March 2017 entry – Number 92

I don’t know quite what it was about the young lady on the fish counter that sucked me in. Glum shop assistants tend to frighten me, but then her surly pout had a definite allure. Perhaps it was also the way she used her knife. Firm, when she was swinging it down to the counter, albeit not with the brutish force the guys at the market used. Soft when she was filleting. Tender, when she was scraping out innards or hosing out all the muck that got stuck on.

There was the intriguing fact she didn’t wear gloves but also didn’t want to touch the fish with any more fingertips than were necessary. The discrete way she brought the back of her hand to cover her nose when she needed to. The casual way she was snacking on a bag of prawns, slipping rather than cracking their heads off, when I saw her leaning against the back wall of the supermarket on her break the previous day. The cold way she had ignored me when I tried to nod a hello to her then.

I suppose I could never quite describe exactly what it was. When you’re a young man, your brain is just putting together hundreds of cues and impressions before you form your opinion. Isn’t that how it works? Starting in one or two places, you say? Well, the slim outlines underneath the white coat that seemed a size or two too large for her appeared worth knowing. But what I really wanted to know was her mind. I had an urge to know how she lived, what she dreamed of, what she watched on TV, whether she ate grated tomato on a toasted baguette for breakfast like everyone did outside that little cafe.

She pulled a dripping hake out of an icy bucket to show me. It had the same sad expression in its eyes all dead fish seem to have.

She flashed a semi-smile upon seeing me licking my lips.

“That looks delicious!” I said. “Too many chips at my hotel. Not good,” I added, patting my stomach.

She brought her finger to her mouth in a mock vomiting motion and I smiled.

She turned, unusually, to chop the hake on the worktop opposite the counter that had the weighing scales on. That meant she had her back to me. I felt sure her face was smiling away out of sight. Her arms and elbows seemed to be lighter and looser as she went to work on providing me with 500 grams.

She ran the knife over the edge of the counter and cast it to one side, having decided it wasn’t sharp enough. She grabbed another.

There must be some adage said somewhere and sometime about never asking a young lady out with a knife in her hand. Clearly I was under the influence of the holiday spirit and the sun, but again, something about the moment I couldn’t possibly quantify seemed perfect.

I didn’t allow myself to back out on seeing that her glumness had returned when she span around to present the fish in a lazily tied plastic bag with the price sticker flapping off the side.

“Anything more?” she said in a muffled tone, clearly ashamed of either her English, her job or the world.

“Yes!” I said, clearing my throat, and calming myself, having been taken aback by the emphatic start to my answer. “I’m doing a Spanish course at home in England and I thought, well, it could be really nice to meet someone Spanish here to talk to. Provided you might be perhaps interested in meeting for a café con leche one afternoon?”

She looked at me blankly and tossed her knife down into a mackerel’s stomach, where it stood with its tip wedged into a hole it had pierced in the skin.

“Maybe if I could take your number?” I asked, reasoning that I could check a few words on the internet before composing a text message to better explain myself.

“I no understand,” she said.

She swapped an apologetic glance with an old woman who was standing impatiently at my side, admiring the salmon with her green paper ticket held in her fingers.

I could feel a bead of sweat at the back of my neck trickling down with the help of the powerful fan buzzing from the ceiling.

“Numero” I said, “de telefono,” moving my hand to my ears to gesture taking a call.

The same blank expression. Was my pronunciation really that terrible?

“Look” I said, holding out my paper ticket to her with the number 92 on.

“Noventa dos,” she said, reading the number out to me in Spanish.

She looked to her side as across waddled Carlos, the barrel-shaped man with a crooked nose and sweaty cheeks who worked on the cheese counter.

Why wasn’t she wearing a name tag too? If only I could put a name to the memory now, that might make it more wholesome. I suppose at the time it just added to her enigmatic charm.

Carlos grunted something inaudible that could have been “problema” then he stooped down to put his arm around the young lady on the fish counter.

Were they? Surely not? She was a beauty, and Carlos, as well as being three times the size, was at least 15 years older than her.

I heard the slow patter of flip slops interrupt the calm sound of a Spanish pop hit behind me.

“Taylor!” It was Duffers.

I turned around, alarmed.

He had a giant red bag of crisps in his left hand, while with his right hand he tried to adjust the laces on his brightly patterned swimming shorts.

“Did you find any beer yet? The United match is starting in ten minutes.”

“Oh,” I said, “no I was just – “

“Is that…fish you’ve got there?” he said, a grin spreading from cheek to cheek as he asked.

“Oh, well, it’s just a bit of hake, I thought that – “

“Put it back! We’ll get some burgers by the pool in a bit,” he said.

“Sorry about my friend, he’s a bit crazy,” he said, laughing, as I placed the white bag with six euro 70 worth of hake back on the counter.

Then I heard a buzz as the number on the electronic display above the scales turned to 93.

Vera – Feb 17 competition entry

Julian pulled the door open right up to the stopper in an exaggerated welcoming gesture.

“Guten Abend Vera!” he said.

After seeing Vera shuffle towards the threshold with her walking stick for half a second, Julian leapt towards her holding out his hand.

“Vielen Dank Herr Gartlberg. Always the gentleman!” she said, with her trembling hand struggling to hold onto Julian’s.

Theresa, Julian’s wife, giggled in the hallway.

“You look so well today, Frau Vera!” said Theresa.

“You are a poor liar, Frau Gartlberg, but thank you for your kindness.”

Julian and Theresa looked at one another, acknowledging in silence that Theresa’s compliment was an untruth.

“Well I’ll take your coat, shall I, Frau Vera?” asked Julian.

He helped to tug off the heavy fur coat that with Vera’s stooped and declining frame looked like it might swallow her up one day soon.

“I have been meaning to tell you for some time that it is a beautiful coat,” said Theresa.

“Thank you,” said Vera. “I got it on my last visit to St Petersburg, or Leningrad as they call it in public.”

Julian laughed. “Well you don’t have to with us.”

“Thank you,” said Vera. “I may have a wavering sense of smell but I can notice a delicious scent coming from your kitchen.”

“Ah, that would be Theresa’s Kasnockn,” said Julian, “she cooks them with the traditional Pinzgau recipe.”

“Come please, Frau Vera,” he continued. “This way to the dining room.”

“Now we have a Riesling and a Pinot Gris,” Julian said, squinting to try to gauge Vera’s reaction. He saw no change in her wrinkled but sturdy small round face. “Apfelschorle and spring water too, if you so prefer.”

“Riesling will suffice, thank you,” said Vera. Julian waited for a smile from her to follow the remark but non came.

“Are you sure, Frau Vera?”

“Most certainly!”

“Right you are, I’ll be back in a few seconds.”

After three minutes of chatting in the kitchen, Julian returned with an uncorked bottle of Riesling. He was shadowed by Theresa carrying a steamy dish of Kasnockn.

“It’s from the Züggler winery in Burgenland,” said Julian, pouring the wine into Vera’s glass.

He faced her and noticed her gaze was focused on the record player in the corner of the dining room. Her lack of squinting indicated a strong eyesight for a lady of her age.

“Would you like it if we play some background music?” Julian asked.

He walked straight to the record player without waiting for an answer.

“I bought a recording of the last New Year’s Concert when we visited Anna in Vienna last month,” Julian said, opening a cupboard.

“And how is Anna?” asked Vera.

“She’s fine,” said Theresa. “She doesn’t seem to be taking her studies all too seriously, but it’s just the first year, and she’s enjoying the life in Vienna.”

Vera laughed, before taking her first sip of wine. “Good, good. Youth is a thing to be cherished!”

Julian turned around, and was about to say something, but decided against it, instead returning to look for the record.

“Has she been to the Staatsoper yet?” asked Vera. “Swan Lake is being performed there at the moment and the producer is known to me. An absolutely wicked man!”

Julian laughed.

“Anna seems to enjoy more the smaller and less traditional venues where the musicians have long hair,” he said.

Julian placed the record beside the player and lifted a vinyl from underneath the needle that he placed back in a colourful sleeve.

“What’s that?” asked Vera.

Julian turned around with an open mouth.

“That record, I mean?” she said.

“Oh – this is one of Anna’s. She was at home last weekend. Ja, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band by the Beatles – pardon my poor English. Have you heard of the Beatles?”

Vera flinched.

“Darling, Frau Vera is a famous musician, of course she knows the Beatles,” Theresa said. She went red in the face, despite herself being surprised that Vera’s knowledge of popular culture appeared every bit as other parts of her mind.

“Oh of course, Frau Vera,” said Julian. “Perhaps you would like to listen to the Beatles then?”

“No, I would prefer the New Year’s Concert please, Herr Gartlberg.”

Julian put the record on. Relieved that the misunderstandings at the record player were over, he sat down to the table. He was optimistic that the soft crackled sounds of Strauss would smooth over any further gaps of understanding between the Gartlbergers and their elderly neighbour.

Theresa dished out the Kasnockn and the trio took hold of their cutlery.

“And does Anna like this Ivan…oh what’s his name, Ivan – the main man in the Beatles with the spectacles.”

Julian looked at Theresa, with his glance pleading for her to be the one to correct Vera.

“John Lennon?” Theresa asked.

“Oh yes. That’s his name. Did I call him Ivan? How silly of me. I was thinking of the Russian name for John.”

“Anna has a poster of him and his wife at her student apartment,” said Julian.

“Does he still have a beard?” asked Vera.

“He does,” says Theresa. “I should say I prefer him without it though.”

“He looks a little like a mad monk,” says Vera. “Kind, I would say, but a little mad.”

“Anna is rather enthusiastic about some of his ideas.”

Vera gulped some food and helped herself to another sip of Riesling.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to remind me of what his ideas are,” said Vera, “I do get a tiny bit forgetful these days.”

“Well, I think the whole of the Beatles spent some time associating with Eastern mysticism in India,” said Theresa. “In particular the Hare Krishna movement, which is a kind of Buddhist cult I believe.”

“Anna took us to a Hare Krishna restaurant in Vienna,” said Julian, opening his eyes wide while looking at Vera. “They served no meat at all.”

“That must be very easy on the stomach,” said Vera.

“Yes, but the waitress looked like she had not washed her hair in years,” said Theresa.

“Hmm,” said Vera. “Well I suppose one doesn’t have to be in a cult to avoid meat, one can just enjoy Kasnockn.

Vera laughed and raised her wine glass to her lips. Both Julian and Theresa laughed out of politeness.

“But tell me,” said Vera, resting her fork on her plate “what does he believe in?”

“Well,” said Julian. “Peace and happiness mostly, through the ending of wars, perhaps by smoking some exotic weeds too.”

“All good ideas,” said Vera. “Especially after what has happened to both our countries in our lifetimes.”

“Yes, except I’m not quite sure how far the weeds advance this aim though.”

“Well, Herr Gartlberg, I can testify that 60 years ago at the Moscow theatres you could find the most invigorating Siberian herbs backstage. They would have the most beneficial impact on the mind.”

Theresa blushed. Julian placed his cutlery down.

“Well, Frau Vera, I don’t doubt you. But in the modern day there are also chemical drugs, and I believe that they have such a strong impact on the mind they can be rather debilitating.”

Theresa pushed some fragments of the cheesy noodle dish onto her fork while she stared at the plate. They had not told anyone their concerns about Anna’s confession of having taken LSD “once or twice” in Vienna.

“And what else does this man believe to make him so extraordinarily popular?” asked Vera.

“It’s funny you should ask that, Frau Vera,” said Julian, who was looking at Theresa, trying to establish eye contact as he knew what she was thinking. “As he recently released a song which explains his utopianism quite clearly – it’s a kind of manifesto of sorts.”

Vera circled the end of her fork in the air a couple of inches above her place to indicate for Julian to continue while she chewed.

“Its name is Imagine, which is English for Stell dir vor. I’m afraid I have no idea how you’d say that in Russian.”

“I understand from the English and German, thank you, Herr Gartlberg.”

“Yes,” said Julian, “well I believe the first line is something like ‘Imagine there are no countries as there would be nothing to die for’. Rather controversial words for many.”

“And a good sentiment,” said Vera, before continuing to chew.

“And then –“ said Julian. He paused having decided not to mention the line ‘Imagine there’s no heaven’ to a woman in the last years of her life.

“I think it continues more or less with that same pacifism,” he continued. “Oh there is also something about ‘Imagine there’s no possessions’”.

“So it’s complete Scheiße!” said Vera, prompting deep laughs from her two hosts. She took another gulp of wine.

“A little too much like communism for your liking?” asked Julian.

“A little too much like communism for the world’s liking,” said Vera. “Excuse me for talking politics, but that pacifism is a load of nonsense too.”

Julian looked at his wife in a silent request for permission to disagree with their guest.

“I think for me that is the one part of his message I find appealing,” he said. “Every time I think of the past, well, I wish that this is something our daughter’s generation does not have to experience.”

“Exactly!” said Vera, knocking her knife off the plate in a burst of excitement. “But to save all the innocent people, the evil ones must die!”

Theresa leaned over to place the knife back on Vera’s plate and looked at Julian, raising an eyebrow at Vera’s awkward outburst.

“How do you find the Kasnockn? They’re not too creamy for you, are they?” Theresa asked.

“I like them just fine, Frau Gartlberg, thank you. But think about what I say, not just in the context of the ranting of an old lady. If you had been in alive in Vienna when Hitler studied there, and you recognised his evil, would you have killed him to spare the world?”

“That is a question you hear discussed on the television set, and a most intriguing question too,” said Julian.

“And what do they say?” asked Vera.

“Well, I believe it’s a very difficult question. Of course you never know a guilty man is guilty until he commits a crime, so – “

“Okay,” said Vera, interrupting, “but when a man is in circles of power already, and you can see his evil intentions and actions. That’s a different story.”

“You’re quite right, Frau Vera, it is a different story,” said Theresa, hoping flattery might end the debate.

“Exactly!” said Vera, hitting the table with a thump that shook the plates and left Julian open-outed.

“When I get to have my little sit down with St. Peter shortly, just like I’m sitting here with you today, I shall tell him I do not regret it,” said Vera.

“I’m sure you have nothing you need to regret, Frau Vera,” said Julian.

“Ah but for a long time I thought, did that man deserve to die? It was too late to save our monarchy. But then I realised we should have done it sooner.”

Julian and Theresa were unable to disguise their anxiety as they looked at one another.

“That is a very valid point you make, Frau Vera, thank you for bringing this topic to our attention,” said Julian, reaching out to grab Vera’s wrist.

Ach Entschuldigung, did I not tell you my secret before?” said Vera.

Julian shrugged his shoulders this time when looking at Theresa, who shook her head to indicate she had no idea either what to say or do.

“I am so sorry, sometimes I mix faces in my memories, I believe it’s my aging neurones,” said Vera, taking another deep sip of Riesling.

Theresa reddened in the face and Julian smirked as he tried to communicate to his wife without speaking that Vera had insisted on wine despite his reservations.

“It was the most exciting thing I have done in my life – helping to plot kill a man.”

Theresa gulped and put her hand to her mouth to stop some food dropping out in surprise.

Julian opened his mouth but had no idea what to say and closed it again.

“My job was simple enough but exhilarating nonetheless. To talk to him and watch to see him finish his cup of poisoned wine. There was another young actress there, Marianna Erikovna, and we talked about some of the sins that went on in the theatre circuit. Gosh, he had some incredible powers to him, it is true – he would make you talk about things you would not dream to share with your closest friends. All the time you would think ‘I shouldn’t be saying that’ but you still couldn’t stop yourself.”

Theresa arranged her knife and fork on her plate having decided she’d finished.

“ ‘Do not be afraid, there is no redemption without sin’ I remember him saying, and through those eyes, well, you could see those thoughts were coming from a deeper place than the thoughts of you or I. He was no mere imposter or charlatan, I can tell you that for certain, Herr Gartlberg – he was the devil himself!”

Theresa turned her gaze to look out of the window at the bare trees of the dull November afternoon. That left Julian with the thankless role of maintaining eye contact with Vera to show he was listening.

“Oh there was a sweet feeling in that study as we saw him finishing his cup. Knowing that this would be his last minutes on earth. Of course not even we could have imagined that a hefty dose of cyanide would fail to do the job.”

Julian smiled at the level of detail Vera was providing in her fanciful story.

“So the count shot him. We all cheered and thought that was that, but when he arose and barged his way out of the palace in a rage, we were astounded. The devil doesn’t die easily, Herr Gartlberg. He was shot again and stabbed outside, and I believe the frozen canal water did for him in the end.”

Theresa peered over at the plate that Vera had left untouched while recounting her tale.

“Have you finished your Kasnockn, Frau Vera?” she asked.

“Yes, why thank you,” said Vera.

“I’ll take your plate then,” she said. She and Julian collected the dishes and carried them through to the kitchen.

The pair deposited the dishes in the sink, and Julian closed the door.

“Look, about the wine –“ he said.

“No, darling, it’s my mistake,” said Theresa, interrupting, “I should never have invited our mad old neighbour over for dinner.”

“Well, at least it hasn’t been too dull,” said Julian, giggling as quietly as possible.

Theresa lent against the door and closed her eyes as the laughter overtook her.

“My God – wasn’t that the death of Rasputin she just claimed an involvement in?” she asked.

“Yes, I think so,” said Julian, “she must have played that role in a performance at some stage. The poor confused woman.”


Note:

This story is based on Vera Karalii: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vera_Karalli

How unfortunate it is that she left the world only as a ‘reported’ conspirator in the death of Rasputin, over 50 years after that event.

I wonder what the reporters in Austria in the 60s were doing failing to interview her. Then again, some things are perhaps best kept as a mystery.

Dec entry – John Thomson’s Christmas

“So does anyone remember from the video the name of the land between the British and German trenches?” asked Mrs Beatie.

Johnny shot his hand into the air. “I know, Miss,” he said. “Nomad’s Land.”

Mrs Beatie smiled.

“That’s a very good guess, but it’s not quite right. Actually it’s No Man’s Land,” she said, turning to the whiteboard to write it out.

“My great-great-grandad was there,” said Johnny, and Mrs Beatie paused, having just written the ‘M’ in Man. “Or my great-great-great grandad, I’m not actually sure. He was called John Thomson too, just like my dad, and his dad, and everyone’s dad in my family all the way back to when Tutankhamun was alive or something.”

“That’s very interesting, Johnny. Do you know anything more about him?”

“Err, I’ve heard from my dad that he was in Nomad’s, sorry No Man’s Land lots of times, and he was very brave, and he was fighting a lot of battles and only stopped once at Christmas to play football with the Germans. He scored five goals! I don’t remember anything else. Sorry, miss!”

“That’s no problem at all, Johnny. It’s very interesting to hear about your great-great grandfather. And that story about the soldiers from Britain and Germany playing football together at Christmas is true. There was nothing about it on the video, but as soon as Mr. Cummings fixes the projector, I can show you some pictures,” said Mrs Beatie. Her eyelids fluttered as she wondered if any of the eight and nine year olds would pick up on her hints to ask Bill Cummings about the projector when they saw him around the school. “There were many thousands of soldiers, but who knows, we might just see your ancestor on those photos, Johnny – if we can get the projector working.”

Johnny smiled and blushed as the whole classroom turned around to look at him.

John Thomson could feel the slime seeping through a gap in his boots. The end of the freezing cold spell had cheered him at first, as the stinging pain he experienced at night was gone. After a few weeks of winter, he had already forgotten how bad the mud could be though. The thaw left the beaten ground of the trench ripe for churning up anew. Then they rain came and made for one giant sticky mess. The sensation of standing on lookout with your feet slowly getting submerged in a cold mush was as close as Thomson bloody well planned to get to torture.

He tried to focus on the periscope.

“Still no sign of St. Nicholas?” asked a cheerful voice Thomson recognised as Grice, a fellow squaddie in the Royal Berkshire Regiment. Grice was ferrying some medical oils along the trench as one of the foot infections further down had turned bulbous.

“I could have sworn I saw Fritz’s gunners take down a couple of reindeer in the sky earlier, but I rather feel Captain Brown felt it was all make believe. A ploy on my behalf to spend Christmas day at the clearing station.”

Grice emitted a wheezy laugh that turned into a rasping cough.

Thomson strained to see the barbed wire and sandbags of the German trench in the dim afternoon light. He had to focus beyond the horrid sea of bumpy black mud strewn with ripped-apart trees, rotting body parts and scraps of blown off clothing. No Man’s Land. What a name. This small strip of land the whole world wanted to fight over – they could have called it Everyman’s Land. Not to mention every wife and daughter’s land, for there might be millions of women who have their loved ones consumed by that diabolical swamp by the time the war was through. Still, like everyone else, Thomson did his best to blot that space out of his mind.

Superficially, the German trench looked just like the English one, but hundreds of hours of staring at the thing since arriving in France in the summer had given Thomson a sixth sense for when something was afoot. There was an incredible stillness on that breezy Christmas Eve that made Thomson curious. Not even Fritz would shell on Christmas Eve, Thomson was sure of that. When the previous attacks had come, you could just see it in the air in – he had that feeling before Fritz’s last big heave-ho at the start of November, just before another lookout had spotted a number of sandbags bulging at the German trench while they busied for the attack.

As a matter of fact, in some absurd way there was a kind of stillness that day you might expect on a Christmas Eve back home. The tingling sensation of peace and goodwill. It reminded Thomson of the crowds strolling under the lamps on Newbury market place and heading to St. Nick’s Church for midnight mass.

‘Better not let your thoughts wander’ Thomson told himself. As much as he wanted to concentrate on the job at hand, he also tried to limit his thoughts about life at a home he didn’t know when he’d return to. He deliberately kept his letters short, figuring that his relatives wanted to know he was still alive but wouldn’t enjoy the details of life in the trenches. That Thomson, a lad of 19, had no wife or even a young lady to court made being away at the trenches a little easier perhaps, although his youthfulness also made the shock of war that much more striking.

“In some way the war came ten years too early for you, but I’m sure you’ll make the most of the experience,” Thomson’s father had told him on the morning he took the train set for London and Dover. His father’s reasoning was that having gone to St. Bartholomew’s, a local grammar school, if John had gone to war at 29, he would most likely have been made an officer. Not that he minded being a humble soldier, at first at least. It just seemed the natural thing to do. His father was a town clerk whose brother, John’s uncle, had died in the Boer War. The call of King and country was just not one young John could refuse. When they had asked for volunteers to declare and go on stage after a show at the local music hall at the end of August, Thomson had stood up together with his friends, Curnock and Patterson, without the three even having to swap glances. How they had soaked up the applause then.

It didn’t take long for Thomson to realise the dark shadows of the war would smother his optimism. When passing through Boulogne to the front, the three friends went to the harbour district, which was teeming with rum-soaked squaddies. The ladies under the red lanterns – something you didn’t see in Berkshire – were the first real sign of entering a mixed-up world.  Thomson’s friends egged him on, saying you never know when the next chance might be, etc. The friends had both found mademoiselles by the time a pale young lady with scraggy hair blew a kiss in Thomson’s direction. She lifted her dress at her side and said “monsieur! Avez vouz cinq francs?” while rubbing her hand down her thigh. Thomson sensed this display of flesh was a means to divert attention from the sadness in her eyes. He just couldn’t, and he didn’t.

Now with the muddy water lapping his ankles inside his boot, he regretted his restraint. What use is there for morality, after all, when you spend your days waiting for the next chance to rain shells on the men on the enemy trench – all the while when one can land on you at any moment and send you out of this world altogether, as had happened with Curnock in that November attack?

‘It’s extraordinarily still over there’ thought Thompson. His hopes raised of a little rest over Christmas, as the sky darkened above. A rat then tiptoed into his vision, sniffing towards the top of the periscope. He reached up to the top of the sandbags to swipe his hand at it, only to knock a clump of mud right onto the mirror, obscuring his view.

“Damn!” said Thomson. He wiped his right hand on his coat and spat into it. He clambered up to reach the top of the periscope to try to clean it.

“Fritz at one o’clock!” Shouted the nearest lookout to his right. Thomson jumped down with his heart aflutter. There was a frantic sound of splashing as Captain Brown dashed towards the lookout. Hands on rifles tightened their grasp as far as the eye could see.

“He’s with a white flag! Repeat – Fritz with a white flag!” screamed the lookout. Hands on rifles loosened as soldiers looked around, not knowing quite how to react.

Captain Brown pushed the lookout aside and peered through.

“Well, I say!” he said, just before the first words of song drifted above the trench.

Oh Tannenbaum, oh Tannenbaum, du kannst mir sehr gefallen!

Captain Brown and the lance corporals in the company mounted horses and trotted out to no man’s land to meet their German equivalents. Thomson watched their meeting, which was nervous at first, and could hear a few of the words said from the British side when the wind was favourable.

“Er, right, how do you want to do this?” and “Yes, my men would very much like to try German cigarettes” were heard in Captain Brown’s booming voice. “Got any beer?” was then said by a corporal, greeted by laughter on both sides, followed by “what about women?” Somebody even mentioned playing football, a rough and tumble game which Thomson, a keen cricketer, loathed.

—-

“You aren’t coming to meet Fritz?” asked Grice.

“Erm, no…I just…just can’t bear to look them in the eye, after all the men they’ve killed,” said Thomson.

That was a lie.

There was just no way Thomson could go. He had battled so hard to keep any thoughts of that German soldier away from the top of his mind, pushing them into his stomach to be another nagging pain – along with the lice, bruises and infections. He was sure to be there, and there was no way he could see him again. He was picturing his face now and he felt a swelling in his throat as sweat formed on his forehead.

Thomson strolled around the trench in confusion for a few seconds, not seeing the smiles and laughter on the faces of men leaving their positions and scrambling up onto no man’s land.

He decided to return to his shelter to rest, but on passing the walkway leading to Captain Brown’s dugout and seeing it empty, he couldn’t resist heading in. A Christmas truce meant rules of combat were suspended, so he hoped there would be nothing wrong with a private entering a dugout to have a look.

A lantern had been left on the table. A couple of rats sped out as Thomson stepped in. He sat down at the chair. It may have been only three wooden walls slotted into a mound of earth, but after months in the trench, this was a blissful retreat. He could hear some singing and laughter outside, but the solitude of the dingy dugout was what he needed.

Thomson pictured him again in his mind, and his body was seized with an anxious grip. He sent his shaking hand into his coat for his hip flask. He had been saving his rum rations over the last six week for Christmas. It tasted good but the sharp taste still wasn’t able to dislodge the image of that German soldier out of his mind.

Thomson put his hand to his forehead as his mind reeled through events of that morning in early October yet again, searching for some kind of excuse or solace.

It had been a hazy dawn. There had been talk that the mediocre visibility would get the attack cancelled, but the telegraph from the Field Marshal said proceed. One big push before the autumn bogged them down was what they wanted. It was Thomson’s first attack. Just treat it like a training exercise, Thomson told himself, and he used the awesome energy of the shells to push him on. He had been in the county finals in the 100 yard dash as a teenager, so he expected to be among the quickest, but hadn’t imagined he would get so far ahead of the rest. He started to slow down to avoid getting cut off, but onward he knew he had to go. He could see the barbed wire of the German position in the mist, and took out his grenade, chucking it to where it ripped open a section of wire and blasted a gap in the sandbags. The others were coming now. But so was Fritz. Two men chased out towards him, one with a mean grimace on his face, and Thomson cocked his rifle and shot him in the top of the chest.

It wasn’t his muted cry or the thud when he hit the ground that most alarmed Thomson, nor the fact in itself that he had killed a man. Instead it was the moment when he looked into the terrified eyes of the short German private who was running behind his victim. A young lad holding his rifle askew. The German stopped in his tracks as his eyes, from behind misty spectacles and beneath shaggy blond hair, pleaded for his life. He looked a lot like Hawkins, the lad from the dairy who brought milk to Thomson’s townhouse in Newbury every morning. The German held his mouth open in shock and gulped, expecting this moment to be his very last. Who could say which loved ones he wished he could have the chance to say farewell to right there and then? The German made no attempt to even point his rifle in Thomson’s direction. While Thomson pointed his rifle loosely towards him, the sheer terror of his foe sent a chill through his body. A moist patch spread throughout the top of the German’s trousers as he pissed himself. Thomson looked over his shoulder, thankful that in the mist nobody could see the encounter.

“Retreat,” was then shouted above the gunfire and screams. Thomson turned and ran.

That swapped glance, unpleasant as it was at the time, grew to fester like a sore on Thomson’s conscience. Of course Thomson was just doing the job he had signed up for. If fate hadn’t placed Thomson in that exact spot, no doubt another soldier would have equally filled the German lad with terror, and perhaps even taken his life. Still, Thomson was angry that simply by following his instincts and heart, he had put himself in a situation where he represented a lot more than just John Thomson from Newbury to that boy on the brink of death. Thomson knew his eyes, as far as the German lad could see, stood for imperialism, great power rivalry, contempt for the common man, a thirst for blood. Where had the humanity he always assumed was a defining feature of his character gone for that vital moment? Instead, a confluence of evils had wormed its way inside him and compelled him to kill in their name.

The tears were forming in Thomson’s eyes now as he took another swill of rum. He had never loved, nor had he made his fortune, but he had inflicted great terror on a German volunteer, who was probably in much the same situation as him. A terror that was sure to haunt him for life. Who knows what might become of him in Germany, if he survives the war? Could he go on to enjoy life though when he had seen how cheaply and easily it can all be taken away? That helpless face came back to Thomson whenever he least wanted it to – when the cold was nagging him at night, when his spirits were already low. And now, the German was no doubt over there marking Christmas with our men. The absurdity of it all.

Thomson felt a louse crawl along his right forearm. He slapped his left hand at it until the forearm was sore. He noticed a pistol had been left on the table under a pile of letters. He reached for it. He held the gun out into the darkness and recreated the encounter in his mind.

“Don’t shoot, you monster!” the German boy screamed as Thomson pictured him now in the dugout.

“Why of course not, my friend!” Thomson pretended to say.

“Thomson! Shoot, you traitor!” he imagined Captain Brown shouting behind him.

How many more would there have to be before the war was out? How many men must Thomson put to the sword, and how many could he petrify and then slyly let go? How far had the front moved in the last few months, after all? Five miles?

Thomson turned the pistol to his own temple now. His life was already defined by this war. He could marry later, sure, but that German boy, and the other victims to follow, were sure to accompany him wherever he went.

He took another swill of rum.

“For the sake of King and country, I order you not to!” said the imaginary voice of Captain Brown now.

Thomson leaned back on the chair and laughed.

“For the sake of John Thomson, I –“ he said. He wasn’t the only John Thomson, his father had borne that name too, and his grandfather, and so forth, all the way back to before Victoria’s reign. If he could only get through this war, even if it scarred him for life, he could continue the line of John Thomsons. The thought of a future version of himself not knowing any kind of misery like this in a brighter age comforted him. He laid the pistol down.

Trouble down at Donny’s farm – Nov CW competition entry

Sophie glanced around in all directions but could see only millions of heads of wheat dancing in the breeze, competing to interrupt the pale blue morning sky. She checked again over her shoulder and squatted down, dropping her sickle into the dry earth. She hoisted her stained and fading trouser leg up and fumbled at the sock on her left foot. She tugged a black metallic tube out. Giddy with excitement, she reached into her right sock and pulled out her Samsung phone. She scanned all around again and listened out, but could hear only the whooshing of the crops and the distant roar of the A road a mile and a half away.

Her hands were shaking as she slotted the white charging point of the tube-shaped battery-powered phone charger into the phone.

“Come on, come on, come on,” she whispered to herself through gritted teeth.

The screen on the phone remained in moribund black for a few seconds until a faint white battery icon appeared. ‘0%. Charging’ it said underneath. Success.

Sophie clawed an opening into the earth with her sickle and then tugged a few clumps out with her hand until a wide enough hole appeared. She wrapped the phone and charger in a plastic bag, tucked them inside the hole and smeared the soil back over the top. She brushed with her fingers to flatten the ground and try to make sure it didn’t stand out too much from the surrounding soil.

She sighed when she saw that despite her best efforts, she had left a patch with a much darker shade than the surroundings that had been lightly scorched by the dry summer. She stepped backward five paces and marked an ‘X’ on the ground.

Then she turned and ran all the way until the sea of wheat came to an abrupt end.

“Hey Soph!” said Jordan, “Donny was looking for you.”

Claudia tittered as Sophie’s cheeks turned a stony white.

“Funny man!” Claudia said. “We still haven’t seen the tractor at all again today yet.”

“I wonder what he gets up to?” Sophie said.

“Something better then this, obviously,” said Jordan, glancing down to his sickle and reaching to squeeze his sore right bicep.

“How many sacks are we on now?” asked Sophie. She turned to look at the three half-filled straw sacks encircled by piles of empty sacks being buffeted by the breeze. She regretted asking the question.

“Er, not nearly enough,” said Jordan. “Come and help us pack this lot up, and I can take a couple of sacks to the storehouse. Oh and if you can possibly help it ladies, no more toilet breaks please.”

“Aye aye captain!” Sophie said, figuring she should best play along to better disguise the true reason for sneaking off among the rows of wheat. Claudia gave a half-smile but Jordan did not look amused. He reached to push his sleeves up then wiped a drop of sweat from his brow.

Sophie reached for one of the half-full sacks and dragged it towards the uneven pile of freshly cut wheat. She knelt down and clutched as much wheat as she could with both hands before shoving it in the sack.

“Have you seen how the other groups are doing?” asked Sophie.

“I don’t want to even think about it,” said Jordan, who was furiously filling a sack of his own. “I mean, with George – ” He let the sentence end there, as he didn’t want to elaborate on his sense of frustration at seeing Donny chalk up the scores at the end of every day with George, who played rugby for Bath University, grinning with his arm around Belinda, who always looked just as made up as at the start of the day. Jordan also didn’t want to air his frustration at George also being allowed to have Alan on his team, while he had to work with two girls.

Donny had said he would change the teams if they were unfair, but adjudicating that fell on his shoulders, of course.

Jordan had looked on scornfully a couple of evenings ago as Donny congratulated George and his lover for their tremendous yield of 24 sacks for the day. Donny walked slowly past Jordan, Sophie and Claudia, wondering whether to berate or encourage them for their 11 sackloads. Jordan, red in the face, had been about to open his mouth when Donny said, all of a sudden: “And not only have you won at a canter, but in a fair contest too. Yeah, these teams are fair.” The farmer from hell could also read minds, it seemed.

Donny turned back to the winners.

“So, George, are you taking the phone charger tonight?”

“I think I’ll let Belinda have it again,” he said, squeezing her shoulder.

Sophie looked down at the concrete floor of the granary in disappointment. She badly wanted to write to her sister before her birthday on Thursday, and she had been without any battery on her phone for two weeks now.

Sophie had been in good spirits when she signed up online to spend her summer at the Abergyl Organic Collective. Over the last academic year, her posh friend from university had spent several evenings, as they sat together on bean bags and sipped herbal tea, raving about her time on an organic banana farm in Borneo, about how great it was to connect to nature and everyone was super friendly and you got to spend your evenings chatting under the stars with lovely guys. Seeing as Sophie couldn’t afford the airfare to anywhere quite as exotic as Borneo, she decided to go to Wales.

The collective had an extremely basic website, which seemed really trendy. There was a bold chunk of text in the middle boasting about how the place was ‘Completely free from all modern technological distractions, giving you a 100% natural experience.’ The thought hadn’t occurred to her at the time that this meant that the 50-acre farm was completely devoid of mechanical farm equipment. The lack of WiFi was something she could accept – she had packed her Kindle and she could always use the 3G on her phone for emails and Facebook, she reckoned. She hadn’t counted altogether on Donny, the farmer, not providing a single socket in the farmhands’ quarters and controlling access to the one universal phone charger he kept in his own house as a means to reward whoever he saw fit – i.e. usually George and Belinda.

Donny the farmer was welcoming at first, his stubbly face cracking into a wide grin as he treated everyone to drinks on the first night, cracking joke after joke and praising them for coming. A good number of idealistic young heads had nodded along when he said “Whatever you do in life, whatever you achieve or fail to achieve, you can say, proudly, that one summer you came and tried to make a difference.” He had a certain swagger when he patrolled around in his red wellies. You never knew from looking at him what kind of mood he was in though – it could change in an instant for no apparent reason.

He struck fear into the workers – all students from middle-ranking universities like Sophie – by the constant prospect of turning up at unpredictable moments to berate them. “Who’s the clumsy arsehole who spilled three cans of weed killer today?” he shouted when bursting into the quarters at two in the morning one night. “Come on, come on, own up or nobody gets to charge their phone for the next fortnight?” On one of the first days of the harvest, he called Jordan a “lazy scrawny piece of shit” and ordered him to go and sleep with the pigs, before running after him, laughing and saying he was only joking. “But if I catch any of you slacking, I will do it, you know!” he added.

There were some other incentives Donny provided, as well, for his favourites. George and Belinda were allowed to use a spare bedroom in his farmhouse on evenings when George had been particularly productive on the fields. A girl in the third of three harvesting teams had also been invited in to use Donny’s shower, instead of the rusted contraption behind some bricks in the corner of the yard that delivered a trickle of cold water they always had to queue up for. This favour was only granted when Donny complimented her on the fantastic job she had done on cleaning the tables.

Sophie didn’t like to think she was addicted to her phone, but after a long spell without any battery on it, it became all she thought about. She had put it on battery-saver mode when arriving at the start of July and managed to keep it going until the end of the month with a strict routine of checking emails and Facebook just once a day. After it died, she had waited three long weeks until George had one evening nominated her to use the charger he had won the right to use for the evening.  That was a massive surprise to her as she had hardly talked to the guy, although he had actually allowed her to use the charger just to spite Belinda, whom he had argued with earlier that day.

Sophie’s heart had raced as she knocked on Donny’s door to pick up her phone that night. She walked to the side of the barn and turned it on, along with the mobile data. ‘Ping!’ it sounded as ‘You have a message’ was displayed, which quickly turned to ‘2 messages, 3 messages, 12 messages’. There were 47 in total. One of her friends from university had split up with her boyfriend, another had fallen madly in love with an Italian guy on holiday in Rhodes while a third friend was stressing like mad while working for a solicitors’ firm.

Sophie typed out her replies. She wanted to call everyone but resisted the urge. She didn’t want to create any more jealousies among her colleagues who were still without phone access. She did find time the following day to call her parents and sister though. She put on a brave face when they asked her how things were going on the farm. It was an interesting experience, she said, the work was hard, but most of the people were nice – that was a slight exaggeration, although a sizeable minority were pleasant. The food was ok and they had some fun, which was all true, and every Friday and Saturday night, Donny left them with as much homemade cider as they could drink – something that was greeted with approval from Sophie’s friends. Soon enough, a couple of weeks before harvest, Sophie’s phone battery ran empty again.

Some friends had asked her if she was going to stay to the end, which had taken her by surprise – seeing as they were working towards the harvest the whole time, it hadn’t occurred to her to drop out. A few of the farmhands had left – three didn’t survive the first week without their home comforts, and another four had baulked after the first few days of hard graft at harvest time.

In theory anyone could leave at any time, but it was clear that Donny didn’t approve. You had to explain yourself to him first, as he kept all purses and wallets in his farmhouse for safekeeping. He made a big thing about leaving references on the volunteers’ social media pages, where friends and potential future employees could read them. The first person to drop out at the start of the summer was a silent guy called Mike, and the following day, Donny left his laptop on the dining table at lunch for all to see, with Mike’s LinkedIn profile open. A curt reference was on display: “Mike said he was going to work hard on my farm but he was a complete waste of space. His social skills are so poor even the cows ran away from him.”

Even leaving the farm on a Sunday was something Donny clearly frowned upon. It was a good 45-minute drive to the nearest town, where Donny promised he would take all the farmhands for a massive night out at the end of the harvest. Jordan had developed a couple of holes in his boots just before the start of the harvest and asked Donny for permission to hitch a lift to the town for replacements. “No need, I’m sure I’ve got some for you,” Donny promised, before producing a ragged old pair four sizes too big. When Jordan asked again, Donny asked if Jordan had heard of negative ions, explaining that they are some kind of wonderful bundles of energy that you can flood your body with while walking barefoot to live a happy life. “It could be worth trying, if you want to be a happier person?” Donny had suggested. When Jordan had insisted that only comfortable boots would stop him feeling miserable every day on the fields, Donny sighed and escorted him in person to the nearest outdoor gear shop, even shadowing him inside to help him choose.

Sophie, Claudia and Jordan had hacked the way across to the furthest edge of the field, and could see George and Belinda smiling with their giant yield of the day in the neighbouring field. Sophie was waiting for an opportunity to sneak and retrieve the phone along with the battery-powered charger. She had stolen the charger having seen it half-hidden under a rock between the barn and the shower. She felt bad at first, as she had never stolen anything before, but she was desperate to talk to her sister on her birthday and catch up with her friends. So she took it. There was an every man for himself spirit in the camp, and Sophie reasoned that while she had played no part in creating that, she would get left behind if she didn’t go along with it. She resolved to do some good – in the hope it might counteract the crime of stealing in some way – by sharing her phone with Jordan, who had been without battery all summer. He had told her after a few drinks the past weekend that he had an ill father and while he refused to reveal any further details, she sensed he had something serious. It would be nice for him to call.

“Seriously, I just can’t help wondering what Donny gets up to all day. He must have some kind of secret hobby,” said Claudia.

“What like child abduction, that kind of thing?” Sophie said.

“Hmm sounds a bit too tame for him,” joked Claudia. “What about kidnapping family pets and torturing them, that’s probably more his cup of tea.”

“It’s golf,” said Jordan.

“Jesus, how did you know that?” asked Claudia.

“I saw when he drove me to buy shoes. He had a parking permit for Celtic Manor golf club that had been renewed in May. Got to cost a fortune, that does.”

Sophie’s first instinct was to shake her head or express her disbelief by swearing, but instead she swiped ferociously at the wheat. They had reached the end of the field for now.

Sophie put her sickle down, and Claudia and Jordan both tossed theirs on the springy layer of corn.

“Hey look, Golden Balls and the Plastic Cow have sneaked off somewhere,” Claudia said, pointing to the adjacent field. She was stubbornly using her nicknames for George and Belinda that had failed to catch on, probably because most people were too depressed by their presence on the farm to even joke about them.

“I need the loo again, sorry,” said Sophie.

“I’ll come with you Soph,” said Claudia.

Sophie’s mind raced to try to think of a way to lose Claudia so she could retrieve her phone and the stolen charger without being seen.

“Are you sure you want to do it au natural in the field instead of going back to the quarters?” Sophie asked.

“Ah come on, it’s so damn far, I don’t want to even think about that stinky portacabin. I’m sure Donny probably approves – returning nutrients to the earth, saving money on fertiliser and all that…”

Sophie smiled as she thought how nice it would be to hear her sister’s voice tonight. Then for the first time she pictured how joyful Jordan’s smile would be when she surprised him by lending him her phone.

She thought of just running into the wheat with no explanation. In no time she’d be out of sight of Claudia, who carried an extra stone or two, then she could track down her fully-charged phone.

A deep shout from the next field made them both turn their heads.

George was shouting. Then came the sound of a struggle of sorts. Belinda was screaming at him. Were the king and queen of the farm possibly fighting in public? Sophie rubbed her hands together in glee at the prospect.

Then there were some swooshing noises, sounds of an object being struck and anguished howls floating around the wheat field. Sophie sensed something seriously wrong was occurring and rushed back.

Soon she could see Belinda trying to grab at George’s shirt, while he shook her off with ease. He was holding his sickle, and at his feet lay Jordan, writhing in agony with his grey T-shirt slashed with big bloody stripes across his chest.

“He bit me, he bit me, he bit me!” George was shouting into the air, perhaps at the millions heads of wheat. “First this pathetic little thief tried to steal our sack of wheat, then he bit me!”

Sloth and lust – Oct 2016 CW competition enty

“Bloody hell, it’s true!” said Gavin, staring incredulously at the plant bursting out of the yellow plastic plant pot. The plant, with its the orange and black flowers, shone amid the scattering of items adorning the desk – old receipts, a pair of lost and since refound Oyster cards, a crumpled version of the Economist, a few dusty socks and a remote for a long since broken TV.

“Yeah, well, I was in the shop and thought I’d add a little touch in here, you know,” Tom said, wafting the hem of his T-shirt as he talked.

“A little touch,” Gavin repeated. “Better than just touching yourself as usual, I suppose.”

“Piss off,” Tom said, grinning.

“Do you reckon those flowers are going to even last a week in here?” Gavin said, tilting his head towards the single window in Tom’s room. It was a small rectangle of frosted grass, designed to obscure the view of the dingy path at the side of the house that housed the wheelie bins – plus a heaped assortment of food packaging that had failed to make it into the bins over recent years and had since rusted or faded.

“Says on the label it’s suitable for all interior environments.”

“Pah, must be genetically modified or something.”

“I dunno. Looks nice, I think,” says Tom.

“Nick told me there was some bullshit sales talk on the tag?”

“It’s a harmony tulip plant. Go on, enlighten yourself!”

Gavin stepped gingerly over the haphazard layer of newspapers over the floor. He wanted to avoid stepping with his polished office shoes on the smattering of discarded beer cans, at least a couple of which had been abandoned with some contents lingering inside.

“Madagascan Harmony Tulip plant,” Gavin read out loud. His suit trousers stretched while he bent and read the label. “This delightfully bold plant offers the ultimate botanic solution for those seeking a constant dose of harmony in the home.”

“Nice, isn’t it?” asked Tom.

“Dearie me. I think I’ll stick to my own botanic solution for guaranteed harmony, thank you.” Tom placed his index and middle finger to his lips and made a puffing gesture. “You coming to Nick’s room later for a smoke? He’s trying this new supplier.”

“I think I might pass. I picked up a 12-pack of Grabnius on special offer at the supermarket along with the plant.”

“No wonder it’s on special offer. That stuff is rank. You need to try some Pontius Praga.”

Tom was taken aback. Gavin had been raving about how wonderful Grabnius was just a few weeks ago when be brought a bottle back to share in the kitchen after a night out.

“Pontius Praga – that’s not one of those poncey micro-brewery beers they don’t even sell you unless you have a beard, is it?”

“Ha – well they don’t do it in multipacks, so it’s not one you see many unemployed people buying.”

“Go and get high, you loser!” Tom said, grinning.

“Oh sorry, I’ll leave you to enjoy your mass-produced cats’ piss in the presence of your mutant tulips. Actually the plant might love a few sips, it’s got a hint of Miracle Gro to it.”

“Very funny. Nick told me you had a letter for me?”

“Oh jeez, yeah I think it came when you were over at your parents. I dunno where I put it, but I’ll take a look.”

“Yeah if you can, I’m still waiting to hear back from the civil service graduate scheme.”

“Ha yeah, like they’re going to employ a pisshead!”

Tom slammed his door shut and smiled. He went to the plant and sniffed at the flowers. What he hadn’t told his flatmate was that he bought the plant as a ploy in winning Marianne back.

He’d never before noticed there was a small garden section at the supermarket, but as he was picking up the beer he overheard a couple of arty young women buzzing with excitement over the harmony tulips.

‘That’s the kind of thing Marianne might like,’ he thought.

The yellow pot was a nice touch, and the swirly blue font carrying all the spiel on the pot-shaped label added a hipsterish touch. Instead of feeling like a middle aged man in a garden shop as he took the plant to the checkout, he felt like a kind of pioneer – perhaps a Scandinavian web designer getting a trendy plant to brighten up his office.

Tom was feeling pleasure at his purchase until his flatmate Nick laughed when seeing him holding the plant at the front door. At the same time he was struggling with a carrier bag threatening to burst from the weight of the beer cans.

“Sorry mate, I don’t know what’s so funny about you buying a plant, it’s just….I think that’s the first time I’ve seen you buy anything other than booze or pizza,” Nick said.

Tom sat on his bed. It was time to call her. His conscience had been nagging him all day. “It could be your last chance, what have you got to lose?” it had called out as he clicked his way through a few games of internet poker after breakfast. “Do you really want to wait till it’s too late and realise you’ll never know what could have happened…if you’d only just have picked the phone up,” it had argued as he thought about it at the chicken shop as his lunch sizzled behind the counter. “Just man up and do it!” it had cried as he strolled around the giant supermarket.

He was going to do it, that much he was sure of. He could feel his heart racing through his hoody. He’d have to be ready for it though. Tom looked at his laptop and closed a couple of porn sites that had been left open since the morning. He circled his neck around to relax his muscles.

Then he reached down to the plastic bag and picked up a can of Grabnius. The metallic ‘ping’ of the ring pull as the can opened immediately sharpened Tom’s mind, a bit like a referee whistling to start a match.

‘What to say exactly?’ he thought to himself. ‘Should I start by apologising for last time or just hope she’s over it?’

He raced through the first can, his gums feeling sore from each fizzy gulp.

By the start of the second can, his mind was clearing out the anxieties that troubled him from time to time – not relentlessly, but a bit like a nuisance neighbour who you might get annoyed thinking about even when they’re actually on holiday. For instance, the poorly disguised disappointment in his mother’s voice when phone conversations turned to “how are the job applications going?” which had developed into “still no luck with the applications?” and more recently “how are you spending your time these days?”

He picked up his phone and scrolled through his contacts to find Marianne’s number. His heart protested with a thunderous pulse and he put the phone face down on the duvet of his IKEA bed to placate it. He sighed and tilted the dregs of the second can down his throat, before placing it on the floor.

Tom liked his bedsit room. An outsider might presume his life there was defined by inactivity and boredom, but the other guys were quite alright. The lack of a living room and its location in Zone 7 also helped make the ground floor apartment somewhere Tom could live after his parents had begun capping their rent contributions and still make the occasional interview easily on the tube. The lack of a living room meant the bedrooms were a little bigger than in other flats on the market. All the better to offer him his very own splendid isolation – a space where he could drink what he want, watch Netflix all night until the early hours if he wanted to, even bet on Mexican football at four in the morning.

But tonight was all about Marianne. He’d been thinking about her a lot again recently, especially when he was trying to sleep. All those thoughts seemed to have some kind of momentum propelling him to act, and didn’t that also mean there was something in it – something indicating that it was all meant to be?

Tom clicked on the laptop to look at the photo he loved – Marianne grinning as she leant against a railing on the South Bank in a blue summer dress, a glass of gin and lemonade in her left hand with a pink straw poking out. It was the same grin she’d sported when he’d watched her dancing with her friend in the pub on the night they met – sweet, authentic and brimming with positivity.

He sipped and slurped his way through another can as he watched a couple of Sinead O’Connor videos on YouTube. A song of hers had been playing the moment he met Marianne, and he wanted to transport himself right back into that state of mind. It had been a night when the pints in an Irish pub in Islington had given him an easy smile, and the mixture – all so difficult to recreate – of just enough alcohol, the right company, the right mood on the day and the perfect vibe had made him feel ultra-positive. A time when the cogs that wound to produce whatever came out of his mouth, often so clunky and stiff, and unable to express his true intentions, whirred and buzzed with ease.

“See that blonde over there, I’m gonna ask her for a drink!” Tom had told Gavin back on that night.

“Uh, oh, move over Casanova!” he replied, giggling. “Tell you what mate, if you don’t end up getting slapped, I’ll get you a pint.”

Tom kept on repeating the videos. He put his torrent of thoughts about Marianne to one side, and reflected for a moment about how good Sinead O’Conner is. Given her stunning voice and catchy songs, it struck him as bizarre you don’t hear here more frequently, but then she’s too rocky for the pop radio stations, too poppy for the rock stations, too unpopular for the classic hit stations and too weird to be heard in cool bars. But a couple of clicks on the internet, and there she is, in 1989, a bouncy 21-year-old Sinead O’Connor revelling in her very own niche, belting out a song at the Grammy’s with a skip in her step and grin on her face.

The more he replayed that song, the more it helped oscillate dormant stores of passion inside him. He guzzled through the rest of the can and grabbed another. Tonight he’d try to win Marianne’s heart, and tomorrow he’d get a job, Tom decided. All these graduate schemes with never-ending online application forms were a draining waste of time, he realised. He was going to take the fight to them. He would call employer after employer and if there was any opening he’d drop by their offices, then shake as many hands as he needed to until he landed his dream job. His 2:2 in English was an uncomfortable focal point to his CV, but he’d joke about that and concentrate on everything else he had to offer. He’d been quite good at French and only hadn’t taken it further as his best friend at school called it a waste of time and badgered him that for all his studying he was nowhere near as good as Google Translate. He could pick French up again, hell, he could maybe work in Paris for a while. He could even sing a Sinead O’Connor song at the interview if he needed to.

But Marianne?

His inebriation was reaching the stage when his thoughts became slow and base, yet deliberate and determined. Time to call. Go on!

Tom pressed the dial icon next to her name on his phone.

He closed his eyes momentarily. ‘Please don’t answer, please don’t answer, please don’t answer,’ he thought to himself – so determinedly it almost spilled out as a whisper.

It was ringing. The clock indicating the call time wound to 0:05, adding a second after every pair of Tom’s heartbeats, until it reached 0:10 and 0:12.

Tom clicked on ‘end call’.

Phew, he thought. That was a close one, what was I thinking?

He scooped a can off the floor and tried to take another gulp, only to have accidentally taken an empty can. He corrected his error.

Having made a missed call provided the perfect excuse to send a text message. That should be less stressful, Tom figured.

“Hi Marianne,” he began to write.

“I can’t say sorry enough,” he typed in. He liked that. It was to-the-point and honest.

“What are you doing tonight? I’m listening to Sinead O’Connor and admiring my new plant – it’s a Harmony Rose”. Tom clicked send. Better not be too to-the-point.

He turned his phone face down again and leant against the bedroom wall as he drank some more. After five minutes he flipped the phone over. Nothing.

Damn. Maybe it sounded too contrived to now be listening to the artist he had nodded his head to when he carried the rum and coke back to Marianne on the night they met. Too obsessive.

“It’s the first time I’ve listened to SOC since that time we met. You know what’s really wired – I always thought she was singing ‘Hand in Glove’ on that song, and she’s actually singing ‘Mandinka’. I do like her accent though.” Tom clicked send.

Oh no, he thought, looking at his phone, I’m drunk. Only a drunk could have written that message. He had written wired instead of weird, and dished out empty praise on Sinead O’Connor’s accent just because Marianne’s mother was from Sligo and he didn’t want to imply it was tough to understand Irish people.

Tom took a few more long sips of the Grabnius. Still no reply from Marianne. Maybe she was asleep. Or in the cinema. Or making love to another guy.

Damn it, this tiptoeing around isn’t going to get me anywhere, Tom thought. I have to be clear. Ask the question, just like when he held his hand out in the bar inviting Marianne to dance, just like when he said she had a pretty smile, when he grabbed her by the hip, just like when her friend went to the toilet he asked her if she wanted to sit, just like when they chatted and laughed like long-time friends – so much so that neither of them ever got around to asking that horrid ‘so, what do you do for a living?’ question –  just like he was able to laugh along with her talk about the characters on a comedy show he’d never even heard of, just like he ran to get some napkins to help when she knocked her gin and tonic over and just like when their lips first met.

“To be honest, Marianne, I’ve been thinking about you a lot these past days.” Tom tapped on ‘send’ again.

He couldn’t help but cherish his recollections now. He remembered how amazingly snug it felt to have Marianne clinging on to him, squeezing his hand as they kissed, oblivious to the rest of the bar, and still holding on as they waited to take a taxi home.

“Things have been a bit tough recently, but when I think of you I always cheer up.”

Tom burped. He smiled as he recalled leading Marianne by the hand to his bedroom that night.

“If you want to relax while I go to the toilet, and then we could maybe watch something?” he had said. She had responded with a knowing smile. Then he had gone to vomit in the toilet, and had knocked on Gavin’s door, as quietly as he could in the circumstances, which was actually unbearably loud, to ask for a condom and some tic tacs. Then he had become filled with anxiety as he pinched at his numb privates through his alcohol-stained jeans and reflected he was likely too drunk to perform.

It had been a relief to see Marianne sleeping in his bed – clothed and still in shoes – as he returned to the room. He climbed in next to her, put his arm around her waist and felt her soft heartbeat. He woke up a few times that night near ecstatic to realise it wasn’t a dream, and that this beautiful young lady had entered his room. It was as if a few strokes of a masterpiece had just been dashed on the gigantic empty canvas of his life, with the paint not even dry to the touch. He clung on to her tummy and stroked her hair while she slept.

“I’ve got to be truthful with you Marianne. I dream all the time of just holding you again one day – even if it’s just for a few seconds, it’ll be the closest I ever get to heaven.” Tom clicked ‘send’ again.

A whirring in Tom’s stomach alerted him that the beer was making him queasy. He tossed the phone aside and snapped close the computer, which was still displaying the photo of Marianne by the Thames on her Instagram page. Sweat formed on his forehead. Wasn’t her behaviour the morning after that night, seven months ago, a sign she wasn’t interested? He had been awoken by a shriek, and Marianne said, with startled eyes “Oh my God, oh my God! How the hell did I end up here!?” before grabbing her jacket from the desk where the tulips now stood and darting out of the door. That was the last he had seen of her.

Tom closed his eyes.

He was awoken by a frantic knocking on his bedroom door.

“Tom!” cried Gavin. “Two coppers are at the door! Don’t tell me you’ve been contacting that girl again?”

Tom was silent. He didn’t know what to say.

“For heaven’s sake! You’ve got to leave it!”