Today was rice day, fifty-pound sacks of white rice in trucks bearing an elephant logo. The same happy elephant appeared on the bags, its head raised to the sky, the trunk curved like an S.
“Elephant,” Todd said.
He said it because a laborer was staring at it intently. Which meant he wasn’t working.
“That’s right,” the man said. “I couldn’t remember the word.”
He was the only other human at the loading dock this morning. The man didn’t have a name, just a number, like the rest of the robots.
“Let’s get back to it, 8831, okay?”
“Yessir,” the man said.
That could be me, Todd thought as he watched him work side by side with his silent mechanical counterparts, lifting, carrying, and dropping bags of rice from the back of the truck to the warehouse. A bad car accident, a bad fall from a ladder, and that could be me.
Or a bad memrip.
AT LUNCH, Todd thought of things he could sell. Everything he owned of any value, he could touch: his grandfather’s watch, his grandmother’s wedding ring, a gold necklace belonging to some forgotten relative. His car, too, but that was out of the question as he needed it to work.
He got up from his chair and scanned the floor below, the robots still working away, a sea of metallic shoulders rising and falling in unison, strangely beautiful in a way. Over by the forklift sat 8831, his eyes as blank as the piece of bread he was eating.
Two weeks from today was Todd’s thirtieth wedding anniversary, and even if he were to pawn the watch, the ring, and the necklace, he knew he wouldn’t even come close to having enough for Paris. That’s where Sue had wanted to go for as long as he could remember. They didn’t have the money to honeymoon there, but that was okay because back then, there had been plenty of time. They were young, both healthy and working, so they would save a little here and there and in a couple of years, they would be walking up to the Eiffel Tower at night arm in arm, find themselves underneath the arch and look up at the beacon that shined on this city of lights.
But then came two sons and three recessions and a second mortgage. A hysterectomy for her, a double bypass for him, and now here he was, nine years short of retirement, supervising a team of robots and a retarded man, thinking about folks who could sell things they couldn’t touch, like stocks and bonds and whatever else he couldn’t even fathom, people with money who would pay to experience another’s most cherished moments.
Silly. That would be Sue’s word for it if this were a story she’d overheard. For a trip, a goddamn trip, what a silly thing to do.
But it was more than a trip. It was their life together. There was life and there was death, and it seemed to Todd that if he waited any longer, there wouldn’t be a difference between the two.
He opened the filing cabinet and rifled through the folders. In all the years he’d been here, only a handful of human workers had come and gone. All of them were handicapped in some way; they came through the city welfare program, and 8831 was no exception.
Name: Lopez, Manny
Tax Status: Married
Disability: Neural Trauma
Neural Trauma. It was worth a shot.
Manny’s wife picked up on the second ring. Todd told her who he was, and after he assured her that her husband was not hurt, he was fine, he was a great worker, he asked her what he wanted to know. She listened without interrupting him, then there was a lengthy silence.
“Why?” she asked.
“Does it matter?”
“I can report you.”
“He did it because he loved me. Loved,” she said, hardening. “Not loves.”
“I heard you.”
Then she hung up on him, and for the rest of the day, Todd replayed the conversation in his mind. Should he have lied to her, made up some story about a sick mother, a dying child? He wasn’t good at talking, especially on the phone. People thought he was unfriendly, hostile. A woman once told him his voice sounded like broken stones rattling in a cage.
The horn blared at five, time for the two humans to go home and the robots to be reconditioned and put in standby.
Todd was walking out to his car when Manny touched his shoulder.
“Boss,” he said, sounding uncertain. He held out his phone. “My wife, she wants to talk to you?”
THE HOUSE was quiet when he returned, and it seemed to Todd that he wanted to keep it that way. Take small, measured steps, like a thief. He carefully pulled the door shut, holding onto the doorknob and turning it by hand until it locked.
Above, the floorboards creaked, Sue’s footsteps as she walked from their bedroom to the bathroom. Then a flush, and the trill of water climbing up to refill the toilet tank. And now the muffled voice of the late-show host on TV, the encouraging laughter of the studio audience, the one-two punch repeating until they cut to commercial.
Todd sat at the dining table and peeked inside the microdome, at the plate Sue had made for him. Pork chops, a bunch of broccoli spears, a hill of mashed potatoes with a well of gravy. He touched the REHEAT button and watched his plate spin slowly, the inside of the dome steaming up.
One thing for sure, my clients never tire of wedding proposals.
The man Todd had met after work was funny, friendly, utterly normal. It didn’t seem possible that they were talking about something that could land both of them a minimum of two years in prison.
I’m not going to lie to you, Todd. There’s a risk to this. People do get hurt, like your friend Manny. But keep in mind that Manny didn’t follow our simple yet extremely important directions. We told him over and over again that he wasn’t to consume any alcoholic beverages twenty-four hours before the procedure. We even hired a Portuguese translator to make sure he understood what was required of him. See, this is why Mrs. Lopez still led you to us, because she knows we do good work. Her cousin’s a regular sourcer, comes in once a month, has been for years. We don’t mess up, Todd. It’s the sourcers who mess up. And I can see we’ll have a smooth ride, because you’re a smart guy.
Though he introduced himself as Richard Gibbons, he also immediately admitted that it was an alias.
In my opinion, Todd? In my opinion, I think it’s something the government should regulate. Because let’s face it, everybody’s doing it. But think how long it took for marijuana to become legalized. Hell, it’s still not legal in Alabama.
Todd opened the microdome and took out the plate. The pork had gotten a little tougher, but it still tasted wonderful, his wife’s signature flavors of mint and garlic in every bite.
The way I see it, you’re getting peak value for something that is going to eventually disappear. I’m not just talking about Alzheimer’s. Once you go past sixty, memories fade at an alarming clip. It’s what happens because the brain can only retain so much. Like all of our other organs, it’s about usage. When was the last time you thought about your honeymoon? Honestly? The less you use, the more you lose. It’s the foundation of how our bodies work. The health benefits of memripping, they’re not some urban legend. You’re cleaning house. You’re taking out the garbage and putting in out on the curb, but here’s the difference: you’re getting paid for that trash.
It was a painless, quick procedure. All you had to do was remember what you wanted to have ripped while the machine was plugged into you. The surgery was completely automated and technologically sound.
Memory is free. Not for our clients, of course, haha! But for you, Todd. Think of all the new memories you’ll create with the money you’ll have. Our government wants to equate our enterprise to organ trafficking, but nothing could be further from the truth. You grow memory like a crop, and when you want to, you harvest it. Are there people picketing against farmers every time they cut down a bushel of corn? Of course not. It’s natural. It’s life.
Sue met him at the sink. She reached for the dish towel hanging off the hook, but Todd angled his body to block her.
“It’s just one dish,” he said. “You can let it dry.”
“You had a long day.”
Todd wiped his hands on the towel and turned around to face her. Even though she looked prettier with her makeup on, he also liked seeing his wife like this, right before they went to bed, because only he saw her like this. Nobody else in the world knew this Sue, only him.
Though it was possible that wouldn’t be true after the memrip. But was that a bad thing? Was it so terrible to share his love for his wife with someone else?
Todd waited to turn off the kitchen lights, for Sue to switch on the lamp at the landing of the staircase. It was their unspoken routine to retire to their bedroom. There were many other small routines like that one, and now, as he climbed the stairs with her, Todd thought how wonderful it was to know another person so well, that this was comfort, that this was home.
TRIANGULAR BOXES. That was the shipment that waited for him when he arrived at work the following morning. There were blue ones and red ones and yellow ones and green ones, and each contained a like-colored chair from a Korean designer. Todd couldn’t see how a box like that could hold a comfortable chair, so he opened one up and sat in it.
“Jesus Christ,” he said.
Four auto-adjusting palm-shaped prongs supported him in ways that seemed impossible: his lower back, his love handles, and his neck. If he had his way, he would sit here forever. But he couldn’t, as the whistle blew and the robots came to life.
He thought the oddly-shaped boxes might pose a challenge for them, but they didn’t miss a step. The robots saw the way the boxes were stacked inside the truck, right side up and upside down, staggered to maximize space, and they replicated the exact pattern in the warehouse.
Manny worked in perfect tandem with his mechanized brothers as the morning turned into afternoon. Like yesterday, he went back to the forklift to eat his lunch, and Todd wondered if perhaps he used to run one of those. He considered asking him but changed his mind. If Manny did so before, he certainly didn’t now, so what was there to talk about?
In his office, Todd dug into the brown paper bag of his own lunch and thought that today was very much like yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that. But tomorrow would be different because tonight would be different. If the memrip went according to plan – and he had no reason to believe it wouldn’t, because he hadn’t had a beer in the last twenty-four hours, hadn’t washed his hair this morning, followed everything Gibbons had told him – tomorrow he would call up that travel agent who advertised in the paper and tell her to book the platinum romantic getaway to Paris for two.
For a trip, a goddamn trip, what a silly thing to do.
He could almost hear her say it. But she would be telling him as they were flying over the Atlantic in first-class seats. They’d never sat in those large leather chairs, only walked past them on their way to the narrow discomforts of coach.
Sue had made him the perfect egg salad sandwich, just enough mayo to keep the egg bits and chopped slivers of celery together. As he ate, he took out his flexphoto to watch the twelve-picture slideshow from Uncle Patrick’s wedding. Gibbons had given him the paper-thin disposable device, which was programmed to turn on just once. According to Gibbons, the worst thing a sourcer could do was overprepare, try to remember too much and turn an emotional memory into an intellectual exercise.
My client has been waiting seven years for this, Todd.
Each picture only stayed on for five seconds, but it seemed much longer than that when the first one came up. How was it possible that they were both so thin, so young? Sue was in a blue sleeveless dress. She was in attendance because she was a friend of Uncle Patrick’s sister. She was nineteen years old, and Todd was twenty. In the picture, they were both in the frame, sitting down at adjacent tables as dinner was being served. They had yet to meet, and somehow that made the moment even more special.
Love at first sight. People say it, but they rarely mean it. My client has gone through sixteen memrips and still has yet to find a real one. That’s why he’s willing to pay big.
He and Sue dancing, his left hand clasping her right hand, his right arm around her waist, their youthful faces glowing like a pair of full moons.
I know the risk is more on your side, but you have to understand, the destinator also faces dangers. Emotional dangers. The disappointment can be so crushing that they often need to seek psychological and spiritual guidance. This client who’ll be installing your memrip, he’s got one therapist and two holistic advisors on permanent payroll. So needless to say, he’s counting on you.
Their first kiss, and the angle showed Sue’s surprise and delight. She was slightly drunk and so was he, but Todd remembered that moment more than any other, the warmth and wetness of her lips, the way they parted as the kiss transformed into a smile.
I know you’ll do your best. That’s all we ask.
The flexphoto blinked off, and lunch was over.
“READY?” Gibbons asked.
They were in a dentist’s office, and from the looks of it, not a very successful dentist. There was a leak in the corner of the ceiling, turning half of the tile brown, and the muzak that flowed out of the speakers was at times staticky.
Todd sat in the chair, his head tipped back and immobilized inside an octagonal metal cage. He couldn’t see the machine anymore, but he knew it was there, a black cylinder with a silver arm. At the end of the arm was a clear tube too thin for the naked eye to see, which would enter through his left ear, travel through the auditory nerve, and make its way to his brain.
“You’re not gonna feel a thing.”
“Okay,” Todd said, and soon there was a whirring in his left ear.
Indeed, he felt nothing as the tube burrowed inside. The pills Gibbons had given him were working, too, making his eyes a little dry but calming him.
“And we’re in,” Gibbons said.
Gibbons slid a flexphoto into a slot in front of the cage, filling Todd’s view with blackness. Then the slideshow started again, and this time Todd held nothing back. Uncle Patrick’s wedding, thirty-two years ago, meeting his future wife for the first time. Realizing he’ll never again remember this moment filled him with regret, and for a second he felt an intense desire to scream, that he didn’t want to do this, that his memory was his and no one else’s, but then the feeling passed.
Just buyer’s remorse, Todd thought, and went back to the task at hand, which was to remember.
At some point, Gibbons said, “The buffer’s getting full, so it’s going to scrape.”
Todd didn’t think there were words that could describe it. Clean? Was that what it was, that he felt clean? But it wasn’t like washing his hands or taking a shower. Suddenly there was a lightness in him, fresh, impossible pockets of air inside his mind. It wasn’t an unpleasant sensation because it wasn’t a sensation at all. That was it: whatever this was, it was the antithesis of something, but it wasn’t exactly nothing, because the concept of nothingness existed in relation to a somethingness before it. What the scrape did was more than just remove his personal history; it removed the concept of history itself.
This should hurt, Todd thought. Something like this should be painful.
The next photo came into his vision, he and Sue at the bar, waiting for their drinks, but what had he been thinking about just before?
“Don’t back up, just see forward, Todd,” Gibbons said. “Let it go.”
There were two more scrapings, and then they were done. The whirring in his ear stopped, and Gibbons unlatched the harness around his head. Todd rotated his neck left and right and back again, stiff from two hours of stillness.
On the top of the memrip machine was a round clear disc, a petri dish, with just a smidge of gray matter.
PARIS WAS stubborn. While other cities around the world were busy upgrading concrete with organic alloys and replacing old street lamps with compact photon bulbs, this city looked no different than the way it did a hundred years ago. The stone bricks, the gargoyles, the wrought-iron fences, they looked like they’d always been here.
“Are you sure we’re going the right way?” Sue asked.
Paris, at night. It was what she had always wanted, wasn’t it?
These questions, these doubts. If only he could make them disappear.
“I think so,” Todd said, walking past signs he couldn’t read.
For a while things were fine, and then they weren’t. Gibbons found a neurologist who was willing to examine Todd without notifying the authorities. Just bad luck, the doctor had said. You can never tell how these things will go. That’s why it’s not legal.
Memory is like a million little houses. Taking one out is like lifting a house from a community. Not a big deal, because you can just build another in its place. The community remains unaffected.
But some memories are like skyscrapers. If you’re careful, you might be able to take away the first floor of a tall building and leave it standing, but never for long. Sooner than later, walls start to crack. Ceilings leak. It’s just a matter of time until the structure groans and loses integrity.
You still have lots of houses, though, Todd. A strong, stable community. That’s why you’re capable of doing everything else, like your job, like walking and eating and enjoying a movie. But your wife will remain problematic. Even new memories you form with her, they’re going to reference this skyscraper because the damage was so extensive.
I’m so sorry.
Just one more street, Todd thought. When he glanced at Sue, he saw the way she was favoring her left leg. Why was that?
He didn’t know.
If only they could find their way. How could they be lost, trying to find the tallest structure in the city? It was stupid. It was infuriating.
“Oh my,” Sue said, pointing.
And there it was, finally, having hidden behind a row of buildings on this side street. There was no buildup to their encounter: the tower was not there, not there, and then…just there, in its entirety, tall and strong and sharp.
And still far away. It would take another fifteen minutes for them to reach the Eiffel Tower, where Todd would stand with the woman he was supposed to love underneath the arch, holding her hand, and listen to the wind whipping through the girders.
a story by- Sung J. Woo
Forbidden Forest – A Horror Story
“Mom! Johnny’s not helping me get ready for dinner!” exclaimed my sister at the top of her puny but blatant lungs.
“Yes, I am.” I called upstairs to the room where my mother lay in a soundless slumber. “Would you shut-up! She’s resting, you know. She is exhausted!” I tried to whisper to my sister, Emily.
My mother worked two jobs to keep us alive. Six years had passed since the day my father died. Nobody really know how he died, but from what my mom told me, Emily the curious little girl that she was, and still is, walked into the terrifying, damp forest across the condensed street. Nobody had ever gone in there before. She walked inside and fell down a precipitous hill, luckily my dad saved her and they came out perfectly fine. However, after a week or so, he started acting weird, from what I remember. Then, a month later he just left us. I don’t know if he is deceased or still alive. Really, I prefer him dead.
As I helped Emily with dinner, she was telling me about her childish day. I love her, I really do, but I just wasn’t in a qualified mood.
“Would you shut-up! I don’t want to hear about you stupid day!” I shrieked and startled her tiny mind. That shut her up, I thought.
“What’s all that noise?” My overworked mother murmured as she came down from her slothful bed.
“Uh, nothing”, Emily pronounced. I have to admit she is a cute ten-year-old. She has blonde hair, pale skin and dark ocean blue eyes.
The phone sang a customary tune. Emily and I raced for it. Of course, I got there first and knocked her over. She started crying yet stopped because she knew I would get in trouble. I didn’t look down at her nor did I care. It was my friend on the line. Without saying a word, I left her to finish the work in the kitchen.
The next day we had this extensive argument, like we usually do. However, somehow this discussion seemed divergent. Generally, she doesn’t talk much, but now it was like she was revealing to me all of her life’s problems, and connecting them with dad. It was so uncanny. I shrugged it off and went out.
That night my mother had to go to a funeral and left Emily and I alone. An inquisitive child, Emily came up to me and questioned, “What happened to daddy, John?”
“Daddy left, he’s dead. I don’t ever wanna see him again! He is gone! ” I managed to wail out.
“Why?” she ventured to ask me.
“Because he hated us!”
“Your friend told me he went away in a forest or something. What?” Emily dared to ask me.
“You talk to my friends? Daddy ran after you, he saved you and I don’t know why he left. Now he is dead!” I screeched with my last breath.
“Daddy’s dead? How do you know?” She inquired.
“He just is.” I said, but I really didn’t know. I just wanted him to be dead.
It was the first time I ever saw her face so aghast and full of knowledgeable questions. She then ran out of the house into the mid-fall chill.
“Where are you going?” I shouted out to the relentless winds, but she just kept running. “Fine go look for him, then.” I said. I didn’t care. I just slammed the door and turned on the television and watched a movie.
When the movie was done I looked at the clock; my mother was due back in an hour. I looked outside the window and saw no one. So I walked out the front door to find Emily strolling out of the forbidden forest.
She looked fine, her face was still pale like it always has been, ever since she was born. Nevertheless, she did not have that ‘I know you’re lying to me’ face on. She just appeared with no abnormal bodily conditions.
Emily walked inside the door, out of the crispness, without a single word. I was just going to start screaming at her like a mother at her teenager who stayed out too late, when she spoke first.
“You’re right daddy is dead. Well, partially. He gave me a hug and a kiss. Daddy’s name is Diabolus,” she finished . My brain was lost, I had too much anger to get out.
“Daddy is still-” I commenced, but she interrupted me.
“I got to go to bed now. goodnight.” Then she went upstairs, so swiftly and unostentatiously. I was so dazed that I did not elucidate, I just went to watch another movie, until my mother came home. When she did come home I did not tell her what had occurred earlier that unprecedented night.
About two weeks later, Emily and I both forgot about our sibling contention and Emily’s walk out. Everything was back to normal, well sort of, her eating inclinations reverted. Her daily visits for dinner were cut short. Emily would stay in her room for long periods of time. Her innocent girlish talks promptly ended. Basically things had commutated. Emily’s skin tone was becoming cadaverous and bloodless. Her eyes were becoming nebulous. Her overall attitude on life, friends and family began to transubstantiate. Everything seemed so negative to Emily. I noticed these alterations but frankly I did not care. I was watching Emily one morning, she ordinarily woke up bright and early to the gleaming sun and unlocked her blinds that covered a resplendent morning sky. In contrast, that daybreak and ever since, she seemed vulnerable to the burning rays of the sunlight.
Nearly two months following, I was in my room doing my wearisome homework when somebody walked into my sterile room and tapped on my shoulder. I rotated my body to see Emily with eyes black as a stormy night above, and gruesome bloodsucking teeth. She hissed and her vampire teeth elongated.
“Ahhhh,” I screamed fearfully.
“Shh, Johnny. Come with me to see daddy”, she said, as she breathed in my face. Her breath filled my nostrils. It left a stench of crimson blood and raw meat in my mouth.
“Daddy’s dead! I told you that!” I said trying to disregard her appearance.
“No, he is not dead. Dad come in.” Emily commanded, as a man that appeared familiar but he had Emily’s fangs and complexion as she looked at him when he came into the room.
“Hi, John. It’s me, Diabolus daddy,” the man said to me.
I was so startled that I nearly fainted. I did well at least I think I did. I woke up lying on damp, musky grass. I was in a condensed environment surrounded by trees and greenery. I was tired oh so ver tired. I felt like all the nutrients were all drained out from my body. I attempted to open my eyes but only saw a pitch-black blur.
“John, Johnny, wake up you’ve got to wake up.” I heard a faint voice that seemed to be Emily. I missed her so much. Why did I argue with her? I thought.
Why was I such a mean big brother to her? That is why she left, that is why she went to daddy. I reflected to myself. I finally woke out of my dormancy to see a clan of people that looked like vampires.
“No, John, I didn’t leave because you were mean to me. I left because I heard daddy call me.” Emily responded to my thoughts. I know for sure that I did not say that out loud. She must of read my aura, I thought.
“You humans are so weak, so woundable, so helpless.” Diabolus said with a grin on his anemic face.
“I am staying with daddy, John. Please tell mom I love her and that I am safe with daddy. We have to move. We are not safe around humans and you’re not safe around us.” Emily said.
“What? Why?” I started.
“Your old man is an one hundred year old vampire. At birth Emily got my genetics and you didn’t. For a few days you may have cravings to either cut yourself and/or to drink blood. Try your best to stop. Your mother knows what I am that’s why I left because I didn’t want to hurt you guys. I never knew that Emily had a part of me until now. We’ve got to go.” Diabolus informed me. The group turned and left with my little sister, Emily.
I walked out of the vexed forest to my home and up to my room. As I entered my room, I found a note on my bed. I opened it and it read:
My dear Big Brother,
Don’t be afraid to not be cool. Tell mommy that I love her
and that I went with dad. I’m one of him. Help mom for me, please. I have to go. Always remember to love kids, because you are one too.
P.S. don’t tell anyone but mom is having a baby! Shh
I truly lover my sister. I should have showed her that and I regret that I didn’t. The fact that she was a vampire terrified me, I had been living with a vampire for ten years and did not know anything about it.
Latest Fashion trend in Pakistan “Shisha”
Hokkah or shisha smoking has become very popular in Pakistan. Many resturants and cafes are offering shisha in Karachi, Islamabad, Lahore and other cities of the country. This flavoured pipe smoking is gaining popularity especially among the younger generation. Students can be seen smoking shisha in the famous resturants or in the small roadside cafes.
As girls stood side by side with the boys, they also enjoy shisha smoking in gatherings. Here we can see girls smoking shisha and having fun.
A hookah or shisha (Arabic: ?????) is a single or multi-stemmed (often glass-based) water pipe for smoking. Originally from India, hookah has gained immense popularity, especially in the Middle East and is gaining popularity in the USA, UK, Canada, and elsewhere. Today, some of the highest quality and most extravagant hookah pipes come from Egypt, Iran and Turkey. The hookah operates by water filtration and indirect heat. It is used for smoking herbal fruits and tobacco, and is often considered to be healthier than smoking cigarettes, although recent studies have shown that it is just as detrimental to a person’s health.
The Nicht Afore Christmas – Jamie Cameron
The Christmas party had been sillier than usual, and I felt some satisfaction that it would be my last. In September Joe and I’d come to the parting of the ways, at least temporarily, as he strode off with all the confidence in the world to the school on the hill.
You could see Ancrum Road Primary School if you stood on the wall outside St Mary’s Catholic Church where the High Street became the Lochee Road. I had no idea what Alcatraz was then, but if I had, I would certainly have named that institution of junior learning ‘Alcatraz on the Hill’.
Party hats, home-made, crackers, home-made, and lumpy jelly, home-made, whistles, clackers, rattles, xylophones, tin drums, and abortive attempts at carol singing accompanied by the up-right, out-of-tune piano produced scenes of frenzied, frantic mayhem across the main hall of the nursery. Snowballs sneaked in under pinafores had reduced the wooden floor to a soggy, slippery mess, unimproved by the urine of several little girls taken short by the excitement of it all. The tree tipped over at an unlikely angle, bulbs exploding at the rate of one every five minutes, chocolate novelties long since ripped off, and the fairy looking as bedraggled as the nurses who fought half-heartedly for control of their pinafored charges.
All other doors were locked against us, including, outrageously, the door to the Quiet Room where I could have found solace in a Wizard or Hotspur, or even in these desperate circumstances a Dandy or Beano though my contempt for Dennis the Menace and Desperate Dan were legendary. Little surprise then that my participation in the Hokey Cokey ended after I’d three times put the boot, or at least the sandal into three toddlers who had the temerity to shake their limbs at me. Thrown across the room, I slid arse-first into the Christmas tree and was rewarded by the sound of three bulbs exploding simultaneously and the fairy falling into my lap. I would have left there and then, but the presents were still to come.
“Ho ho ho!”
If the voice hadn’t given it away, the streaky moustache and the gin-tainted breath did. Santa was Matron. Santa was always Matron, I hadn’t needed Joe to tell me that. But was I the only one who recognised her? The others, even my fellow five-year-olds screeched in delight and were only hindered from mauling Santa by the serried ranks of nurses who secured her path to the Christmas tree where Santa, as God is my witness, kicked me out of her way.
Santa’s armchair was hauled into place. She dropped her Christmas sack with a thud and dropped herself into the chair which sagged beneath her not inconsiderable bulk, none of which was made up of pillows.
“Line up. Sparrows first. Then seagulls. Now you blackbirds, and then the tits.” Nurses smiled, screamed and herded us into some semblance of order. I was four years old and therefore a tit. At the time I did not understood why mum laughed when I told her.
In the prescribed order infants, toddlers and juniors mounted Matron, were breathed upon, exchanged whispers, and given their Christmas present. They scrambled down and were led away by nurses who then man-handled the presents from them and piled them on a table near the door. As usual we were not to be allowed to open our presents until going-home time; previous experiments at letting the children open their presents had led to jealousy, bickering, arguments, fighting and worse. All of the infants, most of the toddlers and several of the juniors burst into inconsolable tears, not that anyone tried to console them, the piano just got louder.
My turn came. I looked up into Matron’s eyes. Little black raisins embedded in a purple pudding. I wanted to put a match to her. Did gin burn like brandy? Never mind. That ratty beard would do.
“Get up here, Paul.”
“My mother says you have to call me Jean-Paul.”
“Get up here, Jean-Paul.” I could feel the hostility, the gin must be wearing off.
“I don’t answer to Jean-Paul.”
“Get up here, you.”
Immovable object met irresistible force.
“Here, take it.” She thrust a small parcel into my chest.
“What about my Christmas wish?”
She snorted like the walrus in the nature film we’d watched the day before and stuck her ear into my face. I whispered my Christmas wish.
“What do you mean ‘no’?”
“I mean ‘no’. Now go and play.”
I stood my ground until I was hauled away by a nurse. I hardly felt my present slip out of my arms. I was in a state of shock and did not come to until I found myself in a conga that twisted, turned and staggered its away around the hall, children slipping, sliding and falling on the treacherous linoleum. I disengaged myself from this travesty and returned to the tree. Santa had gone. I scrambled onto the armchair, slung my legs over the side and looked up into the tattered branches. I had some thinking to do. Above my head another bulb exploded.
At five o’clock I stood at the entrance to the nursery waiting for my grandmother to take my home. Light snow was falling. It spun and swirled through the lamplight. Although I was not cold, I shivered and pulled the canvas bag that held the history of my three nursery years closer to me.
Gran came zigzagging down Flight’s Lane in that curiously distracted way that suggested her mind was not entirely at one with her body. She began several possible conversations before hitting upon one that continued long enough to make some sense. I thrust one rope handle of the bag towards her, kept a tight grip on the other and dragged her up the lane.
“Dae you no want tae say cheerio tae the nurses?”
“No, come on.”
“Did you ha’e a guid perty?”
Disappointment flitted across her ruddy cheeks, but Gran could never be unhappy for more than a moment. A lady of the old school, she was born to serve and please others, especially menfolk. Her misery melted like an ice cream cone at the Ferry in August.
“We’d better get hame quick. It’s Christmas eve, ye ken, an’ yer ma’s probably goin’ oot fur some last minute shoppin’. We’d better no be late.” My mother was not of the old school, and my grandmother was terrified of her. She pulled on the canvas bag and almost dragged me under a tramcar. I doubt she even saw it. We passed one of my grandfather’s public houses. The stink was intoxicating. Gran shuddered and pulled me past its seductive double swing doors.
Joe’d been home for an hour. The room was snug and cosy. Gran attempted fitful conversation. She’d no takers and left with a promise to visit on Christmas Day. We made no move and she did not kiss us good-bye. There were conventions in the family we did not understand, but which we respected. I got on with my reading and Joe continued to build his version of a better mousetrap. We’d already got mum’s present, wrapped it and hidden it in the bedpan. Our Christmas preparations were done.
Just after six mum came home and collapsed into the armchair hacking like a tubercular cat. My mother suffered from pleurisy. Neither Joe nor I had any idea what pleurisy was, but we recognised its painful symphony and hated it. Mum sat in the chair, bent double, fighting for breath. Joe sat on an arm of the chair, leaning over, her massaging her back, digging deep with his thumbs. When his thumbs were aching, I took over, not nearly so effectively, but I was learning.
Sometimes I would hold her shoulders and rub my face into her back. It probably didn’t help her, but it helped me. Later mother would make a kaolin poultice of hot china clay smeared on a thick bandage. We would tenderly apply the hot sludge to her bare back and freckled shoulders, swapping stories about our day.
Many of my stories were embroidered, exaggerated or wholly invented. I loved to make mum laugh though laughter had its price in further fits of coughing and pain. A dig in the ribs from my puritanical brother told me when I was going too far. That night the laugh was on me.
A sharp series of knocks rattled the door in its frame. Joe answered the call, his high but even voice counter-pointing a deep rumble like thunder over Balgay Hill. He came back and spoke to mum, a quizzical look running across his thin frenchified features.
“The polis is at the door. I think he’s looking for Paul.”
I started like a guilty thing. My mother pinned me to the wall with a look. Was my hair standing on end? I resisted the urge to turn and look in the wardrobe mirror. Lucky arched her back and hissed in sympathy.
“You, wait there,” she said, adding superfluously, “don’t move.”
Thunder rumbled behind the door again. The words made no sense. My mother had pronounced a sentence of immobility upon my brain as well as my body. Her words came to me in fragments.
“Good idea not to come in… terrified of men… scream his head off… always been like that… the doctor says…”
I risked a glance at Joe. He was still working on his mousetrap. He was smiling, but it was a smile I did not like, it was the smile he wore when he caught a mouse in one his traps. I’d seen one before, its wee heid snapped clean from its body, its incisors embedded in the cheddar that had lured it to its doom. I’d like to see his head… No, mustn’t think like that. God’s listening, God’s watching, God sees all. Doesn’t He ever take time off or is He too busy keeping an eye on the mousetraps He has built for all of us?
I was startled to hear my name pronounced in full. My mother might as well have worn a piece of black cloth on the top of her Christmas perm.
“Jean-Paul Bosquet. Hand them over.”
For an instant I was tempted to play dumb, tempted to commit instant suicide. I resisted the temptation and lived.
Scrambling under the bed, I hauled out the bulging canvas bag and dragged it to my mother’s feet. I knelt down and pulled out one wrapped gift at a time handing them up to my mother who placed each one ceremoniously on the table. “four… five… six…” Would these poisonous parcels never end? “eight… nine… ten…” The final parcel tugged at my heartstrings. I gave my mother a look that would melt an iceberg. She must have known it was mine. She was implacable, taking my parcel between finger and thumb – green holly paper, red berries, laughing snowmen – she dropped it like a dog turd onto the pile.
A policeman stepped into the room. My heart or some other organ leapt into my mouth. I could not make a sound. I froze. I could feel my tiny scrotum tighten. I tried to fix my gaze on the floor. My eyes betrayed me. I looked up. It was a man, a very big man, with big yellow teeth, a moustache thicker even than matron’s, and a flat policeman’s cap supported by big ears on either side of his big head. My eyes widened. My chest began to heave. A strangled sob forced its way past my constricted throat muscles. A cold chill blew in through the open door annihilating Christmas.
The man swept all the parcels up into his big arms, nodded a cheery “Merry Christmas” to my mother and disappeared into the night. I could see him striding across the wasteland to the Lochee Road towards the railway bridge at Muirton Road. My imagination pulled down the shutters. I knew the Lochee Road led to Dundee, the big city. As far as I knew, I’d never been there. But it was obvious. The big city was where the big men lived, and I wanted nothing to do with that or them.
“Take three big breaths. Remember how Dr Heinreich showed you.”
I took the breaths, the biggest and deepest I could manage. They almost blew my head off.
I came there. Mum sitting in the armchair. Me standing in front of her. Joe sitting on the rug in front of the fire. Lucky stretched out on the bed.
“Why did you take the presents?”
Another deep breath.
“It was Matron’s fault.”
“Why did you take the presents?”
“She widnae give me one for Joe.”
“You said me and Joe had to be the same.”
I was annoyed now. I could feel my neck redden. It was not my fault.
“I asked her… for a present… for Joe. I asked nicely, honest, mum. She said no, not nicely. So I put them in the bag when everybody was changing. And Gran helped me carry them up the road. They were really heavy, and a tram nearly…”
“That was wrong. The presents didn’t belong to you, so you had no right to take them. What you did was wrong.”
The room went silent. Joe sat still. The fire ceased to spit shale. Lucky stopped purring. I was drowning in the silence, thick heavy fluid clogging my nose and my brain, running down my back, pouring down my legs into my grey nursery socks. Mum had said the word we never wanted to hear: wrong. It rang like a huge gong banging relentlessly into the silence. Anything but that word. That word put distance between us and this woman, that word sliced into the umbilical cord that nourished us, that word made her turn her face away from us, that word cost us her love, and without that love we could not survive.
“You did the wrong thing for the right reason. Now what are you going to do about it?”
Never ask a four year old that question. It isn’t fair. It’s too harsh. Because a four year old will always come up with the right answer, and the answer will hurt.
I racked by brains for a way out. I looked at Joe. He shrugged at me with his lips. He knew the answer, too. And he knew there was no way out.
“Good night, son.”
My mind chased a little tail in circles. There had to be something. There was. But play it carefully. I looked mum full in the face.
“Eh hivnae had meh tea.”
“Eh hivnae had meh tea. Eh’m sterving.”
Even Lucky held her breath. Fire danced in my mother’s eyes.
“It’s Christmas Eve, and eh hivnae had eny tea.”
Something like contempt flickered in my mother’s smile.
“Right, boys, what’ll we have for tea tonight?”
“Macaroni on toast.”
“No, we had that last night.”
“Scrambled eggs on toast.”
“No, that’s for breakfast.”
“What day is it, mum?”
“Bread and chips. Right?”
Paul recognises the note of despondency in Joe’s voice. He cannot understand why his brother fails to appreciate the joys of bread and chips, teeth sinking into the fleshy fried potato, greasy margarine sliding down the throat, lips worth licking again and again, and hot sweet tea washing down the whole sloppy mess.
On good nights you can have as much bread as you want, including the ends of the sliced white loaf, the ‘heelies’, which are always reserved for Paul since nobody else wants them. You can curl up on the big double bed that dominates the single room, chew on the crusts and get lost in the Rover, the Hotspur, the Wizard for hour after hour.
How can Joe sound so despondent every Thursday night about such prospects as these? Even Kathleen, the new baby, lies gurgling happily, but then Kathleen lies gurgling happily most of the time, kicking her feet against the sides of the tin bath that serves as her crib.
“Who wants to put the kettle on?”
“Eh’ll dae it.”
“Joseph, speak properly when you’re in this house. Put the kettle on. Jean-Paul will go for the chips. Get your coat on and your wellies. You’re not going out in sandshoes on a night like this. And come straight back. No wandering.”
Paul clambers into a heavy bottle-green overcoat and ties the belt around his middle, the buckle is long gone. Reluctantly he pulls on the heavy Wellington boots. He stands beside mum’s armchair. She is absorbed in the Evening Telegraph, smoke curls up from her cigarette. Paul stands and waits. She turns her head to him, blue-grey eyes meet. She has that far away look. Paul knows she hasn’t been reading the newspaper, only looking at the words.
“Money, mum. For the chippie. I’m ready.”
She reaches for her purse. She takes out a sixpenny piece and presses it into his warm little palm closing her fingers over the money, her fingers over his. He swells with pride. He is a knight-errant setting out on a perilous mission. He knows he may meet dragons, monsters, wizards and bogeymen out there, but he will overcome them all, he will wade knee-deep through blood, guts and slaughter, but he will get there, and he will return with the holy grail, the sixpence worth of hot steaming chips to lay at her feet or at least on the stove until the bread is margarined.
Outside it is dark, cold and bitter, and the boy is not so sure. There is neither wind nor cloud. Winter stars sparkle overhead. Frost and rime sparkle below his feet. The gas lamps hiss and sputter. Shadows are blackly frozen. Paul remembers he is only four, nearly five, but by the calendar still only four.
He will gallop and sing his way to Delanzo’s. It is not far, only half a mile. The boy hasn’t the faintest idea what half a mile is, but it doesn’t sound too far. Across the ‘Greenie’, singing and galloping he will go. What to sing? That new one they learned in school at Christmas. He has only the vaguest idea what the words might mean. Something about the last time good King Wences looked out, looking for Stephen or someone like that, and Stephen arrived but he was only a kid, but the king decided to take him anyway. Get on with it.
His high treble rises into the frozen night air. “Good King Wences last looked out, he was looking for Stephen, when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.” He likes the sound of that, deep and crisp and even, as he slides and slithers across the freezing mush, slush and mud of the ‘green’. He’s got quite a good gallop going now. He can make out the Cally fence. Can’t be too far now.
The boy is gripped by the windpipe. His voice cut off in mid note. There is a searing pain across his throat. He is thrown backwards, his arms fly up, hands extended like a child crucified. He lands on his back with a thud even the slush cannot muffle. He lies there, arms and legs akimbo, too stunned to move, to think, to cry. He waits for another blow. It does not come. He feels the pain now, the hot searing pain across his windpipe.
He feels the pain and he is glad he can feel the pain. It allows him to move, to think, to cry. But he won’t cry yet. He rolls onto his front. If another blow is to come, he does not want it in the face or in the stomach. He knows that would really hurt. He can take it across the back or across the backside, but not across his front. So get on with it. If there’s to be more pain, get on with it.
Nothing. Only the hot slash across his windpipe. He staggers to his feet, slipping and sliding in the slush, he is breathing heavily, fighting for breath at times. The six times table helps a lot. He might even try the seven but he has trouble with seven times six. He turns to face his assailant.
Nothing. There is nothing there. Except a washing line. Hanging low. Swinging gently. If the seven times table presents problems, the answer to two and two is immediate. He has galloped into the washing line. It has caught him round the neck and thrown him into the sludge. Paul’s cheeks blaze and burn, and not only from the bitter chill. He is embarrassed, and the embarrassment sears him worse then the rope burn across his neck. Tears spring to his eyes at last. Never mind. Get on with it. He’s late enough.
He brushes the muddy slush from his hands. They have been grazed by the gravel beneath the snow. His overcoat has saved his knees. His fingers tingle but he cannot tell if they are burning or freezing. He opens his left palm, then his right. He jams his right hand into his coat pocket, then his left into the left. He fumbles in the pockets of his corduroy shorts. He is fighting for breath again, his chest heaving in great gulps. He drops to his knees, the slush splashes around him. He scrabbles wildly in the snow, in the mud, careless of his corduroys. His fingers are frozen, he cannot feel his knees, slush turns to icy water in his wellies.
“Our Father which art in heaven where’s mum’s money?” What can he promise this God who remains so stubbornly silent? I’ll never steal presents again, just let me find the money. It’s Christmas tomorrow, you’d think He’d be listening.
The tears are running down his face, the snot down his nose, water into his wellies. His scrabbling has grown more frantic. He has covered a wide circle. How far can a silver sixpence roll in snow? Should he scrabble backwards towards the house? What did the wise men bring to the baby Jesus – gold, frankincense and mirth? What is mirth anyway? Must remember to ask mum. Please God, I’ll do anything, anything.
“What are you doin’ doon there, you wee shite?”
Paul looks up. Tears and snot run into his mouth. He gathers them in with his tongue. He blinks to clear his eyes. It’s Joe. God couldn’t make it, so He sent His representative on earth. Lochee’s answer to Herod.
“Ah drapped the sixpence, Joe. Ah didnae mean it. Honest. Ah ran intae the washing line. Sumbody’s left it hinging afae low. Help is, Joe, go on, help is find it.”
“Stop bubblin’. Gie’s yer hand. We’re no gonna find it the nicht.”
Joe reaches for Paul’s hand and pulls him to his feet. Using the back of his hand, he wipes the teary snot away from his little brother’s face as best he can, then wipes his hand in the snow. He pulls the overcoat tight around the smaller boy and still holding his hand leads him back to the house. On the stairs leading to the attic, he gently eases off the overcoat and hangs it up on a wooden peg. Then he helps Paul off with his Wellington boots and wet socks. He dumps them on the stairs.
Joe slips into the attic room. Paul stand and waits, cheeks ablaze, teeth chattering, wet corduroys clinging, the dirty tears stain his face. The door opens.
Paul steps into the room. His mother is standing by the open fire. He can hardly raise his head to look at her. When he does, the familiar blue-grey eyes meet. His mother is smiling. Then she is laughing. “C’mere, son.”
He runs to her and throws himself into those strong familiar arms. He is crying again, sobbing and heaving against her stomach, drowning himself in that familiar warmth, that familiar smell.
“You know what this means,” he hears her say. “It’s toast and dripping tonight. We haven’t had that for ages. Now come on, get these things off, you’re soaked through. It looks like the Steamie on Saturday.”
“Tea’s nearly ready, mum. Will I start on the toast?”
“Let me get this boy’s backside warmed up first. Then we’ll all make the toast together. Save the heelies for Jean-Paul.”
In the grate the fire hisses and spits out tiny pieces of shale. The kettle whistles, the gas lamp flickers, the woman hums and towels the boy vigorously.
In her tin basin the baby lies gurgling happily as she watches the shadows dance on the ceiling.
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