Aftertaste

‘Dad,’ scolded Emelia, ‘that’ll be two pounds.’

‘What?’

‘For using the C-word. You said that word was double.’

Phil swore again. He’d implemented the new rule this morning, after Emelia’s foul-mouthed rant at her mother the night before. Typical, he thought. Another attempt to control coming back to haunt me.

He tried again with the barbeque’s controls. Swore again as the gas finally came through. ‘Why couldn’t it have done that to start with?’

‘That’ll be four pounds.’

Phil reached for his shades as Emelia ran back over the pool’s bridge into the house, no doubt to troll her classmates on social media. Then grime started blaring down from Julian’s window, the curtains of which were permanently drawn. Now the air was filled with more swearing, plus the pungent scent of skunk.

It wasn’t just the fact they were obnoxious, he thought as he started arranging his farm-shop sausages on the grill. Had he been in the office less, maybe he could have instilled a bit more discipline. But he’d spent the last ten years climbing the corporate ladder and in the case of the recent merger, had expertly pulled it up behind him.

He swore again as he remembered the day he told his staff the news.

‘Five pounds.’

Phil let loose a whole string of expletives, more out of surprise that his daughter had come behind unnoticed, then plied her with a full tenner and told her to get back on Facebook.

Still, he thought as he checked the spirits and mixers neatly lined up along his bar. All’s not lost. Those that didn’t get redundancy are still coming. Probably too relieved or thankful to say no.

In the end, though, only a third of them bothered to turn up. Led through the garden gate by the IT manager, Ben, every single one of them looked pensive and tense as they their carried four packs and wine up the garden path like meek offerings for their capricious God.

Phil tried some banter about the afternoon’s football fixtures but Ben looked deeply disturbed. His appraisal was on Monday and so he wouldn’t touch the lager he’d brought with him for fear of breaching ‘the lines’.

Thank God for Jerry, Phil thought as his flamboyant neighbour skirted the pool’s edge along with Belle, his trophy wife. He didn’t know them well, but Jerry was clearly a hard drinker and had brought a couple of neighbours from down the road. Stand-ins for my real friends, thought Phil, many of whom had stopped calling him since news of the merger had broken on local news.

‘How’s it all going since the chop?’ asked Jerry as Phil made awkward glances at Ben who was staring longingly at the wall.

‘Oh, we’re all working hard,’ replied Phil, a finger running across his own throat. Jerry took the hint and started praising the prowess of Phil’s barbeque instead.

‘Yeah, the flame’s fantastic,’ Phil agreed as he looked longingly at Belle’s breasts through his aviators. ‘You should see how quickly it cooks the meat.’

Everyone stopped talking as Julian appeared on the edge of the party, then made a bee-line for the sausages and sat with a paper plate near Ben and his bag of lager, now warming in the sun.

Jerry continued to set the pace at the mini-bar and Phil noticed Sheila was laughing too hard at his lewd jokes.

‘Jerry,’ said Phil tersely, ‘watch your drink.’

‘What, old boy? Your wife has just poured–‘

‘No not that one.’ Phil pointed under the pagoda with his greasy tongues. ‘On the wall.’

Jerry looked non-plussed.

‘Julian’s on medication. And he loves to sneak a drink!’

‘Oh!’

Bizarrely, Phil could see Ben was speaking to Julian and not only that, holding his attention. Raising the first smile Phil had seen in weeks. Phil made a note to ask Ben how he’d done it on Monday before realising that would be a definite breach of the lines.

Emelia came out of the house in hot pants and paraded herself around the pool’s perimeter so Julian took his plate and headed back inside in disgust. And then the grime started back up again, along with the unmistakable smell of skunk.

‘He’s 18 right?’ checked Jerry. ‘Don’t worry, my eldest was a complete bastard at that age too.’

‘Yeah,’ replied Phil. ‘The name for it’s depression.’

Jerry nodded politely but didn’t look convinced.

Why, Phil wanted to shout at the very top of his lungs, Julian’s depressed in the first place, when he has everything he could ever wish for.

But Phil did know why. Or at least, could sympathise because he felt it too. A foreboding cloud that overhung everything and ate away at whatever he’d won, as though it had all been gotten through ill means.

And that was truth, he realised. The pay-rise, the job, striving for weekends with vague friends he hadn’t managed to offend yet. The idle wife with the key to his account but who’d let herself go, the children on prozac and dressed in designer clothes, the pool and patio and the fucking barbeque. All a result of hard-nosed brinkmanship at director level, managing his way through a merger into a position worth double his normal salary.

He thought of the old-timers he’d made redundant and then those who were now overworked and struggling in their place. People like Ben and his team, twitching nervously near the wall and he wondered who was better off.

And this meat doesn’t even taste right, he said to himself, looking down in disgust at the sausages. But Jerry and his crew were too half-cut to notice and Ben was getting ready to lead his party home.

‘Sheila,’ he called out, but his wife was too busy laughing at Jerry so he waved a fiver at Emelia who was twerking in front of the patio’s mirrored door. ‘Get me a coke. And make sure it’s got a double shot of whiskey.’

The Cliff

A white space hangs above me and gives infinite room to think. To chew on a past filled with recrimination and a future full of smothered hope. ‘Be present in the here and now,’ they said, but now I’m here, scrambling around on the precarious cliff-face of my own thoughts and slowly losing height. But as I contemplate the sweet release of falling, hot thermals swirl in the air around me and I get the feeling I’m slowly growing wings.

One Track Mind

Sorry for the long absence and disappearing trick. I quit most forms of social media in January and haven’t looked back since. Facebook and Twitter were never platforms I felt happy with and I’ve found my productivity soars when I don’t take partake. All power to those who can work and still use them, but they seem to cloud my ability to write and think clearly, so that’s the main reason I don’t plan to return.

That doesn’t excuse the long hiatus here, but there’s been a huge amount going on with me personally, plus a novel which has needed all my time to write. As a result of my health condition (a CSF leak which I’ll explain more about in due course), resources are quite tight so it’s important I’m disciplined with how I spend my time. Otherwise nothing gets done at all.

That said, my novel’s progressing along nicely and approaching the final draft. It’s a full length science fiction story told entirely from one perspective and for that reason, has been quite a challenge to write. It started out as an experimental short story, but as is often the way, things quickly got out of hand. Four years on, and despite numerous false starts and rewrites, it now resembles something like a finished product and should be ready for publication next year.

As for other stuff, we’ll see. My new year’s resolution was to finish everything already started so that’s what I’ll continue to do. Experimental flash fiction will carry on being posted here and short stories should appear in a magazine near you. Of course, without social media, there’s very little way of publicising anything, but my main focus is on making it through the days and getting work done. As the old saying goes, if it’s good enough, the rest will take care of itself.

Rival Schools

20150415_103323~2The ice-cream van’s discordant song drifted through the tenements but any sighting had so far proved elusive. So much so, in fact, Henry was beginning to wonder if the song was a figment of his heat-addled imagination. But then his wife, Cassanndra, had also heard it and she looked in bad need of refreshment. And then there was his two year-old daughter, Maya, sprawled out on a picnic mat in their little park in North London.

Where all cultures come to clash and intersect, Henry thought to himself. And the streets are paid with slavery and debt.

‘Ice cream,’ said Maya, as though her father was keeping them all to himself.

‘I know, I know,’ he said, trying to placate her. But no matter how much he and his family all kept hankering for ice-cream, the van didn’t sound like it was getting any closer. If anything, it sounded like it was getting further away.

A stream of kids ran across the park and their shirts were so bright, it looked as if someone had spilt a packet of brightly coloured sweets upon the bare earth. Barbecued chicken mixed with the smell of skunk (courtesy of the lads smoking by the war memorial) and apart from the criss-cross smear of contrails up above, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Heat waves shimmered and appeared to melt the pines behind the church whilst Henry could hear the sound of rushing water and the boisterous shouts of teenagers far away.

‘Wait,’ said Cass. ‘Can you hear that? Some idiot has burst the water mains again.’

‘Cool,’ replied Henry, but his wife’s tutting reminded him she no longer found his sense of humour so funny or attractive. ‘Erm, I mean, sorry, what?’ he said, performing a mock outrage before shaking his head. ‘I don’t know eh? What a waste.’

Cass cast him a withered look through her sunglasses. ‘I should call the police.’

‘No, don’t!’ Henry was staring longingly at the torrent as it gushed up twenty feet into the air but murmured something about the lads smoking by the memorial instead.

‘So?’

‘So we don’t want them thinking we grassed them up. Get it? Grass?’

Cass groaned.

‘Never mind.’

Henry flapped warm air through his white shirt, which was now see-through, then looked down at his daughter. Who didn’t look tired at all. ‘Surely she’ll sleep tonight though, eh?’

Cass shrugged. Maya had been getting night terrors ever since they’d moved in two weeks ago and her shrieks were upsetting the neighbours through their thin partition walls. It was fair to say the couple were going through a painful learning process in coming to terms with what a grand a month bought you so close to Central London.

A heated shoe-box in a crack den, thought Henry privately. He didn’t dare ask what Cass thought but judging by the new layers of frost to their relationship, he felt he already had a good idea.

The kids sprinted back across the park. Henry watched them burn energy at a rate that felt far beyond him until they reached a copse of hidden woodland, and then they were gone. Behind the Rosebowl, or so he thought. The strange white and blue building with its name printed down its western side.

But when he walked around its manicured paths and gardens, there was no sign of any kids playing anywhere. Nor where they in the park.

There was a dead crow, lying amidst the leaves and judging by the heat and lack of stench, it could have only just died recently. Blue and purple petals were scattered around its head and behind it, a carving of a stick man had been cut into the bark of one of the trees.

Henry figured the kids must be back in the park by now, but when he turned back, all he saw was a man on a mobility scooter, shouting at his pack of fighting dogs. 

‘Come on,’ said Cass as he drew back to their mat. She was gathering their empty water bottles and food wrappers whilst Maya was wiping her brow with the hem of her mum’s skirt. ‘This van’s taking the piss. And I need to get ready for work.’

‘OK, cool. But let me stay here with Maya.’ The heat had wrung the life out of him and he knew it wouldn’t be any cooler back in the flat. Warm air rose up to collect in the upper reaches of their property – another unexpected bonus they’d only just discovered – and now it was summer, it was unbearably clammy during the afternoon and evening.

Cass didn’t argue. Just gave him Maya and then trudged back towards the block. Henry looked down at his daughter and delighted in the way she smiled back up him. ‘So,’ he said, half-jokingly, ‘fancy taking a dip with Daddy around the park?’

Maya didn’t fancy. More to the point, she still wanted ice cream. The sun had dipped behind the pines and the gang of boys smoking weed had long disappeared. All that remained of their presence were the usual collection of cans and stray butts and papers and Henry realised that apart from him and his daughter, the park was completely empty. Even the man in the mobility scooter had disappeared.

The kids are in the Rosebowl then, have to be.

But when he studied its entrance, like always, he became preoccupied with the question of how anyone could enter the damn thing.

For the Rosebowl was a small and ultra-modern looking prefab with rounded walls that not only wrapped the copse around it, but also seemed to meddle with time and space. Of course, that wasn’t true in the literal sense, yet Henry had his doubts. A hidden passage that ran from the road to its entrance ran parallel with the park’s perimeter fence and its gate was obscured by thick foliage and was always locked. He wasn’t sure who had built the structure, or when, but great care had been taken to sink it into a corner of the park behind a trellis of vines and creepers and beneath a tree of infra-red CCTV cameras.

He didn’t like to admit it to himself, but the place had become something of an obsession and he’d spent countless hours in the two weeks since they’d moved in walking around its perimeter, smoking cigarettes and eating ice creams, but only when he could get his hands on them. The way you could walk along parallel to the Rosebowl’s entrance and not realise you’d just passed it was unnerving. Especially now there were actual children inside. It seemed the Rosebowl was a futuristic club house to which you had to have the secret codes.

Suddenly he saw something move behind one of the portal windows. A small head. Then another. Some kind of assembly was taking place behind the glass. Henry couldn’t decipher their faces but he could hear them singing a tuneless song. Some kind of incantation or chanting

‘Funny kind of register,’ he said to himself.

The sound of the ice cream van broke his thoughts.

‘Ice cream, ice cream,’ cried Maya, louder than she ever had before.

‘OK, come on,’ he said, still disturbed by what he could hear from within the walls of the Rosebowl and now glad of the diversion. ‘And then we’ll go straight back home, OK?’

*

‘You’re tense,’ said Cass later that evening.

Henry just stared back at her.

Cass hadn’t gone to work after all. Her team leader at her zero-hours contract at the call centre had rung and cancelled her shift as she was getting out the shower. When Henry walked in through the front door eating an ice-cream with his daughter – and with nothing to offer her – she had given it to him with both barrels. Henry had then retreated back into the park for an hour or so. Texted Cass to say he was clearing his head.

‘Really,’ he replied, sitting down on the sofa next to her but sounding like he was very far away. ‘I can’t think why.’

‘There’s no need to be sarcastic, Henry. I’ve said I’m sorry.’

He sighed. ‘Look Cass, I’m not even bothered about that anymore.’

‘Clearly.’

‘Yeah, seriously. I’m actually more bothered by the school if you must know.’

‘The academy?’

‘Yeah the free school or whatever,’ he said, shrugging off the names as if they were irrelevant.

‘It’s an academy,’ said Cass slowly, ‘it says it on the sign.’

‘OK, fine. But seeing as you know so much about schools, enlighten me as to what they do in there all day.’

‘I don’t know,’ she said, unable to believe such a trivial thing was causing so much concern. But Henry didn’t expand or elaborate. Didn’t seem to know how. ‘Hey, hey,’ said Cass, facing him straight on the couch. ‘What’s the problem Henry? Henry, you’re scaring me. I don’t understand!’

For a long time, it seemed Henry was more interested with what was going on with his phone than anything his wife was saying. ‘I don’t know,’ he said eventually before suddenly sitting up as though he was now strong enough to remember. ‘I’d just like to know what kind of academy gets their kids to hold hands in a circle at sundown.’ It was only then he made eye contact. ‘Then gets them to start chanting.’

Code Red

code red

‘This is your God,’ said Janine, a large woman in a suggestive outfit two sizes too small for her and with a tongue that probed the right side of her mouth as she spoke.

‘What, this spreadsheet?’ asked Sadia, taking care to stash her notebook inside her handbag.

‘Yes,’ snapped the Team Leader, her breasts pressing into the back of Sadia’s head as she leant over and tapped her biro against the screen. ‘Just do everything it tells you and you’ll be fine.’

But Sadia wasn’t convinced. The tracker for My Adherence stretched so far she had to scroll right twice to reach the end and it felt imposing. Impossible even. Maybe that was the point.

The screen consisted of two bars, one on top of the other, the top bright and luminescent green and interspersed with orange blocks at regular intervals like a wall with Flemish house bricks. These were Sadia’s rest breaks – she had been allocated three each day – but whilst the pattern always changed every twenty-four hours, the name of the game was always the same.

‘Remember not to let your own bar fall out of synch by less than eighty-five per cent,’ said Janine, ‘otherwise you’ll be out of job. OK?’ She smiled and then walked away, leaving Sadia to deal with the sickly cloud of perfume that hung in her wake, as if she were trying to mask something.

Green, Sadia told herself staring back at the picture of her daughter on her phone’s lockscreen, then put that safely inside her bag as well, next to her notebook. If I always keep My Adherence on green, everything will be alright. It’s not a writing job, but fuck, it doesn’t need to be. She thought of her daughter again, then hit the call button on the software’s interface and started taking calls.

For the most part, it was fairly straightforward. But every time she was asked a question that she hadn’t been briefed on in training – which was often – Sadia would have to put the caller on hold in order to search the company intranet for answers, which would then result in her lovely green pattern turning into a deathly shade of blue. And then Janine would stand up and perform a series of passive aggressive body shapes in her direction.

*

Four hours passed like this, a war of two colours fought amidst a sea of irritated words, but just as Sadia was beginning to feel her spirit break, My Adherence informed her it would soon be lunch. If I can just keep myself conscious, she thought, I might be able to stick this one out.

‘It’s your lunch,’ said Janine as she ran back from the toilet, slightly breathless. One of Sadia’s colleagues called Jez was also returning to his chair, and it was from the same direction. He also had ruffled hair and was wearing a smug look on his face. ‘Take it, take it!’ Janine shouted, then pointed at Sadia. ‘You’re required by law you know…health and safety!’

Sadia stabbed with her forefinger at her handset but the damn thing wouldn’t turn off. The software had frozen and sent My Adherence into a subsequent code red. Now Sadia was getting what she had spent all morning trying to avoid; a rich seam of crimson ruining her percentages.

‘You need to sort that out,’ said Janine, pointing at Sadia’s with her red stilettos wide apart.

‘I know, I–‘. After what seemed like forever, Sadia managed to switch the code over to the correct shade of yellow, but then felt a twinge in her bladder as she realised yellow was the wrong colour for a visit to the toilet.

Janine watched on with disgust as Sadia changed the colour back to purple, then reminded her she was two minutes into her rest break.

*

After the toilet there were twenty two minutes left, so Sadia heated up her tupperware and ate her pesto in silence whilst the twenty-four hour news channel on the overhead plasma played back soundlessly with subtitles. There was no-one in the canteen – lunchtimes were individually staggered to make sure most employees ate alone – so she took some time to reflect and it seemed strange to her that after a morning dominated by colours, now she was away from her desk she could only see grey and beige walls and stainless steel kitchen units. She got out her notebook.

The only colour here belongs to the crisp packets in the vending machine.

*

The afternoon went well enough, but just before she was due to take her break, a call came through and Janine hissed through gritted teeth that Sadia would have to take it.

‘Yes, I’ve been told that my bin is contaminated,’ said a woman, from the sounds of it, reasonably educated and in her mid-to-late thirties. ‘Could I have a new one?’

‘Sure Madam.’ Normally Sadia would have asked more questions, but the call had crossed into her designated break period and now she was on a code red. ‘May I take your postcode please?’

The woman sighed hard down the phone and distorted the microphone. ‘Look, I’ve just moved in!’

‘But we need a postcode to process the call.’

‘Oh, alright!’ she shouted, as though it was anything but. ‘I’m going to have to get a letter, wait there!’

On and on went the code red, but Sadia couldn’t hang up. It had been made one of the commandments in her training; unless someone was swearing at her, she had to sit there and let them finish whatever it was they were doing. Fob them off ideally, but she hadn’t mastered that art yet and so all she could do was fidget in her seat as she watched the red mark continue to drain her score. Eighty seven per cent soon became eighty six.

‘It’s just the way it works around here,’ said Janine, noticing Sadia’s frustration but way too deep in the middle of a sext to bother stepping in. ‘It’s how we keep you keen.’

*

How to fly in such a culture, Sadia thought later, before realizing that like a turd, you could only ever float.

In the dying minutes of her shift, Janine had given her a staff orientation questionnaire to fill in on a tea-stained tablet and now Sadia was enjoying the chance to be creative with her words. ‘When you have to use passwords like ‘Bosses69’, she wrote under the section that asked for feedback, ‘you realise you aren’t part of a professional collective here, and that any success you do have depends on your ability to meld into the inefficiency of the system. That’s trying to tear out your soul,’ she added at the end before deleting, then tried to block out the sight of Janine’s bum as she paraded it up and down the corridor, presumably for Jez’s benefit but she could no longer be sure.

‘Learn how to be a machine’ she wrote under question 39 (How do you plan to enhance your future career?) and then watched on as an icon performed a quaint animation to indicate her data had been successfully dispatched.

‘It’ll matter little in the grand scheme of things,’ Sadia said to herself later as she walked back to her desk and it turned out that she was right. The questionnaire’s algorithm had been programmed to spot offensive words and hate-speech but no flags were ever raised for complaints against authority. And that made Sadia laugh, because she realized she was speaking a language no-one could read any more. Or could read, but no longer saw any point in trying to understand.

(c) 2016 Will Mason

Duality Television

UndertheBedVol04No08

An actor tries to boost his struggling career by going on a TV show called Panopticon. Described as Big Brother on acid, he ends up with much more than he’d bargained for.

So then, my first publication! I tend to write science fiction but this is a lot more ‘horror’ than anything I’ve done before. It was good to try something different though, and to see it find a home with an imprint like Under The Bed feels immensely pleasing. Just the artwork on the front cover alone looks fantastic. 

Anyway, you can buy a copy here if you’re interested and I sincerely hope you enjoy reading it if you do. There’s plenty more to follow. 

Break On Through

break on through

I returned from up north yesterday to learn that my first short story has been accepted for submission. Entitled Duality Television, it’s being published by Fiction Magazines under their horror imprint, Under The Bed. I must say, it’s a real honour to be able to contribute to such a fine publication so here’s hoping you all get to buy a copy very soon.

More news as I get it…