Archive for Fiction

Thompson Brings Noir To Belfast

Take Care Gorgeous by Alan Drew Thompson 

TAKE CARE GORGEOUS is the début novelette of Carrickfergus (Co. Antrim) based author Alan Drew Thompson. A fast paced often violent but sometimes sentimental affair that finally brings the noir genre to Belfast.

Set against the tough backdrop of 1950’s Belfast, the book introduces a new kind of local hero Inspector James Forsyth of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. A man who will bend the rules of authority in order to do what is morally right.

In the first instalment of a promised trilogy Forsyth finds himself tangled in a complicated web of murder, blackmail and shifting identities.

The story is set around a prominent member of Belfast society who finds himself at the centre of a blackmail plot involving an attempt to get a highly dangerous renegade Irish Republican released from the Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast.

The exciting and unique feature of the story is that for the first time the writing styles of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are set against the violent Belfast backdrop. The customary femme fatale is also on hand, this time a beautiful woman from West Belfast who bears a striking resemblance to 1940’s film noir legend Veronica Lake.

Fast paced, enjoyable with a twist in the tail Take Care Gorgeous left me desperate for more.

Thompson has promised that the sequel entitled Farewell Handsome will be released in the near future.

Reviewed by Lisa Thomas

takecare

Click on image to buy Paperback!

by Alan Drew Thompson
ISBN-13: 978-1500285371 is available from amazon.co.uk priced at £2.75
Also available on KINDLE price £1.53

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The First Stone

First Stone cover

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It doesn’t take too much of a stretch of the imagination to envisage the dystopian American society of Elliott Hunter’s debut novel. The First Stone. It’s all too plausible. Set in the not-too-distant future, (or perhaps an alternative present), this America has become an intolerant place dominated by The Council of Elders, a fundamentalist group that has become the real rulers of the new America in the years after Houston had been vaporised by a terrorist nuclear device.

America had lashed out in retaliation of course. Despite protestations of innocence the Iranians had been blamed and Tehran had been razed. Egged on by zealots from hundreds of fundamentalist preachers who provided the willing cannon fodder for a new Great Patriotic Crusade against terror, American soldiers occupied large parts of the Middle East. Thousands of soldiers had died there and many more had come home, seriously wounded, traumatised or damaged by chemicals and radiation. One such former soldier was Felix Strange, a private eye who suffers from a debilitating illness picked up in Iran that has neither a name nor a cure.

Strange doesn’t normally deal with homicide cases, but when the body of America’s most loved preacher, Brother Isaiah, is found strangled to death in his New York hotel room, he is called in to investigate. He’d rather not get involved in this case, but Ezekiel White who leads the morality police, the ‘Committee for Child Protection’ has ways and means of forcing him to comply.

White’s CCP goons, known as the Holy Rollers, are outflanked by Brother Isaiah’s Crusade of Love; an independent body of religious zealots who send their spies into different towns and cities in advance of a visit by the influential preacher. Pretty-boy ‘ex-gay’ activists entrap closet gays. Attractive young ladies do the same for amorous men in positions of authority. The unfortunate victims then find themselves denounced for their perversity by Brother Isaiah at one of his huge evangelistic rallies. Brother Isaiah may have had the US President and the Congress in his pocket, and Jesus on his side, but he had surely annoyed somebody enough to kill him. Strange has a week to find out who killed Brother Isaiah and why, if he lives that long…

This modern noir reflects the grim humour and terse prose of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler for the twenty-first century. All the ingredients are there; a mystery death, a race against time to meet a deadline, people out to stop our protagonist and one of the finest examples of a femme fatale to appear in crime fiction for decades. This is an outstanding book, both in terms of characterisation and sharp dialogue and most notably in its author’s scarily plausible portrayal of a society dominated by an intolerant fundamentalist version of Christianity.

Reviewed by David Kerr

The First Stone (the first in the Strange Trilogy). Elliott Hall

 

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Fiction: Extracts from the English Dragon

EXTRACTS from The English Dragon
1/
It was the working-class where common sense prevailed. It was the working-class
which rejected political correctness and yet took the brunt of its senseless
dictates. But the working-class was becoming an anachronism. Vast parts of the
country were peopled with those without hope. Stuck in tiny houses clumped in
soul-less estates – wired up to Sky Sport through ugly satellite dishes – men
watched footie and sons bunked off school. Women did the housework and earned
money part-time. Daughters journeyed into granite towns and hung outside
Macdonalds’ burger bars. Spitting with the best of them – tossing cardboard cups
and flaky plastic trays onto dirty pavements. The older generation tutting and
remembering greater hardships faced during and before the last war.
It was the working-class which oiled the communities of the richer peoples
with their electrical skills, their odd-jobbing; their mechanical ability. It
was “underclass” kids who stole and fenced goods; snorted crack and “twocced”
middle-class cars owned by middle-class drivers. It was the working-class that
took the brunt of social engineering. Listened to pale politicians and Sari
wearing social workers as they puffed on cheap cigarettes.

2/
Oliver reserved the first circle for the writers of novels who censored their
own work so not to fall foul of politically-correct editors and publishers. For
the makers of films who dared not shoot with integrity; who satisfied their
masters. For the artists who spoke of freedom of expression and painted,
sculpted, crafted, composed in a mental strait-jacket. All the fey and
faint-hearted artists he would put there…the third circle – always getting
tighter and fouler he put the television presenters who voiced only one point of
view – that of the prevailing all-pervading media-dogma – and the queens of the
Channel 4 chat shows baring white teeth and platitudes.
The underground train stopped and expired through its hissing-lung doors. Lights
and fetid air sucked them in…
Oliver thought about the next circle. Tight. Close. Fleshy. Hot. Putrid.
Full of pain. Peopled it with social-worker busy-bodies who were inflexible. Who
tore apart families not for that family’s benefit but for the dogma of their own
beliefs…
Oliver smiled and listened. He heard the rush of air as the tube slotted
back into a tunnel after breathing outside air for a moment, flooding in light.
Heard the clank of the wheels and their horrific squealing. Felt the buzz of
electricity as it snapped its power into the mechanical worm. Felt this power
invigorate the worm.

3/
Oliver thought about Ben and how in each passing second and minute, with each
passing hour and day he was opening up to an accumulated history of the country.
As he grew he had to take on so much. There was a constant bubbling up of the
past. The sap of history (containing everything that made the present what it
was) flowed through to the present – informed the future. Oliver saw tree after
tree being felled. A vast forest of collective consciousness; a vast woodland of
experience was being chopped and sawn. Vast swathes of forest were being
cleared. And in the clearings concrete was being poured in and shaped into
boxes. “Isn’t that better?” “Isn’t the forest better now that there are boxes
inside it?” “The earth and trees are no different from the concrete boxes.” “The
trees belong to the past.” “Concrete boxes are our future.”

4/
In the late afternoon, before the clocks had been turned back he heard the
jumble of noise reverberating. Heard the “House” music; the rap music; the
drum’n’bass; the soul music; the trash and punk; the new R’n’B; heard laughter
and shouting; scooters revving past; cars with smoky exhausts cruising slowly;
clattering of dustbins and shrieks of children. This was another London. A
London as valid as any other. A London without a voice. A tired and cynical
London. Close to the creep of gentrification. Of the creep of money without
values. No Gentlemen. No gentleness in the painted facades. Oliver pulled up his
collar. It was the first day of Spring. And as he thought this thought a bird
appeared out of nowhere – a blackbird – and briefly sang close by him. It was
only the second Spring his son had ever known.

5/
And it was proved that I was a distraction because by all accounts the trio did
very well that late Saturday morning in Oxford Street. And they did not beg. The
weather was changeable but the rain held off and I was eventually kitted out in
some rather fine baby ware after a short visit to an upmarket “everything one
could possibly want for one’s baby” shop. The exploits of the gang soon bored me
as I became more and more fascinated with the sights of the crowded street. It
appeared that – even for a baby – I had lived a sheltered existence. For I had
never seen so many different types of faces and styles of hair and ranges of
body. There were grey haired grandmothers with studs in their noses; black
skinned girls wearing robes wrapped about them and jewellery draped from every
part of their skin; women with yellowy-brown skin and thin material flapping
behind them or trailing on the spit-flecked pavement; men with ashen faces and
shaven heads (like giant babies); grown
men and women in metal chairs dwarfed by the thrumming crowd; black and white
faces with hats turned back to front and trousers joined at the knees (were they
wearing nappies like me?); men in football shorts with earrings and tattoos;
women with very short skirts and painted on faces; men in sharp suits with hair
like helmets…yes, yes, yes, this all fascinated my growing mind. It is a wonder
I could take it all in. But it was all being taken in. That is the way of minds.

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Fiction: Chapter 1 OAK by Tim Bragg

             August 23rd  2009

Oak book cover

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Rowan woke startled from sleep. Her blood petrified. It was – the still small hours; it was – the rap on the door they had, deep down perhaps, been long expecting.
Oliver pushed his chair away from the dead-screened computer and bending his head through the low doorframe stepped into the kitchen. He’d been working very late and tried to brush tiredness from his eyes. Stone flagging carried his footfall to the farm’s main entrance. Taking a deep breath and holding the handle of the door, asked, ‘Who is it?’ (As if he didn’t know.)
‘Open up,’ came the dark reply, ‘or we’ll batter the door down.’
‘Who is it?’ Oliver repeated, with some courage.
‘Police. Open Mr Holmes. Immediately. This is your last chance.’
Oliver tentatively undid the catch, slowly turning the handle. The “castle gates” gave very easily. Almost as soon as he’d begun to open the door, a clutch of armoured policemen (possibly also policewomen) barged in. Oliver was pushed aside and slammed against the white plaster of the lobby’s cob wall. Rowan began to descend the stairs.
‘Stay back,’ a lighter voice instructed. ‘Stay where you are.’
‘What is this, what’s going on?’ Rowan called.  More police entered. Lights blazed outside the farm. A petite, armour-clad officer was motioned in Rowan’s direction. Sprightly this officer climbed the lower stairs. A truncheon shaft exploded from its handle and was thrust towards Rowan’s face. Though he couldn’t see, Oliver sensed what was happening. The policeman who held the truncheon at Oliver’s neck kept silent – Oliver could not see the man’s eyes through the dark tinted visor. Could only hear the shouting of the other officers as they barked orders through the baying pack. Rowan continued to protest but in subdued tones.
‘Are you arresting me?’ Oliver spat towards the alien shaped helmet.
The alien did not reply. Oliver could only see his own dark reflection in the visor – the officer’s body was eyeless – not of this world. The tips of Oliver’s fingers tingled, and his hands shook – his tongue felt dry and he swallowed with difficulty.
A few moments later Oliver witnessed his computer being carried past. Magazines, folders, office debris following.
‘What are you looking for? You can’t do this. I have rights…’
Did the Helmet snigger?
‘What is it I’m supposed to have done?’
An officer carrying a pile of cardboard backed folders paused in the entrance hall. ‘You and your fucking lot,’ his voice began, ‘are trouble-fucking-making scum. You understand? You’ll be charged soon enough. We’ll be taking you to the station in due course. We know all about you and the kind of filth you write. Your type breeds hatred. If you know what’s best – keep it buttoned.’
‘Charging me? What with?’
‘Public Order,’ came the half reply.
The officer had his visor pushed open. Oliver looked into his eyes. Their blue was metallic and cold. How was it, he thought, that this man, this stranger could hold such views upon him? How did “they” know about him? His fame had long since dried up, been wafted into the billowing clouds passing over the southwest and deposited far out to sea. He was a no-body, a family man, an animal rescuer and small-time organic farmer. And…
Yet part of him relished this vitriol he was receiving – if he had been younger – if he hadn’t had a wife and children…well then…Thank God Jenny was not at home. For her to see this. In their house. In their village far removed from it all. He had tried to keep her and Ben safe. But “they” had come to his house – sniffed him out. They were hunting down every dissident, it seemed. But Oliver also carried a smirk on his face – the kind of smirk teachers hate. And the officer would have liked to wipe it right off. The visor came down and Oliver’s sight was blocked – his tentative bravado evaporating.
‘Keys,’ a voice called. Somewhere else there was the noise of glass smashing. Rowan called out but it sounded to Oliver as if she had been physically shut up.
‘What are you doing to my wife?’
The officer ignored him, taking the keys from another visor-clad accomplice. ‘What are these for? Come on,’ the blank-faced officer shouted.
Oliver felt confused, was thinking about his wife…He bent his head to study them and the officer whisked them away. ‘Well?’
‘One of the sheds outside…we keep animals, you’ll disturb…please don’t…’
‘Outside,’ the helmet shouted. The “alien” that had forced him back against the cold cob relaxed its pressure. Oliver sank down the wall glad that he was not being pinned by the truncheon. 
There were sounds of doors slamming and shouts from around the house. What had he actually done? What were they looking for? Perhaps they had nothing. Perhaps it was bluff and intimidation. The loose Green Alliance he was in contact with (still) – had they had trouble? There had been the recent raids on farms not so far away (but far enough) and those opposed to the Union. (Sometimes it was enough of a crime to breed a pig and slaughter it oneself – then feed it to friends or family.) Thoughts raced across Oliver’s mind. The officer had said something about what he wrote…was that it? And all the time he worried about Rowan but each time he called out he was quickly silenced. Thankfully the eyeless, cold, visor wearer did not force its truncheon against Oliver’s throat.
There was no escape. There was no peace. The mythographers were wiping out the national memory – it would only be a matter of time before England’s resistance collapsed (so he thought, pessimistically). Perhaps he was too dangerous as someone who witnessed. Recalled. Wrote things down. But that was all he was doing – wasn’t it? Perhaps society could and would not bear to support writers who wrote freely and against the system – against the state and the Union. But it was stories he wrote – fiction for Christ’s sake. Were they now entering an age of book burning? What kind of joke was this?
Oliver stood by helplessly as his office was emptied. There was his life. Diaries, notes – there was his unfinished novel, in first draft. Four years of work. Four years of snatched time from his family and farm. And there were his published articles and Fables. Thinking quickly, palms sweating and head throbbing he could only imagine that his Fables were what they were after – fiction being even more dangerous. But they couldn’t be. Was it an offence to read alternative Green or radical political magazines? Had things got that bad? The alien kept him held back. The officer who had insulted him stepped inside again from the cold morning light. Was fact imitating fiction? Oliver thought of his Fables…
‘Have you a warrant?’ Oliver heard himself ask. It took all his courage to force out the question. The officer’s presence almost choked the words in his throat – almost kept them lodged in his brain. The question sounded limp and pathetic.
The officer nodded. ‘Under the Public Order Act 2006, Section 23.’ It came as a lifeless drone.
‘What’s that?’ Oliver asked involuntarily.
The officer eyed Oliver suspiciously. ‘If you’re charged you’ll find out. Got something to hide? You want to tell us something? Or do you want the rest of your house gone through?’
‘Hide?’ Oliver said. Had he got something to hide? Were his Fables dangerous? Was he guilty – did he deserve what was happening?
‘But has someone complained about me, something I’ve written?’
‘You’ll find out.’ To the “alien” holding Oliver against the wall the officer said, ‘Let him go. We’ve got everything we need.’ The “alien” stood back a pace. Oliver crumpled forwards. At the same moment Rowan was escorted through from the kitchen. Oliver went towards her but he was stopped. Police officers came from various parts of the farm.
‘Checked outside? Good.’
Rowan looked at Oliver, managed to say, ‘What have you done?’
‘Nothing,’ he said softly, ‘I don’t think. Nothing. Except, I wrote. I wrote…’

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Fiction: An extract from OAK – The Model



Oak book cover

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And as he thought this he was reminded of a television programme where a cackling reporter interviewed a girl who had become a pornographic star:

“You’ve got to keep going, see. If you’ve got a dream you’ve got to stick with it. I started off doing a bit of modelling, you know, just topless and that and everyone thought I wouldn’t do anything with my life. But I stuck with it. Got my first job dancing in a lap-dancing club. A movie director saw me and picked me out – you see, dreams can happen. I got a part in an erotic movie and from then I haven’t looked back. Apparently back in my hometown they’re all talking about me. At my old school the teachers who thought I’d end up on the dole or just married with loads of kids are saying how I’ve done something with my life – how I’m a success. They can hardly believe it. My old school friends are really jealous. I’m really proud of my movie career and myself. But any girl can do it…well, she’s gotta be a bit sexy, like, and it helps if you’ve got big boobs (you can get ‘em fixed mind)…but if you think you can do it you’ll be able to. Just don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Like I said, look at me, no one thought I’d make it and be a star. Now everyone wants to take pictures of me. My mum’s really proud of me too and after my picture appeared in a national newspaper (I won’t say which one), they had it stuck up outside all the newsagents in town. Me mum’s got pictures of me framed – see – it could be a bit embarrassing I suppose, for her, but she’s just really, really, proud…”

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Fiction: Breath by Tim Bragg

He says he can’t breathe. Says she is stifling him. Says that she doesn’t
understand him as the whole world doesn’t understand him. And what does she do?
She listens to him.
That evening she drives the short distance to his flat. The telephone
conversation was unfulfilling. He says little – or says too much. The walk from
her home to the flat is too risky at night. If she walks she has to consider
what she wears. And what does he want? She thinks about his wishes – whether he
still wants her. And she wonders whether he will say too little or too much.
The last time she walked from his flat the night had been sticky with lager and
evaporated urine. Boys hung themselves on street corners. The heels of her shoes
had clacked down damp alleyways and under murky sodium light. Close to the
presence of the boys she could only turn from their stare.
Greg had been with them in the flat. There had been an argument. Sitting back in
one of the damp armchairs she had turned an empty mug neurotically into the
seat’s brown fur.
Greg said, ‘What d’you mean you can’t take it anymore? What d’you mean? Think
it’s only you man, that’s had to take any shit?’
‘Shit? What do you know about shit? I’m talking about being beaten down, you
understand? I’ve been through enough. Enough. Tell me, what’s the point of
banging a head against a nail eh? What’s the point of banging on when nobody
listens? You know…when nobody cares?’ Andy sat back.
Greg leant forward, ‘Come on, who cares if no one cares? It’s got nothing to
do with anyone but you. You. Understand? You’ve given up. You’ve given up and
that’s all there is to say.’
‘I haven’t given up,’ Andy spat.
‘Then what’s all this “no-one cares stuff”? You’ve got to fight.’
‘Fight? Fight you say?’ Andy rubbed his brow repeatedly. ‘You reckon I
haven’t fought Greg? Eh? Reckon I’ve been sitting here like shit all the time,
is that it? Is that what you think? That I’ve gone soft. Can you believe this
Kate? Can you believe this is my so-called friend saying this?’
And he brought her into the conversation like he would always bring her into
the conversation.
The last time she walked from his flat she was wearing a long skirt – to please
him. To please him because she felt his distress. And she also knew that he
needed her approval. That what he said or wrote had to be validated by her. But
she didn’t necessarily give him her approval or validation – he had to earn
that. Yes she believed in him. She believed he had greatness; but not that he
was great. That was the worst of it.
The clack of her shoes was an audible spoor to the boys pissing against the
wall. It was not far to her home but the lemon lights exposed her. The skirt she
had worn for him restricted her stride. Under the lemon lights she felt the
curves of her body.
Greg had been there the last time she visited. She listened. Greg said, ‘You
can’t be true, real, unless you struggle. That’s what life is – what d’you
expect? Art is formed through struggle…’
Andy said, ‘You struggle too much and everything is smothered. You create
something but the labour kills it. I’m struggling to breathe. I can hardly do
anything anymore because everything gets strangled at birth. I begin but I never
finish. You think I’m exaggerating? Ask Kate. Kate knows.’

The damp chair hissed before the fierce heat of the gas fire. Air was eaten
up as the flames grew a deep yellow. Greg turned his eyes to her. What did he
care? The joint crackled in the ashtray. A layer of smoky imagination brought
the ceiling within reach. What had happened to Andy? Where was the spark, the
fuse, the splinter in the ice?
Kate turned the mug clockwise and lowered her lashes.
‘You know it’s easy for you,’ Andy began, ‘it’s easy when you see things your
way. And it’s different. You see the results. You see by hearing…it’s
spontaneous – and it’s born. People listen to what you do. You don’t struggle.
Sure you don’t get much money, but it isn’t about money is it? You do your stuff
and people get off on it. It’s tangible, concrete, out of one brain and into
another. Right?’
Greg sat up. ‘And you? What you do – it’s also fucking tangible.’
‘How can you say that?’
‘It’s there. It’s on the page.’
‘Ah. There you go. You see Kate? You see? This is someone who knows, you
know? Who actually fucking knows. Like he understands. And he comes out with
this. Jesus. The world is smothering itself. There’s a whole world whose face is
being stuffed with page after page of so-called literature and you say “it’s
there on the fuckin’ page”. Jesus. We’re suffocating man. You, me, Kate, all of
us. Suff – o – cating.’
She understands him. That’s what he says. Only her. And he needs her more than
anyone or anything in the whole world. The world he despises. Tells her that he
is out of time. His pupils dilate. For him she wears long skirts and high heels
– cursing herself for choosing clacking shoes with tight skin-nipping leather
nibbling her flesh.

Greg had left before her. The room had grown hot, the walls pressed close.
In a haze of blue smoke Greg had offered to walk her home. She had witnessed the
bruised look in Andy’s eyes. She would stay. Play his game. Listen.
She said, ‘I’m tired.’
‘Don’t go. I need to talk. I need to know what you think.’
‘What I think?
‘Yes, exactly, what you think. Stay.’ Adding, ‘Tell me.’
Measuring her words she began, ‘Greg sees things differently from you,
that’s all. You know that. You’re different from each other. It doesn’t matter.
Greg knows what he wants.’
‘And I don’t?’
‘I’m not sure.’
Andy said, ‘I know what I don’t want. I know how I feel. It’s like I can’t
breathe anymore. I wake up coughing. You’ve heard me. It’s like there’s a gluey
thickness gobbing my throat. I’m sure I can sense something. It doesn’t feel
natural anymore – the way I breathe. In the mornings I try and force myself to
be sick. When you’re not here…’
‘You never get up in the morning,’ she laughed.
His eyes flooded black, ‘Don’t. Don’t trivialise this. I feel like I’m in
one of those fucking iron lungs. Like I really can’t breathe. I wake up and the
air is grey and thick. It’s been getting worse. I feel the air is solidifying
about me. I just can’t breathe enough. And anyone wonders that nothing gets
finished, nothing gets written beyond the opening,’ he struggled for the correct
word, ‘breaths.’
‘Maybe you should see a doctor. You might be ill, have an allergy.
Something…’
‘There you go. You just haven’t got a clue. Not a fucking clue. Like Greg.
He thinks that making music is like writing down words. He’s surrounded by
fucking machines and people who act like fucking machines and now you’re telling
me to see a fucking doctor. Jesus. Jesus Kate, sometimes…Don’t you see how the
world is, how I am? Why the writing never gets finished?’
‘Well, how is this world? What does all this stuff mean? Why do you feel
so…so damn cheated?’
‘Cheated. Yes, yes, that is it. Thank you. That’s the whole shitty thing
isn’t it? You’ve hit the nail Kate. Thank you. You’re fucking marvellous Kate. A
genius. I’ve been cheated. Cheated. Simple. Simply cheated.’
And Kate thought he had seemed so much happier, when his life was so
reasoned.
They sat in silence for a time before Andy continued, ‘I’ve been thinking about
fish.’
Resting back into the brown fur she let her eyes drift to the lacy ceiling.
Smoke had entered her lungs so that she could still hear the voice of Greg and
the after-notes of the music he had written and played. And she saw the lost,
innocent face of Andy as he also listened to the music. In the closeness of the
room she saw his mouth pop open and his body seemed to swim through the smoke.
In that atmosphere his breath seemed to come freshly.
‘I’ve been thinking about fish. Fish move through the water completely at one
with it, right? They breathe through the water. Immersed. Cold, warm, hot. Who
cares? The fish is at one with where it is and what it breathes. A fish has an
ocean to swim in.’
‘If it’s lucky…’
‘Well that’s the kind of fish I’m talking about. That’s the point. All fish
can swim. While there’s enough water to breathe. You see? While it can breathe
it can swim. Jesus this room…’ He began to fidget. Kate saw his eyes squint as
if in pain. ‘It’s small. Like a goldfish bowl.’ He took gulps of air. Kate
tensed. ‘You know, here we are fighting for air,’ he got up quickly and opened
the window, ‘and a fish swims its beautiful sensuous path without thought of
what it is to breathe. Flapping its gills it glides through the oceans. It could
swim forever.’ He sat hunched. ‘There’s nothing for a fish to prove, nothing to
stop it from being what it is. A fish. And no more. It needs only a bowl of
water and it can be what it truly is…’
And Kate didn’t see. She was glad. But she did remember how he would wake at
night fighting for air. And she felt guilty for spending less time with him. It
worried her to think of him waking and gasping for breath – shouting out into
the darkness.
‘I can’t breathe anymore Kate. I can’t take in enough air. I can’t take in
enough smoke,’ he stubbed out the joint. ‘Nothing’s working. It’s like, without
enough air, I can’t be what I am, can’t write what I want, you understand?’
And Kate was glad she didn’t understand.
‘I won’t stay tonight,’ she had said.

Walking from his flat that last time with the boys roaming in packs, vomiting
into doorways, she had remembered her words. Had a faint shade of blue descended
on his face? Did he look at her then through a tightening mask? Certainly he had
taken quick, shallow breaths. But she had put it down to effect. It would have
been typical of him.
She needs him. He says she needs him.
Sodium lights had made ghosts of the boys emerging from the alleyways. She
should have stayed the night. She shouldn’t have walked back home under the
sombre light. It was only two nights ago. Two nights since the argument with
Greg.
Tonight she will drive. On her feet are high-heeled shoes giving her the height
he so loves. She will drive the short distance. The way to his flat is pressed
with the bodies of young men. The night is colder. They stare. She is aware of
her body and the tight breathing of her chest. Aware her breast stretches her
blouse. Tastes the lipstick she has worn for him. They kiss less these days.
These days he says he cannot afford the air.
Andy said, ‘It’s killing me; pressing down on me. Air is heavier than water.
That’s why I envy the fish. I can’t breathe Kate. I promise you, I can’t
breathe. Greg’s right, I should struggle. But it’s gone… The air that gives me
the right to struggle has gone. I need something lighter Kate. I need something
light to live. Being isn’t light – it needs heaviness to keep it on board. To
fight gravity that sucks you up and away.’
Kate said, ‘I’m not going to stay tonight.’
She saw the way he had breathed. Still she couldn’t trust him. She said, ‘I
just can’t.’

Getting out of the car she is determined to slap him back into life – like a new
born – to inspire him again. Breathe new life into them both. Ascending the
stairs to his flat she works out what she will say. Feels curiously out of
breath, like a climber on a mountainside. Yes he has infected her. His spores
have infected her. Her lungs are wet and tight.
The door to his flat is closed. She rings the bell. No answer. Taking a key from
her bag she lets herself in. Stepping into the small sitting room she
immediately notices the books scattered about; fishes swimming across their
covers. Outside she hears the Doppler effect of a passing police car. As the
sound fades she again hears a noise. It comes from the bathroom. Mechanically,
she calls out Andy’s name.
He needs her. Does she need him?
In the bathroom her eyes are concentrated on the enamel bath and the water
washing over its rim. Andy looks at her with childlike eyes. There are two deep
cuts running down the side of his neck. Around his upper torso the water has
turned crimson and beyond that pink. She cries out. But he is alive. He is
trying to say something – swishing about in the blooded water. His eyes are
staring, almost impassive, his mouth roundly popping out indecipherable speech.
Before she snaps too and dials 999 she bends towards his body and listens. What
is it?
There is an incomprehensible smell rising from the water. His eyes continue to
stare. Holding the rim of the bath she feels the bloody water. More water washes
to the carpet. What is it? Time has slowed – thankfully. Water and blood. The
cuts aren’t deep. She listens.
Andy says, ‘Breathe, breathe,’ (she thinks), ‘breathe, gills…let me,’ (she
leans further forwards touching his body which feels greasy-smooth),
‘breathe…’
He needs her and she will need him.

By the hospital bed she is able to hand him the mask that feeds the oxygen.
Taking quick gasps he smiles. Bandages extend either side of his neck so that
she has the curious conception of him there before her – mask covering his nose
and mouth; bulges to the sides; staring, impassive eyes – looking like a
drowning fish. A smile spreads over her face. A doctor walks past the door.

She becomes aware of the curves of her body as she bends over the patient.
Pulling away the mask she senses an odd aroma – is it the rubber of the mask or
another smell she can’t quite fathom? A trolley rolls past now with wheels
squeaking like gulls. Though she cannot identify the strange smell she is
certain at that point that he truly needs her. And she is certain also that she
will need him.
Holding the oxygen mask in her hand she thinks twice about applying it to her
face.

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Fiction: The Dark House by Tim Bragg

We went to visit Aunt Mathilde and Uncle Sebastien in the summer between schools. Everyone was fussing about me. Mummy was fussing the most. Everyone was worrying about the things that didn’t need to be worried about. I didn’t care about my school uniform, but I did care about what it would be like at the senior school.

It’s true that I didn’t know where exactly in France I was going. But I did know that the weather was hotter than anything I had experienced in England. It was the heat I expected from a holiday in Spain I had never been allowed. Why hadn’t we been to visit my Uncle and Aunt before? Was it connected with the death of one of my French Grandparents? But that was a month before and I had remained in England with my older brother who hated looking after me. I suppose he’s a typical brother – thank God he doesn’t look at all like me…
My parents had been crotchety before going then and Mummy had been especially upset. Now they both seemed so quiet.

The trees were shorter and the greenery lighter with lots of brown and orange earth. I knew it was special my being there – in that foreign country where the family lived. It was my first time abroad and everything excited me. My parents handing over passports excited me; the ferry excited me. The sea shone such a deep blue – such an exotic colour for the Channel. Yes I was so excited and my parents laughed at me, for they thought my imagination extraordinary, and they told me so. I was known for my stories after all. I would even make up tales about “how I was found in a basket drifting down a deep and wide river”. Of course I wasn’t “found” at all.

The sea shone deep blue and there were the crests of the waves breaking even in the midst of the Channel. There was the sea breeze that tossed my hair. And I was glad that the pins placed carefully by my Mother were lost and my hair was free to untangle.. People noticed me; boys didn’t – but older gentlemen did. Yes I was curious but naive and it took time for me to grow up and understand. But it took less time for me to actually live those years. Now that I remember I am almost nostalgic for that young girl. For then I was so truly innocent.

In France I was like a sleek horse let loose. People spoke differently. Of course I knew that, but had never lived it you see – for it is one thing to know something but yet another to live it. The air smelt differently, the boys looked strange and the houses were odd compared to the homes in England. It felt like life was beginning again. There was no feeling of oppression, nothing ominous. I was just living.

The drive to the villa of the Uncle and Aunt I had never seen (apart from on the few faded photographs) seemed to take forever. I knew I must have annoyed my parents, I knew it even at the time for I wasn’t stupid. And yes I loved to look at the fields that rolled by and the cars with their unusual number plates and the fact that we were driving on the wrong side of the road. Everything was thrilling but it took too long. My brother hadn’t been allowed to come and I enjoyed that – but I knew my parents were sad too. Were they still sad about my French Grandmother?

We turned down a dusty road and after my Father made another wrong turning and started to swear – which upset my Mother – we were pulling up outside the villa. There wasn’t a sound and nor was there any sign of movement. I suppose they must have been expecting us. The roof tiles burnt in the blazing heat of the late afternoon, my throat was dry. Shadows were stretching from the building and from the squat trees nearby. The villa was like an oasis.

The clucking of hens nearby and in the distance a whining motorbike broke the silence. I remember the sense of solitude; perhaps I wouldn’t have thought about it quite like that then but I did feel something deep within me. Daddy went up to the door and gave it a loud knock. The sound reverberated through the air and appeared to kick up dust from the driveway. In some ways it reminded me of those corny American Cowboy films I’ve had to watch – watch in silence too.

The door was knocked again and I saw a strained look descend over Mummy’s face. The sun was drying sweat on my neck but with each movement I made it created more. I was so thirsty. Above, the sky was vivid – bluer than the sea – it felt close to me and thankfully a slight breeze tickled the water that was moistening my skin.

Eventually the door was opened and I saw Aunt Mathilde for the first time. She shrieked out some French that I couldn’t much understand apart from the ‘Bonsoir, bonsoir.’ My Mother, who had been sitting in the car, got out and kissed in that disgusting French fashion. I know some people like that kind of stuff but I certainly didn’t then. Daddy introduced me and I knew I had to stand demurely with my hands behind my back. Swaying a little I gave out a forced smile. Aunt Mathilde ushered us in quickly as if we would fry in the heat. The shadows had lengthened – it was “bonsoir” not “bonjour” – but still the air stifled.

It was the darkness of the place that I remember. All the shutters were drawn. And there was so much junk everywhere – I knew that Mummy would be freaking out; she really hated junk. It was weird and at first wonderful to me. But I had to blink my eyes a few times just to see. In the corner of the main room, kind of skulking, I saw Uncle. Uncle came out of the shadows and looked pleased with himself as he shook hands. He spoke French to my Mother who understood perfectly. I’d never really thought of her as French before – it was strange to hear her speaking like that. Yes we spoke French sometimes at home but it all seemed so unreal, so put-on, so false if you like. Now it kind of un-nerved me to hear her speak like that. Not even when she spoke on the telephone did it seem real. But now…

Uncle bent down and stared at me. It wasn’t a nice stare. You don’t get nice stares I guess. He bent down to kiss me and I could see the texture of his skin and smell the aroma from his breath – was that the way French people smelt? I backed away and he laughed. He laughed a lot did Uncle. But he didn’t laugh when you would expect it. I learnt that. Only when you least expected it would he laugh. I didn’t trust him from the start; you might as well know that. And of course I was right not to. I must have been a sensitive child to have felt all that so early. It wasn’t something I could put any words to, just felt it. Uncle seemed to peer inside my soul.

Nobody put any of the main lights on so that the house was always a kind of eerie half-light. They had two huge dogs too that were let out of somewhere and who jumped all over me with their disgusting licking tongues and foul breath. Nobody told them to get off or if they did they didn’t mean it. Everyone laughed as I wiped off the dust from my dress. What was the point of putting me in clean clothes to laugh about them getting messed up? I didn’t want to wear a dress after all. But I was at that awkward age apparently. It wasn’t so much awkward for me as frightening.

Uncle was always looking at himself in the mirror; you could see it embarrassed my parents. In the middle of a conversation or during a meal he would simply get up and move over to the mirror to look at himself in the dark-light. I mean the mirror was filthy too. The place was an absolute mess. But at least I had a big room to myself and there was a gas lamp for the night and also candles. Either he would look in one of the dusty mirrors or he would stare sideways at me; I’m sure he did that. Of course now I know why. Now I know everything.

Daddy and Uncle got drunk on the wine and though I knew Daddy wasn’t relaxed the wine seemed to calm him down enough for him to get stupid. Aunt Mathilde and Mummy did the washing up and talked away in French but I knew Mummy wasn’t that happy either. I didn’t know why we were there.

When it came to me having to go to bed I was taken up to the room and shown how to use the light and Aunt Mathilde even gave me a disgusting thing to ‘use’ should I need it in the night. Where was the toilet? I asked Mummy, but she laughed. I was serious. Couldn’t they see what was happening to me? I was going to the senior school after the holidays.

In the middle of the night I turned down the gas lamp and put down the book I was reading. With at least one ear I had kept abreast of the conversations down below. There was the shouting of Uncle and Daddy, I didn’t know if it was in English or French, or both, and there was the murmur of Mummy and Aunt.

The conversations ebbed and flowed but kept me company so that I didn’t think much about where I was. With the gas lamp down low I lit a few candles for fun. It was probably a silly thing to do because candle light just enflames the imagination and the sort of dark imagination you don’t want in a place like that. One of the dogs even managed a howl from outside right on cue.

It was typical of me I guess to scare myself like that and to watch the shadows move in that place. Outside, the sound of insects was alien and the dragging of the dogs’ leads made me scared. It was too late to snuggle down and forget my thoughts. The conversations had ceased and the sound of water being flushed gone with the hissing of the pipes. The house had returned to a primitive silence. The shutters were closed in my room as in all the others. Lying there in bed I tried to stop the images of monsters and creatures that flicked relentlessly through my mind. I tried to remember that I was going to the senior school after the holidays and that I was too old to think such stupid things. But every time I felt more composed one of those dogs would get up and mooch or something and drag its horrible chain behind it like a ghost wandering through the night. Or there was the sound of scratching coming from somewhere and I imagined a rat was on the loose.

The candles burnt down steadily as I lay wide awake. The shadows became forms, became grotesque creatures so that I cursed my wild imagination. But nothing really made me jump up till that point. That is till I heard the sound of the stairway creaking. It reverberated through the whole house. And the door of my room was beginning to be opened slowly with the creak of the doorknob. With an absolute frozen heart I lay like a corpse in that bed. The door opened wider and Uncle was standing there. He whispered something in French and smiled slightly as he moved towards me. I was too scared to open my mouth.

As he approached where I lay he stumbled and checked himself by placing a hand on top of the light sheet that covered me. I could see a glint in his eye like a wild schoolboy though he jerked his arm away quick enough. Then he came to my side and I could smell the wine from that distance which grew heavier as he placed a hand on my forehead and wiped away a lock of hair. His shadow was cast behind him like a vampire’s as he stooped low and whispered something close to my cheek. I could not move. My heart was either beating a hundred times to the minute or was not beating at all. His lips puckered and I had the strength only to avert myself slightly as he laid a kiss on my skin. Again his hand wiped my forehead and then he was gone – a lumbering awkward giant loping out of the room.

One of the candles burnt out. I wasn’t sure what to do. I could still smell the rankness of his breath. Should I have woken up Mummy and Daddy? What would I have said? The sound of a dog barking and more rattle of chain coincided with the final candle burning down and out. Only the hiss of the gas lamp was left as I heard a door close downstairs and some muttering I took to be my Uncle. I simply could not move and I noticed that he had not shut the door fully behind him.

There is nothing to say in my defence that I lay there so passively and did nothing. There was much in my mind that confused me. It was a new country, a new house, the insects droned on outside and penetrated the steel shutters. Blackness was enveloping the dark, blinded corners of the room. It was with a troubled heart that I did finally turn off the lamp and slipped down the bed pulling the cover up and over my face and head. I felt like a coward down there. I felt like a child.

The feeling, the terror with which I was woken from the saving grace of sleep cannot be expressed. Again I heard the creaking of the staircase. The door opened slowly and its swish across the floor was like the fluttering of my heart. There was the soft padding of feet. My God. Why could I not cry out? What would he do know, that foul-smelling man? The touch of his lips had burnt into my cheek and I could feel him close by again. Why could I not cry out?

There was the sound of heavy panting and through the thin sheet I could smell the rank odour of his breath. My God an arm was exposed, I had left an arm free from the cover and this turned to stone. What was he going to do this time, now that I had half given my consent by not rushing to my parents? No-one would understand…I could feel a wet touch upon my arm out there in the dark, black, blind room. I could feel the horrible, gruesome wet touch of his lips. And then as if ignited by something primitive, something I could not describe neither then nor now I flung the sheet from me and threw it back, lifting myself up and forcing air through to my lungs ready to scream. And then…

And then I saw it there. In shadowed dark I saw the terrible monster I had presumed was going to ravish me, carry me off into some hideous Hades of sexual deprivation. The nose of the dog nudged up my arm and the beast’s eyes glowed blackly in the dimness of the room. It was difficult to see much but the dog’s breath gave it away and it yearned to have me extend my other arm and stroke its glossy coat. What a fool I had been.

The following morning Uncle had the same kind of glint in his eye as if he was daring me to give his misdemeanour of the previous night away. I wasn’t going to tell anybody. I wasn’t going to let anyone know that I’d been too scared to say anything. I didn’t say anything about the dog either.

There seemed to be a growing tension in the house that I could feel with all my young flesh and bones. The following night I thought I heard Uncle prowling through the house again, but he seemed to remain downstairs. All the time we were there he laughed maniacally and stared at himself in the dark mirrors of that dark house. Many times I caught him staring at me. It seemed so cruel the way he would look me up and down. I was at a certain age – uncertain.

And he came to my room again on the night before we were to leave and he kissed me in the same manner. This time he spoke French to me that I could not decipher from his drunken lisp. How I wish I could remember those words now?
No dog visited me after him.

The following morning Uncle was looking in the mirror when I opened the front door and stepped out into the sun. He smiled at his reflection or was it at me? I glowered back. Outside the sun was beginning its relentless climb. Chickens ran across the dusty garden and shadows were starting to form. I could see where the dogs were chained up. Brushing crumbs from the jeans I had changed into I went for a walk down the lane. As the sweat began to form on my neck I vowed at that moment never to think childish thoughts again. A few days away were the start of senior school. We would be in England tomorrow.

Nobody spoke much at first on the return trip. I could still feel the kiss from Uncle burning my lips which he so ostentatiously kissed before we parted. There were many tears as the tension seemed to have dissipated. We were a family again. And that is the way it might easily have ended.

In the second year of my new school I learnt that Uncle Sebastien had died of a heart attack; he was not old. I learnt then also that he was my natural Father. I learnt about the girl who had got pregnant and who had left him, quite simply, “holding the baby”, how he had tried to cope but failed. How he had “changed”. I learnt how my French Grandmother had taken the child, me, and then arranged for my Mother to adopt. I knew I was an adopted child, but what did I care? I had been a baby. They were my parents as any others – better than most. And I had learnt of my Uncle’s wish to see me before I “changed” as he put it. Aunt Mathilde had been in touch with my Mother. My Aunt acted as a Mother to my “Uncle” – that is to my real Father. I never learnt about my real Mother; that girl had disappeared. The death of my French “grandmother” was the catalyst for my “Uncle” to become my Father one last time. And for the first time I understood my Mother’s loss and why she sometimes
felt so disconnected.

So you see I am French through and through not just supposedly on my Mother’s side. I didn’t even cry when I learnt all about this – not for many years to come. But now that I think back I understand why that trip to France was so peculiar and so memorable. My Father at least had been able to see his child at the moment she stepped from girlishness to womanhood, for I did so soon after. And I changed more than that too; I grew up both physically and spiritually, it just took a few more years for me to discover that.

Somewhere out in France I imagine my natural Mother living her life. But I have my real Mother in England. Aunt Mathilde writes from her new home. And I visit France with my children often; they are girls and they too are growing up fast. I am waiting for when they “change” and become women and then I will tell them of my first holiday in France and all about the dark house in that hot and distant countryside.

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