Pink Pegged Slacks

Tommo watched the old man achily raise his fork to his mouth. The tremble in Alf’s hand sent peas bouncing across the plate, across the table. 

The peas gleefully rolled away, escaping from the old man. Tommo envied them.

It wasn’t that he particularly disliked his father. It was just…

It should’ve been him. Tommo hated himself for having such thoughts. He still had them, though. 

Alf, defeated by the Christmas dinner, carefully set down his cutlery. “Nearly ten years,” he grunted, without looking at his son.

“Ten years,” Tommo mumbled in reply. And it should’ve been you, he thought. 

Alf fixed his deep brown eyes on the rim of his dinner plate. There was a long silence. 

Finally, the old man muttered, “Any plans for New Year’s?” 

“Seeing friends.” 

This was a lie. Tommo hadn’t celebrated New Year’s Eve in over a decade, not since… Instead, he spent the night in his flat, with a glass of wine, some old rock’n’roll records, and his memories.

Ten years ago, on Christmas Day, his mother had been taken ill. She was gone within a week. 

Before that, she was a vibrant, intelligent, kind and fun-loving woman. Their family Christmases were wild occasions where the wine flowed free, conversation flowed likewise, and music played all through the night. 

He never had that bond with his father. Tommo often wondered what his sainted mother had ever seen in such a dried-up, stilted old prude. 

“You doing anything for it,” Tommo asked, more as a courtesy and way of escaping his thoughts than out of genuine interest.

A pause followed, in which Tommo imagined his fusty old father in his slippers, reading a book as fireworks crackled and bells chimed beyond the drawn curtains. 

Alf blinked heavily. He cupped his throat with a bony hand as he formulated his words.

“Same thing I do every year. Listen to her records with a glass of wine and pretend she’s here with me.” 

Tommo bit back his surprise. His father had never spoken to him so candidly, especially not about his… not about her. 

Alf continued, still staring fixedly at the cusp of his plate; “I’ll tell her how much I miss her, discuss my plans for next year with her. She’ll tell me off for being so boring, and we’ll share a good chuckle at my expense. God, son, I thought it would get easier, but it doesn’t.” 

Tommo’s head reeled with the realisation that his father, too, mourned for her. “I know, dad. Nothing is the same. Everything is worse.”

“Little Richard,” Alf smiled. 

“Sorry?”

“That was her jam. We first met on a dance floor as Rip It Up played. That was our first dance.”

“I love that song,” Tommo said, his eyes widening.

“You wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that. As the clock strikes twelve, that is what I put on. I dance around the sitting room and it’s as if she’s still here, dancing with me. God, that woman could move.” 

“I didn’t know that.”

There was another pause. This time, Tommo broke it.

“Dad,” he said, carefully placing his words, “Would you like to come to mine this New Year’s Eve? We can put on some Little Richard, maybe some Eddie Cochran, and drink as much wine as we can handle and then some more.” 

“Eddie Cochran,” Alf exclaimed, “He was my favourite. Your mum found him a bit maudlin at times, but as soon as Pink Pegged Slacks came on she would be jiving with the best of them!” 

Alf turned from his recollections. “Son,” he said, looking Tommo straight in the eye, “I would love that. She would love that.” 

The Gravedigger In Repose

A light sprinkling of snow fell over Linfield that night. 

All along the streets of the city centre, delicate fairy lights were strung between buildings, wire frames holding them into likenesses of angels, stars and candles. 

Shops, open late for the tardy santa, bustled as customers tussled for the last television, last games console, last plush for little Jacobs and Jades. 

The pubs were packed with roaring revellers, men with clips on their ties or holes in their trainers, exiles returning for Christmas and stay-at-home parents who thought ahead and booked the babysitter a month in advance. 

It was Christmas Eve, and the whole of Linfield flowed with goodwill, commerce and excitement. 

Somewhere in the shadows, aside from all the revelry, a lone figure skulked in the shadows of Melborough cemetery. He chipped away at the hoary earth with a dented shovel, grunting in displeasure all the while. 

Gordon Grombel was not one for merrymaking at this or any other time of year. He lived for his work, and his work was death. As he liked to say to bemused drunks after a few pints of stout, “I make the coffins, I fill ‘em and then I bury ‘em.”

He was not a great conversationalist, it must be said. But then, men like Gordon seldom are. He was miserly with money, time and attention, preferring to keep the company only of the dead. After all, they do not answer back or retort. They have no troublesome opinions or families to dash off home to, no prior engagements or irritating habits. They simply rest silent in their repose. 

The mechanical digger packed in on the 23rd. The repair man said it needed new parts that had to be shipped in from overseas. It would surely be out of action until the new year. 

Gordon doubted the veracity of this. These repair men are a feckless, lazy sort, he always thought. They would rather see a viable business go under than get their hands dirty changing a crankshaft.

Gordon’s own team weren’t much better, truth be told. Feckless and lazy. As soon as the digger died with a curl of black smoke, the three lads on his staff left immediately for the pub. “See you next year Mr Grombel,” they bellowed facetiously as they skipped down Coffin Lane. 

Gordon was no great admirer of modern technology. No other funeral director could cope without their excel spreadsheets and their iPads to show them where to be and who they were burying. Gordon could. No other funeral director would spend his Christmas Eve chiselling into the frosty ground to make a grave for someone he had never met in life, and yet here he was, doing just that. To him, it didn’t matter if the coffin he buried was seven feet long or two; it didn’t matter if the mourners wore pearls or Primark plastic. As long as he was paid for the work he did, that was all that mattered to Gordon. 

As the distant bells chimed twelve times, Gordon hauled himself out of the grave and sat on a nearby headstone. It was reasonably comfortable in an austere, bleak sense; it suited his demeanour perfectly. He plucked a flask of brandy from his pocket, raised a silent toast, and took a hearty sip. 

As he sat there on the snowy headstone, feeling the brandy course through him, warming his extremities, a vague recollection came to him. A story his sainted nan read to him years ago, when he was a small boy and she was circling the grave. It was the tale of a sexton digging in a graveyard one Christmas Eve. The sexton, resting with a bottle of gin, found himself swarmed by goblins who stole him away to their lair and showed him the error of his miserly ways.

No such thing would happen to Gordon, oh no. No goblins or bechained ghosts would have the audacity to try to teach him about life. He learnt all he needed to know at the age of seven, when his nan- the one who read him the story of the sexton and the goblins- was spirited away to the grave. 

Somewhere afar he heard a roar. The pubs were kicking out. The streets of Linfield would soon be filled with men and women singing gaudy songs of mistletoe and turkeys, of ringing bells and stockings, of snowflakes and wine and other such festive nonsense of the type such idiots sing of. 

None of that for Gordon. He took another sup from the flask of brandy and returned to his work. 

The Things We Do

It started not long after Barbara passed on, now that I think of it. I mean, fifty years is a long time to be married- being on my own again took some getting used to. 

The telly broke down and the kids were too busy with their own lives to come round and fix it for me. You know how it goes.

So I spent my days just looking out the window. I’d invent little stories in my head for each of the people passing by.

The stories started out as caricatures, but soon I was making whole lives up for the people strolling along Flint Mount Drive. They became my friends, in a strange kind of way.

It’s funny, the things we do when we’re…

There goes young Jack home from school. His teachers think he’s quite the tearaway, his friends see him as a rebellious hero and all the girls admire the twinkle in his eye. What none of them sees is that Jack, not yet thirteen, in the only carer for his ailing mother. Jack cleans the house, cooks the tea, and sees no future for himself. 

There goes Terry in his pinstripe suit, anxiously swinging his briefcase. He was made redundant months ago, but is too ashamed to tell his wife. Each morning he kisses her goodbye as he leaves for the office. He spends the day lolling round the park, worrying about the future. When he gets home he will kiss his wife and tell her about his stressful day and complain about his workload. She’ll run him a nice hot bath and sip Chardonnay as she prepares his favourite tea, all the while riddled with guilt for spending the day lounging round the house in her pyjamas. 

There goes Lottie, the young woman in the power suit who, after a hectic day in the office, races home to her empty, litter-strewn flat to feed the mice she keeps as pets. She gives them names, talks to them, confides all her secrets to them. She used to share all this with Mark, her fiancé, until he left her for a younger model.

It’s strange, the things we do when we’re… 

There goes Harry of the stern face and clipped moustache, all muscle and rage, dragging three bichon frise down the street. They pause so one can leave a deposit at the foot of the old oak tree. Harry swoops down with bag in hand and scoops it up, drops it in the nearest bin. The dogs were his wife’s. Now she is tired of them, so he takes full responsibility for their care. It was the same with their kids and yet, when they visit, it is their mother they wish to see. 

There goes Viv waddling down Flint Mount Drive. Her youthful beauty brought her nothing but pain; they assumed she was stupid, assumed she was facile and aloof. Her brilliant mind sparkling with ideas and with wit went overlooked on account of her face. So she ate and she ate, labouring under the misapprehension that she would be taken seriously if she did not look the way she did. Her plan failed. Her friends were fickle and abandoned her, and still nobody takes her seriously, her singular wit as wasted now as it was before. 

There goes Samantha taking the kids home from school. Her short, tousled hair this week is aquamarine. She changes it often. The colour she chooses is a signifier, the only way she can show the world how she feels inside. Years of keeping secrets have destroyed her ability to open up, even to those she loves. She dyes her hair to show her anger, her suspicion or her sorrow. None of the other mums and dads on the school run ever picks up on these cues. 

It’s odd, the things we do when we’re lonely. 

Never Really Sleep

Mephis rolls over, but he cannot get comfortable at all. Each time his eyelids grow heavy and he begins the descent into slumber, he is back out there. He is back with them.

With a sigh, Mephis slowly clambers out of the bed and scans the room. In the far corner is an old chair intricately carved of pine, with beautiful red velvet upholstering. He sits in the chair and closes his eyes once more.

This is his first night in the house. It will naturally take him a while to grow accustomed to a life of shelter; he wonders if he ever will.

Perhaps he was out there too long. 

As his lids droop, he becomes aware of the Fear. It has lived within him for years, so long it has become mere background noise. A survival mechanism that has outlived its purpose. 

Have you ever spent a night on the streets? Even when you sleep you never really sleep. Some part of your brain refuses to allow it, constantly listening out for the scuffed footsteps of danger shuffling in your direction, constantly poised to flee or to fight. 

You never really sleep.

Even if you get lucky and scrape enough money together to get into a hostel for the night, the Fear never relinquishes its grip on you. Long rooms. Ten flimsy bunks: twenty snoring, farting men per room. No locks on the doors. Always a queue for the shitter. Always the danger that someone will cut your throat in the night. 

You can never really sleep. You stay vigilant. Danger is always close when you sleep rough. 

Mephis gets up from the uncomfortable chair and returns to the bed. It is so soft, so deep, it embraces him like a mother as he lies back and sinks into it. 

Then, for the first time in years, he sees her in his mind.

Mephis slowly raises an aching arm and rubs the calloused, crinkled old skin of his face, clean shaven for once. He stopped shaving when he lost her. Stopped washing, stopped caring; and now, as he tries to settle into this new way of life, here she is once more. 

She was always unnaturally beautiful. It seemed to radiate from within her, this unspoken majesty, this wonder. He never understood, even when she was alive, why she had chosen him. A woman like her should not have wasted her time on such a selfish, conceited little man- the man he used to be. 

Emma was his wife, back then in his previous life. Sleep had come easy to him then. 

He tries to shake the vision away, but it sinks its claws deep into his mind. Emma, his raison d’etre. Emma, his muse and motor. Emma, the wife he had never mourned. 

Mephis was a different man then. He was driven, motivated, kind. He loved. He did not fear. 

But then she died, and he fell apart. 

The bed is no good. Too comfortable. Mephis deserves discomfort, deserves the Fear. He rises and shuffles painfully out into the long hallway, with its marble statues of gods and goddesses and men, its woven tapestries of battles physical and ambrosial. 

None can match up to the beauty of  Emma. None can relinquish the Fear. 

Before he was evicted from their marital home, Mephis had never touched drugs. He only drank on special occasions or when his wife was sad and needed relief. 

Out there, he soon discovered that liquor and spice were the only effective methods of removing the Fear, even for a moment. It was the closest he ever got to sleep, dosed up on strong cider or cheap whisky, loaded up with tablets or ash. 

There is no spice here, no crack, no chance of relief. He aching plods to the kitchen to try to source a drink. Nothing. Instead he prepares a sandwich. In it he puts a bit of everything- yogurt, ham, cottage cheese, cucumber, pesto. It has been so long since he made a sandwich he has forgotten what goes in one. 

The Same, But Different

They always come to me in the same place. Magnolia Avenue- a pretty, nondescript street of bungalows where the elderly shuffle around waiting for the reaper. That quiet street has some secret, mystical power over me. It is a place of revelation. 

It was as I walked down Magnolia Avenue one night a few years ago that I realised the truth. It came to me from nowhere- I hadn’t thought of the situation in years, and suddenly I understood it with such clarity. 

We were only little, my brother and I, when our nan suffered her stroke. She lost all of her memories. She woke each morning in the house she had lived in some fifty years with no idea where she was. My grandad, snoring softly beside her, was just a strange old man she did not remember. She looked in the mirror and did not recognise the tired eyed old woman staring back at her.

We were only little. We didn’t understand, not really. Our mother explained it to us so simply, so gently, that we just accepted things. Your nan, she said, is the same as she was and also different, and that was all there was to it. 

She is the same as she was and also different. So simple, so elegant, that it took me until that night in my adulthood, wandering along Magnolia Avenue, to understand the true magnitude, the true hardship that my mother and grandfather underwent, and the fear my nan must’ve spent her final years in, surrounded by strangers claiming to be her children and grandchildren. She must’ve seen the sadness in their eyes unconvincingly masked behind smiles, and been so confused, so afraid; and they must have known that. 

I had no idea. It never occurred to me. She was the same, and yet she was different. 

And now here I am. The same fate has befallen my brother. He is only forty, far too young for such a life, for such terror. He is still the same- still the brother I love and look up to- and yet he is different. 

The way our mother explained nan’s stroke to us when we were little really helped us to understand what was happening to her. 

I want to give that security to his children. I have to. I can’t leave it to his poor wife, who is suffering enough. I will do it for them, for her, for our nan and our mum long gone- and I will do it for him. 

To him I am a stranger. To me, he will always be my big brother. 

It will be hard, I know, and the kids might forever resent me for being the bearer of the news. I can take that, so long as I can shelter them as our mother sheltered us. I will tell them the truth, and yet protect them from its implications. 

Your father is the same, and yet he is different. 

I hope I get this right. He was my guide, my anchor, my compass. Before any big decision or challenge I would seek out his advice. I cannot do that now. Instead, I will have to rely on the lessons he already imparted me with, the lessons I picked up from our mother. I will be the same as them, but different. 

They Know Where Their Home Is

The old man should never have trusted me. I am a dolt- everyone says so. Mum says I’m a dolt. 

He should never have trusted me. He will be so angry when he sees what I did.

He loves those pigeons. He says they’re racing pigeons, but I’ve never seen them race.

I thought it would be fun. I wanted to see them race.

He will be home soon; he will be so sad when he sees his pigeons are gone. 

Guilt weighs me down like a stone. I am such a dolt. I only let them out of the cage so they could have a race and stretch their wings, and now they’re gone. Flown away.

I could try to lure some different pigeons into the cage, but he’ll know. Of course he’ll know. He spends every spare minute out here in the yard, feeding them, grooming them. He gives them all names. He celebrates when their eggs hatch, and he mourns when they die. 

Of course he’ll know. He’ll be so sad and so angry with me, and he’ll call me a dolt.

I’ll leave the cage door open and try to lure some new pigeons in. If he asks I’ll just say I don’t know anything. I’ll tell him the foxes got them.

No, then he’ll feel even more sad. I should tell him the truth.

I could tell him the clever pigeons opened their own cage; or I could tell him that I am a dolt and that I wanted to watch them race. 

I can hear his key in the lock. I prepare myself to break the old man’s heart and to face his anger. I am such a dolt.

He shuffles straight through the house without so much as nodding in my direction, and goes straight into the yard. I hear him moan.

“Why is the pigeon cage open?”

I hurry out to find him tossing a handful of grain into the cage. 

“No harm done,” he smiles, “They know where their home is. They’ll come back for bedtime.”

The old man passes me a ten pound note. 

“Thanks for taking care of the house for me,” he says as he ruffles my hair, “And don’t worry about the birds. They know where their home is.”

Birth Amidst Death

The argument began the day of my husband’s funeral, the day I learned I was pregnant. I have not concluded that argument yet, but I must- for the twins.

Chris was a good man. The best. He was raised by a single mother- as his own children will be, not that he could’ve known it. His mother was kind, diligent, attentive. She raised Chris to be a gentleman, to be kind to others especially when they neither expect nor deserve kindness. She raised him to care and to nurture, and that was exactly the man he became. That was the man I married. 

This argument needs to be resolved before our babies are born. They cannot come into the world until I know for sure.

Ah! I feel every muscle in my body contort as my womb pulsates with agony! I can’t do this!

The pain eases and I catch my breath. Time is short: the boys will be in my arms soon, and I still do not know what to do.

They exploited Chris, those bastards, and he knew it. They used his kindness against him when they lured him into the ginnel. He went to help them, and they killed him for his wallet. 

He would’ve made a wonderful father. He was so patient, so knowledgable, so kind. It was all he ever wanted. He never knew how close he was. 

And the pain grips me once more. Every muscle strains and I feel the contraction tear sinew. Where is he? Where is my husband? 

Cold and alone, and all because of them.

Ever since that day, the day we buried Chris, I have been trapped in the same argument. All I see when I check the news or watch television is man’s inhumanity to man. Cruelty, avarice, hatred. That is all our species is. That is what we have become, or perhaps it is all we ever were. 

Chris’ mother raised her son to be kind in a cruel world, and he died for it. So what do I do?

I can raise the twins to be like their father, to see the good in everyone; I can teach them that their actions can make the world a better place. If I do so, their lives will be fraught and painful, but they will be good people. This world we have created treats goodness with disdain, meets an outstretched hand and a smile with cold steel and disappointment. They will be good people, our twins, and they will suffer for it.

Or do I raise them to be selfish, avaricious bastards? They will not grow to be good men, will become the antithesis of their father; but, maybe, they will succeed in this bitter world. They will find wealth and power, and life will be good to them because they will not have been good to it. I could teach them to take all they want, to stamp on any hand raised in supplication, to make the world their own. 

I know what Chris would want me to do, but he is dead and gone, killed by his own compassion and the cruelty of others. 

And I do not have long. Every fibre of my being tells me to push. The twins are coming.

So what do I do?