194. The Gear Hunter

It is midday and I want a cigarette.
I don’t smoke cigarettes.
I might have mentioned it before, how I sometimes crave things I’ve not had in a long time, things like Walker’s Spicy Tomato flavour Snaps, Ice Pops, anal sex, good hair, a hot August, gratitude, cigarettes.
It’s probably just nostalgia.
I love and loathe nostalgia in equal measure.
I loathe shiny faced ‘B’ list comedians blithering inanely about Raleigh Choppers and The Bay City Rollers and Space Hoppers and other such vapid consumerist bullshit on BBC4 shows titled ‘We *heart* the 70’s’, but at the same time the smell of melting tarmac makes my chest ache for childhood days spent wandering alone in the merciless sun through empty streets, or petrol fumes, or the sound of the sea through an open caravan window.
Simple things.
Like cigarettes.
On a whim I decide to get hidden somewhere, tap a fag off someone and get tucked away behind a skip or a compactor unit and just smoke. I don’t tap smokes off people as a rule, but desperate times and all that…
I look around, between machines and sound for a bloke with a cough or a wheeze, someone chewing gum and checking their watch. Typically it looks like the factory is running itself again, presses and finishing lines and mystery machines clattering away in busy conversation with one another without the input of the semi-humans who turn them off.
I see human movement.
I squeeze between two units, under whirring miles of printed paper on it’s way to being spliced.
I see the figure walking hurriedly, carrying a bin over one shoulder.
I recognise the jittery walk, head meerkating around for signs of management.
He speeds up, taking a left into the warehouse to duck amongst the towering labyrinth of gloomy racking.
I follow him, listen to his footsteps skitter across gritty concrete that has never been swept, looking from aisle to aisle of paper pallets until I see him, two aisles up, hurrying, hurrying.
He pauses, sees me.
Then moves on.
“Cheeky fucker…” I mutter, running now.
I don’t want to hound Fucking Amazing Dave but I really want a smoke and, as usual, he owes me twenty quid. I’m not fussed for the money but I don’t like lending if the borrower blanks me. That’s just rude. Besides, Dave rolls a great roll up so the least he can do is send one of those my way.
I catch him by a side door of the warehouse, looking rattled. He’s fumbling with his baccy and has a filter gripped between his lips. He raises his eyebrows in greeting and says, “Hmmnnm.”
I say, “Now then Dave. You avoiding me?”
He shakes his head, loads a paper with Amber Leaf and snuggles the filter from his mouth in next to it. He rolls.
“Nah, man! I’d never dodge you! Yer like a bruvva, yeah? I just had to get clear, y’know. Get out of sight. Had a bit of a scare a bit back, truth be told. I’m feelin’ rather out o’ sorts.”
He passes me the first roll up without asking if I want one then he makes his own.
I say, “Are we off behind the skips?”
He says, “No way. I’m staying in here, out o’ the way.”
I frown. “Out of the way of what?”
Fucking Amazing Dave looks furtive. He opens the fire escape a crack and looks out, then lights his fag. He blows his smoke at the open gap but the cold breeze just blows it back in his face.
He says, “I just nipped out earlier, to Frank’s Hardware. We needed a couple of bins and some dust sheets.”
I look around. The factory is unusual in that we have a huge amount of bins all over the place and dust sheets can be found stacked in many random locations. Until recently I was convinced the fucking things were breeding, that bins were male and dust sheets were female and that litters of tiny bins and dust sheets were nesting out of sight in the dark shadows of the warehouse.
It turns out that all that was really happening was that people were buying a lot of bins and dust sheets.
You wouldn’t think that a print works would need an unusual amount of bins and dust sheets, but there’s method in the madness.
I say, “What did you get then?”
Dave grins. He pulls the bin over, lifts the dust sheet crammed inside. Underneath there are screwdrivers, jigsaw blades, boxes of screws, sandpaper and some dust masks.
He says, “I’m doing a bit of work at home. Needed a few bits.”
This is how it always goes. If you can’t nick it from the factory, you go to Frank’s Hardware and buy a couple of dust sheets and a bin. You pay for the dust sheets and bin on the company account, about fifteen quid, then you shoplift the stuff you really want by hiding it in the bin, under the dust sheet, roughly fifty quids worth of gear. The factory gets bins and dust sheets, you get some shiny stuff for nowt.
I say, “I don’t know how Frank’s Hardware stays open with you lot.”
Dave takes a drag on his fag. “They’re closing down next month. Shame really.”
I shake my head. “Yeah, shame.”
Dave says, “So anyways, I got my stuff and was riding Dorothy back to work, but it were a nice day and…”
“Dorothy?” I say.
“Yeah, Dorothy. My Nissan Micra. It’s a Micra Dot, Dot is short for Dorothy, so thats’ it’s name.”
I say, “Is it the one painted with flowers, got bit of plastic instead of a passenger window?”
Dave grins. “Yeah, that’s her. Great little motor, when I get to drive her.”
I say, “Does your lass get first dibs usually?”
Dave takes a pull on his roll up. “Nah. She can’t drive. It’s the local kids keep nicking her. That’s why the plastic on the window. Sick of paying for new glass. We come to an arrangement. They can borrow her if they promise not to burn her out or shit on the seats. I leave the keys under the sun visor so’s they don’t smash up the steering column. I left ‘em a note, setting out the rules. So they nicked her, but brought her back in the condition I left her in. Even left me half a tank of petrol, bless ‘em! So sometimes I come out the house an’ Dorothy is there, sometimes she’s not. That’s just how it is.”
I shake my head. “Fucking amazing.”
Dave shrugs. “It’s a system. Everyone’s happy! So It were a nice day, I had Dorothy, an’ it seemed a shame not to nip over to Spliffy Pete’s for a bit o’ the good stuff, y’ know? So I scores, takes the gear back to work.”
I say, “You intend to smoke it now? Bit risky, no? I mean, on a night, sure, but it’s what… just past twelve!”
“Nah, man!” says Dave. “This industrial estate is bigger than you think! You get tucked away, down amongst the weird little units off the main drag. That’s the trick. Out o’ the way. Park up, roll up, get a bit fucked up! Ha ha! It were cushty, until…”
“I say, “Until what?”
“Until today, man! So I do the usual. Get myself parked, put a bit o’ The Doors on Dorothy’s cassette deck, roll meself a chubby blunt. Fire it up, all good. Now, I reckoned it were a good spot ‘cause I smelled a bit o’ ganj on the air round that place, y’know? If one brother be smokin’ then it’s cool if I do. Kinda the rules, as I see it. So I’m kickin’ back, chillin’ when all shit breaks loose!”
I say, “Shit? What kind of shit?”
“ALL THE SHIT!” says Dave, wide eyed. “I was all alone one minute, then suddenly I got a fuckin’ SWAT Team climbin’ all over me!! There’s ninja coppers all in black wi’ fuckin’ machine guns, there’s coppers wi’ dogs, coppers in riot clobber. Vans, cars, Flyin’ Squad, the lot. There were even a fuckin’ helicopter! COPPERS IN A CHOPPER!! It were the Heinz fuckin’ Beans o’ coppers, dude! Fifty seven varieties o’ the fuckers! But I’d had a few decent pulls by then an’ I were gettin’ a decent buzz on, but this really ruined the mood, y’ know? I’m IMMEDIATELY paranoid as fuck, thinkin’ ‘I’m dead I’m dead I’m dead’. I reckoned they’d been stakin’ out Spliffy Pete’s gaff an’ tailed me to catch me red handed, then I thought that Frank’s Hardware had fingered me for nickin’ stuff, then I thought it were for both an’ that I were gonna spend the next two years gettin’ bummed in Armley nick by a load of fuckin’ lifers. But THEN I realised the fuckin’ rozzers were streamin’ right past me an’ Dorothy, an’ they were smashin’ in the doors o’ one o’ those units!! An’ fuck me, if dozens o’ fuckin’ Vietnamese dudes don’t come streamin’ out, screamin’ their ruddy heads off!! Runnin’ all over the place, climbing’ chain link fences, leapin’ over hedges, wavin’ there hands in the air screamin’ “NO SHOOTEE!! NO SHOOTEE!!”
I say, “Bit racist.”
Dave says, “Fair point, but they were! No lie! It were fuckin’ amazin! I’m sat in the middle o’ this shit goin’ down wi’ Jim fuckin’ Morrison singin’ ‘This is The End’ on the Blaupunkt an’ this fucking great helicopter thwoppin’ about over ‘ead and all these Vietnamese dudes scrabblin’ about an there’s guns an’ vans an’ I’d wound up the windows to keep the rozzers from smellin’ the weed so Dorothy were like a fuckin’ bong at this point so I’m off me tits, an’ I suddenly had a flash back. A full on flash back.”
I say, “A flash back? When did you flash back to??”
Fucking Amazing Dave narrows his eyes, smokes his cigarette, stares into the distance.
He says, “Nam.”
I try not to snort.
I say, “What, Cheltenham?”
Dave blinks at me. “What?”
I say, “Nothing. You weren’t in Nam, Dave. You weren’t even born then.”
He says, “Course not! What you reckon I am, some kind of fuckin’ fantasist? Buys a Land Rover and a khaki jumper, reckons he were in t’SAS? Not me! Nah, I mean the movies! It were just like Apocalypse Now! Deer Hunter! Full Metal Jacket! All of ‘em! I seen ‘em all so many times it feels like I were there, so when all these Vitenamese guys start leapin’ around an’ the chopper starts circlin’ I totally shat meself! Felt like I was ‘In Country’, y’know!!”
I say, “What did you do? Return fire?”
Dave ignores me. “I knocked Dorthy into first an’ rolled out o’ there, real slow. Went past the open shutters o’ that warehouse. Coppers were raggin’ down all this foil an’ shit an’ I saw these bright lights, an’ a fuckin’ field…”
“A field? In a warehouse?”
“Yeah, man. A weed field. Those Vietnamese dudes, they were growing a fuckin’ field o’ weed right there, in a warehouse, not fifty yards from our own back door. I were gutted. All that bush, goin’ to waste. If only I’d known…”
Fucking Amazing Dave stares, unblinking, seeing things I can’t imagine, horrors I’ll never see.
I finished my roll up, stubbed it out on the floor.
I say, “At least you got out of there alive Dave.”
He turns and stares at me. “No-one gets out alive, dude.”
I say, “Yeah. Whatever. Remember to give me back that twenty before you die.”
I go back to work.

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193. Could be Worse.

Past a machine and another machine, one spitting letters into a hopper, the other choked with chewed up paper and hissing like a feral beast.
Past the gaping lockers filled with tea bags and stained mugs and coffee rings, socks full of holes, tired underwear in L, XL, XXL, talcum powder and Lynx Africa, drawings from children pinned to the inside door alongside clippings of tits and arses, a calendar from 1998 with a girl from September holding open her hairy snatch on a beach, smiling, colours fading.
Past rows of filthy windows looking into forgotten workshops illuminated by flickering fluorescent tubes, machines gathering dust like defeated robots from a half forgotten invasion.
A human face.
Dead white skin, lank black hair falling over empty eyes. He sits at a battle scarred work bench littered with the detritus of a thousand makeshift repairs, his chin resting in his hand,  elbow propped amongst swarf and solder, screwdrivers and spanners. He reminds me The Thinker, a bronze sculpture by Auguste Rodin.
I sometimes wonder what The Thinker was thinking.
I wonder what Stu is thinking.
Stu is just sitting there, staring into nothing, utterly blank, not moving.
I feel a weird ache in my chest. Stu shouldn’t be here, in this factory I mean. He’s a bright lad with a lot of potential but he took a wrong turn, said yes when he should have said no and suddenly found himself trapped amongst the idiots of this world who drag you down, hold you back, convince you there is only defeat and that victory is a myth.
In the right place, amongst the right people, Stu would have thrived.
In the wrong place, amongst the wrong people, he has withered.
Now he sits with his head in his hand, thinking… what? Maybe thinking about how things might have been, had he only said no to a job that wasn’t right for him, right for anyone.
I push open the door into the workshop.
Stu doesn’t move.
I walk over to a filthy kettle, empty it. I turn a tap and let the water run clear and fill the kettle. I find two of the least cracked mugs and rinse them as best I can, drop a corner shop tea bag into each mug and scratch a couple of scoops of sugar from the bottom of a tattered bag of Silver Spoon.
A shuddering fridge holds various science projects studying stages of decay and a half bottle of full fat milk. I slop some into one cup, not mine. I learned long ago to skip milk as it was always sour, always curdled. Always.
I bring the cups over to Stu.
Stu blinks. He glances at me, glances at the mugs.
He sighs, says, “I’d love one.”
He looks down, reads the instructions on the back of a bottle he’s holding on one hand.
I shuffle the mugs in amongst the crap on the workbench. We sit in silence for a bit, silence apart from the thundering of the machines behind the grimy glass.
I try think of something to say. I remember the last time I saw Stu he mentioned that his girlfriend was pregnant.
I say, “How’s your lass doing? She’s pregnant, isn’t she?”
Stu sighs again. “Well, yeah, but no.”
“What… What do you mean?” I’m worried I might have said the wrong thing.
“We thought she was pregnant, you know? But then she went for a load of tests and it turns out she wasn’t pregnant.”
I say, “Oh.”
Stu says, “She had cancer.”
I say, “Oh fuck.”
“She was still living in Nottingham, you know? We met online and some weekends I went down there and other weekends she came up here, yeah? So she couldn’t travel so much, because of being ill, so I was finishing my shift and driving down there but she’s only got a small flat, so I’d help her out but she needed her rest so when I got her sorted out I’d drive back up here.”
“Jesus, Stu,” I said. “That’s brutal. I mean, you were really excited about the baby and then, well, this happens. Shit, it must have been really hard. I mean, really hard. How are you coping?”
Stu just shrugs. He hasn’t touched his brew. He holds the bottle down by his side now. I can tell that something isn’t right. I tread carefully.
I say, “Look, Stu, if you need to talk to anyone, you know, I’m here…”
“I was driving to Nottingham and back most nights,” he continues, like he didn’t hear me. He stares out the window but he looks like he’s staring out of a car windscreen. “Sometimes I was driving five, six hours a night. She’d lost her hair at this point and was wearing this cheap wig or a turban thing. It made her look weird. She was always tired. I did my best, did whatever I could. The thing was, the treatment wasn’t working. The cancer was spreading. There was this treatment in America that the doctors reckoned might work but it  wasn’t cheap – tens of thousands. Well… I mean, what do you do? So I remortgaged my house.”
I see the fingers of Stu’s hand whiten a little where he holds his chin, like his suddenly tightened his grip. They relax again, he sighs again.
“I gave her the money, twenty thousand. We both cried, it was pretty special. I mean, you don’t often get the chance to save someone’s life, do you? I didn’t care about the money, I only cared about her. It made me feel good, giving her the money. I wanted to. I couldn’t go with her though, to America. The treatment would take a month and I couldn’t get the time off. Besides, I couldn’t afford it. She flew out two weeks later. I didn’t hear from her much, but I expected that. The treatment made her really sick. I wrote to her every day and I did get a letter back, but that wasn’t a problem. I just wanted her to get well.”
I really don’t know what to say. It all sounds so… dark. A horrible place to be in. I’m not always on the same shift as Stu, and I know he’s had some time off lately, with stress, I heard, but fuck me, this is a stressful situation.
I ask him, “The treatment… did it work? How is she doing?”
He taps the bottle on the desk absent mindedly. “She said it worked. She was cancer free. When she came home I took her out for a meal to the best place in Nottingham. She looked so well! She caught the sun, gained a little weight. She still wore the wig but she told me her hair was growing back again. It was like, it was like coming out of a tunnel, you know? We could finally start getting on with our plans, on with our lives. Not long after that she went to the doctors, and they told her she was pregnant, really pregnant. I was amazing news.”
Amazing news, but Stu didn’t look happy.
I cautiously said, “And how did that go…”
He shook his head. “That’s when the cancer came back. She had to take more medicine and she lost the baby. We were devastated, of course, but I just wanted her to be well. I went to the bank again but couldn’t remortgage, so I put the house on the market. I sent her the money and she went back to the states. Another month.”
I’m shaking my head, flabbergasted. “Fucking hell, mate,” I pat his shoulder. He gives a small, sad smile.
“The police contacted me a week later. They had bad news.”
My stomach lurched. Oh God.
Stu glances at me. “The police had been aware of her for a while. They’d been monitoring her bank accounts, things like that. She wasn’t pregnant, never had been. She’d never had cancer. She was a confidence trickster. A crook. I wasn’t the only bloke she’d fooled. She lived with her long term boyfriend in that flat in Nottingham. Whenever I drove back to Leeds she’d give him a ring to let him know the coast is clear. She was just cutting her hair short and sticking a wig on top.”
I feel a bit sick. You hear about these stories on telly, but him telling me like this, it was just grim.
I say, “What about… what about America?”
Stu shakes his head. “She went to Disneyland with her boyfriend for a month. Twice. No wonder she looked tanned and healthy. She’d been swanning around Magic Mountain with her fella while I was worrying myself sick here in this shit hole. Honestly, Luci, shit just happens to me. I’m a jinx. A Jonah. Bad news.”
I shake my head. “No, mate. Don’t think that. Things look shit, I know, but it’ll get better. Maybe they’ll recover some money from that rotten bitch – she might have some of your money in the bank…”
“No. She’s disappeared. Did a flit, no-one has a clue. They reckon she might be in Spain but they aren’t really looking too hard. I lost everything.”
I try not to look to hard at the bottle in his hand but I’m starting to worry. He hasn’t touched his tea. I start to think I should say something, tell someone, but the door opens and Bear walks in. Bear is the maintenance manager, he’s Stu’s boss. Bear is carrying a Black & Decker jigsaw. He walks over to us, looks at the mugs of tea.
I whisper to Bear, “Stu hasn’t touched his brew.”
Bear looks at Stu. “Have you told him?”
Stu shakes his head. Bear sighs. He picks up the mug and gently lifts it to Stu’s mouth. He drinks, some tea dribbling down his chin and across his fingers. He doesn’t move his hand.
Bear puts down the mug, plugs in the jigsaw and fires it up. He then proceeds to cut through the workbench. A few lads from the shop floor hustle in, pissing themselves laughing.
Bear carefully cuts the workbench around Stu’s arm until the piece of wood falls away… firmly attached to Stu.
Stu sighs. The lads are crying laughing now.
Stu holds up the hand holding the bottle. I can now see that it once contained Superglue.
Stu’s hand is firmly glued to his chin, his arm firmly glued to the bench, his hand firmly glued to the empty bottle.
Bear slaps him on the back and pulls him to his feet. “Come on, lad. Let’s have you down A&E and get this shit off you.”
I splutter, “How the fuck did you manage that, Stu??”
He sighs one more time. “Like I say, Luci – shit just happens to me. I’m a jinx. I’m bad luck.”
Bear laughs. “It could be a fuck of a lot worse!”
I say, “How??”
Bear lumbers out of the door, pushing the incapacitated Stu ahead of him.
Bear shouts over his shoulder, “He could have tried to take a piss before the glue set!”


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192. Squiggles.

I’m staring out of the window, looking at the trees.
Whoever designed the factory all those years ago decided that trees would soften the impact of this great, rumbling, shuddering blot on the landscape, so we have trees.
I’ll admit that they are nice trees. Mature silver birch, hornbeam, whitebeam, and rowan.
I know my trees. I know them because I’ve spent so long looking out of windows from places where I don’t want to be. I’ve looked out of these dark boxes onto trees and fields and rain and sun and I’ve wondered, ‘What are those clouds? What’s that bird? What are those trees called?’
I suppose it’s better than being sat in a tree staring into a box full of miserable cunts, but not by much.
Most of the people I work with couldn’t tell an oak tree from a fucking telegraph pole. Intense Ginger Bloke once told me he’d seen a blackbird crash into the window. I looked down at the ground and saw a crow flailing around before flapping clumsily away to it’s roost.
“It’s a crow,” I said.
“No,” he replied. “It was definitely black.”
I’ve no idea what he meant by that, but I didn’t reply.
I’ve stopped replying.
I’m staring out of the window, looking at the trees, when I can suddenly smell jam. Sugar. Sweet tea.
Dimples is here.
She stands next to me, looking out of the window. She has a doughnut in one hand, a china mug in the other.
On the mug it says, “Worlds Best Nana’. I wonder what she’s done to deserve this lofty accolade. I’m guessing it is mainly cake-and-treat related. Both of my grandmothers were pretty shit, if I’m honest. I don’t think you can get a “Mediocre Grandparent’ mug, but if you could, mine would both get one for Christmas, if they weren’t dead.
If people were truthful then they’d sell like hot cakes, so to speak, but how many nanas will want to advertise on their grandkids fat guts that they’re responsible for their terrible health and prodigious waistlines? Not many.
Dimples says, “Ooh, it’s bloody grim out there, isn’t it?”
I say, “It’s not much better in here.”
She giggles. “Y’bloody misery!”
I don’t reply.
I can hear her slurping tea and nibbling daintily but efficiently at her doughnut.
She sucks her fingers loudly.
With another woman I might find this sucking noise faintly erotic, but not with Dimples.
I look down at her.
She grins at me.
She’s got doughnut stuck between her teeth.
I suddenly imagine her naked.
She looks like a space hopper with tits.
I feel strangely faint and my bollocks shrivel and try to hide inside me.
I look outside again.
Does Mister Dimples still fuck her? I don’t reckon so, but if he ever wants sucking off all he’d have to do is stick a Mr Kipling’s on the end of his cock and ring a dinner gong.
Maybe that’s how she got so fat.
Everybody’s happy.
A redwing takes off from a whitebeam tree with a beak full of berries. The tree is heavy with fruit but totally without leaves. They lie on the ground like strips of wet leather.
I look up at movement in the tree.
Dimples says, “Ooh, look! Squiggles!”
I say, “What?”
She points a fat finger at the glass. “Squiggles! There’s three or four of them in that tree there!”
I ask her, “What sort of tree is it?”
I’m hoping she’ll surprise me, I’m hoping she’ll know what type of tree has been growing right outside her window for the last twenty five years, not ten feet from where she sits.
Dimples looks triumphant. “It’s a berry tree!”
I feel disappointed. “Yes,” I say. “It’s a berry tree.”
She’s watching the tree, her cherubic face animated “Them squiggles love berries, don’t they? Look at ‘em! Aw, they’re so cute!”
I look at the tree, look back at Dimples, look at the tree again. “Yes,” I say. “So cute.”
She leans towards me, in full Bun Whisperer mode. “I’ve got squiggles at home too, y’know. I feed ‘em stale buns that no-one wants.”
I say, “I bet they’re fucking starving then.”
Dimples looks puzzled. “Huh? Anyway, I put stuff out for the squiggles an’ sometimes we get fifteen or even twenty! You want to see ‘em, running around and that, having little fights over bits of cake! Oh, they’re funny! My hubby, he says I’m soft, but I don’t listen. No, I love hanimals me. Any sort of hanimal. They’re very clever, aren’t they? Just look at that one holding a berry in his ickle hands when he’s two more in his mouth! Ha ha! fancy! Yes, they’re clever ickle things.”
I rub my eyes then continue to watch the activity in the trees.
Dimples seems pretty content. Yeah, she’s eating herself to death but she doesn’t seem pissed off about it. She’s content with her lot, tapping on a keyboard all day, feeding herself and her children and grandchildren of an evening, giving the leftovers to the squiggles…
I say, “By squiggles, you do mean squirrels, yes?”
She giggles and wrinkles her nose. “Yeah, but we call them squiggles in our house. It’s cuter.”
…giving the leftovers to the squirrels in the morning. She doesn’t see a whitebeam, she sees a berry tree, every tree with berries is just a berry tree. Things are so much less complicated for Dimples – she doesn’t over think things.
I don’t envy her though.
I’d rather be dead than live my life in blissful ignorance. I don’t claim to know everything, but I do question everything I know.
I try. God knows, I try.
Dimples wanders away and I stare out of the window, looking at the trees. I watch the rats climbing in the branches, great, fat grey rats scurrying from limb to limb, gripping twigs with their pink, scaly tails, keeping balance while they gorge themselves on bright red whitebeam berries. There are no squiggles, squirrels, round here – there never has been. The rats have scared them all away.
We have rats, huge rats that build nests in the rotting drifts of waste paper round the back of the factory and swarm in the drains and the roof spaces. We have great, sleek rats that can climb trees and eat berries and shuffle around boldly in broad daylight.
I wonder about Dimples’ garden.
What is she feeding?
Are her squiggles the same as these squiggles?
Does her family sit and ooh and ahh out of the back window as rats swarm and fight and snarl in a seething mass in her back garden?
Maybe they are squirrels. Maybe I can only see rats where actually squirrels cavort.
Intense Ginger Bloke is lumbering past, on his way to the bogs.
I say, “Here, look at this.”
“What?” he says.
“There. In the trees.”
He scratches his arse. “What trees?”
I sigh. “The berry trees.”
He nods. “Oh, them. What about them?”
I say, “There’s something in the trees. Eating the berries. What are they?”
Intense Ginger Bloke presses his fat beak against the glass. “They’re squiggles, aren’t they?”
I stare out of the window, looking at the trees, looking at the rats.
“Yes,” I say. “They are squiggles.”


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191. The Wortley Poisoner

They sit shoulder to shoulder in the Ford Fiesta police car, sipping cold coffee, staring through a windscreen that is slowly turning opaque from the settling dust that blows across the fence from the adjacent quarry.
The sergeant grunts, “Turn your squirters on, Geoff.”
The younger officer presses a button and soapy water shoots over the windscreen. The wipers smear it around, eventually revealing the huge blank wall of a factory. A deep, ominous rumbling sound can be heard within.
“What is this place?” mutters the constable, checking notes on his clipboard.
“Print works,” replies the sergeant. “It’s the report about a poisoning. Could be a mistake, could be attempted murder. You’ll want to go careful in there, Geoff. Trust me. I’ve been here before.”
The constable looks up. “What job was that?”
“Remember that bloke who was cycling home when a workmate decided to run him over with his Mitsubishi Shogun, then try to beat him to death with a crook lock?”
The constable shudders. “Yeah. Horrible. Is this the place?”
The sergeant nods, unbuckling his seat belt and checking his pepper spray and tazer. “Yep. He only got a suspended sentence. Fuck knows how. Had to pay the lad thousands though.”
“At least we won’t have to face that horrible bastard then.”
The sergeant opens the car door. Quarry dust blows in, settling on their black uniforms, turning them grey. “Don’t be too sure, Geoff. They both still work here.”
The constable looks incredulous. “You mean… you mean one bloke tried to murder another bloke but he kept his job?? How does that work?”
“I’ve no idea. Apparently that’s how it works here. You never leave. Don’t matter what you do, you don’t get sacked. They call it ‘Care In The Community’ round these parts. They reckon it’s an easy way of keeping all the wrong ‘uns in one place.”
The constable looks worried. “So what are we going to find in there then, Sarge?”
The sergeant sighs. “Cunts, Geoff. Lots and lots of cunts. Ignore them, if you can. Let’s just sort the job, find out what the fuck has gone on, then get the fuck out.”

They walk through the factory, Cardboard Supervisor nervously leading the way. All around them, hidden behind deafeningly chattering machines, men are screaming. Animal noises, random gibbering, howls and bellows.
The constable mutters, “If any cunt makes a fucking pig noise I’ll break their fucking…”
“Easy now, Geoff,” says the sergeant. “Remember, these people are cunts. All of them. Twatting one of them would get you nowhere. They’re not worth it.”
Cardboard Supervisor leads them to an office with a hand drawn sign on the door that says, ‘KNOBHED’. He grins sheepishly at the police officers and rips the sign off the door.
They go inside.
Close the door, shut out the worst of the screaming.
“Sorry about the… the noise,” says Cardboard Supervisor, fussing around with a kettle and some chipped mugs. “These men are basically…”
“Cunts?” offers the constable. The sergeant shoots him a warning glance.
Cardboard Supervisor smiles brightly. “Exactly! Tea?”
The two police officers look at the grimy, chipped mugs and remember why they’re here.
“About this alleged poisoning,” says the sergeant.
Cardboard Supervisor’s smile evaporates. He blushes, put the mugs away. “Yes, well, this is all a bit embarrassing. It seems that some… chemical… has found it’s way into a milk bottle in the communal fridge. It was discovered when one of the lads poured it onto his cereal.”
The constable is taking notes. He asks, “What was it?”
“Sugar Puffs, I think,” replies Cardboard Supervisor.
The constable stops writing, looks up. “I meant, what chemical was it.”
Cardboard Supervisor blinks stupidly. “Oh. Right. Well, we think the chemical was Varn. A roller wash. Commonly used in the factory but it’s a bit… aggressive.”
He nudges a bottle on the desk towards the two officers. They snap on rubber gloves, open the bottle.
The constable takes a sniff and recoils, eyes watering. “Fucking Hell…”
The sergeant says, “And how much of this chemical was consumed by the victim?”
“Hard to say,” shrugs Cardboard Supervisor. “He’d necked half the bowl before it started to… burn… but we can’t say how much was put into his milk.”
The sergeant nodded. “Do you know how the victim is doing? Which hospital did he go to? is he stable?”
Cardboard supervisor laughs. “Stable? Christ, he’s not stable! Never has been. He’s a fucking head case! I’ll find out how he’s doing though.”
He gets up, walks to the door and opens it. “Mickey! Oi, Mickey? How are you doing?”
Someone shouts something. Cardboard nods, gives him a thumbs up, closes the door.
“He says he’s fine.”
The two officers look at each other, mouths open.
The sergeant finally speaks. “You mean… you mean he hasn’t gone to hospital?? He’s not under observation?”
Cardboard Supervisor says, “He didn’t want to go to hospital. Says he’s scared of them.  Besides, he didn’t want to lose any pay. We’ve got him under observation though. Scorcher is keeping a close eye on him.”
“Is this Scorcher bloke in any way qualified? Is he a first aider?”
“No,” admits Cardboard supervisor. “He’s just got nothing to do at the moment, so I told him to watch Mickey and to let me know if he collapses or anything.”
“Wait a minute,” interrupts the constable. “The victim didn’t want to lose pay? How would he have lost pay when he’s been poisoned at work?”
Cardboard Supervisor shrugs. “He’d have had to clock out. It’s the rules. You’re not here, you have to clock out. If you’re clocked out you don’t get paid. It’s the rules.”
Again, the police officers look at each other.
The sergeant says, “Well, as the victim is here, we’d better have a word.”
Cardboard Supervisor calls Mickey into the office.
He comes in, grinning inanely, red blisters all around his mouth, wheezing.
The police officers check him over.
The sergeant shakes his head. “You’re going to hospital, Mickey, wether you want to or not. Constable, call an ambulance.”
The sergeant talks to Mickey while the younger officer makes the call. He tries to find out if Mickey has any enemies at work who might do such a thing – he comes up with a dozen names.
The ambulance arrives and carts Mickey off to A&E.
The sergeant asks Cardboard Supervisor if he has any idea who might be capable of doing something like this.
Cardboard Supervisor takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. “Honestly? All of ‘em. Everybody hates someone else here. Proper hates them. Dance-on-their-grave hate. It’s for petty shit too, like over-time allocations or which shift they’re on. Fuck me, we’ve almost had stabbings over nicked yoghurts and mental breakdowns over too many spoons. I’ll tell you something – I’m worried that one day we will have a murder, a proper killing. Know why? Because you’d never find the culprit ‘cause every fucker is a suspect! It’s like an Agatha bastard Christie book here, but instead of a posh house on the French fucking Riviera it’s this shit hole, a knackered factory in the arse end of Leeds, and no fucker wants to read about that. If they did, they wouldn’t believe it.”
“What about CCTV?”
The sergeant and Cardboard Supervisor look at the constable, who is scribbling notes diligently onto his clipboard.
The sergeant says, “What was that, Geoff, I mean, constable?”
The police officer looks up, points at a camera with his pen. “CCTV. There’s cameras everywhere in this place, I notice. Maybe they picked up the culprit going about his dastardly business?”
The sergeant glowers at Cardboard Supervisor. “Did you think to check the CCTV? Didn’t it occur to you to point them out to us?”
Cardboard Supervisor grins weakly. “Sorry. I forgot.”

The three of them crowd around a little black and white monitor whilst Speccy Malc from I.T. spools through hours of grainy VHS tapes. Jerky factory workers hurtle across the screen under a fog of fuzzy static. A digital clock in the corner turns minutes into seconds.
“Stop there!” says the sergeant, gripping Speccy Malc’s shoulder. Speccy Malc screams and has a small nosebleed. He stumbles to the toilets and Cardboard Supervisor takes over the controls.
He rewinds the tape, hits the PLAY button.
The time says 5.07am. The camera is focused on an area in front of the store rooms. Nothing moves.
They watch, hardly blinking.
“There!” The constable points at a figure slowly lurching into view.
“Oh Christ…” says the sergeant.
“F..f…fucking Hell!!” says the constable.
A long shadow slides across the wall, followed by a hunched, shuffling figure that creeps twitchily across the screen. It’s bald head gleams in the darkness. Huge, bulging eyes blink owlishly in a wizened, gaunt skull and it’s mouth hangs open in a monstrous, idiot gape.
“What the fuck is that thing??” whispers the constable. He has gone white and sweat springs out across his brow.
“It’s… hideous,” says the sergeant.
Cardboard Supervisor leans closer. “It’s… Pete Crippen. He works nights as a machine setter. He’s been here for thirty years or so. He’s fairly normal, for a night shift.”
The police officers exchange yet another glance.
They watch as the figure unlocks the stores and slides inside. He emerges a moment later with a bottle.
They switch tapes to the one from the camera in the locker room where the fridge is stored.
They whizz through to 5.10am.
Crippen appears, glancing nervously about. He creeps into the room, opens the fridge, pours something into one of the milk cartons. He appears to laugh crazily, rubbing his hands and hunching his shoulders, before leaving the room and switching off the lights.
They stop the tape.
They exchange yet another glance.
“You’d better give this here Pete Crippen a bell, Mr Cardboard Supervisor,” says the sergeant gravely. “Tell him to hop out of his coffin and return to work – we’d like a word with him.”
Cardboard Supervisor picks up the phone, then pauses. “Pete doesn’t really like to be disturbed during the day. He says that waking during daylight hours fucks up his sleep pattern.”
“Probably turns him to dust too,” mutters the constable.
The sergeant pretends not to hear. “Pass on my apologies to Mr Crippen for interrupting his beauty sleep, but we are investigating what might be an attempted murder here.”
Cardboard Supervisor blinks furiously. “Yes. Yes, of course.”
He makes the call.

An hour later Pete Crippen sits at the desk, blinking painfully under the fluorescent lights. Cardboard supervisor fidgets by the door. The sergeant is seated on the other side of the desk, staring hard at the suspect. The constable waits, pen poised, glancing uneasily at the hunched man in front of them.
“I didn’t do nowt,” hisses Pete Crippen defensively.
“Who says you did?” asks the sergeant.
The suspect licks his thin, blue lips. The constable stares with grim curiosity at his grey, papery complexion.
“Fuckers, ‘ere always try say you done summat when you’ve not done nowt!” Pete snaps in reply.
The sergeant sighs. “What do you know about someone putting Varn in Mickey’s milk, Pete? You have anything to do with it?”
Pete Crippen’s long nails scratch nervously at the desk. “AS I say, I didn’t do nowt. I’ve never done nuffink an’ you got no proof that says otherwise!!”
The sergeant reaches across to the tape machine they’ve set up on the desk and hits PLAY. Pete Crippen appears on the monitor, takes the Varn, pours it into the milk, cackles maniacally…
The sergeant presses pause.
Pete Crippen grins guiltily, showing little teeth like a child’s teeth, only deeply stained.
“I were only messin’, ‘onest! I didn’t mean no ‘arm!”
The sergeant smiles humorlessly. “Let’s start from the beginning, Mr Crippen…”

The factory door bangs open and the sergeant storms out, face like thunder, with the constable on his heels. He pulls open the door of the Fiesta and crams himself inside, slamming the door hard. The constable climbs behind the wheel and they sit in silence for a moment.
Dust settles on the windscreen. The rumble of heavy machinery permeates the little car.
The constable says, “You can’t win ‘em all, sarge.”
The sergeant says nothing.
The constable says, “I suppose it saves paperwork, Mickey deciding not to press charges and all that. I mean, attempted murder is a lot of paperwork. An awful lot.”
The constable says, “Funny thing though, what Cardboard Supervisor said. ‘You can’t blame ‘em for being a bit strange’, he said. ‘The job is them and they are the job. The job gets strange, they get stranger’ he said. What you reckon he meant by that?”
The sergeant sighs and finally speaks. “It means they’re fucked up. All of ‘em. Institutionalized. I mean, why would Mickey come back to work like that? He never went to A&E, he just climbed out of that ambulance and got straight on a bus back to work. And that soft headed cunt Cardboard Supervisor – as soon as Mickey dropped the charges he’s offering him over time! The daft sod should have been in a hospital bed but instead he’s doing a twelve hour shift bagging up junk mail at the end of a machine!! And did you hear Cardboard Supervisor talking to that creepy bastard Crippen? He says that they got a rush job on, can he put a few hours in to help out while he’s there! The fucker tried to murder a workmate and they put him on time and a half with call-in pay!!”
The sergeant punches the steering wheel.
They sit in silence for a while.
Then the constable slowly says, “It’s funny though… Cardboard Supervisor talking about murder. It got me thinking.”
The sergeant looks at him. “In what way, Geoff?”
“Well, remember that bloke in the Shogun twatting the other bloke on the bike? It seems like they’d prefer to settle scores themselves, in house, so to speak.”
The sergeant frowns. “What are you getting at?”
The constable presses a button. Soapy water squirts across the glass.
“What I mean is, if there ever was a murder in this place, a proper murder, would we hear about it? Would they involve us, the law, or would they sort shit out themselves? I mean, there’s a couple of hundred blokes here, together they’d be able to hide something like that, dispose of a body, that kind of thing. They got a big incinerator out back. It wouldn’t be too difficult…”
The sergeant says, “Someone would talk. You can’t keep that sort of thing quiet.”
“Care in the Community,” says the constable. “That’s what they call it. It’s a community in there, albeit a fucked up, inbred sort of community. They keep to themselves, they have their own ways and methods of dealing with things. That Crippen, he’ll end up getting done over in one way or another. He’ll be punished, just like prison. They don’t grass, they sort it out… internally.”
They sit in silence, listen to the deep rumblings.
Eventually the sergeant says, “You reckon they’ve done it then? Actually… you know?”
The constable shrugs. “If they have, well, there’s no way of finding out, is there?”
Through the grimy windscreen they see the factory door open. A huge man steps out. He is around six feet ten, nearly thirty stone. He is holding a pint mug that says SEX MACHINE on the side. He stares at the policemen. He takes a big drink from the SEX MACHINE mug. He leaves a wide ring of bright red around his mouth that drips onto his shirt.
The sergeant says, “Reckon that’s a tomato Cuppa Soup?”
The constable starts the car. “That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it. Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
They drive away, fast.
The huge man finishes empties his SEX MACHINE mug.
Goes back inside.
Slams the door.
The rumbling gets louder.


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190. Fisherman’s Friend.

Cycling along the canal tow path in the drizzle, wet leaves plastered on the path and drifting on the oily black water – a bleak and mournful sight.
Crows heave themselves reluctantly into the damp air as I go by, croaking in protest, before landing heavily on the black arms of the lock gates, beaks dripping, feathers gleaming.
There are the train tracks, the factory backs, the crumbling remnants of long dead industry, and there are the fishermen.
Sitting on the sodden grass, hunched under huge olive drab umbrellas that remind me of the shells of enormous tortoises, staring into the chilly depths as if contemplating suicide.
None of the fishermen look happy.
They squat on tackle boxes like portable naughty steps, peering mournfully at the still water, waiting for someone to tell them Not To Do It Again and allow them to go home.
They must have been very, very naughty boys, is all I can think.
No-one gets a bite.
Little orange floats sit still in the water.
None of them bob.
I want to ask them why they do it. Do they hate their partners so much that they’d rather sit outside in the cold and wet for six hours, just doing nothing? Is there a deep seated spirituality to the pursuit that I’m just not getting?
I think not. The nearest thing to spirit in these blokes is the tins of Kestrel Super Strength that lurk near at hand.
I’ve seen these sportsmen necking Special Brew at eight in the morning. They all smoke roll ups. There’s more in their dark depths than perch and bream, I can tell you. Look into the black heart of an angler and you’ll see scenes that would make a Hieronymus Bosch painting look like an episode of The Tellytubbies.
I think of stopping, asking one of these sad men why they do it, but I fear he’ll just look deep into my soul before toppling slowly forward into the inky water without a sound, the canal sucking him down into it’s reeking, rotting belly.
I cycle on, past the derelict buildings and the mills converted to student accommodation, up through the council estate where the fishermen live, past the car lot that sells nothing but fucked motors, on and on until my own factory looms large.
I wheel my bike inside, still thinking about those fishermen. My work is incredibly dull but I have to come here – if I don’t work I don’t get paid. The fishermen… it’s their choice.
I push my bike past clattering machines and howling idiots and I wonder which is more intelligent here, man or machine.
Probably machine.
I kick open a door and wrestle my bike in, down a corridor, through another door, getting quieter, the tick tick tick of the freewheel now the only noise apart from a distant rumble of the huge machines, more felt in the gut than actually heard.
I stash my bike in the quiet dark under a stairwell. I’m a bit early so I sit on the steps for a minute, catch my breath.
Christ, think of all the other things you could be doing with your time instead of sitting on your arse, staring into a canal, staring at the end of a fucking stick and drinking tins?
I start to peel off my cycling things, lay them over a radiator, then start to pull on my work uniform.
“Now then Luci.”
“Fucking Hell!!!” I topple over whilst trying to pull my trousers on.
“Scare you did I?”
I look up. Scorcher is fettling with a light switch, a tool belt slung at his hip. Scorcher is the work’s resident bullshit artist, a liar of professional quality.
I struggle to my feet, say, “Yes, you scared me. Why the fuck did you wait until I’d got my fucking trollies round my ankles before saying anything?”
He shrugs. “I thought watching you with your pants down were a bit weird. Thought I’d better make me presence felt.”
“But you’d already just watched me with fuck all on! You could have spoke up before I got my cock out!”
“Yeah, there is that. Hindsight’s a wonderful thing.” He pulls a screwdriver from his tool belt and starts to work.
Then he says, “Any road, what were you thinkin’ ‘bout, sat there? You looked all… ponderous, like.”
I sit back down on the steps and watch him work. “Fishermen,” I say. “Or more specifically, anglers. Why the fuck do they do it, Scorcher? What makes a grown man park his saggy arse by the side of a canal and just vegetate there? Of all the activities a bloke with time on his hands could be doing, angling seems to me the most pointless.”
Scorcher drops a couple of screws into his pocket and wags the screwdriver at me. “That’s where yer wrong, Luci. Yer angler, well, ‘e’s an ‘unter, yeah? Fishin’ is one o’ the few legal ways yer average bloke can pit ‘is wits against nature these days. It’s the thrill o’ the chase, the element o’ chance, it’s delvin’ into the natural element of a creature an’ seein’ if you can master it. It’s what us ‘umans bin doin’ since time immemorial, like.”
I open and close my mouth a bit. Philosophy isn’t usually Scorchers strong point so he’s caught me off guard.
“My best mate were an angler,” he continues, jabbing idly with his screwdriver at some loose wires. “Stumpy Stan. He were the one who explained what it were to be a fisherman, a stealthy ‘unter of pool ‘n’ pond, river ‘n’ stream. It weren’t enough to just drop a line in an’ wait. No, Stan knew you had to think like a fish, put yersen in it’s mindset, like. Yeah, he lived for fishin’, did Stan, until that day…”
Scorcher fiddles around with the light switch a bit more, pretending to be preoccupied. I roll my eyes.
I say, “Come on then, Scorcher. Let’s have it.”
He turns back to me and scratches himself behind the ear with his screwdriver.
“Yeah, poor old Stumpy Stan. Best fisherman in West Yorkshire, until that day. He just went too far an’ ended up payin’ the price. He got one ‘ell of a nasty shock I can tell you!”
I try not to grin. “What was the price, Scorcher? Did he lose his tackle?”
“Aye! How did yer know that? Not just that though – he lost his fucking leg ‘n’ all!”
I pretend to cough, hiding a laugh. “His leg?? Go on then. What happened?”
“He were out all weathers, were old Stan, droppin’ a line into every body o’ water from Barnsley to Bridlington. Keen, he were. Mad keen. But there were this one fish, famed it were, a great pike that lived in t’ Leeds Liverpool canal. It were known as The Tiger, coz o’ the stripes cross it’s back an’ that it were a vicious bastard ‘n’all. Reckon it were two yards long an’ some ‘undred pound in weight. You wouldn’t ‘ave thought a pike could get s’ big, but it ate owt that cem ‘is way, from other fish to frogs to ducks an’ geese. Some reckon they even saw it drag a fuckin’ swan down once! Any road, Stan got it in ‘is ‘ead that he were gonna catch this ‘ere Tiger, so every day fer a month you’d find ‘im down t’ canal, pole in ‘and, watchin’ the ripples for any sign o’ that monster fish. He were a pole fisherman, were old Stumpy Stan. Didn’t believe in no fangled reels. He said they were cheatin’, did Stan. It were just ‘is pole an’ ‘is line an’ ‘is wits, that’s all Stan needed. So anyways, one day he were out there, line in’ t’ water, when there was this great disturbance, o’ summat massive pushin’ through the water, right towards his line! Well, Stan were ready. Poised. He watched that float bob once, twice, then a third time. An’ it were on that third bob that he struck, pullin’ wi’ all his might, an ‘e ‘ad it ‘ooked! But gettin’ is ‘ook in that fish, well, it almost proved the last thing old Stan ever did.”
Scorcher managed to get the light switch off the wall. He blew into the back of it, checking it over with a critical eye.
I throw my hands in the air. “Fuck me, Scorcher! Come on! What happened then? What the fuck did The Tiger do to old Stan to make him lose a fucking leg??”
Scorchers shrugs. “Well, when old Stan pulled back wi’ his fishin’ pole he pulled it straight up in t’ air. Hit a fuckin’ over’ead power line, didn’t ‘e? Them carbon fishin’ poles don’t ‘alf conduct ‘lektricity good. About a million volts went down that pole, right through Stan an’ out through his fucking shoe. Blew his fuckin’ leg to bits. Daft old cunt.”
Scorcher tucks the light switch into his pocket and puts his screwdriver back in his tool belt.
I say, “So… so a giant pike didn’t eat his leg?”
Scorcher blinks at me. “Course not, y’daft twat. A pike couldn’t eat a bloke’s fuckin’ leg.”
“But… but did he have the Tiger on his line then? Did he catch it?”
“How the fuck should I know? It weren’t like he were gonna try land a fish with his fuckin’ leg on fire, were it? Besides, his fishin’ pole were blown to fuckin’ atoms! You don’t fuck wi’ ‘lektricity, Luci. It’s a fuckin’ killer.”
I nod my head thoughtfully. “Aye, you’re not wrong, Scorcher. You’d know all about electricity, what with your job… Hang about! You’re a fucking machine assistant! How come you’re helping the maintenance department out?”
He shrugs. “I’m not. One o’ me light switches at ‘ome is fucked, so I needed a new one.” He winks at me. “It’s not what you come wi’ that counts, but what you go ‘ome wi’.”
Scorcher wanders off, leaving a hole in the wall full of fizzing wires.
I wonder if I put my hand in there, would it blow my leg off too?
I don’t risk it.
Instead I go to my desk, sit down, stare at a dull, grey screen for eight hours…


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189. Dog.

I am lying in the half light of an Autumn Sunday morning, still half submerged in the last weak waves of sleep that are only just beginning to recede, exposing the flotsam and jetsam of a new day for my inspection.
She says, “I’m thinking of getting her some sort of small animal for Christmas.”
I groan inwardly.
I remember I am forty three and a parent to two children, girl and boy.
How did that happen?
I pull the quilt up over my face and breathe the musty air.
Muffled, I say, “What do you mean, ‘small animal’? What sort of ‘small animal’ are we talking about here? There’s an awful lot of animals that fall into the ‘small animal’ category, you know.”
She sighs, rolls towards me, lifts the quilt a bit, says, “Gerbils.”
I emerge from the quilt with a groan of protest. “Gerbils? No no no. I’m not having gerbils in the house. They smell all, gerbilly. Piss and wood shavings. They sleep all day and then go batshit at night in their wheels and they fuck all the time and then they have babies, lots of babies, and just as the kids squeal about how adorable the little babies are the mum goes and eats them. Eats the babies. Right there, in front of the kids. Nom nom. No. No gerbils.”
She says, “A hamster then?”
I grimace. “Hamsters are just fat blonde gerbils really. Bit cuter, but they still stink. I remember my brother had one. He’d thought he’d got it’s leg trapped in it’s plastic ball thing and he came to me all panicked that he’d broke it’s leg, that it was all swollen and horrible. I went and took a look and the hamster was hunched over this massive swollen pink thing and I thought ‘we’ll have to have it put down’ but then it rolled over and the pink swollen thing was it’s massive knackers. It was grinning up at us with yellow teeth, showing us it’s massive knackers. I get flashbacks sometimes. No, no hamsters either.”
She’s quiet for a bit. Then she says, “Rat?”
I say, “Plague. Actually, no. If a rat crawled up out of the bog whilst you were sitting on it, would you want to feed it? Of course not. Then why bring one through the front door, give him a cage and a bed and call him ‘Mister Frisky? That seems mental to me. I’ve shot rats. I don’t think I could entertain a pet in the house of a species that I’ve shot.”
I close my eyes and watch weird fractals explode silently behind my eyelids.
Another sigh. Then she says, “Guinea pigs?”
“Donald Trump. No? Is it just me? They do remind me of Donald Trump though. Don’t the Peruvians eat them? I quite fancy trying that. Actually, no. I wish the Peruvians would eat Donald Trump. Guinea pigs a bit like transvestite rats, aren’t they? It’s rodents again. I think I have an aversion to rodents. Pest controllers control rodents. It’s like keeping pet cockroaches. Madness. How about a tortoise?”
She says, “You can’t pet a tortoise. It’s like having a pet brick. She likes… fluffy things. She wants something to cuddle and pet and love.”
I go back under the covers again. I lay on my side and I close one eye and in the half dark I imagine I am in an enormous cave going deep underground.
From the cave mouth I hear the word, “Rabbit?”
“Vicious little fuckers, rabbits. Kill you as soon as look at you. Remember Watership Down? Exactly. And those white ones withe the pink eyes? Ugh. Hideous. Imagine waking up in the night with that sat on your chest, ready to chew your face off…”
She says, “Love, no-one has had their face eaten of by an albino rabbit.”
“Always a first time. I don’t want to be that Sun headline.”
She sits up a bit and thumps a pillow, possibly pretending it’s my face. “What then? We can’t have a bloody cat!”
I shiver. “Don’t mention the devil’s name! Bird killers, tar shitters, tetanus-taloned hate mongers. Cats are psychopaths and plot your demise…”
“… and you’re allergic to them.”
“Yes. That too. I once copped off with a hairdresser from Alwoodley and woke in the night to find her three kittens had nested on my neck in the night. I nearly died. She had to call a fucking ambulance. No cats.”
There is silence for a while, a silence filled with one word, a small word that I won’t say.
Why can’t I say it? It’s a word that I usually follow with ‘NO’, but why?
I can honestly say that every time the word ‘dog’ is used I have a solid list of reasons why ‘NO’.
Barking at random shit.
Holding warm dog shit in my hand. (I honestly just sicked in my mouth a bit.)
A right fucking burden.
Cruel to leave them alone all day.
A pretty fucking good list, I reckon, a list to dampen the fires of any pet ownership ambitions, but is it the actual reason?
Something stirs in my mind.
A memory.
I stare into the deep cavern of my bed cave, breathe stale air, pick the lock of something in my mind…
I remember.
I’m twelve.
It’s winter, proper winter, not like the shit winters of nowadays. This is a winter of three foot icicles hanging from fucked gutters, ice on the inside of your bedroom window, milk bottles sprouting frozen milk like a long, yellow-white worm, snow deeper than your knees.
My brothers and I are making snowmen in the garden, lobbing snowballs at each other, taking it in turns to make one of us cry by going too far.
Our dog is bouncing through the snow on her short Jack Russell legs, snapping at snowballs, ice clinging to her fur.
Ou breath hangs in the air like smoke, our cries and laughter are instantly smothered by the silent snow, thick flakes start to fall and we catch them in our mouths where they crackle on out tongues.
I hear screaming.
A yelping, horrible screaming.
I run through the snow, past the garage, down the drive, look past the gate that should have been shut, past the high walls of snow shoveled against the paths by the snow plow.
A car is in the middle of the road, exhaust fumes lingering in the dead air, the driver’s door open.
In front of the car our little dog is lying in the road, it’s back legs shattered, face pouring blood, and she is screaming, looking at me and screaming.
I join her.
I scream too.
My huge, capable father thunders past me, tearing the padded jacket from his back, my mother hustles after him calling for me to go inside, go inside, my father scoops the broken dog from the frozen road, wraps her in his jacket and they get into the car, a maroon Austin 1800 with registration SWL 661J.
They are gone.
I stumble inside and go up to my room, freezing tears covering my face, thin chest heaving  with huge sobs that will not stop, and I kneel by my bed and pray harder than I’ve ever prayed before, pray to a God I am terrified of, a God so real to me then, and I know there’s a fucking good chance my prayers will be answered, and I pray…
Let her die. Let our dog just die.
I had never seen anything in that much pain before, never seen such terror and pain in the eyes of a living thing, and I didn’t want her to suffer, I just wanted it to stop, snuffed like a candle, better to be gone than to endure such agony.
Kill her, God. Kill our dog.
Hours later my parents returned.
My mother carried my father’s jacket.
There was something in it.
Our dog.
My mother explained that there was nothing the vet could do, they’d given her powerful painkillers but my mother couldn’t bare to have her put down.
They’d brought her home to die.
They made her bed up in the dining room, by the radiator where it was warm. It was dark outside by now so they kept a little lamp on, so she didn’t have to die in the dark.
She had water, and her toys with her, and we all said goodbye.
we left her to rest and sat in the other room with the telly on, not watching it, waiting for our little dog to die.
Hours past.
My mother kept checking, we all kept waiting.
It snowed again.
No-one sent us to bed.
We waited.
And then the door creaked.
It opened, so slowly.
And our little dog crawled slowly in.
My mother rushed over and gently scooped her up and the dog pushed her tongue between her broken teeth and licked my mother’s face.
The dog recovered, and lived for another ten years.
I never stopped feeling guilty for praying for her death.
And that’s the real reason for not wanting a dog.
Would I be able to scoop a dog in my jacket from a frozen road? Could I bare to see terror in their eyes and pray for them to live, rather than pray for them to die?
Then I remember I’d seen all these things in my children’s eyes, I’d been the huge father lifting the terrified little one from the ground when it needed me most. I’d been calm when I needed to be calm, strong when I needed to be strong.
I imagine striding along the moors on a morning, the cold on my face and the sun just rising over the reservoir, feet finding paths in the heather and ahead of me the little dog bounds, nosing the path for rabbits, fur ruffled in the wind, sniffing the air, grinning a dog grin with it’s pink tongue lolling like a slice of stolen ham.
I imagine warm fires and soft snoring from the rug. I imagine the pulling on a lead, I imagine talking out loud when we are alone knowing I won’t get an answer, no answer other than love.
I push myself up from the covers and lay back against the pillows.
She lies next to me with an expression of mild exasperation, and I say to her,
“Let’s get a dog.”
And so we are getting a dog.
Don’t tell my daughter.
It’s a surprise.


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188. Mix Tapes.

She is out of my league.
I know it, but that’s ok, I’m seventeen and awkward and geeky and everything and everyone is out of my league.
I’d had a hard time of it at school. I’d been bullied at school for years and this hasn’t done my self esteem much good.
Actually, I don’t have any self esteem. That’s ok – I’ll get some of that later, when I’m an artist, I know I will, but for now I’m focussing on just getting by.
At the moment I’m working in a factory. They print junk mail. I work in the reprographics department.
It’s not what I want to do, pretty far from it, but it’s only a short term thing until I get my art together and when I do get it together everything will be fine, I can leave this shitty factory and paint and draw and…
Her hair is red, long, wavy. She is slim, willowy, and she is beautiful.
Out of my league.
her name is Mariah and she is the daughter of one of my mother’s friends. Our parents are religious, Catholic. I used to be religious, which is to say I was fucking terrified by my mother’s warnings that we’d see the Devil in the mirror or I’d go to Hell for wanking, but I’m not religious any more. Several years of being treated like shit makes a person doubt the existence of a loving God in white robes gazing down from a cloud, totting up a teenage boy’s petty misdemeanors and preparing a cosy spot in the bowels of Hades for him to burn for all eternity because he nicked an Iron Maiden cassette from Woolworths.
Our mothers have been talking about us, talking about the music coming from our bedrooms and whether or not it will send us to Hell. The matter still remains undecided, but Mariah’s mother happens to tell her that her friend has a son who likes similar music to her.
A few days later a mix tape arrives. The sleeve in the little clear plastic case is decorated with glitter pen and all the track names are meticulously listed.
There is the slightest scent of perfume on it.
I nearly die.
I don’t know what Mariah looks like yet, but that doesn’t matter. This is human contact. It is like flashing a torch into the night sky and seeing a little light flash back, bright in the darkness.
I put the cassette into my stereo and my life changes forever.
The Melvins.
Steel Pole Bathtub.
Naked Raygun.
The Dickies.
Alice Donut.
Jello Biafra.
Strange jittery rock, rough and unpolished. Powerful. Exciting.
This isn’t the sort of music you can nick from Woolworths, this is music from another planet. I play the cassette again and again, drinking it in.
I look at my own pitiful music collection and realise I can’t make her a mix tape in return.
I have nothing to give.
So I write her a letter.
She writes back.
I write again.
She sends me another tape.
I am in heaven.
Was I wrong about God?
Was he only just getting around to me? Is it now my turn to be happy?
Some friends I know are going to the pub on Friday and I write to Mariah, ask her if she wants to come along, not on a date you understand, ha ha, but you know, to talk about music and books and stuff, things we have in common.
She says yes.
We meet in the pub and she is beautiful, and yes, her hair is long and red and wavy. She is slim, willowy, and yes, she is beautiful.
She is out of my league.
But we talk and I make her laugh. I have money, money from the factory job, and for the first time I’m glad of the shitty job because it puts money in my pocket, money I can buy drinks with. Mariah has very little money. She works weekends in a record shop but that doesn’t pay much. She’s doing her A levels, hoping for high scores so she can go to Oxford.
I can’t think about her being anywhere else but with me, in a pub, talking, just talking.
We talk about music and books, about art. She has soft brown eyes, a wide, smiling mouth. Her wrists are so thin inside the sleeve of her beat-up leather jacket. She wears a short dress, black tights, Doc Martens.
I love her.
I fall in love with her.
When last orders are called I walk her and her friend home. We walk through the empty silent streets of the town where we have lived all our lives and Mariah says goodnight to her friend, and then it is just her and me, walking under the orange lights on streets I know like my own reflection in the mirror, but there is no Devil in the reflection, instead there is red hair and brown eyes and beauty.
We say goodbye and grin. We arrange to meet up again in a few days.
Her front door closes softly and I float home, my cold breath heavier than my body.
It is Winter but I have never felt so warm.
We meet again, and again.
Just friends.
Snow falls as it used to fall, deep and perfect, the fat flakes hitting the pub window and sliding down, gathering on the sills, inch after inch, and we drink our beers and I look into those soft brown eyes and fall deeper and deeper.
We walk home through the deep snow, say goodnight to her friend, and then it’s just her and me again, walking under the orange lights on streets that are suddenly unfamiliar, carpeted in thick white, muffled and magical.
Snow has drifted thick in the ginnels, two feet deep, way over the tops of her Doc Marten boots and her tights might get wet, she is feeling the cold, so I pick her up easily, carry her through the drifting snow. Her red hair spills over me, perfumed, and her slim hands clasp around my neck. She is light as my cold breath and I am lighter, floating over the snow, and she turns her face to me and kisses me, the first time I have ever been kissed, and there is a God and it is my turn, and it is incredible.
We say goodnight, we kiss again. We arrange to meet soon.
We meet again, and again.
I listen to her music again and again, as if she is singing to me, and nothing will ever be the same again.
We meet on a Sunday evening, just the two of us. We hold hands under the pub table and she tells me about her A levels and I try to think of something interesting to tell her about my job, but I can’t think of anything.
I walk her home, holding hands under the same orange lights on streets I thought were so familiar but now I’m not so sure, and when we get to her house I don’t say goodnight, we don’t kiss, because she invites me in.
Her parents are there.
They’re nice people and I try to show that I’m a nice person too. Her dad asks me about my job like all dads do while her mum fetches me a glass of their home made elderflower wine.
It’s powerful stuff, cold and crisp, sparkling. I say please and thank you.
After polite conversation her parents go up to bed, leaving the two of us on the couch.
I’m suddenly out of my depth, in uncharted waters. I feel mild terror.
Mariah skips across the room and switches on the television.
She flicks through the channels and finds a programme about church renovation.
I’m mildly confused to say the least.
She returns to the couch, smiling, leans forward, kisses me.
On the television they are restoring a church to it’s former glory and I feel glad, glad because God is good, and if he can make this beautiful girl kiss me like this then he definitely deserves a really, really nice church to hang out in.
Mariah kisses me and pushes me gently back onto the couch, then she straddles me. I slide my hands across her dress, over her firm buttocks, pulling up her dress, sliding my hands across her thighs.
She moans softly into my mouth, bites my lip gently. Her moans are hidden from the straining ears of her parents by a sprightly gentleman called Crispin Midgley on the television explaining excitedly how the pipe organ in the church is being refitted at a cost of several thousand pounds.
My cock is aching, straining against my jeans like a dog at a leash. She can feel it, and gently presses her pussy against it, grinding her slim hips as she slips her tongue into my mouth.
I tremble.  A drip of pre-cum oozes from my cock tip, dampening my underwear.
It’s my turn to moan now but good old Crispin Midgley covers for me as he chatters excitedly about pews, lecterns and altars.
I move my hands across Mariah’s body, over her small, firm breasts, feeling her nipples stiffen under my fingers. My cock feels immense, her cunt pressing against it making me panic that I might blow my load right into my pants.
Steady boy. Steady.
Mariah’s red hair covers us, hides our faces, her perfume making my head spin and the blood rush in my veins. I’ve never felt more alive. She sits up, flings her hair back and climbs off me.
She smiles wickedly at me.
Her fingers find the buttons of my jeans.
Oh yes.
Ooh yes!
Here we go.
Thank you, God. Thank you thank you thank you.
She undoes my belt and opens my fly. My stomach muscles spasm slightly with excitement, every molecule in my body screaming in anticipation.
It is the best feeling in the world. I have never, ever felt this good in my entire life.
I moan again and my wingman Crispin Midgley enthuses loudly about the ten ranks of pipes and the wonderful notes they will make.
I owe you one, Crispin.
Mariah slides her hand into my pants and grips my cock. This is the first time a girl has touched my cock and it is simply fantastic, way better than I had imagined. She pulls it free of my trousers and I almost give it the thumbs up.
He’s done me proud.
My cock has never looked so alert, so ready for action. Thick and gleaming, it looks so big in her small, slim hand. She gives it a long squeeze and another clear bead of pre-cum appears at the tip. Mariah is smiling at it, eyes wide, lips wet, her breath coming in small gasps.
And then Crispin Midgley’s face looms large on the television screen.
The volume seems to have increased dramatically.
Mariah gasps. She looks at me.
She bursts out laughing.
She lets go of my cock and rolls around on the couch, howling with laughter.
I laugh too, but I feel a bit sick.
Ha ha, very funny, but where were we?
Tears are streaming down Mariah’s face.
Oh please, just fuck off Crispin!
More laughter.
I look down at my cock.
My majestic middle pipe is starting to wilt slightly.
Mariah can’t breathe, she’s laughing so much.
I don’t know what to do. I know the moment has passed but can’t we just… maybe if…
She sits up on the couch and adjusts her dress. She dries her eyes. She takes a sip of elderflower wine.
I feel stupid, sitting there with my cock hanging out.
I tuck it quietly back into my trousers.
We say goodnight and we kiss in the doorway but it isn’t the same, it will never be the same.
I know that soon I will find out she’s been seeing someone else all along, that she gets straight ‘A’s in her A levels and goes to Oxford to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics, that she never touches my cock again, that I never see her again.
I walk home alone under the orange lights on streets I know like my own reflection in the mirror, the streets where I grew up, streets where I will still live in another twenty five years time doing the same job, as familiar as my old, tired, defeated face in the mirror.
My balls ache like they’ve never ached before and I know there is a God and he is looking down at me. I know he’s looking down and pissing himself laughing, calling over all the angels and ark angels, the cherubim and seraphim to look down and laugh, have a fucking good laugh at the poor twat stumbling home with sticky underpants from his first car crash sexual encounter, going home to listen to mix tapes long into the night, and into the morning, until it’s time to go to work in a grim factory in grim Leeds.
There is a God.
And he’s a right cunt.


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