Rusalka Part 3

These are springs without water and mists driven by a storm, for whom the black darkness has been reserved.

Benji

I’m annoyed, that I’m annoyed, that Daniel has landed us on our feet. This was the best outcome. But I’m annoyed. The guesthouse Yana has taken us to is a brick oasis. The room is at the top of the five floors. Unreachable old spiderwebs hang in the corners of the ceiling. The lamps have thick fabric shades that seem to absorb all the light. There’s a four poster bed with layers of blankets like baklava. There’s an oak vanity desk that is so polished that the mirror is redundant. There’s a luxury trunk, possibly stolen from the last Tzar’s luggage. The large settee probably allows this room to sleep three.  

“The honeymoon suite,” says Yana, “for the boys.” 

“Do you want to share the bed with one of us or take the couch? Ladies choice.” Daniel says. I find a shower in the bathroom and it makes me want to cry. 

“The bed is big enough for three,” says Yana. 

“Shotgun not in the middle,” he says. 

“There’s a shower,” I say, trying to be relevant. 

“Good,” says Yana, “you both stink. If I take you to the party like this, you’ll ruin my reputation.”

“Oh, you have a reputation?” says Daniel.

“A reputation for being cool and having cool friends.” She playfully sweeps her copper hair back.  

“How cool is this party,” I ask, “we don’t have many clean clothes.” 

Daniel is poking around the wardrobe and pulls out a dinner jacket. A visible corona of dust floats off it as he shakes it. It is luxe but dated in style. It has three buttons and lapels that would look large on a clown suit. “There’s a full tuxedo in here, some sort of smoking jacket, morning trousers, loads of stuff. We would look amazing in this.” 

“Really?” I ask. I wonder if I can rinse my Ralph Lauren Polo and dry it with the hairdryer before we set off. Doubtful.  

“Definitely,” says Daniel, “we’re gonna stand out anyway. They’re a bit wide though.”   

“Let me check the drawers in the vanity table for safety pins,” says Yana, “we can pull it in.” Daniel puts on the jacket but we could both fit in it. Yana finds pins and starts playing the part of tailor. She stands behind Daniel, pulling in the jacket, calling him ‘Sir’ and generally using it as an excuse to touch his body and flirt some more. 

“I’m going for a shower,” I say.

“Great, we’ll do your fitting after,” she says. She catches my eye from behind Daniel and blows me a kiss. I force a smile, look away, then look back at her quickly. I swear her eyes were black. No, they’re green. She’s smoothing out the jacket on Daniel’s back. She licks her lips. No, she licks her teeth.   

The shower is strong and gets hot. It scales the skin of dried sweat off me. When I feel clean, I turn the tap down to cold to forget the humidity for a few seconds. 

There are thick robes in the bathroom. I throw one on after drying myself. I tie the towel around my head to dry my hair, think better of it and sling the towel around my neck instead. 

Back in the bedroom Yana is massaging Daniel’s shoulders, pressing her chest gently onto the back of his head. She looks me up and down, “Nice robe,” she says, “maybe you should go in that.” 

I check her eyes again. They’re still green.  

Daniel

Yana crushes the tension in my shoulders like cloves of garlic under her thumbs. I’m looking down, staring through the carpet. I can hear the drone of the shower. The carpet seems to swirl, like water slipping down the plug. Yana hums a vague melody that I hear in the back of my skull like a memory. My feet feel wet. Water is rising through the carpet. 

The bathroom door opens. Benji comes back into the room. Yana slides her thumb out of my shoulder, releasing the pressure. I am waking from a trance. A vague memory of water lurks in my mind. How long have I been sitting here?  Benji has finished his shower, so twenty minutes at most. 

“Mind if I go next?” asks Yana. 

“What? No.” 

She hops off the bed and in one smooth movement she bends down, pinches the hem of her dress and peels it off. She smells the dress, shrugs, then throws it over the couch. She twists her body, inspecting herself. So she is wearing knickers.   

“Do you think I need to lose any weight Benji?” she asks. 

“I don’t know.” 

“What do you think, Daniel?” 

She’s facing away from me. I look her up and down slowly, hopefully showing that I am not embarrassed by her stunt. “Bench presses would improve your posture.” She grabs a towel and storms into the bathroom in mock offence. 

“What is going on?” asks Benji. 

“I’m not sure what that was, but I didn’t want to rise to it. She caught you out, bro.”  

“Not that. Before that, when I came out of the shower.” 

“Oh right,” I pause. “I don’t really remember how that started.” 

“Really?”

“Yeah, really,” Benji raises his eyebrows. “Benji, the weirdest thing happened when she was touching me?”

“That’s called an erection, Daniel. I’d say she did get a rise out of you.” 

I reposition myself on the bed, “What’s up, Benji? You’re worried.” 

“I’m not worried, Daniel. I’m not mad. Look, I hate to say it, but you were right. This was a good idea. But she wants to hook up with you. So just give me the nod when you think it’s going to happen and I’ll try to find a way to be away from the room for a while.” 

I sigh, “When we get to the party you’ll see she probably acts the same way around all the guys. She’s just a flirt. Most of it is just an act to see if we react. And you’re reacting. ‘Um – I dunno if you need to lose weight’.” I laugh. “Chill out Benji. The ideal scenario tonight is we both meet someone else and neither of us has to come back here.”

“No. She’s into you. She was almost drooling on you while massaging you.”

“I can’t really remember anything about that.”

“You don’t remember her double-Ds resting on the back of your head.” 

“What? Those aren’t double-Ds. They’re more like Bs.” 

“No Daniel, your ex was more like a B cup. Yana’s are bigger.” 

“They’re exactly the same size. She just had them out in front of you, didn’t you have a look?”

The bathroom door opens and Yana emerges, “Benji, I wasn’t serious about going in the robe” 

Benji

My mood has been a shambles on this trip. I feel like one of the colourful ties we can see in the trees around the town, fluttering in the breeze. It must be all the repetitive days. It’s unhealthy. But I’m psyched up now. Human contact is incoming.   

Daniel is right, the best outcome is that we all meet someone else. We’ll be the most interesting people there. Travellers always seem more mysterious than they deserve. Have you ever met one of those guys who goes travelling after university for a year, but then they don’t return for five or six years? You meet these guys at parties when you’re in your mid 20s. You expect them to be interesting but they’re vegetables. Being a British guy living in Cambodia makes you interesting enough to carry you through every social situation and so you never develop a personality. Well now that’s us. Except we’re doing something actually meaningful… I suppose.

I’ve heard in Russia there are more women than men and this is why you see stunning Russian women settling for ropy guys… apparently. I’ve heard there are dating companies that match Russian women with the oversupply of men in China. It’s one of those things that sounds right but who knows. It might explain why Yana seems to be into us. She would have guys falling over her in the UK. She wouldn’t look twice at us. Maybe Daniel would have a chance. He got the number of a Mexican glamour model once in Leeds. But it took an hour and I don’t think it went anywhere after that. Maybe there just aren’t many options in the Russian wilderness. Maybe I’m overthinking the entire thing and she really does just need a lift. 

I can’t drag my eyes off her. She found a shrunken wool skirt in one of the drawers and is wearing the other dinner jacket Daniel found. She’s pinned it in tight against her body making it look burlesque. 

On the walk to the party we see more twigs, fried eggs and other offerings out in front of the buildings. From some attics above us there is the noise of gatherings. It spills down like an unintelligible angel song. 

“What’s the occasion?” 

“It’s Green Week,” says Yana. Daniel shrugs. 

“It’s Green Week,” I say. 

We get to a small commercial estate with shuttered units. The throb of a party is coming from one of the properties. Yana bangs hard on one of the shutters and it rolls up to waist height. The sounds from inside widen and bounce out into the estate. A gaunt hipster pokes his head under the door, exchanges a few words in Russian with Yana, then raises the door to chest height so that we can step under.   

It’s a warehouse. Empty now but with some of the shelving, pallet lifters and miscellaneous containers arranged in tables and benches like an edgy fashion shoot. Some of it has been used to construct an ersatz stage. Someone is performing on a set of modular synthesisers. They’re dressed in black robes, a black hood and a papier-mâché mask with a long beak. The music is downtempo, smooth but melancholic. At one of the tables there are women weaving garlands and sipping on beer. At another someone seems to be doing a tarot reading. All around the space there are more branches, eggs and garlands hanging. 

Yana introduces us to a few people nearby but most of the names slip my memory immediately, if I even hear them at all. Everyone is wearing dusty old jackets or gowns. Yana and Daniel fit in. I look out of place in my Fred Perry t-shirt and jeans.    

Daniel

There are so many stunning women and average men. I have to suppress a laugh. Benji might actually shut-up about the race. No more sitting in the urinal on wheels wondering if we’re in six-thousand-nine-hundred-and-twenty-third or six-thousand-nine-hundred-and-twenty-fourth position.  

Yana is introducing me to people with such unusual names I cannot tell which part of the sentence she’s saying is the name. Benji looks like he has finally got the fence post out of his arse and is starting to chill out. 

I ask a guy I get introduced to, “What is this music?” 

“Modular synth.” I wait for him to expand but he doesn’t.  

“OK, cool.” So the guys have great personalities as well as great looks. 

Yana snakes an arm around my waist and enters the conversation, insofar as there is one, “Ambient music is really popular here. A famous musician came from this town.” She tries to sway my body with the music, “It’s hypnotic, just vibe with it.” The guy looks at me, looks at Yana, shakes his head and walks away.   

“Don’t you like the vibes?” asks Yana.

“Yeah yeah, I love it. But what was wrong with that guy?” 

“Russians.” Yana shrugs. 

I try to mingle but whenever someone discovers I’m with Yana the conversation abruptly ends. Yana floats between Benjji and me. I notice that when she’s not pushing herself into one of our conversations, she doesn’t talk to anyone herself. She just sort of hovers on her own like she is adrift between two banks of a river. She’ll push herself into my conversations and make a point of touching me, especially if I’m talking to women. Maybe Benji was right and she does have a thing for me.  

It’s bad logistics. We need to get Benji to hook-up with someone so things don’t get weird back at the guesthouse. But she seems to be ruining his chances with anyone as well. Maybe she’s into Benji too. That would make things simpler… in a way. 

A few sentences into another conversation and Yana slides up to me, feigning falling into me and I’m forced into catching her. One of my hands slips up her jacket and onto the small of her tiny back, the other catches her enate hips. Her physique is so erotically uneven. I hold her until she regains her balance. 

“Too much vodka?”

“Nah.” 

She looks up at me, pressed against me, the lapels of the jacket slide across her chest. She can stand now but I hold her tighter. Sorry Benji, I can’t resist.

Rusalka Part 4

Rusalka Part 2

“But whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Benji

Just put an albatross around my neck. Daniel thinks I didn’t hear him but I did. We’re lost. There should be no river on our right but there is. I can see it from the road now anyway. And what’s the solution? Go to some unpronounceable town because there might be a party. Great race plan. I’m driving as fast as I can but what’s the point? We’ve lost another day of driving.  

It galls me because he must think I’m stupid. Daniel and Yana are going to hook-up. Then he’s going to argue that we are so far behind that there is no point carrying on. Once he gets his end away, he’ll become as calm as a Hindu cow. Then he’ll put on that chill-dude act he always does when he gets laid. We’ll end up in the town for days.  

OK, it’s not going well. Yes, I guess you could say the whole point of this trip was to have fun and meet people. It just pisses me off that he turns everything into chasing women since he became single. Now the Vaz has another spare wheel.   

At least the shoulder rubs have stopped now. Why was she trying to get me to do it, to make Daniel jealous? Now she knows I am from Iran because, big surprise, Daniel told her. Now it’s the Persian freak show again. 

“Which part of Iran are you from?”

Here… we… go…

Daniel thinks that being Iranian makes me seem exotic. What did he call it, a “conversational safety net”. Something to fall back on if the chat ever dries up. I’m still bemused by that. The middle-eastern badge never got me any higher up the food chain before. 

“Tehran.” 

“Mhm.”

“That’s the capital.” 

“When did you go to the UK?”

“A few years ago. I lived in Dubai for a while after university, but it’s not great for Iranians. I came to the UK when I was 25.” 

“Why the UK? You like the sexy British accent?” I swear I hear Daniel snort in the back seat. 

“For freedom really.” 

“Right. OK.” 

She stops talking. I look in the rear view mirror. Daniel is looking out the window and shaking his head. The radio still isn’t working, so we sit in silence until I forget where we’re going.  

“It’s this exit,” says Yana. How does she know? All these exits look exactly the same.  

“Are you sure? There is no sign.”

She puts her hand on my thigh and squeezes, “I’m sure, Benji.”  

The exit leads to a road that thins out to a badly maintained single lane. Suspension must be optional on the VAZ. Every bump and pothole is transmitted flawlessly to my anus through the exhausted car seat. Yana is smiling. After one of the larger bumps she laughs, pushes the stray strawberry-blonde locks out of her face and holds down her chest. 

“Are you trying to bounce me out of my dress, Benji?”

“No, sorry.” 

Soon a town materialises out of the countryside. Still no signs. What the hell is this place doing here?

“It’s a town that was built to serve a factory. The factory is gone. But the town has stayed,” she says, as if reading my mind.   

“What do the people who live here do now?” 

“It’s a kind of cultural destination now. There’s some agriculture, there’s a festival, there are lots of arts and crafts.” 

“And it survives from that?” 

“There’s plenty of towns that survive off being cultural destinations in the UK,” Daniel chimes in, “Glastonbury?” 

“Yes, this is like a Russian Glastonbury,” says Yana. 

Yeah, just like Glastonbury. 

Daniel

The town glints like a new penny on the banks of the river. Maybe the same river where we met Yana. I have a bad habit of not paying attention when I’m the passenger. We could be anywhere. The town is made of stone, low-rise buildings with tall, narrow windows and roofs coloured with emerald or ruby slates. The streets are wide and unmarked. There’s no pavement. Parked retro cars are dotted along the edges of the streets, marking an unofficial sidewalk. Our car looks inconspicuous here. The town has a bohemian, arty feel. Scruffy hipster types are hurrying along the streets and a few of the walls are painted with murals. One is a mural of a forest with creepy, naked women in the trees. A wave of deja-vu makes me shiver.  

The town has a square and a chapel at its centre. An oxidised, bronze gateway cuts through the skyline in an ornate, sea-green pattern. A black, wooden block, in the likeness of a man’s head, wearing a fez, is perched on the gateway. I don’t draw Benji’s attention to that.    

“Just park the car here, Benji” says Yana. “You can explore the town. I’ll go to the guesthouse and see if my friend can get us rooms for tonight. It should be fine, I think it’s still the off-season.”

“Where shall we meet you?” I ask, stumbling out the back seat. 

“It’s only a small town, I’ll find you.” When she smiles, her eyes narrow. They look like beads of jet. She leaves us. 

I pull on the front of my t-shirt, trying to waft some air up it. “It’s roasting already. When is their on-season?”. 

“How long do you think we’re going to stay here?” asks Benji.  

“I don’t know.” 

“We should only stay one night. Get a good night’s sleep then get back on the road.” 

“Get a good night’s sleep? We’ve been invited to a party.” 

“We’re supposed to be in a race, Daniel.” 

“No, we’re supposed to be on an adventure. I never expected to win. The website says only 10% of the racers ever finish.” Benji is quiet, it makes me feel guilty. I try to speak as neutrally as possible, “What are your expectations for the race… well for the whole thing, this whole adventure, vacation… whatever?”

“I think we can still finish. I want us to commit to the race and try to finish – for us.” 

“I think we’re four days driving behind where we need to be just to finish in the four week time limit.”  

“Me too. That’s why we need to make up time.”

“We’ve been saying that since the start. We haven’t made up a single hour. I don’t even know if we’re on the right road anymore. That river isn’t supposed to be there. Who knows how much time we’ve really lost.”

“Well what do you want to do, Daniel? Quit? Stay here and chase women? Try to get into Yana’s knickers.” 

I’ve never heard Benji frustrated before. He’s usually so measured. I pause for a moment, nod and wonder if Yana is even wearing knickers. “I’m not saying let’s give up. I’m not saying stay here for more than one night. But let’s just be realistic. We haven’t seen or spoken to anyone except motel reception clerks and service station workers. We’ve not seen another racer since we left Calais. We’ve just been slogging away in a smelly Russian death trap. Now we’ve met some crazy, sexy hitch-hiker who might get us into some party. The adventure is about to begin. Let’s not throw it away. The race is a lost cause.” Ben is looking away. But he’s nodding. “Look, you don’t have to decide now. Let’s try and get a real cappuccino and see if we can find a snack that doesn’t look like a penis.” 

Benji

“We had fun in that weird hotel in Germany,” I say. But Daniel is right. I don’t know why I am arguing with him. I don’t really think we can finish the race. I’m not really annoyed at him or Yana. I’m just sour that we have failed so quickly. I imagined us weaving in and out of other racers on the Autobahn, not sitting on my sore arse for 16 hours a day, staring down a dull Russian E road, trying to fight off sleepiness so we don’t paste ourselves onto the front of an oncoming lorry.  

“That was fun actually,” says Daniel, looking at something I can’t see, “But that was days ago now.” 

“Over a week.”

“We’ve been going over a week?”

“Yes.”

“We’ve been going over a week. Wow. It all feels exactly the same.”  

“So what do we do if we can’t finish the race?” I ask. 

“You mean after tonight? We just keep going but with more of an open mind. When we see a town let’s stop there even if we’re not due a stop. If we see a hitch-hiker, pick them up. Then when we only have a few days of our annual leave left, just find the nearest airport and try to get home.” 

“What about the car?”

“What about the car? Just give it to someone or abandon it. Did you want to take it home?”

“Well it does seem to be a pussy magnet.” Daniel’s laugh is spastic and echoes around the square. A couple of the hipsters look over at us and frown. I laugh too. My shoulders ache. My arse aches. I might be tearing a hemorrhoid, but I can’t stop. I realise we haven’t laughed in days. Daniel is crying. I can’t breath.

After that I feel almost post-coitus. I haven’t relaxed since we set off. I tongue my teeth. I’ve probably been grinding them while driving. I need to chill out. Daniel is right. The race is just a canvas for our adventure. Who cares where we end up. But where are we? The ‘no smartphone’ rule was another dumb idea by me.   

“You need to hook-up with Yana tonight, mate,” I say. He stares. “What?”

You need to hook-up with her.”

“Nah. She’s into you.” 

“Why do you say that?”

“She keeps flirting with you.”

“She’s trying to flirt with you. You’re ignoring it. She can’t make it any more obvious.” 

“What, so you think she wants us both?”

“I have no idea. She’s probably just flirting with us because we gave her a lift. But you need to chill out. Just flirt back. You don’t have to marry her because you flirted with her. I don’t care if either of us hooks up with her or not. But she clearly enjoys the attention and so should we.”

“Right.”

 Daniel laughs, “I think she wants to break you if I’m honest. But that’s irrelevant. She’s hot. Hot girls get invited to cool parties and know other hot girls. Just give her some attention without looking desperate and let her open some doors for us.” I am still suspicious I will end up as the third wheel, but I nod. Daniel continues, “Once we’re at the party, we’ll be the most interesting people there. A couple of guys rallying across Eurasia. We’ll be the centre of attention. Trust me. The hardest part of this whole journey was going to be finding the parties and getting invited. Yana has done that. Once we’re in…” Daniel makes a scooping motion with his hands. 

“Alright I get it.” I exhale. “She’s not really your type anyway.”

Daniel

“She’s not my type?” My voice rises in a goofy intonation. 

“I didn’t think you were into pale girls.” 

“Pale? Yana’s not pale.” 

Benji shrugs, “I don’t know, mate. I’m Persian. Everyone looks pale to me.”

The heat must be getting to Benji. There’s little shade in the square and we haven’t eaten for hours. The town seems to be preparing for something, “I thought those were just discarded twigs at first, but I think people are leaving them outside their properties on purpose.” I point around the square. 

“And what’s with the fried eggs on plates?” asks Benji. 

There is something just under the surface of this town. Everyone we see is distracted. On the phone with one hand, carrying groceries or bottles in the other. Few of them are smiling. Maybe it’s just the Russian demeanor. I think Yana is the only person we’ve seen smile since we got to Russia. 

“Maybe we’ve stumbled on some sort of event,” I say. “Did you see that the trees on the way in were decorated?”

“I did” 

“If we’ve stumbled on some sort of town festival…”

“I know.”

“We deserve this, Benji.” I slap him on the back. 

I find a cafe with a takeaway service window. I tell Benji it’s my round. They have real, iced-americano, Danish pastries and rye-bread sandwiches with meat and yogurt fillings. I order in broken Russian, pointing at pictures on the menu. The woman who takes my order seems bored. She recaps my order in fluent English. I confirm it through a blush. Benji and I set up an impromptu picnic on a wide, concrete bench in the square. 

“Maybe Yana knows there is something going on. Maybe she was just underselling this party. Is it some sort of special religious day? Have we missed something?” 

Benji takes a moment to swallow, “It’s Friday.” He shrugs. “Do you think Yana will have got a room?” 

“There don’t seem to be many tourists here.” 

“Speak of the Devil,”says Benji. 

Yana sways toward us. The summer dress reveals a matte, wholemeal, trunk of a thigh popping out of the cut of the skirt with every second stride.

“Do you think I’ve tanned?” She twirls revealing more thigh. Her black hair whips across her naked back. 

“Compared to what,” I laugh. “We’ve only known you a couple of hours.”

“Compared to when you met me,” she says, while making a show of inspecting her arms. “Maybe you can’t tell now I’m dressed.” I try not to smile but I can’t stop it. She sees it and grins victoriously.  

“I’ll treat you to some SPF 50 sunscreen if you’ve got us a room,” I say.

“And will you apply it?” I shrug, “Well, pay up, because we have a place to stay.”

Rusalka Part 3

Rusalka Part 1

If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink, whoever believes in Me, as the Scripture has said: ‘Streams of living water will flow from within him.’

Benji

I don’t realise that I am in another microsleep until I come out of it and nearly commit suicide. My first instinct is to pull the car into the left hand lane where the oncoming traffic is travelling at a relative speed of 140 miles per hour. In a fraction of a second I correct it. We’re alive until my next microsleep at least. 

I thought Russia was supposed to be cold. Nobody told the month of May. The windows don’t wind down fully and are ajar like a knackered stove. That might be a blessing judging from the number of insects crushed onto the windscreen and being mummified by the shitty wipers. No air conditioning, naturally, just a stale breeze of air from the blowers that smells like hangover breath. The airflow knob is turned all the way down to the coldest blue of the dial, like so many things about this car it’s merely a performance. Nothing works in this 90s VAZ-2107 hatch-back except the engine and the steering wheel. It was £450 but we were probably ripped-off. 

It was my idea to get the Russian car. Daniel said we could get a modern european car within the £500 budget. I said if we were going to do the London to Ulaanbaatar Rally, we had to do it properly in a car that would look the part. Since most of the journey would be in Russia, that meant a Russian car. This was the only piece of shit we could find on the UK market. It didn’t take long for authenticity to get old. The only music we have is a Simply Red cassette we found in the car – we’ve already tangled it in the cassette player. 

So instead we mostly listen to unintelligible Russian talk radio. I can barely hear it over the road noise but it is fading out. Daniel reaches forward and tries to retune it, but the signal seems to be getting weaker. “I’ll try and find something else,” he says, but nothing is tuning properly. 

The E road we’re driving on is a single carriageway the width of two cars and a hair more. Every time we go past an articulated truck I have to steer against the back-draft. Daniel has told me to slow down more times than usual today. I remind him that we are in a race. He reminds me he wants to finish alive. I fear we’re already too far behind. We haven’t seen any of the other participants since we left London. Daniel is convinced that we’re still where we should be, but I think we’re easily two days adrift of the pack. 

I am driving the car as fast as I dare. But every time there is a gap in the traffic someone overtakes us. The overtaking car is often older than ours and usually driven by a septuagenarian. 

I see a sign for a rest stop, “I need to stop, I’m falling asleep with my eyes open.” 

“No worries,” he says, with no emotion. Is he annoyed we’re stopping again or relieved? I can’t tell. He sounds tired as well.  

Daniel

Benji pulls the car into the patch of wasteland labeled as the rest-stop car-park. There is a petrol station and a strange cafe-cum-charcuterie-cum-vodka-bar attached. It advertises in pictures that it sells Russian meats, vodka by the shot and wide cups of ‘cappuccino’ that are just shots of espresso topped with whipped cream instead of foamed milk, if they’re anything like the other cappuccinos we’ve been having. Vodka seems to be sold everywhere. I try not to think how many drivers we are passing who have had a shot of vodka or two. Next to the cafe are three abandoned and browning attractions from a travelling fair. One is a small ghost-train style ride called Green Week. The front is painted with images of naked, feral women sitting in trees, looking down at the crusty carriages hungrily. 

We’ve stopped early. I think Benji should have done another hour of driving. I wonder if he intends to carry on or wants to swap. I can’t blame him for stopping. Driving in another country is exhausting in the same way your first driving lessons are. You have to be consciously competent. Constantly alert. Every detail of the environment pulls on your attention with equal force. My neck still aches from my last stint of driving. Being a passenger in that oven is no rest.

“I’m just going to stretch my legs,” I say. 

“Do you want any coffee?”

“Thanks.” That may have sounded ungrateful. I’m too tired to know. 

Beyond the dust-bowl car park I find a field. Beyond that is a loose scattering of trees hiding a shallow but wide river. That river shouldn’t be there – we’re off track. 

I don’t have the energy to explain this to Benji. We made a pact to stay positive but it seems we had different expectations about the race. How can I explain it to Benji without sounding like I’m making a point?

A cool breeze is coming from the river and dampening my crusty face. I follow it through the line of trees and down to the bank. At the edge of the water I submerge my hands and splash some onto my face.

“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink,” someone says. A woman, naked in a patch of long grass, her feet dipped into the water. She stands, picking up her dress, turning away from me slightly, but not enough. She reveals her athletic body of off-white, almost sandy skin. Teardrop breasts with coffee areolas. Her lower body is wider than her torso, uneven like a gymnast. Her thighs touch at their thickest point.

“John, something or other,” I say. 

“John 7;37.” She smiles, her high cheekbones squeezing narrow eyes, “It’s rude to stare.” 

Benji 

I put the two coffees on the roof of the Vaz carefully, expecting them to dent the rotting bodywork. They’re both huge and mostly cream. I’ve also bought some snacks for the next portion of the drive. Vaguely penisy looking cured meats of some kind. Some wrapped in pastry. All of them vacuum packed. I open one and instantly regret it. It smells as fleshy and salty as it looks. This is the last thing we need in the car. 

I open the driver’s door to cool the car. A gust of even hotter air comes out. Where is Daniel? We need to get back on the road. We’ve overslept and taken extra stops almost every day. Driving this piece of crap for five hours non-stop is tough, but we must’ve lost close to sixteen hours of our planned driving time. We haven’t seen any other participants in the rally. We could be so far behind already that we don’t even finish within the four weeks time limit. But Daniel doesn’t seem to care. He keeps talking about “enjoying the adventure” and saying we’re in danger of “turning it into work”. 

This was my idea, Daniel wasn’t convinced – until his girlfriend dumped him. Then he showed interest. “I need to push my comfort zone,” he said. I didn’t realise that it would be this draining and… I hate to admit it… boring. I thought there would be more camaraderie with the other drivers. That we’d make friends, go to parties. We booked into all the recommended rally motels but we’ve not met any other racers. Maybe Daniel is right, we need to chill out and enjoy the adventure more. But we’re never going to finish unless we keep to the plan and if we don’t finish it will all be a waste of time.  

Daniel emerges from a field beyond the carpark wasteland. Someone is with him, a woman. She is laughing and talking enthusiastically. He is raising his eyebrows skeptically at everything she says, probably teasing her. This is how he acts around women who he thinks are too attractive for him. He tries to disarm them with backhanded compliments and a disinterested aura. And this woman is stunning. Way out of his league, but not his usual type. Her skin is the pure, ash-white that only redheads have. Her eyes are wide and green. Long, wavy, terracotta hair brushes the top of her pear-shaped breasts that swing, bra-less like kettle bells under her thin summer dress.  

“This is Yana. She needs a lift to some town. She says there’s a cool party there and she can get us invited.”

She smiles a big lying smile that beautiful women use when they know you’re attracted to them. I feel the sting of an involuntary blush rising under my cheeks. How can I say no? “Sure.” I avoid Daniel’s eyes. I am not sure whether Yana will be the adventure that we have been lacking or the chisel that opens our splintering friendship. “I’ll drive for another hour.”

Daniel

“How come the massage has stopped?” asks Yana in her pornographic accent. Benji tries to laugh it off casually but sounds bored. I’m driving again. I was giving her a shoulder massage from the back-seat while Benji was driving. Offering a massage was a way to take the bitch-seat and make it look like my choice. Now I’ve been driving for over an hour and she has hinted at Benji to pick up where I left off three times. That was the most direct ask. I knew he was nervous around girls, I didn’t know he was deaf. 

In my peripheral vision I can see Yana looking at me – I raise my eyebrows, attempting to communicate that I don’t know why he’s being so prudish. But I don’t want to encourage an us-and-him split in the group. He’s insecure enough.  

Maybe Benji is ignoring the offer on purpose. Maybe he thinks I will be jealous, that I’m interested in her and he doesn’t want to step on my toes. Well I am interested in her. She’s just my type. Dark hair. Mixed, Eurasian complexion. Small on top and thick on the bottom. She pulled down the neck of her dress for my massage and hasn’t pulled it back up. Her shoulders, decolletage and the cupfuls of her cleavage are all on show. It’s exhausting trying to keep my eyes off her and on the road.

But she isn’t my girlfriend, she met me five minutes before Benji. OK I’ve already seen her naked but I wish I could tell him to chill out, grow a pair and just massage the gorgeous woman’s shoulders. I don’t care if she prefers him or neither of us. If I had to guess I’d say she wants us both. This is the first woman we’ve spoken to in days and whether she’s interested in us or just using us for a lift, she’s our route into a party and finally some more human contact.

I wouldn’t mind Benji’s prudish disinterest if he was actually pulling his weight in the conversation. I’m trying to concentrate on the unfamiliar road. I can’t keep the semi-flirtatious patter going. 

“So what do you guys get if you win the race?” she asks. 

Benji doesn’t answer so I have to, “500,000 Euros if we win, but we’re not going to win. We just took part for the adventure, to push our comfort zones, try to grow, expand our horizons, go with the flow…” I cringe at the clichés but I cannot stop myself. 

“And how’s it going?”

 “Erm, not that well. We haven’t met any other racers and after seeing that river I am not even sure we’re on the right road.” I realise I haven’t mentioned that to Benji yet. I glance at the mirror and see him glaring at the wall of trees outside the window. Maybe he heard, I can’t tell.  

“Well you met me,” she says brightly, briefly leaning into me and putting her head on my shoulder. I glance down her dress at her sweat beaded chest, then drag my eyes back to the road, “And I’m going to take you to a party.” 

“So you claim,” I say, and after a long pause, “What is the name of the town we’re going to?”

Rusalka Part 2

Rain

This story was written in response to a writing prompt on r/writingprompts.

The writing prompt was:

[SP] You are a retired superhero trying to dissuade a young child from trying to be like you.

Rain

Images of infernos light up the TV screen. The news ticker at the bottom of the screen tells you that it’s Fairfield, California. Not far away. The flames are licking the edges of the suburbs. There are images of cars with melted tyres. The ‘on the scene correspondent’ is exchanging information with the anchors in the studio. The authorities and the firefighting services are overwhelmed. They are saying they weren’t prepared for this. 

But they should be prepared. You gave them plenty of notice of your retirement. They have done nothing to help themselves. But you still feel guilty. 

You pat the bed looking for the remote. How do TV remotes always manage to go missing in hotel rooms? You stand up and turn off the television the antiquated way, by hand, then you head to the bar. 

The hotel bar is open but empty. The staff are wearing black cloth face-masks. You ask for a beer. It’s cold and refreshing. You take a few sips and take it outside to the poolside. One of the staff stops you at the door. “Sir, there is a lot of dust in the air at the moment from the fires…” 

“I’ll be OK,” you say. 

You sit at the far side of the pool on a recliner. The horizon is orange. Is there anywhere in California that doesn’t feel close to the fires? You concentrate. A sphere of water, about the size of a fist, floats out of the pool, then spreads to form a thin, protective layer around you until you’re enclosed under a shield of water. It’s cooling. Some specks of ash settle on the outside of the water shield. 

When the beer is finished you head back to your room. COVID-19 has made your retirement (or is it hiding) a lot less enjoyable than you expected. You tell yourself that you keep moving around luxury hotels so that ‘they’ can’t track you down. The phone calls and visits begging you to come back were becoming unbearable. But if you were really trying to escape, why stay in California, so close to the action?  

The lift dings informing you you’re at the top floor. You wonder what is on TV. These are the highlights of your day now and secretly, you love it.

You’re about to put the key-card into the door when you hear a thud from within the room. You hesitate, have ‘they’ found you again? You hear thunder crack from outside and then heavy rain. That’s strange. None of the weather channels predicted a thunderstorm. Maybe that’ll help with the fires. Maybe you don’t have to intervene after all. Maybe you’re just paranoid and the bump behind the door was the weather. 

Inside the TV is on and there is a male child, maybe 10 or 11 years old, sitting on bed, watching the TV, with wet hair. He turns his head to you and reveals a huge grin. 

“Who are you?” you ask. 

“I’m Rain.”

“Rain? As in, it’s raining outside.” 

“Yes, it’s my superhero name. I did that,” he says, pointing out of the window. 

“How did you get in here?” 

“Oh, I just told them you were my dad.” 

“How did you know my name and where I was staying?”

“You don’t use a VPN do you?” He smiles. You don’t know what a VPN is. It gets advertised a lot on YouTube and you thought it was shady. “Look,” says Rain, pointing at the TV, “it’s working.” The news anchors and correspondents are celebrating the rain and saying it should at least slow down the fires if not extinguish many of them completely. 

“You’re an abnormal?” 

“Yeah.”

“You can control the weather?” 

“No. Just rain. All I can do is make it rain.” 

“And thunder.” 

“Yeah, sometimes I can control that. But it makes me tired.” 

“Well that’s great, what are you doing here?” 

“I want to be a superhero,” he says, shrugging. 

“Well that’s easy. You’re an abno’, you have ‘superpowers’, just start doing heroic deeds.” 

“No I want to be like you,” he pauses, “like you were anyway. No offence. But you know, working with the authorities and doing things on a big scale. How do I let the right people know what I can do? How do I help lots of people and how…”

“How do you get the recognition and get famous?” You finish his sentence. 

“Well…”

“I get it. Doing good deeds that nobody knows about, that people just think is luck, it gets exhausting. Watching the idiots ride their luck and then not make any changes to their lives. They just expect their luck to keep going. It makes you feel like you’re not helping at all.” 

“Yes,” he smiles, he feels understood for the first time maybe. 

“Well,” you sit down on one of the chairs, “don’t.” 

“Don’t?”

“Don’t put yourself out there. Don’t try to help. Don’t try to do the right thing. They will start to depend on you. When they think that you’re willing to intervene they won’t take responsibility for their own fate. You won’t be helping them. You’ll be making them dependent on you. And when you’re old and you want to retire, like me, they will blame you. They will make you feel guilty for leaving . They will take your blessing, your offering, for granted and act as if they are entitled to your power. They will never let you rest. You will become their slave.” 

The kid frowns and you worry that you have gone too far. Then the rain suddenly stops. He jumps off the bed and leaves the rooms. You sit there for ten minutes, in case he comes back. He doesn’t. You pick up the remote and press ‘guide’. Auctions Hunters is on, nice. Maybe tonight won’t be a waste.  

END

Broken Stone

This story was written in response to a writing prompt on r/writingprompts.

The writing prompt was:

You’re bored at lunchtime during school. You pick up a rock and throw it, and instead of falling back to the ground, it keeps flying until you can’t see it anymore

Broken Stone

5th January 2020

You push away the tree branch but you’ve miscalculated and it whips back into your face. You pause and sigh. You used to able to slip through these trees with your school uniform on and not leave a trace on them. 

“I’m going for a new year’s day walk”, you told your wife. She shrugged. You had on your new hiking jacket she got you for Christmas. She thought you were simply going to try it out like a over-excited dork. 

5th January 1999

“Come on,” says Kelly. “Everyone is there.” 

It’s half way through lunch-break. Whatever it is that Kelly is trying to drag you out to see, you don’t think you will make it back for class.

“What’s there?” you ask him.

“I can’t tell you, you won’t believe it.” 

“It’s a pile of porn magazines?” 

“No,” Kelly laughs, not like that. This is something unbelievable, you gotta see it.

“If it’s not a trick then it can wait until school is over.”

“Stop being a swot. You’re 15 and you’ve never been in trouble. So what if you’re late back from lunch once, they’re not going to expel you.”

5th January 2020

You turn off your phone as you get closer. Those are the rules. You carry on pushing through the woods. You see a slight depression under a familiar tree to your left. Twenty-three years ago you dug a hole under that tree, coated it with carpet that you stole out of the skips behind the carpet factory and created a roof out of pallets you found in a mothballed warehouse. A den. 

You built dozens of dens, tree-houses, bases and other things when you were a teenager. When they were complete, all you did was chill out in them with friends and talk. You have no idea why you are your friends were so driven to build these things every summer. After a few weeks they would be burned out or ripped down by someone. You always assumed it was one of the older kids.

5th January 1999

Kelly doesn’t take you that far. The school road connects to a main road that links the village you live in with the local town. Opposite the junction is a cemetery and behind that there are rolling hills covered in woods. 

You’re familiar with the woods but you’re wearing a new Nike coat that you got for Christmas. You’re confident in your ability to dodge and weave between the branches. It’s just the ground that is making you anxious. While it is dry today, the floor of the woods is inconsistent. Bits of bog, bits of frozen firmness. “If my shoes get muddy, you’re cleaning them before I get home Kelly, my mum is gonna kill me, she said I have to look after these.” 

“Why do you have to look after fake Kickers?” Kelly says, teasing me. 

“You’re cleaning them.” 

“Whatever it’ll be worth it.” 

5th January 2020

You stop a few times when nothing looks familiar. Have you lost your sense of direction or have the woods changed. It’s getting harder every year.

There are none of the landmarks that used to be there. In this wood there used be a rope swing made from blue plastic rope, a rock behind which a stash of worn pornographic magazines were stored, the remains of an ambitions but never completed tree-house and lots and lots of tracks on the floor from the constant footfall from kids taking short-cuts or exploring. Now there is nothing. Even the den you dug four feet into the ground is just an outline in the mud. 

5th January 1999

Kelly takes you to a clearing in the woods where there is a brick square above an old filled-in well. There are four others from your year group there and an older kid who you don’t really know. 

“This is my brother,” says AJ, pointing to the older kid. You nod at him. “He found it.”  

“Found what?”

Kelly hands you a stone and says,” Stand on the old well and throw the stone up as hard as you can.” 

“Why?” 

“Just do it.” 

To refuse such a benign request would really make you look like a pussy and it would somehow be used to reduced your already low social standing. But the fact that the request is so benign makes you suspicious that it’s a prank. But they’d be stupid to try something when you have stone in your hand. 

“Why are there no other stones on the ground?” you ask. 

5th January 2020

With a few more whips to the face and almost tearing your jacket on a thorn, you finally find your way to the clearing. You’re not the first one there, there are four others. 

“Where’s your older brother, AJ?” you ask. You know them all by name and by much more now. 

“He died in a motorcycle accident in April,” he says with no determinable emotion. You wonder if he’s still on ketamine. 

“Shit, AJ. Why didn’t you say anything?” 

He shrugs, “It’s the rules. We meet once a year and that’s it. No talking in between.” 

“I know, but…” 

“It’s the rules,” says Kelly. 

“Did you know?” you ask. 

“It doesn’t matter,” says Kelly. 

“What’s wrong with you?” you ask. 

“He doesn’t think it will work with five of us,” says Bennie. Kelly turns away, avoiding the group’s eyes. 

5th January 1999

You stand on the old well, “Just throw it up?” you ask. 

“Yeah. As hard as you can,” says Kelly.  

You bend your knees and fling the stone up with two hands. You follow the stone with your eyes. It passes the tops of the trees. It keeps rising until it is out of sight. 

The laughing of the other kids pulls you out of your daze. “It’s sick isn’t it?” says Kelly. “We’ve done it like six times now. It’s so sick.” 

“When is it going to come back down?”

“It doesn’t.”

You look at the ground around your feet but there is nothing unusual. 

“You did something to the rock,” you say. They all laugh. That’s when you get nicknamed Broken Stone. It’s not that bad as nicknames go, so you don’t fight it. 

5th January 2020

“It’s not gonna work,” says Kelly. “It needs all of us.” 

“Of course it is gonna work,” says Bennie. “The first time we found it we weren’t all there.” 

“No,” says Kelly, “It only works on one day. It doesn’t work without all six of us. It didn’t work when we brought someone else that time.” 

“Did anyone bring rocks?” After a couple of years we’d used up all the rocks and had to bring our own. 

“I brought this,” says Bennie. Its an erotic paperback I wrote and self-published a few years ago. The others laugh. “Don’t be offended, Broken Stone. Wherever this stuff flies to, maybe they want something to read. Think about it, we’ve only been sending them bricks.”

“So, who’s throwing it?” asks Kelly. 

5th January 1999

You get back to class late. The teacher grills you and you don’t really have an excuse. You simply admit you were off the school grounds and take the detention. Who cares? 

Detention is chill and the teacher spends most of the time out of the room. You and Kelly spend all of the half-an-hour asking each other if it really happened. 

You feel like you are at the start of something meaningful, the start of a beautiful secret, is this what adulthood feels like? 

5th January 2020

The stone goes up a few meters and comes back down. The crack it makes marks the start of a worried silence. 

“Let me try again,” says AJ. He tries three times before Kelly tells him to stop. 

Everyone is quiet for a long time, avoiding eye contact, staring at the rocks and the paperback on the ground. In the twenty-one years that the six of you have been returning to this spot, none of you have come up with any sort of coherent theory for what was happening here. Nor have you figured out any use for it. It seems like a bit of waste in retrospect. And now it is seemingly gone. No trace because you agreed not to take photos or videos. 

You’re already wondering if it was real, or if it was just some Mandala Effect trick that you were misremembering as a group. This magic secret is over, and with it the last relic of your childhood. You’re 35 years old now and the beautiful, lighthearted secret is gone. You realise that when you first found this strange phenomenon, it wasn’t the first step into adulthood, but the last foot left hanging in childhood. 

“What did you get for you house in the end, Kelly?” asks Bennie, after you don’t know how long.

Stone Circle

This story was written in response to a writing prompt on r/writingprompts.

The writing prompt was:

When the Allen’s came, they swept our millitaries aside. What finally drove them away was the fact that their attack interfered with a secret war between countless cults across the world, cults who’s God’s were very real.

Stone Circle

The ‘stone circle’ is made of the ruins of London’s square mile. It has been assembled outside the ruins of the Bank of England. Twelve pieces of rubble make the circle. Shard of glass, beams of steel, blocks of concrete. The five disciples drag the hog-tied alien to the centre. Four of them back away and one of them pulls out a long, ceremonial knife.

“No,” I say, emerging from behind a block of rubble. They are loyal but tired. They are making mistakes. Since the invasion they have seen things that they never expected to see.

“Who the fuck are you?” asks the one with the knife. I pull down my hood and he sees the markings on my skull. They match the markings on the belly of his knife. He kneels, weeping, exhausted. He as served me well and now is a time for mercy.

“Rise, child.” He stands but does not meet my eyes.

I move closer to the alien. Thin, frail, grey, weak and naked. A single member of his hive. Useless and alone. Afraid, but not afraid enough.

“Cover your ears,” I tell my followers. I hold a hand over the alien and it screeches its piercing, warbling, hive call. Others will now come, the hive call will compel them.

In only minutes a clean, white, pill-shaped ship comes over the horizon. It lowers until it is hovering only a meter above the ground outside the stone circle. It waits. I make the alien scream again. Four more aliens materialise in the stone circle. I smirk.

They speak with disgusting, wet, clicking sounds. Trying to tell me they just want to leave. But it’s too late. There must be vengeance for the followers or the religions will fall.

“Leave then,” I bellow, holding my hand above the hostage, torturing it further. But they won’t leave without all of their hive. They can’t leave until they recover it or know it’s dead.

One of them unleashes an attack scream. My followers fall to the ground, holding their ears. They will be deaf and traumatised now. The scream stops. The wet, clicking starts again. They are arguing while my children are writhing. Now vengeance.

I decide that the aliens should sink into the ground to their neck and the concrete obeys me, it swallow them. I take the ceremonial knife and slice their vocal chords, then I tend to my followers.

One at a time I place my hands over their ears and make the pain fade away. But the trauma and the visions will stay with them. I will tell them the visions are prophecies and that the Gods must sometimes appear as nightmares. They will hold positions of power in the cult, even if they lose the power of their minds.

“I must bring more,” I tell them, “there are still many here.” The followers nod and brace themselves again. I place my hand over the hostage and it screams.

Office Move Day

Below is my submission for round 1 of NYC Midnight’s 100 word microfiction challenge

The brief was:

Genre: Comedy

Subject: Moving a couch

Word: Announce.

Length: 100 words

Time limit: 24 hours

*

Office Move Day 

“Doc,” he shouts, from the consulting room, “where did you get this couch from?”

“It’s an antique chaise lounge, imported from Central America,” I announce proudly. “That couch has been a good luck charm. So many of our patients have made astounding recoveries while laying on that couch.” 

“Well, someone dropped acid on it.” 

“What?!” I dash into my consulting room. One removal man is laying on the floor taking deep breaths, another is leaning out of the window. 

“Where did you drop the acid?” 

“No, I mean LSD! The sofa is laced with it.” 

“Oh. Now that makes sense.”

 

Puff Piece

money plate 5

Picture is: Money, plate five from Intimacies by Félix Edouard Vallotton (public domain).

Written for NYC Midnight’s short story challenge 2020 round 2.

My brief was as follows:

Genre: A drama
Subject: An injury
Character: A migrant
Time limit: 3 days
Word Count: 2,000 words

*
“I thought you were writing an article about how valuable migrant doctors are to this country,” said Caroline, looking suspiciously over the table at Ruslana.
It was 2pm. They had met in the coffee shop across the road from the General Doctors’ Union on Euston Road. Ruslana had asked for the meeting to be there, off the record. But the conversation with Caroline, the senior medical officer, was not allaying her fears in the way she wanted it to. She felt her hand reaching to her forehead to push a stray hair under her hijab, a nervous tick she had picked up in Iran. Get a grip, she thought. This is a health bureaucrat, not the Revolutionary Guards. You’re interrogating her.
“I just stumbled across the matter.” said Ruslana, “I’m still writing the pro-migrant piece,” she paused, “it was just an odd statement by your new chief exec about the data.”
“What data?”
“You know the data.”
“Humour me,” said Caroline, getting more defensive. Ruslana had seen this tactic before. If you don’t think someone is ready to stand behind their argument, call their bluff early and corner them into agreeing with your narrative.
“The statistic that 60% of accusations of sexual assaults on patients are against foreign trained doctors.”
“It’s 60% of a tiny number of accusations.”
“I know,” said Ruslana earnestly, “it’s a tiny fraction of a tiny fraction. That’s not the issue. The problem is that your new chief exec said she is trying to ensure less of these cases get to hearings.”
“She’s trying to ensure that foreign trained doctors don’t disproportionately have their careers injured by these accusations.” Caroline’s voice was rising. Ruslana looked around the cafe, nobody was paying them any attention, then she felt her hand against her forehead, moving another invisible hair.
“But if the accusations are real?” she whispered.
“Look, I thought you of all people would understand. We can’t have 60% of charges landing against foreign trained doctors. Not in the ‘current climate’.”
“Current climate?” Ruslana raised an eyebrow.
“Brexit, xenophobia, the rise in hate crimes. Anti-immigrant sentiment is out of control right now.”
Ruslana averted her eyes. This was supposed to be a puff piece about how important migrants were to the healthcare system. Instead, one suspicion has led to another and she had found herself secretly interviewing an alleged victim of a doctor’s assault in Mansfield. A young, working-class, single-mother. Barely working, living mostly off welfare, who said she had been suspicious of her doctor’s style and he had eventually forced himself on her. She had had a mild injury to prove it. But the investigating body had told her not to go to the police, then they didn’t interview her for weeks, by which time her injury had healed. The case was dropped.
Of course she knew this could be a one off case. Which was why she was talking to Caroline now. “Have you spoken to any of the victims personally?”
This time Caroline looked around, “I’ve heard about some of the alleged victims.” She raised an eyebrow as if that was supposed to mean something to Ruslana.
“And?”
“And,” said Caroline, mumbling through her teeth, “a lot of them are… chavs.”
“Chavs?”
“You know, white trash,” whispered Caroline, “the type who have nothing to do all day except claim benefits. Going to the doctors is a thing to do for most of them. Frankly, most are racist and looking for something to start a fight about.” Ruslana looked away, pretending to be lost in thought, but actually trying to control her shock. Caroline spoke again, “It’s strange how there are hardly any complaints from middle class patients?”
“If I was playing devil’s advocate I’d say potential predators normally target the most vulnerable.”
Caroline shook her head in a disappointing way, “No. It’s just old fashioned racism.” There was a long silence between them. Caroline took a long breath in, as if she was preparing to reveal her hand earlier than she wanted, “Think about the way it would play in the media, Ruslana. The injury it would cause to migrants… like yourself.”
Ruslana nodded looking out of the cafe window, trying to give the impression she was being convinced. They were quiet for a while, there was nothing else to say.
Ruslana walked slowly to the tube station at Great Portland Street, her mind distracted. The conversation was entirely unsatisfactory. She was hoping Caroline would shine a light on her suspicions and reveal them as an obvious error. She was hoping her interview with an alleged victim in Mansfield would be explained as a one-off. Now she was convinced there was a cover-up. But it seemed surreal. Had she really discovered something sinister. She felt that this was something that happened to investigative journalists, not to hacks for hire like her. Something that happened in Iran, not the UK. She was still sure she would find something that would show it was all a misunderstanding.
She would go home and speak to her partner Rachael. Rachael would put everything into perspective, let her know she wasn’t going mad.
The announcement for the Crouch Hill stop shook her out of her daze. At her flat she instinctively put on the kettle, then changed her mind and made herself a gin and tonic. She took a few gulps then topped it up again. In front of her computer she reviewed all the information she had gathered, hoping she’d got something wrong, but there was no other way to look at it. Everything was pointing towards a scandal.
The front door unlocked and she looked at her phone. 6pm already. She turned and saw Rachael bundling into the flat. She was smiling, positive. Already Ruslana felt slightly reassured. Rachael took off her boots and dropped the grocery bags onto the kitchen unit.
“How’s the piece going?” asked Rachel slowly, “Not that well I guess if you already have the gin out.” She looked over to Ruslana, who was sitting with her back to the computer, touching the hair poking out of her hijab. “What’s going on, babe?” Rachael asked.
“I found something horrible,” Ruslana said. With her eyes fixed on the wall she explained as carefully and coolly as she could, the facts of what she had found. “So, I have a choice. Write the benign pro-immigration story I was hired to write, or write up a potential scandal.”
When she finished she looked at Rachael, whose face was ashen, “You write the benign piece, Ruslana.”
“Really?” Ruslana was shocked. She was sure Rachael would be outraged at even the suggestion of a cover-up.
“Jesus, Ruslana. Imagine the backlash if you wrote about the perceived cover-up.”
“There should be a backlash!” said Ruslana, but she was concerned about Rachael’s use of the word ‘perceived’. She touched her forehead, again. “If this is true, this is a huge scandal with voiceless victims.”
“But it’s obviously not true.”
Ruslana looked confused, “What do you mean it’s not true? I have it on the record, it’s a policy to massage the complaint numbers against certain groups.”
“Yes, they should be doing that.”
“Pardon?”
“Come on Ruslana, the accusations are obviously false. How can such a high percentage of legitimate accusations come from such a small percentage of doctors?”
“Maybe because there’s a cultural problem in some groups of men?” said Ruslana uneasily. For the first time she could remember, Rachael wasn’t on her side. Suddenly she felt alone. Ruslana knew, from cold experience, that different cultures treated women very differently. Now she saw Rachael as naive, sheltered and a danger, not a protector, to women. She’d never thought of her this way. The tinder of panic had been lit inside her stomach.
“Ruslana, you sound like you’re saying all foreign doctors are criminals?”
Ruslana’s grip on her own memories, on her own belief that her thoughts were credible, was crumbling as she tried to explain the nuance of her position to someone she just expected to understand her, “Only a tiny fraction of doctors are accused of these crimes. But the fact is 60% of them are trained abroad. Trained abroad, not born abroad. Foreign doctors trained in the UK aren’t being disproportionately accused in this way. So it can’t be just patient racism. It is something systemic. Maybe it’s something as innocent as the background checks with foreign doctors aren’t as thorough. But the data is real. And they’re trying to cover it up.”
“If you write an article saying that the healthcare system is covering up crimes by foreign trained doctors, nobody is going to see the nuance. The narrative is going to be that immigrant doctors are touching up their patients. The far-right is going to have a field day.”
“What far-right? A few YouTubers and the 150 people who turn up to English Defence League marches? There is no real far right in this country. Let me take you to Iran if you want to see the far-right. Oh wait, I can’t because I won’t even get off the plane before I’m arrested.”
“Ruslana, you know there has already been a rise in hate crime since, Brexit…”
“So I’m supposed to ignore the women who are being assaulted by their doctors,” Ruslana interrupted, raising her voice, “and ignore a cover up because it might increase the chances of me getting called a towel-head by some drunk yob?”
“I can’t believe you of all people are saying this,” said Rachael.
Ruslana felt a nauseating sense of deja-vu, “I can’t believe you’re saying this, Rachael. Who are you? You’re supposed to be a feminist. There are vulnerable women being silenced here.”
“If you blow this up, it isn’t going to injure the white, patriarchal power structures. This is going to feed their narrative and hurt people like you, Ruslana.”
Ruslana looked at Rachel shaking her head until she said quietly, “It’s these criminal doctors who are importing a patriarchal culture, I’ve seen…”
“You can’t other-ise another culture like that!” interrupted Rachael, snapping in a way Ruslana had never experienced before. She sat up, shocked.
“What are you talking about?” said Ruslana, trying to sound cool, but struggling to keep her trembling voice in check, “Who are you trying to protect here?”
“Our side, Ruslana! The side of LGBTQ people, religious minorities, people of colour…”
“And what about white, working-class single mums with no education? Are they just cannon fodder?”
“They’ve had their time, they’ve had every privilege, you cannot put this ammunition in the public domain.”
Ruslana looked at Rachael earnestly, trying to give the impression that she was understanding her point of view. Rachael started to put away the groceries and asked Alexa to play a feminist podcast.
Ruslana turned back to her computer. She had two email windows open in her browser. One contained the written-up of the puff piece. The other contained all the evidence of the cover-up and her interview with the alleged victim. In the ‘bcc’ bar were sub-editors from every news organisation in the UK. She deleted the first email and sent the second, took a deep breath in and shut down the computer. She looked at Rachael putting away the food and felt a sudden instinct to run, like she hadn’t felt since she lived in Iran.
“Rach, I’ve had too much to drink. I’m going to go out for a walk.”
“Ok,” said Rachael cheerily, as if the intensity of their conversation hadn’t just happened. “Dinner will be ready in 45 minutes.” It reminded her of the way that the police in Iran could turn on and off their terror. From rottweiler to puppy dog in the space of a sentence. She went to her bedroom and opened the shoe box at the bottom of her wardrobe that contained the £10,000 panic fund she kept ready and picked up five pairs of underwear and socks. Then she left the flat under the cover of the feminist podcast.

The end.

Thirty-Six-Million Roubles 

800px-Gwendolen_Harleth 

Picture is: Gwendolen Harleth at the roulette table(illustration to Daniel Deronda).

Written for NYC Midnight’s short story challenge 2020.

My brief was as follows:

Genre: Fairy Tale
Subject: Addiction
Character: A train conductor
Time limit: 8 days
Word Count: 2,500 words

Once upon a time there was a steam train that carried the richest gamblers and chancers from Nirshal, the capital city of Bhupal, to gambling city of Richanchi. 

Gambling was banned everywhere in Bhupal except in Richanchi. Thanks to the limited supply of casinos (one) and the high taxes, only the richest and most desperate could afford  to play. 

Upon that train worked a conductor called William. He was fairly tall. Fairly handsome. Fairly funny. Fairly smart. Fairly popular. Very honest. That made him perfect for this job. These carriages were full of the richest frauds, bounders and blackguards for hundreds of miles. Bribes flowed toward William constantly. But money meant little to him. He had modest taste and always made ends meet. He was a master at saying no courteously and making people feel flattered by his refusals. 

William was fairly happy with his lot in life. He wasn’t married, but he was fairly sure that it would happen eventually. Even if he only seemed to meet the rich scoundrels, he was fairly sure that it would work itself out. 

It was Lunar New Year again, a big weekend for the casino. There were extra carriages attached to the train and they’d all been refurbished for the occasion. 

William stood on the platform near the engine and exchanged a few pleasantries with the driver, whom he knew fairly well. He watched the patrons board the train in their fine gowns and tuxedos. Shimmering silk and luxurious wool. Necklaces and watches that were encrusted with gems. So many sequins that if you squinted, the throng looked like a sparkling ocean slipping onto the train’s carriages. 

“Is that man wearing a codpiece?” the driver asked, snorting. 

“I’m fairly sure he is,” said William, “All aboard!”

Soon the train was departing the station and beginning its eight hours journey to Richanchi. A steam cloud rose out of the engine. The trailing carriages slid underneath it as the engine pulled them out of the city and into the rolling countryside. William began checking the tickets. The kitchen were already preparing the food service. The bar and service staff were arranging and delivering drinks. Both were purposefully situated at the front of the train, so that the mouthwatering smells of the braising pork and the sweet fragrances of the cocktails would drift through the train. 

“Tickets please,” William declared in each carriage. 

There was no need to check . The whole station had been been reserved exclusively for the casino passengers. But like so much of this process, it was part of the ritual and the fun for the guests. 

Each carriage was floored with padded, purple carpets that were so luscious they showed deep scars where bags and trolleys had been pulled over them. The seats were organised in sets of four around large, cedar wood tables that were trimmed with a silver band. 

The windows had thick, purple, black-out curtains and cedar paneling between the glass. The luggage racks were brass with ornamental motifs on the joints. 

William smiled as he checked and punched holes through the thick ply tickets, printed with ink so rich it left his fingertips smudged black, then slid them into the vanity slots on top of the seats. He ducked under the crystal chandeliers as he made his way through the train. 

Soon he had checked all the tickets, greeted all the customers, and was working his way back to the front of the train. The guests were getting tipsy. Voices were being raised. Braggadocio and boasts punctuated every conversation. The evening was going fairly well. 

William noticed a passenger who did not appear to be engaged in the joviality. She sat quietly, looking out into the mountains as light rain started to fall on the window panes. 

She was fairly young, and sat with three women who appeared to be her sisters. They were all older. Worn and weathered. Layered in foundation, concealer, mascara and liners. They wore baroque dresses with high collars to pull in their slack necks and uncouth, thick gold necklaces with brashly cut precious stones set on them. 

“Do we look like triplets?” they yelled at William when they saw him pause at their table. 

“Is this a trick question?” replied William, smiling. He had learnt that the most tactful way to answer a question that sounded like a trap, was with another question. 

“No,” wailed one of the women, “what do you think?” 

“I think you ladies know how to have a good time,” said William.  

“So diplomatic, we are triplets,” another revealed. 

“And who is this?” asked William, gesturing toward the quieter girl. 

“Oh, that’s just Diana, our younger sister.” 

Diana turned to William and gave him a polite, but distant smile. This gave him the chance to take her in. She was wearing a modest, simple dress in red, a small pearl necklace and pearl earings. Her hair was brushed behind her ears and plaited. Although William was sure that her outfit cost a fortune, it looked tasteful and reserved on this train. 

“Don’t get any ideas,” said one of the sisters, “she’s single but she’s a handful. Get yourself a nice girl.” Diana rolled her eyes and turned back to the window. 

“She’s not going to gamble, she’s in too much debt,” cackled another one of the sisters, “She has to work at the casino for four seasons to pay it off.” Diana turned back to William and squeezed her lips together, as if to say, now you know.

William smiled back warmly. He had heard rumours of debt bonded passengers but he had never knowingly met one. Everyone just looked so wealthy. William supposed that when rich people lost all their money, they still kept the trappings of wealth in a way regular people never could – keeping up appearances. 

“Well ladies,” started William, “If you need any more drinks, just tell the staff. Food service will come out shortly.” 

After the dinner service the patrons were starting to enter a sleepy drunkenness and the atmosphere calmed. 

William was speaking with the bartender when he felt someone enter the carriage. “Diana?” said William, “If you want refreshments I can have one of the staff bring it to your seat. 

“I needed to stretch my legs,” she said. It was the first time that William had heard her voice. It was light but resigned. 

“I’ll take this customer,” William said to the bartender, “You have a break.” He turned to Diana, “What can I get you?” 

“Just a tonic water and lime, please.”  

“Don’t you want anything stronger?” 

“No. I don’t drink. I don’t want to be like my sisters.”

“I see.” 

William kept the conversation running with his standard patter but it soon died out. Something about this girl made him break his professional veneer, “I had heard about passengers in your position, but I never really believed it.” 

She smirked, the first natural expression William had seen her make, “All of the staff at the casino are in my position. They don’t need to employ any floor staff anymore. They actually have a waiting-list.”

“All of them are former gamblers?” 

“Yes,” she paused for a moment, “It’s part of the fun for the gamblers. A gallows humour. Seeing the less astute players serving them. It isn’t about the money. It’s about prestige – for most of them.” 

“What was it about for you?” 

Diana averted her eyes, “For me it was about having enough money to escape my sisters. Working at the casino is not as demeaning as living with their restrictions.” 

William was about to probe some more, but realised he was late for his carriage rounds. “I’m sorry, I have to go.” She smiled and sipped on her tonic. William was fairly disappointed.  

Soon the engine was groaning and slowing as it approached the casino’s platform. The station was in fact the entrance to the casino. It was a marvel. High ceilings of stained glass and copper brackets that had oxidised into an attractive green. The platform itself was made of marble and sparkled from its recent polishing. 

William watched the passengers disembark, encrusted in precious stones, silks and a mild hangover then proceeded with his checks of the train. Normally, when he had finished these checks, he would go to a guesthouse in the city, half a mile away from the casino, and spend the night at an inn in front of an open fire, with an ale and a pie and the rest of his colleagues from the train. But today he decided to enter the casino too, as was his privilege, as one of the train company’s employees. 

He was unsurprised by what he found inside. A grand casino floor with dozens of high stakes tables for different games. Hundreds of staff, who he now knew were forced to work here, weaved between the large tables, carrying jeroboams of sparkling wine and silver buckets of ice. 

William didn’t know how to play any of the games, but the roulette wheel looked the most intriguing. It seemed to be simply a game of luck. No illusion of skill like some of the card games. He watched the game for a few minutes. It seemed fun. He could see the appeal. 

“Sir, I believe you work as the train conductor?” A man in a black suit had approached him while he was lost in the scenes at the roulette table. 

“I am yes.” 

“Well we welcome you. I don’t believe you’ve joined us before. All train staff receive one-thousand roubles complimentary credit to spend in the casino. You can use it to play the games or at the bar. You may leave with anything you win. But you must use the credit itself in the house, or return the unused change to us.” 

“Thank you very much,” said William, “I think I will partake in the roulette.” 

“A fine choice, sir,” said the man in the suit who then merged into the din of the casino. 

William approached the roulette table as someone else gave way. The croupier changed and Diana stepped in to replace the former. She didn’t notice him. She was too busy trying to ignore her three sisters who had jostled into the other side of the table to play while she worked. 

He placed a chip on the table, Diana looked toward him, recognised him, but controlled her expression, “Sir, there is a minimum bet on this table and all tables in the house.” 

“Which is?”

“Five-hundred roubles.” 

“Ah,” William corrected his bet. Five-hundred roubles on red. Happy Lunar New Year. 

The ball landed black. One bet left. Five-hundred roubles on red, again. The ball landed on red. Back to one-thousand roubles. 

William shrugged and put all one thousand roubles on even. The ball landed on two. As Diana pushed the winning chips over to him, she gave him a curious look. 

He kept playing. Making different bets. He didn’t even understand the odds of most of the bets. He lost some but won more. Soon he was up ten-thousand roubles. He kept winning. At one-hundred-thousand roubles drinks were mysteriously arriving at his side. Soon over one-million rouble chips were in front of him. He noticed only a few people were still playing, most were watching him. He was enjoying the limelight and feeling a little tipsy from the champagne that he wasn’t sure if he was paying for. 

He placed one-million roubles on number seventeen, leaving a few thousand in front of him. Everyone around the table was shocked. There were no other bets. “En plein,” said Diana, announcing the thirty-five-to-one bet with wide eyes. She spun the wheel and dropped in the ball. She looked carefully when it settled, blinked, looked again, then announced, “Seventeen.” She paid out 35 million roubles, plus returning William’s one-million rouble stake. 

William felt a hand on his shoulder, “May we have a word, Sir, away from the table?” It was the man in the suit, flanked by two other men in suits.

“Of course,” said William. They stepped to the edge of the floor. 

“We don’t have sufficient funds to pay your winnings, we need to come to an… arrangement,” said the man opening his hands. “Is there anything we can offer you as an alternative? Unlimited accommodation for life perhaps?”

The alcohol that William had been drinking was still soaking into his body. He was careening over the boundary of tipsy towards drunkenness. 

“I think there is something you could offer,” said William. 

“Name it,” said the man. They discussed it for a while, until he said, “Two golden train tickets is too much. One golden ticket, a lifetime’s access to the Emperor’s Suite and unlimited breakfast, dinner and drinks for you and a guest, forever, sir. It’s quite the deal.” William was no negotiator and didn’t understand that the casino were desperate and would have folded if he pushed. So he accepted joyously and shortly he found himself being presented with a voucher describing his unlimited access to the hotel and a golden train ticket. 

“I presume it’s your name to be engraved on the ticket?” 

“No,” said William, “please write the name, Diana.”

The man’s eyebrows raised and he smirked, “As you wish.” 

They walked back to the roulette table together. The man in the suit snapped his fingers and a croupier appeared from nowhere to replace Diana. Diana came around to speak to the group. A small crowd, including Diana’s sisters, formed around William, to hear what he had agreed. 

“This golden ticket is for you, Diana,” said William proudly. “It allows you to travel anywhere as much as you like, whenever you like. Most importantly it frees you. You no longer have to work here, or for your sisters.” 

The crowd was silent as he handed it over. Diana looked at the man in the suit, “How many chips is it worth?” 

“I’ll give you two-million for it.” 

Diana handed the ticket to him. Her sisters broke the silence with uncontrollable laughter. Then she turned, ignored everyone, and started placing her chips on the table. William watched ashen faced. The sisters approached him and spoke around withheld laughter. 

“She’s addicted,” said one of them. “How do you think she got into so much debt? She’s the daughter of a King.” “Did she give you the old sob story about working for her evil sisters?” “We were keeping her locked up for her own protection, but then she got too old. We couldn’t do it anymore.” “You big sop, I hope you got something else for your thirty-six-million roubles.”

After a short time Diana rejoined them. “Is it gone?” asked one of the sisters. 

“Yes.” 

“All of it?” asked another. 

“Yes.”

“Are you ready to go home now?”

“Yes,” Diana said. 

“I am too,” said William. 

 

The End

Pagliacci the Clown

Enrico_Caruso_As_Canio

Picture: Portrait of Enrico Caruso as Canio in Pagliacci from a postcard published circa 1904 (public domain)

 

Written for NYC Midnight’s Microfiction Challenge 2019 – round 1.

My brief was as follows:

Genre: Comedy
Action: Setting an alarm
Word: Exotic
Time limit: 1 day
Word Count: 250 words

*

I set the timer on my phone for 55 mins and place it on the table. The doctor observes quietly. She’s younger than me, late thirties, with a calm, maternal manner. “Do you mind if I look at the alarms on your phone?” 

“Nope,” I say. She scrolls back through the previous alarms. She’ll see alarms set for everything. One for waking up. One for a shower. One for brushing teeth. Everything timed. Every new doctor goes through this routine. I have to travel for work, so I get new doctors a lot. 

“What good qualities do you have?” she asks me.

“People say I’m funny.” 

“Do you have any jokes?”

I look her up and down, “My humour is kind of… exotic.”

“Try me.”

I clear my throat, “The worst thing about receiving analingus, is when you think you’re going to break wind, but you end up defecating on your dad’s face, and the bus driver kicks you off before you can clean the other passengers.” 

She smirks. Not the worst reaction I’ve had, “Gross-out comedy?” 

I shrug.

She says, “I’ve been invited to a comedy show tonight. Some new comedian. Edgy… exotic humour. My friends bought me a ticket but I hate that kind of stuff. I’ll give you the ticket if you agree not to set any alarms. Something to enjoy. To distract you.”  

She hands me the ticket. One entry to Pagliacci the Clown. 

“What’s wrong?” she asks. 

“But I am Pagliacci.” 

Drum roll. Curtains close.