by Mark Mayes

The little boy looked at the pictures in his picture book. He saw the Teddy and the Rabbit going down a long steep hill on red scooters. There were words beneath the picture he couldn’t read. His mum would read them to him later, and try and get him to repeat them. But he wouldn’t try very hard because he didn’t really want to know the words from the writing. He only wanted the picture and the sound of the words from his mum’s mouth.

***

In the library, the man who pissed himself was asleep on one of the chairs near the magazine rack. Mrs Aird, the big woman from the little café ostentatiously held her nose as she walked past him with a tray. If it was up to her he’d be kicked out on his ear, or his arse. He was useless, dirty and useless, like someone else she knew – but she said nothing, except to Bryony, because she wasn’t paid to make decisions like that.

***

A spider waited high in the corner, under the ceiling. Food would come soon. Live oblivious food, that the spider could take its time over, wrap up in many lines of entrapment, and eat bit by bit while the food was still moving, trying to speak in its way. Eventually, it would grow still. Spider did not know it was spider – it was made to move for hunger’s sake, and make its web. But once it had a funny sense that it was doing something bad, and wanted to destroy its own web. The moment passed, and spider went back to its survival techniques.

***

‘Give me that money – you’ve had long enough.’

‘You can whistle for it.’

‘This is the last time I’m gonna ask. Next time I won’t be nice about it.’

‘You wouldn’t know nice if it bit you on the bollocks.’

‘What an absolute cheeky cunt you are. You’re a cheeky bastard cunt, you cunt.’

‘I can do twenty.’

‘Fifty.’

‘To think I used to love you once. Looked up to you.’

‘You still do, you numpty.’

‘Jog on, you freak.’

‘Don’t say jog on – you say that again and I’ll…’

***

Arnold picked up his guitar, knocking it on the corner of the table. He swore under his breath.

This one’s a new one I’ve been working on.

Three people had got up to get a drink, leaving only four to listen. This had started happening more and more. Whenever it was his turn, people would either go to the lavvy or recharge their glasses. It was obvious now. He’d even seen little looks. A raising of eyebrows, a suppressed smirk.

Arnold strummed a C Major. The top E was off, but he couldn’t be bothered to adjust it. Good enough for folk, as he’d heard Mike say. Mike was at the bar. Arnold heard his laugh as he adjusted the capo down to fret two. He wasn’t good at high notes, and that’s just what they wanted – him to fail – to try for a note that was outside his range. He was a laughing stock, despite having a two grand guitar. They just put up with him.

Yes, as I was saying, this is a new one of mine. Hopefully not as morbid as the others. Haha. Nobody laughed. Greta was messing about with her mobile – a definite no-no for the song circle, and Raymond and Ben were whispering with each other. Vincent sat, quietly tuning his own guitar, uncaring. Ray and Ben were plotting something, no doubt. Like a trip to Cambridge Folk Fest, where Arnold would be left out again (Oh, we thought you’d be busy). Was it because he was on the fat side? Weren’t most folkies? Or perhaps because he lived with his mum at age 56. They thought him odd. No kids, no wife. A bit of a sad sack. Maybe something worse.

Arnold tried an arpeggio. Yeah – been working on this tune for a little while now. A few new chords and all. Give it a go anyway. He cleared his throat, praying that the first note he hit was somewhere near the right one.

***

It had been nearly thirty years, and he wanted to meet up. But I wasn’t well, I wasn’t right. I’d been hiding for a long time, and I needed to keep people at a distance. He sounded genuine, he was genuine, and I think he needed something from me, too. But I kept having to say no. I kept having to make excuses – about my mental health. I didn’t use the words mental health – but that’s what I was meaning. People had become too threatening to me at close hand. Their personalities too strong. Not that I’m weak, but I’m porous. You could say I was an empath, but I really don’t like many people.

There are good people in the world and there are monsters. He wants me to meet me, I mean meet him, will even pay my way, but I keep resisting. I can deal with people through a computer. At the end of a keyboard. And I can type all sorts of mood, but my fundamental mood is fear. And beneath the fear is rage.

Something is going to happen soon – something deeper fundamental. Either I move forwards, or I stop moving altogether.

***

And when you were young you’d lie on the carpet, and move your finger over the blue swirls. You’d follow the blue swirls as they got tight and they reached a dot. Then you tracked out again to the beginning of swirl. And you leant and smelt the carpet. And the carpet was soft rough on your lips and then cheek, and then forehead, and there was a smell of banana. And you banged your head on the carpet, and it rattled your brain about, but not enough to hurt. It rattled the simple thoughts that could be in any order and it wouldn’t matter, for now.

And the television is near and loud. And you press your face into the screen and the image becomes tiny dots of black and white. Or squares, were they? Dancing.

Someone comes in and tickles your bare foot and you jump and twist like a porpoise and the someone pushes a biscuit into your mouth. And you smell their perfume. And the light is shining off their glasses.

And the room is dark now. And candles are on because of the strike. And the candles allow big shadows on the walls like the inside of a cave or a castle. And you make these shadows that make you feel larger and stronger than you are.

***

do you

  1. a) feel people are talking about you
  2. b) not care what other people think
  3. c) not know any people because you are not yet born

are you

  1. a) afraid that your emotions will spill over into the real world
  2. b) disconnected from your emotions, and sense them as being in a locked cupboard
  3. c) absolutely in control of emotions according to your programming and mode setting

would you

  1. a) take the last piece of cake
  2. b) offer the last piece of cake to your friend
  3. c) have no memory of cake or friends as you have been these hundred years dead

***

You get up in the afternoon leaving sleep the best part of your life and straight away you let the voices drown your thoughts you let the thoughts drown your thoughts the loud voices the confident lighting and fine equipment makes you safe and soporific and you can let them take over all the spikes in the world and you are left a smooth shape without depth or lustre or purpose.

***

18 – no

22 – no

23 – no

4 – no

20 – no

1 – no

you lose again, zilch, and for once you didn’t do the birthday numbers, out of regret and the loss of loss, out of spite in two cases – even though, this time, they would have all saved you

***

Breaths count down. If you knew the number what would you do different? What would you not do, or be doing? Click click click – the breaths count down like a long gas or leccy meter – with the far number changing at the pace of breath – the next every ten, then hundred – you get the picture – they are counting down and you have no notion of what number they started at – the only question is, which haunts you – will you end on an in breath or an out breath – in – out – in – out – in –

Mark Mayes has had stories and poems published in magazines and anthologies. A novel, ‘The Gift Maker’, was published in 2017. Mark also enjoys writing songs.