Dirt

by Chris Buchanan
Poetry, 2014

The man tying the bag over his head,
the small of his back sore against a stair,
his lips gone numb and white, waiting to spread,
his legs tight like a mystic’s crossed in prayer,
his words like pulses wrapped in too much wool,
his neck that sometimes nicks him when he swallows,
his past like something catching on his skull,
his train of thought too stop-and-start to follow –
this wet-nosed ass who can’t quite tie the strings
is going to do a really selfish thing.
Before he goes he’ll guess at what you’ll say.
He’ll try to count your grief in weeks and days.
He’ll scare you half to death. This one will hurt.
You’ll drop and look for answers in his dirt.

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Fresh Water Sea part 3: Roy at King’s Cottage

by Chris Buchanan
Short story, 2014
One story in three times. A survivor of the Great Flood talks to herself as she starves, a girl lives through the Cold War in a hospital bed, and in the present day a man tries to make conversation with his depressed daughter.

Part 1 HERE and Part 2 HERE

1

Driving our Katie up to Edinburgh is a lot less of a treat than it used to be. When we took her up on holidays, it was special. Her eyes lighting up and that. I bet mine did too. I think secretly we both felt guilty for never taking her abroad, but money was tight and she loved the bagpipes and the castle. This time, the first time this century, the trip could hardly seem more different. Her in the back seat like always, but her mum’s not there. The dog’s not there. And our holiday home is mine now. Less special.
Of course there was no sun on the drive up, but the rain seemed to be actively following us up the motorway, usually a mile or so in front, sometimes dropping back for ten minutes when it really wanted to take the Michael.
I’d hoped it would stay in England and Wales. Some half-decent weather would do wonders for Katie. Evidently it’s not to be.

When we arrive at King’s there’s been no change, but at least we’re forced to animate ourselves for a sec. Seeing Katie shuffle about under the rain and meet my eyes, urging me to find the keys in my pocket, almost makes me not want to find them. She’s depending on me, eh. Sort of. Nice to see her irritated, not just vacant.

But the stuff’s seeping in at the back of my shirt. I open the door, let her in.

I think to tell her where to hang her coat, offer her a hot drink, but I’m distracted. I have to ask the question.
And I know from experience that there’s nothing worse a person can say to Katie now than, Have you had your pill today? I’ve never said it, but I’ve seen her face when her mother does. Christ alone knows what that face is supposed to convey, or to hide maybes. But whatever it is, it’s a bit fierce. The sort of thing you’re not supposed to see in your daughter’s eyes, I’m sure.

Sometimes when I drive South to visit them, I sneak a peek at her pills box to see if she’s had her dose. If there’s one more empty blister in the strip then I mutter it to her mum and the whole business doesn’t have to be brought up. I always think – am I doing her a favour, or just making her even more tense? Does she just spend her day wondering when the hammer’s going to drop?

But there’s none of that from today on. I’ve been told. And I’ve re-phrased the question twenty-odd times in the rear-view mirror. Katie love, you’ve had your pill now, aye? Easy going, you know. Good cop. Or, Don’t miss your pill now, girl. Voice of authority. Bit of trust.

Katie catches me by the kettle while I’m going on to myself, so I made a little gesture with my hands: the old shaky cup. She nods, so I make a letter C with the fingers of one hand, and then a capital T with them both. She almost laughs, I bet I smile too. Don’t say owt.

“Coffee,” she says. Softly. Helplessly. Like a kid again. Like Hamlet at the bloody wedding reception. I hate to think it, but that voice she’s learned doesn’t half annoy me. Maybe while she’s living with me I can knock that little habit out of her.

I find her in the living room, curled into a corner of the couch like the rest of the furniture’s giving her a funny look. She used to love this little house. We all did, back in the day. I never stopped. I give her the coffee, sit mine down by my armchair and sigh. She has her face on her still.

Her mam has kept me updated on Katie’s illness on the phone, and I’ve seen it get worse on my visits. It’s been going on for a good long while, since before she lost her job, and her flat and that bloke she liked so much. Slipping away. I’ve been watching, giving her a meaningful look every now and again while I try to think of something to say to her. Might never happen isn’t really going to cut it, as they say. Her face looks, sort of, baggy. She sleeps funny hours, doesn’t want to eat, doesn’t want to do anything except stare at a wall and sigh. And sometimes mutter things that go well and truly over my head. It was a case of, spend some time with me or back to hospital.

Poor Beverley’s looking at this as a break for herself, and that’s not hard for me to understand. I feel lousy for thinking it, but this is hard work.

She says Katie just needs her dad. I trust her, anyway.

“I hope the rain isn’t getting worse for mum,” the lass mutters to a cushion.

That’s the longest sentence I’ve heard from her in a long while. I’m proud. I nod.

“She’ll be all right, yeah.”

Then after a moment I put in, “It’ll be fine”. She just closes her eyes.

2

The evening trundles, like they do, and we watch the news. They’re running vox-pops to fill the time between updates. Every channel seems to have been allotted extra news breaks to stay up to date with the weather, even though to my mind there’s never really anything to say except it’s getting worse. Today it’s Birmingham, because the water is still only ankle-deep and presumably the BBC’s budget for hiring ‘amphibious vehicles’ is running out. They won’t stay there long: city’ll be flooded in a day or so. They don’t show us much of Europe but apparently they’re having the worst of it. Amsterdam’s basically just gone now.

Our Katie’s staring dead ahead at the screen as the reporter asks some bloke on the high street, “What do you think the future holds for the city?” Bloody stupid question to ask. The weather men don’t know, so why should this fella?

He says something sensible about the sandbag shortage, so they move to a frightened lass with a baby.

The last one is an old lady – probably just a bit older than me, but dressed like a proper old lady. “It’s the beginning of the end, isn’t it?” she says, not joking, bless her, glancing at the sky with a stern look on her face like Terry Jones in his old woman get-up. “God’s punishing us, isn’t He?” Tone of voice makes it sound matter of fact.

Katie’s nodding. I see her from my armchair but I don’t know what to say to this. She’s never been a religious type. We didn’t even made her go to Sunday school.

I snort a bit. Katie moves her head towards me, but her eyes stay where they are.

“Daft,” I say. And the newsman is asking other people about the end times, most of whom laugh.

Katie looks at me properly, a bit hurt. As though I’ve just insulted her.

“…ridiculous,” I say. I thought I said Don’t be first, but I think I only mouthed it.

The girl – the woman, she is now, despite the way she’s acting – wraps her arms around her legs and pushes her knees into the tops of her cheeks. Looks like a little Basset hound alone in its owner’s house, up against a window.

Probably too late now, but perhaps she shouldn’t be watching this. The news about the rain is a little bit disturbing, it has to be said. It can’t be good for her behaviour. Illness. For her illness. I’m still coming round to that – but there is medication for it, and I believe she is trying. It’s depression, and it’s an illness.

She’s sat right next to a big wet bloody window so I can’t exactly get her to forget about the news altogether, but I suppose I can switch off this hysteria.

“Some more people drowned in Cornwall,” she says, the moment it goes quiet. And her voice is a bit less helpless, a bit like she used to be. Just a bit. “Dad?”

I’m saying something like, “Shall we see if there’s a film on, eh? Or put on a DVD or something if you, you know. You brought some with you.”

“There were photos of missing children. Ten-to-twelve year-olds, their school photos. It’s not right.”

Well of course it isn’t.

“Honestly, I–” she starts to say it, then lets her voice drift off, curls up a bit more into the chair. “Wish I could–” she’s starting again. I can see where it’s going but I won’t think about it. She says it: “Wish it could be me instead of them.”

Right.

Why would she even think of that? What a stupid thing to say. It’s not like there’s some sort of bloody choice! Who is she trying to bargain with? And does she honestly not know how that makes me feel, to hear my daughter saying that? It’s disrespectful to the people who are dead, even.

Cheeks are getting hot. I’m just angry. I could have slapped some sense into her, in another time. My dad would have. Certainly you can’t do that sort of thing to your kids now. I don’t really want to. But what’s making her say that?

It’s just some bleedin’ rain! How are you supposed to make someone like this understand that everything’s going to be fine?

She’s looking at me. Looks upset.

I’m not going to listen to this. So I’m out the room. The door to my art studio actually slams, but I don’t think I meant it to.

3

That night I’m asleep and then, bit by bit, a funny sound gets me up. Takes a good ten minutes to make my eyes open, and another five or so before my brain is actually getting in gear and I can pay attention to this noise. Shrill, it is.

My old arms and legs aren’t for moving just yet. They’re like lines of bricks. I like ‘em that way. It’s muggy under the covers but there’s enough cold air on my face. The noise is coming through the wall to the spare room.

Crying. Whimpering, more like.

Blink. Someone’s crying. Katie’s crying. Spare room.

I feel my knees lock up.

And this isn’t the sort of crying you’d expect from a twenty-six year-old woman. I haven’t ever heard someone cry like that on television, even. She’s just making noises. Throaty, long, wet noises, weird groans. And no evidence of her trying to stop herself. Louder every time.

I know I’m supposed to get up, but, well. I’m not ready. I haven’t moved my tongue yet.

Louder, until it’s ridiculous. She must know this is going to wake me up. Silence.

A minute goes by. I’m swishing my tongue about, blinking more. Breathing very deeply. Twitching my toes. Think I might rub my eyes.

It starts again. Quiet but rising every time. Horrible noise.

She’s doing it deliberately, I think. She wants me to go to her.

And this is how she asks for it? By lying there and making noises like a sea lion?

Some words get thrown in. Why, No and Can’t. She’s shrieking them, distorting her voice like she’s trying to sound like the bloody Exorcist.

Why can’t she just get up and knock on the door? Ask me, like a civilised – like a person if she wants me for something?

My face is itching. I pull off my bedclothes and lay there in my scrunched-up boxer shorts for a moment and let her build to another crescendo.

So how long was doing this before she got me up? In the middle of the night. Honestly. It’s pathetic, I think.

And that word makes me feel a little bit better. She’s being pathetic. It’s beneath her. A year ago, Katie was a teacher. Is this how she called for attention at work? What do I do, indulge her? I don’t want her to make a habit of this. She was supposed to be improving.

Just can’t do it!” As loud as she dares.

This is not the way I raised her.

Obviously I have to go to her. I know that. What if she tries to do something terrible again and I ignore it? Is there anything sharp in that room? Nothing suspicious in her luggage, anyway. No stockpiles of medicine in the cottage, just half a packet of ibuprofen.

I have to go, I know.

But I wait through another round of her braying. I have to get dressed, for one thing. I imagine myself stomping about and her hearing it, waiting for me. Am I supposed to pretend she hasn’t woke me, or that I was just passing when I suddenly noticed her, or what? Surely she’d be embarrassed.

She’s off again.

She’s getting louder, giving out more pathetic, ugly noises. I’m tiptoeing. Wondering what to say first when I get to her door.

She just wants attention, I think. If I were properly awake I could scream at myself.

A new noise and then the sound of blowing snot. A bit of a whimper while she, presumably, wipes her nose.

She doesn’t start again. Goes quiet. I unclench my hands, lie back down, facing the door, all my weight on my arm, and I wait there until I hear her snore. My eyes don’t close all night.

4

The morning comes and we get the day going. She sort of staggers out to the kitchen at one point and then comes back, water dripping off her chin and two lumps of her hair wetted together. Her eyes are red and her skin is shining. I’m thinking there’s days of wax and muck on her and she’s agitated the surface of it.

For the sake of something to say I try, “Been washing your face?” Sounds stupid. She just says yes and wipes herself with a sleeve. Then she slowly, slowly gets back in the chair, back into position.

She seems to have taken to staring at her laptop instead of the telly. It makes a welcome break and it’s nice to see her moving more than once every three hours, even if it’s just the fingers. But the look on her face – she’s staring right into that screen. Little furrow above her nose, just sat there all unattended to. Staring. Christ alone knows what she’s looking for.

I make us both a hot drink, give her a coffee, and she looks daggers at it. Then it happens: she just puts the cup down hard and starts yelling, or rather croaking, loud as she can manage. I don’t know what to do. I’m so fucked up and I don’t know what to do.

She’s never swore at me before. It shocks me, honestly. I sometimes swear privately or with mates, and I’ve always assumed she must do the same, a young woman in this day and age. But I never thought to hear her swearing atme.

She keeps saying it. That she’s ‘fucked up’.

I get up, don’t go over to her but I give her a look. “No you aren’t!” I say. “Why would you say that?”

“I don’t feel safe here. Let’s go out.”

I’m gazing at her, trying to work out what that means. She isn’t meeting my eyes.

Well, there’s just nothing I have to say. She’s hardly fit for it and she’d catch her death out there before we reached the car.

I ask what she’s on about, but whatever spark was in her is all gone. Now I do potter over. As soon as I’m close enough, her fist flops out from the lump of her and lands on my chest. This is the meekest punch I’ve ever seen, let alone taken. I don’t know how to describe her face.

She mewls, and she punches me, again and again. Every one of them pushes her backwards an inch, and she’s whimpering at me. I don’t say anything. I don’t move. And then she says something very quiet, along the lines of, You only care about me when I’m fucked up.

Eventually, she goes quiet. I take the phone to my studio and call Beverley. I’m shaking here.

There’s the pick-up-muffling; she hasn’t replaced our old phone. “Hello?”

“Hiya,” I say, not thinking. And there’s that awkward pause that we’ve had to deal with for nigh on a decade now. “It’s Roy.”

There’s something very sad about ringing what used to be my home number, my marital home, and having to do that.

We get talking. Bev sounds pretty upbeat, which is nice to hear. “How are things there?” That’s a big question.

I look through the window of my studio, suspiciously, as though Katie might be outside with a glass against the door. “A lot like you said,” I tell Beverley. “It’s not easy, you know, seeing her like this.”

“No, it’s not,” she says. Voice of God. “I know.” I don’t get that, but she does seem to understand the girl’s behaviour as well as anyone can. Her illness.

“Right. I’m only ringing because, well, she’s throwing a bit of a wobbler.” Suddenly it seems like a silly word to use, but neither of us is laughing. “This morning, she’s been acting a bit strange. She hit me. Not hard, you know, but.” I cringe at my drawing table while I try to describe the fucked-up bit to her mother.

“Is she still agitated like that?”

I tell her no. “She lost all her energy. I stuck it out.” Immediately I think about last night. I should have gone to her and let her cry all she wanted, shouldn’t I? Seems very obvious all of a sudden. But the girl couldn’t have heard me fidgeting, so she couldn’t have known I was awake. I didn’t make a sound.

“Yesterday she said she wished she had drowned, or something like that.”

“Try not to be angry at her,” Bev says. She’s not at all shocked. “Honestly, I think the thing with Katie is that she’s angry enough at herself. She doesn’t likebeing like this, you understand?” I think about it. “Drowned, ah. It’s all quite normal.”

“What is?”

She says, “What you’re describing.”

I say, “Oh.”

“Has she had bad dreams?”

“I don’t bloody know.”

We make small talk for a couple of minutes but neither of us tries to keep it going too long. I should go back and have a look at Katie. Beverley tells me not to worry too much. Our girl needs some time with her dad at the moment, she says, she’s sure. She needs to be close to me. It will come in time. And make sure she has her pills every day.

As the receiver comes down it strikes me again. My belly feels light, sickly.

You only care when I’m fucked up.

Where did that one even come from?

I’ve never thought she resented me for the divorce. Not for a minute.

I have a little memory of taking little Katie down to Starkey’s to tell her. She was sixteen. The place had always been special to the three of us, but that day I noticed how overgrown is had gotten. Probably still is. And all of a sudden it just seemed like a bad place to bring it up. So I took her home and Bev broke the news in the kitchen.

Anyway. Getting a bit wet on the few steps from the studio to the kitchen. I shake my grey old hair like a dog as I come in and get straight back to the living room. There’s the patient: same jumper as yesterday, maybe the same trousers, it’s hard to say. Hair still a mess. Just staring at that laptop. I take a few steps, put a hand on her chair.

Ask if she’s all right.

“Yes,” she says, glancing at me, but she doesn’t sound it. She has that pathetic little girl voice on. The dying swan act. After a second, “Sorry. I didn’t mean it.”

My hand goes to her shoulder. It’s bigger than I remember.

And she stinks. She isn’t bathing, then? Is that normal now too? Hm.

“No problem,” I say. And since I already feel like I’m lying to her, I might as well throw in, “I understand.”

“They’re evacuating Birmingham,” she tells me. “Lots of missing people.”

I rub her shoulder, turn away.

Then I hear the chair creak.

5

She stands up, or tries to, in a heartbeat. I can see her skinny, skewed little legs – they’re weak from her months sat on chairs – giving way before she even puts her weight down. I’m moving as quick as I can but it’s not quite fast enough. I have to watch her fall, knowing exactly how it’s going to happen. There. Face first, her feet slamming up into the table, her right arm squashed under her and the left knocking her laptop over on top of her. It all plays out while my arms are stretching out. When I get my hand to her head, she’s crying again. Loud.

She wails something high-pitched that might be I can’t even get up in between her odd, sort-of-angry mewls. I think, there’s going to be a nasty lump on that forehead.

And I pull her up with as much gentle encouragement as I can, doing all the work, back onto her chair. The laptop’s still resting on its side, where it landed with a bang. Crying, slumped into herself. I have to hold her chin up just to see her bruising.

When I’m ready I try holding her hand. And yes, she meets my eyes and squeezes back, barely enough power to press into the folds of my skin. You can imagine how I feel.

The tears are still coming, and she says daft things about the floods, at first with my hand holding onto hers, and then with an arm all the way around and her head on my chest. I actually lose track of time.

I’m stroking her straw-coloured hair and thinking about kissing it, then I ask her, “Have you been having your pills?” There.

Said it. I’m actually shaking now. I could laugh.

I’d like to say that the words just came to me or that now I’m surprised to hear them aloud in my voice, but it’d be bull. I had to try to say it, and I said it. I saidit. She nods, slowly, in her way, and I believe her. I say, “It looks like they aren’t helping very much, love,” and she holds me a bit tighter.

I barely remember what it felt like to enjoy Katie’s company. This isn’t that, but it’s close. I lift her head so I can see the green in the middle of her mum’s chocolatey eyes.

“Birmingham’s gone for good,” she says, distant all of a sudden, and she lets go, shrinks right back into a ball. I was prepared for that; Bev told me that sometimes there are moments when she seems better, but then she’ll be ‘gone’ again. But those moments all count, she says. They’ll come.

I shouldn’t have let her watch the news.

Ey. As usual, there’s a gap in the conversation here that I have to fill. “Don’t be daft,” I tell her, in the kindest possible way. It’s all I could think to say, really, but Christ I meant it. More crying. I say, “I don’t really know what to do.” She goes very still. I try a bit more: “Sometimes when you’re talking to me now,” I say, “I haven’t got a clue what you mean.” Seems to like that.

And she says, “We’ll all be underwater– ”

“Ssh.”

Katie lifts her head like it’s an anvil and looks at the wall instead of my shirt. I don’t try to meet her eyes. She says, “I need a bath,” and her leg twitches. Slowly slowly. Catchy monkey.

She’s not wrong, bless her. She probably needs a lot more than a bath, but it’s a decent start.

For a second I wonder if I ought to actually help her into the tub. I mean it’d be awkward for us both, but manageable, surely. Maybe I should even stay inside and watch her, just in case she slips under– or eh, maybe I’m just panicking.

I help her up, piece by piece, slow as she goes. I even fancy that the more I help, the harder she pushes herself. First the one leg on the floor, pressing the toes down to stop her socks slipping, then an elbow bent, and a hand, levering her. The other leg, there, a bit shaky. Her expression looks as empty as ever, but there’s a sort of determination here. I want to smile but the moment hardly seems right.

The corridor then. “Short steps,” I say, hoping that’s good advice, the right thing to say. And I stand behind her with my hands ready. There’s actually something weirdly satisfying about watching over a grown woman to make sure she puts one mucky foot in front of the other – and seeing that she does, every time.

Next step. Not too quick. Good.

Aye, aye. Breathe for a second.

And I follow my daughter to the bathroom, hold her shoulder while she drags the handle with all her might, looking at it with her mouth half-open. If there’s a way to communicate I’m proud of you by holding someone’s shoulder in a particular way, or to let go in a way that says Everything’s all right then believe me, no-one has put more effort into finding it.

She’s in. The door bats at the frame and then the handle squeezes even more softly from the other side. I push it down with a finger, just a bit of pressure, so as to not make her feel weak, until it’s closed. After a little while I hear the tap turn and start pouring. There’s some sniffling, some low sound from her throat, a moment of sobbing.

For a second I’m even looking forward to the future. Once spring finally gets going, well, maybe that’ll cheer her up. The weather does things to you, they always say. And eventually one of her doctors is going to find the right kind of therapy for her and she’ll start really working hard, and I’ll see her get back to her old self.

I hear her splashing a finger to test the temperature, then sinking in. Then nothing at all.

Out of nowhere, my eyes are stinging and my neck is tight, smasming, as though I’m stifling a yawn. Come to think of it, I’ve not slept. I almost forgot I was retired for a minute! And I haven’t painted or sketched a dot since she arrived.

And now I’m thinking, would she want me waiting outside like this? Perhaps I should give her a bit of time alone. Maybe make some of those raisin buns she used to like. It’ll be nice for her to smell something sweet when she’s finished.

Sob Story

by Chris Buchanan
Short story, 2013
The winner of Pop Hero, Britain’s first reality TV singing show, now collects tram tickets. When she bumps into former head judge Bastard Bryan, she is silent.

The night time outer-city tram passengers are the usual mix for a Friday. In every carriage there are a few smart men looking worse for wear after a long day, more and more uncomfortable in their suits. At the front there are a few silent young lads, in the middle there are one or two huddled middle-aged women, and the footie fans are boarding now at the back. All big men, those. They didn’t win, which is great because it means they might just keep their gobs shut and save all that pent-up energy for the next match day.

Max Stein is collecting tickets. She has been doing for a few years now. She enjoys it. And then she sees: Bryan Hollister is there. Bastard Bryan. Right at the end of the last carriage, on the last tram of the night, reading the free paper. He hasn’t changed a bit. He must dye it.

Max feels the roof of her mouth complain about how hard her tongue is pressing it, and when she pulls away the ache is still there. The people in the last carriage can go without getting their tickets checked. He’s never going as far as Bury. And if he is, then she can keep busy in the other carriages.

She’s still watching him.

Besses station, coming up in a minute or so. It’s too dark outside to see how far the tram has gone since Prestwich, but Max doesn’t need to look nowadays. She can feel the way the floor moves under her feet. When the tram is fast it’s taught, pulling one way hard, but when it starts to slow there’s that jolt just before they start swaying, that most people never notice and the regulars don’t notice that they notice. But Max always sees their heads point forwards and their eyes blink fast, as though the jolt has loosened the joints holding-in their necks and faces. Or else their books close, phones get lowered. And after that, as they approach, the people who are getting off always go with the sway.

No-one is swaying now, but it feels like they’re nearly ready. Normally by now she would have finished checking the–

The jolt. There we go.

Bastard still isn’t moving. Maybe he’s just one of those people who thinks they’re too cool for the jolt and waits for the tram to stop before they get moving. Or maybe he’s going all the way to Bury after all.

Max looks at him, remembers the old times and forgets about the sway for a moment.

She’ll be fucked if any of those footie lads get away without paying their fare. She hits a button, steps through the doors and calls, “Tickets please.”

A young bloke in the corner who Max hadn’t noticed raises his ticket immediately, and she inspects it, nods. The guys in the baby blue Man City shirts take a bit longer to find theirs, but Max spends the time staring at the front page of that free paper. When she reaches it she has to ask again. A little firmer. “Tickets please.”

Bastard drops the Metro below his eye-level and raises his eyebrows a tiny bit. He sees Max’s hair first, then her face, then her name badge. He just says, “Maxine?

A breath. “They made me use the full name, yeah.” For a moment she just looks at him. Bryan’s face is unreadable. There is a familiar long squeak of brakes as the carriage comes to a close. The doors open and nobody boards.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the Pop Hero herself,” Bastard jokes, remembering the moment when she had won: when Channel 5 had topped the ratings for the first and last time, and Saturday night television first fell in love with its life partner, the phone-vote talent show. Max had been slimmer, tighter and softer, pretty in an odd way with a punky, shocking-blue haircut and a powerful voice. That night, she was incredible. Didn’t cry, didn’t scream, just belted out her debut single for the first time. Bastard seems to be laughing at her now. The grey bristles around his mouth are lighting up. The tram is in motion again.

“Ticket?”

Bastard is looking at the bulky, scuffed steel printer hanging by a florescent strap from Max’s shoulder. His gentle Edinburgh lilt mutters, “Oh, eh. I don’t have one. You’ve got me!” and he raises his hands, still chuckling.

For a second Max doesn’t react and she notices her fingers tapping too lightly on buttons, pretending to do something. “The standard fare is a hundred pounds for passengers without a valid ticket,” she says. The words are not her own, but the tone of voice is. She’s not worried about sounding silly. She has had this conversation many times and she always comes out on top. “It will be automatically reduced to fifty pounds if you pay within fourteen days.”

Bastard’s hands are down. “You know,” he says, “I never really wondered what happened to you. This is about right though. Trolley dolley.” It’s actually Passenger Service Representative.

“I wondered about you,” Max replies. “Didn’t see you judging on Pop Stars, or Pop Idol or X-Factor, any of that. I saw Nasty Nick, Scary Simon, Gary Barlow, whatever they call him. I don’t watch it.”

“But no Bullyboy Bryan, eh, not after the first series. You still think of me like that, do you? Bullyboy?” He looks as if he’s trying to intimidate, but then again he always did.

Max holds his gaze and privately notices that he blinks more than she does. “Something like that, yeah,” she says. He never knew what the contestants had called him off-camera. “What have you been doing since then?”

Bryan’s answer is dismissive. “Ten years of publishing. But let me guess about you! I reckon youuuu,” and he holds the last syllable, gleefully cocking his head, surveying Max’s face, “made a second album with a smaller studio, refused to promote it because you thought the music would sell itself, then when it went under you refused to leave London ‘til your money was slowly pissed away with nothing to show for it,” he pauses, “came back a nobody again, took this gig, stopped singing altogether. Nice little terrace, civil partner who lets you be the butch one so long as you buy her flowers sometimes? Something like that?”

Max had been a kid when Pop Hero was broadcast. Barely out of school. “I won,” she replies, in a voice that seems to warn of impending disaster. “And I won because I was the best, despite everything you tried to do to discredit me.”

“I just voted against you, love. ‘S all I did.”

The same voice. “The fuck it is.” He seems to be chuckling to himself again but the sway beneath her shoes distracts her. The tram will be pulling into Whitefield now. She hasn’t checked anybody since the last stop, but that’s fine. She’s dealing with an abusive passenger. An abusive passenger without a ticket. Something is stopping her just charging him the maximum fine right now. It would be a bit weird, she thinks. He’s a celebrity. Used to be.

Bastard has been waiting for her to finish thinking. The way his thin lips are ratcheted up on one side asks, ready yet? “It isn’t actually my fault that nobody bought your record, Maxine,” he says quietly. “Me and Pete Waterman didn’t have that much power. I could work miracles, but I couldn’t actually force people to pay top price for nine tracks of–”

Max interrupts, far too loud. “It’s your fault it was so fucking short! You and your Christmas number-fucking-one!”

“Nine tracks,” he continues patiently while the doors open to Whitefield’s cold air and black sky, closing just as quickly, “of a throaty-voiced angry teenage girl scratching out folksy songs with no hook that she’d written in her mum’s garage and refused to change.”

Max’s fingers are pretending to type again, but this time she doesn’t notice it. “And I suppose it wasn’t your fault the company dropped me in February?” Bastard just snickers at that one.

The ongoing drama between Pop Hero‘s head judge and its most unusual contestant had brought in a lot of viewers and helped a great deal to popularise the show through tabloid gossip sand word of mouth. Max Stein, the plucky young girl with the sharp eyes and the stuck-up short hair, had refused to be put down or patronised by Bullyboy Bryan. Where the other young contestants had cried, buckled and walked away from the show one by one, Max had always, always argued back. The audience loved her. They loved her quirky style, the effortless strength of her singing, and her insistence on playing piano, acoustic guitar and banjo on the show. And that classic moment in the semi-finals when the Bullyboy had pointed his finger and told her how this sort of stuff would never sell on the high street so why was she here, and she had just shrugged and left the stage to a monsoon of applause.

They’d loved that.

A thought occurs to Max. She hasn’t ever been this close to him. Back in the day they hadn’t spoken face to face unless they were being filmed and one was on stage and the other was behind his desk.

There’s a sound behind her ear now. Jeering. Max’s head spins before she can think and sees exactly what she expected: more big men from the football, just boarded and having a go. Slurred grunts that are halfway between a threat and a laugh. The victim is either a Preston North End fan who shouldn’t be travelling alone, or just some idiot wearing red. But she blinks and realises the meaty faces are pointed right at her. It’s Bastard they’re jeering at.

They recognise him? Or else they just don’t like Scots? Max thinks about it for longer than she should, wondering if Bastard is scared, wondering if it was okay to like that, until she gets hold of herself. She has only wasted a second, but she knows how pink her cheeks are.

As always it doesn’t take much to scatter the lads. Max knows very well that if you scream “Oy!”, get the voice right, lurch forward all confident and stare them right down with your eyes steady, you can put the frighteners on any old bunch of dickheads, no matter how short and plump and female you are. On the way back they’ll tell themselves that they would have shouted her back or slapped her down but they’re too honourable to hit a woman or whatever, and then they’ll hope to run into an Asian bloke on the way home. In any case, they’re moving back. The new arrivals are migrating to the next carriage and the others are murmuring amongst themselves.

Max’s eyes don’t meet Bastard’s again when she looks over to him. He’s looking out of the window at the rows of orange dots that make up Greater Manchester by night. “Will Young the Pop Idol does musicals or something,” he offers half-heartedly. “You could do that. You won before him.”

“I was the first,” Max replies immediately, then, “I don’t do musicals.”

“Oh yeah. I remember you getting very stroppy when we did Abba Week on the show. Everyone loved Abba. I thought you’d get voted out for sure.” Max says nothing. She remembers it being a tough one. But she had gotten through to Queen Week, and Swing Week, and made the best of those too.

But there’s no time to argue about any of that now. Max is expecting to feel the tram slowing for Radcliffe station any time now, and then Bury is the end of the line. Still watching him, she decides to just open her mouth and see if she’ll feel any less pissed off when it’s closed. “I was a bit up myself in those days, yeah?” she hears herself say, and she’s not sure she agrees with it. “But I could have had a career.” And there’s the jolt. And the sway. “And it would have been decent.” Sway forward. Slower. “If you had just given me a fucking chance,” sway back, “and let me play some decent stuff,” and forward again, “I could have been a singer for a bit.”

Bastard still isn’t looking and still isn’t swaying. “Oh don’t give me that, sweetheart,” he says. “The one good thing about you was that you never wasted the judges’ time with any crap about poor-me or please-give-me-my-shot. That’s why I voted against the kid in the bloody wheelchair.”

“Fuck off.”

The swaying just goes on. The driver has hit the brake too early. Max hates that. Now everyone will be restless.

Bastard is still though. After a moment he says, “What about my hundred pound joyriding fee, eh? Going to get that over and done with, Frumpty-fucking-Dumpty, or are you just going to tell me off all night?”

She has to think about it, but in the end she tells him no. It feels cheap. Beneath her. And he would win if she did. “You probably can’t afford it anyway,” she says absently.

“No.” Bastard’s voice is strange but familiar. Cold. Max can barely remember when she’s heard him talk like that before, but she has. “No I probably can’t. Very good, aye. Might be a reason I’m skipping the Metrolink fare on my way back from a meeting in fucking Salford, mightn’t there?”

He turns and gives her a look, with the corners of his mouth all slack and hanging down, giving him the slightest of double chins. His suit is a bit crumpled.

“Might be a reason I haven’t been on telly since you fucked up the pop star product we spent a year trying to build,” he says, and then turns back to the window. “All so you could play your bloody banjo. I hope you really enjoyed your moment and all your blessed artistic integrity, you know?” he trails off, swaying a tiny bit now. Max is too. She has nothing to say, but she certainly doesn’t feel any better.

Bastard’s voice doesn’t regain its lustre. There’s no joy in there now when he insults her. “If you don’t charge me the hundred,” he’s saying, “then you’re wasting a nice little opportunity, lovey. Sell this one to The Sun. Tell ‘em how you of all people got me bang to rights and then scared off some Manc thugs and all. Has-Been Hero punches Bullyboy’s ticket, something like that? Little boost for you. It’ll get you a shot at I’m a Celebrity if you want it. I’d vote for you to eat a kangaroo’s balls, for sure.”

The sway is almost done. Max has to lean in to stay steady and Bryan has his hand on the window.

“What, are you trying to bribe me?” she asks, not sure exactly how it would work if he was.

Bryan laughs and pulls his coat around him. “No,” he says. “It’s a tip. Yours if you want to sell it to the tab of your choice and have a go. I won’t comment.”

Max looks at his eyes, gets nothing.

“So, am I getting fined or what?”

And the tram stops. Screeches, hisses. He hops off and into the black. Max Stein’s fingers are tapping too hard on the buttons of her ticket printer and when she accidentally makes it bleep she nearly jumps.

Nobody boards from Radcliffe’s freezing little concrete platform, but when the doors close Max remembers there are a few people up top who haven’t been checked and she only has one stop left to do it. You get a lot of troublemakers at this time of night.

Stars

by Chris Buchanan
Short story, 2010

Dan welcomes his ex-wife to the horoscope segment of the BBC Radio Merseyside afternoon show. He does not care for horoscopes.

I was the funny host at Radio Merseyside. DJ’s there were divided into three distinct groups, as per BBC local broadcast policy. There were young lads who tried to be funny, old men who tried not to be, and me. That’s why I got the afternoon show so quickly, and how I kept it.

Don’t get me wrong, now: I was never anything special. I was never national quality, although I always suspected that if I was, then the accent would have held me back. Don’t hear too many Scousers in the top presenting jobs. But I didn’t belong up there by rights. I was right where I deserved, in the crumbly, understaffed halls of mediocrity, Paradise Street.

On the day of my last show, I remember staring at the clock until ten minutes before the end.

Jessica Jones finally mooched into the studio without anyone letting her in. She just hung up her very silly furry coat, sat down, pressed her knees together and made that stupid smile where it’s not really a smile so much as a deliberately bad impression of one. She thought it made her look innocent and sweet. It made her look like a liar, I had always thought. I smiled back. ‘Just in time,’ I mouthed. She pursed her lips in exaggerated confusion, then pretended to figure it out when I abandoned the charade and signalled to put her headphones on.

Simon and Garfunkel were faded-out prematurely and replaced by what was labelled ‘astrology ambiance medley’, but known in the building as ‘new age shite tape’. Pan pipes and chimes.

‘We say farewell to the wonderful Sound of Silence, there,’ I announced happily to the mic, ‘and welcome back to Miss Jessica Jones! Astrologer…’ and I paused there because she had written-in requesting me to, ‘to the stars.’

She hadn’t bothered with the make-up today, I noticed when she looked-up. It made a nice change. The milky, still glance she shot me was either to thank me for including her pun, or admonishing me for the little ‘silence’ gag, it was impossible to tell which. Even without them painted, I couldn’t read her eyes.

Come to think of it, she looked just about normal. No big ear-rings, no ten-years-too-young corset or anything. It was a black jumper and almost not-shiny trousers. She’d never been in the studio, not for the astrology anyway, looking like that. She looked nice. I did notice that.

‘Good afternoon, Daniel,’ she replied. Daniel. I didn’t know if I’d annoyed her or if we’d just become so formal that ‘Daniel’ seemed right to her. I suppose I wasn’t exactly calling her ‘Jess’ these days, so fair enough, but…

‘So what have you got for us this month?’

‘Well, it’s going to be a very busy time, at least for the next couple of weeks, for all of us. There are some very interesting… shifts, which I shall get to later.’ She sounded robotic when she recited her reports, as if she took no joy in the work. Like even she didn’t believe in what she was saying. I had to wonder about that. Shifts.

I nodded with the best dopiness I could muster. ‘Right,’ I said, ‘what kind of shifts are we talking about?’

‘Well we have a full moon starting tonight…’

Yes, much like every month. ‘Yikes. Is that unusual, Jessica?’ I grinned.

Boldly, she ignored it. ‘Now, you’re a Cancerian, of course.’

‘You remembered!’

‘I did. And the moon is your ruler, obviously.’ On the recording you can hear my chuckling at that point. It’s not me being spiteful; it was purely by accident. What I said afterwards was spite, but I thought I might as well after laughing at her.

‘Well, obviously, yeah. I never leave the house without consulting the moon. You can tell by looking at me. Funny thing is, whatever I ask, it always just gives me this sad face.’

‘Right…’

‘It’s depressing.’

‘The moon is your ruler, Cancer, and it will be full tonight and it will be in Taurus. Taurus is the part of your sign that deals with group activities, which seems lovely, but remember that the full moon is all about letting go. So, that’s maybe something you should think about now.’

Well how bloody specific. How nice of whoever created the universe to leave a complex system of stars and planets around the Earth in order to tell people born in June that they should maybe think about letting go around October.

Now before you start taking her side, thinking I was being a bit harsh, let me remind you that her last book was called The Venus Code, and that she bought a BMW with the profits. All right?

All right. ‘It could be anything,’ Jessica followed, still in her bored computer-voice, ‘a gathering of friends you no longer have time for, a work thing, or who knows, even your family. But you should say goodbye to whatever it is before it’s too late.’

Thoughts of gullible fools at home flitted through my mind. There must have been people at home who actually took her on, who sat at home with a pen and paper and based their lives around these random, vague platitudes she had strung together while waiting for a roast to cook.

She was vegetarian by then, actually, so no.

Some ‘Cancerian’ might just go and throw his family away, or something, because of this. Because the bloody moon was in bloody Taurus.

I stopped listening. My guest continued reading her fortunes as if they were shipping forecasts, while I slowly closed my eyes and smiled, tried to rise above the scene. Her droning and twittering dulled, leaving only the panpipes audible. The ill-fated listener in my thoughts was replaced by an image of stars against black. Five stars that apparently someone once thought looked a bit like a crab. They don’t. They look like the tips of great, shimmering mountains. Every one of those five is all we can see of a system of planets, like our own, or maybe different. We don’t know. Couldn’t possibly. Every one is unique, gorgeous, alone, except for that glassy, emotionless white dot that made it to our eyes. After all that time and space. Five of them.

‘Now, the Sun is changing signs now, moving to Mercury. This is veryexciting for Cancerians because…’

‘Awww, Jessica Jones, will you shut the fuck up?’

The astrologer frowned and creased her face at me, helplessly registering a mixture of caring and disgust. Honestly, it was wonderful for me to see that face again. That was Jessica Jones’ face. I’d missed it badly. I almost didn’t mind when I realised what I’d said on air.

‘Do you actually–’ I was sputtering now, but no plan of action came to me no matter how much time I bought myself. ‘Do you believe this stuff? That’s what I want to know. Are you in on the con, or did you somehow get sucked into this? Because the last time I knew you well enough, you were much, much smarter than this!’

I had known her well for seven years. I like to think I knew her better than anyone else ever did, but she’s changed so much that I suppose it doesn’t matter. And I understand she found a new fella the week after the divorce, anyway, so maybe I am just second-fiddle now. They’re still together, at time of writing. I certainly don’t know what the astrology was all about. We never talked about it, anyway. She wasn’t the type, back then.

I knew her well. Seven years. It was my fault she got interested in fame, and I’ll take the blame for that. I let her help on the show, made up the occasional comedy character for her to play. She loved it when I introduced her by her full name on the radio. It made her feel like a celebrity, I think. But I just haven’t got a clue why she went the way she did. Whether she believed in the horoscopes, or she just liked the celebrity. In our day she was brilliant. She used to wonder at everything she saw. Used to forgive too easily.

I swore some more while she watched, blank and empty. When I had clearly run out of steam Jessica walked out, very dignified. A few minutes later, Joe – Joe McCoy that is, producer at the time – politely asked me to do the same. Next time I saw her was on a street corner. She was shopping, I was looking for work. The conversation was awkward. We both kept our hands in our pockets.

But Jessica smiled a bit as we talked, a nice smile, like she used to, and even laughed at a few of my jokes. She always said she thought I was funny.

Smiler

by Chris Buchanan
Flash fiction, 2013

I got lucky straight off the bat. Third day on the job. Let me tell you though, those first two days were the stuff of adventure books: angst, falling in love, rising to challenges, making amazing discoveries, secret identity and learning all the beginners’ lessons about responsibility and stuff. All the stuff that they make the movies out of, before the capes’ lives start to get boring and the relationships beak up and after a while nobody thinks their powers are exactly ‘super’, just kinda cool. And they get their sponsorship deals fixed and everything. All the romance is gone and they’re just getting the job done.

We have three names. Not everyone knows that. There’s the name we got before we got lucky, you know, Whatever Man, Incredible Gal, The Human, you know, rhino or whatever. Then there’s our real, actual names, which even though they’re out in the open now we still only really use with girlfriends and so on, and nobody ever seems to remember them. And then there’s the names that we call one another. I guess we still like the idea of little secret names and underworlds, you know, like to pretend that we’re still disconnected from the public. Does any other profession still have this problem? It seems very adolescent, doesn’t it? Firemen, they’re heroic, right? As much as we are. They don’t have secret names.

My name among the fraternity is ‘the smiler’. The idea is that because I started in the seventies and I got lucky nice and quick, I’m some sort of wise old man who knows everything and watches over the other capes with a wry, old man smile, you know. You know. I’m not sure why they want to think of me that way. Back in the day the name was Captain Amazing of course. Seventies, like I said. Ha ha. Golden Age. That’s what we call the, uh, early days. Nowadays you’re not allowed to call yourself Captain-something if you’re not in the military or the police. Can’t complain about that.

They don’t call us super-heroes anymore, do they? Again, I don’t think I can disagree with that. I mean I’d like to say I was outraged and that nobody remembers what wonderful things we did for them and the world is such a miserable place these days, but that would be bull. Super-heroes was always stretching it a bit, and we always knew that. What we are is people born with birth defects or with very odd childhoods and exceptional skills who work on an independent basis as either vigilantes or an emergency service. Super, not really. Plus it’s not really a good attitude to describe people with strange abilities as super, is it? That’s one step away from special. Ha ha, poor old Ladybug Man used to complain a lot – said it was like being in a Victorian freak show, being called that. But he was the one who drew a little ladybug on his jumpsuit! I was always trying to paint spots on his, uh, ha ha ha. I don’t do that anymore.

And as for heroes, well pal, you hang out with some of these people, you know? Huh. You hang out with The… well I won’t embarrass him, but we call him Mister Stretch! They’ll all know what I mean. They’ll all know what I’m saying. And it’s not who you’re thinking, by the way. You don’t have to be heroic to get into the business. But I don’t even want to get into the whole issue of what heroes are, or aren’t. If you see people doing what they can instead of working regular jobs as heroes, then sure.

Maybe we were heroes when we had the secret identities, i.e. when we worked another job and had to juggle between the two. Is that what makes a hero – his financial situation? Back when we were constantly getting dumped for failing to show up to dates and not paying enough attention to our families. Heroic? I said I didn’t want to get into this. We certainly were different back then, when we wore the costumes under a shirt and tie. Some of them still do: I have no idea why. Naming no names, again. Let’s just say there’s a certain cape who never wears short sleeves and goes around pretending to be a newspaper editor and leave it at that! Let’s just say… nah, his name is kind of obvious, so. He’s a weird guy though.

I got lucky early. Third day of flying around and fighting crime on the streets of New York. I thought I was invincible and I thought I was brave. Yadda yadda yadda, a city block destroyed completely by what used to be called a super-villain. I fail to stop it, I fail to save my girlfriend’s life, I fail to save anybody’s life, and yes, I make it that much worse by floundering around feeling sorry for myself and getting in the way. Entirely my fault. Headline writers can’t quite bring themselves to call me Captain Amazing, not even in a sarcastic way. And why did I fuck it up? Because I was in a phone booth, getting changed, and I was late. I didn’t want people to know my real name. I was worried about the people close to me.

And every day since then has been quite dull, by comparison. Now that I know my limits, know what I’m doing, and prize doing a good job over any sort of sense of adventure. We all do a better job nowadays. We’re on call, all day every day, with sensible shifts and sensibly-structured teams and management, you know? Police protection for family and loved ones. And no secret identities. Names are all police checked. Nobody goes rogue any more and turns ‘villain’, in fact when was the last time you even heard of a villain? I guess we’re no fun to fight any more. Good.

Two days of high adventure and melodrama, one catastrophe, and a lifetime of solid work. Lot of lives saved. Very lucky, I’d say. There are a lot of youngsters still doing the job, and one or two still have the urge to come into the office and make out like there’s some huge emergency or impossible choice they have to make. We have counsellors and stuff. And we’re five days on, two weeks off now, too. They’re even talking about government funding! Which, honestly, would be a really nice relief. Just between you and me, here, I hate wearing ‘Duracell’ and ‘Vodafone’ and ‘Shell’ all over my uniform, you know? So even if there was a serious pay cut, I’ll be voting for that.

Yeah, it’s okay now. It’s all okay for us.