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Saturday, 19 September 2009

The Killing Jar (Extract)

Published in the UK by Chatto and Windus/Vintage. Buy the latest edition here. Published in the US by Scribner. Buy the latest edition here, or the Kindle ebook here.


Some people’d say I was destined for all this killing when Uncle Frank came into my life but it goes back further than that. To when my brother was born.

Jon came out wailing like a banshee and didn’t stop for months. It were Mam’s fault, that. Her bad habits got him hooked on smack and coke before he was even born, poor bogger. She didn’t care much that he was screaming. She slept and slept after he was born, and let the nurses feed him from a bottle.

‘Your mam’s very tired,’ one of them told me.

I shrugged. Mam’d always slept a lot and I’d never thought much of it. I looked at the baby, his mouth open and tongue wriggling as he screamed. I noticed he used his whole body to cry with. Looking back now, I wonder why the nurses didn’t give him a bit of methadone or summat to help him out but they let him go cold turkey instead. What a way to come into the world. Never stood a chance, our Jon. I walked over to the cot and put my hand on his cheek. He tried to suck my thumb but the nurse told me not to let him cause of the germs, so I tickled his hand instead and he grabbed my finger, clung to it with his whole fist. Can’t imagine that no more, Jon’s hand fitting tight round my finger, but it used to. I fell in love.

‘In’t he clever already?’ I said to the nurse.

‘Don’t get carried away. All babies do that. It’s a reflex,’ she told me.

But I stood there, letting him squeeze my finger as if his life depended on it. I looked up at the nurse.

‘Is he brown cause my mam shoots brown?’ I asked her.

She clamped her hand over her mouth as if the bad words’d been summat she’d said. I didn’t have a clue what were up with her, didn’t understand what I’d said. It were just summat I’d heard in a row with a neighbour.

The lady next door, Mrs Ivanovich, was the only reason I wasn’t put into care. Mam’d left me at home when she went into labour and walked to the hospital, off her head. Mrs Ivanovich found me sitting in the garden at two in the morning and I ended up stopping at hers. She took me on a bus to visit when the baby’d come and the people at the hospital could tell she was a good sort, thought she’d keep an eye on me. They weren’t to know. Anyway, I was glad I was staying with her. I wanted to stay at her house for ever cause even if it were only next door, being at Mrs Ivanovich’s was more interesting than being stuck in our house.

She was foreign and everyone thought she was a bit of a nutter, avoided her. She came across like that cause she was old and had her ways, like how she kept butterflies. She had a cage in her back garden made out of a rabbit hutch, the wire replaced with this white gauzy stuff, same as she’d folded into a net on the end of a cane to catch them with. When we moved in I watched her through the hedge and saw how she struggled to get the butterflies out the net. Her fingers were all twisted and mangled.

‘Can I help?’ I asked. Not exactly out the kindness of my heart, but cause I was into the butterflies. She smiled and gestured at me to come into her garden. She showed me how to take the butterflies out the net without touching their wings.

‘You can damage the scales, you see, and then they have trouble flying properly. Aerodynamics,’ she told me.

She spoke English perfect, but was hard to understand down to her strong accent. It made that last word, aerodynamics, stretch and vibrate so’s I asked her to say it again. I looked at her, all snot and open mouth. She leaned over and whispered in my ear.

‘They’re covered in fairy dust. You brush it off and they can’t fly anymore. But I can’t say it too loud because butterflies don’t believe in fairies and if they heard me they’d never take off again,’ she said.

I wiped away the snot with the back of my hand and Mrs Ivanovich magicked up a tissue, showed me how to blow my nose.

Ever since then, she let me help her. She gave me the net so I could try and catch butterflies but I never did. I’d run till I fell over knackered, waving the net round and trampling down the tall weeds at the back of her garden, but I still didn’t catch one. I asked how come she got so many, when she had to use a stick to walk and couldn’t hardly move her hands. She said I needed to be more ‘stealthy’. That was the exact word she used, cause she wrote it down for me in this notebook thing what she let me keep. She wasn’t happy at all when she heard my mam wasn’t sending me to school, and started to teach me stuff her-sen.

I used to love to sit with her in the garden, watching the butterflies stutter and hop between the plants and twigs she’d arranged in the cage. She showed me how to use a magnifying glass so’s it didn’t catch the sun and burn them, but helped me watch them dead close while they fed. Watch their bubble eyes and the suckers they pushed into the flowers so’s they could get out the juice. Aliens in the flowerbed, and fucked up scary ones at that. Mrs Ivanovich had stories about bigger monsters, though, from trips she’d took. She told me she’d worked all over, but was from Russia in the first place. Had come here for her husband’s job, then he’d gone and died on her. He’d left her with nowt cept savings back home what she wasn’t allowed to touch down to summat legal. Her eyes went all watery and red when she told me that. The Amazon basin was her favourite place, she’d said, and I imagined a massive sink full of the great big insects she described. She told me she used to be an entomologist, another word I made her write down, which was a kind of scientist who studied how insects worked. But it wasn’t till I went to stay with her I realised what this meant. When I found her killing jar.

It were the middle of summer, a good few weeks after Jon’d been born. Mrs Ivanovich was in the garden catching ‘specimens’, as she used to say, and told me to go inside in case I moved too sudden and scared the bugs away. I heard her swear, then she shouted in she needed her other net, and it were under the sink somewhere. I was searching for it when I caught a glint of summat shiny. Kids’ eyes are always turned by things what sparkle, especially them as belong to the sorts who’ve never had owt. I grabbed at the glittery thing and pulled it into the air where I could see it.

The glass was so thick its contents were magnified and distorted. At first glance I thought it were shredded newspaper inside. I looked closer and saw big blank eyes and furry bodies, washed out velvet wings. Moths. Dead ones, sitting on a layer of plaster. I screamed and dropped the jar. The glass was too heavy to shatter, but it cracked round the base and the top section fell on its side. I sat on the floor looking at what I’d done. There was this smell, not very strong, not nice but not rank, only just there so I could of believed I’d imagined it. Mrs Ivanovich walked in to see what was keeping me. She threw the backdoor wide open and grabbed me, pushed me outside. I saw her sprinkle summat what looked like salt all over what’d spilled.

Mrs Ivanovich made me go through the jitty and in through the front garden. It took her ages to unlock the door and, while she was doing it, Piercey came, his van throwing out a mangled Lara’s theme what made my mouth water for ice cream. Mrs Ivanovich went to the van and got me a ninety-nine with two flakes and that red sauce and everything. That was a big treat for me back then. She took me through to the living room and sat me down.

‘Kerrie-Ann, sweetheart, you have to stay in here now for the rest of the day. Those chemicals are strong and if you breathe them they could kill you,’ she told me. I crunched through the flake, making sure the crumbs dropped back onto the ice cream.

‘Is that why them moths was dead?’ I asked her through a mouthful of chocolate. She didn’t tell me not to talk with my mouth full like she usually did so I knew summat serious had happened.
She sighed. ‘How to explain to a five-year-old?’ she said, to her-sen, I think. She walked over and sat down next to me, put her hand on my arm. ‘Some things have to be sacrificed so you can do more or know more,’ she said. I nodded. ‘Those moths,’ she said. ‘If I can find out what goes on inside them, it helps everyone understand the world better. Like we wouldn’t know how to make helicopters if it wasn’t for dragonflies. And maybe I’ll realise something as important from the inside of a moth.’

‘The inside?’ I said.

Mrs Ivanovich walked over to the wall unit behind the telly. She pulled out a book and brought it over to me. It were full of dead butterflies and moths, and other insects too. Beetles, ants, teeny creatures called aphids. The little ones were stuck to card and glued down, but the bigger insects were skewered to the page with pins. Then she showed me a wooden box. There was a moth inside. She used a tiny knife and a magnifier to cut it into pieces and showed me its different parts. The heart, the air sacs, what she told me were called spiracles, the nerve cord running right down its back. The exoskeleton. That meant bones on the outside.

‘Do you understand now? Why some things have to die?’ she asked.

I nodded again but she must of been able to tell I didn’t cause she carried on talking.

‘Death is part of life, Kerrie-Ann. A very clever man told me that once. A shaman, which is kind of an Indian doctor.’

‘Did he wear feathers on his head?’ I asked her.

‘He wore feathers all over the place,’ she said. She stroked my hair and I snuggled up against her. I could feel her ribs dig through her jumper. ‘You’ve got to remember that,’ she said.

‘Death is part of life, not a bad thing. You must remember it and be strong because I’m going to die soon.’

I bit into my ice-cream and pain stabbed through my gum and jaw.

I didn’t sleep well that night. I turned over and over in my bed so’s the blankets wrapped me up like layers on a Swiss roll. I dreamed of dead butterflies, and beetles as big as me standing at the end of my bed, goggle eyed, rolling out their suckers into my stomach. I dreamed of Mrs Ivanovich, dead and in the bottom of a jar. I couldn’t get the smell from the kitchen out my nose.


Jon got better in the end, and Mam brought him home. I don’t know how long it took, it all feels like for ever when you’re little. It must of been a while, though, cause by the time they came back to the close nowt ever wiped the dopey smile off his face. It made me think they might of swapped the baby, and looking back I wonder if Mam’d started putting summat more interesting than sugar on his dummy. The good weather had gone on and on that year, an Indian summer they called it, but it wasn’t so sunny then, and there wasn’t many butterflies around. Mrs Ivanovich was cutting up ants, and it were delicate work so she needed my help more than ever. She swore loads as she tried to get her mangled hands round the tiny knife she used. She had a bath twice a day, and used to send me down the Co-op to get that Radox stuff for her and let me keep the change. Sometimes it took her all her time to stand up or sit down and I’d stay all day bringing her cups of tea. Mam never asked where I’d been. Mrs Ivanovich told me I was a good gell, but she wasn’t sure she’d be able to cope with another winter, not with her sore old bones. I should of seen it coming.

It were her daughter what found her, one afternoon. She didn’t visit very often and I reckon her mam knew she was coming, set it up that way deliberate. All’s I knew was the woman coming out the front screaming, falling on her hands and knees with a screwed up face and shouting ‘Mam!’ using all the air in her lungs. By the time I got out the house, she was lying on the grass with her head in her hands and wouldn’t speak to me. I knew what’d happened. The smell was in the air, kind of nutty, almost not there. Mrs Ivanovich’s killing jar chemical.

When you’re young and don’t know no better, you’re fascinated by everything. Apart from insects, the only dead thing I’d ever seen was a bird I found in the hedge, a sparrow or summat. Its beak was jammed open with a bright red rowanberry in it. I knew them berries were poison cause we had a Rowan tree in our back garden and I’d been told never to touch them. I couldn’t work out if that was why the bird’d died, or if it’d choked. I couldn’t understand why God made owt so red and juicy when they’d kill you if you ate them. God was supposed to be good, but that was a mean trick. I’d never seen a dead person, though, not even someone pretending on the telly. Mam’d sold ourn in the middle of the night when I was three, and Mrs Ivanovich used to let me watch hers but was well strict about what kind of programmes.

I put my hand over my nose to try and block out the lethal fumes and walked through Mrs Ivanovich’s front door. Inside, the place had been set up like one huge killing jar. Bowls all over, on the shelves, the ’gram, everywhere, with that chemical shit inside. The fumes’d filled the room, then Mrs I’s lungs, then each one of the cells inside her. Pop. Pop-te-pop, pop, pop.

She was sat on the sofa with one eye open and one eye closed, like she was winking at me. The eye what was open freaked me out so I walked over and closed it. The skin on her eyelid felt like cold fish. With her eyes closed she looked better, like she was having a quick nap. I noticed she had summat in her arms then, was hugging it to her like a doll. I pulled it out from under her elbow. It were a butterfly in a smart glass case. Framed to go on the wall, like a picture. Not one like you’d see in the garden, with green-white leafy wings, or even them red velvety boggers you’d see if you waited long enough. This was shiny. Its wings were blue and black and looked like metal. A pin skewered through its body and held it fast against a bit of card and underneath there was some writing. I didn’t feel proud of me-sen but I couldn’t leave it there for Mrs Ivanovich’s daughter to find. She wouldn’t know what it were. Wouldn’t care. So I tucked it in the waistband of my skirt and pulled my T-shirt down over it, was careful how I walked.

I went through to the kitchen and kicked open the back door before the stuff got to me too. I went out and shoved my find under the hedge, where I could easily pick it up later. I had a thought then, and ran back into the kitchen. Under the sink was a big bottle, the leftover cyanide. I took it, though Christ knows what all I can of thought I’d need it for. I hid it in the same spot of privet as the dead butterfly. I heard noises in the house and backed away from the hedge quick as. I could see the butterfly cage from where I was stood and knew it wouldn’t take much of them gases to do for the delicate boggers. I walked over and looked at them one last time. Then I opened the cage and let them go.

There wasn’t many butterflies left in the cage, and a couple were dead already. But them as could fluttered straight off. They wouldn’t have long, I knew that. Summer was over.

Starfishing (Extract)

Published by Chatto and Windus/Vintage in the UK. You can buy the latest edition here. Due out in US, Scribner May 2010.

A Higher State of Consciousness

You walk through the door and into a wall of sound.

It’s so loud it sends you off balance, makes it difficult to put one foot in front of another.

The room is immense and lofty, the size of an aircraft hangar, and it boils with people pushing and shouting and clambering over each other. The air crackles. Static moves the tiny hairs on your arms and the back of your neck; you feel it sweep your body.

The clothes people are wearing make your eyes dart about, they send you dizzy with their blues and reds and stripes and stars. The hot pool of bodies oozes sweat, which fills the air and floods your senses. Everyone’s squashed against each other with their arms in the air and as you walk through, they suck you in. Your heart’s pounding, you’re pumped full of chemicals. You don’t run and you don’t fight and they build and build and it makes you light headed. High.

People shoot past you, on a mission. They fly at you and seem to go past sooner than they get there and it’s all you can do to keep yourself upright with the force of it all. The world glows radioactive; electric blue, shocking pink, the colours have a charge to them.

Then you’re in the middle of it, arms stretched out to some random god. You’re shouting and waving and making the room change. It’s like you earth something and it flows through you. Not solid or liquid or something you can get hold of, but real nonetheless. Hard to define and gone as soon as you’ve touched it.

There’s a lull. People move to the side of the room, they whisper to each other. The air is thick around you, the way it is on the kind of summer’s day that has to break, the kind when you wait and watch for the sky to moan and scream as lightning cuts it open.

You hold your breath.

Then it’s off again and it’s madder than before and you didn’t think that was possible but it is. It’s like the floor’s pulled out from underneath and you all fall through, out of control, and you’ve got no fucking clue where you’re going to land or how hard. People scream and scratch like pigs. All round the room the lights are going mad, flashing and changing and flashing and changing and mashing up your brain with the input. It’s too much to take in so it bypasses the front of your head and goes right to where it’s needed. The room smells of bodies and fear and instinct. It smells of animals hunting, and being hunted.

A bell rings and it all stops. The screens and the walls are splattered red with all the numbers that have gone down, down, down, down. Like it’s been sprayed with blood from a slaughter, from the hunt.

You feel blooded too, can almost smell the iron of it, feel it smeared across your face.

The floor is littered with debris. You walk, watching your feet as they crunch through abandoned trade cards. They remind you of autumn. They remind you of betting slips at the races.

The Okinawa Dragon (Extract)

Published by Five Leaves Publications. You can buy a copy here.

Chicago O’Hare, Gate K9, 4.30 am, Tuesday, November 25th, 2004. As space-time co-ordinates go, these pretty well suck ass.

I’m staring at the arrivals screen, hypnotised by the rhythms of its flicker, waiting for Henri. He’s due off the red eye from Vegas and never has the term been so real to me. I feel like there’s grit dripping from my lashes when I blink. The ETA on his flight is a random variable. It twitches and changes like the last traded price on a stock or share. I’d know all about that because I used to be a market maker for a big investment bank. They took me on ’cos I was sharp with maths and it took me no time at all to do the add-ups.

1. I was never gonna get rich working for someone else

2. You can make a market in anything

That’s how come I ended up here; travelling halfway round the world to sell some collector a few pieces of cardboard.

It makes me laugh out loud.

I’ve been stood so long staring hard at the screen that I’m floating. I got that low blood sugar, frothy-headed feeling. I can see my legs giving way, imagine myself clattering to the ground like a wooden puppet. It’s not just the watching and waiting; it’s the airport thing.

I kinda like airports, which is just as well, but they fuck with my head. They’re not one country or the next, like that place with the ponds in The Magician’s Nephew. There’s that eerie peace, a void echo. And other stuff. The sexy goodwill and edgy chimes of the recorded announcements. The promise of the destinations radiating from the screens and through my grey matter, leaving cells permanently changed: Prague, Tokyo, Dubai. Marrakesh via Casablanca.

Even going to the toilet screws with you; the automatic flush when you stand up and the taps, always willing to give water provided you offer up your hands in prayer to the god of laser beam technology.

The whole thing makes me feel like I walked through security and into the head of Philip K Dick.

And don’t even get me started on the passengers. The calm acceptance in their eyes. The way they pile on to those huge metal monsters and allow themselves to get catapulted several thousand feet into the cold, wet air. It’s enough to set my asthma off, watching them file through the gates.

I’m stood waiting, staring, and I need a wazz pretty darn bad but daren’t move. What I think might happen if I do is undefined. Henri’s flying domestic, so he won’t have to go through all the questions about business or pleasure and cattle in his suitcase like I did, but it’s still gonna take him a while to get through the gate and the baggage hall. This is the deal of my career, though; a fifty grand sale and the rarest collectible cards I’ve ever got my greasy little hands on.

How I got these very special items was a mutual back-scratching situation with this woman who works for the manufacturer. You don’t need to know the details, all you need to know is she gave me the cards. Real collectors’ pieces, real rare. She was very clear about the deal. Here are the cards. You do not have the cards.

Of course, we put something up on our website toot sweet. Not pictures or anything that cheeky. Just a little note; descriptions of the cards. We heard these exist, *waaaay* cool. Man, they must be worth ten grand a piece.

I knew someone would bite and I would have put money on it being Henri. He’s the most powerful collector I know. Must have just about all there is to get by now, first edition playsets, sealed product from forever back. I’d love to see his stash but I don’t know him well enough to ask.

Maybe after this deal.

My need to pee is making me dance so I give in and head to the loos. Of course, when I get back, the sparrow has landed. Innit always the way? It’s like the cigarette rule; derived by first principles from Sod’s law. Whatever you’re waiting for, a bus, train, your main course at a posh restaurant, just light up a fag and, no matter how late it is, or how unlikely it seemed that you’d ever see it, along it will come. I’ve tried and tested this all over the world and it just works lol.

So, I’m dashing back to the gate to head him off, so eager am I. Then I’m waiting there for at least five minutes, though it feels more like an hour. I’m sighing and strutting and looking at my watch.

Henri arrives. When I see him, the usual stuff hits me. How small he is, around five-six and adolescent skinny. The way he dresses in jeans and a T-shirt, threadbare sports jacket. The flecks of grey in his mid-brown hair and his careful way of moving. He doesn’t look like a millionaire.

He nods in my direction, then leads the way to one of those anonymous coffee bars you get in airports. I have a latte, but Henri takes one of those small dark coffees so full of grounds they’re thick as oil. He adds three sugars and stirs the evil concoction with some vigour. It is these small details that make him so very European. Me, I’m from the 51st state, innit?

So, we sit on high wooden chairs and Henri asks if he can see the photo. This is how on-it the man is; he didn’t even dream I’d bring the cards. I dip my head and scan the room, then pull it from my inside pocket. The whole thing is so B-movie it makes me cringe.

The picture is of Uri, my business partner. He’s holding the cards (in protective sleeves of course) fanning them out in one hand and pointing at them with the other, one of those grins plastered over his ugly mug where you can see chinks of light hit his teeth.

‘You bring one?’ Henri asks.

The guy’s so sharp it’s a surprise he’s not a mess of scars. I go into my pocket again and bring out the sample. Henri takes the card from me and removes it from its plastic sleeve like he’s carrying out a surgical procedure. He examines it, front and back, takes a magnifying glass from his pocket and has a look real close.

I’m sweating.

He puts the card back inside its protective cover and passes it back. He nods, half smiles.

I hand him the small piece of paper I prepared earlier. Sort code, bank account number, a figure in sterling.

I’m sweating like a rapist.

He looks lost in his head for a moment or so, then he nods again, firmly this time.

‘Bah, it’s a good price,’ he says.

I smile at Henri, playing it cool, but inside my head I’m running round in circles, doing a little victory dance. But that’s for my eyes only.

Deal cut, I sit against the chair back and the way it feels is like I must visibly relax, my head swinging back, tummy pushing out. It strikes me for a second that this might make me look amateur. But I don’t care. I am flying.

We get chatting then. About the cards, the game. Henri tells me about some of the things he has and I make all the right noises. I talk tournament play and collectibles and I can hear myself going psycho with the words per minute. Henri doesn’t seem to mind. We have more coffee and my heart is racing along with the words. He smiles and nods and I can tell he admires my energy. People do.

We talk about his collection and he gives me a run down. It has two parts; public and private. The latter, he tells me, is kept to himself and a few close associates, to protect the not so innocent. He mentions a couple of cards and that’s when I understand Henri is more than a millionaire. He is someone who is capable of making me a millionaire. And so I have to ask him because you can’t miss opportunities like this.

‘Is there anything you’re looking for now, that you haven’t got? I mean anything at all you need to complete your collection?’

Henri looks at me. Laughs. ‘There’s not much left,’ he says. ‘Not much but the odd thing like this if you find it. And, of course, The Dragon.’

I perk up like some kinda meerkat. He doesn’t need to say which dragon. Okinawa is a legend in our business, the Mona Lisa of the cards. Given as a gift to some Japanese businessman. You can’t buy it off him; he doesn’t need the money and the Japanese honour code says you don’t sell a gift. It is written.

‘How much?’ I say. ‘How much would you pay for a piece like that?’

Henri bats the air, grins. His eye contact goes but I am still looking right at him. ‘Is unobtainable, impossible,’ he says, with a fluff of a laugh.

I do not laugh. I wait for his eyes to come back to me and stare straight into them.

‘Nothing is impossible.’

Numeracy Hour

First published in Book of Numbers, Imprimata 2009 which can be purchased here

e is the base for the natural log function. Approximately 2.7, it is a transcendental number and cannot be written down precisely in any number format.

Laura Baker, aka ‘Miss’, was beginning to think it had been a mistake to timetable numeracy hour first thing. A mathematician herself, she couldn’t agree more with the principles of the government strategy designed to give children more of an instinctive feel for numbers, but she did wish she didn’t have to implement it on class 6C at nine fifteen every day. This particular morning, as her mouth moved and sent mental maths questions over their heads, it seemed their reactions were dulled by the sticky feel of sleep. She could almost smell it on them.

‘Six times eleven,’ she said, her voice sharp and bright in an attempt to prod them awake. ‘Eight elevens,’ she pleaded. ‘Tell me a rule for timesing by eleven.’ Every time she spoke, the same two hands flew into the air. Zoe Weaver, wiggling and straining as if her fingers were possessed and trying to fly up to the ceiling against her will and Adam Cant, more reserved but consistent. The rest of the class stayed still, or fiddled with something on their desk, picked at a nose. All except Rachel Winters, a strange little girl who had some kind of broad spectrum disorder her parents refused to follow up on.

Rachel never sat still and, while she had a pencil in her hand, she would be drawing. She didn’t draw the things other children drew. No houses or flowers or stick people but, instead, very clear geometrical constructions of shapes with straight sides, ellipses, circles. Her father, a maths professor at the local university, claimed these drawings were the sign of some special ability, but Miss Laura Baker doubted that. Rachel did okay. She had a higher than average reading age, and was skilled at maths, not that she showed any evidence of this in numeracy hour, but there were no signs of any sparkling talent.

‘Square numbers,’ Miss Baker said, now changing her tone and using a smooth, slick voice like chocolate, hoping to sooth the class into participation on a topic that was relatively new to them. She’d drawn diagrams representing the first few on the board and pointed to them as she spoke.

‘One,’ she breathed in, ‘Four,’ breath, ‘Nine...’ The class joined in hesitantly and mostly continued until sixty-four, which left just Zoe and Adam in its wake, chanting all anticipatory and sing song, the way children do in classrooms. Rachel Winters’ mouth was moving too, but no sound came out, and she was going way too fast to be in sync with the others. Her lips were still twitching as the two class stars faded, then stopped, at one hundred and forty-four. Miss Baker sighed, and drew a parallelogram on the board. Her hand moved and made the marks she needed but her mind was on coffee at breaktime. She had been so sure she wanted to work with children. She wondered what she’d be doing now, had she done the Ph.D. Something more complex than drawing a parallelogram on the board, that was for sure. Something more interesting and meaningful. More beautiful.

i is a number such that i2 = - 1. It was invented by Euler in his attempts to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem and is considered by mathematicians to be ‘imaginary’ and not a member of the set of ‘real’ numbers.

Mrs Sally Winters threw two tranquilisers into the back of her mouth and washed them down with water from the bathroom tap. Her eyes were ringed red from lack of sleep and a surfeit of gin. ‘Any mother would feel rejected,’ she told the mirror, hoping it would understand better than her husband had the million times she’d said it to him. Professor Martin ‘Rachel is so special’ Winters who was forever promising to cut back his hours at the University to spend more time dealing with her ‘special’ features. Sally breathed and supported herself by clinging to the edge of the sink. ‘Hold it together,’ she told herself over and over, almost chanting, knowing the meds would kick in soon enough, if not quite soon enough for her liking.

Slowly, she returned to the living room. Rachel was exactly where she’d left her; in her own little world. She was drawing again. Even that had to be ‘special’ with Rachel and her constant geometry. ‘I just want to be a normal family,’ she whispered under her breath. This was another of Sally’s mantras to her husband. ‘Who wants to be normal?’ he replied every time until Sally wanted to scream ‘I do, I do, I do!’

Sally watched for a while as her special little girl covered sheet after sheet with circles and ellipses. She could see that these were remarkable constructions and granted that Professor Martin could be right that there was some talent there, hidden inside the puzzle of her daughter.

The drugs began to take effect at last and, together with the buzz left from the gin, they made the world hazy. The sofa felt deep and soft and Sally let it eat her. Rachel could create all the perfect circles in the world but even Sally’s maths was good enough to know that no matter how many, they could never equate to a single hug. Not to an ‘I love you’ or a moment of eye contact and connection, or a smile at the right time.

Any mother would feel rejected.

π (pronounced pi) is a mathematical constant defined as the ratio of the circumference of any circle to its diameter. Its approximate value is 3.14 but it is transcendental and cannot be written down precisely as a decimal, fraction or product of surds.

Rachel’s mother had fallen asleep again. Rachel had noticed this was becoming a habit and had calculated that the average time she slept for was two hours thirteen minutes, after which she would get up, drink tea, and see to bedtime. Rachel didn’t mind at all. She could never work out what her mother wanted from her anyway, never had been able to. Sally would tell her something and wait for a reaction. Rachel knew something needed to change on her face to satisfy her mother but she didn’t have a clue what. She tried experimenting with curling her lips in various ways. Sometimes this worked but, more usually, her mother would shout, or run from the room in tears. Second guessing was exhausting so this new thing, where she fell asleep, it was a relief, really. A relief and an opportunity.

An opportunity to access The Room. This was a place Rachel knew well, somewhere her father took her where she had to be a good girl, draw quietly by his feet and not touch anything. This is why her father was easier. He gave clear instructions and she didn’t need to guess what he meant. It was always hard, though, in that room, to look and not touch. It was the bookcases that were the problem, and the books that looked down on her from the shelves. Sometimes, she would stop drawing and stare at them. They were different from the reading books at school and she didn’t understand the titles at all: Topology of Metric Spaces; Elementary Number Theory, Group Theory and Ramunjan Graphs; Fermat’s Last Theorem. It seemed there was a whole world living on those shelves, one she knew nothing about. The only clue was in a few pictures, similar to the ones she drew so often: circles (inscribed), angles (dissected), regular polygons with lines of symmetry marked in dashes. Rachel was hopeful that this meant the books had her answers.

When she heard her mother snoring, Rachel got up from her drawings and headed towards the hall. Quietly, she pushed the living room door to, pausing as it creaked and peeking through the gap to check that her mother was still dead to the world. There was more snoring from the lounge so Rachel turned and walked down the hall. She opened the door to her father’s study and went inside.

= is a mathematical symbol indicating the equivalence of two values or mathematical expressions.

When Professor Martin Winters arrived home, the house was quiet and the windows blacked out, as if there was a war on. He had left work early, the way his wife had been nagging him to do for several months. It hadn’t been easy. He was working on an extended proof with a senior colleague and they were at a vital stage but, tonight, he had insisted his way out of there. And now it looked like she had gone out somewhere.

He sighed and pulled out his keys, but as he leaned against the front door, it fell open. Now he was worried. He would never forgive himself if something had happened to Rachel or Sally while he’d been wrestling with lemmas and conjectures, and he had a sudden sharp feeling in his chest. Something his wife had said in a row came straight to mind, about priorities, and how his ‘equations and formulas’ wouldn’t thank him when they were older. He hated the way she summed up his work this way, how small she made it sound. But since Rachel had been born he had moments too when he wondered how important it was. He pushed in through the door.

‘Sally?’ Trying not to panic, but louder, ‘Sally, love?’

Martin braced himself as he walked into the living room. ‘Sally?’ Quieter now. And there she was, lying on the sofa. He came a little closer. Just close enough to check she was still breathing. Was she drunk? There was a hint of alcohol on her breath but it wasn’t offensive. How long had she been asleep and who had been taking care of Rachel?

Rachel. Her name shook right through him and stopped everything for a moment. Then he was on the move. ‘Rachel!’ He was not sure if shouting her name might make her freak out but, unable to help himself, he called louder, ‘Rachel!’ He searched her room, under her bed, in her wardrobe. What had Sally been thinking, napping mid-afternoon and leaving his baby to wander god knows where? He scoured the room he shared with his wife, then the kitchen and bathroom, where he saw the pill bottles left carelessly on the sink. He had to make an effort to breathe.

Standing in the hallway trying not to fall to his knees and scream, he noticed a crack of light coming from under the study door. For just a moment his concerns moved from Rachel dead in a ditch to expensive books ripped into pieces or scribbled all over with felt tip pens. To his computer smashed into pieces in the corner. He shook his head. He couldn’t care less about any of this just as long as his little girl was in the room safe and sound. He pushed open the door.

Rachel was sitting in a pile of books with her usual reams of white paper and a worn down pencil. She was crying. He had never seen her cry before. Shout, tear at her hair, bang her head against things, he’d seen all that but never tears. Confused, he swept her up and into his arms. He sat her on the desk and fell into the chair beside her, still faint from his fear. She was clutching a piece of paper and, softly, he pulled it from her.

It was covered in Euler’s identity, eiπ = - 1, written over and over, one of the best known equations in the world but surely something his daughter didn’t understand. And yet, she’d written it in words, e to the i pi is minus one, and copied the definitions of e and i and π from somewhere too. It was this equation that had led him into mathematics in the first place, when he’d learned about it at sixteen and it had melted his brain. An imaginary number pulled from the air as a convenient answer, and two transcendentals, numbers you couldn’t write down with any precision except as symbols, combining to give such a definite answer. He used to think it contained all the beauty in the world. He turned to look at his daughter, who made eye contact and, then, goddamit, she only went and smiled at him. He realised then he had been wrong.

-1, minus or negative one. Defined as the value equivalent to 0 – 1.

Miss Baker was considering cancelling numeracy hour. Of course, she wasn’t allowed to, and given that she agreed in principle with its importance, she didn’t actually intend to. But as she called out simple sums, she fantasised about the activity’s demise. She imagined burning her fill-in-the-blanks pages and dumping the number cubes on the fire they made, watching them melt and the flames turn blue. This was not what she had spent four years at university for. It certainly wasn’t the reason she’d struggled over differential equations, and fought with algebra and various kinds of infinity. There had to be more than this.

‘Tell me the third square number...’ she said, looking around the class for a suitable victim. ‘Rachel?’ She knew this was wrong, putting little Miss Asperger’s on the spot, but she was feeling evil. Rachel didn’t seem to notice she’d been asked a question; she carried on scribbling and whispering whatever it was she whispered to herself. ‘Zoe?’ she said, reverting to the dead cert, but even Zoe was distracted, turning at the last minute and clearly unaware of what the question had been. Laura sighed. This was a disaster; she was even losing her more able and diligent pupils. What was wrong with them this morning? She wasn’t asking them anything they hadn’t done in class, anything they shouldn’t know. She breathed; told herself they’d done nothing wrong. But bad behaviour would have been better than this complete lack of animation. She wanted them to do something, anything. She could suddenly understand the things she remembered from when she was at school and had always found appalling; the teachers who threw boardmarkers across the room, who banged loudly on desks with rulers just to get a reaction. She could see a picture in her head, another version of herself walking around the room poking kids with sticks.

There were murmurs around the room. Children are astute; they know immediately when someone’s losing it. She began to mumble questions then, maths she knew they couldn’t be expected to understand but was tempted to ask them anyway, just to see what they’d do. Then something came out, degree level and louder than she’d expected. ‘For God’s sake year six, I might as well ask you lot about e to the power i pi!’ It was a weak moment, and she looked at her shoes, feeling ashamed. Sarcasm is evil when directed at children under twelve.

A sudden movement made her look up sharp and she saw a hand had shot up into the air.

Rachel?’ Miss Baker’s voice was weak and small.

Little Rachel Winters spoke clearly though, as she looked Laura Baker right in the eye and gave her all the beauty in the world as an answer.

Milk Snatcher

First published by Tripod Magazine, Spring 2007

Frankie couldn’t believe her mummy had left her in this terrible place. She would never forgive her.

She hadn’t noticed right away that it was terrible. In fact, it had seemed quite nice. There was a Wendy house and a sand pit and water trays, and other toys, but the best thing was the furniture. The chairs and tables were smaller than the ones at home, so that when she sat down her feet could reach the floor. Even the toilets and sinks were just the right size. At first, she had rather liked the place.

But that was before her mother had left her there on her own. Well, not on her own, exactly. There were plenty of people in the room but Frankie didn’t know any of them. At first she’d assumed her mummy had gone to the toilet, or to make a cup of tea like she did at home. She would be back in a minute. Frankie played with the pencils on her desk, and picked one up to write her name the way the lady with the cloud of white hair had asked her to. Her mummy still did not come back. She looked at the little girl sitting next to her, who had fascinating black hair, tied in braids that ran halfway down her back. Frankie had never seen hair so long, and she had never seen braids, so she was distracted for a few moments and stared. Then she remembered about her mummy coming back.

‘When do the mummies come back?’ she asked the girl.

‘They don’t come back,’ the girl said.

‘Not never?’ Frankie felt her face screw up, the way it did when tears were coming. But she remembered that her mummy had said something about crying. How she was to be brave and make sure she didn’t cry, that’s what mummy had said and Frankie had promised. But why had she been left here? Did mummy not need her anymore, now she had that new little boy who cried the whole time? Frankie didn’t know why the baby was so sad. It was one of the many mysteries surrounding the baby. Like how people came round and said to her mummy ‘isn’t he beautiful’ when the baby looked like a wrinkled ball of dirty sheet with currants for eyes.

Frankie held her breath as she waited for the girl to answer.

‘Not not never. They pick you up when school finishes,’ the little girl said. She was building with Lego and examined the bricks and structure of the tower she’d made carefully as she spoke. She looked like she knew everything in the Whole World and, if Frankie had been a little older, she might have said the girl had an air of authority about her. But Frankie didn’t know much about authority. Yet.

‘How long will that be? An hour?’ Frankie asked. She knew an hour was a long time. It was what her mother said when they were somewhere boring and Frankie wanted to go home. ‘In an hour or so,’ she would say. And it would seem like forever while everyone drank cup of tea after cup of tea and swapped cigarettes, though Frankie didn’t understand why because all the cigarettes were exactly the same.

‘Much longer than an hour. Not till the end of the day,’ the little girl said. Frankie bit her lip and remembered the promise she’d made about crying. She concentrated on writing her name instead of thinking about how long ‘much longer than an hour’ would be. She stared hard at the paper as she used the pencil to form each separate letter the way her mummy had taught her at home. An up stick and two sideways ones. A stick with a curl. A round with a tail. She held her pencil tight in her hand and each letter was an effort of will.

Frankie had finished writing her name. ‘Miss. Miiiiissss!’ she shouted.

A white cloud of hair turned. It was Miss Smith. She was called ‘the teacher’ or ‘Miss’ and Frankie suspected she was probably some kind of witch. The lady looked at her like Frankie thought the devil would look at you.

‘At St Mary’s school we put up our hands if we want to talk,’ she said.
Frankie wanted to put up her hand then, but her bones and muscles were frozen, and she stared at Miss Smith, then she stared somewhere else because the look on Miss Smith’s face was too frightening.

‘Put up your hand,’ the girl with braids whispered. She grabbed Frankie’s arm and raised it for her. Miss Smith turned away. Frankie could hear her own heartbeat. She let her arm drop.

‘Put your hand up,’ the braids girl hissed at her.

Frankie did as she was told.

Miss Smith spoke to other children first and, by the time she came back, Frankie’s arm was beginning to hurt, and she had to use her other hand to support it.

‘Yes, Frances?’ the teacher said.

‘I’ve done, Miss Smith,’ Frankie told her.

Miss Smith took the paper from Frankie. She stared at it for a moment, placing her half moon glasses on her nose, then letting them fall around her neck, where they hung from a chain.
‘That’s not your name,’ Miss Smith told Frankie, dropping the paper onto the desk.

Frankie looked at what she’d written. It was all the shapes her mummy had taught her and told her made her name. She looked back up at the teacher. Miss Smith was looking at her that way again, that horrible, nasty, devil way. If Frankie had heard the cliché, she would have said it was a look that could kill. But Frankie was young enough that clichés were new sentences to her. She saw Miss Smith’s hand go for the piece of paper with her name on it. She grabbed at it, but the teacher snatched first and pulled it away. Miss Smith tore up the paper and walked over to the bin, all her movements large and important, like she was acting on the stage. She marched back to Frankie and, just for an instant, Frankie cringed away, thinking she was going to get hit. Miss Smith threw a clean sheet of paper down on the table. It had lines on it. She wrote something on the paper, a flat shape, with parts that curled and parts that looped.

‘That,’ the teacher told Frankie with a flourish, ‘is your name.’ But Frankie didn’t recognise it at all. There wasn’t even the kicking k that she liked so much. She put her face right up to the paper and tried to find herself in the shapes there, but it was all wrong. She wanted her mummy to come back and tell Miss Smith her name was just like she’d written it, and that this squiggle on the paper had nothing to do with her. She wanted to cry, but she had promised.

‘At St Mary’s school we join up our letters. We don’t print. Printing isn’t real writing,’ Miss Smith said. She said ‘print’ the way Frankie’s daddy said ‘protestant’, like it was a word she hated being in her mouth and had to be spat out as quick as it could be. ‘Practise,’ she said. Frankie didn’t know what she meant, but she was too scared to ask.

‘What does practise mean?’ she asked the braided hair girl once Miss Smith had walked away.

‘It means copy it over and over till you get it right,’ the other girl said, her braids shaking as she moved her head. Frankie wanted to touch the plaits but didn’t dare.

Frankie tried to copy what her teacher had told her was her name, though the more she looked at the scribble on the paper, the more alien it appeared. She recognised nothing except the first letter; an upward stick with two sideways ones. Frankie tried to imitate the rest of the squiggle. The further she got down the page, the bigger and more squiggled she made it. Printing must be the name for making her name like her mummy had taught her, but it wasn’t real writing. Frankie wondered if her mummy knew that and, if she did, why she’d taught Frankie to do it at all. Frankie hadn’t even known it was called printing before Miss Smith had told her. Her mummy had always called it writing. Frankie thought about it. Mummy was never wrong, not about anything. So Miss Smith must be wrong. She wanted to say something, but she didn’t want to see that look again. It made Frankie think of bad dreams. So she tried again and again to copy the shape her teacher said was her name. When she thought it was finally squiggled enough, she looked up from the page. She was about to shout out for the teacher when she remembered about putting up her hand, so she did that instead. Miss Smith came over to her desk and looked at what Frankie had done.

Miss Smith’s face turned to what Frankie imagined thunder would look like, if it had a face, and her cloud of hair shook. ‘She can’t even form proper letters,’ she said, as if Frankie wasn’t there at all. She gave a look of disgust to the cold air in front of her face.

When Miss Smith had calmed down, she showed Frankie how to write joined up a’s and b’s and c’s and told her to practise these until she could do them neatly. Frankie picked up the pencil and did as she was told. Wrote rows and rows of the letters, trying her hardest to keep them between the lines like the teacher witch had told her to and mostly managing it. She liked the c’s the best, the way they made a shape like waves across the paper. She was enjoying herself at last, but her hand got tired. She swapped the pencil over to the other hand, which worked just as well. A noise made Frankie jump. Miss Smith’s fist on the table.

‘Your right hand is for righting with,’ the teacher witch said, as if Frankie’s rows of letters could make things better, so long as she wrote them with the correct hand. Frankie didn’t understand, but she swapped the pencil back over as fast as she could.

At eleven o’clock it was time for milk. Miss Smith held up a clock made of cardboard, and asked Frankie if she knew where the hands needed to be for eleven o’clock but she didn’t, and Miss Smith rolled her eyes.

‘Little hand on the eleven, and big hand on the twelve,’ she said. ‘Repeat after me.’

And everyone said it. Little hand on the eleven and big hand on the twelve. Frankie joined in. She had learnt something. The something was that the teacher witch lady was very scary and it was best to do as she said, even if it made no sense at all.

After milk, the whole class did drawing pictures. Frankie didn’t know what to draw and when she asked the girl with the braids (whose name was Zoë) she’d said she could draw anything she liked. This didn’t help at all. She watched what Zoë was drawing. It was a cute little house with tie back curtains, with lots of pretty colours and no smudges. Miss Smith came over and looked at it.

‘That’s lovely,’ she told Zoë. She looked at Frankie’s paper. ‘You haven’t started yet?’ There was a hint of the storm clouds in her voice. Frankie shuddered but didn’t say anything. Miss Smith walked away and Frankie started drawing as fast as she could, thinking she’d draw a house like Zoë’s.

‘You mustn’t copy,’ Zoë said, curving her arm round her own work.

Frankie tried to draw the right shapes without looking at Zoë’s picture but she wasn’t sure how they should look. She tried to colour, but the crayons she had were all dark. She hated what she’d drawn, and didn’t want Miss Smith to see it. She scribbled right through everything with the black crayon.

‘Aaaah! Telling!’ Zoë said. ‘Miss Smith’s really going to shout at you.’ Zoë dashed off towards the teacher. Frankie was terrified, and screwed up her paper. She took Zoë’s drawing. It really was very pretty. She folded it up, and put it in the pocket at the front of her pinafore. Zoë was tugging on Miss Smith’s skirt, but got an especially witchy look from the teacher and ran straight back to her place without saying a word. When she sat down, she noticed straight away that her picture had gone.

‘Did you screw up my drawing?’ Zoë said, looking at the paper in front of Frankie. She opened it out and saw it wasn’t hers. She searched around her desk and under it, her plaits bobbing as she ducked. ‘Did you see somebody take my picture?’ Zoë said. Frankie shook her head. Zoë sat down neat as a pin and put her hand up. Frankie watched her hand in the air, the way she shook it and bobbed a bit in her chair, like she was trying to make the teacher’s legs move faster by moving her own. After about half a minute Miss Smith came over and made a question mark with her face.

‘Somebody took my picture,’ Zoë said.

‘I’m sure they didn’t,’ Miss Smith said. She made all the children look for Zoë’s neat little house, under the little chairs, and the tables. Next to the sand pit and in the Wendy House. But they didn’t find it because it was in Frankie’s pocket and nobody looked there.

‘Stealing is a sin,’ Miss Smith said. ‘And sinners go to Hell.’ The folded up paper was burning through the pinafore and into Frankie’s chest by now, but she was too scared to say anything. Would Miss Smith take her to Hell straight away? Was it like being sent to your room? Frankie didn’t find out because, right then and there, the bell went. All the children ran over and lined up at the door, so Frankie copied them. Some children took boxes of sandwiches and flasks or beakers with them. Frankie remembered that her mummy had given her a drink of milk in a Tupperware beaker so she took that too.

Miss Smith eyed her in the queue. ‘You’re on dinners. You can’t take that with you,’ she said. She went to take it from her. But the milk was Frankie’s and something snapped inside her at the cheek of this woman trying to take it off her. She held onto the beaker as hard as she could. The teacher pulled and Frankie pulled. But Miss Smith had hold of the end of the beaker with the lid on. She made one last big effort to remove the cup from Frankie’s hand, tugging hard, but she only managed to remove its lid. Without a teacher pulling on the end of her beaker, Frankie was left off balance. She fell backwards but the milk, well, that shot forwards.
Miss Smith was drenched from the bottom of her skirt to the middle of her blouse.


Frankie sat outside a door on a normal-sized chair; her feet did not reach the ground. She could hear people talking the other side of the wall. She wondered if they knew about the picture, and if they were going to take her to Hell. On the door there was writing, lots of separate letters. Printing. She wondered what Miss Smith would say about that, if she saw. But Miss Smith hadn’t said much since the incident with the milk. She had taken Frankie by the hand and led her to this chair, deposited her there without saying a word, and not come back.

The door opened. Frankie saw the back of her mother’s head, and then another lady she didn’t know. Her mother looked flushed, and was apologising over and over to the lady. The lady was smiling, but she didn’t look happy. She came over to Frankie and stood above her, looking down through spectacles that had two different types of glass in them. She was very old, probably even more than thirty.

‘Are we going to have a better day tomorrow?’ she said, in a singsong voice. Frankie hoped so, so she nodded. She noticed this made both the adults smile.

‘You have to do what you’re told to at school,’ Frankie’s mummy said, and Frankie nodded even harder, making herself dizzy. ‘All right, come on trouble, let’s get you home,’ her mummy said then. They walked out into the playground.

‘I don’t want to ever go back there,’ Frankie said.

‘But you have too, darling. It’s school. You go to school everyday till you’re big and go to work like Daddy,’ her mummy said.

‘Everyday?’ Frankie said.

‘Except for weekends. Saturdays and Sundays and holidays when school is closed,’ her mummy said.

‘How long do I have to stay for?’ Frankie said.

‘All morning and all afternoon, until it’s time for tea,’ her mummy told her.

Frankie thought about it for a moment, listening to her feet crunch through leaves. ‘Is that longer than an hour?’ she said.

Mummy didn’t answer. She laughed, and shook her head as she walked. ‘You’re funny,’ she told Frankie. But Frankie wasn’t laughing. Then she remembered the picture she’d got in her pocket, the one Zoë had drawn. She took it out. She wanted to give it to her mummy, and ask about what Hell was, because Mummy would know.

‘This is beautiful. Did you do this?’ her mummy said, bending down over Frankie and smiling like she was happier than Christmas.

Frankie didn’t want to lie, because Mummy and Daddy both said that was naughty, but her mummy looked so happy she couldn’t help it. ‘Yes,’ she said.

‘You’re very clever,’ her mummy said, ruffling Frankie’s hair. And she smiled all the way home.
Frankie didn’t ask what Hell was.

When they got home, there were fish fingers for tea, and Frankie didn’t get sent to her room, or Hell, or anywhere else. She was allowed to watch the programmes she liked on TV until her daddy came back from work and wanted to watch the news. On the news there were some pictures of a lady with white hair who looked and sounded just like Miss Smith.

‘Who’s that?’ Frankie asked her daddy.

‘The Minister for Education,’ he told her.

Frankie looked at him, all blank.

‘The lady in charge of schools,’ he said, and then Frankie knew it must be her teacher, even if she looked a little bit different on television and was wearing really posh clothes. People were shouting at her as she walked through the street, calling her ‘Maggie Thatcher, Milk Snatcher’. They had heard what the horrible witch did at dinnertime, Frankie thought.

Frankie went into the kitchen, where her mummy was washing up.

‘When do I have to go back to school? How many hours?’ she asked.

‘Not till tomorrow.’

‘But how many hours?’ Frankie insisted.

Her mummy looked up at the ceiling, and her lips moved as she counted, though she didn’t say the numbers out loud. She smiled. ‘Fifteen hours,’ she said.

Frankie smiled. Fifteen hours. That was a very long time. It was almost forever.

I believe in Myrica

First Published in 3D/07, Launderette Publications 2007

In a strange land called London, there once lived a young girl called Myrica who was a bit of a princess. Think of all the most beautiful girls you’ve ever set eyes on. Well Myrica was even hotter than the super hot hottest hottie in your head. She was a babe.

But Myrica had issues. She was from a broken home, you see. Inevitably, she used the break up of her parents to make excuses for the problems she had. At school. ‘I hit her and took her money because daddy doesn’t love mummy no more.’ As a teenager. ‘I know I was a two-faced bitch about Danny Glover (swoon) but it’s all because my parents broke up.’ And as a grown up lady. ‘I know I’m unfaithful/unfair/confrontational/egocentric in my relationship with you but it’s all because my dad cheated on my mum and I don’t trust men’.

So it came to be that Myrica went on many dates and met many men. They came to her charmed by her physical attributes but ran away scared by her messed up soul. Myrica got so used to blaming her mother and father for her bad behaviour that she began to believe she was truly damaged. It suited her that way. It meant she didn’t have to connect.

As Myrica headed towards her mid-twenties, she developed a thing for married men. She dated them because it was safer, she didn’t have to expect anything from them. The band of gold, third finger, left hand, was like a fucked up life ring. She needed to realise that metal doesn’t float.

Then one day in the summer of 1998, Myrica went clubbing. The people in the club were all smiling, and Myrica studied their faces to try to understand how it felt to smile. It had been a long time since she’d allowed herself to do this. Perhaps she was always a little serotonin depleted, but we’ll come to that.

It didn’t make sense, how the people were. They danced like the music was the only music in the world. They smiled at nothing. No one was telling jokes, or stories, or saying nice things to these people, and they grinned their heads off anyway. They kept hugging each other, and holding hands, and they looked like people who’d known each other for ever.

Myrica asked one girl, ‘why is everyone so happy?’ And the girl said ‘because of these,’ and handed her a tiny little pill that said ‘eat me’ on it. So she did.

Before she knew it, she was dancing too, and grinning like her life depended on getting the corners of her mouth as far apart from each other as possible. The music sounded different from before. Like it was more than music but a spirit in the air around her. And she thought: That tablet must have been a magic tablet.

Just then, a dashing looking Kiwi guy came over. He had his hair sprayed in blue spikes on top of his head and his clothes were from surfing and skate shops. He was super cool and he thought Myrica was well fit.

And he wasn’t married.

Myrica let the Kiwi guy whisk her away on his mini-scooter and take her back to his apartment in Islington. They made love all night, and she told him things she’d never said to anyone before, opening up her damaged insides and laying everything bare on the bedsheets in front of him.

And they lived happily ever after….

….except on Tuesdays, when they learnt to tread carefully and keep quiet, avoid confrontations.



First published in 2006 by Launderette Publications

There was a hurricane last night. It sounded like a million bees swarming round the beach hut and woke me. I walked to the window and looked through the metal mesh. The air was golden, full of sand, rubbing and grinding and causing the buzzing. I didn’t feel scared, though I should have. I never thought how a gust in the wrong direction could wrench our little chalet, and the two of us, up and into the Indian Ocean. I wanted to go and look at the waves, watch the sea fight and kick and buck like a rodeo mule. I woke Ake and suggested it, but he laughed at me. Told me we’d drown in the sand. Instead I lay in bed and listened. The storm whistled and screamed for hours and, before it waned, I had fallen asleep again.

At breakfast this morning we drank tea, and ate the doughy bread and pale eggs I’ve grown sick of. The second restaurant, the better one, had blown away, along with several homeless types huddled there for shelter. Ake and I hardly spoke. He looked buried deep inside himself, a condemned man. I wasn’t enjoying watching him worry, so I looked away. Two tables along, a pink girl had left the lid off the jam. Flies of all sizes dipped in and out of the jar.

I hate flies. They remind me of when I was younger and found a tub of maggots my dad had forgotten about. It was metamorphosis trifle. Maggots at the bottom covered by a layer of pupae, topped with flies. All dead. The higher in the jar, the further in the lifecycle. I could imagine the insects waking up and flying around, bumping into each other in a mad Brownian motion and finding no food except fly and maggot until the air ran out and they all died. The tub stunk of dead fly, a smell that hit me in the face and knocked my head back. The stench stayed with me so that I get a whiff of it every time I see a fly. It’s the smell of decay, bins on a hot day.

I pointed out the pink girl and her friends to Ake. You could tell by their trendy long shorts they were on a diving trip.

‘I can’t believe nobody has noticed,’ I said.

‘You did,’ Ake said, making me smile.

‘I hate divers,’ I said. ‘And travellers too. All those jerks in Stone Town with their pork pie embroidered hats and smell of unwashed underwear.’

‘Who do you like then?’ Ake said.

‘Just us. People with no purpose who get stoned on the beach.’

‘And look where that got us,’ Ake said.

I lit a cigarette and sucked on it, put my hand on top of his. ‘It’ll be all right,’ I told him. But I didn’t believe it would.

John and Susie arrived then, carrying plates and more tea.

‘Morning!’ Susie said. She beamed, all false light and sunshine. I could see in her eyes she was faking it too. We nodded up at her. I flicked ash on the floor.

‘Oh look,’ she said, pointing at the sea behind me. I turned and gazed past the end of her finger. Just our side of the horizon a cyclone drilled into the water. We all watched.

‘The locals say that’s Allah, sending the wind to scare away a shark,’ Ake told us.

‘I wish he’d send something for the flies,’ I said. Everyone laughed, but it was canned laughter. More faking. We were shitting it. Underneath false cheer and jokes about flies, we were all thinking the same thing. Hoping Allah would send a strong wind. Something that could lift up all the trouble we’d got into and blow it away into the sea.


Ake and I decided to take the hire car back to Stone Town alone. No point everyone going. If things did go wrong, Susie and John could help us. Get in touch with parents, proper British lawyers, that kind of thing. Not that it would come to that, we said. Ake drove and I smoked with the window open. The road to the capital had checkpoints every five miles or so where a soldier would stop you and make you get out of the car, check you didn’t stink of alcohol and had a driver’s licence. I tensed as we approached the first of these and were flagged down. Then I remembered we weren’t in the same danger as we had been on the journey up.

That’d been hell. After our encounter with the policeman in Stone Town, we’d shoved the joints under the leather seat covers and left. Susie had been driving and didn’t notice a couple of guards waving madly for us to pull over. It’d looked like we had something to hide, which we did. All it would’ve needed was for one of them to follow us and give the car a proper going over.

We’d been lucky.

That night we’d smoked all the joints, sitting on the sand as it cooled, watching hermit crabs burrow. I’d got head rush and imagined I was like the crabs, eyes stuck on antennae outside of my body. Ake’d started to giggle.

‘What’s funny?’ I said.

‘We’re in deep shit.’

‘What’s going to happen to us Ake?’ Susie had asked then.

Ake’d shook his head and sucked his teeth. ‘Don’t know,’ he said. ‘But my father once got forty lashes for speeding.’

‘He’s winding you up,’ I’d told Susie. But I’d looked at Ake, into his eyes. I could always tell when he was lying and he wasn’t. Then I’d been brave and said I’d go back with him, the two of us would sort all the trouble out.

But I didn’t feel brave now.

‘Do you think they’ll whip us?’ I asked Ake. He didn’t take his eyes off the road.

‘Don’t know gorgeous. But whatever they do, it’ll be nothing compared to what my ma’ll do for me when I get home.’

‘Your mother will hurt you?’

‘No. She’ll never speak to me again though.’

We hit a bump in the road and I was knocked into Ake, catching his arm with my cigarette. ‘God, sorry,’ I said, rubbing where I’d burnt him. ‘She’ll calm down after a week or so.’

‘She won’t. She’d never forgive me. It’d be like if she found out about you.’

I knew what this meant because Ake had been through it with me a million times. The consequences. He could never stay with me, he’d always been straight about that. One day we’d have to break up. I treated it like dying. Sure, I knew it was going to happen, but I didn’t have to think about it. Ake smiled at me. I looked away. Lit another cigarette.


Stone Town smelt of old fridges and garam masala. The call to prayer echoed through the street as we arrived.

‘Aren’t you going?’ I said to Ake.

He raised his eyebrows at me, then frowned. ‘Let’s get a drink,’ he said.

‘You’re going straight to Hell,’ I told him.

We went to the bar by the harbour. The building stretched across the waterfront, a grand colonial beast. I liked to drink gin and tonic there, imagine what it must have been like all those years ago. At the right table, I could feel the time slip underneath me. See the ladies wearing corseted dresses and complaining about the heat. The men smoking in the other room. Zanzibar had been a British Colony and, before that, German. Part of the silk route. Famous for the white slave trade, one of my friends had told me when I’d said we were going. I quite enjoyed the fantasy of being sold into a Harem. The idea of group sex and saris did something for me. I would’ve loved to play act this with Ake, but I knew he’d get offended and say I was being a racist. Even though he was the only person I knew who still used the word ‘Paki’ in a derogatory way.

I gulped at my drink. Despite the East African heat, I shivered. ‘Shall we order another one?’ I said.

‘No. Won’t help if we reek of alcohol,’ Ake pointed out.


Ake parked the car outside the hire shop and we climbed out. I took a deep breath and we both stood looking at the door. He grabbed my hand and we walked towards it. I looked at my hand wrapped in his. Our eyes met and we both managed a weak smile.

‘Ah. Mister Denika. We were just asking each other how long before you would come back, weren’t we Raj man? You see, Raj here, he didn’t think you would come back. But I told him.’ It was the man with the pockmarked face who said this, the one who’d persuaded the policeman to let us go the last time we were in there. He’d pointed out that he had Ake’s passport, as deposit on the car, and we had to come back for it. The policeman had relented. Afterwards, Ake had convinced us all he was just after a bribe. I hoped so.

Ake said something in Swahili to the pockmarked man. They spoke for a few minutes, then Ake turned to me and said, ‘He says he has to get the policeman back to see us. If he doesn’t they’ll close him down.’

‘He won’t take money?’ I said.

Ake shook his head and looked grim. I tightened my grip on his hand. The pockmarked man picked up the phone and spoke Swahili into it. He put it down and beamed at the two of us.

‘It will be all right Englishman,’ he said to Ake. ‘He’ll take money off you. That’s all he wants I’m sure.’

‘How much should we offer him?’ I said.

‘You’ll have to ask him that,’ the pockmarked man said. He turned from me to the administration on his desk. I breathed.

After a couple of minutes the Policeman arrived. He was wearing the same yellow baseball cap he’d had on when he caught John on the High Street. The idiot had decided to buy some joints off this dodgy bloke, right outside the Post Office in the centre of town. Anyone could have told him it was stupid. John wasn’t usually dense like that.

‘What do you want?’ I asked the Policeman. ‘How can we sort this out?’

He took off his yellow cap and looked me over as if he was trying to work something out. I thought it was going to be all right then, that he would come up with a figure.

‘I want to arrest you and put you in prison,’ he told us. And behind him, through the door, came a group of uniformed officers carrying handcuffs and guns.

It’s strange, to have your head held while you’re pushed into a car. To feel metal against your wrists. To be in a car with men talking Swahili. I hadn’t needed to come with Ake. They didn’t have my passport, just his. And the only promise he’d ever made was to leave me one day. I looked at Ake, but his eyes stayed straight, focused on the seat back. I waited for him to tell them this had nothing to do with me.

But Ake said nothing.

I looked away from my boyfriend. Onto the back of the drivers seat in front on me. There was a fly, licking its legs the way they do. Spreading germs all over. I felt sick just looking at it. The smell came back to me again, the layers of dead fly at different life stages I’d found in the garage. That made me think about home, about mum and dad and what they’d think of all this. How they’d feel if I got whipped. Or worse, ended up in prison out here.

‘It was him. He did it,’ I said. ‘My boyfriend bought lots of cannabis and hid it in the car.’

The Policeman turned to look at me and took out a notepad. Ake still said nothing but stared, at me, then at the fly on the back of the policeman’s seat. The fly stopped licking its legs, stopped twitching on the seat, as if it could feel the weight of Ake’s eyes on its back. Then it flew off, out past me and through the open window.

But I could still smell fly. It smelt like rotting flesh. Like bins on a hot day.