SHORT FICTION

Longer than Flash Fiction but not yet a short story

NO PROBLEM WITH SPOONS

Spoons held no terror for Swanson. Why should they? Knives on the other hand held the potential for slashing cuts, flashing attacks, rending of flesh, dismemberment, spilling of blood, evisceration, plunging penetration of stabbing steel. He toyed with the steak knife by the side of his plate. Knives too left him singularly unperturbed.

He let the knife alone and smiled across the table at Catherine. He wondered if it looked as forced on her side of the experience as it felt from his position. He desperately wanted it to look sincere. It was sincere. He was, at the very least, infatuated with her. He thought… he stopped and chided himself…he knew, whatever anyone else may think, that he was in love. It had been such a short time but he knew she was the one. He wanted her to know how he felt but he knew it was too soon to tell her. He didn’t want to appear too needy, to scare her away. He just wished there had been more time for her to get to know him before he had to face this hurdle.

The waiter appeared with their food. It looked perfect. She had chosen a salmon mousse terrine with salad and vinaigrette. He had the soup. No problem there. Catherine thanked the waiter and shot Swanson a delighted and delightful glance. Ordinarily he would have melted with joy and desire. He felt queasy. He looked down at his cutlery. He picked up the spoon but there, on the left of everything, was the fork. Each tiny spear point of a tine winked in the candlelight. Mocking. Threatening.

***

 Some people, uncouth, unmannered people, tapped a rhythm with their knives. A tattoo of metallic vibrato. His father had never espoused that particular habit. For him mealtimes were enlivened with the tapping of a fork. On glasses, or the side plate for attention, on the edge of his main platter with annoyance, occasionally on the table for emphasis, the latter with the handle to counterpoint the tine tapping of the former. The slivers of metal scraped along the plate surface with the force of his eating, the eldritch screech setting Swanson’s youthful, impressionable, nerves aquiver.

So much for the routine horror of mealtimes chez Swanson. Gesticulating, tapping screeching, implement of low key irritation, there on the left, a stick insect of metallic personification of his father and his attitudes and his demeanour and his vulgarity. Swanson began to shun the object where he could. Soups, stews, sandwiches, pizza slices, finger food of all kinds offered salvation, while traditional three course meals stalked the horizons of his day. As soon as he could, and whenever he could, he avoided family mealtimes. That wasn’t difficult during the week. Cereal for breakfast, sandwiches at school and snacks on the way home, snatched meals before ‘homework’ sessions. But weekends were different and Sundays unavoidably awful.

Saturdays could be worked round. Early or late rising avoided his father’s cooked breakfast fetish. Rugby and cricket at school and later at the local clubs meant he could avoid mealtimes with the family. But Sunday was a ‘family time’. A roast dinner time. Knife and fork time. It wasn’t just seeing and hearing his father’s fork wielding displays any more. The implement itself was taking on a symbolism of its own. His father’s ‘if it were good enough for me and your mother…’ line about what to do after school. His sneering approach to ‘book learning’. His contempt for music. ‘Why aren’t you listening to rock and roll like the other lads?’  Everything that Swanson could feel dragging him back, holding him in this God forsaken wasteland of a town. All was becoming embodied in those four thin prongs of steel that scraped across the plates, dripped egg yolk and spittle, sprayed flecks of cabbage and serrated burnt animal across the tablecoth.

His mother was not completely unaware of his problems around the use of forks. She claimed to have seen it coming when he was little and had as a result tried to make his cutlery special and fun. He had had knives, forks and spoons in the shape of childhood characters from nursery rhymes, from blockbuster films and cartoons. Her latest attempt, in keeping she said with him growing up, was a set of cutlery engraved with his initials. These she hoped would give him “ownership” of the situation.

Worse was yet to come. At 15 years old Swanson had returned from after school rugby practice. His mother was out at her sister’s and Swanson returned home to find his father back from the office early and in DIY mood. Swanson found him, sleeves rolled up engaged in his latest obsession. The presence, real or imagined Swanson was uncertain, of a mouse in the kitchen was exercising his father greatly. The proddings of the fork towards his face , the agitated tapping on the plate edges and the punctuating bangs on the tabletop, accompanied a litany of threats towards and speculation concerning the whereabouts of the alleged mouse. The time apparently had come for the end of theorising. Action was at hand. As Swanson entered, his father nodded vigorously at him to close the door behind him. Swanson did as he was bid and as the door shut, his father ripped away the fascia beneath the under sink cupboards. A grey ball of something hurtled towards Swanson from under the cupboard. He blinked and as he did, he missed his father, already on his knees, dropping the fascia board, and diving at the mouse. When he had finished blinking, he saw his father at his feet clutching his hands together as if in supplication or prayer.

‘Got it!’ his father cried, and then his exultation turned to a note of pain. ‘The little buggers biting me!’ His father rose to his feet and dashed the contents of his clenched hands into the sink. With remarkable speed, he picked up his favourite instrument from the draining board, and with a gladiatorial gleam in his eye drove the fork into the arena of stainless steel and the sacrificial animal within. Swanson heard two things. A distinct squelching, and a shriek. His father, a grin of triumph fixed across his face, lifted his still wriggling opponent aloft and turned holding the impaled animal on high for Swanson’s approbation. Wriggling, bleeding, run through on the tines of a fork, the mouse seemed to implore Swanson for mercy. All Swanson could see was the blood trickling down over the initials on the handle of his, Swanson’s fork.

***

Catherine said something about the food looking good and he nodded. Her hand reached out and the fingers curled around the shaft of the fork. Perspiration burst on his brow and his throat constricted. He wanted to concentrate on her face, the sweep of her eyebrows the delicate bow of her lips. His soup, the spoon. Anything but the reminder of the multi-pronged symbol of his father’s triumph and death in the afternoon long ago and far away.

 

 

DELUSIONS?

I wondered why the guy in the trench coat was hovering. It wasn’t as if there was a lot to hover for in this street. Sure there were still some shops open, but a butchers, two bookmakers and an off licence with whitewashed windows didn’t make for much of a window shopping experience. The bank I was queuing outside had a hole in the wall cash machine and a plastic logo to look at. I wondered about the cash machine. Was that his interest?

The woman in front of me finished her transaction and waited a second for her notification slip to be produced. It appeared and she took a step away from the wall, putting the paper in her purse. I took a step forward and so did the old gentleman in the trench coat. I now saw that he was wearing a hat as well, a strange cross between a flat cap and one of those Breton caps made fashionable in the 1960s by the Beatles, Bob Dylan and other ‘hipster; types. Maybe this was an original. He looked old enough to remember the 60s.

The woman in front of me took another step and so did I. So did the third point in our variable scalene triangle. I was about to put my card in the machine when his presence in my peripheral vision broke that plane of acceptable proximity. I held the card in front of the machine and turned as he spoke.

‘Excuse me do you know if this bank is any good?’

I confess to being a bit surprised. It didn’t seem like the traditional approach of a mugger. Besides he was too old. I did a swift three sixty sweep for accomplices but came up cold. I smiled.

‘Sorry, I’m just using the machine.’ I said

He looked rather crestfallen. I checked again. Just a woman behind me getting a bit agitated at the delay. I decided to offer him a little more. He seemed safe enough.

‘My daughter has an account here though. She doesn’t use a full range of services but it seems okay. They’ve always been very helpful.’

His face lit up. The glasses perched on his bob of a nose were like marbles, seeming as thick as they were round.

‘Oh good. I’m looking to move from Barclays.’

‘Not working for you?’ I asked placing my card on the lip of the machine’s slot.

‘Oh no! They’ve been terrible. I don’t keep all my money here you know, just the stuff for day to day use.’

I paused, he had approached beyond my comfort zone again. I wasn’t going to be putting any pin numbers into a machine with him this close. I had no idea what his vision was like with those lenses.

‘Excuse me, are you using the machine?’ Ten seconds was obviously outside the parameters of the agitated beady little woman’s patience. I turned and smiled as insincerely as I could.

‘Yes. But you go ahead.’

Meanwhile my new associate was joining in the conversation, apologising to the queue jumper and me. I took a couple of steps away and let her get on with it while my pebbly eyed friend followed. Clearly he had more to say.

‘Do you think they do international transactions all right?’ He asked switching in an instant from concern for his interruption of high street banking to world finance.

I assured him that from what I had heard, HSBC were probably capable of connecting Wales with the world in a financial sense. He nodded, but his face did not seem to reflect complete satisfaction with my views.

‘Only most of my money is overseas.’

I nodded, for all the world as if he had been fortunate enough to select the one person on this South Wales village street who also kept his fortune in an offshore tax haven. I was trying to construct some suitable advertisement for HSBC’s abilities to transact international banking affairs when he switched tack again.

‘If you don’t mind me asking, whereabouts are you from originally? You aren’t local are you?’

I wondered which version of this story we should go with. I decided our interaction had gone on long enough. My wife was waiting for me at home and I had other errands to complete before returning. So the short version.

‘Cheshire.’ I said.

He looked at me in a strange sideways fashion, as if to question my veracity, or at least my own knowledge whence I haled.

‘Really? I thought you were from London. I’m from London.’

‘Yes, I can hear the accent.’ I said, and then, dredging up the few months I had lived with someone in London as a sop for his mistake said ‘Well I’ve lived all over with work, I did work in London for a bit’

His face lit up as his head once more went on one side and he gave me that look as if to say I should have known better than to try and deceive a man of his perspicacity. I thought this was probably a good time to make our farewells and head once more for the vacant cash machine. But no. This was not yet over.

‘I’m half German actually.’ I wondered what I was supposed to do with this knowledge. Call immigration? Mention the war? Not mention the war? I hadn’t been going to.

‘Yes. Born there, you know under Hitler.’ Inconvenient, not to say uncomfortable, I thought. ‘Had to leave of course because of all the problems.’ Something about the tone, about the sharing of information beyond normal bounds had shaken loose any pretensions to a normal conversation a few minutes ago. His next statement began to envelop us in the surreal.

‘Dad was Welsh, he was a ship builder. He built U Boats.’

We both laughed and I muttered how ironic that was. I didn’t mention the fact that I felt something, maybe everything, about this story was getting more and more unlikely.

‘Yes. Course we lost everything because of the bombing.’ Uh huh, uh huh. I nodded and backed away just a little. He followed up, swinging left and right non sequiturs. ‘I worked in the Met for forty years’ Ah at last a glimmer of hope.

‘Really, you might know some of the people I worked with. SB?’

Something definitely put him off his stride a bit with that. But he was nothing if not game.

‘Oh yes, was that in New Scotland Yard or Old Scotland Yard?’

In for a penny.

‘Special Branch were in New Scotland Yard. I was in Palmer Street, over the road.’

‘Oh Palmer Street. Yes of course.’

Given the average SB officer probably didn’t know about Palmer Street, I was a bit surprised that an ordinary Met officer thought he could pull off the pretence that he knew all about it. There was more.

‘Course it took ages to get the compensation through.’

I blinked. It was like listening to an old multichannel radio gone horribly wrong, all the conversations were interleaved out of sequence.

‘It wasn’t until 1991 that the German Government sorted out what they owed the family. There was nearly a whole street in Berlin we lost.’

We were back on the Third Reich connection.

‘Yes, I did all right out of it in the end. And all my cousins did too. Two hundred and thirty thousand I got. Course I didn’t bring it home. Don’t want to risk all that tax off it.’

I nodded. Goodness knows why. I suppose politeness gets us tied up in all sorts of convoluted collusions.

‘My boss kept me on when I left. They wanted me because of my languages. I speak all five types of German.’ He enumerated them, none of which sounded like Hochdeutsch or Plattdeutsch to me, but I was no expert.

‘Lovely I said, ‘that must keep you occupied.’ Although I wasn’t sure why a Commander in the Met would want to keep a seventy year old German speaker on the payroll in South Wales.

‘Yes, I keep an eye on things for him down here.’

We had cast adrift from the shores of reality some time ago I realised. Perhaps sensing my suspicions he reached inside his coat. Just for a second my own hands twitched. Fortunately I recognised he was holding only a wallet before I did more than twitch.

‘See, I’ve still got my warrant card.’

Sure enough, there was a badge and the crest of the Metropolitan Police. I studied it. Last time I looked Met warrant cards didn’t have gold metalicised plastic starbursts. The smudged photocopy of a Met Crest on the opposite side of the wallet from the badge said that someone, unclear, was something, possibly to do with the Met. For a second I wondered if he had at one time been in the Met and taken a copy of his card. Then I realised there was no photo. I wondered if it wasn’t just a letter saying someone was a cleaner.

He put it away and taking a long slow look around, leaned in conspiratorially. He fixed me with his glittering lenses.

‘And MI5 asked me to do some work with them down here.’

‘Excellent. You must have got a real feel for that type of work.’ I said.

He puffed out his chest.

‘Well they didn’t want to lose me.’

‘No, I can see that.’ I said.

‘I tip off the locals with anything I can but they aren’t up to much.’

‘Er, no. Well they haven’t your level of expertise I expect.’

He smiled a knowing smile.

‘That’s right.’ He looked around again. We were alone. In fact people were avoiding us. ‘I’ve got a police computer in the car of course, so I can check things. I let them know about three paedophiles the other day. Arrested two of them. I had to tell the Chief Constable of course. They wouldn’t listen to me up at the ordinary station. Abergavenny it was.’

‘Fantastic work.’ I said.

He looked at me, his face suddenly changing.

‘Anyway. You reckon this bank’s okay then?’ he said as if realising I had been wasting his time with all this chatter of his origins, policing work and espionage just to avoid this question.

‘Er, yes. I should go and have a chat with them and see if they can do what you need.’ I said

‘You know I think I’ll go in and see if they can do what I need.’ he responded.

We shook hands as two spies together in a Welsh village street would, and bade each other a fond farewell. He wandered off towards the door of the bank while I got my money. As I walked off towards Waitrose he was still outside the bank. I felt a bit sorry for the cashiers I had lumbered with the next phase of his delusion.

‘Just thinking about what to say.’ he explained, though I had said nothing.

On my way back from Waitrose he was still outside the window.

‘Cheerio Dave’ he called to me.

I waved back as I went to the car park. I put the key in the ignition.

When had I mentioned my name?

VIRUS

‘And if that doesn’t do it?’

‘I see no reason why the measures in place won’t hold it. There are multiple response protocols depending upon the seriousness of the numbers and the epidemiological model’ The minister replied.

‘It hasn’t been contained in the origin countries using those protocols. We wouldn’t be meeting if it had.’

‘Simpson, without wishing to run the gauntlet of the PC brigade, I think it safe to say that our adherence to the letter of the protocols is likely to be considerably more rigorous than it was in those countries. Now, if…’

‘With respect Minister?’

‘Yes Walters? What is it?’

‘With respect Minister, shouldn’t there be a planned response beyond, well. Beyond crossing our fingers? If those measures don’t hold it?’

‘Your concern does you credit Walters but I think we have considered all the likely scenarios without moving into the provenance of horror films and disaster fiction.’ The minister held up a hand. ‘If, and I only raise the matter in deference to the concerns of our colleague here,’ he nodded in Walters direction, a smile touching lips but not eyes, ‘we shall meet again to consider further measures.’

‘When Minister?’

The minister raised an eyebrow.

‘I mean at what threshold will we meet again? If the first level is breached or at the last level? Because we’ll need weeks of preparation. For beds, for disposal facilities for bedding, for quarantine regulations, movement control orders…’

‘I see where you are coming from Walters.’ The minister turned to his Permanent Under Secretary. ‘Derek, if you could just allay our friends fears please.’

‘Certainly Minister. Professor Walters, the measures we have been discussing concern the medical and social services response to any possible spread of the virus. As such we have, through the knowledge and advice of experts, of whom you have been pre-eminent, confirmed our previous response protocols and updated and integrated them with new measures where appropriate. There are other considerations the possible spread of the disease may raise and these have been considered in more appropriate fora, given their multifaceted nature. You may rest assured Professor Walters that their deliberations have taken into account all the concerns you mentioned and more.’

‘What considerations Minister? I merely meant those things that come under the remit of this committee. Beds, quarantine…’

The minister cut him off.

‘I know Alan. I know. I can’t go into the details here, I’d be trespassing on the Ministry of Justice’s territory and let us not forget that of the PM.’

‘But we’re the health committee reporting to COBRA on this. It’s surely our responsibility to plan for the ultimate contingency?’

‘If I may Minister?’  the PUS intervened.

The minister nodded

‘Whilst you are correct Professor Walters, that this committee has the responsibility to deal with any emergency arising in the form of a health threat to the UK, such as the current virus scare, there are obviously other agencies with interests in the knock on effects of such a potential threat to UK society. At a certain stage, which we hope is never reached, priorities may shift from a purely health care response to a more multi-agency involvement. At that point lead agency status may shift and given the delicate nature of some planning options it is felt that this forum may not necessarily be the best place for such contingency measures to be discussed fully. You may however, as the Minister has indicated, rest assured that should the time come, the advice of this committee and its experts would be fed into any options being considered by the full Cobra committee.’

‘Thank you Derek.’ The minister straightened his papers. ‘Now I think that concludes matters for the moment. However, we’ll schedule another meeting for a week’s time. Derek see that everyone is informed please.’

‘Certainly Minister’.

‘But…’

‘Not now Alan. People have busy schedules and we’ve used our allotted time. If you’d like a private word I’m sure we can arrange something through Jill. Okay?’

The people around the table stood and began to chat to one another or leave depending on how busy they wanted to appear in front of the minister. Professor Walters tried to intercept the minister before he could leave but Derek, the PUS intercepted him.

‘Don’t worry about seeing Jill. She’s nearly as busy as the Minister. Let me know a convenient time and I’ll sort something out for us.’

‘Don’t flannel me Derek. What the hell is this other committee that’s taking over the response planning?

‘Alan, no-one’s taking over. This is a health driven response and this committee is the lead body. And I think I can say without fear of contradiction that you are its lead authority.  No-one knows more about the type of threat we face.’

‘Exactly. And I’m telling you we haven’t faced anything like this ever before. If what we are seeing elsewhere is anything to go by we will breach the thresholds. We should be beginning our response with a level three approach. Level one might work for flu but this is different, by an order of magnitude.’

‘Well that’s one opinion.’

‘From the “lead authority”.’

The PUS looked around. The room was nearly empty now. He put a hand on Walters’ elbow.

‘Hang on here a second.’ he said quietly and with that swiftly ushered the remaining few members out of the room. He shut the committee room door behind him.

‘Have a seat Professor.’

The pair sat at the head of the table.

‘Now. This is off the record and if I read any of it outside this room, even if it’s only in the Tunbridge Wells Gardening Society blog, you’re finished. Understand?’

‘I’m not being threatened.’

‘Yes you are actually. Think of it as a threat warning.’

Walters face turned white and he started to rise from his seat.

‘Sit down.’

The two men locked eyes and Walters sat.

‘Now. You are quite right. It is very likely that we will need to go further than level one and fast. But to jump right in is going to panic everyone. They’ll all start running all over the place and that will make matters a damned sight worse. This needs managing. We need to put in place some non-health measures first before we move to that scenario.’

‘Non-health measures?’

‘Yes. You mentioned quarantine. We really need to stop movement in and out of the country completely.’

‘But you can’t…’

‘We know, but we may have to. At first we need some other possible movement and containment controls. People from high risk areas may have to be refused entry. Or if they turn up on the doorstep we may need to ‘quarantine them’.

‘You mean…’

‘Yes. Put them in some sort of secure accommodation until we know whether they are a threat or not.’

‘But we’re supposed to be helping them.’

‘What with?

‘Well there are some very promising trials with…’

‘We know. You covered that. How long to get that into scale production?’

‘Well if we short circuit some of the human trials possibly we could ramp up in 6 months.’

‘Too long.’

‘Says who?’

‘The lead authority. We had a look at the figures you did last year when we asked for a worst case prognosis for this sort of event. Your worst case said we’d probably be dead by now. Your best case gave us 6 months. That means your best case makes that response time useless.

‘But…’

‘And we can’t be sure the US is going to release the methodology in any case.’

‘They have to!’

‘No. What hasn’t been publicly released is that although it’s a private company that made the breakthrough, it’s a wholly owned Government cover for the biological response programme. This is a CIA operation to counter the work the Soviets were doing in the 1980s.’

‘But that’s silly.  I know about those programmes. The Russians stopped them after the Wall came down.’

‘Possibly. But the Americans thought it as well to continue looking for a vaccine or a cure.’ The PUS paused for a second. ‘Given the time it’s taken to get this far, not a bad decision I’d say.’

‘But this isn’t a weaponised outbreak.’

‘Probably not. Have you seen any samples yet?’

‘No but the epidemiology isn’t right.’

‘Maybe not, but it isn’t consistent with previous outbreaks either.’

‘Well not precisely but there are so many new factors, travel patterns for a start.’

‘I’m not arguing. But the point is, whatever the reason it’s as virulent as the most virulent form and as contagious as the most contagious form. You are the one that wants to move to more extreme methods.’

‘Yes but in clinical treatment terms.’

‘This is more than a medical problem. It may not even be a medical problem.’

‘Not a medical problem?’

‘It may be outwith your ambit. It’s more likely a security and policing matter.’

‘But we should treat this. We can contain it and…’

‘Suffer what? A 90% death rate?’

‘No. That’s in vastly different public health conditions than here.’

‘And how long do you think it will be before all that breaks down? No this is going to make 9/11 look like a picnic. We are going to need full emergency powers to control the people. Of course there will be a medical response. And a public health response. But it’s going to have to be targeted to key services on the one hand and backed up by force on the other.’

‘That sounds very like martial law.’

‘It does a bit doesn’t it.’ The PUS selected a piece of paper and pushed it in front of Walters. ‘And this is the first notice I’ve served under the new rules.’

Walters went even paler as he read it.

‘And if I don’t comply?’

‘There’s a new treatment and containment centre opening in mid Wales. They’ll need someone to do what they can. You wanted quarantine arrangements didn’t you?’

‘And if I do?’

‘Well there is a small stock of vaccine, and we need the best brains working with us.’ The PUS leaned over. ‘Just sign there please Alan.’

CONTENDER

So this guy walks up to me in a bar and says:

‘Wanna be a star?’

My first reaction is to punch the little creep in the head and get back to my beer.

But I know Louis, the bar keep, doesn’t like blood about the place on account of it bringing back too many happy memories and he is currently working on a case of existential angst and does not want to be distracted into levity, so I keep my hand in my pocket and shake my head.

The guy fingers my sleeve for a second and I guess he feels the muscles kind of tensing up in there because he moves the offending digits pretty quick and shoots me a glimpse of his orthodontic work.

I give him the stone eye routine to back up the biceps and he takes a step back.

‘No offence mister.’ he says, ‘but I have a proposition which could leave you and me both in a healthier position financially and socially.’

I ask him if he is suggesting that I am in need of extra monetary largesse or that I am in some way requiring elevation in either class or style.

At this point he realises he has tried to mash the wrong potato and takes a hike while he still has an ambulatory capacity. I make sure he has departed my immediate vicinity before returning to my beverage and the contemplation of the female form across the room. It is at this point that Louis decides to break with his homework on melancholia and enters the conversation, which technically has ended some seconds before, but for the purposes of narrative continuity we will pretend is still extant.

‘What did the Mike want?’ he asks.

‘The Mike?’ I repeat knowing that I have made something of a faux pas if I am correct in decoding this individual’s nickname or alter ego. ‘The Mike’ was a performance poet extraordinaire, and is now the publisher of “100 Ways to Versify” and “The Longer Conga Songa Book”.

‘You sure it was him?’ I ask staring across the room where the little creep is disappearing out of the bar.

‘You may not know this,’ says Louis, ‘but I used to rhyme myself a few years ago. With the right publisher I coulda been a contender. I had a shot at the T S Elliot and I once went three stanzas with Heaney.’

I looked at him. He had gone too far and he knew it.

‘We was only sparring, you know. But I still caught him with a spondee in the second.’

I nodded. We’d all been a few stanzas with Heaney. Some of us had beaten him, caught him with an iambic pentameter or two and then finished him off, sometimes with a spondee in the second. Most of us usually woke up though and didn’t mention our dreams to anyone afterwards. Louis had gone to that place where reality and poetry meet and meld and it’s a very difficult gig to come back from. Louis had given up trying.

‘You sure it was him?’ I asked again.

‘Can’t be two of the Mike.’ he said reverently.

I didn’t think so either, but I thought it gratefully, not reverently. He was a fixer, a maker and breaker of poets. He’d been a mean versifier himself once but the constant composition had got to him. He’d been up there on stage every night, the rhyming, the scansion it had all taken its toll. But he couldn’t let go and when he played an open Mic gig one Thursday in a mean, low, writers group in the back of a busted down library he hit the skids. He thought he was still a big shot but a new kid called Zephania comes at him with lefts and rights, its dub poetry and the Mike ain’t never heard anything like it before. It was all over in a couple of minutes. It could have been seconds but the Zeph had heard Mike once and had some respect for him so he played him along for a few stanzas and then boom! He let him have it.

I never heard of the Mike composing anything except a contract after that. But he could tie up a metrical foot on one of those all right. He’d run the best on the way up and quite of few of those who should have been but they hadn’t been able to escape the Mike. He worked them like they were prose writers. Once he’d got a short volume out of them he’d put them on the road. They’d read till they bled. He’d squeeze them till they couldn’t tell their Dactylic Hexameter from their Trochaic octameter and then he’d dump them. The lucky ones ended up dead pretty fast. There were worse ends. I knew a couple who had hung on for years working the Hallmark Cards gig. He liked performance poets the best of course. I wondered what he wanted with me.

Don’t get me wrong I had a pretty high opinion of myself but there were a hundred raw hungry kids out there snapping at my heels. Hughes murmured about me once before he croaked. Duffy has said some good words and I noticed she’s always avoided me. Heaney. I’m not talking about that. I ain’t no Walter Mitty so it stays between me and him and he’s gone now, God rest him. But I’m glad I had the chance even if it was in an unlicensed gig in a Dublin backstreet. Now I know my limitations.

I thought I knew where I was. A contender? Sure. But for what? Now the Mike was making me an offer. Did that mean I was on the way up or the way down?

I downed my drink and ran after him into the street to find out.

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