The Last Seanachie
Stories need a teller. So I tell mine here.

0 5

It’s hard to remember when I first developed a taste for Eggs Benedict. I don’t even know what the trigger was. There was no swish movie product placement, no food blog run by a bearded lumberjack instagramming his cat’s pyjamas, no One Show easy recipe.

I think I was in some breakfast bar wondering. You know, just wondering. Thinking ‘What the actual fuck is Eggs Benedict?’ And as soon as I had thought that I realised they not only had Eggs Benedict, they had Eggs Benedict Royale. Royale! Royale with cheese….well, Hollandaise sauce.

Fuck the standard version, I’m having Royale. Salmon instead of ham or the Waldorf’s crispy bacon upgrade.

Artisan, right?
Artisan, right?

As soon as it landed, I knew it was awesome. Gooey Russian roulette. If only because they never cook the eggs properly and I expect salmonella because this is, you know, Ireland. Quite the ting.

So here I am, my second plate of these this week, at a smart cafe in D4, the smartest part of Dublin, being smart and dressed like shit. I’m even using an iPad with BLUETOOTH!! like a boss. And nobody is batting an eyelid. Like it’s normal. Like it’s actually fuckin’ normal for a grown man to disrupt his holy moment of breakfast with an obsolete toy. I’m not a complete tool. I didn’t ask them for the wi-fi password or anything.

Because I have 4G!

I slaver away at this place because it is the only joint – despite the hirsute checked shirt wearing fucks that run these places – I’ve found that does English muffins as the base layer,

eggs-web-3
English muffin. Correct.

This is very important.

Not only is that the original 1889 recipe, its structurally sound and keeps the Hollandaise sauce where it’s meant to be working, instead of turning your muffin to a soggy gloop. Imitators think any old round floury roll will do and the natural Irish aversion to all-things English actually really does extend to ingredients.

But this is D4, and I can see the British embassy – a fortress rebuilt after the IRA burnt it down – flying Her Maj’s flag – or the Butcher’s Apron as they’re fond of telling me.

I tell them Cromwell is awesome.

Being D4 it means I get a goddamn English muffin with my eggs. And that’s why I come here.

But this pricey diversion is only a recent redoubt of ovulated goodness. I’m The Survivor With The 1,000 Word Stare. You’re looking at the guy who has walked away alive from a tabloid newsdesk after five years. FIVE YEARS…five years of mind-altering reality.

You couldn’t make it up.

Actually, that’s a lie. We pretty much did make it up, a lot. But that’s not the point.eggs-web

So what? So the guy before me had a breakdown after two months, the guy before him was taken away on a stretcher with blood spurting out of his eyes and his opposite number on the Sunday paper had an anuerism (someone check the spelliing on that, please) at his desk and collapsed into his keyboard.

I’ve lost two deputies. One just stayed on the bus home and never came back (they found him at the bus garage when it was being cleaned of sick) and my most recent one drove his bike at 60mph into the back of a lorry.

He’s paralysed, too, but they made him come back and now he writes – without irony – about shoes.

And that’s what I do, too. News and shoes at a fashion website. It’s kinda fashioney-newsy-virally-willthisworkbecuasenewspapersarealldead-kinda-women-like-stuff-too website.

Eyebleach, mainly.

I help run it all and now have a vocabulary with words like ‘digital space’ and ‘analytics’ where ‘pages’ and ‘readers’ used to be.

Some days consist of nothing but watching dogs knocking over kids. Other days its just people singing Let It Go. And the thing is, they don’t. They keep making fucking mash-ups on YouTube and everytime I ban the reporters from doing another story on that shitting film a clip goes viral and we have to do it.

Because it’s all about the clickbait.

But the eggs, they’re damn good. And the coffee here HAS seen a coffee bean so I can cope with my first world privileges.

And as the eggs kick in, the coffee rounds it off. And the eyebleach doesn’t seem so bad.

The internet hasn’t killed news, it’s made it quicker. And we all started so we can could tell stories, right? And now we can do that in a blink.

Like the guy said: The best time to plant a tree is 100 years ago. The second best time is now.

 

0 5

Learning was a pleasure, school a nightmare.

This new world was just too large. Every scrap of information was absorbed. Every lesson a chore to be gotten through.

Now not only were my memories being filed but every new contact with kids and their hyperbolic fantasies were simply passing in, my head a broken gauze unable to filter anything.

It wasn’t long before I was expelled.

I was fortunate. There were still ‘special schools’ – sin bins – for the ‘emotionally & behaviourally disturbed.

We were all in there: the truants, the abused – sexually, physically and bullied wrecks – and the ‘dis’abled like me. Autistics, Asperger’s, deaf, blind, Down’s. We were all there, lumped together.

And because it was a boarding school we were out of sight, and out of mind.

It didn’t stop the frenetic cataloguing of material, the journeys through inner space. It just stopped me getting beating up at break-time and on the way home.brain

My inner explorations were now rich embroidered tapestries. Where once they had been simply patterns, now a complex interlinked web allowed me to surf through my past as a perpetual now pounded me like waves on a beach.

But instead of drowning in thought, I had found a way to keep my head above the ceaseless swill of information – music.

Sufficiently complex music acted like a carburettor in a car. The patterns and rhytms became the backbeat to stabilising the overwhelming influx. It brought order. It brought MORE isolation.

I was rarely seen without earphones, self-medicating with beats.

But with stability the addiction grew. I was still haunted by the voices in the womb. How much more could I remember. If there was no off switch, when did memory start?

School, college, university. Minor distractions as information was retrievable as fast as the brain read the questions. My internal library was as vast as the university’s own collection. The internet’s arrival only made recall more satisfying. Google v Me in the college bar kept me in free drinks.

And then one day – it stopped.


The dream was always the same.

Standing in a forest, it’s snowing. Large flakes that sting the eyes. But instead of the bitter cold that the soft white blanket usually brings, it’s warm; hot even, and breathing is like sucking syrup. In the distance, wailing. Three white berries fall from the mighty boughs of an oak.

And in the distance, wailing grows.


The day I stopped remembering was a wet Midsummer’s.

The sun had barely made any encouraging noises when I woke and it hadn’t bothered it’s arse since lunch either. If it was going to be the longest day, the sun had clearly not bothered to check its inbox for the invite.

I’d stayed in bed for the morning. My student house had gradually emptied as the anchor of the exams finally let loose its grip. Himalayas, kibbutz and other post-exam rewards were finally being enacted.

fridge

My housemates needed to go and find themselves before life would reward them with a mortgage and a necktie.

I’d spent my morning wandering through some of my favourite landscapes. The Finals had held little terror for me. Writing as fast as my brain could splurge out the information was the only problem I’d had. It had caused some friction in the house in those final months as I’d continued to hit the bars and the gigs to keep my brain from looking too far in.

The interior world was increasingly seductive and the lack of structure to a college course meant my inner journeys had grown long, trancelike.

More than once, I’d gone under for 12 hours or more. I was convinced I could get beyond the womb voices; that I could somehow access memories of others. I kept getting deeper, blacker, but I was faced with an abyss beyond those first words. No matter how long I tried to navigate, to scale my way down, I could never reach the bottom. Each journey down the foreboding became greater and greater as if the journey itself could snap a link back to my waking self.


‘I think they made it in a lab in Leeds,’ Jim had said to me.

‘Yeah, but WHAT is it?’ I said again. Jim never let a Midsummer’s Day go by without partying from the first light to dawn the following day. I’d usually take a pass on his offer but I was all alone in the house, surrounded by half-filled boxes and a fridge covered in redundant ‘Do Not My Sausages!’ Post-it notes. There was only half a wine box and a can of White Lightning in there. I’d have killed for a sausage. I should have got up for breakfast instead of mooching about in my mind.

‘Speed and something else, I think. Summat groovy.’ He grinned.hindu

‘Groovy? Groovy, how? I don’t do any of that crap, Jim. My head’s too fucked up as it is. You know that.’ The sky resembled a Dulux catalogue of inoffensive off-whites. The kind of colours that suggest cream, cake, full fat milk. They should really get an award, the guys that write those things. Cream Cake White – Will Make You Feel Hungry; Full-Fat Beige – Like Magnolia But Tastier!

It looked like the sun slept in, watched Neighbours, Going for Gold and had then decided to get up for a pint of milk from the corner shop.

‘I think some of them sweated in the bag,’ Jim complained. ‘They’re stuck together.’

‘They’re just pieces of paper, Jim.’

‘No, they’re blotters. They put the stuff on them and then Bingo! Ready to go!’

Fuck it, I thought. What’s the worst that could happen. The day was a dead loss anyway. ‘Just one, then Jim.’

He grinned like a madman. Which was disconcerting as he had a gold tooth and whenever he grinned like that I imagined him in a tricorn hat with a parrot on his shoulder. He’d have made a great pirate, would Jim.

He was a blur. Out of his rucksack came boxes of orange juice, bars of chocolate, porn mags, and four massive spliffs, nine paper monsters.

‘What the fuck is that for?’ I asked.

‘Comedown,’ shrugged Jim. ‘In case it gets messy. Vit C, chocolate and a wank. If you lose your shit, this is the way back.’

‘Really?’

‘Tried and tested.’ Jim nodded sagely, as if handing down some ancient lore.

He handed me a tiny square with a Hindu symbol on it.

‘That’s it?’ I asked.

‘Yep, bottom’s up.’ He grinned. And down the hatch went both our tabs.

0 5

Memory is a burden. A sack of worn-out belongings that have no purpose. Every memory keeps us in check, a stop light on our journey as we recall outcomes from the past when faced with the same junction.

I was just three years old when I realised I was different. My sack was filling quicker than the others in my family. And it never emptied. Nothing was misplaced, no words or experiences forgotten.

At first, it was an amusing party trick. My parents would spring it on new visitors to the house. They’d wait for a turn in the conversation, a hint of an opening before unveiling it to the guest.

When polite conversation turned to their first-born, it was all the excuse they needed. Not right away, of course. That would be gauche. Once the comparisons with a guest’s child were offered, little Johnny’s first day at school and so forth, then out it came.MappingBrain1-dl_jpg_610x343_crop_upscale_q85

It may be the contents of a coffee-morning purse – easy – or the sentence in a magazine artcicle. But it was always the same. Without fail, I could recall anything I had seen. Loose change, lipstick, car keys on a leather fob, Tesco coupons, dental appointment card, mints – half eaten – a Tampax, credit cards, out of date library cards.

Words were harder but it didn’t take long to master those: First it was the Rupert the Bear cartoon in the Daily Express, then onto the splash. Off by heart recitals with just a glance.

Books weren’t a joy, but a chore to be got through. The pages presented themselves instantly. Any narrative, word-play or carefully crafted sentences, all were lost on me. Without the left-to-right and the tracking eyeball greedily sucking in the plot, I was simply a photocopier. The start of a page held equal weight as the end. All were absorbed at the same time.
But proud as my parents were at the party trick, my life became increasingly unhappy.

The doctors they took me to said I was eidetic. I had, to coin a phrase, albeit inaccurate one, a photographic memory.
But it was worse than that.

It was more than just a party trick. I couldn’t switch it off. I remembered EVERYTHING.

Every detail of my life was logged and stored, parsed, assembled and stored. It never stopped. The feelings of different shoes with different socks on differnt days, the taste of peas on the metal tines of a bent fork, the smell of Lenor on the bedsheets and how it faded. These weren’t ephemeral snapshots that flashed and were gone. They built up, irredeemably burned and seared in layer after layer, like geological time, fossilising every memory, every sensation, every word heard, every feeling felt.yellow1

My sack never stopped filling. My head was heavy, full. It was not just the good memories that I stored. It wasn’t always the smell of blown out candles at my fourth birthday, the feel of wet laces when I bent down to retie my soccer boots after scoring my first goal, the shape of my mother’s teeth when she laughed.

Who would forget those?

It was the bad memories. The ones that for normal children time’s yard brush swept up and out and never to surface again.

Every illness, every disappointment, every TV news report with swollen-bellied babies, every bitter grimace in the face of my grandmother as she fought pain to bend and hug me. All these stayed fresh, remembered. Heavy, so heavy.

I found relating to children impossible. Adult company annoying. Grown-ups approximated things. Got recollections wrong. Missed detail. I found myself becoming argumentative when friends misremembered, or my parents confused a birthday present.

Arguments turned to anger, anger to violence. WHY were they so STUPID?

Solitude found me out. Loneliness soon followed.

And in the solitude, as I shut down, the doctors returned. I wasn’t eidetic they said. I was autistic.

At four, my condition took hold further. Despite the weight, the misery of memories piling themselves like dead flies on a biker’s visor, I wanted MORE. I was hungry, addicted to them.

There wasn’t a scrap of written material in my home that had not been committed to memory. No VHS video that was not remembered off by heart and no school or library book in our small northern town unread. It did nothing to slake the thirst.

It made it worse.

Then I learned the trick.

Instead of living in the now, instead of surfing through an endless now of new memories, I gradually began to stem the flow.

I looked inwards.By looking inwards I became a visitor to the vast archive even while it continued to be assembled. I was the curator and in turning inwards I was able to briefly avoid the sensations and anger as the new memories continued to hurl themselves at me.

To an observer I was catatonic. But inside, I was treading over a vast landscape, an unending vista of the old, each new meory layering upon the old like the sand blown in on a mistral wind.

I could lose myself for hours, going deeper and deeper. There were always new vistas, the landscape eternally shifting. A trip on my first bike, lollysticks in the spokes and how each stick had a different note.

Or darker, less travelled but nonetheless ever-present scenes.

The sounds of parents rowing rising and falling up from the living room into my room. A pause while the nightly news is turned up to drown the venom and then again each word and shout drifting back up as car headlights strobe through my curtains,download (1)

I tried not to linger and pushed on until one rainy weekend, overwhelmed by the streaks of rain on my window as I counted each and every drop and its speed down the silvery pane, I pushed to a place I had never seen.

Dark, reddish, warm, rolling, swaying, fuzzy.

While all my memories were recognisable, This was not. I had never been to this place before.

I pushed on.

I could hear voices, muffled, indistinct. As if someone had out a mitten in their mouth and tried to read. The SOUNDS of words but not the words themselves. And this one came with a feeling, a dread feeling. A surge of panic, then happiness, then panic again.

I don’t remember this one. Why?

I felt scared at accessing this. Why had I not come here before on my days of internal exploring.

Most of my memories had shapes, it’s how I recognise and sort them. But this. This was unformed, unordered. New.

As the words came again, I strained to insert myself in t he memory. They became clear. The surges returned but still it was dark, warm, without light.
‘…no, you really are pregnant. You’re going to have a boy.’

0 5

It is quite simply the most soothing sound I have ever heard.

It has the insistency of a waterfall’s fight with gravity, the rhythm of a wave’s caress, the lightness of a leave’s rustle, the glow of a pollen-laden honeybee’s wing-beat.

Ned’s voice.

His chest barely moves and the breathing calm but determined. His blues eyes sizzle, again. Alert.

‘You know,’ he begins. ‘Stories are a lot like people.’

The words saunter across the room, casually smuggling their way past the hang-over. The lads in the brain department take a break from hitting the  pain receptors and pause to listen. HIs voice doesn’t appear to be a sound, it is a feeling. And I feel like listening.

‘When they start out,  newborn, no one to look after them, they’re just like a baba og. Helpless. Anyone can come along and whisk them away.’ He blinks, slowly. As if reading from inside his lids.

‘Without someone to look after them, well. Well, they can grow up all wrong. They need a good parent, someone who can help them grow, help them find their place in the world.’ Ned pauses, briefly, to take on board tea.  My phone vibrates in my jacket pocket, probably from the Editor. Probably wants to know why we changed his splash. I ignore it.

He looks at my pocket. A token crease of smile briefly registers at the corners of his mouth. ‘The boy is father to the man, as they say. And so it is with stories.’

The walls appear to be breathing, just ever so slightly, shifting. Some dub bass from the next door flat only adds to a rhythmic breathing in the basement in which I am cocooned.eye

‘Sorry, Ned, I’m….’ I interject. A slash of the razor blue in his eyes silences me. He inhales, intones again, steam from the tea snaking across his face.
‘And a parent never abandons a child. They have responsibilities. Children are a burden. A burden we must bear. And stories, stories need to be nurtured, cared for. You cannot lose sight of a child and you cannot take your eyes off a story. They carry our ideas, they have work to do. Their telling, their retelling gives them life, allows them to grow, to live.’

My brain may trying to justify to the liver why it attempted to poison it within the last 24 hours but it knows when its coming under attack. It takes a raincheck from negotiations with the rest of the body and attempts to get my mouth into gear.
‘I…I’m not…..I’m not well,’ I blurt feebly. NOT what I wanted to say. Stories are not people, stories are just what will be lining the bottom of the cat litter tray the day after tomorrow. Why am I getting lectured? Last time I am going to the Oak, I lied to myself. The breathing walls seem to hum now in time to the bass. This is not feeling right, not feeling right at all.

Ned’s looking beyond the walls, 1,000 word stare, we call it back in the newsroom. When you’re reaching for the intro, pulling it all together. My teeth are feeling gritty, like small chalky cliff-faces ravaged by my tongue, as if eroded rocks are going to crumble into my maw. My skin feels hot, itchy.

‘Do you remember?’ he asks. But it feels not like a question, more an accusation

‘Sorry, whut, remember what?’ The breathing walls aren’t regulation landlord being anymore, they’re shimmering. My lack of sleep is catching up with me, my brain rationalises. A knot in my stomach disagrees.

‘Do you remember?’ There’s no warmth in his face at all. I feel like I am looking through him. The knot in my stomach has gone beyond hangover nausea. Its adrenaline. From fear. I ring through to the lads in the brain: no reply.

‘Ned,’ I struggle. ‘What’s in this tea?’

0 5

Dawn’s light smuggled itself into the village. Like spider threads in the breeze, streaks of sunlight slinked through the tops of the trees before pouring into the patches of the cleared forest. It lapped up against the dozen or so huts before spilling back to form shimmering pools that pushed back dawn’s bedfellow, the dark.

Morning was already punctured by the happy grunts of the pigs, snuffling through the undergrowth of their stockade, chuntering among themselves, occasionally a squeal as an acorn was given up by the trampled mud. Steam rose from their backs mingling with the early smoke coming from huts, diffuse, rising to meet the sun as it broke through the towering forest that had yet to feel the saw and axe.

Clanks of iron pots being hauled into place and the first rumble of the grinding stones on grain began to join the pigs’ breakfast chatter.

The Bructeri village was small by other tribal standards. Pushed into the interior of the forest by relentless Roman probing, endless probing, the tribe had fared badly. Its clearing was recent, only the foundations of a great hall still yet stood, fresh lumber still heaped within its skeleton. Where once the Bructeri had numbered thousands, their proximity to the mighty river Rhine had made them a frequent target for the machine-hearted men of the Romani garrison at Bativodorum. Now just a few hundred of their kin remained, scattered like pebbles in the interior of the forest.

Vannius had been careful, safe. No Bructeri had given ground to the Romani. They’d fought to the death – or slavery. But however many his dwindling war bands had slain more Romani always returned. Always in greater numbers, always encased in iron, strong swords in hand. As his veterans, his shield brothers had fallen, he had looked around to see striplings, willowy young men, mere boys, clutching green spears, a few old blades. No, they were no match. Not for now. Not yet. They had to move.

He missed the east bank, the endless chatter of the river. Rich in fish, freshwater mussels, goose and game, they had prospered. Bructeri boats had plied the watery highway trading north and south on the Rhine as it slumbered through Germania. Batavians at the mouth of the river brought amber and furs from the northerners, and the southern tribes brought wine, jewelry, oils from the south.

Fancy goods, but the Bructeri had iron.

Their streams ran red. Ironstone’ bled into the soil. Water from the wells resembled blood. And their smiths could transform the ore hewn from the living rock into blades as easily as the woodworkers fashion planks from trees. When tribes skirmished, Bructeri blades did the fighting. When peace reigned, Bructeri pots boiled the water, Bructeri ploughs carved through the heavy clay of the river delta as if it were churned butter.

Now only forest. Endless forest.

Vannius threw some of last year’s hazelnuts into mouth and walked out of the hut. He paused, letting the sun dance across his face, scrunching his eyes against the winter’s piercing rays. longhouse

‘Marius!’ he barked. His son’s slave was returning from the tribal midden. He’d been up before dawn. Firewood was under one arm, an empty piss pot on the other.

‘I think we should have dug that thing further away, you know.’ Marius said breezily. ‘If the wind changes in the summer, it will go into the hall, I swear it,’ he added nodding over his shoulder at the cesspit.

‘Rubbish, the wind never changes,’ said Vannius. ‘Anyway, you like digging. Keeps you fit.’

‘I think carrying your piss-pot keeps me fit enough. Why can’t you have a wooden one like everyone else? This is heavy.’ Marius grinned.

‘You’re a cheeky bastard. Come here..’ demanded Vannius, looking stern, but his eyes gave away his mood, only half-serious.

Marius knew what was coming next. Vannius loved a brawl. The Bructeri chieftain could barely get through the day without grabbing some passerby for a trial of strength, wrestling some unfortunate, or challenging to lifting logs. Usually, he started his day testing his son’s growing strength.

The headlock came swiftly. Marius dare not drop the dry firewood into the morning grass.

‘Too slow,’ trumpeted Vannius. ‘I thought you said you were fit? Clearly, not doing enough work around here!. I should stick with that son of mine.’ Marius had chores and the fires were not going to light themselves. Before the blackness of the choke hold took effect, he managed to swing the iron piss-pot into the sweet spot of the inside of the chieftain’s knee. Blessed breath returned in gasps. Marius instantly regretted the move.

But instead of the roaring blow he expected next, there was just silence. Vannius was looking fixedly at the clearing heading to the stream.

‘Where’s Ricburgis, Marius? Where’s my son?’

0 5

“You smell like a hog, Vannius. Get up!” The words hung in the air, along with the smoke. “I said: Get up!” Again, firmer in tone but with the same little effect on the comatose figure sprawled on the furs, his snores wafting little gusts of ash and smoke over onto the embers of a dying fire. A woman stood over the man, stretching her long limbs, her neck, shaking the early morning out of her head, apparently nursing a hangover of her own. Her husband continued on, surrounded by furs, upturned wooden drinking vessels, a shield under his head, a long iron sword, still sheathed, across his chest.

She unsheathed the sword, paused briefly to admire the craftsman ship of the blade, noting a nick above the hilt and making a mental note to borrow the smith’s whetstone later and then with barely any effort at all brought it down in one scything arc down on the man before her.

She allowed a smile to wander across her face: the flat of the sword struck home on the bare arse before her.

The roar that followed more than matched the raw, blade shaped weal breaking across the naked buttock. “In the name of the gods, woman!” bellowed the now roused giant of a man. Six foot six of brawny leather tunic leapt to its feet, furs flying, braided blonde tresses swirling in the gloom of the hut, the glow of the fire pit slipping off the blade into the giant’s blue eyes.

“Do I have to wake you like this every morning, husband of mine?” came the unrepentant reply. “Must I rouse you always with a sword?” she added, with mischief.
“Now that my sword is unsheathed, I’d better put it to good use,’ laughed Vannius wickedly, as he made a grab for his wife. iron age hut

“Oh, my chieftain!” screamed Priska, in mock outrage. They tumbled in the furs laughing, before tumbling back on their backs, breathing heavily. It was like this every morning, and had been since the pair were betrothed more than 30 years ago. Priska looked at him in the half-gloom. The Bructeri chieftain yawned, his gaze following the smoke through the roof of their hut. His frame was still strong, his arms thick, his barrel of a chest rose and fell slowly. His lungs were like the bellows of the blacksmith’s forge. Rising, falling, rising, falling. She wondered how many more of the mountainous heaves would be left in that chest. Scar tissue rose and fell too as he drank the frosty air greedily before standing to stretch, scratching, subconsciously reaching for old wounds, aching in remembrance of past battles. Sword and spear and arrow had written their history on his skin; and on his back, welts and weals wrote their own archive – the torn flesh of the slaver’s whip.

‘C’mon, my love, Ricburgis will be back with water. Heat the stones, will you?’ urged Priska. ‘I’m dying for a bath’

0 5

Ricburgis heard them long before he saw them. Even in the deadening depths of the forest, the sound of metal against metal carries. The oak, ash and beech did their best to muffle it as their boughs worked in the wind. But the creaks and rattles of mighty bough and its squadron of leaves flexing in the wind couldn’t hide the sound.

A rhythmic clank every second, getting closer.

The first clank made him freeze, his head titled, like a startled fawn half-expecting the crash of a wolf through the thick undergrowth, teeth, claws flashing. He closed his eyes slowly and swivelled his good ear, his right, towards the distance.

Clank. Pause. Clank.

He crouched slowly, depositing the yoke of leather pails to the ground. Even the youngest son of the Bructeri chieftain had chores and that crisp autumn morning had seen the teen dispatched from the tribal village to fetch water for the morning bathing. Like most of the northern tribes, the Bructeri never started a day without a hot soak, even in the depths of the darkest Germanic forests. Forest winter

A hand automatically moved a shaggy sheaf of yellow hair away from Ricburgis’s good ear and he homed in on the location. North? The river? He fine-tuned, blotting out wind, the burbling of the stream, the irritable oaks and their slender smooth barked cousins.

The clanking was barely closer. Not on the river at least, he thought. They wree on foot, but were they warriors? Romans? Was that the rhythmic thwack of a scabbard on a chain-mail tunic?

Clank. Pause. Clank.

Thump, thump. The sound of his blood pulsing through his head began to drown out the clanking. He realised he hadn’t let out his breath for almost three minutes.

He strained again. The Romani here? This far north, this far east of the mighty Rhine? It would unheard of. It would be a disaster. His father, Vannius, had moved the Bructeri east into the untamed forest depths before he was born. East, east the depths, away from pasture, to avoid the machine-like men, with machine-hearts, hidden behind steel, killers without passion, devoid of feeling.

His ears sucked in the sound. Should he flee to the camp, warn the warriors, drinking as ever in the long-hall, or find out more. He drank in more, sifting out the background noise, discarding the irrelevant and then he heard his first voice. Familiar speech patterns. He relaxed, but only just. It could be a raiding party. Or treacherous scouts who’d thrown their lot in with the garrison at Bativodorum.

Clank, pause, clank. Close now, following the stream towards him. But the without the crashing of roman studded sandals on the deadfall branches. It suggested people who were comfortable navigating thick forest. It could only be fellow Germanic tribes. But why here?

Ricburgis was unarmed. No spear, no javelin. The clanking came nearer, his stomach turned but a Bructeri never flees a fight. He detached the pails from his yoke. It would do as a staff, he thought.

And still the clanking. He stretched his limbs, bit into the smoothed edges of the yoke and prepared to meet the noise.

His ear still worked on the sound, feeding it to his brain, calculating possibilities. Fight or flight? His body had already made the decision to stay but his brain carried on anyway until it worked out the sound.

Chains.

And chains mean slavers.

0 5

Classified ads refer to them as ‘studio garden apartments’.

You’ve got to admire estate agents. There is literally no reality they cannot alter with their mellifluous redefinitions. As a hack, I take my fair share of blame for curbing reality, corralling it with stock phrases, clichéd versions of truth. How else can we sum up a massacre in a news in brief? Fifty words ain’t a lot to play with. But these lads, they’re the masters. We only charge a quid, they sell millions in real estate and nobody blinks an eye.

No, there’s no studio, the garden is a stair-well full of discarded takeaway boxes, half eaten doner kebabs and empty crushed cans of Special Brew. It’s a basement bedsit. basement

The steam from the tea has given my aching eyes the optimism of mounting a full visual recce and they go for it.

It’s gloomy. But a special kind of gloom. The gloom that is the shadow behind the sofa, the shade lurking in the meter-reading cupboard under the stairs, the murk that only a basement has. It’s as if Darkness fed up with Light’s intrusion has refused to budge, instead choosing to strangle its nemesis, making it pay for endlessly thwarting its right to exist.

There’s a single door into the bedsit, bolted. A sole, barred window, is the only point of natural light, and even that has largely given up its job, half-obscured by years of grime and dumped rubbish now nuzzling in fold of chip shop paper and desiccated fag butts.

A bed does its best to impersonate a couch along one forlornly empty wall while a metal sink and painfully small wooden kitchen unit above inhabit the opposite wall. Their only companions are a Baby Belling two ring stove oven-grill precariously balanced on a mini-fridge.

Standard fare so far. I sigh. It’s all too familiar from my own earlier days in the capital when I first moved up. No matter how many times I had tried to shake these places out of my blood, they always came back. I’ve lost count of the shitholes like this I’d sat in as a reporter listening to single mums complain of damp, bad boyfriends, slashed dole or marauding hoodies pissing down into the window well. And suicides, always with the suicides. Or worse, the unmissed. Their bodies lying for weeks forlornly rotting, their juices fermenting the carpet fibres, staining the floorboards. That’s a smell that bleach cannot shift.

Once, the river had burst its banks. It had been a flash flood, had gone as quickly as it had came and apart from miserable shop keepers and pissed off commuters, there was little to write – until a babbling,crying student rang me on the paper, raging against his mum’s boyfriend. I’d continued watching the news, phone cradled in my neck, saying ‘Um’ at encouraging intervals, on autopilot. He was Filipino and lived abroad while his mum worked here as a nurse, sending cash back home. He’d got my name from our website and convinced me she had taken a beating from her boyfriend. The flat was on my way home so I said I’d check in on her after I left work. I’d gone to the pub instead waiting for the congestion to calm down but when I did struggle home, the marrow in my bones chilled. Pale blue light was bouncing off the blocks of flats, impassively standing as brick sentinels, the occasional half-opened sash window resembling a quizzical raised eyebrow. The radio chatter of walkie talkies greeted me when I finally rounded the corner. And the drone of pumps, fire tender pumps, but instead of spraying water, they were sucking it in, from a basement flat. Her basement flat.

The flood had hit here. And as the blue lights from the ambulance flicked round I could see the tiny window. It was barred.

Basement flats. Graves waiting to happen.

Just three good glugs of tea in my gullet and I’m feeling semi-human. I’d demolished the buttie too quickly and when I burped I had a backdraft of HP sauce interleaved with the alcohol whimsy of sweet Red Bull. I quickly glug some more tea.

‘You demolished that as if your stomach had suspected someone had cut your throat,’ came the voice. ‘And you drink fiercely, far too fiercely in my view.’

‘The tea?’ I ask.

‘Drink. You take to the drink too eagerly. Far too eager.’ chaise

‘Well, it was a long day..Or night? What the hell time is it, by the way?’ I ask. I’m getting used to the gloom now and I find him languishing on what looks at first to be a futon but actually is a mahogany chaise longue with a deep teale green velvet cover. Its classy, even if it is a bit Victorian spiritualist parlour for my taste.

‘’Which time is it? Does it really matter?’ He casually, and begins to uncurl from the chaise, stretch and shimmer like a waking cat, before slumping back onto his side. For an ancient looking one-eyed drunken Irish pub hound, he’s limber, real limber. His movements are deliberate, each casual stretch held and then released with a yawn or a sigh, yoga for the lazy. It’s actually quite unnerving and I focus on him properly.

‘I’m sorry, I don’t think I got your name last night? I’m Frayne, Tom Frayne.’ He replies with a gentle snort, the sole eye glinting in the gloom. He doesn’t immediately come back to me, just continues with the stretching. I’m still in my suit and tie (complete with fresh rivulets of HP sauce) but he’s clearly been up and about and is changed. He appears to be wearing an extravagant smoking jacket made from crushed heavy red velvet and instead of being set off with the standard black silk lapel appears to have bright gold trim instead. It’s very ornate, and appears to be improbably old, antique.

‘Yes,’ he manages mid-stretch yawn, ‘ I know who you are.’

He leans forward out of the miasmatic light, his blue-sky eye fixing on me like a searchlight hunting ships in the fog, and an open palm emerges from the cavern of his monstrous sleeve.

‘They call me Olaf. But ye can call me Ned.’

0 5

It was the smell that registered first: bacon, food of the gods, the drunk ones that is. Ambrosia? No, thanks.Then the sizzle, the reassuring sizzle filtered its way through a dim pop song. Was it Blondie? The sizzle matched the cymbols.

Then the pain: shit, another hangover. And due to the frantic yelps from Brain Central it looks like it ‘s a bad one.

I didn’t bother opening an eye. Save that uncalled for brainache for a little while. I’ll just snuggle back into the carpet, I reasoned.

Except that my flat didn’t have carpet, I’d got laminate floor – too cheap to get solid wood and now an undulating ripple of bendy pine-style plastic covered my apartment’s floors.

And if I’m on the carpet. Who’s cooking bacon?

I prepare the boys in Brain Central for some motor function. It’s not going to be easy. Right eye takes point and flicks a lid open through some crusty sleep.

Nope, not my flat. The lads in Brain Central call on Johnny Adrenalin and limbs are deployed. I simulate what approximates to a leap from the floor but an unfamiliar chair thwarts my progress. Ouch, an eager lump makes its way towards my forehead; wood beats flesh in the mock rock-paper-scissors.
bacon butty

‘Easy now, soldier,’ rasps a voice. ‘You drink fiercely.’ I let my neck move the heavy throbbing head over to the source, some old guy, some familiar old guy. I send the lads in Brain Central off to the memory bank to make a withdrawal.

‘Oh, it’s you…er…yerself…erm,’ I venture, realising I’ve been the classic drunk. Mates with everyone, friends with no one. ‘You’re the guy, the man with the…’

He waves me down, proffers a plate.

‘Daddy’s or HP?’

‘Who?’ The lads haven’t enough neurons on board yet.

‘Sauce. What sauce ye want?’ comes the voice.

‘Got any ketchup?’

‘No, that’s a sin.’ He says, sounding serious.

‘Sin?’ I want to eat it, not shag it…where’s the tommy nod?’ I’m getting impatient, the emotions are making the most of Brain Central’s understaffing problem at the moment. Besides, the bacon sarnie is probably the best sarnie I’ve smelt in a long time.

‘Only brown for bacon,’ the bacon teaser stresses. ‘Red is for chips, sometimes sausages, but only in rolls. No, bacon takes brown,’ he concludes firmly. Two plates clunk heavily, on what, I assume, is a table. My eyes are shut again, and I’m in agony. ‘Look,’ I pant, ‘it’s not a fuckin’ fine wine. It’s a bleedin’ buttie. Who gives a monkey’s?’ There’s a muffled response, a smacking of lips. And was that a slurp? Of tea?

‘It’s getting….’ Chewing…’..cold. You’d better..’ Slurp. ‘Get your arse of the fecking floor,’ Gulp. I swear I hear a smacking of lips.

While the lads at Brain Central are still working out where the fuck I am, the grunts in the Engine Room, my stomach, have decided they’ve had enough. They’re mounting a rebellion. A couple of them send runners to my legs, while a few sneaky ninjas send word out to my arms to get that sarnie and bring it home. Their most cunning and convincing agent commandeers an eyeball: we’re moving, the plate hoves into view and I’m munching on autopilot.

No drink slakes a thirst like a steaming mug of tea. No food sates the stomach like a bacon buttie. Banned by two world religions, shunned by the vegetarian rest. Billions have lived and died without experiencing the regenerative power of a cuppa and a buttie. I am reborn. Even if there is HP sauce on it.

0 5

The dream was always the same.

He’s standing in a forest and it’s snowing. Large flakes that sting his eyes. But instead of the bitter cold that the soft white blanket usually brings, it’s warm; hot even, and he can hardly breathe. In the distance, wailing. Three white berries fall from the mighty boughs at his feet.

And in the distance, the wailing grows.