books fiction writing


This was a deleted scene from Laughing Boy. A Neal story, which was something I enjoyed, but in the book’s flow, it slowed things down. However, the piece didn’t leave me alone. So here it is, a story about Neal and an imaginary friend. Let me know what you think.

It started with the music being left on.

We all have our foibles. If you had ever shared a flat, you grew intimate with the blind straightforward ways that people occupying space can enrage you by how they go about their day. A blizzard of passive-aggressive post-it notes, awkward house meetings feeding off the fat, angry silences and sometimes raw, anguished arguments. 

The politics of human interaction are often so vicious because the stakes are so small. 

Someone who drinks your lactose free milk.

Pubic hairs left in the shower.

That cramping, petty frustration when you sit down to take a shit and see the cardboard roll rattling on the white plastic holder. 

With flatmates, lovers, friends, there is a way out. 

Families are less capable of weathering these perfect, minute storms of diplomacy. They blithely accept them as part and parcel of that plant like desperate love that paternity and marriage engender. 

They rarely see them as symptoms. 

It was not a stereo, Emily saw such things as archaic. No, she had grown up seeing the vinyl record or the CD as antiques, media that her parents used when she had only ever known a world where music was available with a drag and a click. 

She made up playlists, unable to view the album as a curated collection of songs. She would segue from Bat For Lashes to All-Time Low, leavened by Hot Chip or James Bay, streams of songs that made sense only to her. With London at her feet, she saw as many gigs as school and family would allow. 

Which was probably more than you did. She wrote feverish blog posts, tweeted like a fiend, photographed every moment of her life.

An ordinary teenager.

Teenagers are oblivious, not deliberately. Too old for the indulgence afforded children, too young for the freedom that they believe they crave. That wasteland is a horrific place to the most beloved, and Emily was beloved. Nathan worked all hours to provide for them, Harriet slaved over loving dinners, ferried Emily to whatever activities her heart desired, right until Emily quit everything. 

Harriet coped by judicious prescriptions of Riesling. Long, melancholy, desperate lunches with the other mothers, who had sacrificed their bodies and ambitions to raising children who were strong willed and capable, but unable to reconcile the simple notion of how those children had followed their logic. At night, she would talk about having another baby, but Nathan would pretend to be asleep and see her entreaties as entirely free of content. 

Emily left her music on. Harriet never picked up her own dirty laundry. Nathan left his shirts on the polished floorboards of the landing or forgot to pick up milk on his way home. They did not leave notes or call meetings; they had holidays,  attended weddings and sometimes, funerals. 

An entirely ordinary family. 

Harriet would hear the thump of the bass, find Emily sitting in the living room, watching music on television. 

She would swear that she turned it off. Not literally, Harriet loved the thrill of saying fuck, but abhorred it when she heard Emily swear. Emily would gasp with frustration and stomp upstairs but then not return, leaving the television on. Harriet learned that she quite liked the boy bands, a smorgasbord of lithe young men. She wouldn’t mind dressing up for them.

Nathan could barely get her to lift the hem of her nightgown.   

Harriet would come home after lunch, upstairs to gargle mouthwash and find the music coming from Emily’s room. She would imagine the worst scenario, truant with an elder boy that she would herself find unnervingly attractive, underwear bunched up and lifted away, having to tell Nathan or worse, keep another secret from him. 

The emptiness was a relief at first, amusing and an opportunity to assert her crumbling authority. 

Emily had greasy black circles of fatigue beneath her eyes, her eyes were bloodshot and she kept plucking at the sleeves of the oversized black sweatshirt, too heavy an item for the season. Harriet was too flush with righteous parental outrage to notice, already imagining telling Nathan about it later. She would mentally photoshop his adoring attention into the scenario but the joy was in the prediction, not the recollection. 

Emily did not huff or explode, she apologised in a soft, small voice. 

She sat there, like someone was behind her, rifle cradled and ready to drop into position if she deviated from her prepared statement.

She went up to her room. 

Harriet did not hear any music for a while. She had the new Hemsley and Hemsley to occupy her, plus there was a handy menu for the Indian takeaway that Nathan liked, but she liked to test herself, especially when she believed a parental rubicon had been crossed. 

She believed in being nurturing but could never quite get the hang of it.

The music started up again and Harriet carried on cooking. 

Emily ate less at mealtimes. She was either out or in her room, and although both her parents held whispered conferences about the change in her, neither of them wanted to broach the subject with her. They decided to outsource her issues to a therapist, a soft spoken elderly lady who worked from her living room in Islington, a place teeming with plants and the faint scent of bergamot. 

After two sessions, the therapist cancelled Emily’s appointments and refused to see her again. Nathan confronted Emily about it, afraid of what she might say, but Emily’s eyes glittered with challenge. She had lost weight, her skin glowed as though she had been lit up from within and her nails had been bitten back to the quick. Yet she stood up and pointed her index finger at her dad’s face.

‘She said that you’re the problem, both of you. Not me.’

They were both too shocked to stop her storming past them and going up to her room. They could not look at one another, and ended up in separate rooms, hoping that the other person would come through and say something. Anger would have been better than silence, but silence won out. 

All of it soundtracked by the music from her room. 

Harriet had been with her mother when the school rang. Watching her decide between subtly different, expensive pastel shaded scarves, Harriet was about to tell her that perhaps she was a little too old to appropriate the bohemian look when her phone trilled. 

She listened, while her mother kept asking her what was wrong. Bleating, like a lamb negotiating a stay of execution whilst the oven was being switched on. Harriet wanted to slap her sometimes, just to shut her up. She rushed out of the shop with her mother trailing behind. 

Nathan joined her at the hospital. 

They had friends who practiced medicine. They knew that sometimes the truth about a medical diagnosis was that they did not know what was wrong. They talked about how you had to handle the possibility that their kid was on more drugs than the average touring funk band or that their genitals were a potential petri dish for the super STD that would decimate humanity.  Nathan and Harriet would hold hands across the table, shake their heads at the possibility. 

Emily was:

Too sensible.

Too passionate about music.

Not into boys. 

Harriet would not quite commit to that one. Not that teenage girls were not into boys, but that they couldn’t get the ones they wanted. Harriet had given a toothy blowjob to Peter Harrison on his fourteenth birthday, but she would never have shared that with anyone. 

They kept Emily in for a few days. When they got to see her, she asked them to bring her iPod. Nathan gave a paternal shake of the head and put his hand on hers, but she flinched like it had scalded her.

‘Just bring it to me, please. It needs it.’

Nathan snapped a glance at Harriet. 

‘Who needs it? You said it, Emz’

He called her Emz. Dad and Emz. The Dad and Emz Club, exclusive, Harriet would walk in on them sometimes and mentally wonder if she needed to sign the guest book to join them. She envied the ease he had with her. A burst of savage glee woke within Harriet at seeing how she had flinched from him. 

‘No, Dad, I need it. Please, just bring it to me. I don’t like the silence.’

Harriet thought. Schizophrenia. Mental illness. Emily, living at home until her forties, face pockmarked with sadness, pretty but damaged and all the other mothers talking about their bright, pretty daughters getting married and Harriet already imagining the apologies she would have to rehearse. 

Nathan promised her he would. She cringed at what she was thinking. She loved them both, but she was never sure that she liked them. Not all the time. 

He drove back to the hospital, insisted on giving her the iPod personally and when he had bullied his way in, she had sobbed with gratitude, shaking hands already popping the earbuds in. She put them on their side in the ears. Nathan had shown her that as a way of making them sound louder. It was not Old Benjamin’s Almanack worthy insight, he had read it online, but he watched her do it and wanted to put his arms around her. 

She laid down immediately, face smoothing out into an expression of placid bliss and her hands folded on her lap. Nathan was disturbed by the mechanical resolution of it and he sat in the front seat of the car. 

He went to the therapist’s house. On her doorstep, eyes red with tears, she refused to open the door until he threatened to consult his solicitor and she let him in.

She asked him if he knew who Boody was. Hearing an adult woman say his name nearly made him bark out a laugh, but it was unnerving. 

65% of children have imaginary friends at seven, or they report having done so. Emily was no different. 

Boody. She drew pictures of them together, thick loops of crayon piled atop one another. It was a soft blur of primary colours, a collection of ovoid shapes coalesced into a child’s idea of a soft, unthreatening pachyderm. She would sing to him, lilting improvised melodies, and leave him brief notes all over the house. This lasted for a year, then as quickly as he arrived, gone. 

No one wonders what happens to imaginary friends. 

‘Did she talk about him?’

It took him aback. He had tormented himself, as much as any father does, about the imaginary hobgoblins and temptations of adolescence. This was a list formed from his own experiences, much like Harriet’s had been. 

She grimaced.

‘Emily is a perceptive, intelligent young woman. She resented that you shoved her into therapy, how you put a suit out to be dry cleaned.’

Nathan went to protest, but her eyes glittered behind her oversized spectacles. He knew better than to argue with a woman, let alone a psychiatrist. He thanked her for her time and got behind the wheel of his car. He sat there, pressed his palms against the steering wheel, despairing at what he could do to fix things. 

He went home. They sat Harriet at the kitchen table, a bottle of wine and a glass sat in front of her as she trembled, taking small, frequent sips without looking at him. She turned her head and gave him a hopeful smile. He rushed into the room, wrapped his arms around her and kissed the top of her head. He kept his lips there, shut his eyes and took in a deep breath.

‘I don’t know what to do.’

She cried. He joined her. 

Emily came home the next evening. The scans revealed nothing unusual. She sat with them, eating soup off a tray in the living room whilst Nathan sat on the chair and pretended to read. Harriet had gone to her mother’s, as much to reassure her and to make apologies for her outburst of the days before. 

Emily was watching television when a thump came from upstairs. Nathan closed his book and got to his feet. Emily did not take her eyes from the television, mechanically lifting the spoon to her lips. 


The skin prickled on Nathan’s forearms and he swallowed, struggling to find the courage to ask his daughter what she meant.

‘Something might have fallen over.’

‘Don’t go upstairs, Dad. Please.’

His hand was on the door handle, but he stared at where Emily sat, never taking her eyes from the television.

‘Is it Boody?’ he said.

She lowered the spoon into the bowl and wiped her lips with the back of her hand. She turned and stared at him. 

‘No, but it looks like him.’

The simple, coldly elegant diction was unrepresentative of her. She used slang words to set herself apart from her parents, much as they had with theirs, but here she spoke in a clipped, cautious tone. 

‘Emz. This isn’t funny.’

She smiled and shook her head. 

‘No, Dad, but it’s all going to be okay now.’

He went to ask her what she meant, but there was another thump from her bedroom. Heavier, angrier and powerful enough that it made the light fitting swing.

‘I don’t have time for stupid Boody jokes.’

His irritation overrode his concern. Momentum was more effective than caution. Culture, biology and emotion stirred up his blood and closed his thinking down to the simple action of opening a bedroom door. 

He went up the stairs, surprised by the rapidity of his pulse and how damp his palms were when he went to open the door to his daughter’s bedroom. 

Harriet came home, laden with bags from a reconciliatory browse through the reduced section of the chiller cabinet. She called for help, but no one came and she muscled the bags into the kitchen. There was music coming from upstairs and she went into the living room, seeking reassurance from Nathan before she planned to go upstairs and point out that, yes she had been ill, but that was never an excuse to dismiss other people’s right to peace. 

The living room was empty.

The music was louder than before, the lyrics and feedback, distorted guitars sounded like barbed wire being dragged across a cattle grid. She stormed upstairs; her face pinched into a perfect mask of disdain and hammered on the door. 

‘Emily. Turn the bloody music down.’

The volume shot up in response and with that Harriet opened the door, ready to put her daughter in her place. Nathan sat on the floor, knees pulled up to his chest and sobbing to himself. He cried out when she touched his shoulder. The music switched off. She saw the plug dangling from the docking speaker. 

He raised his head, mouth flapping as he sought to find the words. Looking into his eyes, she watched him struggle then give up. His eyes were swivelling in their sockets and she noticed how the skin around his eyes had slashes of time etched into his flesh like paper cuts.

‘Where’s Emily, Nathan?’

He stared across the room. The walk-in wardrobe recessed into the wall had both its doors open, and Nathan pointed to it with a trembling finger. 

‘She’s in there.’

The world had slowed to the pace of a dream, alien and familiar in the same breath. She looked at Nathan, broken and shuddering, waited for him to get to his feet. She wondered if this was all some appalling joke. 

‘Stop it, Nathan, this isn’t funny. She’s not well.’

His lips had pulled back over his gums, his upper body shook with the effort of holding in his hysteria. 

‘I wish I were joking.’ 

She exhaled sharply and looked at the wardrobe door. 

‘I’m calling for an ambulance. If she wants to come out and explain to the paramedics or THE POLICE.’

Pretending that this was still a joke gone too far, she opened the door to the wardrobe. She fought back tears as she called her daughter’s name.

She was not in the wardrobe. She stood there and called for an ambulance from her mobile phone, explaining that her husband was having a seizure. 

She could not explain any of it. 

What had happened to her husband.

Where her daughter was. 

She appeared on television. Squeezed into a portion of the news between bloated public schoolboy politicians pointing chubby fingers at one another and a celebrity divorce, asking the public for news or information about her daughter.

Nathan was in a private ward. His hysteria subsided but he could not handle the simplest interactions without tears and anguish. When the police questioned him about Emily, he was rendered mute by his reaction, hands pressed to his mouth and shaking his head. 

It was whilst she was out shopping, a basket now rather than a trolley that she heard her name called from the end of the aisle. 

She turned around. She had last seen him at the summer ball, in a white suit with his long, black hair falling around his face.  His hair was shorter, his clothing was muted and he had grown in a neat scrub of beard but it was still him. 

When he put his hand on her upper arm, she burst into tears. Neal figured it had been his cologne and when he told her that, over chai latte in the supermarket’s cafe, she smiled and shook her head

‘I’m barely holding it together.’

Neal listened. He asked a couple of questions and nodded to punctuate her answers. Her instincts were too burnt out to ask questions in return, and he offered to follow her home. She smiled and shook her head. He passed her a card and said that he understood. He got up to leave and told her politely, that out of anyone she knew, he might be the one who really did get what she was going through. 

She went home. She had an hour before she needed to get ready for work. She had a few hours in the evenings, waitressing even though she burned with self consciousness and her age pinched sharply behind her knees and at the same spot on the small of her back. She came home, fingers stinking from garlic, fresh burns on her forearms where the plates were too hot and eyes burning from exhaustion. The good part was that she was able to sleep on those nights. 

That night, the music came on, around three am and she woke up on the couch. The house made all sorts of noises now, Nathan was under supervision and Emily had, for all accounts, simply disappeared. Harriet screamed and put her hand over her mouth. 

She did not enter her room. The volume lurched up and down, then finally stopped which was somehow worse. 

There was a rasping soft sound, a chainsaw cutting through a mattress and she put her ear to the door. She called her daughter’s name and tried the door handle. It did not give, and she kicked at it until she cracked one of her toes against the frame and sat on the floor, howling and clutching her foot. 

She rang Neal from the accident and emergency. Apologised and said that she needed to talk to someone. 

He had come over, looked at how the dust had gathered, pictures askew on the walls, the dirty plates in the sink, cigarette butts in a saucer by the kitchen door. She hobbled to the kitchen, but he told her to sit down and made two coffees. He asked if he could smoke and she asked if she could have one too. Over cigarettes and coffee, she told him about the music and the mood swings. 

It was enough to pique his interest. 

He knew that the police, unlike their fictional counterparts, saw the skilled bystander offering their insights, not with glee, but suspicion. Criminals veered to the narcissistic, and often sought information, or covertly offered it to lengthen the refractory period after the release of action had begun to ebb away. Instead, he listened to Harriet, looked at the photographs, and when she mentioned, after they had moved from tears to wine, about Boody. She expected him to laugh, or dismiss her but instead he leaned forward, took her trembling, feverish hands in his and said that he would be able to help her.

Harriet had been into collages at one point. Cutting photographs into their gestalt essences, Nathan’s square jaw, Emily’s round baby face. Inadvertent photo bombs and blurred backgrounds were so much scrap and offcut, swept into the bin. What would be pasted onto cards and placed beneath glass became montages, chaotic, happy moments pasted together into a cascade of all time. Set in the centre was Emily, hair in bunches and caught in mid-leap, as primary colour cartoon characters cavorted behind her.  He walked over to it, and pointed to it for emphasis. He asked how old she had been on that one. 

‘Her tenth birthday. We went to that soft play centre, Warren’s Warren, I think it was called.’

Neal nodded. 

‘Did she stop talking about Boody around that time?’

Associations arose without intention. Passion expended, tears shed and all of it soaking into the timbers, making the energy of the house damp and florid. Happy places held their secrets as well as any. Neal knew that terrible things happened everywhere, and it was not always graveyards and abandoned homes that gave up their secrets. Public parks and soft play areas could be sites of tragedy but they weathered the scars a little better. 

Neal kissed her on the cheek. There was affection there, but it was a dutiful, fraternal peck on the cheek before he smiled and said that he would find her. 

‘Don’t say things like that.’

‘Harriet, I wouldn’t if I thought I couldn’t deliver. Give me a day, then if not, the police will still be looking for her.’

She found a crumpled tissue, blew into it and began to weep again. Neal left her, paused in the doorway and told her that he would bring her home. 

Warren’s Warren had closed down in 2008, boarded up and unsold, stuck between franchises like a patient recovering from one infection before succumbing to another. Neal was grateful that they had gone for chipboard over the windows rather than metal grates because they made his entry into the building easier. He saw that one of the downstairs boards had been forced open, and on examination, he found a pale crescent moon of finger nail embedded into the wood. He stepped inside, reached into his jacket pocket for a flashlight and took in a deep breath. 

The air was tarnished with worn, old smells – urine faded to ammonia, excrement to burned dust and above that, the greasy scent of perspiration. He walked slowly, past the perspex slide and the trampoline bases, empty as an abandoned climbing frame. His footsteps echoed and when he whispered, his voice carried to the edges of the room. 

The singing was faint, cracked like glass in places but he cocked his ear and sought it’s location. 

He unwrapped the small cube and popped it into his mouth. Ostensibly a small piece of brownie, but baked with additional ingredients. He chewed mechanically and swallowed, the additional roughage made it tough to swallow but he massaged his throat until it was all in his system. 

It came on quickly, the air shimmering above him and rippling with energy and he walked up the stairs, sweeping the flashlight ahead of him as he followed the singing. 

She had made herself a nest, of sorts, in the remains of the ball pit. A sodden blanket draped over her shoulders and in her arms, she held a yellowed duvet, taken apart and sewn into a different shape. It’s blunt limbs spread outwards and it’s square, distended head looked out on nothing.   Neal was reminded of a play he had seen, and it’s imaginary title character, the pillowman. Here was it’s malign cousin, rendered from desperation and found materials.

He crouched at the edge of the pit, turned off the flashlight and placed it in the jacket pocket again. The brownie had done its work and in the gloom, his pupils were little more than pinpricks and his jaw worked on it’s own volition. His mind, however, was tuned into a different station and he could see that there was something at work here. 

‘This must be Boody.’

She shot her head up, teeth gleaming in the dark and her hair fell across her eyes like a clot. 

‘He doesn’t like me talking to strangers.’

Her voice was a broken thing, more whisper than conversation but it was the promise of something terrible. 

‘No, of course he doesn’t.’

He asked her if he could come closer. She clung to the mattress thing in her arms, and he caught a damp, sweet smell coming off it with each movement. She told him that he could. 

He put his hands up. He saw that the air burned with fever around her, seething like oil on water and his heart pounded in his chest. He had some idea of what Nathan had experienced, and he had more experience than most about such things. 

Too much experience.

‘Your mum wants you to come home, Emily.’

She gave a sob and hugged the duvet thing tighter. 

‘Boody says she’s only saying that because she wants to look like a good mother.’

Neal ran his tongue over his lips, and took a careful step towards her. 

‘Boody doesn’t have your best interests at heart, now does he?’

She sobbed again, started to shake her head but forced her chin up to where he stood in the darkness.

‘I mean, when’s the last time he let you go out to a gig? Or see your friends?’

At the mention of the word gig, through the gloom, Neal thought he saw the duvet stiffen the way a balloon does when it’s inflated. The drugs were hurtling through him and he focussed on talking to Emily rather than prepare to defend himself against a sodden duvet stitched into a humanoid shape. 

‘Love isn’t about keeping someone penned away, Emily, is it?’

She began to weep openly. Neal took another step towards her, and the duvet’s rough hewn limbs splayed out at the sides. His eyes had adjusted to the gloom, and within the stitching, there were glints of something sharp and metallic forced into it. His nerves began to call for some form of action. 

She sobbed harder, her thin arms slipping from around the thing’s waist as it rolled onto its side, limbs in the air and her hair, thick with oil and neglect hung around her face in clotted tendrils. Neal moved towards her again, extended his hand and looked at her, hoping to catch her eye. 

‘I want to go home but Boody says I abandoned him.’

Neal took a deep breath and looked at the thing on the floor. He blinked heavily, concerned that it had begun to rock back and forth, out of Emily’s reach to manipulate it. 

‘You were what, ten years old? And he’s not contacted you before now, has he?’

To deny Boody’s existence would have set off her defence mechanisms, intellectual and otherwise. He was not going to enrage her as much as he watched the thing on the floor rock back and forth, Neal clung to the idea that this was simply the drugs in his system, reminding him that there was no such thing as a biological free lunch. 

Everything had to be paid for. His palms were damp and his teeth began to chatter but he was determined that he would get Emily out of here, away from the filth and the shadows. 

Emily shook her head. 

‘Now, why don’t we go and get you something to eat. I expect you’re hungry, yeah?’

Imaginary friends aren’t natural predators. Neal kept his attention on Emily, and with each step, he caught the acrid, greasy scent of her unwashed body. The duvet reeked with a heavy, damp, stink that made his upper lip curl with disgust. He wanted to get her away from it, no matter what, if anything, animated it beyond Emily’s delusion. 

He put his hand out and smiled at her. 

‘It’s okay, you can leave that here.’

He watched it move, rolling without being touched, the way a drunk tries to get up from the pavement when they have fallen. He focussed on coaxing Emily into his care, hiding the rising concern behind a casual smile, as though he rescued runaways from their malevolent imaginary friends so often that he could be relaxed about it. 

‘Please,’ he said. 

Emily got to her feet and staggered over, on legs that were cramped and numb from hunger and inertia. She did not look at how it twisted and wrestled itself upright. Neal understood that the intrusion of the alien into the ordinary was not lights in the sky and uncomfortable probing. The alien was seeing a loved one’s face collapse like bruised fruit, speaking in a language that made your fillings sing and nose bleed. When it sat up, Neal watched with appalled fascination as the wrinkles in the duvet shifted and formed. 

His blood sung in his veins as he lurched forward and took Emily’s hand in his. 

‘Time we were leaving.’

The roar did not come from Boody. It came in from everywhere, invisible crowd calling for an encore and Neal awash with a surge of pure, uncut GET THE FUCK OUT OF THERE. Emily cried out and clung to Neal. He pulled her after him. His limbs were awash with spasmodic jolts of adrenaline and he pulled her out of the pit without ceremony. 

There was time enough to shove her ahead of him before he took an impact that forced the breath from his body, perfectly aimed between his shoulder blades and forcing him to the ground. His chin hit the floor, jarring his teeth together and flooding his mouth with the bright flare and wet penny taste of blood where he had bitten his tongue. A soft, damp strength pinned him and he spat to get the blood from his mouth, enjoying the brief respite of not seeing his tongue fly forward. He shouted for Emily to run home and rolled onto his back. He had jammed his hand into his jacket, fingers on the flashlight but scrabbling for something else instead.

He could not make out the features on the duvet, Boody’s rudimentary form, creases that shifted, oil on water and there was no breath or musculature to wrestle with. It was a damp, insistent weight sodden with the ammoniac scent of urine, pressing itself down upon him. It swiped a rudimentary limb, and Neal bit back a cry as the glint of whatever had been used to sew it into form bit into the curve of his cheekbone. He kept it off him with his left hand extended, whilst his right searched desperately in his jacket. 

His fingertips grazed against the cool metal and he grimaced as he pulled his right hand free. He brought his knees up and pushed from his thighs and core. It resisted, the fabric losing the memory of hatred that infested and empowered it before it slapped onto the floor. 

Neal snapped the petrol lighter open. He touched his cheek and looked at the sheen of blood on his fingers as he scowled. 

It lurched, ungainly in its desperation and Neal wrapped his palm around the flame, fragile in the darkness and holding his ground despite the impulse to run as fast as he could. Each moment that it spent in motion taught it how best to use the material to its advantage. 

That year, 809 people died from being tangled up in bedsheets. Neal was determined not to be amongst them and when it leapt, he shoved the lighter forward, using his other hand to grip a fistful of the material to gain purchase. 

He held the flame to the material, teeth gritted together as gobs of burning cotton fell upon his hands and wrist. The scream that came from everywhere made him dizzy with its volume, he imagined the tiny bones in his ears reduced to pulp but he shouted out his own war cry. It sought to get away from him but he gripped onto it with a force that surprised him. 

He remembered Harriet. Emily, stinking and frightened, he thought of Nathan, broken by an encounter with something beyond his perceptions. He began to recite the prayer of exorcism, despite it’s prohibition that it should only be recited by a priest. Neal treated religion like any operating system, he would always look at it from an open source, pragmatic perspective.

The pain added urgency, the drugs added intention and his words held a power that made the thing writhe and rend itself in its struggle to get away.

‘God arises; His enemies are scattered’

The fissure shat out blind, pale worms and clots of gelid matter onto the floor with a wet splatter.

‘and those who hate Him flee before Him.’

It screamed, without words, beyond any sound in nature. It was a symphony of car accidents and burning buildings, louder and louder as he continued to speak.  He swallowed, tasting his own blood and kept alert by the sting where he had bitten his tongue. 

‘As smoke is driven away, 

so are they driven; 

as wax melts before the fire, 

so the wicked perish at the presence of God.’

It tore itself away, a final deluge of the worms and a clear ichor that stank of gangrene hit the floor before finally, burning and stinking, whatever had occupied the duvet form had gone. Neal looked down and said a last prayer, grateful that he had worn cheaper shoes. The Lambourns were especially comfortable, and he watched the tendrils of smoke arise from where the ichor had affected with a detached fascination. He muscled the lighter back into his jacket and staggered away, knowing that when the psychotropics wore off, the pain and trauma would reassert themselves. 

Any passerby might have crossed the street to avoid the injured man, stinking and stained as he held his wrist close to his chest, with his chin dark with blood. People were exceptionally gifted at not seeing others, especially if it invited obligation. An eccentric gone too far over the edge, on the fringes of polite society, without the tools to save it. 

Neal never felt quite so apart as when he survived such encounters. The burns, the cuts and bruises healed but the injury to his sense of self was permanent. He struggled with enough in his private life, but he would return to the field, more professional than enthusiastic amateur these days. There were no grants, no foundations, no bursaries for what he did. He knew that he would be able to achieve more knowledge outside the system than he ever could within it. 

A pat on the back was an awkward gesture when you made it alone. He got in his car, rolled down the windows and lit a cigarette. Finally, with it all over, he fought his tears. Smoked to soothe his jagged nerves. 

‘Is he gone?’

Emily stood at the passenger side window. He took in a deep drag and looked at her, raising his eyebrows. 

‘I hope so.’

He leaned over and opened the door. She got in and sat there. 

‘Can I have one of those?’

He looked at her. 

‘You’re what, fourteen?’

She nodded and pursed out her bottom lip. 

He shook his head. 

‘I might have my moments, but I think you can wait a few years.’

She sighed and sat back in the passenger seat. 

‘What happened?’ she said.

He sighed, took another drag on his cigarette to collect his thoughts. He wanted to cry, but he was conscious of wanting to get Emily home and in a state of relative calm. On reflection, he wondered if his own tears would provoke an awkwardness in her but then he wondered what happened between her and the duvet thing. 

Days had gone by, after all. Nights, too and he had not heard it speak. 

‘I’ll explain on the way.’

I got through another two cigarettes before he finished, lapsing into a tight cautious silence.

‘That’s one of the most fucked up things I’ve ever heard.’

He cocked his head to one side and raised an eyebrow. 

‘That I wrestled a duvet whilst high on drugs?’

I shook my head and brought my hand to my mouth. 

‘Look, a few weeks ago, I would have been looking for an exit or calling the police on you, but my weird shit o meter is off the fucking scale now. ‘

He slipped back the cuff on his wrist, the mottled scars, faded by time were turned and offered for my inspection. He swallowed, running his tongue over his lips.

‘Which is why I am here to help you. Or at least, help you to help yourself.’

I finished the cigarette and tossed it out of the window.

‘You rescued that girl, though, she didn’t help herself.’

‘She was fourteen. You’re a tougher proposition, and probably a lot heavier to put over my shoulder if I needed to.’

I chuckled and shook my head. A deep breath centered me enough to seek closure, and perhaps perspective. 

‘Seriously, Neal, how much of that was the drugs and her having a breakdown?’

He looked out through the windshield.

‘The things that happened, they seldom happen under laboratory conditions. You accept, you adapt, you overcome.’

‘That’s not an answer.’

He lowered his chin. 

‘No, it isn’t. Nathan never came out of the hospital.’

I swallowed, tasting my fear, mingled with the cigarettes and the last traces of wine.


He smiled, a burst of warmth powerful enough to make me squint against it. 

‘University. Still writing, too. She sends me links to articles. She can’t sleep under a duvet.’

A projected burst of relief ran through my veins, but the unspoken questions plucked at the nape of my neck. 

‘Is Nathan…’

He sighed and his hands squeezed the steering wheel hard enough that the skin over his knuckles turned white. 

‘Trauma induced dementia. He slipped, with Harriet holding his hand.’

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Laughing Boy on the Horrorcast Podcast

A great, funny podcast about horror movies, tv and fiction. Steve has reviewed Laughing Boy and i will be a future guest, for an episode discussing Stephen Kings work as well as a more in depth conversation about Laughing Boy itself.

Please listen and share.

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Check this out at

Laughing Boy is out now in paperback.

TOMMY MARTIN is a successful stand up comedian and a single father to PENNY, back off his first tour since the death of his wife Sophie. When he meets EVELYN, an artist, he embarks on the first romantic relationship since the death of his wife. He experiences unusual, violent events around him, which he cannot explain. Tommy finds himself facing a force intent on harming everyone closest to him.

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Check this out at

Laughing Boy is out now in paperback.

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Laughing Boy Coming Soon To Paperback

TOMMY MARTIN is a successful stand up comedian and a single father to PENNY, back off his first tour since the death of his wife Sophie. When he meets EVELYN, an artist, he embarks on the first romantic relationship since the death of his wife. He experiences unusual, violent events around him, which he cannot explain. Tommy finds himself facing a force intent on harming everyone closest to him.

Already available for Kindle in ebook but coming soon in paperback. Please share and comment.

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Final Girl

Photo by Kat Jayne on


Doctor Harrison took his spectacles off and gazed at me.

‘I’m so sorry, Sidney.’


A year.

Six months, otherwise. 

Six months.

The receptionist was kind.  Sat in the front seat, tears streaming and fists beating against the dashboard until it was time to drive home made sense for me.  

Home. The gates were plate steel, the kind you see in those post-apocalypse movies where a group of kind people gather to remain safe from the monsters or the bandits. Here, it’s just me. Everything gets locked up, then a check on the cameras and drive the rest of the way.  

It is not paranoia if someone is really after you.


The humming, cramped joy of Sidney King sang in Dominic’s blood how fillings in your teeth could pick up radio signals. Breathing in cold, stale air whilst a greasy cheap pizza sat in the pit of his stomach. The basement window needed fixing, and it rattled hard whenever the wind picked up. It was all so far away as he sat there, looking for any missed details. The photographs, the blog posts that reported sightings of her and the maps that he had pushed pins into, building up a pattern of her movements. Looking at  photographs.

 Aching at how beautiful she was. 

The doorbell rang. Getting up the stairs was difficult. He had been training, running late at night until his vision blurred and his knees throbbed like rotten teeth so he was sore all the time.  Dominic snatched the package from the courier and went back downstairs.   

He tore open the box. A greedy child on their birthday. His fingers shook, as he took slow, deliberate care to lift away the lid of the case. 

A closed knife is a thing of terrible, beautiful potential.

This one was special, sacred to me because we have ordered it for one purpose.


He unclasped it slowly and held the blade up to the light. A tooled steel blade with a serrated edge that caught the light and made it like butterfly wings. He imagined the vibration that would travel through his arm as it went into her. A hot, seething burst of arousal exploded through him like an abscess and his other hand was rooting in my sweatpants, plucking and tugging until he was squirting all over my fingers. Grunting how he would stick her and fuck her and stick her again. Imagining her breathy pleas, her cries and how she would twitch as he did it. Being the one who got to her. Stabbing her then, running the edge across her throat, watching the blood pour down her front, soaking and glueing her clothes to her chest. 

Each day made the anticipation twist in him like a need. The mask was on the table, watching, goading him when he grew doubtful. He looked into the eyeholes as he wiped himself off. 

It was like looking in a mirror and seeing his soul looking back at him.  


My security measures were everywhere. The digging and carpentry kept me trim. I learned how to weld at the community college, working amongst thick fingered boys who kept looking at me as though I were famous. 

 I said I was in a sex tape.

I was sixteen when we drove up to Lake Brattigan. Eight of us, all friends and one of them who hoped that the weekend might make us more than friends. Ethan. 

I was the only one who made it out alive. 

That first time. 

The car broke down on the way home from graduation and we stopped at the farmhouse. The idiot son, stinking of animal fat and draped in treated skins, swinging the chainsaw and hooting as he ran at me. My friends hung on hooks inside his workshop. I slumped his parents over in their parlour after I had shot them both. They allowed him his interests and were awfully keen for me to stay and provide them with a grandchild to carry on the family tradition.   

After the second time, I wondered if they cursed me. 

By the third or fourth time, it got old. 

I showered when I got indoors. There, safe beneath the water, I wept for myself but by the time I got out, my eyes were dry and my head was clear. 

Pills would be good. I had enough of them. A lifetime of near-misses left injuries that meant surgeries, complications and prescriptions. The scars you can see don’t hurt as much as the ones that you cannot.  

I had guns. I could take or leave the second amendment but experience had made me comfortable to have them and not needing them.  

 People talk about me. There are two subreddits and hashtags.  Someone telling the world that they will rape and murder me is not as bad as someone not telling the world that they will rape and murder me. 

The serial killers with their masks and puritan victim selection had fans. Decapitating, disembowelling and burning horny teenagers draws a certain crowd and those people congregated online. 

They draw in others like flies and soon they’re all talking to one another. 

Goading. Encouraging. Setting challenges. 

With me as the grand prize. 

The fan boys rarely did more than posture.  Living and dying alone was not so bad, but it should be my decision.

I could decide how much pain I would allow myself to experience. 

I took a Percocet for maintenance. A dress rehearsal for the last performance, but it meant that I could walk around without crying. 

I made a peanut butter and banana sandwich, ate half at the counter and looked out into the woods. My decision afforded me a measure of peace. 

Which was when the alarm screamed. 


You don’t find my place by accident. It’s fenced off, signposted and I’ve got friends at the lodge who warn people off. They tell people an eccentric millionaire lives there who likes to shoot first and then shoot later.  I checked the panel and saw that it was close to the house. I slipped on the Kevlar vest and pulled the 12-gauge from the locker. I laced up my boots and tucked my hair up under a hat before I locked the house up. The shutters dropped as I walked down the hill. 

The punji sticks protruded through his right thigh and left shoulder; the points were visible through the material of his overalls where he had fallen onto them. His mask, an omelette with eyeholes, hung from around his neck.

They’re always so young, with fat cheeks and patchy beards. He’s screaming for me to get him out of here and I stand at the edge of the pit with the shotgun aimed right at him. 

‘Did you miss the sign at the gate? The one that says ‘no visitors’.’

He talks so fast that his words come out as a twitching, high-pitched rush. He begged me to help him.  

‘I’m supposed to see that knife on your hip and that fucking awful mask, and what? Think you’re here to deliver fucking pizza?’

He tried to raise his head. There was a wet, ripping sound, and he sobbed.

“Please. Help me out, it really fucking hurts.”

I stepped towards the edge of the pit, lowered the shotgun and looked down on him.

“I don’t think you know what pain is.”

He started sobbing again. He brought his right hand across his face, and a slight stab of pity went through me. 

“Please, I’m sorry, just help me out and I’ll just go. I will, I promise.”

He had his phone strapped to his right arm. I saw the canister on his hip where he had rolled onto one side. Pepper spray. Blinding me so he could control me. My throat grew tight with anger. I breathed in the warm, afternoon air, caught the wet penny scent of his blood on the wind. He looked like a fat, blue grub, writhing under a magnifying glass. 

‘Hello,’ I said. 

“What? Please, no, it wasn’t like that.” he said. 

I raised the barrel of the 12-gauge and rested my finger against the trigger. 

I saw the phone strapped to his upper arm and asked him to toss it to me. He had a pathetic smile on his face. That maybe this was my goodness, my mercy coming out and that he had hope of getting out. 

He told me what he would do to me. My finger grazed the trigger. I blinked away tears, but I kept my breathing under control. I kept tasting the air, hoping for something good to clear away his stink. 

“Wow, lot of effort there,” I said. 

He wept. A squeeze of the trigger would shred the parts he wanted to stick into me. A surge of anger thundered through me.

“Toss me the knife and the phone. I’ll give helping you some thought.”

He threw them to me. It made him cry out to do it, but I enjoyed that. When this twisted little boy told me what he had planned to do, it allowed me some measure of perspective. I had dealt with monsters, and boys pretending to be monsters. 

He started screaming when I filmed him. I paid for good coverage out here and he had saved all his account details, considerate of him. When a man is dying, it was gauche to ask for his password. 

Another six months of this shit. Growing weaker, vomiting and losing weight, losing my hair. Bedridden until some mewling fuck with skimmed milk in his veins came and fucked me with a bread knife because I had the dubious honour of surviving horrible events.

Pills and a quick exit. No one would discover me out here. If I put the shutters down, it would be a neat tomb for me. 

“Repeat what you just said. It’s the only way you’re getting out of here alive.”

I stared at him and it was not so hard to hear it again. It made for good video, and he understood his role, writhing and pleading with me, giving his name, telling me where he was and most of it was audible. 

A search online would fill out the rest of the details. 

I had two choices that were immediate. I played back the video, and the third came to me, an unexpected and final idea that had gravity and a measure of comfort within it. 

I attached the GPS information to the video and sent it to the subreddit. 

I recorded a second video. He had lapsed into unconsciousness and I stood with his sagging body in the background, made for a solid, dramatic backdrop. 

If this sack of shit is the best of you, then you’re wasting your time. He came here to do to me what you all dream of doing and now he’s at the bottom of a pit, begging for his life.  I’ve attached my location to this video. 

If you get to me, I will scream, I will beg just as good as you imagined me doing. Don’t be a pussy.

 Come and get me. 

I repeated my address and sent it. I slipped his phone into the long pocket on my thigh. I would add it to the collection. 

He woke up. 

“Will you help me now? Please, I’ve done what you asked.”

I slipped the knife into my pocket. 

“The knife is lovely. Once I know it’s sent, I must dispose of the phone. It’s not like anyone will miss you,”

He cried with so much effort that it forced the sticks deeper into his bicep and the meat of his back. 

“Oh please, help me, these really fucking hurt.”

I picked up the 12-gauge and held it in my hands.

“Oh, that’s not the worst of it. I treated those sticks with something special..”

“They’re painted with dogshit. It makes a wound all nice and infected. So, even if I pulled you out, your blood is turning to sludge, anyway.  At least here, you’ll get an enjoyable view of the sky.”

He wept until he could not breathe. I left him to it. 

 A surge of strength added momentum to my steps back to the house. There was work to do. 

I wondered if it would be cool to make a mask for the occasion. 

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Laughing Boy

Blame Sara Millican. My brain is a magpie for little facts and somewhere it was written she started stand-up after a separation. So that became the seed of an idea. Something relative to Until She Sings in the domestic minutiae but with a different energy.

Then you start writing it and it does what it wants with you. A strident, male voice emerged and underneath the laughter, threat and fear. The kind peculiar to men. Violence, implied or otherwise is the norm in genre and also there was this E.C. Comics sense of cosmic justice just itching to be called upon.

So, what the book became was something else. Yet the spark to me is what does Tommy do when horrible things start happening to him and the people around him?

You can find out here

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LAUGHING BOY is out now at

Laughing Boy

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Laughing Boy is done and coming soon

TOMMY MARTIN is a successful stand-up comedian and a single father to PENNY, back off his first tour since the death of his wife Sophie. When he meets EVELYN, an artist, he embarks on the first romantic relationship since the death of his wife. He experiences unusual, violent events around him, which he cannot explain. Tommy faces a force intent on harming everyone closest to him.

Coming soon to Kindle in ebook. Paperback will follow.

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A Game of Green and Yellow

The birds sing me awake, their cries loud enough to drown out my dreams. I wind the surrounding sheets, still bearing the musk of my skin, stale and dry these days. It is a talisman against the wet, greasy decay of what hunts me. 

I hear it breathing – the pop and crackle of rice cereal, slow and hollow in a lake of lumpen, sour milk. I reach for my paints, unscrewing the lids on the Manganese Blue and Cadmium Yellow. 

I smear lines down my arms and chest, my thighs and around my crotch in patterns derived from Hermetic sigils but already matted and altered by my nervous hand. 

I dress in a yellow t-shirt, a long-sleeved green t-shirt and then a Norwich City FC top. I draw more lines on my face, warpaint against the thing that hunts me today. 

Ridicule is a small price to pay against your eternal soul. 

I grab the battered, incomplete copy of Call of Cthulu, with the irrelevant sections long since torn away and the spine is now so much tattered remnants of the glue and thread that bound it together. The both of us, falling apart whilst holding onto the illusion that we are whole. 

It stole most of my dice, but so long as I have one twenty-sided die, I can arrest its advances. I have enough pennies in the jar to afford something to drink or eat but not both. 

Location is everything so I consult my map and the closest congruence of ley lines is the KFC just before Regent Road. It will be busy, but my survival outweighs my concerns over the opinions of others. 

I run from Gordon Road, muttering a protective mantra to disguise my position. Its roar sounds, shaking the windows of the surrounding houses, already angered by my countermeasures and I sprint through the park. 

A warm, thick breeze brings the smell of sulphur to my nose and I almost lose the rhythm of my mantras. A car stops, a horn sounds as I dash across the road. I see the KFC and enjoy the gentle, lilting spark of hope that arises in my chest. 

I order a cola which is all I can afford and look around, seeing an empty table at the front which is where the best energy tends to pool. The young girl who serves me has a pained smirk on her face and manages to ignore my appearance long enough for me to pay and take myself over to the table. 

The screen. 

The book.

The die.

The game demands enthusiasm and focus to be effective. I miss the guys I used to play with, picked off one by one by marriage, work and social lives. They have stopped playing the game, but it has not stopped playing them. It never will. 

There is a father and his son to my right, who both shoot disbelieving stares as I set up and start playing. 

I describe the KFC, the surrounding people to add weight and reality to the ritual. I keep the descriptions brief to avoid insulting anyone but it is my desperation that offends people. 

How many pleasant afternoons have I ruined in defence of my soul? 

As many as I need to. 

The rules call for a perception check. I roll a one which is when a member of staff comes over to me, embarrassed but determined to do his job. I turn and knock over my cola with my right hip, which makes the father on my right stand up and swear as some of it splashes on his jeans. His hands are forming fists but the staff member calms him down in halting, thickly accented English before he asks me to stop playing. 

To everyone around me, this is an affectation, a game but to me, it is life and death. I turn and continue to play, hearing a chorus of disapproval rise behind me. Tears fill my eyes, a sparkling bitter anxiety flowing through me. 

Children stand at the window, watching me as they laugh amongst themselves. A smartly dressed man comes up and speaks to them which encourages them to leave, still laughing but nervous with it. The man looks at me with empathy and his eyes drift to the Call of Cthulu rule book. 

He nods and moves on. 

I make another sanity check and pass. The green paint tingles on my arms and cheeks, warning me of an incursion. I glance around and see that the team leader is putting his phone back into his pocket with a guilty smile on his face. 

I hear the wail of sirens, and I know that they are coming for me. 

I am close to establishing the ward and so I mumble my way through the rest, rolling the die and sending it spinning off the table. I knock into the couple on the other side and receive a loose, weak punch on the side of my head but it does not hurt me. 

The siren reaches a pitch and then stops. I see the flashes of green and yellow and feel a deep, powerful relief as they come to me, saying my name with a gentle familiarity. They take me with them, and one of them even picks up my book, my screen and my die to bring with her. 

I am safe with them. In the ambulance, the ritual begins again and I welcome the pinch of the needle then the deep, plasticizing relief of the drugs as they kick in. 

It roars at my escape, forever hungry and determined to catch me. They strap me in with care and we drive away. I manage to smile to myself before I allow myself the pleasure of surrendering to the drug, knowing that for now, I am safe.