18:37


The light that lit the tunnel grew fainter as the first person stepped onto the Waterloo and City line platform, starting it all again. The clock read 4 MINS.

Hands gripped mobiles and bags. Arms clamped papers and umbrellas, making a calamity of a sudden change in direction. Lines of people drew scrawling, agitated patterns on the platform. Those closest to the tracks stood with knees bent and eyes darting. Had they each, by a blend of good fortune and strong, crafted memory skills, managed to choose the right spot? Sharply, 3 MINS. Time but no room for changing minds. The lines thickened behind them and daylong, fought-for space lost its status as a chief priority. A hundred heads shot the day’s stresses and desires into the air above them to grey the walls and make them murky. 2 MINS. The front line was still, in position. Those behind twitched and peered. Some paced a few steps here and a few steps back. The more choice, the more the panic. Thicker still and the lines wove into a tangled, tight mesh. To see, across the tracks, was a family at breakfast, a child in Nepal, a hotel on a beach at sunset. 1 MIN to go.

At the front, a man tried to blink a new light from his eyes, the effort of which marked a break in his particular spiral of decreasing conviction. Would he get on? Did he have the time to wait another 4 MINS? The swing of his head triggered a Mexican Wave of nose, beard, glasses, lipstick. Bodies followed on automatic until the solid mass had robot-swivelled to face the light. Squinting, blinking, shifting. Some further to the back went on tip-toes as though for a photo. The train curved into view and they were shot, white-faced, framed in black.

The train blocked the wide grins and palm trees as it tore through the vacuum, affirming that the first line had indeed gambled with the skin of their noses. The whoosh, shriek and urgent pound of train on track left them swaying and as it slowed their heads detached from their necks like helium balloons. For a moment they were eyeball to eyeball, head-butting on the ceiling. The train stopped, hailing a jump-reach-thump which brought heads back to shoulders. The task snapped back into focus.

For those who faced the doors the trophy lost its shine the instance it was held. The victory came with the heat of a new challenge: maintaining the title with so many usurpers for neighbours. The doors juddered open in a pull of the wool that unravelled the mesh and the strangers were freed only to bind back together in clumps that forced into the carriages. The marginally perceptible victors led the charge but all contenders were freshly motivated by the prospect of a seat.

To enter was to wedge inside like a 4D puzzle, nose to armpit, employing the flexibility usually reserved for a yoga class. All seats won, the losers stood, irritable and with parts touching. The platform was empty and the train waited for no reason. A last woman ran, crouched and slotted in to render the rest resentful. A man read the paper and in doing so swiped its corners across several faces. Eyes met and one person smiled. The other was caught off-guard and pretended not to see. The first looked down and shifted the position of his feet. Someone coughed, the doors shut and the train pulled them away.

Missus Grotesque


Missus Grotesque has skin so see-through that broken blue spiders lie visible at her temples. The effort to form even uncertain words revives their legs in pulsing flexes and they believe her to be trying DVD pilates again, such is the stress on their limbs. In fact, Missus Grotesque has gone to buy some candleholders.

She has made it through the obstacle course of dining tables, kitchen tops and couple-strewn sofas and now she slows to a stop as she sees them lined ahead of her in polished battalions. This has never been her job, to be making these decisions. She hadn’t put it on the list for Jean and now her chest pulls in rotting elastic band stretches, twisting and knotting into a hard and shifting ball. The tearing, bloody strips loop and fasten over and again as she tries to make sense of what she should do.

There are the shiny and matte kind. Then some are bright and some are neutral and others are patterned. There are big ones and there are small ones and some have quirky designs and some are sharp and others are curvy. And she has always been a classic kind of a lady she thinks, but she can’t be sure. Perhaps she is, but wouldn’t Mister Grotesque say that he is a modern kind of a man? So perhaps something black; wouldn’t that be very modern and wouldn’t he say it was minimalist? Yes, he’d say it was a bold candleholder and a very bold choice. The mesh of elastic tears into long and writhing eels in a shallow pool. Sunlight breaks the darkness fast and the eels relax into spaghetti and Missus Grotesque is dizzy and must sit down. A minute passes and in the next Missus Grotesque notices that she’s sat at a mahogany bureau. She imagines writing letters with a fountain pen, from Victorian India, for Kipling. She’d sign off with a ‘Yours. Alice’.
On the way home her shopping bag holds two of a sleek type. These candleholders are brave; they know their own mind. They will stand there in the centre of the table, in the middle of all the dining guests and they’ll be a talking point for the room. Someone will end three or four conversations with a loud, “I just have to ask -“. Forks will drop, breath will be held. “Which one of you chose such excellent centre-pieces as these candleholders?” Missus Grotesque will say that it was, in fact, herself that went to the shops and chose them. Mister Grotesque will look across the table at her with pride and tell the room, “Her excellent decision-making is one of the many reasons I married her”.
They are all downstairs. Missus Grotesque is in her powder room. They’re waiting and she should already be seated but there’s no ball of panic, no bullying inanimates. The mirror in front of her reflects her as she is and she was right: she is a classic kind of a lady. She smiles for her rouge and then smiles for practise. Then finally a real smile, remembering the alarm she had felt in the shop. She sprays some perfume and stands. Her shoes feel secure under her feet and she feels that she is strong.
Missus Grotesque opens the door to the dining room. “Oh and here she is!”, Mister Grotesque rises to introduce her. She holds the handle for support and waits, made entirely of pumping heart. “She who bought some very fine candleholders. But who forgot the candles!”

Chapter 6


Winston remembered being seven. He’d never been able to remember much about his childhood but he remembered a small, white square of cloth with a red and blue number seven stitched in the corner, alongside the brown outline of a cowboy hat. He would carry it wherever he went and run his thumb over the stitching. The few basic lines inspired the adventures of Winston, ‘The Baddest Cowboy in Town’. There were dark wooden swinging doors and he wore boots with metal capped heels which clicked through saloons. He’d chew tobacco and ride his horse, Harold, very fast, leaving a trail of swirling dust behind him. His arch enemy was Sheriff Thompson who was always trying to catch him out, but Winston was far too fast and far too cunning. His nickname was Winston The Whistler, so renowned was his speed and the impressive way in which he carried a tune.

Chapter 5


Samuel and Theodore believed that Maxwell couldn’t speak but they were mistaken. Ten years ago Samuel and Theodore had been heated-debating. It may have been about whether ducks really were “lazy-mouldy-bread-eating quacks” or a revert to the controversial and emotional subject of the Disappearing Red Squirrel but it was definitely a crisp but sunny February morning, over breakfast. Maxwell felt his heart hit hard against his ribcage, more urgent this time and he had had enough. He was diagnosed with acute stress and Dr. Otter prescribed 72 hours of bed and voice rest. This was welcome enough news for Maxwell to kiss Old Otter hard on the mouth but of course he wasn’t quite friendly enough to share his line of work. Otter would have had The Pigs out pronto, those lowest of animals. Those that send out a stink which one very quickly learnt to associate with a nasty, punishing pain. They were down on the farm, looking to the untrained human eye as foolish and high on filth, when in reality they were military style training for the fight against the growing number of rascals about. The hard work took a toll on their rubbery pinkness and the swelling was from all of the exercise. The 72 hours passed in peace and pleasure in the form of television through windows and his partner, Tansy. She created a cocoon of nut roasts, bubble baths and other pampering scenarios which Maxwell would not detail to his friends, but a well-timed wink meant that he was a hero after the gymnastics they read into his three days in bed. Maxwell had intended to talk again but he suspected that Tansy preferred him schtum and anyway, he enjoyed his right to remain simply silent. Although lately he’d considered getting out of the business for good and doing a bit of yoga-meditation down in Brighton.

Chapter 4


Again, night. Benjie lay where he was left, at the side of the road. The light from the lamppost reached him and warmed his side. One pair of shoes passed and made their way somewhere, quickly. Benjie lay alone. His smell had grown to rage then left to explore as the day cooled. He was a mangled clump of grey and congealed blood, a perfect nature morte, a talking-point in an art exhibition. A nearby bush shifted and rustled, then was still. A few minutes later the heads of three grey squirrels appeared above the foliage, swung left, right and forward in unison and their bodies promptly followed, taking quick, careful steps through the leaves. Hazelnuts were clasped to their bellies as a last respect and their eyes glittered in the light of the lamp. They stopped in front of the bird, placed the nuts on the ground and began to speak. “Our father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name”, one of them started sombrely, snout to the sky, at once holy and reverent. “ Not the place, nor the time, Samuel”, the squirrel next to him cut in, shaking his head. “And you’re not of the religious persuasion”. Affronted, Samuel turned to him and replied, “But what art thee saying? How could thee doubt it? And if I ain’t, well, Theodore, what life in the world don’t need prayer?” Then, an answer of the darkest blue, perhaps the satin-ripple fall of a figure’s cloak and for five long moments they could not see. Instead, their blindness gave their ears the power to evoke Westminster, to hear Big Ben chime midnight. The great bell swung, heavy, under a spell and between each deep gong the three squirrels fumbled for the gasp of their breaths, the only other sounds they could hear. Each gong pronounced them alive and Benjie dead. Then, just as suddenly, everything was as it was. Only, by degrees, the temperature began to rise. Not that the squirrels had noticed yet. “What the bleedinell ‘appened, there?” Theodore recalled seeing Samuel’s expression before. It was when they thought they were going to be caught, in the last robbery. The fear had started in his foot paws which were rooted to the ground on tip-toes. His knees had wobbled and his hips had followed, shaking up to a face that sweated with the concentration of staying alive. His shoulders and his arms had held a trembling trophy of bananas in the air above his head. He appeared as though doing some form of complex Latin dance. The monkeys of London Zoo had torn and “a-a-a-a-ah”ed overhead, enraged. Samuel and Theodore sold the bunch to some rich and greedy pigs for twice the going rate to make up for it all, over at the city farm in Vauxhall. But Samuel’s face relaxed into its habitual amused order. “I’d have asked Maxwell but e’d be no help” he said, regarding the third squirrel lovingly. “Dumb pet.”

Chapter 3


Shortly after, Winston was on his shift. He started at Putney Bridge and as usual began to remove the chewing gum from the pavement. It was easier now that they had given him the stick and claw. It was kinder on his back and he could play games with it. He challenged himself with picking up a bottle top in one go or tweezing an apple core by its stalk. The bridge was wide and long and only ever very busy if the rowing was on. He crossed it, picking, then walked back, shaking his head yet secretly pleased at litter freshly dropped. He crossed the road and worked his way up the other side, picking. He would then negotiate Putney High Street and at this point it would become extra challenging. Today, though, had been unusually hot. The heat made crispy the teenagers, flirting, flustered, often leering, they would prowl and parade. It slowed and made sweaty the sports fans who he’d see again later, jeering and punching each other. As always, Winston became tangled in leads guiding guinea pigs for dogs but today they yipped at his ankles in irritation too. Like normal, prams blindly and sometimes not so blindly pushed into him but today he ducked, dived and had to weave around charging children too, loaded with ice-creams and whatever else they’d commanded. Winston had to fight the urge to use his stick and claw like a baseball bat. He passed the station to the hill and it was simpler, quicker and he would finish at the top of it. He was outside the Green Man pub and about to begin his last cigarette butt mission of the day when he saw Benjie. He stepped into the road, bent down and picked up the bird. The body was hot and heated Winston’s glove until the latex began to melt. He moved to the side and softly placed the bird in the curb’s cool shadow and protection. The people at the bus stop looked at Winston in a dismay that was quickly overcome by a familiar contempt.

Chapter 2


They had been waiting all day for night’s desolation and now it was time. The feathers had fluttered since 2.42pm when Benjie had been hit by a car. The tyre had pasted him to the road and took part of him, rolling, to a driveway in South Norwood. His blood had oozed out a short while later and ants had fanned away from him, out of respect. People at the bus stop turned away, suddenly strangely saddened, despite the plague that the living Benjie had symbolised to them. His pecking, scratching and scavenging had earned their disgust and they talked about him even when he was close enough to hear them. In reality Benjie held a mirror up to them and somewhere deep they knew how close their lives were to his. In front of them the wind cut through the heat and brought distress to Benjie’s right wing, which spread in the air as though about to take flight. His family had been incapacitated with confusion. They surrounded him in disbelief and horror and a few jabbed at gravel, mistaking it for food. A car then rounded the corner and they flew, wailing. The heat bore down upon the bird, beginning to heat and cook it. The blood seeped into the tarmac and the air was thick and sickly sweet.