I have a flash fiction piece up at the excellent Spelk Fiction as part of its August Summer Flash Read series – you can read it here, and stick around to see what they’re publishing for the rest of the month!
“Found one!” Sean raced over the worn patterned carpet to where his brother was on his hands and knees, sweeping for coins underneath a mechanical grabbing game. They put the two pence piece in the slot together, thumbs touching, and watched as it bounced down and slid so it was flat. A wall within the machine moved backwards and forwards, pushing their coin, which in turn pushed others nearer the lip.
There was a metallic clatter as a couple spilled over to the second level.
“Go on!” urged Sam. If these coins pushed some over the next edge, they’d win and could keep playing. But the coins didn’t move far enough; they clung to the rim, defying gravity. Sam ran his hand along the trough below the machine. Nothing.
“Do you think dad’s got any?” Sean asked eventually.
They found him outside leaning on a railing in front of the stony beach. The white paint had flaked in several places so the black metal showed through.
Craig turned around. His breath mixed with the smoke from his cigarette. “What do you think about staying here tonight, boys?”
“Yeah maybe,” Sam said, uncertainly.
“What about school?” asked Sean.
“School!” scoffed Craig, attempting a grin, but as he looked from one boy to the other he realised it wouldn’t work. She’d use this against him, like she did everything. That’s why he’d had to pick them up at the gates and say Karen had said he could see them. A white lie. But he had to take them home tonight. “Never mind.” He pulled out a couple of coins. “Put them in the change machine.”
Craig watched the boys charge back to the arcade, then turned to watch the waves breaking on the shore for a few more minutes, until they returned to tell him the money had run out.
We’ve walked for nearly an hour when Mischa calls “Stop.” We do. The grass out here is thicker, scratchier, and we’re glad not to need to keep fighting through it. It’s hard to pick our feet up with all the kit we’re carrying, and while the oversuits offer some protection they’re the ones we brought with us, years old now. My legs sting where the fabric has worn through.
Mischa turns to face us. It’s her first time leading, and her eyes flit nervously. Next to me I hear Lee mutter: “Never thought I’d be led by a lifer.” I don’t rise to it, but it annoys me all the same. Mischa’s young, but not so young to have been born out here. And what would it matter if she was?
“Alright trappers.” Her voice is loud but thin; brittle, like bird bones. “You all know why we’re here. The traps in this area are our last line of defence against what’s out there.” She turns to indicate the trees behind her. Even in the daylight they look imposing, dark ranks harbouring nightmares. “We need all these traps to be replaced and brought back to camp for checking. If even one is left and doesn’t work, it could be you or your family who regret it.”
She looks at us, searching for questions, then claps her hands and we start to scatter.
“What if we find a sprung one?” he calls. Everyone turns. I want to punch him; he’s showing her up, showing off, asserting his dominance.
Mischa reddens, and for a moment I think she’s lost it. But then she recovers: “Anyone who finds a sprung trap, call for me. Don’t, under any circumstances, investigate it yourself – we don’t want a repeat of Tammy.” This draws a laugh from most of us and Tammy raises his arm in mock modesty; enough time has passed now that it’s a slapstick incident, and his finger’s almost fully healed. Even Lee gives an appreciative snort.
We work quickly, as always. They’ve rarely been seen before dusk, but still we all regularly glance up at the forest and check that our pistols are secure in their holsters, close at hand.
We stop. It was Rachael who shouted, one of the old hands. It’s rumoured that she lost her husband to them early on, before we left the old cities. When we thought they could be tamed.
“Keep working,” calls Mischa. It could be nothing, an unfortunate fox or some over-curious dormouse. It wasn’t unheard of. But we know Rachael, and we know the note of fear in her voice. I’m carefully closing and removing a trap, using the key to shut its heavy steel jaws so it can be safely lifted free, when out of the corner of my eye I see Mischa gingerly carrying something in her thick gloves.
So they were here last night.
I start to work even faster. I want to get back, back to the underground network of tunnels and caves that honeycomb the earth, the new way of living we’ve turned to. I’m focused only on my work; I can no longer see the others around me, just metal and earth and earth and metal.
Mischa is called to inspect several other traps, but none of them turn out to be of any concern, and I only have three left to lay when we hear the distant gunshot. Where there had been a cacophony of rustling and clanking there is silence as it echoes. We wait, then after several silent seconds we hurry back to our tasks, desperate now to finish.
Our arms ache as we haul the old traps home to be cleaned and checked, but no-one complains or asks for the truck. We can’t have fuel wasted on us. We reach the camp exhausted and Fran comes out to meet me, throwing her arms around my tired body.
“Was it alright?”
“Yeah. We heard a shot.”
She looks worried, but then we hear the sound of raised, jovial voices from another group, the loud relief of men who have learnt their fears were misplaced. “Don’t worry everyone, Imran just went off a bit quick.”
“Not for the first time!” Lee shouts, and there’s a roar of laughter, then we pile underground to where brimming glasses of beer are waiting for us.
The evening passes in a friendly glow, and I collapse into bed some time after midnight. But the drinking is still going on and sound travels easily here. I find myself remembering rather than sleeping.
It was a night like this, warm and sticky. I was back from my first trapping, and several celebratory drinks to the good when I realised with a stab of panic that I’d left my key out in the grass. My lungs felt suddenly full of thick, heavy air, and I left the party claiming sickness, which attracted a predictable good-natured barrage. I lay for hours in my bed, staring straight up at the ceiling, waiting for the noise to die down.
Once I was certain everyone was asleep I snuck out. I would never do it now – far better to face the short-lived anger, and the shame of friends willingly putting their lives in danger on an unplanned foray, than risk being caught in my own trap with no-one within screaming distance. But I was young and scared, and that’s a combination that to this day I think should excuse most things.
The moonlight was thin, but I didn’t dare turn on my torch until I was twenty minutes from the camp. As I moved further towards the boundary the nauseating feeling grew; I was lost, and the key would be out there all night. I had little concern for my own safety – it was images of the destroyed, smouldering camp, not of steel teeth closing around my leg, that flashed through my mind.
But then I saw the patch of flattened grass in the wild swing of my torch beam. We had been here, and I followed the evidence out until I could see the trees in the distance. I scoured the ground with my eyes and my hands, praying for the feel or glint of something small and metallic. I still remember the jolt that shot through my body as my fingers brushed something cold; I snapped them back, but it wasn’t a trap. I snatched the key as if it might escape, and as I did so the torch illuminated something giant just a few feet from me. It was tall – taller than a man on its two feet, thick-legged, and its entire body was covered in coarse brown hair that seemed to have more in common with pine needles than any fur I had ever known. I stared, mouth agape as it turned its huge head towards me, and for a moment our eyes met.
When I think of it now, years later, I imagine those eyes as pure black, gleaming in the light of my torch. But such was my terror that I can’t be sure of that – only that I turned and wildly ran, gripping my key and the torch all the way back to safety. I never told anyone of my late-night expedition, nor of what I had seen. But I knew it had been on its way to us, and I know that for as long as we are here they will be waiting, on the edges of our new lives, until it is dark and until we make a mistake.
“Are you…” I begin, then stop.
Liam looks up at me, his fork poised expectantly en route to his mouth. We’ve nearly finished our mains, and soon will come the familiar unspoken tussle over whether to have dessert. He’ll be tight-lipped, and his eyes will drift to my stomach, while I’ll study the menu as if I haven’t already decided I want the chocolate fudge brownie.
Are you seeing someone else? The words suddenly sound stupid in my head, histrionic, more fit for a soap opera than seven thirty at Bellini’s.
The waiter is hovering with the wine bottle, trying to tempt us. Liam nods and holds up his glass, a dark stain of red at the bottom of the bowl. That’s what the part of the wine glass is called – I learnt that on a tasting course last year.
“Sir?” the waiter asks, and I shake my head. Liam raises an eyebrow in mock astonishment before taking a sip. A loose button dangles from his cuff. I recognise the shirt; I helped him buy it. It’s not his nicest, but he still stands out among the diners.
“Don’t tell me you’re pregnant,” he says, and I can’t help but smile at the twinkle in his eye. “Go on,” he prompts after a moment. “Am I what?”
It’s probably nothing. Maybe Lianne only thought she saw him. I can’t ruin our first night out in months, whether with a false accusation or a true one.
“Are you going to finish that?” I ask, and without waiting for an answer I swipe the last forkful of carbonara and stuff it into my mouth before I can say something I might regret.
No-one had seen nothing. It was all PC Mick Talbot had heard that afternoon on the Shelley estate, although rarely in so many words. Instead it came to him through grille-fronted doors slammed in his face, rueful shakes of the head, or simple refusals to answer his increasingly leaden knocks.
Three dead in as many weeks and still no-one was talking. Rat poison, the toxicologist had confirmed. If they found the dealers, or better still the stash, they could do something – but years of working this beat had taught him that the odds were stacked against them without inside help.
Mick sighed. The sky was thick and grey and the first drops of rain were beginning to darken the asphalt. He’d do a quick check of some of the more common hiding places then head home, where Julia would be waiting for him with a beer and a shepherd’s pie.
“Scuse me mister.”
Mick’s hand jerked backwards to the handle of his baton, then relaxed as he saw who was calling him. He’d seen the boy cycling round the estate throughout his enquiries, a skinny, sticky-looking lad who could have been anything between seven and thirteen. His hair was cut close to his scalp, and he wore an off-white vest and loose cargo pants that had clearly originally been bought for someone else.
“You a copper?” the boy asked, a hesitation in his voice. In his uniform and custodian helmet Mick could hardly deny it, but the question put him on edge. With a tinge of guilt at the assumption, he mentally ran through the content of his duty belt, just in case.
“What’s it like?”
The question surprised Mick, and he tried to answer truthfully. “I enjoy it. It’s hard work. But sometimes you get a result and it’s worth it – you scare off some attacker, or get someone’s things back after a robbery.”
The boy nodded slowly. He was looking at the ground, at the huge metal bins, anywhere but at Mick. There was something the boy wanted to say, and Mick chose his next words carefully. “Has anyone ever asked you to do them a favour? Take something somewhere for them?”
“A package? A parcel? Anything like that?”
The boy thought for a moment then shook his head. “No, sorry.”
“It’s alright,” said Mick, trying not to let his disappointment show. He checked his watch. There wouldn’t be anything to be found. He could just go home. “What’s your name, mate? I’m Mick.”
The boy didn’t reply. Old suspicions died hard, Mick thought, a childhood of being taught to see the police as the enemy who might take you, your father, or your brother away, never justified no matter what they’d done. He crouched and pulled out a small rectangular card. “Tell you what, if you ever fancy finding out more about being a policeman, give me a ring and I’ll show you around the station.”
The boy stepped off his bike and let it clatter to the ground. He approached Mick in small, uncertain steps – probably the first time he’d ever deliberately got near to a copper, Mick thought. He took the card from Mick’s outstretched hand, then swung his leg back and planted a kick in Mick’s groin.
Mick spluttered as the pain blazed through him.
The boy spat, saliva mixing with the raindrops, fatter now, and he reached into the large green metal bin, pulled out a bag packed with white powder, then in one movement picked up his bike, swung himself onto it and pedalled away, leaving Mick gasping on the ground as the sky opened above.
The party had been planned for weeks. They’d already spent the money that hadn’t gone on the deposit and stamp duty on furniture and new carpets, so Leo asked guests to bring themselves, wine, and some food. “Crowdsourced catering,” he’d said to Kim. “It’s the next big thing.”
They took the afternoon off work and spent it vacuuming, cleaning, and replacing lightbulbs. They’d gone to a housewarming in Balham a month ago where the kitchen lights had given out and the hosts had had to borrow a stepladder from the house next door – which was embarrassing enough with a kitchen full of guests standing around in the dark, but it turned out the neighbours hadn’t been invited, which they had taken badly to. The resulting scene had kept them in gossip for weeks, and the last Kim had heard the hosts were thinking of moving again just to get away from it all.
The first guests arrived at half seven on the dot and trilled the doorbell. “Lucy! Niall!” They air-kissed in the narrow hallway and went through to the kitchen, Leo and Kim offering pre-prepared apologies for its unfinished state that were waved away by their guests.
“Is it too early?” said Lucy, coquettishly waggling a bottle of shiraz.
“Never!” Kim crowed. She hunted in the unfamiliar drawers for a corkscrew. “We’ve not got any wine glasses so it’s tumblers or mugs, is that alright?”
“And we brought this,” said Niall to Leo, handing him a large purple cardboard box.
Leo set it on the counter and flipped open the lid. “Oh wow,” he breathed. “Hey Kim!”
Niall and Lucy watched proudly, their arms around each other’s waists as their hosts cooed over the cake. “Lucy made it,” Niall explained quietly, so as not to disturb them.
“It’s amazing,” murmured Kim, then she turned with a glint in her eye. “Let’s have some!” They served it on paper plates. The sponge was light and airy, and the jam and cream filling spread deliciously in their mouths. Sugar crunched between their teeth.
The doorbell rang. “I’ll get it,” said Kim, sucking the last of the cream from her fingers. Leo topped up the wine and Kim returned trailing a nervous-looking man behind her.
“George! Great to see you,” said Leo. He offered the new arrival a sticky hand to shake.
George took it briefly. “Wasn’t sure what to bring so I thought maybe some cakes?” He placed the box on the table. It was plain white except for the stamp of the bakery it came from, which was a bear wearing a chef’s hat and an apron.
“A fellow cake fiend,” said Niall, approvingly. George said nothing and sipped at his wine. He was one of Leo’s colleagues, and nice enough, but he could be hard work.
Kim left them to talk and went through to the living room to sort out some music. They hadn’t yet got round to setting up the stereo, and the internet was still temperamental. Wine and cake was all very well, but you couldn’t have a party without music. She heard the front door go several times as she fiddled with wires and the router, and the excited chatter of new guests admiring the place drifted from the hall.
She’d just got it sorted and allowed herself a congratulatory glug of cabernet sauvignon when Leo’s head appeared round the door. “We have a slight problem,” he grimaced. He led Kim through to the kitchen. Almost every available surface was covered in cakes: cupcakes with ridged swirls of icing, coffee cake studded with walnut pieces, even a gateaux that squatted indulgently like a toad on its cardboard pad. They’d had to stand the wine bottles on the floor to make room.
“Has… has everyone brought cake?” Her voice sounded faint with disbelief. She poured a fresh mug of wine and drank it as she surveyed the scene. A blonde woman in a backless dress was whispering to her partner, who as he listened put an entire fairy cake in his mouth.
“And wine,” someone said, and yes, there were wine bottles everywhere too, like tiny trees hugging the mountain ranges of the near-empty cupboards. Well. Kim had never been one to back down; she grabbed an unopened bottle and a hunk of lemon drizzle and got to work.
There was a cheer as others followed her lead, accepting the challenge, joining the team. Even George was nibbling on his second thin slice of coffee and walnut. The air was dense with scent: delicate floral bouquets mingled with dank, tightly-packed Jamaica cake. Every time they seemed to be making progress the door would inevitably ring, heralding yet more additions to the stacked boxes and ranks of bottles.
“What’s going on?” Kim hissed to Leo in a crazed whisper as they passed each other in the kitchen in search of another round. He shushed her and told her not to worry: there was no way anyone would forget this party anytime soon.
By the time the final guests arrived bearing a Battenberg and 75cl of merlot most of the guests had been reduced to groaning. People were sprawled on sofas, chairs, and even the floor like fattened sloths. Their breathing was shallow through cake-thickened mouths, and discarded corks and screw-tops littered the carpets. Kim hauled herself to the front door, leaning on the radiator for support. “More cake! It’s a cake-pocalypse!” she declared. Her mouth was gluey and her words slow as she laughed madly. Stray granules glittered around her wine-stained lips. There were crumbs everywhere. It would take them six months to properly vacuum, but that could wait. There was still a party to be had, wine to be drunk, and cakes to be indelicately eaten. It was still a party.