Marcus Bastel was born in Frankfurt in 1967. He was internationally educated in ﬁne art practice, studying for his degree in the UK before pursuing post-graduate studies in Amsterdam He has won several awards and his video work has been shown across Europe. Screenings in the late 1990s in Amsterdam, Glasgow, Manchester, Milan and Paris were accompanied by invitations to publish. Early writings include art catalogues and his ﬁrst collection of short stories Part of the narrative ﬁrst published in 2004. Having taken some time to focus on his career development within the Computer room of the BAGD course at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, Bastel is now creatively a force to be reckoned with. This long awaited second volume draws together still more of the different strands of his writing to date. He lives in London.
An incident and other stories By Marcus Bastel
Penguin Books Published by the Penguin Group Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA Penguin Books Australia Ltd, 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2 Penguin Books India (p) Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi - 110 017, India Penguin Books (NZ) Ltd, Cnr Rosedale and Airborne Roads, Albany, Auckland, New Zealand Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank 2196, South Africa Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Ofﬁces: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England www.penguin.com First published 2005 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 Copyright © Marcus Bastel 2011 All rights reserved The moral right of the editor has been asserted Set in 8.5/10 pt [Palatino] Typeset by Ho Chee Ting, Jessica Printed in England by Clays Ltd, St Ives plc
Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
Contents An Incident
An incident It had been a day in late October most of it unusually warm, trees dropped more of their golden leaves and the streets got covered in them. A ﬁne drizzle started when the light vanished and soon everything was wet and with the sun gone the temperature started to plummet. He was glad he was wearing his coat, it kept the cold out, it was the damp air that was the real problem. It sat heavy on the cloak and was quick to penetrate ones bones. The light from the streetlamps bounced off the wet leafs, and reﬂecting in the ﬁne water that fell at a steady pace. The air had a thick earthy smell, a country smell he had thought at the time. He had had a good day and was in no rush to get anywhere regardless of the weather. There was hardly any trafﬁc at the time, and he felt as if the whole world had mellowed in the wake of autumn. He heard voices behind him turned brieﬂy and walked on, it was the moment before he was pushed in the back then held by his shoulder as he felt the cold nozzle of a gun push into the lower back of his skull. They shushed him to stay quiet as hands moved through his pockets, taking phone and wallet, pulling a wad of notes and a small camera he tended to carry. The gun jabbed at his head and he was pushed to the ground. He shat himself. They asked him to put his hands behind his head. He was lying on the ﬂoor soaking up water, shaking in anticipation of a shot being ﬁred and a bullet splattering his brains, instead he heard them run and stayed on the ground and shook and ﬁnally rose and walked, his buttocks clenched tightly, as fast as he could. 1
‘I tell you later,’ he told the neighbour who handed him a spare key, and went up the stairs, shaky hands fumbling with the lock and then the door ﬂew open and he closed it and went for the bathroom. It felt like the cops just raised and dropped their shoulders when they spoke on the phone. A couple of them came over to take his statements and he talked and his hands moved through the air as he explained to them. But they had seen it before and being alive meant that it hadn’t been as bad. He had no description to give them, and now they shrugged their shoulders in full view and then he shrugged his and when they left he locked the door and wondered how to leave the house again.
Headphones She was running out of patience at that moment and lurched forward in order to pull them from his head, but he was swift to move his upper body back and she never got a hold of him. He grinned at her and at that moment she hated his grin. He grinned like an idiot she thought, then said it out loud straight to his face. Something she might have avoided under normal circumstances, as he was prone to ﬁts of anger and it had happened more than once that he had lashed out at her, given her a nasty bruise on her arm or her shoulder. One time he got her below the eye and she wore a pair of large sunshades to hide it after. The way they did in movies. It didn’t make her feel like a star, it made her feel shabby and somewhat bad, cheap or worthless was another way to put it. It was a time when she considered leaving him and her friend Claire was there with her and told her she had to and that she owed it to herself. Of course she didn’t in the end it was a foolish thing of Claire to say. He had made her see that, Claire was a single woman and she was jealous of the thing she had with him, that’s why Claire told her she ought to leave. It had made sense to her at the time, but that time had passed and today she thought Claire might have had a point, even if nothing much worse had happened since. She looked at him again, he was still grinning, his eyes half closed and his head nodding along to the music coming from the headphones, even if she could not hear it. ‘You look like an idiot,’ she said out loud, much louder than the ﬁrst time. And followed that by telling him that he was in fact an idiot, it was empowering to be so frank without the fear of retribution. He raised an eye brow and shrugged his 3
shoulders and she stood there for a moment longer before she turned to leave the room. In the kitchen she looked at the box the headphones had come in. A noise cancelling break through it said on the box. Noise cancelling she thought, that was what she had become to him, a noise, that had to be cancelled out in order to be tolerated. And what was he to her? A nuisance most of the time, a nuisance she had run out of patience with. She would be gone in a moment if she had somewhere to go to, someone to take her there, rely on etc. She wanted a pair of those headphones so they could sit in silence with no need to talk. She realized that he was as weak as her, he did not want her anymore, but he would not leave or let her go. If there was a way to talk without the need to argue, they might resolve something. But they hadn’t been able to talk for a long time. Instead he would say and then they would do, there were rarely discussions. Discussions had turned one of her front teeth black, it was another nail in her cofﬁn. She wasn’t being listened to, so mostly she decided to stay quiet. Quiet unless spoken to. Mostly she was just being ignored. Unless he wanted her to spread her legs that was the only time she was of remote interest, but only for as long as it lasted. The moment he was done he would roll over and light a cigarette, get up to get a drink or watch the TV and fall asleep. The moment he was done was the moment her pussy started craving a man. One that would love her, adore her and want her, she wanted to feel wanted. One who wanted to talk to her even after he’d fucked her. With Kyle she just felt used and more and more she felt used up. She was wiping the surface of the kitchen top, she’d been wiping it for a while, she’d felt tears inside her but she didn’t cry. She was 28, she had a long way to go yet. She heard his steps behind her felt his large hand grab her arse, but didn’t turn. 4
‘I’m going out,’ he shouted. She nodded. ‘You hear me?’ She turned and nodded again. He grinned and nodded too, then turned and walked from the kitchen. She heard the door open and she heard it close. After a while she went back to the living room to tidy up. Kyle took two steps at a time and bounced out of the house to the rhythm of the music ‘…never wanted to be anybody’s anything at all,’ he sang loudly. These headphones where the best thing he had ever wasted money on he thought. No more of Betsy’s whine. She had become a real pain, sooner or later he would have to get rid of her, he thought. But not just yet. With music turned to the max, the rest of the world had disappeared. It was as if he was inside a music video directing it by the turn of his head or the blink of an eye. Directing it by the way he turned a corner by the way he moved and looked and that way the power of the music grew within him as if he in fact was the music and it was the music which was directing everything he saw around him. It would be better even if he’d had a smoke before. But this was different already. He had gotten in a kind of running speed, running around groups of people or through them if that seemed the way to go. He was almost dancing he realised, the star of a musical. He pushed through a group of middle aged women who appeared to voice their displeasure loudly and probably called him things that he could not hear. This was the way to go he thought and raised his middle ﬁnger high as he walked on. He had left on a whim, now that he was out and walked a couple of blocks he wasn’t sure where to go. Andy was living about a block east from where he was and Steve another one and a half from there. He’d try Andy and if Andy wasn’t in, well then he would try Steve. 5
In the end he ended up with Teddy whom he ran into on the street after neither of the other two were home. Teddy was more of an acquaintance than someone he claimed to know or went to see. Teddy always had money and never seemed to be without a hot chick by his side. Teddy was like the rich guy who wanted to be street, but street with amenities. Teddy had a nice pad another couple of blocks east and Teddy was rolling down the road parallel to Kyle for a good few minutes trying to get his attention until Kyle glanced towards the road and saw him wave. That’s when Teddy stopped the car and Kyle walked up to it. He grinned and Teddy said something he couldn’t hear. He took the headphones of f at last. ‘Noise cancelling,’ he said, ‘you hear nothing but pure thrash metal through these man, not one unwanted noise penetrates your ears with these, it’s listening heaven.’ Teddy nodded. ‘They make you go deaf in time though. ’Kyle shrugged his shoulders. ‘Life has that effect.’ ‘I’m on my way to see Theresa, she has a few people over for drinks and to admire the sunset from her top ﬂoor balcony.’ ‘Oh, yeah!’ ‘Yeah, I saw you, thought I ask if you want to come. Have a drink, a smoke,’ he shrugged. ‘Unless you’re busy.’ ‘I kind of ﬁnished being busy for the day, was just, you know,’ his hands moved through the air spinning round an invisible centre, ‘thinking things over you know. A drink and a sunset sounds… like good to me. So yeah let’s. ’Teddy ﬂexed the cars muscles, the car roared. ‘You’ve met Theresa, right,’ he said as they drove, ‘big girl, tall, big bones, big everything, but…’ and he looked over at Kyle, ‘in a good way you know, good big. Dark hair, blue eyes. You remember her right?’ Kyle nodded, but didn’t. Theresa included there was seven of them when they got there ‘You remember Kyle here, right?’ Theresa looked him over, her eyes had gone lazy and she looked stoned. 6
‘Don’t think I have.’ ‘Kyle here knows you.’ ‘I think I got you confused.’ ‘Well come on in anyway, so I can close this door. We are all friendly. You want a drink, a beer, something else?’ ‘Beer is good if it’s cold.’ ‘Yeah,’ he nodded again, looked around the large living space he was in now. Expensive designer furniture, two girls sunk into corners of deep chairs giggling. A couple out on the balcony, leaning against the railing and the sunset, big and red in the distance. There was a fat girl on the ﬂoor in front of a large screen playing video games. A guy stepped out of the bathroom, pushing his shirt into his pants with one and slicking his hair back with his other hand. Tommy, he said and waved one hand in their direction, stepping around the girl on the ﬂoor picking up a bottle and stepping out to were the couple stood. And there was Theresa handing him a beer, an inch or two taller than him and smiling, her teeth showing a trace of lipstick. She wasn’t what he would have thought of as big, she was more like pure sex he thought and the low cut top made sure everyone knew. Aside from wanting to walk Theresa through to the bedroom and show her a thing or two he felt a little out of place, these were not his people. The only thing familiar was the thick sweet smell of weed being smoked right around him and it was Teddy who was passing it on to him now. He did what he always did, he had one deep drag, followed by three somewhat smaller ones after which he would be wiped out. His mouth started to dry up when he passed the joint to the still giggling girls and felt like he needed a cigarette followed by another. The sunset looked pretty he thought and took a swig from his bottle. He motioned Teddy to follow and they stepped out on the balcony. The red glow from the sun had intensiﬁed, but was soon to come 7
to an end. Teddy knew the couple and moved over to talk to them. Kyle was friendly from afar, smiled and faked a deep interest in the sunset as he was downing more from the bottle. He would get out of here once the beer was ﬁnished, he was getting vibes, these were people bound to ask things. He didn’t want to answer any of the questions though, they would be the same questions people always asked when they met you the ﬁrst time trying to ﬁgure out who you were and where you belonged. But it wasn’t anyone’s business who he was, he’d told Betsy that more than once and he wasn’t going to tell these guys here, not tonight anyhow. He was getting itchy and needed to do something, like run around or turn the music up loud and listen and that was when he recalled the headphones around his neck. He emptied the last of the bottle then stepped forward reaching out to tap Teddy on the shoulder. ‘Kyle,‘ Teddy said as he turned, ‘this is Kyle.’ They raised their hands or nodded and said ‘Hi’ and Teddy proceeded to introduce Linda and Clark to him. ‘Linda and Clark and Teddy I have got to go,’ he grinned his mouth was dry and his bottle was empty. ‘I’m sorry,’ he lifted the bottle to his lips and felt the last bit of liquid drain from it moistening the inside of his mouth. He thanked Theresa and felt like he had a sock in his mouth as he spoke. ‘You are welcome to have another drink,’ she said. He wondered whether she was trying to pick him up. ‘That weed is strong stuff,’ he said. ‘I must go now, some other time, OK.’ He waved at everyone else on his way out. He had actually winked at her, he thought, he had raised his hand, pointed at her and winked when he said his last words. And he had meant it, he had a thing with women, a radar sort of thing were he could tell what was going on and his radar had told him that she wanted him. But he had to get out and once 8
through the door he pulled up the headphones and sealed his ears from noise and then Slayer started reigning blood onto his mind and drown him with the excellence of that album. He walked and he swallowed and his feet went along with the music and he would have to get some water and chewing gum or something. And then he was walking back home, nicely spaced, the night not quite night yet and his mind on the music and he walked with long steps and along to the rhythm, carrying a bottle of water from which he sipped now and then. Another corner and a crossing, someone ﬂashing their lights and on the other side shops Turkish or Algerian or Italian, general stores, vegetables and fruit out front. Hundreds of them next to each other and going on for miles, lit by different colours, different lights, ﬂickering. Sirens to go with the blue lights ﬂashing past. Trafﬁc, and the drums come in strong and run right through the length of his body. So much trafﬁc he thinks and then the drums come in again harder this time, harder he thinks, wants to scream it out loud and steps into the street again and onto the road and there is a roar he never hears and the van catches him full on, hits him so hard before he knows that he is being hit and then the tyres squeal and all other noise ceases and heads turn, people spin and run and the van stops dead and the music is still playing, but no one is listening now.
The Hero They had been coming for breakfast every other Thursday. Eight o’clock sharp they would pull up outside grab the paper from the passenger seat and climb out of their trucks. Billy behind the counter brought them coffee, a glass of water, then asked whether they were ready to order. ‘We need just a minute’, Roy told him. Billy moved away with a sigh he never sighed, knowing damn well what the two old-timers were going to order in a minute even if they appeared not to. But they had surprised him once and since then he waited them out, even if there never was a second surprise. ‘What do we need a minute for,’ Johnny asked? ‘Well did you see the front page and the article in that paper you got there?’ ‘I saw it.’ ‘Well we need to talk about that.’ Johnny nodded. ‘But I need to eat before I get into politics with you Roy.’ Roy shrugged and raised an arm to indicate for Billy to return and take their order. ‘And what will it be this morning?’ ‘The usual for me,’ said Roy. ‘And I have the same,’ Johnny said. Billy nodded and turned and sighed and walked back to the counter to stick the order up for the guys in the kitchen to have it done. ‘It’s a ﬁne morning,’ Roy said. ‘Getting cold,’ Johnny pointed out. They sat by the window from where they could look all the way up or down the street. Looking up the town soon stopped and the road curved out of view. Looking down there was the historic courthouse that was now empty and good for nothing. You got the odd tourist stopping by to take a picture. They would stop again for a coffee or order some food before enquiring about their whereabouts for they were lost. There had been over 1200 people living in Silverwood City only 17 years ago, 10
now it was not even half of that. One of those was Edwin Royler who made a career joining the army and became a hero when he came to the rescue of three wounded guys taking himself a bullet in the shoulder and another couple in the leg, while getting them to safety. When he returned to recover the town greeted him, like they hadn’t greeted anyone in a hundred years or more. Banners stretched across the street welcoming him back, the whole town waved and cheered and celebrated. He had been awarded the Silver Star for bravery in the face of the enemy and became the towns most celebrated citizen at the age of 24. A few months on he was shipped back to the warzone he had escaped from. Now 2 years later he was on the front page of the paper again. The ﬁrst time around Ed’s platoon had been shipped out, there wasn’t a man he didn’t know. The second time he travelled alone on a domestic airline. He had to change ﬂights in Europe until boarding a military craft to take him the last stretch. When he arrived, his platoon had been decimated by death and injuries. There were those who had lost limbs and those who had lost their minds. Only about a dozen of the old lot remained. They had grown harder! His own smile was forced, but the worst part was being no longer sure why he was there. He blended in and followed orders as he was meant to. But had the ‘Why?’ and ‘What for?’ question on his mind, a question a soldier should not dwell on for too long for it will demoralize and might kill him in the end. He was not there to think, he was there to follow orders. He wondered whose orders they were and whose interests they were ﬁghting for. During the night he often woke abruptly. He worried, same as everyone! Three month after his return Miller, one of the new guys, a tall kid of 21 caught a bullet right next to him. They had been in a ditch. They had been waiting there for hours and 11
then suddenly the quiet was broken and Miller hit. Not once, but twice, twice in the head. There wasn’t much left of the head Ed saw when he dared to move and look. He pissed himself and started to cry, it took ﬁve hours until they came to get him. They put him on drugs for a time and that made it better although he knew he wasn’t right and still had those same questions on his mind. He sat down to write a will, just in case he assured himself. He had written one before, but hadn’t taken it too serious, this time nothing about it was amusing. He handed it to his commanding ofﬁcer, who looked at him, asked whether he was OK, then ﬁled it under R. If he was to get killed the envelope would be opened. Ed was in no particular rush. Roy and Johnny sat there in silence, looking up and down the road and casually ﬂipping through the paper. ‘The boy is on the front cover of the paper again,’ Roy said. ‘Yes, they are sending him home now.’ ‘Coming home as a hero, is he?’ There was a little sarcasm in Roy’s voice. Johnny shrugged his shoulder then replied. ‘He pulled those boys to safety.’ Roy snorted. ‘I was a Lieutenant!’ ‘And what did you ever do,’ asked Johnny? ‘I trained them, I trained them not to get into trouble and trained them to get each other out, if they did.’ ‘But you never had a bullet ﬂy around your head.’ ‘In theory I did, fought many battles that way. Now Johnny snorted. ‘In theory I got near killed in battle.’ ‘What happened,’ Roy asked although he had heard the story before. ‘I was wounded before we went into battle. ‘ He shrugged his shoulders. ‘It doesn’t make you a hero!’ ‘I never said I was a hero in the ﬁrst place, don’t be putting things in my mouth.’ ‘I knew this would go bad.’ ‘I told youI needed something to eat before talking politics with you.’ They sat in silence and sipped their coffees while they waited for Billy. 12
Since Miller had gone down next to him Ed was overanxious, anything made him jump, pills or no pills. After a couple of weeks and no obvious physical damage they moved him back to active duty. Tense like a coiled snake he would quietly sit with the others, but rarely said anything. He knew it wouldn’t do any good to voice his doubts. They all had them and they all had their fears as well. And then they would be send out again to survey an area which was rumoured to be a favoured hiding place of the enemy. They moved in at daybreak and found little to substantiate that claim. After they had secured the area and were about to retreat, there were a number of explosions. No one was hurt. They all returned to the relative safety of their camp, somewhat relieved for the moment. But tension hung in the air, growing thicker over time until there was another discharge like the one just gone and then it would start over again. Billy ﬁnally arrived with their plates. A short stack of pancakes, bacon, sausage and fried potatoes. They asked for extra syrup and Billy pointed at the bottle on the table. He poured more coffee and they all grinned and nodded at each other and he returned to the bar, while Roy and Johnny started on their breakfast. They chewed quietly, cut and sliced purposefully, eyes on the food, they spooned and shovelled until their plates were emptied, each now placing their cutlery on its side and reaching for the napkin to wipe away at their mouth and hands until satisfaction was reached, then drank steaming coffee from their cups, until those were placed back on the table. There was a pause. ‘Now then,’ Roy started. ‘They had him shipped back, and it said the funeral would be later in the week.’ ‘That’s not all it said.’ ‘He’s still a hero.’ ‘Maybe he was in the past, like when you look back and you see the past and he was a hero then, but now with what 13
he has done, I’m not sure!’ ‘He did his best out there.’ Roy leant forward, his elbows pushed against the hard table top and he almost hissed at Johnny. ‘Did you actually read the paper? Read it and understand it or are you going soft and senile.’ ‘I got the gist of it.’ ‘Did you read it?’ ‘I read it.’ ‘It’s not something you do you know that, it’s practically treason, certainly un-American, very un-American. If he wasn’t dead I would charge him for it.’ Johnny rufﬂed his thick silvery hair. ‘It’s not that simple Roy.’ ‘It’s that simple when I am looking at it. Imagine they would all do this, it would be anarchy. It would send the wrong message to people. It would be the end of this country. I would charge him and have him discharged without military honours of any kind.’ ‘That’s sort of what he asked for.’ ‘He denounced this country, asking what he did.’ Billy strolled over and hushed them, and they quieted for a moment as he started to clear the table. ‘You seen the paper Billy?’ Johnny asked. Billy nodded. ‘Yeah, I’ve seen the paper.’ ‘You read about Edwin?’ ‘I sure did.’ ‘What did you make of it?’ ‘You mean the funeral?’ Both Roy and Johnny nodded. ‘Well I’ve never served, like he did.’ He paused. ‘I reckon he had a reason for asking it though.’ Roy was opening the paper and straightening it out before he started to read from it. ‘Edwin Royler, highly commended for bravery in action not too long ago, is returning home after being killed in an explosion. Only a month prior to this sad event private Royler drew up a new will, stating explicitly that he was to be laid to rest in a civilian grave, without any military involvement. He also insisted on a complete absence of any army paraphernalia that apparently 14
being a guard of honour, a ﬂag or any other reference including a uniform. A small service will be held at Silverwoods Cemetery on Saturday afternoon. ’Roy looked up from the paper and huffed. ‘It will upset the parents!’ ‘I imagine they are upset already, their son just got killed.’ ‘And then brought shame on the family. What do you think Billy?’ ‘I don’t know Roy, he’s dead!’ ‘I reckon it’s treason, he’s a traitor. It’s anti American to deny the army to give him a proper burial. I would have him dishonourably discharged, the army and the country should wash their hands of him.’ ‘But that’s what he did.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘He had himself discharged.’
Childhood ‘Do you remember how it was when you were all but a small child with nothing but play on your mind?’ They looked at each other, then she shrugged her shoulders. ‘I guess’ she said. ‘Don’t you recall the times you were out playing until your mum called you in for supper, and straight after you were out to play again?’ ‘Well that’s at least twenty years ago, probably more.’ ‘But you must recall the notion. No responsibility, all you had to think of were your dolls or whatever you played with.’ She seemed to grow irritable. ‘And what of it?’ He sighed. ‘I wish I was allowed back there.’ ‘How do you mean?’ ‘Back were you wouldn’t have no worries.’ ‘It’s a luxury, even as a kid, there is millions, maybe billions of kids who don’t know whether there will be supper.’ ‘I know, but they are not my fantasy.’ ‘You could claim insanity and have yourself committed or commit a crime that would put you inside, you get three square meals a day that way and don’t have to be responsible for nothing, they even wash you when you can’t be bothered.’ ‘It sounds like it could be quite a horrible way to end up though, besides once you get old, real old and decrepit and you can’t look after yourself anymore that’s the exact way it goes.’ ‘Only if you can pay for it.’ ‘And if you don’t then what?’ She shrugged her shoulders again. ‘I don’t know, but if you are by yourself and living in western society without a family that is meant to catch you and 16
look after you, you may just waste away alone in some stinking hole of a room and get found weeks later with a thick swarm of ﬂies buzzing around your carcass and a smell that caused the neighbours to call the cops in the ﬁrst place.’ ‘You paint such rosy pictures of my future.’ ‘No, not your future, but perhaps a future without responsibility, perhaps that is all it could ever amount to.’ ‘Rotting ﬂesh?’ She shrugged her shoulders. They ordered coffee and pie and when they left, they left a generous tip on the table. ‘I think my childhood was different from yours,’ she said as they split. He watched her.
Enigma There was a pop followed by a fast moving swishing sound and then he was hit. The bullet went right into the soft tissue around the right shoulder. It went in deep and fast and then it stopped. He tumbled backwards and fell. All colour had left his face and his mouth had gone dry. Warm blood was oozing from his armpit and ran down his side. He shivered. The man with the gun and another man in a white lab coat started to walk towards him. They both smiled as they did and the man with the gun holstered the weapon. When they stopped right in front of him the man with the lab coat bend down, while the man who had shot him just stood and watched. ‘I am a doctor,’ the man in the lab coat said to him, ‘let me take a look.’ The doctor removed a pair of scissors from the breast pocket of his coat and started to cut away the shirt until the wound was no longer obscured and they could all see the hole the bullet had made. Next the doctor sterilised and cleaned the wound until the bleeding stopped and put a light bandage on. The man on the ground was cold and thirsty. He wondered whether he would die and felt very tired. The doctor shook a tablet from a small glass container and handed it to the man, he got a bottle of water from another pocket and handed that to the man as well. The man swallowed the tablet and washed it down. ‘Am I going to die?’ The doctor shook his head. ‘What about the bullet?’ ‘The bullet is biodegradable. It will dissolve soon. It’s to cut medical costs. We are currently testing it!
Robots They sat across each other in the small café at the end of the road. The weather was cold for the time of year, midsummer had passed and August not yet arrived and outside the window people in coats walked about as if it was October. Dale shook his head. He had shaken his head ever since they had sat down and started talking. They needed to talk she insisted and that was when he shook his head ﬁrst. But before she could say anything else the waitress arrived to take orders and she fumbled for the menu as he ordered coffee and scrambled eggs, toast and fried tomatoes. ‘Think about robots for example,’ he said as the waitress walked away and before she could say anything else. She didn’t want to talk or think about robots when most of the time she wished that he would be more emotional and perhaps more human in the ﬁrst place. Of course that was probably a female want, with women being emotionally more responsive then men to start out with. Did she want him to be more feminine? No that wasn’t it. ‘What are we trying to achieve building them?’ ‘What?’ ‘Robots, what are we trying to do building them?’ ‘I don’t care Dale, I don’t want to talk about robots. We didn’t come here to talk about robots, we came here to talk about us.’ ‘There is nothing to talk about darling,’ he said, losing they are completely the way he stretched the word. He leaned forward and put his hands on hers. ‘Think about it, the thing we want to do when we try and build robots is to copy us, just better. Right?’ He took his hands from hers and leaned back looking around the room. 19
‘The perfect robot would look just like you.’ ‘I am no robot,’ she intercepted. ‘No but if you could be copied, still made from ﬂesh and blood, undistinguishable from any other person, but customizable, programmable, that would make the kind of robot we want to create. ‘Your dream girlfriend, programmable and always willing.’ ‘Darling, why are you so bitter?’ ‘We need to talk Dale and not about robots.’ He sighed. ‘Well?’ ‘Well we are not getting on.’ ‘We are not? I thought we were getting on great. We had sex twice last week and it was good,’ he grinned, the immature grin of a boy, of a man. She sighed. ‘It was just sex Dale.’ ‘We have sex when we get on not when we argue.’ ‘Sometimes we have sex so we get on.’ ‘I don’t.’ ‘No you want to have sex regardless.’ ‘I want to make love.’ ‘That’s not how you make love Dale, you should know.’ ‘It’s part of it.’ ‘Are you intentionally being difﬁcult?’ ‘I am just saying, sex is part of love.’ She could feel her tension rise, felt how he was slowly winding her up, ever tighter until she would snap and lash out and that would be it and then there would be tears, probably hers. What she hated was the where they were, she didn’t want to make a spectacle for everyone else in the cafe to point their ﬁngers at. She closed her eyes tightly as the waitress delivered their order. The smell of freshly brewed coffee went up her nose and reminded her of hot summer days gone, when they had been sitting out, drinking coffee, the smell of summer all around them and the smell of coffee perfected those 20
moments. At that time she had looked into his smiling eyes and thought that she would love him forever and now she knew that she wouldn’t. She opened her eyes and stared at the croissants and the small jars of jam laid out in front of her. There was a ray of sun that cut across the table and made the dust and steam swirl in the air. Somehow she had lost her appetite in the last 10 minutes. ‘I think I have to go.’ ‘Wait, what about your breakfast, we only just got here and well you can’t just leave it.’ ‘I can.’ ‘But why?’ ‘We are over Dale,’ she said and got up abruptly. His glass of freshly squeezed moved dangerously, but settled again. ‘You are not serious.’ She didn’t respond, just started moving, away from the table and towards the door as tears welled up in her eyes. The ﬂat became quiet and empty. Lighter patches were visible on walls were pictures had hung and cupboards had stood. He slept on the sofa from that moment on.
Weeds The man was sitting with a couple of young boys who were no older than perhaps ﬁve and seven. They sat at a picnic table by the side of the road, a place where you would stop your car and rest for a while before continuing your journey, people walked their dogs and had food, kids ran around screaming and everybody was urged to use the toilet. The boys had picked up some sticks from the ground and with much palaver, screaming and laughing had waded into the grass, which in parts stood almost as high as they did. They had swung their sticks with force so that they made a swishing noise as they cut through the air and cut down the grass that way until their father stopped them when he returned from the restroom. ‘It’s only weeds dad,’ the taller of the two said. His dark brown hair curled up in most directions and he kept pushing it out of his face. ‘Yes weeds, dad,’ the smaller one proclaimed supporting his elder brother. In contrast his hair was lighter and shorter and as a result looked tidier altogether. He wore a short-sleeved chequered western style shirt, which he never wanted in the ﬁrst place and now could barely be peeled out of, the left pocket had been torn and only a corner of it together with the snap button kept it from coming off completely. They both wore shorts and sandals, sat on a wooden bench and had their legs dangle about impatiently. ‘They is only weeds,’ the younger one repeated, but didn’t seem as sure any longer. ‘What is weeds,’ he asked them. ‘The grass is,’ said the older one and the little one was nodding in agreement. ‘I mean what is a weed or what makes the grass be a weed?’ ‘Mrs Pale, says they is,’ one of them said and they both nodded vigorously. ‘She says anything that can’t be eaten like 22
a tomato or a melon or a carrot or beans is a weed.’ ‘And what about a tree?’ ‘Well not if its got apples or pears on it. ‘Or avocados.’ The other one nodded and you could tell that both were eager to end the conversation and get on with thrashing the grass as they had done before and which had seemed like loads of fun only a few minutes ago. ‘Plus you can make a ﬁre with the wood and make things like toys and tables from it.’ ‘With a knife and a hammer and saw.’ They both nodded. ‘So you are for cutting them all down?’ ‘Well, not the ones with fruit on, but all the others aren’t good for nothing.’ ‘What about for climbing on and building tree-houses in?’ ‘Yes, ok dad so what’s your point.’ They both started to look a little downtrodden. ‘It’s just that I am not so sure there is something like a weed!’ ‘How do you mean?’ ‘Well you said a weed was something with no use to anyone, but maybe when it grows its ﬁrst priority is not to be of use to anyone but just to grow.’ ‘What’s priority?’ ‘It’s what is most important. Like when you are hungry the most important thing for you is to eat something so that’s your priority.’ ‘What if you are thirsty?’ ‘Then to drink something is your priority.’ The boys nodded. You know how your friend Paul comes and borrows some of your toys from time to time, well you are not just here to lend him toys because that would mean if you had no toys you wouldn’t be useful to him and that would make you a weed.’ The boys chuckled at that thought. ‘People can’t be weeds.’ ‘No, but what I am saying is that your priority isn’t 23
lending toys to your friend.’ ‘What’s my priority dad?’ At that the man paused. ‘Remember a short time ago I asked you both what you wanted to be and you said you wanted to be a man, so I guess your priority is to grow big and your brother wanted to be a painter because he likes painting pictures.’ ‘I don’t want to be a painter no longer though I want to be something else now.’ ‘Like what?’ ‘I don’t know yet, I am still thinking on it!’ ‘OK, it’s a good thing you have time to think it over. But what I am meaning to tell you is that the grass you cut down is there just for itself not for anyone else, because it has a right to be there as much as we do, and it’s alive as well and so the most important thing for it…’ ‘Its priority,’ the older boy fell in. ‘…yes, its priority, is to grow and be alive.’ ‘But dad, grass can’t be alive, it’s not going anywhere.’ ‘Actually it does go to places, it goes slowly and you don’t much see it move, but you see it when its there. You noticed how all the grass and the ﬂowers and the trees they all make seeds and they make those so they can move a little.’ ‘So they can grow again somewhere else?’ ‘Yes! So to call a bushel of grass, weed, is wrong because it didn’t just grow so we could eat it, but mostly it’s there for it’s own good, because it wants to be.’ The boys, started to look a little confused as if they had a hard time understanding what he was explaining to them, but he thought they got the basic idea of it for the moment and perhaps when he had ﬁnished they would understand what he meant. ‘So what’s your point dad,’ they asked after a moment or two had passed. ‘Well there is a number of points, the ﬁrst one is that 24
everything that grows is alive and so you should treat it with respect. And the second thing is that you should enjoy having all those plants and animals and appreciate them. They don’t just grow anywhere. You know when you look up at the sky at night and you see all those millions of stars, they are so far away that you would never be able to reach them even if you lived a hundred years or longer.’ ‘Like a thousand?’ ‘Or a million thousand?’ ‘A long time.’ ‘The closest planets like Mars and Venus and Jupiter and Saturn they have nothing growing on them, so we are lucky to sit on a planet with trees on and birds ﬂying through the air.’ ‘Or the moon, no one is on the moon or is there?’ ‘No, no one is on the moon. So you see we are very lucky to have all the things that, ﬂy and crawl and grow and smell.’ ‘What’s on the moon?’ ‘Just stones and sand, but no trees or animals.’ ‘What about people?’ ‘No people!’ ‘Are there other people anywhere else?’ ‘No one knows, it’s a very big place with all the planets and stars in, so there may be some somewhere, but we may never ﬁnd out because they are so far away. ‘Ok,’ the elder one nodded. ‘Yeah,’ said the smaller one nodding rapidly. ‘Can we go now?’ ‘Sure.’ The boys grabbed their sticks and waded back into the deep grass where they hesitated for a moment, then turned back to have a knightly sword ﬁght instead until ﬁngers were clipped and some tears shed. Soon after that they got back into the car and drove on. 25
The Man ‘I know many things,’ he said and nodded again. The panel opposite him consisting of three people was unsure how to continue with the situation. ‘That would be all,’ the one in the middle said and rose, pushing his chair back as he did. The other two followed the example of their colleague. ‘Of course you do,’ the shortest one said as they stepped through the door, which slowly closed behind them and fell into the lock with a ﬁnal click. He didn’t know what to do next. He couldn’t stay seated forever, but he wasn’t sure about the where and what and that worried and confused him. ‘I know many things’, he said again.
Humanitarian Aid Most of the tables had been busy when he entered, now the place had emptied, the lunch time crowd thinned and only a few tables remained occupied. Ache was chewing on a gristly steak armed with only a blunt knife for a weapon. He had to push and wriggle the knife rather than slice and cut. A small group of men at the table next to his grew smaller yet until there was only three. ‘Take humanitarian aid,’ said the fat one in the middle. Short red face and a big bushy moustache. The third man was glaring into his coffee cup and shaking his head, it was unclear whether it was in agreement or meant as a way to show that he was listening, his hair had been thinning for a while and he had grown accustomed to it, wearing it cropped short exposing, a high forehead. ‘Well what sort of life does it offer?’ ‘It keeps people alive.’ ‘But does it give them a life?’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Well, it’s all good to help and keep people alive, but are they better of starving for the next 20 years, barely alive, with no prospects. Just about managing to cling on, because humanitarian aid keeps them.’ ‘Are you saying they would be better off dead?’ ‘You are a fat greedy pig Pat,’ the man with the cup said loudly. The fat man snorted. ‘Listen, how many times have you opened the paper and read about people neglecting the upkeep of their pets. Like some guy having ten dogs and they are close to starvation when found by animal welfare, they call it inhumane treatment. Humanitarian aid often keeps 27
people on the brink of starvation, if they were dogs it would be called inhumane.’ ‘They are not though, so what is your point. You want to stop all aid? ‘No, that’s not possible, not now, but we have to face up to the fact that certain areas can only support a certain number of people to prosper and have a life. Just think of a room, there is a number of people you can ﬁt into it, comfortably, but of course you could squash double or triple the amount in there, they would ﬁt, but no one would have a good time.’ ‘Birth control,’ said the man with the cup. ‘You know what I think about that,‘ said the man with the moustache, ‘it’s against my religion.’ ‘Hank,’ said the man with the cup which after looking at once more he ﬁrmly placed on the table eyes still very much on the object before he looked up and at the man who had just been named Hank. ‘You know there is 25 living Sumatra tigers out there in the wild. Twenty-ﬁve! At the very same time there is a billion fat people sitting in front of their TV’s watching Big Brother reruns eating fries and growing ever fatter. And the planet is being ransacked for those people, those twenty-ﬁve tigers will have to go as well, and they will and you know it and I know it and you are worried about birth control being against your fucking religion.’ ‘Don’t say fucking religion, it’s serious, it’s my beliefs you are insulting.’ ‘For fucks sake when was the last time you saw an angel hover above your house?’ With that he pushed his chair back and rose and he was a tall man 6’2“ or 3” easy. ‘Think about it, it’s not that complicated.’ He straightened nodded to the fat man and walked out. Ache who had been following the conversation turned his eyes back to his plate, a ﬁnal scoop of mash and some recently chewed on bits of gristle. He placed 28