Tag Archives: short story

Otra Vida


I was walking along the fuming streets of San Pedro and singing songs with my friends in a Newry bar when the headache started. They always said you couldn’t be in two places at once, but as I was belting out ‘Oró Sé Do Bheatha Bhaile’ between slugs of Smithwicks and marching along the calle principal in sordid December heat, I reflected that a lot of what they said had turned out to be bullshit. They’d said, for instance, that your tongue was split into sections and that each of these quadrants was responsible for a different taste. They said you couldn’t get sunburned through glass.

And strangers. They said that you should never talk to strangers. But I had a total stranger to thank for the drunkenness I was feeling now as I walked past the buses on the busy street in the middle of the day, and for the sweating I was doing inside the dark pit of Guinness and smiles in my old home. Yes, I thought, a lot of what they said was wrong. Why does my head hurt?

I walked by a pack of schoolboys in short-sleeved shirts and ordered another round of drinks. I turned my body to one side to let the school kids pass, and bashed my hip on the side of a concrete wall. The boys laughed and the boys laughed. I turned around with my hands full of pints and started to limp my way back toward the laughter, to the table where my own old schoolmates waited and sang some more. Outside, under the stars, the frost was forming on car wind shields. I was sweating in the heat.

The calle principal is a long road by San José standards. The district of San Pedro was full of school kids from Escuela Roosevelt and students from the university campus. A crowd of kids in medical uniforms waited by the side of the road. I looked at them and started to sing the ‘Wild Rover’.

One of my friends put his arm around my shoulders as we sat on the musty chairs of the pub. It was Fiachra.

“Ha ha ha,” he said. “Jesus your eyes are bloodshot.”

I rubbed my eyes and continued walking. My hip was starting to hurt. I laughed and spat phlegm onto the hot pavement.

“I’m fucking knackered man,” I said, smiling.

“Ha ha ha,” he said, “keep her lit.”

I thought about going back to the casa. I lived nearby but I couldn’t give you an exact address. They don’t do street names in Costa Rica. If I wanted to direct you to my house, I’d have to say something like “300 metres west and 50 metres south of the Universidad Latina” or just pick the most colourful building nearby and tell you to meet me there. People here tended to round directions up to the nearest landmark. There’s a whole district of San José called ‘Coca-cola’ because there used to be a factory there. It was dismantled decades ago.

The fellas started roaring at each other, talking about the time that psychopath Conall McAlinden threw a ferret out of a twelve-story window in a Liverpool flat during our university years. I shook my head and walked past the Iglesia San Pedro, where songs of Spanish prayer fell out the doors before being immediately drowned out by the sounds of trucks and cars and cheap coaches headed to Guanacaste. My head was thumping. This wasn’t the first time I’d suffered the headaches. They had been coming and going for months.

I had met the stranger on an island beach in Bocas del Toro, during an impulsive trip across the border to Panama. For twenty US dollars the taxi boats of the Caribbean would take you out to a deserted beach and leave you artificially stranded on the blazing sand (along with any other wanderers they could wrangle) with nothing but an icebox of beer and water for the afternoon. Your boatman would come back three or four hours later, having done the same thing to other groups, all abandoned on their own islands according to a criss-crossing list of schedules. I don’t know how the taxistas kept it all straight in their heads. I was sure some people, by this point in the island chain’s history, had also been stranded completely legitimately. The tourist’s eternal search for authenticity had probably resulted in crowds of Canadian teenagers becoming marooned for real. I couldn’t tell if this worried me or made me happy.

I had walked my fill of the beach and was ready to lie down under a bush and drink my last three cans of Atlas when I saw one of the taxistas coming over the horizon in his motorboat. It wasn’t my guy – he wasn’t due back for another hour. The motorboat whined closer and closer, weaving around the reefs and shallows, until he got close to shore and cut off the engine. He jumped into the water and pulled the boat toward my part of the beach with a thin blue rope. Then he gestured to me and I walked into the surf and grabbed the rope. We heaved the boat onto the sand and after a few minutes he threw the rope lazily into the foam. The weight of the boat would keep it where it lay.

He turned around and looked out at the sea.

“I’m going soon,” he said to me in Spanish.

I squinted.

“You’re leaving?” I said.

He was wearing a yellow shirt, soaking from the collar down. The New York Yankees baseball cap on his head was tattered and bleached, as if he had found it floating in the sea circa 1979. He didn’t reply.

But, um.”

“I’m going,” he said.

He stood there, hands on his hips, catching his breath and looking out to sea. Then he looked at me with an expression that said: “Well?”

I looked confused. He must be here to pick up another person, I thought. He’s getting me confused with some other passenger.

The taxista looked at me and said: “Well Malachy, are you coming or staying or doing nothing at all?”

I looked around. The other faux castaways were still at the other side of the island, encamped beside ice boxes and determined to boil themselves alive until they heard the sound of an engine coming for them over the waves. I felt a surge of confusion. Maybe my Spanish wasn’t good enough – I’d misheard him. Or maybe I had made some deal with this guy and completely forgotten what he looked like. Maybe this man was sent by the taxista who’d brought me here, and had simply got the time wrong. That would explain how he knew my name. One of my feet moved forward and probed a thin layer of sea water as it oozed in over the beach. The other foot dug its heel into the sand and curled its toes.

“You’re going right now?” I asked, and looked around.

“Yes,” he said. “Are you coming?”

I felt something, like uncertainty or embarrassment. It was both those things. A tonic of cultural confusion and social awkwardness. Did I just not get something here? An urge swelled up in me – the same instinct I’d get any time I became confused or lost at the customs of Central America. The urge to be gone. To go home, back to Ireland, to forget this whole sorry experiment that I’d once called my otra vida – another life. And a simultaneous anti-urge. The thought that kept me here, that going home would be a form of surrender. That I’d be missing out on all the dumb quirks of the place I now lived.

I had felt this mix of emotions before. One day, I walked into a supermercado in San José, where a shop assistant stopped me in the bread aisle and told me that I had to “check my bag in”. He pointed to the bag of shopping I held in my hands from another store. I was brought to a desk at the store’s entrance, where a man with a grave face and a thick neck gave me a ticket, like it was the cloakroom of a nightclub. I examined the ticket (47) and handed over my plastic bag of juice and eggs. I bought what I needed quickly and retrieved my groceries from the egg bouncer, then I frowned the whole way home to my hollow casa, thinking desperately that I might walk in and see my brothers and sisters there, smoking and laughing and telling each other to shut up. When I got home (quiet, empty) I just laughed. A fucking egg bouncer, I thought.

And I had felt the same when the backpackers of Bocas del Toro and Puerto Viejo and Montezuma would open their mouths and vomit Californian or Essex accents at me, praising the waves and explaining their tattoos, saying how they would start their business on the beach, man, make some spending cash off those jade necklaces that you can make from stones in the sand, yeah? Start small and live easy, yeah? I had looked at the stones on the beach many times. They were green but they were not jade. Some of them were weathered glass.

That same harsh cocktail of feelings came over me in Panama when I stood beside the taxista. The urge to split, to get home as fast as humanly possible, and eat a fried breakfast with my family. And the competing urge to hold fast and laugh at all the oddities of the otra vida.

The stranger in the dead Yankees cap looked out to sea and breathed deeply. The sun was still high.

“Are you coming?”

My foot moved forward and my heel dug in, then I said yes and shook my head.

I waded out to climb onto the boat and I stayed on the beach, I felt wet and dry.

The boat engine started up, I saw the taxista wave over his shoulder at me as he left, and then I felt him slap me on the back as the wind of the sea air went passing by. I was going home, and I was staying here.

That was six months ago. Now it was December and everyone was home for Christmas.

I squinted at the elderly women and long-trousered men filing out of the iglesia and flicked a beer mat at Fiachra. I smiled, took a slug and staggered down the calle principal. It was a 40-minute walk to the Paseo Colon, and although I knew this was my destination I had long forgotten why. I walked past the hot, empty car park of an Office Depot and listened in the bar to Fiachra telling the story about McAlinden the psychopath between taking sips of cold, black liquid.

My head throbbed. I heard my own voice, muttering to myself.

They said I couldn’t be in two places at once.”

The big roundabout by the San Pedro Mall lay ahead. A huge junction that all the fatalistic drivers of San José despised because nobody in Costa Rica can agree on what indicator lights mean and nobody is prepared to call a meeting about it. I stepped out onto the road and grabbed Fiachra by the sleeve, shouting: no mate, no, it didn’t happen like that, ha ha, listen, the ferret was yer man’s pet. I took another slug of Smithwicks and got hit by a blue Jeep.

I winced. Fiachra looked at me and my bloodshot eyes. There was a bad taste in my mouth, a bad taste spanning all those quadrants on my tongue. It was either sour or salty, I couldn’t tell.

“What’s wrong with you mate?”

“I’ve a splitting headache,” I said.

I lay in a bloody pile on the side of the road and laughed at my own joke.

“Ha ha ha,” I wheezed. “A splitting headache.”


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Filed under Stories

This Heart Which Once Was Owned

[Wrote story. To be filed among the annal(s) of Journohaus, cross-referenced under the sub-sections ‘adventure’, ‘strange’, ‘odd’ and ‘impossible’. Read on … ]

A strange thing happened to me today. Or rather, a number of strange things happened to me today, and in so rapid and consistent a fashion that I have barely had time to determine whether or not the strange things have ceased happening. I half expect that, any moment now, some new puzzlement will raise its head above the parapet of mystery and charge straight through the doors of Journohaus – this infamous, much-maligned abode of my housemates and myself.

But I am getting ahead of myself. You see, it all started when I went in to my local Oxfam. I walked in during my leisure time (Wednesday) and listened, with a smile on my face, to the hollow tinkle of the broken bell on the door. I had barely begun to say “Hello, Simon!” when I looked up to discover that Simon, the regular Oxfam boy, was not at his post. There was some other person – a giant in dungarees, who was assaulting stacks of Patricia Cornwell with a pricing gun, and riveting them with price stickers in an almost hypnotic manner.

I didn’t think much of it, except that it was a very hot Wednesday to be wearing dungarees. Like every visit to my local Oxfam second-hand book shop on Streatham High Street, I perused the collectibles section with a silent, focused verve and it wasn’t long before I found a first edition of Kendra Redford’s excellent debut ‘This Heart Which Once Was Owned’. I hope I do not shame myself too much when I admit that I had still not read those illustrious words. Though Redford is possibly the most lauded literary woman of the past three decades, within certain circles, I had been thwarted by chance and laziness when it came to sitting down to read her works. Well, no longer, I thought. For the fair price of three pounds sterling I was certain to finally enjoy this much-honoured story of Miss Valerie Fore, impoverished child entrepreneur, who becomes an eminent flautist and gentlelady, before being laid low by society’s fickle whims, then brought back to her previous station (and then laid low again). I had heard so much good about this stormy narrative that, in my enthusiasm, I leapt over the piles of paperbacks toward the checkout desk, forgot all about the giant in dungarees, and shouted, “Simon! Look!”

“Simon’s not in today,” said the giant, as he went on stamping Patricia Cornwell books with an invincible rhythm.

“Oh, yes, of course,” I said. “Well, in any case, I’d like to buy this, please.”

I handed him the copy of ‘This Heart Which Once Was Owned’ and he held it in one hand as he peered down at me over the rim of the hard, brown cover. All the while the stamping of the plastic pricing gun continued, like the tick-tock of some terrible pocket watch.

“Three pounds sterling, please,” said the giant.

During the exchange which followed I would see, at separate times, each of the giant’s hands as they individually engulfed various coins and calculated change. But the plasticated hammering of the pricing gun never ceased its once-a-second pattern. Very strange. It was only afterward, when I stepped outside the Oxfam and examined the tough, threaded texture of my newly-acquired precious first edition, that I realised I had not even inspected the inside of the book!

In a panic I clawed open the volume and as I flicked through, searching for the exploits of Miss Valerie Fore, her upbringing in rural Hampshire, her musical awakening with the gypsy spoons band, her abduction by villainous landowners, the correction of her posture by successive schoolmistresses, the distressing episode with the otter-men and the eventual rescue by a well-meaning fisherwoman – all this, as I flipped through searching for all this, I saw instead printed, on each and every page, the words: ‘This Product Is Pre-Owned. Please Purchase Full Book For £7.99’, followed by some vague encoded instruction on how to buy the 259,751 missing words.

Well, you can imagine how I felt. I was overcome by a fury so intense that it was a full ten minutes before I could express myself in English to the giant without resorting to huge roars and calamitous belches.

“This book has no words in it!” I said.

The giant looked inside and held the pages open with his non-pricing hand.

“Yes it does,” he said, “but I can see they are not very interesting.”

I breathed deeply and suppressed a furious screech.

“No,” I said. “They are not very interesting at all. Where are the chapters? Where is the story? Where is the part with the Walrus trainer that I read about in the Guardian Online Review Supplement? I paid three pounds sterling for this!”

I held the book aloft and slammed it violently against the counter, before immediately regretting it and cradling it apologetically to my chest.

“I can arrange a refund, if you like,” said the loathsome, helpful giant.

“I don’t want a refund, I want my book!”

“I think you might have to follow the instructions inside then, sir.”

“But but but…”

My fury was fading, replaced by a sense of falling. I was succumbing to the worst of all possible modern afflictions – consumer despondency. I could feel myself crumbling into a state of tearful helplessness.

“But… but… listen, where’s Simon!? He’ll sort this out, he always knows what’s what. Why isn’t he working today?”

“Simon has a new job now, sir.”

My lip began to quiver.

“A new job?  But Oxfam boys work for free,” I said, comprehending less and less of the dungareed creature’s continued pleas for calm.

“Yes, exactly,” he said. “He got a job and now he gets paid. It’s something to do with books as well, I think. Look, I will write down the phone number for you.”

The giant looked around for a pen and found nothing. When we had both exhausted every corner of the counter and had lifted every askance copy of Patricia Cornwell in our search, he decided that there was no pen or pencil available. It was then that he took the rickety plastic pricing gun and, after a few adjustments to the dial, began to stamp the stickered digits of a telephone number onto my arm. With an affirming, synchronised nod we both agreed it was an ingenious workaround and in that way we made our peace before I left the Oxfam to find the part of the pavement with mobile phone reception.

A few dozen women with Caribbean accents had crowded the three slabs where the reception in Streatham is brightest and were talking excitedly into their phones and to each other about the latest Patricia Cornwell release. As a result I was isolated to the outside of the receptive zone, where I would get only a single bar of phone service. I crushed up against a large Polish lady with a tremendous grin and a pram full of tiny human fingers and called the number on the stickers, which were by now beginning to peel off in the bright Wednesday sun. As I idled and waited for my call to be answered, I opened ‘This Heart Which Once Was Owned’ and shook my head accusingly at the words which had enraged me so. ‘This Product Is Pre-Owned’. Indeed! ‘Please Purchase Full Book For £7.99’. Well! ‘For Purchasing Queries Please Call…’

Wait! This number in the book… Why, it was the number I had been given by the giant in Oxfam, to phone Simon. The very number I was now calling. What was going on here? Who was doing all this? The Polish lady and all the other Caribbean-voiced women saw the consternation and terror in my face and began to laugh beautifully and boldly.

“Hello, you’ve reached  Uberbooker, my name is Simon, how can I hel –

“Simon!” I cried down the receiver. “Simon, it’s me!”


“It’s me, the man who comes and buys the collectibles at Oxfam. Where are you? I need to speak to you urgently!”

“Oh… Oh no, listen. Listen,” he said, lowering his voice, “You need to not call here. They’ll be listening! Don’t chase this up. Please, collectibles man. If I know you, you’ll be trying all sorts and messing this all up!”

“But –

“No, listen! You’ve got to trust me on this. Don’t. Worry. I’m fine, really it’s ju – shit! I have to go.”

“But Simon!”

It was too late. He had hung up on me. I tried calling back several times but I could only get through to an automated switchboard which read out several business haikus and asked me to press the number on my keypad which best reflected how many kilos of Patricia Cornwell books I wanted to be sent to my nearest Uberbooker warehouse. I pressed nine-zero-zero to see what would happen and the automated switchboard told me: “Thank you. You have ordered. Nine. Zero. Zero. Kilos of. Patricia Cornwell. To. Nineteen. Broadswamp Avenue. Soho. London. If you would like to review your order, please press. One.”

I hung up, looked up at the burning Wednesday sky and memorised the address. Simon was in danger, and I was sure he didn’t even know it. Whoever this shadowy Uberbooker company was, it was certainly not going to cheat me out of my first edition Kendra Redford. As I stormed towards the bus stop I found myself clutching the book and wondering what Redford herself would do – a woman so courageous and mighty that she would have stopped at nothing to save her local Oxfam. A woman who had not once but twice won the Colman Watts Literary Prize for Feminist Ghost Fiction. In truth, I thought as I stepped on the bus and swiped my Oyster travel card, she is the strongest lady of them all, and simply would not stand for this.

“Lobster card, please.”


The bus driver had called after me. I walked three measured steps backwards to face his booth and said, “L-l-l-lobster card?”

He sighed and pointed to a row of bright card-reading machines that ran along the gulley of the bus’ interior, like a row of tiny bongo drums, each bearing a different colour and strange symbol. The bus driver swivelled as best his twisted spine allowed him and pointed to each machine in turn.

“Lobster card. Mussel card. Urchin card. Prawn card…”

“Wait wait –

“… King Crab Card. Krill card. Deep Sea Anemone Card…”

“But an anemone isn’t a crustacean! That doesn’t even fit the pattern!

The bus driver sighed again and closed the bus doors. He pulled away from the bus stop and drove on, impatiently. He glanced once or twice at me with a glare informed by years of customer hatred. When he saw me still standing there looking hopeless after three stops of professional card-swiping passengers he took a deep breath and, still driving the red monster into the centre of the city, began to explain the new technical intricacies of London Transport.

“The Lobster Card is like the Oyster Card,” he said, “in that it deducts from your sum. But it uses Travel Points instead of cash. The Mussel Card is like the Krill Card, which is an iterative card that adds Travel Bonus Points, except that the Mussel Card is for Travel Credit Points. The Prawn Card and the Urchin Card are similar, in that they both deduct AND subtract from your Extraneous Stationary Credits, with the only difference being that the Urchin Card takes a higher proportion of Contemporary Creditable Reserve Travel from the users, in accordance with TfL guidelines. The King Crab Card, well! That’s for banking Creditable Travel Credits and the Deep Sea Anemone Card is simply for cashing Travelable Crediting Points.”

I blinked and said, “Yes, I see now. Where can I purchase these cards?”

“You can purchase these cards,” he said, “at any reputable Crustifarian outlet, or in TfL stations.”

“Thank you,” I said. And with that we both spent the rest of the bus journey ensconced in a thoughtless silence until the bus arrived in Soho, under the blistering mid-week sun. I hopped off and walked up and down the crowded street until I discovered a distended TfL Crustifarian logo hanging outside a small alleyway newsagents. I approached and saw that the sign – the silhouette of a subspecies of Brazilian ghost crab, if I was not mistaken – was drooping and melting in the heat, so that it no longer resembled the transport trademark but a long-limbed yellow alien. I went into the newsagents and promptly collected all seven travel cards, happily paying the £7.99 deposit for each.

“Would you like the new Scampi Card?” the woman behind the counter asked in a broad Punjabi accent. And she grinned at me in such a matriarchal and knowing way that I instantly answered that I did, and would be very glad for it. “It is in beta,” she said, smiling. “So there may be a few minor issues.”

I paid the extra and left, forgetting to ask exactly which type of currency the Scampi Card functioned on or what was the card’s particular rate of deduction, retraction, complementation, or sub-addition.

I consulted a map stand and discovered that Broadswamp Avenue was nearby. Finally, I would discover who exactly was behind all of this and what they had done with my friend Simon, who was surely under strict observation and subject to any amount of infernal tortures. If I wanted to alleviate his pains, I had to hurry!

“Pasty, sir?”

“Oh, yes please.”

I took the pasty and napkin from the travelling pasty salesman and began to chew as I mulled over which direction I should walk in.

“That’ll be £7.99 please, sir.”

“By feh gloreh uff feh Almighteh!”

“I know, sir, I know. But it’s inflation you see.”

“Thiff pafty if RULLY HAWT,” I said, handing him the money.

“I know sir, I know. But it’s taxes you see.”

I got my bearings and started to run down the streets of Soho, regaining some of my former urgency. It was only when I reached the corner of Broadswamp and started to waddle purposefully down the dreary cobblestoned avenue that I began to suspect, chew by chew, that the pasty I had bought contained no meat or vegetables, only a thick brown sauce that had substituted flavour for an intense heat. I simultaneously began to sweat and regret my purchasing decision.

I looked up and saw that I had arrived at number nineteen, the entrance to which resembled the backstage door to some clandestine theatre. I finished off the sauce pasty and wiped my hands on the napkin, then made my way inside. After travelling through several ill-lit corridors and passing three creatures I can only assume were urban foxes made good, I arrived in a wide-open warehouse floor densely packed with dark blue, dark red and dark white paperbacks. They all bore the name ‘Patricia Cornwell’ in bold, stark lettering, apart from a small stack in the corner which was written by Glen L. Feol and titled: ‘The Complete Patricia Cornwell Companion’. I looked across the books and saw that they continued into the horizon, where my eyes dimly perceived some movement. There were several more of the fox-like creatures scavenging among the volumes, trotting atop the piles with nimble, long-limbed strides.

I rolled the legs of my jeans up to my knees and began to paddle through the books. But soon the tide was up to my waist, and then my wading through the endless warehouse became not just difficult but frightful, as a rollicking storm began in the rafters overhead and shook loose several of the lamps. I thought I heard the ‘beeep-beeep-beeep’ of a reversing lorry. Suddenly, the waves of books began to crash over my head and I was in danger of drowning. Out from the gloom I saw an oncoming swell – a huge crime thriller tsunami. It impacted my body like the force of a bomb. In the resulting tumult I saw two of the animals from before helplessly dragged into the pulpy depths. I saw too late that they were not urban foxes, but the South American Maned Wolf, a rare and beautiful species, known for its timidity and intellectual prowess. I felt, in that moment of papery jeopardy, an odd kinship with the drowning wolves, who were surely investigating the warehouse with the same aim – to discover what unassailable malignance had defaced the inimitable works of Prof Kendra Redford BD MPhil OBE MEP. Why else would the Maned Wolf clans be here? Patricia Cornwell, prodigious as she may be, was not to that species’ particular taste – as everyone knows.

I fought through the tempest and, miraculously, reached the opposite shore of the warehouse just as the squall in the rafters subsided and the lamps dangling from the ceiling began to reassert their former dimness. I shook off the dry leaves of crime that clung to my body. My arms, neck and face were the victim of countless tiny slices, none of which I had noticed until I stopped to inspect them on the way through the warehouse door.


Someone shouted at me from a steel staircase in the concrete hollow on the other side of the divide.

“You there! Come here!”

I walked towards the shadowy figure. His torso was held taut as he leant on the railing of his staircase. As I came closer, I saw his hands grasping the rail. The left hand was fat, with fingers like Cumberland sausages, and the right hand was thin and riddled with angry green veins.  He lifted the thin hand and I saw the shine of a spittle-glistened smile break through the glum surroundings.

“Hello!” he said. “You must be the fellow who has come for the klaxon, yes?”

I nodded and tried my best to reign in my gasping. I was still tired from the book storm and thought it would be best not to interrupt this man’s order of thought.

“Yes,” I said. “Where is the klaxon?”

“Thank the Heavens,” he said. He grinned and wiped his nose with the thumb of his fat hand, then motioned for me to follow him up the steel steps to his boxed office. The sign on the door said: ‘Gregorio Trimble, CEO – Uberbooker, UnLtd’.

“Take a seat,” he said, waving at a bean bag in the centre of the room. I rested myself as graciously as I could into the flump of cushion and polystyrene while Gregorio went to the cupboard and took out the following objects: one pen, one sheet of paper, two small glass cups without handles, one bag of ice, one bottle of courageous purple absinthe, one large beanbag, and one blue hand-sized object of undeterminable origin. He threw the beanbag into the empty space opposite my own and bombed onto it with such force that several of the beads inside popped out and pinged past my head like stray bullets in a warzone.

“I apologise!” he boomed. “Now, here is the klaxon.”

He gently handed me the blue object of undeterminable origin.

“Could you sign for it please? Be careful.”

He reached over with the pen and paper. I saw the ink dripping out of the bottom of the pen’s nib, like blood, and the legalese on the sheet and it was at that moment I saw my chance and took it. I grasped the klaxon by the handle and shook it as fiercely as I could.


“Wh-what are you doing?” Gregorio said. He stood up, aghast.


He began to cover his ears and sweat. “Please, let’s talk about this!”


“No!” Gregorio yelled, “No! Please stop!”


“Anything! I’ll do anything!”

“Will you help me with a customer service problem!?” I shouted, over the noise of the fearful klaxon.


“Yes!” he said. “Yes, customer satisfaction! Complaints!  Queries! Anything!”

K-K-K-k-kh-kh-kuh… kh-kuh…kh.

“Okay!” I said brightly. “Thank you.”

“No problem,” said Gregorio, sitting down on his beanbag again and wiping the yellow sweat from his lips with his thin hand. “Jesus.”

I felt bad about making him take the Lord Our God’s name in vain, so I gave him a sympathetic look and poured us both a glass of the purple absinthe. I put three cubes of ice in his glass, to be sure of his refreshment.

“Let’s get our breath back,” I said.

“Yes,” he said, looking grateful and somewhat more cheerful. “Yes, thank you.”

We took a drink and talked about the week’s markets, mostly in vague, base terms because of my comparative lack of stock broking knowledge. When he saw that I was happy with the situation and was waiting for him to become comfortable again, he remembered why I had come and diplomatically changed the subject to helping me with my problem, true to his word.

“But you have come because of a customer service query,” he smiled.

“Yes. You sell books, correct?”

“That’s true.”

“And you sold this book once, correct?”

I took the copy of ‘This Heart Which Once Was Owned’ from my back pocket and held it out to him. He took it and squinted at the blurb.

“Oh yes,” he said, “that’s undisputable.”

“Well, I bought this book for three pounds sterling.”

“Oh yes, that’s beyond doubt.”

“But it’s asking me to pay £7.99 now to read.”

“Oh indeed, that would be the case.”

I was puzzled.

“But I have already bought the book for three pounds sterling,” I said.

“Oh yes, you bought the book, of course.”

“So the book is mine.”

“Oh no, the book is ours, of course.”

“But I bought it in the Oxfam shop second hand.”

“Oh yes, you bought it certainly.”

“So that I could read it whenever.”

“Truly so. Whenever you like. Now, even!”

“So it’s my book.”

“Oh no, it’s our book, you see.”

I sat and mulled this over. A few minutes passed and he hummed an Uberbooker patented tune as he waited good-humouredly for my response, which came within six minutes sharp. I put my fingers together, crossed my legs and pursed my lips, and was generally very careful to get my words in the correct order. I began.

“But… when one buys something… it becomes one’s own… so, I bought the book, therefore I own it. Because of the law.”

He looked astounded. As if I had accused him of the most shameful robbery.

“Oh no, we don’t own the book! That’s yours, of course!”

“You see!” I said, lying back in the bean bag and smiling gracefully. I had finally explained things to him.

“We just own the ink.”

I sat up straight.


“The book is, of course, your own. You can pick it up, put it down, put it on your shelf…”

He held up the book and moved it around as he mimed these various actions, glassy-eyed with wonder and business acumen.

“…you can feel the spine, feel the cover, flick through the pages, and even smell the pages! Everything like that, it’s all yours, yes! We wouldn’t try to take the book away from you. Goodness gracious, no. We’re not monsters!”

He smiled and breathed out a deep relief.

“We just own the ink, that’s all.”

He handed the book back to me with his thin hand and stood up. “Is there anything else I can help you with, sir?”

“Simon,” I said, standing up to meet the canopy of his bulbous outstretched arm. “Do you know where my friend Simon is? I think he is working here.”


“Yes, but it is a mistake. He is an Oxfam boy.”

“Oh, I see. Well, if he is here, he will be on the factory floor. This way!”

Gregorio, with his arm on my shoulder, took us out into some damp concrete corridors where the halogen lights threw down two distinct shades of luminous violet with such potency that it gave our eyesight a kind of bluish double-vision. All at once there were four persons webbed together walking down the corridor – two Gregorios and two myselves – and every one of us clasping their glass of absinthe, which emitted an icy rattling, as we tramped down the quadruple hallways of the Uberbooker warehouse.

We left the violet-lit labyrinth and looked down from a railing onto a factory floor where five figures, surrounded by wooden crates and shiny books, typed feverishly at refurbished Dell laptops.

“This is the factory floor,” said Gregorio, swaying. He fanned his fat and thin hand out in a great salute to industry and told me several facts about the procedure.

“This branch focuses on Patricia Cornwell novels,” he explained. “She is by far the most popular author in Christendom, not to mention one of the most desirable women in the northern Hemisphere.” He paused. “No, every hemisphere. I make no apologies for the lustful indignities I would subject her to, were she to arrive here in person to plant her voluptuous seal of approval on our operation – which she is indeed certain to do, once she hears of the success of our Patricia Cornwell Apprenticeship Scheme.”

“Apprenticeship Scheme?”

“Quite. These books of hers are the most valuable paper objects in existence this week, with the singular exception of the newly issued Sterling Bank Note, which is doing swimmingly good things for the currency on the stock exchange, as we have already discussed.”

“Yes, of course,” I said, taking a sip of absinthe.

“Did you know, for instance, that only today we have received orders exceeding nine hundred kilograms of Patricia Cornwell? And that is not an irregular amount. We have averaged twenty-five thousand kilograms every week since the beginning of the Apprenticeship Scheme. Each of these young men and women, you see, is a participant. Why, they are pumping out more Patricia Cornwell with their fingertips right now than you or I could read in a lifetime.”

I peeped down at the five workers, tap-tap-tapping away at their machines. When I saw the humble, mousy hair that I recognised as belonging to my good friend, I blinked three times.

“Simon!” I called.

I saw the figure beneath us freeze and twitch, then continue to type. He was ignoring me.

“Simon!” I called again. “Simon, I’ve had an absinthe!”

“Yes!” Gregorio cried. “Absinthe for everyone!”

The other four workers, dressed like Simon in custard-cream-coloured overalls, looked up and stopped typing. They hollered an inside joke to each other and made their way to a well-varnished crate in the corner of the room, sodden with webs and derelict spider eggs. “If you say so, Gregorio!” one of them said with a wink as she fished a bottle out of the crate. They sat down on a single damp pallet and began to pour out the purple liquid, singing songs about the old country.

“Well, the old country’s glum,
the old country’s sweet,
the old country’s smells of teak oil and peat!
The old country’s bright,
the old country’s cold,
The old country’s in-con-tro-ver-tuh-bly OLD!”

The workers began to laugh and clink their glasses.

“Damn the old country!” said Simon. He had still not moved from his Dell laptop, and now he raised his head to look at Gregorio and I, before thrusting an accusatory finger our way. “And damn you, collectibles man! This is the fifth job you’ve ruined for me!”

Gregorio looked at me, clearly shocked by the revelation.

“It’s true,” I said.

“Well, that does it then,” screeched Simon, his throat choking up with distress. “I’ll have to just leave this one as well, shall I?”

“Damn it all, Simon,” I yelled, smashing my glass against the railing in rage. “You’re an Oxfam boy! You know other jobs affect your performance at the bookshelves! What about Oxfam? What about your integrity?”

“What about my blasted bills, collectibles man? What about those! The gas and electricity board alone are charging £7.99 a day! It’s contemptible. I need to support myself as well, you know.”

“Don’t talk to me about support, you charlatan!” By now I was fuming at his consistent betrayal. He was always doing this, swanning off to earn money. “Where was my support when I was rushing here to rescue you from your corporate shackles! Where was my support when I burnt the roof of my mouth on a hot saucey pasty? Where was my support, I ask you, when I was on Streatham High Street, searching my guts out for Kendra Redford’s seminal work of romantic crypto-modernity!? WHERE WAS MY SUPPORT WHEN I OPENED IT TO DISCOVER THIS.”

I threw the book down at him with as much might and purpose as I could muster, and found myself breathing heavily, facing the shocked and thoughtful faces of Gregorio, Simon and the other Apprentice Patricia Cornwells. Simon picked up the frayed book at his feet and inspected the insides. His face dropped and within a second his expression had morphed into one of abject terror. He looked up at Gregorio, who shifted uneasily in his immaculately pressed trousers. Simon stuttered as the sorry conclusion calcified in his mind.

“You… you’re… you’re behind this!?”

The other Apprentices began to gather round the book. I could see their lips move as they silently read the internal message. ‘This Product Is Pre-Owned. Please Purchase Full Book For £7.99.’ Eventually, every one of them looked up in disbelief and disillusionment.

“I… I’m sorry,” said Gregorio. “I didn’t think it would come to… you weren’t supposed to find out like this… it just got out of hand…” He began to sob. “I’m sorry. My sweet Patricias, I’m… I’m so sorry…”

I found myself pitying the old CEO, but before I could console him he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his pocketbook. With his shaking thin hand he gave me a single £7.99 Bank Note, sniffed and began to walk back the way we had arrived. “I know it won’t make up for all I’ve done… but at least it will cover the price of the book,” he said. He slunk toward the double-visiony glare. His frame moved with the slow limp of a gentleman disgraced, one who had learned all too late the virtue of humility. Gregorio Trimble stopped only once to say quietly over his shoulder, “I am truly, deeply ashamed.”

I heard a door slam behind me and turned to see that the other workers had already grabbed their coats and left the warehouse in disgust. I was alone. Even Simon had left without saying a word – an act I have since forgiven, knowing as I do the trauma and disenfranchisement he must have undergone upon reading those words. I still think about him, and I wonder if he will ever come back to Oxfam – if he has the will to, if he has the hope. Something was taken from us all that day, you have to understand, something of our innocence, our sincerity, our simplicity. I hope, not for my own sake but for Simon’s, that we will be able to find that lost something once again. I trundled down a few steel steps and picked up my copy of ‘This Heart Which Once Was Owned’ from the dusty floor where Simon had dropped it in his grief.

Leaving the warehouse by the employees door, I could hear faintly the sound of that terrible klaxon coming from beyond the violet vale and I knew that Gregorio, in his profound contrition, had taken it upon himself to exact his own punishment.

It was still quite light outside, but the blaze of the Wednesday sun would soon die behind the towering London pubs. I stepped into the doorway of my bus and waited behind a man wearing an outfit comprised solely of black leather, ready to pass every one of my Crustifarian Travel Cards across the reader. The man in leather had stopped in his tracks. The bus driver thumped his Oyster Card reader with his open palm.

“It’s broken,” he said. “I think it’s these new Scampi Cards. One moment.”

The crowd behind me swelled to a state of enormity and the pressure of that growing herd willed the leathered man to take tiny incremental steps further into the bus, yet at the same time he was vigilant not to cross the invisible demarcation that separated the paying part of the vehicle from the Double Decker proper. The bus driver slapped and cajoled his Oyster machine, his eyes flickering worryingly between the growing crowd and his inside mirror, through which he could see the red lights of the other Crustifarian machines – red lights which indicated that they too would fail to function. The crowd grew. And grew. And grew.

Suddenly, the driver’s eyes glazed over, as if he were focusing not on the visible world but on some distant, dormant instinct. I recognised at once the look of philosophical epiphany. Without a second thought, the driver lay back in his seat, breathed out a huge sigh and laughed. Then he waved the leathered man past.

“Never mind,” he said. “Just go through.”

The leathered man was confused. He suspiciously put one toe across the threshold, then a foot, then his whole leg, and eventually he leapt with his entire body into the passenger area without paying a single £7.99. The crowd was silent. Everybody looked to the bus driver (who was still shaking his head with embarrassed laughter) and then to leathered man. The leathered man turned around to address the tense and silent crowd, which by now must have numbered in the thousands.

“I’m O.K!” he cried.

All around us a huge cheer broke out. Confetti rained from the rooftops and people began to hug one another and pass onto the bus giving warm handshakes and broad colourful smiles to the bus driver. One young beautiful woman with a baby in her arms brought the gift of red wine, and another young mother the gift of gold. The bus driver took the wine but refused the gold, saying: “Spend it on the child, and I will consider that the most thoughtful of gifts I have today received.” As I walked onto the bus (paying nothing!) I could see him still waving people past and shaking his head and laughing his embarrassed, happy laugh. I pondered why it seemed that he had the wisest most human look to him and I realised that he was a man who had stopped his work, briefly considered the consequences of a broken rule, and saw that they were non-existent. He could now live forever in a state of wise and embarrassed bliss, knowing that a thousand tiny rules could each day be broken, and nobody – not a single human soul – would be any worse off.

I sat down on the top deck of the bus next to a pensioner who was smiling benevolently at the confetti snowing down through the sunset and opened my copy of Kendra Redford’s magnum opus ‘This Heart Which Once Was Owned’. I slipped the £7.99 Sterling Bank Note in between some pages, as one would do a book mark, and watched as the message I had been worrying about all day faded away, replaced by the authentic words of the magnificent woman herself. It would be a peaceful ride back to Journohaus. I found the beginning of the book and began, finally, to read.

‘This heart, once owned, will not fade. Nor will it grow with passion and fill when faced with greater loves, nor empty and wither when faced with lesser ones. It will instead become perfumed with an inexpensive history, whereupon it will afford each successive owner a sense of victory, until the day comes when the heart, and all its attendant freedoms and desires, will sadly cease to be. And although this heart, which once was owned, will be poor in strength that day, it will be rich in history, and rich in liberty, and rich in love.’

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Filed under Stories


[Wrote story. Probably going to recycle somewhere else. Pretty long. Exercise in extreme detail. But does have a point. Maybe make a cup of tea. Maybe read something else. Whatever.]


She didn’t open her eyes once that morning, and I guess that should have been my first clue, really. As to all the other clues, well, they were here and there, big and small. But the eyes thing, that should have been the one to give it away before all the others. She didn’t open her eyes and look at me once, even when we spoke. You don’t really think about these things when you’re hungover and warm and your back is aching and there’s a girl cuddled up beside you. Your brain isn’t very receptive to clues of any nature in that state, even the ones your own body is whining out, about getting water, about getting dressed, about getting the fuck out of there. So your brain just tells your body to shut up. What does your body know? I knew what I was doing, at the time.

I met Lucy at a party that was either just getting out of hand or just getting started. It was my flatmate’s boyfriend’s bandmate’s friend’s girlfriend’s party and I felt slightly removed from proceedings. So I brought along two cousins from different sides of the family so, if anyone asked, there would be at least two people whose chain was a little longer than my own. I brought the birthday girl some French wine and she smiled and said she was going to Paris. I asked who got her that trip and she said her boyfriend. I protested that the wine was really very good, even though I don’t know that much about wine except that people stand on grapes when they make it in cartoons.

Someone brought a dog, so my cousins and I petted him for a while thinking he looked pretty scared but also thanking him that at least we weren’t the strangest strangers there. Then one of my cousins talked to some Norwegian exchange students while the other flirted with a girl who looked mostly like himself. And I remember thinking that was odd but not too odd. I drank my rum and diet coke and got steadily more drunk and steadily more lost. There was a happy blonde girl and a camp black guy I kept running into and every time I wanted to pass them they made me tell a joke. It’s hard to come up with stuff like that on the spot, I think, so I gave them the old “woolly jumper” the first time. They groaned but let me through and rolled their eyes playfully. The second time I was ready for them and gave them the “cycle path”, which is a great, great and underrated joke that you should really hear.

Anyway, I must have gone upstairs because I was sitting beside Lucy on the top step and talking to her about War and Peace. I’ve never read it but it’s my ma’s favourite book and Lucy said she was enjoying it and just over three quarters of the way through, I think. I tried to talk to her about If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino in the same start-stop-wait-give-me-a-second-to-form-a-sentence way I talked to everybody about If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino. But she heard me out and we joked a bit about something that I can’t remember and then her friend came over and we all joked about something, probably not the same thing.

Sometimes you talk to someone and you’re drunk and what they say doesn’t really dig a decent enough trench in your memory, so it gets supplanted and overrun by simpler things. Like gestures or expressions or that kind of thing. A hand on your arm, a glance from one of your eyes to the other, a smiling squint like they recognise you. Nothing out of the ordinary, I realise, but still welcome and attractive little sparks of human contact, you remember those. What I mean by that is that she smiled and she didn’t try to run away, and this is always an assured sign of social victory in any drunken person’s mind. My cousin was downstairs insulting the girl who looked like him until she stormed away. They repeated this little tango three times in total before they agreed to go home together. My other cousin had made friends with this one man and his hat and was watching my flatmate’s boyfriend’s bandmate dancing on a table in the living room, which was really a dance floor for everybody at this time of the night.

We were drunk and ready to leave, so I went and found Lucy and insisted on giving her my number written out in pencil on a scrap of paper. Her friend was standing beside her and I remember she looked awkward about it. I was drunk and smiling and I said something enthusiastic and intolerable about talking to her on the stairs and then I waved and walked home with my cousins and the girl who looked like my cousin and a dumb grin on my face as if I was trotting home on horseback with the cavalry and I knew everybody fancied the cavalry.

I played a videogame for a week and read The Sun Also Rises, which was boring me into a coma until it wasn’t boring me anymore and became very good. For two of the days I cringed when I thought of giving my number to the girl at the party, who I couldn’t remember the name of. I went to Cambridge and got hammered with my old school friends, which always feels to me like a reunion of family. And since I like my family I had a great time. But the shenanigans of that crowd are best left for another time. Nah, we went to a Wetherspoons and I talked to a burly, pugnacious guy who liked to smile and shake hands and start fights when he was out on the lash with all his lads. He told me about the fights and about how they would go out looking to get into a mess. I was vaguely reminded about something Chuck Palahniuk did but I didn’t want to say that to him. But anyway there were a lot of misadventures probably not worth mentioning. One of my friends and I stayed up in a cottage drinking Jack Daniels from the bottle in our sleeping bags and talking about Rwanda and the Congo and how Shooting Dogs is a brilliant film that you’ll only ever watch once and me talking shit about Jamie T and how Sheila is the best song because when you listen to the lyrics it becomes a full-blown Shakespearian tragedy. I said I’d write an essay on it. You should always listen to the lyrics.

On the hangover we went back into town and I had to force some soup into me to recover while everyone else had already had bacon buddies back in the house. One of my friends talked about going to see the ‘Flighty Japes’ in concert and ending up snorting cocaine with them and slapping the lead singer on the ass, just out of coked-up compulsion. I hoped he hadn’t ruined the band for me because I’d only just discovered them and quite enjoyed their happy gnarling and I didn’t want to think of them as coke heads, even though in hindsight it’s pretty clear from their lyrics. You should always listen to the lyrics. I got on the train and went home to London.

In Liverpool Street I got a message from a girl called Lucy, who said she had lost my number but found it again and thought she’d say hi. I smirked at the wee lie about her losing the scrap of paper because I couldn’t really bring myself to care about stuff like that. But I was happy she sent me a message and it snapped me out of my hangover. I didn’t know her surname, so I just put her in my phone as ‘Lucy Tolstoy’. I thought I could just about remember what she looked like and what we talked about. I asked her how War and Peace was going and over the course of a week she said that progress had been made. She’d finished the book and asked would I like to borrow it. I took her up on it and she agreed to a drink as part of the contract. I thought I was doing pretty well for myself, so I smiled.

On Saturday she called and said she had two questions to ask me. Firstly, did I have a bicycle? And secondly, did I like jungle music? I didn’t want to be too negative sounding over the phone so I said I didn’t have a bicycle but I thought jungle music was OK. I didn’t really know what she meant by jungle music because I have never been very good at telling genres apart. I get the same thing with colours. I’m not colour blind I just don’t know which colours mix together to get the other colours. It’s the best way I can describe it. I can’t remember the names of different hues or shades. If you put crimson and maroon in front of me and ask me which is which, there’s precisely a fifty-fifty chance I’ll get it right. The same with music genres. It’s the best way I can describe it. I can tell country from classical but I can’t tell grime from dub step.  I guess there are primary genres and secondary genres like there are primary colours and secondary colours. I can’t describe it any better than that. I didn’t really know what she meant by jungle music, so I said it was OK, and sure enough it is.

There was a place in Balham that was holding a Christmas bike fair and she wanted to know if I’d go along but if I didn’t have a bike she would understand if I wasn’t game for it. I didn’t really care about bikes but I said there was no better time to get started on a hobby, so I would go and get started by buying a bell, then work my way up to a chain, then some handlebars maybe the following year and I would have a bike in no time. She agreed. I felt pretty good about it but I was still unsure how the jungle music came into it, since I got cut off when she was telling me. We just arranged the rest by text message so the plan was a bit garbled in my mind. We didn’t need to meet for a few hours, so I played a videogame for a while where I drove a car around some dirt tracks on a tropical island and ran over a buffalo by accident. I was glad nobody was in the room when I hit the buffalo because it would have looked as though I had done it on purpose, the way I was driving so badly. When it was time to go I got dressed, realised I needed to shave, got topless again, passed the razor over my face pretty methodically, and finally got dressed again in a different jumper. I felt good about my date, even though in hindsight it seems kind of strange to bring a guy out to a bike fair on a first date.

The Christmas bike fair was held in a bowls club that wasn’t really a bowls club. It was a bar. It was a pretty nice bar in fairness but it was full of bikes and people and I didn’t really understand what was going on. I met Lucy outside and kissed her on the cheek and looked at her and then I could remember what she looked like. She had straw coloured hair and she looked familiar to me. I don’t mean familiar because of the party I mean familiar from before the party. But I didn’t really think about it, I just went in with her and got us some pints of Ubu and Trumans ale and walked around the fair with her. It was weird seeing bikes in a pub that weren’t a hundred years old and nailed to the walls. In Ireland they love nailing bikes to things. But in the bowls club they were professional bikes and they were on display everywhere and there were salespeople pitching specialised parts. One of the specialist vendors had laid out all his shiny chromatic bicycle bits on trays with little cocktail sticks sticking up with labels on, like they do with meat in a butcher. He wore an apron to complete the illusion and I said to Lucy that I liked this very much. In another room there was a couple of exercise bikes set up side by side next to a big clock like the one off Countdown and people would race against each other on them, red versus blue. We joked about that and moved around the place.

She was interested in the bikes in the manner of an enthusiast who isn’t too enthusiastic. She had bicycle posters, she said, and when I asked her how many bikes she had she held up three fingers and smiled. She was looking at the sales stands while she held her fingers up. I thought maybe she was too engrossed in the bike stuff to look up at me while we spoke but she never really came across as much of a geek as the rest of the people in the place. I don’t know if she was trying to act cool or if she genuinely was cool, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt because that’s what you do when you really like somebody who likes bicycles. I looked around at the others in the room. There were a couple of dogs trotting around on leads and a lot of checked shirts, and it got to the point where I couldn’t tell hipster from authentic cyclists, since they appear almost exactly the same.

Upstairs there was a stand for people supporting the Herne Hill velodrome. She said she’d been there a few times, although not for a while, and got into a conversation with one of the fundraisers. He told us that the land the velodrome was on had been in the same hands since Shakespearian times and I tried to be funny about the whole thing by saying to Lucy that by supporting the velodrome she’d really be supporting Shakespeare, which is always a worthy cause. It wasn’t very funny but the fundraising man smiled anyway, and I guess that was nice of him to do. Maybe I should have just told the “cycle path” joke. But I didn’t think of that at the time, which is a pity because it honestly is a good joke.

Lucy bought a plastic water bottle from the velodrome people with their logo on the side. She promised a little girl at another stand that she would put some of their gold handlebar tape on her Christmas list. We sat down and drank a little and joked about whatever, and she twisted the water bottle around in her hand without really noticing that she was doing that.

After a while she opened her bag to put the water bottle in and admitted she hadn’t brought the copy of War and Peace with her to lend to me, and she would tell me why: because it was shit. I said that a couple hundred years worth of everybody else disagreed with her but okay. She said it wasn’t that it was shit, not really, but the ending was shit. She told me about the ending and about some bits in the middle in a really cloudy and vague way. She told me that lots of really interesting things happen. People fall in love, they join the army, they go off to war, they die. Things like that, she said, and all this she told me without giving any names or major plot twists away, which I appreciated even though it was clear to me that I really wasn’t going to read it anymore, since she had said it was shit. And what’s a couple hundred years of everybody else to the word of a girl with straw-coloured hair and a pint of ale? It’s not much, is the answer.

She said that she was reading Brave New World now, actually had just finished it, and didn’t really know what to think. I leapt on that because it’s one of my favourites and I talked all about Mustapha Mond and John the ‘savage’ and that dialogue they have at the end, where it’s really hard to disagree with Mond because he’s so logical and firm about lack of suffering being the most important thing. Even though you know something is wrong with the place and John is onto something, even if he can’t get the words right when he’s talking to Mond. Like he just can’t put his finger on precisely what’s wrong. He has to resort to Shakespeare too. I remembered an interview with Huxley I watched on the internet and wanted to tell her about something he said in it. But I forgot the words, so I tried to tell her about his essay on patriotism and nationalism instead. I said his essays were really good, I had read some in university. I tried to quote him but the thing he said was so long and finely crafted. You can’t really whip something like that out at any old bike fair, it’s really difficult. So I stumbled and bastardised his wording. What I really wanted to say was this, here, I looked it up:

“The personified entity [he means the ‘nation’] is a being, not only great and noble, but also insanely proud, vain and touchy; fiercely rapacious; a braggart; bound by no considerations of right and wrong… As a loyal nationalist or party-man, one can enjoy the luxury of behaving badly with a good conscience.”

Instead I said something else, about how nationalists and patriots and soldiers don’t need to feel bad when really they should. She said it was very interesting and I decided to think she was only half-lying when she said that. Anyway the subject changed.

She had a call and a couple of text messages while we were talking. She was finding out what the plan was for that night and said we were going to go meet some of her friends in North London. I didn’t know much of London. She said she lived in Camberwell. I said I didn’t know where that was, even if I recognised the name. She was shocked and made fun of me for not knowing London. I pleaded green, I had only been here a year. She’d lived here her whole life. Of course I didn’t know where Camberwell was.

The kiosks selling bike things were packing up their stuff and getting ready to leave, and Lucy decided to buy three more water bottles from the stall behind us for different people in her family as presents. She said that on Christmas morning they all go for a jog together as a tradition, which I observed was certifiably insane. She said they do it on Boxing Day too, all apart from the littlest sister who stays behind to make pancakes. I said the little sister got all the brains and told her about big family feast in our house and how we don’t get out of bed ‘til noon.

A guy from one of the closing stands came over and asked Lucy if she wanted to buy a china mug she’d been looking at earlier in the evening, with a cartoon head of some renowned British cyclist on it. She ummed about that for a minute and said she really wanted it. But of course she’d just bought every plastic water bottle in the building, so she was not too keen. I piped up and got it for her because I was sitting there between them and I felt like a dick, just sitting there holding an empty pint glass while she considered a polystyrene box and bit her lip. She really wanted it, so I got it for her and felt like even more of a dick, smiling at the salesman like I thought I could buy affection, like I could buy a mug and that’d be it, problem solved, she likes you. I mean, I didn’t really think that at the time, I only thought it afterwards. At the time I figured I was just being polite and cheesy.

She smiled at me and put the mug away in her bag, then smoothed down her dress. I figured out why she seemed familiar. She looked a lot like a girl I used to see in university. An animal behaviourist and a vegetarian. A hippy, in the nicest way. A girl who I never started seeing in earnest and always disappointed. I regretted a lot of things to do with that girl. Lucy had the same eyes and smile and lips. She looked a lot like her. Of course, I wasn’t going to mention that. Jesus. Nobody wants to think that. That they remind someone they like of a former lover. That kind of thing is likely to worry you, to crash around inside your skull. It’d just be kind of rude. Kind of unwelcome.

She looked at her phone and said we’d better go soon if we wanted to meet her friends. She stuffed all the cycling paraphernalia into her bag with some trouble and said this explained why she was always late to things. She said her bike was nearby. I told her I should get a backy the whole way to North London, or maybe sit on the handlebars. Did she have a basket? I could sit in that easy enough. She smiled and said she hoped I didn’t mind getting the tube to Highbury & Islington and waiting for her there. I didn’t mind, so long as I could find a bar near the station. She said I might see her friend waiting for her too, a Spanish girl called Mariana with curly short dark hair and glasses. I said a lot of Spanish girls fit that description but I’ll keep a look out. We left the bowls club and I walked her to her bike where I said I’d see her soon. Then I wandered up to get the tube across town.

I felt maybe she was a little eccentric or something, or a bit distracted. Everything about the date was super casual, like we were already friends or lovers who didn’t really need to do anything fancy or over-the-top. Like she already knew me and knew I wouldn’t mind taking things really easy. I was sorry I had nothing to read on the tube, except safety signs and adverts about watches and gadgets and other stuff I didn’t need. When I got to the other side I saw three girls that fitted Mariana’s description, so I put my head down and walked to the bar next to the station because I didn’t have the stones to harass, potentially three, random women. Lucy came and we locked up her bike and we walked to KFC. She asked if they had any vegetarian food. I said it’s called ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’. Not ‘Kentucky Fried Avacado’.  She said she ate meat maybe only once a week. I asked the usual question: ethics or taste? An ethics thing, she said, meat is fucking delicious. I got a chicken burger and she just got some chips and I thought we were going to sit down but she hurried us out and said we needed to get drink and get to her friend’s flat.

We arrived there with some beers and rum, smelling of our fast food. She introduced me to ‘everyone’ and introduced ‘everyone’ to me, then sat down on the floor around their coffee table and started chatting to her friend. I put on my extrovert face and introduced myself properly to ‘everyone’, minesweeping the room for names and relationships. I discovered a Dan, a Sarah, a Matt and a Mariana, who had found her own way. I uncovered the link between Dan and Sarah, which was romantic, and the tie between Mariana and Lucy, which was knotted with exchange trips to Spain and other holidays. Dan said something like he used to work with Lucy, and they all knew each other from university somewhere along the way. That’s where the friendships were based really, in university. He sat down after shaking my hand and twisted his moustache, which was thick and impressive over a beardy coat, like a British army officer’s circa Zulu Dawn. I guess he had just kept it on after Movember had passed.

Lucy sat on the floor and ate chips while Dan and Matt argued over what music to play. Matt was a tall guy with a posh voice and thin eyes. He smiled a lot. They put on Jamrock by Damien Marley in the end and then afterwards came the indeterminate dubstep or grime or drum and bass. I couldn’t tell. Tarantula by Pendulum came on, I recognised that one and realised I was instinctively bobbing my head and knee to the rhythm along with everyone else, so I was in good company even if I didn’t really know the genres. I chatted to Sarah a bit. She was a tall girl with an uptown accent, straight outta Suffolk, who worked in PR and laughed heartedly at my shitty jokes about London and all its dreadful stressy quirks. Dan put his hand on her knee to get her attention and I turned to speak to Mariana, who was pretty quiet but looked happy enough. She said she was from a town north of Madrid and I asked her if it was near Leon. She looked surprised and asked how did I know Leon, most people here didn’t. I knew Leon because I had played as the once-powerful Kingdom of Leon in a medieval strategy game for the PC, but obviously I didn’t tell her that. I just said I knew it from a map in history class at school. She looked impressed at my memory in that really brilliant expressive European way, but she really shouldn’t have been. Maps, I said, I really love maps. It’s true though, I do.

Lucy asked when Dan and Mariana were going to have a Spanish conversation and Dan started speaking Spanish with lots of hablos and soys and a really good accent but pulling lots of modest faces and adopting all the expressiveness and hand gestures. I couldn’t stop smiling. All the lispy Spanish words came rolling out from under that British bushel of a moustache. He was really on form and everyone was impressed. I asked donde esta el bathroomo and was told in the hall a la directia and we all had a giggle. By the toilet I saw Italo Calvino and a bunch of Penguin classics I didn’t recognise the names of and I considered complimenting Dan and Sarah’s reading material when I came back into the room. I never did that though. After I came back I just glanced at their bookcase and saw hundreds more all neatly rowed up. Almost every book had an orange or black spine and in parts they alternated, like the skin on an American milk snake. I felt like I was in really strong company and I wanted to talk to them about Italo Calvino but it wasn’t really the proper time, since Dan was making jokes and poking fun at Lucy for putting me on the tube while she pedalled off. He said he had something to tell her, and listen, he was only saying this because he was her friend, but she was fucking weird. We laughed and he turned to me to nod and say that she really was. I told him I already knew, I had just been taken to a bike fair and I don’t even have a bike. And this is just the start, he said.

Lucy put on a green jumper with a load of sheep patterned on it and everyone said what a cool jumper it was, and fair enough it was. The conversation turned back to genres or something else and I looked over to Lucy and tried to catch her eye because I was feeling pretty merry and she looked nice to me in the silly jumper and I wanted to smile her way but she was still picking away at chips. I waited to see if she’d look up. I waited for as long as is appropriate, maybe four seconds, then gave up and thought not much of it and went back to listening in on the jokes. And, although all the people were strangers, everything about the scene was familiar and I knew what had to be said and what had to be done and I felt I had been inserted into the group more-or-less successfully, like a memory card in a digital camera, slotted into place.

A taxi came and we got our coats and jackets and I slugged the last of my tinny of Tyskie into me and followed. The neighbour was seeing somebody out of the flats at the same time and they left their door open. So Dan gestured with a little twitch of the head toward the flat and Sarah took a few clownish sidesteps to their door and peeped in nosily for our amusement but probably also out of a long-held curiosity too. She said their flat was very nice and we all passed the neighbour on the way out the door and got in our taxi. Matt said he’d get in the front so the seat beside me was open for Lucy. She had to go and get cash out or something, so we waited for her to come back and the others chatted shit and joked about her slowing us down when she came back.

I don’t remember much about the journey to the club. I didn’t think I was blinded, but I guess I really was.

At the club, we passed a bouncer who searched the girls’ bags and gave us all a little feel-up while being super polite about it, asking how we were doing and how our night was going. He was the most cheerful bouncer. He gave us all a smile and wished us a good night’s drinking as we each passed. I followed the rest down some stairs and I think Lucy waited a little for me, or I waited for Lucy because we got our hands stamped at the same time. One of us wouldn’t let the other pay but I don’t rightly remember who. The little blue mark on my hand was all inky and bleary, it didn’t really give me any clue as to what the place was called. It was small and it was full to just the right amount of people. A full dancefloor and a bar with two or three possible points of entry. Bassy music reverberated through all the bodies like gunfire and we were all getting our bearings. I decided to volunteer for cloakroom detail and took everybody’s jackets and Lucy’s bag up to the girl in a tiny booth. After that, we drank.

I don’t remember much. I talked to Mariana a lot. I joked about Spain and tried to speak Spanish, but didn’t really try, I was just being really poor at it on purpose, the way you do when you’re clowning around. I talked to Dan a little and said he was really funny. I think I said it about five times. You know how it is. He was polite about it. I talked to Matt and he said he knew the DJ, or the guy who was helping the DJ, or someone on the stage. It wasn’t really a stage, more a section of the floor devoted to the act. I told him I wasn’t really good at telling the difference between dubstep tracks but I liked the sound of them anyway. The same way you might like the sound of a particular instrument, like the trumpet, but you can’t tell what notes they’re playing. I mean, I said something like this, I didn’t describe it as good as all that. He got it, though, he got what I was saying. I didn’t really get to talk to Lucy much in the club.

We were at the bar’s side and somebody had ordered a lot of tequila’s, which isn’t my best shot and by the groans that went up around the place it didn’t seem like anybody else’s best shot either. I said to Mariana that this must have been child’s play to her. She shrugged a Spanish shrug. We did another tequila. Then later we did another tequila. I felt sort of sick after that one, and there was all fire and illness in me, so I waited until everything settled and I joked about something unworthy just to prove I was over the shock of the drink, then waited patiently, then smiled and went to the bathroom. I thought I might be sick, so I went into the cubicle. But I felt fine after a few seconds and just shook my head and laughed at myself. I came out and everyone was dancing, so I danced with them. Then it was my turn to get some drinks for folks, so I went to the bar.

Then something nice happened. Lucy came over to say hello. I said I liked her friends, they were good characters. They were very funny. She said I was doing very well and I smiled. She leant towards me and I asked if she was going to kiss me and she just nodded, so we kissed. I took the drinks back to the others and Lucy gave me a hand. Then we danced some more and Lucy kissed me again. She kissed a little like the girl she reminded me of. We danced a lot more and she disappeared. I danced with Mariana and Matt for a long time and it looked like Dan and Sarah had gone home. Lucy reappeared and we all got our coats and stumbled upstairs and went off into the street. We wandered around for a bit by the roadside. We waited for Lucy to get some water from a 24-hour garage. She came out with water that was flavoured like flowers, like elderberries or something. We flagged down a black taxi and decided to drop Matt off wherever the hell he lived. We all had one sip of the flower-water and decided it was a bad, bad purchase. Lucy asked if she could roll the window down. She wasn’t feeling very well. Orange light passed over her face with every streetlamp and she didn’t move. She just sat there with her head turned, breathing in the stale, cold London wind, her eyes closed and her hands folded over her coat. A strip of hair was caught over her face. She didn’t move it. She looked like she felt bad. That made my heart lurch, seeing her like that. Or it could just have been the taxi. In any case, I think I was quiet on the drive back home.

We dropped Matt off somewhere and he passed a few heavy coins in through the window to help pay. I told him to take them back and he refused. I told him to take them back or I’d just drop them out the window and he refused again, so I dropped one of the pound coins to make an example. But he just threw his arms up and walked away, all wobbly and indignant. We carried on to Lucy’s house and paid the rest. When we got in Mariana got settled into a sleeping bag and a mattress in the lounge. The house was pretty small and the mattress took up most of the floor. Lucy and I went upstairs to her room, where we kissed again. In bed she told me to bite her, so I bit her. I’m not really fussed about that kind of thing but she told me to do it, so I bit her and she bit back and we went to sleep. There was a faint feeling of second chance about the whole scenario and I smiled and felt myself vindicated.

The sensation of a dry mouth was the first thing I became aware of, when I was waking up the next day. Then the feeling of nearby warmth and spindly stray hairs on my cheek. I was pretty happy, except for all the usual physical and mental ailments that follow from tequila. I got up and went to get water and crept past a slumbering Mariana to the kitchen to fill up a pint glass in view of a pretty, sun-shiny garden outside. I can’t really remember the exact layout of the garden through the window but I remember thinking it was small and pleasant. I can’t remember anything else. I think I was still pretty blind, even then.

When I went back into Lucy I lay with her for a while. I liked her. She had a small room, a single bed, a bookshelf on either side, a desk squashed into place in one corner. I saw bicycle posters on her wall. There were a lot of potted plants. About six, or maybe seven. Aloe vera and spider plants and stuff like that. She had a tiny watering can beside them. I liked her and I liked her room and I thought I’d noticed all the interesting stuff so far, so I lay with her another while.

We exhausted the water and I went to get more. When I came back this time I noticed a baseball cap hanging on a rack on the back of her door. It was army green and had two knives, or sort of machetes, and a crown on it. I smiled and asked her when she was in the Royal Marines. She didn’t take up the joke, just said really plainly that it wasn’t the marines, it was the Ghurkas. I said ‘Heh, Gherkins’ because I was hungover-to-fuck and the words just sounded the same and I was running on all the stupid left in my brain and nothing else. She said it was her boyfriend’s cap, but he was dead now. Then she splayed her pale arm from under the bed covers and pointed across the room to a photograph framed in a cardboard stand and said, ‘that’s him’. I couldn’t really see him. I need glasses to see things far away but I never wore them and I wasn’t going to wear them in front of her so I just squinted limply. I asked her what happened, if she didn’t mind telling. She said something like: ‘seventeen bullets and electric fire’. I didn’t try to think too hard about that, so I said ‘sorry’. She said it was okay, it wasn’t exactly my fault. I said I know but that’s the thing you’re supposed to say. She said he was from Portadown in Northern Ireland. I said that was ten miles from my hometown, Lurgan. She said she knew. He’d studied in England. It happened two years ago. I asked what his name was and she told me it was Ethan.

I didn’t know what else to do. I was sad. I kissed her shoulder.

She fell asleep, or I think she fell asleep. But I wasn’t going to. I looked at her bookshelf and straightaway my eyes plucked out three books about Afghanistan without really looking for them. Your mind kind of does that when you become aware of something. I tried to look at the photo again but it was too far away and I could only see a bleary thumbnail of a uniform.

Portadown. Every time I spoke, I must have reminded her of him.

I lay on my back and looked up. My brain came to life, sober and angry, and stormed towards me as if from exile. ‘Seventeen bullets and electric fire’. I didn’t understand the ‘electric fire’ part, I thought maybe it was a military term or something. But the words rang there in my head anyway.

When I was really young and lived at home I would hear the echoes of gunshots from across the fields outside my house. At first I thought it was the British army men but my Dad laughed and told me it was only farmers shooting at birds. I remember I was afraid of the gunshots because I thought someday the farmers will shoot up at a bird and miss, and the bullet will have to fall back down again. What is to stop the bullet falling on my head? My dad said the bullets disintegrate in the air and I didn’t exactly understand the precise physical dynamics of a shotgun shell, like I do now with all my videogame-powered hindsight, so I didn’t believe him. I knew that one day the echo of a gunshot would be one of the last things I hear. I still have nightmares about being shot in the head and, after a long echo, dying of a vicious ringing in my brain.

That’s what the words were like to me. ‘Seventeen bullets and electric fire’. They echoed. They rang.

I mean, I didn’t think a lot of this at the time, it’s just what I now realise it felt like. It didn’t make any sense. At the time I was mostly thinking about how annoyed Ethan made me. Why would you go from Portadown to a warzone? Did he think he missed out? By only catching the tail end of all the horrid shit that happened at home, did he think he’d missed his chance? Why the fuck did he leave her behind, to go and shoot at people? What right did he have to go do that? Did he think he was being brave? Why didn’t he just stay fucking put in England, and be with her?

I stayed annoyed with him for a little while. More miffed than enraged, really. And then I was a bit sad again. I tried to sigh quietly and didn’t really do a good job of it and I hoped she hadn’t heard it. I had the horrible feeling of being traumatised by proxy. So I sat up for a while and then looked at her and she seemed peaceful enough, so I felt better and lay down again. She woke up and we both lay around, not really doing anything just complaining about how sick we felt and noticing how many marks we’d given each other, which seemed like a really teenage thing to do but it was fun anyway. I moaned that I’d have to go to work hungover in the evening and she said she had a Portuguese lesson to go to at noon. It was getting pretty close to that time. I asked her if she had been learning Portuguese long and she said this was going to be her first lesson. She wanted to go to Brazil. I noticed she had a cloth shoe organiser on her bedroom door that had ‘El Salvador’ written on it and I asked her about all the other places in Central and South America she’d been to and told her I was surprised she’d not been kidnapped but don’t worry it’ll probably happen in Brazil, since she wanted to visit Rio de Janeiro, so she wouldn’t miss out on anything. She bet me a tenner she wouldn’t get kidnapped and murdered and I observed the illogicality of gambling on her own death, since she wouldn’t be around to pay me when I inevitably won, but anyway I took the wager and we shook hands on it.

I said in the meantime I could teach her some Irish and maybe that would get her by. She asked how I knew Irish and she seemed surprised. I said I knew some of it because I was a big dirty Catholic, when really I should have said I went to a Catholic school and they taught Irish there but I didn’t give a tupenny shite for all that ancient guff. I said my name should have been a clue, I mean, it is a very Irish name and in Northern Ireland you don’t exactly have a name like that if you’re Protestant. You’d have a more English name. She said my name didn’t strike her as overly Irish and I shrugged and said it really was. She said she thought Lurgan was a Protestant town and I said it was more of a fifty-fifty split. Portadown is definitely protestant, she said, and yeah she was right about that, it mostly was. Ah, I said, the good old ‘murder triangle’. That’s what it’s called, the area around my hometown and I always tell people that when I’m talking about home because, I don’t know, it’s an interesting and strange sort of thing to say and I guess it makes you seem like you’re from an interesting part of the world, right on Britain’s doorstep, when actually it’s kind of boring. She asked why it was called the murder triangle and I said, you know, on account of all the murders. I think it had the highest murder rate in the UK for a good while but not everybody was killed, it was mostly political, only some types of people were killed.

‘Like who?’ she asked.

‘Um. Policemen,’ I said.

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘and soldiers.’

‘Yeah. But I didn’t really want to say.’

She said that was okay, it didn’t really matter. She remembered now, there were two soldiers killed by the IRA during a pizza delivery to their barracks. I told her about the man who was supposed to have had a hand in it and how he lived in a Lurgan council estate that was a sure-fire Republican stronghold and basically a no-go area for the police and I told her how he always got arrested any time something like that happened but they could never pin anything on him. I told her my dad owned a shop down there and the police only ever came down in plain-clothes because if they came into the estate in uniform it would likely cause trouble or a riot or something worse. I plucked a story out of the dozens I have about my dad’s shop, about a bomb scare. And how the Post Office inside always gets robbed and pretty much the only reason for that is because of the word ‘Royal’ in ‘Royal Mail’, which I guess makes a legitimate target for the IRA. They never take money out of the shop’s tills because that would be like hitting their own people. She listened to the story and I watched her for her reaction and I’d already noticed that she wasn’t really opening her eyes at all. I put it down to the brightness of the room and her hangover. I mean, there are plenty of days when I don’t want to open my eyes. Plenty of mornings I’d like to be blind.

It was eleven. I told her she should probably get up or she wouldn’t learn any Portuguese. First though, I told her to bunk the class. She was hungover and she wasn’t going to be receptive to mad new words. I was certain of this. She declined. I guess because it was her first class she felt it was important, or maybe because she planned to go back to visit South America she knew she really had to learn. They spoke Spanish in El Salvador. Either way, she said she was determined not to miss it, except she didn’t look like she was moving very far when I told her to get up. She just told me to get up first.

I got dressed and went downstairs and found Mariana awake and she said she didn’t feel too badly, which I said was down to a tolerance of a certain Spanish substance formerly known as Tequila but hereby referred to as the Bad Stuff. Lucy came down and repeated the exchange, then walked me to the door, so I kissed her and left. I thought about saying something about meeting again soon but Mariana was in earshot and I didn’t really want to arrange something or talk nice when somebody could overhear. So I just walked on out.

I got to a main road and saw a Nandos and instantly recognised the place. I fucking knew where Camberwell was. I let the buses pass by and just walked home, partly because I was liking the cold fresh air and sunny day, but mostly because I didn’t want to get sick and vomit on the top deck of some heaving red monster. It made me uneasy to think of travelling by any other means, so I put my hands in my pockets and used my feet for an hour. I did the usual thinky thing on the dander home. I felt pride and anxiety and embarrassment and amusement all around the same time, or at least in such quick succession that it was hard to notice falling from one feeling into the other. My face must have looked like an actor doing a warm-up exercise, expressing every possible emotion one after the other. Oh no, I thought, the dreaded fit of ambivalence. A bit melodramatic, I know, but anyway that’s what I thought.

I got home and slept and went to work and sent Lucy a message asking her how she felt and asked did she learn any strange new words. She replied the next day saying yeah, she had felt pretty rough but she had learnt a bunch of new words but listen, she wasn’t looking for anything more right now for a whole bunch of reasons but she had a really good time and it was good to meet me. I sent a message saying, ha ha, no worries, take care of yourself, and signed it with an X. Then I got drunk on rum and watched a few Scottish sketch shows on TV and chatted to my housemates and got a little more drunk before dinner and played a videogame and in the videogame I killed a bunch of animals for their hide, then shot some pirates and burned their drug fields with a flamethrower while some tune by Skrillex was playing over the top, then went hang gliding and knifed some more pirates and protested to the lead character’s girlfriend that no, all this violence wasn’t really having an effect on me I was just doing whatever, blah blah blah and all the rest of that shite. I wasn’t really enjoying myself, I just did it all because the game told me to. At this point I was pretty drunk and it was late and I felt beaten down and tired so I climbed a radio tower in the game and jumped off the top and killed myself and that gave me a bit of limp distraction for a few seconds before I turned the console off. I listened to some music and went to bed and had a nightmare about being shot, except in this nightmare I was two different people and we were both shot, one after the other. Usually I wake up after being shot but this time my mind just transferred itself into the person next to me in the dream, and he was shot as well. Then I died and woke up and drank from the bottle of water by my bed that I keep ready as a good cure for this sort of thing, and then I went back to sleep.

I still remember the first dream I ever had about being shot. I was lying in bed in some rundown hotel when Daniel Day Lewis stormed into the room and blasted me in the head with a revolver. The sensation inside your head upon being shot in a dream is unique, I think. Everything goes black and there’s a surge of fear, but it’s fear without any real association with anything. Just isolated, indeterminate terror. And it feels a lot like a shockwave, or an electrocution, or an intensely uncomfortable dubstep except that it’s completely silent, taking hold of your brain and shaking it, first vigorously then relaxing at a very fast rate. And when everything is dark and still again, and the feeling is that maybe you have finally passed away, that’s when you wake up.

When I woke up the next morning I didn’t feel too bad. My hangover was mild and I didn’t have work to go to and I felt like maybe I wasn’t too bothered about the Lucy Tolstoy thing anymore, so I smiled and got in the shower and rinsed myself mellow and bumbled down the stairs, mostly in a shrugging mood, so that if anyone asked me anything I resolved to shrug at them and happily enough just get on with my day off.

Then I sat down at my computer in the kitchen and checked my emails and felt miserable. I started thinking about Ethan the dead soldier and, now that I think of it, that was probably a stupid thing to dwell on. I tried to think about it but it wasn’t making any sense to me. I remembered the words ‘seventeen bullets and electric fire’ and it didn’t make any sense at all. An electric fire just sounded like it was a fire started by an electrical appliance; it wasn’t a military term, at least not one that any first-person-shooter ever taught me. It started to annoy me and I wanted to know the real story and anyway I was curious so I did the dumb thing and searched on the internet for ‘portadown ghurka died afghanistan’. I saw the name ‘Ethan’ and a list of stories that looked like they were all about the same thing, so I chose the second one down and it gave me a long story in the Belfast Telegraph about the soldier.

He had been killed by one of the Afghan national army soldiers the British had been training to fight against the Taliban. He was just about to turn 27. I scrolled down and it said that he had died from gunfire and the blast of a rocket propelled grenade. So, rocket fire. Not ‘electric fire’. I hadn’t heard her right. She had been turned away from me, to face the photograph on her desk. The word had been lost in pillows. It made more sense now. I was still curious so I read some more and kept scrolling down. I read about how he learned to speak Nepali with an Ulster accent and I read about his humanitarian work in El Salvador and I read about the funeral and I read his family’s dedication and I saw his picture and he fucking looks like me, he fucking looks like me, he fucking looks like me.

And it was like a gunshot from a hunter’s shotgun, reverberating down the years, hanging far off in the sky for decades, silent and ready, had finally come down. Down through the cold sunshine, down through the cumulus, through the roof of my house in Streatham, through my housemate’s keyboard, through the ceiling above me and through the crust of my skull.

I got up and walked around a bit and drank from my bottle of water. I didn’t feel very good about it. I got out my phone and thought about doing something. Then I was sad for the guy, then annoyed with Lucy. I wanted to send her an angry message. What the fuck was she thinking? Did she pull me just because I reminded her of him, and that’s it? Did she have any idea how fucking weird it feels to be made a doppelganger? I sat down and started typing a message on my phone. I looked at the photograph again. El Salvador. The humanitarian soldier. Someone who behaves badly with the benefit of a good conscience. But then, that wasn’t for me to say. He still looked like me.

I deleted the draft message and put my phone away because I knew it would be a dick thing to be angry with somebody whose boyfriend has died. I didn’t really know how she felt about anything. I wasn’t going to understand it. I knew I couldn’t. So I just sat there for a while instead.

Later on I told the story to my friend on the phone, the same guy I had stayed up drinking whiskey with, in the cottage in Cambridge. But I laughed while I told it and spun it all the funny ways so that when he heard it he wouldn’t think I was too upset about it. He still said it was really odd of her though and I would say something like: ‘Yeah, just as well I’m not seeing her again. Ha ha.’ Even so, I was sorry after I said that.

I thought a lot of stupid things, like maybe sending her a nice box for putting her memories of him in, so that she could ‘move on’ and all that psych-jazz. I wouldn’t put my name to it, so she wouldn’t know it was from me. I thought about maybe sending her a book that would put into words how I felt better than I could put it, then signing it ‘A parting gift’ or some sad shite like that. But I never did any of those things, partly because they wouldn’t do the feelings I was having any justice, but mostly because they were creepy and insane things to do. I put it out of my mind as best I could and went to work and boiled the kettle for a week until it was Friday evening and I fell into a bar in Croydon with some good friends, where there was plenty of karaoke to be had. I know, most people wouldn’t have put Croydon down as a karaoke kind of place.

My friend Marius was bouncing in the seat next to me, he was so excited to sing some songs and he was smiling pretty much the whole time. He’s a hard guy to describe. He gives a lot of impassioned speeches and he loves as many little things as he loathes and he has a huge database-like brain for general knowledge and pop culture stuff. I once described him in university as a human RSS feed and he was very, very chuffed with the comparison. He’s probably one of my best friends. His girlfriend sat on my other side and intermittently got up to chat with the old blokes at the bar. Our friend Scottish Katy was there and she was laughing a lot and flipping through the folder of songs, making fun of all the terrible things. They had two songs by Jet but neither was the song everybody knows. They had Blue by Eiffel 65, which was the first single I ever bought and, I don’t know, I suppose that probably says a lot about me. Katy saw a song by All Saints and put it down on a slip of paper. Marius was filling out slip after slip, he was really going for it, karaoke was like a cult to him and he was convinced of its restorative and cathartic powers and I wasn’t going to question him on this point because I would have done anything to be restored and cathartisised, or whatever.

Marius was called up and sang Tom Jones and the lady MC told all the ladies in the bar to calm down, it wasn’t the real Tom Jones. Katy got up and sang her All Saints, which has a spoken word section about a jilted girl asking why her lover left and it sounded quiet and sad when she did it with her Scottish accent. After two beers I was just about ready to sing. They called me up and I sang National Express by the Divine Comedy, which the karaoke organising lady said she had never even heard before but, ha, was it a funny old tune. We drank more beers and gin until the whole pub was pitching in with songs and singing along to their favourites and there was an old lady called Brenda who got up and sang Somewhere Over The Rainbow. When she sang it was like we weren’t sitting in a wood-panelled residential bar in Croydon anymore. It was like we were at the opera and all the people from her neighbourhood had suited up and slipped into a grand theatre and were behaving themselves for Brenda, and staying quiet just to hear her sing. Although obviously, it wasn’t. There was still a lot of chat in the bar. The only time you didn’t hear the chatter was when you were up singing yourself because you were too busy thinking of the words. Anyway, Brenda had a really beautiful voice and when I was getting tipsy and started belting out the Irish tunes I could see her sitting by the speakers at the front clapping and singing along with my Irish Rover, which is a good song to sing because you don’t really need to know how to sing you can just punk it up, no worries. She passed our table a few times in the night and we had laughs with her and Marius wanted her and me to duet Fairytale of New York, since it was the season and all. He tried to convince me of the perfection of this plan and said: ‘Think about it. Brenda is an amazing singer. And you’re a drunken Irishman!’ The parallels with Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan were ultra-evident, he said. I said if it came to it I would do it. But really I didn’t want to ask her in case she thought I was making fun of her. In the end I found myself on my feet doing the duet with Katy instead and Marius had to come up to me and tug on my jumper and tell me I was singing Kirsty’s verses as well as Shane’s and for Christ’s sake stop, those were Katy’s parts, you dick. I recognised this and said ‘whoops’ and then we did the rest of the song and I felt the pub singing along and got hugged from behind by a woman who was swaying and drunk and absolutely loving life. I was pretty happy with the whole situation and I was laughing more of the words than I was failing to sing.

Brenda said she would sing Fields of Athenry with me. But I didn’t really want to sing that song because it was too nationalistic. It just reminds me of politics. So we didn’t sing anything together after all. I sang Whiskey in a Jar.

Then we had the last drinks then danced a bit, then I was on the bus with Katy, who fell asleep, then we were at Coldharbour Lane and I woke her up and hurried us off and I was at the roadside putting Katy in a taxi and handing her a clutch of notes, then I said something like, ‘sorry for abandoning you but there’s someone who lives around here, I have to go and see someone who lives around here and I know that’s a shit thing to say but.’ Then I closed the taxi door and crossed the road and I was outside Lucy’s house ringing her doorbell once and stepping back one step and waiting.

I heard the window above me open and saw her head poke out, so I gave a stupid, embarrassed smile and said ‘I know this is strange’ and at 2am it really was. She disappeared and another girl who must have been her housemate peeped out to see what was going on. They both answered the door together and I remember thinking how good that was, that they had each other’s backs, you never know what weirdos might turn up on your doorstep.

Lucy was wearing her sheep-patterned jumper. I gave a stupid half-laugh and gestured to it before finally remembering why I was there. I asked if I could talk to her and I knew it was stupid but I wouldn’t stick around long. She said I should have called ahead but I said I didn’t really know I was going to be here, I was just passing on the bus and next thing, yeah. I think she saw that I was harmless and a pretty sorry sight at this point because she said I could come in and her housemate said she’d leave us alone now. So we sat on the stairs and I must have repeated ‘I know it’s weird’ in that dumb drunk voice at least a few times because I’m always so desperate to make sure people know I have a modicum of self-awareness and I guess when you’re hammered it really comes out. I said I wasn’t bothered about the one-night-standishness of it all, that wasn’t it. But I wanted to know, did she pull me just because I reminded her of him, of her old fella? She looked at me like… I don’t remember how she looked at me, but I remember it wasn’t annoyed. It was kindly, or something. She said, ‘No.’ I told her about seeing his picture and I said he looked like me. She smiled and shook her head. I said he fucking does, in a pretty pathetic sad voice but still I must have sounded pretty insistent. She went upstairs for a moment and came back down with the photograph in the frame from the desk in her bedroom. She sat down beside me and handed it to me. The frame wasn’t cardboard after all, it was wooden and smooth and sturdy. I saw it up close now. I couldn’t make him out too well but he didn’t look like me in that picture, he was in fatigues and holding his gun and looking at the ground with a grin on his face almost as wide as the big camo paint streaks he had on. A real braggart. But that wasn’t really for me to say, so I didn’t.

I said I had thought he looked like me, same eyebrows and big nose, and I stroked down my nose lazily when I said it. She said ‘No, not really. Maybe you sound like him a bit but that’s all.’ She smiled again. I think she understood. I laughed a bit. I said I thought she had wanted me because I was a doppelganger. She said no. I asked that it was just a thing then? Just a shag? And I remember thinking that I never use that word, it’s stupid, but I guess it was the only one flippant and silly and drunk enough to fit. She said, yeah, that’s all it was.

I felt a wave of something, like sorry relief. I breathed out and I must have stank of beer but I think I had to sigh real bad. That’s all I wanted to do. A big sigh like the pneumatic hiss of a bus by the roadside, letting out all the bad. So that’s what I did and afterwards I felt better. I smiled. I must have sat there for a minute because she said, ‘Okay, you need to go now.’ I got up and said, ‘Yeah, of course’ and I must have apologised, I mean I hope I did, because this was the last time I saw her and everything. She said it was okay, she was just impressed that I still remembered where her house was. I didn’t say ‘Yeah, it turns out I know London pretty well’ or anything memorable like that. I just said that an estate agent from around these parts had once screwed me over, which was true. Memory’s a funny thing like that. She let me out and I said bye and I walked away and I don’t think I looked back at her but I don’t mind. I’d rather that be my last regret about Lucy than the whole dead soldier thing. She really was beautiful.

I don’t remember how I got home. Maybe the bus. Maybe I walked it again. But I remember waking up at home and expecting to feel like a dickhead. Like I had done something super embarrassing. I remember wondering why I hadn’t been attacked by remorse about anything yet. I lay there with my eyes closed for a long while, and it was for no reason other than my hangover was really bad. After a time I got up and got in the shower and washed myself in the hot water and smiled and almost cried and everything was okay.

Anyway, this long piece of tarmac walks into a bar and orders a drink. A big guy walks up to the bar and bumps into him, spilling the tarmac’s pint. The tarmac growls and storms out. The big guy says to the barman, ‘what’s his problem?’ gesturing after the long streak of black tarmac. The barman says, ‘you’re lucky he didn’t kill you, pal. That guy’s a cycle path.’

Well, I thought it was funny anyway.


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