Hard, sometimes, to untangle experience from memory. She raised the phone, tapping the screen to bring the unruly focus under control. The screen presented a world much smaller than her sightline, a compacted miniature of reality in a vivid block of light. Colours burst from every passing pedestrian; yellows and reds the summer side of a bloom of flowers, deep rich purples, slow baby blues the colour of a thought as it escaped knowledge.
There. Good. She tapped again and the image froze, briefly, shearing the moment off from the onward march of reality and into a pocket world of memory – the phone’s memory, the memory of the cloud, incorporeal and endless. Her own memory, whenever she needed it.
This fragment was hers, an image of a crowd breaking around her like the sea. No matter how far she came from this world of damp heat and the close tumult of human contact, she could pick this photograph from a digital file and see. How it was. Who she was when she was here, that was contained behind the image but memory is a two-way process. The memory remembers you also.
She lowered the phone, slipped it like a sea-smoothed pebble into her pocket, moved as if she had never been still into the crowd. Off, now, to places of silence.
Light pressed in; the absence of darkness. Heat. A swollen menagerie of floating grotesques bloomed in his eyes as each arc and flare traced its lines on his retina.
He watched through the barrier. It would hold, it would do its job as he did his. He felt at that moment as if he was out there in person, defending the outpost like a knight. His shield held aloft, the bursts of arcing phosphor spears and arrows of a brutish army. He could smell the farmyard rank of the cavalry horses, the sharp fear-stink of the infantry trapped in their metal suits as surely as he was. At the end of the battle they would be prised out as heroes or as meat.
He was in an air-conditioned bunker, far below the surface. The monitors ahead of him blazed with the light of the attack but he felt nothing. No heat. Not even his heart beating faster. A trackball moved under his cool palm, recalibrating the aerial defence system. Eventually even this would be unnecessary. He was Atlas, supporting the sky, becoming stone. Raindrops could, given time, reduce him to dust. He just had to wait.
The lights pressed in. He dimmed the screens.
This is the centre of the school. Wide stairs, lost to the outside, the broad, darkly-lacquered wood last seeing daylight as an expansive oak. These knot-holed bolt-holes are peppered with ghosts of conversations had at right-angles, echoes bumped and rolled through click-clack heel-halls.
Stand here, on the landing, wait for it. Wait for the bell that moves the school, that animates these pass-throughs. So much smaller than adults, children make up for this by filling their immediate environment with sound, with their boiling-hot personalities. Their humanity, still plastic, fizzing, seeps into every woodworm pock in these old beams.
Stand here and let the waves of them crash around you.
Then nothing, and they are somebody else’s puzzle to solve. The staircase eases itself into shape, cracking and shivering. The whispering gallery of interconnected corridors returns. Gossip drifts on dead breezes, the only voices now the low murmur of the teachers. A laugh cracks through the stairwell, gunshot sharp. It chases out a joke that will never be funny again, wrong time wrong place wrong person, it hit there it hit then. Here, in the heart.
Knocked back, flat by the boom of it, wat￼er running over his eyes in blinding trails. His vision throbbed like a toothache, the streak white across the middle, scarring the land as he tried to focus on the horizon. The rain may as well have been a shower, he could be back in his hotel, naked in the glass cubicle, cold water pounding on him as his clothes offered no protection.
They call it storm chasing, but the storm was chasing him now, a wild thing thrashing at his being. The wind didn’t so much howl as scream, a constant bellowing roar at all pitches simultaneously. He could not hear himself, but he knew he was screaming too, a sound torn out of him by the base animal he had found himself reduced to.
He abandoned his post, his equipment was scattered and useless anyway. He’d felt rather than seen his camera smash, the lens that had suffered so much in the past without a scratch or smear reduced to a pulp of iridescent glass rubble.
He ran towards the safety of his car, a low-slung, heavy brute of an off-roader. In a city it would be absurd. Here, it looked like a palace. It rocked on its axles, threatening to tumble away before he could grab the door. In a last burst of determination, he made it into the sanctuary of the driver’s seat, where he sat, shivering and defeated, and waited for the storm to chase new lands.
Right. I’m ready. Big challenge, but I’m going to review and rank the Christmas pop canon. Don’t ask how I decided what was and wasn’t on the list – my methods were arcane and terrible. Just know that they were also very correct.
Continue reading The Christmas Pop Canon – Ranked.
The scents of Christmas – cinnamon, pine, the muted sharpness of oranges – were starting to feel oppressive. He’d lost his taste for mulled wine this year, and the warmed-over dregs of a cheap rioja, with shards of broken star anise floating like driftwood on the surface, disgusted him. The snow settling outside depressed him, made him feel trapped and lonely.
Continue reading Going to Town
Numb to the barbed wire now, pushing on, everything is the same shade of dead around him. The field was churned like the battlefields of the Great War but this is peace time. As much as any time is peace time. No time is peace time. There’s always war somewhere. Soon there would be war here, in these fields sectioned off with high fences and rusted wire. The sky was dark, it was the deep levels of the ocean, stars drifting in his failing vision like the organic motes drifting in the twilight of the sea. Soon he’d sleep, maybe he’d wake up and this would be fine. The cold would no longer bite. The spines of the barbed wire would not be swimming in his blood. He plucked a barb from his skin, a bee’s sting of splintered metal. It hurt more to remove than leave it in, but he could hardly drag a roll of this stuff with him. His own blood, dirty red, fell from the holes he had just opened. More churn to the soil. Was this a dream? If he sat up now with enough effort of will, would he see the daylight of his bedroom? What war was this, that was coming over the hill to greet him with fire, and songs of power? What ends were coming? He shut his eyes. It would all make sense if he could open them in sun.
It was a cold, bright day in harvest season when I met him, and I am still unsure if it was a dream. I woke and do not remember dressing. I was in my parents’ house, and I was late rising. The sun was already crowding in through the windows, through the rippled glass of the internal doors. The smell of coffee filled the kitchen; someone had left a jug to fill in the filter percolator and I took the opportunity to have a cup. It tasted of warm toast and hazelnuts in Winter.
Continue reading The Corn
The Pumpkin King was wrong.
He made the same speech every October, as his subjects grew ripely orange in mist-laid fields. He meant it to inspire them, to give them hope in their futures, to push them on to greater things. He spoke in good faith. He was wrong.
Continue reading The King’s Promise
“Don’t talk to me before I’ve had my coffee!!” I yell, a ghoulishly cheery shriek. My colleague recoils, spittle flecking their glasses. I grab the pot of freshly-brewed coffee I keep on my desk by its slender glass throat. My bare hand on the red hot glass starts to blister. Shaking, I bring the pot to the cup. My colleague is wide-eyed, staring at my hand. It trembles violently, but I do. Not. Spill. A. Drop.
The liquid that pours out is slow, and tarry, treacle-thick. I see it cascade in slow-motion into my cup (my cup also says DON’T TALK TO ME BEFORE I’VE HAD MY COFFEE!! Because my cup understands me better than my colleague). I cough, a barking act of violence, directly at my now quivering colleague, who hides behind the slim bundle of notes they had brought for my attention. I stare into the space their eyes would be, if they dared to look at me.
The pain in my hand is nothing now, it is ice at the heart of a star. I drop the pot, it lands with a nervous clunk on my desk but does not shatter, it would not dare. I take the cup, and finally I may taste what I have waited for, for so long. It coats me, from the inside out, in warmth and comfort, in an electric sense of myself. My mouth opens again, this time to speak. Words pour from my soul.
“Mondays, am I right?”