The Lucubratory Collaboratory » Fiction http://lucubratory.com Sat, 01 Mar 2014 11:57:01 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8.5 Neil Gaiman’s Skin http://lucubratory.com/raphael/neil-gaimans-skin/ http://lucubratory.com/raphael/neil-gaimans-skin/#comments Mon, 25 Feb 2013 09:07:02 +0000 http://lucubratory.com/?p=164 This is a story I wrote this morning, inspired by a conversation with CJ Bowerbird. It is about Neil Gaiman’s skin and Neil Gaiman retweeted it so I am pretty happy with how this all turned out.

 


 

“I’ve had enough of this,” growled Ed. “I’m going to steal Neil Gaiman’s skin and take over his life.”
I blinked. Sarah hid her face in her teacup.
“Come again?” I asked. Ed turned his narrow eyes at me from where he was lying on the couch. He seemed to possess too many knees.
“I’m going to steal Neil Gaiman’s skin,” Ed repeated, “and take over his life.”
“Okay,” I said, slowly. The thing about Ed that you should know is that he doesn’t make jokes. He’s the most humourless person I know. Nevertheless, I found this hard to deal with seriously.
“Ha ha?” I said, probing the waters. Ed’s eyes narrowed.
“Did I say something funny?” he asked.
“No?”
“Ed, man, what are you on?” asked Sarah.
“Nothing!” He threw his hands up into the air. He seemed to possess too many elbows, too. “I’ve had enough of this life. Neil Gaiman is a superb writer. He has a perfect life. He’s married to a rockstar. I want to be him.”
I thought about this for a moment. “See, Ed, when most people discover someone they admire, they don’t try to steal their skin.”
Ed looked puzzled about this. “Why?”
“Because,” I began, then stopped.
“Because,” said Sarah, “it’s creepy. You’re supposed to get better through effort, not skin-stealing.”
“But why?”
Now it was Sarah’s turn to throw her hands in the air. “Shut up, Ed.”
“Alright. But I’m going to steal Neil Gaiman’s skin. I’m going to do it tomorrow.”

 

A few days later, Sarah came over again, looking perplexed and worried.
“Ed bought tickets to England and now he’s gone,” she said, holding onto a coffee cup like it was a buoy.
“Seriously?”
“Yes. He was obsessed with this Neil Gaiman thing. I’m worried he’s going to do something stupid.”
“He already has done something stupid.”
“I’m worried he’s going to steal Neil Gaiman’s skin.”
I laughed, or tried to. The sound got stuck somewhere in my throat. It was absurd to think, but I was worried too.
I didn’t see Ed until two weeks later. We weren’t close friends – I only really hung out with him when he tailed Sarah to my place – so he, and his strange ideas, soon passed out of my mind. But then, I came home one evening to find him sitting on my porch, smoking a cigarette.
“Hey, Ed. Long time no see. I didn’t know you smoked.”
Ed nodded curtly and crushed his cigarette into a corner. “We need to talk,” he said. “Call Sarah.”
“You okay, man?” He looked different, strange somehow. His face seemed sallower. There was a dancing darkness behind his eyes.
“Just call Sarah,” he said.

 

Ed had taken up his usual position, sprawled across the couch. This evening, though, he seemed to take up less of it, as if he had been gently crushed over the last two weeks. He forked hungrily at a plate of leftover stir fry like a giant bird. Sarah and I sat in chairs opposite him, waiting.
When he had deposited the last of the plate into his sharp mouth, he let out a belch and sprawled more comfortably across the couch. After half a minute, he closed his eyes.
“So,” I said, when the silence had become too long to be comfortable, “Looks like you didn’t end up stealing Neil Gaiman’s skin.”
Ed’s eyes shot open.
“What?” he said loudly. Sarah jumped.
“I said you’re still in your own skin.”
Ed looked at his hands as if he was seeing them for the first time. A narrow smile cracked his lips.
“I suppose I am,” he said. Then he sat bolt upright on the couch. “I need to tell you something,” he said, his eyes roving. “Something.”
“Yeah, go on,” I said. I was getting annoyed and a little scared. Ed was eccentric, sure, but never crazy.
“You have to believe everything I say,” he proclaimed, nibbling at a stray grain of rice, “and not interrupt.”
Sarah and I nodded.
“Okay. So I went to England. It wasn’t hard to work out where Neil Gaiman lived. He’s blogged enough that anyone with access to the CIA databases can find his house easily.”
“You have access to the CIA databases?” I scoffed.
“I said don’t interrupt!” yelled Ed. “Sorry. I’m sorry for shouting. Don’t interrupt. Okay, so there I was at Neil Gaiman’s house. It was snowing. It’s a nice house, dark stone, very nice. Big grounds, full of snow. I broke in. I may have killed someone, that’s not important. I may have killed a dog.”
Sarah and I looked at each other. Ed didn’t seem to notice. He was staring at his empty plate.
“I had broken in, Neil Gaiman wasn’t there. I hid in his wardrobe. I waited three days. He was away somewhere. I ate things. I ate clothes. Did I eat the dog?” He looked at us. His eyes were sparkling and dark. He was twisting the hem of his shirt with his fingers.
“Ed, man,” said Sarah, gently, assuming she was permitted to speak. “I think you have really bad jet lag and maybe you should lie down.”
“No!” exclaimed Ed. “I need to tell you. Or I’ll forget. I needed to tell someone for a week. Nobody listened. I’m not crazy! I ate the dog! Okay, so I was in the wardrobe. In comes Neil Gaiman. He’s going, here, boy, come on, where are you? He says, what is that awful stench? I jumped out of the wardrobe. He screamed and fell down on the floor. I grabbed a kitchen knife I had prepared earlier. I said, Neil Gaiman, I’m going to steal your skin. He screamed some more and then he stopped when I cut him open. I cut him-” he stopped and drew one finger from the top of his head to his stomach “-like that. I thought it’d scar less. I don’t know why I thought that.”
He stopped. He let go of his shirt. He sunk deeper into the couch. A minute passed.
“And then?” I asked, very quietly.
“Then? Oh. Yes. His skin fell open. Like raw puff pastry. There was very little blood. There was a man inside Neil Gaiman’s skin. He was short and had glasses. I said, who the hell are you? He said, my name’s Robbie, look what you’ve done, you’ve ruined it for good. He said, when I stole Neil Gaiman’s skin, I did it real carefully while he slept. He was very unhappy. Then he left. He had a little suitcase all ready to go. I buried Neil Gaiman’s skin in the garden under a tree, but I don’t know what the tree was called. I would’ve buried the dog too, but there wasn’t very much of it left.”
He stopped again. The silence this time was much longer and much fuller.
“Ah,” I said.
“I don’t think he’s going to come back,” said Ed.

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Kurtz of the Kitchen http://lucubratory.com/amelia/kurtz-of-the-kitchen/ http://lucubratory.com/amelia/kurtz-of-the-kitchen/#comments Sun, 27 Jan 2013 09:00:31 +0000 http://lucubratory.com/?p=152 “Have the decency to ask.

You understand – everything you take from that fridge – you take from my childrens’ hands.
Don’t get me wrong. If you’re good to me. I’m fucking good as family to you. You need this place for a birthday, a function, we’ll book it out for you. You smile at the customers. Do what you’re told, I pay you on time. You fuck me around, take sick days,  I won’t pay you. You can go to hospital – Taihnah went to hospital to get a hip operation last year – I let her go. I’m good to yah, you fucking tell me what ward you’re in when you go though. I’ll send you flowers. I’ll come and see yah make sure I see ya. I don’t want no one sicking out on me.

 

If I catch you talking to your friends, I’ll tell ‘em to fuck off. You will hear those words coming out of my mouth. Fuck off.

 

If I ask for a coffee. That’s what I want to get. My coffee. Pretty fucking simple right.  I come first. Doesn’t matter who you’re serving, you make me my coffee. Frank’s coffee.  You all been trained how to make my coffee right? Doesn’t matter who’s in line. When Kevin Rudd came to campus last year, he asked where to go, and he was told here. You know why, because everyone knows this is the place you go. He lined up. I had my coffee before his. I met him he said ‘you a Liberal supporter are you?’ I said ‘damn right I’m a liberal voter! I’m the one who fucking got John Howard in!’ doesn’t matter who’s in line – you make Frank’s coffee first.

 

I might be an arsehole. I come in in the morning, I’m fucking tired, been here since midnight the night before. I’m grumpy as shit. You can call me that after hours, but you don’t call me arsehole behind the counter though – you call me sir or boss. Alex – finally got her name only took me what Tiahnnah, six weeks? – Alex got it this morning I came in, told her what to do, she said ‘fine’ you know why she said fine, because I’m paying her. She’s got the right attitude.

 

I’m not all arsehole though. I’m a good fucking boss. I’ll look after you. You need anything, I mean anything, I’ll help you with it. I’m the person to ask, I’ve got friends. I’ll take you out on boats on the lake. I got a friend with a big yacht, we went out there last year, had a party, I might even take you to the Gold Coast for a training session. We go shopping, you can get whatever you want. Ain’t that right T, got you a Prada bag last year. Yeah. She’s all upset cos her boyfriend wouldn’t get her a Prada bag. I said, isn’t it your birthday soon? She said, yeah, so? I said let’s get you a bag. Ok so she was happy to get any nice bag right, I took her to Prada and I said pick whatever you want. If you’re good to me I’ll look after ya.

 

I treat you like I treat my family. You give to me, I’ll give ten times to you. You do long hours here, don’t fuck me around with leave, you can come to Sydney with us for training. Same token, you treat me bad I’ll treat you ten times as fucking bad. I work like a fucking dog to support my family so I walk in at night, I dump my jeans on the floor where I take them off my wife says can’t I put them in the washing basket. I’ll leave them where I fucking take them off.  I’ll take you to Sydney, get you whatever you want if you work hard for me. You rip me off though, and you’ll wish you’d never been born. Ain’t that right T’. Who was the last girl we found out had been giving free coffee to her friends eh? Fired her on the spot. In front of everyone, didn’t pay her for her last two weeks. But you know what the customers they love that drama don’t they. That’s what they come here for. The drama and the girls. Last week I wanted my coffee right – I say to Tiahnah – ‘Frank’s coffee!’ – you know what she says to me – she says – ‘does that come with a please?’. I went in to that kitchen I got the biggest fucking plate I could find – and I threw if from there – you see near the kitchen door on that side of the room – to that wall. You know what happened it smashed and bounced off the fridge and hit her on the leg didn’t it T? The whole queue was watching too. Mouths open like this. They loved it. They were saying to her ‘you know that’s harassment right?’ you know what she said ‘let me get him his coffee first’. There ain’t no such thing as harassment.

 

They love it. They come here for it. They don’t come here for the food or the coffee. The food’s bad and twice as expensive as next door – how much is a lasagne next door? $6? It’s $11.80 here. And they don’t come here for the coffee, the coffee’s shit. They come here for the drama. And they come here cos they get a girl with everything they order. All female staff notice that? I even tried to get a female fucking chief. Beautiful girl right. But a lesbo. Such a fucking waste.”

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Touch http://lucubratory.com/raphael/touch/ http://lucubratory.com/raphael/touch/#comments Thu, 18 Oct 2012 08:53:35 +0000 http://lucubratory.com/?p=139 Just like Zoe’s story, this one was written with the encouragement of Scissors Paper Pen and presented at their night of storytelling, Something Else (monthly at Smith’s Alternative Bookshop in Canberra – go!). Every Something Else has a theme and this time it was ‘A touch of…’, so this is a story about a certain sort of touch. It is loosely structured and rambly because it was written to be read aloud, and for this I hope you will forgive me.


 

For Emma

 

You know the story, of course. There was once a king in a far-away land who loved gold above all things. And the gods, being the gods, being capricious and prone to cheap tricks, gave him all the riches he could ever want – whatever he touched became gold. And so, goes the story, he touched his beautiful daughter and turned her heavy and golden and silent, and refusing in his grief and his pride to be fed, died of thirst and starvation in his bedroom, which was all gold.

Of course, the gods love hope above anything else, even above teaching men lessons, and in another world, Midas plunged his hands into the icy waters of the river Pactolus, and his golden touch was cured.

Or perhaps ‘hope’ is inaccurate. What the gods love most of all, their very favourite thing, is a good story. Hope and loss will always come from a good story. And this is a story about a very different touch.

 

 

Outside it is spring and dark and golden, and I have not touched a person for six months.

The last person I ever touched is now a bestseller. I don’t hold it against him – or I shouldn’t hold it against him; after all it is my fault, or my blessing, or whatever, but–

Let me begin from the beginning.

A year ago I got my hand trapped in a book. This happens often, books are things with minds of their own, and hungry. I forget the book now, but it was a dull read and I was not giving it my full attention, which is something books desire almost obsessively. In this way they are like very literary cats. When you’re reading every word, the plot gets bored and slinks away to lie in the sun, when you’re drinking coffee and glancing at the TV at the same time, they come and sit on your face. Or eat your hand, as mine did. As I absent-mindedly turned a page, my hand fell through, into the spine, then the book closed with a self-satisfied thump, and there I was, with a smarmy-looking paperback attached at my wrist. Emergency wouldn’t see me – apparently this was a problem not worthy of the triage system – as the woman explained, I could still do things with my book hand, couldn’t I? So I had to go to Officeworks, and the clerk, after much grumbling about people who waste his time (as if he was doing anything more important than filing empty filing boxes), fetched a pair of industrial scissors and cut my hand out.

And that was the end of that, I supposed.

 

Then, a week later, I met a girl. I’d been riding the bachelor train for a while, and it had just recently derailed and spun into a gorge with all onboard, so I was very glad for this girl. We courted the traditional way, over Facebook, then agreed to meet. And that’s when this whole thing began.

It was a cold winter evening and the sky was made of cityfumes and starlight. I was standing outside a pub, waiting for her. Before too long, she appeared from around the corner, looking lovely. At moments like these I always falter. Is a hug too much? Does a handshake say ‘I am looking forward to signing a business deal with you?’ Should I let her do it first? What if we both get confused and end up staring blankly into space? This went through my head in a second, and I ended up giving her a quick, almost flawless hug.

“Hi,” I said. “Nice to meet you at last!”

“Hi,” she said. So far, so good. She opened the door and we went into the sudden warmth and noise of indoors.

“Want a drink?” I asked.

“Sure!”

I motioned to the barman in the most Humphrey Bogart-esque manner of which I was capable, with the effect that he didn’t notice me at all.

“I’ll get them,” she said.

“No, I will!” I pulled out a note and for a second, across the tight space between us and the bartop and the people around, our hands brushed.

And it happened.

Where there was a girl, a lovely girl, a real live breathing talking person golden under golden light, there was nobody. I started backwards. A drunk looked at me in amusement. I ran outside, and I didn’t stop running until I got home and locked my door and sat under it, confused and asthmatic. I assumed something had happened of such astonishingly cosmic proportions that there was no point trying to understand it. A quantum glitch. A relativity bug. Something that would puzzle Austrian scientists in need of haircuts for decades to come. I assumed I would never see her again. I felt dumped in the worst possible way – pre-emptively, and by physics.

But I did see her again, and I didn’t even have to wait long. She was in the bookshop as I went by the next morning. Not as a person, you understand. No, she was a book. She was being sold, in the new releases section. I don’t know how I could tell it was her from that distance, but I just knew. I walked inside and picked her up, and felt uncomfortable upon discovering that there was another copy of her underneath, and some more in a box by the counter. There was no author on the cover or the copyright pages.

“That’s a good one,” said the clerk.

“Is it,” I replied, acidly.

“It’s about this girl who has this pretty average, quiet life, and stuff happens, you know – she writes a book, there’s all this drama, she goes to Melbourne, gets famous, builds an aviary, anyway, but yeah, the way it’s written – I couldn’t get enough of it. Words just– bam!” He made exploding signs in the air with his hand to illustrate.

“You’ve read this book?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” he said.

When

?” I said, rather more loudly than I needed to. The clerk looked slightly puzzled.

“Uh… recently, I suppose,” he said, and trailed off self-consciously. I turned away and read the blurb. It sounded exactly like he’d described it. It also sounded exactly like how this girl had described her life to me, albeit more detailed and not on Facebook. The girl I had touched was a book. She cost $25, so I bought her and read her on the bus home. I felt like it was the least I could do.

 

After this, I’m afraid to admit that it took me a number of incidents before I fully realised what one touch from me would do. This wasn’t some power that I could switch on or off at will. It wasn’t something that happened only at night, or only with people I liked, or only with the opposite sex – no. It happened with anybody I touched with my right hand, my book hand.

It happened to the middle-aged woman who sold me a bus ticket. She turned into a Mills and Boon, one of those ghastly pulpy ones with bodices just bursting from the pages. According to one of my friends who read it, it was surprisingly engaging.

It happened to my friend Jason, who turned into an exhaustively comprehensive guide to playing Magic: The Gathering, with tips and tricks. This made me feel very sorry for Jason, for a variety of reasons, and I spent most of my food money for that week buying the bloody book, even though I didn’t play Magic: The Gathering and probably never will.

It happened to a stranger who I bumped into on the street – a businessman. He appeared the next day in all major booksellers, a thriller worthy of Dan Brown, which made me somehow very offended at my own subconscious talents.

After this, I realised what was happening. I started wearing gloves. And still, as if fate and luck were conspiring against me, I managed to turn people into literature. I absent-mindedly took them off when I went into a café, and the girl at the cash register became a dense philosophical treatise on how Hegel’s personal misery compounded his ruminations about the topic into something greater than the sum of its tears. After this, I stayed at home for a week, feeling ill and lost.

 

I began to feel like a serial killer. I was assembling an esoteric, but fascinating collection of victims, who I stored on a special bookshelf. Occasionally, late at night, when I couldn’t sleep, I would read them. Ghoulish, you would be quick to say, but somehow it calmed me and coaxed me into dreams and darkness. I quickly realised that the writing was mine – the style, the words, the dialogue – everything was me. Sometimes a turn of phrase, a way of looking at the world, something only I could have ever picked up, made me feel like I was reading myself. It was a strange feeling, like looking into warped mirrors. If even this did not help me get to sleep, my thoughts wandered to places where I was not exactly comfortable allowing them to wander. Was this not the dream of every author, said my thoughts? To write so effortlessly that books literally spilt from my fingers? To write, and be published immediately, with great reviews, with hordes of admiring readers? To write anonymously, in complete safety, with nobody ever finding out who I was? And never to worry about the hell of agents, editors, emails and calls bearing disappointing news, never again to pour my heart and soul into something to watch it get tossed aside, unread? I pulled my mind away from this brink many times, and eventually came to the conclusion that I was, in the end, cheating.

 

And then, this happened – the final straw. It was on the bus. It was a month or so since my first book. I had stopped wearing gloves because I couldn’t bear the feeling of being trapped like that, and had learnt simply to not touch anybody – not anyone. I was forgetting how warm skin felt. And there I was, on the bus, jolting my way through the grey suburban morning which was all clouds and stale coffee, and one of those crazies came on. The sort you don’t feel sorry for. On drugs, or drunk out of his skull, he smelt rank, he waved away the driver’s plea for a ticket and stumbled onboard, grasping at the yellow rails, muttering loudly and incoherently to himself. The other passengers shrunk away from him like flowers wilting.

Oh god, I thought, he’s coming straight for me. And he was. Or I think so, anyway. He trained his pale hollow eyes onto me and moved up the aisle, bringing with him the smell of vomit and rotten vegetables. The bus pulled out, and his hands spun in the air as he grasped at the poles. And that’s when I thought, I could just do it. I have this power. What’s stopping me from just reaching my hand out and–

No, said what I assume was my conscience. He’s a person. This wouldn’t be an accident.

I know, I replied. But it’s not murder. It’s not a death. He gets turned into a book. Nobody would know. Nobody would even realise. I’d get off scott-free. It’s a public service.

That’s how the Nazis saw it, said my conscience.

You always have to bring Nazis into these serious ethical discussions, don’t you? I asked. My conscience shrugged and vanished. And all this while, the man was approaching – slowly, in a haze of repulsive smell and pointlessness. It really would be a mercy kil– booking, I thought. I wouldn’t feel guilty. Isn’t that what matters, in the end? I reached out my hand. He was almost upon me. His muttering was a drone, a terrible ceaseless noise. I touched his veined, shaking hand. He vanished.

I fell back into my seat and looked around quickly. Nobody had noticed – somehow, nobody ever did when this happened. I wrenched open a window, and soon the air cleared. I had done good. I didn’t feel guilty or terrible – I felt fine. This man, I further reasoned, was addicted to something awful, something that was destroying his life. As a book, he didn’t have to suffer any more. Was that not better?

 

And until the next day, I was entirely sure it was. The next day, walking past my local bookstore, I glanced inside, but didn’t see anything new.

Hah, I thought, his life must’ve been so pointless that he didn’t even get made into a real book. Maybe he was a pamphlet, or an ebook. That’s what I thought until I got to the city, and saw the front of the chain bookstore there. There was a line. I wondered if there was a new J.K. Rowling out. And then I saw the posters. “The Fallen”, they said. “The Revelatory Bestseller.” My name – my actual name – was underneath, taking up most of the posters. I came closer, feeling terrified. There were quotes from reviews. “There is the urgent sense of a life lived in this novel … the experiences of the author amount to nothing more than a sensation”, said one. “An inescapably powerful work from the most grimly realistic writer today”, said another. It was a shoe-in for the Booker. Oprah loved it. The line stretched out the doors and along the wall and into the grey expanse of the winter morning.

Suddenly, somebody pointed at me and raised a shout.

“The author!” he yelled. The line turned as one and began to break up, to move towards me. A sudden, terrifying clamour of voices swelled up.

“Did all this really happen to you?” someone shouted.

“Can I get your autograph?”

“Didn’t you die at the end? He’s a fraud!”

I stumbled, fell to the ground, jumped up as the crowd surged towards me, and ran. I pelted down the cold streets, past the buses and cars, past the bookshops and cafes. I kept running until the shouts behind me grew distant and finally faded altogether. I had reached the lake shore. Without thinking, I stepped in, and slipped, almost thankfully, on loose shale, and fell bodily into the icy water.

I slammed my hand against the surface, but nothing happened, no revelation. This was no River Pactolus. I felt terrified and naked. I sat and thought, and only one thought revolved in my head like a black marble, No matter what, no matter who, I would never touch anybody ever again.

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The Bee Story http://lucubratory.com/zoe/the-bee-story/ http://lucubratory.com/zoe/the-bee-story/#comments Fri, 24 Aug 2012 08:44:46 +0000 http://lucubratory.com/?p=123 On Wednesday I read at an event put on by the lovely folks from Scissors Paper Pen . I was impressed, (although not at all surprised) by the incredible quality of creation from the other performers: Canberra’s writers rock. The theme was wires crossed, and in writing this, I got lost between autobiography and poem.

It’s very much meant to be read aloud.

 


Like a rite of passage, on my 10th birthday I received a hive of bees.
Thousands of striped, brown bodies, in a box of wood and wax, singular, united, and mine.
A box of living breathing beings, sitting on the garage roof, above head height of those who might object.

Do bees dream of flying? Do bees dream at all?
Compound eyes closed
Dreams of being
leaving the moist buzzing honeysister hive
Sun coaxed, sailing up above the street-crossed, car-crossed, cable-coal and wire-crossed city suburbs.

To tell of bees is to tell of flowers
sought out, sucked up bellyful of nectar,
Then borne back on tiny wings to sisters, to smell, to dance, to tell the story of flowers.

You could say I was born into a dynasty of beekeeping
my father’s family are the beekeepers, he showed me the tricks, taught me the lore,
passed down over generations, here are
the broad wooden boxes, frames to build honey on.
Gloriously Victorian contraptions – this one puffs smoke from a fire in a tin canister,
this one takes in honey comb, winding handle, grinding cogs,
then flowing honey, clear and viscose, as we know it in jars.

And here I am, covered in wax and bee debris, with a pile of old wooden frames
stringing them with wire, like a rudimentary instrument, across the frame’s length,
wires cross the wooden rectangle, once, twice, three, four times, then I wind it fast around a nail, pluck the wire, listen to the tension.

Across these wires will soon be wax, imposing order, holding the hive together. The comb that will hold honey, or small bees, or both.
Each frame slots onto a box with nine others like it – like books in a boxed set, except with room for the bees to crawl in between.
The slotted boxes of beeswax frames can stack on top of each other, making the hive extendable, indefinitely upwards, like a library, or an office block.
At the centre of each of my hives is a network of wire, making the bees build, not any which way, as is their want, but according to my rules – so I can intervene and intrude.

Half way between agriculture and cult, to keep bees is to step into superstition itself.
Only wear white to a beehive.
Only visit on clear, still days, but never let your shadow fall on the hive.
Bring some smoke as an offering, puff it into their home to pacify, but only smoke from pine needles will do.
Eating pollen will cure hayfever, put wax on cracked lips, honey on wounds, and propolis – a bee version of gap filler – is good for everything, from toothache to tiredness.

Thought I’d call to tell you about bees
about sex and death and drones and the flight of queens
the drones are big and slow, and the queen she says
‘don’t stop chasing me
but if you catch me, you won’t win’

they meet, they mate in the middle of the air,
he flies right into her
right into her proffered sting
and he breaks apart, breaks and falls away
and she to her daughters,
to lay alone.

Which is why I don’t take romantic advice from bees.

So this hive of mine has been here for more than ten years
on a roof in O’Connor, through storms and fire, flood and drought.
The wood of the oldest, bottommost box is collapsing,
helped by persistent bee mouths munching out new doors and secret entranceways.

My father and I are excavating down to the damaged bit, taking apart the towerblock of hive,
to see that the order of wire and frame has been lost.
The bees have blurred the boundaries, built comb over comb like some golden slum for six-legged beings.
The sun is setting, and a breeze has picked up, but it’s taken quite a lot of effort and cajolery, not to mention heavy lifting, to get to this point. And unwisely, against science and superstition, we persist,
reassembling the overgrown comb in a new box, encouraging the apine architects to mend their meandering ways.
The bees themselves, usually so calm and compliant about this sort of intervention, begin to get kind of narky – like a kid up past their bedtime – they buzz at gloves and veils.
It’s ok, we’re experienced at this, efficient – soon we’ll finish the task and put the lid on all the buzzing, snug for the night.

Frames full of honeycomb are sticky and unwieldy with bees crawling all over them, wondering why it’s suddenly so cold and bright.
Give them a bit more smoke, puffed at the horde to make them lightheaded, and forget their misgivings.

A box full of bees and wax and brood and honey is even more tricky to manoeuvre, but all we have to do is put one on top of the other, stack them back into their office block shape.
A box full of bees is heavy, and complaining, and if your timing is wrong, if there’s dissent and confusion among the hive, everywhere you touch with your gloved hand is likely to be bees.
But, there is one thing that you should never, never do.
Even if the box is heavy and your hands are slipping, and there is an unwelcome buzzing at your ear.

Don’t drop the box.
Because instantly, everybody who was in a crawling confusion on those combs will become airborne, and unhappy.

A bee suit is almost like battle armour, you look a bit like an astronaut and a bit like a really paranoid bushwalker.
Between my face and the bees is a criss-crossing wire mesh veil, sturdy, proven to be bee-tight.
It shouldn’t have to come to this, many apiarists work without suits, trusting in intuition and careful handling not to upset things, to maintain peace, order and harmony.
And that’s lovely, but, as that box of bees came crashing down, I was very, very glad to be dressed as a bee-astronaut.

But, they’d found my gloves. Old, tight white lady’s gloves, I’d picked them up at an op-shop, assuming that bee stings wouldn’t get through leather.
But, where bees are involved, you should never assume.
That afternoon, I found out that bee stings do go through soft leather gloves just fine.
I found out, around twenty times over.

So I left with swollen hands, to carry their poison inside me awhile.
But by the hive, twenty brave soldier bees oozed into death, twenty stings ripped from twenty abdomens by old, soft calfskin.

Later I went back, made my peace, carried on
you may well ask why I still do it? Don the veil, anoint with smoke, lift the lid of the hive to hear the buzzing.

Yes, I can forgive them, because it’s their nature,
in certain situations, bees are just wired to get cross.

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Canberra Planned http://lucubratory.com/amelia/canberra-planned/ http://lucubratory.com/amelia/canberra-planned/#comments Sun, 19 Aug 2012 08:43:53 +0000 http://lucubratory.com/?p=121 It seems like – we can’t forget those who planned this city. Crafted and drafted it with eyes and hands focused and reaching out with anticipation for this very moment now. Where we’ve fledged and flown from the first dry blue prints, inking translation from script into built reality like bleeding stones to build each plotted precocious home. Ahead of time, along the the highway, straight skyway pointing spine of the road-planner’s organism. The Cartographer’s concepts condensed and constructed – finally – now we are in the imagineer’s eutopia. Roads slightly wider, less wilder, tress pleasingly planted and parks. So there’s less chaos perhaps. More satisfaction of geometric, angles and fractions. No nervous tick. For those who like symetry and paths without tricks.

In other towns. Sometimes there are aspects. of this. An half a suburb, crawled and curbed by vision and hands curtaled and courted by plans. Streets, lit by measured widths of street lights flicking out against stary nights. Sometimes the feel that the streets have been re-ruled, a new vision as the city is tailored to the eye of its new heir. Buildings established with pride and care, to stand proudly as a pilar of fresh thoughtful industrious air.

As you head north, along the coast, sometimes the feel that these arms of the suburban animal lurch and wheele. Nights become milder, the plans wilder.

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Playgrounds http://lucubratory.com/zoe/playgrounds/ http://lucubratory.com/zoe/playgrounds/#comments Fri, 16 Mar 2012 12:00:57 +0000 http://lucubratory.com/?p=51 I’m recently moved to this suburb, and I’m not yet intimate with its interesting bits. Its blots and blemishes, surprises and gifts.
Today, I went out exploring after the storm. When the roads and gardens were steamy damp as if they’d just got out from a hot shower. Refreshed.
In old Canberra you can walk in almost any direction and count upon finding a park before too long. I picked a direction. I found the park and before it a pre-school, tiny little place, with sandpit and a bed of strawberries. Bringing back memories of being very small, Nine O’Clocks and packed lunches, that mix of love and fear.
It’s thanks to the ACT Government’s (past) program of having separate preschools, tucked away in the suburbs. Looks like this one survived the schools closure. Good for it.
And the park adjacent has a play ground. If you grew up in Canberra you’ll know the sort. Old, metal, uncolourful. Swings and a slide that, if you fell off, you’d properly hurt yourself. Years ago, they took the set from my childhood down, and replaced it with something modern, safe and fun proof. I mourned for weeks. Every time I discover another original playground still standing, I’m a child again, bare feet trot across the tan bark. My hips are almost too big for the seat, my legs too long, I have to tuck them under, but with very little effort I’m practically airborne, and I may as well be seven.
No two of these old swing sets are quite the same, shorter, taller, wider, longer. They’re most likely from the ’60s, as old as this suburb. Maybe built by a local plumber, climbed all over by generations of little ones. Someone had left a space ship on the park bench, out in the rain. Did it go for journeys down the slippery dip, as my favourite toys used to?
Ah old Canberra, with your established trees and quiet pockets of enduring love. Visionary planners. Places for growing up tucked away in this little suburban wonderland. Greened and paved and tamed from the dry wilderness.
The report that I’m not writing is about high speed trains in Australia – a network will effectively be creating more dormitory suburbs around Sydney and Melbourne. What kind of suburbs are we building these days? Bigger houses, larger roads?
It’s raining again, with drips and rustles, and I think of my fortune to live in a city that breathes. The cockatoos have certainly got something to say about it.

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Winter and Withering http://lucubratory.com/raphael/winter-and-withering/ http://lucubratory.com/raphael/winter-and-withering/#comments Sun, 18 Dec 2011 12:00:21 +0000 http://lucubratory.com/?p=40 A short, short story. I’m trying to think of ways it could be longer, but they’re not coming. I might revise it before I do anything else with it. This is the first tale I’ve finished set in the world I’ve been dreaming up with Miss Zoë (also on this blog) – a world of growing words and personal weather, of underground printing presses and sinister trains, of publishing pirates and much, much stranger things besides.
Zoë – I know he’s writing stories – maybe the laws ease up after the events with Miss Staedler-Parker and Oliver Dolour?
The rest of you – hehe I might as well be talking in code.
Anyhow, enjoy this one:


 

Winter and Withering
A Tale

 

Dedicated to Danny, Emily, Sasha, Nate and Miles, for their words.

 

The city of Rhyme rests on the banks of the wide River Spine, and across two hills. The larger, Type Hill, can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. Its brilliantly white mansions and wide streets all but sparkle in afternoon sunlight. The smaller hill is often forgotten, for it is less of a hill and more of a hump, and the old houses which cover it have, over many centuries, lowered it further into the ground with the weight of their collected lives.
Nevertheless, if a pale and unfit man were to make his way up its cobbled alleys, by the time he reached the top, he would be quite wheezy. The weather did not help matters – the morning had been dark and rainy, and the foreboding clouds hanging over the man’s head made it hard to see clearly, so as he reached the level top of Tumble Hill, he slipped on a smooth protruding cobble and fell to the ground. Cursing loudly, he picked himself up. The knee of his pants – his only good pants – was ripped, and there was a dirty gash on the ball of his palm. He looked around, but luckily, nobody was in the narrow lane to see him stumble. The man took the chance to steady his breath and sucked folornly at his burning palm. All in all, it was not a good start to the day. His morning tea had tasted like soup, his egg had been laid by a miserable chicken and did not want anything to do with him, and his last bottle of ink was as empty as his pockets – though less full of lint. As if they were matching his feelings, the clouds above his head grumbled with the promise of rain. The man squared his shoulders, did what he could about the tear in his pants, and walked up to the squat brown door of his destination. The sign above the door proclaimed, in blocky capitals, “A. B. Withering & Son, Pawnshop.” ‘& Son’ was crossed out in faded chalk. A smaller handpainted sign underneath said “All Weather To Be Left Outside.” The man shrugged off his clouds with a small despondent sigh, and walked through the door to the sound of a bell. His clouds drifted up the alley, where they sat brooding above a pub.

 

The pawnshop was as dusty and dark as the space behind a wardrobe – with the difference being that the dust there is made of dead moths and household arguments, while the dust in the shop was made of poverty, forgetting, and regret. The man did not know which kind was worse, but he felt immediately like walking back out. Clamping the feeling tightly behind his teeth, he trotted over to the high counter. There did not seem to be anyone around. The man wondered idly if pawnshop keepers themselves had been pawned off by disappointed wives and busy children, and never collected, which would have gone a long way to explaining why anyone would choose to be a pawnshop keeper and why they looked so very forgotten. He was interrupted in this promising train of thought by the appearance, above the counter, of the pawnshop keeper’s hair, which was wispy like dead mayflies, and which was followed before too long by the rest of the pawnshop keeper. He had a face like the moon, grey and pitted with memories, and wore a waistcoat made of pocketwatches.
“Yes?” he said. His voice fitted him, though the man could not say how.
“H-uh, hullo,” said the man. “My name is Florian, Florian Winter… I have an account.” He said this with a great sadness in his small, quavering voice. Nothing could have made his embarrassment greater. Nothing could have made his regret less painful.
The moon-faced man peered at him. “Ah. Yes, I remember you. Are you collecting?” His mean eyes added, “I very much doubt.”
“No,” said Florian, in confirmation. “No, I need to sell.”
The wispy hair disappeared momentarily behind the counter, and returned with a large ledger.
“Your account isn’t very good, Mister Winter,” said the pawnshop keeper, scanning a page. “It isn’t very good at all.”
“I know,” said Florian. “I know, but I can’t make rent. Please let me sell. I’ve got good wares. And I’ve got a story in the post. It’s a good one. A mystery. They’ll pay me for sure. Ten crows, and thirty more when it’s published.”
The man leaned in closer.
“You’ve been pawning here for four months, Mister Winter. Four. I’ve not seen a crow from you in all that time. And I know for a fact that before you came here, you were pawning with Mister Durlew in Wending Lane. And he never saw a crow neither. I don’t mind, Mister Winter. I’m not saying I mind. Time’s running out on your old wares already, a week more and they’ll be sold. But I’m just of the personal opinion, Mister Winter, that the more wares you sell, the less chance you’ll have of ever getting them back. If you see what I mean. It’s a-” he glanced down at the ledger. “A vicious cycle, Mister Winter.” The mean eyes met Florian’s.
“I need to sell,” Florian repeated, lowering his.
The man clasped his dusty hands over the edge of the counter. “Tell me.” Florian felt small and eaten.
“Verily,” he said, shuffling uncomfortably in his shoes. “Obstruction. Frippery.”
“Verily I’ve got,” said the man. “I can give you a pilcrow each for the other two. Any more.” It wasn’t a question. He knew Florian had more.
“Verisimilitude,” Florian continued. “Augury, mannequin, periphery, paraphernalia. Sarcophagus. Derelict. Winnowy. Tincture, lucubration, lugubrious, sallow.” The moon-faced man scribbled in the ledger as he spoke.
“A pilcrow apiece for derelict, tincture and sallow, half a crow for augury and periphery and sarcophagus. Hmm. Two crows for lucubration. And two for verisimilitude. I have the others. More.”
As the words were written down in the ledger, Florian felt them being drawn out of his head like the river mosquitos drew his blood at night. He no longer remembered what he had said, and felt empty and crushed and as if he were betraying his very tongue. He racked his brains for more words, but none more came. He thought as the man’s gaze pinned him to the dusty old floor.
“Despair, despondency, desperation,” he intoned. “Poverty, beggarly, insolvent. Hollow. Hopeless. Desolate. Void.”
The pawnshop keeper cut into him with pitiless eyes.
“Oh, Mister Winters,” he said. “I already have all of those.”

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Vincent http://lucubratory.com/raphael/vincent/ http://lucubratory.com/raphael/vincent/#comments Sat, 19 Mar 2011 12:00:18 +0000 http://lucubratory.com/?p=13 This is a short story I wrote about one of the main characters of the webcomic I write and my friend Nate draws; it can be seen here. I’m pretty happy with it and it is absolute fun to read aloud.


For Nate

 

I came home. I pulled out my keys. I tried a key in the lock, but it didn’t work. It slipped against it clumsily. I looked at the keyring in the dim moonlight. I picked another key, and tried opening the lock again. It didn’t work either. I picked another key. Vincent came out of the shadows.

“You know, if you don’t open the door on the third try,” said Vincent, “the monsters peel themselves from the woodwork.”

“And what happens then?” I asked.

“The only thing they leave is the woodwork,” said Vincent, and vanished into the shadows. I pushed the key the whole way in. It turned, and the door swung open with a whisper of hinges. I went inside. The house was dark and grey and quiet as fur. I closed the door. I put the keys on the shelf. I opened the kitchen door. As I opened it, I heard another door open, somewhere, close. Vincent came out of the shadows.

“You know, when you open a door and another door closes,” said Vincent, “it’s a monster slipping away.”

“Is it scared of me?” I asked.

“Don’t be foolish,” said Vincent. “It’s just finding a better place.” Vincent vanished into the shadows.

I went through the house and opened all the doors. I checked under all the beds. I opened all the cupboards. I lifted up all the cushions. I found no monsters. I went into the kitchen. The kitchen was safe and bright. I turned all the lights on, and left the fridge door open, and turned on the light in the oven, and put the kettle on and turned the radio on really loud, loud enough to drown out the kettle. I sat in the middle of the room. The fridge started beeping at me. Vincent came out of the shadows.

“You know, if you keep the fridge door open long enough,” said Vincent, “the monsters slink up at you from inside.”

“Where do they live?” I asked.

“In the vegetable drawer, of course,” said Vincent. “With the carrots and the avocados.”

“What do they look like?” I asked.

“Like fangs that snakes lost,” said Vincent. “Like oiled oyster shells without eyes.” Vincent vanished into the shadows. I closed the fridge door. It seemed safer that way.

I put on my biggest, cosiest jumper. I put on my warmest, safest socks. I pulled the plaid rug from the linen cupboard, and wrapped myself in it, and sat in my bedroom, clutching a cup of tea. I drank some of the tea, and it made me feel better. I felt calm enough to read a book. I put the tea on the side of the table. Vincent came out of the shadows.

“You know, if you leave the tea so long that it gets cold,” said Vincent, “the monsters coil around your toes. They crush your throat.”

“Why do they care about my tea?” I asked.

“They just like it warm,” said Vincent, and vanished into the shadows. I drank all the tea in one big gulp, and it scalded my tongue. It seemed better that way.

Before I went to bed, I checked the whole house. I checked it for electrical appliances left on and for horrors I had heard of. I found one heater still hot and one light in the bathroom still lit. I found no horrors. I brushed my teeth. I spit and gargled. I left the bathroom light on, in case I wanted water in the night, and went to the bedroom. I climbed into my pyjamas. Vincent came out of the shadows.

“You know, if you leave the bathroom light on all night,” said Vincent, “it draws moths.”

“I don’t see what’s so bad about moths,” I said.

“The moths aren’t the thing,” said Vincent. “The moths draw other things.”

“Do they eat the moths?” I asked.

“No,” said Vincent. “They watch.” He vanished into the shadows.

I went to the bathroom and turned off the light. It was the sensible thing to do. It was pitch black getting to my bedroom, and I hit my knee on a badly placed set of drawers. I climbed into bed, sore. I fell asleep quickly. I had soundless dreams. Vincent came out of the shadows.

“You know, if you have soundless dreams,” said Vincent, “it means something is blocking your ears while you sleep.”

“What sort of thing?” I asked.

“It has a name,” said Vincent, “but you never hear it. It’s blocking your ears, you see.” He vanished into the shadows. I woke up screaming. There was something in the room with me. It was the things that wait for moths. Without mouths. Without eyes. Like slick slinky oyster shells. It was the shadows. I vanished into the shadows.

Vincent came out of the shadows.

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Absalom Jones http://lucubratory.com/raphael/absalom-jones/ http://lucubratory.com/raphael/absalom-jones/#comments Sun, 13 Mar 2011 12:00:41 +0000 http://lucubratory.com/?p=11 This is a story about the things that happen to you when you do things you didn’t know you weren’t supposed to. It contains murk.


 

Haunt End was not the sort of place a man wanted to find himself at midnight on a Witching Eve, when the moon is dark and the stars cold and distant. Yet it was Haunt End that Absalom Jones found himself walking through, with a hurry in his step, as the clocks struck twelve and the cats cackled mirthlessly in the rooftops – for Witching Eve is the one night when cats shed their everyday forms and ride in the skies on cursewood brooms. Absalom Jones pulled the tattered ends of his coat tighter to his chest against the cold and strode onwards, when a sudden voice pulled him short. 

“Spare a penny, Absalom Jones?” it rustled from a dark doorway. It sounded like many-legged things slithering through dead leaves. Many many-legged things.

“Who’s there?” asked Absalom Jones. “How do you know my name?” He peered into the darkness, which was like a clot of ink. As he stared, it slowly formed into a man who unpeeled himself from the doorframe and stood within it – a short, dark man with long, dark hair, the colour of leafmould and smelling the same, wearing no shirt but a huge fur coat, and no pants but huge brown boots.

“Who are you?” asked Absalom Jones.

“I asked my question first,” replied the man peevishly. Absalom Jones reached into his pocket and pulled out a copper penny, which he offered the man, all without taking his eyes off him. The man grabbed it. His hands were slick and clammy and cold, and Absalom Jones shivered.

“That’s better,” creaked the man, appraising his coin. Then he returned his attention to Absalom Jones.

“My name is Dee,” he said, and flicked a black tongue over his lips. “And yours is well-known about these parts.”

“It is not,” replied Absalom Jones. “I’ve never been here.”

“Then,” said Dee, “your fame precedes you.”

“I’ve no fame neither,” replied Absalom Jones. “I’m just a grave-digger.” He turned to leave, but a gaunt, hairy hand shot out of the clot of Dee and grabbed him by the forearm.

“Get off!” shouted Absalom Jones, pulling sharply. Dee’s grip was strong and heavy and chilly, like old roots. Absalom Jones struggled more, tottered backwards, and pulled Dee out of the doorway, from where he came with a wet tearing crunch. The dark clot remained in it. In the light of the stars, Absalom could see that Dee’s skin was dark; not dark like the skin of the gypsy dock-workers, but dark like mud, and death, and the water in still ponds. In some places, it seemed to show through to the bones beneath, and the bones were mottled and mossy.

“What manner of demon are you?” yelped Absalom Jones in terror, and crossed himself with his free hand. “Let go, hag!”

“Your fame does preceed you,” nodded Dee, finally letting go. Absalom Jones backed into a wall, and crossed himself again.

“Please let me go,” he whimpered. Dee appraised him with still eyes.

“You have done much wrong, Absalom Jones,” Dee spoke softly, and each word slithered from his lips and dropped like heavy beetles to the cobbles. The rare night air thickened – thickened and begun to smell of the things that have no eyes, that live by sound in moist places, and are nameless.

“I’ve been an good Christian man,” moaned Absalom Jones, to whom no salvation was forthcoming.

“Yes,” agreed Dee. “You have done much wrong.”

“I’m not really Christian,” back-tracked Absalom Jones, teeth chattering in fear. “I’m a Jew!”

“What you are,” spoke Dee, and pulled himself into the air till he stood like Death and fury, “is of little consequence to the crimes you have commited. Repent, Absalom Jones.”

“I repent,” screamed Absalom Jones, as Dee of the roots and the dark places slunk towards him. “I repent, I repent!”

“But why repent when the crime is not known?” whispered Dee in Absalom Jones’ ear. “Shall I tell you?”

Absalom Jones whimpered something in a language only the ones soon to die can speak. The air filled with rot; it hung from the wall behind Absalom Jones in thick slivers of moss, in white stringy roots that crawled into his ears. Huge pale mushrooms burst from the pavement. Absalom Jones crawled with sweat and beetles, with worms and maggots. He screamed, and mould tumbled from him.

“You’ve tombed men in the ground,” spoke Dee in a voice that men only hear once. “Women, too. Children, too, Absalom Jones. You’ve shut them in the loam. They have no place to go. They have no place to be. They rot and decay, Absalom Jones, rot and decay. And their souls rot with them till they look like black mushrooms. And still they stay souls, Absalom Jones. Rotten souls with no escape. That is your crime.”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he screamed. “I’m sorry!” But it was far too late for Absalom Jones, for inside he was already crawling with rot, and his eyes turned white and murky, and he slumped like a rag of swamp water to the cobblestones, and stirred no more.

Dee smiled a horrible smile, then limped and slunk away from the alley in Haunt End, and nothing was left there the next morning but the rotten body of Absalom Jones, and a small pale mushroom, and an old parchment card, on which was scrawled the name ‘Dee Kay’.

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The Worst Christmas Ever http://lucubratory.com/raphael/the-worst-christmas-ever/ http://lucubratory.com/raphael/the-worst-christmas-ever/#comments Sun, 06 Mar 2011 12:00:58 +0000 http://lucubratory.com/?p=9 I wrote this at two in the morning after finishing Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and then stumbling onto this story by Joey Comeau.


Santa Claus was lying in our fireplace. Dead. Very dead. The little brown tiles he had landed on, head-first, were covered in a growing pool of ruddy blood. His huge booted feet were still up the chimney. A grimace of sudden shock was plastered across his jowly, bearded face.

“I don’t think that was supposed to happen,” said Mina. She was not my identical twin, but looked a lot like me anyway. She was tall and blonde and bright, and standing in the middle of the living room in her pyjamas and looking at Santa’s body.

“No, I really don’t think so either,” I said. Santa smelt like pine needles and wet fur and reindeer musk.

“The reindeers are probably still up there on the roof!” I moaned. “Reindeer? Reindeers?”

“Who cares?” yelped Mina, then glanced in the direction of our parents’ room. “Alright. Quick. Think! We have to do something – get rid of Santa’s body.”

“We do?” I said. The corpse grimaced at me painfully. I was perfectly happy to climb into bed and pretend nothing had happened.

“Yes, we do!” she whispered angrily. “We can’t just leave him! Our parents will notice! There’ll be questions!”

“They might not notice… they don’t believe in him…”

“Sam, you moron, it doesn’t matter how much you don’t believe in someone if his body is crammed up the fireplace and bleeding all over your tiles! Ugh.”

“Right. Yes. Fine. Uh, let’s…” I stopped. “Is he heavy? Can we take him somewhere?”

“Where?”

I thought for a bit. Somewhere with no people. Or reindeers. Reindeer?

“Ooh!” I remembered. “The skip at the back of the supermarket down the block. There’ll be nobody there.”

“You sure?”

“I swear.”

“Alright. Let’s drag him.” We grabbed an arm each, after shifting the Christmas tree, and pulled him out of the living room and into the hall. His head dripped little rubies of blood onto the carpet, and his body smudged them into wet stains as we pulled. He was heavy, after all – very heavy, like a sack of bricks, and just as bad to pull. Mina’s pulling helped more than mine and I kept trying to pull harder to catch up to her. We managed to get him through the living room door, past our parents’ room and past little Maddy’s – I think we woke her up, but little Maddy’s the sort of really quiet kid who doesn’t ask questions at two in the morning, so she just stared at us with big white eyes from her bed and then lay back down.

The hardest part was dragging him out onto the street. The front door was okay, and then there were steps, but just when we thought the coast was clear, a big gang of drunks came wandering down the street, and I felt scared even though I had Santa’s corpse with me. But after they left, we still had all the block to go to get to the shops. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life – harder than the beep test, harder than a marathon or a hundred metre race or anything. My arms felt numb and pained and blistered all at once, and the fact that Santa’s expression changed at one point – we must’ve bumped him against the path really hard – really didn’t help make me feel better. We dragged in silence, panting and puffing. Some of the reindeers trotted with us, a few steps behind, and even though they seemed concerned and friendly, it made me feel uneasy.

But finally we got him to the skip, which was behind the supermarket through a little alley closer to our side of the road, which was good. The skip smelt awful, and we had to have the heavy metal lid of it open for so long, what with trying to lever and push and pull Santa’s body into it, that I felt like I’d smell of old fish and sour milk and vegetable peelings forever. It wasn’t easy, but we managed it in the end. When we’d finished, you could only see the tip of one of Santa’s shiny boots sticking out a corner of the skip, and we both decided we weren’t keen on the idea of climbing in there with Santa and rearranging his limbs so he’d fit better, so we just walked home. The reindeers stayed behind, all big and silent. I felt desperately tired. But when we got back home, we still hadn’t finished, because Mina handed me a sponge and we had to clean the carpet. It did very little. You can still see the stains pretty clearly, but our parents never asked about them much.

 

When school started, the next year – we were in year six, which was fun because we were finally in different classes so people stopped asking us if we were twins (yes) and were we identical (no) and how come we looked the same (don’t know) and did we have to share our clothes (only our school uniforms, sometimes) – we asked around how our friends’ Christmases were. Most of them seemed better than ours. We decided ours was the worst Christmas ever. But then Frankie Black came up to me at the end of lunch and said Santa had had a heart attack on his nice living room sofa, and Annie McClaren told Mina that Santa had fallen off her roof and gotten impaled on the garden fence – so we worked out it happened to some kids some years and some kids others. But Santa definitely won’t be coming to our place again. Except maybe for little Maddy. But I really hope she’ll wake us up when she finds him dead, because she’s very small and not very good at walking to the shops by herself.

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