Wednesday, 25 June 2014

For My Seeker

When I explored the landscape of my loves
In youth, I hacked through vines and trampled dirt
I carved out paths, in heavy hat and gloves
Was careless, unobservant of their hurt.

I sought in vain to map the heart of them
to know them so completely and so well
I bled their beauty dry in root and stem
and tore apart the place our love would dwell.

In your terrain, I overlooked my maps.
My hat and gloves, forgotten, gathered dust.
Your verdant hills and ardent thunderclaps
Inspired in me a gratifying trust;

There was, in you, no heart for me to seek.
It beat in me. You sought my land's mystique.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The Party Of The Damned: Interlude

"My curse is verbosity," he explained, taking a quick pull on his cigarette in lieu of any real pause. "Once I start expounding on a subject I find myself quite incapable of either stopping or restricting my vocabulary in abject pursuit of being more easily understood. I'm quite desperate at this point; I'm as unhappily removed from the art of conversation as any mute and that look of glazed incomprehension you're slowly developing is more isolating than even the rankest sympathy would be."

This time he took a much longer drag, filling the deep parts of his lungs with smoke and exhaling as slowly as he could manage. I put my hand over his (struck a wall in frustration not an hour ago) and stroked his long fingers.

"You don't have to say anything," I said. "I like you. I like your voice. You can start talking about anything you want, if you want, and I'll listen just because I like your voice. But you don't have to say anything at all."

We stood  for a long time, until the winter air bit me back inside the party. He stayed on the balcony, silent and smoking, suit jacket flapping in the wind.

I don't know what happened to him after that.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Liar, Ms Six and the Broken Crow: Part 2

Remember what I told you?

Then I'll continue.

Six has a fractured evening after the tears at work. Greasy takeaway food that doesn't quite fill her but is none-the-less too much after three bites. The sort of television programme that's really a thinly veiled advertisement, or several of them rolled together, beating at the impulse centres of her brain. Covers that are too warm or too cold or, magnificently, both at once when she sticks her foot out in a desperate attempt to create some sort of equilibrium.

She can remember something from the story, something about the broken crow. About their fingers.

I may not have chosen the name Six entirely at random.

In any case, whether I am telling the truth or not, Six wakes up at three in the morning with a sandpaper throat and a pillow that feels like it's had a pint of water poured on it. She peels her face away from it and goes to the bathroom and her eyes are red, all red and still crying, and the rest of her's so dry she feels hung over. It hurts to blink. She doesn't need to urinate. (Later, when she does? It's the colour of iced tea.)

She drinks a pint of water all at once and she starts to cry even more; but maybe the word cry is wrong. If I say cry, you think of shoulders shaking, snot and short gasping breaths. This is just the production of tears, plain and simple, turning that pint of water into something worthless as neatly and efficiently as the human body can manage.

There's a phrase in 'The Broken Crow', about how the crow dies. They drown in sorrow. It bounces around Six's mind, along with one of the crow's names, that incongruous masculine whisper.

At this point, I need to tell you a little more about the story of the broken crow, the one that Ms Six reads in the book she finds in her father's house. I assure you that I have obscured every scrap of dangerous information, much as I have in Ms Six's story. Ah! But first you need two important details about me.

Firstly, I am drinking as we speak, but it is not water, and no tears run down my cheeks. It's not anything alcoholic, either, so you can certainly trust my control over the words I say, the information I impart; if you had to guess, you would assume it was some sort of thick milkshake or fruit drink, and you would be wrong on both counts. The important fact is that I am not drinking water, and I never ever cry.

Secondly, although I am wearing close-fitting, pale gloves, I clearly have a full eight fingers.

On to the story of the broken crow, as Ms Six read it, as edited and adapted on both occasions by yours truly.

The broken crow was not always broken. They were a crow, a thief, a tomb-robber in specifics; a carrion-hunter, stealing from the dead in that space where their belongings remain their own and have not yet been gifted to family or friends or the clever and precise gentlemen of the state.

They steal a lot of things. Some of these things are more trouble than they are worth, and the crow becomes bent, not broken.

Then the bent crow steals a book. I can't tell you its title; that's dangerous, like a sudden spring storm. But I can tell you that the book is brown. Dark, battered brown and thick and heavy enough to break fingers. I can tell you that it has a cobweb painted onto its back cover and that this makes the bent crow mistake the front for the back and vice versa, and that this causes the bent crow all their problems.

We can call it the spider book.

The bent crow reads the spider book back to front, reads the upside down letters and the backwards sentences, and they make a terrible sense. There is a story crouching in the spider book, hidden from view if you read it the normal way. In the story, a theft is perpetrated by a character, and the manner of this theft and the character that carries it out strike a chord with the bent crow.

Careful, now; a name may suggest itself to you for the protagonist of the spider book, an obvious handle, a nickname that you can use to think about them. Don't use that name. Make something up. And don't tell me what it is, or write it down. Back to it.

The bent crow reads the hidden story about the theft and then perpetrates a similar theft. It is the same in heart and mind if not in specifics, and the bent crow is momentarily successful. Wealth, riches, all the success their skinny little fingers can grasp. Then they suffer a brutal, monumental failure in which they are responsible for a death. The death comes about because of the way they performed the theft; the idea the bent crow stole from the spider book.

The bent crow is not broken by this, but by a realisation; they stole the idea for the theft, and that ought to be fine by the bent crow and their strange gods. The bent crow made promise and sacrifice that they would never steal from the living, only from the dead. They realise that they must have stolen from the living. They realise that they must have stolen an idea from the thief we do not share a name for, the living thief at the heart of the spider book.

This breaks the crow.

The broken crow struggles on, but they are sorry, so sorry. They shuffle from town to town, barely staying alive. They sell nearly everything else they own but they keep the spider book. One day, for a good reason I will not elaborate upon here, they read it the right way around.

The book tells of the beauty of forgiveness, and of restitution. Of giving something back to those you have wronged. The broken crow finishes the book and begins to cry; their tears fall on the book. 'The Broken Crow' concludes:

Six drops fell from the eyes of the crow
stained the page and smudged the ink
The crow spoke:
    "I am old and broken and have only my tears
    but I give them to you; I return them to you;
    I make my restitution and I seek your forgiveness."
The ink on the pages of [the spider book] trickled

it formed the words

you are not forgiven

and the broken crow drowned in sorrow.

That's the end of the book. I've obviously switched out the name of the book with the cobweb cover for our safe little nickname for it, for "the spider book", but I can't help but recommend that if you tell this story to anyone that you switch out that name, perhaps for "the cobweb book". Perhaps it's best not to mention the cobweb at all; perhaps I made the cobweb up entirely, and you can use the exact words I used, safely insulated from the live current of the real story.

So now you know as much of the broken crow as you need to understand why Ms Six is getting worried about her big fat tears and her dry throat and the feeling of overwhelming sadness that bubbles up behind her teeth but can't be voiced.

I mention the sadness only now, but it was implied, yes? As clearly implied as the fact that Ms Six may have taken something from the broken crow.

I'm going to go and freshen my drink. You should change tables and I'll find you and we can finish the story.

Oh! When I stand up, I am intimidatingly tall. Spindly, in fact. I unfold myself from my chair and glide soundlessly towards the bar on long legs.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

The Liar, Ms Six and the Broken Crow: Part 1.

It's wise not to tell this particular story in the first person.

First person's wonderful for some stories. It pulls you right into the action, makes you complicit in the decisions of your protagonist. Better to wrap this particular story up in another layer of abstraction.

I, in the first person, will tell you a story.

I am Sam. I am not to be trusted. Do you see how I've chosen a name that could be used by a man or a woman? That's deliberate; I am whichever of those you find least trustworthy. Perhaps you can see the faint line of a playing card stuck up my sleeve. Maybe I have placed a human skull on the table in front of me and therefore right on top of your dinner. Perhaps it does not look particularly old. Or entirely clean.

I might be making that all up, though. We established that I was a liar, remember?

In any case, I will be telling, as myself, this story to you, as yourself. It's about someone else entirely, who is distinctly unlike you in many important ways. What happens to her, you see, is not the sort of thing that could happen to you. Your personal qualities, I am sure, forbid it in every respect. It's important you trust that as the truth.

I made you distrust me too early, didn't I? Damn. Now you won't believe me about anything.

Perhaps that's for the best.

The story is about a woman who reads the wrong sort of story. (Not a woman like you, if you are a woman. A completely different kind of woman! If you're not a woman, do you see how different she is already? She is nothing like you.)

The story she finds is called 'The Broken Crow.' It's a folk story. I won't go into the details of the story for you, but suffice it to say that the woman who reads it finds it extremely compelling. I'll call her Ms Six from now on. I'm pretty sure none of you are called Six.

She finds the book in a perfectly ordinary box and it's never entirely clear how it got there. Six is just clearing out her dad's place, after he's died, and in one of Six's boxes of notes from her more scholarly days she finds this ratty old book. She sits down to read it, as you do.

When she's finished, it takes her quite a long time to stop crying; long after the emotional weight of the story has moved on, she finds fat tears running down her cheeks when she blinks. She tries to find it funny that a silly old story has affected her so much.

Over the next few days, she has meeting after meeting at work. They require her input and her attention, and she cannot provide the latter; she doodles the broken crow, the sad old used-up thief, in the corners of her notes. She labels the broken crow with one of the names the crow uses in the story.

One of her colleagues asks, under his breath, what the word she has written down means.  She smiles and is about to tell him when she starts to cry again, quite unexpectedly. She has to leave, grinning and confused, face and cuffs damp with tears.

Six finds she no longer thinks the broken crow's name, the one she wrote down, in her own voice. It cuts across her thought processes exactly as she heard it said, a masculine whisper entirely not her own.

It all gets a bit worse for Six, from here. I like to think that you would burn the book before you read it, that you would break your pen before you drew the broken crow, that you would grasp your colleague by the neck and throw him to the ground, stamp on him, break his voice before you allowed him to whisper that name out loud. You are very different to Six. I do not think my faith is misplaced.

I should also remind you at this point that you should not trust me; that I have already lied about this story, that I have already warped the events beyond recognition, that even now I am obscuring vital clues that would lead you to a different conclusion than the one to which you are being led.

You are being lied to.

Remember that.

Monday, 8 July 2013


Ha. Super.

Because it's a word that gets thrown around a lot with people like me and I don't like it. I'd like to be the guy that can bench press a bus, not the super-strong guy. I'd like to be the guy who only gets bruises from point-blank gunshots, not the super-tough guy, you know? I'd like a lot of things, though.

The problem is that it sounds like it's all upside. You're not just regular strong, you're super strong! It doesn't put it into context, it doesn't include the downsides and it doesn't let people compare things right. Like that little dude, the Cricket- he's really strong, really tough. Can jump a hundred feet in the air, land badly and still get up, right? But either he gets called a super-jumper, which is one hell of a nonsense word, or he gets called super-strong like me. Which is like lumping a blue whale and a housecat in under the name "mammal". You get a little but you don't get the whole picture.

The Cricket's not going to hurt anyone he doesn't want to. He gets to do stuff like cook an egg or hold his sweetheart's hand. He's strong enough for it to help but he's still got the full range of it, yeah? I can barely even dress myself in here, I just rip this cheap crap up.

I had a guy. He made me a really tough outfit.

I don't want to talk about Billy.

Because you don't get it. You won't get it. I don't even think you can get it, and I know you're being nice and I know you want to help. I want to be helped, you know? That's why I'm still here.

Don't act like I couldn't be out of here in a heartbeat. This is strictly voluntary.

When I do my morning push-ups I leave palm prints in your damn hyperconcrete. If you think you're actually restraining me here- Look, I'm not going anywhere. I want you lot to help me out.

I don't know. Get working on a cure or something, maybe. I gave you blood samples and skin samples and stuff.

Then I'd just stay here anyway. The walls don't matter but the security protocols here are solid. No-one gets within arms reach of me. I can't guarantee that anywhere else.

Something like that.

Because the kid was a good kid. He could do tech stuff like the villains can. He made little anti-fire swarmbots, a telepathy headband, little things he strapped to his wrists that could punch a hole in a steel plate; all kinds of tech. Way over my head. We made a good team and he was a good kid. I don't want his name attached to mine every time like he's some sort of bit-player, some sort of sidekick.

I know that's the name he went under, you stupid- it was a joke, okay? It was his own little joke. Honestly I think he wanted to be the best known hero in the world and still be called Sidekick.

We did a lot of stuff together, you'll have to be more-

Yeah. Yeah, I knew that would be the one, I was just-

Fine. Fine! We were fighting this asshole, the woman with the water powers who keeps making a play for the downtown banks- whatsername-

Yeah, that's her. Hydra. Anyway she's bust up a water main, we're standing close together and she fires this big damn telegraph-pole size spear of ice at us. At Billy, I mean. So I went to push him out of the way. Didn't think about it for a moment.

I pushed- I went straight through him. Like gouging soft cheese. I didn't even feel his ribs go- I just went to shove him and bam, my hand went right into him, right out the other side, pushing out all the stuff that should have been inside him. I went to catch him as he collapsed but I guess I misjudged that too, because when I grabbed his arm it just fell out of the socket. Like when you've got a really good leg of lamb, you know? The bones just fall apart. Then I stood there like an idiot. Hydra didn't move either. She could have got away easy but I think she was as stunned as me. I don't think she'd seen a death like that before and I sure hadn't; the kid was everywhere. Bits of him had gone nearly twenty yards. We just both sort of stopped until the cops showed and rounded us up. So. Yeah.

How do you think it makes me feel? I'm dangerous, damn it! I killed a nineteen-year-old boy! It was a good conviction and a good trial and it was the right outcome. So now I'm here and now maybe you can help me out some, get the poison or the curse or the whatever-it-is that's made me like this turned off.

You'll damn well find a way.

Lady, I'm a walking threat. Get used to it.

Friday, 28 June 2013

A Path Less Travelled

"There is courage in him, Rufus."

Erica stroked the young man's hair, brushing it away from his flickering eyelids.

"It's a fool's courage. I'd wager he's never been afraid before." Rufus pulled his sheepskin tighter around his shoulders, thick fingers bunching into the soft wool, and stared down at the twitching youth with hard eyes. "Now he is very afraid. His courage will not stand in for the scars he ought to have."

"Perhaps it will not. But perhaps he will be brave enough to trust himself to be brave. He came to this place, after all." Erica plucked a gladiolus stem from her hair and carefully wrapped the young man's soft, grasping fingers around it.

"Bah. It's not as though it's difficult to get to." Rufus waved one calloused hand in dismissal, and his sheepskin fell off his broad shoulder. He shivered for a moment as he pulled it back up, critically eyeing the dark entrance to the cave.

"It is harder in this sort of weather, I suppose," he muttered. "It's damnably cold outside."

 "You can judge that better than I," Erica said as she tugged the young man's waterlogged sandals away from his feet. "Walking the path here isn't the hard part, Rufus. You know that. He's followed my call here, my labyrinth-thread. It's the finding out about it that's difficult."

"It's not that difficult. I found it."

Erica looked at Rufus with such pity that he had to turn away.

"You helped him here," she said to his broad back. "You saw him falter from your window and you ran out into the tempest to save him. You brought him here instead of taking him home."

"Here was closer!" Rufus snapped.

"There is a fire in your hearth, Rufus. There is a loaf of fresh bread on your table, meat hanging in your larder. There are healing herbs in labelled jars and more than enough space for this boy. There could have been nothing here and it's still where you chose to take him."

"It was closer," Rufus said as he turned to look at the young man. His voice was calmer now, softer. "Do you truly think him a boy? He seems old enough to be carving his own space in the world."

"You and I both know that age is not measured in years. Why did you bring him here, Rufus?"

"I suppose you have the truth of it there." Rufus looked at the palms of his hands, the familiar patterns of callous, the scars that told his stories. "I feel like a younger man. Wrapped in an older one and driven by one older still."

Rufus didn't look up from his hands for some time, and when he did he could feel a vast sadness upon him, grey and smothering.

"You cannot be real," he heard himself say. "You cannot be here, in this storm, in this season, with those flowers in your hair."

"Why did you bring him here, Rufus?" she asked again.

"He must have tried so hard," Rufus said, reaching out and almost touching the youth's skin. "He must have walked the whole way in this storm. He was so close to this place and had such good reason to turn back. Such good reason not to walk this path at all, in this storm, wearing a summer cloak and broken sandals. He did not turn back, do you see? I could not turn him back myself."

"You turned back," Erica said. Rufus felt as though she had known him once as a girl, and he had spurned her affections.

"I did. I was not- I was not prepared for my journey. I got sick in the rain."

"You got better, Rufus. Why did you not come back sooner?"

"I was afraid you would be here. And afraid you would know my cowardice, and afraid you would see the cowardice in that, too. I was afraid."

"You put your fear aside for him," Erica said, glancing at the young man. His breathing was shallower now, Rufus realised.

"He's younger than I. I wished, sometimes, that I could come here again for the first time. That I would not falter. I saw myself in him." Rufus spread a hand across the youth's chest; his skin was clammy and warm.

"He is braver than I was. But I would wager that he is very afraid."

"Of course he is," Erica said. "He may be dying. He has finished his journey none the less. What did you believe, when you read of my cave? What did you imagine you would find?"

"I don't know," Rufus shrugged. The youth convulsed violently the moment Rufus lifted his hand from his chest, slamming his heel violently into the stone, and Rufus quickly replaced his hand on his fevered skin. He looked up at Erica with panic and a question in his eyes, and she shook her head.

"His time grows short. What did you want to find here when you came the first time, Rufus? Quickly, now."

"Hope." Rufus' voice came out almost silent, underneath his breath. "I wanted to find hope. I wanted to know I could be something magnificent instead of just me."

"So you read of an ancient cave and believed. You researched a forgotten goddess and sacrificed to her. You left your home and travelled halfway across the known world. You walked until you collapsed, in a winter storm and a summer cloak, to find me and ask if you could ever be someone extraordinary?"

"Yes." Rufus sagged as he understood.

"You helped him on his last few steps, Rufus. You are the part of this young man that he needed to walk his path. My gift to him is you."

Rufus nodded in silence before standing, ignoring the sudden stillness of the boy on the stone floor.

"Can I leave him the sheepskin? He'll be cold otherwise."

Erica smiled then, really smiled, and Rufus felt midsummer's warmth.

"Of course you can," she said, and kissed him full on the lips. He felt his life flake away as she pushed him gently down to the floor, as his wrinkles unfolded and his scars vanished, as the callous on his palms became soft as a scholar's grip.

He was not surprised in the slightest when she rolled him into the youth on the floor, not alarmed when they seemed to share the same space for a moment. There was no fear at all. He did not have to be brave.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

How to make bread in 55 easy steps

The Bloomer

500g strong white flour
40 ml olive oil
1 7g sachet of Instant Yeast that feels faintly like cheating
10g of salt measured on scales that are used to telling the difference between one kilo and six on a good day
360 ml water
Feeling of boundless confidence
Recently purchased video game series (I use the Prince of Persia games in my recipe but it's really a matter of personal choice)

1. Put the flour into a bowl. Put the salt and yeast in the bowl on different sides so the salt doesn't kill the yeast. Feel faint glow of professional competence. Treasure that, dear reader. You will not feel it again.
2. Add the olive oil. Note that the yeast is brown, not a mustardy yellow. Ponder why you expected it to be yellow.
3. Add three quarters of the water. Using one of your hands in a claw shape, because the book tells you to make a claw shape even though it feels a bit silly, begin to mix the water into the flour and salt.
4. Worry that when you added the water you washed all the salt directly into the yeast and ruined everything. There is no way of knowing. Press on regardless and pretend you are treating this as a fun culinary experiment instead of as evidence that you are a good and capable person.
5. Mix it in until everything looks a bit dry and isn't quite coming together.
6. Mix in a little more water. Not that much. Actually that seems okay. Phew.
7. Ask yourself; does this need more water?
8. Decide it really looks like it needs more water.
9. Add remaining water oh FUCK it's gone really sticky
10. Check the book. The book says that sticky is okay so long as it's not soggy. Nice.
11. Ponder the difference between soggy and sticky.
12. Decide bread is just really really sticky.
13. Remember the pasta debacle. Decide to press on regardless.
14. Now it's time to knead the dough! Try to follow the instructions in your book.
15. Try to fold the dough.
16. Really try.
17. Perform kneading action as learned from seeing people on television and in films knead dough.
18. Wonder, idly, what films you learned this from. Worry that it was Ghost and that you are subliminally trying to make a pot.
19. Further kneading.
20. The dough ought to come smooth after 5-10 minutes, longer if you are a beginner. Continue for 20 minutes.
21. Maybe it WAS soggy.
22. Wait until it looks pretty good and is feeling less sticky and more stretchy. Check the book to see if the dough looks right.
23. That looks amazing. Yours will not look like that. Put it in a box to rise anyway; it ought to take between 1 1/2 and 3 hours, and should triple in size.
24. Watch a little TV and have dinner. Consider that Jonathan Creek has really nice shoes.
25. After 1 1/2 hours, check on dough. It will not look very much bigger at all. Bah.
26. Play Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
27. It's still really good!
28. Scale the tower of dawn in a safe and secure fashion.
29. Complete Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
30. Load Prince of Persia: Warrior Within.
31. Suffer severe mood whiplash. How were these games even developed by the same company? Wonder if OH HELL MY BREAD
32. Your bread should now have been rising for about 4 or 5 hours.
33. It'll probably be okay.
34. Reshape your dough into the form of a lumpy loaf of bread. Consider the lumps. Shrug.
35. Leave bread to rise for a further hour. Really.
36. Pre-heat oven to 220 degrees. Put a pan in the bottom.
37. Try to play Prince of Persia: Warrior Within until bread finishes its second rise. It is not very much fun. Bah.
38. Using your sharpest knife, cut lines in the top of the dough so it will rise and bake properly. Pretty professional.
39. Realise your knife is not all that sharp.
40. Sharpest thing in the house is a straight razor. Seriously consider it.
41. Decide it is a little too metal to make bread with a straight razor. Persist with knife.
42. Regret your decision. I prefer to regret things in the traditional Italian way, with a glass of red wine and a slow, broken stare to the right of camera, but the Belgian and French methods work equally well.
43. Put the bread in the oven. Put boiling water in the hot tray; the steam will create a lovely glaze on the top of the loaf as it bakes.
45. Hyperboiling water is a serious safety hazard. Stand well back and recheck your recipe book; confirm that the water should just have been from the cold tap.
46. Close the oven door with a broom handle.
47. Go into the front room and continue regret for 25 minutes, or half a bottle.
48. Lower the temperature of the oven to 200 degrees Celsius, and risk looking in the glass.
49. Against all the odds, your bread will look like real bread. Take that, baking conglomerates! Experience heady rush of confidence.
50. Wait ten minutes and remove the bread from the oven. It will look pretty good. Hold the loaf in a tea towel and tap the bottom to see if it sounds hollow.
51. It does! You have achieved bread! Leave it to cool completely overnight, since it is now almost midnight.
52. Eat the bread. It's pretty good.
53. Declare that you will attempt a savoury brioche couronne tomorrow.
54. On second thought, realise the bread was a little bit chewy.
55. Do not attempt the brioche.