New Writing In Various Forms, edited by Michael Blackburn

The Review is now on permanent sabbatical.

Many thanks to those who contributed.

The rest, as the man said, is silence.

Monday 10 March 2008

Mustard - A Short Story By Alan Beard

If I listen very hard I can hear the trains half a mile away beyond walls, roads and muffling trees. Julie might be on one, her gang of sixth formers taking over the carriage. Nearer there's the road at the end, maybe that's Annie en route to work in her new Fiat. The fat glued-in homework books of her charges will slip about on the back seat. Or maybe, as deputy head, she doesn’t do much marking now.

If ever I had anyone in mind, the ideal imprinted somehow years back, she was it. Knew from our first holiday in Wales, before that. But those days sealed it: lying in secret coves with her, brushing the sand and shell chips from her soles and under toes. Her ankle in my palm. At night we entwined in our tent until we were driven off the hillside by rain, to a caravan where we listened to the radio, the rain drum, and smoked. We spent the evenings in pubs, gingery pints with dirty foam, Annie drawing men’s looks. (I got used to that over the years.) Over a rickety table with Wem beer mats, under a window framing the rain lashed bay, we said maybe we’ll have a go at it. How she put it.

There was a funfair there, Seaside Terrace, and we’d go on the Cage between downpours. Annie next to me was pinned by centrifugal force against the wet metal, her hair whipped back and up, her streaming eyes crinkled as we span round. Fair, sky, fair, sky, held above the world before we plunged, to lie amongst the lights and crowds, almost dreaming the moment as I am now, lying similarly, trying to arrange my innards by willpower. My messy organs slip. Pain melts my back, or maybe the pain’s not there, maybe it’s my brain leaking, my lungs packing up, my heart. Something is taking me bit by bit.


Any day now I will be a grandfather. I wasn’t told directly. Sue, who I don’t see much of, thought Annie had rung me, so I didn’t know for a few months. I thought she’d just got fat when I saw her, until she said. ‘well what do you think, then, from the bump, a boy or a girl?’ I hardly know the thin bloke she married. He has long hair, looks frail. He looked incapable of impregnating anyone me and Annie suggested to each other at Sue’s wedding. We did chat a bit. First we had that awkward moment as we met at the buffet table, she still counted calories, her not-so-new husband in the background as she said, ‘hi Phil, how’s things?’ A little purse of the lips at the end, almost flirty I thought. ‘OK,’ I was wary but I wanted to speak, I wanted to stand once more in her good looks.

We were talking and laughing over the same things, and it was like being back in the early 80s, that easiness. For a moment I thought I would ask her back but I stopped myself in time and stuffed cake instead. I watched my daughter with her friends, pink fat arms around her shoulders, posing for cameras and strobed in flashlights. We talked then of possible grandchildren - Annie didn’t like the idea of being a grandmother, felt old. I wondered how much I’d see of any hypothetical child. And now, if I survive, if I’m ambulanced out of here? I’ll probably be known of, but little visited. That’s how it used to be with our two. She took them with her, everything sticks to Annie.

Met her at a final year party. Another Girl, Another Planet, followed by the Buzzcocks as I made my way across, drink in hand, stopped, unable to get through the crush of bodies. A group joined hands and sang the Doctor Who theme. Then some different music came on, some soul I’d never heard poured through the crowd, pulsed, and colours opened up to me, patterns repeating as I went over to her. She seemed bright, contained amongst the tipped up bottles, half rolled spliffs and piled high ashtrays. There was a slew of black vinyl by her feet, somebody beside her examined the gatefold sleeve of the latest Floyd album, The Wall was it? She remembers Roxy Music and Blondie being on. I stood in front of her swaying. I said/sung, ‘Long journeys wear me out.’

‘So you’ve sampled the spiked punch then,’ Her first words to me, a sardonic look as I stood thinking of my move across to her, through the music, my body catching up with itself, over and over. Think of it now as I bleed (or have I stopped), coagulate on the floor, my move towards her, what line to try, what would get to her, smiling back at the people who drunkenly intervened to wish me luck in the real world. The music that started when I reached her was Talking Heads, The Great Curve; I swayed over her looking down into her upturned eyes, the sober little smile.

She was in her first year, doing teacher training at the campus across town. Two years to go. I used to go across to the students’ common room there, watch her talk with her mates, files on their laps, when they came back from TP, exhausted. Secretly I turned down a job in London to stay around. On our first date, my exams and her TP nearly over, after listening in her room to some Bowie, hissy due to her poor cassette player, we walked down from her terraced house in Selly Oak and came across the hospital fete, and we stayed amongst its stalls. Belly dancers and flamenco out on the sports field. Some local bigwig cracking jokes over the PA system, the punch line lost to crackle. The sun seeming to take and give energy, blurring her body into the day. ‘I’d like to say we enjoyed that,’ piped into the air as the belly dancers finished, and the one nearest me lost her smile and looked down at the bell around her ankle. Their silky trousers billowed as they got down off their toes and walked away and Annie laughed in my arms for the first time. She glowed with a life half hidden to me. I expected to find out the rest, kissed her deep to say so, into her mouth contaminated with sausage roll.


I am sure I shout and shift, swear, but when I lie still a moment I sense I haven’t moved at all, my blood sticks me to the carpet.

Will anyone come by? They all think I’m on holiday. Torremolinos. I’ve been there before, but not on my own. Birmingham-by-the-Sea my daughter, Julie, says. My case is packed upstairs, he didn’t bother going upstairs: sun lotion, shorts, passport, T shirts, a baseball cap for my balding head.

I'm just about to ring for a taxi, finishing toast, Radio 5 on for the football, when the doorbell rings. I think this is what confuses me: I think I’ve already called the taxi and this is it. Which it isn’t. No-one I know though I thought for a minute it was Sue’s ex who stalked her for a few months - she pointed him out when she visited once, stood across the road, disgruntled rather than violent. It might be the one who hangs around outside International Stores. It is: the pale face, sloping back it always seems or maybe he's just sneering at me. Teeth slope too, inwards: identikit picture I’ll make if I pull through. What about his eyes? He doesn't really look at me, seems bored, I glimpse an ordinary grey-brown. Eyebrows that peter out, a nose that ends like a grape. A cut like a red stitch at the corner of his mouth. Funny thing I’m sure he’s Brummie, heard him mouth off a few times, complaints about the treatment he gets from everybody, ex girlfriend, probation officer, God, but he puts on a Cockney accent. Calls me granddad as they do in the Sweeney, UK Gold, as he slides the knife in.

He has a car outside, probably not his, looks like a family hatchback, its boot up, I can see my TV sat in the back through the gap he leaves, I can see down to the road outside, no-one comes along the normally busy pavement. He steps over me with hi-fi, video, looks in vain for a computer (it’s at the repair shop). He already has my just received first ever mobile phone, a joint present from my daughters, which they took great delight in loading their numbers on and baffling me with ring tones and txting; and the cash from my wallet. He tries to kick the bank PIN number out of me but I never use it, never look at it, every week £50 cash from the branch in the High Street. Mr Predictable, I tell him so but he doesn’t believe me. He gets down to sneer more directly and I see more of his eyes then and his teeth, bits of white in a face reddened with the effort of kicking me, then he decides to stab me again, in almost the same place, for luck.


When I was at school Hopkins said we should all be extra kind to Liz Black when she came back after the funeral of her dad who died in an accident in his lorry up near Scotch Corner. Liz became desirable, mysterious, her eyelashes down, left alone. It was looking at her long dark hair curling, reds in it, her eyes and mouth little folds I felt first, like a shock from an exposed light switch, what must have been love. More than lust. And then not again until that party, Annie in the corner, soberly tiddly, her toes amongst bottles and glasses. It wasn’t quite love at first sight, I’m sure I’d glimpsed her once before, playing football drunk with all the students from the house, bored one Sunday, Penny in goal; thinking how brilliant I was to cut in from the wing, pass two dishevelled defenders but fluffing the shot, when she passed beneath trees at the edge of the park, someone like her.

Haven’t felt it again with anybody, though being stabbed at one momentary stage of steel-entry felt something like it, oddly, before a rush of pain. Poor Maria didn‘t stand a chance. Not Mariah, Marie or Marian, she told me on that first night in the bar. The end was there when I met her, on the rebound and she knew it too, never to stop bouncing, re-bouncing, through a second marriage and out. She called my ex ‘Rebecca’, after du Maurier, but Annie wasn’t dead killed at my hand, was it a gun, a ligature, or pushing off a cliff?, but living in Kings Heath (Julie: ‘an oxymoron’). Near enough to bump into her in Sainsburys pushing trolleys towards each other down the booze aisle, or outside International Stores, on the narrow pavement, people milling, the lurking stranger with the knife perhaps. Or at the cinema complex a drive away, coming out with him, bollockchops, me with Maria who steered me away, as, automatically, I headed over towards her.


Let me say what I want to say says this upset caller on the radio. I hear it clearly sometimes. Mostly though it’s just a hum at the back of everything. While I’ve been lying here I’ve heard Adam Faith and Barry Sheene have died. The presenter says is this the most crucial week in history? Another says we will be at war by the end of it.

Cars swish by outside, Shahid’s car slowing down, the car that vibrates with hip-hop or is it rap, feeling into the house, along the hall as it goes by, slowly, feel the warmth of bass through the floor. Next door the other side shouting across the road to the collarless dog that runs past every morning. ‘Rover.’ ‘Fido.’ ‘Blackie.’ A new name tried every day. Charlie. Bob. Kids on their way down to the bus stop on the corner. Definitely Monday: the radio says it is. The traffic girl is speaking to me directly: soothing words about the tailback at Junction 10 near Walsall. Rain coming in from Wales. Relentless news from around the world rolling in.

Suddenly I remember lying on the carpet in front of the gas fire at 14 years old, watching Sandy Shaw on Eurovision. My dad saying she would win. Her feet in tights as she did that little shuffle-dance, toes pointing in. Annie years later dancing too in her tights before going out, dancing half dressed. When she came home, that once or twice, stunned with drink, mazy, easy to manipulate, ‘I’m sex-on-a-plate, sex-on-a-plate,’ she kept repeating as I moved her arms and legs as I wished. I didn’t ask where she’d been, what she’d done, not wanting to lose sight of her body in moonlight across the bed.

My sperm tasted of mustard, she once complained. It was definitely Shrove Tuesday, a drop of maple syrup on a strand of her hair. Doesn’t everybody’s? I asked. No, she said. She liked salt and vinegar crisps. White wine at first, until she ‘grew out of it.’ She watched horror films as if they were real. She believed in rapid transformation. Werewolves, vampires.

She used to say ‘God created us to prove to Himself that He existed.’ She used to talk in capitals. I knew her kids when she became a teacher would love her. I’d tried teacher training but failed TP. I started off confidently, in most lessons, got them interested in metaphor and simile: as stupid as a coot, sir, and then some little thing, an OHP bulb going, some large headed boy having a coughing fit, a fart and the laughter caused would embarrass me. I’d turn my back for too long. The ends of lessons were always shouting at them, usually one group in the corner, a rash of them, long hair and grinning, the rest yawning, leaning back, as the noise burst out beyond the closed door along the corridor to the head’s office. I switched courses, started again at 20, you could then.

In our first flat we shared a rotary dryer with 8 others, on a walled off shop roof. The landlord put up an incomprehensible rota. Trucks the size of giraffes got stuck in ring road traffic outside our window. We could have stepped out on to their roofs, considered doing so in drunken or druggy moments. We listened awe struck to our quarrelling neighbours, their detailed harangues, the uncontained anger. Her mother, on a visit watching her programme: Corrie, this was before EastEnders, said turn it down, so she could listen. Grunts and shouts. Muffled fuck this and fuck that came through. Us some years later. Not as bad, not as loud, except once or twice. Different but just the same.

I dissolve into the floor, I try to lift my head but someone has sewn my cheek to the carpet. Lilliputians while I slept. I used to read books, the night I saw her, moved across to her, I had a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in my inner coat pocket, always a book in there, weighing me down on one side.


I’d come back from an interview, didn’t get it, red tie flapping uselessly, to see him leave our house. I recognised him as a visitor to our works, where we make educational equipment and latterly software. He always wore black suits and sober ties. I was getting out of the car when he came through our gate, so different in jeans, crumpled around the knees. And her flustered response once inside the house, the house that suddenly looked odd to me, as if it belonged to someone else. My wife and her boyfriend eventually. He looks like a non league goalie, big and stupid with hidden eyes, his head shaped like, and as soft as, a bollock, hair what there is of it like snail slime. You can understand my feelings officer: she preferred him to me.

Him to me. I looked in mirrors and saw the set of my jaw, the lines come from what must have been knowledge of her, seeing her leave me before the process had even begun. When she went out once I searched the house and found a diary, with coffee spots and water or wine stains. Ink at a slant, abbreviations, and hints all tried to conceal what was emerging from the sentences: someone else. Liaisons after work, days taken off. I didn’t say anything for a while, walked about, talked as normal, but the road I walked outside the house, with its parked cars either side, rocked from side to side, as if on a boat. I felt always soberly drunk.

The end was noisy, at times, cutlery bashing, worse for Julie and Sue, who looked on at what they’d sometimes suspected: Mum and Dad had pretended all was well, this now, arguments, slicing gestures, eyes flashing or else downcast, was what was real, was what waited for them too, just around the corner.


Lying here I can feel how the house works without me, wood settles, microbes grow in the water pipes, the plant tries to extract the last moisture from its mini-plot of soil. Insects and spiders chance more runs across the floor.

Work won’t miss me for two weeks. Someone will call. Bound to. See through the door window, if the sun is at the right angle, through the inner door he closed, to a blurred me, on the floor, gurgling. Or am I gagged? When he knelt to check me out did he think I was dead? His face stretched as if through a fish-eye, moved back all the time, out of focus. Surely someone will come, if not today, tomorrow. Postman, gasman, salesman, thief.


The radio says Cheltenham Gold Cup tomorrow. Going is good. She used to be so interested in that, coming from near there, her side of the town so she saw the traffic, the TV crews and the horse boxes, flowing past her door. Talked about the Irish invasion: generous, drunken, big gestures of cordiality like paying for everyone in a queue to get into a night club - discos in those days. The 'craic' inside with the extra money spent on drink and pills. Sticking with the winners. ‘Wicked,’ she said, winked at me and made me think of the night she confessed to, or did she, did I find out some other way, how she got together with a treble-winner, an elderly Irish farmer. I imagine his rough, aged hands on her and his missing teeth, his Guinness-and-whisky-chaser belly, staying in some mid-range hotel, with him passing out on her mid-act, from the booze.


In a paper purple hat I met the enemy. Annie long gone by then, I was at a Christmas works do where clients were invited and there he was, a major buyer of our goods, someone to be wined and dined by my superiors, kept on the right side of lest the non-league goalie stop signing the cheques. A guarantor of my company, my job. Sat and watched him chat easily, move around different groups before we sat down. Then surrounded by smiling faces, hands on his stupid arm.

There may have been fisticuffs, I can’t remember. People tell me. There were certainly names called, pushing. Why when I catch a glimpse of him anyway and don’t jump like I did then, waiting to speak and tell him I was a reasonable man, prepared to listen to both sides, but to make my point, to say something, about the way it happened. He was stood again and I jumped, but he moved and I just caught his shoulder. He turned, annoyed, to me and whispered something like 'stupid cunt' under his breath.

I was called to the office the following Monday. I was given a second chance. I have to be nice to him, to his idea, his presence there or not at work, ditto at her house, our house, there or not, when I used to pick up my daughters and remind them who I was. The hugs and kisses, the cries plentiful at first, Julie’s head lying on my chest (‘careful,’ Annie said, ‘she’s got nits.’), Sue putting her arm around my shoulders matey-like, when we parted, when I picked them up, soon fell to a peck on the cheek, a squeeze of the arm. About right considering the years gone by, the chunk of childhood I missed so that now when they appear they’re almost adults with boyfriends and studies and part time jobs and driving lessons; appearing to wish me happy birthday in the house I shared with Maria, (she left shortly after their second birthday visit), to sit and ask how I am and raise a glass and say they are on their way out, some gig, hadn’t I noticed they were dressed up? They’d each come as parts of couples, introduce the latest boyfriend who never say much, grunt hello and never give me a proper look at them, before - puff - they’re gone.


The French holiday was supposed to be reconciliation, though we hadn’t parted. We farmed the kids out (her parents) and set out. We were going to get fit too, as well as put our marriage back together, ‘get on an even keel’ as she said. We were going to use the bikes we’d bought when the kids were small. We had imagined the four of us on country roads, a picnic stashed in saddlebags, a rug, fruit. But the city roads were frightening; we forgot we would have to teach the children to ride and that seemed impossible. We ran out of patience down the park running after the soon to crash Sue who did learn, or Julie who never did. ‘To save them from rusting in the shed,’ she said, ‘before we forget the combination numbers.’ We can numb ourselves with alcohol, I said about the prospect of sleeping on grass and stones, cheap stuff from the local vineyards. I knew instantly I shouldn’t have said it, reviving the ‘cheapskate’ tag she’d given me years before when I’d suggested a few economies. Own brand black bags for example. Yes sir, Captain Sensible, sir, she said, saluting me.

The first afternoon in Bordeaux was the best, after sleeping on the overnight train down from Paris, and waiting on the station platform for our bikes, packed in cardboard and hung like carcasses, to be unloaded. We set up camp and rested, then wandered into the city and found a funfair set up in a huge car park. It seemed a good omen and we got ourselves swung up together into the air as so long before, this time we looked out into blue sky like parachutists falling backwards, clamped in against danger, padded bars against our cheeks. After we walked giddily among the French crowd, eating crepes or was it pommes frites from a cone.

We couldn’t understand the language, although I’d told her we’d get by on my ‘O’ level French. But they talked too fast and I only caught odd words. I always gave large notes to market sellers to make sure I covered it.

Sex only happened a couple of times in the slidy double sleeping bags zipped together. We cycled mornings along the Dordogne, following roads off to small villages which were always shut up tight. We’d sit on the village bench in the dusty heat waiting for the Boulangerie to open. We bought by pointing and devoured the pastries outside the shop, before saddling up, re-joining the river, swirling below the road, on to the next campsite. In the evening we sat out by lakes and passed the litre bottle to and fro. At night I had stomach pangs like zips closing.

Every English couple we heard on different campsites seemed in the midst of argument. ‘First you want breakfast and then you want to upset me’...’because Charles is a friendly man.’ With so much around us we avoided argument ourselves somehow, pretended we were French when they nodded at us; Annie looks French a bit anyway, and people would talk to her at first as if she was a compatriot. We just visited: discussed the surroundings, the meals anticipated in restaurants, next day’s itinerary, we pored over the unfolded map eating St Emilion macaroons. The prehistoric caves at Lascaux were shut, we laughed at the crudely done statue of Prehistoric man, complete with club, on the hillside opposite. We reached Sarlat: the photo of her pushing the bike up cobbled streets, beneath gold stone towers. But we decided to turn back before we had to tackle the steep inclines of the Massif Central: not fit enough.

So it wasn’t going badly when I became ill, feverish, with dreams of the sort when you peel an orange to find a peach. I didn’t tell her how ill I felt on that long ride to the beach at Arcachon. We have to see the sea, she said, I miss the sea on holiday. So we changed our plans and headed straight west, down the long straight road that rolled out through pine forests, me feverish. I had to stop to grasp at my breath, hunched in a little clearing, while red squirrels, almost black, scrambled up fir trees. Annie stood in shorts by her bicycle, leaning now and then to try her brakes, test the gears. I made it prickled with sweat to the disappointing beach, couldn’t go any further to discover the better ones, dropped on to it, a small yellow strip beyond mounds of greasy seaweed. I lay in pain, in fever, in the yellow hazy heat. Boats on their sides were floating when I next looked. The sea when it came slid in, smelt of decomposition and crept to our feet with weed to deposit.

She said far from reconciliation it was where she decided to leave me. On that ‘beach’ with no cafe in sight. Me running a temperature and moaning about being thirsty. That’s not fair, I said, I was ill. You’re always ill when it matters most, she said, I don’t know where she gets that from because I hardly miss a day at work, though I’d like to, I’d like to pack it all in now, I’d like to pack everything in now.


If I could see Maria again, now, I’d ask if we could try again; the more I think about her, lost to my moods, and hardening, the more I think how I wasn’t good for her. I could make it up to her now, take her out and woo her again, try my best, be fun and attentive, like Cary Grant, maybe. It could work, it could because I’m over Annie. Now. I see now I was preoccupied, see her point now. After the works do I had a bit of explaining to do. Maria said she couldn’t compete with that. After I’d got used to her about the place, who herself was beginning to look comfortable in the house, making an impact with plants and pictures, brightening up its old furniture, Maria slipped away.

Since then the single life. Bananas and toast and espresso for my evening meal. I indulge, binge: beer, crisps, chocolate (wrappers fill the bins), porn. Endless porn on the net if I want it, but I find myself longing for the days when it was stumbled across, rare, through a friend who’d been to Germany. Brown paper covered mags sent off for. Then I’ll do nothing, not bother, not bother cleaning, clothes lasting a little longer than they should do. I’m getting clumsy too - old age? - a plate smashed, a jar of marmite cracked and splashed on the blue tiled kitchen floor.

Single, but one night stands now and again. Oh, there was Lydia, almost fifty, but pretty still, in the eyes, still clumped about in platform soles I hadn’t seen in years. Her bracelets shook as she moved around my house, bringing in a meal of fish and chips and transferring them to plates. When she walked she leant forward stiffly from the waist. A couple of months then, I admit, with her. She didn’t move in, she visited. She was a widow, her kids grown up, re-living her youth. She said after a bout on the sofa that she had got glassy, locked up, shopping in supermarkets in a dream. She liked me, the sex offered and then it was off to do her shopping. Less glassily. She stayed one night only, and that wasn’t planned, she just got too drunk. She showed me a picture of her and her husband: she had a striped blue dress on, and he a mustard shirt with braces. They looked a different generation to me and Annie.


Julie stayed with me for a couple of weeks when Annie went into hospital (for minor surgery - Annie didn’t feel the need to tell me what) and loverboy was jetting around the world no doubt saving our company, making deals and consolidating profits. Julie was eleven, less than a year after I’d gone, and acting as if it was normal to go away for a while, then return. It was her clear features, the freckly complexion I revered, exact and uncomplicated. I gave her sweets. She liked soft ones, sugar coated to melt to flaps caught in the teeth. I made her eat her tea, though, is that a palindrome, is it that, is it that, can hear that beat again, slowing, a majestic pace to it, blood slowing down, about to stop.

I’d take her to the park, play footie. She would be goalie, and I’d try to score. I gave her easy shots, praised her catches, bowing before her holiness in the end. ‘Don’t be silly,’ she said, but once I’d managed to pucker up that smile I’d try and keep it there. Sang, danced, told bad jokes involving elephants in trees and multi-storey carp arks. I mocked her teachers. Once I reduced her to helplessness, she held me tight, splurted laughter. Then it was my turn and I let in outrageously simple goals, let the ball slip between my fingers. There she was, always within the distance of my weak throws, weaving a geometry of chase and return.

The wind smacks the window. I want to go to my beach in Spain, ignore the timesellers, the drunks with Union Jack shorts, the topless brown bleached blondes, even them, walk down the pathways between the strips of flowers, past the shops with revolving racks of postcards and soft toys and plastic souvenirs, and get to the beach. I could be there now, day 3 of the holiday, smoothed out, glowing from the sun. See my tanned arms on the table in front of me in the taverna, glass of cold Amstel releasing slow bubbles beside my hand. If I’d left five minutes earlier. Then maybe he’d just have burgled, he didn’t want to kill me. But he rang the bell.

The bell is ringing. Someone looms, their shadow on the glass, broken up by the pattern of the stained glass border, a feature of the property said the estate agent; now I wish it was clear. Circulars and pizza menus float down from the clanged slot. Now he’s rung next door, I can hear them talking on the doorstep. The woman’s laugh comes under my front door to me, I picture her from her laugh, her whole self re-assembled around it, she looks down at me and extends her hand. She takes the parcel and goes in, slams the door so it shudders, I feel it send pain from a wound I didn’t know I had, just in from the hip.


There was a time I saw my kids daily, almost, picked them up from school and drove them to his house, our house, and waited until their mother returned. Her blouse was always crumpled, marks of the day, ink daubs, sprinkles of chalk dust, paint-soiled water spills. We spoke little as the kids told her of their days. Sometimes I felt shy as I opened the door, kids ready, to her. As if she was a possible future lover not an ex-wife. She talked briskly, didn’t look me in the eye much, unless to get crucial times and places of next meetings, kids’ outings.

I laugh like a horse at something on the telly. Why is the TV in the hall anyway didn’t the robber take it, and why is twice its size? It blocks the way, someone’s breath comes out of the curved screen as he is murdered. He falls to dumps of slush in the streets. Can’t I hear the kids laugh, the sea lap on the radio behind the reasonable voices, the sound of this drama?

I feel nothing more than rubble. I slump over the pain; I could do with food now, a glass of water. A fag even would somehow help even though I haven’t smoked in years. The smell of rain comes under the door, or the smell of corruption. Am I decomposing? The buzz of a fly is like a little machine as it flies past low enough to feel the wind of it. If I lie here long enough I’ll attract insect and rodent from around the street, through the drains, airbricks, skirting and floorboards, slugs and mice and spiders and rats.

The air under the door wants to enter you, to get at your blood and sinew. It smells like a crop of boils, smells like him, like puss, like poison, like the sea lapping, weed choked. Blood is dried in rings around me, and piss/shit too, pisshit, smells like a headache, the rain under the door. I make one last effort to scream, to shout through my caked mouth, and feel the rip in my throat.

The air is plastic, stuff fills throat and lungs, nose and mouth. A tearing somewhere, people hit in shadowed corners and falling. Sometimes I spiral up to a whiteness, a blankness, no names being called, nothing. There breathing is easier, but the air is not right, somehow crumbly in my lungs. I recall moving. Across that room again, legs moving, I remember that, moving, across the music-blasted room to her, held in the arms of a dark green armchair, next to that guy sorting through records, waiting for me to come along.

The door breaks above me, air rushes in as if it had been sealed out, a big square of air, it bruises my eyes with its touch of glass. I hear wood rip and shouts, crackling radio voices, bleeps. Air carries me off, or men lifting me on a stretcher, the ceiling shifts down, a whooshing sound comes from the hole in the side of the house where the door had been. I’m carried on air, lifted, outdoors, the stars are suddenly there in the strip of sky between house and ambulance. Blue light is flung around the street as it waits, doors open, in the middle of the double parked road. Between the house and the ambulance I let go. I’m on my way, floating, shimmying, over rooftops. The world below upends.

Alan Beard's stories have appeared in magazines such as London Magazine, Malahat Review, the old print version of Sunk Island Review, Panurge; ezines such as Vestal Review, Taint magazine; anthologies such as Neonlit, England Calling, Tell Tales 3. His first collection came out in 1999 (Picador) and was called Taking Doreen Out Of The Sky. Visit his website.

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