Monday, 24 October 2016


I am a man.
I’ve crossed continents, not years, to reach here.
I’ve faced fears you can’t imagine to get here.

I didn’t choose to put my schoolbooks aside,
but I took up my duty with pride.
I had to.
What else could I do?

Be a man, they said.
Be brave, be strong.
I never thought it could be wrong
to become the thing they said I should be -
even though I was just thirteen.

So here I stand
trying to convince you I’m just a kid.
That there’s a little lost boy still hid
inside the man you see before you.

I’ve made it this far.  I’m still alive.
But that’s just chance. Must I apologise?

I know you care.
You sob at every big-eyed child, smeared with blood and dust
paraded ‘cross your screens. You say “Something must
be done.”

But those kids are comfortably out of reach.
Not in your face. Not a threat.
They’re nothing for you to fear.
In other words, they’re not here.

I’m still a kid, despite my man’s clothing.
Don’t you know what a teenage boy looks like
once hormones kick in and whiskers start growing?

I am a man.
That’s what you tell me.

You’ve prodded and you’ve poked.
Stuck your fingers down my throat,
felt my stubble, checked my teeth,
anything to excuse your disbelief
that I am just a kid ripped by history from my home.

I am a man.
And I miss my mum.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Around The Cauldron: 2016 edition

In just over a week, it will be All Hallows’ Eve, a day when (according to Christian tradition which usurped the older Pagan festival of Salmain) ghoulies and ghosties and all manners of evil supernatural beings come out for a night of revelry before the holy All Saints’ Day. 

It's a great excuse to revel in the thrill of frightening ourselves, so I'm planning on posting one or two dark little tales for Hallowe'en under the heading "Around The Cauldron" (like telling scary stories around the camp bonfire, but with a witchy element added). 

Have any of you got some some creepy tales to tell? 

If you fancy having them added as a guest post, drop me a line with your short story, a brief bio, an author pic and something to illustrate your tale.

Mandi’s Guide To Brexiquette, or How To Avoid Being Dealt a Trump Card

Picture the scene. You’re chatting happily away to someone you’ve just met, thinking how sympatico they are, delighted at that instant ‘click’ when you first shook hands or smiled a ‘pleased to me you’. This is your kind of person, you’re thinking. Someone you can talk to about anything and everything, confident that they will ‘get’ you, and not think you a mind-numbing moron or a pretentious intellectual snob.

Then, they drop an O Bomb.
Or perhaps I should say an OO Bomb.
Just as you’re wittering away, certain that they share your outlook on life, they drop an (Outrageous) Opinion into the conversation to disavow you of that sweet, sweet illusion.

If you’re smart, you let it pass, inwardly chanting Voltaire’s "I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" mantra before steering the subject in the direction of fluffy kittens or the merits of cheesecake over brownies.

If you’re smart.
Or perhaps I should say “smarter than me”.
My initial intentions are always good, really they are. After the first flash of “WHAT did they just say?”, the shock realisation that my inner idiot has misread the person before me, and a brief pause as my brain recallibrates itself, I try to gloss over and take the conversation to less controversial territory. 

All well and good – until they repeat, reiterate and challenge me with more O Bombs.

Many a time have friends who know all too well had to drag me away from heated debates in bars after one too many O Bombs have been dropped. Many more are the times when I've received a warning kick under the table accompanied by raised eyebrows and a hissed “Mum. No. Stop” from the embarrassed offspring (who also knows me all too well). But I can’t help it. Though largely a live-and-let-live type of gal, I have my own opinions and many of them are strongly held. If you get in my face with statements designed (I’m sure) to provoke a reaction from me, there comes a point when you will get them. 

Be careful what you wish for.

We live in confusing times. There are more hot potatoes these days that at the Great Potato Bake in Hyde Park (no, it doesn’t exist - but it damn well should). Brexit, Trump vs Clinton, climate change, jet trails, immigration, vaccines, home schooling, refugees, bathroom designations, the F word (no, not that one, the other one that seems to put far more people into a panic), fracking, fox hunting, badger culls, whether Starbucks spiced pumpkin lattes qualify as real coffee, and so much more.

The trouble is, you can’t always tell where someone stands from the slogan on their t-shirt.  

I grew up in simpler times. I was 14 when Britain’s first female PM sailed into No.10 Downing Street quoting St Francis of Assissi. My naïve nascent feminist (yeah, that’s the F Word I was talking about) rejoiced at the thought of a woman in charge at last. It didn’t take me long to change my mind. But one thing was for sure, love her or hate her, you knew where you stood with Maggie.

These days, it’s much harder to work out where the lines lie. They seem to be scribbled in the sand that’s constantly being washed by the tides of history. And you can never tell who's been paddling in the shallows.

So, to get beyond the preamble, how can you avoid that awkward moment when you realise you’re teetering on the precipice of a heated debate with someone that you so want to like you? 

Here's my not-very-reliable guide to etiquette in an uncertain age.
  1. Try very hard not to roll your eyes (I’m famously bad at this bit).
  2. Remind yourself that everyone is entitled to their opinion, even if they are wrong.
  3. Count to 100, lose count halfway, then start again.
  4. Attempt diversionary tactics. Ask them what star sign they are, what their favourite band is, or if they understood what the hell “Inception” was all about (warning, even these subjects can be minefields of controversy so tread carefully and feign indifference even if they respond with utter tosh).
  5. As a last resort, point and shout "Oh look! A squirrel!"
  6. If they insist on continuing to bombard you with their rhetoric, take a deep breath and…
  7. Let them have yours. If they have the right to express their opinion, so do you. And if they don’t feel they need to follow the etiquette of polite conversation, then neither do you.
After all, a vanilla latte may be a safe, popular choice, but a double shot of espresso is the real thing - and it's much more stimulating.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Forget my name (paddling in the shallow waters of my stream of consciousness)

There was a glitch in the code today. A hiccup in reality. 
And no-one noticed but me.

It hit me like a tic, a twitch of the eye. A silent stutter amid the jammering, hammering of everyday. A misstep of a mind on the edge of sleep, just before falling too deep into myself in the swaying motion of the morning commute.

It brought me rushing to the surface with a sharp sigh, looking around and wondering if I was the only one to feel it. I saw nothing in the strap-hangers and earbudded nodding dogs bouncing to their internal riffs. No missed beat. No chord change. Not even a new narrative.

Just blank looks and preservation, the tools that get us through our day, to earn us a right to say that we’ve done our bit, made a contribution, mattered.

Collaboration is our default setting. We assimilate, isolate, congregate, denigrate. Annihilate The Other to make The Whole stronger, and abandon the dregs to see their hopes and minds shattered on the hard city streets.

A disconnect. That’s what I felt. A detachment from the hive mind, a glancing butterfly wingbeat of empathy with The Other. The enemy. The thing we fear the most. Them.

Just a flutter of emotion, faint but powerful enough to bring the careful construct crashing down like a pile of wooden bricks.

I know my place, I always have. Somewhere right in the middle, maybe a little higher. Just enough to offer the illusion of the individual, while holding up the façade.

But if I was to step outside, would it feel the strain, or remain? And what’s in my name, when we’re all the same. Am I Stella, or Hope, or just plain Jayne?

Does anybody know, anybody care? Is there anybody out there? In that place we think there’s order, solid as a rock, strong even to squash the mocking mutters of the underworld and pretend it just isn’t there.

Stepping off the train, and felt it again. More than a twitch now, like a rough hand brushing against my cheek, enough to give me a peek into the shadows and tune into the whispers getting louder. Vibrating with emotion, stripped of devotion to the glue that binds us all.

The crowd waiting to ride the stairs moved wordlessly towards open air. No second glances, no raised brows. Could I really be the only one to feel the pull to the other side? Was it there for them all, just smothered by fear that it would wreck their comfort zone like an angry teen trashing their bedroom in a tantrum?

Riding up to the light, I looked up into an urgent laser gaze of another heading down. A glancing connection, a shock of recognition, an unspoken knowing. In the time it took for our paths to cross on twin escalators, a minute warning shake of the head stopped me from crying out, flying out of my proper place to scream out, to shout 

Nothing is real, you’ve got to feel. 
Forget 'Keep calm and carry on'. 
We’re all ticking mind bombs. 
Wake up and smell the garbage.

Of course, I didn’t. It was just too big, too scary, too….   everything, to step out of my slot and into the outcasts.

So, I screwed in my earplugs, tuned in to the community hum and drowned out the coda throbbing from the dark corners. I’m a creature of the light, after all, a responsible citizen with rights and responsibilities, a duty to do and a role to play.

I offered my wrist to the scanner as I entered the Square and dared to hope no-one there picked up the high notes of my fleeting rebellion. I smiled my automaton smile, walked on, and prayed that they would (please) forget my name.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Verdict - Final chapter of 'Witness: A modern parable'

The Evening Star – 15 April
People’s Prophet found guilty in uncontested trial

In a trial lasting just one day, the self-proclaimed “People’s Prophet” has been found guilty of sedition, disturbance of the peace and unspecified charges believed to be linked to a suspected terrorist plot.

The trial was held in camera, closed to the press and public, due to the sensitive nature of the case. The 37-year-old defendant refused to enter a plea, and did not contest the charges. At the request of the court, he will undergo further psychiatric tests before his sentence is pronounced.

There was a heavy police presence outside the court building in anticipation of possible protests. However, in sharp contrast to their vocal presence at public meetings and rallies in the days leading up to his arrest, none of the accused’s followers joined the press outside the court to hear the verdict.

Chief Prosecutor, Theodore Fitzgerald, told reporters that the open-and-shut nature of the case confirmed the accused had no defence.

“Let this be a lesson to those who aspire to undermine the stability of our society,” he added. “So-called charismatic leaders are nothing without their followers, and as you can see, the People’s Prophet’s followers quickly evaporated.

“The status quo prevails.”

(This is the sixth and final part of "Witness: A modern parable". Click to read Parts One, Two, Three, Four and Five.) 

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Goodbye - Part Five of 'Witness'

The Evening Star – 12 April
Unknown woman found dead in squat

A woman has been found dead of a suspected drug overdose in an abandoned apartment used by squatters in Lilac Grove. The unidentified deceased, thought to be in her late twenties, was discovered after neighbours reported a suspicious smell. Foul play is not suspected.

Peter stood alone in the unpopular far corner of the graveyard, looking down at the anonymous hump of soil that now covered the cheap cardboard coffin. It had been an hour since the gravedigger had gone but he wasn’t ready to leave. Not quite yet.

A sparrow hopped down from the branches of a nearby tree, now in full blossom, and started picking at the disturbed dirt. Drab, but full of life, it darted here and there, looking for bugs to feed its nestlings.

Peter watched the bird as he pulled a crumpled pack of Lucky Strikes from his coat pocket. Lighting the last cigarette and drawing deeply on its first sharp smoke, he wondered if he’d done the right thing.

He’d known the minute he spotted the lonely paragraph in the bottom right-hand corner of page 8 of the day-old newspaper. Lilac Grove – that’s where they’d first found her over a year ago, and he was sure it was where she’d gone when everything fell apart. And when he read “suspected drug overdose” he knew that, after all, she hadn’t found the strength to resist her old ways after her new all-too-human addiction was taken away from her.

He’d worried that he’d face an interrogation when he turned up at the city morgue offering to pay for the funeral, especially after being questioned by the police that night. But no-one raised an eyebrow. It was old news by then. No-one made the connection between the death of yet another anonymous junkie with soon-to-be-forgotten events of last month. They hadn’t even bothered to look through her meagre belongings – just a few clothes, the old Zippo lighter Peter had used to light his cigarette, and a journal which now sat in his backpack.

These days, it wasn’t unusual for the well-meaning to pay for a “decent send-off” to one of the army of unnamed, unloved and unclaimed who came through the city morgue’s gun metal grey doors. No headstone, of course, but at least someone to acknowledge that they had once been, and now were no more. 

The bored clerk had shrugged when he’d replied that no, he hadn’t known the woman. She just filled in the form with the false details he gave, and took his handful of notes to cover the costs of the paperwork, a flimsy box and a man to dig the hole. Without once meeting his eyes, she’d handed over the receipt, then gave him the plot number, a time and date two days later if he wanted to be there “when they put her in the ground”.

That was it. No more ceremony than paying a parking fine. There’d been no ceremony to the burial either. No priest to churn out tired platitudes, no mourners, no flowers. Just him, the gravedigger, and the sparrow.

Peter took a last drag on the cigarette. He let the dog-end fall and ground it into the damp grass with the heel of his shoe. The sparrow eyed him and hopped over to the spot to see if what he’d dropped might be a tasty morsel.

Putting his hands back in his pockets, he murmured “Goodbye, Magda”, turned, and walked away.   

(This is the fifth of six parts of 'Witness - A modern parable'.
Click for Parts One, Two, Three and Four.)

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Welcome back: Part Four of 'Witness'

Magda’s Journal: 30 March
In the end, I gave in. Of course I did. I let Jimmy walk me to the dirty old sofa and lie me down. I let him tighten the strap on my arm, and I watched him cook up the sludge in a teaspoon.

I knew what it promised and was ready for it—even the horrific heaving I knew would come afterwards. I’d lost everything. I just wanted to stop hurting, to feel like I was kissing an angel one last time.

I watched as he tapped the needle and gently eased it into the vein. A wave of relaxation swept over me, washing away my hurt, making me feel like I could reach out and touch heaven. Nothing mattered except my bliss.

I didn’t even mind when Jimmy opened the door and lead three faceless men in.

I woke this morning, bloody and bruised. I must have thrown up thirty times; there’s nothing left to bring up and yet the heaves continue. I feel like I’ve been used, turned inside-out and thrown away in the corner like an old burger wrapper. I probably have.

Then I saw it. Another package on the table with a handwritten note from Jimmy: “Welcome back, darling. This one’s on the house.”

(This is the fourth part of 'Witness - A modern parable'.
for Parts One, Two and Three.)