OLD HABITS (Pt IV)

Charlotte, Emma and Josh got back late. They’d eaten after the show and taken their time returning. Plenty of time for me to clean up, restore the bike to its original state, dismantle the phone relay and return the weapon and ammunition to the purlin. I was reluctant to dispose of them, but I should probably do that as soon as I got the chance.  The burner phone was already dismantled and buried in the cement foundations of a new bridge, the sim card destroyed. The clothes I had worn in the market had been disposed of in a burning skip.

A week later we were having breakfast in the garden. Josh had managed to turn off his phone and was telling me about his plans to ditch being a YouTuber and be an actor. Emma was reading some social media feed and smirking, it was hard to tell what at. Charlotte was catching up with the local paper.

‘You worked with an Alan Stephens didn’t you?’ she said.

‘Stephens? Alan, yes, years ago.  You met him once at Arthur’s. Why?’

‘He’s missing. They found his car in the woods in Bratby park on the edge of town. No sign of him though. Asking if anyone has seen him to let them know.’

‘I haven’t seen him in twenty years. Thought he went overseas.’

‘Says he came back to take up a “senior civil service post” six months ago.’

‘Probably shacked up with a tart if he’s still the same as when I knew him.’

She shook her head.

‘He’s been missing nearly a week.’

‘Wow!’ Emma said.

‘Not that surprising, people do disappear.’ Charlotte said.

‘What?’

‘You went “wow”‘ I said

‘Yeah, they’ve found a body in the market fire’

‘Oh God!’ Charlotte said. ‘I wonder if it’s Alan?’

‘What?’

‘One of Dad’s work friends is missing, I was just reading about it in the paper.’

‘Was his name Colston?’ Emma asked.

‘No. Alan Stephens.’

‘Wow! That’s weird.’

‘Not that unusual a name.’

‘No it says here “there is speculation that Colston’s death may be linked to the disappearance last week of Alan Stephens, rumoured to have been a Cold War warrior.” Oh my God they think he did it and escaped!’

‘Does it say that?’ Charlotte asked.

‘Well, no, but between the lines that’s what they mean!’

‘Do you think it could be linked?’ Charlotte turned to me.

‘Shouldn’t think so. Sounds like someone taking two and two and making sixteen.’

‘But why would they link them?’

‘Peter Colston used to work with Stephens years ago.’

‘Do you think…?’

‘No. Nobody waits twenty years to settle a score do they? All water under the bridge now. Just a coincidence.’

End

OLD HABITS (Pt III)

The route I followed into town took forty minutes instead of the twenty minute ride on the main roads. I parked the bike in a yard at the back of dilapidated short rent houses. Finding roads and parking not covered by cctv had proved impossible in the second most watched state in the world, but I had avoided all the good quality traffic cameras, and the yard was not an area anyone cared enough about to spend money protecting. A false number plate and a few cosmetic tweaks to the bike covered the rest.

I took the holdall out of the top box and, still wearing the helmet and one piece suit, walked down the alley. I turned right at the end and into a mean back street that ran behind what had once been a market building. Twenty yards down the street I made sure the security cameras I had vandalised a couple of nights before outside the public toilets were still wrecked. Sure enough they remained smashed and the cables missing. I went in and changed. The suit, helmet, gloves and boots replaced the hoodie, jeans and baseball cap in the holdall and I tucked the reunited contents of the attic boxes into an inside pocket of the hoodie.

The phone rang.

I looked at the incoming number. Emma.

I let it ring again a couple of times then answered before the voice mail system kicked in.

‘Hello?’ I said as groggily as I could.

‘Dad. Did I wake you?’

‘It’s all right love. Everything all right?’

‘No I’m bored, Mum’s being so embarrassing and Josh is being a little swine.’

‘How’s the show?’

‘We’ve only just got here Dad. What time do you think it is? I’ve got hours of this to put up with. Why couldn’t I have stayed with you?’

‘Because it’s a nice treat for Mum to have her two lovely children with her and share a joyous day out.’

‘Sarcastic much.’

I had to think of a way to stop this conversation. It had served its purpose. The link through from my phone back in the garage had worked. It would show my phone communicating with Emma’s while based in the area of our house at a time that made it impossible for me to have done what was about to happen. But I needed to move fast now.

Charlotte’s work friends the Watsons saved me.

‘Oh Dad, sorry got to go, Leila’s here. Got to ask her what happened to Jack.’

‘I thought he left her to join the Army or something?’

‘Exactly.’

‘Okay love, enjoy it. The show, not being mean to Leila.’

‘Oh yeah, thanks. Love you, bye.’

The call ended, and with it my link to current normality. I had ten minutes to be in place. The old market was due for renovation. It had been due since the council shut it temporarily ten years previously. Just before the banks crashed and the council’s money went south, invested in Icelandic herring futures or whatever had sounded a good deal three months prior to the crash. A prime centre site like the market would have expected to have been grabbed at a bargain price as the recovery started, but savvy investors could see the writing on the wall for bricks and mortar city centre retail. I pushed my way through a first floor window I had forced a couple of days previously.

They were due in half an hour. I would have preferred to have had more time to scope the place but I had to work with what I had. I’d had my suspicions about Alan at the time but I’d had no real proof until it was too late. He had gone abroad afterwards in triumph and it became clear that Peter Colston had covered for him and carried on the good work. HR had shunted me sideways into ‘something less stressful’ so I needn’t worry too much about all these ‘reds under the bed’. After all we were all friends now in any case. Weren’t we? I pulled the revolver from my pocket and the two spare speed loaders. I’d have preferred long or a machine pistol but again, you have to work with what you have.

OLD HABITS (PtII)

Two large purlins ran the length of the attic. They were bigger than the rest, thicker than they needed to be for the job they were doing if one thought about it for long, but people generally didn’t. At the rear of one, if you knew where to feel, was a knot hole and if you knew the trick you could push and slide a panel back to reveal a lock. I took the key out of my pocket and ducked down and scrabbled to insert it. The lock snicked open and I retrieved a bag from the void before relocking the box.

Downstairs I rinsed a cup with hot water and, sitting at the kitchen table poured my tea. Milk, no sugar. It was just the strength I required to fortify me. I finished the first cup and poured a second. I wondered if I should have had a mug so I needn’t have bothered with refills, but I liked the distraction the effort provided. In any case, if you were going to the bother of leaves and a pot and letting it brew properly, you should use a cup and saucer. Did young people know what these were? Emma occasionally drank coffee and Josh was strictly a cold drinks fan, milk and smoothies when I could persuade him to abandon cola bean based fizzy drinks. Neither saw a need for saucers. I wondered if anything I had done in my life and regarded as important was of relevance to them in this digital, connected, yet Balkanised world?

I took another sip of the Assam, glanced at the bag I had brought down and managed a wry smile. Some things were relevant whatever the zeitgeist. I drew it towards me and opened it. Inside were two boxes, one flat, 4 inches high by about 12 inches by 8 inches and the other about 8 by 5 by 4 inches. I opened them both. Neither was much use without the other.

Half an hour later the boxes, considerably lighter now, were back in the attic hidey hole. Belt and braces. I washed the tea things, and went to the garage. I opened the locker in the corner. Time to change.

I took a last look at the mobile set up in the corner and hoped it would work okay. It had in the test I’d run last week, but it had to work for real this time. The call admin would be useful if things went wrong.

OLD HABITS

This the first of four short instalments. The next three will appear over the next three days.

 

 

I waved Charlotte and the kids off. I’d told them to go out and enjoy the day anyway despite me not feeling great. Emma had fixed me with a glare when I told them, the thought of being alone in the car and at the show with her mother and brother not a hit apparently. Josh gave a shrug and carried on massacring something or someone on his phone. As long as there was an internet connection via some platform, the rest of the world was irrelevant to him.

Charlotte was sympathetic ,although concerned no doubt that it may mark another turn in my recently fluctuating moods, tinged with exasperation at being left to deal alone with the two children on what was definitely a double team task. I was sorry but under the circumstances it had to be this way.

As the car turned the corner at the top of the drive I took a slow look round at the garden. The grass needed cutting. I stepped back indoors and put the chain up on the front door.

I had actually developed the weariness and headache I’d described when I’d dipped out of the trip to the outdoor performance of whatever it was we were supposed to be seeing. Too much method acting. I shook myself like a dog to break the mood and went to make a cup of tea. I put the kettle on and looked into the cupboard. What was it to be? Not an Earl Grey, too light and frivolous, not a China tea, those were Charlotte’s. I was a confirmed Indian tea drinker, glad of the Empire’s interference in the Chinese monopoly of production in the nineteenth century. I may not have approved of imperialism but in this case I preferred the flavour of the resultant brew no matter the means. Something robust and fortifying. I was tempted by the lure of bog standard builders’, but there are limits even in extremis, and robust needn’t mean brutal. I went for the Assam.

I warmed the pot, threw the water down the sink, spooned the tea in and then poured the boiling water on the leaves. Loose leaf was a tad twee perhaps but I could use the brewing time to prepare a few items.

At the end of the landing was a trapdoor in the ceiling. I took the stick from the back bedroom and used it to trigger the latch mechanism that held the trap in place. It swung down and I reversed the stick, using the hook on the other end to snag the ring on the bottom of the collapsed ladder and pulled it into place. I went into the attic and turned on the light. Boxes of packing from our move here ten years ago were in one corner, opened, assessed as not required immediately and in time consigned by indifference and a shrug to another lifetime. Around those boxes, were kids toys, put aside but definitely not abandoned, oh no, waiting the call to fight again in a battle with the forces of adulthood, but not now, not yet. I moved around a plastic bag from which a dozen reproving beady glass eyes stared at me. Why us? Why here? Were we too not loved once? I felt a tear pricking at my eye.

The tea was brewing and I really had to get what I came for. The time for reflecting on the lost past was gone. I’d done that. Now I needed to do something about it.

STOPPING

‘All the way up the valley was water.’

I grunted. I had told him that. Part of being a Dad is listening to your own stories, hearing your own thoughts, recognising you, being played back at you. It starts off being cute. A five year old telling someone about how electricity can’t leak out of a plug socket because the electrons don’t flow unless there is a circuit, makes everyone smile.

It takes commitment to listen to the same story for the twentieth time without the smile becoming a little frozen. Imagine that experience repeated for several hundred stories, aphorisms, ideas, thoughts, feelings, nuggets and gems of ‘wisdom’ and you begin, perhaps, to see why I grunted.

It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested. I was. I had been. I suppose I wanted him to tell me things I didn’t know. I loved finding out new things and, yes, repeating them with little or no embellishment to anyone who would listen. When I was young of course, that meant my mother and father most of the time. Yes, you presume correctly; the people usually who had told me the thing in the first place. Now that gave me an insight into the need for tolerance. I’d driven people mad too, so I should probably suck it up now.

‘Ships used to come all the way up here, even before there was a castle.’ He said.

I smiled as we walked across the flood plain. ‘How deep do you think it was then?’

We walked on to the bridge and he stopped half way over, looking upstream, the narrow, murky water below barely glimpsed through the grasses and reeds. Something moved through the undergrowth, the sound drawing our attention from the view up the valley.

‘Something down there.’ I said

‘Maybe a bird.’

‘Possibly. Too much noise for a water vole.’ That made me think of a new tack. ‘I wonder if they get mink here?’

‘Probably a rat.’ he said dismissively.

That was unexpected. It was a much more likely explanation than my flights of fancy.

‘What’s a mink?’ he asked.

So I told him as we walked across the bridge and through the gate.

He nodded.’ Can we go up the hill? I want to take some photos of the valley.’

‘Sure, it’s a lovely evening for it.’

‘It’s a lovely valley. When I came here with Huw in the floods, it was about five feet deep on the flood plain I think.’

He hadn’t let it go of course. He had his thoughts on the valley and the floods and he was going to tell me them regardless of distractions from mink, rats, voles or birds. To be fair he was answering my question. We walked up the side of the valley for a better vantage point.

‘That’s a storage warehouse at the base.’

A brick building, warm red brown in the evening sun, peeped from among the trees on a distant hillside.

‘I don’t think they’d have got ships that far.’ Small joke.

‘The tunnelling drained the aquifer before they built that.’

‘Right.’

‘The water that sustained the lake here drained away.’

‘I think that might be the ammunition factory rather than a storage facility.’

He took another picture.

‘I’m done. We can go back now.’ he said waving his hand towards the bridge.

Memes. Dawkins characterisation of viral transmission of ideas, phrases, gestures. That was the really unsettling thing about fatherhood. Seeing yourself part replicated, however imperfectly.

‘I’m done. We can go back now.’ My father reverberated, words and gesture across the decades. The building blocks of syntax, concept and movement flashed before me. Him to me, me to the grandson he never met but whom he shaped by onward transmission of more than genetics. How far back did it go? A shudder ran through me.

‘You okay Dad?’

‘Yes thanks.’

We turned and walked back down the way we had come, and there was a repeated scream form the trees ahead.

‘What’s that?’

I scanned the tree line but couldn’t see anything.

‘There it is!’

His young eyes outranging mine easily.

‘What is it Dad?’

I stared as he pointed me in right direction.

A large white blob sat near the top of a tree.

‘It’s a bird of prey. Looks too bright to be a buzzard but it’s big.’

He took a photo and as my brain caught up with what I as seeing it flew gracefully across the valley to another stand of trees, silently, majestically with two powerful beats of its wings.

‘What is it?’

‘Barn owl’

‘In the day?’

‘It’s late and they do hunt in daylight sometimes.’

‘Cool.’

I thought about telling him of the reputation owls have, especially in Wales, as birds of evil portent. Of Blodeuwedd in the Mabinogion and her fate. But I stopped. Some memes don’t need passing on. Some prejudices however ancient and unintentional need an antiviral.

‘It was wasn’t it? Let’s go home and show Mum.’

‘Really cool flight, so quiet and big.’

‘Yes.’

  1. ‘Those ships must have been shallow to get up here.’

NIGHT TERRORS

It was light outside. Edward could see the faint crepuscular glow creeping up over the top of the curtain and down, under the pelmet. He blinked into waking, pushing aside the visions of dreams that were not running into the corners of his mind to hide as quickly as he could have wished, in either a waking or sleeping state. Things scurried, claws scraped, and corners of salivating, sore scabbed lips, drooled reluctantly, tardily away into his unconscious with an unspoken promise of return.

It was hot under the duvet but Ed shuddered underneath it as the creeping things let the last neural stones fall on top of their daytime slumber. He let his arm slide across the sheet. Nothing. He was alone. He knew he was but he never failed to check. A routine lest his other routines failed him.

There was the tall ominous figure in the doorway, but it was, as it had always been so far thank God, his dressing gown hanging on the back of the door. Cowled, visually menacing in the gloom of early morning, but impotent against anything more sinister than a cold front from the Atlantic.

His brain completing the transition from the world of dreams to what passed for reality in these trouble times, Ed slid a foot out from under the duvet to discover the ambient temperature of the room. Indeterminate he decided. He let his consciousness sink back into himself, retreating from engagement with the environment to determine his status. He was sure he was alive but there was a need for reassurance, for the responsibility of not assuming, for completing the battery of checks he had built up by observation and logic.

He was sure the movement he felt in his chest the throb in his neck below the ear was a pulse. But there was a suggestion the victim was not always sufficiently self aware to realise the changed state. How few of us are anyway he thought, living or dead? He felt for a pulse in his wrist. A surer test than imagining chest and head feelings.

He scrabbled for a moment, unable to feel anything among the tendons and bones. Had it happened? When had he been exposed? How was he so clear headed? Evidence available suggested it was unlikely such clear thoughts swam through the brains of those affected. And then; there it was, a strong if no longer steady pulse, thanks to the panic of doubt that surged through him.

He reached out for a drink from the water by his bedside. There was a definite coldness to the air he decided. But he would do the decent thing and put the pulse oximeter on his finger. The body and brain could fool themselves, but the machinery would tell him unequivocally if were still really alive or had unknowingly slipped during the night into the growing statistics of those who had succumbed.

The plastic peg snicked closed on his index finger and he pressed the on switch.

Now he’d know for sure.

He stared, waiting for the red led display to register his existence.

 

Photo credit: <a href=”https://visualhunt.co/a5/44d540d1″>Dani Rubio :)</a> on <a href=”https://visualhunt.com/re7/62a3f849″>Visual hunt</a> / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”&gt; CC BY-NC-ND</a>

CLOSURE

A silver disc was rising in the darkening sky above the Cotswolds. I helped her over the stile, my hands on her waist. She let herself fall into me and she kissed me full on the lips. We always kissed here. She stepped back, smiled, but I knew this was probably the last time we would do this. In a month the road diggers would bulldoze where we stood and as one link opened another connection would close. We crossed the field. Ridge and furrow. Up and down. The moon was full, but every moon wanes. I wiped a tear.

 

This very short bit of Flash Fiction was an entry into the National Association Of Writers Groups 100×100 competition which ended 31 May 2020. It didn’t win.

The winning entry can be seen here.

Winner NAWG 100×100 Competition

Congratulations to them for a splendid effort. 

 

Photo credit: <a href=”https://visualhunt.co/a5/b9494bdf”>xalub33</a&gt; on <a href=”https://visualhunt.com/re7/cc45a3ef”>VisualHunt.com</a&gt; / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”&gt; CC BY-NC-SA</a>

PEST CONTROL

 

‘There’s an imperative.’

‘This isn’t a grammar lesson.’

‘Don’t be obtuse Leahan.’

‘I’m just saying that there are different ways of approaching this.’

‘And I’m quite clear there aren’t and I’m giving you an order. Comply with it.’

‘But it’s a sentient being. The rules say we have to consider that in a response. If it was a virus or a…’

‘They are laws, not rules. And I have complied with the laws. I’ve considered it. My consideration is clearly recorded in the determination. I have considered its characteristics at every level, and it is my determination, based on those considerations, that the threat posed outweighs any benefits or moral guidelines about the sanctity of life.’

‘But think what…’

‘It can teach us? Show us?’

‘Yes, and what we might be wiping out if we remove it.’

‘You think there’s just one of those things in the universe?’

‘I don’t know, but what if it was the last one and we wipe out the memory of an entire species? If we lose all chance of finding out where it comes from, why it’s here?’

‘As we appear to be unable to communicate with it using our senses, and our scientific probing lends us little insight beyond the basic biology, it strikes me as highly unlikely that we can learn anything by direct communication. On the other hand,’ the commander flicked a switch on the desk top console, ‘these records discovered on the craft, show an aggressive, violent and self destructive species, constantly fighting itself and destroying competing civilisations.’

As he spoke a series of images flashed across the screen in the room. Explosions, kinetic energy weapons, projectiles, thermonuclear explosions, destruction from chemical and biological attack flooded the room.

‘Happy to let it run amok in our solar system now you have an idea of what it did in its own?’

Leahan looked at the images that continued to flicker in horror across the screen. Hundreds, thousands of the creatures died, tormented and in agony from the actions of others of their own kind.

‘It might be a refugee from all that. The whole crew could have been escaping. We don’t know until we learn how to communicate with it.’

‘And the contents of the various pods and projectors of the craft?’

‘Have we determined definitively what they are?’

‘Thermonuclear warheads. Stimulated light emission beam weapons. And other destructive devices whose exact mechanisms are unclear, possibly electrical interruption of nervous pathways.’

‘That doesn’t mean…’

‘Leahan, your desire to learn, your desire to reach out and share with alien races, your essential kindness does you much credit. But that is why I am in command. Sometimes kindness has to be tempered with a hard eyed appreciation of the facts.’

‘Sir.’

‘That being may individually not be a threat to us, although two of the crew are already severely ill with parasitic infections it is carrying. But if it tells others of its kind what we are like, where we are, what we may offer them and their, I hesitate to use the word, civilisation, we may have to fight a brutal campaign against their predations simply to survive. They are clearly not a pacific species. We cannot take the risk. Do I make myself clear?’

‘Yes sir.’

‘Good. Now for the sake of all we hold dear, terminate the creature painlessly, and pray that it is last thing from planet Earth to come our way, wherever that God forsaken planet may be.’

 

Photo credit: <a href=”https://visualhunt.co/a5/0ae6e0″>NASA Goddard Photo and Video</a> on <a href=”https://visualhunt.com/re7/007e41ec”>VisualHunt.com</a&gt; / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”&gt; CC BY</a>

ONWARD MOVEMENT OPPORTUNITIES

My Dad had always said get the qualification. It was the letters that counted not the ability to do something. I’d thought that a cynical approach to life. Indeed when he said it, it was not necessarily true. I knew loads of people doing apprenticeships and jumping straight into jobs.

Of course there were lots of others doing courses that gave them a bunch of letters that said they had been on a course. It didn’t mean they could do the job any better than me. It didn’t mean they could do the job. It meant they’d been on a course.

That meant when things went pear shaped they could wave a bit of paper and lazy employers or admin types or, increasingly, effing algorithms, gave them a tick in the box. That meant people like me had ‘limited evidence of transferable core skills’, whatever that meant. We’d been doing it for fifteen years, better and faster than anyone else, but we got nothing. Or, if we were lucky according to the snotty auto generated text sent out by the World Beating Regeneration Alliance, we got some shitty job they couldn’t be arsed to programme a bot for yet.

I said “yes” to every question on the forms and so they gave me Health and Care Throughput Assurance, and more specifically made me a Loved One Onward Movement Operative.

The Distributive Handling Centre was as you’d expect, handling a lot of former Loved Ones, and let’s be honest, a lot of former Unloved Ones, but it wasn’t departmental policy to acknowledge that side of things. The Final Resting Place Assistance Operatives came every day to move the Loved Ones to the next stage of the process, and we didn’t get to see any of those who had been the generators of the love for the Loved Ones.

So generally it wasn’t possible to tell which was which in any case, except from the paperwork and which Assistance Operatives arrived to facilitate the onward passage. Loved Ones had the upmarket guys who fleeced the grieving for all they were worth but gave a shiny grim faced respect to proceedings. The Unloved got the low rent public service run by people who had the basic letters after their name and staffed mostly by those of us assigned in the current situation to whichever service needed live bodies. There was no difference between them as far as we were concerned except the shiny guys were a bit sniffier with us. Both came along, checked all the IDs with us and took the dearly or cheaply departed on to the next stage. There was not as much banter as you might think. They had heard or made all the jokes already and those of who were new to the game didn’t want to appear to be needy enough to be over familiar and keep trying.

Some of the public service guys who had been around before this was the only growth industry in town talked a bit about how things had changed. All of them, shiny and basic alike were contemptuous of the way their raw material was presented now. The problems with the Greens and plastics was a pain in the arse Wendy, one of the shinies said as were checking one of the wraps that had come through on the carousel.

Later I said this to Alice, one of the public service people and she sneered because it was Wendy who’d said it, but agreed that biodegradable starch wrappers weren’t as resilient and goodness knows what might leak if they tore on the automated transport belts.

We’d had a few snags and bad wraps and at the height of the last spike we’d run out of even those and had to resort to close weave double wrap cotton. The Assistance Operatives hadn’t liked that a bit and refused to take a couple until we’d sorted out some more wrap. The director had texted them to get the **** on with it, there was a queue and so we were working with whatever we had. We’d said a bit of a mess now and again was expected wasn’t it?

Alice was in again today and I told her my theory about it not being too much of a problem. She looked at me completely deadpan. A bit of a mess wasn’t the problem she said and ticked off another check sheet. What was the problem then I said. She stared at me as if I were dense.

‘How well are they doing their jobs upstairs?’ she said.

I didn’t twig what she meant so said nothing.

Her boss Steve came in at that point and asked if everything was all right. I said yes and Alice explained we had been talking about why there was a problem with non-plastic wraps and what might or might not be going right or wrong upstairs, He laughed. And as another client came through on the carousel he stopped laughing and said, ‘I think you might be about to find out mate.’

The paperwork said she was a fifty two year old woman who had succumbed seven days ago and had been diagnosed, examined, autopsied and neutered. She was ready for onward processing with standard distancing and treatment protocols to the safety treatment centre, formally known as the Crematorium. That should have required a double non-porous wrap, but due to a supply hiatus, authorisation had been given for a treated high density weave substitute to be used.

And there she was. Wrapped and ready to go. Or, apparently not.

The wrap was moving and suddenly the sheeting tore open and she sat up grinning. There was something wrong with her forehead and while Steve and Alice made for the door I stared trying to work out what was wrong. Apart from the fact a corpse had just torn itself out of a double layer of treated high density weave cotton sheeting. Alice grabbed my sleeve.

‘Move!’

I tumbled backwards to the door but death must have improved the 52 year old’s agility as she was up off the carousel and heading for me before I could move. Alice and Steve dragged me back and into the corridor. They disappeared left and I ran right. At the end of the corridor was another door with a combination lock. I messed up the numbers once before opening it. I heard Alice yell and turned to see the woman just feet from me. I threw open the door and dropped to the floor. The woman tripped over me and went headlong into the room. I grabbed the handle and slammed it tight shut, the lock snapping into place. The woman was up and pressing her face to the small square window in the door by the time Alice and Steve arrived.

Steve had a .357 magnum revolver in his hand, pointing at the woman’s head.

‘I don’t think that’s going to work with her Steve.’ Alice nodded at the woman and I realised what was odd, apart from a corpse walking around grinning with malevolent intent. The forehead gaped like an open envelope. The rapid autopsy and neutering had been poorly done and bits of brain matter were leaking from the trepan.

‘No, you’re probably right he said pointing the gun at the floor. Better get a doctor down and see what the hell is going on.’ He looked at me and raised the revolver. ‘And you had contact with her, so you need to get checked out.’ They backed away from me. ‘Two metres or else pal.’

LIFE

Someone doing something.

Door opening. Trolley sounds. Trolley being pushed in, could hear the rattle and clunk as it went over the threshold. One or two pushing it. The number would determine the type of indignity and discomfort to be inflicted. Let it be one. No pissing about being rolled around and lifted and dumped in a ‘more comfortable’ position.

Two voices. Shit. More inane chatter then.

Angels eh?

Angels of death he’d welcome. For fucks sake turn the fucking shit off. Turn me off.

But no, it would be angels of mercy. Prodding at him, wetting him and rolling him. Scrubbing and dabbing and checking tubes. Fuck, that made him gag and the sores were worse he was sure. They hurt more.

‘Hello Steve. How we doing today?’

Nice voice, a big wide grin moved into his peripheral vision, it was the black girl, great hair. Wished he’d been what, twenty? No, who was he kidding? Thirty years, younger. It would be lovely to flirt with her and more if he were lucky.

‘Come on, let’s be having you. Another voice, not as rich and warm, more business. And they were off. Nappy changing. He thought of the beautiful tone of the black girl’s skin, tried to imagine the feel of her curls in his hand but it was too big a leap when they were so busy exposing his inadequacy, his disgust with himself and bodily functions. You could put up with having to shit if you got to love as well. But having to have it mopped up without even the flicker of the compensation of living of life was too much.

How many times had this happened?

He cast around but there were no records written. He tried the roller index of his brain. It was in there somewhere. He’d discounted the initial period of physical and mental pain, the feeling of swollen red terror after first waking. He’d realised he’d never work out how long that had been. No doctor was going to stand over him chatting to a nurse and laying out the time scale.

So he’d started counting. But then he didn’t know what it was he was counting.

He’d looked for patterns trying to work out what was likely to be one once a day, what three times a day. Tube changes. Liquids rigged, feeding bags replenished. He wondered what they called the bags but no-one gave a running commentary of what they did to him.

He was carrying too much information in his head and pattern recognition was difficult. He laid out spread sheets in his head and got what he thought was a pattern and counted the events. But really he knew there were too many variables, too many anomalies.

Artificial day night cycles seemed best, lights up in the morning, down at night, but he had suspicions this was not a simple 24 hour on off cycle. There were too many anomalies with washing, feeding, deshitting. He hated being coarse. He was, no, he had been, a very fastidious person, private and almost embarrassed about such evacuatory processes. Fart jokes had been and remained a mystery to him.

Not that anyone told him jokes anymore.

The pulling and scrubbing was lessening in intensity and changing in nature. The rustling and clanking of disposal was ceasing and they were sticking his legs into other positions. They’d be going soon.

Please don’t put the fucking television on. Not the inane fucking rubbish they left him with. He had been a radio man. A radio four man, with a helping of radio three on the side. A cut and thrust of intellectual debate, discussion of cultural trends, exposés of government, corporate and personal criminal ineptitude and mendacity. Leavened with some baroque music and the odd foray into jazz.

Now he had jabbering bobbleheaded idiots peddling the latest drivel in primary colours.

‘Now, that better?’ The smile flashed into view again. Kind eyes above.

‘Put the tele on Alesha, he likes that. Doc says it’s keeping his brain active, the sound and movement you know.’

‘You sure?’

‘Yeah, everyone likes the breakfast shows don’t they?’

Alesha, lovely name, walked out of his vision and the idiot box flashed into life.

‘There you go. Keep him happy for a bit won’t it?’

Alesha wavered into view again and she stared into his eyes; how he wished she could have done that before this happened.

‘I dunno. He looks sad to me, poor lamb.’

‘Leave it Al, lots to do, come on.’

‘I suppose.’

The door opened as they went on their way.

‘There’s nothing going on in there anyway love, no offence but he’s just bed blocking. Just a vegetable. Should turn him off.’

The door swung shut.