The Clerkenwell Post

The Clerkenwell Writers Asylum is featured in the January/February 2017 edition (#35) of free lifestyle/culture magazine The Clerkenwell Post.  Available in print or online, the feature includes an exclusive short story by Alby Stone, Hyena at the Watering Hole.

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Alby Stone: A Matter of Life and Death, Whatever

Copyright © 2016 Alby Stone

Shackleton was bloody cold. Like his long-ago namesake he had trekked across what seemed like hundreds of miles of ice and snow and had now arrived, hungry and thirsty, on his friend’s doorstep, hoping for a mug of coffee and perhaps a hot meal. He was wearing thermal underwear and socks, thick grey gloves and a quilted blue coat with the hood drawn up. Beneath the coat he wore a white string vest, blue t-shirt, a lined green plaid cotton shirt and a black woollen jumper. The lower part of his face was hidden by a red acrylic scarf. The layers didn’t prevent him believing that hypothermia was imminent. He couldn’t feel his feet and his fingers hurt as the sub-zero temperature played havoc with his arthritis.

Toby Morris opened the door and quickly ushered him inside. The climate inside the house – you couldn’t merely call it a temperature – was a marked contrast to the conditions outside. It was very hot and unpleasantly humid. Morris was prone to bronchitis – or so he said; Shackleton had never known him to be laid up with anything more debilitating than a mild cold – and some years before had formed an unshakeable belief in the preventive use of humidifiers. Within a couple of minutes Shackleton felt less like an Antarctic explorer and more like a man who had unwittingly parachuted into a tropical rain forest. He removed his boots and peeled away clothing until he wore only the string vest and t-shirt above the waist. There wasn’t much he could do about the thermal underpants, not without giving Morris the wrong idea. Morris had enough of those to be getting on with. Shackleton opted to sweat instead and was less grateful than he might otherwise have been for the proffered mug of coffee.

‘I phoned out for a Thai curry,’ Morris cheerfully informed him.

Shackleton’s heart sank. Despite the bitter cold he had left outside, he was already beginning to dream of ice cream and chilled salad.

‘So what was so important that you dragged me over here on a bloody awful night like this? There must be six inches of snow out there already. I slipped over at least five times. I could’ve broken something.’

‘You wouldn’t believe what I’ve just found out,’ said Morris excitedly. ‘You know that woman Jean, the one who runs that little shop down by the river? You know the one, the New Age bookshop with the crystal balls and runestones and amulets in the window. Well, she told me this morning that I’m psychic and would be given a message by the spirits this afternoon, a message with serious implications for all humanity.’

Shackleton’s heart sank further. Morris was highly susceptible to fads and fancies. It was only a month or so ago that he’d become convinced he could win the Lotto using a kind of spread betting technique he’d read about on the internet. He’d spent a whole week’s Jobseekers Allowance on tickets and Shackleton had fed him until his next payment. But the sole ten pound winning line had encouraged him to believe he was on the path to unimaginable wealth if he did it again. Only Shackleton’s threat of violence had dissuaded him.

Indeed, Morris had trodden many paths to enlightened self-improvement and had got precisely nowhere. He’d tried Scientology and several variants, Kabbalah, chanting, Krishna Consciousness, neurolinguistic programming, transcendental meditation, cognitive behavioural therapy – and he was still the same sad, deluded loser that he’d always been. Morris always thought that buying the book or signing up to the course would be enough. Putting in the work never occurred to him. And now he thought he was a bloody psychic.

‘So what happened?’ Shackleton asked wearily.

‘Well, I had a lie-down after lunch, my usual afternoon nap. While I was asleep – except I wasn’t asleep, not really, it was a kind of mystical trance – I had a dream. Well, it wasn’t really a dream, more of a vision sort of thing. It was about you. I dreamed that you would save the world.’

‘Me? How?’ Shackleton suspected that his friend’s dream – the vision – probably owed something to the weed Morris liked to smoke prior to his afternoon snoozes. But he was, he had to admit, intrigued.

Morris was excited. ‘I don’t know. The spirits didn’t show me that. All I saw was this big headline on the front page of a newspaper – Brian Shackleton Saves Our Bacon. There was a big photo of you with that woman, the one that actor was going out with until she went off with that footballer and it turned out he was shagging his manager’s wife, so she – the woman, not the manager’s wife – went to Africa and made that documentary about the starving kids and how sad it was that they didn’t have ice-cream and when she came back from that she went on I’m a Celebrity even though she isn’t one, not really, and she had that big row with the bloke from Emmerdale who only pretended to eat his maggots. You know the one. The woman, that is – not the bloke from Emmerdale. I know you don’t watch the soaps.’

Shackleton didn’t have the faintest idea who Morris meant. His friend’s obsession with celebrity trivia had always puzzled him.

‘Anyway,’ Morris enthusiastically went on, ‘she was giving you a big kiss on the cheek on an open-topped bus with cheering crowds in Trafalgar Square, it had Nelson’s Column and lions and everything so it was definitely there. Is it Paula something? It doesn’t matter. The Prime Minister was on the bus as well, slapping you on the back with a big grin on his face. And the date on the newspaper was tomorrow! What is that woman’s name? You know, the Sun’s always going on about her bum.’

The doorbell saved Shackleton from the need to formulate a non-Sun reader’s response to Morris’ rambling exegesis. The curry had arrived. With food in the offing even Morris seemed to forget that he’d spoken, enthusiastically busying himself with foil cartons and rattling through the cutlery drawer in search of clean forks. He didn’t bother with crockery. Morris was never one to stand on ceremony, unless the ceremony was taken from a book by some tanned Californian with an incandescently insincere smile, was easy to perform, and was hyperbolically guaranteed to enhance his attractiveness to women, his bank balance or his physique. He wasn’t too bothered which – in his case all those things were in urgent need of improvement.

The green curry was too much for Shackleton. Chilli scalded his tongue and made it impossible to taste the meat and vegetables. He couldn’t tell if he was eating chicken or pork, cabbage or carrot. It was always the same when Morris ordered the food. Shackleton ended up with what Morris liked, something much too hot and which tasted of nothing but puréed flame. At least Morris had stocked the fridge with a few bottles of Cobra, now nicely chilled. All Shackleton needed now was a fire extinguisher and a few skin grafts.

‘Anyway,’ said Morris through a mouthful of rice and napalm sauce. ‘I was telling you about this vision. Logically, whatever it is has got to happen before the papers go to press, right? It’s eight o’clock now, so that gives us a window of probably around eight hours in which you have to save the world. What are you going to do?’

‘Me?’ Shackleton was aghast. He hadn’t even considered that Morris’ spirit message might be the genuine article. How was he supposed to come up with a plan? He shrugged. ‘No idea. Put my underpants on outside my trousers? Turn one of your curtains into a cape? Take flying lessons? How should I know? This is nuts. It was probably just the weed, Mo.’

‘Aha!’ Morris smirked triumphantly. ‘I’ve given up smoking that stuff. I read this book a couple of weeks ago, by that Californian bloke, Deepfat Fryer or whatever he’s called, I forget. Anyway, he is anti-drugs – says they block the channels to the higher powers and are an obstruction on the path to following your bliss. And I read that women prefer a non-smoker so I stopped the fags, too. And the garlic capsules and goose-fat chest-rub.’

Shackleton was intrigued in spite of himself. ‘Did it work?’

‘Not yet,’ Morris replied, ‘but that girl in the paper shop where I buy my Lotto tickets smiled at me yesterday.’

‘She was probably hoping you’d hand over all your benefit again. What about the bliss? Is that any closer?’

‘I do feel much happier now that I’ve stopped smoking. Whenever I feel the need for a fag I have a nip of that cough medicine. I’m getting through four bottles a day. Yes, I would say I’m almost blissful. That bloke is really amazing. I’m going to try his weight-loss programme next.’

Shackleton eyed Morris doubtfully. While his friend was not strictly corpulent, that belly would take some shifting. ‘Does it involve giving up beer?’

‘Dunno – it might have to, I suppose. I’m saving up for the book from his website. It’s only sixty-five quid, plus postage from San Francisco. Or is that in dollars?’

‘Does he do a programme on improving eyesight? It might explain how those buggers can see you coming every time.’

Morris narrowed his eyes and tutted.  ‘You are so spiritually unaware, Brian. I can’t think why the higher powers have chosen you to save the world. They should have gone for someone more in tune with their transcendence.’

‘Someone like you, you mean?’

‘Well, now that you mention it, yes. But as a deeply spiritual person I’m above petty jealousy and penis envy.’

‘Mo, if penis envy exists at all it only applies to women who believe in Freudian psychoanalysis. Or are you subtly trying to tell me something about the size of your own?’

‘You know what I mean,’ said Morris sulkily.

Shackleton was saved from an awkward response once again, this time by the telephone ringing. Morris disappeared into the hall, closing the door behind him to conserve heat. Thanks to the Thai curry Shackleton was now soaked in sweat and feeling increasingly fed up. He drained the last of Morris’ Cobra.

‘That was Jean from the New Age shop,’ said Morris when he returned. ‘Wish I could remember what it’s called. She says she’s had a message from the spirits too. They told her that someone close to me was going to become globally important very soon. She said the letter B was significant. That must mean you, Brian. You know, I think she fancies me. She’s a bit of alright.’

Shackleton rolled his eyes, blinking as sweat dripped into them. He muttered an excuse and went to the bathroom. He didn’t actually need to relieve himself but was desperate to lower his trousers and underpants to get some cooling air to his parboiled genitals. As an afterthought he ran the cold tap for a couple of minutes and splashed some icy water onto the overheated parts.

When he emerged nearly ten minutes later, Morris had vanished.

The front door was open and snow was drifting into the hall, though the flakes stood no chance against Morris’ thermonuclear central heating. Shackleton quickly searched the house but Morris was nowhere to be seen. He noticed that his friend’s shoes and boots – Morris never owned more than one pair of each, asserting that too many pairs of shoes were bad for the feet, something he’d read on the internet – were still lined up neatly in the hall next to his own. Next to them was a pair of slippers and two odd socks. Then he noticed a line of footprints leading up the front garden path toward the gate. In each print the outline of five toes was clearly visible. Morris had gone out in a big hurry, barefoot.

Reluctantly, Shackleton put on his multi-layered snow outfit, put the door on the latch and trudged out into the snow, which was now falling even more heavily than when he had arrived. At first the cold was a blessed relief from Morris’ hothouse, but as Shackleton followed the footprints his body temperature fell rapidly and he began to wish he was back indoors. Heavy perspiration and a soggy crotch were surely better than freezing to death.

It was impossible. The snow was falling so heavily and so fast that Shackleton only managed to follow the trail for a couple of hundred yards, up the road and round a corner, before it vanished under fresh snowfall. He wandered around for a further ten minutes but couldn’t pick it up again, so he made his way back to Morris’ house.

An Eskimo was waiting in the hall when he opened the door. At least, that was his first thought. When the hood of the parka was thrown back and the scarf that had covered the person’s face was unwound, the Eskimo turned out to be a short, broad-featured woman with tangled mousy hair and round, wire-framed spectacles. She peered suspiciously at Shackleton – though she could have been squinting. It was hard to tell because her glasses were misted over.

‘Who are you? Where’s Toby?’

‘I’m Brian Shackleton – Toby’s friend? Well, I always call him Mo, actually.’

‘Oh, so you’re Brian. Toby’s told me all about you. He thinks you’re going to be the one who saves the world.’ She cast a critical eye over him. ‘I must say, you don’t seem the type. I’d have thought the Higher Powers would have chosen someone taller and with a bit more muscle. I’m Jean, by the way. I own Arcana, the spiritual shop on the riverside.’

Shackleton’s heart was beginning to get used to sinking. It was bad enough being labelled the saviour of the world, without his suitability constantly being called into question. But that wasn’t important. He didn’t believe he would be saving the world anytime this side of the grave, and he was worried about Mo. He quickly explained what had happened. Jean didn’t seem at all anxious.

‘He’s probably gone out for spiritually-invigorating snow bath,’ she confidently suggested. ‘That Deep Pan Pizza bloke recommends it. It’s Tibetan or something. Or is it Native American?’

No wonder Morris fancies you, thought Shackleton, immediately feeling guilty for being uncharitable. ‘Mo hates the cold. That’s why he keeps this place at a tropical temperature all year round. And he’d never go out without his socks. Mo’s got a real thing about that. Those footprints prove he wasn’t wearing any. He had them on when I arrived. Thick, thermal socks, one black and one grey. And slippers. They’re by the front door.’

‘The socks or the slippers?’

‘Both. All four. Whatever.’

‘That does sound strange,’ said Jean. ‘And I suppose if it was a snow bath he’d have taken off all his clothes.’ Her mouth twitched into a smile and her eyes seemed to gleam at the prospect of a naked Morris.

Shackleton shuddered. ‘We have to go out and look for him,’ he insisted. ‘In these conditions every second counts.’

‘Have you tried calling the police?’

‘What, and tell them to start a manhunt because my mate’s gone out with bare feet? They’d laugh at me. Besides, they’ve got it in for Morris ever since that business at the church last year.’

‘I don’t know about that,’ said Jean. ‘What happened?’

‘It was when he was going through his Christian phase, only two days in. God, that was a bad fortnight. Anyway, he saw his bank manager going in for the Sunday morning service. You know that bit in the New Testament about Christ throwing the moneylenders out of the temple?’

‘Yes?’

‘Good. In that case I don’t need to spell it out. But after that, when he was still on bail awaiting trial for assault and breach of the peace, he conducted a one-man demo outside the police station with a big placard with LET HE WHO IS WITHOUT SIN CAST THE FIRST STONE written on it. Then he threw a stone through one of the windows. He said it was to make a statement, reclaim the moral high ground. He was arrested again. It was lucky for Morris that the judge was a Freemason who knew Morris from the two meetings he attended. Thought he was still a member. Christ knows who nominated him in the first place.’

‘So he got off then?’

‘Bound over to keep the peace, with a hefty fine. I loaned him the money to pay it. That was eight months ago. He still hasn’t rendered unto Caesar.’

Jean shook her head disdainfully. ‘I really don’t think it’s appropriate to be materialistic at a time like this, Brian. Alright, if the police wouldn’t be interested I suppose it’s up to us. Let’s go.’

Shackleton replaced his scarf and gloves and drew up his hood. They trudged along to the place where Morris’ footprints – now completely buried in new snow – had ended, and split up. He took the next turning on the left, Jean took the one on the right.

Conditions worsened. The temperature fell as steadily and relentlessly as the snow. The night deepened. The residential streets, now wholly treacherous underfoot, were deserted. Visibility was non-existent. Shackleton began to wonder if he had somehow become trapped inside a snow globe, the last living man in a world of ice and swirling white flakes. He wanted a hot drink and warm feet.

After an hour of fruitless searching, he was ready to give up. Then, just as he was about to head homeward and abandon Morris to his fate, he saw that he had somehow blundered his way to the High Street. Most of the shops and eateries were closed, and only a handful of hardy souls were out and about, but the Café Świata, one of his favourite coffee shops, which doubled as an all-night delicatessen for the local Polish community, many of whom worked unsocial hours, was still open for business. The staff were usually sullen but the coffee was good. Without a second thought, he opened the door and went inside. And there was Morris.

His friend sat at a table, looking rather bewildered and nursing a mug of peppermint tea. His feet, when Shackleton glanced down to check for damage, seemed unharmed – dirty and pink with warming, but otherwise fine. The waitress, a pretty but tired-looking brunette, brought a filter coffee from the counter and set it on the table. Shackleton had often encountered her. The woman seemed permanently bad-tempered.

She spoke with a heavy accent. ‘You are Brian? Good.’ She looked him up and down, and sneered. ‘He said you would want coffee, and you would be paying for him. Just as well you are here or my boss Pawel would be soon calling the police. Does he always go out with no shoes? No money is one thing – but no shoes? That is mad.’

Shackleton reluctantly checked his wallet. He had plenty of cash. ‘How much do I owe you?’

‘Twelve pounds and sixteen pence.’

‘What, for a coffee and a peppermint tea?’ Shackleton was outraged.

‘No, he has had two teas and also a bacon sandwich. And a cupcake. And biscuits.’

‘But he’s only just eaten a Thai curry,’ Shackleton protested.

The waitress’ gaze was flinty. ‘Then he is a very hungry man. Twelve pounds and sixteen pence. Plus tip. Now, please.’

Shackleton handed over fifteen pounds and sat down opposite Morris. He waved a hand in front of his friend’s face. There was no reaction. Morris appeared to be in a trance. Or perhaps he’d been taking magic mushrooms. Surely he hadn’t spontaneously decided to try shamanism again? The last time his neighbours had come close to lynching him because of the incessant drumming.

‘Morris? What’s going on? Are you tripping?’

Slowly, Morris’ eyes regained focus. But his expression remained blank, his voice monotonous. ‘Brian. You’re here. It won’t be long now. The spirits say that you have to leave the café at exactly fourteen minutes to twelve and stand in the road.’

‘Why the hell should I do that?’

‘Don’t question the spirits, Brian. All will be revealed. You must do as they say. Fourteen minutes to twelve. Exactly.’

Shackleton looked at the clock behind the counter. He had six minutes. ‘At least I’ll be able to get some hot coffee inside me first. Mo, what the bloody hell is going on?’

But Morris was silent, now deeply entranced, staring sightlessly ahead at a point a thousand yards behind Shackleton’s face. Shackleton sighed. ‘Well, in that case I may as well roll a fag and have a smoke while I’m standing there like a lemon waiting for spirits I don’t believe in to tell me what to do next. Honestly, Mo – this is crazy.’ Morris’ features didn’t so much as flicker. ‘Oh,’ Shackleton added, hoping this might snap Morris out of it, ‘that woman Jean from the Arcana shop came round. She’s looking for you too. You know, I think you’re right. I reckon she does fancy you.’

Astonishingly, that too elicited no response. Shackleton grimaced and looked at the clock again. Time was almost up. ‘Yeah, I know. It’s a matter of life and death, whatever.’ The gloves, scarf and hood went back on, and he strode out into the snow, into the middle of the empty road. By the time he’d fumbled the lighter out of his trouser pocket and clumsily lit the cigarette, it was eleven minutes to twelve and nothing out of the ordinary had occurred, unless you counted the continuing blizzard. He inhaled deeply, hoping the smoke would be warmer than the surrounding air. It was a forlorn hope.

Why had he gone along with it? Morris was clearly undergoing some kind of mental collapse, perhaps even a full-scale psychosis. One should never enter an insane person’s fantasy, Shackleton knew that. It only compounded the folly, reinforced the delusion. Not for the first time that night, he wished he’d declined Morris’ invitation and stayed at home.

He stared at the café. Through the window he could see Morris sitting motionless, staring into space. The waitress was leaning on the counter, reading a tabloid magazine whose cover seemed to be given over entirely to a woman’s bikini-clad backside. On the wall beside her hung a framed photograph he’d never seen on his previous visits – a picture of the Prime Minister, caught in the act of slapping the back of a man Shackleton recognised as Pawel, the proprietor of Café Świata. Then he remembered what Pawel had once told him after a few glasses of Wyborowa, that in Polish the café’s name meant –

The horn jolted him from his reverie. He turned to see the HGV that was bearing down on him rapidly, the sound of its engine muffled by the thickly-falling snow. Desperately, Shackleton flung himself to one side, praying that would take him out of the vehicle’s path. At the same time, the driver slammed on the brakes. The lorry fishtailed on the ice below the fresh coating of snow, and Shackleton just had time to glimpse the words written on the side – TRAFALGAR HAULAGE, with a silhouette of Nelson’s Column – before the cab rammed Café Świata at speed, with umpteen tons of goods behind it. No one inside even had time to scream. The façade and interior of the café were instantly and completely destroyed. Splintered wood, broken bricks and shards of glass exploded outward, showering Shackleton. Something hit him in the chest and he reflexively grasped it. Then the two storeys above the café collapsed onto it and the front half of the lorry. The ruins caught fire.

Shackleton stood, open-mouthed and frozen to the spot. No one could have survived that. The driver, the waitress, Morris, anyone who had been at the back of the café or upstairs – they must all be dead. Stunned, he took out his mobile phone and managed to pull himself together enough to call the emergency services.

An hour later, Jean threaded her way through the police cars, fire engines and ambulances, white-faced and out of breath. ‘Bloody hell,’ she gasped, shocked. ‘I heard that streets away. Was Morris inside?’

Shackleton nodded slowly, unable to tear his gaze from the scene. ‘Yeah,’ he said, his voice quavering. ‘Mo was in there when it happened. He told me to stand in the road. And that’s why the sodding lorry crashed, to avoid hitting me.’ He pointed to something that lay on the ground by his feet, a fragment of the café’s painted front. The Americas and part of the Pacific Ocean, a crudely drawn Mercator projection, now singed and fissured. ‘Café Świata. It means World Café.’ He turned to Jean and laughed humourlessly. ‘If I hadn’t been here this would never have happened. No one would have died. Morris would still be alive.’ He held out the item he’d caught when the café exploded, slices of meat sealed in transparent plastic.

‘I couldn’t save the world. But it’s alright, Jean. Look, I saved the bacon.’

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David Douce: A CHRISTMAS MESSAGE

Have you been involved in an Annunciation? Was it the Angel’s fault?

Slipped on a marble floor when surprised by a sudden angelic apparition?

Involved in a disputed paternity case? Struggling with census forms?

Need to prove virginity?

Gold, Frankincense & Myrrh, Solicitors, can help.

Operating on a no-miracle, no-fee basis, we will assemble the facts of your case, add some myths, and create an absurd but convincing story.

Don’t take our word for it – we’re solicitors after all. Read the testimonials from our clients –

Three Kings, from Orient, say ‘Our alleged stalking, when in fact we just happened to be going the same way as the Star, was dismissed thanks to G F & M. God bless them.’

Mr. S., member of a farmer’s co-operative, says ‘I was accused of failing to watch my sheep, in accordance with DEFRA 897/5/2 para 18 subsection 8 & 9, while seated. G F & M produced evidence of glory being shone around, and I was awarded compensation and tidings.’

Premier Inns say – ‘G F & M established that over-booking is acceptable practice in the leisure trade, and provision of accommodation of a lower standard than originally booked may be allowed, notwithstanding the double-booking of the stable with a troupe of talking animals.’

NHS Midwifery Service say – ‘Pressure on swaddling services, especially during periods of high demand, results in some services being less than optimal, but the use if the term ‘meanly’ was considered to be unjustifiable. But lessons have been learnt, and a new layer of management installed.’

And remember, G F & M aren’t just there for annunciations and Christmas.

Mr. P.P. – a Roman Governor – says ‘ I was held liable for misuse of scaffolding, but G F & M washed my hands of all liability.’

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David Douce: PRONUNCIATION IN E3

Well, at first I thought we’d had a pigeon get in. All that flapping and banging, then the feathers. It wouldn’t be the first time. All it takes is someone to leave a window or a door open, and the little buggers get in, crapping on the furniture and banging around in both senses of the word.

Up to then it had been a normal day. I’d lost one of my new nails in the dog’s breakfast, but he seemed happy with the extra crunch in it. Tea, Rice Krispies, let Sparta out for a piss. Sparta’s half Staffie, half bloody Dingo if you ask me. Keeps the cats out of the garden though, apart from once or twice when the cats got in but never left, at least not under their own steam. But he’s a good guard dog, loves kiddies, except this time he just went and cringed under the stairs. I tried to tempt him out with a Twix, but he just lay low, whimpering. The only time I’d seen that before was when we got the settings wrong on that electric training collar, he’s still got the bald patch if you look.

So, anyway, like I was saying, there was this flapping and I could feel the rush of wind through the house. And there he was, right in front of me, great blue wings outstretched, and making this gesture at me with two fingers. Get a lot of that down Roman Road. Normally that’s with the back of the hand towards you, and the fingers not touching, but he did it the other way round, if you know what I mean. He was certainly good looking, I’ll give him that, even with the wings. I’d have obliged, even if he did it the other way round. Had these wonderful blue eyes, matched his wings, and long golden flowing hair. Very peaceful, after the flapping and banging.

I thought perhaps he had something written in biro on the back of his hand, like you do – you know, a mobile number or a reminder for the shopping. He looked at his hand, frowned a bit, and said

‘Erm, sorry to bother you, but how do you pronounce your name? I don’t think I’ve seen it before.’

I thought – well, where’ve you been matey. Half the girls round here.

So I said it carefully ‘Al-yesh-a’. Slow so he could pick it up.

‘Ah well’ he said ‘Mine is Gabriel. I am the angel Gabriel.’ I mean, he can be a bit sniffy about my name if he likes, he’s got a girl’s name. What’s that about.

‘Pleased to meet you Gabrielle. But how did you get in? We’ve got two Banhams on the front door, and the chain.’

‘Difficult to explain.’ Lovely smile he gave me.

‘Move in mysterious ways, do you?’ We both laughed. I thought – this is going rather well, just keep Sparta out of it, he could do those wings a bit of damage if he gets excited.

‘I am a messenger, sent with great news.’ Then he went quiet. It’s like on Strictly, or the Bake-Off, you know, when they are going to tell you who gets kicked off this week, they all do the long pause. I thought, he’s going to change that right hand, point at me, and say ‘You’re fired!’. I was waiting for the music, that sort of tense drumming or something like that, but instead there was this gentle sound of choirs and harps, then this little flying baby appeared with a trumpet. The Lottery, that must be it, Euro-Millions! I’m racking my brains to remember where I put the ticket. Buy me Mum a house, Range Rovers all round, I’ll be a VIP!

What a let down! He looks at me and says ‘You are with child by the Holy Ghost.’ Now, my JayDee – actually we call him JD because that’s where he lifts his clothes from – to the best of my knowledge has five kids by various young and not so young ladies dotted around Tower Hamlets. Five that are known to Social Services, put it that way. That’s why I made him have the snip. Otherwise he’d be on his way to a full first team by now. I wasn’t having none of that.

‘And he will be the Saviour of Mankind!’

So, I just sort of went ‘Naaah!’ and said ‘Oh no I’m not.’ And I thought, this is panto, those voices will stop singing and go ‘Oh yes you are.’ But he did another one of those little smiles – I kid you not, it was like watching Daniel Craig doing the James Bond pout – and said that I was a bless head amongst women. Leave that out, I thought, don’t know what he’s on about now.

Sparta was getting a bit fidgety by this time, I could hear the low growl that means trouble. I was thinking – dog bites messenger is the least of my problems, what’s JD going to say when he gets back? Me, expecting to give birth to the saviour of mankind. He’ll go ape. But it was like Gabrielle was reading my mind.

‘Be not afraid.’ He says.

‘Easy for you to say,’ I tell him ‘ You probably won’t be here when he gets back with a couple of new track suit bottoms. Can’t see you sticking around to tell him.’

Just as I thought, typical man, do a runner before the trouble starts. He says ‘Oh look, here’s the Host.’ Like he’s surprised. And I don’t know how many identical creatures with blue wings like his appeared around him, and with a few flaps they was off. Sparta tried to nip them in the air, like he does with the parakeets down on the park, but they just shot upwards. The ceiling didn’t seem to be a problem to them. Bit of a rattle from the chandelier, but JD never fixed that on properly.

That was it. Land, flap, thank you M’am. It’ll just be me, Sparta, JD if he sticks around, and the saviour of mankind. I shouted out after him – ‘Do we get a new buggy out of this? I want a new Maclaren!’ I mean, I think that’s the least you can expect. ‘What do I put on the birth certificate?’ Sparta was barking along with me by now. ‘Father’s occupation?’

So I sit down again, have a nice cup of tea and the Twix that Sparta didn’t finish. JD gets home and I tell him that I had a visitation from Angel Gabrielle and a host of slightly less important angels, and he just looks at me in that scary way he has and says – ‘You been smoking my stuff again?’

‘Naah, course not. Only a bit.’ I says.

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David Gleave: A MISSED OPPORTUNITY

There was a loud clanging sound and the space station reverberated horribly. ‘My God, we’ve been hit by something,’ said Mariah.

‘It sounded as if it might have been quite big, better check the systems for any damage,’ said Captain Shepherd.

Mariah floated over to the bank of consoles and checked the readings anxiously. ‘Everything seems in order, Captain.’

‘Phew. But can you hear something tapping?’

‘Yes, I can, it sounds like something is flapping against the ship.’

‘As if in a breeze?’

‘Yes, shame that isn’t possible up here. Listen, there seems to be a pattern. Tap, tap, tap … tap … tap … tap … tap, tap, tap.’

‘You’re right. It’s like some sort of weird code. Three short taps, three long taps, followed by three short taps. Any idea what it means?’

‘None whatsoever.’

‘Check the external monitors, is there any visible damage?’

‘No. Wait. Oh my goodness, that isn’t possible.’

‘What is it?’

‘There’s someone in a space suit clinging to the side of the craft.’

‘Have you overdosed on the “wake up” pills again? I warned you about that last time.’

‘See for yourself, Captain.’

‘That simply isn’t possible, we’re orbiting two hundred miles above the Earth’s surface.’

‘I’ll open the outer lock.’

‘Wait. We need to think about this. It could be an alien.’

‘You’ve been watching too many of those old movies, Captain.’

‘A terrorist then?’

‘You just said it yourself, Captain, we are two hundred miles above the Earth.’

‘They’ll stop at nothing to infiltrate our way of live, bent only on destruction.’

‘You’ve been reading the “Daily Mail” again, haven’t you? We can’t leave him, or her, out there doomed to certain death, we must open the portal and let him, her, it, whatever, in. It’s the only decent, human, thing to do.’

‘I may live to regret this but, very well, open the portal.’

Mariah, busied herself at the console, and then donned her full suit. ‘I’ll go to the inner portal to help them, whoever they are, in.’

Captain Shepherd set about updating the log, fretting that he’d just agreed to let a three eyed, green monster with ferocious talons into the space station, or, worse, a bogus Syrian asylum seeker. Mariah returned a few minutes later, bringing with her someone, something, else, it was difficult to tell much about this stranger until they had struggled out of their suit. It was a man, but not as Mariah and Captain Shepherd knew it, for he had wings, white feathery things growing from between his shoulder blades. Mariah reached out, as if hypnotised, to feel them – yes, they were definitely wings.

‘Thank you,’ said the creature in front of them ‘not my smoothest landing but it’s very awkward in this suit.’ Mariah and Captain Shepherd floated, speechless, ‘sorry if I startled you.’

Mariah was the first to gather her wits, sort of. ‘But who, what, how …?’

As you can tell, her wits were only partially gathered but it was better than Captain Shepherd had managed as he had passed out and was floating like a dead fish at the top of the control room.

‘My name is Gabriel and I have been sent by The Lord with a message for Mary.’

‘I’m Mariah, will I do?’

‘You go by many names, Mary. You are known as Maria, Marie, Miryam, Mariam, and, indeed, Mariah, I could go on. But hereinafter you will be known as the Mother of the Son of God.’

‘Sorry, but I’m really not following you.’

‘No, clearly, let me explain it to you more clearly. You should kneel.’

‘Kneeling is really a bit tricky when you are weightless, will this do?’

Mariah adopted a kneeling sort of position whilst floating in space.

‘It will have to,’ said Gabriel, ‘I’ll introduce myself properly this time. Greetings, you who are highly favoured, The Lord is with you.’

Mariah might have crossed herself and answered ‘and also with you’ at this point but none of that had been invented yet.

Gabriel continued ‘do not be afraid, Mary.’

‘Mariah,’ she corrected him.

‘Do not be afraid, Mariah, you have found favour with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son and you are to give him the name Jesus.’

‘I’d like to pick you up on a few points there,’ Mariah interrupted ‘first, I’m not pregnant, I’m a virgin, see I’m wearing the ring, I’m saving myself for my Joseph,’ she went all dreamy at the mention of his name, ‘second, I’m not too keen on the name “Jesus” and third, I don’t know what makes you think you’ve got the right to tell me my own child’s name. We’ve moved on a bit from the days when a man could just …’

‘I’m an angel,’ Gabriel corrected her.

‘Whatever, there is such a thing as feminism you know and I’ll decide what my baby is called, thank you very much.’

Gabriel sighed as if to say ‘Why me? Why her?’

‘When is this baby going to be born anyway?’ Mariah asked.

‘Towards the end of December.’

‘Well that isn’t going to happen, I’ve got another four months up here before I return to Earth and I’m definitely, definitely, not doing it with him,’ she said gesticulating towards Captain Shepherd, still floating, oblivious, amidst the ducts and cables at the top of the room.

‘You won’t have to do it, as you put it, with anyone, The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.’

‘Did you do Biology at school? I did and I can assure you that isn’t how it works.’

‘This is an exceptional circumstance and I can assure you that, just this once, that’s how it will work.’

‘I’m not going back to Earth in August, obviously pregnant, after spending the last six months up here alone with him,’ she gesticulated again ‘and that’s my last word on the subject. You’ll have to find some other mug for your sordid little scheme.’

‘But…’

‘No,’ she waggled her purity ring in Gabriel’s direction ‘now get your suit back on and bugger off wherever it is you came from.’

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David Douce: THE HS just BC TOWER

The lift was rising to the 27th floor – limited access. This lift didn’t stop at the inferior levels, where ranks of screens glowed their eerie blue light, rows of electric dominoes waiting for a single push. It could stop at the retail floor, hairdresser, dry cleaner, but just
if you had the right code. Otherwise, express only to the 27th floor.

The lift doors breathed open. She entered the office which didn’t look like an office, and sat at the desk which didn’t look like a desk. Thank heavens for designers, she thought. Then said it out loud.

‘I’m so glad you said that.’ A voice from the far off reaches of the room. She had her reading glasses in place, so the rest of the room was a blur – but a very blue blur, not the usual white.

‘How did you get in? I’ll call security. You know you’ll be on the CCTV.’

‘Lo, I come on a sunbeam!’ he pointed out of the glass wall at the end of the office which didn’t look like an office.

‘I think you’ll find that you’re pointing at the landing lights for City Airport. Are you collecting for charity or something? Is that it? Save our feathered friends, no cruelty to parrots, swans who live outside the Levi Strauss factories? Indigo pollution, is that it?’ With the glasses off, she saw the huge blue wings extended across the window – sorry, glass wall.

‘I bring you glad tidings.’

‘We don’t do tidings here. Big data, probabilities, percentages, yes, tidings, no. Glad or otherwise.’

A couple of little flaps of his wings, and he produced a single white lily which he handed to her.

‘Stopped at the garage on the way in, did you?’

He knelt in front of her, and offered her the lily. It was a while since anyone had done this for her.

‘You have been chosen to bring forth the saviour of mankind, to be blessed amongst women, the son of God. You are with child.’

She blushed slightly beneath the make-up.

‘Look, if you’ve picked up on that Twitter story about the house-boy in the Gambia, it’s a fabrication, put out by someone who’s out to get me. He was just collecting the clothes for washing and got a bit too enthusiastic about it. Just a misunderstanding. It’s what they do in their tribes or whatever. I hadn’t heard him described as a god before, but thinking about it I can understand the mistake.’

‘No, that one hasn’t reached us yet. I am Gabriel, messenger…’

‘Oh, I see, it’s a delivery? I know Amazon are using those drones now, but I hadn’t figured they looked like this.’

‘No, the delivery will be around the end of December.’

She tapped the iPod on her not-a desk, opened the calendar app.

‘Well’ she said, ‘what a neat coincidence, looks like I have a clear window for a week around then, 24th or better 25th, that suit you?’

‘Indeed, what a coincidence, almost a miracle. Delivery should be within thirty minutes either side of midnight, traffic permitting.’

The powerful blue wings flapped again, the glass walls revealed a host of tubby flying babies with trumpets, more than could be counted in even the biggest of data fields. Then he was gone.

She made notes for her PA. ‘ Find nanny end December. Check if Vivienne Westwood are doing any swaddling clothes this season. Something edgy. Cancel winter break in the Gambia. A manger – see if Pret are doing any. Get me the gold price projections for year end. Frankincense and Myrrh – should be on the commodities exchange. Maybe hedge against any downside.’

‘So, all good’ she said, ‘just time for a double skinny pumpkin latte with caramel and sweetener before my 8.30.’

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James Holden: Some thoughts on the 2015 National Short Story Award

Like last year, I thought I’d post my thoughts about the BBC’s Short Story of the Year competition. If you’re not familiar with it, this award is open stories that have previously been published or authors who have a track record of publication.

One of the reasons that they manage to get profile for the award is the profile of the nominees, proving that short stories are not just a niche form of writing. Mark Haddon, who wrote the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night takes top billing on the press release this year, but the shortlist also includes what is surely the most talked about short story of the past couple of years – Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.

Unlike Norman Tebbitt or the Daily Mail, I have no problem with the subject matter. As a story it’s interesting because you know exactly what the main event in the story is because of the title, but it still remains a compelling read, as the narrator considers the implications of what an intruder to her home is planning to do. It’s the most dramatic story on the list, as well as being the most thought provoking but Mantel makes it much more than a polemic. The level of detail and description slowly draws you in as it moves towards the ending, and it’s as much about how the narrator relates to the intruder as it is about how they both relate to the then Prime Minister.

I was a little underwhelmed in the characters at the heart of Jonathan Buckley’s Briar Road, recounting a visit by a clairvoyant to a family whose daughter is missing and are seeking clues as to whether she is alive or dead. The characters felt a little underdeveloped and a bit predictable, apart from the clairvoyant. She was very matter of fact about her skills, and she was certainly a perceptive narrator, picking up on small details from the house and the family dynamics and using it to crack open emotion at the heart of this sad story. The final scenes in which she converses alone with the mother were beautifully understated and created a very powerful story.

The characters felt much more interesting and well-round in Mark Haddon’s Bunny, the story of a morbidly obese man with an increasingly restricted worldview. The opening paragraphs were a riotously sensuous description of different foods, seducing the reader (it made me feel hungry, at any rate) before launching into the story of Bunny’s life. It was a warm story, with plenty of empathy for the two characters at the heart of the story, who were damaged by relations with other family member in different ways. It was one of those stories about what happens when two very different characters together, saving the real action for the very sad ending.

Broderie Anglaise by Frances Levison also had beautifully drawn characters. It’s about the tension that emerges between a woman and her mother as they prepare to go to a relative’s wedding. There are some wonderful turns of phrase and wry observations, and the excellent supporting characters don’t overwhelm the relationship that lies at the heart of this story. The premise is simple and allows Levison to focus on her characters and allow them to air grievances that have built up between them. There’s a wonderful interplay between the two of them that leads up to what I thought what was a killer line to finish up on that summed up not only the whole story but also their relationship.

The funniest story on the list was easily Do It Now, Jump The Table by Jeremy Page. It’s about a man who travels to Wales to spend the weekend with his girlfriends very bohemian parents and the tensions that result, between the man and his girlfriend and her parents. It was a little obvious where it was going, but that just added to the discomfort felt on behalf of the narrator. Given the bohemian nature of the couple (I really don’t want to give it away) there was just the right amount of description, and it was a wonderfully subtle piece that managed to stay grounded in reality. I also think that out of the shortlist, Page managed to make his title work hardest.

Overall, I think my favourite story was Do It Now, Jump The Table – I’m going to be honest and admit that in part it’s because of my preference for humorous stories,. But the characters were well drawn and the writing had a wonderful understated quality. There was a line that Page could have crossed to push the parents into a ridiculous figures but he managed to stay just the right side of the line to create something funny and warm.

That said, they are are all worth checking out, and you can find all five shortlisted entries being read on the Radio 4 website here.

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