Somniloquy

She was in the kitchen slicing carrots when she told me.

“You talk in your sleep.”

I stopped pouring myself a cup of coffee and turned round to face her. “What?” I asked, only a little superfluously, as I’d heard and understood the statement. I was just hoping she’d elaborate as she repeated herself.

“You talk in your sleep,” she obliged, continuing, “I got up to go to the toilet last night and as I was passing your door I heard voices. You didn’t have the television or the radio on in your room late last night, did you?”

“No, I didn’t.” I was genuinely interested, if a little baffled. “What did I say?”

She had resumed the carrot slicing and didn’t appear to be that interested in the whole affair, although it was her that had brought it up. “They were muffled. The voices. Muffled and low.”

“Voices?” I asked. “There was more than one?”

“I guess. Yeah, I think so,” she said nonchalantly, now helping the sliced carrots into a bowl with the aid of the knife, “but I can’t be sure.” After a pause where she picked up a big onion, she went on, “One definitely sounded like you and there was at least one other. That’s all I remember. Did you know you talk in your sleep?”

“I don’t.” I decided that would be the end of that particular conversation, and took my coffee through into the living room, where the tennis was just about to start on television.

What she had said bugged me all that day – not just the assertion that I was a sleeptalker, but the fact there were, to her mind, different voices. I’ve shared rooms and houses with countless people over the years and nobody has ever suggested before that I talked in my sleep. I am generally a light sleeper and often wake up three or four times in one night, but I was almost certain I neither talked nor walked while sleeping.

In my room, I went on the internet. I quickly found what I was looking for. That evening, I ordered a voice activated recording device. My bedroom, at the back of the house and with no boiler or central heating controls, is a very quiet space. With the window closed, as it is most nights in the middle of winter, it’s almost like a soundproofed box. If my new toy only started recording when audio was detected, I wouldn’t have to wade through hours and hours of stony silence before anything of interest might come up.

I went to bed. The next day, despite the talk with my housemate nibbling away at my brain, I went about my usual business, waiting for the delivery of my spying device.

*        *        *

For three nights, before going to bed, I connected and set up the recording device. The following mornings there was nothing to report. I knew that on the three nights in question I’d slept my usual sleep, except for the first when I was unbelievably restless and stirred every now and again to look at the device on the little desk beside my bed. Sometimes I gave it a light tap. On the other two nights, I’d woken a couple of times but generally slept pretty well, as far as I could recall.

I inserted the device into the computer and turned the speakers’ volume up. There was nobody else in the house. I’d taken the day off but my two housemates were at work. I took a deep breath and sat down in front of the screen with the pleasing rose garden wallpaper.

I leaned forward to listen. There was a crackle and then a click. There were voices now. To my mind there were three distinct voices. I waited. There was nothing else. I replayed what I’d heard. And again. And yet again.

I listened over and over, occasionally going off to have a smoke or a glass of cold water, always returning to the recording. Eventually, I managed to transcribe the few muffled and mumbled words and phrases I could:

Voice 1: “…were we?”
Voice 2: “…I can’t promise…maybe…”
Voice 1: “…it’s all a mistake…”
Voice 3: “…no doubt…”
Voice 1: “Should we [incomprehensible]?”Voice 2: “There it is [again?]…”
Voice 3: “Shh…wait.”
Voice 1: “He’s…stay…”

That’s it. That’s all I could make out. It wasn’t exactly a conversation. There were long and short pauses, and other words were spoken, but these were the only ones intelligible to me and my fevered brain.

*        *        *

I was waiting for her when she came home. Before she had even removed her jacket I started telling her about my day. I told her everything I’d heard and presented her with the brief transcription I’d been able to make.

She listened intently to what I had to say, seemingly without any sense of pity or ridicule. She read the transcript. When she’d finished, she lit another cigarette, took a deep draw, looked directly at me.

Her eyes narrowed a little as she breathed, “And did you hear the little girl crying for her mother?”

Breakfast For One

“Ablute! Ablute!” he cried cheerily as he skipped across the hall from his bedroom and into the bathroom. He had heard a submarine officer yell something similar in one of the war films he enjoyed watching on his little portable tv late at night. It was cold in the bathroom. He thought that strange because his mother usually turned the heating on first thing in the morning at this time of year. When his bare feet touched the chilly tiles, he wished he’d put on his socks in his bedroom.

He sat down, just in case, but needn’t have. After washing his hands thoroughly, he brushed his teeth – he counted forty-three vertical and twenty-seven horizontal movements. He was never quite sure which direction provided for better hygiene, so liked to vary his routine. Sometimes he would brush more vertically and other times he would concentrate on horizontal strokes.

When he was finished he positioned himself in front of the little mirror above the basin and, with some toothpaste, drew two bushy eyebrows, a drooping moustache and a fluffy Santa-like beard on top of his own reflected features. He giggled a little and uttered a cautiously quiet “Ho! Ho! Ho!” It would soon be Christmas again. He loved Christmas.

Once downstairs, he went straight into the kitchen and put two slices of bread into the toaster. He poured some milk into his own plastic tumbler. When the toast popped up, he rooted around in the top drawer for the blunt butter knife and spread some margarine on the warm, browned bread. Mother didn’t like him using the sharper kitchen utensils.

Carrying the milk and toast in both hands, he carefully kicked the door of the living room open and went in. He could see immediately that his mother was still in her armchair, one hand rested on an arm. As he moved forward, he saw a half-finished cup of tea on the small table beside her. She’s been there all night, he thought. With his breakfast set down on the low table in front of the sofa, he went and tapped his mother on one shoulder. “Lazybones,” he whispered. He didn’t want to wake her. Yet he really wanted her to wake up. There was no movement and nothing he felt he could do, so he sat on the sofa to have his breakfast.

He ate one slice of toast in nineteen carefully counted mouthfuls, and quickly determined to finish the other one off with the same number of bites. He had always hated even numbers and tried to avoid them whenever possible. If he could complete a task with the aid of a prime number, so much the better. In between mouthfuls, he sipped at the milk.

With the remote he switched on the television and turned the volume down low. He began channel hopping. One channel at a time, starting with one, he reached sixty-seven before he stopped. Nothing grabbed his attention, but he decided to stop on that particularly attractive number. A rather high prime number, he mused, he was also quite sure it was his mother’s age. It was some kind of shopping channel and so he was only half paying attention as he finished his breakfast.

He glanced around the room, his eyes tracing the unusually tranquil, familiar terrain until they rested on the other armchair in the room. That was his father’s chair and nobody had sat in it these last four years – nobody, that is, except strangers to the house who didn’t know whose chair it actually was.

His breakfast done, he was starting to get bored. He often soon got bored when left to his own devices, particularly first thing in the morning. It was also very cold in the room. Looking out the window he could see spots of rain falling on the glass and the wind blowing the high trees opposite. He knew it was winter outside.

He was more bored and not a little worried now. His mother never slept so long, especially when she fell asleep in the armchair. She had told him how uncomfortable it became after only a couple of hours. He stood up and approached her again. He touched her lightly on the forearm, then bent over and gently ruffled her once-blonde, now-greying hair. Nothing. Neither a motion nor a sound. Only stillness.

He really wanted her to wake up now. More than anything in the world, he wanted his mother awake. He didn’t know what to do. His eye caught the phone, on the unit by the door. Maybe he could call someone to help him, he thought. But who? His father was gone for good. His uncle lived a long way away, that much he knew. He remembered the recent journey with two changes of train in terrifyingly busy stations and the fact he had completed three colouring-in pictures and eleven Sudoku puzzles in the time it took them to get to his uncle’s place. The neighbours he knew and felt able to speak to would likely be working at that time on that day.

The police? He knew their number was 999, a nice round number in his opinion. He had often regretted not living in America after he found out that they used the beautiful prime number 911 to call for help. No good. He wouldn’t know what to say to the strangers on the other end of the line.

He sat back on the sofa, unsure and shivering softly inside and out. A tiny, single tear of aching frustration forced itself out the corner of one eye and trickled down the side of his nose, making it itch. More followed and his vision started to blur as he sat looking from his mother to the phone to the tv, all the time reciting every prime number he knew, as high as he could go.

 

The Parable Of The Tit & The Twat

Once upon a time, in a land not too far from here – but also a million, trillion miles from anywhere nice – there was a campaign to introduce a change so fraught with insecurity & possible dangers that nobody dared mention them.

The campaign was led – unofficially, of course, because that’s how they do things in the land where unicorns gambol – by a Tit & a Twat. The Tit looked after things on days with an “a” in them, and the Twat just lolloped along behind, sticking his fat nose in whenever he saw a tv camera or a press microphone.

The Tit was a very happy man because he had no brain to speak of, and was very brown & frequently very drunk. The Twat was an overgrown child. Both were rich beyond your wildest dreams, but were in no way part of the elite.

Their plan was to take back their country from an evil suprastate, though what they spoke of was not actually a country at all but, in fact, an evil suprastate. They spoke of independence, even though they would deny independence to real countries that actually deserved it.

Anyway, they spouted lies & half-truths, which would later be revealed as simple errors, and bought lots of alcohol & laced ice-lollies for people they deemed too thick to realise they were being duped. The Tit & the Twat appeared everywhere & nowhere for what seemed like years on end, yet nobody in the whole world ever grew tired of their smiling – & not at all smug – faces, and not one person ever felt the urge to smack them really hard.

Then came the day of the great vote, the eve of the glorious Independence Day. Floods & plagues of traffic problems failed to deter the dogged – & the doggers – from exercising their right to screw others & to make the Tit & the Twat the happiest rich men in the whole of the Kingdom.

The result was close, & the fact that one little nation without a real say in anything ever had blown the loudest raspberry possible right in the faces of the Tit & the Twat was poo-pooed, the people of that little nation being told to “Shut up! The big boys are talking here!”

And the moral? There is no moral. Tits & twats don’t have morals, nor do their toadying supporters. End of…almost.

 

Chapter One. The End.

And she wept.

Sat on the toilet, her tights and knickers round her ankles and her skirt pulled up and bunched on her lap, she wept. Quietly at first, so that they wouldn’t hear. Then she forgot about them and let it all out in short, gasping bursts.

When she went back through into the living room they were still there. The shorter one, with the slyly apologetic demeanour, was also the older by a good pair of decades or so. The taller, younger one with the piercing blue eyes that seemed to dart around the room, taking everything in bit by bit, was also the quieter. She had reckoned immediately who was in charge and who was the underling.

They had taken their hats off and placed them on the coffee table, between the gardening magazine she’d bought the day before and the three half-empty coffee cups. She’d taken the untouched biscuits into the kitchen before going to the bathroom.

They stood up as she entered.

She smiled. It was weak and didn’t mean anything. Only the younger one smiled back. With lips pursed, mouth firmly closed, it was a practised, sympathetic half-smile. The shorter, older one spoke.

“Well, ma’am, if you’re sure you’re alright and won’t be needing anything else from us right now, I think we should be on our way.”

She looked at him. Was that sweat on his brow? For what felt an age she wondered to herself if he always sweated when he was on a job of this kind or if it was too hot in the room. She remembered she’d put the heating on first thing that morning. Then she came to and answered him.

“I’m fine. Please, go. I’ll be OK.” After a pause, she added, “I know how to reach you if I need you.”

“You do, ma’am. You do,” said the younger one. The older one looked over and up at him, the simple look betraying an irritation and annoyance she imagined was never far from the surface with that one.

She saw them to the front door and closed it after them. There was a small chair in the hall, which she used as a makeshift dumping ground for coats and hats. It was unburdened at the time, save for a small summer jacket slung over the back. She sat down, but then sprang up straight away and ran into the living room. At least on the sofa, she could lie stretched flat, face buried in the soft material and weep her time away. It was definitely warmer in there too.

As she lay down she thought about what would be on tv. On a normal day, she might be watching one of her cookery or home-makeover shows, with a cup of coffee and a chocolate biscuit or two. If not that, then she’d almost certainly be heading out to the little group of shops at the end of the street, where she’d meet lots of people she knew and have a good chinwag and get something nice for tea. Today, however, neither the tele nor tea seemed that important.

Then she remembered the visitors. What was it the older one had said about the accident? Had he described it as tragic or unfortunate? Couldn’t it be both at once? She imagined so. Her head was swimming with questions and images, pictures and conjectures, tumbling over one another in an effort to be heeded. Her mouth was suddenly, unbearably dry.

She got up and went into the kitchen. Standing at the sink, running the cold water, she stared out the window at the back garden. When was the last time she’d seen him, she asked herself. It must be almost six years. He hadn’t been in touch and she’d almost got used to his absence. Yet, he’d kept her name and address in his wallet all that time.

Lifting the glass to her mouth, another question reared its head. This one was uglier. Was it an accident? He’d obviously been very unhappy when he left six years ago and God only knows what had happened in the intervening time. He wasn’t carrying any form of identification. The younger one had described him and asked her if she could give them a name. In the wallet, besides the piece of paper with her details on it, there was a recent receipt from a supermarket, a couple of bus tickets and fifteen pounds in cash.

There were too many questions and not enough answers.

She had to see him. She went into the bedroom, put on her outdoor clothes and returned to the living room to pick up the note with the name and address of the hospital where they were keeping the body. She went out the back door, through the garden. She could catch the number 47 bus at the stop at the end of the alleyway.

Though it was early May, the air was a little chillier than she’d expected. Yesterday had been much more pleasant, she recalled.

Stars In Time

To be born again
It’s not easy, but that’s the game. Too & two were never the same, even when timing seconds into minutes & dull hours. She was born when others used her name before you did. And where promises hung like pressing threats in streets heavy with ages stopped dead. Books she’d never read threw their shapes on the weird light there; a world’s worth of ignorance weighted in a future glimpsed under closed eyes. Just imagine. Too late. Too early too.

Every scrapbook stuck with glue
Gathering childish things, we scatter & resume the game. It was a frantic rain that closed in and, so doing, helped the apprehensive comprehend. Indoor smells turn out & call me back to a yearning I thought I’d lost. For old toys, new books, for stories learned on warming laps, and stolen glances unreturned. So young for forgetting. I’d give anything to go back. Can we go back?

Not to wonder
Colouring our own sky, we fled from other worlds, touching not touching. The strangest grey dark nourished & clothed our weakening frames. In fresh rags soon old, you talk of bright days to come. Do you know that much? In whispers we dreamed. And the future we held? It just was.

Conquered in a car seat
A warm hum, windows down, sweated smells & the wind teasing over us. So fast at last, all this can only mean we’re dreaming. A new way to gain the old truths. A million stark promises & what we own is right here. We rode the roads around home, searched & found what wasn’t lost.

On our own star
Afterwards, we could talk in left-behind voices. Of untouched foreign stars & our own sitting just out of reach. Still learning to walk, to steal through windows. To listen & not hear. To fade & reappear. Too little to grasp the bright heralds beyond recycled dawns. She once told me things I didn’t believe. Now her reason fills me up like shared memories of what might have been.

Throwing pennies at the bridges down below
Down or up, I can’t tell, but I hear the bell. I hear the bell in the cruel, stinging air where we run. Here & there, rust lips the railing we slide down to our own world. I’m older now & understand the how if not the why. The bell can wait. I can wait. Age is just a memory left unattended.

The writing on the wall
What does it say? I spy new lies for dancers, life’s tortured twisters in their ritualised whirling glory. If I’m wrong, I’ll stay that way & suffer the haunted fools praying on the margins with me. Step up now. Show me that much.

Catching pebbles
You & me both reached the end of the tidal sweep. At the same time we turned. Nothing was left there to see. What we’d been & heard was gone. Rumours of a death untrue rattled & spun in our broken cages till only breathing mattered. Only breathing. Only breathe. Only.

Breathe in, breathe out. We let go…

Gibraltar

It’s a right looch and no erry. You’re parted at the kaprich of other khenty, and from that day on you’re pellying for your dreches. It’s ommer counter ommer in this mond. When you’re hovven & they etchy you out the skwel, you can become a soathy in the exercity or get some burry trabak in a fabrik till the day you morry or go loco. Or get metted in some stinking karthel.

I was parted into a good familya and brought up well, but I could see the way the vent was cambing back home even before things got real peligry. The skribo was on the mooro for the likes of me. I’m here all debbida a few pavvos I happened to ver one day in the fabrik, in a sala I had no drech being in. Well, I say a few pavvos. It was more like a dozen mil or so, but that’s not the grana. It was just lying around. Nobody was using it, so I kokkied it.

I was gonna ponny it to good use. I was gonna tratt the novvia to a decent deskanns away from the grime and graft, maybe compry a new kotch and ponny the deposit on a piso for the both of us. I wouldn’t have got such a long stir if I hadn’t punnelled some asky marika who burst in on me in the medio of my robbing. I was processed in less than a month and I’ve been in this pozo six years now.

The chika’s peggied by me though, I’ll give her that. She’s a good tia. She’s the oonik that comes to ver me, providing she can get time off her trabak and has enough pasta for the vwelo. I swear nobody else back home pensies of me here on this piedra.

This piedra. A sindios, vaccy piece of bassoora on the edge of a corrupt and sindios payes. An idyllic Mediterranean sunspot it ain’t. Not now, at any rate. You ver, the karthels in Britain were yenning faster than the authorities could constry them, so they had to adopt special measures. And rapid. They etchied all the residents of this rock out on their orekas and turned it into one of the biggest and most secure karthels in the known mond.

Half the tornies and the mayor of the rekklies don’t speak the Reina’s English. There are over one hundred iddies spoken in here. I’m from Blighty though, and have retained most of my mama iddy, but even I’ve resorted to the rarry dialect that has become the lingua franca round these parts.

You ver, the iddy of the payes this stinking piedra is stuck onto is forbidden here, on account of the authorities don’t want us prending how to hably with any locals we might encounter were we to escape. That way, it would be much easier to recapture us. So, inside there’s a whole black market in dictionaries and phrasebooks of said iddy and some rekklies have have even started giving secret classes in it. However, even the most listo rekklies can’t be molested mastering more than the basics and according the more important words they might need fwera. And spelling and syntax is not your meddy rekkly’s strong suit. What you see skritto here is more or less the sum of knowledge of the whole karthel, re the iddy we hope to use if and when we break out of here and get off the piedra.

I’ve got two more years of my stir to go, then I’ll be libry. If I trabak dooro and keep my narith clean. That’s easier said than done, what with all the hillypoyas that go on in this place. Only yesterday, I saw a tio cut down in the rec sala because some kabbron thought he’d been tramping at cartas. The tornies didn’t lift a dedo to yoody him. Turned a blind oko, they did, and now the poor myerd’s mort.

Anyhow, I’m just skribbing some of my pyensoes down in this libro I got from a friendly rekkly ‘cos there’s nada else to do of a tarde after lights out. If I foccy on the white of these here pages, I might olviddy for a moment or two the asko space I’m in. And maybe I can block out the myeddy chills and lagrims coming from the other howlas around me. Just maybe. Keethas.

 

Tracey In The Wardrobe

We were used to our singer’s ridiculous excuses for being late for practice – or for not turning up at all – but the tale of the exploding cat was the final straw. When he strolled in, with only thirty minutes to go on the three hours we’d booked the room for, and told us how he’d seen a cat explode in the High Street, we knew he had to go.

He couldn’t even properly explain whether the cat had spontaneously combusted or if there had been a firework up its arse, though the clever money was on the latter, it being so close to November the fifth at the time.

And Keef wasn’t a bad singer. His voice had a subtlety and warmth we all admired, as well as a power when necessary – which wasn’t all that often, due to the type of songs we wrote and played. As a frontman he was just what we wanted. He had obvious presence, and all the boys we knew wanted to be him while all the girls – and more than a few of the boys, if truth be told – wanted to get off with him.

What’s more, it was even he who had brought us all together and started the band in the first place. His dad had a garage for us to practise in until the time came when we collectively thought we were not too much of an embarrassment and could go out into the wider world and occasionally hire a rehearsal space in town.

He had come up with our name too: reasonnoreason – and it had to be written just like that, he’d stress to all who’d listen. While I was always keen on my own suggestion of Refridgerators Over Moscow, I accepted the apparent genius of the lower-case, no-spaces approach of our chosen moniker.

Still, he had to go.

As we sat in the pub next door with our usual post-practice beers and ciders, commenting on what we thought had and hadn’t worked that night, it was Bri, our bassist, who first broached the subject three of us had already been harbouring for at least half a pint. He first raised the issue of experimenting with changes, this led to talk of roles within the group. The conversation quickly got more and more heated, with Keef becoming more and more defensive as it appeared to dawn on him where it was all leading, until Degsy, our drummer, stood up and yelled, “But, come on, Keef, an exploding fucking cat?”

Keef stormed out and that was that. We were a foursome. Like all the best bands should be anyway, I thought.

The rest of us went home and thought no more about it all until the next rehearsal, a few days later. As we warmed up, each absentmindedly playing with our instruments, I said to nobody in particular, “So, who’s going to sing the songs then?”

There was an awkward moment of silent shuffling, darting eyes and querying looks before Degsy offered up a timid, “What about you, Trace?”

Me? Hell, no! Those were my first thoughts. I had always tried to hide behind my guitar. I helped with the music and added to the arrangements, of course, and I had even written the lyrics to a couple of our songs, but I was way too shy to consider putting myself up front and facing an audience and opening my mouth. And a group of lads with a token girl singer just seemed a little clichéd to me.

“Yeah, Trace,” said Bri, “have a go at least. See what it sounds like.” The other two nodded and muttered agreement.

I went red. Or did I? I certainly felt an overall flush of heat and mild embarrassment at the unexpected – and, frankly, unwanted – support and encouragement of my fellow bandmates.

Andy, our other guitarist, the youngest of us all, with the cheekiest grin, winked at me, “Trace, will you audition for us? Please…”

In one corner of the rehearsal room there was a big wooden wardrobe for use by the clients.

“OK,” I said, pointing to the wardrobe in the corner, “but only if I can do it from inside that.”

The others followed the direction of my finger and my gaze. They looked a little baffled at this proposal. They looked like they wanted to laugh at the sheer stupidity of it all. However, they agreed I could do it my way.

I opened the double doors of the wardrobe. There were two of our outside coats hanging up, as well as a couple of old pairs of trousers others had left there, and some discarded and forgotten footwear on the floor. I stepped in, kicking aside a manky old pair of trainers to make space to stand in. I half-closed the doors. I closed my eyes, counted myself in, and started to sing the only song I could think of that I knew almost all the lyrics to, Bowie’s “Wild Is The Wind”.

When I finished, there was an eerie silence for what felt like an age, but was probably all of ten seconds or so. I couldn’t see the others, so had no guide as to what they were thinking. They might even have quietly left the room, for all I knew.

Then I heard clapping. First, one pair of hands. Then two more pairs joined in. A voice – Degsy’s? – yelled theatrically, “Bravo!” I smiled to myself.

There might, in some situations, be nothing sadder and more melancholy than the sound of six hands clapping in a windowless, soundproofed space, but on that day, in that situation, it was the most joyous sound I’d ever heard.

 

The Call

He picked up the receiver and listened for the dialling tone. His fingers hovered over the keypad. He had been dreading making this call ever since he had heard the news. He knew her heart would break, like his had a couple of hours earlier. He hesitated a little longer, then gently touched the necessary numbers one by one.

He shut his eyes tight and held back a tear or two when he heard that hopeful, cheerful voice respond.

“Hello?”

“Hi, it’s me.” A gap of a few seconds bridged the initial greeting and the businesslike getting to the point, as he had promised himself he would do if called upon. “We’ve lost him. I’m sorry.”

There was no immediate, audible response. He thought he heard a quiet, solitary sob, but couldn’t be sure. Then she answered him.

“But…how? I mean, I spoke to him only yesterday and he seemed very upbeat. You know, positive. Thinking about the future and all that. He had marvellous things to say about you”

“Well, I’m flattered, but that’s how it goes. Sometimes, you never know right until the end.”

He hesitated again. They could go on and on, round and round with this line of discussion all day, he thought. He had things to do and he knew she had too.

“So, anyway. Will you be alright informing the others, or do you want me to do it?”

“Leave it to me,” she replied, quickly and more assuredly than he had expected of her in the circumstances. “I’ll get onto it right away. There’s no point putting it off now, is there?”

“No, I suppose not,” was all he could think of to say, then thought to add a simple “Thank you.”

“One thing, though. Do you have more details? Like, what exactly should I tell them?”

He damned himself silently for leaving all this out at the beginning. It might have made it all a whole lot easier from the start.

“Of course. Hmm. Tell them the truth. Man City made a better offer, he already has family in England and he’s always wanted to play in the Premiership.”

“I thought as much. That makes sense. Thanks.”

They spoke a little longer about this and that, then hung up. He went back to his work, not before taking a few seconds to look wistfully out of the window of his office, high above the stadium he loved. What a loss, he mused. Our loss…

 

The Too Grey Sea

He looked out to sea. It was one of those palest of mornings, when the grey of the sky meets the same grey of the sea. No child would ever colour the two in that way, he thought. Children, he had learned, delighted in seeing and depicting things as they could be, not in the dullness they so often are. He strained his eyes to follow the barely perceptible distant line of the horizon. After a few seconds he looked away, rubbing his tired and hurting eyes with nicotine-stained fingers.

He couldn’t actually remember why he’d headed for the seafront that day. It was very early too. As he stood watching the sea and the sky combine in their blind uniformity, he realised that it could be no later than seven. There was nobody else about. Not for the first time recently, he felt quite alone. He smiled at this, not quite knowing why.

He then brought to mind the first month or so after they had moved out of the city and bought the house here. They had spent almost all their free time either playing and relaxing on the sand or strolling together on the elegant promenade that bordered the beach. They had felt like guilty tourists or truanting teens, fully expecting with each passing day the call that would return them to the world of work and other adult responsibilities. It was supposed to be a new start, and they had made a real effort to make it so. All that was over now.

He inhaled deeply on the cigarette he was absentmindedly holding in his left hand and thought about the events of the previous night. How had it come about? Why had he let it happen? He suddenly felt the early morning cold and pulled his collar up around his neck and buttoned up his coat. He looked around for a bench to sit on, suddenly feeling the effect in his legs of having walked the mile and a half from their house down to this quiet and solitary position on the front. From his viewpoint on the bench he could still see the sea. It was hardly moving, more like a lake on a breezeless day.

He thought about the last time he and her had swum in there. It must have been at least a year ago. A little before the news that stood like a solid line in their lives, creating a jarring before and after in everything they did and said. They’d been picnicking on the beach and had gone for a swim afterwards. It was an incredibly hot and humid day, maybe July, and there were lots of people there. To escape the crowds, they’d ventured far out until they could barely make out the beach and its noisy daytime tenants. They’d hugged for a bit and thought about making love there and then, in that cooling, salty water, but one of them – does it matter who? – had remarked that they were perhaps too old for such capers. Right then, reality had invaded the moment and so they had headed back to land, cleared away the picnic things in silence, and gone home to more peace and conformity.

It was then he noticed something in the water, not more than fifty metres from the shoreline. A small and colourful something which contrasted with the greyness of the sea. That was the only reason he had seen it as his gaze crossed the sea without aim or intention. Yet – because of its diminutive size – it was barely visible to the naked eye. But he saw it. He looked closer. He recognised it as a little, red woollen hat, hardly bobbing, just floating in the becalmed water.

He froze. It was the hat she had been wearing the night before. He was certain of that. He had bought it for her in happier times. She had put it on to go to the supermarket for some wine, and hadn’t thought to take it off the whole evening. But, what was it doing out there, alone in the cold waters, divorced from its proprietor? And where was the owner?

He shivered a little, remembering their last conversation. It had been more of a raging argument, really. Voices were raised, both said things they immediately regretted, and at least one glass was smashed against the wall of their kitchen. She had accused him of all sorts and he had denied everything, while knowing all of it to be true. Sadly and painfully true. He had lied like a scolded child, and had even cried at one point. This had only made her angrier. They went to sleep in different rooms. When he had woken up in the living room, dressed silently and left the house, he hadn’t bothered to check on her.

He stood up. Slowly and unsteadily, he crossed the beach to the water’s edge. Close up, it looked less grey and a little more as it should, blueish with a green tinge. He looked about him again. There was still not a soul around. He undressed quickly and walked into the chilly sea. He was soon up to his waist, at which point he made a clumsy half-diving motion, briefly going under the water, and started swimming.

He was heading towards where he saw the hat was still floating, but his intention wasn’t to reach it or to rescue it. Nor was he thinking about its careless owner anymore. He was only thinking of himself now and how he could never return to the shore. That much he knew. All else he had no answers for. His eyes were watering, but not from the occasional contact with the salt of the sea water. His head was starting to hurt too. And so he swam on in the too grey sea.

 

To Unsubscribe, Press One

– Good morning, Global and Worldwide Publications Limited. You’re through to Sandra. How can I help you?
– Hello. I’d like to cancel my subscription to one of your magazines, please.
– Certainly, Sir. Can I ask you for the name of the magazine?
– Why not just get my details up and you’ll see it there?
– Alright, Sir. May I ask for your full name, please?
– I can give you my surname. It’s Wander.
– And how are we spelling that, Sir?
– I’m spelling it capital W-a-n-d-e-r, but every month when it arrives, on the envelope the d in my surname has been replaced by a k.
– Oh, I do apologise, Sir. Would you like me to correct that on our system?
– There’s no point really if I’m cancelling my subscription anyway, is there?
– That’s true, Sir. I am really sorry for the mistake though…
– It’s no big deal. I thought it was rather funny, actually.
– Why is that, Sir?
– Never mind. Can we continue?
– Of course. Might I have your full postcode, Mr Wander?
– You can have the second half. It’s 2FU.
– Thank you, Sir. One second. OK, I have your details on the computer now. May I ask the reason why you wish to cancel your subscription, Mr Wander?
– No, not really. Do you need that?
– Well, we do have to enter something on this page, Sir.
– Oh, just put down that I’ve died.
– I’m sorry, Sir, but I have already entered the fact that I am speaking to the subscriber personally.
– Well, can’t you change that?
– I’m afraid not, Sir. That was on a previous screen and I can’t go back.
– You can’t go back?
– I can’t go back.
– I see. Well, erm…
– Have you had a change of circumstances, Mr Wander?
– What do you mean?
– Have you recently lost your job, changed your address, been imprisoned or sectioned…
– That’s all a bit unnecessary and personal, isn’t it?
– I don’t know, Sir. Is it?
– I think it is. OK, put that I’ve got married.
– Would your wife not wish to continue with the subscription, perhaps?
– No, she would not.
– Very well, Mr Wander. Just one more question. Would you like to end the subscription before or after you receive next month’s issue of the magazine?
– Before, of course. Immediately. I don’t want any more issues of that magazine delivered to this address.
– May I remind you that in next month’s issue there is a full and exclusive interview with George Clooney, together with details of this year’s full-colour binder…
– Before next month’s issue, thank you.
– Certainly, Sir. There. That’s you successfully unsubscribed from the publication Cocks & Jocks. Is there anything else I can help you with today?
– Erm, no thank you. Sandra. Goodbye.
– Goodbye.