As I sat in the taxi home from the office I thought about what I would watch whilst eating my dinner. There was the action thriller about a sushi delivery boy who secretly worked for the CIA. That sounded shit. There was the French existential drivel I had been given by a colleague I wanted to sleep with. I could probably just pretend I had watched that, she wouldn’t even know the difference. And there was the documentary about a heroin addicted Jazz musician who had choked to death on the reed of his own clarinet. The traffic was really bad and the taxi stunk of cigarette smoke, so I paid the driver and walked the rest of the way home.
Back in the flat I reheated last night’s left-over pasta and thumbed through the movies, finally deciding to watch my collection of tropical fish float round their tank, hoping I could finally catch which one it was that had been eating the others. I left my dish in the sink and took the whisky from the cupboard.
As the first drops of scotch roused the ulcer in my stomach, I turned on my computer and checked my emails for the millionth time that day. Inbox 1. I knew that this was probably a request to try penis enlargement pills (they don’t work by the way) or a forwarded email with a hilarious picture of a kitten doing something hilarious.
The message was a reply to a recent article of mine about the decline of a local artistic movement. The author of the email, a Mr Frederique Haley, was apparently very upset about a passing reference I had made as a metaphor regarding a famous bank robbery that had happened in the region some years ago.
He told me he his father had been killed as an innocent bystander in the following shoot out with police and that I was rather irresponsible for using the event to describe a showdown between local beat-box vocalists.
Now it might had been my ulcer talking, probably more likely the whisky, but I felt a deep sense of regret that I had offended Mr Haley. How it must of hurt him and brought back terrible memories to hear the night of his father’s death being compared to a group of young men in trousers several sizes too big imitate engine noises with their larynxes to impress a crowd of teenage girls. I wrote back immediately, apologising profusely for my carelessness.
The next day at work I read some critiques about the constipated French film I hadn’t watched and tried to impress my attractive colleague. She confessed to me that she had been given the film by some guy who wanted to sleep with her and hadn’t actually watched it, but thought that it would be something I would be ‘into’. She resumed her online conversation with a man who probably had a body that looked like it had just come out of an oven and I slipped away back to my desk.
My heart began to beat a little faster when I saw a reply from Frederique in my inbox. Perhaps he had not been sufficiently satisfied, offended even, by my apology. Maybe he intended to take the issue up with Editor. Christ I didn’t need that. I was on my last legs in this place as it was. I held my breath as I opened the mail and didn’t release it until I had read the reply through at least three times.
Apparently Frederique Haley hadn’t actually been offended by my article. Because, apparently, Frederique Haley didn’t exist. Rather than explain what sat before me I have decided to just reproduce it in full.
‘Look, I am sorry to have alarmed you yesterday.
I was not actually upset about the robbery thing.
I hadn’t even heard of it until I read your article.
I just wanted to write to you because I love your work, really.
I didn’t want you to think I am some kind of stupid groupie.
I am sure you have loads of those*
You are gonna think I am a total madwoman.
(*author’s note- I don’t)
I sat for a while trying to decide what I thought about this letter and whether or not I should write back. But fortunately my editor arrived at my desk and threw an article I had written, but he had not read, in my face and told me it was a piece of shit. I don’t think five minutes passed that whole day without me thinking about Sofia.
When got home I ignored the dishes and the tropical fish (despite noticing that yet another one had been devoured whole) and went straight to my computer. I had read her email so many times at work that I knew it by heart. I spent at least an hour editing my reply, meticulously analysing every line, deleting it, then writing it again.
I laboured to make my response sound casual, I didn’t want to spoil her fantasy that there were hoards of other women hanging on my every written word. Keeping the reply brief, I ended with a question to her, something I was sure would provoke further discussion between us.
Before I went to bed I turned my attention to the fish, a murderer among them, the others dumb to tell me who it was I should remove from the tank to save their scales. I had my suspicions about the blue and yellow one. He had this look in his eye.
Over the coming days and weeks I wrote to Sofia every night, and every morning I would arrive at my desk to find her reply. I tried to keep up my facade but it didn’t last long. She told me about her life, her formally abusive father, now infirm, whom she was caring for. I told her of mine, the daily grind of finding meaningful observation in things I considered to be useless and insignificant.
A change was happening to me with her every word, my colleagues finding less reward in sniggering behind my back, my editor feeling less power with every insult he threw at me. I didn’t give a fuck about them anymore. I had something else.
The day we finally met I had woken up to find only two remaining fish in the tank. The blue and yellow one was gone. I actually felt guilty for suspecting him. All that remained was the fluffy tailed one and the one with a deformed left fin. I had never suspected either, one for its beauty, the other for its disability. But soon enough I would know.
‘Let’s meet. Outside the market. Tonight. 8pm.’
I think I might have actually laughed out loud at first. But as the day nudged forward I began to worry. There was a part of me that had hoped this dialogue would never lead anywhere, because leading somewhere would mean new opportunities that I might fuck up. And then what? Back to the way things were? That could never happen. I couldn’t stomach it. I shouldn’t have to.
On the way home I worried what she might think of me. She had an idea what I looked like from my profile in the paper. I didn’t look much better or worse than that. And she had even heard my voice on the radio that time. But what of her?
I stopped in street outside the graveyard a few blocks from my house and realised something. I didn’t care. She could be fat, bald, made of wax or have whiskers growing from her elbows. But I was in love with her. Yes. I was in love with her and nothing else in the world mattered.
In the flat I looked for a particular tie, then a particular shirt, trying things on then throwing them down. The clock was edging ever nearer to 8 and I stuffed all the discarded outfits in the closet and walked to the door in the clothes I had been wearing all day. I had one last look around the flat, checking for details in case I might bring Sofia back with me tonight. I barely noticed that the fish tank was empty.
On the way I had worried that I would be late and started to run. I didn’t even have her phone number. What if she thought I was not coming?
At the crossroads I could see the market. There was nobody there. I checked the time and found I was five minutes early. I stopped for a minute to catch my breath, sweating all over. She can’t see me like this, I thought, I need to calm down. I leaned against the wall of a bar and tried to steady my breathing.
‘Hey.’ came a voice from the open window of the bar. ‘I was early. Come in.’
I indicated to the waiter that I was meeting someone. My shirt was covered in sweat but it was dark inside, the only light from tiny candles on tables. I had regained my confidence by the time I got to the corner of the room by the window. I looked around and there was only one set of eyes staring at me.
For the minutes it took the barman to bring my drink I tried to steal glimpses of her. Was she really this beautiful? She was staring at me the entire time, I couldn’t bring myself to focus.
After a couple of gins everything was starting to come together. She was everything I could have ever imagined. I could finally put a voice and a face to those letters. This was romance. This was what Hollywood dreamed about. My heart felt like it was going to beat a hole in my chest.
We were both quite tipsy by the time the bill came. Her face went cold and sour.
‘I don’t want to go back tonight. I don’t want to go back ever.’ I began to mumble how she could stay with me, how I would look after her. But Sofia was shaking her head. ‘Let’s go to Europe. Let’s go. Tonight.’
I thought about this for less than a second. I could leave this place and all the things I hate with this girl tonight. We could get the 5am boat to Cyprus. I have money, I have been saving. A new beginning with a new mind and a new way of thinking and a beautiful girl who loved me.
She paid the bill and we walked to my bank so I could draw out all the money we needed to get us there, stuffing it in my pockets like bits of newspaper.
On the way back to my flat she stopped outside the graveyard where I had realized I loved her.
‘You never did ask who Frederique Haley was.’
She led me through the gates, past gravestones and statues of angels. At an enclosed tomb that had been eaten away by storms she stopped and kneeled down, brushing away the dust from a plaque I could not read in the darkness.
‘He was a writer, his work kept me going though all these years.’ She looked at me nervously and then produced a camera from her bag. ‘Could I, take a picture of you here?’
I struck a few different poses as she was backing away trying to get the right frame. She kept moving, further and further, a sad look appearing on her face. I was about to suggest that the picture would look better from a different angle when she started to run. And then I felt the shadows moving in the darkness.
As the blood streamed down my face, and the two men took all that was in my pockets, I saw fish around my head. Swimming and swimming.
Beirut Beat 2011
Confessions of a five year old thief (7/2011)
On Sundays I would often go green grocery shopping with my parents. You may think this an activity not wildly anticipated by your average 5 year old. But the store where my Mother would buy broccoli and tomatoes and beans for the week was not your average grocery.
The ‘Farm Shop’ as it was unofficially known by the members of my family was located a pleasant 15 minute drive into the true countryside that bordered the suburban area where we lived. Whilst not quite an actual farm, the place had various docile animals, including a couple of chickens, a dog and a grumpy goose that would hang around the courtyard.
Once I had finished chasing these poor creatures around the yard I would join my parents inside the store and begin to graze from the ‘eating’ fruits, a stack of aging produce which the owners had deemed surplus to retail requirements. As I write these words I can’t help but pine for those simple days, when chasing a goose around a muddy yard followed by a feast of over-ripe bananas was enough to fill my heart with joy. But sometimes the simple things are not enough.
One fateful day whilst standing at the counter with my father, I felt myself gripped by an emotion which I now know to be the feeling of greed. Yes I had been allowed to chase poultry and yes I had been supplied with all the squishy strawberries I could eat. But I was not satisfied. I wanted more.
On the top of the counter were stacks of various crisps, sweets and other impulse-buy products. My eye had been caught by a packet of Foxes Glacier Mints, a brand of boiled sweets that feature an illustration of a polar bear on the label. A quick search online has informed me that these mints still exist today and that the polar bear’s name is ‘Peppy’.
Whilst my father was playing around in his wallet I stared longingly at Peppy the Polar Bear. I wanted those mints and I did not want to ask for them. As the grocer turned his back to me and I reached out and grabbed a packet, shoving them into my underpants before standing still and trying to look cool. By the time we got into the car my heart was beating so hard I was certain my parents could hear it from the front seat.
At bed time, after my mother had tucked me and kissed me good night, I reached under the pillow and slipped one of the stolen mints into my mouth. It tasted sweet. Far too sweet.
The next morning I smuggled the mints, again in my underpants, onto the school bus, where I planned to give them out to the other children. I did I not particularly enjoy their sickly taste but there was much more to it than that. The little packet of contraband had started to fill me with woe. They were a bloodied handkerchief which I must dispose of, the very thought of them down there next to my genitals causing me to shiver and sweat with guilt.
I handed the first few out with ease, giving free sweets away to children never being a particularly difficult task. I was even starting to feel popular until the boy sitting next to me, suspicious at my uncharacteristic generosity, piped up with a question. ‘Where did you get those sweets?’
Now, with over 2 decades of hindsight to mull this question over I could really have given many believable responses. But the paranoia of a 5 year old first-time thief had gotten the better of me. Had he been talking to the Farm Shop owners? Perhaps my parents had asked him to keep an eye on me? Maybe he will tell a teacher? I scowled at him and shoved the mints back in my pocket, returning them to the safe haven underneath my testicles when he was not looking.
Inside the classroom I could not concentrate. Those mints, those now very sweaty mints, throbbing, beating away like the tell-tale heart. I had to be rid of them. Excusing myself to the toilet, I found an enormous cabinet full of books in the corridor and threw them underneath. That old bookshelf had been sat there for years, it was so heavy that nobody could move it even if they wanted to. Or at least I thought.
And to cement my bad fortune, later on that morning, just when I thought I was safe, our matronly teacher Mrs Robinson decided she needed to move that fucking cabinet. She picked up the packet and showed it to the class. ‘Who do these belong to?’ I sat silently, biting the inside of my cheek.
‘They belong to Peter,’ squealed the boy from the bus, ‘Peter, Peter Wylde’. A conspiracy for sure. She handed them back to me, the crotch sweat and dust from the floor now making them look far from edible. The wrapping paper around the sweets had been torn apart right up to Peppy’s image, obscuring his form slightly. It almost appeared as though he was grinning at me.
On the bus home I was beginning to feel desperate. But then lightning struck. The toilet! Of course. If it could successfully whisk away father’s gargantuan offerings to another dimension then it could surely make these damned sweets disappear.
I got inside the house and ran past my mother towards the stairs, desperate for the redemption of the flush. But before I got up the first step my mother called me back. ‘What are these?’ In my haste, Peppy had wriggled free of my scrotum, tumbled down my trouser leg and was now lying on the hallway floor between myself and my mother.
We stared at each other for what felt like hours, whilst I opened my mouth and closed it again like a goldfish, trying in vain to formulate a decent explanation. ‘Well…’ I said finally, and then burst into a flood of tears.
I never got to chase the grumpy goose ever again.
By Beirut Beat
The Fear (01/2012)
Another short story by Beirut Beat…
‘Ring ring, ring ring’
Came the noise from the phone that sits before me. Has it been hours, or days or months since it began? Four hard walls, a desk and nothing more in this dungeon, it has been decided that I can do without even a chair. The Chief prefers me to stand.
‘Ring ring, ring ring’
As it calls I grip the pencil with which I am to record my orders, yet the page in my book contains not a word. For I fear what the voice on the line will ask for, and though I beg only for silence, I cannot reach for that phone.
‘Ring ring, ring ring’
Beads of sweat stain the page like tears on a love letter. The heat from the next room where great fires do burn. And inside men in blue uniforms are busy with actions. Red stains mark their clothing as they work with sharp knives.
‘Ring ring, ring ring’
From the corner of the room a camera is recording. For my safety, they told me when I first walked through that door. Someone is watching, on a screen or computer, as I pace round in circles, leaving trails on the floor.
‘Ring ring, ring ring’
I try to remember a time before all this torture, but somehow my memory has washed into a blur. There is nothing in my mind but this constant bell ringing, and the faint smell of burning that seeps in from the next room.
‘Ring ring, ring ring’
Now the handle on the door is twisting and turning, and I know he is coming, for I have been bad. As it swings open the door brings with it illumination, not daylight but strip lights that blind my tired eyes.
‘Ring ring, ring ring’
Standing before me, and as angry as I predicted, The Chief, his uniform perfect and pristine. His face is like a gravestone that reads my own epitaph, in one hand a bag of money, in the other some keys. We stare at each, for seconds or hours, until silence is broken by the sound of a phone.
‘Ring ring, ring ring’
I do not dare say a word, for I know what is coming. He wants me to do it, but without being asked. Perhaps if I refuse, he will put me out of my misery. But he wants me, no, needs me to sit in this room. With a sigh and a smile he whispers with venom. ‘Answer. The. Phone.’
Ring ring, ring ring’
My quivering fingers slide onto the receiver, slippery with sweat and fear and despair. The terrible process is about to begin again. But there is still a chance for it to wail one last time.
‘Ring ring, ring ri…’
With a deep breath I am ready to take down instructions. But first, there is something I am required to say. I close both my eyes and my lips begin moving. Down on both knees I silently pray.
‘Hello, Dominoes Pizza. Can I take your order?’
The Glasfryn (01/2012)
A short story for Rasha
The trees outside the pub were straining in their roots against a powerful wind that was blowing in from the sea. The old walls of the building stood firm, but the windows shook and whistled with air trying to escape from the filthiness of the Welsh winter night. The well dressed diners clinked the last of their wine and toasted to television programs and a lone stranger stood patiently at the bar.
The man, still in his thick coat despite the warmth of the room, asked for a good pale ale. He stood watching the bar staff as the pint settled in his hand before taking a brief walk around the two dining rooms. There was barely a dozen people in the entire place. He took a seat in the corner and listened in to the people talking at the table next to him.
A ruddy faced man in a pastel jumper was leading the conversation. A friend of his had moved to Italy. Someone else had met a famous cross-country cyclist. His guests congratulated these achievements and gave their opinions and the stranger sat silently and stared at his drink.
As he eavesdropped, the stranger discreetly slipped a hand into his jacket and checked on something hidden inside the pocket. A woman changed the subject on the next table, something about computers, and the stranger made his way to the bathroom.
The toilet walls were lined with reproductions of 19th Century drawings, neatly hidden behind attractive frames. As the stranger unzipped his trousers, he looked at the poster in front of him depicting a doctor and nurse staring at each other with an absurd passion. An unconscious patient lay on an operating table between them, the word SHAME emblazoned in red lettering at the top of the picture.
The stranger looked around for the unfavorable cartoons of black firefighters that once must have been hilarious but now would be considered incredibly racist. He wondered whether somebody had complained about them, or perhaps, after years of proudly presenting them on the toilet wall, the owner of the bar had one day looked at them and thought ‘You know what…’
After re-zipping his trousers, the stranger slipped his hand into his coat pocket and began to remove something, stuffing it back in anxiously as he heard the toilet door swing open. It was the ruddy faced man with the friend who had moved to Italy. ‘Hello!’ he bellowed before struggling with the buttons of his chinos.
The stranger knew it would not be wise to let this fellow get a good look at him, but the awkwardness of an Englishman alone in a toilet with another man would see to that. As tomato face nervously cradled his penis like it was an injured bird, the stranger slipped out clutching his coat pocket.
It was not until after he had finished another pint did he feel it was safe to go back to the bathroom. Once inside he wasted no time, removing the bin from its place and behind it carefully placing the small package from his coat pocket. He moved the bin back to its original position and left the toilet, then the pub, without a single word.
Several glasses later, his face now glowing with wine, the final customer stumbled out of the bar towards his Audi. How he managed to get home without crashing into a tree is as much of a mystery as anything else that happened that night.
Within an hour the pub was quiet. Floors had been swept and lights had been switched off and the landlord and his wife were tucked up in bed, snoring harmoniously and dreaming of very different things. The only sound that could be heard aside from the howling winds and the tick tocking of the old clock above the bar was a rustling, scratching, nibbling sound from behind the bin in the male toilets.
Something was in that little package that had been concealed inside the pocket of the stranger. Something that now was tearing a hole through the paper with tiny claws and chewing through the string with sharp teeth. Through the hole in the package a tiny face was emerging. The face of a mouse.
Ignoring the rat traps in the corner and the little crumbs of pretentiously flavored crisps by the door, Bambi the mouse scurried through the pub as if he had been across those floors a thousand times. He did not stop to check his reflection in the highly polished sideboards or pay any attention to the lazy, fat cat who slept on the stairs. Bambi knew exactly where he was headed and he did not care for wasting time.
Inside the bedroom the landlord’s foot was poking out from the side of the bed. He lay still, now in silent slumber as his wife called out in her sleep the name of pig farmer from Brussels she had secretly met in an online chat room.
Bambi watched her for some moments, and, after he was certain she was asleep, crawled across the crumpled mess of her clothes that lay on the floor. Very carefully, as not to damage them, he picked up the underwear she had been wearing that day in his teeth and hurried back out of the room.
Outside the wind had died down, but this did not stop the underwear blowing around in the air like some sordid flag as he held them tightly in his jaws. He headed across the car park to the van with a foreign number plate that sat alone with its lights switched off. The door of the van slid open and a hand reached out to scoop up both Bambi and his prize.
The stranger inspected the underwear. Despite their journey, they were still warm. He opened a briefcase he had stashed under the back seat and placed the treasure in a special compartment along with other pairs of a similar color. He waited for Bambi to clamber up his jacket and into his pocket, then reached for the ignition and started the car.