love, men, short fiction, Uncategorized

Riot Love

An excerpt from the work in progress.

1.

 

Henry slipped his hands into the womb like pockets of his biker jacket, despite having gotten the shuttle bus to campus. It was thick and heavy, like armour and he drew a measure of comfort from it, like the beard he’d grown in over the last few years. He grimaced as he heard the ragged chants which hung in the air like soiled sheets.

 

There were ragged knots of people, some of them holding up hand-painted signs. They laughed and joked like wedding guests but there were those who affected hard pained expressions. Henry recalled such expressions,during the days on patrol and nights listening for the roar of mortars. He saw the lecture theatre, but noted with dismay, how it was where the majority of protestors had gathered. Barricades had been set up, and Henry turned to one side as he made his way through the crowd. People glanced at him, and as he continued through, the weight of their stares scratched at his perceptions. The whiff of unwashed flesh made his nostrils flare, layers of dried sweat, patchouli, pot and cigarette smoke all cohering into a slick bolt which was wedged into his sinuses.

 

‘Sexist. Fascist. Em. Arr. Ay. Nazi Punks Go Away.’

 

His heart sank, but he closed his eyes and powered through before anyone noticed he was walking towards, and then into the theatre. Henry’s temples pounded in time with his heartbeat, as he scratched the back of his neck before he realised he hadn’t taken a breath on his walk through the crowd.

 

When he looked back, he saw a lake of contorted faces. Phones and cameras were held up alongside the signs and placards. Everyone filmed everyone else, until it became a panopticon, a few hundred monologues playing out, with anyone attending cast as the villain.

 

A fluttering irritation beat inside his chest and as he scanned the crowd, his gaze fell on one woman. She stopped chanting and they stared at one another, as she raised her eyebrows and let her mouth fall open before a heavy set woman with a knitted cap to her right touched her arm, as though rousing her from a disturbed sleep and she turned away. Henry swallowed and watched her, struck by the artful beauty of her face as much as the hateful crowd.

 

Henry turned and walked inside.

 

2.

 

Her hair fell either side of her face in silvered wings and when she looked up from her notes, she smiled and looked at the audience. Henry had sat at the back, dismayed by the lack of people here but not surprised.

 

No one wanted to hear about how men were victims of anything, unless it was women. Even other men, Henry thought, or at least the men who were on television and writing the newspapers. He leaned forwards in his seat to diffuse the tension which was pooling in his chest and stomach.

 

As she spoke, part of his attention drifted inwards and then backwards.

 

When Henry had signed up, Simon had written to him, sent care packages and made videos for him, telling him over and over, to hang in there, to look after himself until Henry carried his voice out with him on patrol. Simon wrote about the small details of life back home, and he revelled in the warm memories which they prompted.

 

Simon told him he needed to live and come home so he could be his best man. Or, he’d joked, his maid of honour. Henry, thousands of miles away, had laughed loud enough to make some of the guys look at him and he couldn’t explain how funny and comforting he had found the joke. His service prompted an idealisation which he never felt he deserved. Simon’s gift had been to puncture it at every opportunity.

 

The first night home, Simon introduced him to Keeley and her friend, Lori. Henry took full advantage of the idealisation then, but he was sweet to Lori, who understood what he needed and left in the same spirit. That summer, Henry kept himself under control, but when the recollections grew too heavy to bear, Simon listened and let him purge without judgement. Henry knew Simon and Keeley were wrapped up in one another but their friendship bore absences without complaint. They were in the same part of the world, after all, but Henry left them to it.

 

When he was in country, Henry handled prisoners of war, jihadis who came into custody with a compliance which made him uncomfortable, they had dull, glazed eyes and slumped shoulders. Their smiles would be artificial, as though issued to them by circumstance and would be slipped on whenever they encountered Henry or one of the other soldiers.

 

One night, he saw Simon had the same expression. They had gone for a beer, and once they’d covered television and last night’s game, Simon had sighed and looked into his beer. Henry had been about to ask him, but one of the waitresses winked at him and the flattering gesture had gone to his head faster than the alcohol. By the time he looked back at Simon, the smile was back on and they changed the subject to the waitresses’ backside.

 

Henry had just finished breakfast with her when Simon’s mother rang him. He remembered being sat at the kitchen counter, a fresh cup of coffee and a soft pack of American Spirits when she gave him the news.

Henry wondered if people were disappointed that it wasn’t him who took a shotgun to his skull. Veterans with PTSD died in droves, but Simon was a deputy manager at a hardware warehouse, engaged to be married and looking forward to all of it.

 

It made no sense, everyone said. When he found the videos online, previous lectures talking about male suicide statistics and reasons, her voice slipped between his ribs and squeezed his heart like a piece of ripe fruit. Henry was not looking for answers but he listened and when she announced on her website about the talk at the university, he paid for a ticket and took a bus over.

 

Henry wanted to understand why his friend killed himself. He didn’t hate anyone, group or individual but judging by the crowd outside, he had been judged and found wanting. She was talking about the amount of deaths in the workplace and how men were the majority of victims. Henry listened to her, discomforted by the facts of his circumstances. The chair he sat in made his lower back and thighs ache but otherwise he was focused on the woman’s words.

 

The fire alarm rang out, followed by a ragged burst of cheers from the corridor.

 

A thwarted anger wrenched him from his seat. He had been open, vulnerable and it had been snatched from him. People looked around as the university staff directed everyone towards the fire exits. Henry was saddened by how few of them were there, as they drifted towards the exits whilst outside came ribald cheers of victory. The frustration and sadness lodged in his chest like a stubborn root as he followed, taking deep breaths to assuage the feelings as he prepared to face the crowd.

 

He caught the eye of a young man, with straw blonde hair hung over his face, shaved at the sides, laughing and pointing at them as they filed out.

 

‘Nazi fuckers.’ he said.

 

Henry’s hand clenched into fists, but duty had lent him a degree of control which allowed him to keep walking. He had taken the measure of the man, knowing he outweighed him by a good thirty pounds and a foot in height. Yet, as he examined the man’s face, feminine despite the golden stubble, he knew hitting him would give the man everything he wanted.

 

An enemy.

 

The wisdom was comforting, but he still struggled to walk on without reacting. The women looked angrier than the men did, and were heavier, beneath layers of clothes and the same pear shaped build. Henry wondered if there was a man’s name tattooed on them, skin or soul, it didn’t matter. Everyone was here because of an individual who had hurt them, and he fought a shame so acute it made his eyes water. He had been shot at, eaten shit from lesser men than him, but it took the disparagement of his friend’s memory which covered him in shame.

He wiped away a tear, and heard hoots of derision. Henry’s pain was recreational to them as their outrage was to him.

 

It was not a good trade.

 

He wanted a beer and a cigarette, somewhere dark and cool. All which stood between him and gaining some distance from his thwarted evening was the crowd. A young police officer, about his age, told the attendees they would be escorted through the crowd.

 

An elderly man glowered beneath the brim of his baseball cap.

 

‘Why? What did we do wrong?’ the man said.

 

Henry looked straight ahead at the crowd.

 

‘It doesn’t matter.’ he said.

 

His eyes fell on the woman’s face again. She had scraped her damp hair back from her face, as she chanted with gusto, pumping her fist in the air as she chanted with the others. She looked up and stopped. Henry felt a gloved hand at the small of his back, and he walked down the steps. It was somewhere between a rock concert and a court martial, he thought, which made him smirk.

 

‘I suppose you think this is funny?’

 

He couldn’t place the voice. The woman was making her way to the barricade but the amusement was torn away as the crowd’s focus fell on the attendees. He could not make out individual voices now, the air shook with the hateful, pained roar of everyone vomitting their hatred until he was soaked in it like blood. His heart thumped in his ears, and his palms were wet as he kept walking.

 

The woman gestured to him, jabbing towards him with her index finger.

 

‘Why would you listen to a rape apologist? Because you’re a fucking rape apologist.’ she said.

 

He stopped.

 

She continued. Swearing didn’t come easy to him, but he had found a comfort in the warm vulgarity of the language used by the other marines in private. He was appalled someone would manage to turn rape into a form of punctuation and as she barked at him, eyes blazing, he smiled and shook his head.

 

‘I just wanted to listen to her talk.’ he said.

It was like screaming into a pillow for the both of them. Henry wondered if it was a war of attrition, where they would shout themselves raw and which of them gave up first. Perhaps it was therapeutic for her, but he’d been denied the chance to learn something, or at least, to understand.

 

Henry stood there and took it, letting her exhaust herself against him. The policeman was at his shoulder, telling him to go be a martyr somewhere else. The woman’s friend had lost her hat, and her tobacco brown hair was damp and flat against her scalp as she started pointing at the police officer and swore at him.

 

The officer shook his head, like a parent dealing with a disappointing child as he patted Henry on the shoulder and told him to go. Henry looked at her and smiled.

 

She smiled back.

 

The officer was moving him on, and he started to push past him when the shots rang out and the roar of the crowd broke apart, and reformed from the scattered pieces into screams.

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fiction, love, politics, women

Bad Date

The train rattled enough to make Ken’s bones hurt as he sat back, numb with rejection and drink and feeling like a failed photocopy of himself. He tried not to think about Rachel’s strained expression but his thoughts returned to it like a rotten tooth, poking it for the stab of anguish. It was half an hour on the last train back to Yarmouth. He wanted a cigarette and instead looked around the carriage at the other passengers. As dates went, this one had been traumatic, and the high point had been when she looked into his eyes and told him he was a potential rapist. Ken paid the bill and left saying nothing.

 

He watched a pair of women, hard and bright with youth as they typed into their phones. He enjoyed the chance to look at them. He imagined through a series of implausible events taking them both home and watching them before joining in. A brief spasm of excitement arose in him before it settled down, stubbed out by the sight of his reflection in the carriage window. The image spared nothing of his flaws, and he looked away, sickened all over again. Ken had pleasant features but little to distinguish them.

 

He saw the sticker next to the window, about the size of a coaster. The carriages were always filthy but Ken tutted as he read the slogan.

 

KILL ALL MEN

 

Ken narrowed his eyes, chuckled and looked around him to see if anyone else noticed but no one looked up and the amusement died in him. He stared at the sticker and realised he did not understand if the sentiment was genuine. It didn’t matter, but it seemed pointless and concerning to think someone thought putting this up would change anything. Ken was uncomfortable, because the idea was so ridiculous and yet, whenever he turned on the news, ridiculous people said ridiculous things all the time. The drinks he’d taken to calm his nerves hung onto his perceptions, stripping them of inhibitions as the pointlessness of the sentiment turned into irritation.

 

The sticker was a round piece of vinyl. Ken had trimmed his nails, amongst other parts, but he would peel it off with no trouble. It was a small, pointless gesture, but it offered him something to achieve, an antidote to the mundane chaos of his romantic life. He reached out and dug his fingers into the edges of the sticker and pulled it away.

 

It took a second before something sharp slipped into the meat of his fingertips, deep and sudden enough to cause disbelief before the warm trickle of blood slid down his palm and onto the sleeve of his shirt. Ken cried out in alarm as his retreat sprayed blood away from him. A couple sat in front of him caught the warm splatter, and the man turned, his face cast in a masculine snarl, ready to address the insult. Ken had dealt with such men all his life, but when the man saw Ken’s hand, red and dripping, his expression fell apart into disgust and confusion.

 

Someone shouted for the conductor.  It sounded faint to his ears as he looked at the lipless, bleeding slashes on his hand. As the sounds of shock and alarm faded around him, Ken saw the edges of his vision blurring to a soothing, intoxicating grey and with relief, he let it wash over him.

It embarrassed him when he awoke in the hospital. Passing out had not been one of his more dignified actions, but it meant they spared him the inevitable theatre of the ambulance and the dumbfounded Transport Police and staff, who glanced around, wondering where the blame would fall.

 

In a living room, with one of her less sociopathic cats on her lap, Rachel watched him and cringed with embarrassment. She had tried to reach across the aisle to a man, in the hopes of a comfort no march or heated debate could give her, but sat there, in the restaurant, her borrowed resentments kept coming up like a tic disorder until he was on the verge of tears.

She had tried to reach across the aisle to a man, in the hopes of a comfort no march or heated debate could give her, but sat there, in the restaurant, her borrowed resentments kept coming up like a tic disorder until he was on the verge of tears.

There, in a local studio, with his hair combed and a healthy glow to his cheeks, brushing off his anger and embarrassment with an aplomb which made him endearing.

The stickers had been a joke at the last meeting. Someone had posted a hoax message warning about the stickers, aimed at attracting the ire of trans women and Rachel, along with Flip and Petra, had spent a little over twenty quid on a roll of stickers and a few packs of razor blades. Rachel had taken the train to London but Flip had an uncle in Gorleston, so it had been her work. Her heart beat so fast, it throbbed inside her skull as she watched Ken recollect his decision. A prim, noble gesture like picking up litter and there he was, a man being celebrated for it.  The cat leapt off her lap, annoyed at being petted so hard and she was about to switch off the television and go online when the doorbell rang.

 

Her skin prickled with nerves as her phone bleated out a notification. She looked at the message from Petra and tasted bile in the back of her throat.

 

THEY’VE ARRESTED FLIP!!

 

Rachel stood there, staring at the phone as her thoughts all thinned out into a single pointed scream inside her skull as the knocking at the door echoed through the flat.

 

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fiction, men, short fiction, Uncategorized, women

SY KERK IS UIT

SY KERK IS UIT

M B BLISSETT

 

My hands reflected my actions better than my face did. My dad had been a cook, and his hands bore the scars and burns from decades of cooking. Slips of the knife and damp towels used to grab pots and pans had kissed his skin. My experiences had kissed mine but he could look at his and not see the ghosts and horror they gave birth to. A faded white line where a man had slashed the back of my hand in Kandahar. Calluses on my knuckles and the webbing between my thumb and finger from a thousand hours training and fighting. These hands had touched others in love, in friendship but they had harmed more than healed, and there were days when they looked stained and ancient.

 

They were still supple, strong and didn’t bother me too much, outside my head.

 

His white-blonde hair was shaved to the scalp and he had scraped away the neat goatee which defined his strong jaw and high cheekbones. Time and circumstances had made him look ancient and infantile at the same time. His shirt hung around his neck and the cuffs swung on his thin wrists as he ran his tongue over his lips, moistening them before he spoke.

 

‘You’re too easy to find.’ he said.

 

His voice was strong. A cultured blend of elocution and exposure to different accents, but the nasalised vowels and diphthongs stayed in place.

 

‘No sense in hiding but it’s quiet here. A good place to think.’

 

Ricus nodded and walked into the kitchen. We embraced and he recognised my surprise. .

 

‘I have a job, Lee.’ he said.

 

When he drew back, there was a quiet, indomitable light in his eyes.

 

My expression made his smile falter.

 

‘You can’t tell me this is what you want to do with your life.’ he said.

 

Just one more middle aged man with little in the way of possessions but too much in terms of regrets and memories. No friends to speak of, no women to soothe and no children to fear for.

 

Only their ghosts and their screams.

 

‘Who is the client?’ I said.

 

He reached inside his jacket and retrieved a thick, white envelope and slid it across the table. It was heavy and without opening it, knew there was a sizeable wad of cash inside. Our eyes met and he raised an eyebrow.

 

‘Me.’

 

Ricus was born and raised in Gauteng, to Boer men and women who had farmed the land for generations, but instead left at sixteen and joined the army. From there, his talent promoted him to the Recces, and after a few years, he went into the private sector. We met in Bogota, Colombia providing security for a businessman which meant more attack than defence. I ended up as his spotter when he would sit up providing over watch. It was a few years before I told him the reason I joined him was because the teenage daughter of the businessman was flirting with me, and I wasn’t into it.  He chuckled and said he knew, but I was a good spotter and didn’t talk too much.

 

I asked if he would take out one of his wives, but his smile faltered as he picked up his coffee.

 

‘No, we’re going home.’ he said.

 

2.

 

It was like a thousand places suffused with an atmosphere as oppressive as another planet, seizing you in its grasp as you step off the plane. Ricus and I travelled in economy, nothing but hand luggage as we stepped off the plane.

 

He had arranged someone to meet us. Gun licensing was always a tricky issue, even if you were a citizen like Ricus and since the change in government, things were more complicated now.. Sure, there were questions but we had gone in with less and sometimes with more. Donald Rumsfeld said you went to war with the army you have, not the army you want. Same with equipment too, but Ricus moved with a smooth grace which lent everything the mundane air of it being just another job.

 

We drove into town in the back of a flatbed truck with a teeth-rattling suspension and the faint smell of cowshit to keep us company. Ricus sat with his forearms resting on his knees, working a toothpick in the corner of his mouth as he stared out into the distance. His eyes were serene and stern, looking at nothing and everything with a detachment which I used to envy.

 

Now, struggling to adjust to a heat so thick it compelled exhaustion just to endure it, I wondered if it was a gift or a curse. Ricus had a burden which no amount of conflict could wear away, and I had come along to see if I could help.

 

The township was alive with a teeming vitality. Smoke hung in the air, and the rich chorus of voices enveloped us, powered by the pumping music coming from a bar somewhere. Ricus craned his head, scanning the crowd for someone.

 

A black man, around his age, raised his hand as a smile pulled at the white worm of scar tissue which bisected his cheek. Ricus smiled back and nodded towards him. I followed him through the crowd. When the two men met, they moved in for a tight, firm hug before parting.

 

‘Good to see you, Gacoki.’ Ricus said.

 

He leaned away and gestured with his right hand and gave him my name. I was his business partner.  Gacoki gave me a measured look as he stepped forwards and offered his hand. I shook it, and weighed up the hard, firm grip he gave. There had been harder ones, but few. Hiding the causal flex which it prompted made him smile as he stepped back.

 

‘Let’s get a drink.’ he said.

 

Ricus took him up on the offer of a beer but I stuck to cola. It was thicker and more chemical than I was used to, but the bubbles settled my stomach. They fell into a mix of Afrikaans and English, some of which I followed, but otherwise it was a pleasant way to while away a few hours. Later, they spoke about what we needed. Gacoki shrunk into his chair.

 

‘It’ll be tough. Things are different now.’ he said.

 

Ricus swallowed and sat back in his chair, finished the last of the beer before he set the bottle on the table.

 

‘Money still talks, though?’ Ricus said.

 

Gacoki nodded and retrieved a cigarette from the soft pack on the table and lit it, gave him time to think. He smiled and winked at us.

 

‘Always.’ he said.

 

After that, it was about logistics. Most of it could have been found at a mall but Ricus had grown up here, and he knew things were scarce. He took the list from Ricus, got up, leaned over for a brief hug and left, acknowledging me with a short nod. The residue of the coke clung to my teeth as I licked my lips and got to my feet. Ricus took the pack from the table where Gacoki had left them and slipped them out.

 

‘You up for a drive?’ he said.

 

A hot burst of irritation gathered in the back of my throat.

 

‘Only if you tell me what’s going on.’ I said.

 

He smiled before he lit the cigarette.

 

‘That’s what I‘m going to show you.’

 

The car was a clean, worn Range Rover. My seatbelt didn’t work, so I sat with one hand on the passenger door, bracing myself against the inevitable dips and turns in the roads. My distaste faded with the passage of time. The muscle memories allowed me to adjust, relaxing the muscles still tense from hours of travel as we drove out into the deepening darkness.

 

There were small fires dotted along the road, and as we drove North, the air grew cold, but Ricus did not register it as he focused on the drive.

 

I spotted the outline of the buildings, the tops visible above a dark brick wall dominated by a large metal gate.

 

‘I’ll be on point.’ Ricus swallowed, a flash of nerves apparent on his face before he controlled himself and looked at me.

 

‘Who are we meeting, Ricus?’ I said.

 

He stopped the car and got out, went to the intercom and pressed the button. A squall of static split the air before a woman’s voice came through the speaker. They spoke in Afrikaans, but the long pause and the single word after Ricus spoke indicated a caution and surprise which raised the skin on my forearms into gooseflesh.

 

‘Broer?’ she said.

 

The motor on the gate was old and worn from frequent use as it gave a choked wheeze in protest before the gate opened and Ricus came back to the car. We drove up to the central building. These were rough, sturdy buildings gathered in a horseshoe as well as several outbuildings. A working farm or the memory of one. We got out as the front door opened and a woman emerged, in a white t-shirt and jeans before she walked towards us.

 

Ricus glanced at me before he walked towards her. Her features gained coherence as she came forwards, and the familial resemblance between her and Ricus became apparent. She was younger, and her blue eyes held the light with a clarity which made her attractive. There were fine lines around her mouth and eyes, but she was a striking, beautiful woman without make up and her hair scraped back into a ponytail.

 

Her expression was somewhere between a pleasant surprise and a pebble in her shoe. A short wince followed by a jangling burst of delight as her eyes shone with tears. They stopped before one another, and I stayed by the car, uncomfortable with breaking up a reunion.

 

We had learned of one another’s pasts in sips and swallows. He referred to it over burdening me with names or stories. Most of the time, the talk was soft and small. We learned more about one another with silence being a better teacher than speech. I guessed she was his sister, judging by her age and their mutual resemblance.

 

She reached for him first but he matched the strength of her embrace but not her tears as she pressed herself against him. When they parted, he gestured for me to come over.

 

Elna.

 

Her hand was small but strong. It fitted inside mine and the heat from her palm surprised me before she smiled and asked my name.

 

She asked if we were hungry. Ricus nodded and we went inside. He fell behind her and walked alongside me.

 

‘This isn’t a gig, Ricus.’ I said.

 

My voice was low and even, but Elna glanced back at us for a second before she reached the door.

 

Ricus put his hand on my forearm.

 

‘It is, but I need to explain.’

 

He should have done it on the plane. It was my decision to follow him, and whatever attachments Mexico presented, they were easy to let go of. For all the times my memories of work were stained with blood and regret, here I was, far from home yet comfortable and aware of the situation, if not the details.

 

I nodded and followed Ricus and his sister inside.

 

The table was set for dinner. Two children were sat there before brimming bowls of a thick, brown stew and two other places were set but only one of them had a bowl sat there. Elna walked into the kitchen and smiled at the children.

 

‘Dian. Leeto. This is your uncle Ricus and his -‘ she turned and looked to Ricus for an answer.

 

‘My business partner. Lee..’ he said.

 

Elna turned back to the children.

 

The youngest of the them, a boy around ten, gave Ricus a careful look.

 

‘Why didn’t he come to dad’s funeral?’ he said.

 

Elna’s hands pressed together and I saw her shoulders tighten with tension before she walked around the table.

 

‘Leeto. Your uncle was working away. I did explain.’ he said.

 

Her voice was soft and tired, but there was steel there which made the boy look away. A mother’s kindness was a strength. She had explained, I’m sure, but it was an excuse not a reason.

 

I stayed by the door, watched the small spasms of unresolved grief on their faces as it passed between them.

 

The stew was good. Rich and thick comfort food which I struggled to finish. I ran on less than I used to but Ricus polished off two bowls with a quiet gusto. Leeto and Annika went through to their rooms. There were whispers between Elna and her children, but Ricus and I sat in the kitchen, waiting for her to return.

 

‘What happened to their father?’

 

Ricus sighed and lit a cigarette.

 

‘You know how things are different here?’

 

I shook my head, concerned with how personal this had become.

 

‘Men came, raided the farm. They shot Bern in the head. Elna and the children went into the panic room. He stayed out to protect them.’ he said.

 

I leaned forward, studied his face as he spoke.

 

”What’s the mission, Ricus. Tell me or I am on the next plane home. Friend or not, you need to tell me everything.’

 

They will come again. I want to convince them it is a bad idea.’ he said.

 

His voice had thickened, the pain crept in at the edges and it was the closest he had ever sounded to vulnerable. It didn’t ease my concerns, but it reminded me of his conviction. We did bad things for money, but we had a code.

 

‘Gacoki’s getting you a long gun, isn’t he?’

 

He smiled and winked at me.

 

Going out and looking for them is pointless. There’s too many people settling old scores out here to find out who came.’

 

I asked him for a cigarette. He passed one to me and I lit it.

 

‘What does your sister want?’

 

‘We‘re going to find out.’

 

Elna stood in the doorway with her arms folded. Her eyes were still and haunted as she glanced at our faces.

 

‘Find out what?’ she said.

 

She sagged forwards in her chair when he told her. Elna shook her head and pressed her palms together, negotiating.

 

‘There’s been enough death.’ she said.

 

Ricus blinked slow as he sat up in his chair.

 

‘ They‘re not going to give up, Elna It will be either them or the government.’ he said.

 

Elna said some other farmers had been offered settlements for their land. Nowhere near what the land was worth, or what had been invested in it but it was better than nothing.

 

‘It might as well be nothing. So, if you’ve got to stay, then I need to protect you.’ he said.

 

Elna’s eyes were damp as she rubbed her hands over one another.

 

‘I’ll accept what they offer me. It’s not charity, but it will get me somewhere.’ she said.

 

She was negotiating with the future. It offered ugly terms but if it meant her children were safe, Elna was prepared to endure a little fear until things improved. Ricus sighed and shook his head.

 

‘Give me a week. I can review your defenses, there’ are plenty of things we can put up to improve your security.’ he said.

 

Ricus sounded reasonable. It was something he could do without me but I had been asked to come for a reason.

 

Elna looked between us and sat back in her chair.

 

‘My children’s safety comes before everything, Ricus. You don’t get to endanger that. Ever.’ she said.

 

It was a show of steel which reminded me of her brother. He nodded and got up, came around to her and put his hand on her shoulder.

 

‘It is why I’m here. I know it’s too late, but things are different now.’ he said.

 

He didn’t say how. Elna wept and leaned into his stomach as she stifled her cries with her hand. It had been something she’d developed, so the children didn’t hear her.

 

Ricus and I took the couch and chair in the living room. We decided on the floor and laid there, looking at the ceiling. Ricus fell into a light doze without speaking. He knew my decision and how I would go along with it.

 

Elna had nowhere to go. It was a scenario of diminishing returns, but if it kept people from the farm who had no business being there, then a few nights over watch wouldn’t hurt. A job had a clear outcome and this had been murky from the start. Still, my decision to follow had been my agreement. Going home might have meant survival, but it was a juvenile wish. Sleep didn’t come but I settled into a rest which felt close enough for it not to matter.

 

Ricus was awake at dawn. He worked for, if not alongside Elna as she went through the morning routines. There were more than a few which had been her husband’s domain and Ricus carried them out, his strength was an apogee for Bern’s death. When I came through to the kitchen, Dian and Leeto were at the table, drawing on rolls of wallpaper They used thick layers of crayon, raised against the paper like scabs and ending in jagged outlines. Spikey shadows wielded sticks which dripped with blood. One of the groups had a man in the centre, and Dian was hunched over, scraping the wax away with a crayon. My curiosity jangled with interest, but when I walked over, they both stopped what they were doing and looked at me.

 

‘What are you drawing?’ I said.

 

Dian grimaced and put the coin down. One edge of it was dark with black crayon and her fingertips were smeared as she looked at her brother.

 

‘Nothing. We just like to draw.’ he said.

 

Each step closer made them draw in to one another. I raised my hands and nodded.

 

‘It’s ok. I should mind my own business.’

 

He stared at me.

 

‘Do you have kids?’ he said.

 

Leeto’s voice was rough and high, the broken tones of someone on the verge of puberty but his question was a boy’s in nature. I nodded and offered they were both adults. Their estrangement was something left unsaid.

 

‘Would you have gone out to defend them?’ Dian said.

 

I nodded.

 

‘I would have done the same thing your father did.’

 

Dian swallowed, her eyes brimmed wet before she looked out through the window.

 

‘We saw them as they left. Some of them used to work here, during the harvest.’ she said.

 

Leeto turned to her, keen to correct her.

 

‘No, not all of them. There was -‘ he said.

 

Dian glanced at the drawing they had been working on and pulled back, unable to avoid looking at it. They both looked at me. I walked around to where they were sat and saw the face at the centre of the group. The livid scar gouged into the crayon face and how it ran down his cheek. I ran outside to find Ricus.

 

He was at the truck when he saw me run up. It didn’t take long to tell him.

 

The shifting realisation and nature of betrayal crossed his face. His mouth fell open as the blood drained from his face before he regained his control. His jaw tightened and he looked over his shoulder.

 

‘I guess I won’t be getting the rifle then, eh?’ he said.

 

We walked back towards the house. Ricus asked Elna what weapons she had in the house.

 

It was late in the afternoon when we looked at everything laid out on the table. A revolver, with two speedloaders. One shotgun, with a box of buckshot shells. There were tools around the farm, but if we had to use those, we were already dead.

 

Elna came down from the attic with a long case in her arms. She handed it to Ricus.

 

‘Bern never wanted to use it. Said it was meant for you, but you never came back to get it.’ she said.

 

He took it from her and laid it on the table. Ricus opened it with a slow reverence and when the waning light hit the dull wood. I understood what he was reacting to. What was passed down did so because of utility, and Ricus picked the rifle up, saw in the scars and utilitarian ugliness what history it possessed.

 

‘Pa said he sold it to pay for the damage Gacoki and I did to the school house.’

 

Ricus grimaced to say his friend’s name aloud. He put the rifle back in the case and looked around him. Elna gestured to the table.

 

‘Why would he come back? There’s nothing here.’ she said.

 

The land. Gacoki had contacts in the government and military. He was the canary in the coalmine, responsive to changes in situations with a view to making money from it. If it meant he turned on a neighbour or a friend, then he was the vanguard of a new age for all of them. Ricus sighed and looked at his sister.

 

‘I’ve got an idea. It wasn’t what I hoped, but I’ve something in mind.’

 

He turned to me and asked me to prepare the front bedroom. It did not take long to strip the beds, move the mattress off the frames and clear two parallel spots away from the windows. I was preparing a shooting gallery for anyone who made it over the wall. Ricus took the rifle and wandered over to the tallest barn.

 

It was a comfort to retreat into logistics. Elna, Leeto and Dian were assets and reducing them to such meant we could speak without sentiment about our chances of success. Repulsing a small home invasion would be easy, but Gacoki wouldn’t go small if he knew Ricus was involved.

 

With Elna and the children, I led them through the exit path, over and over until they were confident of moving in the dark. I covered their truck with tarp, checked the oil and brakes, saw there was a full tank of gas and threw in the go bags Elna had made on Ricus’ instructions. He was shocked when she told him about not having passports, but otherwise, she was compliant and followed his instructions.

 

As did I.

 

Elna insisted on cooking for everyone. It was an ostentatious feast, farmer‘s sausage and pot food followed by milk pudding and a fresh pot of coffee alongside plates of fried doughnuts. Ricus ate well, but refused the doughnuts and took a flask of coffee.

 

He got up, gathered his rifle and walked out to the barn. We tested communications and his voice came over, strong and clear.

 

Elna put the children to bed and we sat in the kitchen.

 

‘Why is he so sure they’ll come back? Because he’s here?’ she said.

 

She looked at me for an answer.

 

I shrugged and got up from the table.

 

‘It’s been going on for a while, hasn’t it? Farmers, I mean.’

 

She sighed as I turned and walked to the kitchen sink.

 

‘It’s getting worse, but what choice do we have?’

 

I turned and looked at her.

 

‘They’ll keep coming until you’re dead or you leave, Elna. Ricus knows it, and so do you.’

My voice was harsher than I intended. She flinched and leaned forward.

 

‘Then why are you here?’

 

He asked me to come. He had earned the right to ask. Yet we had wandered into the latest spasms of something old and ugly, and there were always casualties in the rush of history to assert itself. I had been on the winning side of it for money, but we were a means to settle old scores. Power. Territory. Wrongs handed down until they wiped out generations. The names and colours didn’t matter.

 

There was the faint roar of cars travelling fast down the road. My radio squawked into life.

 

‘Two cars. 500 meters. Making the shot.’ he said.

 

The crash was loud in the night sky. A blush of flames and the faint shouts as the survivors emerged.

 

I was moving. Elna got up and ran to her children.

 

‘Three hostiles down. Three moving towards you now. Secure the principals and move to second position.’

 

I stopped.

 

‘You’ve got them on overwatch?’

 

‘Yes, but they’re closer to the gate than I’d like. Go to second position, Lee.’ he said.

 

Elna and the children were in the bedroom, fully dressed as I looked through the doorway.

 

‘Second position, now.’

 

They moved through the doorway, heads lowered as I turned and covered their exit. I walked with my back to them, stopped in at the front bedroom and grabbed the shotgun, slung it over my back and went outside after Elna and the children.

 

A shadow, climbing the wall. He had a garden fork in his left hand, and a dull, disconnected frown as he came towards us. I aimed down the front sight at his chest and fired. He fell backwards, toppling out of sight without a sound. Elna was climbing into the driver’s seat as the children scrambled into the back.

 

A cry of alarm made me turn to my right and fire into the pair of men who charged towards me. Not men, I thought, boys with machetes, and flushed with a horrible excitement. Elna called my name, and it sounded faint to me as my ears rung from the gunshots.

 

I got into the passenger seat and shouldered the shotgun.

 

‘Leeto, check there are three go-bags.’ I said.

 

Leeto looked up in confusion.

 

‘There are four here.’ he said.

 

I asked him to lift the bags up as Elna pulled away from the farm. The bag at the top was full, and rattled against Leto’s attempts to lift it.

 

Elna took the truck out at full speed.

 

‘What about Ricus?’ she said.

 

I pressed the radio, and was met with a burst of static. Saying his name brought no response.

 

The explosion behind us made a final, terrible statement.

 

I kept glancing back at the bag. An improvised explosive device would have gone off by now, and it was too clean for the types of attacks which were going on. I took the bag from the back, surprised at the weight as I put it on my lap and opened it.

 

The gleam of gold hurt my eyes and my heart. I passed the envelope to Elna, who retrieved three new passports, making them citizens of St Kitts, a Caribbean island. The gold was to get us out the country.

 

‘He’s not coming, is he?’ Elna said.

 

I glanced at Leto and Dian, then her.

 

‘No, I don’t think he ever was.’ I said.

 

The weight of recognition fell on us, squashing us into a mutual silence as we drove towards the agreed location.  A plane was waiting, and we fled South Africa.

 

We settled in Canberra.

 

After a year, the children were sleeping through the night and Elna found a farming concern she felt able to handle. She asked me to stay and help out. It seemed churlish to refuse her, and after a few weeks, she invited me into her bed and we came together, trembling and wondering if Ricus would have approved.

 

His answer came via the ordering of his legal affairs. His career had been lucrative and despite the use of his own resources in securing the equipment and weapons we used during our time at the farm, there was more than enough to provoke shock, surprise and tears when the terms of his will were read out.

 

Elna and her children were set for a comfortable, abundant life. Ricus had also left me a sizeable sum and a letter, which was handed to me upon my signature. When we left the lawyer’s office, Elna had taken herself to the coffee shop, keen for something normal to do in order to offset the bizarre, bittersweet gift of her brother’s wealth, so soon after his death.

 

No, his sacrifice.

 

He had handwritten the letter, and judging by the date, it had been written before he came to see me. My eyes blurred as I read, but I finished it, despite the ache in my chest.

 

Lee,

There was not time to explain. I knew you would understand, and if not, then I am sorry.

 

Consider this a late payment for your services. If your pride won’t let you accept, then it is yours to do with as you wish.

 

My hope is you were with me at the end. Dying in a bed, surrounded by well meaning strangers horrified me. When Elna told me about Bern, it had a simplicity which appealed to me. There is no place for guilt or pride about my past but there is a small hope I find some meaning in what is left of my future.

 

One bullet could end it all. But why deny someone the honour of facing someone like me who has nothing left but his family to defend? I am not sure I deserve such an end, but it is not for me to decide the most important factor in my strategy.

 

If you came with me.

 

.

 

Standard
poetry, politics

Cigarette Break

Someone who

Went to a better school

Holidays in places

Most of us see only in magazines

Tells me about my privilege

Because of the structural nature

Explained like this,

Words I’ve read but not heard pronounced before,

Phrases with the sheen of practice

To them,

Qualifications emerge on my lips

But there’s a light in their eyes

When they’re speaking

Which

Makes

Me

Stop

The edge of something sharp

And as they lecture,

I wonder

Who they’re really talking to,

Because I don’t think they see me,

Just my sex,

My skin,

And isn’t there a name

For that behaviour?

But I say nothing,

Wondering if these feelings

Would be cast aside

If they were in charge,

Because it starts with ambitions

And romantic notions,

It ends in lists,

And not poems,

Chants

And not songs,

Fair isn’t too much to ask,

But we cannot build

Anything strong on

Such inconstancy.

Still, not my hill to die on,

And sure it’s my fault,

But I’m not invited to anything

I didn’t create myself

So instead I smile,

And thank them

For their opinion.

Standard
men, poetry, politics

Outside

I’ve seen them

Online, mostly

The occasional one

In real life

Rick and Morty t shirts,

Lines memorised

And analysed

A pedestal for every woman

They meet but no volunteers

For a fey adoration,

And they smell of a subtle danger

Women find abhorrent,

Recognizing the tribe

Is a bitter sweet thing

Seeing as I’m outside of it

These days

Happier in some ways

Because things were simple

There were enemies and allies

Lines fed via prompt

But the script needed work

And my writing made me

Conscious of where the lines

Needed work

But it wasn’t my draft

And soon, I struggled

To believe in myself

And the immature grimace

Borrowed sentiment

Doesn’t fit so well

So I see them

Wish them well

See the sour, seething

Sweating need

And give thanks

For the deeper,

Darker truths

Brighter kindnesses

I live within these days.

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fiction, short fiction, writing

The Chorus

 

The Chorus

 

Purity Clause

 

Thomas had his eyes closed and a wry smile alive on his lips. He heard the chirp of birdsong and the muted tones of the city in the distance. He wrote the script and sent it the studio and in before the deadline so he was taking a break from everything. He had woken at dawn, did yoga on the balcony and then made coffee before he sat and drank it. There were cigarettes in his pocket but he decided not to smoke one. He was trying to be virtuous with no one watching.

 

His phone rang.

 

It was an unknown number, but he answered after a few rings.

 

The automated voice was a digital collection of voices, different accents and pronunciations strung together with care. All women. Thomas shuddered.

 

The Chorus.

 

‘Did you believe you would escape your fate?’ it said.

 

A hint of breathlessness, something which would excite him at any other time made his stomach wrenched inside him and he sat down, his amiable mood evaporated into a needling panic.

 

‘We have registered an accusation. It will activate your belt in three minutes. Please do not pass urine or ejaculate during this time.’

 

The studio made him agree to the implant. It was a synthetic tumour, benign until activated via wireless signal. It threw you into a state of racked agony for thirty seconds if you went near a woman registered online as being NC or non contact. Women could waive being registered, because by then, an entire generation of men had been broken down and rebuilt. There were those who lived apart from the network, but most men went along to get along, he thought.

 

He was being given a multi-million dollar franchise to reinvent. They wanted to protect their investment and reputation, so he had to sign away his autonomy to keep working. Yet he swore he had been scrupulous in behaving himself.

There were cigarettes in his pocket, and he lit one.  He realised being good didn’t matter. His sex defined him, and in the world which he tried to make sense of through his art, had decided he was not only disposable, but he was dangerous.  

 

Simple And Complicated

 

The needle stung as it went into the meat of his buttock but he didn’t react beyond a slow blink.

 

‘You can dress now, Mr Agnew.’ the nurse said.

 

Pete got off the examining table and dressed without looking at her. It was safer to pretend he hadn’t heard or seen her. Once he was dressed, he left the room without speaking. She whispered a swear word under her breath. Once, he would have called her out on it, but it was different now.

 

The implant saw to that.

 

He left the clinic. There would be no paperwork to sign because he had paid for the implant in cash. His insurance wouldn’t have covered it, anyway. His head hurt to think about how much he had handed.

 

It meant he got to see his children again. His lawyer had got the porn clause taken off, so he had means of relief. The excess energy would go into his work, make money and get custody. Yvonne had a lot of friends out there, who used the Chorus to settle scores, creating accounts online and meeting men without deactivating the permissions. They shared videos of grown men on their knees, sobbing and vomiting from the pain. One man had died, and the women sued his estate for stress-related damages. They won, too. His ex-wife and kids had to move in with family for a while.

 

Pete caught sight of his reflection. His face was tight and pale, anxious whenever a woman spoke to him now. He had asked Yvonne out, hands sweating and heart thumping against his ribs, and she had said yes. It used to be simple and complicated at the same time. Some people were better at it than others, sometimes it happened by mistake or design, but Pete mourned a world where it wasn’t used to hurt other people with the resources of government behind it.

 

Castrati.

There were men who paid for the implant with no accusations hanging over them. It made things easier as these men worked from home, video games, the internet and silicone companions who would orbit their existences in a compelled erotic obedience met their needs. Real women were too much of a risk. An exile supported by society was a good way to avoid falling into the slow quicksand of love.

 

If everything told them they were dangerous deviants who couldn’t be trusted to restrain themselves why keep refuting it? Dropping out was easier and so long as they kept producing and spending money, it was something people laughed at without thinking about what it meant.

 

Wrath Of The Gods – The Chorus and the new face of state feminism, I R Mohoney, University Press, pp 124.

 

Let The Fire Come

The conference had sold out. A line up of feminist speakers and activists, hosted in Greece for its symbolism, both a return and an appropriation of ancient times.

Costas set the briquettes of compressed paper in a pile and squirted them with lighter fluid. His eyes blurred with tears as he looked across the stretch of forest. All of it perennial and virginal, soon to be so much ash. The villas would be collateral damage but if the conference centre burned, it would be a necessary evil. He had said goodbye to his children via Skype, alluded to in his cracked whispers of devotion, ignored as they showed him their new toys. Paulo walked past, a smug grin twisting his soft face into a mask of Victory, wearing nothing but a towel. She only entered the frame to end the call, disconnected and yet disdainful towards the father of her children. It had strengthened his resolve for what he was about to do.

 

Once the flames were going, he lifted his phone to his eyeline and spoke the prepared statement, mirrored around the world and released in an instant.

 

‘Men are disposable and our sacrifices are ignored and dismissed by the world. Women create, men destroy is the message and-‘

 

A memory of his daughter, soft and mewling on his broad chest made his voice crack, but he swallowed and continued.

 

‘We will honour this message.’

 

He took the pistol from his pocket, ceramic and put together in the rack of 3D printers which had been running for weeks, all from one design. The curved butt fit into his palm.

 

‘I love my family.’

 

He pressed it against his temple and squeezed the trigger.

 

The flames caressed his cooling corpse, grateful for his sacrifice as he laid there, his skull distended from the pressure of the shot.

 

Standard
poetry, politics

Whilst they watch the fireworks

Of course it is an experiment,

The sun never set

On us

And so we have a Petri dish

Infected with democratic process

All the choices

Freedoms

A dream big as King Kong

Taller than the tower he climbed

Beautiful as the woman he carried

Results are beyond initial parameters

And people don’t laugh at them

Nations have darkened for

An offhand act of tradecraft

They even spy on us

But the subjects are

Awarded all the freedom a cage allows

Still, when I go there,

I wonder if it will bottleneck

If it’s a dream which is killing

It or a nightmare

Squabbling over professional slights

And genuine primal pain

Blueprints of histrionics

Written in ink and blood.

They’re beautiful

Even if they’re torn between

Looking up

And

Looking

Foreward.

Standard