Sunday, 26 June 2011

Glorious Republic

As we approached the terminus of Grove End Road, our party was hailed by two official-looking soldiers armed with 9mm semi-automatic rifles and matching blue shrapnel helmets and flak jackets. A large sentry gun stood to their left, its barrel casting a shadow that stretched ominously from one side of the street to the other. 
  ‘Pashportsh!’ demanded one man in a thick Abbiesque accent.
  We willingly obliged. There had been six shootings across this boarder in the last three months and five of them were due to travellers being “uncooperative”. He took up each colourful little book and deftly scrutinized each picture before glaring accusingly at our faces - daring us to suddenly change in to someone else.
  ‘Americansh?’ he asked, pointing to two of my companions.
  ‘Er yes,’ I conceded, hoping that recent political events wouldn’t interfere with our holiday plans. It was dangerous to cross the border during the holiday season, but I knew my friends Lesley and Britton would probably never get the opportunity to come here again... while it remained anything more than a smoking crater.
  ‘There ish a ten euro out-of-continent chargsh,’ said the second soldier, stepping forward.
  ‘That’s ridiculous,’ I contested, ‘this country is surrounded on all sides by the British capital. Surely it makes no difference where someone’s from.’
  ‘No money, no entry,’ replied the first soldier.
  I was going to argue more when Lesley grabbed my arm to restrain me. ‘It’s okay, we can pay,’ she said, a pleading look in her eyes.
  I had intended to use my position as a journalist to curry favour with the soldiers, but it seemed senseless to risk permanent extradition, as well as possible kidnap and ransom. People in this land were always looking for a way to make extra money. Desperation and starvation forced the natives to find means to survive however they could. Our passports were stamped and we were waved through.

 The second row of fence was only ten feet away, but before that was a Bureau de Change.
  ‘Eurosh?’ said a reedy man standing behind the desk.
  ‘No thanks,’ I said, speaking for my companions. ‘We’re only here to take a few photos.’
  The reedy, Bureau de Change man took a stick from the desk and pointed to a grubby sign at the back of the stand: NO CAMERAS OR PHOTOGRAPHIC EQUIPMENT TO BE CARRIED THROUGH INTERNATIONAL BORDERS, it read.
  ‘WHAT?!’ I spat. ‘How are we supposed to get pictures of ourselves if we can’t take cameras with us?’
  ‘There ish an offishial photographer at the site,’ the reedy Bureau de Change man explained patronisingly. ‘You may leave your camerash wizh me.’
  ‘Right,’ I sighed, exasperated. ‘And I expect the official camera man will charge us, yes?’
  ‘It’sh ten eurosh for one photo or fifteen for two,’ the reedy Bureau de Change man grinned. ‘The exchange rate ish two to one. Thatsh two pounds per euro.’
  I was on the verge of cracking, but we had come so far and travelled so long to get here, it would be futile to contest the rates now. We had been on the tube all morning and had had to make three changes, including through the District and Circle lines which take a bloody age, let me tell you. I accepted that the fault had been mine. Had I done my research and checked the British Embassy website, I would have known and brought travellers cheques. I handed over forty pounds sterling, deposited my camera with the reedy Bureau de Change man, and was waved through the second fence. A rickety welcome sign confirmed our location. It read: WELCOME TO THE GLORIOUS REPUBLIC OF ABBEY ROAD: TRESPASSERS WILL BE EXECUTED.

  As the five of us shuffled out on to the street, blistering heat met our faces and the three layers of clothing that had protected us from the bitter English chill on the other side of the fence only served to suffocate us in this tropical climate. Around us were families crowded around small wooden shacks, presenting their wares to the tourist stream, trying to scratch out a living by peddling poorly scaled models of the Beatles moulded from asphalt stolen from the road, and wood cut from the branches of the recording studio trees. I’d heard that such actions could result in limbs being removed – a testimony to the desperation of these people. Not five feet from us, a group of children kicked a can through an open sewer, while their mother vomited in the only hole deep enough to be a toilet.
  We took a couple of paces forward and another reedy man, uncannily similar to the first, approached us with a camera and a tripod. He shouted some syllables at us. It seemed impossible to know what the man was saying as he had only two teeth, neither of which granted him any assistance in communicating. He pointed to the world’s most famous zebra crossing and held out his hand for the money he knew we’d have. I gave him the twenty euro note.
  ‘That’s for two photos,’ I said loudly. ‘That’s fifteen euros.’
  The man pointed to his wallet, mimed “cash” and shook his head. I surmised that he had no change. In an increasingly foul mood I crossed the road and directed my four friends to do the same. We queued behind a gaggle of tourists of all nationalities, while international traffic was forced to pay expensive tariffs to pass through the zebra crossing. Whenever there was a lull, a group of tourists would be allowed to strike the immortal pose of those four who made the album in the studio behind us, the only other source of income in this fetid country. Inside the walls of the studio the rich lived in the lap of luxury, whilst on the street the class divide only continued to widen.
  When it eventually came to our turn, the man would not allow us to stand together. He held up his hand. Four fingers.

  I begrudgingly allowed my friends to be captured in the first photograph and I exchanged places with Britton in the second. When we were presented with our photos, it became apparent that the cameraman had had his thumb over my position in the second photo. I argued that we deserved a free photo, but he demanded more money, which I sadly could not produce.
  As we passed back onto British soil and the cold December air, I fumed at the injustice and corruption of this once great principality of our sceptre isle. I was incensed at the sheer nerve of those in power  - that those who could have set up schools and built churches had only used their wealth to distort the nature of such a hallowed place for their own gains. But mostly I raged at the thought that I had paid all that money for a Beatles novelty photograph, when in truth I had always been a Rolling Stones fan.  

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Mould and Magnolia (Inspired by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s "The Yellow Wallpaper")

August 18th 2009:

  It seems strange coming back to this dingy little flat after so many years, but our regular painting man is off sick with some mysterious flu.  George insists that we have to have the whole place re-painted by the beginning of September before the new tenants can move in. Apparently it is advisable to remove bloodstains from the wall before putting a residence back out on the market. I don’t know what on Earth George thinks I can contribute to this, but he doesn’t seem particularly interested in my pleas now that we’re facing financial troubles.

  I keep telling him, “I was a housewife with a cleaning maid, George. I haven’t lifted a finger in years.” Yet the boorish old cretin continues to force me in to painting the flipping place with him and his brother Ernie.

  Poor old flat. It was a rather strange case: Apparently the previous tenant of the attic room took it upon himself to ritually flail both his housemates to death, embalm their corpses, then perform an ancient Egyptian brain removing ceremony on his own skull with an electric whisk and a Stanley knife. Considering that the procedure is usually conducted after the victim has passed on, it’s really quite amazing that he got as far as he did. Such a pity that so much young blood was wasted on the white walls and such a shame that I’m having to miss Jeremy Kyle in order to cover it up and remove the blood soaked carpet.

  George has bought three large tubs of Magnolia paint. It seems far too much for such a small flat, but George tells me that it’s really very cheap and probably worth getting extra. Because it’s the smallest room, I’ve been given the attic room to do. It really is rather a mess. The ambulance men did the best they could but it’s still obvious where they’ve had to cut chunks from the mattress to remove the corpse. It’s such a pity that people have to kill others, themselves and ruin perfectly good upholstery and bedding in the process. Why didn’t the poor fellow just throw himself off Tower Bridge? Many perfectly respectable people have done themselves in that way.

  August 19th:

  There’s rather a lot of mould on the walls up here. Apparently the next tenants are foreign migrants, George says, so a decent coating of paint will mean we won’t have to re-render the outer wall till after they’ve left, provided it goes on thick enough. They know nothing of housekeeping matters, most of them. We can probably blame it all on whichever poor sod gets the room and on his collection of rotting old pizza boxes in one of the corners, should anything go awry.

  George has bought me one of those cheap B&Q rollers and a palette knife, he says they’ll do the job fine, but no matter how much paint I roll and slap on, it never seems to hide the mould quite enough. I blamed it on the George’s cheap roller but he, quite rightly, pointed out that it seemed to deal with the bloodstains easily enough. I remember from when Herbert was growing up that those were a real bother.

  Poor sickly, little Herbert: If he was alive today it would be him having to help his father paint this retched flat instead of me. I could be at home learning about the lives of the unemployed with my feet up and a large afternoon gin and tonic in my hand. But no matter. Given his tolerance levels of peanuts, furry animals, feathered animals, sugar, pollen, bacteria, cleaning products , vegetation, insect bites, dust, citrus fruits, vitamin B12, calcium, Ammonium sulphate,  zinc products and industrial sellotape, I usually take it as a quiet mercy that he died in that giant meat blender.

It’s a bit stuffy in here. I’ll open the skylight and hope a breeze will alleviate the closeness in the room.

August 22nd:

  I’ve painted this room twice now and I swear I can still see the mould coming through the paint. Despite the window being open all night the closeness of the room hasn’t departed either. But the bloodstains are completely gone though and the mattress has been replaced, so it almost looks like a room again. If only it weren’t for that mould. It’s a strange white colour that shows only slightly against the magnolia paint, but if one stares at it closely, one can start to see patterns emerging, like budding grasses after a storm. They wave at me it seems. I see fields of it stretching up the wall and into the distance – a perfect untouched meadow of tall beckoning wheat spanning for miles and miles, as far as the eye can see. No wait, there is a blemish. There’s a lump in the middle of the wall near the front. Now I wonder what it could be?


  Ernie went to get us takeaway late this evening. I’ve applied a third coat of paint to the attic room, but the mould seems unstoppable. George tells me I’m being paranoid and that there’s nothing there anymore, but I know he’s wrong. The grass is still waving, with the blemish in the centre and it’s become more pronounced. I can tell... it’s the figure of a man.

  Ernie came back without the takeaway and without the car. Apparently he crashed into a lamppost and they won’t be able to send a replacement until tomorrow. It looks like we’ll have to spend the night in this dingy little flat. Since the beds are all singles I decided I’d prefer to take the attic room by myself, rather than listen to Ernie or George’s ungodly snoring downstairs. With the light off and a full moon shining through the skylight I watch the mould as it ripples beneath the cheap paint. I see grasses undulate to an invisible breeze on the other side.

   Magical it looks: An enchanted land away from the cares and sorrows of the everyday world of Jeremy Kyle and tenants and flat painting. I observe the enchanted pastures and start to imagine I can see brightly coloured insects flitting between the grass blades. I return to the spot where I saw the man-shaped blemish. In this moonlight, all has become clear. This is no man. This is a boy. A poor sickly looking boy that I used to know, like only a mother could know. But this boy is not the same diseased little wretch that I nursed on the couch. This little boy is strong and healthy. He is smiling and beckoning to me.

  I get out of my bed and in my pink, silk pyjamas I reach out to him and try to touch his hand, but the wall is in the way. This blasted wall that I myself have painted three ruddy times in the last three ruddy days is keeping me from being with my son. His lips move, and if I stand very still I can hear his voice through the divide.

  ‘Come through Mamaa,’ he says. ‘Come through. It’s all so much better here.’
  ‘I can’t Herbert,’ I cry back. ‘I can’t get through the wall.’
  ‘Yes you can Mamaa,’ he moans softly. ‘But you must pay to cross over.’
  ‘Pay?’ I whisper.
  ‘Yes,’ he sighs, rather deliberately. ‘Pay... in blood.’
  Ah, I think to myself, suddenly all the gory back-story makes sense.
  ‘But Herbert,’ I say ‘I can’t do that.’
  ‘Yes you can Mamaa,’ he says. ‘You know just what to do. And bring Papaa and Uncle Ernie with you.’

  I can’t fault my boy’s logic. I know he knows that I know what I have to do. I’ve picked up the palette knife and I’m lowering the ladder down through the trap door. With any luck George and Ernie won’t hear me coming. I would just so hate to make them suffer.

Fanta Miner (Based heavily on Fantomina by Eliza Haywood)

A young coquettish Vimto can of great figure, spirit and birth found herself one night in the drinks aisle at the local co-op. Seated on the higher shelf she had the advantage of being able to look down on the walkway below and observe the actions of the customers who would walk by. In particular she could not help but observe the actions of a certain young man called Nigel, whose pock-marked face and nerdy posture particularly caught her eye. He seemed to be a man of some considerably discriminating taste, as his trips always terminated in the acquisition of a can of popular carbonated orange drink. Thinking him to her liking, she decided one night to adopt the guise of one of these popular carbonated orange drinks and sat on the appropriate shelf, somewhat forward from the others in the hope that young Nigel might pass and take an interest in her.

  On the first night Nigel did not enter the locale of the drinks aisle, distracted as he was in discussing the latest Warhammer additions with a few of his geekier companions. Caught alone on the second night however he easily succumbed to the young can’s charms and she was taken to his home, under her guise as Fanta Orange. Confined to his bedroom, watching Star Trek, he opened his rucksack and pulled her from the comforting folds of his spare hoody. Our heroine was nervous now, she tried intimating to him that she was formed of un-recycled steel and had never been opened before. Though she was interested in pursuing a course of intimacy with this young man she was not sure whether she was ready to lose her innocence just yet. Such was his thirst for her however, that even had he known her true nature he would have probably drank her contents regardless of their flavour. To wit, she was undone and scorned him with harsh language the likes of which would never be fit to disclose in public. Nevertheless though he had used her to fulfil his own passions, he entreated her with delicate words that soothed her fury and he promised to recycle her in the appropriate green bin on his way to work the next day.

  He kept his word, and many times she was recycled and refilled with Vimto, where she would then have to re-disguise herself as a can of the popular carbonated orange drink. And he would purchase her again and they would retire to his abode where they were able to drink their fill of one another. But Nigel varied not so little from his sex as to be able to prolong desire, to any great length after repeated consumption; and she discovered from her high vantage point that Nigel began to grow weary of her section of the drinks aisle, as he started throwing sidelong glances at the cans of the same brand but different flavour. She wisely considered that complaining or imploring with Nigel would only drive him away, so once again she utilised her skills of disguise: lightening her complexion and adopting a yellow hue she became Fanta Lemon. So on the next evening when Nigel entered the co-op, she once again sat forward from all of the other cans. Not seeing his long-term lover to hand, Nigel was able to slip his new-found conquest in to his shopping basket and steal back to his house without feeling guilty. Ah, had he known that his infidelity was with the can he had drunk from before how he might have wished for the skies to fall on his head, but such was his craving that the illusion of a new conquest blotted all apparent similarity from his mind.

  It was not long however before the charms of Fanta Lemon begin to dim for him too. Our plucky young Vimto can, though young, was easily attuned to the whims of her lover, and made herself a new disguise, that of Fanta Strawberry.  Each new disguise, reinvigorated his thirst for her in the main, but there are only so many flavours that can be derived from that popular carbonated orange drink we all know so well. After Nigel grew tired of Fanta Apple, the Vimto can decided she must hedge her bets with one final bid to secure her lover’s faithfulness.  Stripping herself of all graphic design, she placed herself on a bare shelf in the drinks aisle one night. As Nigel bought his microwave dinner that evening he spied her on a shelf, naked but for a black question mark that barely covered her aluminium cylindrical form. Overcome with curiosity, Nigel attempted to buy her immediately. However, her lack of a bar code made purchase impossible, so in a fit of pure passion he threw down his microwave dinner and ran from the store, pursued by the furious co-op staff in their turquoise and purple chequered shirts. Held in hot pursuit by the co-op attendants, Nigel ran into the kids play park in the ever-growing darkness and secreted himself inside one of the tunnel slides.

  ‘My dear, enigmatic, mystery can, even if I have to sacrifice my life, I shall defend you against all adversaries’ he said, panting heavily.

  With his teeth he opened her ring pull. The click and hiss of the can opening alerted the listening co-op attendants and they pounced on him mid-gulp, dragging him out of the slide by his feet. He was true to his word however and engaged the co-op shelf stackers in mortal combat. In the struggle he dropped his precious can in an attempt to beat off his aggressors. Just when he thought he was gaining ground, he looked at his new beloved and froze. As he had dropped her she had fallen on her side and her contents were spilling liberally on the soft, rubber play park flooring. Even in the fading light he could see it was Vimto.

  ‘No, it can’t be Vimto’ he said ‘I’m sure I would‘ve-’

 He stopped, and then it hit him: How every soft drink he had purchased for the last three months had tasted exactly the same, but how in his lustful state he had ignored the flavour and only wanted the carbonated, sugary goodness inside. All the flavours of popular carbonated fruit-flavoured drink he had consumed had all had the same Vimtoey taste. He hadn’t been drinking Fanta at all. Under the burden of the truth, his legs gave way and he was brought to his knees. He flung his arms skyward, and cried out to the Heavens:

  ‘Whhyyyy?! How could this have happened?! I don’t even like Vimto!!!’

  When the police arrived, the bruised co-op attendants were standing a respectful distance from the bitterly sobbing man who lay in a heap at the foot of the slide. He didn’t struggle as they put him in the back of the car and drove him away. The Vimto can continued to lie there till morning when a conscientious mother, fearing for the safety of her child, deposited our heroine in one of the park rubbish bins, the contents of which were later taken to a landfill site in Chepstow where she remained till she finally decomposed several hundred years later.