Eye Spy

First published by the Henshaw Press as Second Prize Winner in their June 2018 short story competition.

I had always thought I was my own worst enemy. That is what I thought, what I’d come to believe. Through school,university, Corps Training, and my time in the field. That is what they taught us, what they prepared us for. If we could face our very worst fears, we could face anything. So goes the theory. I had worked hard to become my worst enemy, practised, taunted and challenged myself, pushed to extremes. Until now. Until this.

I was now facing what I knew to be my worst enemy, not just mine alone, he had come to represent all that was wrong with the world, what we were fighting against. And somehow, by being in the right time, but the wrong tent, by doing my duty, I had come to represent all that stood in his way.

It is just a job, one tells oneself, and the very few friends who may have more than an inkling of what you really do for a living. Information management, I usually tell enquirers. For the government. That usually closes the conversation down, sounds as interesting as accountancy. But is just as subtly dangerous. And close enough to the truth, whatever that may be. I acquire information, extract it, by whatever means necessary. Others actually manage it. Dissect it, disembowel it, or distort and disseminate it. Repackaged for a different audience or played back to its original authors. Confusion, disinformation, doublespeak, smokescreen.

I should have registered the smoke. I should have thought ahead. Prepared. Getting lazy, getting careless, getting old. I can see the report now: recommended to be stood down from active service. To be given something nice, comfortable, back office. To be shipped to Cheltenham or Hanslope Park. But there would be no report. I knew that, I was just trying to inject some humour, some hope. I would be lucky if my remains were even found and flown back in some diplomatic bag.

The bag over my head is stifling. Hot, dusty, sweaty, I can barely breath. And I try and save my breath, I know I’m going to need it. But I can smell the smoke.It’s pungent, acrid, the stench of burning flesh. Mine. Open sores run down my legs, from bruised kneecap to broken ankle. The welts have faded from the foreground, the battering has stopped. I have forgotten how to hurt, the pain has been blocked by my inability to feel anything anymore. But I can take more, I know that, and will have to, I’m sure. But I am numb now. I am an empty vessel, strapped to a chair, thinking, listening, smelling the air. Straining for a sign, some movement, an indication of what’s next, so I can prepare myself, brace for impact.

I know I will die here. In this tent.In this foreign land. Surrounded by men who are just as scared and scarred as I. I know it makes no difference now what I say, what they ask. Both sides are now beyond the realm of sense. It is violence without purpose, torture without intent. They have gone so far, it is too late to turn back. To retreat would be shameful, as would my pleas. We both have to save face. He needs me to die quietly, quickly, so he can walk away.

But I am not ready to die. My training was good. Too good. We were built to survive, to reach deep-rooted resources,develop new synapses to bypass pain, forget self, block memory, negate truth, manage, misrepresent, repackage reality.

That is what he wants, that is all that he needs, that is why I’m here, with blackened knees, cracked fingers,peeling skin, burning flesh. Just a scrap, just a morsel, just a small piece of information. If I give it to him, he’s done, I’m done, we’re gone. But if I give it to him who dies instead, how many perish in my place, in return for my offering? In return for my treachery? Just a bad day at the office. It is never just a job. It is always life or death. For someone, somewhere, some day.

My turn today it seems. I’ve had worse than this, I think. I try to persuade myself. But I know I haven’t, not quite like this, only in my nightmares, and those exhausting training programmes. But they are never real, however hard they try to instil fear, to push us to extremes, to try and break us, they can never go quite far enough. We are not super heroes. We are made weak by our humanity.

I wonder what his weakness is, his humanity, his Achilles heel. I have been trying to find it for some weeks now,but nothing seems to work. The mind games we learnt seem like frivolous party tricks, play-acting, let’s pretend at being spies.

The hood lifts, I gulp involuntarily for breath. I am given one more chance, one last ask, and he may spare my death. But I know he is lying, I am spent, no value to them now, more of a liability than collateral. Not worth carting around as a potential bargaining chip. The only gain in giving in, and giving up my information, is a selfish one, to reduce pain. To no longer be his plaything, a voodoo doll, sliced and diced and stuck with pins. That is why people always give in, not because they want to live. For the awful knowledge at discovering what carnage your weakness has wrought, the death toll, the disaster, is a lifelong torture. They never let you forget how much you let them down, how far you fell, how endless your failure. People do not give in, in order to save their skin and sacrifice others, but because they want to die.They just want it to stop. There is a certain point where you would rather kill yourself, as quickly as possible, than choose to survive such an ordeal. Would I have killed myself by now? If I could, if I had the means. If the vial had not already been extracted from my teeth. Yes. Possibly. Probably. But my weakness was holding on to hope, clinging on to life, when most would know when to quit, when they had passed the point of no return, and to let go of the rope.

The rope around my wrists is biting in. Rubbing raw the skin. Someone behind me twists it round, an attempt to snap my wrists. It is excruciating, a pain so far beyond the sense barrier it no longer registers. I am immune. I am immortal. I can no longer tell if I am alive or dead, and the difference barely matters. This is all there is, all that’s left. Me and my torturer, and this strange intimacy between us. He comes to me now. Stands over me, then sits astride, across my lap, crunching my splintering kneecap. He motions to the others, those I cannot see. He wants to be alone. Just him, my pain, and me. He leans in close, he breathes on me and offers a cigarette. I do not want it, but he lights it and places in my mouth, pushing it under the rag that gags me and is tied tight behind.

So this is it, I think. A final parting, a peace offering of sorts. A last wish,my last breaths wasted on nicotine. Then what? Blow to the head, bullet to the chest, knife to the throat. I wait. Nothing more I can do now. I choke on the cigarette. I don’t smoke anymore, and even if I did, it would provide little relief now. Here, in this tent, tied up, body broken, bent out of shape, mind half-crazed, nearly gone, but not quite. Not yet. Still desperately, pointlessly clinging on to the rope. As I choke he takes the cigarette from my mouth, puts it to his own lips briefly, looks at me in a way I take to be curiosity, bemused by my perseverance and resistance, or perhaps just amused by my appearance. The ability for one to be stripped of all humanity, dignity, capacity, yet still somehow, remain human.

He takes the cigarette in his right hand, places his left upon my shoulder, and slowly, carefully lowers it towards me. I see its trajectory, a slow-moving missile. It’s red glow lighting the gloom around us. All is slow motion, a film of exposed ripped negatives cast upon the cutting-room floor. It continues towards me, in my direct line of sight. I should have thought of this, I should have been prepared. I barely have time to close my eye. The cigarette burns into my eyelid, but gently, he doesn’t push, there’s clearly no rush. The skin of the eyelid is thin, a delicate membrane, it is punctured easily. Its hot spear pierces into my eye. I feel my eyeball contract, my body convulse. My eye is an egg cut and fried, thick viscous yolk oozing out, blood red. My fibres pull away, skin tries to contract, shrink into the chair, but there is no escape, no letting go. I long to faint, I am unavoidably repulsed, I try to vomit. It is a technique taught for occasions such as these, although this is a scenario beyond the most extreme programmes, my most sickening of dreams. But there is insufficient bile, I have already brought it up, when they first applied the fire and the knife.   

I try to focus on something else, anything but this. Still he twists, and gouges the cigarette butt deeper in. My other eyelid is squeezed tight shut, awaiting the next assault. I can hear him, feel him, smell him, breathing foully in my face. Close enough for lips to touch, if we should wish. I have no more weapons left, my mouth bound, my head held firm in place. I can resist no more, I am beaten. My muscles slacken, I relax. I want to weep, I long to be untied, I know I would welcome even his embrace. And that’s when I know I am finished, I am letting go of the rope. I am getting ready to die, I have at last given up hope.

I know he must sense this. He’s been well trained too. Probably the same programmes, the mind games, the pain response reframing. He loosens his grip, leans back and, I imagine, surveys his handiwork. I keep my eyes closed. But my bowels open. Suddenly, uncontrollably, and spill out whatever is left in there.The body emptying itself, in preparation for death. He scrambles off me, stands up, and kicks at my red raw shin. The smell of piss and shit fill the air,mixing with the sickly stench of burnt flesh, singed sclera, fried albumen. I am blinded. I don’t need to try to open my eye to test this, I can tell. It feels rotten, festering, shrivelled in its socket. I am done. He is done too.That was his parting shot. I know that now. I don’t speak, or ask for explanations, I stay silent, for there are no words, and for fear that he may rip out my tongue. That is more common we’re told. He walks off, leaves the tent, rejoins his fold. I’m left waiting, listening, breathing. It’s all I have left.

They remove the tent, they take the chair. I’m left gagged and bound. Burning in the midday sun.

I spy with my little eye something beginning with…

Circus Subterraneous

This short story won third prize in the Wild Hunt Short Story Competition 2021.

Round and round, and round and round, and round and round we go.

Where we stop, nobody knows.

But I know because this is where we stop every day. Same route, same stop. It’s like a religion, this stopping. This pausing and waiting. A moment of meditation in the day. It’s a habitual act, like fingering the rosary or crossing oneself before the altar.

We pause, we reflect, we wait, we hope. Nothing happens.

Nobody gets on. Nobody gets off.

The bus driver is contractually required to stop and wait, if only for a few seconds, at every stop. But why here? We’re on the edge of a roundabout, it’s completely impractical.

Finsbury Circus.

It’s the only true Circus left in London. Oxford has become a fancy pedestrian crossing, Piccadilly a broken circle confused by cars. Cambridge is… Well, a little theatrical moment in the West End. Exit, pursued by tourists. The others have turned into concrete monstrosities feeding the polluting petrol beast: ring junctions, roundabouts, gyratories. Give me an old-fashioned Circus any day.   

The word comes from the Romans apparently. I looked that up one day when I overheard a little boy travelling with his mother ask her why there were no lions here. I told him there used to be lions roaming the streets of London, but now they keep them in the zoo, for safekeeping. She looked a bit annoyed at my interjection, but the young boy’s eyes lit up. I like it when there are children travelling the buses, we don’t get so many of them on this route. It’s mainly city types trying to look cool by ‘slumming it’ or poor people going to Moorfields Hospital. 

Circus Maximus the Romans called it. Their largest stadium, bigger than the Coliseum, for chariot-racing and lion-baiting and other fancy attractions. Finsbury must be Circus Minimus in comparison. I don’t know when the word was used to describe these round places in cities. Round squares effectively. I love the green space in Finsbury Circus, this is what makes it special. It’s got a bowling green in the middle too, an oasis of civilisation amongst all this urban pretension. And a lovely garden, although that’s all dug up now, for the building of yet another underground railroad. Waste of money if you ask me. All those billions of pounds and it will only shave 10 minutes off your journey.

My name’s Bill, by the way, I’m the bus conductor. The one that stands at the back then comes round to check the tickets. There aren’t many of us left, they got rid of most of them when those little plastic swipey cards came in. No need to pay the fare with cash and get a ticket anymore, you just swipe and go. No tickets – no need to inspect them. But there’s a few of us left. The oldies, who were not quite close enough to retirement, but not young enough to take voluntary redundancy and start a new career in a new town.

They keep us for show mainly, for the tourists. None of this jumping on and off the back any longer though, that’s a real shame. That was the main attraction to the job for me, and how I met my missus. She was trying to jump on the back of the number 38 when she stumbled. I caught her and pulled her up onto the back runner. Fell into my arms, she did. Just outside the Angel station. She was my angel in waiting, that’s what I told her.

We can’t do any of that now, it’s not allowed. Too dangerous apparently. Health and safety nonsense, it’s just an excuse to get rid of us, cut costs. I’ve only got another few years to go and then I can retire. The missus says she can’t wait that long to have a proper holiday abroad, so we’ve got to go now, whilst we still can, she says. She wants to go somewhere hot this year, so I’m taking on some extra shifts. This is why I’m doing the night shift, a bit of extra padding in my pay packet.

For this night shift, this particular night, that I’m telling you about, I got a new driver. I don’t know how new he is, but I’ve never seen him before, and as one of the oldies I reckon I’ve worked with all the drivers at my company. Most people assume that London buses are all run by the same company, but they’d be very wrong. There are dozens of them, all in charge of different routes. All in competition with each other for passengers and fares.   

Clarkson, he said his name was. I assumed this was his surname, but no, Clarkson is his first name. Funny names they give kids these days. Clarkson Wells Junior is how he introduced himself to me, with a little salute. I wasn’t sure if the salute was intended to be respectful or sarcastic. But if he starts calling me grandad, I’ll wallop him.

It’s a normal night shift. People get on, people get off. As usual it’s quiet at one end, busy in the middle and then a big blur of noise and beer in the centre. Everyone is so noisy these days, compared to when I started out, yelling into their phones. Several times I’ve had to clear up vomit and sticky red wine and broken glass.

We were on our way back from town, nearly at the end of my shift. It’s already just after midnight as we’d been delayed by some malfunctioning temporary traffic lights where they’re digging up the road round Farringdon. We’re nearly back at Liverpool Street where I end my night, when we stop at Finsbury Circus as usual.

We pause. As usual, nothing happens. Nobody gets on. Nobody gets off.

Clarkson lets the engine idle for a couple more seconds before putting it back into gear. There aren’t many of the diesel buses left now. Most of them have been replaced by the modern electric ones. Better for the environment I know, but they’re not the same. The buses on this route haven’t been replaced yet, and I hope I go before they do, because I’ll miss the sound of an idling bus engine. It’s the sound of anticipation and excitement, the sound of a journey about to begin and a whole new group of people to share that with. I like the fact that I get to be part of their lives for a short while, and I imagine what they’re doing, where they’re going. Who they are as people, not just passengers.

Just before the bus lurches forward into first gear, a large crowd of people get on. I didn’t see where they came from. They just streamed on from out of the shadows. They must have been waiting against the wall rather than standing at the stop itself. I wasn’t half surprised when they all tumbled on. They were all dressed similar, with long dark cloaks or heavy black jackets covering up whatever they were wearing underneath. It was quite a strange sight. Must be off to some sort of fancy-dress party, or perhaps some unusual city boy secret club. One doesn’t want to think about it, but I’ve seen that film by the clockwork guy.

What’s most odd, other than the fact that I’ve never seen anyone get on at this stop ever, is that the next stop is the last one. The bus terminates there. I start to tell them this as they climb on, but they just smile or laugh and say it doesn’t matter, they’re just along for the ride. I shrug and glance up the aisle to Clarkson, who I can see in his mirror watching all these people take their seats. He raises his eyebrows at me in return, and then sticks his thumb up, and off we go.

Round and round, and round and round, and round and round we go circumnavigating Finsbury Circus. Clarkson then takes a sharp right and cuts across the other lane suddenly. I stumble in the back, not expecting any route deviations and wonder what he’s up to. The bus then descends quickly and steeply onto a  narrow slip road that seems to be taking us underneath the gardens of the Circus. I’ve seen it before, but it’s not a proper road, just a small slipway to the building works that are currently going on underground.

I want to yell out for him to stop, but one never does that for fear of disturbing the passengers. One has to remain calm and orderly at all times, it’s part of our training. The last thing you want in a difficult situation or a traffic incident is a load of panicky passengers to deal with as well. I try to make my way to the front so I can speak to him, but the descent is too steep, and I have to grab onto the back of the seats beside me for fear of falling over.

He’s going too fast. He’s not going to make it. Has he forgotten he’s driving a bus? The height of the slipway entrance isn’t going to be tall enough. Christ, I hope there’s no one sitting at the front of the bus on the top deck. Flashing images of twisted metal, singed seating, the smell of burning rubber and burnt skin sear my mind. We all remember the bus bombing of 7/7. Number 30. It wasn’t my route, but I knew the driver. Poor George, he was a true hero. In my opinion this is exactly why we still need conductors. We can keep an eye out for suspicious-looking passengers, strange packages, nervous fumbling of overlarge rucksacks.

This all shoots through my mind as Clarkson shoots down the darkened slipway and onto a metal ramp. And then stops. Suddenly. I get thrown backwards onto the stairs. I don’t hit my head luckily, but it takes me a while to get my wind back and stand up. That dodgy hip takes a knock, and I reckon I’ll have a few bruises in the morning. Clarkson! I call out. But there’s no answer. I turn and see that the bus has emptied. Everyone has got off and disappeared as quickly as they got on. What the hell?

Maybe he’s driven us into hell, I wonder to myself as I walk towards the front of the bus and peer inside the driver’s cabin. But Clarkson has gone too.       

I step off the bus. And slowly walk around it, as if the problem is the bus itself rather than the fact that we seem to be parked in some sort of concrete underground cavern. It must be an old underground car park under Finsbury Circus Gardens. It’s dark and gloomy and it feels a bit spooky standing here on my own. Clarkson! I call out again. The word echoes around the cavernous concrete space.

Over here Bill, comes back the reply. I can’t make out from where, but then up ahead of me, about 50 metres away I see a huddled black mass of people, slowly moving. It must be the passengers. It’s all a bit dark, but I spot a wave and again the cry: Bill, over here, but be quick! It’s Clarkson’s voice, but it sounds strangely amplified and echoey in the large subterranean hall.

I start walking towards where his voice came from. It’s all very intriguing. But bloody annoying too as my shift is meant to have finished and I’d like to go home to my bed. The missus will have made cocoa and some toast, and I’d really like to get some sleep. But I have to admit, I’m curious. Maybe this is some underground rave, or an illegal drug den of some kind. A sex club? Oh, my word, that would be something to tell the lads about.

I stop walking. I’m going to have to ring this in, of course I am. This is all completely against the rules. Bus drivers can’t go making up their own routes and heading off onto uncharted roads. I dig out my phone. I’ve got to do my job. This is the key role of the conductor, you’re not just there to check tickets but to oversee the conduct of the bus and its passengers. You don’t normally need to keep such a close eye on the driver mind you, but times change.

But there’s no reception down there of course, and from where I’m standing in the dark, I can’t even work out where the bus drove in from, in order to walk back up the slipway into the outside air.

Bill! comes another cry from down the corridor. I scurry along. I don’t want to be left alone in the dark. Maybe this is some sort of candid camera, and I’ll look a bit of a muppet if I don’t play along.

I almost run down the corridor, as far as my hip will allow, and get to the end where there’s nothing but a closed metal door. Maybe I’ve missed them or gone the wrong way. I knock on the door. I don’t know why, it seemed polite. It opens a crack. A disembodied voice, which sounds like a woman, but it’s hard to tell these days, asks:

Performer or Watcher?

What? I reply. Where’s Clarkson? What’s going on?

Performer or Watcher? She repeats, with some impatience. Come on, you’re late, we’ve got to get started.

Look, I don’t know, I just got here on the bus.

Passenger or conductor then? She asks with mounting frustration.

Oh, conductor, of course.

I hold up my little company-issued bag for taking money, tickets and the special notepad for issuing fines. She opens the door, not fully, but enough for me to see that she is indeed a woman. She’s wearing a long black cloak draped around her shoulders with a brightly coloured leotard on underneath.

This way please.

She directs me to the right, down another corridor.

And hurry up please. It’s about to start.

What is? I turn to ask her, but she’s gone.

I walk down the corridor, which gets lighter and lighter as I go. I can also hear some noise, a low rumbling sound, like machinery. That would make sense. I figure that the hollowed-out cavern Clarkson has driven us into must be part of the Crossrail building work going on. An extension to Liverpool Street station for the new tube line built underneath near Finsbury Circus. Maybe this is some sort of event, a celebration for the Crossrail team and we’ve been invited along. I guess these things have to be kept a bit secret which is why Clarkson didn’t tell me in advance.

But no, it’s not machinery. As I get closer it sounds like feet tapping. Feet stomping and hands clapping. I come out of the corridor into a wide arena with rows and rows of seats around the outside. In the centre a single spotlight cuts through the surrounding darkness. There are hundreds of people sitting on wooden benches.

I stand there in the entrance, scratching my head, trying to work out whether this is real or I’m dreaming. Then there’s a low thundering drum roll, and the lights shine on a small band who strike up a merry tune. Then an announcement over the loudspeakers:             

Ladles and Jellyspoons, clowns, townies and other creatures, roll up roll up! Welcome to our annual celebration of the original amphitheatre of playtime and pantomime, of fun, frolics and bearded ladies. The world exclusive Finsbury Night Circus. Admission is free, please pay at the door.   

I’m still standing there like an idiot, wondering what to make of the spectacle in front of me when someone grabs me from the side and shoves me down in a seat.

Bill, sit down for God’s sake man.

Clarkson! For it is he, my errant driver. What’s going on?

It’s the circus, Bill. Can’t you see? Now shut up and enjoy the show, its only on once a year.

How come? Why here?

It’s the 31st May, innit?

He grins at me, his teeth shining in the flashes of light pinging off the mirror ball which has just descended from the ceiling into the middle of the arena in front of us.

We celebrate the death of Joey the clown, old Grimaldi, the original circus clown. His first stage performance was just up the road here at Sadler’s Wells.

How do you know all this?

I’m the Chair of the Tram Operators Circus Appreciation Society.

Trams? There’s no such thing anymore.

Well, it’s an old society, we had trams on London streets before buses, Bill.

Yeah of course, I know that.

Just look at us all.

And then I saw what he meant, as the lights came up and the performers started to come on: the ringmaster in his top hat, a kerfuffle of clowns, two trapeze artists swinging from the steel girders that made up the ceiling, and a troupe of tumbling acrobats. And all around me, sitting and watching intently, were the other night shift bus drivers and conductors, current and retired.

This area of London is circus central. We’ve been celebrating like this for hundreds of years.

But why all the bus drivers?

It’s tradition, innit? From the days when trams first traversed the streets and Finsbury Circus was built, there’s been free rides for circus performers. How else could they afford to get to their shows?   

They have horses, too? Even underground?

Of course, they have horses Bill. It’s not a circus without horse riding tricks.

And off they went, acrobats turning somersaults on the backs of horses, underneath Finsbury Circus, in the middle of the night.

Round and round, and round and round, and round and round they go.

Tubular Belles

This piece of flash fiction was published in June 2021 in the inaugural issue of the print-only Tattie Zine.

Just look at these beauties glistening with grease as I bend to lick the fat from your fingers my tongue capturing the juice from your chin as it drip drip drips below and threatens to spoil your new white shirt in which we are celebrating the long-sought success from your latest interview now finally the last of a long tedious prostrating farce where you pretend to know less than the men who ask questions so they don’t feel uncomfortable in their ignorance but now finally we can put that behind us look forward make plans and live our lives as we do now at the tube stop waiting for the very last train trying to finish the chips before it arrives the heat of the fatbag warming our thighs and they taste like freedom for only a pound and they’ve made this day perfect and somehow profound and we’ve finished them now but the night is still young and so are we and everything is glistening and we are beautiful and suddenly I love you.  

Therein: A Life, in Pieces

This is an extract from my work in progress “anti-memoir” which examines my experience of living with an invisible chronic illness, and the process of remembrance when that illness affects one’s memory.

It was published by Postscript Magazine in their SICK issue in September 2021.

I am confined to a room, sometimes to the bed. 

There is no future, but one imagined. No present, but one dreamt. No past, but one recalled, refashioned, repackaged, relived. Reeled in from a distant shore and hauled, spluttering, gasping for breath, on the barren land of my bed. 

Three weeks ago, I felt better. I had rested and taken my tablets. My muscles stretched and bounced back again; they did not crack and shatter into pieces. I went for a walk. Just downstairs. Down and back up again. That was enough. More than enough. I needed to rest for the next two days. Then I tried it again. I went so far as opening the front door. I took a sniff of outside air, of blessed car fumes, joyous wheelie bins piled high with recycling, of glorious silvery rain in the air, of rough-and-tumble winds from the east. 

I looked up and saw the sky and it did not hurt my eyes. I smiled. It cracked my jaw and shattered my cheeks. The first upward turn in a long time. I kept smiling, forcing my mouth skywards to see what it felt like. It hurt, but in a good way. My smile reached my eyes and plucked out a tear which splintered my face. I raised a hand to feel its hot salt upon my skin. But slowly, carefully, movement is the enemy, the bringer of pain. I reached up, I touched it, I tasted it. It felt good. 

Then I turned back. I climbed slowly, hands over feet, one at a time, resting, breathing, until I reached my rooftop lair again. My lookout, my eagles’ nest, my place of unrest. Then I did nothing, could do nothing, for the rest of the day. 

And the day after that.

The day after that, I was impatient, hungry for more. Anxious to feel me again. I went down and out and across six streets  – slowly, carefully, movement brings pain – to what would be my final resting place: the public library. 

At first, I sit in the children’s section on a small wooden toy elephant. It is red. I’m not sure I approve of teaching untruths about the natural world to four-year olds. They will get enough of that when they are older. Though by then, elephants will only exist in books and as faded red-painted wooden kiddie-sits in faded grey libraries. Though by the time these toddlers are my age, libraries will have gone the way of the elephants. Both bludgeoned to extinction. 

The toddlers within my bloodshot eyeshot walk as I do. Slowly, carefully, testing their limbs. Uncoordinated, swinging loosely on hips, arms out, steadying their progress. They fall frequently. I too trip, stumble over myself, my own body getting in the way. They get up quickly, laughing at the absurdity of this thing called life. I do not. 

I am asked to move. By a young man I have not seen before. Although, as this is my first visit here in many, many months, this is hardly surprising. I should not be sitting in the children’s section, since I am not a child and I do not have children. How does he know? I wonder. I might have children. I might have had. May still do, who knows? In another lifetime, a different body, these bones could have borne fruit. 

I have to move, to get up, to shift myself. Extricate my body from the seat of the elephant (oh, how colonial). But I cannot. I am stuck. I consider, for a moment, asking him to help me up, but I do not. It will seem strange. I am perhaps 20 years older than him but look a lot less. Thin, boyish, bespectacled, the few grey hairs unnoticeable except in a spotlight. And I am in the spotlight now. Shamed in the children’s section. As if a predator, a psychopath, a pedophile. 

But no, just a bibliophile with chronic fatigue. 

Help me, help me, I cry, to the sun and the moon and the hard-backed picture book stars. Rescue me, Asterix and Tintin, O Elves of Lothlórien, Jo March, Huck Finn, and Mrs Frisby. Tyke Tiler, I need you now.

I take books. As many as I can carry. More, much more, than I can carry, since one at a time is the only comfortable, sensible, approach. But who knows when I will make it here again?

Indeed, I have not returned. 

The books are now long overdue. I have read them all, slowly. Light hurts my eyes. Words hurt my brain. Black marks on paper swim before me, blur and merge into one scribbled- scrabbled mess and the migraine machine cranks open its doors to hell again. 

A library is not merely a place for carrying out the transaction of borrowing a book for an allotted period of time. It is a public service. More than that, it is a place of respite, of refuge and reverence. It is somewhere you can just be. In public. Where you can sit without being moved on (unless you choose to sit on a red wooden elephant in the children’s section, sans child). Where you can be silent in company and make polite understated conversation should you wish to. Not, if you don’t. It is a sanctuary. And it bestows upon me the same sense of awe and gratitude as sitting in an art gallery, contemplating the way figures of colour on the wall shape my emotions, or walking around a cathedral, marvelling at its majesty, moving my spirit with its brick and buttress, stained glass and smoking candle. 

It is a means of escape, however fleeting, from the ever-growing gloam of loneliness, surrounded by the warm, worn offerings of words, placed reverently on shelves.

But this is my story, back to front. Not backwards. More sidewards. Inside out. Out of sorts. Skin peeled back to show my inner workings. 

The workings out, the crossings out, the underlinings and the asterisks top and tailing secret paths leading to future paras. Muddy footprints on a just-washed floor. Better the messy stage than the empty page.

I need to distance myself. From everything. But most of all from myself. I need to be set free, to sever body from mind, brain from this bunch of useless dragangling limbs. 

If I could transplant my consciousness, transport my mind into another being. One that is free. One that can move without pain. Perhaps a tree? It would be peaceful to remain rooted, secure in one spot, and to allow time and space to move around you. This would be far less tiring. All this back and forth, to and fro, constant, every day. It’s so very pointless. Without purpose. Meaning. Less than. 


Tiny creets are eating at my feet. Ants. Flesh-eating spiders. Bedroaches. I jerk them away. Pins and needles and pointy things. Stabby things, scritching from the inside out. 

I’m itchy. Itchy all the time. It started as a slight trickle at the back of my neck, like a hair trapped inside one’s clothes, that no manner of reaching and stretching and flailing could retrieve and discard. Then my head. Itching. As if the ghosts of childhood nits had come back to haunt. 

My skull, my skin, my sides, my eyeballs. All itching. Constantly. 

Electricity runs through my veins at night, causing my muscles to cramp. My arms and legs are twitchy and sore, skin and hair itchy and raw. 

Pain keeps me awake. And being awake (being alive) keeps me in pain. 

I slip a hand under my breast. There, under my ribs, my heart pulses like a star trapped beneath the waves. Flutters and skips like a butterfly. I shall set it free from this aching body, this twisted cage. One day.

The light pervades past my eye mask and shuttered eyelids. I turn it off. Again and again. But still it bleaches through. 

I am, to all extents and purposes, an ordinary person. But therein lies the rub. An ordinary person with a dis-ordinary disorderly disease. An illness, a condition, a set of symptoms. Who knows? If the doctors can’t decide what to call it, how do we? We, these people struck down by this mysterious maligned misunderstood mess of disorders and disabilities. I am dis-eased by it all.  

I miss my former selves, mourn for my other self. The one that does all the things I thought of, dreamt of, still do dream, occasionally, when I’m feeling optimistic. This happens less and less. Less than. 


The room in which I write these words is not a bare, white antiseptic care home or a hospital or spa. If I was monied or came from a “good family”, one such as they write about in books, then I might be in a sanatorium. Gaining health by breathing sea air, with actual visits from an actual doctor. This is not the case. 

I had to move out of my home when my last girlfriend left me. Last? Probably. Certainly, if I do not improve sufficiently to leave the flat again. 

I could not afford the rent on my own. And I was still earning then. Now, I am living off my savings, what little there is left of them. I will have to find a way to work once I can stand up again. There are sickness benefits of course, in theory, but applying for them requires more effort than most jobs. And I have an “invisible illness.” This does not go down well at the benefits office. 

I put my life into boxes. My self into storage. My guitar, my books, my records. Hopes and dreams, my plans and career. My broken body and human being.   

Are you going travelling? The man at the storage unit asked. 

Kind of, I replied. 

I have transported myself – fleetingly, temporarily – to Edinburgh. Like a fictional character, I wake and find myself in a new city,  with seagulls creaking me awake, the morning not yet broken. The Firth stirring, bracing itself. The Forth flowing freely. The Bridge glowing in the not-yet light.

Consider the fish. They do not sleep. They are forever moving, darting this way and that. Their tears fill up the oceans. 

Seagulls caw-cawing, spattering the air with their childish cries and spray gun birdshit. Horses paw-pawing, clattering the earth with hoof against sod, bone against stone, gnawing the fence to sharpen their teeth for their knowing neighing neighborly smiles. 

Inside, the room is so still I have to will myself to invent the existence of air, to dream of a breeze upon my back, caressing my calves and kissing my neck. 

I bathe in the near silence. The not-quite quietness. The faint shouts of Sunday morning footballers, the hello bark of a distant dog, the slight creak and grind of a cyclist passing by. Sometimes I watch life go by from the window. Watch the passersby. The simple act of a half-smile, a barely perceptible nod, a mumbled thanks brings tears to my eyes. The sheer humanity of it all.

Outside, the trees whistle to the wind; they are ready, the time has come. Sorrowful sap has dripped through their roots for a thousand years. Below, a cavernous vat of bile and acid is ready to rise up and cleanse the face of the earth. 

I listen to the sounds of nature green and blue in brute force fury, ready to strike vengeance upon the earth, upon us, the parasitical insects that exploit it. 

I’ve had many rooms and several lovers. Twice as many rooms as lovers, and double figures for both. This is not a boast, merely a fact. Something to remember and look back on. I equate the two because a room or house is not just a place, and a lover is not just a person. It is a moment in time. A moment in life. A set of feelings and thoughts, of hopes and dreams, hairstyles and shoes. The music I was listening to at the time, the friends I hung out with. What I was drinking. How well I was at the time. Was I mainly inside or out? Of rooms and of lovers.

I am seeing things again. Black shapes moving, darting in corners. A quick flash of something indiscernible, undisclosed. Mice. Rats. Spiders. Snakes. Something mammalian or insectoid, something untoward, unpleasant. Something just out of reach but which I do not wish to touch. This has happened before, many years ago. The DTs.

The shakes, the sickness, the memory loss, the muscle wasting, the sheer uncontrollable plunging dizziness of it all. It is much the same as now. But without the succor of liquor. 

My eyes glaze over. My fingers flicker feverishly. I cannot grip things. The centre cannot hold; things fall apart.

I cannot hold it. I cannot hold the book in my hand nor the words in my head. The book, though only a paperback, is too heavy, it aches my wrists, my hands, my arms. There is a solution for this, at least. I can position it, just so that I look down upon it, with no need to hold it up to my eyes. 

But my eyes cannot hold the words in their mirrorballs. They blur and diffuse and confuse, one line piling on top of another. Merging and converging, criss-crossing across the page. Even when I concentrate and fix them enough to complete a sentence, my mind cannot hold that either. The meaning slips, I lose grasp, and the words are lost, spilt on the floor. And it is far too much effort to stoop down and gather them together again. 

The one thing I love most, the one thing that doesn’t require money or friends or a new deal for energy, I can no longer do. I cannot hold my self together much longer.

A good day is when I can read a little. A bad day is when even that is too much. A really good day is when I can write a little. Those rare and cherished moments of sanity and clarity. But mostly my arms and wrists ache too much to hold a pen. My head hurts too much to concentrate on putting one word in front of the other, either as written or read. Like one foot in front of the other, it is an often insurmountable effort. But when I can, I do. It is a reward for good behavior, for forcing myself to rest, to do nothing but lie supine, awake and wasting, bored on my bed of broken dreams. 

This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful life. 

I fluctuate between hot and cold, pain and numbness, shaking and shivering. My heart races ahead or skips beats. I oscillate between madness and sanity. Sometimes there are full stretches of almost an hour of clean, calm serenity. And then, suddenly, such devastating intense hatred and horror and hurt that I want to throw myself against the wall, down the stairs, out the window. Smashing my head against bricks and slashing my wrists upon knives, sharpened with the fullness of knowledge of what this illness does to me. 

But death is not heroic. It is an escape, a get out, an act of cowardice. Life is heroic. Living every single aching day the best that you can, hauling oneself through the world, with every stuttering stultifying attempt to breathe, breed and be socially acceptable. That is fucking heroic.