Crisis Point — Again!

I have been writing my novel for nearly four years and I know less about writing a novel now than I did when I started. It may take another four years, more or less — I hope not too much more — to learn to write a novel. Never mind the books I have read about writing, the courses I have been on. None of these have made a great deal of difference.
It’s reading that makes the difference.
I’ve been doing a fair bit of reading recently. I got out of the reading habit when my mother became ill and I spent time caring for her in the last year of her life. It became hard to concentrate, you see. I lost the trick of reading. But that didn’t matter, I thought; “I can write.” Can’t I?
We all tend to think of writing as an activity, whereas reading is more passive; isn’t it? Well, no. Writing might work as a distraction when one is disturbed by a recent trauma. But it is oddly passive, or can be if it is not done properly. I can sit and write, and the act of writing engages the brain. But that is all. It becomes superficial, trivial, soulless and futile.
Reading however, is quite different. I had quite forgotten how active the process of reading critically can be.
For instance; just now I read a couple of chapters of Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca” and it “skinned my eyes” to use a phrase from Joyce Carey’s “The Horse’s Mouth”. I kept thinking as I read, “This is terrific stuff! How could I not have noticed before?” And it is the same with any other literary work I read at the moment. I am reading quite a variety, and again and again as I read these different authors: Salmon Rushdie; Vladimir Nabokov; James Joyce; David Foster Wallace — the list is endless — but again and again I read and despair of ever approaching that same degree of skill.
All that I have written — however satisfied I was with it at the time — now I could weep at how superficial and juvenile it all is! Oh, some of it is clever, or witty, or poetic — a bag of tricks, a mere bagatelle! But none of it says anything of any importance. None of it speaks to me — never mind anyone else!
I am reminded of the words of the heroine of “Educating Rita” who dismissed her rather patronising tutor, Frank’s attempts at encouragement tempered with too gentle criticism by tearing her essay up and saying, “What you mean is, ‘It’s crap’. So, when it’s crap, we do it again!”
And that’s how I feel about my novel. “When it’s crap. we do it again.”

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From various angles converging on the front door. The number on the door is 659. ALICE, a teenage schoolgirl has her hand on the doorknob, turning it.
A cute looking boy smiles and waves.
Alice enters and slams the door behind her.
NARRATION ALICE VOICE OVER.: I first realised that the world was coming to an end when I got home from school and found the cat gone.
Alice looks around.
In the hall, there is an umbrella stand on the right of the door with an umbrella leaning to the right.
There is a grandfather’s clock with the time set at the traditional ten to two.
The hall table is covered with a pink cloth.
ALICE: Einstein! Einstein!
She walks into the living room.
NARRATION ALICE V.O.: Funny phrase that, innit? ‘Found the cat gone.’
There is a sofa and chair and a picture of her parents holding a pig in baby clothes.
NARRATION ALICE V.O. (CONT’D): I mean you can find something or it’s gone. It can’t be both. Can it?
She walks into the kitchen.
ALICE: Einstein! Einstein!
NARRATION ALICE V.O.: Wait a mo. Rewind a bit.
Effects, speeded up and in reverse. She rushes backwards out of the house.
Montage of backward shots. Alice rushes backwards along the road on to a bus that sets off going backwards.
Alice at school writing furiously – backwards.
Backwards into house again.
The cute boy smiles and waves as before, quite normally – but reversed.
Now moving forwards, she points at her parents’ picture on the wall.
NARRATION ALICE V.O. (CONT’D): My Dad is a real ugmo.
The baby is a baby, now.
DAD Appears. He is plain but not really ugly. He is talking
in a jerky, speeded up manner.
MUM appears. She is rather flighty looking and is drinking pint after pint in a speeded up manner.
Alice looks disapprovingly from one to the other.
NARRATION ALICE V.O.: Mum is always drunk.
DAD: (silently in time with narration) You’re drunk.
MUM: (very loud) You’re ugly. But every one of these I drink, you get more handsome!
She grabs his tie.
He looks terrified.
NARRATION ALICE V.O.: Mum is also a nymphomaniac on the quiet.
Alice puts her fingers down her throat.
NARRATION ALICE V.O. (CONT’D): Dad told one of his crappy crummy jokes.
EINSTEIN the cat jumps up on to a chair.
DAD: How could I make that cat bark?
Everyone looks nonplussed.
DAD (CONT’D) Off Camera: Put it in a sack…
The cat, blurry and pixilated, is put into a sack.
DAD (CONT’D) O.C.: Take it out into a field
Dad, blurry and speeded up, rushes into a field with a sack.
DAD (CONT’D) O.C.: Get some petrol…
Dad, grinning, holds up a can of petrol and points to it.
DAD (CONT’D) O.C.: Pour petrol on the cat in the sack.
Dad, blurry and pixilated, pours petrol on to the sack.
DAD (CONT’D) O.C.: Strike a match.
A match flares up.
DAD (CONT’D) O.C.: And the cat goes…
Sound FX WOOF!
FX Explosion.
DAD (CONT’D) (back in the beer garden): WOOF!
Everyone looks disgusted. A few groan. Dad alone, laughs.
NARRATION ALICE V.O.: Dad is the only one barking around here. He is a stand-up psychopath who acts out all his jokes.
Montage of stills, as if posed for the camera, Dad with someone hanging upside down, Dad holding a chord leading to a guillotine, Dad holding a chainsaw. He is smiling in all of them.
Alice pottering around in the garage.
NARRATION ALICE V.O.: So I have to give Einstein a sporting chance.
She picks up a small petrol can.
She pours the petrol down the drain.
She fills the petrol can with water from the tap.
She picks up an identical petrol can.
She juggles with both petrol cans, throwing them up into the air and catching them.
She closes her eyes.
After a few times, she opens her eyes and puts the two petrol cans down, side by side.
ALICE (to Einstein): Now I know what you’re thinking, punk. Is the petrol in the can on the left or the one on the right.
Einstein meows.
ALICE (CONT’D): What you have to ask yourself, punk, is, ‘Do I feel lucky?’
Einstein meows again!
ALICE (CONT’D): Well, do you punk?
Einstein plays with a little toy mouse.
NARRATION ALICE V.O.: See, one man’s joke, is another’s science project.
She holds up the two petrol cans.
From the outside, it’s impossible to tell whether a single can
contains petrol or water.
Einstein looks up at her.
NARRATION ALICE V.O. (CONT’D): So it’s impossible to tell, in the
absence of the cat, whether he is alive or dead.
Alice enters almost identically as before although there are some subtle differences.
The umbrella on the stand is on the left instead of the right. The cloth on the table is gold instead of pink.
There is a framed photograph of the cute boy on the table.
She holds on to the door handle for longer than before.
ALICE: Einstein! Einstein!
She looks around.
ALICE (CONT’D): Einstein, Einstein!
She walks into the kitchen.
NARRATION ALICE V.O.: It was unheard of for Einstein to not greet me in the hall when I came home from school.
She heads for the garage.
NARRATION ALICE V.O. (CONT’D): So it was impossible to know whether the cat was alive or dead.
She opens the garage door.
NARRATION ALICE V.O. (CONT’D): So the only logical way to describe Einstein’s condition was to assign to it all possible quantum states, to say that he was simultaneously alive and dead and only when I found which can had been taken, the one with petrol or the one with water…
She enters and walks to the shelf with the petrol cans.
NARRATION ALICE V.O. (CONT’D): Only then could I know for sure.
She looks at the shelf.
NARRATION ALICE V.O. (CONT’D): Only when I looked in the garage…
There are two petrol cans. She picks up first one and shakes it, then the other.
NARRATION ALICE V.O. (CONT’D): Both were full.
She stands back in amazement.
NARRATION ALICE V.O. (CONT’D): There could only be one explanation. Reality had broken down!
She walks back into the house.
NARRATION ALICE V.O. (CONT’D): My experiment was like taking a sample from a fast flowing river.
She stares at A DIGITAL CLOCK showing the time as 6:59.
And then, as if no further proof were needed.
The clock changes. Instead of showing 7:00 it shows – 6:60!
NARRATION ALICE V.O. (CONT’D): There could only be one cause for that.
She takes out an exercise book from her satchel and proceeds to write.
NARRATION ALICE V.O. (CONT’D): An electromagnetic pulse from a supernova that will kill all life on earth in one burst of gamma radiation!
She begins to make calculations.
NARRATION ALICE V.O. (CONT’D): Cats in undefinable quantum states and electromagnetic disturbances causing semiconductors to change from ground state to excitation.
She pauses and checks her watch.
NARRATION ALICE V.O. (CONT’D): By my calculation…
She starts writing again.
NARRATION ALICE V.O. (CONT’D): I have just seven minutes to complete my science project.
She writes something else.
NARRATION ALICE V.O. (CONT’D): And save the cat.
There is a bumping sound from upstairs.
Alice looks up at the ceiling.
NARRATION ALICE V.O. (CONT’D): My parents always were, violent love makers.
Some plaster falls from the ceiling.
NARRATION ALICE V.O. (CONT’D): But you’d think they could restrain themselves at a time like this.
Through the window, fireworks can be seen going off.
NARRATION ALICE V.O. (CONT’D): The Christians are as bad.
The digital clock shows 6:62
NARRATION ALICE V.O. (CONT’D): Finished. Now to hand it in!
There is a knock at the door.
NARRATION ALICE V.O. (CONT’D): Ah! Just in time!
She opens the door.
MRS PODOLSKY, the Science Teacher is standing in the doorway.
MRS PODOLSKY: Alice, have you finished your science project?
Alice clutches the exercise book to her chest.
ALICE: Yes and no.
MRS PODOLSKY:‘Yes and no?’ – What kind of an answer is that?
Alice holds the exercise book out in front of her.
ALICE: One that precisely describes all possible quantum states.
Mrs Podolsky holds up her finger.
MRS PODOLSKY: Ah! So I determine the outcome?
The digital clock shows the time as 6:63
ALICE: That’s the theory!
MRS PODOLSKY: And the end of the world?
ALICE:Always a potential state. Very improbable on a day to day basis.
MRS PODOLSKY: But given a long enough period of time–
The digital clock shows the time as 6:64
ALICE: That clock normally displays a maximum of only fifty nine minutes.
Miss Podolsky nods.
MRS PODOLSKY: But for it to show sixty or more minutes is not impossible–
ALICE: Only highly improbable. In the same way that the end of the world–
MRS PODOLSKY: Has become inevitable. And so I know your Science Project is completed for the same reason.
There is a loud ‘plop’ and Dad drops through the ceiling. He is wearing hideous lime-green pyjamas.
ALICE: Oh my! Curiouser…
Another loud ‘plop’ and Mum drops through the ceiling beside him. She is wearing a hideous winceyette nightie.
ALICE (CONT’D):… and curiouser!
Mum and Dad hold each other.
ALICE (CONT’D): Mum, you’re drunk!
The digital clock now shows 6:65.
MRS PODOLSKY: They just oozed through the ceiling!
MUM: Contrariwise, we oozed through the floor!
MRS PODOLSKY: How improbable was that?
ALICE: The answer’s in my science project.
Mrs Podolsky flicks through Alice’s exercise book.
MRS PODOLSKY (voice gradually fading out on the noughts): Of course! Plank’s Constant has increased in size from point nought nought nought nought nought nought nought nought…
Alice smiles, sadly.
NARRATION ALICE V.O.: Sad isn’t it? But this is what years of being a science teacher does to people.
MRS PODOLSKY: (voice gradually fading in on the noughts) …nought nought nought…
MUM: She’s being rather noughty!
Alice shushes her.
MRS PODOLSKY:..nought six six six it’s become just one.
ALICE: Inevitable, really.
MUM:Ah! So although the probability of Plank’s Constant changing from an infinitesimally small number to unity is very very small…
ALICE: Given enough time, it becomes inevitable.
Dad stares at Mum.
DAD: How do you know that?!
Mum looks round, helplessly.
MUM: I guessed!
MRS PODOLSKY: And so all the other improbabilities – including your mum knowing Quantum Theory – happen because of that one!
Dad shakes his head.
DAD: If that’s logic, I’m a banana!
Dad turns into a banana!
In the front door, the cat-flap opens and Einstein jumps through, meowing loudly.
ALICE: Einstein! I’d forgotten about the cat flap! Welcome back!
She picks up the cat.
ALICE (CONT’D): You look as if you’ve seen a mouse!
The cat-flap opens a little more and a mouse looks through!
The clock shows 6:66!
Speeded up rewind of all the events so far.
The number 666 shows. Alice’s hand appears, moving towards the doorknob.
A boy’s hand appears and takes hold of the girl’s.
It is the cute boy. They smile at each other.
NARRATION ALICE V.O.: On second thoughts, I’ll not go home today.
Alice and the boy walk away together, holding hands.

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The Venusian Delayed Species Death Touch.

The Venusian Delayed Species Death Touch.
Some people, when they touch one of us, touch everyone.

“Hello, I’m Bernard. I’m from Venus.”
“Ah, right. I said. “You don’t have much of an accent. None that I can make out. But then I’ve never been further than Austria on a school weekend trip.”
“Well, I never did suppose you would have been to Venus. And if you did,” he tittered nervously into his hand, “the climate is not conducive to life as you know it. Unless I am very much mistaken.”
I paused in mid bite into my sausage. “Let me be clear about this, did you say you were from Venice?”
“I thought so.”
Bernard smiled and said, “Second planet from the sun.”
“So you did say, ‘Venus’?”
“Yes. What did you think I said?”
Convinced I was dealing with a lunatic, I still had to ask: “How do you cope with an atmosphere of sulphuric acid?”
“We use something like sunblock. Of course, it isn’t sunblock. There’s no visible sun on Venus. But it’s the same kind of thing, a cream that makes a protective barrier.”
“And how did you get to earth?”
“On a thunderstorm.”
Why do I always get them: the born again Christians who sit next to me on the bus singing, ‘Amazing Grace’; tramps with maps of Captain Kid’s treasure; UKIP canvassers?
“Of course,” Bernard said, “that’s only an approximate translation. My lexicon isn’t complete.”
“Is ‘sunblock’ an approximate translation too?”
“See, if your species evolved on Venus, it wouldn’t need a protective screen against the atmosphere, it would have…”
“Adapted to it, naturally,” he said, finishing my sentence for me. “And we did. But you see, we had a problem with industrial pollution, a runaway greenhouse effect, climate change, global warming — just like you’re having right now.”
“And you’ve come to warn us?”
“Oh no! We’ve come to wipe you all out and take your planet to replace our own.”
“Then why tell me? You’re blowing your cover, aren’t you?”
“Not really. No one would believe you.”
“Then why tell me?”
“We Venusians always tell the truth. We’re made that way.”
“So, what are you doing here?”
“Well, as a matter of fact, I’ve already done it — what I came to do.”
“Which is?”
He tipped his head on one side, thinking it through. “Something you could call, ‘the Venusian delayed species death touch’,” he said. “I just touched you on the hand, and now, when you go and mingle with other human beings, you’ll pass it on.”
“What, like a virus?”
“No, it’s nothing living; just a pattern of information. It’s rearranging the cells in your body, changing their function. It works exponentially. In just 27 days, every single human being on earth will have received the new configuration, and then all of you will simultaneously drop down dead. Or more exactly, you will all reconfigure into an inert substance that will just disperse on the wind, leaving only your clothes behind.”
“Yes, I saw that in a movie.”
“Is that comforting to you? Does seeing something in a movie make it seem more real?”
“Not really. It’s just obvious that you’re making all this up. And it’s not particularly original.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. We gave the people who made that movie the idea in the first place. The unoriginality is all on your side.”
“Is that so?”
He shrugged. “It was ever thus. Anyway, sorry if this upsets you… Well, no I’m not, really. I don’t care, as a matter of fact. But in precisely twenty seven days all of you — the entire human race — will run out of time. People driving home from work; people in the kitchen, getting dinner ready; people on the opposite side of the earth getting up for the day; all of you will simultaneously crumble into dust. We’ve tested the process, and I can tell you — just for information — all that will remain is a slight smell of frying onions. I don’t quite know why that should be. There will be no visible trace. It’s not entirely like that movie. The dust is so fine that it will only be observable as a smell. Every species is different, and it just so happens that your species smells of frying onions. Not that there will be anyone there to smell it. Rather raises an interesting philosophical point, doesn’t it? Will you all actually smell of frying onions if there is no one there to smell… or at least, no one who can put a name to the smell?”
“You sound a morally abhorrent species.”
“Not at all! The galactic union gave us permission because you’re all going to die from runaway global warming anyway. This way, we’ll save a lot of other species. Surely you can see that, at least this way your life and death will have some point?”

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Unexpected Item in Bagging Area.

I open the lid of the crate and look out.
There is no one there. I’ve done it. I’ve got through the security at Cutcost, and now I can take anything I want. That’s the weak point in their security: no one can get in, but anyone can get out. I climb out of the crate. Making it self-sealing was a stroke of genius, though I say so myself.
Getting a job at the warehouse was easy enough, they always take on extra staff in the loading bay just before Christmas. Now I can help myself: plasma TVs; DVD players; laptop computers; not to mention luxury food items. They might call themselves ‘Cutcost’, but they don’t sell cheap tat rubbish, they just buy in bulk and pass on the savings to the customer. “Thanks, Cutcost!”
They have those push-bar emergency exits. I can fill as many trolleys as I like and push them out to the van I left outside.
“Unexpected Item in Bagging Area.”
Christ! Nearly jumped out of my skin! It’s just a self service checkout. They must have left it on and some short circuit or other is making it say announcements at random.
There is literally no limit to what I could walk out with.
While I remember, I’d better get that turkey Alice was mithering about earlier on. And I’ll make it a big one. They keep them in the walk in deep freeze.
“Unexpected Item in Bagging Area.”
There we are! I’ll take a twenty pound one. Might as well. Wait till she sees it! Will it go in the oven, though? That’s a point. Better get one a bit smaller. Christ! It’s cold in here!
How do you open this door from the inside? There’s no push-bar. There’s no handle neither. What’s this?
“Press button for emergency exit.” What an odd turn of phrase. OK. I press it.
Was that a bell? A disturbing thought comes to me.
Try again. Christ, it’s getting colder!
Yes. It’s a bell.
A bell, but no one to hear it.
Not till Boxing Day.
It’s getting colder.  
“Unexpected item in bagging area.”
Bloody cold now.
Try the bell again.
No, no one to hear for two whole days. But they’d have to come in to get ready for boxing day, wouldn’t they? A skeleton staff. They’d ask for volunteers, people who needed the money. They’d pay double money. But even just one day would be too long.
Colder. God, it’s so cold.
“Unexpected item in bagging area.”
My hands are blue and numb, covered with tiny ice crystals. My breath is a cloud of steam. My feet are hurting with the burning cold. My eyelids are sticking, and stinging. I can no longer open them.
“Unexpected item in bagging area.” The voice has an edge of cruel laughter, now — a note of triumph. But it can’t have. There is no one there. No one there for days. No one, only me.
“Unexpected item in bagging area.”
Only me.
“Unexpected item in bagging area.”

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Summer Lightning’s Spell

Looking back, our relatives will say,
We planned it. We chose, certainly but no,
No plan about it; anarchy – although
Design came into it.

And yours will say, I dragged you up the garden path!

And mine will say, “After all is said and done
He has no job, and never goes to mass!
He’s just a drifter, just a mongrel stray.”

As you pause at the door to pivot on your heel
And view the last train, hunger steels your will.

“You’re late!” I say – attempting to look down
My button nose at you as you bow your head
To kiss my cheek. My eyes are trying to
Connect with yours, but you look down, clumsily…
Escaping only briefly – and we kiss…

As you pause at the stairs and shuffle anxiously
I take your coat, pretending not to see.

We sit alone and talk alone, “Oh look!”
I’m carried off by pictures in a book
Of childish memories; the fairies glide
Across the page; the children ride
On ponies. You stare unable to believe
And make a weak sound of encouragement…

…But why the shudder? Do you feel the chill
Of tomb-cold hands as hunger steals your will?
Do you fear the sand between the toes,
The ghosts that haunt the shadowland?

“Come on! – There’s walking to be done,” I say.
Still hours to go till final light of day,
I try to sound as if my mood is gay,
Time for children to go out to play!

The river we discard as “too clichéd,”
Although the reason I dislike the name
Has more to do with death – how to explain
Those days in well scrubbed halls with whispered words,
“Gone to Rose Cottage,” — Get out of this mood.
Back in the present we stuff ourselves with food,
My post-bullemic appetite is good
Yet modest — I eat no more than I should,
Perhaps a slice of cake, a slice of death
By chocolate? — A sharp intake of breath;
Ahah! The waitress; Try to be discrete
— If staring is quite unavoidable,
She affected not to notice — why can’t you?

And then again, why didn’t you just run?
Lean walletted — as usual — you’ve gone
Without your lunch and hunger gnawed your will.
And even if you could afford a bun
At ‘Traveller’s Fare’, or even — at a pinch
— Big Mac and fries washed down with coke in town —
Do you have the nerve to take the walk of shame,
Or face my words whimpering through the air to spear
And burst your empty gallantries, and your ears?

And thou, O Man, ‘Eternal Present’ wouldst
Thou rather know no future, shun the past,
And seize on every opportunity?
Thy moments stretched no further than my purse,
Not as mine — from cradle to the hearse,
And all betwixt minutely planned — that’s me.
Such matters as, “for better or for worse,”
Thou wouldst not debate — chapter and verse
Dance on my needlepoint — but not for thee.

And what if — after all — no turning back?
After the coffee, meals, and films, and shows
And other baits I dangle at your back?
What if you’re planning better than you know?
What of the grey between the white and black?
And with so long a siege your armour rusts
Until you can no longer hide the cracks.

Our purpose wavers, resolution bends,
Shall you — after all — begin to like me?
Shall I — after all — begin to like you?
Shall we find sincerity at last?
Given time, will you grow to love my smile, rising
Over your Sunday morning paper, asking
If you want any more tea, toast, jam,
Bread, scones, cake, cream, any more?

One can — it is said — in time grow used to anything.
In time even you may acquire the taste for coffee,
Tea, or me — is that my plan? — in time…
Motives long forgotten… what we were once
Gone… Looking back we may say practically anything
To make it sound less random — should we care?

Rising to go my shoulder takes the coat
Our well tipped waitress flourishes, w’ere off!
Another coffin nail of idle time.

The waitress lingers in my jaded brain,
Neither very pretty nor too plain,
Her apron — linen, white; but with a stain,
She will have — one supposes — several boys in train,
Equipped to strut and play her little part,
She practically curtsied, carefully
Replaced my chair and smiled at you — and me
— the very model of servility,
I wonder what picture we would see if we
Watched her — a pair of flies upon the wall…
As she smiled at us — then spat into the soup?

And after all — what could I say? What could
I do to undo it? — Never strong on purpose,
Make it up as I go along; that’s me,
If I’m honest — plan and plan then tear it up!
And can you see my fortune in your cup?

And will you go at last, cloaked in the night?
Without a word, without a note, take flight,
And leave me to draw the obvious conclusion?
Listen; fatted calves are rare these days,
And you’ve grown used to watching West End plays
From seats that cost more than a double room
In bedsit land. No. I have sealed your doom,
Seek within my eyes — their crystal depths
Will show you just what your fate has in store,
And after all; if you are to be bored
— And nobody escapes! — admit it, you might as well
Be bored with all the trappings of the rich
Than throw up in some other dreary ditch.

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So what happens now?

The reality is, Labour lost in the sense of it cannot hope to get its programme through Parliament, it won’t even be trying. The Tories lost in that they no longer have a majority to get their programme through, although they will probably try, and quite a lot of day to day legislation will get through, unopposed. They also run a risk of being opposed by their own back benchers on certain parts of their programme, the repeal of the act that made fox hunting illegal is one example that springs to mind. There are also various human rights issues on which the back benchers might support the opposition.

So the position is, we still need to put pressure on the Government with petitions and so on, we still need — for example — to continue anti hunting demonstrations to make it clear to the MPs that most people are opposed. We need to put pressure on our local MPs as well, to make sure that they vote against it. Now there is more reason than ever for people to get involved ‘at grass roots level’ in the Labour Party, and with pressure groups. A Labour majority would have made our job easier, but now is not the time to abdicate our responsibilities. To the contrary, the real fight starts now.

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Three Generations

“Just like the fifties,” says Mum, gazing at the broken skyline. “It was like it when I was born, and it’ll be like it when I die.”
“You’re not going to die, Mum,” I say. “Not yet. You’ll get through this. We all will.”
She thrusts her hand into the pile of grey ash that had been someone’s front door. It still feels warm. I know, I’ve just done the same. Nothing else in our world felt quite like that. She lets it run through her fingers before slapping her palms together, dispersing the handful of dust on the merest, dry breath of a breeze. Hours before it was part of someone’s life. “Crap, innit?” she says. “Tower blocks over there a day ago. Now just rubble. The old terraced houses still there. Funny how that turned out. Used to be slums, then they did them up. Now they’re slums again. From slums to slums in three generations. For the lucky few. Not us.”
“I heard they’re rebuilding, Mum. Dave said they’re pulling down the bombed buildings, and…”
“Bombed buildings! Not heard that in sixty years,” she says. “‘You stay away from those bombed buildings! Don’t play there. They’re dangerous! Time they pulled them down.’ And they did. And now they’ll pull them down again. If there’s anyone left to pull them down.”
“I know what Dave said.” Her eyes close, tight. It’s as if she doesn’t want to open them again. Her lips flutter instead. “Never thought they’d go that far… Silly buggers… European Union… What it was supposed to prevent… All pals together one minute, falling out the next… Like a parade it was… That car cavalcade…” She surprises me by singing, in German, no less: “Freude, schoener Goetterfunken!” She still has a good voice. Weaker, though. Never knew she liked Beethoven. She continues the Ode to Joy: “Tochter aus Elysium.”
I rest my hand on her shoulder. “You all right, Mum?”
“I’m not gaga yet, my love.”
“I didn’t think you were.” No. It’s her voice that’s weaker.
“Why don’t you go up the hill?” she says. “Where Norfolk Park used to be. See how far you can… if you can see any of these fire engines, and lorries, and that, David said were coming.”
“Don’t tire yourself, Mum.”
“I’m fine,” she says, but she obviously isn’t. “They’re supposed to be setting up standpipes,” she continues. “And wash tents with  showers. That’s what the bobbies said. Turned out to be a lie. Have you seen any bobbies, lately? You don’t have to answer. They’re all in Ecclesall, and Millhouses, and what not, expect. Given up on us. Always knew they would. Why don’t you get over there? Not too far for you to walk, at your age. Don’t bother about me. Get my grandchildren away to Dore or Totley. The wind wasn’t blowing that way when it dropped. Fucking evil thing! All this upset’s giving me eczema.”
“Don’t scratch it, Mum. Mum! You’ll scratch your skin off!”
“Got piles, as well! All right, haemorrhoids, if you prefer. Old women are dirty, you know. I mean we talk dirty. We don’t dress it up in flowery language, like Mrs Bucket on the telly. We call a spade a spade. Sometimes we call it a bloody shovel! My Prolapse is bad, as well. You could drive a double decker bus up there, now!” She laughs at the thought, but the laugh gives way to a racking cough. “Bronchitis back,” she says. “Did you say Attercliffe’s gone? And Darnal?”
“It’s all gone, Mum. Meadowhall, Northern General…”
She grins. “At least I won’t be going in there. Used to say, if you go in there you don’t come out!” 
“Dave thinks it went off over Rotherham. They wanted to…” — what did he say? —“‘cut the lines of communication’, not smash everything up.”
“Lucky we had a cellar to hide in. You get off to Dore village. See if you can find someone to take you in. You and the kids.”
“They’re telling us to stay where we are, Mum. Best not.”
“Oh, don’t listen to them.” Her grip on my hand is amazingly strong. “Promise me you won’t be bitter. Just go where you’ll be safe!”
“The police, Mum. They’ve got guns. They’re already shooting looters. Dave said…”
“Yes, well,” she says, between coughs. “Still say… better off over there… Tell… police you’re lost.”
I hug her. “They’ve got files, Mum, with our National Insurance numbers, and what not. They’re asking people for their numbers and then they’re looking them up on the records. That’s what Dave reckons.” There’s some foam at the corner of her mouth. Pink foam. Christ. “Are you all right, Mum? Try to rest, Mum. Please.”
There’s a rumble of thunder. It’s spitting rain. Tiny black spiders against the grey earth. It needs to rain. Wash it all away. Wash us away as well. The staircase is the only part of the house
still standing, defiant, a middle finger sticking up at the sky — Fuck you! — with the old, galvanised-iron mop bucket’s in the cupboard underneath. But there’s no water. I ought to put the mop bucket out, with all the cracked old tins and bottles. But I don’t suppose I’ll bother.
“I’d get going, if I were you, Susan. They won’t shoot you. Not if you’ve got children. Bring little Simon and Megan here. I’d like to look at them. Might be the last time.”
“I can’t Mum,” I say. “They’re… sleeping.” And saying it out loud brings a stream of tears down my cheeks. I can feel Mum’s tears as well, mixing with mine, and the dust and ash.

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Time For A Cull?

My Facebook stream is getting too full again. Time for another cull? Not of people, not ‘friends’ you understand, that’s not the problem. It’s these random items like weather reports and reminders of things I’d rather forget and articles that I don’t want to read. It’s the pages I’ve ‘liked’ and sometimes it’s the groups I’ve joined that are subscribed to by people who feel the need to cover my screen with Blue Meanies, or grinning faceoids or red, beating hearts and live feeds. Facebook used to be simple, just a bulletin board. Now it’s so cluttered, I think the message is getting lost. I’ve turned off notifications, and yes that helps. And please don’t tell me to ‘do something else’ I don’t need permission! And that is not the problem. I usually only have Facebook on in the background while I’m doing something else, anyway. Facebook is useful. I’ve caught up with a few people and been to a few meetings that I would have missed if someone hadn’t stuck their head above the parapet and said: “Pub Quiz Brown Bear on Tuesday night!” Or “Skeptics in the Pub” next Monday. It’s the things I never subscribed to that someone I vaguely know but is a friend of someone I used to know who keeps nagging me to go to something to do with them on the other side of the earth that I could do without. I don’t travel well at the moment. I’m working on it, but suffice it to say, I’m a bit of a stay at home or at best sit all day in Starbucks kind of gal at the moment. Rant over.

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It is terrible
being poor
I feel powerless
I cannot afford

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The Madness in the Ice

We found the hut near the peak, half buried in Alaskan snow. The windows were broken, the glass was lying all around. “So they were broken after the blizzard — from within.” Weston enjoyed playing detective.

Hearne — the other reckless greenhorn — was the first through the door. “The heating’s still on.” He pointed at the crudely lagged jumble of pipes on top of a big tank or boiler. The only sign of it being on was a thin cloud of vapour near the top that looked more like breath than escaping steam.

Then it moved.

Weston grabbed my arm and Hearne reached for his gun, but I knew what it was, now. It was a man, bandaged from head to foot, sitting astride an oil drum nearly as big as him. The vapour had been his breath after all. As I watched he reached into his hip pocket.

Hearne drew his gun, I knocked his arm back before he could bring it up. “He’s gone, Hearne! Harmless. Look at him.” The poor guy was drinking from a hip flask — oblivious.

Weston stared. “Oh God!”

Then I realised: it wasn’t a hip flask. It was a bottle of aftershave. I moved forward and something crunched underfoot.

Looking down I saw the remains of that ‘something’; it was expensively electronic. “They smashed the radio to bits,” I said. I can  play detective, too.

Hearne re holstered his gun and said, “Yeah, that’s why the distress call stopped.”

“But why did they smash it? Snow madness?” I walked up to the man sitting on the oil drum. The bandages made me think of protection against the cold. I looked closer. The white linen was covered in strawberry blotches. In places, shredded clothes showed through gaps in the bandages. He was wearing mittens that were stiff with frozen blood.

He had been hacked to pieces. Somehow, he had managed to just about cover himself with bandages. He must have been weeping in agony as he wrapped the gauze over the raw flesh; losing precious blood as he did so.

Hearne laughed nervously, “Wait until you see the other guy! — Sorry, bad joke. I’ll get a blanket.”

Weston came over for a look. He winced as he said, “Moving him’s out of the question.”

“We can’t get a helicopter up here so we’ll have to move him.” Hearne knew that for a fact having tried and failed before grudgingly coming to me. Weston had picked up the distress call, so he had to be cut in, but Hearne wanted no more shares — assuming there was any salvage to share; which I doubted.

On the floor there was an empty whisky bottle — and a syringe. So, after the morphine and whisky, all he’d got left was aftershave. “Hearne,” I said, “There’s morphine in the green bag with the red cross on it.”

Hearne shook his head. “We’ve got to let him come round,” he said “It’s our only chance to find out what happened.”

“Even if he comes round, we’ll never get him down — alive,” I said.

Weston made for the door, “I’ll see if I can fix up a sledge,” he said. “Oh, and don’t knock yourself out.”

If Hearne was wounded by the jibe, he didn’t show it. But he followed Weston outside. Someone needed to stay with the bandaged guy. I thought I might as well look for some sign of what had happened. Some kind of fight, obviously. But why?

The wind was rising, making a strange, unmusical whine as it blew over the glacier. As I listened, it sounded more and more like a hundred bag pipes running down and not quite together. I looked outside, but instead of a blizzard, there was an unearthly stillness. The weird sound must have been some kind of freak echo. I came back inside and as I re entered, just for a moment, I thought I could discern voices. But no: the man on the oil drum was quite motionless, his head on one side as if listening for his companions coming back. I listened too, and rested my hand on my revolver. All I could hear was that abominable piping; up and down over several octaves.

Weston and Hearne came back in dragging a makeshift stretcher made from one of the frame tents. “Thanks for the help,” said Hearne, sarcastic as ever.

Weston snapped on a big flashlight and swung the beam around. “It’s a prospector’s hut — prefabricated,” he said. “They erect them over test drills. It must have been a big team to drag this up the mountain — even in sections.” He hung the flashlight from a ceiling hook.

“So where is everyone?” I did not expect an answer — ever. Bodies soon got buried in this kind of ice flow. “Did they go crazy — or…?”

“Or what?”

It was Hearne who answered, “Or what they were looking for was worth the risk — worth dying for.”

Weston was trying to persuade our friend to leave the oil drum. He was not co-operating so Hearne and I went to help. Even then, he fought like blazes, and it was only with a big effort that the three of us managed to get him on to the stretcher.

Hearne tapped the drum. “Whatever they found, it’s under this. They fought over it. The last survivor dragged this drum over the test hole and clung to it — like Ahab to Moby Dick.” The simile would turn out to be more apt than any of us realised.

We could see marks on the floor; the sign of a struggle — and crystals that could well be frozen blood. Hearne held up an ice pick and pointed to the red crystals on the tip.

The man on the stretcher was trying to speak.

We stood as close as we could and strained to hear.

He was saying one word over and over: “TRESOR! TRESOR! TRESOR!”

“Treasure!” Hearne laughed out loud. “You know what they found? Remember that plane that went down last year? It was in all the papers. Some French Canadian crime syndicate tried to hijack a charter flight carrying gold bullion. The attempt failed and the plane exploded and went down somewhere. These guys — must be French Canadians — came to look for it, found it, and fought for it — to the death.”

I was not convinced, “You think the plane is under our feet?”

“I’m sure of it,” said Hearne — and I’ve never seen such smugness; before or since. “A burning plane would sink straight down into the ice. After that, the ice fills in over it. They came along, drilled into the cargo hold and hit the jackpot!”

Weston tested the drum with his shoulder. “It’s still full of oil,” he said. “It won’t budge!”

“Looks like it’s jammed into the floor!” Hearne had his arms around the drum. Weston was trying to use a tent pole as a crowbar.

There was no mistaking the gold lust in their faces. They were in no mood to report the find. There are no salvage rights to gold bullion, so they were already outside the law. They would fight for it, just like their predecessors — to the death. Suddenly, I felt expendable. I backed away, feeling for my revolver. I nearly fell as my foot caught in a piece of wood on the floor. I reached down and picked it up. It was a sign:


No. Hearne was wrong — ridiculously wrong. Skewed logic and misinterpreted observations; classic fallacious thinking.

I looked up in a daze. “Hearne, Weston, they weren’t French Canadians. They were English.”

They ignored me and continued to drag at the oil drum.

“They were zoologists — From Oxford University!” I pulled out my revolver. “Get away from the drum!”

But I was too late.

The drum came up out of the hole with a slurpy sucking sound. It shot to the ceiling taking Weston and Hearne with it. The light went out, smashed by the impact.

In the dark, there was a furious rattling as the hut shook. Something whipped across the floor — and the door slammed shut.

First the drum came crashing down from the ceiling, then Hearne followed, his arms flailing and mouth gaping as something dragged him backwards to the hole. I grabbed his arm and tried to hold on to the drum, but the floor gave way with a jolt and I had to let go.

It was then I saw Weston — or what was left of him.

He was hanging upside down from the ceiling, minus his head.

I switched on my flashlight and crawled frantically to the door, unable to get my balance.

Something had fallen against the door. I tried to pull it away, but my strength drained from me when I saw what it was — a corpse, covered in bandages. I turned away and it was then that Weston’s body came crashing down into the beam of my flashlight.

Moving the beam to one side I saw Hearne. He was shaking like a rag doll. And as he shook, bits of him came off.

Then I saw what was doing the shaking.

Those Oxford zoologists must have had a good idea of what it was they were looking for. They must have known from folk tales, or maybe even specimens from earlier expeditions.

They would have known that the octopus of the Alaskan coast grows to thirty feet across the tentacles, only they were looking for something bigger, a new species — or maybe a very old one. Maybe they did have specimens, brought up by drills, dating back to when the mountains were still at the bottom of a warm sea. They would have theorised or speculated about the exact nature of this prehistoric gastropod, drawing analogies from the diversity of marine life. Perhaps they had even the fossilised tracks of its tentacles. But this was a cryptozoological expedition — not a palaeontological one — and that shows that they expected a living specimen. But what could have prepared them for the madness in the ice — that hideous, multi tentacled mollusc like thing, with the huge, slurping tongue covered in tiny, jagged teeth that whipped and shivered and cut and slashed and sliced through Hearne and Weston’s bodies, dicing them like carrots and spraying the walls with their blood?

I was brought back to awareness when a tentacle lashed around my boot and dragged me half way across the floor.

It was incredibly fast. That Oxford expedition never stood a chance. Fighting back with ice picks and axes must have been like fighting a nest of serpents with a butter knife.

I fired my gun several times into the tentacle, blasting it to shreds. My leg was free — though badly cut — and I managed to stand. I fired the rest of the bullets into the gelatinous mass, but there was no real hope of hitting a vital spot.

There had to be another way.

The floor was alive with tentacles. They were like very fast blind snakes; randomly whipping this way and that. Instinctively, I leapt up on to the oil drum and found the hole it had punched in the roof. It took an agonisingly long time, during which the tentacles began to explore the air around me. But I climbed through the hole, just in time to see the drum being dragged away, leaking oil. That gave me an idea.

I took a magnesium flare from my belt, broke the seal and — as it began to blaze — hurled it through the hole.

I remember a deafening, roaring in my ears as I rolled over and over in the snow, dampening the flames that licked around me.

After that, I have the vaguest of recollections of dragging myself through a snowdrift. Everything that happened after that was a blank; until I awoke in hospital. Now it is a week later and I wish that blankness would return. It would be better than the sleepless nights. Even sleeping pills do not stop the dreams that awaken me to scream with terror. And the strongest prescription pain killers do not help, for the lacerations from the thing’s tentacles just will not heal. Antibiotics cannot stop the slowly spreading infection; the necrotising fasciitis that is slowly killing me. No, not killing me — eating me alive. Even that is not an adequate description for the way it is slowly digesting the muscles of my arms and legs; rather in the manner of the venom of certain reptiles, or spiders.

And then there is the other poison — the one affecting my brain. I wish that I could know for sure whether the madness in the ice is dead or not, for a deep longing fills me.

And gradually, the longing turns my wish for the creature’s death to a hope that it is still alive.

The parasitic virus lodged deep in my brain sends ever strengthening signals across my synapses, urging me to hire a charter plane to fly me over those dreaded Alaskan mountains, so that I can parachute down to the place where we found that loathsome, but fascinating, giant mollusc — and into its loving arms.

It is the perfect killer. I speculated for a time that it might even be some kind of biological weapon. But no; it is just very ancient and very specialised. You have to love it, in a way. It is efficient in what it does. But until the gradual warming frees it from the ice, it needs help — just as it needed help from the expedition who thawed it out. Its guardian, the man in the bandages would have freed it — if the virus had affected his brain enough, before he died. Now I will have to do it.

And I will, very soon.

But — with my last remaining particle of reason — I still appreciate the irony.

You see, when the rescue team found me, I was laughing hysterically and repeating one word over and over again; the word the English Zoologist had repeated — an English word, not a French one. Having seen that leftover from before the remotest ice age, I know how well the word described that dreadful, fascinating, quivering tongue with its rows of razor sharp teeth that buzzed and sliced effortlessly through flesh and bone — just as it will soon slice and dice my own willing flesh and end my agony of longing!

No, there was no treasure. That was not the word. Oh the irony!

Not treasure. And not “tresor” — but “TREE SAW”!

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