elsewhere “all the best.” They may well get as good or better for less dosh. Good for them. Chances are they won’t, though. Like the artist, I’ve been doing this for 20 years. You’re buying experience, know-how, skill, and that innate “instinct” to know what works and what doesn’t. That only comes from experience, including losing clients as well as winning them.

Add value rather than reduce price

This is one I’ve learned over the years. The great thing about writing is that it can be repurposed. By that, I mean that with a little light editing you can reuse it in multiple instances. For example, a press release can also be a blog post. A blog post can be an email newsletter. An email newsletter can be broken up into social media posts. Tell the client they’ll get more for their money. It won’t add a huge amount of extra work for you, but it’ll preserve your pay rate. That helps pay the bills but more importantly, when you’re finding your way as a writer, it will build your confidence.

Good luck!

How to earn money from writing

moneyI earn a living from writing. Not writing short stories, poetry, or novels. Copywriting. Blogging. Thanks to the phenomenon of “content marketing” there is huge demand for informed, good quality writing. Most of it is only published in electronic form, but that does not make it any less read or useful. On the contrary, most buyers of writing also want their writers to be Internet-savvy too.

If you’re struggling to earn a living from pure creative writing, why not turn your hand to blogging or copywriting? Chances are, someone out there is willing to pay for your knowledge and your writing ability. You just need to believe in yourself, and sell your services. That’s what I did. It was hard, and at first I was convinced I’d never earn a proper living from it. Now I find my scepticism laughable. I wish I’d sold myself as a writer sooner.

So if you’d like to earn some money from your writing but don’t know if you can do it, or where to start, read on.

I’m a writer but what’s my value?

That was the first question I asked myself when I left a marketing agency to start my own copywriting business. I was lucky in that I already had an idea from the agency that businesses needed a writer. I had written text for websites, press releases, flyers and brochures, and even a script for a health and safety video. I’d never done this stuff before and, other than once being a journalist, I’d had no formal copywriting training. I was self-taught. I read a lot and put what I read into practice. I enjoyed the challenge it presented – a very different challenge to writing short stories. I learned how to research the business so I could write about it. I learned what questions to ask. Most importantly, I actually learned that there was a lot I didn’t need to know. I’ll explain what I mean by this later.

It sounds crazy, but I realised not everyone could write as well as I could. I was writing text for some really clever people. Some of them spoke and wrote in jargon. Others would send me something to edit. I’d soon come to understand that while some people were great at writing about their products and services in great detail, they had no idea how to translate it into benefits for their customers. Some would write 500 words when 50 would do. Others would use the passive voice or write sentences so long any reader would give up half way through. You’d be amazed how many people see short sentences as something a child would write. Short sentences work. When was the last time your saw a billboard with a sentence featuring multiple subordinate clauses?

I adapted my writing and suddenly people were paying me for doing it. That was my value. I could translate what a business wanted to say in a way its customers could understand and engage with. What’s more, I could do this without being an expert in the business. Some of my clients needed persuading that this could be a good thing. I learned that not being distracted by the detail meant I could write clearly and succinctly. Now I tell my clients that to engage with customers, I write from their point of view. I don’t need to know everything. All I need to know is what this product or service will do for me. Being outside the business is actually a good thing. That, and being a good writer of course.

Being a writer is YOUR value

I used to think no-one would pay for writing. Everyone can write, can’t they? No! Not to a suitable standard. Many businesses find it hard to sell themselves and simply get a mental block when they start thinking about words on a page. This is where you jump in. You have confidence in words. You’re not weighed down by a wealth of knowledge and distraction. You can write the text for their website, their brochures and flyers, there blogs and adverts. Read what works. Read about other copywriters. Then try it yourself. You can do it and get paid for it.

My first copywriting job

I charged a local business £120 to write a brochure, a six-sided, folded A4 document. I had no idea how much to charge. I was terrified of charging too much and being laughed at. But they took me on. I met with them and asked them questions. I captured far too much information, way more than I needed. The customer thought it was great but with hindsight I didn’t need to spend half the time I did with them. Then it took me a full day to write it. I took a sheet of A4 and folded it the way the brochure would be folded, then tried to work out how much text I could include on each panel. I thought of how I could break information up into 6 sections, and come up with 6 titles. Most of it was bullet points. When I finished the job I found it hard to believe the client couldn’t have done it themselves. Yes, even then I was doubting the value of what I did! Now I don’t think twice about it. If they hadn’t come to me, they would have asked someone else. If they hadn’t asked someone else, chances are that brochure would never have been produced.

What could your first job be?

If you’re already a blogger, then get yourself a paid blogging gig. I’ll cover this in another post. If not, my advice to you would be to try and get yourself a one-off job. Ask family and friends. Ask someone who knows someone who runs their own business. Then get in touch. Introduce yourself as a copywriter. Ask if they need any help. Brochures and flyers are ideal to start with, as are individual web pages. Adverts are harder. Press releases are a specific skill, which I’ll cover in future posts. What I’m saying is, do something small to start creating confidence. Prove to yourself that you can do it. Once you’ve done a couple of jobs, you’ll see that there’s some money to be made. Writing is in big demand. And you’re a writer.


It’s not safe to be near me. But you’ve already gathered that, haven’t you? You’re just here because you want to know why I’m standing on a mountain with a lightning rod in my hand? Well, I’ll make this quick, because lightning can jump, and trust me, so will you if I get a decent dose of the stuff.

I love weather. Especially extreme weather. If it’s wild, I want to be in it. And I don’t mean looking at it through some suffocating double-glazed window, either. I mean in it. Part of it. I want to be wet, I want to blown away, I want the hair on the back of my neck prickling with static charge. I want hailstones stinging my head and bouncing like lottery balls around my feet. I want to smell it, I want that fresh earth and wet smell up my nostrils and in my head. You haven’t been alive until you’ve been out in a storm. Ever walked along sea cliffs in a raging gale? It’s Viagra for the senses!

When I was a kid we had a freak storm, with hailstones the size of golf balls. They smashed up the roof of my mum and dad’s carport. We kept a hailstone in the freezer for weeks and when we cut it in half you could see all the different layers of ice and frozen snow. Ever since then I’ve been hooked on weather.

As a student I took a gap year and went to the States. I was supposed to be working my way round but I ended up in Kansas and fell in with a gang of storm chasers, you know, like the ones on TV. I met Liz who was probably the craziest of the lot, and they were all pretty barmy. Do you know what it’s like to be naked in an electrical storm? I spent the summer with Liz finding out.

We went charging round the Mid-West looking for twisters and thunderstorms and flash-floods, anything we could find that was dangerous. We got into some serious scrapes. Did you see that CNN report last year, the one where a Category Five picked up a farm and dumped it in the Missouri? That’s us running from the flying cow. We escaped, but the guy milking it wasn’t so lucky.

Me and Liz ended up in Vegas and we got married in that Elvis Presley chapel. That was crazy! She had a twister tattoo on her bum, so I got one on mine. We bungee-jumped off Grand Canyon and camped in the desert, although Liz teased me about snakes. I don’t like snakes. In the evenings we watched the lightning over the Rockies. Liz showed me that storms are romantic as well as crash bang wallop. Me and Liz, we couldn’t get enough of them.

Oh, wait a minute. Hear that? Thunder. And not far away, either. I’d better get on with it because you need to be getting out of here.

Me and Liz went round the world looking for extreme weather. Did you know there’s a region in Venezuela that has more lightning strikes per square inch than any other place on the planet? We camped there. In the Andes there’s a lightning study station with conductor rods and metal towers on different summits to encourage the stuff. We stayed there too.

I haven’t told you, have I? Liz got struck by lightning when she was young. She was mowing her mum’s lawn. Pretty stupid I reckon, but she said it was a beautiful day. She said that’s quite common in the States, clear skies and lightning. It burned her hands where she held the mower, and she got this weird white streak in her hair. You can’t deny the scar, or the hair, but I don’t believe the clear sky bit. When I asked her what it felt like, she said it was like a little piece of her got zapped and taken to Heaven. I thought maybe her brain had been zapped. Anyway, she was always telling this story, and people were impressed, and it got under my skin so much I started carrying round a television aerial I nicked from my Uncle Harry’s caravan. I took that bloody thing everywhere we went camping and never once got hit! But it was handy for drying clothes.

Ooh, lightning! Coming this way, I reckon. And there’s the thunder. You can feel it, can’t you, in your bones, like raw energy…

The irony is, it was only when Liz decided we needed to settle down and get proper jobs that she died. We were probably on our last jaunt, in Uganda – they have thunderstorms on 250 days of the year. This bolt of lightning hit a tree, which came down and smashed our jeep. I couldn’t get Liz out. It took two days for someone to come and cut her free. I stayed with her and kept the animals away. All the storm chasers went to the funeral, and they built her a little windmill instead of a headstone because she always insisted she didn’t want a dirty great lump of rock as a testimony to her life.

I only chase storms for one thing now – to get hit by lightning. I’ve been struck six times. Word of advice: don’t get hit when you’re wet. It makes a mess of your shoes and hurts like hell. They say it’s fatal 1 in 10 times, so I reckon my time is due. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not depressed. It’s just I’d like to think Liz was right, that each time you’re hit a little piece of you goes to Heaven. Liz is there now, and I want to be with her again. I miss her.

There! Feel that? The hairs standing up? This is it! Stand back! Stand back! Lightning will jump, remember, and I don’t want you stealing it from me.

Hang on up there, Liz! I’m on my way!

  • Copyright Phil Thomas, all rights reserved

The Deepest Cut

Car-CrashI must be in shock. This is what this is. I know, for instance, that I am sitting in the front passenger seat. The seatbelt is still around me. The dashboard is pressed against my stomach. I’m trapped. I have broken glass in my hair. There is blood in my eyes. The seat is wet, I don’t know what with. I can smell blood and burning. And yet I am not in the car at all. I am standing on the road, looking into the car, at what’s left of me and my husband, and my daughter nearby. I’m standing here with you, holding your hand, because I want you to see what I see.

Start with the here and now. The scene, the “aftermath” as it will probably become known. We bought the car with money from Mike’s parents. Mike’s my husband, he was driving as you can see. It’s not a new car by any means, but it’s the newest we’ve had. The driver has an airbag and there are seatbelts in the backseat. You should know this. It’s a Ford Focus, a 1.4 petrol engine I think, although I don’t know much about these things. There’s nothing left of the front of it. The engine’s where the dashboard was, and the dashboard is right over our legs. It’s pinned me to my seat. The bonnet is crumpled. The front wheels are buckled and the tyres shredded. There’s smoke coming from what’s left of the engine, and I think that man over there is unplugging the battery so there isn’t a fire. Like I say, I don’t know much about these things.

Take a look here. Mike’s alive, as I know I am. But we’re both in shock. Like the real-world me, he can’t move. Strange that he still has his hands on the steering wheel. I thought perhaps he might put a hand on me. To reassure me, you know? But to be fair, I haven’t put a hand on him. We’re like mannequins of ourselves, frozen, eyes wide and starey. We look like ghosts. Mike’s got blood running down his head and the steering wheel’s right up against his chest. It must be hurting. I can hear him breathe, but it sounds difficult. He’s gulping. I should touch him, I should say something. But I can’t. I can’t do a thing. I suppose it doesn’t help that we haven’t touched each other for a long time. At least, not in an intimate way.

The other car is as smashed-up as ours. It’s a Golf, a sports model by the looks of it. The windscreen’s smashed but not broken. The bonnet’s buckled and there’s lots of steam coming from the engine. It stinks of petrol. The driver, a young lad, is trapped behind the steering wheel. His head’s covered in blood and it keeps lolling forwards. Every time it does a thick stream of blood pours from his mouth. There’s a man trying to wipe his face and hold his head still. The driver keeps saying, “Am I ok? Am I ok?” It comes out in blood-bubbles. The man holding his head keeps saying, “You’re fine, son.”

His mate is out of the Golf and is swearing into a mobile phone. He looks unhurt, which is incredible. He’s shaven-headed like his driver friend. Covered in tattoos. I don’t know who he’s talking to. He keeps shrieking, “He’s gonna fucking die!” Someone has told him to stop talking but he lashed out. He’s very angry. So now he’s been left to get on with it. He looks terrified. But at least he can stand up. The foot well of the front passenger seat where he has been sitting is filled with beer bottles.

Follow me now and see my daughter. Charlotte. She’s lying in the road. Hard to comprehend how she came to be on the road so far from our car. If you didn’t know, you might think she had crawled there. You might think she had been a pedestrian and had been run over. But she’s my daughter. She was in the back of our car. It’s easy to guess she had been to a fancy dress party. Or was going to one. She’s still holding her wand. The tinsel angel wings are in the hedge. We made those on the kitchen table yesterday afternoon, before we made angel cakes. She helped sift the flour and beat the mixture. She made a mess, of course, but we laughed. Charlotte is lying in the road now. Her head’s twisted round. It looks like it’s been put on back-to-front. I so want to touch her but of course I can’t. The real-world me is still trapped in the car, still mute, still staring.

I can’t really remember the moment it happened. I don’t even remember seeing the other car. I suppose that’s normal for people in shock. You block things out. What’s really strange are the things I know about before the crash. Things the real me couldn’t know. See, I know what the two lads in the Golf were doing before they got in the car for their little spin. The driver, he was having a row with his dad. His dad was drunk. The lad told him he was a crap father and his dad hit him with a bottle. Cut him right above the eye. And the dad would have carried on hitting him, but the boy got out and jumped into his Golf. He feels safe in his car. Don’t ask me how I know this. Even though his head’s hurting he puts music on with the bass turned up and races off. He picks up his mate. They go to the off-licence and buy loads of booze. They park up in a lay-by hidden by trees and drink it. This is how the lad feels safe. This is the only way he knows how to feel alive. So they set off for their spin. And the lad with the cut above his eye? He starts driving fast. Then he starts crying. He drives faster. His mate tells him to slow down. But he just drives faster still, and cries harder.

And what were we doing before the crash? Having a fight. Another one. Mike’s mobile pinged to say a text message had arrived and I snatched it from the tray to see who it was. He tried to grab it off me but it was too late. Of course, it was from her. I was going to call her. I was going to scream at her. Mike had one hand on the wheel and the other on my arm, trying to grab the mobile. Then he hit me. Not for the first time, but I was stunned anyway. I dropped the phone. Then Charlotte screamed. She took her seatbelt off and lunged forward, standing on the back seat. She grabbed Daddy by his hair and was pulling, screaming, crying. She was wild, terrified. I tried to calm her down, but I couldn’t. My daughter Charlotte was a broken girl before she hit the windscreen.

Now this is all I know about the crash itself. I saw from the corner of my eye the front of the Golf. Just a few feet from us. Inches, maybe. I think I even saw the other driver’s face, his eyes red from crying. Or perhaps these are memories I have created based on what we see now, and what I know of the events before.

That’s pretty much everything. But there’s one last thing I want to tell you. I think it’s important.

I know this is just another car crash. There are lots like it every day. But when you read about it in the paper, you will read about drink-driving. You’ll read about Charlotte. And you’ll be given a list of “non-life-threatening injuries”, as they say; my legs smashed, Mike’s ribs crushed, his wrist broken, and the driver of the Golf biting through his tongue. But it’s the other things I’ve told you about, the things only I could tell you, that are what you need to know. They’re why I hold your onto hand, because, well, I need to hold onto something. There’s a scar on Mike’s face where I hit him and caught him with our wedding ring. And there’s a gash above the young lad’s eye where his dad struck him with a bottle. The crash will change our lives but these cuts were already there, and they are the deepest.

  • Copyright Phil Thomas, all rights reserved

Roar Britannia!

britannia-bridge01“I never feel the rain on my head. I never feel the sun on my back. But why am I always covered in bird shit?”

Llanfair, Stone Lion, Britannia Bridge, Anglesey

A BADGER paused at the side of the road. The rush of wind from the passing objects terrified him. Out of desperation and fear he launched himself onto the strange, hard surface, running as fast as his claws could carry him. He froze as a massive thing roared towards him, a pair of huge eyes glowing white, and he whined as the great thing thundered above his shuddering body. A second later it was gone, and he started running again. He heard a siren, a screech, but he kept on running. Suddenly the objects were hurtling at him from another direction. He kept his head down and ran. As he neared the bushes another huge machine bore down on him and he pushed himself along, stumbled, pushed himself again as a shrill sound filled his ears and just feet from the grass he scrambled with all the energy he could muster and suddenly he felt soil beneath his feet…he’d made it! Breathless yet unable to stop, he tumbled down a small grassy embankment and landed on a smooth steel railing. He lay there, panting, giggling with relief, and was about to get to his feet when he was run over by a train.

The grey squirrels followed the train, hurdling the concrete sleepers but keeping their tails flat to the ground. They stopped just inside the shadow created by the road above and watched as the train trundled away along Britannia Bridge’s single track towards Anglesey. Once it had gone, a squirrel leapt onto a rock while another ordered, “Fall in!” and the grey horde formed itself into neat rows.

“Marines, there is a serious menace in our society today,” the squirrel on the rock told his following. “I am of course referring to the Red menace, which now plagues this land. Unless we learn about this Red curse and take action against its open threats and subversive activity, we shall lose our woodlands, our nuts, and the chance to do those daft obstacle courses on TV.

“The Red menace pretends to be small in number but in reality they proliferate, and in humans they have a powerful ally. We must act swiftly.” The squirrel pointed to the bridge. “Tonight we launch phase one of Operation Kick Red Squirrel’s Ass – we take the bridge, and the island will fall!”

The soldier squirrels approved with a loud cry of “Hooah!”

“Fall out!” another squirrel ordered. “Wachowski, you take point. Flanking formation, five-metre spread, no sound. Let’s move!”

From his rock vantage, the lead squirrel watched as the cohort split into two and Wachowski carried on in front along the centre of the railway tracks. They ventured silently onto the bridge, a single-file either side of the rails, road traffic thundering above them. The lead squirrel spoke into his radio.

“Any contacts, Wachowski?”

“Negative,” the squirrel on point’s voice came back. “Just a walk in the pa…” and then there was a burst of static, followed by silence.

“Say again, Wachowski?”

The lead squirrel waited, and then watched as Wachowski, flattened into a saucer-shape, rolled past his rock and into a bush.

“Lions!” someone screamed from the bridge.

The scream’s echo had barely ended when a huge lion made of stone leapt from a plinth, squashing several squirrels. It swung a giant paw through the air and sent more squirrels flying into the undergrowth. “Run for the trees!” the remaining animals shrieked, turning and scampering back down the railway tracks. But they were too late. A second stone lion jumped out from behind a concrete pillar and scooped several up in its jaws. It spat them out over the edge of the bridge and watched them tumble into the Straits.

“Typical bloody Americans,” the lion said. “They come over here, think they own the place.”

“It’s an ambush!” the lead squirrel shouted. “Fall back!”

The remaining soldiers were already running. A third lion was pounding along the tracks towards them as the other two continued to kick and stamp the ground, forcing the squirrels to dart in all directions. They quickly dispersed into the undergrowth. The lions did not chase them but simply roared and stamped their huge stone paws into the railway ballast. The rout was over in seconds.

The lion that attacked first, Porthaethwy, turned to the other lions. There were now four of them, out of breath and restless.

“We must remain vigilant,” Porthaethwy announced. “Nelson believes they may use a ground assault as cover for an amphibious attack.”

“Let’s ask him,” one of the other lions suggested. He trotted over to a low wall and called out across the water. “Hey! Nelson! Anything to report?”

On the Anglesey side of the Straits a statue of the famous seafaring admiral stood proud on a stone pillar. At the sound of the lion’s voice it turned and looked up at the bridge. “Coast is clear, Llanfair. But I’ll have a quick swim and let you know if those furry little blighters try any funny business.”

As Nelson clambered down from his column, Llanfair turned at the sound of scampering feet behind him and saw a red squirrel running from the island.

“Another attack?” the squirrel asked. There were more red squirrels creeping along the railway tracks behind him, but they wouldn’t come very close.

“’Fraid so, Red,” Llanfair told him. “They’re easy to repel so long as we catch them at it.”

“We appreciate what you’re doing for us,” Red said, holding out a paw. “We’re so afraid but you make us feel safe in our trees. Thank you, Llanfair.”

Llanfair looked at the paw and shook his head. “Better not. I’ll squash you.”

“Of course, but thank you. See ya!” Red turned and scampered into the darkness where the other squirrels waited, shouting, “Right everyone, show’s over. Let’s party and procreate!”

Llanfair shook his head again as Porthaethwy came alongside him. “You see, Porth, they get to have fun. What do we get?”

“Don’t start this ‘woe-is-us’ stuff again,” Porthaethwy said. “It’s bad enough listening to Faenol and his train-spotting reports.”

“Hey, anyone for a snack?” Treborth asked. “We’ve got squirrel, squirrel, squirrel… oh, hello? Half a badger, anyone?”

“You see, that’s exactly what I’m talking about!” Llanfair said, thumping his chest with his paw. “We are an exercise in animal torture.”

“Bad idea mentioning food,” Porthaethwy told Treborth.

“I mean, look at us,” Llanfair continued, as Faenol joined them. “Four lions, cast in stone. Four male lions. No totty for us, thank you very much. And excuse me…” He grabbed a flattened squirrel from Treborth and held it up. “You call this food? No. This isn’t food. This is scraps.”

“Save it, Llanfair.”

But he continued. “Look out there, over the water. See those lights?  Two pubs, one called The Antelope, the other called The Gazelle. In North Wales. Right? Wrong! They’re just teasing us.”

There was a long silence, eventually broken by the sound of a lorry thundering overhead.

“I’m having the badger,” Treborth said finally.

“It could be worse, Llanfair,” Faenol mused, looking wistfully at a Lion Bar wrapper caught in the wire fence. “At least we’re not in a zoo being gawped at all day.”

Llanfair muttered, “That might be preferable,” and then padded off down the railway line, his head down.

“He’s not cut-out to be a stone lion,” Faenol said when he was sure Llanfair was out of ear-shot. “I’ve always said it. He needs a hobby. Something to do.”

“Don’t tell me, let me guess.” Porthaethwy looked up, mocking deep thought. “I know. Train-spotting!”

“No need to make fun of me, Porth.”

“Sad little hobby!”

“Sad? I’m 80 tonnes of limestone, set in concrete, inches from a railway line. I assure you, train-spotting is an astute choice of recreational activity.”

“And what have you spotted recently?” Porthaethwy persisted, and plucked a small notepad from behind Faenol’s left ear.

“Give me that back!” Faenol protested, but Porthaethwy skipped out of the way of his lunges, laughing. He flicked the notepad open to the latest page, where a small pencil rested amidst some scribblings.

“Hmmm, let’s see,” Porthaethwy considered, and began reading. “4.22pm, Virgin Pendolino Class 390. 6.30pm, Virgin Pendolino Class 390. 8.14pm, guess what? A Virgin Pendolino Class 390.”

“Admittedly, Mr Branson has diminished the surprise element somewhat with his identical fleet of power units.”

“I guess if there is one thing in this world more sad than a train-spotter, it’s a train-spotter who spots the same train.” He handed the notepad back to Faenol.

“An Arriva Trains Class 142 Pacer unit went past earlier!” Faenol protested, but Porth wasn’t listening. Instead he had gone over to where Llanfair was slumped against a concrete column, one ear pricked.

“Guess the vehicle?” Porth suggested, and Llanfair nodded. Treborth, who was tucking into the remains of a squirrel, decided to join them.

“I’ll do the mirror,” he said. From the foot of the low wall he pulled a car wing mirror that had been crudely attached to a long pole with a twisted wire coat hanger. He leaned over the wall and held the mirror up, so he could watch the passing traffic. Then the three of them waited quietly. There was a rumble as a vehicle approached, then a series of four thuds in quick succession as the types passed over a metal drainage channel. The lions listened intently.

“Saloon,” Llanfair said, eyes closed, face strained in concentration. “Diesel, obviously. It’s a Ford Mondeo.”

“One-nil to Mr Llanfair,” Treborth announced.

“Colour?” Porth challenged Llanfair, who frowned in thought again.

“Colorado Red,” he decided, then added, “17-inch alloys, Napoli leather in ebony trim. One occupant, average weight, Hallelujah on the stereo, Leonard Cohen’s original studio version from 1984. A full ten years before Jeff Buckley recorded the better-known cover…but I prefer the original.”

Treborth smiled. “Damn, he’s good!”

“I should be, I’ve been doing this every night for the best part of 60 years.”

They listened again. It went quiet with a lull in the traffic. Far away a solitary bird was singing. There was the hum of a small powered boat on the water. Then, much closer, they heard someone sobbing. Llanfair’s eyes snapped open and Treborth quickly withdrew the mirror. Porth looked from one to the other, eyes widening, as the sobbing became louder.

“We’ve got a jumper!”

Treborth dropped his mirror and nearby Faenol threw his notepad to the ground. They charged off to the middle of the bridge where they kept the net. Porth grabbed the mirror and very carefully turned it so he could look outwards and upwards to the vehicle deck of the bridge. He saw a man standing on the wall, leaning against the metal bar and looking out across the water. Treborth and Faenol returned with the net, and Llanfair stepped aside so Porth could direct. They unfurled the net and stretched it taut. Porth, watching the mirror intently, positioned Treborth and Faenol so the net covered where the man might jump. When he was happy, Porth gave a claw’s-up signal.

“Male caucasian, mid 30s, overweight, muttering something,” Porth reported to the others quietly. “Looks like he’s going to strip.”

The four lions watched as a red football shirt, marked with “Ronaldo” and a number seven, floated serenely from above to the water far below.

“Why did you leave us, Ronaldo?” the man cried. “Why? Why?”

“Crap, let him jump,” Llanfair said.

“No!” Porth snapped. “It’s against our code.”

“Your code,” Llanfair reminded him.

“We all agreed to it, Llanfair, you included.”

“Gimme the mirror, then,” Llanfair said. “I’m not being an angel for this loser.”

Porth glared at him but then passed him the mirror. “You better say if he jumps. I’m warning you.”

Llanfair nodded. The man continued to sob and mutter under his breath, although no more items of clothing came floating down. “He’s standing on the rail, he looks drunk,” Llanfair said, watching the image in the mirror. “He’ll fall before he jumps. Get ready!”

Faenol and Treborth squeezed closer to the wall, ready to reach out with the net. Porth discreetly cleared his throat, looked at Llanfair once more, then nodded. He began speaking in a high-pitched voice.

“Hello,” he called softly. “Hello! You there, on the bridge.”

The sobbing faltered, giving way to several loud sniffles.

“Yes, you, you poor thing!” Porth continued in his shrill voice.

“Who…who are you?” the man stuttered.

“I am the Angel Britannia, the guardian of people on the bridge. I am here to save you.”

“I don’t want saving! There’s nothing to live for!”

“Of course there is, you poor, poor child. Tell me your name.”

There was a pause. “Nigel.”

“Nigel!” Llanfair snorted. “No wonder he’s suicidal.”

“Nigel, the Angel Britannia wants you to go home,” Porth said, ignoring Llanfair. “I don’t want you to die, Nigel. It’s not the end of the world that Ronaldo left Manchester United, and is currently the leading scorer in La Liga with 28 goals in 18 games, making Real Madrid the runaway league leaders, while United are floundering at the foot of the Premiership with some commentators even talking about relegation.”

“HE’S JUMPING!” Llanfair screamed.

Faenol and Treborth reached out with the net stretched tight, just as the great bulk of the man fell and landed in it. They took the strain, then watched as Nigel bounced straight out again and fell like a stone into the Straits below.

For a moment none of the lions moved, instead staring into the net where the man had very briefly been.

“Some angel you are!” Llanfair said to Porth. He threw the mirror away in disgust and stomped off into the shadows.

“What the hell was that?” Porth demanded. He ran to the wall and looked down.

Treborth looked horrified. “He bounced the wrong way!”

Faenol put an arm round Treborth to console him. “Don’t be hard on him, Porth. We over-estimated the man’s weight and thus held the net too tightly. Instead of catching him, we trampolined him. We need to assess weight more accurately and practice catching to better manage trajectory and perfect our technique.”

“Then let’s do it,” Porth said firmly. He looked down at the ground and kicked at the ballast. “This is a bad night for the Britannia Bridge lions.”

“No time for bungee-jumping now,” Llanfair said, reappearing from the shadows and out of breath. “Gang of kids approaching from the mainland!”

They dropped everything and ran back to their plinths, where they resumed their lifeless poses. Faenol and Treborth were able to watch as, from along the railway line, five young males stumbled towards them. Each one held a bottle of beer and they were swearing loudly at each other.

“She ain’t worth it, yeah?” one said. “Just a Maes-G slag, like the rest of ‘em.”

“You’d still give her one, though,” another argued. “Maes-G or not, she’s fit.”

“Betcha I can hit that lion from here,” a tall lad said. He pulled down his hood and took a final swig from his bottle.

“Closest to the nose wins.”

They stopped, and two more pulled down their hoods. “On the nose!” one said, and hurled his bottle. It smashed into Treborth’s left shoulder and the splinters flew off his back and scattered into the railway ballast.

“I can hit the other one.” Another bottle flew and crashed onto Faenol’s head, exploding in a shower of green-glinting glass. “Close, but no cigar.”

“Pussies, the lot of you.” Two more bottles rained down on Faenol and another cannoned off Treborth’s face and slapped its way through the undergrowth.

“I’m bored.”

They stood under the road bridge between Faenol and Treborth, idly picking up ballast and throwing it. One began kicking at a railway sleeper left by the wall.

“People buy them,” the tall one said.


“Railway sleepers. I seen ‘em on eBay.”


Another lad stepped forward and there was a glint in his eye. “I wonder what’d happen if you put it across the tracks.”


“Or you’d cause a train crash and kill people.”


“Serious. You can derail a train easy by putting stuff on the tracks.”

The lad that made the suggestion pushed the one standing by the sleeper out of the way, stooped, and picked up one end of the wooden block. “Someone gonna give me a hand, then?”

“No way. That’s not funny.”

The tall lad went to the other end, and the two of them carried the sleeper and laid it over the tracks.

“Not funny.” The protester was shaking his head.

“Pussy!” The tall one wandered over to a high wire fence where a buckled supermarket trolley stood upside down. “If we’re gonna do it, let’s do it proper.”

Four of the five began collecting objects and piling them onto the railway tracks, while the fifth slowly wandered away with his head down. Above them, Faenol flicked a quick, worried look at Treborth. He began to move but Treborth shook his head – no, they were lions made of stone. They had to remain still. The kids spent ten minutes building a pile of rubbish that consisted of more sleepers, supermarket trolleys and a rotting sofa, all tangled up in fencing wire, before one glanced at his watch and drew in a startled breath.

“It’s ten to nine. When’s the next train?”

“Crap, about now I think.”

“Let’s go!”

They ran off back down the railway line, laughing to each other.

When they were out of sight and earshot, Faenol and Treborth both leapt from their plinths and eyed the mess stacked on the railway line.

“There’s no time!” Treborth cried, then winced with pain as he blinked broken glass from his eyes.

“Get started, I’ll get the other two!”

Treborth, his vision still a little blurred, began pulling at the pile of rubbish, but it was tangled with the wire and difficult to separate. As Faenol returned with Llanfair and Porth, they all stopped and heard the sound of the approaching train.

“Virgin Pendolino Class 390, 6.14pm Euston to Holyhead service!” Faenol exclaimed.

“We’ve got to warn them,” Treborth said. “We’ll never shift this in time.”

“We can’t break our cover to humans,” Faenol said, his eyes moving frantically over the rubbish pile. “Suicides are confused and don’t talk. Anyone else – we simply cannot be seen.”

Porth stepped forward. “There will be no more tragedy tonight,” he said, and began pulling at the sofa. Llanfair joined him, and soon all four lions were heaving the sofa from the pile and throwing it to one side. Faenol glanced up as he saw the lights from the train begin to poke around the curved track, lighting the embankment. Llanfair frantically began pulling at the wire while the other three strained to drag the shopping trolley off the tracks. One of its wheels broke off, being trapped under a steel rail. The train lights became brighter and the tracks began to vibrate. Porth flicked rocks off the line while Faenol helped Llanfair with the wire. Then Llanfair tugged on Porth’s shoulder.

“We have to go, NOW!”

“No more tragedy!” Porth shouted to Faenol and Treborth as he and Llanfair ran back to their plinths on the Anglesey side.

Faenol nodded, but as he and Treborth started to lift the railway sleeper, the lights on the train came round the corner, shining straight at them…

In the train’s second carriage, a mother slept while her daughter gazed out of the window. She watched as the trees and undergrowth gave way to a moonlit view of the Menai Straits, a concrete pillar, and then something that made her sit bolt upright. She tugged urgently on her mother’s sleeve, waking her.

“Mummy, mummy! A big stone lion just winked at me!”

“Let’s get to Ireland before we all start believing in the fairies, hmmm?” her mother suggested kindly. The girl sank back into her seat, arms folded in disgust, and she looked out of the window again as the train carried on across the bridge unhindered.

In the morning a Network Rail van was parked on the track that led to the mainland end of the bridge. The van’s windows were wound down and the radio was playing loudly, tuned to the local station. Both Faenol and Treborth were able to listen to the news bulletin.

“A man is recovering in hospital after almost drowning in the Menai Straits. The 35-year-old is believed to have jumped off Britannia Bridge in a suicide attempt yesterday evening, remarkably surviving the fall.”

“Nelson, you’re a star,” Treborth said quietly.

“And police are looking for vandals who during the night climbed to the top of Nelson’s column on Anglesey, and dressed the famous admiral in a Manchester United football shirt. The shirt, bearing the name of United’s former superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, is apparently wet through, adding to the mystery.”

Faenol shared a naughty look with Treborth, and it took all the resolve a stone lion can muster to stop them both from smiling.

  • Copyright Phil Thomas, all rights reserved

Little Lamb

HER father opened the door and she looked down at his crotch before she stepped inside. He did his little shuffle backwards, battered slippers huff-huffing on the carpet. Stained carpet, she reminded herself. Old and stained and probably stinking. Social services promised new, but when? “We have a lot of houses, Samantha, but we will get round to your dad’s,” to which she replied, “Forget it, we’ll buy our own.”

And of course, they would. They just hadn’t got around to it.

“What did you have for lunch, dad?” she asked as she dumped a bag of shopping on the kitchen table. More huff-huffing as he caught up with her.

“I had…” he started, and then frowned.

She looked at his face. Watery blue eyes, and eyebrows that made her think of fallen trees. Wispy grey hair no longer brushed. She fished a tissue from her coat pocket and dabbed food and saliva from the corner of his mouth. “Maybe I can tell from this.”

“What was it now?” he murmured.

It was social services food, meals on wheels. And what did it matter anyway? He was eating, and that she supposed was a small mercy in itself. He was still deep in thought when she pushed past him and opened the fridge door. The fridge was nearly empty. She took out a carton of milk and opened it to smell it. “Dad, don’t you know when milk’s gone off?”

“Potatoes,” he said.

“It’s always bloody potatoes.” She tipped the sour milk down the sink. “Social services haven’t heard of rice.”

He appeared to consider this. She put a fresh carton of milk in the fridge then retrieved a cream slice that was beginning to turn green. “I thought you said you were going to eat this?” When she’d finished there was a pile of food in the bin and fresh in the fridge. She handed him a newspaper and put the kettle on. All the cups in the cupboard had brown stains on the inside and so she scrubbed two clean before she made them both a cup of tea.

“Lamb,” he said, and something jumped inside her. She turned and searched for something in his eyes, a flicker, a sparkle, something she might have imagined even yet once seemed real enough. She knew she’d made a mistake.

“Lamb with potatoes!” he told her in triumph.


We went to the park today, just you, mum and me. You like the roundabout, which is a shame because it makes me sick. There’s no way I can get on there with you, Samantha. I just push you round and round, and you say “Again! Again!” – only you really say “’Gen! ‘Gen!” – and so I push you some more. Poor Sal, she must get bored! We watch you go round and round and because you’re laughing I can see your first teeth coming through. I love your little red boots, and the way your hair waves in the sunlight. You remind me of autumn when I was a kid. And, I’m really not sure how to put this, but when you laugh it just makes me feel that little bit more…alive.

Yesterday I got a postcard from the lads out in Majorca. Of course it was a dirty one – just as well you’re not old enough to know. Sal doesn’t approve of my mates sometimes, but they’re just a good laugh. Just doing what twenty-somethings do. They think you’re amazing. They say things like, “If I’m going to have one, I want one just like your Samantha.” But they’re too busy drinking and clubbing, I reckon. I still go out with them sometimes but when I do I carry a little picture of you around in my wallet. I reckon they think I’ve gone soft, I’m not “one of the lads” anymore, but what do they know? I tell them all about you and I can see them looking at me. That look, like, has he gone mad or something? Become an old fart overnight? I suppose I was the leader of their little gang once, or one of them anyway. But like I say, what do they know?

There is ONE thing I won’t tell them. In fact I don’t even think Sal knows. You know you got Sleepy Sheep wallpaper in your bedroom? Well, I was looking at it the other night, and I called you “My little lamb.” And that’s just what you are, Samantha. My little lamb. You giggle when I say it. And now I’ve got this feeling the name’s going to stick. But it’ll be our secret for now, eh? Just between you and me.


There was a thick layer of dust on the wooden fireplace. Dead skin cells. The wedding photo still faded in its gaudy brass frame. She lifted it and flicked the duster over it, mum and dad unflinching, smiling in all their finery. And another framed photograph, her as a child on a playground roundabout. She hated the photo because it made her sad. She flapped the duster up and down the fireplace and followed it with sharp bursts of polish. She hesitated as she stepped away, realising she hadn’t put the photo of her back straight. Now you couldn’t see it properly from dad’s armchair. Oh hell, it would do. It wasn’t like dad would notice anyway. She could hear him huff-huffing behind her. That bloody shuffle of his. Why didn’t he just sit down, for Christ’s sake?

“I got this,” he said. She heard the plastic rustle of a window envelope. More tedious officialdom she would have to deal with.

“Just leave it a minute while I give this place a bit of a clean.” She turned round and glared at him when she realised he hadn’t moved. “Dad, just sit down and drink your tea!”

There was the look of childish hurt on his face now, the same look he adopted whenever she raised her voice to him. Did he know he was doing that? She began moving the pointless brass ornaments on the hearth, clattering them around to drown out the sound of his slippers on the carpet as he shuffled over to the sofa. It took him an age to sit down. When she pushed the vacuum cleaner round his feet she noticed both hems of his trouser legs were frayed. She’d promised him new trousers but he never went out anymore, so it didn’t seem important. But then, all this cleaning, all this organising paperwork, all this…this looking after…none of it seemed important. It all went unrecognised, unheard. It was her hidden life, one she did not speak about. “I’m off to dad’s,” she would tell her husband, and her friends knew nothing at all. All this mundane busyness under one tiny roof, in the middle of a town, in the middle of nowhere, for a man who couldn’t remember five minutes ago. Was it important to clean the fireplace, to straighten a photograph? No, and it was no more important for dad to have new trousers.

“There we go,” she said, snipping the loose threads from his trouser hems with a pair of scissors. “Don’t want you falling again.”

She wore gloves to clean the bathroom, and heaved when she tackled the toilet. He often missed when he managed not to wet himself. Wanting to be sick reminded her of long ago, and she pushed the memory away. She pictured her daughter playing for the college hockey team, cheered on by dad, but no mum. Not today. Not most days. Mum had her hands down a dirty toilet.

“I got this.”

He was standing behind her with the envelope, and there was a dark stain spreading down his trouser legs.


This has been the worst day, the worst day of all. You’re still locked in the bathroom. I’d like to think you’re too ashamed to come out. But Sal says she could hear you being sick just an hour ago. For God’s sake, Samantha, when are you going to learn?

You’re determined to ruin this family. Not to mention yourself. We go through this every Saturday now; you come home whenever you feel like, you don’t tell us where you’ve been, or who you’ve been with. You spend hours with your head down the toilet. We’ve seen that look on other people’s faces before, Samantha. That ghost look, and blackened eyes. We know what you’re doing. We might be oldies to you, but we’re not stupid. You refuse to talk about it, and the more you shut us out, the more worried we are. I’m scared. I don’t know what else to do. That’s why I hit you. Hit my own daughter. Just writing it makes me hurt so much!

I think back to last summer, our last holiday together. I know you want to go off with your mates now, and no doubt you will, and do…well, do the kind of things I did when I was your age. It’s right that you should. But you’ve still got your whole life ahead of you, all the time in the world for these things. Last summer you still seemed happy to be with us. Of course you’re growing up, and we knew this would happen one day, we knew you would start to live your own life, one we couldn’t be part of. But it’s all been so sudden, Samantha, and…and, all so much.

What’s caused you to self-destruct like this? I’d like to think we’ve done all we can to give you a good start in life. Well, we’ve fallen short somehow. Sal’s downstairs and she’s supposed to be watching TV – well, she is, but with the sound down, because she’s listening out for you. And I’m in the bedroom, sitting on the edge of the bed, waiting for you to come out. Are you hurt? Should we call a doctor, even if that means the police getting involved? I don’t care if it does. I love you, Samantha. I just want to look after you. Please come out of the bathroom. I won’t hit you this time, I promise. Please come out and tell me everything is ok.


She dropped the bleach, snatched the envelope from him and stormed out of the bathroom. There were three words running through her head and she wanted to scream them. Can’t do this. In the bedroom she found clean underwear and another pair of trousers. Pressed neatly amongst the clothes was a thin pile of twenty-pound notes. She laid the clothes out on the bed along with a box of tissues and ignored the money. Can’t do this.

“Where’s the envelope?” He was shuffling into the living room.

“Dad, get out of those wet clothes and put these on!”


“Dad, just get in here and do it.”

“Where’s the envelope?”

She sat at the kitchen table and held her head in her hands. Huff-huff-huff the slow shuffle behind her. The envelope screamed at her from the table, white and red, white and red, IMPORTANT, THIS IS NOT A CIRCULAR. Snatched from the table and opened, unfolded, several pages, white and RED, court summons, served this day, this court, outstanding, unpaid, £587, sign, sign, PAY NOW.

Can’t do this.

The chair fell back as she leapt to her feet and went into the bedroom. He was slumped against the bed trying to get his trousers off. “When did you get this?” She stood over him, waving the letter, trying to block out the smell of urine.

“What is it?”

“It’s a court summons, dad. You’ve been getting bills for something we didn’t know about.”

“A man came…”


“I don’t remem…”

“Jesus, dad! Do you know how serious this is?”

Blue eyes with nothing there. He looked up at her, thinking for a moment, and then said, “Where’s the envelope?”

When she looked at him again his head was lolled to one side. She watched as tears welled in his eyes and a small drop of blood formed on his cheek. “Don’t you do that!” he snapped at her. She blinked and looked down at the letter, still pressed in her hand, creased from the pressure in which she held it. The staple in the corner was bent slightly, with one metal pin sticking out and red smeared on the paper beneath it.

“Can’t do this,” she muttered. She waited, as if there might be something more, then turned slowly and left. He watched her go, listening to the huff-huff-huff of shuffling feet on the carpet.


I can barely breathe. I can hardly stand it. You’re leaving home today. You’ve bought a house with your boyfriend and you’re moving in together. I should be happy for you. This should be a happy day. But we finally had our talk. The one we should have had years ago, when you were ill and we were terrified of losing you. I thought you needed to know the truth, and so now I’ve told you.

I hated you, for what you did. The day I hit you, I didn’t do it just because I was terrified. I did it because of what you did to me and Sal. The pain you put us through. The worry. All those days and nights when you never came home. You were our daughter, Samantha, and yet you had become someone else. I hated you. And after, the hours and days of looking after you, the scares, the constant worry that we could lose you at any moment. I resented how it took over our lives.

And now that you’ve battled your way out of the mess, and you’re leading the life we hoped you’d have, there is still bitterness between us. We may never speak about it, but it is there. Maybe it will heal over time. What I do know is that I love you, Samantha, and that will never change. You will always be my baby, my daughter, my little lamb.


She sat in dad’s armchair, staring at the fireplace, and blinked tears away. Staring back at her was the photograph of her as a child, on a roundabout, red boots and wild wavy hair. Laughing. She thought about the photograph for a moment, frowned, then stood up and went back into the bedroom where her dad was sitting on the edge of the bed. He’d managed to get into his fresh clothes.

“Let me see the cut,” she said. “Do you want a plaster?”

He said, “I don’t blame you for being angry.”

She thought about asking him if he had straightened-up the photograph of her, but he wouldn’t remember. Instead she promised to deal with the court summons and then kissed him on the cheek.

“I’ll get these clothes washed,” she said. “And don’t forget there’s a cheesecake in the fridge, and cream. I’ll pop round tomorrow to clean the kitchen, and we’ll have some cheesecake together. Okay? How about that?”

All this mundane busyness under one tiny roof, in the middle of a town, in the middle of nowhere, for a man who couldn’t remember five minutes ago. Was it important to clean the fireplace, to straighten a photograph?

Yes. It was the most important thing in the world.

  • Copyright Phil Thomas, all rights reserved


Nightjar R&T Soweto Soweto Soweto Houses DLP

Read below or Download epub file here to read offline.

My friend Tefo told me that mamma was going to be given jewellery the following day. I knew it was her birthday and I was delighted, but also puzzled, since few people in Bramfischerville had birthday presents. It took all mamma could do just to feed us. She went out at night, leaving Khoza, the eldest, to look after us, but she never told me where she went, and Khoza told me never to ask. All I know is, mamma went out at night and brought us things. She was kind to us; she gave us food and clothes. I was puzzled about her gift, but it made me happy. Mamma deserved it.

We had been moved from Alexandra to Soweto by the authorities, who said Alexandra was overcrowded. Bramfischerville was the newest part of Soweto but the houses were tin shacks and we had no water. As before, we had to make do. Soweto was huge, and we could no longer see across the high veld to the north, or to the gleaming white-man’s shopping malls and hotels of Sandton to the south. Mamma said things were different here, but despite the new surroundings, they didn’t look very different to me.

Tefo was my first friend in Soweto. He had one of the stone houses, with running water and carpets on wooden floors. He had a whole room to himself. I went there a lot, watched TV and played in his room. We closed the door and could talk about things so that no-one else could hear, or do things no-one could see. It was here that Tefo first showed me the gun, the gun I use now. He taught me how to load it, how to hold it, and how to use the safety catch. He told me that town people used guns to make money from selling cars. At first I was too frightened to touch it, but he called me chicken. So I held it. I hated doing it, and mamma would beat me if she knew. But I wanted to stay friends with Tefo, and to this day no-one knows.

Crouched behind this bush now, with the sun on my back and the gun in my hand, it’s hard to imagine feeling so young again, even though it wasn’t so many years ago. It’s just the way of things. It’s why I can hear the click-click-click of the fence as electricity goes round the wires, and why the gates to the house are so high. It’s why the grounds are so large that you can’t see the house from the fence. It’s why some houses have their own guards, who also have guns. But not this one, which of course is why I am here, waiting for the car to come. It is the way of things.

Mamma never came home for her birthday. She went out the night before and just didn’t come back. I wasn’t scared at first, but when Khoza started running round the streets shouting for her, I began to worry. I called out for her too, but people ignored us. I couldn’t understand this, because the town people were usually very friendly to us. We stuck together. We had to. But not this morning. And then Tefo came and told me I had to leave.

“Where’s mamma?” I asked him as he grabbed my arm and started marching me towards his house.

“Eish, I’ve told you!” Tefo said. “You must stay off the street today.”

I didn’t understand why he said that, but I trusted him and went with him back to his house. He took me to his room and locked and door, and when he spoke to me again there was fear in his eyes.

“Listen to what I tell you,” he said. “You never take from the town people, alright? Never! Only the white man, because then you get trial and mawela, and in mawela they give you food.” He handed me his gun, saying, “This is yours now. Do as I taught you, remember?”

I was bewildered. What was Tefo saying? Why was he giving me his gun? I stared at it in my hands, and my heart was racing. “Where’s mamma, Tefo? You said she was going to get a birthday gift today.”

“It’s your mamma’s birthday?” His whole body seemed to shrink.

“Yes. Isn’t that why she is getting jewellery?”

There was a look in his eyes that I remember to this day. And will remember for the rest of my life. “She’s getting a necklace,” he said quietly, and left the room, closing the door behind him.

I was supposed to stay there, but didn’t of course. I crept out and headed for the sound of people gathered. I hid behind a pile of wooden crates and could see, at the centre of the crowd, my mamma. The look on her face was the same as on the white-man’s face I see now, with my gun pointing at him through his car window. She was strapped to a big chair, just as the white man wears a seat belt now. Two men stood over her, one with a tyre and another with a burning torch. Somebody was shouting but many in the crowd were sniffing, as if trying not to cry. The man put the tyre over mamma’s head, so I could only see her hair. Then he poured something from a rusty can over the tyre, and stepped back.

“This woman is ama-chochoroach – a thief,” the man with the torch said, “but she takes from us! From us! This is what we do to people who steal from us.”

He touched the tyre with the torch.

The car window in front of me explodes.

I have a stone house in Soweto. We have running water, and floors with wooden boards and carpets. I am proud that I can provide for my family. I give food and clothes to my wife and our son and all my brothers and sisters.  Today it is my birthday.

  • Copyright Phil Thomas, all rights reserved

‘Till Death Do They Part

She hadn’t meant her husband’s demise to be quite so spectacular. True, she’d used an axe to kill him, but it hadn’t been planned that way. Not with such violence on her part, and not with such a huge amount of mopping-up afterwards. So when she stood in the kitchen, frozen in shock, it wasn’t because she had actually done it, after all the planning and dithering and the attacks of morality, but rather because of the manner in which she’d done it, because his blood spewed around the place in thick black ropes, because when she finally managed to make sense of what had happened, she realised she’d chopped his head off.

Here is the scene: Janice Long is a 35-year-old good-looking girl who’s spent all her married life looking for a good time. She’s been a wife for too long and has discovered, largely by virtue of a rigorous affair with her husband’s golfing buddy, that while she may have married into money, she certainly hadn’t married into a fantastic sex life. She stands in a rustic country kitchen with draughty sash windows and a monstrous, ancient range cooker hunkered in a huge fireplace, a kitchen that her rich and dumb husband, but certainly not Janice Long, always wanted. She holds an axe, a tool her husband used to chop firewood for their all-too-rustic fireplace in their draughty, cold, slate-floored lounge her dumb husband thought, unlike his wife, was country-cute. The axe is heavy, and very, very shiny, because her rich husband, who no longer works for a living, has nothing else to do all day but to sharpen it. It swings through the air, propelled with all the force she can muster from both her body and the yell from her lungs, and she thinks it’s aimed at her rich husband’s chest, where she intends to do some kind of permanent damage to whatever essential organs lurk in that region of the ribcage. But Janice Long is just as crap a shot with a heavy axe as she is with a nine iron. She aims high, and the blade cuts through her husband’s neck with considerably more ease than it did any tree stump. It buries itself in the distressed wooden door frame behind him, one her stupid husband had specially made from Brazilian rosewood by a carpenter at £100 an hour.

Now see Derek Long, aged 49, dressed in a crumpled shirt and a pair of Armani boxer shorts. They stretch round a beer-barrel stomach and crown a pair of gangly, Greek-skinned legs that taper away to a pair of battered Crocs beneath. Like the rest of him, his hair has a just-got-out-of-bed look. He’s standing in the distressed wooden door frame with his left hand in the air, a very tanned but wrinkly finger pointing, and he’s saying something about packing bags and leaving. Something like that. The axe stops the sound but his lips keep moving. Then they stop, too, at least until a final twitch, which releases a torrent of blood down his chin. For a moment Derek Long’s head and body remain as one, unimpressive whole, but then the thin red line just below his Adam’s Apple grows wider, and more ragged, and then all at once his bloated millionaire’s body falls one way and his sun-scorched head falls the other. In the space between there’s a writhing octopus of blood-tentacles but as the gap between head and body grows greater, so the black, syrupy appendages go wriggling off in all directions, splattering thick, oily gunk across the African walnut work surfaces and Welsh slate floor tiles. Both body parts land in a growing oil slick on the kitchen floor, and here they lie, without ceremony, while more black stuff continues to pump from the various arteries and veins still twitching in the neck-stump.

Janice Long had waited nearly 20 years for this moment. It should have been accompanied by a state of euphoria, the sound of champagne corks popping, the feeling of her collagen-perfect buttocks bouncing off the shower tiles in appreciation of her lover’s sensational and now undivided attention. But there was blood everywhere. It dripped off the toaster. It painted faces on the kettle. It ran off the hanging pots and pans in little streams. And it was pooling around her bare feet, which was almost the most disgusting thing of all. Yet she remained rooted to the spot, unable to move or speak, because by some strange twist of fate, or of an axe in this case, her husband’s head lay on the floor in such a way that he was staring at her. Eyes open, mouth open, staring. For several long, horrid moments, she couldn’t look away. And when she finally could, it was several moments after that before she could start to grasp what had happened, comprehend what she had done, begin to work out what had finally become of Derek Long.

She was free of the miserable bastard at last, but all she could say wasn’t even a proper word. For want of a better onomatopoeia, Janice Long said, “Ukkk!”

But she had been planning her husband’s death and, when the twin shock of the fact that, a), she had finally done it, and b), she’d decapitated him, eventually wore off, she quickly went to work in the manner she had always envisaged.

First, she had to get rid of the evidence. It took her two hours to mop up the blood in sheets she would later burn. She wheeled her dead husband’s wheelbarrow from the garden store to the kitchen. With some difficulty she loaded the body into the barrow and then wheeled it along the garden path and through the gate which led to the woods at the back of the house. In a little clearing she found the rock which marked the spot. She cleared away fallen leaves that revealed a pit covered by netting. Janice pulled the net away and then tipped her dead husband’s body into the hole, where it was skewered on several, sharpened wooden stakes that had been driven into the pit bottom. “So it would have worked,” Janice said, and allowed herself a smile of satisfaction.

She went back to the house to fetch the head. It was lying on the kitchen floor, eyes open, mouth open, waiting to finish a sentence. Wherever she stood in the room it seemed to stare at her, like a portrait painting in a haunted house. Although stuffing the body into the wheelbarrow and then tipping it into the pit had been straightforward enough, picking up her dead husband’s head caused her more of a problem. At first she tried picking it up by the nose, but his skin was still greasy and her fingers sweaty, so it kept slipping. She would have picked it up by the hair, but the stupid man had gone and got himself a crew-cut a week earlier and there wasn’t enough to grab. So she started to pick it up by the ears, but when she began to realise how heavy the head was, she let go again in revulsion. Even so, she felt a wave of vindication flow through her. He really did have a thick skull! She pondered her next move for a moment, then went to the garden store to fetch the spade. She pushed the blade under the head but it rolled away. She tried again, but the same thing happened. “Come here, you stupid…!” she cursed, and spent several minutes chasing the head round the kitchen floor. Finally she cornered it between the bin and the American fridge. She squeezed the spade beneath the scalp and lifted, straining with the weight. “Jesus, you fat…!” she grunted, but couldn’t think what to say next. She carried the head on the spade across the kitchen then dumped it into the wheelbarrow. Uncannily, the face was still looking at her. She looked back. He stared back at her. It was a staring contest she couldn’t win, so after a few moments she found a half-bloodied sheet and threw it over the head, then wheeled it out to the pit in the woods.

She threw all the bloodstained sheets and objects into the pit after the body parts. Then she doused the lot in paraffin and set fire to it. It made a black and blue smoke cloud but she’d anticipated this and was not unduly concerned. Burning wood and rubbish was nothing unusual in that part of the world. Besides, their nearest neighbours couldn’t see the plot of land nor the woods at the back of their farmhouse. Derek Long had demanded they live somewhere isolated. Funny how it would help conceal his fate.

She put the rest of her plan into operation. Derek had no next of kin and the only people who would really miss him were his golfing buddies and, less so, the MD at his property development firm. The Longs hardly went out these days, and their remote farm-based lifestyle had forced them into an almost hermit-like existence. So her story was simple: Derek Long was going to spend lots of time in the south of Spain, playing golf. They already had a second home there anyway, and Derek’s plan had always been to go and live in the sun one day. She packed a couple of suitcases with his clothes, as if he was indeed going to spend most of his days on the Costas, but then she just took them into the woods and burned them. When she sent messages to his golfing pals using his mobile phone, they threatened to visit him, which she expected, but she just patted them away with a promise that “I’ll be in touch.” He gave the MD the same story. “Derek has every confidence in you to run the firm, so he’s taking a really big backward step,” she said. “But he’s still head of the firm?” the MD enquired. “Of course!” she spluttered, recalling her late husband’s flamboyant demise, and was forced to throw away the glass of cranberry juice she’d been drinking. They didn’t really have any friends in Spain that would know if he was there or not. Even so, she planned to fly out in a few weeks and make the place look lived in, as well as send a few emails to work and his golf chums with made-up stories of his golf in the sun.

And what about the wealth he so kindly left her? Although she wouldn’t be able to get her hands on his assets, which were considerable, the company shares paid her handsome dividends, and she’d long since made sure she had access to all his bank accounts. She knew what money there was, where it was, and how to get it. Even though they always rowed, Derek Long, the dumb millionaire, honestly thought she’d married him for something other than money, and trusted her when she suggested they held joint accounts for everything. Because they were, afterall, a team, a couple, husband and wife. Until death did they part.

*   *   *

“So where’s Derek?” Jason asked. He mimicked Derek’s deep yet silky voice, which Janice once thought sounded like Richard Burton’s, and until now she hadn’t really minded.

“Spain, playing golf,” she told him.

He was drinking a vintage red from Derek’s cellar. She resisted the temptation and stuck with a lime and soda, and they huddled round the log fire which Jason had built. It was a chilly March evening, and overcast, so outside it was completely dark. The calls of barn owls echoed across the woods. Janice found herself cursing Derek’s decision to bring them out here, to the middle of nowhere, so they could live a life of self-sufficiency. He blamed their excessively decadent lifestyle and wanted to “redress the balance,” as he used to say when explaining the move to incredulous friends. That was the public reasoning. The private reason he offered her was a little more specific, and a lot more sensitive. But to keep their sham of a marriage going, not to mention the bigger sham of his existence, she knew she had to stay there. At least between trips to the spas, days out with the personal shopper, and city stopovers with girly nights out.

“Can’t believe he leaves this gorgeous arse behind,” Jason said. They had sex in front of the fire and then in the ridiculously grand four-poster bed upstairs.

“I’m going to take a shower,” she said afterwards.

Jason recalled their bathroom performances and sighed. “You’re insatiable!”

“To get clean!” she said indignantly. “Okay with you?”

“You alright?” he called after her as she stepped into the cubicle. “You seem tense.”

“I’m just…” she started to say, but then stopped. What was she? It was so long that her life had been…her life…that she wasn’t sure what she was any more. Well, things were different now. Things could change. And while she liked Jason, maybe it was time for him to go, too. They’d met at a golf captain’s dinner. He was a solicitor, a bright young thing, with good hair and strong hands and a fabulous six-pack instead of a beer gut. He had a way of making her feel special which, she reckoned, was purely physical. But he was from the local town, part of the golfing scene, part of that life she now wanted to leave behind. Now Derek was gone, Jason, she decided, might have to go too.

“See you tomorrow tonight?” he said at the door the following morning.

She shook her head. “I’m not here.”

“Anywhere special?”

“Going to see some friends,” she said vaguely.

“What friends?”

Janice laughed. “What are you? Jealous?”

Jason didn’t answer. Instead he said, “Don’t go cold on me.”

“I’m not ‘going cold’!” She forced a smile and then punched him playfully on the shoulder. “Go on, piss off. I’ll call you when I get back.”

As soon as he’d gone she started making calls. She tried her old school friend Cheryl who was still single and living a life of debauchery in Manchester. “It’s the millionaire’s wife!” she chirruped. “How’s life on the farm?”

“Cold and full of mud,” Janice said. “How’d you fancy a few nights on the town this weekend?”

“Love to, but my new feller’s taking me on a romantic break to Paris. Thinks we’re going to see the sights. I just want to see his arse.”

She called Christine, a girl she’d met while backpacking in the Australian outback, and had more joy. “So he lets you out, does he?” she asked. “Well, why not? Mind if I bring a few mates along?”

“The more the merrier,” Janice agreed.

Christine’s pals were mental. Charlotte had a supply of drugs with her, something called Ivory Wave or Ivory Coast, “The latest legal high,” she told Janice before she tipped the powder into her drink. On the precious few mad nights Janice could recall enjoying in her youth, before the days of Derek, it had been wraps of speed and bottles of Holsten Pils. For a while she felt very out of date, but this was quickly replaced by feeling off her head. Vanessa, also under the influence of the Ivory WhateverItWas, became obsessed with Janice’s expensively enhanced body.

“The latest silicone injections, endorsed by Jessica Alba’s surgeon,” she proudly explained, popping both breasts out of her bra. “Feel them.” All three girls obliged, to the obvious delight of some blokes leering at them from the nightclub bar. Janice winked at them and then played for their attention. “Collagen here, which I get at the same London clinic Madonna uses,” she shouted, lifting her Versace dress and sticking her bottom into the twitching fingers of the jealous girls. “Liposuction, electrolysis and three kick-boxing sessions a week,” she went on, grabbing Vanessa’s hand and rubbing it up and down her thigh. “Feel how firm and smooth that is,” she added, though not for Vanessa’s benefit. The flirting did the trick and four girls and four boys went back to Christine’s apartment.

Christine was the first out of the bed the following morning and quickly kicked two of the guys out. The other two had already gone. “I can’t believe what we did last night,” she said quietly to Janice over a Costa coffee that lunchtime. “Please God don’t say anything about it. To anyone.”

“I won’t,” Janice said. She tried hard to feel as guilty as the others. They all had steady boyfriends but she was the only one of the four married, so they might have expected her to feel the most guilty. Secretly, of course, she was having the time of her life. As they parted company Janice got the telephone number of Charlotte’s drug supplier, and before she drove back to the farm she called on him and bought a dozen doses of the stuff.

“I don’t know you but you seem kinda sweet,” the supplier said. “Just watch yourself with this shit. I hear bad things.”

“Thanks,” she said, not really listening. She just wanted to get out of there. The drug she wanted may have been legal but the guy obviously dealt other stuff too.

“Are you doing anything later?” he asked.

She smiled as she climbed into the Range Rover. “Going home to my beloved husband,” she said.

“Oh, okay. What about before then?”

When she got home she thought about calling Jason, thinking that a druggy sex session with him would be great fun. But better still would be a druggy sex session with her kick-boxing guru, Dave. Oh, what she wouldn’t do with his Jean Claude God-Dam gorgeous body! She flirted with him madly during their next sparring session and became increasingly frustrated when he kept turning her down. “What about Derek?” he kept saying. She should have backed down then, of course, rather than draw attention with her potentially adulterous behaviour. But the repeated mention of her husband’s name made her angry. Even in death he held her back! Eventually she snapped and landed a kick to the side of Dave’s head so fuelled with rage that she knocked him off his feet.

“Jee-zuss!” he said through one side of his mouth, feeling the other side of his jaw with a tentative hand. “You almost took my head off!”

“I can do that!” she snarled.

She needed to cool off and so drove home for her swimming things and headed out to the golf course where she was a Platinum member of the luxury pool and spa complex. After an hour in the pool she relaxed first in the steam room, then the sauna and finally the jacuzzi. Feeling tingly and a little light-headed, she took a cool shower and then started to dry off. Apart from a cleaner there was no else in the changing rooms.

The tall lockers had an almost full-length mirror on the inside of the door. She swung her door open wide so she could preen and admire herself in it. She looked good, felt good. Regular exercise kept her fit and in good shape, and the cosmetic surgery improved on her natural assets without being obvious. The hairdresser worked wonders with her hair – even wet it looked good. She smiled to herself and rubbed the towel around the back of her neck where her skin was still damp. It never really made any sense, she thought, her being with Derek. She was too good for him. He was too old, and never appreciated her. He thought money was enough to keep her happy. Well, it didn’t. And while she wasn’t about it turn it down now, she was going to rediscover her old life, life before Derek and his millions, and enjoy herself. So what if Dave had turned her down? She would flirt with people who didn’t know her, who didn’t know she was with Derek. There would be good times ahead.

She finished getting dressed and began to swing the locker door shut, catching sight of the cleaner in the mirror’s reflection. She was behind her, mopping the floor, and had banged the mop handle into a locker door that had been left open. In the brief moment that Janice could see into the dim space of the locker, before its door swung shut, she thought she saw Derek’s face, just above the shelf, eyes closed, pale-skinned and lifeless. She caught her breath and must have made some kind of strange noise, because the cleaner straightened up and looked at her curiously. Clearing her throat nervously, she pushed her locker door closed, hurriedly stuffed her things into the holdall and left.

When she arrived home the carpenter was waiting in his car in the farm yard. She’d forgotten all about asking Simon to come and repair the door frame in the kitchen. Part of her had questioned the wisdom of asking him to do the repair in the first place, but Janice wanted all evidence of Derek’s death – the manner of which still troubled her – cleared up and out of sight. Out of sight, out of mind, she thought, though she was beginning to think it wasn’t going to be that simple. Simon got out of his car with a piece of timber she assumed was to replace the section of frame that had an axe-shaped gash in it. She apologised for not being home and asked him how long he had been waiting.

He waved away her concern. “Not long, don’t worry about it. You okay? How’s Derek?”

“Oh, holding up.”

“Listen, I need to cut this to length. Can I use your workshop? I know Derek has a pretty good circular saw in there.”

“Sure, whatever you need. Let me just get the keys.”

She dumped her holdall and put the kettle on while Simon went into the workshop and busied himself with the saw. When there was no sign of him after more than five minutes she took his coffee to the workshop and found him sawing through the timber the hard way, with a wood saw and the timber gripped in the large worktable’s iron vice.

“No circular saw?” she asked.

“It’s all there and working,” he said, looking over his shoulder. “But no blade. I looked everywhere but can’t see it.”

She shook her head. “I don’t come in here much really. I’ve no idea what he does with half this stuff.”

“Well, this should do it anyway.” He removed the shortened section of timber from the vice and they both returned to the comparative warmth of the kitchen. He stood in the doorway and pushed a finger into the deep gash in the wooden frame, then turned to give Janice a puzzled look. “You must have thrown that frying pan with some force.”

She smiled glassily. “He can really get on my tits.”

While the carpenter worked Janice went into the study and sifted through the day’s post. Thanks to their remote location the morning mail usually arrived around 2pm every day, so she rarely got to look at it until late afternoon. There were bills, most of which were direct debits and could be safely ignored, a golfing magazine, two items of junk mail selling remote-controlled conservatory blinds and revolutionary hearing aids, and one envelope for Derek, the address handwritten. She tore it open and began reading a letter from Derek’s old university roommate. Janice scanned it and only got interested when Gary started going on about coming to visit. “I think not,” she said, and ripped it up along with the golf magazine and the junk mail. She took the pile of paper out to the recycling bin, not wanting any of Derek’s mail to be in the house a second longer than it needed to be. She popped up the hinged lid of the plastic container and threw the paper in, and as she let the lid drop again an icy feeling suddenly welled up from the pit of her stomach. Amongst the envelopes and old newspapers, hadn’t she just seen something that looked like the tip of a nose? She stared at the bin for a moment, as if expecting the lid to open up by itself. No, of course not. She’d obviously imagined it. She could look again if she wanted, to prove it, to show there was nothing in there but paper. “Don’t be stupid,” she scorned herself, and went back inside the house, but her stomach was still churning.

That evening she was able to put her disastrous come-on to her kick-boxing instructor behind her by enjoying a druggy, marathon sex session with Jason. He had no idea what to expect from the Ivory Coast, or Wave, or whatever it was, and so she took control. “Thank you Jack Nicklaus for golf holidays in Spain,” he muttered at one point, while Janice, wild-haired and wild-eyed, worked him over into a fifth hour.

At some point in the early hours he emerged from the bedsheets. “Drink,” he managed to say. Janice slithered off the mattress and embarked on an impromptu pole dance around one of the bed’s four posts. When she saw that Jason was too exhausted to watch she gave up, stumbled downstairs and went into the kitchen. She didn’t bother with lights. Instead she followed the sound of the humming fridge, fumbled for the door handle, found it, and pulled.

There was Derek’s head. It was on the top shelf, between packs of honey roast ham and Double Gloucester cheese, and a four-pack of Tesco’s finest organic yoghurt. His eyes and mouth were closed. There was a dribble of dried blood on his chin, and dirt in his hair, and part of his left ear was missing. She couldn’t see the ragged innards of his neck, though this did little to temper the shock of seeing her dead husband’s head sitting amongst the little pots of her favourite vanilla yoghurt. The fizzing drug-rush in her head left her in an instant, escaping along with a raspy, unsteady moan. She put her hand to her mouth, ready to catch the scream, but the act itself helped her bite it back and stop it in its tracks. Instead she gulped, then removed her hand again as she fought to get air back into her lungs.

When she was finally able to act, she slammed the fridge door shut. Her breathing sounded loud in the quiet of the kitchen. “It’s not real,” she said to herself. She slowly counted to three, then held her breath and opened the fridge door again.

The only relief for Janice was that the head hadn’t moved. There was no fresh blood. With his eyes closed, it almost looked like Derek was sleeping.

“Drugs,” she told herself. “It’s the drugs. Bad things, he said. Didn’t he? Bad things could be hallucinations.” But then, in the spa earlier that day, in the changing rooms, and then in the recycling bin outside the house, hadn’t she thought she’d seen…?

Something shiny and black appeared at one of Derek’s nostrils. A nosebleed, she thought, rushing to the conclusion as if somehow it made complete sense. But she could only stand and stare as that side of his nose twitched and bulged, and a fat, black slug pulsed its way out of the nostril and onto his upper lip.

She kicked the fridge door shut and then fell backwards, landing in a painful heap on the hard floor. At first she thought about screaming. Then she wanted to cry. Eventually she thought about laughing, but the irrationality of that worried her. Somehow she was able to remain quiet, if not completely calm, and so for the time being at least there was no fear of Jason waking to the sound of her hysterics and putting in an ill-timed appearance. Finally it was the soothing sound of the fridge humming that helped bring some clarity to her thinking. She was obviously hallucinating. Derek’s head was not in the fridge. Derek’s head was in the woods, in a deep pit, along with the rest of Derek. It was the drug, the Ivory Thingy, playing funny mind tricks. Or the stress of it all, of what she’d done, and how she was trying to conceal it. Who wouldn’t see things? The best thing to do now was to ignore the fridge, forget what she thought was in it, and just go back to bed. Get Jason his drink and get some sleep. In the morning the drug’s effects would have worn off. No more hallucinations. They’d come downstairs, have breakfast, Jason his runny eggs on toast and she her muesli, say their goodbyes, and go about their business. No stress. No horrible visions. Everything would be perfectly normal.

Fortified with this vision, Janice managed to push herself to her feet. The course of action was decided. She tiptoed to a cupboard, found a glass, then went to the sink and poured a drink of water. Then she hesitated. She had to pass the fridge to leave the kitchen. She tiptoed to it, then stopped. The fridge hummed. She bit her lip. The fridge hummed a bit more.

She swung the door open and only at the last moment did she stop the glass from sliding through her fingers. Derek’s head was still sitting there, serenely, as if waiting to be sliced and served cold with a nice salad. The only difference from before was a trail of slime that went from his nose and across his cheek to the back of his head.

Janice squeezed her eyes shut, trying to squash the image to nothing. But it wouldn’t leave her. And neither, it seemed, would the hallucination. Perhaps a different course of action was required, one that meant dealing with the hallucination as if it was real. If the drug was making her see Derek’s head in the fridge, then it would equally make her witness getting rid of the head and burying it in the woods again. Maybe only by taking corrective action could she banish the hallucination properly. And stop her fear that his head might still be there in the morning, for Jason to discover.

Fully alert now, she found a jacket in the cloakroom and went outside to the garden store. Thankfully the wheelbarrow didn’t squeak. She grabbed the spade and a torch then went back to the house. First, she carefully removed the food from the affected fridge shelf. Then she eased the shelf from the fridge, positioned the wheelbarrow beneath it, and allowed the weight of Derek’s head to tip the shelf downwards. His head rolled off and into the wheelbarrow, where it landed with a dull clank. She saw that the slug had made a little home for itself behind his ear.

She took the head to the woods and dug a new hole, tipped the head in, and buried it again. It was a hurried job and she promised herself she would return tomorrow and finish the concealment properly. Back in the kitchen, she held her breath before opening the fridge door again. Nothing, except for an empty and stained top shelf. She scrubbed the shelf clean in the sink then returned it. She knew she would have to bin the food that had been on it – hallucination or no hallucination – but she would put it back and leave it for now, at least until after Jason left in the morning. She went back upstairs with his drink, completely exhausted, and found him snoring.

He woke her in the morning. “Breakfast in bed,” he announced cheerily, and handed her a beautifully presented tray of food and drink. “Muesli, topped with thick lashings of your favourite yoghurt.”

Her stomach heaved, and even though the bathroom was en-suite she didn’t make it that far.

*    *    *

Before she could attend to the new grave for Derek’s head she received a troubling phone call from his accountant. “Please tell him his tax return is ready,” he told her. “He can call in to the office at any time to discuss it and sign it.”

“He’s away for a while,” she said, desperately trying to think the situation through. Forging his signature wasn’t a problem, but faking a personal appearance was a little more tricky.

“For how long? It needs signing before the end of the month or he’ll be penalised.”

“Oh, longer than that. Post him the return and I’m sure he’ll return it signed.”

“If you don’t mind me saying so, Mrs Long, that would be quite irregular. We usually discuss your husband’s tax affairs in some detail before he signs the necessary paperwork in person. Are you sure he’s away until after the month-end?”

“Quite sure,” she said. “And he left me strict instructions to ask you to post the return so he can sign it for you. Would you like the address?”

“Of course, Mrs Long. But with all due respect, you understand we must uphold strict client confidentiality at all times. Since your husband hasn’t left any instructions with us directly, I’ll speak to him personally to verify how he would like us to proceed.”

“You won’t reach him on his mobile,” she said tersely. “He’s in Spain and he switches it off.”

“Ah, then I’ll try the number I have for the villa. Thank you for your time, Mrs Long.”

She needed to think fast. “You won’t reach him there, either. He’s told me he’s not taking any calls.”

“Is he receiving emails?”

“As I’ve already told you, Mr…”


“…Mr Smith, he’s left me strict instructions that you are to post the return for him to sign. How many years have you been his accountant?”

“Oh, more than 20 I should imagine.”

“Exactly. And he trusts your excellent work and judgment when it comes to matters of personal finance. You see, my husband has decided, after a long and prosperous career, to take life a little more easily from now on. He will deal with all his tax affairs by post. Do you have a pen?”

“Yes, but…”

“Then please take down this address, Mr Smith, and I’m sure my husband will happily sign this and many future tax returns, as a loyal and wealthy client of your accountancy practice.”

“As you wish, Mrs Long. Please forgive my impertinence, but your husband has always been very particular about his tax return.”

“No need to apologise, Mr Smith.”

“I will always defer to Mr Long’s excellent business acumen. Even among our very best and most astute clients, your husband certainly has his head screwed on.”

“That’s very kind of you to say,” Janice said through gritted teeth.

She gave him the Spain address, knowing as she did so that it would force her to Andalucia sooner than she might have expected. But so what? Maybe a week or so in the sun would do her some good, and maybe she could find some bars where she might snag herself a fine Spanish lothario. From previous visits she knew she had a knack of drawing their attention, much to Derek’s chagrin. Only that wouldn’t be an issue this time.

But before she could consult her diary she had to attend to the unpleasant and unexpected task of finishing the re-burial of his head. She hadn’t slept since the fridge episode and had crept downstairs and into the woods hours later to the new burial site, to verify that it actually happened. And apparently it had. The spade was there and the ground had obviously been disturbed. Part of her wanted to re-dig the hole to see if the head in the fridge had been real, as real as it was in the ground now, but the effort required didn’t match the potential reward; better to just finish the job and leave it. With Jason out of the way and the accountant dealt with, she trooped back into the woods to the second burial site, and finished what she’d started in the small hours. She brushed leaves and twigs over the fresh grave to hide any evidence of digging and, satisfied with her efforts but troubled with a rising anxiety the events were causing, rewarded herself with an afternoon of pampering at the Country Club. Not the golf club, where she’d seen…thought she’d seen…Derek’s face. It might be a while before she went back there. But an afternoon at the Country Club was just what she needed now. Booking a trip to Spain could wait until the evening.

“And how is Derek?” the masseuse asked her as he placed hot stones on her back.

“Enjoying his golf, I believe,” she said, but she really didn’t want to talk about him. “I haven’t heard from him to be honest,” she added, hoping that she could then change the subject, but the masseuse wasn’t going to leave it there.

“I’m surprised he’s gone to Spain,” he said, and just left the statement hanging. So when Janice didn’t respond he continued. “Don’t they have all those scary religious festivals down there at this time of year?”

“Yeah, they call it Easter,” she said tiredly.

“Yes, but don’t they go overboard with the processions and the Madonnas and the Ku Klux Klan outfits? Derek told me he couldn’t stand any of it.”

“He’s not a big fan, no,” she said, playing along, though frankly she had no idea. “But I gather the Ku Klux Klan aren’t that big on offering up the Virgin Mary on a golf course.”

The masseuse rang a tiny bell above her back. “If you don’t mind me saying so, Ms Long, you seem rather spiky today. Is everything alright?”

“Actually, I do mind you saying so, Tony. But yes, thank you, everything is okay.”

She brought the hot stones session to a premature end and swam a hundred lengths in the pool instead, enjoying being solitary for a while. When she finally flopped into the jacuzzi she was followed in by a young man who’d been practicing different strokes up and down the pool for at least as long as she had. They exchanged the awkward smile, part of the ritual of climbing into a hot, fizzy bath with a complete stranger, then started pretending they were ignoring each other. He was pretty fit, Janice thought, so when the bubbles inflated his swimming shorts and the airy bulge floated him to the surface, she couldn’t help herself.

“I have that effect on men,” she said, and gave him her best cheeky-flirty smile.

“You must be good,” he replied. “I’m as gay as they come.”

She left the spa in no better mood than when she’d gone in, so diverted to the gym on the way home and took out her frustrations on a punchbag. She laid into it, despite being tired from the swim, and lack of sleep, but her efforts were obviously clumsy, lazy, and potentially dangerous, and within minutes she’d attracted the attention of Bobby, the gym’s resident boxing coach.

“I know what you’re going to say,” she said breathlessly, blinking sweat from her eyes. “Just give me five minutes Bob, okay?”

“I already have,” he said, grabbing the punchbag and swinging it away from her relentless roundhouses so she could no longer reach. “You’re gonna do yourself a mischief. But not on my watch.”

“I got a bag in the garage, you know,” she said, flexing her fingers.

“Then go injure yourself there.”

“Okay, look, I’ll calm down.”

“You ain’t anything but calm. Who you beating the crap out of? Husband? Lover?”

Janice glared at him. “None of your fucking business.”

She stormed from the gym and called Jason but he wasn’t picking up. Driving home she hammered on the steering wheel. She was bored, lonely, and frustrated, and it was all Derek’s fault. He didn’t want her to work. He didn’t like her to have her own friends. She was young, attractive, intelligent; she had everything going for her and yet he had gradually, methodically pulled it all away. He wanted her to be the dutiful wife, a recluse, growing green beans and potatoes on a farm. She was required to hang from his arm and look pretty at the dreary dinner dates he and his business and golfing chums seemed to enjoy. But a life of her own? Oh no. She wasn’t allowed to have that. Well, not any more, darling, she thought, Now just watch me make up for lost time, and for the first time that day she managed a smile.

She decided to go to Spain sooner rather than later. A change of scenery would do her good. She could work on a tan. Do some sightseeing. Flirt with a few of the locals maybe. Best of all, though, she would be away from people asking her, “How’s Derek?” And the breathing space would also be thinking space; she could, for the first time in her adult life, think about what she wanted to do.

She booked flights to Malaga then packed a small suitcase. She came across her stash of drugs while rifling through a bedside cabinet drawer looking for a wallet with her passport in it. What was the stuff called again? Ivory Wave? She thought back to the previous night and the bizarre events. As the day progressed what had happened seemed more and more ludicrous, yet the second grave was real enough – she’d been out to see it again when she came back from the gym. How could the drug make her hallucinate so much? The first time she’d taken it, when she was out with Christine and her friends, she’d been fine. A little wild maybe, but not to the extent that she was seeing things. But last night had been scary. The thing to do now would be to bin the drugs and never take them again. She certainly didn’t want to get caught taking little bags of white powder through customs, so it wasn’t coming to Spain with her. Why keep it?

She scooped up the bags and took them to the en-suite toilet with the intention of flushing the lot away. But she hesitated. At the same time as there being little reason to keep it, there was equally little reason to rush into getting rid of it. Perhaps she had just been overly tired last night. Fatigue could have combined with the drug to make her see and do strange things. Tiredness and stress could have caused her to see Derek’s face at the golf club. And the paper recycling box? Well, that was just a nonsense. She was about to spend a few weeks in Spain. Being away from the house, from Derek’s house, would surely do her good. When she came back she would feel refreshed, and, well, ready for a good time. A spot of Ivory Wave or whatever it was called might come in handy.

She put the drugs back in the drawer and at the same time discovered her passport inside an envelope – not the wallet she had been expecting to find it in. She smiled. It was her belief that everything happened for a reason.

*    *    *

Malaga airport always seemed to be in the middle of some major construction. She’d been a number of times with Derek, but more or less the moment they landed they had separate holidays – she on the beach and in Malaga’s maze of shopping streets, him on the golf courses. The airport was a constant, however; chaotic, always changing, yet strangely always familiar too. She hired a car and drove for 30 minutes to the villa in the hills near Mijas Pueblo. It was early April but the temperature was already in the low 70s. She found the warmth of the sun comforting and as she flopped onto the lounger by the pool she began to wonder why she hadn’t come out here sooner, or even maintained she was holidaying with Derek.

She had no idea how long she’d stay. Of course, she had to wait long enough for Derek’s tax return to arrive from the accountants. Once she’d forged his signature and returned it, there was nothing really to keep her there. Equally, however, there was nothing for her to rush home to, either. But the head-in-the-fridge incident was a good-enough reason to have an extended break. Recent events had obviously affected her more than she’d first realised.

For the first few days she did very little. She fielded a few text messages on Derek’s mobile, most of which were simply requests for a round of golf. She kept her reply simple – In Spain for a while, not sure how long for – as she was acutely aware that the more complicated she made the story, the more likely it was she would trip up. She went on a shopping trip to Malaga and then to Marbella, and whiled away an afternoon at her favourite cafe on the quayside at Puerto Banus, a place where she’d spent many an hour gazing at the super yachts, trying to guess the identities of their rich and famous owners. She even recognized one of the cafe’s waiters, and he remembered her, too, and they had a short but good-natured chat. He didn’t ask about Derek, and there was no reason why he should, but Janice found it a relief in any case. It would be easier to talk to people out here, she decided.

Less than a week into her stay, the tax return arrived. The figures were incomprehensible and Janice had no interest in them, so she just looked for the accountant’s instructions and signed Derek’s name wherever there was a space and a penciled cross. She put it in the post the same day. She went into Mijas that evening for a meal and discovered that the place was buzzing with activity, even more so than was usual for a Spanish town. “We’re preparing for Holy Week,” her waitress explained, then added with no small measure of pride, “I’m on the committee for the tronos…the, how do you say?…the statue of the Virgin Mary.”

“Great,” Janice said, unable to share in the woman’s enthusiasm. Even so, she immediately recalled what the masseuse had said, about Derek not liking Spain’s religious processions. It was all the reason Janice needed to watch one.

“Come to El Hacho Restaurant on Calle Ronda tomorrow, and behold our splendid tronos before anyone else!” the waitress suggested excitedly. Janice nodded, smiled politely, then waved her away. She might. She had nothing else to do.

El Hacho wasn’t easy to find. She went round in a few circles before she stumbled upon Calle Ronda in a quiet backwater, a pedestrianised street on account of how steep it was – so steep that it occasionally became flights of steps, although none of this prevented the fearless residents from parking their scooters outside the doors. She’d worked up a sweat by the time she reached the top of the street where the restaurant hunkered in a small square. While the rest of the square was peaceful, the little place was all lights and animation. Through its windows she could see crowds of people, but it was the scene just outside the restaurant that mostly took her eye. Under the bright white of the streetlight, amplified off the whitewashed walls, she could see the ornate tronos sitting, somewhat ignominiously, on the back of a battered flatbed truck. She wondered briefly whether she might get something to eat at the restaurant but quickly decided against it, guessing they were more interested in arranging the Holy Week festivities. Better perhaps to head into the centre of town. But she hadn’t walked up the hill in the late afternoon warm for nothing. She was curious to see the centrepiece of the processions that apparently bothered her husband so much.

She walked over to the truck. The tronos was a fabulously ornate framework of intricately sculpted woodwork, around which had been woven masses of flowers she initially found hard to believe were real. The frame was open-sided, save for a flower-bedecked cover on the roof, so everyone could see the Virgin Mary sitting within. Janice could only see the back of a figure, dressed in what looked like real white robes, so she stepped round to the back of the truck to get a better view.

Looking up, expecting to see the willowy face of the Virgin Mary, she instead found herself staring at the grubby, stubble-covered phizog of Derek Long.

She took a horrified step back and almost tripped over a bunch of cables sticking out of the pavement, a common feature in Spain. It should have been the Virgin Mary on the back of the truck, and everything up to the neck looked right, the bead necklaces, the carefully arranged flowers, the flowing robes, but it was definitely Derek’s head, Derek’s face, that gazed down on Janice, albeit with his eyes closed.

She put a hand to her mouth, more to stifle a moan rather than a scream. This couldn’t be happening. Couldn’t be real. She squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them again. But he was still there, the Virgin Derek. Even though he appeared to be sleeping, he somehow managed to look serene, heavenly, as if he was lovingly gazing down on his adoring flock. The very thought made Janice’s stomach heave. When she finally drew her hand away from her mouth, and stopped shaking enough so that she could think straight, she thought she should just turn and walk away. But she knew she couldn’t. She couldn’t just leave him up there. What if he was real? She didn’t feel tired, or stressed, so it was hard to blame it on that. What if this wasn’t just another hallucination? What if someone knew what she had done, had somehow seen her in the woods, and was playing a sick joke on her? If that was the case, she didn’t dare risk leaving his head on the Virgin Mary’s shoulders. Apart from being lynched by the devout locals, her crime would be exposed. She looked around the square, wondering if the prankster was watching her from the shadows. She didn’t dare call out. For the moment at least there wasn’t anyone else around, and the people in the restaurant seemed preoccupied. That was good as far as she was concerned. But it wouldn’t last. How would the Holy Week organising committee react when they emerged from the front door and saw that their beautiful conception had become significantly less than immaculate?

The back of the truck had a step. She hauled herself up and was suddenly within touching distance of Derek’s head. She forced herself to look at him and then grimaced. His ear looked more chewed up than before. Slime trails criss-crossed his cheeks and chin. There was dirt and twigs in his hair, which Janice thought had grown longer. Even if it wasn’t her imagination, but part of some elaborate joke, she couldn’t believe the lengths her tormentor was going to. If the aim was to expose her crime, why not simply report it to the police?

She looked at Derek. He looked so real, so, so just like him. She wanted to know. Was it really…his head? She reached out, hesitated for a moment, then touched his cheek.

His eyes flew open.

She shrieked and fell backwards. The truck rocked upwards and as she hit the pavement she saw Derek’s head wobble and fall off. It bounced off the side of the truck, ricocheted off a lamppost and came rolling towards her. She screamed again, scrambled to her feet and began stumbling down the street’s steps. The head came spinning and bouncing after her. She fled downhill, howling, not daring to turn round to see if Derek’s head was still following. A little dog bolted from an open doorway, yapping, and she tripped over it, saw over her shoulder that the head was just yards away and still coming, and scurried to her feet and was off again, screaming like a banshee and leaving a chorus of barking dogs in her wake.

Janice didn’t stop running all the way through town, out into the countryside and along the lane to the villa. She stayed long enough to pack hand luggage and grab her passport and then drove to Malaga airport where she booked one of the few remaining seats on the next no-frills flight back to Britain.

*    *    *

Jason owned a smart town centre flat Janice had fleetingly visited once before. She managed to park the Discovery in the small car park at the back and buzzed Jason’s number on the intercom.

“I’ve been trying to call you,” Jason said.

“Just let me in, J,” she pleaded.

He handed her a hot drink and sat down opposite her in a leather armchair. She hadn’t spoken for several minutes and Jason sympathetically gave her the space.

“Can I stay with you?” she asked eventually.

“What’s happened?”

She’d prepared for this. “I think Derek’s having an affair.”

If Jason saw any irony in this, he didn’t show it. “Does he know about us?”

Janice shook her head.

He reflected on the news for a moment. Then it was his turn to shake his head. “No, Janice. That’s not the answer.”

“I don’t want to be by myself.”

“What’s happened?”

She told him she’d been to Spain to pay Derek a surprise visit, and caught him in bed with the lady captain of the local golf club. They’d had a blazing row and she’d flown back without him. “I don’t want to be in that house,” she finished.

“But to stay with me?” Jason frowned. “Don’t you have another friend, or a relative you could stay with?”

“You know my family won’t have anything to do with me,” she said sulkily. “Please, Jason. I need to be with someone. A man.”

He’d never seen Janice this vulnerable before. He held her and she clung to him. Eventually he gently prised her away. “No, Janice. It’s not a good idea. I’m sorry about Derek, really I am. But this isn’t the way. We need to keep our heads.”

She made the Range Rover wheel-spin as she drove out of the car park. She called Cheryl but there was no answer. Christine’s excuse was that her parents were visiting and there simply wasn’t room. A hotel stay was a final option, but she hadn’t been home since she’d flown back from Spain – she didn’t have anything with her. She would have to go home to pick up a few things, but she thought she could manage that. It was spending the night there she didn’t think she could handle.

The visit home was brief but uneventful. She found herself tiptoeing around the house and scurrying around when outside, fearful she was being watched, or stalked, or that somehow she’d disturb the ghost of Derek’s head once more. She grabbed toiletries and clothes and another debit card and went straight back to town and booked herself into its best hotel. It was far from five-star but she didn’t care. She flopped onto the bed and stared at the ceiling, trying to clear her head and think about what to do next. She couldn’t stay for long. People expected her to be at the farm, or at least with Derek in Spain. Maybe she could book into a holiday cottage for a few weeks and call home occasionally to answer mail or return calls. Yet she realised all this was just in the short term. The real question was, what was she going to do with her life now?

She was distracted by her mobile phone ringing. She fished it out of her grab bag and saw it was Kevin, the managing director of Derek’s property firm. He’d called her several times now – a few times in Spain and twice that day. This was the third call. She couldn’t even remember why he had her mobile number in the first place, but that wasn’t important now. Whatever it was Kevin wanted, she knew she couldn’t ignore him forever.

“Hi Kevin,” she answered in the cheeriest voice she could muster.

“Janice, hi!” he replied, sounding surprised he’d managed to get through. They exchanged pleasantaries before he asked, “Did you get my messages?”

“Yes, but I’ve been in Spain a while. What can I do for you?”

“Well it’s Derek I want really,” he said, and even though she’d already guessed as much, Janice’s heart sank. “I can’t raise him at all. Is he with you?”

“No, he’s still in Spain,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “But he told me he wasn’t taking any calls.”

“I appreciate that. And I know you told me he was taking a backseat from the business, which he kinda was before you told me anyway.”

Janice waited, then shook her head. “So…what do you need him for?”

“It’s Acorn Properties’ AGM next week. I’m expecting Derek to attend, of course, but I’m just a bit worried because I haven’t heard from him.”

“Ah,” Janice said. “He did say something to me about the AGM a few days ago.” She was stalling for time, her mind racing. The excuse had to be right first time, or she could quickly trip herself up with the stories. She didn’t know anything about companies and what the rules and regulations said or meant. She knew Derek was chairman. If he sent his apologies, and simply left it at that, would that raise too much suspicion? Yet what choice did she have but to offer this story?

“And?” Kevin asked, waiting patiently for more.

“And I believe he’ll be sending his apologies,” she said. She could swear she could hear the nerves in her voice.

“He’s not attending?” Kevin sounded horrified.

“That’s what he said to me,” she replied, feigning ignorance.

“Is he unwell?”

“No. He’s in Spain playing golf.”

The long silence was obviously filled with disbelief. “What’s it going to look like to the board if the chairman would rather be in Spain playing golf instead of attending his own company’s AGM?”

“Like he’s got good taste?” Janice ventured, then cringed that she’d dared to make a joke of the situation.

“He’s never missed an AGM,” Kevin said, still reeling from the news. “He loves being involved. Acorn Properties is his baby!”

“Like I told you, he wants to take a step back from the business,” she said, recovering her composure a little.

“Taking a step back is one thing, but this!”

She heard the note of exasperation in Kevin’s voice and chose to go on the offensive. “Maybe I should tell Derek how unhappy you are at his decision?”

“I don’t mind that he wants to take a backseat, Janice, but to not even want to vote?”

“Don’t you have postal voting form?”

There was a pause as Kevin could see where Janice was going. “We have a proxy form, yes.”

“Then send him that, and I’m sure he’ll vote by post,” she said firmly.

There was another long pause. “Is he really alright?” he asked finally.

“Yes, he’s fine. A bit tired perhaps. Can you email the proxy form?”

“Well, yes.”

“Send it to me and I’ll make sure he gets it. And I’ll remind him to return it along with his apology.”

“But, isn’t he even going to…”

“Is there anything else I can do for you, Kevin?” she cut in. “Only I’m late for a hairdresser’s appointment and then I’m supposed to be meeting up with a friend in town.”

“Er, no. Thank you. You’ve been a big help, Janice.”

“I’m sure the AGM will go just fine,” she said, though she had absolutely no idea of any such thing. “Make sure you email Derek a copy of the minutes. If he has any comments to make I’m sure he’ll pass them to you in due course.”

“Er, yes. Of course.”

Janice ended the call and fell back on the bed, feeling exhausted. She shut her eyes but when she opened them again she suddenly felt a sense of panic. She’d planned Derek’s death but she really hadn’t thought through what would happen after. She hadn’t thought about the consequences of allowing people to believe he was still alive, and that they were still the married couple. Although she was free of his maddening control, the pretence that he was still around, still able to influence and make decisions, and, most of all, still her husband, was intolerable. She sat up, breathing hard, and saw the mini-fridge in the corner, and the beer cans behind the glass. No, there was no answer to be had there. For now she would just busy herself. It was Tuesday. She usually went to the gym and sparred with Dave every Tuesday evening. Everything was meant to be as normal, she reminded herself. Derek was simply away, playing golf in Spain. But she’d told Jason he was having an affair. So she was angry. Hurt. What would she do? She had no-one to turn to, so she was lonely and frustrated. Perhaps she would release that frustration at her kick-boxing session?

That’s what she would do. Janice took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, but already she felt slightly better for having something planned. Something to engage her physically while she gave more thought to the days, weeks and months ahead. And of course, something to take her mind off her trip to Spain. She had plenty of time and decided to shower first. She took off her jewellery and looked for the safe. There was a large one hidden in a cupboard. She created an access code and swung the heavy door open.

There was Derek’s head. His eyes were open and he greeted Janice with a smile.

She gasped, took two steps backwards, fell onto the bed and sat there, staring and open-mouthed, unable to move and speak.

“That’s the longest you’ve ever looked at me without calling me a bastard,” Derek said. He was still smiling, showing rows of lemon-coloured teeth.

“Bastard,” Janice said slowly.

Derek’s smile vanished. “Still wearing the wedding band, I see. Surpwised you haven’t pawned it.”

“We’re still married, so everyone thinks.” Her voice was low and slow, crushed under the weight of shock.

“How was Spain?” he asked in his soft, deep tone.

“Why are you doing this?”

“Doing what?”

“Haunting me. Scaring me.”

The smile reappeared. “Wevenge, of course.”

“What? Wevenge?”

“Wevenge,” Derek repeated, frowning. “Stwange. I can’t woll my r’s.”

“If the worst that can happen from having your head chopped off is a speech impediment, I guess you’re doing okay.”

“That’s funny.”

“No!” she declared sharply, leaping to her feet. “It’s not funny. None of this is funny.” She pressed her hands to the sides of her face, as if her own head were about to fall off. It was all so freaky! So ludicrous! She squeezed her eyes shut and opened them again, but Derek’s head and his hideous smile remained. “You’re not real!” she muttered.

“Like I wasn’t weal in Spain?”

“Right.” The panic was back, bubbling and boiling away under the surface. She felt hot and very shaky. “It’s just stress. Making me see things that aren’t there.”

“Don’t know about that, Jan,” Derek said. “Feels pwetty weal from where I’m, ummm, westing.”

“But I killed you with an axe. I buried you. Twice! You’re dead!”

“Well, I’m not. Not pwoperly, anyway.”

“So what, then? You’re a ghost-head?”

“I guess so.”


“Widiculous or not, here I am,” Derek declared with some measure of triumph. “And I promise you this: while there’s still bweath in my, ummm, head, I’m going to make your life hell. I’ll make sure you’re found out!”

Janice glared at him. “Not if I can help it.” She reached into the safe and yanked the head out by the nose.

“Owww!” Derek said in nasal-sounding whine.

“So, the ghost-head feels pain,” Janice said in triumph. “That’s just the ticket.” She dropped the head on the floor and kicked it across the room. Derek moaned. “Does it hurt?” she said to him as though talking to a baby, then stomped across the room and kicked the head again. It bounced off the wall and rolled under the bed.

“You bwoke my nose!” he wailed from beneath the mattress.

“Be grateful I’m not wearing stilettos!” Janice dropped to the floor and looked under the bed, but it was in darkness. “Get out from under there!” She reached under the bed, fingers flailing. When she brushed his chin she screamed as she felt teeth bite into her fingertips. She withdrew her arm and the head came with it, still biting hard. “Let…me…go!” she wailed. She swung his head at the wall but his teeth were clamped on, so she swung it again as hard as she could. Derek yowled and released his grip, the head ricocheting onto the bed.

“You broke my nails! Janice screamed.

“You bwoke my nose!” he wailed back, trying to lick the blood from his upper lip.

Janice fumed. Having surveyed the wreckage of her expensive manicure she leapt onto the bed, kneeling either side of Derek’s head. She grabbed it by the ears and started twisting. Derek wailed. “Don’t like this?” she asked rhetorically. She stopped twisting and slapped the sides of his face as hard as she could, careful to keep her hands clear of his teeth. “Or this?” she added, grinning manically. She leaned into his face and saw tears streaming from his eyes. “Trust me, Derek,” she snarled, not caring that her spittle dripped onto his crooked nose. “If you don’t stop haunting me, this’ll be as good as it gets!”

“I’ll never stop!” he told her, his smooth, deep voice now replaced with something weak and reedy. “I’ll have my wevenge, Janice Long!”

She picked up his head by the ears and crammed it back into the safe. She was about to swing the door shut, but hesitated. “Even if you are real, what can you do? Apart from bite me? You’re just a head.”

Through blood, tears and spit, Derek grinned. “You’ll see,” he said.

She screamed and slammed the safe door shut.

*    *    *

Janice checked out of the hotel and on the way home she called at the off licence. She thought about two bottles but settled for one. Before she drove away, she popped the top open and drank. As the whisky hit the back of her throat a memory came to her, and when she drove off the tears in her eyes were not from the sting of the drink.

By the time she reached the farm she’d consumed nearly half the bottle, and she was already drunk. She stumbled out of the car and bundled her way into the house. “Honey, I’m home!” she shrieked, swigging more whisky. She went into the kitchen first. “Where are you hiding? In the fridge?” She swung the fridge door open. “Nope, not there. What about the oven?” Having inspected all the hiding places in the kitchen she explored other rooms in the house. She was almost disappointed when she found nothing. “Think you can beat me?” she shouted at the ceiling. She laughed. “Think you can control my life? Think again, you evil fucker!” She fell into the sofa, still laughing manically, had a final few gulps of whisky and fell asleep soon after.

Janice fought the hangover with a cold shower but she also had another remedy in mind. She bought a further three bottles from the nearest supermarket and made a half-hearted effort to buy food at the same time. One bottle was a third empty by the time she returned home. She dumped the food in the kitchen then went upstairs to the bedroom, opened the drawer in the bedside cabinet and took out one of the packets of Ivory Wave. “Ready when you are, Derek,” she muttered, washing the powder down with more whisky.

She found his head on the kitchen doorstep. “So, the damage sticks,” she said, noticing his crooked, broken nose. “There must be a way to stop this.”

“Not before I take you over the edge,” Derek promised. “I see you’re back on the dwink.”

Janice narrowed her eyes, then broke into a grin. “Let’s play golf” she said. Keeping her fingers clear of his gnashing teeth, she took his head out to the garden patio, popped it onto an upturned plant pot and then went in search of his golf club trolley in the garden store. “Where’s the caddy when you need help on club selection?” she said, returning with a driver.

“When you’ve finished having your fun, we’ll talk,” Derek said.

“Finished having my fun?” She stooped and leaned into his face, sneering. “Darling, this is just the start.” Adopting her best golf pose, she tried a few practice swings before stepping up to the plant pot. Looking towards the woods, then back down to the top of Derek’s head, she swung the golf club hard and fast and made a clean strike, launching the head low into the air, clear of the lawn, over the pergola and into the vegetable patch. She found it amongst the cabbages, one eye missing and a huge, black lump where the cheekbone should have been.

“Good technique,” Derek said, coughing out blood and a few teeth. “Bit heavy on the dwaw, though.”

She rooted out the Swingball set from the garden store, something she remembered they bought on holiday and had probably only ever played once. She set it up using the hole in the ground meant for the rotary clothes line, and with lengths of fuse wire worked out an ingenious way to attach his head to the end of the Swingball’s rope. “Ready?” she asked, holding a thick plastic racket and practicing wrist movements.

“Don’t rewember having this,” Derek said.

“Shit game. Must have been your idea.”

She batted his head back and fore for several minutes, occasionally having to jump out of the way as teeth and blood sprayed in all directions. She struggled to generate any momentum because his head was so heavy. Even so, by the time she was bored the bat’s plastic mesh was glued-up with blood and hair.

“What do you think of that?” she snapped at his bloodied face.

“I think you should stick to golf.”

She ripped his head off the Swingball’s rope. “I’ll show you something I am good at,” she said. Minutes later Derek’s head was gaffer-taped to the punchbag in the garage. Despite the drink and drugs, she yelled and screamed and landed more kicks and punches than misses. “My body shots are just as good,” she said, “but wasted on you, darling.”

“You always knew how to fight,” Derek mumbled, spitting more blood and his remaining teeth. His jaw hung loosely and both sides of his head had swelled up so it was shaped like a pumpkin. “Take a bweak, Jan,” he suggested when she’d finally run out of steam. “Have a dwink.”

“I’m not finished yet,” she said, but she was slumped into a chair, breathing hard.

“Have a dwink!” Derek persisted. “I’m not going anywhere.”

She considered this for a moment, then tore off another piece of gaffer tape and taped over Derek’s mouth. She went back to the kitchen and finished off the rest of the whisky. Knowing she was close to passing out, she removed Derek’s head from the punchbag and carried it by the nose to the workshop at the rear of the garage. For a moment she considered the circular saw Derek used to cut timber, though when she looked she noticed the blade was missing. Then she remembered – Simon the carpenter had said he couldn’t find it. She felt a little miffed. So instead she wound the vice open, shoved his head into it and then cranked the steel jaws as tight as they would go. Derek’s mumbling gave way to a muffled scream. Finally, when she felt, and heard, a dull crack followed by silence, she was satisfied the vice was tight enough.

So this is how it was going to be, she thought, looking down at Derek’s battered and contorted face. A few days of weird oblivion while she waged war with her late husband’s head. “Sweet dreams,” she muttered. She tried to lock the workshop door behind her but kept fumbling with the key. In the end she gave up and all but crawled back inside the house, intending to reach the sofa but not making it further than the kitchen before she fell asleep on the slate floor.

When she woke she had no idea if it was day or night. Her first sensation was a pain pounding hard inside her head, followed by cold from the slate floor. The cold became more intense around her hips and she looked down with the rapid realisation that she was wet there. She knew only too well what the wetness was, in the same way that she knew about the headaches and, if she didn’t reach for the bottle soon, the shakes that would follow. Pulling herself to her feet, her first thought was to open the next bottle of whisky. She found it, drowned a quarter, took a moment to assess her condition and then had a shower. She couldn’t be bothered with clothes so she put on her dressing gown.

Derek’s head was on the dressing table. The fact that it had somehow escaped the iron vice did not surprise Janice, but the realisation that, whatever damage she had inflicted on him previously had somehow been undone, certainly did.

“I appear to have amazing wegenewative powers,” he told her, smiling with delight. It was true. His hair looked longer, and one ear was still chewed, but the rest of the face looked unmarked.

“I’ll have to try harder,” Janice said, looking at him in dismay.

Derek seized on her disappointment and grinned. “Bring it on!”

She held off from taking another dose of Ivory Wave. Instead she kicked Derek’s head down the stairs and dribbled it along the hallway and into the kitchen, where she picked it up and jammed it into the food blender’s large plastic bowl. She smiled when she saw the terrified look on his face. “Worried?” she asked, fiddling with the blender’s settings.

“Yes! Don’t do this, Janice!” Derek pleaded. “It’s an expensive blender!”

The spinning blades ripped his scalp away but shuddered to a halt when they met the solid white dome of his skull. Disappointed, she scooped out the head and bits of shredded flesh and popped the lot into the microwave. She set it on high power for 10 minutes and started it, and watched his head turn a few times before running back upstairs to take a dose of Ivory Wave. But it would be wasted. Moments later the stench of melting flesh reached the bedroom and she tore downstairs again to turn the microwave off. She just managed to get through the kitchen door and out into the yard before she vomited noisily into the mud. Annoyed at making herself sick, she forced herself to go back inside and clear up the mess. When she sprang the microwave door open a runny, pinkish goo dribbled out onto the worktop. Bits of pale flesh and brain matter still clung to the skull. She removed the microwave plate with the head still on it and took it outside, then cleaned up the remaining puddles in the kitchen. Still angry with herself, she put the skull on the tree stump that had served as Derek’s wood chopping block and then retrieved his sledgehammer from the garden stores. She held the heavy hammer high above his head with both hands. “Alas, poor Derek!” she declared loudly and, concentrating hard on her aim, went to work on his skull.

The doorbell rang while she was slumped in the bedroom with another whisky bottle. Minutes or maybe hours had passed since the microwave event. “Fuck, no,” she muttered. She decided to ignore it. It rang a second time, and then she heard the letterbox open.

“Jan?” It was Jason’s voice.

“Go away!” she called out.

“I want to talk you.”

“I don’t wanna talk to you.”

She heard the letterbox flap around. “Jan? Are you ok? I tried to call. Jan? What the hell’s that smell?”

“I cooked Derek’s head in the microwave. Now leave me alone.”

“Are you drunk? Janice? I’m worried about you.”

“You weren’t worried when I needed somewhere to stay.”

“I was! It’s just…Jan, please answer the door.”

Still in her dressing gown, she staggered to the front door and opened it, and almost heard Jason gasp. He was standing there in his work suit, which surprised her.

“Good God, Jan. Are you ok?”

She managed a weak smile but needed to hold onto the door to stop herself from collapsing. “Sunday morning fall-out,” she said.

“But it’s Monday.”

“Wow!” She sniggered. “Helluva night.”

He hesitated for a moment and screwed up his nose again, trying to look past her into the house. When he realised she wasn’t about to let him inside, he continued. “When’s Derek back?”

“Who gives a shit? So go on. You wanted to talk.”

“Don’t be like this.”

“Things to do, Jason, and I’m late. You got anything to say or not?”

“Alright. If you really have nowhere else to go, and you can’t stay here, you can stay with me. But as friends. Okay? Me and Claire, well, you should know – we’re getting engaged.”

“Nice,” Janice said. “That it?”

Jason nodded. “Yeah. That’s it.” They looked at each other awkwardly for a few moments before he added, “Take care anyway,” and he turned and walked away.

“Jason?” she called after him. When he stopped and turned she said, “You’re the only one that cares.”

“I’m sure that’s not true.”

Janice nodded. “Yes it is. Be good to Claire. I won’t get in the way.” She shut the door and saw him walk away through the frosted glass panel. When she turned to face the hallway she saw Derek’s head, in a newly-reformed state, sitting on the bottom stair.

“Oh how touching!” he said. “And now the slut has no-one to throw her knickers at.”

She reached for the first thing, which happened to be a high-heeled shoe, and staggered over to the foot of the stairs. Holding the shoe by the toe-end, she stood over the head and began hammering at it with the heel. “Leave me the fuck alone!” she screamed, but she had no strength left and fell against the wall, the shoe slipping from her hand and bouncing off Derek’s head. She slithered down the wall, head in her hands, sobbing.

“Blokes pay for women in high heels to twample all over them,” Derek said, blinking blood from his eyes. “Can’t see the appeal myself.”

Janice crumpled to the floor and cried herself to sleep.

*    *    *

There was something stuck around her mouth when she woke-up. For a moment she thought it was dried blood but when she opened her eyes she saw a pool of solidified vomit on the cushion her head was resting on. She was lying on the sofa, though she couldn’t remember how she got there. She slowly raised her head and groaned as a pain ripped through her skull. There was a bottle of whisky on the coffee table, a quarter full. She reached for it and drank it in one go. Then she pushed herself up into a sitting position, pressing her hands against her temples and keeping her eyes closed as the pain came again.

“That’s the last,” she heard Derek say from somewhere within the room.

She tried to speak but the burn at the back of her throat stopped her. She tried again. “Last what?”

“Dwink,” Derek said.

She rubbed the dried-on vomit from the corner of her mouth. “So what?” she croaked.

“So, you’ll have to get some more.”

Janice slowly shook her head. “I’m going to stop.”

She listened to Derek laugh. “Just like that, huh?” he said. “Like before?”

“I know what you’re trying to do,” she said. “But I won’t let you. You won’t beat me.” She got to her feet and shuffled to the kitchen where she poured herself a glass of water. She sipped it; it tasted like poison. But she was determined to show him. She padded into the dining room and looked at herself in the mirror. No wonder Jason had been shocked. Her face was white and swollen-looking. There were dark half-moons under her eyes which were red and bloodshot, and her hair tangled and matted. Something was dried-on to her chin. She rubbed at it gingerly but it was sore. She had a closer look but had no idea what it was. Her dressing gown, previously white, was a riot of stains.

When she took the drink back to the lounge she saw Derek’s head was sitting on the fireplace. Apart from longer hair and a half-chewed ear, it didn’t look any different from his previous appearances. She sat down on the sofa, away from the vomit, put the glass on the table and looked at him. “Alright. What do you want?”

“Ready to talk now?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said, clutching her sides as a wave of shakes took hold of her.

“You’re not going to stamp on me?”


“Micwowave me?”


“Feed me to the neighbour’s dogs?”

“Good thinking. But no.”

“So you’re weady to talk to me?”

“If you’ll just leave me alone, yes.”

“Alwight then.”

They were both quiet for a few moments. For now the shakes had subsided a little as her latest whisky intake took effect. But she knew it wouldn’t last. The pain was coming. She knew she couldn’t stop drinking completely, so immediately. She would have to gradually ween herself off the binge, slowly drink less and less, probably over a period of several days or even longer. She told herself she could do it, no matter how hard it would be. But that meant getting more booze. No matter what happened, she would have to leave the house that day. And if she had to leave the house, what reason would there be to come back? If Derek followed her, wherever she decided to go, so be it. She’d deal with it. Somehow. She looked at him again and realised he was waiting for her to say something. She spread her hands and shrugged. “So?”

“Don’t you have something to say?”

She shook her head slowly. “Do I?”

Derek rolled his eyes. “How about a sowwy? A weal, pwoper sowwy. Do I weally have to spell it out?”

Janice frowned. “Actually, would you mind?”

“Sowwy, Janice! An apology. I know this is an alien concept for you.”

“Apology? For what, exactly?”

“Well, for a start, just by having to imagine I’m pointing at my head should be enough of a clue.”

“You drove me to it, Derek. Just as you drive me to drink.”

“Dwove you to murder? Bit extweme, don’t you think? And you were already a dwunk when we first met. I saved you fwom self-destwuction.”

“I was a young girl having a good time, you moron! Oh, but wait a minute, you wouldn’t know what having a good time is, would you?”

“You’re an alcoholic. Admit it.”

“I’m not having this conversation again.”

“We’ve never had this conversation!”

She shook she head. “You’re a bore, Derek. Even when you’re just a severed head.”

“You’d have wecked your life if it wasn’t for me! I looked after you, cared for you, gave you everything you wanted.”

“Gave me everything I wanted?” she repeated incredulously. “You stole my life! You took me from my friends and trapped me in your sad little world of business deals and posh dinners and those god-awful golf days.”

“Took you from your fwiends?” Now it was Derek’s turn to repeat her words with disbelief. “You couldn’t wait to wun off me with! You took one look at my nice car and my big house and from then on you were itching to get your claws into my money. I was your meal ticket. And then we were marwied, what? Two years? Just long enough for you to bat your eyelashes at me and get all our accounts in joint names. And then lo and behold, you want a divorce.”

“And you wouldn’t let me go!”

“Because you were after money! You’d have wuined me! And I wasn’t about to let a spoilt, money-gwabbing bitch like you walk away with the fortune I’d worked hard for all my life!”

“You couldn’t let me go because you needed a trophy wife,” she said. “Some cute young thing to impress your mates. You loved it, didn’t you? Watching your rich chums eye me up at those stuffy cocktail parties. You bought me all those skimpy dresses and signed me up to every gym around, just so everyone could see what a great piece of arse Derek Long was banging.”

“Don’t flatter yourself.”

“You know it’s true. And when I wasn’t on show for the public, which was most of the time, I was your dutiful house maid. You didn’t want me to work. You didn’t want me to think for myself. You just wanted me in the house, especially in the early days, remember? while you were away on your so-called ‘business trips’. No, Derek. I’m not that naive. Not now, anyway. And what was my role? Look after the house? Talk to you on the phone when you needed a bit of conversation, a bit of company, once the escort agency girls had finished their shift?”

“That’s not true. I never once…”

“And the irony was, I did stay at home. I could have gone out drinking and partying. I could have had my own lovers. But I was the dutiful housemaid. I was young. I thought it was all okay. And then for whatever reason, you swapped business trips for golf. And you were around more. And yet you still denied me my own life. God forbid I might want to go out and enjoy myself.”

“Because you’d have fallen off the wagon!”

“And why do you think that was? You’d make any woman turn to booze! I’d become a recluse, a loner. I felt like a prisoner. And then to top it all off, you made me leave town and brought me out here to fucking Emmerdale.”

“Because you were in weal danger of falling off the wagon!” Derek said again. “I had to get you away fwom that lifestyle or it would have killed you.”

“No, Derek. You were kidnapping me. You’ve always been kidnapping me.”

“Nonsense! You could have left at any time. Yes, that’s right. You could have walked out the door whenever you wanted. Gone back to your fwiends and dwunk yourself stupid. But you didn’t, did you? You know why? Because of the money! Because if you stayed with me you could have anything you wanted. The nice car, the big house, the exotic holidays, the luxurwy spas. How many thousands have you spent on beauty tweatments, on expensive surgerwy? All that cosmetic shit! I never asked you to do that. My money, Janice!”

“Have you finished?”

“No,” he shot back. “Because the other weason you never left is because you got yourself a lover. Several, I bet. Jason was only the latest. I’m not stupid. You might have been the dutiful house wife once, but it didn’t last, did it?”

“So why not divorce me?” she screamed at him. “Let me go! You think I wanted to have affairs? You think that was the life I wanted? All the creeping around and the constant lying and having to find horrible hotel rooms…I was miserable! I am miserable!”

Janice cried. Derek waited. When her sobs abated she reached for the glass of water and drank some more. A moment later she was doubled-over as a pain ripped through her stomach. She looked up at the empty whisky bottle on the coffee table, as if willing it to refill itself.

Watching her, Derek spoke slowly. “I saved you fwom the bottle, Janice. Many times. And you? You murdered me with an axe. I saved your life, and you destwoyed mine, you ungwateful, evil bitch.”

Janice looked at him and spoke equally slowly. “I was young and happy when I met you. You kidnapped me, smothered me, made my life a misery. Then you expect me to be grateful. You ruined my life, you selfish, sanctimonious piece of shit.”

They were both silent for a few moments. It was Derek who spoke next.

“I guess this leaves us with just one question,” he said. He looked directly at Janice. “Did you ever love me, or was it always just the money?”

“Two questions,” Janice said. “Did you ever love me, or was I always to be the dutiful trophy wife?”

They glared at each other.

“I asked first,” he said.

“I’ll answer yours if you answer mine,” she replied.

“No, you answer first. This is my show.”

Your show? And if I want more practice on the Swingball?”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” Derek rasped. “Don’t know why I’m asking anyway. I know the answer.”

“Do you?”

“In all pwobability.”

“Same goes for me,” Janice said.


“I reckon so.”

“Trwy me.”

“Alright. Did you ever love me?”

“I always…” Derek began, then stopped. “Wait a minute, I asked first!”

Janice rolled her eyes. “Give it up, Derek. We’ll be here all week.”

“I’m frwee if you are.”

Janice got to her feet. She looked at the mess on the sofa, then gazed around the rest of the room. There was a broken flower vase on the floor in the corner. A wall picture was hanging crookedly and there was a stain splashed on the wall beside it. There were two empty whisky bottles on the coffee table, and two glasses. There was another stain on the table she couldn’t identify. She went into the hallway and it was a similar tale of neglect and destruction there. A broken shoe lay on the floor. She picked it up and mourned its passing. They’d been her favourite pair. She gazed at the heel and then something made her think. There was no blood there. She went to the bottom of the stairs, expecting to see the aftermath of her rage with Derek’s head. But there was nothing. No stains, no mess. She frowned. Was it still possible that all this was still in her imagination? When she went into the kitchen, intending to go outside to the Swingball game still set up on the patio, she paused at the microwave. There was no trace of the mess at all. And no smell. And yet, in the drunken fug of her memory, hadn’t Jason said something about a bad smell? On the patio she inspected the Swingball bat, and there was no sign of any blood. The tennis ball hung from the thick string attached to the pole, moving slightly in the strong wind, and she frowned again. Had she really played Swingball with Derek’s head?

He was in the kitchen when she went back inside. “How’d you do that?” she asked.

“Do what?” he said from the worktop.

“Move from one room to the next. You got little ghost-legs growing out of that ghost-head of yours?”

He pulled a face. “I’d shwug, or shake my head if I could.”

Janice winced as a pain shot through her side, and Derek saw it.

“That’s your liver,” he said with a smirk.

“Least I’ve got one,” she shot back. She marched upstairs, found a suitcase from the cupboard and began throwing clothes into it.

“Where you going?” he asked from the dressing table, watching as the room filled with a flurry of flying clothes and shoes.

“What difference does it make?” She had to stop as a wave of shakes took hold of her, and sat down on the bed, clutching her sides and moaning.

“You’re not fit to go anywhere.”

“I can manage,” she said, but was unable to hide the strain in her voice.

“You can detox here, you know.”

“Not without some drink.”

“There’s booze in the house.”

She looked at him, still grimacing with pain. “I thought you didn’t have any here. Threw it all away.” Glaring, she added sarcastically, “To protect me.”

“I kept some.”

“Where? What the hell for?”

“Because I like a dwink. Because unlike you, I can take it. And besides, I never got wich by thrwoing things away.”

“You son of a bitch,” she said slowly, but felt something appoaching relief for the first time that day. “And are you going to tell me where it is, or are you going to blackmail me, let me suffer a bit longer?” She shook her head. “Tell me, don’t tell me. I need a drink and I’ll get one somewhere.” Ignoring the pain in her chest, her shakiness, and the beginnings of a headache, she got to her feet and began loading the suitcase again.

“I’ll tell you where it is,” Derek said. “But I’ll have to show you, so…you’ll have to take me.”

She gave him a sideways look. When he was a complete person she could always tell if he was hiding something, so she reasoned she could still tell now he was just a head. There was nothing in his face to suggest he was making it up, or trying to trick her in some way. “Alright then,” she said, dropping clothes back down on the bed. “Show me where.” She grabbed his head by the hair and held it with an outstretched arm for a few moments, satisfying herself he wasn’t going to try and bite her.

“Study,” he said simply.

The study was the smallest room downstairs. One wall was covered in bookcases while under the narrow sash window there was an oak desk, computer and printer. The broadband modem’s lights blinked in the room’s dim light. A cabinet sitting in the corner was a unique piece of furniture in the farmhouse in that it was the only place heralding a photograph of Derek and Janice together. Above that was a noticeboard where Derek pinned letters, outstanding bills, and dates of dinners and golf days. Janice never gave it any attention.

“Note, the only downstairs woom with a wooden floor,” he said.

She put Derek down on the computer desk and flexed her arm from the strain of carrying his head outstretched. Then she looked down at her feet and raised an eyebrow. “You know, I never even noticed.”

“It’s wooden for a weason. Lift up the wug.”

“The wug…?” she started to question him, then nodded. She pushed the office chair to one side and rolled back the worn-looking rug that had been beneath it. She stood the rolled-up rug in the corner then came back to the centre of the room. “So, what am I looking at?”

“Beneath your feet…the mark in the wood that looks like a knot? Pwess it.”

She stepped back. There was a large, dark knot in one of the planks which, now that she was staring at it, looked strangely unnatural. A little too large perhaps, and too circular. She got down on her knees and looked more closely, and saw there was a narrow gap running all the way around it. She pressed a thumb in the centre of the knot, heard a click, and a large rectangle of floor popped upwards. A trapdoor. “Well, how about that?” she said.

“Good, isn’t it?” Derek said. “I found it by mistake. I’d dwopped something on the floor, I think, and then I saw it. You’d never see it if you didn’t look closely.”

“What’s below?”

“Have a look.”

She reached down and pulled the trapdoor upwards. It was surprisingly thick and very heavy, and she needed two hands to lift it upwards. “Weighs a tonne,” she muttered, struggling with it until it was upright and then carefully letting it rest against the edge of the computer desk.

“I weckon it’s soundpwoof.”

“It’s bloody bomb-proof!” She looked down into the rectangle of darkness, saw a flight of steep wooden steps leading off into it, and for the first time felt a prickle of fear. “So what’s down there?”

“I think it must have been part of the cellar orwiginally,” Derek said. “But then it was separwated and made into a secret woom.”

“But why?”

“It might have been a bomb shelter, or a panic woom.”

Janice chuckled. “What, out here?” His theory did explain why the door was so heavy, but she wasn’t really buying it.

“People made bomb shelters in the early eighties, when the Cold War was at its height,” Derek said. “You won’t wemember the public information films. Hide under the stairs, they said. As if that would prwotect you fwom a nuclear blast.”

Janice blinked but her eyes were getting no more used to the dark. “Is there a light?”

“Just inside, to the left.”

She hesitated, then reached down and under the floorboards. There was a switch. She pressed it and a rather dim light filled the room below. It was small, no more than eight feet square. The floor was concrete and the walls made of brick. The wooden steps leading down looked solid enough, but were very steep, like attic stairs. Against one wall was a small table and chair, but it was the items on the table that took Janice’s attention. A bottle of whisky, half-full, and two bottles of gin, unopened.

She looked back at Derek. “You used to sneak in here for a drink?”

“Sometimes,” he said. “It was about the only thing that kept me sane.”

“Son of a bitch,” Janice said again. She looked down into the room, at the booze. So Derek was right. She could stay in the house, and slowly sober herself up. But did she really want to stay there? For now, the thought of leaving the house, going outside and being with other people in town, or in a supermarket, filled her with dread. She didn’t really know if she could handle it. And while she was still in this state, whether it was drunkeness or deep withdrawal, she would surely draw attention to herself, something she simply couldn’t allow to happen. Even if Derek followed her, and she suspected he would, the bigger danger now came from herself. Before she could contemplate her next move, she had to sober up. Just a few more drinks, she thought. A gradual easing off, and she could get herself right again. Derek’s head was seriously pissing her off but he hadn’t shown any capability of doing her any actual harm. She’d live with him for now. Ignore him, maybe. She could do that. Perhaps if he thought he was no longer getting under her skin, he’d leave her alone.

“Just a few more drinks,” she said to herself, looking down at the booze on the table. As if in reply a pain began pounding away inside her skull. She moaned and pressed a hand against her forehead.

“Go for it,” Derek said from the computer desk.

Despite feeling unsteady on her feet again, she stepped onto the first of the wooden stairs. It creaked. Then she stopped. Something wasn’t right. Why was he helping her? Why didn’t he make her suffer? He didn’t have to tell her about his little secret stash of booze, did he? What was his game? Keep her drinking, perhaps. Yes, of course – he wanted that, didn’t he? She looked down at the steep wooden steps and another thought occurred to her. Fear stabbed at her chest. She stepped back onto the study floor and glared at Derek. “I get it,” she said slowly, thinking her theory through. “The oldest trick in the book.”

“What are you on about?”

“You know, the broken stair trick,” she said, grabbing his head off the desk. “I stand on it. It breaks. I fall and break my neck.” She held his head up to hers and snapped, “You got the booze for bait, didn’t you, you bastard! That the plan, Dewek?”

“You’re pawanoid!”

“Gosh, I wonder why?” she said. “Let’s test my theory anyway, shall we?” She held his head out in front of her and then threw it down hard onto the top step. It bounced from there onto the second step, then the third, then the fourth, then missed a couple before bobbling away down the rest, rebounding off the corner at the bottom and rolling into the centre of the cellar’s floor.

“Satisfied?” he mumbled.

She frowned. Maybe there wasn’t a problem with the stairs, though she still wasn’t convinced. And what else could there be, lying in wait for her? She looked at the booze again on the table and decided that if she was careful enough she would probably spot any trick he might be trying to play on her.

Janice took a deep breath and placed her first foot on the top step. Gingerly she increased her weight on the wood and it started to creak. But so far, no dramas. She rested her other foot on the step and slowly relaxed. Then she stepped onto the second stair, gradually increased her weight and, assured it wasn’t going to break, brought the other foot onto it. She repeated the whole process for each of the wooden steps. As she got lower down the stairs, so her confidence increased and she moved more quickly. A fall here might hurt but it certainly wouldn’t be fatal. When she reached the floor she looked first at Derek’s head, lying sideways on the floor, then up at the booze on the table. She walked carefully around him, never taking her eyes from his. He watched her, as much as he could, until she was at the table and standing behind him.

“Let me have some,” he said. “Who knows? I might have poisoned it.”

Janice’s eyes narrowed. “Good point,” she said. If he was playing games, she couldn’t work out what they were.

She reached for the whisky and lifted the bottle from the table. There was a click, and she saw there was a hole in the table where the bottle had stood, and some kind of armature leading away from the bottle’s base. She only had time to look up and see the glint of the circular saw, attached to something that swung from a dark space in the ceiling. “You…” she started to say but got no further. Heavily weighted, the sharpened blade crashed into the front of her neck and slashed through her flesh and windpipe, then cut through her spine and finished its work just above her shoulder blades. As it continued its trajectory there was a loud bang as hidden springs pulled the room’s heavy trapdoor shut. The saw blade and the swing it was attached to smashed into the ceiling and broke apart, sending pieces of wood, a metal pole, dumbbell weights and the saw itself raining down onto the floor. The pole batted off Derek’s head but the weights missed him by inches.

“Gotcha,” Derek said from the floor, even though he was unable to see his wife still standing behind him.

And had he been able to turn round, Derek would have seen this: Janice Long, a once good-looking girl of 35, pale-faced and frizzy-haired, standing in a dirty dressing gown, her lips moving but no sound coming from her mouth. She has a bottle of whisky in one hand, a pose that bore testimony to an addiction she was never able to kick. There’s a thin red line through her neck and for a moment she stands there, motionless, as if suspended by hidden forces. But then the red line becomes a collar of pouring blood. Her body topples one way and her head falls the other, and a great jellyfish of blood bursts from her neck and throws itself, thrashing and flailing around the tiny room. It coats the table and paints abstract art on the floor and walls, even reaching as high as the ceiling where it slaps the light bulb and sends it swinging on its cord. It gives the room an eerie red light, made even more salacious by the great blood explosions running and pooling around it.

Janice’s body topples into the table and knocks it over, sending the bottles of gin flying and crashing onto the floor. The whisky bottle still clamped in her hand smashes as the body hits the floor and lands on top of it. Whisky and gin spill from beneath her, mixing with the blood in oily swirls and eddies. Her head falls the other way, bounces off Derek’s and rolls just a few feet away where it comes to rest, facing him. Her eyes and mouth are open, fixed by the horror of her fate.

Derek Long had waited nearly 20 years for this moment. It should have been accompanied by a state of euphoria, the sound of champagne corks popping, a career-best round of brilliant, dazzling golf. Instead he could only lie there, as a severed head, and stare at the equally severed head of his late wife. Above them the light bulb continued to swing, and the only sound was that of dripping blood.

*    *    *

Janice looked around and licked her dry lips. The blood that had pooled beneath her cheek tickled her as it dried, but she could do nothing about it. Her head was lying on its side and she could see from the corner of her eye the hole in the ceiling where Derek’s circular saw trap had sprung from.

“Took me months to cweate and perfect,” Derek said proudly. “Far more sophisticated than that cwude, Wambo-type twap you built in the woods.”

The two heads were just a foot or so apart, both lying on their sides on the floor. They faced each other. The light bulb had finally stopped swinging and the room was lit in a grim red light.

“Think you’re thso thsmart, don’t you?” Janice said, then frowned. “Thsmart? Shit! I’ve got a lithp!”

“You get used to it.”

“Fine! But if you’re really thsuch a thsmarty panths, how come you’re justht a thsevered head like me?”

“I was hoping to get your decapitation in first,” he mused. “After you were dead I was going to fill this woom with cement.”

“Can’t believe you were planning to kill me. Basthtard!”

Derek giggled.

“Don’t you dare laugh at my thspeech problem!”

The two heads were quiet for a while. They both listened but there wasn’t a sound. Then they looked at each other because there really wasn’t anywhere else to look.

“No,” Janice said finally.

“No what?”

“I can’t lie here looking at you.”

“Why not? This is the first time ever that we’ve actually seen eye-to-eye.”

Janice began pulling faces, moving her facial muscles and stretching her jaw.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“If I can get over there I’m going to head-butt you,” she said, but despite contorting her face as much as she could, she wasn’t moving anywhere. She gave up, sighing. “Alright. Tell me how to move.”

“I’ve no idea.”

“Bullshit! You were able to follow me round, room to room. Fuck, you even turned up in thSpain. Tell me how to move. I want to get out of here.”

“I honestly don’t know how I did it. It just happened.”

“You’re a liar!” She hawked up as much saliva as she could and spat in his face.

Derek blinked it away. “I never sank to that level.”

“Fine if you don’t want to tell me. I’ll keep thspitting at you until thsomebody findths uth down here.”

“You’ll wun out of spit long before then. We’re well hidden.”

“I can thscream. When they come looking I’ll thscream my head off.” She rolled her eyes at her own mistake.

“It’s very soundpwoof.”

Janice was breathing in quick, raspy breaths, the sound of panic. “I can’t thstay here. I can’t lie here, looking at you.”

“It’s no picnic for me, either. But wight now I don’t think we have a choice.”

They were silent for a while. Finally, Derek asked, “Did it hurt?”

“Did what hurt?”

“Having your head chopped off.”

“No. Not really. What about you?”

“No. Surpwising, weally, considerwing the mess it makes.”

There was another silence.

“How long will we be here, do you think?”

“Don’t know.”

There was a big sigh. “Surely we’ll jusht die thsoon…we can’t be like this forever.”

“Conventional wisdom suggests we shouldn’t be like this at all. What’s to say we won’t be stuck here forwever?”

“I’ll just thsleep. And thsnore loudly, to annoy you.”

Another long silence.

“You never answered my question.”

“Which one?”

“Did you love me?”

There was a pause. “Only for your money. You?”

There was another pause. “Only for your arse.”

And then there was a final pause.

“You bathstard,” Janice said.

“You bitch,” Derek replied.

  • Copyright Phil Thomas, all rights reserved

Getting On

I told the coppers I din’t do owt wrong. It were nowt to do wi me. They din’t seem bothered. Din’t wanna know what I were doin or nothin. All they wanted to know about were them two men that got out the van and ran off. I told em what they looked like and this woman sat at the side of mi bed doing one of them drawrings, you know, like on them ‘wanted’ posters. I sez “they looked like this” and “they looked like that” and she drew everythin I sez. They even asked me what I thought of the drawrings when she’d done. Pretty good, I sez. Am ardly gonna say t’cops “they’re shit!”, amma?

I really din’t do owt wrong. I were outside Marks and Sparks and it were just annuver normal day in sunny Manchester. Busy and noisy like always. Like am not there. Like it always is. But that were before. All I remember after is bein sat on’t pavement and watchin folk runnin round and bits of stuff fallin in’t road, like glass and bricks and stuff. There were glass everywhere. It looked like road had iced up, glistening in’t sun. It were beautiful. But the thing I really remember, even though I try ‘ard not to, was the woman, Angel Annie, among all them people. She were just lookin at me. Nice lookin’ lass. There’s me, lookin round, thinkin, ‘What the fuck’s she starin at?’ She’s starin at me, but it ain’t like the normal look, the disgust, the toss of a coin if am lucky. She keeps on lookin. Like an angel, she is, watchin out for mi. That’s what I thought at the time. That’s the kinda daft thing that guz round in mi ‘ead sumtimes. All the other folk ignorin mi, normal like. But not this woman. She comes over, runs over, goin “You okay? You okay?” and am like, “I ain’t done owt wrong, miss!” But then I see the look on er face proper. It ain’t no look am used to seein, I’ll tell yer. She crouches down and puts er ‘and on mi shoulder. Am bloody panickin now. “I aven’t done owt wrong,” I sez, squealin like a wuss. Am kicking mi feet on’t pavement, tryin to get miself away from er. But mi creatin just makes er more worried. “Please, keep still” she sez. “You’re bleeding.” She’s even got a voice like an angel. So I reckon.

I don’t pay much attention to miself as a rule. I don’t do this male groomin shit. But when she sez “You’re bleeding” I hafta ‘ave a gander. And she ain’t wrong. Got blood on mi ‘ands. That ‘appens, on an off. Scroungin rown’t bins. Deckin sum thievin twat. Defendin miself from annuver beatin by Bez and ‘is mates. Blood’s all over mi bed, too, though it’s only the Daily Mail, and it is from last month. Probably time I ‘ad a change a beddin anyhow. But as ‘ave told yer, I ain’t done owt wrong. A’ve no idea what’s goin on ere, me. But the woman knows more than I do. Which ain’t difficult I admit. “You got glass all over you,” she sez, and then makes this face, like wussy women do at ‘orror movies. It don’t really urt that much, an am used to people lookin at mi like am shit. So I ain’t that bothered. Instead am lookin at er and wonderin what the bloody ell’s wrong with er. She’s got nice blonde hair and nice skin. Great tits. And she smells nice too. She’s mi Barbie girl. She’s mi angel. That’s when I start rememberin things and right away am panickin again. “Leave me alone, miss!” I tells er. “I don’t want no trouble.”

“You’re hurt, you need help,” she sez. She puts ‘er ‘and on mi shoulder. Really gentle, like. I can ‘ardly feel it. Probably worried she’s gonna catch summat. Don’t blame ‘er. I’ve got tonnes of crawlies, me. Summat weird crawls out mi pants every day. Bit disgustin I know, but tryin ta guess what’s makin me itch is more fun than readin last month’s Daily fuckin Mail. Anyroad, mi back’s against the wall and ave nowhere to go. So I sits there and she’s leanin over mi with er ‘and on mi shoulder. She sez, “I’m going to stay with you until we can get you to an ambulance.” She looks at me wiv ‘er big blue eyes and then smiles. She’s got loads of nice teeth. She’s so close I can feel ‘er breath on mi face. Feels warm, but not sickly smellin like from them kitchen air vents. Am panickin am gonna get a fuckin hard-on. Then she guz to mi, “What’s your name? My name’s Annie.” Only time I get asked mi name is when am in trouble wi’ cops. Or when some twat from the authorities has another form needs fillin. Most cops know who I am anyways, so they don’t usually ask. But as for folk tellin me what their name is, well, I dunno about that. Don’t wanna sound like a broken record, but it’s better not to think about stuff like that.

Mi usual trick is to give a fake name, cuz you see on TV what people can do wiv information. But Annie’s bein real nice. She’s mi angel. Angel Annie. Am gonna tell er mi real name. “Ben,” I sez, cos I think that’s what mi real name is. She starts to say summat then shrugs. When she does some bits fall on’t pavement. “Er…yuv got…er…bits…all over yer nice suit,” I sez. Am feelin giddy so a shut mi mouth. She starts looking at erself and pattin erself down and gettin all girly-like. “It’s just stuff,” she sez. “I’m not hurt.” At least she’s taken er ‘and off mi shoulder now.

But she dun’t go away. She crouches down and keeps on talkin to mi an am watchin behind er at the right carry-on in’t street. People runnin round or sittin down, jus sittin there. Sum cryin. Sum wi blood on their faces, or on their ‘ands. I like the sittin down ones, me. Cuz that’s what I do. The ones with bits of crap all over em, they look like me too. Even mi angel looked a bit like me, before she brushed erself down. Sumthin’s appened and the funny thing is I look like all the other folk now.

So a few minutes guz by and she’s talkin to mi in er angel voice, and then this ambulance comes. In fact there’s a whole load of ‘em. Am panickin again, cos I reckon every time an ambulance comes it means someone’s in deep shit. Usually me. And it looks ‘ere like there’s a load a people in shit. Maybe so many are ‘urt they won’t bother wi mi. But Angel Annie’s on a mission. She guz off, arms in’t air, creatin’ a right fuss, and she’s pointin over at mi, and am thinkin, “Shit, luv, am fine.” But these ambulance people, they’re ‘avin none of it. They see mi and they’re runnin over, two of em, and ‘ave nowhere to go even though am shakin mi ‘ead and telling em, “Am fine, it’s nowt.”

“Can you stand, sir?” one of ‘em asks. “How do your legs feel?” Don’t like people that call me sir. Always after summat, don’t trust em. He looks at mi and then looks over at ‘is mate and sez “Concussion” and the next thing I know there’s one either side of mi, lifting mi up like am some old crock. And they’re at it like Angel Annie, all caring and concerned: “You’ll be fine, sir. We’ll have you fixed up. You’ll be right as rain.” Right as rain. Now there’s a phrase I ain’t ‘eard in ages.

They gets mi in’t back of ambulance. Am lookin round for Angel Annie but can’t see er. “Where’s Annie?” am askin, and the bloke that called me Sir sez “She’s making her own way to the hospital. She’ll be fine.” Mi ead’s itchin like mad – worse than usual – and I guz to scratch it but the Sir guy tells me no. “What’s your name, sir?” he asks, but am not tellin im cos he keeps callin mi sir, like the authorities do. I give im a fake name and like a total dipshit he believes me. “I don’t want you putting your hands anywhere near your hair,” he sez. “You’ve got hundreds of glass fragments embedded in your scalp.” Yeah, and a whole fuckin David Attenborough cast of itchy crawlies an all. But I ain’t botherin to explain cos he’s obviously a total dipshit. I’ll put up with the itchin. Like I do.

There are two other folk in’t back of ambulance, both women. They both got bloody ‘eads and ‘ands. They been cryin. One of ‘em’s still clutching a shopping bag from Kendals. I start gettin big ideas and want to smile at ‘em, as if everythin’s ok. I wanna say summat cumfortin, like Angel Annie did. When they look at mi they do it in that way she did, all sorry and carin like. I can tell, yer know, even through all the blood and shit. I look at the eyes. Eyes don’t lie, unless yer blind, or yer a copper. These women ain’t blind and I can tell, they’re lookin at mi like Angel Annie did. And that’s when I start gettin big ideas, about talkin and that. And that’s when I start to panic. Am thinkin, ‘How much longer in this bloody ambulance?’ Siren blarin through mi ead, is there really any need? And the Dipshit bloke starts telling mi to calm down, talkin to mi like am a fuckin five year old. “There’s nowt wrong wi mi!” am at it, yellin like a nutter, “Let me out, yer dipshit!” and after ‘ave created a bit the women stop lookin at mi, then a catch ‘em givin mi a quick glance, the bad look, the look ‘am used to, and am feelin bet’er again.

When we get t’hospickal it’s bedlam. Jus like a Sat’day night. Dipshit bloke ushers me an’t women into A&E. “Blast injuries, mostly glass,” he sez to a doctor. “And Gandalf may have concussion,” he sez, the fuckin idiot. He disappears and then am led by a pretty nurse to a chair at the side of a bed. “Av you got summat to stop it itchin?” I sez, thinkin a bokkle of White Lightnin’d do the trick. She sticks a needle in mi and sez, “Your name’s not Gandalf, is it?” At least she’s brighter than Dipshit, but she din’t tell mi what was in’t needle so I guz to er, “No, luv. It’s Jim.”

It’s strong stuff in that syringe, cos the next few hours are every bit as good as a White Lightnin session. A whole gang of doctors pick bits of glass and shit out mi ‘air wi tweezers. Fuck knows what else they pick out a there. They’re patient, though, I’ll give em that. They make mi take mi clothes off and ave a shower, which is warm, and there’s no pubic hair in the plug’ole, and then they put mi in mi hospickal gowns and make mi go to bed. One of em asks mi about some bruises and this big scar I got across mi stomach, but I tell im to do one. I must be knackered cos a don’t even worry about what they’d done to mi clothes. Mi ead’s tinglin and am dyin to scratch it. They gimme annuver needle and I fall asleep. Am dreamin about Angel Annie. She’s sittin at a table wi mi at the shelter, drinkin tea. Bez and his mates are at another table, lookin at mi, but they can’t do owt, cos of Angel Annie. “My name’s Annie,” she sez. “I’m going to stay with you.”

I comes round and am in a ward surrounded by walkin wounded. It’s like a scene from a war movie. I start laughin. It ‘elps me take mi mind off mi dream, which I don’t wanna remember. A nurse comes lookin all concerned and I ask er about mi clothes and she says she dun’t know about no clothes, but she’ll find out. Everyone’s nice and helpful. And everyone wears hospickal gowns, just like mine. I got bandiges round mi ead, just like loads of other folk. I feel dizzy. It’s like am not really there. Like am still dreamin’. Like Angel Annie and a cuppa tea. The panic starts again. I make a dash for the main doors, though the stupid hospickal clothes means I can’t run proper. These two blokes, like security guys, come out of nowhere and take mi back inside. “You’ve no right to keep mi in ‘ere!” am at it, cos I know mi rights, me, but this doctor bloke turns up and sez ave ‘urt mi ead and I need to stay in cos I might fall over and bang mi ead even more. I get another needle in mi arm and this time I don’t sleep, but I don’t panic either. So am back in mi bed again.

When the cops come I must still be drugged up to mi eyeballs. Cos there’s no way I would just lie there and not tell em to go fuck emselves. Instead I’m nice as pie. “Were you outside Marks and Spencers when the bomb went off?” one asks, and I sez yeah, that’s where I spend mi Sat’day days. And then one of em sez, “Did you see the van?” and I sez yeah. I saw it come, saw it park, saw these two blokes get out and moggy off. “Can you describe these two men?” they ask, and I sez yeah, and then I do, while this woman copper does her drawring. When she’s done she shows it to mi and asks mi what I think. “Pretty good,” I sez. The bloke who asks mi all’t questions then gives me a little card. It’s got his name on it and phone numbers. “Call mi if you think of something,” he sez. “Why don’t I just punch your number into my personal electronic organiser?” I feel like sayin, the fuckin prick. “I’m at Bootle Street,” he sez. “Name’s Paul.” I don’t trust coppers, me, and ones that give mi first names even less.

After the cops have gone the bloke in the bed opposite is lookin at mi. It worries mi a bit but there’s not much I can do about it. I don’t feel panicky though, which is weird. “You must have been really close,” the guy sez, and I nod. “Bloody IRA,” he sez. “Biggest peacetime bomb since the war.” I think he’s talkin to me, so I nod again. “Where do you work?” he asks. “Marks’s,” I sez. “I’m a partner at Pannone,” he sez. Ave no idea what that means. “Saturday shift, big civil action starting on Monday,” he sez, and then the penny drops. He’s a lawyer! A suit! An he’s talkin to mi, talkin like I ain’t just crawled out from under sum rock. Even though ave just crawled out from under t’Daily Mail. “I was just going to get a sandwich,” he sez. Then he stops. I reckon he wants me to say summat. I want to. I’d like to. But a don’t know what to say. Not used to conversation wi real people, me. “Blown off my feet, apparently,” he sez after a while, and then carries on. “I don’t remember. One minute I’m getting a sandwich for lunch, and thinking about taking my wife out for dinner that night. Next thing I know I’m sat on the floor in a doorway, covered in blood, my clothes in tatters.” He stops again. Shakes his ead, then looks over at mi. “You must have been even closer than I was.”

“The cops,” I sez, forcin it out. God am nervous. Am talkin to a suit! An am not rantin. Am Talkin. “You told them something,” he sez. He’s well interested, I can tell. “The cops,” I sez again. God, a sound like a fuckin retard. Then mi brain starts to work proper. “They moved people on,” I sez. “Cleared everyone out. But they missed sum. Missed me. I saw it. Saw them. The guys who planted the bomb.” The lawyer pushes ‘imself up in ‘is bed. Eyes burnin. He’s hooked. I guz, “It were a white van. Don’t think it ‘ad any writin. It were parked up a while. Then these two guys got out. Din’t run, din’t look shifty, nuthin. Cool as fuckin cucumbers. Walked off, just like that. Then, what? Two, three minutes? BANG! But…don’t really remember it goin off.  Din’t even know it were a bomb.” A dunno what to say after that.

He nods, and then he sez, “I reckon we’ve been lucky. Luckier than some. We’re ok. Minor stuff. Well, my injuries are nothing really. Life’s gonna change for some people.” Am tryin to think of sumthin else to say but am too slow an he beats me to it. “Sorry,” he sez. “You need to rest and here’s me rabbitting on. Just wanted to talk. Still a bit shaky. You know?”

Am about to say, “S’okay, mate. Don’t mind us talking” but then the nurse appears and stands at the bottom of mi bed. She smiles at mi. She calls mi Bob and then sez, “You ok?” I nod. I sez, “Yeah. Cumfy bed.” She sez, “We’ve gone and lost your clothes. I’m so sorry. It’s been bedlam here.” She looks round as if we’re ‘avin some secret conversation, then holds up this plastic bag. “Mi and the girls had a quick whip round and bought you some new,” she sez. “Nothing much. From Oxfam. But we thought, well…” She puts the plastic bag beside mi bed. “Carol,” I sez. It sez so on er badge. I need a badge like that, so I know mi own name.

She turns at the sound of lots of people in the corridor. “Visiting time,” she sez. “Gotta go.” She smiles and then guz. I lie there and watch as all these folk come wanderin in. They all got bags of this and that. Grapes. Chocolate. Great big bunches of flowers. Loads of cards. The bloke opposite smiles and pushes ‘imself up. Little girl runs over to ‘is bed, goin “Daddy!” He reaches down an’ ‘ugs her. Then the whole fuckin family comes moggyin’ in. The guy in the bed buries the girl’s ‘ead in his neck. Over the top of ‘er ‘ead he sez “Hi” to a woman. She kisses er ‘and and gently pats it on the guy’s bandiged ‘ead. Am thinkin I don’t wanna be ‘ere any more. I think a feel bad. It’s the panic. It’s cumin back. I can’t elp it.

The last woman in is Angel Annie. She’s got the biggest bunch of flowers ‘ave ever seen. She looks round, sees mi and smiles. Puts the flowers down on mi cabinet. Sits down on’t chair next to mi bed. Puts ‘er ‘and on mi shoulder, like she did when we were in’t street. “Hello,” she sez. “Didn’t expect to see me here, did you?”

I can smell the flowers. I breathe it in, that smell. Flowers in the rain. Flowers by a grave.

I shut mi eyes. Squeeze em shut. I press mi ‘ands over mi ears and crunch miself into a ball. Tight as I can go. The smell goes away. The sound fades out. I start yellin. Really screamin. ‘Urtin mi fuckin lungs screamin. When am out a puff a wake miself up. Am in’t doorway at Marks and Sparks. Lyin’ on the Daily fuckin Mail. There’s a load a sick on the door. 50p on’t pavement. What the fuck ave I bin drinkin? Is that my sick? Don’t remember. Do people ave unique sick? I mean, can yer tell who’s sick it is by lookin at it? Or smellin it? Bet scientists can. You know, them forensics. Fuck, who cares? Am just gonna sit ere anyway. Watch the world go by. It’s a nice day. I mean, it’s not pissin down, which in Manchester makes it a nice day. Folk walkin’ this way and that. Fancy shopping bags and shiny shoes. People gettin on with it. Busy and noisy. Just gettin on with…what people hafta get on with. Important things. You know. Like the ordinary guy in the street. Like you.

  • Copyright Phil Thomas, all rights reserved

Because of Me

FLYING mushy peas. And baked beans. And spaghetti sauce, and sprouts and electric toothbrush heads and washing powder and left-handed can openers. Things and labels in frenzied slow motion, batting off windscreens and crash barriers and the big blue sign for Junction 26. It’s like a plague of locusts. A biblical event. And it’s all because of me.

There’s bloated Johnny, in the backseat of Mum and Dad’s new Vauxhall Meriva, a clever family car, his head turned from the DVD screen and its Avatar blue people. He fills the adult seat, fat arms folded, his giddy-girly sister rocking the seats, squawking “Are we nearly there yet?”, while crisp crumbs and chocolate cling in chubby finger marks around his mouth. And I watch as the air above his car fills with apples. Dozens of flying boxes and scores of trays bursting open in fruity green fireworks. Granny Smiths fly and fall and bounce off the car, and bloated Johnny buries his round, terrorised face beneath his arms while the world rains down a wonderful orchard.

And twirling ham slices and breadsticks and Milk Tray and cans of prunes and butter biscuits and batteries and spinning, whirling pizzas. It’s like being in the middle of a plague of locusts. A biblical event. And it’s all because of me.

There’s Mr Sales Executive, earphoned and Bluetoothed and Vorsprung durch Techniked to his executive car. He’s busy, typing, Powerpointing, a Riveria-tanned mannequin tucked into a shirt made plastic with starch and obsessive ironing. His wife’s dressing-room farewell still air-kisses his ear. “I’ve ironed your shirt, my darling. Don’t forget your Dell, my dear! Do have a good day, my love!” But the Blackberry is ringing, bleating, screaming, late! you’re late! YOU’RE LATE! and I watch as party packs of felt Fez hats break apart across his rear windscreen. The little red domes with their black tassels engulf the car and make it the centre stage of a riotous comedy act.

And what’s a don’t-touch, don’t-look blonde to do when she has nothing to do? She sun-loungers her silicone breasts and belt-for-skirt legs into a convertible, places designer shades on her head to keep the peroxide hair from her eyes, and drives some place, any place, where somebody will surely want to look, to touch. And no doubt they do, or at least did, before the wholesale contraception box bounces off the emergency phone box, explodes into value packs of 12, and fills her lap with Ribbed Rockets and Strawberry Dynamite.

And spinning with them go kettles and toasters and kids’ shoes and frozen chickens and curry powder and Mr Kipling’s exceedingly good cakes. It’s like a plague of locusts, a biblical event. And it’s all because of me.

But this, I think, is what happened. I was driving my supermarket lorry south, towards Birmingham. The guys at work told me I was crazy, I was supposed to take time off, but they couldn’t stop me. And sure enough, all I could do was think about last night. I replayed the events over and over in my mind. I’m sure I saw the stationary traffic ahead, the blinking pairs of hazard lights, some brightened under the shadow of a road bridge, and the shattered glass glittering in the lanes before it. But then I froze. I can’t explain it, really. I just…froze. My mind switched off. My body went into stasis. And I kept on driving. Drove my 40-tonne truck at 60 miles an hour. As far as I know it was only a matter of seconds before I swear I heard an audible snap, a click, as though someone pressed a switch, and suddenly I was careering at full throttle towards the rear of a stationary Audi, revving angrily at the arse-end of a queue of traffic. I slammed on the brakes and gritted my teeth but there was oil as well as glass on the road and from the pull on the steering wheel and the sound at the back of the cab I knew the trailer was jack-knifing. I looked in the mirror and saw it, all 40 supermarket-branded feet of it, sliding right, extending sideways, closing the gap between itself and the central crash barrier and sending up fans of blue smoke from the protesting tyres. I gave a loud blast on the horn to warn those in front of the impending impact and it was only then that I saw the bridge properly, an older design with its central support pillar encroached towards the fast lane, and only then did I dare calculate what I believed was about to happen.

The trailer must have struck the pillar, catapulting its load straight through the side, right through the supermarket logo, for there was no other way to explain the flying sprouts, the toppling kettles, the spinning Granny Smiths. And the mushy peas, of course.  Funny how they flew towards my windscreen. Funny for two reasons, not least because they defied the laws of physics, flying, it seemed, back to where they came from. Funny mostly because of the coincidence, if indeed that’s what it was, because the motorway incident was not my first experience of flying mushy peas. Or even my second.

My first mushy pea episode left a smiley green face on the dining room wall. It also left pieces of Wedgwood plate, chips and battered cod on the floor, my elder daughter locked in her bedroom with Kurt Cobain, and my cheating wife in the full-time care of her lover shortly thereafter. My steroid-taking wife, Melanie (always Melanie, never Mel) whose tits became plains as her biceps became mountains, stood in an uncanny Mr Universe pose, one massive arm out straight having just shot-putted her chippie supper across the table. Moments before she’d read the sent-text message on my phone, out loud for the benefit of the whole family, of course. “Good luck to him, it’s like fucking a man anyway,” she said, at which point a strangely random thought popped into my head: I had no idea what colour her eyes were. So I shrugged, and she just stood there, waiting for more. Maybe I shouldn’t have sniggered then, but I did.

My second flying mushy pea experience was the culmination of a row during a trip to the supermarket. We returned home when one of the bags ripped, as they often do, and my wife screamed, as she often did, and hurled with bench-press force whatever it was that had rolled out onto the living room carpet. It smashed into my Panasonic 50-inch plasma TV, and for several seconds I was delirious with amazement and relief that the delicate screen hadn’t broken. “You lucky bitch,” I said, finding a mark on the TV’s frame that had saved my prized possession. At that point we would have hit each other in the usual way, were it not for the sudden creak and then splintering crack as one of the TV’s brackets sprang from the wall. The flat screen swung like a pendulum, sending my Bose lifestyle sound system off its perch and into the corner of the room, where it smashed into the floor-standing Murano glass figurine. I was too horrified to move while the TV tick-tocked twice more, and then the second bracket gave way. It fell off the wall, screen downwards, and landed with a devastating crunch on top of the object my wife had thrown – a tin of mushy peas. I waited in the excruciating silence that followed, as if expecting something more. Maybe she shouldn’t have sniggered then, but she did.

We always made-up afterwards. Told the lovers it was over, and this time we meant it. We put the arguments on ice. We took it in turns to say, “Think of the children.” We have to think of our Claire, we’d tell each other earnestly, usually while staring down into coffees spinning from too much stirring. Claire, our gorgeous first child, our little miracle, who was failing at school and probably taking drugs and definitely having sex with the school caretaker. And Charley, we have to think of our Charley, and even if we did, she spent more time with the babysitter than she did with us. We should have done what most broken marriages do and called it quits. Instead we made-up. Not with a kiss, and certainly not with sex, but by buying things. We waved credit cards and bought luxury holidays, nice clothes, big televisions, expensive perfumes and toiletries, top-of-the-range cars, pointless kitchen gadgets and blu ray movies we never sat and watched. Not together, anyway. Not as a family.

For a while, the new things would distract us. And then…

And now…today. The motorway incident. My attention was diverted from Fat Johnny and his apples, Mr Sales Executive and the carpet of Fez hats, and the blonde with the timely supply of contraception. Because I watched as tins of mushy peas hurtled towards my windscreen. They were spinning, twirling my pea-related flashbacks with them. There was carnage all around my lorry and, with the memories and the flying debris, carnage inside my head, too.

The first tin struck the glass and exploded, just like the tin last night did, part of the scene that replayed over and over in my mind moments before the crash. Conventional wisdom – if such a thing could be applied to an event like this – would have had it bounce, crumple, crack the glass maybe, but not explode, not spray mushy peas and juice across the windscreen. In the same way that when I came home from work last night, the house reeling in kids-with-grandparents quiet, and found my wife in the kitchen, obviously drunk, conventional wisdom would have predicted that the tin of mushy peas in her fist would have crumpled, no more. In the event, however, I was about to have my third experience of flying mushy peas.

“What are you doing?” I said to her, but I sensed something was wrong.

“Watch this,” she slurred. The veins in her forearm stood out as she squeezed the tin. It exploded.

Moments later, she fell. A drunk’s legs giving up the struggle. That had been my impression at the time, anyway. She seemed to shrivel up before falling into a breakfast bar chair, eyes rolling, a fat, green slug of mushy pea stuck to her top lip. “Fan-fucking-tastic,” I said, and left her there. I sat and watched a blu ray. After the movie I went into the kitchen to find a microwave tea, and saw she hadn’t moved. The pea slug was still clinging to her mouth. It was the strangest thing, because when I finally realised what was happening to her, long after the realisation might have done her any good, I saw myself in a college canteen, years ago, finding a vacant chair opposite a pretty brunette. I remembered sitting there and nodding a greeting, finding admiration in the way she heartily tucked into a plate of fish, chips and mushy peas.

I caught this pretty brunette’s eye and pointed to my mouth, “You’ve got…” I said.

“Oh…” She licked the green blob from her top lip and then smiled. “Thanks. Sorry. Mushy peas – food to die for.”

The second tin hit my windscreen and, like the first, painted abstract art across the glass. By now there was a big crack in the glazing. The mushy peas were coming hard and fast, some as loose tins but others ganged-up in cases. The windscreen would shatter at any moment.

There was not enough time then to ponder the future lives of my motorway friends. But I do now. I try to predict the fate of Fat Johnny and his festering greed. I wonder what might befall Mr Sales Executive and the humour I imagine so absent from his life. And I’ve spared a thought for the blonde, who by my reckoning searches for excitement while all the time craving security.

Sitting there in my lorry, I only had time to wonder how my love of things became more important than the love of others.

“Melanie,” I said.

And now I think to myself, it wasn’t really like a plague of locusts. It wasn’t really a biblical event. But I do know one thing for sure. It was because of me.

  • Copyright Phil Thomas, all rights reserved
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