Wednesday, 10 January 2018

New Year's Resolutions

So, here we go. It’s January 2018 and I’m still doing the same old shit. I’m not doing the job I know I should be doing, and I’m clearly not the type of person that I should be. The face in the stained bathroom mirror is not the one I’m used to seeing. My eyes are even more sunken and bloodshot and my teeth don’t even look like they belong in my mouth. I’ve let myself go a lot in the past twelve months. This time two years ago I was fresh-faced and athletic, but I lost sight of what I should be doing and became…this.

My head is still fuzzy and my legs feel like they’re asleep. I can’t tell if it’s the usual sea birds I’m hearing or if that’s just my ears ringing. Stumbling, I lean in to grab the sink before quickly realising it’s full of vomit. Whoever did this is probably still passed out face down in the front room after whatever happened last night. Recoiling, I try to gain balance by leaning back on the towel rail. I’ve forgotten what alcohol does to the body, especially when combined with a lack of food. I’ve really not been eating as much as I should be lately. The outlines of my ribs are beginning to rise out of my skin and I honestly can’t believe that I let myself get like this. I look like a bloody junkie and I’m weaker than a starving dog.

When I first came here I knew exactly what I wanted, and actually had a plan to get that. That plan didn’t involve finding a cheap place to live and spending most of my time stuck inside it, making connections with people who have no value in the long run. Nobody passed out in that front room right now is someone I need. They’re just in my way. All I’ve done here is dig myself into a rut trying to follow a sense of normalcy. I have failed myself in every way. Maybe my resolution for the New Year should be to just give up and accept this as my lot in life. Going back would lead only to ridicule at this point, I can’t let the others see me in this state. They probably already know too. It’s probably for the best that I stay here, going to work at the corner shop and coming home to hide. But what would even be the point of that? I’d just be trapped here forever and that would be the worst fate.

No. I can’t be giving up now, it’s been two years and I’ve gotten nowhere. It’s time to change that. I need to fix myself, a new year is a time for change isn’t it? I don’t have to be this person any more, I can do better, right? Go back to being fit and healthy, start setting achievable goals again. Get back on the horse, do what I came here for and prove that I’m not as lesser as everyone at home seems to think I am.
Ditch the miserable gaggle of stoner losers in the front room and make some proper connections, with powerful people even. A new look would be a good place to start for sure, starting again in a new place might also work too.

They’d all be laughing if they could see me now, looking across at my fragile frame and laughing at how I’m a pathetic creature on the outside too. Fuck it. Fuck them. That’s my plan for the New Year, I’m going to turn this around and show them how capable I actually am. When I return, I’ll be the one laughing at how pathetic they all are! Sure I’ll pay back that debt, with interest! I’ll bring back more followers than they could ever want for. Heck, I could even throw a world leader or two in that cult if I try! Nobody will ever doubt me again!

With shaking hands I push myself up off the rail and try to stand again. On my first step I almost collapse but manage to stay upright. It’s only one failing step, by this time next year I’ll be more powerful than I’ve ever been. But before I can get there I’ll need to do something about this body.

Ignoring the mess I grip the sides of the sink and take a good hard look at that hollow face staring back. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to do this, so I hope I can still remember what to do. Biting my bottom lip hard I brace myself for the sting and let my talons break out from beneath these fingernails. That’s always the worst part! Blood mixes with the bile and I gag at the smell. Sucking my sore fingers I wait for the pain to calm down before continuing. Bracing myself again I slam my face into the mirror. The glass breaks but I don’t break any skin. My head hurts now, but I need to do this properly. Smashing my head a second time I break the flesh enough and begin to pull myself from under the surface. My vision fades and I can feel my real body being pushed out and rejected from the cells. The deadweight begins to subside and I can scrape together my form again. The fresh, cold feel of the mirror welcomes me and I drop back into it. Patrick Neer falls down face-first into the basin and I take my first breath of truly fresh air in a long time.

Ha! It feels so good to be myself again, and not trapped in that decaying shell. It’s almost like déjà vu to be looking at him through a glass screen. It’s been a shitty two years knowing you Patty, but damn I’ll remember them for eternity. Happy New Year old boy! Giving one last wave to my vomit-soaked former self I turn away from the mirror and walk into the black fog ahead. It’s a New Year, so it’s finally time to find a new me. 


Saturday, 30 September 2017

Missed Connection

All I could do was yell in frustration as the train left the platform without me on it. My mad dash across the bridge had been for nought, and I was left sweating and angry on Platform 2 as the 17:40 to Lincoln chugged away from the station and sped around the bend. Had my train from Grimsby not been delayed at Habrough I would’ve made my connection in plenty of time. I dropped my bag and threw my empty paper cup at the ground, not thinking about how it made me look. As if to prove my point an old couple and a sleepy-looking teenage boy stared at me like I was a crazy lady, and I can hardly blame them. I probably should have taken the direct train but it was cheaper to change at Barnetby, and according to the conductor that was where I was.

I knew Barnetby was a small rural village but I was expecting the station to be bigger. This place only had two platforms, with the Information Desk and a glass-box waiting room indoors. There were a few metal benches and a pole-mounted station clock standing in the middle of Platform 2. The usual signposts denoting the station name weren’t present, but I trusted that the conductor knew the route well enough. After taking a few deep breaths I flicked my hair out of my eyes and lifted my bag on to my back. It wasn’t very big or heavy, just a small rucksack carrying my headphones, charger and whatever book I was reading at the time. The colourful stars pattern made it look like it was designed for someone younger, but it was cheap and did the job so I didn’t care. I turned and headed back over the bridge towards the main building, avoiding interacting with the few people there. The departure boards were above the Info Desk and I needed to know when my next train out of here was coming. Shuffling past a man in a grey suit and a young couple sharing headphones, I pushed through the double doors to what I guess could be called the foyer.

A middle aged woman with bobbed blonde hair sat behind the glass screen. She was more over dressed than a typical ticket desk attendant, with her lazily applied pastel pink eyeshadow and overly-white teeth. Maybe she literally dressed for the job she wanted, but it made her appear stuck up and off putting. When I approached, she remained slouched across her chair looking disinterested. Ignoring her, I checked the screen showing the names and times of destinations and departures. Much to my relief a train to Lincoln would be arriving at 18:05 on Platform 2, and there would be another one at 18:15 that would go through to Nottingham. Luckily I wouldn’t have a long wait here. Not only was the station small but it was pretty isolated too, and I didn’t want to spend even one hour stuck in a place where I couldn’t even get a £2 cup of coffee. The road outside was a long flat line, stretching out on both sides until it met the horizon. There was no sign of the town, only a wind turbine and three small houses a few miles away upon the hill. Other than that, there were just crop fields surrounding the station. It wasn’t as if there was somewhere to go out and buy a magazine from. I sat down in the small waiting room and texted my train times to my dad. He replied back with a smile-emoticon and “gr8. Will pick you up.” My phone’s battery was only at 68%, but that would probably last until I got home.

The only other people waiting there with me were a mum and dad with two toddlers, and a college-age girl in a hood resting a skateboard on her knees. There was a vending machine next to the door, but a paper sign stuck to the front said it was Out of Order. I took off my bag and relaxed into the grey plastic chair to idly flick through Twitter for a few minutes. A train pulled up to the platform and the small family got up and left. It was 17:55 so this one wasn’t my train, but I prepared to leave anyway. Lifting my bag by the handle, I got up and went back out to the platform. It was quieter now, the man I’d passed by and the old couple who’d watched my little tantrum were gone. The boy and girl were still there, huddled against the wall and not looking up from their MP3. I sat on the blue metal bench near the couple and messaged Dad again, “train nearly here see you soon x.” The battery icon was showing 42%, but I wouldn’t really need it once I got on the train. Before long it was 18:03 and I jumped up ready with my ticket in hand, even more eager to get back home. I watched as the station clock ticked round to 18:05 and listened out for that familiar horn. Staring in the direction I knew the train would come from I rocked back and forth on my toes impatiently. Why wasn’t the train showing up? Had there been a delay? Had there been an announcement? It got to 18:08 and the train still didn’t show. 

Gritting my teeth in order to prevent another public outcry, I turned sharply and marched to the Info Desk.
The lady was staring into space until I knocked on the desk in front of the glass screen.
“Hi,” I said, “is the train to Lincoln delayed?”
She kept staring for a few seconds before blinking as if she’d just woken up.
“No.” She said. “It should be here soon.”
Trying not to sound forceful, I tried again “Are you sure? The board said it 18:05 and it’s way past that.”
This time she only nodded.
I slammed my hand on the desk a little too hard, “When is my train getting here?” I pleaded, “I need to let my dad know!”
At first she was just silent, before forcing a smile and saying “It should be here soon.”
I was about to ask her again, but gave up right as I opened my mouth. She was wasting my time.

Huffily, I hoisted my bag over my shoulders properly and trudged back to the platform. It was still warm out, and the dry heat was making my jeans stick to my legs. My hair felt dry and all I could think of was the warm bath I would take when I got home. The next train couldn’t get there soon enough! My phone buzzed in my hoodie pocket and I whipped it out in time to see a new message from dad, “Safe travels, see you soon.”  I replied to let him know “train was delayed, will be on way soon” before switching the device off to save the last 36% of charge. There was a whistle and a metallic grind and my heart leapt in relief. I looked around to see a train that was pulling up to the opposite platform. Had I read the time wrong? Because it was 18:15 and this train was definitely not going towards Nottingham. Was the departure board broken?

Confused, I went back to try the lady at the Info Desk. Ms. Clueless was the same as when I last saw her, slumped over and staring lazily through the glass screen. The departure board was still showing times, but wasn’t listing any destinations. Gripping the edge of the desk I demanded answers from the nation’s worst rail employee, “What time is the next train to Lincoln? I need to know now.”
She gave a wide grin that looked fake, “It should be here soon” she said in a chipper tone, “what does the board say?”
The board remained blank. I gritted my teeth, “I think, it might be broken.”
She didn’t respond and carried on smiling at me.
This time I couldn’t hold myself back, “Tell me when the next damn train to Lincoln is!” I yelled “I need to know now, I have to get home now!”
She still didn’t react. Slamming my hands on the desk, I tried again “When is my next train? Do your job and tell me!”
She shrugged and said “I’m sure it’ll be here soon.”

Unable to take any more of her vague and useless drivel I stormed over to the waiting room, dropped back onto the chair and cried into my lap. This isn’t what I needed today. I needed a bath and a sleep in my old bed more than ever. At least this time nobody was watching me, the girl with the skateboard wasn’t there anymore. Maybe she got on the train that just left? The sun had started to go down by then, with the orange glow beginning to bleed into the sky. Drying my tears on my sleeve I pulled my phone out again, my dad would need to know that I might be here for a while. I switched it on to be met with the Battery Only 20% notification. I swiped it away, it would be enough for this text but possibly not any more. “Train is delayed, dunno when I’ll be back now.” Quickly I turned it off again in case that would help, and immediately began looking for a plug socket. The waiting room walls were almost entirely windows, and the only visible power outlet was behind the vending machine. There was no way I could reach that.

Giving up I zipped my phone back into my bag and went to stand out on the platform again. The station felt a lot more isolated now. The headphone couple were gone along with the sleepy-guy who’d been staring at me earlier. Had there been another train? They could have just left but it would have been a long walk into town, I hadn’t seen a bus or car go by for a while either. I sat back on the bench, staring eagerly at the bend in the track to the left. Hoping that, maybe soon there’d be a train coming around it to get me out of there. My eyes flicked between watching the tracks and checking the hands of the station clock. It was around 19:15 when it began to get a bit darker. The lights in the main entrance came on and the clock face lit up too. Even the lights in the houses in the distance switched on one by one. I had no idea why anyone would be living out there, miles away from the town or other people. What would they do in an emergency? Surely that wasn’t Barnetby. Instantly curious I fished out my phone again, aware that it would probably be for the last time that night. I switched it on to see it only had about 17% battery, but it was enough to let me open my Maps app. I tapped the icon that would make it jump to show my location but all it brought up was a blank space. Scrolling around didn’t bring up any place names or landmarks either. As the battery was low it was possibly glitching so I tried reloading the app again. But this time the “unable to find your location” message popped up. At this point I knew it was pointless to try again, so I just gave up and put the phone back.

The heat of the day finally began to fade and the evening chill was welcome to me. I still listened out in hopes for a train, but the air was quiet and dead. Nothing but the stirrings of birds and the low hum of the turbine from a few miles away. I covered my head with my hood and rested my face in my hands. All I could think about was dinner and my old bed which I couldn’t get back to soon enough. I could feel myself drifting off as I stared out at the fields again. My head kept sliding out of my hands and I’d snap myself back into focus. I must have been super tired because at one point I started seeing things. The tall crops started to look like waves and the lights in the houses turned off and on in what looked like a pattern. My sleepy daze was cut short by the sound of the heavy front doors scraping open. Curious, I looked around through the windows of the waiting room. Was someone else here to get a train?

With the lights all on inside, I saw a short man in a mustard-green canvas coat walk into the lobby. I was surprised to see another person show up so late. Had he walked all the way from Barnetby? Or maybe he was one of the people who lived on the hill? He bought a ticket from the lady and then came to stand out on the platform. His dull ginger hair was messy as if he’d been out in the wind too long, and his face was noticeably tanned too. He stood right on the edge of the platform with a noticeable slouch, and shuffled from one foot to the other every few seconds.
It was late and my interest in being around people was dead for the day. I hunched over my knees some more and hoped he wouldn’t stand near me.

Much to my dismay, the man in the green coat came and stood at the edge of the platform to the left of the bench I was sitting on. From this distance I could hear him either talking to himself or making some weird noises with his mouth. Wrapping my hoodie even tighter over my head I stared at my feet. Peeking up I saw that he was making a side-glance in my direction. I put my bag on my lap and pretended to be looking at something inside it; anything to avoid possible eye contact with this guy. I peeked up again and he was looking back at me through his straggled hair. I rummaged in my bag some more, even taking out my dead phone and acting like I was messaging somebody.

Clearly I didn’t seem disinterested enough, because the next minute he was standing beside the bench making a warm grin.
“Hey, nice bag.” He chuckled. “Bet that’s from somewhere fancy!”
I had to hold myself back from groaning and sounding rude, so I kept looking at my phone and shook my head.
He made an exaggerated frown and laughed again “Really? You seem like such a fashionista!”
Usually I’d tell him to screw off at this point, but it didn’t sound like he was being intentionally sarcastic. He was more like an embarrassing Uncle, and was making me feel just as awkward.
Holding my bag tight I looked up at him and forced a smile, “No, not me.” I said. This time I finally got a better look at his badly-tanned face. He had uneven freckles and his right canine tooth was missing giving him a goofy look. I tried not to laugh at him. I don’t think he could read body language, because he kept standing there trying to talk to me. “So, where are you going?” He asked, way-too enthusiastically.
I probably should have lied, but I’m not good at thinking on the spot.  “My dad’s house” I told him.

He took a step back and I thought he was going to leave me alone, but he stood there and shrugged before saying “Aw, going home is nice. I’m going home too.” His tone and demeanour was more relaxed, however I still didn’t feel comfortable talking to him. I went back to messing with my bag as he started grabbing at the pockets of his coat. He pulled out a familiar looking orange train ticket and waved it towards my face. “Here’s where I’m going home to. I haven’t been there for a year.”
Reluctantly, I looked at what he was showing me. In bold black type it read STD, One Way, To Shroby. (I had no idea where that was.) The “From” section was blank. Surely that was a misprint, but before I had the chance to look at it again he snatched it away.
“That’s great” I told him, trying to sound positive, “Home is good.”
I hugged my bag, stood up from the bench and tried to shuffle back towards the doors before he could say anything else to me. But he gave me a pat on the shoulder and kept jabbering on. “Where are you going home to? Somewhere nice?”
Forcing a smile I spluttered out “Just back to Lincoln.”

He pursed his lips and tilted his head as if I’d said something cryptic that he had to decipher. Once again he began rummaging for something in his pockets. I was going to take my moment to get away from him but he pulled out a UK road map. It was fanned out and not properly folded, with a lot of tears at the edges. The front cover had been ripped off and a piece of lined note paper had been stapled on in its place. ‘Abel’s Map!’ was written along the top margin in red ink. Holding the map with both hands the man (who I’m guessing must have been Abel) let it flap down before folding it in half and thrusting it towards my face. “Look! Here’s where I’m from…” He was pointing at a big marker-pen circle that seemed to indicate the border where Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Leicestershire counties meet. I had to squint to see it in the low light, but I could faintly make out “Shroby” in small print next to the word HOME scrawled on in marker. Abel shook the map and poked at the circled area again, “Now you can show me where you’re from!” I shook my head and held back my hands in protest, why was he making me do this? It was his map, surely he could find Lincoln on it.  I knew he wouldn’t leave me alone until I gave him an answer, so I took a look at the map and hastily pointed to the bumped-out headland between Scunthorpe and Boston.
“It’s around here” I said, rubbing my finger in a wide loop over that small area of the map.
He whisked the map away from my face and began closely inspecting the spot I’d pointed out,
“I’m not seeing it…” he started, but before he could finish I made my escape.

Backing away I eventually managed to get back through the doors and into the station building. It was noticeably warmer and I was thankful for that at least. Looking back through the waiting room I could see Abel walking around in a circle still looking at his old map. I’d probably seemed rude but I wanted to be away from the guy. I checked the departure boards again but they were still blank. The lady behind the desk was fiddling with a pen and didn’t seem to have noticed me. Despite being tired of pointless conversation I went to give the Info Desk one last try. Gently tapping on the glass I simply asked “Hi, what station is this?”
Ms. Incompetent snapped out of her trance, dropped the pen and looked at me again with the same old fake grin. “Where do you think it is?”
“Barnetby?” I groaned. Was she really going to keep this up?
The lady nodded.
I rolled my eyes and took a moment to collect myself. This time I decided to ask about something else, “When is the next train to Shroby?”
Her smile faltered and she looked as if she actually had to think for a second, “Where?” she asked.
Maybe she didn’t hear me properly so I slowed it down “Sh-roe-bee, you just gave that man a ticket.”
Instead of that smile her face morphed into a frown. The tone of her voice became less perky and she drummed her finger nails on the desk before saying “I’m sorry, I don’t know where that is.”
Letting out an irritated whine I dropped my bag and asked one last time “Can you at least tell me when the next train to Lincoln is?”
She bit her lip, shrugged and shook her head.

Shaking, I snatched up my bag and tried not to cry again. How could she possibly know this little about the trains? It was as if she didn’t even work there. I grabbed my phone out of my bag and tried turning it on, hoping I’d have some message from dad. The screen lit up for a second to show the dead battery icon before blinking back off. I clutched the device so hard that I’m surprised I didn’t break it. It took all of my remaining self-restraint to not toss it on the floor like a disposable cup. With the last of my strength I stuck my phone in my pocket, grabbed my bag by the top handle and dragged myself back out to the cold, bleak platform.

It was fully dark now, aside from the glow coming from inside. Without any light pollution the sky stretched out endlessly in all directions, and the windows of the houses almost looked like the stars overhead. Hunched over, I trudged over to the far end of the platform to be as far away from Abel as I could get. I zipped my hoodie up all the way before dropping down on the hard concrete. The pole-mounted clock was as round and bright as the moon, showing 21:15. At this time would the trains even be running to a small station like this? Over the low whir of turbine blades I could hear heavy footsteps getting louder and louder. I didn’t need this again.

“You seem very down in the dumps.” Abel said, he was still loud but not as bombastic.
I didn’t even budge. Maybe he’d leave me alone this time.
“If it makes you feel better, I found you on my map!”
Once again he waved the tatty UK Pocket Roadmap in front of me, now Lincoln was clearly written on in big blue Biro letters across the area I’d pointed out.
“That’s good” I humoured him.
He sat down next to me and spread the map out on the ground. “I travel a lot” he enthused “I keep losing where I am so I write it on my map.”
I nodded and gave the page a quick scan, not only was the map faded and ripped but it was covered in scribbles from many different pens. He kept babbling on about what different lines were but I tuned it out. Resting my head on my knees I could feel myself zoning out again, his voice becoming a faulty radio signal dwindling in and out of focus.

A sudden nudge in the arm broke me out of my trance. Abel was grinning like a proud child and shaking his blue pen in front of my eyes.
“Look, look! I drew us!” he chirped.
Sure enough he was pointing to a spot on the map where he’d drawn two small stick figures, one with a backpack and the other with a big coat.
“That’s nice.” I yawned. “Looks good.”
He clapped his hands and blurted out “Not many people talk to me, you’re my new Train-Buddy.”
Abel then sighed and shrugged his shoulders, “I travel a lot but most of the time it’s like people don’t notice me.”
There was a moment of silence and I just tried to pull my least-awkward grin. Abel shuffled his feet again before finally perking up
“Here!” he said, pulling his Biro from his coat pocket. “Take this!”
He held the pen out towards me, shaking it around like he’d done with the ticket.
Hesitantly I reached out, took it from his hand and put it in the front pocket of my bag. I stammered out a “thank you.”

Abel stood up again and I managed to follow suit. My body was cold and felt like a rusty machine and I clumsily stretched my aching legs and tried to regain balance. Through the stale air a sharp whistle could be heard and I immediately warmed with joy. A train! With a rush of pistons and the chug of wheels, two brilliant headlights beamed around the bend as my way home came into view. The small screen on the front clearly read LINCOLN. It was 22: 43 but at least it was here! Abel and I stood back as the train whirled to a stop, all the way along Platform 2. The double doors of the carriage clicked open inviting me inside and I pulled my bag back over one shoulder.
“Goodbye Train-Buddy,” said Abel, “Get home safe!”

I shot him a half-smile before taking that stride into the warmth of Carriage B, and quickly sitting down in the nearest empty window seat. As I expected, he was standing there beaming and waving at me. I returned the gesture as the doors closed and the train prepared to move on again. The lights in the station building were off and I could only faintly see the shadow of my Train-Buddy as the wheels began to tug the train forwards. The silhouette of the wind turbine still loomed over the horizon, making a dark space in front of the stars. As the train set into motion I took one last look at the houses on the hill, but the lights weren’t on anymore. While speeding away from Barnetby, it was as if it wasn’t even there. I lay back in my seat, so glad to be comfortable at last.

The conductor came by to check the tickets of the few other passengers, but luckily he left me alone. I must have fallen asleep because the next thing I remember about the journey back was waking up as my pocket buzzed. I jolted awake and whipped my phone out so fast that I almost dropped it. New Message from Dad, “Where are you???” I swiped to reply and saw that he’d sent me multiple messages in the past few hours, “What time is train? Do you want lift?” and “When you getting in?” Fumbling I managed to reply, “Train was late. On way back now. Would like a lift.” Before I clicked it off again I noticed that the battery had recharged itself all the way back to 76%, a lot more than I thought it was able to. I zoned out for most of the way back, drifting off watching the lights of passing towns and cars whiz in and out of view through the window. Eventually the train pulled into a small station, fully lit with street lights which woke me from my daze. The white signpost clearly said “Barnetby.” This wasn’t the same station I’d come from, so where had I been? I must have gotten off at the wrong stop. 

Some passengers left and I waited for the conductor to walk past again before getting his attention and asking “Hey, where was the last station?”
He took a quick look at a printed timetable before answering 
“Well luv, that was Habrough we just came from and it’s Market Rasen next.”
I thanked him as he went back to checking the tickets of the new passengers. The conductor on the last train must have told me the wrong stop, I realised. But, where had I been then? Staying awake on the way back was a struggle but at least I knew the rest at the other end would be worth it. After what felt like a life’s journey I was stumbling out on to the platform at Lincoln Central into the familiar arms of my dad, calling out “Welcome home Sal!”

Everything else that had happened that day felt like a dream as I buried myself in my old purple duvet and dropped off to sleep like a log that night. I didn’t wake up until 10:22am the next day. The lie-in was great and I actually felt alive again. My bag and hoodie were hung on my computer chair, and a cup of fresh tea was waiting on the desk next to them. Slowly rolling out of bed I got up and went to pick up the cup. As I got to the desk I realised that my mobile was still hanging out of the hoodie pocket. Its battery was fully dead so I went into my bag to get the charger for it. Sliding my hand into the bag’s pocket I felt something thin and plastic. The pen. I pulled it out and placed it on the desk. It was only a standard blue biro, half used up with a lightly chewed cap. But it felt like a foreign object that didn’t belong here, as if it shouldn’t exist away from its owner. I’d almost forgotten about Abel, he didn’t seem real now that I was fresh and fully awake. My mind snapped back to the last time this pen was used, when he drew us on to that big map of his. He’d put us at the station, but where had that actually been?

Immediately curious, I set about fetching the charger and getting my phone working again. I needed to look this up. After around fifteen minutes it finally had enough juice to stay switched on. Hastily I loaded up the internet and fumbled at the touch-screen keypad. Bringing up Google Maps I searched for “Grimsby,” it loaded slowly but as soon as it did I zoomed in to find the railway. Scrolling along I followed the stations that I knew were on that route: Healing, Stallingborough, Habrough, all the way through to Barnetby. No matter how much I zoomed in or scrolled around the screen I couldn’t find a station on the line between those last two. But I knew there had to be. Unless the second conductor had also given me the wrong station names? That had to be the case, right? I’d been frustrated and tired that night, so maybe I’d gotten confused somewhere. I was about to drop it and accept my mistake, but I remembered one last thing. Clearing the search bar I typed in a new place name. “Shroby.” The screen took a few seconds to load but when it did, it didn’t jump to a new location. I wasn’t being shown the border of the three counties, only the black bar saying “No results found for your search.” I refreshed the page but it didn’t change. How was Shroby not on their map? Abel had a ticket to go there! Frantically I tried a broader web-search but the only results I could find for “Shroby” were people and not places. I looked up road maps and county maps but the town didn’t seem to exist on any of them. If this town wasn’t in the UK then where was Abel’s map from? And where was he going? What bothered me the most though, is where did I meet him?


Friday, 18 August 2017

The Painted Rock Game

It was July 2011 when the Polk County Rocks game spread to my area. People were painting up rocks, hiding them around and posting photos to the Facebook group set up for it. Essentially this was a big Easter egg hunt that was reaching everywhere from Lakeland to Arbuckle, with some people even finding these rocks all the way in Tampa and Apopka. I was 15 at the time and staying with my mom and her then-new husband Joe for the summer. Usually I liked this because it meant I got to be in Florida, but it also meant that I had to spend time with my younger step-siblings. So when they became obsessed with these painted rocks, I was the one who had to go along with them. Back then I was still in my edgy, Hot Topic mall-rat phase so being out in the sunshine really wasn’t my idea of fun. Neither was babysitting. I couldn’t drive and everywhere was connected by long stretches of highway meaning I couldn’t just go out on my own whenever I wanted, so I got stuck babysitting a lot more than I liked.

I was taking Sarah (aged nine) and Tod (who had just turned seven) to the community swimming pool when they found the first one. A small pebble decorated to look like a bumblebee in the corner of the tennis court. Once they picked it up and read the rules scrawled on the bottom they immediately wanted to find more. I ended up spending the rest of that afternoon being dragged around by two excited kids and taking photos of whatever they pointed at or held up to my face. A ladybug one on a wall, a happy frog by the lake, there was even a Pikachu one in a hole on the golf course. We picked them up and carried them with us until we found places to hide them again, as were the instructions given. By the time we had to go home my legs were hurting from all the rocks stuck in my pockets. At that point I was already sick of walking around, looking along hedgerows and picking up stones but they still weren’t done with the game.

The next day I was woken up by Sarah and Tod tugging my sheets and chanting “Jess! Jess! We want to play the rock game!” I tried putting my head under my pillow and ignoring them until they went away, but my mom came in and told me that “They can’t go around the estate on their own,” and how apparently I needed the exercise and sunlight. Before I could argue back she went ahead and bribed me with “If you do this for them today I’ll drive you to see your friends in Orlando tomorrow.” At that I forced myself awake and grabbed around my closet for a matching set of black shorts and tank top. (I know it’s not the best color for the heat, but my wardrobe was very limited at the time.)

We set out with two grocery bags for the rocks we would keep and the ones we would re-hide, starting on our estate and leading up to the ones neighboring it. The colorful rocks were hidden amongst people’s front lawn ornaments, on top of mail boxes and some were just sitting on the grass. A lot of them had big pictures, mostly in a sloppy kids-art-project style but some were very well done. There was another ladybug, a clown face, and a nicely detailed squid among the rocks we ended up carrying. Tod found a US flag one under a bench and Sarah found one that was just painted green on the pier. Being the “adult” I had to carefully get the ones hidden near bushes or the edges of the woods, because apparently I “liked snakes” and somehow that would prevent them biting me. By about midday we stopped to get sandwiches from the gas station and Tod was all tuckered out. I suggested that we stop and go to the pool or go back home to play Wii games to get out of the heat, but Sarah was determined to stay out.

Tod protested by covering his ears and shaking his head. He was red faced and clearly tired, so I couldn’t drag him around anymore. I tried telling Sarah that “We have to go back for Tod, he can’t play anymore” but she was having none of it. She made an exaggerated pouty face at me and kept insisting that “We don’t have a full bag yet!” meaning “We have to go get more!” It was like a tug-of-war, trying to balance the interests of these two grumpy kids without making one have a tantrum at me. The best compromise I could think of was “Why don’t we go home and count all the rocks we have? Maybe then we can go find some more.”
Tod perked up at the thought of going back home and Sarah finally came around to the idea too, so we finished our lunch and I trudged them both back to mom’s house. As soon as we got in the door Tod waddled to his bedroom, and Sarah was pouring out the bags onto the kitchen table.

Together Sarah and I went through our hoard, separating out what we’d keep and what we wouldn’t while I photographed them all. Eventually we boiled the “Keep” pile down to a small few: a pretty cat, Tod’s flag and a yellow M&M amongst about three others. I considered keeping the squid but knew I’d probably lose it in a drawer anyway. The rest were an odd mix of basic smiley faces, bright patterns, local sports and brand logos along with some that were just scribbles and glitter. One was a crude line drawing of what looked like a spiky-leaf which I’d had to drag out of the reeds with my foot. There were a couple of basic Sharpie-drawn Pentagrams and Super-S doodles (probably done by bored teens) which I ended up skipping on the lake. By the time we had our “Re-Hide” bag full again it was close to 3pm. Joe’s usual curfew for the kids was 5pm so Sarah and I decided we’d just go and hide these ones rather than go properly hunting again.

We promised that we wouldn’t go too far, so we only went around our estate this time. I hid some smaller stones on a hanging bird house and Sarah put a few along the estate fence. Before long we were hiding the last one, a neatly-done Gators logo, on the wall of the community pool area. It was very close to her curfew and Sarah was still reluctant to stop. “Jess, can we find more? Just one more!” she begged, but I had to tell her no. I was too worn out, and mom would be so mad if she wasn’t back. Sweaty and groggy we marched home in time for dinner before both collapsing back into bed, fully drained from walking all day in the heat.

That night I was woken up by a whispering voice saying “Jess, can we find more?”
I almost had a heart-attack before jolting awake to see Sarah standing there, fully dressed and waving a Disneyland tote bag at me.
“Go to bed!” I groaned. “No more rocks now.”
She stamped her foot and pouted at me before shuffling back out of my room. I got back to sleep pretty quickly and hoped the kids would forget about painted rocks game in the morning.

When I woke up at 11am after a good long sleep I thought I’d actually gotten lucky. Tod was watching Nick Jr when I went to make coffee and bacon, and he didn’t seem even remotely interested in doing anything else that day. I sat down on the couch next to Joe to eat my late-breakfast while he played on his tablet and joked about how “You make coffee in this house you make it for everyone.” After yesterday I was thankful for the quiet morning and cared about nothing other than mom’s promise to take me to town. I only got to see Becky and David in summer and I’d been missing them all year. By 12 I was dressed and ready (after putting on a whole rack’s worth of bracelets too) and waiting for mom to get back from Publix to pick me up. It wasn’t until then when I realised I’d not seen or heard anything from Sarah yet. At first I’d just assumed she was with mom, but Joe said she’d just gone on her own that morning. I didn’t want to leave and not know if the kid was okay, so I took a quick look around.

After checking the bathroom and the pool-deck I finally found her in her room. She was still asleep in bed. Her pyjamas were dropped on the floor, and knowing how much mom insisted on a tidy house I picked them up and put them on top of her laundry basket. As I bent down to gather up the strewn clothing my hand closed around something hard in the pocket of her pink stripy sleep shirt. Taking it out, I found another decorated rock.

It was a crappy looking one, and I felt bummed out just looking at the thing. The stone was mostly just scribbled black with some squiggle in the middle filled in yellow. It could’ve been a logo for something, but to me it just looked like a question-mark with a long swirly line drawn through the bottom dot. I didn’t remember seeing this when we were sorting out the rocks we kept. Maybe she’d pocketed it without me noticing. I put it on her desk with the rest of the “Keep” pile before rushing to get my shoes and bag in time for mom getting back. I forgot about Sarah and her silly obsession for the rest of that day, I had friends to hang out with and we didn’t care for kiddie rock-hunts.

Becky’s dad drove me home that evening and I got back in at 5pm again. I thanked him for the ride before stepping in the door and going straight to crash out in front of my laptop. As I got to my room I was met by Sarah, sitting on my bed with her Disneyland bag and playing with those damn rocks.
“Can’t you do that in your own room?” I sighed, tossing my own bag onto the desk.
She bit her lip at me and went back to arranging her collection.
I stormed over to the bed and began picking up the stones, putting them back into the tote
“Go play rocks with Tod or something! Let me have my room.”
I thrust her bag back to her and she ran out, looking as if she was trying not to cry. For a few seconds I felt relieved, but then the guilt dawned on me. I really didn’t want her to be upset, and Joe would be so mad at me if he found out! After taking a moment to calm down I crossed over to Sarah’s room and lightly knocked on the door.
“Hey Sarah, I’m sorry I yelled at you” I murmured. “Can I look at your cool rocks again?”
There was silence for a few seconds before she actually opened the door. The bag had been tipped out on to the rug and a few light-colored smooth stones were clustered up next to her bed.

Originally I hadn’t noticed, but these rocks were new. Mom or Joe must have taken her out for an hour or so to find them. There weren’t as many as we’d found yesterday, and most of them didn’t look that nice either. One was a splodgy potato-face and there was one painted to look like a football, but most of them just had simple marks on them. There was a basic love heart and a waving stick figure, she’d found another spiky-leaf one drawn in red this time. But most were little more than initials and letters done in a straight-lines font on white pebbles. Whoever made these probably didn’t care much. Despite their blandness, Sarah still seemed proud of today’s spoils. “They’re interesting” I humored her, “Would you like me to photograph these too?” She nodded and I went along with her request, uploading the photo to the page afterwards too. I didn’t think it was really worth sharing them but that’s how the game went.

I was able to sleep all night without any over-eager kids waking me up, and the morning was pretty dull. Both Joe and mom were at work so I had another babysitting day. I got myself dressed and ready in time for Tod waking up and asking for cereal. Luckily for me he was usually easily entertained so I could just give him a bowl of bran flakes, some juice and a Spongebob DVD to watch all day. Sarah however was still not up yet and it was my responsibility to make sure she did. Joe was very adamant that his kids kept up a good daily routine even during the times they weren’t at school. I made another tray of juice and cereal which I planned to let Sarah eat in her room, and carried it in for her. I pushed the door open, but she wasn’t there. Leaving the tray on the desk I frantically ripped off the bed covers to find nothing. I tried calling for her and dashing around the house again, but there was still no sign of her. Slipping on some flip-flops I went outside and to my relief, found Sarah sitting on the front drive in her pyjamas, humming to herself. I didn’t need to ask where she’d been as she was playing with more coloured pebbles.

I took a sigh of relief before reprimanding her,
“What did Dad tell you about going off on your own?” I scolded.
Usually she’d get to angry or sad, instead she merely stared up at me and said “But I want another Yellow Sign.”
Not caring for her excuses I firmly reminded her “Your dad said you can’t go out without a grown up! Now get inside and eat your cereal.”
Taking hold of her arm I forcefully lead her back into the house. She struggled and tried to run off but I was having none of it. Her bare feet were dirty and the bottoms of her pyjama pants were tatty too. I made her take them off and have a bath after her breakfast which she ate without complaining.

Luckily I managed to get her to sit down and watch TV with her brother, just anything to distract her from this current obsession with rock hunting. The rest of that day went by pretty uneventfully, I just pissed around online and played Sims (or whatever I did back then) in peace for a few hours while the kids entertained themselves. By then I’d gotten a lot of replies from the Facebook group, people liking our photos and saying how glad they were that we’d found their rocks. Very few people were still posting though, so I hoped that meant the game was dying out and Sarah would stop caring soon. Nobody was really responding to any of the plain rocks with the black marks, but I wasn’t surprised.

I made sure to keep checking up on the kids every hour or so to be safe in case Sarah tried to go out again. Much to my relief Sarah didn’t bug me to go back out again, she seemed content to stay in and play with Tod. At one point I caught her showing him her rock collection, getting each one out on the coffee table and giving him a lecture about them (much to his disinterest.) She had the bee and the cat face out when I walked in, but it was when she took out the weird yellow one that Tod decided he’d had enough. He shook his head side to side as his face went red and scrunched up. I had to act fast or else he’d start crying. Desperately looking for a distraction I grabbed the crayon tub and paper pad from the kitchen side saying “Hey, why don’t we sit outside and do some drawing?” 
Sarah was reluctant at first, but when I sat Tod down at the table on the pool deck and put down the big crayon tub she came out and joined in. He was happily rushing random colors all over and I really wasn’t surprised that Sarah just drew her rocks. I lazily sketched out some band logos for a little bit too. They weren’t bored, so as far as I cared my job was done. When Joe came home with donuts and chips they both dropped their crayons and ran to the kitchen. Glad to be free, I packed up the art supplies, gathered up the drawings and put them in the kids' rooms. Tod had tried to draw blue-sky green-grass landscapes and I think one was supposed to be the lake with an alligator in it, and Sarah’s were mostly different interpretations of the patterns on her rocks. One page was her whole collection together but the rest were mostly rough recreations of the weird symbols from the boring ones, especially the spiky-leaf and the yellow question-mark. It seemed to be her favourite, but I didn’t understand why. The bee was a lot prettier in my opinion.

With my babysitting officially done for the day I retired to my room like an average bored teen. I stuck my headphones in and made a point of trying to avoid my step-siblings for the rest of the day. My peace was broken at about 4pm when Sarah came stamping into my room demanding that I go outside with her, insisting that “Daddy is too busy and says you’ll take me”
Huffily I told her “Oh yeah? Well I’m busy too.” 
“No you’re not!” she insisted, but I wouldn’t let her have her way.
She stormed back out again threatening to “tell her dad” amongst some other mumbling, but she didn’t come back at me again. I could hear her shrieking and arguing at Joe, but he must have taken my side and made her drop the issue because that was the last I heard from either of them until dinner. That night it was heated-up pizza and some salad, which is pretty bland but filling enough. When I got to the table Tod was sat there being served a slice by Joe, and Sarah looked considerably mopey as she stamped her feet all the way to the kitchen followed by mom. She aggressively folded her arms and stuck her bottom lip out as her dad put a big helping of salad and a slice of Classic Margarita on her plate.
“What’s wrong honey-bee?” He asked, “Don’t want pizza?”
She shook her head, smushed her face with her hands and only just audibly grumbled “She said I couldn’t bring my special rock.”
Joe sighed and said “It’s only while you have dinner, tables are clean and not for dirty rocks.”
Sarah opened her mouth to talk back, but mom sat down at the table just in time to interject,
“That thing is not coming to the table Sarah. Now eat dinner!”
I finished my meal as quickly as possible while Sarah took small, forced bites until she’d eaten enough before dashing back to her room. After one and a half slices of pizza and a small handful of salad (as forced by Joe) she was shuffling away as fast as her little feet could go.

After dinner that evening I settled down into bed and flicked through whatever late-night channels I could get on my bedroom TV. There was rarely anything of interest but sitcom reruns were pretty nice to fall asleep to. I’d just started to properly drift off when Sarah came shuffling in holding a purple purse-bag.  “Jess…” she started, sounding as if she was hesitant to talk to me, “can we go looking for rocks again?”
I thought she’d forgotten about that dumb game by now. “Are you kidding?” I snapped at her, “It’s nine o clock, get to bed.” She gave me a faux-sad look with her teeth over her bottom lip and wide eyes.
“But Jess” she tried again in her wavering tone, “I want another Yellow Sign.”
Raising her hands up I saw that, of course, she had a rock in her bag. I didn’t give it a proper look but that black-out scribble made me think it was the one from her desk. She fumbled to get it out but I cut her off, “No more rocks Sarah! Go to bed!” Before she could bother me again I switched off my desk light and threw the duvet over my head. I could make out her muffled complaints of “I gotta go get another one” until mom came in and made her go to bed. There was foot stamping and shouting, a door slammed and I could hear Joe pleading for her to “calm down and go sleep.”
The arguing must have gone on for at least half an hour, and it took me a while to settle down and get comfy again.

I switched back through talk shows and teleshopping before finally dozing off. I wasn’t asleep for long though before I was woken up by Mom shaking me and screaming, “We can’t find Sarah! She’s not in the house!” Her face was a mess of tears and bed-hair. Tod was crying and hugging her leg like a leech.At first I thought I was dreaming, but seeing the panic in mom’s eyes let me know this was really happening. Suddenly I was fully awake, in my nightgown and running out into the dry night air. Joe was outside with a flashlight looking for her already. We kept calling out “Sarah!!” but got no answer. Our shouting only managed to wake up the neighbors, and before long they were joining in our frantic search too. I remember the police showing up, two officers got out on the driveway and tried to ask mom and Joe about what had happened. Joe tried to keep calm, but mom was a wreck and unable to speak. I told them about the Polk County Rocks game, and where we might be able to find her. Joe and the neighbors looked all over the golf course, the community pool and the gas station while the police scanned the area around the lake.

She wasn’t found on any of the piers or boat docks, or along the water’s edge. She wasn’t at the tennis courts, or the picnic benches. Our make-shift search party checked all over the three estates to no avail. The regular ambience of cicadas and the rush of cars from the highway was drowned out by sirens and the echoes of people shouting her name. My bare feet were cold on the asphalt and my throat was sore from yelling, but it wasn’t my physical wellbeing that I cared about. I didn’t stop running across the roads and lawns until I was physically collapsing with exhaustion. The sun was coming up by the time Joe had to drag me back inside. She might have fallen in the lake, or wandered into the woods, but we didn’t find Sarah that night.

We posted her photo to all the local Missing Children’s pages, we even made Lost Child flyers which we spent the next few weeks posting in as many store windows as we could. I asked the Polk County Rocks group to look out for her too. There was a wide scale search carried out over the following weeks and she was in all the local papers. Her real mom was even investigated but they still didn’t find her. I can’t stop blaming myself for what happened. Had we gone to the pool that day like we’d set out to she’d not have become obsessed with that silly game. Living at the house in Florida eventually became too much for Joe and mom. About four months later they made plans for divorce meaning that she had to move back in with her sister, and I was stuck with dad in Washington all year from then on. The case for Sarah is still open, but I doubt they’ll find her after all this time. For a good long while I held onto her pretty rock collection, but I think they’re still in a box back at dad’s place now. I made sure to keep all the pretty ones, and the lazy ones too (all except for Tod’s, I let him keep that one.)

Even though I tried to make sure I took them all with me, there was one that I couldn’t find when I was bundling them all together. Her favourite, the one with the yellow-symbol. Sadly the Facebook group closed not long after Sarah went missing so I couldn’t ask who made that rock. I still haven’t found out if that symbol was from anything either. For some reason I feel that it might hold some sort of an answer, but I’m yet to find another one. I was wondering if there’s someone out there who could help me on this. Have you seen the Yellow Sign?


Friday, 26 May 2017

My Grandma Used To Love Birds

What I remember most about Grandma Dawn is that she loved birds. She always put food out for them in her garden, and when she was still mobile she’d go birdwatching most weekends. Some of my oldest memories from being a young boy are of sitting on her lap as she flipped through giant scrap books full of the photos she’d taken. I’d often slap my tiny hand on a picture and say “Tha’ one” and she’d tell me all about the Dunlin or the Stonechat she’d managed to photograph on her trip to Dorset. The only time she didn’t like birds though, is when they were indoors. It didn’t matter whether they were in cages as pets or nesting in an attic, she wouldn’t have any of it. She wouldn’t even have bird-themed décor items in her house which I always found a bit weird. I was always baffled by her phobia, but when I came home from work that day to find a jackdaw sitting on my new coffee table it was all I could think about.

The bird was just sitting there and staring at me with its little white eyes, completely un-phased by its new surroundings. Luckily Boxer, my 2 year old cat, wasn’t hovering around as it gave me more time to actually save it. I opened the window before grabbing a newspaper to shoo it out. After I aggressively wafted the paper at the small black bird it hopped off the table, flapped around on the bare wooden floor before finally taking flight and gliding off outside again. Moving fast, I shut the window and went to check the rest of them. Going out having left another one open was not a mistake I wanted to make back then. Most of my stuff was still in boxes and easy for a thief to just come and take, after having just moved out I couldn’t afford to replace most of it.

The new house wasn’t too big, just a simple two storey build that used to belong to my Uncle Terry. He’d moved away to France that year and wanted the house to stay with a family member, so he sold it to me at a reduced rate. It only had one bed room and a single bathroom upstairs, and downstairs consisted of just a small kitchen and a decent sized living room across the hallway. Most of it wasn’t decorated when I moved in but it didn’t bother me at the time. It was my own house and I didn’t have to live at home so it was enough for me and the cat.

Much to my confusion all the windows were still closed, and I hadn’t installed a cat-flap for Boxer yet. I figured the bird had probably been stuck in my house for hours after getting in when I left for work. Shrugging it off I went to start unpacking the boxes in the living room, but I still couldn’t quite stop thinking about what my grandma would say. She’d only died two years prior to me moving out and I guess I still missed her at that point. I’d been going through some difficulties at university and hadn’t had time to deal with it back then. After finally managing to unbox and set up my TV I felt too tired to do anything else. I microwaved a small pasta pot dinner and dragged myself up to bed, ready for another early start at my old job at Parker’s Deli. Just before I drifted off I heard an owl hooting somewhere out behind the house, but I was too far gone for it to keep me up.

I was rudely awakened the next morning by Boxer jumping on my legs and yowling. “Can you not wait for your damn food?” I groaned at the grey fluffy mog. Pushing him off I stumbled downstairs to go open another tin of kitty chow. When I got to the kitchen he stopped following me and sat down to yowl at me again, but I just stepped over him and opened the door. I gagged as I was met with a sour smell. It was clear that the “odour free” litter box granules I’d gotten were bullshit! Covering my face with my shirt I went to clean up the mess my cat had made, going as far as to scrub the empty tray before re-filling it to get rid of any extra stink. I wasn’t leaving my house in such a state!

After realising how long that had taken me, I quickly dumped a tin of food into the bowl and dashed to grab my uniform and go. I ran a comb through my mousey hair and practically jumped into my smart trousers before grabbing the cream work shirt and racing out to my car. The kitchen still smelt musty but I decided I’d deal with it properly when I got home, I didn’t know what my cat had eaten to make it smell that badly though.

Work went as regularly as ever that day. I made a lot of sandwiches and dealt with way more people than I liked to, but at least the pay was decent and I got to bring some extra meat home. As I backed my car up the drive I took the little grab bag out of the dash ready to just give it to Boxer as a treat. Usually he’d come running to greet me whenever I came home but not that time. “Hey Box-man,” I called “I got you chicken!” There was still no sign of him.

He’d probably been sleeping, so I went to have another go at the kitchen. There was a small pile of dirty dishes building up next to the sink but that wasn’t my concern at the time. The foul smell had faded but there was still a light fuzz in the air. Leaving the chicken on the table I got out the marigold gloves and cheap bleach from the cupboard and set about scrubbing the dull-blue linoleum floor. I went to Boxer’s little corner by the fridge to move his tray and bowls only to find they’d been untouched since that morning. This worried me, was Boxer sick? I stopped cleaning to go and find him, I had to know if he was okay.

It wasn’t long before I caught him in the living room, sitting next to the coffee table with his back towards me. He jolted around to give me the guiltiest look I’d seen on an animal. His mouth was flecked with blood, there were black feathers at his feet and the half-eaten back end of a bird was dropped on the floor like a used-up toy. Groaning, I grabbed Boxer by the waist and pulled him away from his meal yelling “How did you even get that?” as if expecting a reply. I managed to hold the thrashing cat all the way to the kitchen before putting him down and shutting the door, “you’re staying in there now!” I grumbled. The living room looked like a bomb site but I’m still glad that I hadn’t gotten the carpet in yet. I picked up the feathers and threw the corpse out with the same newspaper from the day before. How had he even managed to get that bird? While mopping up the blood with a paper towel I couldn’t help but think back to my Grandma again, I could see a point to not wanting birds in the house if this was the mess they left.

She never did tell me why she felt that way about birds being inside, and I didn’t get round to asking her in the end. I was nineteen when I last saw her at my mum’s birthday meal. She’d looked so healthy and happy that day, with her hair still nicely permed and dyed the same blonde she had when she was younger. Her burgundy nail polish and matching bead necklace were all on display as usual, and she was wearing a new navy dress that she was very eager to show off. I’d been wearing an old shirt with a stylised swallow design on and she got really scared by it. After some complaining from the rest of my family I finally went to the toilets and turned it inside out as I didn’t like her being upset. It was my mum’s birthday after all, and her mother shouldn’t have been angry on that day. I assumed she was going senile and didn’t question her about it. Looking back, I really wish I had. None of us thought we’d be losing her any time soon.

As it was a Friday I decided to stay up a bit later and relax that night. I watched movies on my laptop and made some loose plans to go out with the guys again soon. Moving house had been taking up a lot of my time and I’d gone a little bit stir-crazy over it, the birds and the smell in the kitchen hadn’t helped either. By about 1:45am I finally got tired and began to lose focus on whatever it was I’d been watching. I had no idea how late it had gotten until I heard that owl piping up again, making a whistling call somewhere in the darkness. It was pretty loud so it must have been in the woodlands or the field just beyond my back garden. Usually wildlife making noises didn’t bother me but that time it was too much. By closing the streaming website and switching to a boring newscast I’d tried to drown out the damn owl and actually get some sleep.

I don’t know whether or not it actually worked because I managed to sleep, but I’m sure those bird calls followed me into my dreams. That night I was a little boy again, back in the familiar moss-green and white front room of my grandparents’ house. The old box TV with the rabbit-ears was showing a man in a garden and my grandad’s pile of newspapers was still on the side table. I looked down and saw that I had little legs, wearing denim dungarees and football patterned socks. Beneath my legs were another pair of legs, covered with a long navy skirt. I was sitting on my grandma’s lap. Her gentle, crooning voice spoke in my ear as she opened up a big leather-bound photo album. “Let’s look at the owls Daniel, they are such fascinating birds.” Her lightly wrinkled hands opened the book to a page full of photos. I recognised the Barn Owl and the Long Eared Owl, but not any of the other ones. My tiny hand slapped at random on some of the pictures. With a perfectly manicured, deep-red polished fingernail grandma pointed to the picture in the top left corner of the page and said “This one here is a Tawny Owl,” my child voice responded with “Ow-wuh…” It was a small owl, with little black eyes and some white feathers between them. A ring of darker feathers surrounded its face too. “Yes Danny, and Mr. Tawny Owl says “keee-wick, keeee-wick….” I tried saying it with her but my child-voice couldn’t make the same sounds. Grandma Dawn kept going on in a sing-song voice, repeating “keeee-wick, keee-wick” until it turned into the whistling screech of the owl and I faded out of consciousness again.

I awoke the next morning with a dull headache and didn’t want to leave my bed, but it was already 12:03 and I hadn’t fed Boxer. Begrudgingly I got up and went down in just my jogging-bottoms to get painkillers and feed my little friend. I opened the kitchen door and he shot out like a fox being freed from a trap. The rancid smell was back but his litter box was clean. My headache increased ten-fold as the smell seeped out into the hallway and I even choked a little. When the dizziness faded away I covered my mouth again and rushed back in to open up the window. I grabbed the box of tablets from the drawer, picked up Boxer’s biscuits and water bowl before hurrying back out of there. Whatever was causing that smell would need professional attention, I was beginning to think that maybe the dishwasher broke and there was stagnant water building up somewhere. Stumbling to the living room I put down the water and dumped a pile of biscuits on the floor, “Okay, you can eat here now Box-man, all nice and clean.” I ran my hand along his back as he tucked in, before falling back onto the sofa and taking the medicine.

All I’d wanted was to sort out my new house and settle in but it seemed like I had a lot of issues to sort out. I didn't think that birds would even try and get inside a house, and I’d definitely need a plumber to try and find what was causing that stink. My problem, I thought, was whether or not I could afford that. A loud thud came from the kitchen and I jumped up immediately. If something else had gone wrong in there I’d have cried. Preparing for the worst I readied myself for the smell and barged back across the landing. Multiple bangs came again from behind the door and I flung it open.

Zipping around my tiny kitchen were two large jays and a scruffy magpie, more carrion birds like the jackdaw from the other day. My big cupboard was hanging open, feathers were strewn on the countertops and one of the glasses from the drying rack was smashed on the floor. The chattering and bawking felt like tiny hammers chipping away at the inside of my skull. I couldn’t handle it that day, the headache came back, and my house was a mess. “Get out! Fuck you!” but they just stayed there, desperately circling the room the way flies do when trapped in a glass. Why had they all come inside? Were the woods not good enough for them anymore? I slammed the door shut and slumped with my back against it. hoping that if I left them alone the birds would fly out again like the jackdaw did.

I didn't want to spend another minute inside that house. Realising I wasn’t dressed I stormed back to my bedroom, temporarily blocking out the bird calls with my heavy footfalls as I charged up the stairs. Hastily I pulled on my well-worn blue jeans and went digging in the dresser for a shirt, grabbing out a green and white polo from the bottom. Straightaway I tossed it back after unfolding it and noticing the little white eagle logo sewn into the front pocket. I settled for an old blue sports t-shirt and my tatty tennis shoes before running outside. The warm summer air hit me and I felt free for once. Boxer came to enjoy his first time outside since we’d moved too, I guess neither of us could stand the house.

After locking the door behind me I set off walking, I didn’t plan to go anywhere that day but it felt so good to be out. I walked down the road of terraced houses with Boxer following along for a little while. The whole street was lined with small brick-patio front yards and slate tiled roofs, but in the light of that summer afternoon it felt as bright and lively as a coastal resort town. Before long I’d pretty much forgotten about the past few days. In my rush to get out I’d left my watch and phone behind so I had no idea how long I went out for, but the sky was starting to develop a pink tinge when I'd decided to start heading back. I’d found myself in a little village shopping square but most of the buildings were either boarded up or closing for the day. The uninspired graffiti and broken cash machine had told me that I didn’t want to be there for much longer though. I’m not quite the biggest guy, and I'm too sensible to get into fights so I really didn’t want to risk dealing with the types of people that place probably attracted. An old man in a flat cap came out of the newsagents and began pulling down a rickety metal shutter to cover the shop front for the night, he was the first person I’d noticed that day. The creaking and shuddering of metal on metal echoed around the empty square. The loud squeaks and bangs put me on edge. With the daylight heat rapidly disappearing I became increasingly aware that I hadn’t brought a jacket, neither had I eaten that day. There was a little opening between a closed down bookies and the old man’s shop that lead back to the street I’d last walked down, so I turned and headed that way.

I broke into a light jog as I approached the alley. The old man glanced back at me as I got closer but kept on closing up his shop. He’d managed to pull the metal sheet almost all the way down but it was still making those rusty squeals. He went back to ignoring me as I nipped between the two buildings on my set route back to the house. The alley was only the length of the two buildings but in the dark it had seemed a lot longer, and those sounds from the shutter echoed along behind me. It groaned like a large animal and the heaving of the wheels made a hellish scream. Still jogging, I just focussed on the opening to the street. The dragging shutter began to turn into a long “Keeeeee-wick….” I don’t know if that noise was following me or if I couldn’t get it out of my head. “Keeee-wick…” it went on in a shrill tone. I picked up my pace and sprinted. The alley stretched out ahead as if to trap me in. I didn't know if this was really happening anymore. Wind-chill bit through to my bones but I felt I had to keep running as the owl sounds got louder. “Keeeee-wick” was all I could hear aside from my own heavy breathing. I closed my eyes and continued rushing forwards. All I could think of was the smiling face of Grandma Dawn singing bird calls and saying, “We don’t let birds in the house Daniel…” I’m sure I started screaming. I felt pain explode in my left shoulder and the wind get knocked out of my body.

When I opened my eyes I was on the ground, gasping for air on the corner of my street. There was a deep graze across my shoulder but at least it wasn’t bleeding. I must have been running with my eyes closed for a lot longer than I thought and fallen over the curb. Everything had gone quiet again, save for a car going by somewhere on the next road. It was as if nothing had happened, maybe I was going mad. Slowly I picked myself up and power-walked back to the house, trying to be as quick as I could as to avoid experiencing anything else that night. Boxer was sitting patiently on the doorstep waiting for me and I gave him a head-scratch before hastily unlocking the front door. The smell from the kitchen still lingered but it was too faint to bother me. I was actually glad to be back there, it was warm at least. I flopped back on the sofa and thought about ordering take away, I was truly starving by then.

After polishing off most of a greasy Mighty Meat-Feast I went to bed, but didn’t sleep. Not after that evening. It felt like I was really losing my mind, it was all too much to just be due to stress. I lay there in the darkness thinking about my gran. Why hadn’t she liked birds in the house? I regretted not coming home to visit when we first suspected something might be wrong, but I’d been so busy with my Environmental Science exams that I didn’t want to take time away. Maybe that wasn’t the most important thing though. I’d lost my chance to say goodbye and I hadn’t even gone back to visit her grave, I didn’t even know where it was. According to my mum she’d died pretty suddenly but she didn’t say exactly how. We knew she’d caught a bad Flu earlier that year so we all presumed it was due to that. What bothered me most in that moment tough, was that I never asked her about the birds. I fell into a fitful sleep but couldn’t drift off completely.

Waking up the next morning was awful. The afternoon sun was blaring through the blinds so intensely that it wasn't even dark when I shut my eyes. My whole body felt like a deadweight and everything looked blurry. Boxer was meowing at my door but I couldn’t care less, he could eat my body as I rotted away. As if my head hadn’t been feeling bad enough my phone started ringing on my night stand like a pneumatic drill. I pulled my head under the covers and tried to ignore it until it stopped. When it finally fell silent I rolled over and picked it up, my mum had been trying to call me. Usually I hated missing calls from family but I didn’t want to talk to anyone. Of all the times my mother would want to talk to me, it just had to be then didn’t it? I cradled the phone in one hand and tucked it under my pillow. Laying my head back I tried to wake up. Then, a thought drifted into my hazy mind. Maybe my mum knew about grandma and the birds? She had been her daughter after all. I loaded up the contact info from the missed call and pressed to send a text, “Hi mum x I’m ok. Love you” and hit Send, then I followed it up with another message “Why didn’t gran like birds in houses?” I lay there like an idiot just holding the phone in front of my face, staring blankly at the text log screen. A few seconds later I received a text back “Hi Dan xx glad ur ok. Luv u.” I didn't expect her to reply to m other text, she was probably thinking I was crazy. Then, about a minute later my phone buzzed again with a new message, “she said it meant death x.”

I dropped the phone. It bounced off the bed and clattered across the floor. My stomach was empty but I felt like I was about to throw up. Why would it mean that? I slowly became aware of bird calls coming from near my window and leapt out of bed like it had just been lit on fire. I wasn’t letting anymore damn birds get in my house! Grabbing Boxer from outside my door I stormed down to the wretched mess of a kitchen. It still reeked but I didn’t care. The whole room was covered in feathers and bird dung. The magpie was dead on the floor and the two jays were picking apart the corpse. A big ugly crow was perched on the table with the remains of another jackdaw beside it. “Not anymore!” I screamed as Boxer hissed and struggled, jumping from my arms to pounce on the smaller jay. Almost immediately the crow made a dive for him but I was fast enough to grab it before those talons hit my cat. I fought against the beating wings and grasping claws to try and throw the squalling creature back out of the still-open window. It thrust forwards in my hands, dragging me into the pile of crockery built up around the sink. Even more glasses crashed to the floor and shattered along with the china plates my Aunt had left me. Gripping the bird tighter I flung it at the window again, smashing it against the glass and stunning it. The bird dropped to the counter like a ragdoll and lay there twitching. I didn’t want to touch that thing again. A chopping knife was left lazily beside the sink, still dirty with food remnants. Almost without thinking I picked it up and brought the blade down on the crow’s neck. With two deep slashes its head came away and rolled to one side. I shut the window and grabbed Boxer off the floor, the dead jay was still clenched in his teeth. “Well, there’s your dinner today” I said, throwing him back into the hallway before preparing to deal with the last bird. The remaining jay was still on the floor eating the magpie. I grabbed a pan off the side and crushed it. There was a sickly crack as its tiny bones broke. “No more fucking birds” I snarled. I let the pan clatter to the floor and laughed at the unholy mess.

My kitchen was a warzone of shed feathers, broken glass and bird guts. But what bothered me more than anything was the stale odour that still clung to the air. What was it that had caused my house to stink so badly? Now that I’d dealt with one problem it was time to find out what the other one was. I didn’t think I’d really need to use it, but I went to the big cupboard under the sink to find the box of DIY tools my dad had given me. Apparently every house needed one and I decided that I needed mine right then. Dragging out the big red bag for the first time I turned it over and dumped the contents onto the table. There were lots of screw drivers in different sizes and some pliers, but I knew exactly which tools I needed. I picked up the hammer and the small handsaw and went to get to work. Originally I’d thought the smell was coming from Boxer’s litter tray, so that corner seemed like a good spot to investigate first. Kicking away the shards of broken glass and plates I knelt down next to the fridge. With the prongs of the hammer facing down I smashed it into the linoleum, tearing the cheap material and breaking through to the wooden subfloor. It only made a shallow crack, but I drew my arm back and hit it again until I felt it go right through. I hit it again, and again, smiling wider and wider with every swing. It was time to end this. I bashed away like a madman for a few minutes until I’d made a decent sized opening right in the middle of the corner floor section.

Putting down the hammer I picked up the saw and held the blade on the edge of the hole. With a heavy push I made the first deep cut into the lino, followed by another and another. I got into the rhythm of sliding the blade up and down through the wood. It was almost relaxing, moving my arm back and forth to push and pull the saw. A thud on the window broke my flow and almost caused me to hit my leg with the sharp edge. Turning around I saw a stocky brown owl perched on the windowsill, staring at me with its big black eyes. It had a white patch between them and a dark ring around its face. I knew what bird this was, “oh not you.” Snapping back to my sawing I pushed the blade faster and strained myself against the wood as I hit the joists, the heavy scraping sounds had battled to drown out Mr. Tawny Owl going “keeee-wick, keeee-wick…” It was as loud as ever but I knew that I couldn’t let it get to me. I had to find out what was under there. Picking up a large chunk of plate I lobbed it at the window to make the owl shut up. Sawing harder and harder I began to make progress, tearing through the thin flooring and severing the support beams as I went. Slicing and breaking the wood with my short jagged blade. Sweat had covered my bare torso, my arm ached and my face was red but eventually my frantic work made a haphazard square outline in the floor. The owl had still been making its terrible cry but I didn’t care by that point. I held onto the edge of the starting hole and gave the saw one last grind.The panel fell through and I collapsed backwards, panting heavily. With laboured breath I pointed back at the damn owl and laughed “Ha! I did it! You can’t stop me!” The owl just glared at me, “I win, you dumb bird!” I fell back and continued to laugh, surrounded by the debris of bird fights. It felt like I’d won, but I had to lift up that panel. My body moved like a worn-out machine as I strained to stand up again. Joints clicking and muscles numb. The rough cut-away square lay at an angle across the hole I’d hacked it out of. It was time to fix the problem, what was wrong with my house? I bent down, placed both hands on the opposite edges of the flooring board and lifted it up.

A tidal wave of stench hit me, stinging my eyes as I choked on the sour air. I stopped myself from vomiting and waited to catch my breath. When the smell cleared I looked down, and froze. In the hole beneath me, was a face. Staring up with dirty marble eyes stuck in its melting skin. It was waxy and pale with patches of brown and orange staining its sagging, bloated cheeks. The nose was barely more than a hole and the torn, declining lips were frozen in a smile. Wispy strands of blonde, curled hair clung sparsely to its stretched and deflated scalp. Little burgundy beads sat neatly on those shrivelled mushroom ears, and hung lazily in a chain around its collapsing hollow neck. Under the boards in my kitchen, was my Grandma Dawn. How did this happen? Why was she there, of all places? I could hear “keee-wick, keee-wick” starting up behind me, getting louder and louder. It wasn’t the owl call this time. My grandma was smiling up at me and singing in my ear. All I could do was cry. “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry!” I sobbed,“I wanted to say goodbye!” Had my Uncle even known about this? Surely I’d gone mad and this was just a hallucination, but I could see her clear as day. This putrid thing was my grandma.  My stomach gave up and I vomited all over my knees, covering my grey joggers in pizza bits and bile.“Keeee-wick, keeee-wick…” continued all around me  and I couldn’t look away from the decaying ghoul that used to be someone I loved. Fighting against myself I slammed the board back down over the hole, but I could still feel that corroding face looking up at me. The owl-song filled my head, taunting me. I put my hands around my head and screamed. My knees gave way and I collapsed into the pool of my own vomit.

I must have passed out at some point, because the only thing I can remember afterwards was waking up in hospital. Apparently a neighbour had heard me screaming and called for an ambulance. I tried telling the nurses about the body in the floor, but they all ignored me and probably thought I was delusional or hallucinating. I was let out after a few days and went back to the house one last time, just to get Boxer and move my stuff out of there again. The hole in the floor was still covered, it almost looked as if I'd never cut it up. The smell and the mess was all gone but I couldn’t live there any longer. I had to move back in with my parents as there was nowhere else to go on such short notice. It felt like a step backwards but at least I could still keep my cat there. They understood when I told them my Uncle had “sold me a faulty house” that “didn’t meet regulations” and I had to get out. Luckily it only took me just over a year to save up for the place I have now. It’s just an apartment but the location is great and it allows pets. Living on my own again made me pretty nervous at first, it’s been a few years since it happened and yet it still keeps me awake some nights. I never used to be an overly cautious or fearful person, but ever since then I’ve been unable to handle the thought of birds being anywhere near me.