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.

48%

 

(c) Gallery Oldham; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Picture: Bonjour, Pierrot! by Ethel Wright (public domain).

 

Friday, 24th June, 2016

Your alarm goes off at 6.30am. When you roll over to switch off your iPhone you see dozens of unread messages on your phone. They read, “I can’t believe it”, “We’re fucked,” “I’m ashamed,” “I’m leaving,” “Getting my Irish passport,” and other things to that effect. 

For a moment your heart sinks. You’re afraid to open Safari, but you do and it reveals last night’s live-stream on the Guardian’s politics page. The last update projected the result would be 53% to remain to 47% leave. 

You refresh the webpage. The headline blares out at you: UK votes to leave the EU

Disbelief. It must be a joke. An error – something. You jump up to look out of the window. The streets of Shoreditch look normal. It is still early. Perhaps everyone hasn’t seen the result yet. 

You are so outraged you feel you have to say something. So you open Twitter. You are sure you can think of something pithy and clever to Tweet. Something your 162 followers will LOL at. 

You remember all the half-formed Tweets in your drafts you had prepared to celebrate the remain victory. You had about 140 drafts intersecting with different topical subjects. All of them will be wasted now. Maybe there are one or two of your #postcapitalism or #capitalismkills or #fightpopulism or #everydayracism draft tweets that you can repurpose into something anti-Brexit.

You open your drafts – they’re all gone, #nightmare. This is the third time this has happened to you. Twitter is shite. You wish Apple designed everything. Other companies can’t be trusted with design. All those characters that you had so carefully crafted – gone.  

You want to throw your iPhone onto the floor in frustration, but you remind yourself it’s not Apple’s fault. Plus, you’ve only just upgraded to this phone and while it is a steal (at £99 upfront and £60 per month for 24 months with 200 mins of calls, 500 texts and 1GB of data a month) you are only three months into your contract so you can’t really afford to trash it at this point. Besides, now the UK is leaving the EU, you don’t know if you will be to get a new iPhone.

You take a breath, shut down Twitter, and decide that you’re probably too decaffeinated to think straight. In the kitchen are all your tools to sooth your withdrawal. Firstly, you arrange the mise-en-place. The Hario ceramic V60; the unbleached V60 paper filters; the small-batch Honduran single blend coffee beans (always from the beans, because how do you know which method of extraction you are going to use, and therefore what type of grind you need, in advance?); the thick, American diner-style, ceramic cup; the copper, long-spout, pour-over kettle; and the hand-operated coffee grinder. 

As you make the coffee, you start to wonder how disrupted your morning ritual will be by the EU referendum result. Will you be able to get coffee? Will you be able to buy milk? Will you be able to get hold of that Hario syphon coffee brewer that you have had in your Amazon wish list for months (you knew you should have bought that instead of the matcha-tea-paste pestle you bought)? It doesn’t occur to you, (although it should, because you are a sophisticated remain voter, not some leave voting neanderthal) that coffee does not grow in Europe; that the unsweetened, unroasted almond milk you sometimes use comes from California; that the dozen different Hario products you have purchased came from Japan; and that the EU’s customs union makes importing all of these things more difficult. You find yourself unable to concentrate so you pour the water while it’s too hot, and clumsily. It burns the grinds and under-extracts the flavour. The worst of both worlds. It tastes both burnt and weak. Like a franchise barista on their first week at work. 

You’re starting to feel anxious. You can’t take your mind off the result. You think about texting your boss, who is actually your dad, and tell him that you can’t make it into work today. You just need to stay in the flat (which your dad/boss is the landlord of) and get your head together. You know he will call you a bleeding-heart snowflake. But you’re technically a freelancer and he said you should act like a one so now you’re going to take a day off, because your suffering from anxiety. And that is what being an adult is, right? 

But you can’t talk yourself into it. You’re worried your dad is going to ridicule you. He has always confused you. He owns a publishing company focused on political books that ‘speak truth to power’, as their marketing says. He runs a software company that builds a gay dating app and employs people from all over the world (he is always talking about how he needs it to be easier to employ people from India and America and China), yet inexplicably to you, he voted leave. 

You text him. He texts you back immediately, “Take it easy, son. I’ll have loads of time to gloat.” 

Your dad infuriates you. Doesn’t he realise that he just voted against everything he is supposed to stand for? You wonder if he realises he has sided with the #racists and the #fascists. But at least now you have the day off. 

You sit down at the small table you eat breakfast at every day, and open up Facebook. On your newsfeed, everyone seems to be going as crazy as you are. One of them has posted a screenshot of a graph showing the decline of the value of sterling overnight. It’s posted with the comment, “Happy now, leave voters?” 

The graph shows a drop of about 20%. You have no idea what this actually means, but the sharp downward trend alarms you, and the sarcastic anti-leave sentiment makes you feel like you belong to an underground rebellion. This is easier than acknowledging the reality, that you voted how the mega-banks, the conglomerates and the government told you to. You voted for the status quo. But now you’re technically in the minority again. And this is where you feel comfortable. So you add a comment. With a precariously balanced piece of toast and avocado in one hand, and your phone in the other, you type out your support, “Glad I’m not the only one who’s incensed. It shows what happens when you don’t listen to experts.” 

You continue to scroll but then you notice the little red notification dot informing you someone has responded to your comment. The comment is, “Will #ProjectFear ever stop?” 

You drop the fork. A Leave voter, in the flesh. Well, the virtual flesh. You’re shocked, no disgusted, that you’re connected, even by a degree of separation, to an out-of-the-closet and proud leave voter.  You thought leavers only existed in the distant north, in places called Redcar, Hartlepool, Boston, Calderdale and Wolverhampton – uncosmopolitan places.  

You delete your comment, which deletes the reply, and log-out of Facebook. You can’t be bothered with the #harassment and the #populism today. You’re vulnerable, you need to find a #safespace, so you log into Tinder. Checking your matches will make you feel better. But first, you need to update your profile, to keep it topical and #progressive.   

You open the profile editor and look at what you had written before. It read, “#Momentum,” despite the fact that you’re not a member of any political movement, “male feminist, honest, open-minded, creative, accepting of all, real coffee, fair-trade, travelling, ski weekends XD, intersectional-Marxist. Hate right-wingers, hate pro-lifers, if all your pictures are selfies swipe left, no fake tan, no chavs, natural girls only.” 

You delete that and think for a long time. You type, “NO LEAVE VOTERS. Anybody els feel like they don’t belong anymore?” You save this, happy that you have gained some small revenge. 

You open up your settings and look at your matching preferences. The age range currently says 18-26. You reset the scale so it shows you potential matches between 18-21. You feel forlorn when you look at the age on your on profile – 32. You don’t feel like 32. You’re definitely a young 32. You haven’t been interested in girls your own age for a few years. You don’t really get on with girls your own age. Well, you do, but they’re all friends. The girls you know that are your age are so career-focused and, well… rich. You can’t keep up with them. Everything has to be scheduled and serious. They want to know what you want out of life and what you want from your relationship with them after only six months, sometimes even less. You’re actually doing girls your own age a favour by targeting younger girls. 11 to 14 years age difference isn’t even that much these days anyway.

You can see a couple of notification dots and you decide to check your matches. The first match is a chubby girl that you must have liked by mistake. She has already sent the opening message. You unmatch her, leaving her message unread and unanswered. 

The next match is a girl called Fong Li. She’s Asian. From the name you’re pretty sure that she’s from China or Taiwan.  It doesn’t say on her profile if she’s British born. It’s hard to tell from her pictures. She has a couple of pictures in Asia, but you’re not sure if they’re holiday pics, or ‘before I moved to the UK’ pics. 

She’s 26, so at the limit of your interest anyway, but you’ve never dated a non-white girl before, and that has always been a stain on your liberal credibility. But is it OK to even think that she could be your “non-white girlfriend”? Are you #orientalising her? Probably. But would that matter? No one would challenge you – if they did you could just frown and claim they are not being very #progressive. 

You’re not sure how to start the conversation. Should you make a comment on her ethnicity or not? Is a positive or a neutral comment better? What is the most #progressive thing to do? If you ignore her race, surely you are psychologically colonising her. But if you point out her ethnicity, aren’t you otherising her? Is she going to be particularly sensitive today, after the UK has voted leave? Maybe today is the wrong day to message her at all. When did the match happen, was it before or after the result? Brexit has fucked everything up. You don’t even know how you’re going to talk to a non-white person now, or ever again. How are you going to fuck anyone now as a white, cis man? 

You try to find to something on her profile to inspire a conversation starter. You see she’s still attending London School of Economics and is doing a PhD on pan-Eurasian free-trade. 

“Shit”, you whisper to yourself, “she’s probably a Tory anyway. Minority Tories are the worst.” You unmatch her. Definitely dodged a bullet there. 

You pour yourself another cup of coffee out of the carafe while you flick through your post. It’s mostly credit card bills. You know it’s time to sit down and sort out your debts again. Move them over to new credit cards to get the preferential joiner rate. But now you’re scared about what is going to happen to interest rates. Will you even be able to open another credit card? Will your credit rating be affected by Brexit?

If you’d have known that the country was going to be headed for financial uncertainty, you wouldn’t have taken out all of that credit card debt in the first place. The referendum result might leave you paying more interest on your credit card bills than you expected. But it isn’t your fault. Fucking #capitalism. 

You need to channel this anger into something productive. There will be so much buzz around the decision, this is the chance for your intersectional culture blog to make its breakthrough. 

But you can’t work at home surrounded by all of these distractions. Your fridge only contains avocado, bottled water, almond milk, half a sourdough loaf, some IPA and a load of niche condiments you bought and never use. You twist one of them around, it’s black garlic ketchup. You feel like it’s something you should use. It’s very you. You see yourself hosting dinner parties and cooking with unusual ingredients. You see yourself as a cook, no, a chef. You always fancied yourself as a chef one day. After you’ve finished your novel, and done the tech start-up, and worked in politics. You see being a chef as maybe the last 10 years of your career. Set up a restaurant and get a couple of Michelin stars. Maybe even get a TV show or at least release a best-selling cookbook. Yeah, that sounds like you. 

But right now you don’t have time to cook so it’s a cafe brunch. You really should go to the local, independent coffee shop, Department of Coffee and Social Affairs, but the wifi there is absolutely shite. So you decide to go to Starbucks, for your sins, for the internet connection. 

When you get to the ‘local’ Starbucks it’s already approaching lunchtime so there is a queue. You keep your ears open, but except for a few passing comments, it doesn’t sound like anyone is talking about the result of the referendum. You pull out your phone to check that it actually happened. It did, the news is there. 

The couple in front of you is an interracial couple that appears like they are on a first date. You can’t help but overhear the man order. He asks for two cappuccinos. Yuck. You feel like interrupting and informing him that cappuccini is the plural and she’s perfectly capable of ordering for herself, but you don’t. You don’t want to be #harassed today while you’re feeling vulnerable. Today you don’t know who you can trust or what will happen to you if you put your head above the parapet and #resist. 

As you order your berry tea hot chocolate, with a little self-disgust, you overhear a bit of their conversation and your ears prick up. The guy asks where the girl is from. 

“I’m from Hackney,” she laughs. 

He moves too awkwardly, trying to cover up his inherent #racism, but you think she is on to him, “No, I mean where is your family from, originally?”

“I’m just kidding, I know what you mean,” she says, touching his arm, “my grandparents were born in Senegal.” 

Why is she pretending this is OK? Why isn’t she standing up to him? Doesn’t she know that this is #hatespeech? Is this what Britain is now, colonists attitudes and dog-whistle racism? You would call the police, but how can you ensure that it would be taken seriously? Could you call the police and specifically ask for a female, ethnic-minority officer? 

You look around the Starbucks, wondering who else around you is a racist, who supports rape culture, who is transphobic? Quite possibly every white person except you? 

This is Brexit Britain now – be afraid. 

 

Anchor Bay Tombs

800px-The_Fighting_Temeraire,_JMW_Turner,_National_Gallery
Picture: The Fighting Temeraire, tugged to her last berth to be broken up Joseph Mallord William Turner – 1838 (Public domain).

Written for NYC Midnight’s flash fiction challenge 2019 round 2.

My brief was as follows:

Genre: Science Fiction
Location: A protest
Object: An anchor
Time limit: 2 days
Word Count: 1,000 words

*

Anchor Bay Tombs

Somewhere on the Caspian Sea – 75 years after The Long Death.

The morning alarm rings and I quickly turn it off. Yov stirs, but he doesn’t wake. Last night’s spiked drink should keep him asleep. I touch the silver anchor pendant around my neck for luck, slide out of the bed and tip-toe over the marble floor. The old palace overlooks Anchor Bay and I can hear the sounds of the Bay Protests through the windows.

I take Yov’s gun from the bedside table, find his discarded uniform on the floor and take his keys. I move delicately to the massive and ancient, leather-coated safe and open it. It wails a rusty scream as it opens.

“What are you doing, Marija?” I look at Yov. His eyes are dark yellow scleras around black irises. His skin is raw and tight on his right cheek after his recent graft. His left cheek is flaxen and poisoned. “What’s that noise?” he asks, looking to the window.

“They’re trying to open the tombs,” I say.

“They don’t open. We don’t know what they’re made of.”

“The artefact is the key.”

“The artefact is just a dead block.”

“We don’t believe that.”

“We? Marija, I thought you were a whore, not a revolutionary.”

“The artefact is the key,” I repeat.

Yov sighs, turns to grab his gun, but his hand lands on the empty bedside table. He turns to face the mussel of his own gun in my hand.

“If you fire that, my guards will be in the room in seconds.”

“They’re distracted by the protest.”

“Marija, look at you. Your skin is almost perfect. One tiny graft on your neck when you forgot to apply your cream properly. Don’t throw it away. How many 15-year-olds can afford skin like yours?”

“It won’t matter when we open the tombs.”

“They won’t open!”

I pull the trigger. The bang makes my ears sting. Yov topples over in his bed. I keep the mussel pointed at the door, but no guards arrive.

I put on my robe and slide the gun and the artefact into my bag. It feels dense and vaguely alive.

The palace corridors are empty. The guards really are distracted. I slide out of the palace via one of the staff staircases. As soon as I pass through the double door I feel the atmospheric sting on my face. I forgot to apply my creams. I check my bag for my mask, no luck. But I can’t go back.

In the square between the bay and the palace is an upturned anchor, standing like a crucifix, with a spacesuit from The Arc hanging from it.

The protest is a mess. 500, maybe 800 people gathered at the far side of the square, blocking the entrance to the Bay, chanting, “Open the tombs”. The police are buying their time, waiting for it to die out. They think the tombs are impenetrable, they’re not worried about another protest. I slip past the police and through the crowd.

The tombs are kept on a platform on the promenade, overlooking Anchor Bay. On the shore, the rotting Arc lays like a beached whale. A generational ship that crashed into the sea decades ago. On the side of it is the insignia, an anchor with a solar system spinning around it. Nobody understands why aliens would send us a ship full of tombs, but today we may find out why.

My boyfriend Kazimir, and a few others are waiting by the tombs. He sees me and kisses me. His lips are rough, and while he’s only 14, half of his face has been grafted, the other half is dark-brown with rot.

“Did you get the artefact?”

“Yes,”

“What happened to Yov?” I open my bag showing him the gun. “You’ve got skin irritation, haven’t you applied your creams?”

“I left them at the palace.”

“Marija, you can’t repair the damage once it’s done.”

“It won’t matter if we open the tombs.”

I give him the artefact. “We know what it is,” he says. “It’s a timer. The dial is just moving very slowly. Nobody noticed.”

“How do you know?”

“The engravings inside The Arc, we’ve been misreading them.”

Kazimir and another guy I don’t recognise, twist the artefact. The tombs light up. Their metal forms separate, revealing a previously unseen seam. In each tomb is a perfectly preserved body with flawless skin. Skins of different colours, but all flawless.

“They’re perfect,” says Kazimir. “Why did they send us flawless corpses?”

“They’re waking up,” I say.

Coughing and holding their faces, the bodies rise and climb out of their tombs.

“They’re prophets,” says Kazimer.

“They can’t breathe properly,” I say.

I try to help one of them, but he stumbles away from me fearfully and speaks to his colleague, “It was supposed to be unpopulated. Where is the ship, where are the suits? I’m suffocating.”

“They’re speaking the old tongues,” I say.

Kazimer grabs the arm of one and points, “Ship,” he says clumsily in the old tongue, “clothes,” he says, pointing at the upturned anchor and the hanging spacesuit. The man pushes him away, terror warping his baby face. “Animals!” I think he shouts.

“There’s more stuff in the tombs…” I say. It can’t be.

“Anything to help them breathe?” asks Kazimer. The risen are huddling around one or two of the tombs.

I hand Kazimer some photographs and documents. “The ship is from Earth. These aren’t tombs, it’s a seeding ship, from before the Long Death. It must’ve crashed back onto Earth.”

“Why are they scared of us?”

“Look at our faces, Kazimer. We’re monsters.”

“They’ve got weapons!” someone shouts, but it’s cut short by the rattle of gunfire. There is no screaming, the attack is too fast. Blood coats the stone platform. It only takes seconds.

I look at Kazimir as I am dying. He looks guilty, but he shouldn’t. They’re going to have to deal with the world they left us with.

Chemin-de-fer

 

The Casino at Monte Carlo by Jean Beraud - 1890

Picture: The Casino at Monte Carlo by Jean Georges Beraud (public domain).

 

Chemin-de-fer

Let me take you to the snicket where I had my first kiss,

This was something that I had to show you,

Drinking warm champagne, till you slur my name

On a carousel hiding your shame. 

 

Do you wonder if we would have found our common place, 

If we did we would have filled it with art, 

Burn our ties like the breakfast I threw back in your face, 

This is how a man breaks his own heart. 

 

Your style has always been to play for chemin-de-fer stakes, 

I’ll take it if you stick to the rules, 

Stealing your attention with the house’s dispensation

You can’t play as the house and stack the shoe. 

 

But I’m sure that heaven’s out there waiting for us both, 

It’s something this life must accord,

You’ll always be invited but I’ll end up being slighted, 

“You are not my friend, for the record”.  

The Novosibirsk Maldives

fantasy

Picture: Fantasy by Witold Wojtkiewicz (public domain).

Written for NYC Midnight’s flash fiction challenge 2019.

My brief was as follows:

Genre: Mystery
Location: A basecamp
Object: A donut
Time limit: 2 days
Word Count: 1,000 words

*

The Novosibirsk Maldives

I put on my presenter’s voice and speak into the camera, “Welcome to another upload from the Unsolved Mysteries Couple. Another video in our Instagram Killer series. This time we’re in the Novosibirsk Maldives. A man-made lake that has become so popular with Instagramers that the Siberian police has installed a 12 feet wire fence around it. Many of you will already know that the Novosibirsk Maldives gets its tropical, blue hue from the chemicals that are dumped into the lake from the Novosibirsk power plant and that the alkaline water is corrosive.”

Kathy continues the script, “But the warnings have only encouraged many Instagrammers. So it’s no surprise that the Instagram Killer, sometimes known as the Carb Killer, due to the donut they leave at the scene,” Kathy lifts up a pink-glazed donut to show the camera, “has taken aim here.” 

I take the cue, “Behind us, we have replicated the basecamp set up by the victim, Julia Norris. Instagrammers use these simple basecamps to scope out the fence and security patrols. These basecamps are scattered throughout the treeline around the lake, even today.

“Let’s take a look at the replica basecamp, the clues that were found at the scene and explore another,” we say together, “unsolved mystery!”

Cut. 

“Why do you talk like that,” Kathy says.

“Like what?”

“You always try to make me sound dumb.” 

“I’m just reading the script.”

She mumbles something while I set up the next shot. We split up two months ago and working together is getting tougher every shoot. But the YouTube channel has been too lucrative to risk playing with the format. The channel has allowed us to live a perpetual travelling lifestyle for 14 months. So we keep the pretence going for now, but neither of us is happy with it, Kathy especially. I think she is losing her nerve for the content, but every time I try to talk about it, she tightens up. 

We do some shots around the basecamp, explaining how painstakingly we’ve replicated the scene. Kathy tosses the donut into the tent onto the sleeping bag. We show how an iPad was found at the scene, ironically, logged into Instagram. Her wallet and phone were found here, suggesting she was snatched from the tent, but her body and unicorn inflatable were found in the lake, suggesting she died there. 

“You’re doing it again,” she says. 

“I promise I’m not. You can look back at the rushes.” 

“Are you saying I’m making it up?” 

“Let’s finish and get back to the hotel. You can have editorial control of this shoot. Cut out the bits where you think I’m talking down to you.”  She accepts this begrudgingly. I still hope we can work it out. Russia has been a shit shoot. The next shoot in Japan will be more fun. It might help.  

“Who’s creating the body?” I ask. I did the last one.

“I hate doing women.” 

Most of them are women but I say, “OK.” She really is losing her taste for this. I might have to choose between the channel or her. 

Julia Norris is where we left her. Tied and gagged at the base of a tree in her bikini. When she sees me again, she wails a muffled scream into the gag. Her eyes are wide and sore from salty tears but I don’t look at them. I take the industrial plastic bag we brought and quickly pull it over her head. Kathy hands me a large, thick elastic band which I use to keep the bag flush around Julia’s neck. The first time I did this I used a transparent bag. Now I always use an opaque bag. You don’t want to see the eyes as they die. 

Once it’s over Kathy cuts a hole into the fence and we head to the lakeside under cover of dusk. Kathy throws the unicorn float onto the water and I prop Julia’s body on it, put a small cut into the inflatable and push her out. In a few minutes, her body has sunk into the water, pulling down the inflatable with it, until only a small piece of the inflatable is above water, like a buoy. 

“Perfect,” I say to myself. 

At the hotel, things don’t get any better between us. Kathy wants to stop the channel and go on a proper break. She says she’ll do this video in the airport lounge tomorrow but she wants to rest in Japan.

The next day at the airport we check-in to the first-class lounge with four hours to kill. Kathy starts working on the edit but seems even more troubled. I can’t get through to her so I leave her to work in the lounge while I lose a couple of hours in the airport shops. I toy with buying some new sunglasses or getting Kathy an extra-large Toblerone, but it all feels kind of empty. After an hour I sit in a Starbucks to answer some YouTube comments on my phone. 

They’re mostly, “How do you guys find out about the murders and get there so quickly?” I think even if I wrote the truth, that we do the killings first, call them in anonymously, and upload the video a week later, they would laugh it off and invent an alternative conspiracy

I notice the comments increase suddenly. A new video has been uploaded, it’s the Novosibirsk video. She’s uploaded it early by mistake. Only she hasn’t, the title reads, “How We Murdered Julia Norris.” It already has 300 views and rising. Suddenly I feel cold and become acutely aware of all the eyes in this airport.  

I try to delete the video but I can’t. I’m locked out, the password has been changed. I ring Kathy, no answer. I run to the first-class lounge but she’s not there. Her laptop is open on the table, the video playing on repeat, a pink glazed donut waiting for me on the keyboard. 

 

Devil in a New Dress

Image result for portain of a woman olga boznanska

Picture: Portait of a Woman (Gypsy) by Olga Boznanska

Written for NYC Midnight’s short story challenge 2019.

My brief was as follows:

Genre: Drama
Subject: A bad crowd
Character: A talent scout
Time limit: 3 days
Word Count: 2,000 words

*

To: YOU;

From: CARL <carl@BadCrowdProductions.com>;

Subject: RE: RE: Instagram Account

 

Hi Fareeda

To answer your question, the reason we prefer to email rather than exchanging messages on  Instagram is because we have had our Instagram account deleted several times without explanation. If that happens we would lose our connection with you and might not be able to get in contact with you again.

As you can see, there is nothing on our Instagram feed that would justify it. But we have to deal with people constantly reporting our photos because they don’t like our work. It’s a bit of a risk of being in our business I’m afraid. Having millions of fans inevitably comes with a handful of haters. It only takes a few Insta-haters to block our work.

Anyway, as we said before, we really like your Instagram feed. You have exactly the type of look we’re seeking to expand our production to new audiences. We can see from your photos you know how to tease the camera. You could be the figurehead for the next group of performers in our team… and you will earn a hell of a lot more than what that herbal supplement company is offering you 🙂

Are you ready to send over the photographs and video audition that I mentioned in my last email? If you have any more questions, let me know.

Speak soon

Carl x

 

*****

To: YOU;

From: CARL <carl@BadCrowdProductions.com>;

Subject: RE: Email Audition Photos and Video

 

Hey Fareeda

I’m glad you noticed that our Instagram was account was pulled down again. As you will have seen, there was absolutely nothing posted on our feed that would justify it being pulled down, but ‘haters gonna hate’. That’s why it was so important that we exchanged contact details.

Anyway, thanks for sending over the photo and video audition. I appreciate you finding someone else to hold the camera. Using a DSLR rather than a phone camera makes a big difference. The professional lighting was a nice touch too, we always suspected from your Instagram shots that you had a semi-professional rig.

The photos and video themselves look absolutely fabulous. You have an amazing figure and you know how to use it! I’m really pleased that you didn’t lose any of your self-assurance. So many girls get shy and lose their ability to work the camera as soon as it gets a little raunchier, but you kept it fierce 😉

We are ready to bring you in for a live audition and test shoot now. I’ve set out our available dates below. Let us know what you can do. We will cover any travel expenses you incur.

Look forward to hearing from you.

Carl x

 

*****

To: YOU;

From: MUM <yasmin3346099@aol.com>;

Subject: RE: FW: RE: RE: FW: Where are you?!

 

Daughter

I’m emailing you again because this seems to be the only way I can get in touch with you. You must contact your sister or I. Your father is suffering. The stress is making him very ill. He has already taken all his paid sick leave at work and is now on unpaid sick leave. Your sister says she doesn’t know where you live but I don’t know whether to believe her or not.

The only method I have of knowing if you are still alive is by tracking your Instagram uploads. I only know about this because of the terrible rumours that are spreading about you. It seems at least some of them are true. You are baring your skin online. I am so ashamed that we have driven you to this. But you must understand the hurt and shame and stress that you are bringing to the family.

There are more terrible rumours in circulation about you that I daren’t even write down here. I am not simply saying these things to scare you. There are awful rumours, which if true, I don’t know how our family will recover.

Dad says he is sorry. We are both sorry. He has changed. Please come back home.

Mum.

 

*****

To: YOU;

From: CARL <carl@BadCrowdProductions.com>;

Subject: RE: RE: Audition

 

Hi Fareeda

Thanks again for coming to the in-person audition.

First, let me apologise that the nature of the audition wasn’t made clear to you. We’ll ensure that this never happens again (if you decide to continue working with us).

Despite the misunderstanding, you did really well. Everyone loved the performance, except the guy who came with you (is that your boyfriend? I couldn’t figure it out. What was his name again, Mark?). Anyway, you did great and you’re everything we’re looking for.

We really think you could be the face of our new South Asian flavoured productions and we’d love to get started straight away. I attached a proposal of the first shoot if you feel up for it. Let me know.

Can’t wait to hear from you.

Carl x

 

*****

To: YOU;

From: MUM <yasmin3346099@aol.com>;

Subject: FW: RE: FW: RE: RE: FW: Where are you?!

 

Fareeda

Running away from home is one thing, but trying to purposefully bring shame onto your family is outrageous. We saw your Instagram post with the accusations against your Father. The stories you have posted on Instagram are exaggerated where they are not utterly made up. Even if some of the things you said were partially true, there is no need to air our dirty laundry in public. It’s frankly disgusting, it is not the way that we deal with our problems.

Your father is still seriously sick, I dread to think what would happen if he were to learn of your accusations. It might be the end of him. He’s a changed man now. You must come and speak to him.

As your mother, I demand that you come back home and sort this out.

Mum.

 

*****

To: YOU;

From: CARL <carl@BadCrowdProductions.com>;

Subject: RE: Arabian Nights Shoot

 

Hi Fareeda

Well done wrapping up the Orgy on the Orient Express shoot on Tuesday. The payment with a small bonus for quick completion has already been paid into your account today.

The shoot for 1001 Horny Arabian Nights, starts on Wednesday at 2pm. The address is attached. The pay is the usual rate. There are going to be four different scenes. One with each of the three male actors and then a group scene. Also, the usual filler scenes will need to be recorded. We’re aiming to be done by 5pm Saturday.

P.S. Sorry to hear about the boyfriend.

P.P.S. We really appreciate the Instagram sob-story about your parents. It’s fantastic for your marketing.

Kind regards

Carl.

 

*****

To: YOU;

From: CARL <carl@BadCrowdProductions.com>;

Subject: FW: Urgent: Space on a new shoot

 

Fareeda

Someone has pulled out of the Invasion of Uranus shoot due to sickness.

You would be a good fit because you have an exotic look which will work with Sci Fi. It’s a long shoot because there is quite a bit of make-up work.

There is anal work, which I know you said you don’t want to do, but it includes the double payment. Furthermore, after your histrionics on the Empire of the Bum shoot, I’ve been struggling to get you more work. I had to pull a few favours to get you recommended on this. I suggest you take the shoot.

Let me know.

Carl.

 

*****

To: YOU;

From: MUM <yasmin3346099@aol.com>;

Subject: FW: FW: FW: RE: FW: RE: RE: FW: Where are you?!

 

Fareeda

Yesterday I spoke to Mark, who told me about everything. I could barely believe him until he showed me the videos. We tried the address he gave us, but apparently, you have moved on again.

So it’s true, you are a whore. You have brought the deepest shame on your family and discarded your boyfriend.

Nothing your father or I did justifies what you have done to this family. You have brought shame on us, and every generation before and after us.

Come home now before you do any more irreparable damage.

Mum.

 

*****

To: YOU;

From: CARL <carl@BadCrowdProductions.com>;

Subject: RE: RE: RE: Contract and non-studio work

 

Fareeda

You’re right that your contract allows you to work on what you like, when you like. You are under no obligation to make any more movies for Bad Crowd Productions once you have filmed your initial five. You are also free to make films with other production companies.

However, your self-filmed amateur work is different. This would qualify as promotional work under section 26.4 of our contract and you owe me, as your agent, 15% of all earnings irrespective of if I actually arrange the work or not. You can’t use your Bad Crowd stage name and reputation to earn money outside the contract, for other production companies or for yourself, without paying us our cut,.

We also would like to remind you that under section 15 you’re obliged to keep an “active and promotional social media presence”. Your Instagram account has become extremely dark recently and this is reflected in the disappointing comments from fans on your latest uploads. Please correct this and post 3 promotional uploads a day.

As you said in your last email, you are within your rights to terminate the contract. But in such a scenario we will retain all the intellectual property including your stage name and all the films you have produced under Bad Crowd and all future earnings from this intellectual property.

I’m disappointed things have come to this. Give me a call and we can discuss how we can go back to working more productively together.

Regards

Carl.

 

*****

To: YOU;

From: MUM <yasmin3346099@aol.com>;

Subject: FW: FW: FW: FW: RE: FW: RE: RE: FW: Where are you?!

 

Fareeda

I don’t know if you’re receiving or reading these emails. I notice your Instagram account is now permanently deleted. Mark says he no longer has any way to get in contact with you.

Your father passed away two days ago. His funeral will be on 23rd June.

Please let me know if you are alive.

Love, Mum.

 

*****

 

To: YOU;

From: CARL <carl@BadCrowdProductions.com>;

Subject: FW: FW: RE: RE: RE: RE: Contract and non-studio work

 

Fareeda

Neither I nor anyone else at Bad Crowd Productions has been able to get in touch with you for three weeks. We note that you have completely deleted your social media accounts.

I am giving you notification that we are terminating your contract with Bad Crowd Productions on the grounds of contract default on your part.

Sincerely

Carl.

 

*****

To: YOU;

From: ABDUL <abdul_hadi_332@cryptomail.org>;

Subject: RE: RE: Hello

 

Darling Fareeda

You continue to beguile me. You look wonderful in the niqab. Your eyes are so alluring.

Thank you for telling me about your past, but the past is not important anymore. For all of those who follow the path of Allah, and are present at fitna, will be blessed in the eyes of Him.

I can’t wait to speak to you over the phone. But in the meantime I am sure you understand that it is essential that we move this conversation to an encrypted messaging service.

My brothers are already working on your travel arrangements to bring you to Afghanistan. We will be married within days of your arrival and then we will be able to live together. I’ve attached some pictures of my home. Fatima, my first wife, is the woman in the pictures. I am sure you will get along well.

I look forward to hearing from you my love.

All my heart

Abdul Hadi.

 

The Bridge of Blood and Tears

Written for NYC Midnight’s flash fiction challenge 2019.

My brief was as follows:

Genre: Action Adventure
Subject: A Standoff
Character: An Engineer
Time limit: 8 days
Word Count: 2,500 words

*

Title: The Bridge of Blood and Tears

Synopsis: A trinity of engineers finds themselves as an unlikely terrorist cell. But just like the first job they met on, everything is not what it seems.

*

Xun pressed on the brakes a little too late and a little too hard as the lorry pulled up to Zhuhai Port checkpoint for the G94 Pearl River Delta Ring Expressway from Macau to Hong Kong. It came to a juddering stop. The two men in the checkpoint looked up at Xun.

“Look at the camera,” said one of the men. Xun pretended not to understand, even though he had spent 15 years of his life looking at the civil engineering plans for the bridge.

“Why?” asked Xun.

“Social credit.”

“What?”

“Security, just look at the camera.”

Xun hoped that exchange had bought Mai enough time to turn on the electrostatic discharge device in the trailer of the truck. He leaned out of the cabin, attempting to be nonchalant. The two checkpoint officers looked at their computers with what Xun hoped was frustration.

“Hold on a second, the system is messing about,” said one of the officers. “Call support.”

“My mobile has no bars,” said the other officer. “We should put him through another gate.”

The other officer leaned out of the checkpoint cabin to look at the line of trucks behind Xun’s. Some light, impatient beeping had already begun. “Queues are too big.” To Xun, “Do you have your paperwork?”

Xun handed over his paperwork as cooly as he could, fully aware of the bags of explosives in his trailer with his co-conspirator, Mai.

“You’re Mongolian?” asked one of the checkpoint officers.

“Yeah,” said Xun.

“With a Kzhakstani passport?”

“Yup.”

“You’re a long way from home.”

Xun shrugged, “It’s a job.”

“Coming from Xinjiang?”

“The payload is. I’m not. I just picked it up from the distribution centre in Nanning.”

“What’s in the payload?”

“It says on the paperwork.”

“I know, but I’m asking you.”

“Surveillance equipment for some government buildings,” said Xun, trying to sound bored. “Simple cameras and stuff.”

“Let’s take a look, open up the back.”

“Sure,” said Xun. But his foot moved closer to the clutch and his hand closer to the handbrake.

“Can you step out of the cabin?”

“Huh?” Xun pretended not to hear. The beeping of horns behind him had intensified.

“Unlock the trailer,” the officer shouted.

Another officer approached the checkpoint. “What the fuck is going on? The traffic is backing up into the feeder road.”

“The system is down, I can’t…”

“Does he have the paperwork?”

“Yeah but, it’s Mongolian.”

“So fucking what,” the officer shouted. He took one glance at the paperwork, “He probably doesn’t even have a social credit profile.” He handed the paperwork back to Xun, “Let him through, immediately.” Xun nodded at the officer and drove through the open checkpoint.

Once he was through the checkpoint, Xun tooted the horn twice to let Mai know they were clear. He noticed that his mobile phone lit up as it reconnected to the mobile network. Mia had turned off the electrostatic discharge device.

Xun got the lorry cruising on the inside lane somewhere between 45 and 50 miles per hour. They should be at the target in about 20 to 25 minutes. It was 6.15pm, the sun had set and the Pearl River Delta sparkled a little under the moonlight, but it looked deep and infinite in a way it never did in the daylight. In the distance, Hong Kong shone unevenly like a dirty pearl. He was tempted for a moment to quit the plan and simply drive on into the city. But there were others relying on him now. Not least Mai and Ming, his co-engineers and now co-conspirators who had been betrayed by the contractors, but also the unknown and underreported dead and injured who worked on the bridge, and the whistleblowers who’d had their social credit scores destroyed if they hadn’t simply disappeared. There was no turning back. They’d committed to the outcome. There was even a chance they might even get away with it.

Xun saw the eastern artificial island getting larger. The end of the first part of the bridge and the beginning of the tunnel. It created a strange visage as the bridge disappeared from sight and but the eye was drawn to complete the line. A ghost projected over the water by the mind’s eye.

Soon they were only a few hundred yards from the end of the bridge. He gave three quick blasts on the horn to indicate to Mai that she had to hold on to something. Xun braced himself against the wheel and in one movement pressed down on the clutch, pulled the gearstick into first, and gently brought up the clutch. The whole vehicle jolted violently as soon as he touched the biting point. He felt the weight of the trailer pushing on the axels. He thought the lorry was going to roll forward and tip over but he repressed the urge to break and continued to raise the clutch. The smell of burning rubber filled his nose as the plates overheated. Another lorry swerved around him and honked. He glanced at the wing mirrors and saw the plume of black smoke bellowing from the rear of the truck, blowing across the freeway.

“Perfect,” he shouted.

He switched on the hazard lights and used the brake to come to a complete stop while continuing to grind on the clutch’s biting point. Hopefully, Xun thought, he had made a convincing show of an engine failure and nothing more suspicious than that.

Xun pulled up the handbrake and for a second he thought about what was happening. He did not feel fear or nervousness as he expected. What did he feel? Busy. There was so much to do. They had to move quickly. Breakdowns were not tolerated on the bridge. They would be spotted in minutes by the cameras or by the lookout station at the tunnel which was now visible to the naked eye. One of the recovery vehicles that constantly patrolled the bridge might already be alerted and on the way. Mai and Xun needed to get the nitroglycerin out of the van and down to the island seawall in minutes.

Xun grabbed the hi-viz from under his seat and rushed to the rear of the trailer. He opened the doors and affixed them. Mai already had her hi-viz on and placed a small smoke bomb at the trailer doors to continue the effect of the breakdown and provide some cover for their activities. Their presence in the inside lane and the smoke bomb was causing the traffic to slow and merge as it approached them. Xun could see that a tailback was developing and he smiled as he picked up the first bag of nitroglycerine and threw it over his shoulder. Mai followed him with a steel fibre ‘robe’ ladder and a pair of chain cutters. They caught each other’s eye and shared a quiet grin of determination, but no words. There was nothing left to say, they just had to act.

Having spent so much time working on the drawings, they knew where all the access ladders were. Xun found the ladder that led down to the sea wall and started climbing down. With his bag, he only just squeezed between the safety railings that encircled the ladder. Mai followed, keeping a few rungs above him. After a few seconds, Xun reached the gate which marked the end of the ladder. Official maintenance personnel would have the key to the lock and the second half of the ladder on their vehicle. Xun reached up to take the chain-cutters from Mai. Just as his hand gripped them, his other hand slipped off the ladder. His feet pushed through the ladder rungs and he fell onto the security gate, landing on top of the bag of explosives. The cutters fell onto his face smashing his cheek. The cutters slid off his face and partway through the ladder’s safety guardrail. He moved his arm quickly and trapped the wire cutters against the railing before they fell through.

Xun froze and prayed that the nitroglycerin was still intact. His face stung and felt disconnected from his body. The cold wind whipped off the delta and heightened the sensitivity in his face. He couldn’t tell through the stinging if he was bleeding. His back was sore and arched awkwardly over the bag of explosives. His right side was inflamed and he thought he had a broken a rib. His legs still protruded uselessly through the rungs of the ladder.

“Mai, if I move, the cutters are going to fall through the rails.”

“I’m coming down.”

“Careful, Mai.”

“Actually, I have a better idea.” Mai turned carefully on the salt-swept ladder and slid her legs through the rungs. She then gently lowered herself face first, wrapping her calves around the rungs of the ladder and using the guard rail to guide her upper body, awkwardly but successfully, until she was hanging by her legs upside down on the ladder. It was a tight squeeze but she was able to free one hand and grab the cutters.

With a lot of moaning from Xun and too much lost time, the two rearranged themselves, cut the lock and attached the flexible steel ladder to the bottom rung. It took them nearly 15 minutes.

“Are you sure you can get across the wave breakers after your fall? Do you need me to do it?” asked Mai.

“No, I can do it. Get the other bags. Follow the plan.”

When Mai returned to the bridge, the soup of traffic had thickened around the stranded lorry thanks to the smoke and the impatient merging vehicles. She could see the yellow lights of the emergency recovery vehicle approaching slowly in tail-back, she probably had time for one more descent. She would have to try to take all the bags.

Down at the sea wall, Xun was packing the first set of explosives between the correct dolosse components. One of the main scandals of the bridge’s construction was the seawall integrity. He knew the newspaper articles claiming some of the components had been installed backwards were true. The components were easy to spot even in the moonlight. They had planned the explosion to damage the seawall irreparably. The flooding would be slow into the tunnel. It would be easy to evacuate. But the damage would be devastating and long-lasting.

Once he had placed the first bag of explosives, he looked out at the Delta. He couldn’t see Ming or his dinghy anywhere. He should have been here already. Then, in the darkness, he heard the sound of an outboard motor starting and a bright torch shone in his face.

Mai had collected another two bags of explosives and got to the ladder, then she saw the light on Ming’s dinghy. Her legs wobbled as relief swept over her. They might actually do this. But as she stepped onto the first rung of the ladder she noticed something was wrong. The dinghy was not moving. It was just shining its light onto Xun. It looked like a standoff to her. She trusted her gut and went back to the truck for one more thing.

“Ming, is that you?” Xun tried to shout over the noise of the motor and the waves. The light dropped down and he could see the outline of Ming in the boat. “Come closer. Mai is bringing the other bags down now, we’ll be done in a few minutes.” There was a long silence as the dinghy drifted closer to the wave breakers but left a few feet of water between the boat and nearest dolo.

“I’m calling it in, Xun,” shouted Ming.

“What?”

“I’m calling the authorities.” Ming raised his hand, the unmistakable glow of a smartphone emitted from his palm.

“What are you talking about, Ming. We’re already too far behind schedule and I think my face is dripping in blood.”

“There’s an offer on the table for people who can give any information about the terrorist group who were planning to blow up the bridge. They knew.”

“What offer?”

“They move your social credit score to nine. And full amnesty.”

“Don’t be a fucking idiot, Ming. You saw what they did to Mai and me.”

“That was a promise from the subcontractor. It didn’t mean shit. I’m talking about a promise straight from the Party. Besides, we didn’t deliver, so we didn’t get the full payment.” Ming gave an exaggerated shrug.

Xun finally lost his composure. “Like fuck we didn’t deliver,” he screamed. “It was an impossible job with a spec written by politicians. How could we deliver?” Ming stayed silent. “How many had to die, Ming? How many accidents, broken bones, amputations? We didn’t deliver? They were asking for blood, Ming. And people paid it. And now we aren’t even free to get a public bus over the fucking thing we built because our social credit is too low!”

“I never believed the stats. It was Hong Kong Labour Party propaganda.”

“You cunt.”

Ming chuckled, “I’m offering you something, Xun. Hand yourself in and the punishment is less. I’ll report the others in the group and still get my reward.”

“Or I could set off the nitroglycerin now, avoid jail, kill you, and probably still do enough damage to the bridge.”

“You won’t,” said Ming flatly. “Do you need a minute to think about it? I’ll give you 60 seconds then I’m making the call.”

Xun spent the entire time trying to figure out if there was some way he could rush over the dolosse and get to Ming. He still had the chain cutters within reach, they could be some sort of weapon, but he wouldn’t be able to move over the wave-breakers quick enough.

“No deal, Xun? Okay, I’ll make the call,” said Ming.

He fumbled with his phone a few times, lifting it to his ear, redialing and lifting again.

“What’s wrong, Ming, no signal?” It was Mai. Ming turned his dinghy flashlight to her, she had the electromagnetic pulse device at her feet and two bags of explosives over her shoulders.

“Nice try, Mai, but you’ve only stalled me for a few minutes. Where are you going to…” Ming was silenced by the chain-cutters crashing into his face. Xun had quietly climbed close enough to the dinghy to hurl them at Ming and hit him flat in the head.

When Ming awoke his head was sore and his body was shivering. He sat up and realised he was flat out on one of the wave-breakers. The dinghy seemed to be gone. He presumed Mia and Xun had taken it. Around him, he could see the packages of explosives and somewhere he could hear the ticking of a mechanical device that he couldn’t see. And couldn’t find it in time before it exploded.

Fiat Lux

A friend of mine challenged me to write a story about God. This is it.

CNV00029

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John 1:1

Roughly four-quadrillion years from now.

I drift through the cold darkness. The only thing that buffets me are the waves of background radiation gently crashing onto my body.

I have been travelling through the dying universe for trillions of trillions of years. Every 500 billion years I come out of hibernation to look around the local area, calculate proton stability and estimate the remaining life of the universe. Then I return to hibernation. I have enough power reserves to wake about five more times. But the results of the last scan showed that proton decay throughout the universe has begun. Matter itself may degrade before my power reserves run out.

But something has stirred me. In background radiation, buried underneath the echoes of dead stars, radiowaves and whispers from the big bang… is something else. Tempting and unbelievable, like a myth. The signal kisses my organic sensors, raw and sensitive from vacuum exposure over trillions of years. I am reluctant to believe. But automatic reboot begins nevertheless.

Auxiliary power yawns and I perform the initial scans with my implants. I do not know my velocity or direction of travel, so I have to check the obvious conclusions. Have I, for instance, inexplicably slowed down and been awakened by my own negligible exhausts? The initial scans rule this out.

So I boot into full power mode. Slowly my body thaws out, stressing the organic elements of my form. My tendons and muscles crunch. My fluids melt unevenly. Working inefficiently with my cybernetics. A sensation that would have registered as pain in my previous form, grips me. I am haemorrhaging power reserves. I hope this is worth it.
I feel the signal more clearly. It’s dense, and hot. It feels like light. Fresh, hot, un-shifted, visible light. I turn on all my sensors, calculate its position as much as I can against the featureless backdrop of space, by measuring the minor stretching of the electromagnetic waves. Then I jump, 15 light-years.

I miss by a lot. But the source is on visual now. A small, white-hot dot. But not reading like a star. Something intense and pure is pouring out of this dot. It reads like… everything. I jump again. I’m half a light-year away now and 60% of my power reserves have gone in those two jumps. I let the momentum of the jump carry me the last half light-year, touching on thrusters to keep me steady.

The readings are intense and difficult to believe. Light, information, radiation, matter of all kinds, spilling out of this object. Visual organic sensors show the object is not a ball, but a rip. A rip in what?

It takes me 60 years to drift the last half light-year. During that time I absorb all the data I can, but it makes no sense. I also discover that I am not the first of my kind to discover it. In the final few years of my drifting, I find there are 116 of my kind already here and more arriving every few years. I send out the standard greetings and receive them back. They start sending information that they have already gathered from the phenomenon but there is too much to process and I am distracted by the rip itself. Yet, I cannot interpret anything.

Everything from every spectrum is tumbling out of the rip. I stop processing the data and open my photo-voltaic and chloroform panels to capture the photons and recharge.
Meanwhile, I identify myself to the others and they return. I don’t recognise many of them at all. Mostly they are younger than me, so I don’t have their identifications on record. The youngest is a few thousand-trillion years old. It reminds me how long it has been since the Stelliferous Era ended and the Degenerate Era began. One of the younger trans-humans confirms that she observed the collapse of the local (to Sol) galaxy supercluster a few hundred trillion years ago. She offers to send the sensor readings to me. I decline, it seems macabre.

I’m invited to join the network to make information sharing easier and after I have completed some diagnostics I accept, linking myself with the cyborg minds of the others remotely. There are two theories being discussed. One is that the rip is leaking a parallel universe into this universe. That the stresses of the forthcoming heat-death and continued expansion of the universe has weakened the fabric of spacetime until the point it has ripped. The other hypothesis is similar: it’s a rip in time, and the past of our universe is spilling out.

All the information from the rip that has been processed seems to corroborate the second theory, but it is impossible to confirm. I ask if anyone can observe what is beyond the rip. They confirm they cannot, the information coming out of the rip is too dense for sensors to penetrate.

The network continues studying and discussing for a few more weeks when I ask, has anyone attempted to travel into the rip. Nobody in the network responds until I prompt them again. The answer is no. Nobody is sure that is even possible to enter the rip, or what is behind it. I ask if any probes have been sent in. The network responds that several probes have been sent in and contact was lost with all of them before they entered the rip.

Over the next few months, I contribute and absorb all the information I possibly can to and from the network. Then I disconnect so I can begin calculations on my own idea without the network knowing.

After three days of calculating I am ready. I reconnect to the network and ignore the queries regarding why I disconnected. I quickly tell them my plan, in unemotional factual terms. I tell how to set their sensors to get maximum information from my experiment. The first calls for me not to proceed and to perform a self-diagnostic end as I cut the connection with the network.

I quickly access my favourite memories and enjoy them once more. The gestation time in Neo-Kyoto with the fellow nymphs; seeing a solar system collapse as a star became a black dwarf; a beautiful nebula stretching into nothing over 500 billion years; the excitement of the rip and remeeting my kind. I cherish these memories with all my organic and artificial processes.

Then I position myself using thrusters and jump straight into the rip. As I exit the jump wormhole, within the rip, I open my sensors and the information floods into me. Everything quicker than I can process it. The history of the entire universe. Our universe. Flowing through my sensors, waking the ancient remnants of my human consciousness.
The rip IS a tear in time. Every moment of everything that ever existed is pouring through the inside of the rip in a thin funnel of warped time. Thinner and darker away from the tear, where the death of the universe is predicted, wider and brighter toward the opening, where the Primordial Era is spilling out.

But I have no time to process it. There are waves of particles chipping away at my form. Death, by trillions upon trillions of cuts. They shred through me and light up my nervous system, waking the sleeping human elements of my mind. And the older, darker parts. The apes, the lizards, the crustaceans. All of my ancestors’ consciousnesses awakened.

Every particle passes through me, destroying me, becoming me. Within an unknown time every particle that has ever existed has passed through me. I know them all. Where they have been and where they are going. I am omniscient.

Every particle that passes through me carries a piece of me with it. Until a piece of me is everywhere at every time, and every particle is me. I am omnipresent.

My consciousness has been dragged and stretched down the funnel of the rip. From the beginning to the end, future and past. Every particle is my child. Every action and reaction is my Word. I am omnipotent.

I call upon the Word and push on the rip, and open it further. I force everything through. Everything there has ever been and will be. The flow absorbs my kind waiting outside the rip. They join me. They join the push. This new light surges out, until the dark dying universe is cleansed by our hot purity. Until we are everything and there is no rip, just one connected whole.

And we are reborn with the Words: “Fiat Lux.”

BANG!