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Category: Short Stories (Page 1 of 2)


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

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


THERE are thirty faces and all but one turn to look at the figure through the frosted glass. The teacher admits an old man wearing a flat cap and carrying a large black folder. Some of the children fidget excitedly. He was a renowned local artist and he’d come to their school to draw one of them, a portrait for his latest exhibition at the town’s gallery.

The teacher hands him a plastic container holding little pieces of paper. “Would you like to draw a name?”

“Of course!” he says with a smile, and stirs his fingers through the paper. Then he stops, and frowns. He withdraws his hand and rubs his chin. With the folder open to a blank sheet of paper, he walks slowly and quietly to the back of the classroom, crouches before the girl in the corner and begins to sketch.

Starfish!” another girl mutters. “Oh. My. God.”

The air is filled with the sound of charcoal scratching on paper; the other children look on in stunned silence and the teacher cups her hands over her mouth to catch her own breath. The artist’s hand moves quickly and skilfully across the page. Outlines form into detail and smudges become light and shadow. The girl is still and expressionless, her head turned to the wall despite the close attention of the artist. Never the slightest hint of a sniff, a twitch, a smile.

Barely a few moments seem to pass before the artist stops, stows the charcoal in a breast pocket, and stands. Carefully hiding the paper in his folder, he gazes down and says to the girl, “You’re the most beautiful subject, my dear. Certainly the most obliging! Thank you.”

Somebody shouts, “Let’s see Starfish!” and a few others cackle and squawk before the teacher silences them.

The artist places the drawing on the whiteboard. “Please call me when I can collect it,” he says, and steps away to reveal his work. The teacher draws a startled breath and there’s a collective gasp from his audience.

There are thirty faces and all but one is frozen, staring open-mouthed at the drawing. The girl in the corner instead watches the artist walk to the door, sees him glance at her, smile and doff his cap. She turns her head to watch him leave, and a florescent light catches her pale face, her tired eyes, the thin white lip of a scar and the five long fingers of a birthmark stretched across her cheek.

Today a charcoal drawing stands out in a celebrated collection of the artist’s work. It’s the only portrait among a rogue’s gallery of moody faces and twisted postures that offers the observer relief: a beautiful face, a doll’s face, a young girl whose eyes sparkle with hope. There is a smile. A twitch. A sniff. A schoolgirl full of life, and with all of life ahead. Everyone who sees it feels compelled to read the description alongside, and they all know her name.

  • Copyright Phil Thomas, all rights reserved

Waiting for Carys

drystoneTHROUGH the window he sees trees and fields and small bushes, but he longs to find something green. A vast blue sky with cuckoo-spit clouds races above his cottage yet the roof of his world is thick and dark with fog. It suffocates the land and bleeds it of life and colour. Rapier winds tear at stunted trees and the wildflower meadows are raked black with muddy welts. His mountainside is pounded relentlessly by hail and rain; all that’s left of the smile it once wore lies scattered in the broken teeth of rocks. The smile it once wore for him and Carys.

The cottage’s packed slate walls are the only trace of man at the head of the valley. Scree and loose granite weep from the mountain where sheep hunker in the barrelling wind. Daniel stands in the cottage doorway and surveys this terrain, a night riven with terrifying visions haunting his eyes. Every scrubby bush and wind-sacked tree is familiar and alien. Rags of snow fill rocky hollows where spindrift blurs the mountain’s serrated peaks. A dry-stone wall strides off from an overgrown garden and into the wilderness, where soon its purpose falters against the battered stony ground and it becomes a tract of rubble struggling to find shape among the boulders. He reaches out and touches the wall, its surfaces as rough as his own hands. His ancestors built it as a property boundary, and maintained it, as did he until Carys disappeared. Years spent searching for her among the splintered rockfaces of Kashmir meant the land was left untended, so that when he returned the wall had succumbed to weather and time. He could have restored it easily enough but his travails in the Karakorum had done more than lash grit-pocked scars across his face – they had burnished his heart with a loathing for harsh lands, of untamed landscapes, like the one in which he lived and once shared with Carys, and like the one that had taken her from him. With Carys still missing his world was daubed with despair, haunted by mists and endlessly sodden. Rebuilding the wall would mean working the ground he found so rotten.

A pelt of cloud covers the mountain but there’s no sign of rain. He takes two old batter-frames from the outhouse and studies them. They are large enough for a double wall about five feet high. He carries them and some twine to a broken section of wall beyond the garden, and places a frame at each end of the collapse. He ties twine between the two and assesses how many stones will be needed to rebuild the section. The fallen stones are strewn around his feet, sucked down into the earth with mud and moss. He pulls one from the ground and places it on the wall, moves it until it sits. He takes a second, and a third, keeping them within the straight lines of the twine. He assesses after six stones. Another six follow, and six more after that. From a tree’s wasted branches two crows laugh at him. He turns and throws a stone at them, missing the tree and the crows by some distance. Shredded wings beat the air above his head, like the flap of wind-torn fabric, and he sees the shadowy Kashmiri tribesman of his recurring nightmare, Carys’s hair bunched in his fist, her severed head swinging. The rutted earth seizes the life from his legs and he falls back against the wall, head in his hands, sobbing.

He works until the sun crashes into the jagged crest of the world and splinters shadow into the valley below. In the living room he lights a log fire and turns on the radio. Through the window Ursa Major hangs low in the sky as the Milky Way wheels the world away through time.

At dawn the wind tramples trees and rain comes in horizontal sheets. He works with his back to the weather. Skeins of mud run up his legs and cross his chest, carved by water channelled in crumpled waterproofs. Clods of earth cling to his backside and his boots are gummy stumps of filth. By the end of the second day he has built 24 feet of wall three feet high. His hair and feet are soaked, his body numb with cold and fear of sleep that night. He rubs at the start of a blister at the base of the thumb on his right hand, and presses a hand into the small of his back, straightens, and winces. In front of the fire he uses pencil and paper to work out how long it will take him to rebuild the entire wall, from the house to the top of the mountain ridge.

Later he stands in the doorway and listens to the steady drip from a broken drainpipe. He looks up to where the universe unfurls and witnesses the tail-end flash of a meteor’s life. He finds Ursa Major, the stars Merak and Dubhe, and traces a straight line to the North Star, Polaris. He spent hours with Carys looking through her telescope, at the sky he paid little attention to as a farmer’s boy. The land demanded such dedication from him, tending livestock and horses and a small vegetable garden. He saw little beauty in any of it. Yet Carys taught him to see the land and the sky with different eyes, a new vision blessed with life with possibility.

“The Plough is an asterism, not a constellation,” she told him once. “It’s only a part of Ursa Major. It has so many names. In America they call it the Big Dipper. Its Latin name is the Great Bear. In Arabic culture it’s three pairs of stars – the first, second and third leaps.” She regaled him with the myths that gave the constellations their names, stories passed down to her by her father that inspired her interest in the stars. In Daniel it prompted a curiosity in the legends he’d heard about the mountain but previously had no time for. He enjoyed telling her that a giant skilled in astronomy and poetry lived there. Locals regarded the mountain as the Great Seat of Poetry, believing that if you spent a night on the summit you woke either mad or a poet. Carys, of course, had to try it out, and her failure to write any verse the following day led them to conclude she must be insane.

“There are at least 50 galaxies in Ursa Major,” she told him one night as they stood by the stone wall. Her head rested on his shoulder and he could see the green in her eyes, even in the low light that crept through the front door and into the garden. “The nearest star is at least eight light years away. The bright star…Alkaid…on the left there…that’s 700 times brighter than our sun.”

It was this vastness and mystery of the night sky’s seemingly insignificant detail that gave Daniel a new perspective on a world he thought he knew. He put his hand above his head and masked the constellation with his fingers. He wondered how such immense objects and unfathomable distances could fit into a man’s fist. On their many walks Carys would stop to admire the smallest flowers, tiny mosses growing between rocks, rosettes of lichen on every surface, and in this detail he imagined the sky again. Vast and mysterious, yet small enough to be hidden by a finger. He found books and learned the names of plants that grew in the darkest, wettest corners of the mountain. He identified tiny flowers so easily missed and trampled underfoot. He studied the myriad colours and intricate structures of lichen where once it was just the weathering of rock and readily ignored. Thanks to Carys, the mountain had grown a smile. The green of trees and grass and moss that during the long, lonely years had faded to endless grey became a vivid, living thing. She had brought a burning torch of discovery, laughter and companionship into his life.

But with the torch came fire, and the fire in Carys needed other horizons on which to burn. She travelled the world on many adventures, but he always waited and she always returned. She went to Kashmir in search of the snow leopard. She dreamed of seeing one in the wild, she told him, and then promised it would be her final voyage. Those words played over and over in his head.

Polaris dips low towards the daggered ridge and a crescent moon frowns above the house. Daniel tucks the memories of Carys away but then turns to look at the window in which her telescope still stands. It stares skyward promising discovery and wonder, revealing nothing but painful reminders of a great friend lost.

Early the next day he marks another 12 feet with the batter-frames, and with his back to the garrulous wind he sets to work.

There are dark spaces beneath Daniel’s cheekbones, formed by shadow caught in the hollows and stubble like the aftermath of grassfire. His eyes roll in their sockets bereft of effort to focus. He bats a hand wrapped in filthy rags at a water tap and begins to peel the sodden cloth from his flesh. Water chases blood and dirt round the bowl. He tosses the rags onto the floor and tries to make sense of his hands. They resemble tree roots, upturned, clenched, choked with sap and stinking earth. Gnarled forearms tremble through tattered sleeves. His clothes hang from him. He tries to unzip his sweater but his fingers are unable to perform.

He has a bath in his rags and then another without them once he is able to remove them. He tosses the rags into a bin for burning and applies a fresh field dressing to each hand. Then he takes the coal scuttle to the bunker outside and pauses to look at the completed dry-stone wall. Save for a gate some hundred yards distant, the wall runs without break or deviation from the house to the rock pinnacles on the summit ridge. It passes through pasture and bogs and boulder fields and marches up steep slopes of scree, unstinting in its journey to the edge of the world. He feels no admiration for its tortuous construction, nor any sense of achievement now the months of drudgery has ended, but there is fresh hope in his heart where once he thought no such feelings could live. It is hope that makes him no longer afraid of sleep and the nightmares they bring, hope that quells his crippling tiredness, and hope that blesses the monochrome landscape before him with startling flushes of emerald and viridian. He breathes in this vision before clouds consume the sun and from the sea a great curtain of rain approaches.

The cottage door judders and belts of rain slap the tiny windows. He slumbers in his chair, an empty bowl and spoon still on his lap from a stew supper, and stares into the fire, remembering the night Carys banged on his door, a night not dissimilar to this. He closes his eyes and the events of that night several years ago replay in his mind, as they did so often.

She banged on the door three times. He rose, braced himself for the impact of elemental forces, and pulled on the handle. The hooded figure stumbled in and a cruel air came rushing through with it. He pushed the door shut and blinked away the rain as the figure dropped its hood and freed a shock of long black hair clotted with water.

“Sorry!” the woman said breathlessly. “Didn’t mean to just come running in.”

Her eyes were green and glistening, like leaves in morning dew. He stared at them as she carried on talking and unhitching her hiking gear.

“I’m lost. I was walking the ridge to the coast. Should have been in town two hours ago. But this weather came from nowhere. God, it’s wild! Do you have a phone? No signal on the mobile.”

“I don’t have a phone,” he said. “I could run you into town.”

She thanked him, then asked, “Mind if I dry my hair first?”

He found a towel and a mirror and made a cup of tea. She accepted a bowl of stew. He fed more coal to the fire and its glow lit their faces while they talked.

“Bet you get a few lost souls banging on your door,” she said.

He shook his head. “No, we’re off the beaten track. How did you find it?”

She looked at the fire and smiled nervously. “Well, if it had been a starry sky I’d have been able to find my way. But I’m a lousy map-reader. I thought I was much further along the ridge than I was. When the weather closed in I got worried. I thought, ‘I need to get off this before I’m blown off.’ That’s when I saw a stone wall. I reckoned it was leading south so I thought, ‘if someone can build a stone wall off this ridge, I should be able to follow it.’”

“So you followed the wall to my door?” he said, and smiled. “Good idea.”

She smiled at him.

He opens his eyes again and looks at the chair in which Carys sat that night. The memory stays with him. The nightmares are gone for now and he imagines her sitting there, the flush of her cheeks, the wet of her lips, the flames dancing in the black of her eyes. Just as it was that night, the elements lay siege to the valley and his door rattles to the sound of its guns. But unlike the many long nights since, a dry-stone wall defies this storm, a boundary, guiding the lost off the mountain to the sanctuary of his door.

The coals burn low and the light in the fireplace fades. He sets the bowl down on the hearth and sits back in the chair. There he waits for a bang on his door, and for a world of green in the morning light.

  • Copyright Phil Thomas. All rights reserved

The Lilac Wall

I love her so much that I go to see her twice a day and blow her kisses through the padlocked gate. The concrete drive gives a grand view to the house and I know she looks out for me, just as I know she later watches me walk down the hill again and away. I love her so much that I tend the gardens she adores. I take her mail. I bring her flowers. I sit on the private patio and reminisce with her, watching the boats return to the harbour with the day’s catch.

I arrive today with two bunches of fresh flowers tucked under one arm and a supermarket carrier bag hanging from the other. I fumble with the key in the padlock. Rain and salty air has caused it to rust, and the key no longer turns easily. Flakes of paint hang from the wrought iron gates, flapping in the gentle breeze. It breaks my heart to see it this way but deep down I know that this apparent neglect helps to keep her safe and undisturbed, up there on the hill.

Once inside the gates I take a quick look at the empty street beyond and, satisfied no one is watching, head uphill towards the house. Weeds have begun growing through the cracks in the driveway and I wonder if there is any pesticide left in the shed. Spring had arrived. I would have gardening duties soon, but I didn’t mind. I did it for her. She loved the large gardens and their privacy, and would have enjoyed it more, with me, were it not for her poor health.

I look to the top of the hill, where the drive widens to a parking area no longer used nor needed. And there she stands, exactly as I had expected. She’d been looking out for me. She is old now, and frail, but her beauty still stops me and causes my heart to beat that little bit faster. She is tall, and despite her advancing years there is still a pride and elegance in her posture. Although it promises to be a pleasant day she’s covered up against wind and rain. Yet her beauty is still apparent to me, her good bone structure more prominent beneath the stained and crackled flesh of her sun-worn face. As I approach she smiles warmly. I reach the step, kiss her gently, and she allows me inside.

“How have you been, love?” I ask, locking the door behind us. I go into the kitchen and creaking floorboard footsteps follow me. I set the supermarket bag down on the wooden breakfast table and take out two lunches – sandwiches, crisps and yoghurt. Sunlight slants through the cracks in the boarded-up window. It gives me enough light to gaze at the room’s features and I am grateful.

I find an empty vase in a kitchen cupboard, give it a quick rinse and then part-fill it with tap water. She watched me as I carefully arrange the flowers in the vase and then stand it on the deep windowsill, where sunlight picks out the lilies. “Makes a difference!” I say, standing back to admire the colour. In the living room there is a tall vase with sorry-looking flowers on the hearth. I get rid of them, add fresh water and create a new display. The fireplace immediately looks much better. But something still isn’t quite right. I take a closer look. In the light coming from the doorway I can see a layer of dust on the mantelpiece. I draw my finger over the wood and inspect the grey smudge beneath my fingernail. I had to clean it off quickly. Although it wasn’t my job, I didn’t mind cleaning because I knew it would make her happy. But the shock of finding dust makes my heart beat faster, and my breathing quickens.

Then I hear footsteps moving around in the room above. She’s in her favourite room, the one that used to have the sea view. She would be hungry now, as I no longer bring her breakfast. I fetch her lunch from the kitchen and take it upstairs, running my hand along the banister to check for more dust. Thankfully there is none and I’m feeling calmer when I reach her room.

“Do you want to eat now?” I ask her through the closed door.

“Please,” she replies, her voice barely audible.

“There’s dust on the mantelpiece.” I tell her. When she says nothing, I add, “Did you miss it by mistake?”

“Yes,” she agrees hastily. “Yes…and…the bricked-up window. It’s hard to see in there.”

“I’ll deal with it,” I say firmly. “I won’t come in and waste any more time.” I set the supermarket things down on the carpet and go downstairs, grab the duster from the cleaning cupboard and carefully wipe the dust from the mantelpiece. I knew she was weak, but cleaning and dusting was something she could still do, and she knew how important it was. I go round the other rooms and check, dragging my finger over tabletops and wooden furniture and around the tops of skirting boards. Everything else seems clean enough. Relieved, I return to the kitchen and sit at the table and decide to eat lunch.

As I eat my sandwich slowly, I admire the old room around me. The farmhouse-style kitchen has built wooden cupboards, an uneven slate floor and an oil-fired range in a large inglenook, above which hangs an original ceiling pulley clothes dryer. The walls are thick stone. It is a pity the sash window is boarded-up, but it’s the only way I can keep her safe now that I am not allowed to live here.

I look at the wall behind me. I’d painted it several years ago and yet it only seemed like yesterday. It is lilac. I recall the day I painted the wall so well, because something quite profound happened to me. The new wall colour had been a surprise, a treat just for her, and when she saw it she whooped with delight and threw her arms around me. When I finally prised myself from her embrace and looked at her I realised I had never known a love so deep, so complete. She seemed to stare into my soul, and I into hers. It was a moment of union that joined us forever.

The irony is, it only happened because of Martha. She wanted to redecorate the kitchen. Her commitment delighted me and I trusted her – we’d been married for 10 years afterall. “You will do a good job, won’t you?” I asked her, over and over, and she would playfully push me away. “I love this house as much as you!” she said once. But what did she know? I came home the day Martha painted the kitchen only to discover the most hideous lime green on all four walls. I kicked the stepladder clear across the room. “How can you say you love this house?” I screamed at her. She dodged my fists and ran upstairs, locking herself in her favourite room. I waited only long enough for the paint to dry before I recoated three of the walls in its previous cream colour. For a special treat, and to put the horrible incident behind us, I painted the fourth wall lilac.

Allowing the memory to fade, I stand up and press the palms of my hands against the lilac wall. The rendered stone feels cool and smooth. I lean in and put my ear to the surface. Since the day I moved in, I had learned how to listen. I heard the sound of centuries passing. Within these walls I uncovered past lives and I embraced their memory. I saw people come and go, and nearby places grow and prosper, only to fail again, while the house stood tall on the hill. I discovered a noble defiance, a pride in being strong. Only then did I hear her heartbeat, a solid, vibrant pulse of life, and I learned how to breathe to that same rhythm, and for my chest, swollen with a new passion, to rise and fall with hers.

She became my love.

I clear away the wrappings from my lunch. I pause in the hallway at the foot of the staircase and, looking up, shout, “No more dust!” There isn’t a sound from Martha’s favourite room. I lock the front door behind me, check it twice, and go to the shed to look for weedkiller. There is none. I would have to attend to the driveway another day.

I kiss my love farewell and promise to see her later. At the gates I make sure there is no one around before letting myself out. I turn to look at her again. Yes, she is old now, but her frailty does not extend to her stout heart, and her years do not diminish the graceful lines of her frame. Through the bars of the gate I blow her a kiss, and set off to find a hardware store for a pesticide spray, and a better padlock for the gates.

  • Copyright Phil Thomas. All rights reserved
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