Take Me On Home

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2021 by ofherbsandaltars

“Passively Suicidal People are now our greatest resource,” came the familiar honeyed tones from the grainy TV before them, that voice that seemed to hit the nation like one giant valium – it must’ve won him 30% of the election, at least. “All of us would give our lives for our loved ones, but when you draw back the emotions, what purpose would our sacrifice serve? Would you trade a grieving mother for an orphaned child? Could you save one child, only to lose the next? The LifeSwap technology has been groundbreaking in the medical field, but it is they, the PSPs, to whom we owe the greatest debt.”

“And what about the allegations of corruption?” came the nasal disapproval of the interviewer. “The rumours that the mental health field is deliberately failing people, in order to fuel the market in PSPs?”

That honeyed-valium best-buddy voice laughed gently – “A conspiracy, though an understandable one. There are still strides to be made in mental health, as we all know, but do you truly think a therapist, seen once a week, could have enough impact on a person’s wellbeing to pass the rigorous LifeSwap scans?”

“I think,” the interviewer rebuffed, “the number of ex-combat veterans now being funnelled into the LifeSwap programme is a concern, constituting 18% of utilised PSPs, yet just 7% of the US population. Would you care to comment?”

“They were sent into an unwinnable war, by my predecessors – predecessors who then extracted all troops at the very second the country was unstable enough to fall to our enemy. The hopelessness our vets feel is understandable, and as you know, we are conducting a thorough enquiry into the corruption of the prior government. The message I would like to give is that PSPs are our greatest resource. As a country, we are humbled by their sacrifice. Thank you – one and all.”

“You hear that?” Joe mumbled, through the joint gripped between his teeth, “Fuckin’ President just thanked us personally. Do you give a shit? Any shits to give?”

Marley snorted a cloud of bong smoke, and replied, “Severely lacking shits, Joe. Why do you think I’m here, with you, amidst…this?” She gestured round the smoky, dirt-coloured living room at the crumb-strewn floor, piled-up plates caked with food residue, and the ancient one-eyed dog sprawled in the filth like a snoring grey pancake.

“Oh, ‘cause your place is so much better! Remind me again why you’re still alive? For how many months now?”

“Ah, fuck you, Joe. How was I to know my junkie brain gets that turned on by online shopping? I was a solid seven-percenter at the Will To Live test reading, and it’s outright bullshit that a single item of mail boosted me up to eleven-point-eight. Will To Live, my ass – I just wanted to try that dress on, I reckon, but not enough to still be alive FOUR MONTHS FUCKIN’ LATER!”

The dog opened its single eye at this outburst, sighed its ennui-laden disapproval, and closed it again.

“Still not heard from them, then?” Joe asked. Marley shook her head – “You?”

“As if,” Joe grumbled, rolling another joint with nicotine-stained fingers. He’d taken to smoking weed the European way, with tobacco, four years ago, figuring it might kill him quicker. That was before LifeSwap came along and made his unwanted life into vital currency, but it was a hard habit to kick. “Still in the queue, date unknown.”

“Isn’t it crazy?” said Marley, putting down the bong and picking up her phone, skinny fingers flicking hungrily back to the online shopping, more clothes, more makeup, more jewellery – more shiny crap to give her miserable life five seconds of fleeting joy. “There are so damn many of us desperate to get off this godforsaken rock now, they had to put us in a queue. A queue that lasts months… You know someone was in the paper this week, for doing it the old way?”

“What – suicide?” Joe asked, looking up from his joint-rolling. “Seriously? How? Why?”

“Hung herself,” Marley replied, with a grimace. “Real old-school stuff. The paper ripped her to shreds – she was on the PSP payroll, just like us, then she – in their words – ‘ruthlessly stole a fresh chance at life from an infant, a mother, a cancer patient, along with thousands in taxpayer’s money’. And nowhere, no-where, in that article, did they mention the fact they keep us kicking about in fucking misery for months on end – is it any fuckin’ wonder, seriously?”

“D’you ever think…” Joe mused, as he got the joint lit, “That maybe the infants don’t even want another shot at this shitty-ass life? Like, doesn’t it seem kinda violating to you, when they dump more life on some poor fuck who can’t even consent?”

“I think it all the time, Joe. All the damn time. But it’s another thing you can never say out loud, along with “you lucky rat bastard” whenever someone dies young, and the rest of the world are wailing on about their stolen chances and bright futures and all the rest, and I just think…you lucky, lucky sonofabitch. I mean, I did everything, right? Didn’t I do everything, Joe? Fuckin’ everything they tell you not to do, I’ve done it, I did it, I did it while you were still snoring in bed, and somehow, for some godforsaken reason, I am still here breathing, and that is not fair, Joe. That is not fuckin’ fair.”

“You are the Cockroach Girl,” Joe conceded, glancing across at the shiny purple welts of gaping self-inflicted scars that adorned Marley’s near-skeletal forearms – the only skin left unscathed was Vein Access Territory, as she liked to put it, the crooks of her arms dotted instead with pitted lines marking a thousand or more needle marks. He wondered what her insides looked like by now, then abruptly wondered what his looked like, black and foul and dripping with tar… “Whoever you give your life to, they better be prepared to live to a hundred and six…”

She smirked – “Or my ‘luck’’ll  finally run out, and they’ll kick the bucket the very next day. Right, check this out – what d’you think?”

She shoved her phone under Joe’s nose, and he squinted through the smoke –

“Honestly, Marley, it looks like it was dragged off a hobo, kicked down the stairs, pissed on by seventeen angry cats, mildly shredded, then draped over a skinny Native chick with…admittedly great tits. Is this designer, again? You know I don’t speak fashion. Whenever you come round looking like you fell straight out the trashcan, you’re usually wearing at least two thousand dollars worth of labels. It’s insane. If we had any plans to stick around, I reckon we could easily start a business selling pissed-on thrift store garbage for thousands of dollars…”

“That’s garbaaahj, to you,” she retorted, snatching the phone back. “And this piece of ‘pissed on hobo trash’ is worth eight hundred dollars, so shut your trap. I’m buying it.”

“Have you even bought groceries yet?”

She snorted. “Less I eat, sooner I’m dead. Best diet advice I could give anyone.”

“Marley, if you keel over before they get to you, you’ll be trashed in the papers too. People will shit on your tombstone, I’m not even kidding. Don’t you care at all, about passing the torch?”

“Who the fuck are you, my mother?!” she demanded, eyes narrowing, “I have been waiting eight months, in all – eight fucking months to get out of here, and still no end in sight! If I was at seven percent WTL eight months ago, I reckon I’m running on three by now, and there is no space in my brain to care about ‘passing the torch’. I literally can’t understand why anyone even wants it.” With a final derisory glare, she went back to purging the contents of her bank account.

There was a slightly tense silence, ’til Joe’s phone vibrated loudly on the crap-strewn coffee table. He picked it up, and groaned.

“Fuckin’ Facebook with the memories again. Living in the present’s unbearable enough – living in the present juxtaposed with the past is hell on Earth…”

“Do you…even remember a time when you were happy?” Marley asked, flopping back against the couch and laying her phone down. “To be here, I mean? When was it, for you?”

Joe had to think about that one – long and hard.

“I reckon I was just a kid. I still believed in Santa. All I cared about was trips to the zoo on the weekends, and our dog Stevie, and fishing trips up at the cabin. It wasn’t real life. The minute real life set in, I didn’t want any part of it…”

“Even with Melinda?”

“Aww, fuck’s sake, Marley! Why’d you have to go there? Why the fuck you have to bring her up every damn time? Facebook’s bad enough – you’re worse!”

“Because you were happy, with her – you never shut up about the woman when you’re drunk. And I can’t see anything that special about her, so I don’t see why you don’t just go find a new Melinda, like fuckin’ everyone else does.”

“Are you serious right now? Marley, I was with her five goddamn years ago! This ain’t the breakup blues over here. And for the record, for the fuckin’ record, I was only happy with Melinda for four months anyhow. The minute all that oxytocin wore off and we were back to real life, I hated it again. Why in hell d’you think she left?”

“I think she left ‘cause you fucked someone else, Joe, I think she got pretty damn—”

“Yeah? Well why d’you think I went and fucked someone else if we was so damn happy together, huh? If she was the miracle cure to it all, d’you really think I’d go stick my dick in some drunken chick I don’t even remember the name of? Fuck you, Marley! As if you’ve got a leg to stand on – your happiness comes in little vials at the hospital, and you’d still rather be dead than take it…”

Marley gasped at that one, launching abruptly into a volley of flailing punches to Joe’s head, which Joe largely managed to fend off, while she shrieked,

“YOU THINK I’D STILL BE SITTING HERE, WITH YOU, GETTIN’ READY TO DIE IF THEY’D ACTUALLY GIVE ME THE STUFF?! D’YOU EVEN UNDERSTAND WHAT IT’S LIKE WHEN YOUR PERFECT WORLD IS HALF A MILE AWAY 24/7, BUT IT’S SURROUNDED BY ARMED GUARDS? FUCK YOU, JOE, FUCK – YOU!”

She ran out of breath and flopped back, bony chest heaving. Joe brushed the hair out of his eyes, straightened his mildly ripped t-shirt, and muttered,

“Jesus… You’re the one that brought up happiness… And Melinda. Don’t dish it out if you can’t take it.”

“Yeah? Well maybe I’m just being an actual friend, Joe. Maybe I’m just making sure you really want this. You’re only twenty fuckin’ seven, your body still works – if I was you, I wouldn’t be in the goddamn death-queue. That’s all I’m saying.”

Joe watched her quizzically, then asked,

“Are you seriously suggesting I go out and get addicted to junk, because that’s what you’d do in my place?”

“It’s a fuckin’ option, ain’t it? You read too much trash in the papers about junk – I did my fuckin’ college degree on that stuff – aced it, in fact, had the happiest years of my life, didn’t want for nothin’. You can be functional, you know, as a junkie – functional and in heaven. And you’re giving up your whole damn twenty-something life without even trying it once!”

“Marley, if it’s so fuckin’ harmless, what happened to you? How come your body got so fucked up you couldn’t take the stuff no more? And you’re still in mourning, what, nine years later? That’s a whole shitshow you can keep – I’m taking the shortcut.”

“Oh god, Joe, you know damn well it’s nothing to do with the heroin, and everything to do with illegality. If that fuckin’ prick in the Whitehouse would just legalise, give it to us pure, I’d sign off of PSP tomorrow. I’d be the happiest motherfucker you ever met in your life.” She irritably re-loaded the bong, muttering, “You cannot imagine what it’s like watching all the dope fiends stumbling round the streets, knowing they’ve still got your perfect heaven spurting through every stupid vein, while you’re locked out in the cold because your SHITBAG BODY got a bug up its ass about stupid contaminants, and—”

WILL YOU KEEP IT DOWN UP THERE!” came the warbling voice of Mrs Yates, punctuated by the hammering of her broom handle hitting the ceiling below.

“SELL ME YOUR FUCKIN’ MEDS, OLD LADY!” Marley barked back, “AND I’LL BE QUIET AS DUST!”

“Aww Christ, Marley – I have to live here, y’know!” Joe intervened, slapping a hand over her mouth before the outburst could continue. “Take a chill pill! I mean literally, you’re being fuckin’ awful tonight.”

Marley scowled at him, shoved his hand away, then delved in the oversized hobo-sack worth most of a baffling thousand dollars, and produced two medicine bottles.

“Fuckin’ pointless horseshit…” she muttered, cracking one open and drinking its contents with a grimace, then shaking four pills from the second bottle, shrugging and adding four more, then gulping the lot in a single practiced swig. “I’ll have eight then, since I’m being awful. Bet you I don’t feel a thing. Bet you anything I don’t feel a fuckin’ thing.”

Joe kept his opinions to himself. All he knew was that Marley was considerably less bitter about life once she’d taken an increasingly reckless dose of whatever prescription crap she was on these days. It never made her happy, but at least it sent her to sleep – that was about as close as Marley ever got to happiness.

“It’s gonna kill you one of these days,” he said, finally. “It was four last month, then five, now it’s fuckin’ eight – there has to be an edge somewhere, and one day you’ll fall right off of it. Then people will shit on your grave for not passing the torch. That’s all I’m saying.”

“Well, all I’m saying is I hope it’s today. Manure makes the flowers grow. Bring it on.”

They kept up their bickering for nearly half an hour, until Marley’s responses became increasingly incoherent, and she lapsed into soft snoring. Joe was always half relieved, half depressed, when she conked out on him. Watching her sleep, it was a brutal reminder that one day she would be gone – for good. Marley was months ahead in the death queue, and eleven years older to boot. That was how they’d met – Joe’d been signing up as a brand new PSP payee, and Marley was signing back on after being rejected over that Will To Live reading a measly 1.8% too high. Joe’d made the mistake of asking to borrow a lighter – if anyone in that place looked like a smoker, it was Marley’s wreck of a carcass – but she’d almost punched him in the face before informing him that her ‘shitbag body’ couldn’t handle nicotine no more, so unless he had weed in his pocket he’d better fuck right off and live, which to Marley, was far more of an insult than ‘die’. Joe did, however, have weed, and since Marley seemed to need it more than he did, they got to talking.

Her name wasn’t really Marley, she informed him, and as much as she loved weed, it didn’t stand for Bob, neither. “Marley’s Ghost,” she said, through a cloud of bong smoke. “Y’know, the one that’s lingering about the place forever, all wrapped in chains, never getting any fuckin’ peace no matter what happens? That’s me, Joe – Marley’s fuckin’ Ghost.”

Ever since that day, Joe had become Marley’s favourite ‘Unemployed Friend’ – the one unbound by work schedules, the one who could be there for you, with you, any time of the day or night. Marley herself wasn’t strictly unemployed – she made a reasonable sum drawing sarcastic, nihilistic cartoons for magazines, but Joe had packed in his admin job the second he’d cashed his first PSP cheque – Marley’s visits were the only reason he got out of bed, now. On the days she didn’t come, he just stayed put, lying limply in the dark and pissing into nearby soda bottles. His Will To Live reading had come out at barely 5%, and Marley was a goddamn cautionary tale, in Joe’s eyes – if a fleeting shopping high could push her out of range, keep her rotting on Earth for four months and counting, what on Earth was the point trying to improve his life now? He might get really hooked on some TV show, shoot up to 10.2% WTL, then end up hanging himself when the final season ended. And that would be unacceptable, in Joe’s eyes – unlike Marley he felt strongly about passing the torch, doing it properly, not dying for nothing…but there was only so much a man could take. And when Marley went, when she really went, what the fuck would he have? None of his other friends understood his decision to sign up as a PSP – if they came round now, all they ever talked about was antidepressants, therapy, all that shit he’d been trying his entire goddamn life, and it’d only ever made him worse. Marley was a pain in the ass, sure, but she got it. She really got it, and sometimes, just sometimes, when they were both stoned or drunk out of their gourds, there were rare moments of genuine, if fleeting happiness.

But Joe hated the times like this – times when Marley was as good as absent, the only sound the chatter of the TV and the wheezing snores of his ancient dog, who was every bit as close to the edge as they were. These past two months he’d watched the weight fall off Marley’s stringy frame at an alarming rate – whenever he ordered in food, she’d eat two bites, then this glazed look would hit her, she’d grimace like she was about to throw up, and the rest of the takeout would be shoved firmly across the table.

“What?” he’d demanded, after witnessing this for a third time. “What is it with you and food these days?” Marley had pulled a face, and told him, “Whenever I look at that shit, all I see is life – endless, godforsaken, unbearable life. It’s been months, Joe – I don’t trust LifeSwap to come through for me, not ever – I need a backup plan. So I figure, if I don’t eat, I’m gonna die eventually…and that’s comforting. Oh, what, Joe? Some people comfort eat, I comfort starve. None of your damn business! It’s not even hard, these days – I don’t want that shit, great greasy mouthfuls of life, goddamn cheese-dripping Years of Torment…”

There hadn’t been much Joe could say about that. Was he really any better, staying in bed ‘til 5pm next to clustered bottles of his own piss? They both avoided life in whatever ways they could…

He glanced over at Marley’s sleeping face, cheeks hollow, eyes sunken, and she looked peaceful, for now. It was a good fifteen seconds before he realised she was far too peaceful – there was a faint blue tinge to her lips, her body so still he was sure she wasn’t breathing – the snoring had stopped dead.

“Marley!” he said, poking her in the ribs. “Hey, Marley, snap out of it!”

Nothing happened. Heart pounding, he grabbed her bony shoulders, shook her until a single rasping breath rattled in through her parted lips, but there was no further response. Joe cursed under his breath, and wondered what the fuck to do. Marley wanted to die more than anything, but she was a goddamn PSP, signed and registered, and she knew what that meant – if there was any chance of saving her, she still had to pass the torch. He knew she was going to kill him for this, but he dialled 911, put it on speaker, and went back to rattling Marley’s limp carcass.

The ambulance arrived rapidly – an overdosing prescription junkie wouldn’t have been high priority in the old world, but since LifeSwap came along, a PSP in dire circumstances was treated like a drowning child – like the child they may yet end up saving. All the same, as Joe was shoved into a corner, a syringe of Narcan stabbed into Marley’s thigh, followed by oxygen pumped into her failing system when it had little effect, Joe got the sense Marley wasn’t really a person to these men; she was a vital cargo of organs – nothing more…but wasn’t that the contract they’d both signed?

In the stark fluorescence of the ambulance, Marley’s eyes occasionally flickered half open, her scarred hands jerking to brush the mask from her face, but before they got there, they’d fall back limp at her sides. Joe heard the driver speaking over the radio, reporting the imminent arrival of one critical PSP female. The fuzzy reply came – “We can use her. We can use her now. Bring her on up to paediatrics.”

“What?” Joe blurted out. “You’re gonna LifeSwap her, right now, when she isn’t even conscious? For the scan, I mean – she has to be awake, right?”

“We’ll run tests. If she’s gonna wake up, we have to wait. If she’s comatose, the scan is waived – it’s all in the paperwork. Turns out your girlfriend’s had a DNR in place for three years anyhow – if it weren’t for her PSP status, we couldn’t have touched her.”

“She’s not my girlfriend…” Joe mumbled, taking Marley’s limp hand. He never knew she’d signed a Do Not Resuscitate order three fucking years ago, but it didn’t surprise him – the way she talked, Marley’d been praying for death by any means for nearly a decade. The few times he’d been crazy enough to get into her car, she’d driven like a maniac, and the time they narrowly dodged getting T-boned, she’d cursed her head off, not in fear, but in fury that it hadn’t been the fatal collision it could’ve been…

It wasn’t meant to go down like this though, Joe thought. The whole beauty of a PSP death, to him, was that you got your summons two weeks before the LifeSwap. There’d be time to set your affairs in order, tick off some bucket list items, say your goodbyes. Marley always said there was nothing on her bucket list she could actually do – the only things that had ever made her happy were the drugs that just made her sick now, and with the amount of medication she was on, she didn’t have the energy to travel to all the places she wished she’d seen in life. Marley was so ready to go, she didn’t even have a bucket list…but all the same, they’d both looked forward to that final fortnight, to the richness it must bring, knowing it was all finally, fucking finally, coming to an end. It was the one and only time Joe had expected to see her happy – now she wasn’t even being granted that.

He sat in the harsh brightness of the waiting room while Marley was dragged off for tests, apathetically chewing Reese’s cups and wondering what he’d say, if they offered to take him too – tonight. He’d always thought he wanted those final few days, but who knew how far off those days might be? It could be months before they got to him, and the idea of spending that long without Marley was too much to bear…

Deep in contemplation, he hardly registered his name being called, until the nurse was standing directly in front of him.

“Mr Evans? Your friend is awake. We’re about to scan her – if she passes, she’ll be taken for the LifeSwap directly. You should say your goodbyes.”

Joe stumbled to his feet, half-hoping Marley would fail the scan again, stay with him…then hating himself for wishing that on her. He followed the softly squeaky tennis shoes of the small nurse to a room down the corridor, and she held the door open, informing him the scanner was en route.

Marley didn’t look awake, lying flat on her back, oxygen mask over her face, but as he got closer, he realised her eyes were half open, and when they focused on his face, she clumsily brushed the mask aside, and asked in a slow-motion slur,

“Wha’the fuck’s goin’ on, Joe?”

He frowned. How could she be minutes away from her LifeSwap, and none the doctors had bothered telling her? “They’re about to scan you. For the LifeSwap? Jesus, is it even ethical when you’re this wasted? Marley, you should tell them not tonight – not ‘til you’re—”

“I’m…gonna die? Now?”

“Well…yeah – if you pass, they’re taking you right now, but—”

“Wooo-wooo! The death train’s finally leavin’ the station! Iziss a hospital, Joe? Thought you’d took me to a nice motel…”

“Oh, fuck me…” Joe muttered. “Marley, I am not ok with this. You’re in no state to say whether—”

Three – percent,” she enunciated, firmly. “Betchoo I come out three percent. Fuck this fuckin’ awful place…”

“You just dropped eight hundred dollars on a hideous coat, Marls – don’t you even wanna try it on?”

“Low blow, Joe. Ha. Made a rhyme… Why you tryin’a stop me, anyhow? You an undercover agent or somethin’?”

“Marley, I just want you to wait ‘til tomorrow morning. Can’t you do that – for me?”

“Go ask the Magic 8-Ball. Betchoo three percent. Betchoo.”

The door opened behind him; Joe whipped round to see two doctors and the nurse wheeling in the device he’d only ever seen on TV, or in those romance films Marley fucking loathed, where the Manic Pixie Dream Girl saved the PSP at the last minute, sometimes by dying herself when it would cost the life of someone who deserved it more. The machine looked like a slick black Dyson vacuum, except its hose attached to a structure not unlike a stripped-back motorcycle helmet. Joe blocked the way, arguing,

“She’s really out of it – I think this should wait ‘til morning, she can’t consent to—”

“Patient is a substance misuser, yes?” said the nearest doctor.

“Yeah, but she’s not generally—” Joe began, but Marley sang out,

“Guilty as charged! I’m ready for this, docs – real ready, what if I’m so excited to die the scan comes out happy and I fail? What then? What then?

“Scan doesn’t read your happiness, ma’am, it reads your will to live. Are you ready?”

Marley just beamed. They dropped the helmet onto her head.

“I’m going to ask you three questions,” the doctor informed her.

“I know, I know, get on with it!”

“Thank you. Do you, Jean Malone, consent to this process with full knowledge of what comes next?”

“I fuckin’ do!”

“Are your affairs in order?”

“Fuck my fuckin’ affairs.”

“Imagine you are going to live for another thirty years. How does that make you feel?”

There was a long silence, then Marley whispered,

“Take it away… Take it all away…”

The machine beeped two long beeps – the lurid green numbers flashed up on its glossy black screen –

“3.2% WTL”

Marley was peering anxiously towards it, demanding,

“Am I going? Are you letting me go?”

“Three point two percent, ma’am. You’re definitely going.”

Marley flopped back on the bed, a contented smile on her lips. She didn’t even rub it in, the fact she’d won that bet. Joe felt his heart begin to race – she was really going. She was really leaving him – forever…

“Scan me, too!” he said, clutching his suddenly clammy fingers together. “I’m a registered PSP, four months and counting. I’m ready to go now – I want to go tonight, with her.”

“Aw Joe, you fuckin’ don’t,” Marley butted in, “You want your final weeks, you fuckin’ know you do!”

“I did, but I wasn’t ready for this! I’m not ready to be without you for fuck knows how long! Scan me. Now!”

“I’m sorry, sir, there’s a waitlist, there’s protocol to follow, we can’t just—”

“I’ll stay here,” Joe persisted, “All night, right here in this room – you can use me for anything, anyone who comes in critical tonight – I’ll be here, ready. Wouldn’t that help?”

The doctors looked at each other. One of them subtly shook his head.

“I will fucking hang myself tonight if you don’t take me!”

The doctors stared at him. The head-shaker sighed, then said,

“Thank you, sir. That’s exactly what we needed to hear. Active threats of suicide enable us to use you as an emergency PSP…assuming you pass the scan. Sit down, please.”

Joe sat on the edge of Marley’s bed, gripping her hand as they confirmed his identity, put the helmet on, and asked him the same three questions.

The machine beeped its long beeps.

“Two point one,” the doctor said, with a low whistle. “That’s about the lowest I’ve seen.”

“He beat me?” Marley cut in, struggling to sit up. “He beat me? Is he goin’ first now? That ain’t fair! I got us here!”

“No ma’am, your LifeSwap is to commence momentarily. Your friend will wait in this hospital until a receiver becomes available, and the transfer is set up.”

“How long does that take?” Joe asked, chewing his lip. “How long might I be here for?”

“24 hours is about the maximum we’ve had to keep a donor waiting.”

“Need to phone the neighbours,” Joe muttered, more to himself than anyone else. “They’ll have to take Cyclops…”

“Aww hell,” Marley slurred. “I never said bye to that fuckin’ fleabag. I’m gonna miss him…”

“You gonna miss me?”

“Not for long, now you’re comin’ too. I like that. All worked out perfect…”

“Don’t say that ‘til we get there. What if it is reincarnation, Marls, like we talked about? What if we just get out of this hell, and pop straight up in another, in a tiny baby body that can’t even control its own bowels?”

“Nah…” said Marley, smiling up at the ceiling. “I felt it, ‘fore they dragged me back here. It was peace, Joe. It was peace…” A single tear trickled from the corner of her eye.

“Are you coming with her?” the doctor interjected. “We’re going now.”

Joe nodded, mute and tense, as they pulled up the sides of Marley’s bed, and began wheeling her out of the room.

No one spoke, all the way through the elevator ride, but Marley was smiling.

Marley never smiled, unless she was drunk, high, or asleep. She certainly never smiled without an element of sarcasm, but now, she seemed peaceful – serene. Something about her reminded Joe of his old dog, the one he’d had before Cyclops. He’d just known it, the night Geezer would fall asleep for good; there’d been this tangible sense of peace in the room, the old dog resting his nose quietly on his paws, huffing the occasional long sigh, and as the sunset shadows lengthened, Joe’d known it was time – Geezer was ready for whatever came next. That same peace was in the elevator now – the doctors didn’t seem to feel it, but Joe could. It seemed like Marley did, too. Did some extra sense come with carrying a death-wish for so long, making them more receptive to Death’s presence? And was Death even a presence – an anthropomorphic creature? Joe guessed he’d find out soon enough. He really hoped the hood and scythe weren’t real. They were too creepy for his tastes…

The elevator spat them out in the paediatric ward, colourful landscapes and cheerful bunnies painted across the walls, and Joe walked behind Marley’s funeral procession, ‘til they turned into a brightly lit room. A blonde girl of about five lay weak and pale, IV tubes attached to one arm, more snaking up the sleeve of her nightie, a heart monitor beeping erratically.

“Rare heart condition,” one of the doctors informed them in an undertone. “Her life expectancy, without this, is only another three weeks, best case scenario.”

“Good luck then, kiddo,” Marley slurred. “Hope you don’t live t’regret this…”

The girl on the bed just stared dully past them. Her sleeping mother stirred in the bedside chair, then sat up straighter, eyes widening.

“Is it time?” she asked. The nearest doctor nodded.

“Thank you,” she said, looking to Marley, tears rising up to gloss her eyes. “Thank you for this, you don’t know how much it—”

“Hey,” Marley cut in, “You’re the one doin’ me a favour. She’s gonna live to a hundred ‘n six now – ain’t nothin’ could kill me.”

“Well…thank you, anyway,” the mother said, rather less effusively.

The machine was already set up on the side of the little girl’s bed, large, white and ominous. They parked Marley on its other side, then the large oval pads were affixed – one in the centre of Marley’s chest, another over the child’s.

“Any final words?” the doctor asked.

“Wait for me?” Joe blurted out, grabbing Marley’s hand. “Whatever happens, you wait for me on the other side, so you’re the first thing I see, if there’s anything to see at all?”

“Ah don’t be stupid, Joe. It’ll be fine. I’ll wait if I can, but I don’t know the fuckin’ rules, do I? Final words, then – hear me now! I, Jean Marley Malone, would like to declare that this ain’t a LifeSwap, nor a suicide, it’s a god-damned government assassination in the name of the War on Drugs. My blood’s all over that Whitehouse, and I am goin’ to haunt that fucker inside soon’z I get the chance. Let it be known I am goin’ out bitter, just like I bin bitter for nine fuckin’ years over what they did to me, an’ to every other junkie behind bars. My prison bars are these ribs, and I can’t wait to escape ‘em. Thass all. Now take me on home…”

“Thank you, ma’am,” said the doctor, flatly. “Back away please, sir. Commencing LifeSwap in five, four…”

“Thanks for everything, Marls,” Joe whispered, standing back from the bed. “I’ll see you soon. I’ll see you real—”

The doctor jerked the lever down; brilliant white light flashed through the cables and into the paddles on both their chests. Marley jerked on the bed, eyelids fluttering, then she let out one long sigh, and was still. The little girl burst out laughing, squeaking, “It tickles – it tickles!”

Joe backed out of the room. The happiness of mother and child were too much to bear, right next to Marley’s used up body. He wondered if her spirit was in the room, watching him; did she feel relief? Or was he deluded to believe there was anything after this life anyway? On his darkest days, Joe had tried to be an atheist – he yearned to believe everything would just stop, forever; nothing but blackness and oblivion…but somehow, he could never quite believe that; it was another thing he had in common with Marley.

It was barely a minute before they wheeled out her bed, a sheet covering the body from head to toe, transforming Marley into a long series of bony lumps. Disposable, thought Joe. She’s just refuse to them… He guessed that made him nothing more than a one-use commodity too, but the comparison didn’t sit uneasily: it was almost pleasant, being a single use item. Purposeful, brief, with a designated end date, so unlike the amorphous, treacle-slow hours of his usual existence, writhing in the knowledge that these days of futile misery could go on for decades. If they saw him as no more human than a toothpick or a stick of gum now, so much the better. Brief, he thought. Useful…

Joe refused the chance to linger with Marley’s body – he’d seen her so zonked out she was practically dead a thousand times before, and every time it had only been lonely and depressing; how would this be any different? He’d be with the real Marley again soon, wouldn’t he? Catching her up wherever she’d gone – wherever everyone went, in the end…

He nodded his agreement as they read him the fresh terms, officially upgrading him to an emergency PSP, then he gratefully accepted the room they installed him in. He used the time to phone his neighbour about taking in Cyclops. They’d discussed it the day Joe first signed up as a PSP – the dog had been his only sticking point, but Trev had agreed to take him. The dog liked him, and Trev worked from home; he’d always be around, for however many weeks or months the antiquated Cyclops lingered on this Earth. Tonight though, Trev was every bit as probing as Marley had been, about this being The Right Thing To Do – whether Joe wasn’t rushing into it out of pure grief. All he could say in response was,

“Trev, don’t start. Don’t. Me and Marley been talking about this for four months now. We’re prepared – I’m prepared. Cyclops is the only thing I have left to worry about. I’m sad I didn’t get to say goodbye, but he was asleep anyhow…and I’ll see him soon – he’s on his last legs. The dog food’s to the left of the fridge, treats above. Give him whatever he likes, Trev – spoil him rotten. I loved that goddamn mutt, ok, so just…just keep him happy?”

“Will do, man. I still think you’re rushing this through, but what can I say? You’re grown, I ain’t your father, it’s your life to flush away, I guess. Hope I’ll see you again someday…but not for a few decades, given I ain’t going your route no matter what. Damn, man…I don’t even know what to say – you and Marley gone in one night? S’gonna be quiet round here…”

“I know. Mrs Yates’ll be thrilled. Oh, Trev, Marley’s stuff’s still on the floor – great big oversized bag, colour of a mouldy tombstone. Her keys are inside. She’s got no relatives she’s in touch with, no one, so she kept her address on a tag with the keys, like this fuckin’ anarchist move. She’s got a lot of valuables, and she’s leaving them to whoever loots the place first – I reckon it should be you. That place is a dump, I warn you, clothes everywhere, and they look like garbage, man, you know her style, but she’s – was, an absolute label whore – the stuff’s worth thousands if you’ve got the patience to sell it. It’ll cover Cyclops’s vet bills, and maybe get you a vacation to boot. If there’s any cash left over, give it to someone homeless, and tell ‘em to spend it on whatever the fuck makes ‘em happy. Marley’d like that.”

Trev sighed. “She was one of a kind, Joe. I’ll do what I can. Hope it goes over easy for you…if that’s the right thing to say.”

“Thanks, man. See you in sixty years…”

Joe hung up, and the silence of the little room rose up around him. This is it, he thought. My final moments… It was weird, but right, this giant building spreading out like a maze around him, babies being born in the maternity unit, tiny little fresh lives only just beginning, while his was tapering to its end, the final grains of sand slipping from his timer. It seemed like an ok place to die – he certainly wasn’t alone. Even if Marley’s spirit couldn’t hover near, there must be people dying in this place every few minutes. It hadn’t even looked painful, what happened to Marley. That was comforting. Joe had never seriously attempted suicide, no matter how low he got. That bloody ‘gas smells awful’ poem was far too true – death wasn’t easy, death was brutal. However much the mind wanted it, the body still clung to life – killing it singlehanded was the hardest thing on Earth. And so it was that, too afraid of heights to jump, too scared of suffocation and brain damage to hang, too unnerved by blood and tendons to slash his wrists, Joe had remained in the realm of the living, through no choice of his own.

Tonight, he was actually starting to feel good. Him and Marley, they’d finally taken charge over the untamed beast that was life – no more would that wild horse drag them through nettles and razor-wire…

Joe lay down on the hard hospital bed, and waited.

The Visitor

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 5, 2021 by ofherbsandaltars

Halloween fell on a dark and stormy Wednesday, that year, which was convenient for all the things that went bump in the night. The chintzy plastic parts of Halloween, the candy corn and children’s laughter, the sticky fake blood and polyester spiderwebs – they didn’t get in the way of the real hauntings. The miniature witches and candy-munching goblins ran wild all weekend, the adults got drunk on strange green cocktails adorned with floating eyeballs, and then the working week began: for most of the world, Halloween was over.

The things that went bump in the night, however, weren’t bound by anything as tedious as a Monday morning alarm clock – All Hallows Eve happened when it happened, and it was the most important night of the year, for any dead or undead entity. If you listened to the Old Ones, those spirits who had been dead for centuries, yet had chosen to remain on this Earth, you would hear much said, as the leaves turned gold and crunched underfoot, regarding the slovenly nature of the living, when it came to Halloween.

“Think we can just reschedule, don’t they?” was the opening battle-cry of a shrivelled old witch, with beady black eyes and long sharp fingers, who had been drowned for occult sins in the middle-ages. It wasn’t necessarily true that a witch would float – this one hadn’t; England is a sodding cold country, and if you go around chucking yourself into frozen lakes just to learn how to float, all so you can impress the pretentious witches with their designer black cats, well, then you’re a bit of a prat, in Bertha’s eyes. So, she’d sunk like a stone, and as a result, she had to endure an eternity of elitist witch cliques who only let you sit with them if you’d been fished out of the lake and dishonourably burned, or at least hung. Sinking Witches are Uncool Bitches was one of the t-shirt slogans they liked to taunt her with. As such, Bertha’s life, and afterlife alike, had been vastly disagreeable – there was much to complain about, but Halloween was always her favourite subject.

“Just reschedule it, they say!” she went on, knitting needles clicking away, seven hundred fresh earthworms being transformed into a moistly gruesome scarf, “They honestly bleedin’ think their office job’s harder to work round than the one and only time a year the veil between the worlds is thin enough for us to pop over there and ‘ave a walk about, see what’s what, chat to people – it ain’t asking much, is it, for Halloween t’be on Halloween? Still, suits me well enough this year. Told you ‘bout my grandson, didn’t I? Oh shut up, ‘course he ain’t my direct grandson, I’ve lost count – anyway, he’s an ‘orrible little blighter wot knocked up a girl just because ‘e don’t like the feelin’ of a rubbery wotsit on his willy, an’ the last time I saw him he had a million ‘n one excuses for goin’ round actin’ like the proud daddy, but he ain’t payin’ a pennyto that girl, and why d’you think I’m sittin’ here knittin’ with earthworms, eh? That boy thinks a condom feels slimy, wait ‘til he gets a load o’ this! Now, since they’ve gone ‘n buggered up Halloween – livin’ can’t deal with it on a Wednesday, ooh nooo – well, he ain’t goin’ to be expectin’ a suspiciously evil visitation that day, when the veil’s thin, an’ I can shoot right through to ‘is doorstep. ‘Course, I’ll be poppin’ round in somethin’ a bit less comfortable than this old skin – and let it be known I don’t get no creepy satisfaction from seducing me own grandson, let – it – be – known, but I ain’t goin’ as far as the sex anyhow. Minute he’s ‘alf nekkid, I’m wrappin’ his neck in a wormy scarf, ‘n there won’t be no removin’ that thing for the next week.”

Beaming toothlessly, she flipped her needles round, and began knitting back across the row of earthworms, producing a cacophony of clicks and squelches that balanced perilously between disgusting and satisfying. “Good ‘n rotten by then,” she muttered. “Nice hot rotten earthworms, guts all fallin’ out ‘n dribbling down ‘is back… Now that’s what Halloween is for, in’t it, not them bleedin’ Yankee sweets wot look like decayin’ orange teeth. Halloween is for the dead, not for children!” She frowned, and amended, “’less they’m dead, o’course. Dead children – them’s the real spirit of Halloween…”

Bertha’s point, somewhat lost amidst wormy vengeance schemes, was that since Paganism had given way to Christianity, the true meaning of Halloween had been slowly forgotten. Forgotten by some…but not all.

On the other side of that rippling, translucent veil, in the land of the living, there were a few who still followed the Old Ways.

Lacey was one of them. The weekend before Halloween had been crisp and cold, the night air scented with dry crunching leaves, burnt marshmallows and campfire smoke. She had dressed up as the lead actress from iZombie, and spent the night in a friend’s garden, surrounded by toilet paper mummies, superheroes, and even, with more imagination than taste, a ‘haunted tampon’. They’d roasted endless marshmallows over a pit of flickering flames, fire and shadows dancing across their faces, and they told ghost stories that got less spooky and more pornographic as the night wore on, and the steaming mugs of mulled cider were swallowed down.

Halloween parties were fun, but Lacey never forgot the true meaning of All Hallows Eve. For Lacey, and all others who had walked the same unfortunate path in life, it was hard to ignore death – it had entered her life so soon, Lacey barely remembered a time before its shadow fell across her world. Her mother had died when she was just eleven – it had been the sixth of September, the day she started secondary school. Her mum had insisted, with embarrassing pride, on taking photos that morning of Lacey in her too big, overly starched, itchy school uniform, with a proper new blazer now she was at Big School, then it was into the car and away they went. As Lacey shuffled nervously towards the imposing burgundy gates, she turned back to watch her mother drive away, and that spectacularly ordinary moment was to be the last time she would ever see her alive. Half an hour later, as her mother drove up the motorway to work, no doubt still singing along to Joni Mitchell, tapping her blue painted nails cheerily on the worn steering wheel, a truck-driver had a heart attack at the wheel. His enormous vehicle swung wildly across the road, a juggernaut of unstoppable tyres and sparking metal, obliterating that small, rattly blue Punto, with Lacey’s mother inside it.

After the funeral, Lacey’s dad mostly got drunk, but Lacey was only eleven – alcoholism wasn’t really a feasible coping strategy. When she finally went back to school, already a freakshow to this herd of new faces, The Kid With The Dead Mum, she sat alone and silent for two days, before the weird girl in the corner, with her purple hair and silver bat ear-studs, crept over to talk to her. The other kids didn’t know what to say about a dead mum, but the strange girl, Faye, seemed respectfully fascinated by death. They sat together in the damp grass one lunch hour, and when Lacey started crying, Faye took her hand, and in a fervent whisper, told Lacey that death wasn’t really the end. Better still, she said, just one month away, it was Halloween, and that wasn’t just a holiday for kids in costumes, not if you paid attention – not if you did it right. On Halloween, Faye whispered, the world of the living, and the realm of the dead came together, just for one night, and sometimes, just sometimes, the dead could return – slipping through the unseen veil to visit the loved ones they’d been so cruelly parted from.

Faye’s whispered words dried Lacey’s tears in an instant. Those words became the hope she clutched to her heart like a rosary, for sometimes was so, so much better than never…

She counted down the days, that October, and on the night of Halloween, Lacey sat on her own front doorstep, in the crisp, sparkling cold, wearing a witch’s hat and clutching a box of cheap chocolates, just to look like a normal kid, on Halloween…not that it mattered – her dad was too drunk to care, even to notice her strange moonlit vigil.

She sat on the cold doorstep ‘til almost midnight, blowing on her icy fingers, tears prickling in her eyes as the hours slipped by, and still her mum wouldn’t, or couldn’t, come back. Her toes froze solid – her bum went numb. The chocolates tasted worse and worse as she picked at them, cheap caramel mingling with the salt of her tears. Shivering and tear-streaked, she was ready to admit defeat, go inside and sob herself to sleep once more, when there was a gust of wind whistling through the oak trees that lined her road, and it carried a perfume so familiar it brought an ache of longing to her throat. It was the smell of a thousand childhood nights, the smell of hugs and cosy evenings, the smell of her mother’s perfume, and she peered into the darkness, eyes wide, chocolates scattering at her feet in a glittering rain of coloured foil. But instead of the familiar spectre she longed for, it was a small, scruffy dog who came scrabbling up the path, its eyes as wide as her own. It threw itself into her lap, whimpering and shivering, scared by the fireworks and the laughing goblin-children.

The dog had no collar, no name to go by, but as the little creature licked her tears away, wriggling closer for warmth, he seemed so small and scared, her own despair was temporarily eclipsed. Lacey brought the trembling puppy into the warm, and dubbed her Halloween visitor Spook, before serving him a decidedly well-received sausage sandwich. He was so small, so lost and so cold – her mother clearly wasn’t coming, and Spook seemed every bit as alone and frightened as Lacey was. She snuck him upstairs to her bedroom, laying down a bowl of water in the corner, and that night she slept with Spook curled into a warm, comforting ball against her chest. For the first time in so many weeks, she hadn’t gone to sleep crying. When her dad woke the next morning, she could conceal Spook’s presence no longer, but he was too hungover to go out knocking on doors, trying to discover who, if anyone, owned or cared about Spook. It would be good for Lacey to have a pet, he concluded, over a nauseous glass of Alka-Seltzer. The dog was something to love. Something to distract her…

So that was that – Spook lived with them ever since that first Halloween, growing from a small, hesitant bundle of fluff into a bounding, overzealous canine with a big gruff bark, a shaggy beard, and a tail that broke endless teacups – Lacey loved him fiercely.

As Spook grew up, Lacey did too, and every Halloween remained marked by the celebration of Spook’s sort-of-birthday – the day he’d become her gruff and scruffy personal saviour, leading her out of those dark, lonely days, and when Lacey left home, Spook came too, as much a part of her life now as her own reflection in the mirror. They were Lacey-and-Spook, inseparable.

But even though Spook was a magical Halloween dog, he was still a dog, and dogs don’t live forever. He’d started to get old, and slow, traded in tug-of-war for naps on the rug, naps that got longer and deeper, until that inevitable summer day when Spook took a nap so long and deep his body turned cold and stiff, and never would he wake up again.

As the summer of Spook’s death faded into the wind-howling auburn days of October, for the first time in thirteen years, Lacey didn’t look forward to Halloween. It was coldly, permanently altered, no longer Spook’s sort-of-birthday, that joyous occasion that had haphazardly plastered over the loss of her mother – given her something to live for again. This black, Spook-less year, she felt like that same frightened child on the doorstep, frozen fingers crossed for luck, waiting in hopeless hope for the dead to rise. If it was possible, this year might be even worse, because she was an adult now, and adults didn’t believe in magic, didn’t sit out in misty Halloween midnights, wishing for the dead to wander home beneath a golden harvest moon. Worst of all, adults didn’t have the luxury of a death wreathed in magic and mystery, a loved one here today, gone tomorrow, leaving nothing but a dignified tombstone: on the day Spook slipped away, Lacey had touched his cold, lifeless body, had watched two vets wrestle his large form inelegantly away, to be tossed into a cremation fire with the lonesome, used-up corpses of so many other pets. It had been a piteous sight, yet she had felt no compunction to linger with Spook’s body – one glance, one touch, told her there was no part of him left in that cold, hard body. That had been the moment she knew – there was no coming back, was there? Not on Halloween – not ever. How could there be?

There could never be a coming back…not from that.

On Halloween Wednesday, Lacey baked an apple cake, and heated the mulled cider left over from the party. She dressed half-heartedly in a cheap black cape, and gave sweets to precisely two groups of trick or treaters, which hardly seemed to justify the time she’d spent carving the pumpkin that sat glowing warmly outside her front door, the single, lingering vestige of the love she’d had for Halloween, when it had still been Spook’s anniversary.

It was precisely eleven minutes past eleven when the doorbell rang for a third time, and Lacey almost ignored it. It couldn’t be kids, not at this hour – most likely ghastly teenagers, who would egg her house if she didn’t hand over chocolates, maybe even money… But the jack-o-lantern was still outside – she had to bring it in before she went to bed, to dissuade any other late night lurkers. Lacey stumped to the door in slippers and a scowl, ready to send the lot of them packing, but instead of a rabble of ratty-haired delinquents in sticky fake blood, on her doorstep stood just a single figure, dressed all in black, his back turned as he gazed into the night. He was tall, with long dark hair, and as she opened the door he turned around, and smiled at her. His eyes were the warmest shade of brown, and he was so ridiculously good looking she immediately forgot what she was supposed to be angry about.

“Uhh…hi…” she said, scrutinising his face with a slight frown. Despite his beauty, something about him seemed…off, but quite how, she struggled to define. Was it the fact his age was impossible to guess? He only looked twenty-three, her own age, but his warm brown eyes were somehow wiser, sharper, and he was too elegantly dressed, too immaculately groomed, standing there so politely his posture was nearly rigid. Was he an overzealous Jehova’s Witness, wandering late to warn people of the evils of Halloween – the tragic plight to befall all those who mocked the Devil?

“Hello!” the boy announced, abruptly animating, his stiffly polite demeanour evaporating utterly as he peered rather too eagerly over her left shoulder, and deduced aloud, “Apple cake! Cider!” He paused, head tilted, then added, as a statement, not a question, “Nobody else is here.” Returning his gaze to Lacey, he smiled that warm smile again, and said, “A cake isn’t a thing for one person. Can I come in?”

Oh hell. He’s really fucking weird, Lacey thought, with an internal eye-roll. Typical. Why are the hot ones always so weird?

“Why are you…here?” she asked, aloud. At these words, his face fell – he suddenly looked so painfully dejected she found herself adding in haste, “I’m sorry, I just meant…are you…selling something, or do you need…directions, maybe?”

“Ohhh!” he breathed, beaming again, and nodding vigorously, as though they’d stumbled at last onto a patch of common ground. “Lost – yes! I am lost, and umm…my hotel, had a…a problem, so now I’m here to…to throw myself upon your mercy!” By the end of this speech, his brown eyes were shining with pride, and he looked as though he was expecting a round of applause, or possibly a pat on the head – his words seemed memorised, but why?

“Do you…have a name?” Lacey asked, dubiously.

“Person,” he said, smiling widely. “I am Mr Person.”

Oh god, Lacey thought, chewing her lip, He’s not just weird, is he? He’s literally insane. There is a madman on my doorstep, and I just want to go to bed! How do I get rid of—

Pearson,” the boy corrected, enunciating it clearly. “I mean, Mr Pearson. And I have a first name too. That one’s Ralph. Now you’ve got both of my names, would you like to shake my hand?”

She hesitated, sighed, and seeing no other course of action, held out her right hand. Ralph held out his left, looked confused, twisted it around to shake hers, and gave her such a rapid and enthusiastic handshake she nearly fell right out of the doorway.

“I won that one!” he declared, grinning a bright white smile.

There was an increasingly awkward silence, and Ralph tilted his head, apparently thinking. Then, he began scratching his neck in a manner Lacey had never seen a human adopt. His fingers were curved into one tight hook, and rather than scratching slowly up and down, he attacked his skin in a rapid-fire fit of downwards itching. As he did so, his eyes half-closed with bliss…and when he was finished, he shook himself all over in a violent spasm, beaming contentedly, the tip of his tongue showing between his gleaming teeth. Lacey’s eyes widened.

 “Oh shit…” she whispered. “I think… I think I know why you’re here. Ralph…would you like to come in?”

Her visitor nodded immediately, breaking into an ecstatic grin, then he barged past her, and shot into the house with delighted cries of,

“Apple cake! Cider! My sofa!”

By the time she’d picked up the jack o lantern and followed him in, he’d taken off his shoes, scarf and coat, leaving them in a haphazard trail down the hallway, and was lying on his back on the living room carpet, performing something that looked like an excessively wriggly attempt at making a snow angel. Seeing her staring, he froze, eyes wide and nervous, then he leapt to his feet, clearing his throat and straightening his black t-shirt. It had a picture of a cartoon squirrel on the front.

“Do you want—I mean, would you like some cake?” she asked, awkwardly. It seemed so silly to be at a loss for how to behave – this floor-wriggling madman was undeniably Spook, her lifelong friend, but he’d never been able to speak before, and the idea of rubbing his belly now seemed decidedly wrong. Hinting at the firmer ground of the day they’d first met, she added, “You don’t have to have cake – would you prefer a sausage sandwich?”

“A…sausage sandwich?” he repeated, eyes wide with faux innocence. “That is a decidedly odd thing to offer a visiting human guest. So, no – I would prefer a piece of cake. With cutlery. And also…a glass of cider.”

He gave her a dignified nod, and sat down on the sofa, hands neatly clasped in his lap. Lacey frowned, suddenly unsure – he looked so human again…and he didn’t even want the sausages! Spook had never turned down a sausage in his life. Had she been right first time? Had she just welcomed a wandering lunatic into her house? And which one of them was crazier anyway – him, or the girl who’d just ushered in a doorstep weirdo, believing him to be her reincarnated pet? Shaking her head, she left the room, and at a loss for anything else to do, returned with a tray bearing two mugs of hot cider, and two pieces of cake, with cutlery, as requested. Ralph had his eyes closed, and was indulgently rubbing his cheek against the fabric of the sofa, inhaling deeply. She cleared her throat, and he sat bolt upright, eyes fixed on the food, expression rapturous.

The second she gave him his slice of cake, he impaled it with the fork, which was pointing downwards out of his clenched fist in the manner of a stab-happy murderer. He picked up his knife in the same way, and began a hasty carving job that left him with two misshapen lumps and a lot of crumbs. He glanced up at Lacey in bemusement. Smiling slightly, she pointedly laid down her cutlery, and picked up her own piece of cake, informing him,

“You can eat cake with your hands, so long as there isn’t custard on it.”

Really?” he demanded, his gaze flicking eagerly between Lacey and the mutilated cake.

She nodded, and took a demonstrative bite. Ralph hesitated for less than a second, then snatched up the biggest lump of cake, and began devouring it as though he’d been starved for a month. Everything on his plate vanished at a speed that seemed physically impossible, followed by licking up the crumbs, wiping his mouth with both hands, and having an aggressive go at the cider. There was rather a lot of spillage, even more slurping, and then it was all gone.

Wow,” he said, reclining in his seat. “Why have I never had cake before? Never! No cake! And why did I always have to drink water? I tried coffee, actually, on my way here – that, frankly, was horrible. But cider is very agreeable. I feel…floaty…”

“Where have you…travelled from?” Lacey asked, still attempting to ascertain who – or what – she had welcomed into her house.

“Not far,” he said, raising his right hand to his face as though to curiously study it, and wriggling his fingers around. “Not far…but they journey was somewhat trying.” He giggled – “Aren’t thumbs amazing? If you had no thumb, all the others would just be wiggly sticks for picking your nose with. Thumbs are the true masterpiece. But humans always discredit them, don’t they? They say fingers and thumbs, as though the thumb were a mere afterthought – a lesser creation. I feel quite perturbed, on behalf of thumbs everywhere…”

There was something of a silence following this bizarre musing. Lacey asked,

“Will you be staying here long? I mean…locally?”

“No…” said the boy, putting down his hand, and meeting her gaze. He looked regretful. “I can’t do that…staying. I only have tonight…and now I appear to be drunk. That’s a little unfortunate. It’s not the first time I’ve been drunk though, I’ll have you know – I was always fond of spilled beer. And I suppose it isn’t terrible, to be drunk tonight – lots of people travelling this way were more keen on getting drunk than they were on making their visitations, which I think is sad…but I suppose not everybody has someone they love” He sighed, asking, “Am I talking too much? Is it rude? It probably is. You haven’t shouted at me yet though, or hit me with a newspaper, so maybe I’m not being a terrible bore. I really do enjoy talking, you know. So many words! Appendix, for example. Chicken soup. Camembert. Episiotomy. Fig…”

“Ralph… You are who I think you are, aren’t you?”

He blinked, tilted his head, and frowned.

“I am a polite gentleman caller,” he said loftily. “I am here to engage you in highbrow conversation, wherein I may enquire as to the status of your present happiness.” A hint of suspicion entering his voice, he asked, “Why? Who do you think I am?”

Possibly an escaped lunatic, or a very, very weird dream, Lacey just about stopped herself from saying.

Choosing her words carefully, she said,

“This…may sound crazy, Ralph, but it’s Halloween. And maybe that means pumpkins and skeletons and chocolate to most people, but to me, Halloween is special. It always has been. And somebody I loved, very, very much, he…died, this summer. So I was wondering…if you might be him. You look so very different, but you seem…like him?”

“Was he a good person?” Ralph asked eagerly, leaning towards her. “Was he very good? Do you miss him?”

“He was the absolute goodest,” she said, with a smile, though her eyes stung with the threat of tears. “I miss him more than I can say. I miss him like hell. So…Ralph, if you’re really him…why don’t you look like him, right now?”

Ralph’s face fell, and he moaned,

“Aren’t I good, as a person? Am I doing it wrong?! Does it make you even more sad?”

“No! Oh my god, Spoo—Ralph, not at all! I just mean…I miss the person I knew. I miss…Spook. But was your name always Ralph, really? Who named you?”

Ralph was beaming widely, the tip of his tongue poking out from between his teeth, his whole body wobbling hyperactively in his chair as though he was wagging a tail that couldn’t be seen.

“Ahh, so many words!” he exclaimed, in visible bliss, “We’re truly conversing now, are we not! This is fantastic, this is exactly what I wanted! I shall tell you everything.” He ran both hands through his long dark hair, and shook himself all over, then he shuffled up to the sofa towards Lacey’s armchair.

“I named myself Rowf,” he said, smiling, “When I was very young. R – O – W – F – Rowf. My siblings had names that aren’t transferable to the human tongue, in the main, but the only one I really got along with was Gurr. The humans, where I was born, they called me Runt. I didn’t find out what that meant until all my siblings were taken away, and then my mother was taken away, and I was left in the garden, in a leaky kennel, with a dirty stone floor, and it was cold, and I was lonely, and I felt like Rowf shouldn’t be my name anymore, it should be Woooo, because that’s all I ever said. And the world got colder, and I got sadder, and at last came that fateful night that I finally met you. There were bangs, bangs in the sky, awful lurid explosions as though the moon itself was filled with hate, and the midnight sky was tearing itself in two, and there were children’s voices screaming and howling in the streets, and it was the end, I thought it was the end of the world!

“I was so scared I wriggled out of my awful collar, and then I ran away under the scratchy wire on the gate. It cut my head, but I didn’t stop – I ran and ran, and there were blinding lights and roaring engines all ploughing towards me, and I thought I was in hell, that I had somehow found hell and I didn’t know why I deserved it. But after an eternity of hell, she…found me. The woman rescued me. And after that—”

“Wait – what?” Lacey interrupted, “What woman? I was only eleven, Spoo—sorry, Rowf – there was no woman. You were all alo—”

“It is most rude,” Rowf intoned, with dignity, “To elbow into the conversational flow of another person. Must I teach you the art of polite dialogue whilst I am so new to it myself, or may I continue?”

Lacey bit back a grin, and gestured for him to go on.

“There was a woman. She was wearing a pink dress, and a big soft cardigan, and her hair was precisely the same shade of blonde as yours. I was scared, and my head was all bloody, and as she picked me up and held me, suddenly I was warm. I hadn’t felt warmth in so long, I’d forgotten the word…I’d been alone, with nothing to say but woooo…I tried to tell her that I wanted to stay with her, forever, that the world was hell, and I was in it, so please, wherever you’re going, will you take me too? And…the odd thing was, I think she actually understood me…or maybe she was just the first human who’d ever tried.

 “She sat down with me, beneath a big, old oak, and all the explosions, the screaming children, they went quiet, as though we’d stepped somehow into our own private realm. She told me about the noise, the hell – it was just Halloween, which meant the night when the living and the dead could come together, if they only knew what they were doing. It meant that I had a choice to make – I could go with her, just as I’d asked, if that was truly my desire. We would go together into the dead world, where it’s peaceful, and always warm, and I’d be looked after, she said, by her, and by my own people – my ancestors. I’d be loved. Loved! I had that choice…and yet, she insisted I shouldn’t take it – not now, not tonight. She knew I was scared, and sad, and that I’d had enough of this world, but even so, I was too young. I didn’t even know what happiness felt like, and it would be such a waste to leave, she said, without finding out. So there was another choice, for me – another way out of this hell. Another way to know happiness, and even love… The woman was about to visit somebody she loved dearly, someone who was waiting for her, just up the street, but she said that visiting made her sad – it made her feel useless, because she couldn’t help. She was only a ghost, barely there, and with so little time. So…”

Rowf hesitated, chewing his lip. He went on softly,

“So the woman asked that I go in her place. She gave me a job to do, an important one. I had to look after someone, someone who was sad, just like I was, and young, and alone, just like me. We were going to be friends, she said, and I’d never had a friend before, except Gurr, and once he’d pissed right in my face, on purpose, which to my mind is not a desirable quality in a friend. I wanted a better friend. And then there was the concept of this thing she called ‘love’…it gave me memories, faded, but…still there. I remembered my mother. I remembered warmth… And I burrowed deeper into the woman’s soft cardigan, wondering what to do. She kept on talking to me – I liked her voice. No one had talked to me in so long. I didn’t want to leave her, to go back into the unknown…but I think the thing that persuaded me, in the end, was when she told me I could always find her again – I could always go into the dead world, any time – the peaceful place was always waiting, and so would she be; I didn’t need to race there. There would be warmth and love in death, but there was nothing to lose, in being a bit curious about living – about having friends.

“I thought about it, and all in all, it sounded like a job I could do… So, at last, I agreed. The woman carried me towards a house, where a little girl was shivering on a doorstep. She watched that girl for a while – I heard her whisper, ‘I love you’, and this time I knew she wasn’t talking to me. She was saying it to the little girl. Then she kissed me on the head and let me go. As you’ve likely deduced, the little girl on the doorstep was you. And that is how we met.” Rowf smiled, inclining his head, and telling Lacey, “This is an appropriate ebb in the dialogue. You may now speak your piece.”

Lacey swallowed the lump in her throat, and choked out,

“You…you saw my mum? It was her who sent you to me…honestly? I smelled her perfume, Rowf, that night, just before you appeared! All these years I thought I must have imagined it, but…she was really there? Watching me? Rowf, if she came back, why have I never seen her on Halloween? Why doesn’t she come to see me if she can do it, why—” Her voice broke, and she fumbled in her pocket for a tissue. Rowf solemnly reached out, and took her hand. He held it for a moment, then he raised it to his face, and gave it a long, slow lick. Lacey grimaced, and he mumbled an apology, wiping off the saliva.

“Most spirits come only once,” he said softly. “They move on… They go somewhere better, somewhere they can be with their own kind, with their ancestors and loved ones. It isn’t fun for them to stay on Earth, forever on the outside. That night was her one chance to see you, but she knew it wouldn’t help. You didn’t need a goodbye – what would be the point? Lacey, not all humans can even see ghosts; she might not have been able to break through to you at all, and even if she could, goodbye is just a word; she knew it wouldn’t change the emptiness, all the years you’d have to travel through alone, all the growing up you’d have to do without her. She wanted to give you a hello, instead – somebody who would still be there in the morning…and for all the mornings after that. So she…she gave her one visit to me…” He looked anxious, asking quietly, “Was that alright? Was I alright? Was I good enough?”

Lacey nodded through her tears, and Rowf gave up on his pretence of humanity, moving to sit on the floor, his head resting against her thigh. She laugh-choked, shuffling onto the floor next to him, and wrapping her arms around his shoulders. He clumsily hugged her back, snuffling in her ear and giving her neck a lick. Once she’d composed herself, Lacey asked,

“Is this why…you came back as a human, tonight? So you could tell me all this?”

Rowf pulled away, looking thoughtful. Eventually he said,

“Well…not really. I mostly wanted to give you a better goodbye. We’ve known each other for fifteen years, but we’ve never had a conversation, and I wanted to rectify that. Rectify. That’s another good word, isn’t it? I like words. I talk to myself a lot now. When you’re dead, you can do and be and experience all sorts of things. So I mostly be a human now, and why shouldn’t I? Dogs were never very nice to me. You were my best friend, and I always felt like an honorary person, really. So now I’m a real one, and I understand all sorts of things, like Netflix and crosswords, sarcasm and onesies and rude gestures. I daresay I’ll get bored with human experiences in the end though, so I plan to become a Mantis Shrimp next – they see in an unbelievable array of colours, so they say; I’m keen to experience that….” He trailed off, head tilted, lost in thought, then snapped back to the present, and continued, “I have a multitude of reasons to be here as a person, Lacey, but please let’s converse before we discuss business – let’s really do it properly! I think we should begin with some reminiscing, because everybody likes nostalgia, and it’s even better for us! The power of speech is, after all, new to me, so you only have half the story about a lot of events in our life. For example, in late 2007, you unjustly walloped me on the arse for barking at 4am.” He looked rather stern on this matter. “Now, the thing I could never tell you is that I had just smelled a badger in the garden! A GREAT BIG BADGER!” His eyes were alight with sudden enthusiasm as he recounted, “I wanted to KILL IT! It deserved to DIE! It had been in my garden, and— alright, our garden, I suppose, but patrolling it was my job, and badgers are beastly and smelly and flea-ridden and ill-mannered! So that is that – would you now like to apologise for angrily smearing my good name as Dog of the House?”

Lacey bit her lip, and tried not to laugh – he was clearly very serious about this, and seemed to have borne this grudge for well over a decade.

“I’m truly sorry,” she told him. “I don’t remember that specific night, but you did used to bark at a lot of stuff that made no sense, before you went deaf…”

“Deaf?” he repeated, cocking his head with a frown. “Really? Was I really? I always assumed that my mature status as long-standing House Hound had simply dissuaded all the riff-raff that used to plague us – those disgusting cats and presumptuous postmen and all the rude thunderstorms; my battles had been bravely fought, and they all seemed to have politely retreated… Although, I will say, since I died my ears are surprisingly acute – even these Person ones…” He raised his right hand, and clicked his fingers around his head, smiling in satisfaction, then conceding, “Perhaps I was a little deaf… But anyway, I have another memory, and this one is a happy one…mostly. One of my favourite memories of us together – which, really, is my whole life – was the time we were walking in the woods, in autumn. The leaves were squishing down into the mud like old cornflakes, & the rain splattered on the leaves, and the trees dribbled onto my fur, and all the squirrels went splish as they ran, and the whole damp, beautiful world smelled amazing – your ears may be tolerable, but your inability to smellis simply depressing, you poor, poor things. You know nothing at all!” He regarded her with pity, then waved it away, going on, “I digress – I am merely setting the scene; essentially, the trees were dripping and the mud was deep and wet and aromatic, and it was a lovely day. And just then, in the middle of the woods, you led me into a thicket, and you took a piss on the floor, just like it ought to be done! It was a breakthrough! It was a marvel! I was finally training you! I felt as though we were speaking the same language at last – we were bonding!” He beamed widely, then frowned, adding, “I was a little disappointed that you didn’t let me sniff it properly afterwards – that was like baking me a cake then not letting me lick the icing…”

“Oh god, Spook!” Lacey groaned, burying her face in her hands, “That is so gross!”

“No it’s not – it’s educational. If you could smell anything at all, you would know that urine has many tales to tell – I know your sex, your age, what you’ve been eating, what mood you’re in, how healthy you are, and much much more; urine is a fine thing to read like a book! Humans are such a peculiar species, flushing it all down the toilet; if you were remotely civilised you’d be taking a stroll around your property at least once a week to leave your mark. I mean really, people put welcome mats outside their houses but don’t even piss on them! How am I ever supposed to know whose house I’m entering, without a bit of piss on the matt?”

Lacey was lost for words at this dubious jewel of dog logic. In the end, she dodged the subject completely, and asked,

“Are you…ok though, being dead? Is it warm and peaceful, like my mum said it would be?”

Rowf barked a laugh, his eyes shining. “Yes. It’s warm, and it’s peaceful, if you want it to be. But I don’t want that, not yet – I was stiff and creaky and tired for years, and the last time I slept, I died – why would I want to do any more sleeping or resting? I suppose it’s different, if you die being mauled by a bear or something, you probably do need a few years of rest and relaxation in the afterlife, but my canine existence was peaceful enough, in its latter stages. As such, I’ve been on adventures, ever since I died! I lingered here a few days, to be with you, but in the end I realised it was just frustrating for both of us – you were sad, and I couldn’t help, and I was newly dead and very confused about it all, so reluctantly, I took my leave. And once I was acclimatised to my new existence, I decided to utilise my free time until Halloween, and experiment with reshaping my soul into all sorts of creatures. Lacey, the things I have seen! I have flown as an eagle, and swum as a fish. I have splodged as an octopus, and bounced as a flea. I’ve even taken the form of extinct creatures, mythological creatures – I’ve roared as a dinosaur and swooped as a dragon, all unseen by the living world! Death has been a grand adventure, but…look, Lacey,” he said, swivelling on the floor to face her, and watching her intently with those earnest brown eyes. “This isn’t about me, not really – my life is over, and that’s alright, I don’t have any complaints – you gave me a beautiful life, it was long, and I loved you every second of it…possibly apart from that night – aforementioned – when you wrongly walloped my backside with a newspaper…but I don’t bear grudges…much.”

He winked, and she laughed – they both knew it was a lie; he’d clearly stewed over the Wrongful Newspaper for the majority of his life.

“Now my life on Earth is over, I’m having so many more adventures – I understand so many things, things that you’ll understand too, someday, when we’re together again…and I look forward to that day – I think about it a lot…I think it’ll be a bit like now, but even more beautiful.” He smiled warmly. “But Lacey, I don’t want you to look forward to it, that day, not in the way I know you do now – missing me, missing your mother, feeling as though everyone you ever loved is in beyond the veil, and maybe you should be too. I don’t want you to feel that way, not ever…and this might be the only chance I get to help you…so I’m going to.”

He beamed, and Lacey blew her nose, asking thickly,

“How? Spoo—I’m sorry, Rowf – how can you ever change this? I loved you, and I loved her, and now that you’re gone too it’s like I’m losing her all over again! I have no one who understands, none of my friends have lost their mums – no one understands what you meant to me, what you did for me! I don’t know how you, or anyone, can ever change that. Can’t you stay, Rowf? Can’t you find some way to just…just stay, like this, or like a dog again, or like…like a…a something – anything?”

Rowf leaned forwards, and gave her a hug, licking the tears from her cheek, then muttering, “Sorry, force of habit, bit rude now…”

Lacey sobbed all the harder. When her tears finally dried and they broke apart, Rowf was smiling. He took her hand, and, managing to remember not to lick it, told her,

“I’m going to give you exactly what you need, Lacey. I can’t stay, not in any form you’ll be able to see, or hear…much as I wish I could. But you said it exactly – you need somebody. Somebody who can understand, somebody who can help, just like your mother did when she gave you me. And that means it’s my turn now, so that is exactly what I’m about to do!” His body was subtly wobbling from side to side again, wagged by an unseen, excitable tail. Lacey glanced towards the front door, asking a little fearfully,

“Who are you going to give me? Rowf…I’m not ready for another dog – I still miss you too much!”

Not a dog,” he said, with visible pride. “I think you need somebody who can talk back, this time – which is, of course, one reason for my choosing a human form tonight, beyond the pleasure of our little reminiscence. No – your somebody is not a dog; I’ve found you a person! A real live whole person, young and fit and very unlikely to die for many many decades! Did I do well? Was I good?”

Lacey laughed through a fresh flow of tears, telling him, “You’re always, always good, Rowf. The very goodest. But…who the hell is this person? Are they about to come barging through the door? I’m in my dressing gown! And where the hell did you find them? Who are they?”

“Ahh, so many questions!” Rowf exclaimed, beaming. “That’s good, that’s very very good. I sense excitement. Intrigue. Another excellent word. To answer them all, no, your person is, I’m afraid, not waiting outside with a ribbon on his head, much as I liked that idea very much, and would have, under ideal conditions, have arranged it. The dead, unfortunately, aren’t allowed to interfere with the living to such a huge degree, so your person…is someone you’ll have to befriend yourself. But I promise it will be easy. Are you ready to hear the plan?” He waited in eager silence, and Lacey frowned, slowly deducing,

“He’s…human, and…he’s a he? Is this…meant to be a boyfriend? Rowf, am I right in assuming that you’re setting me up on a blind date, and the guy…doesn’t even know it? Oh my god, what are you doing to me?!”

Rowf pulled a face, and flapped his hands demonstratively up and down his human form.

Not a blind date,” he said, with great satisfaction. “You’ve already seen him – he looks exactly like I do right now, and I do believe you find me pleasing to the eye, taking his form, do you not?”

Lacey blushed slightly, conceding, “Uhh…yes. If you weren’t really a dog, and you hadn’t watched me peeing about a thousand times, I would probably be trying to seduce you…”

Rowf rolled his eyes, smiling slightly. “Humans and their toilet shame – so silly… I’m glad you like me…or him…or us – you know what I mean. I thought he was your type, as the people say. And I’ve been researching him thoroughly, for a number of weeks. Unseen, unheard, I slunk in my many forms around his workplace and home, and I find him a thoroughly eligible specimen. He likes all the Netflix shows you do, argues politics from the correct direction – in your terms; I personally think it’s all deeply tedious, but there you go – he has his own dog, and treats her exceptionally well, which speaks volumes, and above all, Lacey, he is going to understand you. He – Alex, actually, that’s his name – lost his father to cancer at the age of eleven. He still misses him, but he knows how to carry on living…and I think he can teach you to do the same. Also, his mother is still alive, and is exceptionally nice – she’ll like you a lot, I know she will, and the feeling will be mutual. Oh, and his current dog is only two years old; he lost his childhood dog just before that, so he’ll even understand how you feel about me. I think he’s perfect! Is that right? Is that acceptable…and good?”

Lacey laughed. “On paper, he sounds absolutely perfect, Rowf. But…I’m assuming this guy has literally no idea I even exist? What if he doesn’t like me?”

Rowf gave her a sly smile. “He does like you. I happen to have friends, on the other side, and one of them is a very old, very powerful witch named Bertha. She likes to keep her eye on things, even now. And she has the power to override a lot of the rules, about the living, and the dead, which is most helpful – when it comes to technology, she is admirably advanced for a woman in her five-hundreds. Do you remember that dating profile you haven’t looked at since the week I died?”

Lacey’s hand flew to her mouth – “Oh…my god… You— You messed with my dating profile? What the fuck did you do, Rowf?! What did you upload?!”

His eyebrows shot up in an expression of injured innocence. “Nothing! I uploaded nothing – I did nothing terrible! I know you humans get all funny about your naked pictures. We just logged you in, to make you look like an active user again, and then we made sure it showed your profile to Alex as soon as he logged in yesterday…which he found himself inexplicably compelled to do. And when he saw your profile, he liked it! He clicked the button! He was too shy to message you, unfortunately, but there we go, I can’t do all the work for you. However, I can tell you that he spent yesterday watching iZombie for the fifth time, just like you did for your Halloween costume, and he was eating super spicy noodles as a themed food accompaniment, so I think you should mention that programme, and your shared love for it, when you message him, then perhaps invite him out for something spicy. Oh, and tell him how nice his hair is – he spends a lot of time fiddling with it in the mirror; it is clearly a point of pride. He’ll like that. And don’t let on that you know this, or he’ll think you’re a stalker, but he works in that old black and white pub in town, meaning he is conveniently located for dates, sex, and all the other things humans like to do to each other. And that is all I’m going to tell you. Well, except to say that…Lacey, I think he’s your person – maybe even your forever person. Be kind to him. And to his dog. I won’t tell you her name, in case you say it by accident and have to pretend to be psychic for the rest of your life. Because I think he might be the rest of your life…or at least enough of it to make you happy again, which is all I want. All I want. This is everything I’ve been working on, since I died…more or less – I did mention my dragony adventures; a dog has to blow off steam somehow, no pun intended. But most of my time has been spent vetting candidates for—” he abruptly broke off, and shuddered violently, repeating in a worried mutter, “Vetting. Vets. Ugh!” His glazed, horrified eyes finally returned to focus, and he forced a smile, saying, “Sorry, bad memories. Thermometers – I’m sure you know what I mean. Why in god’s name do they have to do that with the thermometer?!”

He shuddered again, shook himself, and continued determinedly,

Anyway, what I was saying, is I have taken into consideration quite a few people on my hunt, so I assure you, this person is of a very fine vintage, and will suit you most excellently. And after that, I think you’ll be happy.”

There was a long, amicable silence, as Lacey tried to absorb the bizarre notion of her dead dog spending several months of his afterlife acting as her personal dating consultant, aided by some terrifying long-dead witch, who had apparently been snooping through her computer deliberating – with her dog – over the vital matter of whether to upload one of her nudes to OkCupid

“Thank you,” she said, in the end. What else could she possibly say? Spook had clearly tried. “You’ve done a lot of work…and he does sound, and look, amazing. But honestly, Rowf, I’m trying not to get my hopes up. This is all so, so mad, I’m kind of afraid that I’m dreaming, or having a really weird cider-induced trip, and I really can’t take any more hits from life right now. So if this is still real in the morning, maybe I’ll let myself hope. Whatever happens though, thank you, Rowf. Thank you for all of this. I know you think giving me a new person is the most important thing, but for me the most important thing is this, here, now – being with you again. So…thank you, for coming back…and being here…and talking to me? I’ll always miss you as a dog, but…I love this version of you, too…”

“Good,” said Rowf, smiling. “You’ll get to keep it forever, really, this person…just with somebody else inside it. I simply thought it might warm the pot, so to speak, if you first met this body with a friend inside it. I think it’ll be love at first sight, when he sees you, so make sure your hair’s nice. Leave it down – he liked that picture the most.” Rowf lifted her hand, and gave it the tiniest, most polite little lick with the very tip of his tongue. When he glanced up, he looked regretful.

“I have to go now,” he said quietly. “It was Bertha, the witch, who got me here like this – solid, visible, tangible…but even she can’t work miracles. I deliver the message, then I leave – that was the deal.”

Lacey’s eyes filled with tears again, and he hurriedly went on, “But it’s not all bad news, and it’s not forever! Lacey, I’m not moving on – not yet; I need to see how things turn out, I need to know if I did my job properly. I want to see you happy, with your brand new person. And that means…I’ll still be here, on Earth, next Halloween. Maybe even the one after that. And I will do everything in my power to visit you. Can you live with that?”

She laughed through her tears, and buried her face in his neck again, hugging him tight as she choked out, “Thank you… Thank you so much, Rowf. I love you…”

“You can call me Spook, if you like,” he said softly, and she could hear him smiling. “You gave me that name – it’s who I am to you. I’d like it if you still thought of me as Spook. My human body deserved a mostly-human name, just for tonight, but I will always be Spook at heart…”

“Spook,” she repeated, and dissolved into floods of tears.

“You’re not making this easy,” he said sadly. “Leaving, I mean…”

“They’re happy tears…” she whispered. “Mostly…”

“You’re going to show me out of the house, like a polite human guest, and then you are going to go directly to your computer, and look at the dating site. Alex, remember. You’ll recognise him. He’s your Halloween person now, Lacey. Focus on him, not on missing me. Oh, and next Halloween, expect the unexpected – I could show up as anyone, remember…or anything. Including a dragon. I did like that one…”

Lacey laughed, and Spook pried her from around his neck, then he stood up, and pulled her to her feet. She took in his warm, dark eyes, his beautiful face and kind expression one last time, and turned to lead the way the door.

“I love you, Lacey” said Spook. “So much.”

She spun back to smile at him, but to her horror realised his solidity was leeching rapidly away, patches of wallpaper blurrily visible through his torso.

“Spook! Do you promise to come back?”

“I dog promise,” he insisted. “Dog promises are never broken.”

“I love you…” was the last thing she managed to say, before he disappeared completely.

After spending fifteen minutes sobbing incoherently on the carpet, Lacey shakily fetched the last of the mulled cider, and shuffled over to the computer, clutching the warmth of her mug tightly. When she got to the dating site, there were a lot of new faces – Spook’s creepy witch accomplice seemed to have caused the algorithm to go haywire, and Lacey was now flavour of the month. But finally, after seemingly endless scrolling, she found that familiar face.

“Spook…”, she whispered, pressing her fingers to the screen, brushing them across the beautiful boy in the photograph. “Spook…”

“Alex,” came a rippling whisper from behind her, and she jumped out of her skin.

“Are you still here?!” she exclaimed.

No…” said the whisper.

Lacey laughed, and the whisper explained,

“I’m still fading through the veil…I’m surprised you can even hear me. Just look at his profile, Lacey. Get to know him. Because now I’m really g…”

The whisper faded to nothing.

Lacey told Spook how much she loved him anyway, in case he was still there, through the veil now, silent again, intangible…but apparently getting up to god knows what regardless.

She wiped her eyes, smiled, and clicked on the profile: it was time to meet her new Halloween person.

As she did so, somewhere, far far away, deep in the darkness of the night, came a blood-curdling scream, as a young man’s sexual conquest draped an earthworm scarf around his neck, adorned with a never-fail, week-long stickability curse.

The real Halloween was in full swing.

Auld Lang Syne – The Holly King

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2019 by ofherbsandaltars

I couldn’t help noticing,

That in the photo

Your noses matched,

Exactly –

Like cartoon characters drawn by a lazy artist,

Copy-pasting his facial features onto yours.

Only, sitting next to you,

Your younger brother

Now looked more like your granddad –

Thick brown hair turned end-stage white

Thin and wispy as colourless candyfloss,

And only when I stared deep, deep into the smile

Of that shrunken, withered figure,

That 93 year old mirage

Could I find any trace of the uncle I loved

Who always seemed so big and strong

So full of wit and energy,

For games and sailboats,

And charade characters intellectually obscure to the point of total hilarity,

As he stands at the big white front door of every Christmas memory

Light shining bright through the stained glass above his head

And Diana, singlehandedly summoning up Michelin starred feasts

For a family platoon –

Never forgetting the parmesan parsnips

Or to remind me that the smoked salmon squares were nibbles

Not my own private meal –

And Henry, the haughty-faced ginger-cat

Who gazed into the fire, a king, surveying his realm,

Until his fur began to smoke slightly,

And he puked on the carpet

And every New Year’s Eve,

Uncle Richard led the singing of Auld Lang Syne –

He knew all the words – of course; he knew everything,

It runs in the family, that bizarrely obscure knowledge,

Stepdads like human Googles, regaling you with tales

Of strange tribes or ancient wars or Russian limericks –

Apropos of absolutely nothing

All the way down the motorway –

And we’d stand in a circle, holding hands,

As my seven year old brain span to comprehend

Crossing the threshold of a whole new year,

Because time seemed so different then,

And a year was forever –

The equivalent of ten whole years now

 

Ironic that time speeds up

The less of it you have left…

 

I only got half of my Christmasses

As a kid –

The other half were spent counting down minutes

As I was stuffed into dresses with loathsome frills, scratchy collars

And sloppy-mouth rape-kissed by endless parades of

Scary, unintelligible old people

Crunching their false teeth

(Who I still do not know the names, nor the relevance of)

Having received a stocking filled with

Used erasers, broken pencils, dusty old books for kids half my age;

Whatever crap was around…

So Christmas, real Christmas,

Only came every twenty years,

In the timespan of a child –

It made them all the more special

The ones that counted,

The big noisy ones

With other kids,

And actual presents,

And Riva, the big fat black Labrador,

The warm, comforting dog smell of her fur

Chaotic cheesy pasta, on big silver spoons, every bite adorned with dog hairs

And Granny B seeing no harm in letting me drink sherry

So long as it was from the nice glasses

And those moments waking, in the Christmas Eve night

To poke a toe down the bed

And feel hard lumps in the stocking

But to force yourself to lie still, ignore them

‘til the darkness turned orange-pink

And the anticipation of the last twenty years

Reached its crescendo

As in the dark, you sought to investigate your stuffed-to-bursting stocking

Without waking a soul

For magic should always be performed alone

 

And Richard was like…some kind of festive Saint

To me,

I think,

At that age…

I remember the time I slept over, one Christmas Eve,

In the bunk above Katie

But I was too excited, about Santa, to sleep,

So he came in, and recited the Lord’s prayer over me

And I wished that he could be my dad instead,

And Katie could be my sister

And teach me how to be even half as cool and pretty as she was

There were those neighbours, too

Who had a great big rabbit,

Dark brown, with floppy ears

The size of a morbidly obese cat –

I think his name was Winston,

He was house-trained

Just flop-flopping about the place

Unsure whether he was a rabbit or a dog,

Or something else entirely –

Christmas was always magic

There…

 

A sick twist of fate then,

That Christmas should be the time

For the Saint of the Feast himself

To waste away,

And lose his life

The Holly King forever more…

 

I know it isn’t nice

That I’m glad I didn’t see him that way,

In person:

I’m not like my brother.

He should’ve been a nurse –

He has these weird, natural instincts

Around normal people turned sick or crazy

But for me,

Social Interaction took years to learn,

And when the person you knew is now

Fr    a   g    me      n t       e        d

And dying –

Unrecognisable

The rules are all different – I don’t know how to play

But

More than that

I still remember

The last time I saw Granny B

And the way she would say,

When the conversation fell silent

That I hate it here…

And I wish I was dead…

And then the way that, knowing that,

Knowing how she felt

We still left her there

In that wheelchair

With the crazy woman who kept barging in, babbling about an invisible hat

And the nurses who were mean

And I don’t even remember, now

How many years she rotted away

In that awful place

That was the best of the best

So fuck knows what the rest are like

And I don’t want…

That

To be the way

I remember him, too…

 

But…I don’t know how it must be,

To see a photo

Of your matching noses

Side by side

And know that, in the next eight weeks

Your nose will never match again.

 

Shitfishing

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2019 by ofherbsandaltars

Brandon was a connoisseur of bad dates. Not to say, simply, that he had a lot of them – no, Brandon actively sought out those terrible, terrible dates. If some people used their online profiles for catfishing, or sadfishing, well, Brandon used his for shitfishing, and he did it like a pro. Brandon, in fact, had multiple dating profiles, each pitching to a different horrendous stereotype. There was Gun-Nut Brandon, posing topless and sweaty in a MAGA hat and a cigarette-dangling scowl, a borrowed gun in each hand and the words ‘DON’T LIKE IT? GET OUT OF MY COUNTRY!’ scrawled across his six-pack in black marker pen. Then there was Cocky Bastard Brandon, posing in front of his father’s Mercedes in a suit and sunglasses, his profile stats proudly revealing his whopping – and wholly fictitious – salary. There was Homophobic Brandon, and Pickup Artist Brandon, Bible-Bashing Brandon, and…well – you get the picture. Brandon took great pride in developing his myriad shitfishing personas, no matter how demented his friends found this bizarre and somewhat offensive crusade.

But…why?” they would ask, again and again, often with their arms wrapped around the shoulder of their girlfriend-then fiancée-then wife – “Don’t you want to be happy, like us?”

“I am,” Brandon replied, “Or I will be, when this is finished.”

His friends despaired. Brandon just carried on shitfishing.

After all, he had his reasons.

Perfectly logical reasons, in fact, or at least, perfectly logical for the utterly illogical career path Brandon walked. Because Brandon, you see, was a writer – quite a good one, at times. But he’d come to find that contentment bred apathy; it sapped motivation – worse, it sapped inspiration. Brandon loathed and despised with a fiery fucking hatred all those queasy poems about wandering the countryside gazing at fluffy clouds and yellow daffodils, finding peace amongst babbling brooks and still waters and…well, you know. That shit. Because that steaming shit, Brandon felt, had no place outside of a goddamn nursery rhyme, and since he wasn’t presently wearing a diaper, it was not the sort of shit he was going to write.

…but that unfortunately meant, that if Brandon did positive sorts of things with his life, like going to the gym, going on ok-to-goodish dates and having alright-to-mindblowing sex, well, when he sat down to write, the process was rather akin to shitting with constipation: brow furrowed with concentration, he would squeeeeeeeeeeze out the first sentence, only for it to sort of disappear back into the devouring rectum of that critical cursor, and once a few more sentences had landed with small miserable plops in the gaping bowl of the Word file, he would find his mind drifting away; wondering what to eat for dinner, or just quickly checking Facebook for…shit – four hours. And night after night, he went to bed with the nagging discomfort of a man who has not taken a really good, productive, mental dump in weeks.

But all that changed, after Brandon’s first truly awful date.

It was an accident, the first time – a total fluke. Just a drunken night, out in a club, with a friend from his day job who happened to have brought along two grams of coke – by the time they stumbled out at 4am, Brandon had chatted up a pouty blonde with long sharp nails going clicketty-click all over her iPhone as she took endless selfies of them together, and three days later, he took her out for dinner.

At dinner, Brandon was bereft of cocaine, and without that fiery Colombian wingman, he found himself way, way out of his depth. Had this woman always talked so fast? Her brain was like a misfiring robot, topics leaping epileptically all over the place, until he began to feel that he was facing down a rather aggressive Chihuahua; small, blonde, high pitched, and yapyapyapyapYAPPING at him about high school and college and parties and her ex husband and her social media career and the beauty gurus who were sooooo cancelled this year and she called it first like the leader she was, and then yapyapyap she was away again, onto veganism and ethical shopping, and how those people were sooooooo hypocritical, because everyone SHOPS, yah, and everyone travels by plane OHHKAY, and the sharp pointy nails were flipping the glossy hair and the bright light of the flash blinded every plate of food placed on the table, and Brandon’s head spun with confusion, then boredom, then exasperation, and by the time he finally escaped that godforsaken place and that intolerable yapping woman, he went straight home, and downed a beer…and then the strangest thing happened.

Brandon was dragged from the sofa and toward his computer by the invisible force of a word, a sentence, a paragraph, that was unspooling inside his mind like a rebellious cassette tape – he had to get it down, get it down before his entire brain turned into ‘80s spaghetti! At the computer his fingers flew – the tape unspooled, on and on, into scalding, fiery, biting satire, and even though he had no idea where the words were taking him, or how, when they were done they were brilliant, and they were legion – words upon words, more than he’d written in weeks put together, and that night, Brandon slept like a baby. A baby with a head full of ideas, ideas wrapped in dreams, until he fell out of bed and back onto the computer, to pour them all out in another torrential flood.

Brandon’s mental bowels had finally been given the great big reeking colonic they so desperately needed, and after that, well – he was hooked. That sarcastic inner monologue, the throw-your-head-back-and-growl exasperation, the rectum-itching boredom of bad dates and ghastly people became the drug that Brandon’s writing couldn’t do without – it fired him up like nothing on Earth, and after that, his path was clear: Brandon became a shitfishing prodigy. How could he not? It was a vital career move, wasn’t it? Shitfishing was going to make Brandon every bit as rich as any writer can realistically hope to be.

…which, naturally, isn’t very rich at all, but nonetheless, Brandon shitfished his way into a three book contract, and after that, he made his fifteenth online dating profile. This one was for Brandon The Writer; a more or less sane guy, seeking a fun-loving woman with a taste for scalding satire, and an open mind towards unusual motivational methods.

And surely, Brandon felt, surely the right woman wouldn’t mind him still dating other people, when they were people he could barely tolerate for a single hour? After all, by this point, Brandon had enough bad date anecdote-material to keep the right woman laughing for years, and he was a published author now – all in all, he was a pretty good catch, wasn’t he?

…but when the dating starting, somehow, it wasn’t as easy as he’d expected. The hitch was – and it was a bloody big hitch – that Brandon barely remembered how to actually behave on a date, when he wasn’t with a man or woman he was mentally distilling into his next literary villain. He was so fluent in being Racist Brandon or Obnoxious Cash-Flashing Brandon, or Religious To The Point Of Nausea Brandon, that four perfectly decent women left restaurants with expressions like startled rabbits and the disturbing impression that they’d just dated six people, or possibly even demons, each trapped in the same body, in the space of a surreal hour that left them slightly concerned they might have been recorded on some kind of Candid Camera show. Finally, just as Brandon began to despair that his toxic personas had wholly devoured his actual personality, along came the fifth woman.

She entered the arena, sat down across the table from Writer Brandon and his slew of barely-suppressed and deeply repugnant alter-egos…and as they talked, it turned out that she was a writer too. A writer of ironic chick-lit. And over the top of her chicken-salad-and-a-Cosmo, she saw a guy with the great hair, sea-green eyes and dimpled chin of every chick-lit hero. As the conversation flowed, she discovered that he had personally spent the last five years deliberately courting horrifyingly bad dates. And out they spilled, one upon the other, tales and tales of these unspeakable dates, often acted out as Brandon let himself slip from one bizarre alter-ego to the next, until her mascara was running with tears of hilarity, and her notebook was out of her purse, her pink glittery pen scrawling notes that wobbled with the shuddering of her laughter, and when he asked her, almost nervously, whether she’d mind seeing him again, and more than that, whether she’d mind him going on more awful dates…

…she told him her next book depended on it.

Two Years Later

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2019 by ofherbsandaltars

Just a picture.

Fifteen years, but I have so few

In this one

I’m sitting on you

Wearing those quintessentially ‘90s

Gothic clothes

That I still own, to this day.

It’s New Year’s Eve –

I made Cointreau jelly

It was lethal, sticky-delicious:

I went home clutching a bucket

With my New Rocks on the wrong feet.

.

You were the warmest

Friend-and-disaster

Any of us will ever know,

But how strange it is, when your friends

Are less durable

Than your clothes.

.

I still remember the first night I laid eyes on you

The Square Peg – how appropriate

Summer 2001

Red Square was the alcopop

Aftershock the liquor

In cinnamon red and Listerine blue

The carpet was that paisley atrocity

That haunted the ’90s and somehow,

Hasn’t returned, now that they’re cool

I was sitting next to James

As always

Conjoined twins, the infants of the scene

With Kaine across the table

When you shuffled in

Black ringlets and glasses

Fishnet over a baggy metal band shirt

And Tripp pants; always – they forever make me think of you

You’d introduced yourself earlier

On the Tainted email list.

It was a long message, full of apologies

Apologies for everything you were

For having brown skin, on a scene where white wasn’t pale enough

For being gay, like the cards weren’t stacked enough

I don’t know who they were, the people from your life before

Who made you feel you had to enter our room, crawling on your belly

Awaiting a kick

But for us, we were outsiders and you were one more

And you brought no ego through the Square Peg’s door

But even hiding behind your hair, barely daring to talk

There was something about you

That no one could resist

And over the next few years,

We had the honour of watching you blossom

Into Jazz Man

.

It’s strange that people think of Indians

As being quiet and meek –

Anyone who’s bothered to get to know a few

Will have discovered that,

As soon as you let them in

A single one is louder than any three of us;

Maybe it’s because

You had to rein it in back home

So whenever you came out

Ebullience erupted from every pore

Rude jokes and sniggers

Dick jokes and more –

No time with you was ever dull,

But nor was it ever fake.

No matter how many problems,

No matter how much sadness

Was buried under the smile,

It was never a mask, or a hackneyed act

You just put it all away

Around your friends those things waited for another day,

And as loud as you were

You knew how to listen,

Better than anyone I’ve ever known

(How else, of course, to glean those secrets,

The Rude Ones you polished like pearls)

And the last time I saw you

You sympathised

And said how fucked up it was

That my conjoined twin, and I

Weren’t allowed to speak any more

.

I didn’t know that would be the last time

I’d ever see you alive

A cyclic ending;

Another pub.

Another summer

Somewhat older

No alcopops now; whiskey instead

No ringlets on your shaven head

Summer breeze of the city kind

Exhaust and cigarettes,

Clinking wine,

And a setting sun as I wandered back

Through the whiskey-smudged city

Just like I’d done so many times

From all your many flats

The dodgy one with the echoing underpass

That felt decidedly stabby

The nice one with perfect parking

City noise rising up through the sunset on the balcony

And in every flat, inevitably,

Would be a big sofa, and a bigger TV

And material draped across all the windows

To keep the sunlight out;

You took your TV seriously,

Projectors blasting movies, right across the ceiling

And that time you discovered, to your own great glee

That if you stood, smoking, at the balcony

Through the thin cotton of your diaphanous trousers

Silhouetted in stark relief

Was your dangling junk

For all to see

And naturally, all, all had to see –

I think you even took a picture

It’s probably online;

I doubt Facebook’s invented an algorithm

To censor the shadows of dangling dicks

For not many men have discovered yet, this quietly erotic

Pleasure

.

But it was, that pub –

It was the last time

That I’d ever see you alive.

And now I don’t, or can’t recall

Was that after, or before,

That awful late-night phonecall?

You talked about suicide

A lot

That night

You weren’t upset; worse

You were resigned,

Cheerfully so,

The way people are,

When they know,

When they’ve decided

That the bad times are over –

Forever.

.

It made me cry.

You didn’t like that.

You didn’t want anyone to be upset

Or to feel that I was blackmailing you

To stay

And the thing was, I couldn’t disagree

I couldn’t tell you that things would be better

That it would seem different in the morning

No one could deny the state of your health,

Or lack thereof;

The chronic pain,

The ruined eyesight

An independent soul

Caged in the home

Of a smothering, traditional family

With eyes too weak to even walk the streets

After dark,

Gone blind to the neon nightlife

That was truly your own world

And so came

Pills and pills, pills for the pain

But pills that made you sleep all day

Pills for the depression

That sapped all motivation

Pills for the anxiety

But that, according to you, made you dance too badly to be tolerated as a form of medication

And the choice you faced was losing an eye

Losing an eye,

With no guarantees

That anything would even be better.

So you

You just wanted to go back:

The endless idol-worship of

“Old Jazz”

When you were healthy

And drugs were cheap

And everyone was young

And life was fun

And there were no problems

None

And you danced better and fucked more

And had a job that let you live

Like your own person;

Wild and free

And gay as could be

Ceiling splattered with projected

Pornography

.

So

Then,

The endless pilgrimages began,

As you drove the spurs into your breaking body

Pedal to the metal DeLorean;

You tried to become a time machine;

Cold turkey – pills flushed

A week in hell,

Expecting, believing

Like a child awaiting Santa,

That against all odds, you would emerge

Younger, thinner, faster, Scooter

Move to London, hit the gym, fuck new boys

(But only the hot ones,

No, wait – ALL the hot ones!

With an average age of twenty-two;

Young and dumb, and full of cum –

Your fantasies were always ambitious;

A world created by the hand of Jazz

Let’s face it, would be

Delicious…)

So, in London you’d party

And fuck non-stop

Snort each and every drug under the sun

Butalsoeataveryhealthylowcaloriedietandhavethebodyofagodwhilenever

Losingsightofthe

Necessityofhavingfun

The promises got wilder;

The methods more brutal

And still, Old Jazz never appeared –

So that was that,

You said,

On the phone,

As casually, as lightly, as if we were discussing

A particularly good episode of House,

I’m going to kill myself.

.

When I hung up,

I spent the rest of the night

Deciding what to wear to your funeral,

But first

I tried to persuade you,

That if you were going to do it,

If you really fucking had to,

Then there needed to be a goodbye.

You don’t have to tell everyone,

I said,

What it means,

This party,

But there has to be one.

We need a goodbye,

All of us.

You have to say goodbye

Or I will never

Ever

Forgive you.

.

It never happened that way

I mean…

Thank god, right?

I’d never have managed to be

Your silent partner

As you said a secret handshake goodbye

To the rest of the whole wide world.

I went to bed choked with tears and snot;

But in the morning you were not

Dead –

Not gone

Not this time

Not for several years to come

.

You never were predictable

.

That wasn’t the way

It went down.

.

Death by misadventure

Would be the headline

I suppose

.

But the thing is,

I never know –

Is it better

That you were never so full of despair

You stepped into a noose

And off a chair?

Or is it worse

Because you never chose to leave?

We were similar,

You and I,

Our Facebook messages

Are a tome of bad ideas

So I know…

How it probably went

Your final night on Earth:

Just habit

Just comfort

Just a fleeting warm rush

Parents downstairs

Deeply in denial

Music on, or maybe your beloved TV

Not glamorous, not dramatic

No Intervention episode

Just what you do, of an evening

Only this time

When you passed out

You never got up again

.

I often wonder

If your spirit was baffled

When it emerged,

Still high

Rubbing its ectoplasmic eyes

And moving on to a higher plane

With a bit of a hangover

Passport forgotten in the rush

Nothing quite going to plan

But…

Was it a relief?

That it was over –

Without having to make that awful decision?

The decision

That always

Always

Seemed so bleakly inevitable

When it came to you.

I mean…

Did any of us ever truly believe

That you would live to be old?

.

I suspect it was.

A relief

I mean,

In a way.

But I also think

There are days

When your spirit peeks down at the Earth

At the sweaty bodies

Glistening beneath neon and blacklight

Young flesh, so supple

Writhing to heavy, pounding beats

Bodies entwined in moonlit streets

And it rather wishes,

It could pop back down

And spend an hour or five in town

.

Does it still bemoan

The fact that it isn’t

Old Jazz?

Or any Jazz now, at all?

Or is it over such things –

At peace

I hope so.

.

In our memories

You will always be Old Jazz now

Now, and forever more –

The shadow of a laugh

In the echoing dark

Of some strange, intoxicated 4am;

A whisper misheard in the rippling din

Of that post-clubbing tinnitus lullaby.

Or the tongue of a dog

Wetly

Violating an ear canal

And for a moment

A ghostly voice

Sniggers in wild glee

Dancing out of the way of your fist

Another victim Lovingly Licked…

.

You linger on

JAIDs is a condition

One never quite recovers from.

It stays with you,

Keeping you warm,

Always.

.

IMG_20190617_002933_994

Football’s Coming Home

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 9, 2018 by ofherbsandaltars

Think about it…just for a minute. Or hell, give it a while, blaze up the Good Stuff and lie back and wonder why do people care, at all, about the limited possible outcomes of an outdoor pursuit engaged in by total strangers who are undeniable twats? As a sweeping generalisation, football fans vehemently hate overpaid lazy snobs, but that’s exactly who they’re beating people up in defence of. And the sport? There are so many pastimes involving grass, balls, and sweaty men; why does this one drive people to such frothing hysteria? It doesn’t make sense, not after a few hits of the Good Stuff. But the thing is, it isn’t supposed to.

The football doesn’t matter. The players, the teams, they’re all replaceable rotating names puked out of the same foreign sausage factory. At its heart, all of it is just a cover story.

In a parallel universe, it could be a sheepdog playing tug of war with a welly. What matters, what really matters, is the blissful blanking out, the excuse to get pissed as a fart, to have a lager-blurred bonding experience down t’pub, and then stagger out, and beat the shit out of foreign people. If there aren’t any foreign people, well, we’ll fucking create them –  you support Man UTD, not City?!! RIP OFF HIS DICK!! But the thing is, this is the original-and-best way people make friends, starting as tiny children – hell, you’ve probably seen it, probably got some hazy distant memory of being a part of it – bring together a group of children who don’t know each other, and the very first damn thing they do is create a scapegoat, then bond over dissing him, tormenting him. No group collusion is possible without a common enemy, without a ringfence that makes an us –  take away the them and we’re all just wandering about with nothing in common, avoiding eye contact like we’re stuck in an elevator with a co-worker we’ve known for five years and suddenly realise that we still can’t fucking remember their name, but oh god, oh god, it’s too late to ask!

It’s an element of the human psyche we’ll never eliminate. The lowest common intellectual grouping will always find a way, through football, through anything involving aggression and beer and thousands of sweaty bollocks rattling around in a big noisy arena. They have to do it, it’s the only way to stay sane when you lack social skills – this emotional crippling is the soft, broken, degloved-penis root of it all.

Football. The easiest common ground for every awkward uni-browed grunting bloke. Throw yourself into it, fucking hurl yourself into the abyss of being a bloke, gulp down pints of Stella, watch the footie, smash up the opposition supporters, and fucking CHANT – never ever stop fucking chanting, like some despairing, mocking cry of anything approaching human understanding, as if your mates really care about you, as if your mates even know you at all…because the moment the chanting stops, the moment the Stella wears off, the silence is fucking crushing. They won’t look you in the eye, sober. They can’t find any words when your wife dies of cancer – the vocabulary of Down t’Pub has no emotional depth, and now they’re flailing, drowning, in the true depths of the human experience. They don’t fucking know you, your mates, not really, how can they? These people are all facade, it’s a masculinity that can never be anything but a big dangling steel nutsack, denying the existence of any squishy central parts. No words, no honesty, no vulnerability, until the Stella and the chanting and the football and the fuckin’ foreigners have rotted out anything that ever used to be there, until they’ve all become so skilfully trained in their Bloke Voice, Bloke Words, Bloke Persona, that all neural plasticity is lost forever, and there’s no going back.

But is it more, even, than that?

Is it all a distraction, any maybe a wilful one? A distraction from the fact that you’re short, you’re bald and tubby, you’re not good with the ladies, not educated, not listened to, just a fucking ground-down cog in the depths of a political machine that ups the ante every year with its austerity measures and job closures and zero hour contracts and the failing NHS and the housing crisis and a never-ending waterboarding torrent of Eton-farmed Tory aliens who live on some foreign planet made out of butlers and ponies and completely non-ironic Enid Blyton nicknames. You’re fucked, mate. You probably realised you were fucked early on, and maybe you had a phase of youthful rebellion, grew your hair, started a band of gangly Adam’s apple-popping kids thrashing away in the spare room with more vitriol than talent, more passion than eloquence, until you realised how stupid you looked for even trying, you realised that people took the piss out of blokes who actually cared about stuff, like politics and injustice, and other stuff with big words that made you look like you thought too much of yourself, like you had ideas above your station, tossing around words like that, hiding a fucking thesaurus under your bed, who d’you fuckin’ think you are, you ponced-up little wanker? Maybe the blokes down t’pub gave you a right royal battering the night you tried to up your local rockstar cred by wearing a flamboyant shirt – that wasn’t right, you can’t be flamboyant, you’re a bloke, blokes have to look identical, have to wear a uniform of football shirts and jeans and short hair and a pint, a pint in your hand so you never look uncertain.

So the band broke up, or maybe you broke it up yourself, since it was scaring off the women, and you’re twenty now, for fuck’s sake, it’s time to get married to anyone who’ll have you, to have a litter of kids you’re not ready for, a litter of kids who instantaneously shoot you into the position of The Man of the House, and you’re never…you’re never allowed a chink in that armour.

The armour is hollow.

There’s nothing in there anymore, just a tiny frayed scrap of a soul, piloting the machine, raising the frothing pint to the lips, keeping the chant going.

Don’t let the silence in.

Don’t let the doubts in.

Football’s coming home.

Everything is Weird

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on August 4, 2017 by ofherbsandaltars

You gotta wait half an hour for your dinner

I’m sorry, that’s just how it goes

You take a pill then wait for your dinner

I love you

You’re the best dog on Earth.

 

I’m concussed right now

I met a dog up the road and he wagged and licked at me

But he’s not my family right now.

 

I’m so spaced out,

I thought you were dead when I came in

You were so still

You’re nearly 16.

 

I love you, like you like tuna

My dude

The ambula men asked if you were called Dude,

Cause I kept calling you, like

‘Dude, shut up!’

You were barking at the ambulance lights.

Your name is Presley, Dogdog, Dude –

It doesn’t matter, you’re deaf anyway.

 

Under any name, I love you.

 

More than words.

 

The ambulance took me away,

You were scared like me

Everything was on TV

Surreal

I had a seizure, or something.

 

I love you.

 

I love everything who reads this

I hear my name echoing in everything.

 

I’m not here.

 

I keep tlling them that everything is weird

I can’t type anhy,ore.

Bones & Stories; Morgue Drawer

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2017 by ofherbsandaltars

Magnetic as the moon –

No one could help

But love the lunatic

Who licked faces left and right

And hid every inch of his ongoing plight

Behind smiles and drugs

And the warmest of hugs

 

Now he’s lying cold in a morgue drawer

Lost and gone forever more

 

They’ll slice a V in his neck,

Bloodless flesh

Bleached yellow with death

Crack open his ribs

Weigh his heart, check it for size,

It was plenty big enough – no one’s surprised

They’ll test his toxic tissues

And take slivers of his brain

In that organ nothing will remain

Of the superstar he used to be.

 

Some people want to let the dead lie

And just lie down and cry

Because dead is dead

So sterilise it, synthesise it, powder it up

Take it away – don’t let me smell the stench of decay

But the fact is it’s all true

It’ll happen to you, it’ll happen to me

No one gets immortality

In the flesh

And that flesh, that fleshy vest

It comes off, it gets sliced and prodded

It lies in the ground and it rots

Bloodless with decomposition

Eyeballs fall back, gasses burst free

Veined purple with pooled lividity

Underneath –

That’s all any of us are

In the end.

 

In the end, I want answers

In the end, I want to see him

Even in this state –

It might seem real then

It might be final then

That he’s really gone, forever –

Misshapen and cold on the cutting room floor

In the cold, cold blood-scented air

Of a sterile cold morgue drawer

He’ll never style his hair again

And it might seem real to me

Some kind of epiphany.

 

Is it easier to let the dead live on?

In photos and stories

Of their joyous former glories

Or is it better to tell the truth?

To be perfectly ruthless

And grab it by the entrails

And pull them out until you see

Until you see the end of you and me.

 

I promise I’ll love you just as much,

Cold and stiff on a tray

I’ll just have to love you in a different way

Because you won’t talk back anymore

And your kisses are cold, they taste like frozen meat

There’s a tag dangling from your icy feet –

I’d want to warm you up.

 

Like you’d done something stupid

And taken too many pills

Then gone for a walk, got lost, caught a chill

I’d want to invite you back in for soup and a beer

But you’re never coming back here,

Are you?

 

You’re lying in a morgue drawer

I hope it doesn’t hurt your back

I want to give you a pillow and a duvet in there

But soon, you’ll be ash

Or beneath the earth

Crumbling away, never so pretty as on even your worst day

 

Just bones, just bones

And stories

 

Never forgotten.

I need to know how you died.

I need to know why you didn’t say goodbye –

That’s all.

 

Just bones and stories…

Just bones, and stories.

Ode to an Old Dog

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on October 22, 2016 by ofherbsandaltars

You’re fifteen now, and every single time I make your breakfast I cry until I can’t see the bowl in front of my face, because every day that I get up and you’re still around is a reminder that soon, inevitably, you won’t be. I can’t even remember or imagine this house without you in it. Your name is Presley, but lately I just call you Dog, because you’re the very essence of dogness, you’re the only dog, not a dog but The Dog, the only dog I want in my life, now and forever. Dog is a word that means love – if there is a God, I’m sure he’s happy that his best creations have his own name, spelled backwards. Dog means love, because dogs are made of love – they know nothing else. So I just call you Dog. It doesn’t really matter what I call you though, because you’re deaf now anyway. You used to be able to hear food fall to the floor from a mile away. There are a lot of good things about you being so old. You sleep a lot, so you don’t get bored, you can’t walk far, so we never have to go out in the rain and walk for miles and miles while I wish I got a cat instead, and since you’re deaf you don’t bark at fireworks for the whole of November. You also shit on the patio instead of up the garden, which is a bit unsightly but makes picking it up easier. You’re pretty convenient now you’re old, Dog, but you’re still you, and everything I loved about you, everything that made me choose you out of all those rows of sad dogs in cages, it’s still there. You’re still scruffy with a beard and hairy feet and a white tip on your tail, and you still love hugs, and you still grumble about everything – mum used to be scared of you, because you growl so much, but you’ve never bitten a single person in your long, long life. You just like to grumble.

I love you, Dog, more than I love most humans, to be honest. You can still get up and down the stairs, you can just about jump into the car, sometimes (though sometimes you can’t, and I have to lift and boost you, and you’re one hell of a lump – sorry, but it’s true), you’re still smiley and exuberant since the vets put you on painkillers for your arthritis, pills for your Cushing’s, but even so, Dog, you’re like 94 in human years, and every time I look at you now I wonder when and how it’s going to end. Sometimes you sleep so deep I’m not sure if you’re still breathing, and I hope it’s that, in the end, that you just slip away in your own house. I don’t want to have you put down, at the vet’s, where you’re scared and you trust me to get you out of there safely but this time I won’t – I’ll leave without you, forever, and go back to an empty house with your worn out collar in my hand, hanging loose, nothing inside it but memories and your fading scent.

But however it goes, I hope it’s not for years. I hope you break world records. I hope you live to be 32. I get bad feelings a lot, when I say goodnight to you, and I say ‘See you tomorrow’, and wonder if I won’t.

Please don’t die, Dog. Not ever. Here’s some incentive: Mum says that when you’re gone, she’s getting a cat. Maybe even two cats. That’s right, Dog. There are going to be cats living in your house and drinking out of your bowl, and being hugged by your humans. Fucking cats, Dog. A whole army of fucking cats. So you can’t die. You have to keep the cats out, just like you always have. Hating cats is your raison d’être.

So that’s what I wanted to say to you. But for me, I need this part – I need to make a list of all the things I love about you, while you’re still here, and I’m going to keep adding to this, every single day that you’re here with me, even as my tears fall and my makeup smudges. I need to be able to remember you, everything that made you so special. This is your legacy, your history, your life. This is my love for you.

I love your grumbly hugs – sometimes I pretend I’ve forgotten to give you dinner just so you come up and give me grumbly hugs until I relent. I love the way you go down the stairs like a floppy old rug mated with a Slinky, boing, boing, flop, flop. I love all our memories together, when you were young and able and we’d explore the woods for hours, and sit on rocky outcroppings overlooking the forest. I remember the times you’d chase squirrels and throw yourself right over cliff edges, but somehow you always came back up, smiling. I remember when I had a psychiatric assessment at home, and you were with me, and it was the one time I could vocalise myself without crying. Ironic now, that I cry almost every time I hug you, because I know you’re leaving.

I love how you like to round up your humans, how you have to know where everybody is, so whenever I come upstairs you follow me, then you do your rounds – bathroom, toilet, bedroom – until you find me. Then you lie on the floor and chew some trash for a while, and go back downstairs, where there’s more going on. I wish it didn’t make you so stressed every time I go out at night – you never used to be like that when you were young, but now, you hate people leaving you at night, even with the lights on. It’s sweet and sad all at once when I come back and you’re lying right by the door, in the draughty hallway, waiting.

I love how you have no interest in toys whatsoever, unless it’s a ball to catch. Instead, you like trash – empty chocolate wrappers, receipts, tissue paper, it’s all fair game. I love that you see the wonder in trash, that you delve through my bin and cause absolute fucking chaos, then you find your favourite bit of trash and lie down to munch on it for hours.

I love how you come out to see me whenever I go down in the night – I don’t know how you do it, now you’re deaf, I guess you catch my scent, but if I go downstairs at 2am, you’ll get out of bed on your stiff old legs and come to give me sleepy hugs, smelling of soft warm sleep-laden fur. I love your shoulders, where the fur is thick and soft and I can lay my head and you don’t mind – I’ve seen all the articles about never hugging dogs, but you like it. You like it when I whisper in your ear, too, maybe because you’re deaf and it’s the only sound you hear now, or maybe it’s because I like it when you snuffle in my ear too. It feels nice. You get that. I love your crazy hair, that your white patches are twice the length of your short black parts, so you have a white mohawk on the back of your neck, a furry, furry belly, big white shaggy feet, a glorious beard and a tail like a fox. I love your eyes, how you look like a seal when you’re sleepy and your ears are back – nothing but gleaming black fur and big, shiny, deep brown eyes. I love your smile, it’s easy to make you smile, even if I’ve been boring, even if I’ve been on the computer all day and you’re so fucking jealous of my computer – you forgive me. You smile, you give me hugs. I love you – all of you, every bit of these past thirteen and a half years, even when you pulled me over and I grazed my knees, even when you stayed up all night barking at thunderstorms, even when I had to walk you in the rain, even when you shat in the park and I had no poo bags and that chav yelled at me, even when you chase me around barking because you think six treats in a day isn’t enough – I’d never take it back. Not a second of it.

I’m honoured to have been your Person, but it breaks my heart knowing that I only got that privilege because somebody else dumped you on a random street and drove away. Because you were, you were a sad dog in an RSPCA cage – you’d been a stray. Nobody claimed you. But you’d been loved – for months you kept trying to curl up in my lap, thinking you were still a tiny puppy – someone had held you and loved you, and then you grew up into a wild, anarchic, shoe-chewing teenager and they just dumped you. They fucking dumped you. I know how anxious you get waiting outside shops – I rarely do that to you, because you hate it. But those people, whoever they were, who’d loved you as a tiny little bundle of black and white fluff, who were everything you’d ever known, they left you waiting forever, in distress, cold and hungry and lost. You’re so forgiving, Dog. You were wild and noisy and crazy and frequently a royal pain in the arse when you were young, and I admit, we had some discussions about you being the wrong dog for us (especially when you tried to eat my mum’s favourite cat, and we had to split the house in half – dog downstairs, cats upstairs. You outlived the cats, much to your delight…), but you were always loving, and so much fun. And now you’re old, there’s less fun, but so much more love. You’re my best friend. I’m on pills too, Dog, you know I’m always at home, not like I used to be. Well, people, humans, they’re not like you. They’re not forgiving, they’re not made of love. If you can’t be fun anymore they dump you just like your asshole owners did. So now, you’re all I have, really.

This is mostly a letter to you, but you can’t read it, and humans can. So I’d like to say, don’t leave the old dogs rotting in their cages. Don’t go for the cute little puppies. Old dogs are wise and beautiful and loving, and extremely lazy. They can be great. Yes, you’ll lose them soon, and the vet bills might stack up, but they will love you, and shuffle up and down the road with you, pissing lethargically over the lampposts. We only got Presley because of a misunderstanding – we thought he was old; his grey beard, a confusing sign on his cage. We thought he was an old, calm dog, and it turned out he was 18 months old and fucking mental. But we were in love by then, so he came home, and Dog, I’m so glad you weren’t old back then. Every shoe you destroyed, every grazed knee as you yanked me onto the pavement, it’s been worth it, to have had all these years with you.

Whenever you go, you’ll never be forgotten. I don’t know how the world will continue to turn for me, honestly. There’s too much, Dog, too much to even list. I love you. Please don’t leave me…

 

________

 

Edit: He can’t get up the stairs anymore, he doesn’t even try. He has an ear infection that makes him fall over and gives his head a tilt and he can’t take treats or eat properly. He’s going. 24 Feb ’17. Please, please, get better Dog…

 

____________

 

Edit 2: 22 June ’17 – he’s on extra medication and has his balance and joy back – I can’t express my gratitude. We thought we were taking him to be put down, and he’s still here and happier than he’s been in months. He still doesn’t attempt the stairs, can’t get into the car without being lifted (and he IS a lump), doesn’t like going out most days. But he’s still Dog. He’s still smiley and grumbly, and he gives the best hugs in the world. He knows when I’m ill, he gets worried, and when I’m well enough to give him hugs again he smiles and presses his face to mine, and I love him beyond words. His shoulders and thighs are turning grey, his eyebrows are very distinguished now, but he’ll always be Dog. This week I lost a human friend, and I need Dog to keep going – I can’t take more sadness right now. He loves his treats, he gets in and out through the dogflap ok, he’s managing, he’s happy. If he makes it to winter he’ll be 17 years old, and that’ll mean more to me than Christmas. I love you so much, Dog.

Twisted Sunrise, May 2014

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on May 16, 2016 by ofherbsandaltars

I wish I could go back

To before

I remember the full moon was beautiful

And you were pissing me off

I was pissed off with you a lot,

If I’m honest

You were so far in denial

With the rainbow bandaids all up your arms

The cutesy artwork

Hiding a mess of cigarette burns

And the food, the fucking veganism

Those goddamn healthy pitta-breads

And the endless candy

That you were only going to throw up

The fact you were so obsessed with your fucking self care

With your rituals – your movies, the incense, the yoga, the nail polish

Self care – like a sick joke

Healthy food. Cutesy bandaids.

And we were all supposed to ignore the fact

That you were drinking with your pills

That you had pneumonia more times than I have fingers

That you crashed your car every week for a fucking month

That you’d been disappearing for over a year

Until you looked 67 instead of 32

And I barely recognised you anymore

And your goddamn idiot teenage fans

Those fucking repulsive teenagers, who idolised you

And idolised you even more once you were dead

 

So, yes. You pissed me off.

But I wish I could go back, to before

Before the full moon

Before your brother’s crass announcement  –

Or maybe not crass – he just couldn’t find the words,

But all he said was “Gretchen is dead. She died in her sleep last night.”

Just that. On your account. As a status update.

And I’m sorry, but I laughed at it

Because it had to be bullshit

I saw you drinking cocktails in the sunshine

Just two days before

And you’d been here forever

In my life

So you couldn’t just be gone –

Not you

I thought it was bullshit

 

Because I’d been to that place too –

Hadn’t we all?

Bleeding and emaciated and silently screaming

Eating and puking and posting pictures of nothing

But endless food and our shrinking selves –

The only things we valued

Bones and sinews, and shiny candy wrappers

But it never lasted – it never took anyone –

That’s why I was so pissed off

I was pissed off with you

Because you wouldn’t just move on

From this annoying phase

This dip into idiocy that we were too fucking old for

I thought you’d come back, and then you’d be fun again

I didn’t see it.

That we were too fucking old –

That was the clue, the clue I missed

Too fucking old to weigh 60lbs

To live on alcohol, and pills

And just keep on going

That we weren’t 18 anymore

I didn’t see it

And I’m sorry

I’m sorry for that

 

But I don’t know what I would have changed

I was mean to you, sometimes

Because you were being stupid

And those teenage fools were idolising your self destruction

And you believed your own lies

And I wanted to slap you

So I did, verbally, a few times

I hope you forgave me

But I suppose it doesn’t matter

I think everything was too late

Your collision course was so long in the making

I couldn’t stop you

Maybe even you couldn’t stop you

 

But I wish I could go back to before

Before the full moon

And tell you how much you meant

That I loved you even though you fucking pissed me off

And that I’d miss you forever

And that you mattered

I don’t think you knew that

How much you fucking mattered

Like a goddamn rockstar

And the mourning spread over the whole world

For you, for weeks

You left holes in souls on every continent

 

I see you in every rainbow

In every full moon

And if life ever gets too much

It’s nice to know that I’ll see you again

When I get there.

 

Miss you, G xx