Never Happen to Me

NeverHappenToMe

(Blodeuwedd [CC / Flickr])

We’ve met before, you and me. Don’t you remember?

No?

Fair play, I don’t think you’d have seen my face and you were drunk at the time.

Let’s see if I can jog your memory. I was in my sleeping bag under a pile of cardboard boxes folded flat in the Tesco car park. There used to be a blind spot in the cameras, between the street and the clothing bank bins. You could doss down there and security guards none the wiser – until they got wise and moved the bins, that is.

The catch was it was right up against the railings, so anyone walking down the street could see you, like you did when you came out of the pub across the road.

I remember looking up at you looking down at me from my nest of old boxes. Your polished shoes were at my eye level, so I looked up your day-job suit to your face with its more than stubble, less than beard that you must’ve spent half an hour a day servicing. You were a man who’d made it back then. A man with a look on his face that said he was ready to take a piss on the dosser under a pile of cardboard boxes.

You didn’t. You just spat on me.

Has a man ever told you he was happy you only spat on him before? Well, remember it. It’ll make sense to you before you’ve been out here much longer.

‘Cause you’re new to this, you are. You haven’t grown out what your men’s hairdresser spent hours sculpting on top of your head, and your face has got that what-the-hell-happened-to-me look that won’t leave you until you stop believing you belong in that bed you lost under the roof you lost with it.

No, don’t tell me why. We’ve all got our stories and even if some of them might be true, none of them matter. Save yours until you’ve heard a few of ours and you’ll know what I mean.

Is the penny beginning to drop now? A little murmur of memory stirring in the back of your mind? You’re looking worried, so I guess it is. Don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you. I’m not carrying a knife and frankly, I can’t be bothered to punch you in the face.

You can doss under the same bridge as me if you want to. If anyone bothers you, it won’t be me or anyone like me. It’ll be someone like you – or someone like you used to be.

Now you remember the last time we met, do you remember what you said after you spat on me? You called me a sponger. Didn’t say who exactly I was sponging off, unless you meant Tesco. Perhaps you thought I should’ve been paying them rent for that scrap of car park they weren’t using. I didn’t ask.

Then you said, “That could never happen to me.”

I see you remember saying it. That’s good. Because like I said, I won’t hurt you. But I’ll never let you forget saying that.

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Persephone Descendent

PersephoneDescendent

(Adrienne [CC / Flickr])

She woke.

She looked up at the tree trunks looming over her.

She rolled on to her side, crunching autumn leaves beneath her. Wrapped her arms around herself against the cold.

She rubbed her eyes, trying to wipe away the sleep that fogged her mind. Tried to remember how she came to this place. It wouldn’t come.

It didn’t matter.

What mattered was to get to where she belonged.

Which was where?

She stood and turned around. Tree trunks loomed as tall as when she was lying down. The low sun struck her face through a gap in the branches, making her blink.

The sun. If she walked toward the sun, she would be heading east or west depending on whether it was morning or evening.

Both east and west were directions. Either would take her somewhere.

She walked.

Leaves caressed her ankles and crumbled beneath her soles.

Some of the trees still had leaves. The end of a low branch brushed across her stomach and sprang free, leaving a yellowed leaf stuck to her hip. As she looked at it, it fell, floating down the length of her leg to the ground. It offered her no answers.

She walked.

The sun slid behind a trunk that was in her path. She stepped to her right to pass it, then stopped to look at it. From this close, it was not reaching up and over her but was a wall of bark and lichen. She reached forward to touch the intricate patterns of brown, green and yellow. Her fingers trailed from the harsh ridges of the bark across the velvet lichen.

No answers there either.

She walked.

The sun sank before her. It was evening, then. She was heading west.

A whisper of wind set the branches quivering across the sky above her. Leaves fell around her out of the gathering darkness. She snatched one from the air and held it in front of her. The day’s last sunlight stained the leaf red around the silhouettes of its veins.

No answer.

She let the leaf fall.

The sun was below the horizon now, leaving only a reddened cloud to mark its passing while the cold purple of night washed the lighter blue of the day from the sky. Yet the trunks ahead of her still framed an orange glow. A murmur of a sound she couldn’t recognise called to her from the same direction as the orange. Perhaps that was where she needed to be. Perhaps that was the sound of an answer.

The murmur grew louder as she walked toward it. She couldn’t hear the leaves on her feet now. It was no longer a murmur but a thunder that came not from the sky but from the ground.

The last trees fell behind her. She was no longer standing on leaves but on something cold and hard. Machines roared past her, some from one direction, some from the opposite. They blazed white as they flew toward her and burned red as they raced away.

She didn’t know how long she’d been watching them when something made her look to her right. A man stood, watching her with his mouth agape.

She looked to her left. A woman was backing away with each arm around a child.

She spread her hands in a question. Perhaps one of these people could give her the answer the forest had denied her.

“What are you doing here?” asked the man.

“Go back,” said the woman, “back to where you belong.”

And now she knew the answer with absolute conviction. She said, “I can’t.”

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Another Man’s Picture Frames

AnotherMansPictureFramesA slight break from normality in this week’s Hooptedoodle: Steve Oliver at The Dark City Mystery Magazine has been kind enough to publish Another Man’s Picture Frames where it enjoys the company of four other noirish tales in volume 4 Issue 1:

White Powder Cowboys by Scott Bell

Backhand by Jay Nelson

Hello! Housekeeping! By Callum McSorley

Hired Help by Steve Oliver

If that link didn’t work, try copying and pasting this one: http://thedarkcitymysterymagazine.com/about.html.

Normality will be restored with a hooptedoodle on this page next Saturday. Until then, enjoy the dark city.

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A Gun at a Knife Fight

AGunAtAKnifeFight

(Ben Zvan [CC / Flickr])

Ryan was just beginning to appreciate his second beer when Jared said, “I got something to show you,” pulled a gun from under his jacket and held it under the table. “Look at it. Just look at it.”

“Jesus!” Ryan shifted his stool closer to the table to screen it from the rest of the bar. “All right. I’m impressed. Now will you top waving it around?”

He took a sip of his beer to cover his movement. Or rather, he meant to. He’d drained the glass before he put it down.

“I’m not waving it around, I’m just showing it to you,” said Jared. “She’s a thing of beauty, she is.”

“It’s a she now?” Ryan could just about make out the words ‘M9-Beretta’ etched on the black metal of the barrel. He hoped Jared wouldn’t ask him to hold it.

“Yeah, I should give her a name. She’s my wife now, innit? Till death us do part.”

“Right. Yeah.” Ryan wished Jared hadn’t mentioned death. “Is your wife loaded?”

“Yeah, course she is. No point in having a wife who don’t bang, is there?”

“Well take your finger away from the trigger, will you? You’re making me nervous.”

“You worry too much.” Jared slipped his forefinger inside the trigger guard and grinned at Ryan. “Relax, man. I ain’t gonna shoot no one unless they mess with me.”

“You never used to talk so street.” Jared had an inspiration. “Look, let’s get out of here. I’m hungry and there’s a MacDonald’s round the corner.”

“Yeah, all right.”

Ryan could always count on the idea of food to drive anything else out of Jared’s mind.

Jared slipped the gun back into the holster at his hip and stood up, one hand holding his leather jacket to make sure it hid the weapon from view. He was still grinning.

As he followed Jared out of the pub, Ryan noticed Jared’s back was straighter than he’d ever seen it before. It was as though Jared had gained six inches in height.

Ryan was still pondering the optical illusion when a pair of hands seized the front of his shirt and slammed him into the wall.

“Gimme your cash! Now!”

The voice thundered out of a face that was in Ryan’s. The face was mostly mouth, gaping wide as it flung demands from between teeth that could bite Ryan in half. Eyes, teeth, nose were compressed into a frame around that mouth of the giant that shook him so the back of Ryan’s head cracked into brickwork.

“Cash!”

Ryan was vaguely aware that Jared was being flung around as easily as he was by this gang of giants that numbered five, ten, twenty, he couldn’t count.

“Gimme!”

There was a knife in front of his face. Or a sword. The blade was enormous, capable of gutting Ryan with a flick of the giant’s wrist, leaving him bleeding and mewling out his last agonising moments.

“Now!”

The teeth were surrounded by lips and hair. Patches of hair. The hair of a boy who had tried to grow a beard a couple of years too soon.

A boy giant. With a sword.

The mouth filled the world as Ryan’s hand scrabbled in his pocket and handed over the three tenners and a few coins he had in there. Best not to leave the coins. The giant wouldn’t like it if he thought Ryan was trying to hold something back.

“Take it,” said Ryan. “Please take it.”

Or maybe he didn’t say it. Maybe all he did was make word-shapes with his mouth. He didn’t know.

Fingers brushed Ryan’s as they snatched the notes. Surprisingly soft fingers. A giant’s fingers should be calloused to the texture of sandpaper.

The giant slammed Ryan against the wall one last time and let go.

Ryan breathed.

Two figures were ran away from him as if pursued by some demon. Not twenty. Not ten. Not five.

Two.

One of them folded a flick-knife blade with a thumb that was longer than the blade.

It occurred to Ryan that he’d been looking down while being swallowed by that mouth, so it didn’t belong to a giant.

Jared looked as dazed as Ryan felt.

Jared…

“Did they get the gun?” asked Ryan.

“The what?” Jared looked as if Ryan was speaking to him in Polish. Then comprehension dawned.

“Yeah, The gun!” Jared pulled out the gun. His hand was shaking so much that it pointed all over the street. “Oi! You two! Come back here!”

Ryan couldn’t see either of them by now. “They’re gone.”

He put a hand on Jared’s wrist, pointing the gun at the ground. “They’re not gonna come running back so you can shoot them. Why didn’t you pull that out when they were mugging us?”

Jared’s eyes met Ryan’s. Jared’s brow was furrowed as if his own words made no sense to him. “I didn’t think of it.”

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The Listening Spider

TheListeningSpider

(Parker Knight [CC / Flickr])

Tuesday evening was when Sharon killed her husband. Wednesday evening was when she found herself talking to a spider for the first time.

“The one has nothing to do with the other,” she told the spider, which was skulking under the television. “I’m not going mad. Don’t mistake polite conversation for remorse. I just need someone to talk to. It’s a big house now I’m on my own.”

The spider scuttled across the floor, thankfully not toward Sharon so she didn’t scream. It shot up the wall as fast as it had crossed the floor and stopped when it reached the ceiling. Sharon couldn’t tell if it was looking at her or not. The fuzz of legs would look the same whichever direction it was facing.

Sharon tried to top up her wine glass, but the bottle was empty.

“All right, maybe I’m an incy wincy bit drunk as well,” she told the spider. “That shouldn’t bother you. I’m still an arachnophobe with no one to call when a spider needs stamping on. Stay there.”

She went into the kitchen for another bottle of wine. She tried to pour it into the glass but most of it ended up on the floor.

“Don’t judge me,” she told the spider and swigged from the bottle.

It didn’t judge her. Sharon was warming to the spider. If she’d known spiders were such good listeners, she’d have told her husband to sort out some hypnotherapy to cure her arachnophobia instead of telling him to stamp on them.

She swigged again. She could see herself booking her own hypnotherapy much more easily than she could see herself getting close enough to a spider to stamp on it.

“I guess that worked out, then,” she told the spider.

The spider scurried along the crease between the wall and the ceiling until it met the junction with another wall. It stopped in the corner, though Sharon still couldn’t see which direction it was facing. Perhaps she’d been too quick to blame the spider’s legs. Her own vision wasn’t exactly clear right now.

“What was I supposed to do?” she asked the spider. “He was driving me up the wall. Completely dotty. Batty. Out of my web. No, that’s not right…”

Sharon thought for a moment but couldn’t capture the word she was looking for. A swig of wine didn’t help so she tried another.

“Well what would you have done?”

The spider didn’t answer.

“Silly question. You’d have eaten him. Disposed of the evidence. Sensible girl, you.”

Something about the idea seemed particularly attractive to Sharon, even if the kitchen still bore the charring from last time she’d tried to cook anything. She’d be living on microwave meals and takeaways for a while. “Evidence. Yes. I had to take care of that without cannibalism.”

The spider raised its front legs. Now Sharon was sure it was facing her.

“Don’t look at me like that. I was as thorough as I could be under the circumstances. It’s not as if I planned it. I told you not to judge me.”

The spider spoke. “Listen.”

Sharon was too startled to answer. All the years she’d been screaming at spiders, it had never occurred to her that one of them might answer her if she told it something about herself.

But what did it mean?

Listen to what?

There was nothing to hear now she’d stopped talking. Not a sound. In a house with a major road at the end of the driveway.

She could see the urban night in the crack between the curtains she hadn’t drawn properly. Darkness tinted streetlight orange. No headlights from passing cars. She put the wine bottle on the coffee table as gently as she could, but the tap of glass on plywood made her jump.

“I took care of the evidence,” she told the spider. “I promise.”

The crash that splintered the front door hurled her to her feet, knocking the bottle to the floor. Red wine pulsed from the neck, spilling over the floor. The waste made her sob. She fell to her knees, reaching to save it.

Hands grasped her wrists. Her fingertips touched the bottle, sent it rolling across the floor leaving a red semi-circle behind it.

“Such a waste,” she told the spider as her arms were pulled behind her back for the cuffs.

The spider didn’t answer.

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The Millionaire Beggar

TheMillionaireBeggar

(Thomas Münter [CC / Flickr])

Fred should have known better than to get into a political discussion with Bill. He still wasn’t sure how their cross-cubicle conversation had led to Bill saying he’d show him something if they went to the café opposite Morrisons after work.

“Look over there,” said Bill, “across the road.”

“Yeah, it’s Morrisons,” said Fred. “And there’s someone coming out the door with a bag-for-life full of groceries. What’s that to do with – with whatever we were talking about.”

They’d started with the Tory party conference, but Fred couldn’t remember why they’d been talking about it or how they’d got from there to here.

“Look again,” said Bill. “What didn’t you see?”

Bill could be irritating, but his cubicle was next to Fred’s at the office and he always had custard creams and he wasn’t a bad bloke, so Fred looked again. He saw what his gaze had flicked past before: a woman kneeling on the pavement with a cardboard sign. The only word Bill could make out was ‘hungry’.

“You mean the beggar? Poor old girl. Fair play, Bill, I didn’t see her.”

Bill snorted. “Poor old girl, he says. That’s a prime begging spot, that is, and she’s got it. You’ve heard about the millionaire beggar? That’s her, right there. She’ll have a wardrobe full of designer clothes at home. She dresses up like that every day to pay for them.”

Bill’s head was tilted back so he could look down his nose at Fred. It was the look he always adopted to share his superior knowledge of the ways of the world. Fred saw that look rather more often than he’d have liked, but he had to admit that Bill wasn’t a bad bloke really.

Fred looked at the woman again. If she was a millionaire, the threadbare coat and faded green scarf around her head were an effective disguise for her wealth. In fact, they were an effective disguise for a human being on a high street. People were walking past her as if she was as invisible to them as they had been to Fred at his first glance.

He focused on her thin face and sunken eyes. They matched her clothes perfectly. “Are you sure, Bill?”

“Watch and learn,” said Bill. “Any minute now… ah, here we go.”

A silver BMW stopped between them and the woman. Fred couldn’t see the driver through the tinted windows, but the passenger got out on to the pavement. His shaven head topped an enormous frame that didn’t seem to get out of the car so much as to unfold itself from it. The flow of people along the pavement diverted as people walked into the road to pass the BMW. It was as if the man wore his own forcefield that prevented anyone from sharing the space between the BMW and Morrisons with him.

Anyone except the woman who was already in the space with him. Her head rose slowly above the roof of the car, as if she was having to force her joints into action after hours of kneeling on the pavement. The man made no move to help her but looked down when she turned toward him. Fred guessed she’d handed him the day’s money.

A look of disgust crossed the man’s face. He shoved her into the back of the car with a hand on the scruff of her neck. He looked even more threatening as he refolded himself into the passenger seat.

Fred couldn’t look away until the BMW had driven off. He felt nauseous as he looked back at Bill. “Jesus.”

“See what I mean,” said Bill. “Must be a millionaire to afford wheels like that.”

Fred opened his mouth to tell Bill that she looked more like a prisoner of the man from the BMW than its owner.

The knowing look formed around Bill’s nostrils closed Fred’s mouth. Bill hadn’t seen what Fred thought he’d seen. Perhaps Bill was right, and it had been no more than a family tiff. If that woman had been a prisoner or a slave, Bill would have noticed. Bill wasn’t a bad bloke, and he did have the custard creams.

 

Inspired by Mark Johnson’s podcast: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06jzcth.

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Non-fiction Review: The Road to En-Dor by EH Jones

CoverIt started as a joke. It became an extraordinary trial of physical and psychological endurance.

It’s not hard to imagine the tedium of a group of energetic young men confined in a prisoner-of-war camp, and the lengths they might go too to keep themselves entertained. EH Jones had spent a year in Yozgad, now in central Turkey, when he came up with the idea of a Ouija board. The shine wore off the idea quickly enough when nothing much happened. A tumbler with two men’s hands on it might sit boringly still, or it might flounder its way between a random selection of letters while both men believed the other was moving it.

Perhaps Jones felt the need to prove his suggestion wasn’t a complete loss as a pastime, because he started guiding the tumbler himself. Over the next few weeks, his fellow prisoners conducted experiment after experiment to prove that the tumbler was indeed moved by the mysterious spook that Jones attributed it to. That, it appears, was their mistake. Enough of his fellow prisoners wanted to believe in the spook that their experiments were aimed at proving rather than disproving its existence.

Jones, meanwhile, was amusing himself by learning the art of the charlatan, seeing how far he could take the trick before he was found out. It was a denouement that he considered inevitable until the Turkish guards started too take an interest in the spook.

At that point, Jones’s idle amusement in his newfound skill was replaced with plans of escape. In cahoots with CW Hill, who had contributed to the prisoners’ outbreak of spiritualism by pretending to be a poltergeist, Jones began to weave a complex web that would lead them both to starve themselves to fake insanity and get themselves repatriated on medical grounds.

Jones’s account would seem extraordinary if it hadn’t been verified by his fellow prisoners, some of whom were in on the plan and some were taken in by it. It is simultaneously the account of an accomplished faker, which should be read by anyone considering consulting a fortune teller, and a remarkable tale of escape. It’s hard to imagine what it must cost a starving man to pretend indifference to being tempted with a plate of food.

But imagine it we must, because Jones’s account skims over the harsher aspects of his story, although he expresses considerable admiration for Hill’s ability to continue to pretend insanity while emaciated by dysentery.

He tells the story in the manner of a boarding school jape, with the Turkish guards in place of dull-witted if generally well-meaning masters taken in by schoolboy pranks. He starts his narrative when he and his fellow officers were well established in Yozgad, saying nothing of his capture in the disastrous attempt to capture Baghdad, or the death march that followed their surrender in which around half the survivors died of disease, starvation or were simply shot out of hand before they arrived at their prisoner-of-war camps.

When Jones speaks of hardships, he describes them as part of his plans to deceive his captors and so self-inflicted. He leaves us to wonder what punishment he and Hill might have faced had their deception been revealed.

It was only after reading the book that I discovered the profound effect it had on the 10-year-old Neil Gaiman, who would go on to adapt it into a screenplay along with the master illusionist and demolisher of charlatans, Penn Jillette. Sadly, their film has never been produced although we can live in hope.

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Posted in Book review: non-fiction, Wednesday Pontification

Seal and Sergei

SergeiAndSeal

(SouthEastern Star ★ [CC / Flickr])

Dawson strolled to the bench closest to the end of the pier and sat down. He pulled his greatcoat around himself and didn’t look at the man at the other end of the bench, who was the only other person he’d seen on the pier.

“If you see a whale out there, wail until you’re a little hoarse, old boy,” said Dawson.

“But if I’m a little hoarse, I won’t be able to rabbit on until I’m too tired to trot off,” said the other man.

They shook hands.

“Sergei, I presume,” said Dawson. “Your English isn’t bad. Quite an accent you’ve got there, but I understood every word.”

“Was silly password,” said Sergei. “Took me all day to get right.”

Dawson shrugged. “Silly bloody place to meet. We can avoid getting peered at without meeting at the end of a pier, what?”

“Peer… what you mean?”

“I said… well, never mind that. What I meant is, here we are sitting at the end of Eastbourne Pier in February when we could be sitting by a fire in any pub in Kent with a double whiskey each. You might be used to Siberia, Sergei. I am not. I didn’t even bring a hat.”

“Is perfect time to meet at end of pier,” said Sergei. You English are afraid of little bit of cold. Nobody comes here in February so nobody to see us. Next time, bring hat.”

“Hmph.” Dawson reached behind his heas to turn his collar up, but remembered he’d done that as soon as he’d set foot on the pier. “As long as we’re willing to waive any hope of ducking frostbite, it’s the perfect place to meet.”

“What you talk about? Storm was last week. Look, no waves today. Today is – how you say? – flat as millpond.”

“Yes we do. Good show, Sergei. But that won’t stop me catching my death of cold out here. Or catching a cold. And then I’ll be the one who’s a little hoarse.”

“No, no, you are Seal. Not Horse. Seal. Remember please. Codenames are important. If your lamplighter chaps deport me, you have new handler who not know you. You forget password, he not know you.”

“Right you are. Sealed in my memory that I am Seal,” said Dawson. “And I do know all the palaver about lamplighters and new handlers. That’s what happened to the last fellow, after all, which is why I have the great fortune of making your acquaintance.”

“Thank you, Seal.”

“My pleasure. Tell me though, how long have you been in this country?”

“Two weeks,” said Sergei. “Still much to learn.”

“I’ll say. You’re going to have to get a lot better at moaning about the weather if you don’t want to get yourself noticed in England.”

Sergei pulled a Daily Telegraph out of his pocket and handed it to Sergei.

“The microfilm’s between an article on Brezhnev’s speech to the UN assembly and a full page photograph of Princess Anne,” said Dawson. “Thought you’d appreciate that.”

Sergei sighed. “Seal, you not talk about what we exchange. What is point of hiding film in newspaper if you talk about it?”

“Well, as I’m not a little hoarse yet, I see no reason not to indulge in a little rabbiting on.”

Sergei looked as if he was about to reply, but thought better of it. “Now we know each other, we no need password next time.”

“No password? That would take all the fun out of being a double agent.”

“Your fun. My headache. No password.”

“Don’t be a spoilsport. I have to get what fun I can out of this. It’s not as if I can dine out on it at my club, is it?”

“No password.”

“Oh, very well.” Dawson stood. “Next meeting, three weeks today. Waiting room at Loughborough Junction Station.”

“Luff – what?”

“Loughborough Junction. Look it up in the old A to Z. You’ll have no trouble. See you in three weeks, if you can manage not to get yourself deported. Cheerio for now. I’m turning blue and have been ever since the east wind decided it was time that it blew.”

“Luff-bruh?” Sergei didn’t look as if he’d heard anything since the word Loughborough.

“Ah well, I thought that was rather good.” Dawson strode away.

He did not look back.

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George and Fred on the Savannah

GeorgeAndFredOnTheSavannah

(Mike Norton [CC / Flickr])

The two men trudged across the dried river bed and back into the plain of yellowed grass.

“We’ll be shedding skin like a pair of growing geckoes if we don’t get out of this sun,” said Fred.

“It’s just not civilised,” agreed George.

They walked for another hour without encountering any more river beds. There was only the knee-high grass that crackled and rustled at the touch of their legs.

“Where there’s this much sun, one should be able to swim,” said George.

“Absolutely. One needs balance,” agreed Fred

A shape shimmered out of the haze ahead of them, resolving into the branches of a leafless tree. Neither commented as they walked past it. The sun floated directly above them as the tree faded behind them.

A rumble of thunder stopped them both in their tracks. It grumbled away, leaving a silence unbroken by their footfalls.

“That sounds hopeful,” said Fred.

“Distinctly,” agreed George.

They started walking again, a little faster than before. A veil of grey cloud raced to meet them, blotting out the baking blue.

Another roll of thunder sounded closer and angrier.

“We’ll have some shade soon,” said George.

“Quite the tonic,” agreed Fred.

Drops of rain touched their heads.

Fred stopped and frowned. “This won’t do. We’re going to get our feet wet.”

“And we’ll be soaked through and freezing cold in two shakes,” agreed George.

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Out of Sight

OutOfSight

(brett jordan [CC / Flickr])

Bill placed the breeze block that Frank had passed him on top of the wall.

“Hold up,” he said before Frank could pick up the next one. “That’ll do for now.”

“What’re you talking about?” asked Frank. “We’ve got another hour to go before the next break.”

Bill jumped down from the platform to stand beside him. “Oh Frankie boy, what it is to be so young.”

Bill tapped a cigarette out of a packet and handed it to Frank, then took one for himself.

Frank held the cigarette up as though ready to put it in his mouth, but made no move to light it. “The gaffer’ll sack us both on the spot if he catches us having a fag break now. They’ve been telling us all week this prison’s behind schedule.”

Bill lit his cigarette and took a long drag. He exhaled through a smile and lit Frank’s. Frank eyed the smouldering tip with a mixture of doubt and longing. The sight of it burning own proved too much for him. He put it in his mouth, his frown softening as he inhaled.

“But this isn’t your normal prison, is it?” said Bill.

Frank shrugged. “No, they said it’s a panop… panoptic… panoptica… thingy. Whatever that is.”

“A panopticon, Frankie boy.” Bill was getting into his stride now, as though the cigarette was restoring the strength he’d expended on placing the breeze blocks. “A big circular prison with the screws’ mess right in the middle and the cells all around them. That way, the screws can see into every cell, all the time.”

Frank’s frown was back. “What, so you don’t get no privacy?”

“Nope. None at all. The idea is that you’re a good boy all the time you’re in here because you’re being watched all the time. Then when they let you out, it’s become such a habit that you go on being a good boy.”

Frank shuddered. “We’d better get on with it, then. I don’t like the sound of that and if I lose this job, I might end up in there.”

He raised his hand to throw down his barely smoked cigarette.

“Wait, wait, wait.” Bill held up his empty hand. “Think it through. It only works with a big outer circular wall, right?”

“Right.” Frank looked at the curved wall of breeze blocks beside them. “That’s what we’re building.”

“From the outside, hmm?”

Frank’s mouth formed the letter ‘O’ as he met Bill’s eyes.

“Comprehension dawns,” said Bill.

“You mean the gaffer’s so used to the usual type of building where we’re all on the scaffolding that he’s forgotten he can’t see us now.”

“Out of sight, out of mind.”

Bill took a slow draw on his cigarette, burning it down to the butt. The look on his face showed he was enjoying every moment of it.

“Got another?”

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle
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