Monday, 30 September 2013

Q.U.E.S.T: Episode One: Which Witch is Which? (Part One)

So, another new short story, a (hopefully) funny one this time. As you might have guessed from the title, I'm hoping this will develop into a series (read: if I can overcome my crippling laziness, and if people like it, I'll write some more); please let me know what you think of it:) Anyway, hope you enjoy!

As the first arrow whipped about three inches past his head, Quentin decided it was time to re-evaluate his life.

Quentin was a goblin, and as far as he knew he was the only intelligent person in the realm of Analgesia. That might sound arrogant but, given the available evidence, it was the only conclusion he felt could be reached. After all, he had been making a living for the past few years by tricking gullible idiots out of their money with every scam, swindle and con he could think of, and as he hadn’t yet been thrown into a ditch covered in tar and feathers, it was fair to say that most of them were a needle short of a haystack.

Of course, even idiots get lucky sometimes; and this was why he was currently running for his life as a baying mob made up of the angry villagers of Dodge attempted to turn him into a very well-dressed sieve. The long crimson cloak and large floppy hat he’d been wearing as part of this particular scheme were not exactly aiding his attempts to escape, but at least he cut a stylish figure as he sped along the cobblestones, trying to remember the way out. Now you may ask why, if he was so clever, he was having to evade the stream of arrows, stones and the occasional piece of excrement that were being sent his way; and, as luck would have it, the answer was just hoving into view around the corner.

“Get the goddamn cart going, Scrote!” he shouted. Scrote was his assistant, or as Quentin preferred to think of him the moron who he’d been unfairly saddled with and who seemed hell-bent on getting him into trouble. Scrote put down the “artistic” parchment he had been intently studying whilst perched on the seat of the ramshackle collection of splinters and woodworm that the two of them called “home” (with entirely different levels of honest enjoyment and bitterness, admittedly), and grasped the reins tightly.

“You’re facing the wrong way, you idiot!” Quentin screamed. Behind him, the villagers were gaining, most of them with various sharp and pointy instruments to which the word “brandishing” could so easily be applied. Scrote turned around to face the front, smiling and shaking his head at what a silly billy he’d been, and in his most leisurely manner began to shake the reins, trying to coax the flea-bitten horse that pulled the cart into as close an approximation of life as a nag that looked like it was yearning for the glue factory could manage. The horse, however, wasn’t budging; it just flicked its tail and aimed a snort of derision at the short podgy idiot faffing about behind it.

If Quentin could have spared some time from his current preoccupation, he would have described Scrote in the following way. Imagine the tallest, prettiest, fairest maiden, with long, flowing golden hair, a sweet and noble countenance and a sharp, inquisitive mind. Scrote was the complete opposite of all these things. He was short, he was dirty, and he was monumentally stupid; though he was a goblin like Quentin, the comparison was akin to saying that kisses and vomit are the same because they come from the same orifice. The best thing that could be said about his appearance was that usually most of his body was obscured by his clothes; that part that could be seen looked like a blind man had tried to shave a baboon and made a particularly bad job of it. He had hairy legs, hairy arms and hairy palms; and the less said about the smell...

This was slightly harsh on Scrote, who was almost certainly not as stupid as he looked, if only because if he were as stupid as he looked he would have had great difficulty breathing; but then life, for the most part, is harshness, and why should Scrote be spared?

Currently Scrote’s short stubby little body was covered not only with his habitual dirty rags but also in tar and feathers. There was no time for Quentin to shake his head meaningfully at his assistant, however, because at that moment a lump of cow dung the size of a fist smacked him in the back of the head and pitched him, spitting and cursing, onto the ground. The mob were about twenty yards behind the goblin; this, he thought, was it. Not how he’d pictured going out, hacked to pieces by angry country bumpkins whilst covered in shit; but then not many people get to choose how they die, and fewer still enjoy it.
The first villager reached him as he lay on the ground, a big ugly brute with blue paint all over his face who brandished what looked like an old rake with bits of cabbage leaf still stuck to the spikes. Oh, great, he thought, death by gardening implement, how very heroic. The man’s face curled into a smile of righteous satisfaction and he raised his makeshift weapon above his head.

“This’ll teach ya tae defile oor virgins!” he said in an outrageous accent. Quentin closed his eyes as the rake descended.

Then the sound of galloping hooves and tortured wood filled the air, and the big man threw himself sideways as a massive bulky shape hurtled past him. Scrote had finally managed to get the horse and cart moving. 
Quentin struggled to his feet as the horse, maddened by whatever Scrote had done to it, ploughed through the mob of villagers, scattering them aside like stalks of wheat (if the wheat was also screaming obscenities as loudly and angrily as it could). As it reached the end of the street, Scrote managed to drag it around, the wheels screeching in protest as they raised sparks against the cobblestones, and drove it back up towards Quentin. Those few villagers who had managed to stagger to their feet after the first time the cart had gone past were bowled over again, various farming implements flying into the air; with a clatter of ill-fitting horse shoes, Scrote managed to halt the cart just in front of Quentin, and he swiftly leapt up beside his ill-smelling friend.

“Get us out of here!” he said, taking control of the situation as ever. Scrote cracked the reins and the horse leapt forward again, the impotent howls of the villagers following them as they sped through the village gates and out into the woodland. Soon, they were safe, and Quentin allowed himself to relax and remove his hat and cloak. “Well, that’s one place we won’t be going back to,” he said, to a blank stare from his befeathered friend. Sighing, he told Scrote to slow down a little whilst he clambered into the back of the cart.

Moving aside all the various paraphernalia the pair used to undertake their nefarious schemes, and the book of bedtime stories Quentin had to read to Scrote when he had a nightmare, he reached the very back of the cart, the part they slept in, and placed his long-fingered hands on the small brown sack which contained the money they’d managed to scam from the villagers back there. At least, he thought, all that running around had been worth it; for once, they’d managed to get away with the gold, and that, after all, was all that mattered.

In hindsight, he should have realised that one should never count their chickens, especially given that the idiot he was forced to travel round with was covered in feathers a few feet away from him; but the thought that they might actually be able to eat a proper meal tonight had blinded him to caution. He opened the sack, expecting that lovely glimmer of light reflecting off metal that meant beef, gravy, and lovely cold beer, and saw … nothing. Just a single moth, which flew out of the empty darkness and fluttered happily off into the forest. After scrabbling around the back of the cart for a second, hoping that Scrote had, for some reason, hidden their earnings underneath the old cloaks they used as blankets, he straightened up and, in as polite a voice as he could manage, enquired as to the whereabouts of the money.

“Oh, that,” Scrote said. “I emptied it out of the sack in the village.”

Quentin took a deep breath. “And why did you do that?”

“Well,” Scrote began whilst drumming his overlong nails on the seat beside him, “well, you remember back there at the village fete, when you went onto that stage and shouted about how you had that miracle potion that would cure all ills...”


“Well, and then, I was supposed to come on the stage like I’d never met you and say I had terrible, terrible venereal diseases...”


“Well, and then you gave me the potion, and I leapt up and said I was cured and had never felt better...”

“Yes, Scrote, and then you threw up because you’d been eating candy-floss despite the fact that I told you not to, and then you shouted “Sorry, Quentin,” at the top of your voice so that the whole crowd, who had been shoving money into my hands faster than a greyhound with a wedge of ginger stuck up its bum, realised we’d been scamming them and turned on us... I was there, remember?”

“Well, yes, but then, once you’d run off screaming that I was an idiot and you wanted me to die, and they all chased after you except for the two who decided to put me in that bucket of tar and cover me in feathers,” Scrote paused for breath whilst raising his feather-covered arms to demonstrate his point, “and then they left me alone because I was crying too much for them to be having fun... well, I remembered that you’d told me to put the sack on the cart and get the hell out of Dodge as soon as we’d pulled off the scam, and so I emptied the money out and put the sack on the cart just like you said!” Scrote finished triumphantly, and grinned, exposing surprisingly white teeth.

“You took the money out, and put the sack in the cart on its own...” Quentin said, his voice exhibiting that calmness that usually comes just before an island-consuming storm.

“Yes,” said Scrote, still beaming widely. “It was quite heavy to carry, you see, and you’d kept saying we’d have to move fast before they found out that the potion was just nettles in water, so I thought, if I took the money out, I could move much quicker. And you told me to put the sack in, so I did. No problems.”

Quentin was still making an effort to stay calm, although steam was starting to rise from his ears, a common occurrence in angry or stressed-out goblins. “And you didn’t think that I might have meant keep the money in the sack and take it all with us, so that we could buy things like food and drink and a place to sleep that isn’t strewn through with rusty nails and infested by termites?”

“Oh, of course I thought of that, Quentin,” Scrote said, grinning even wider. “So I picked up two of the coins to take with me. I thought it was a bit odd you hadn’t told me to do that, to be honest.” He turned back to the road, whistling a jaunty tune. Quentin reached his hands out, fingers extended to choke his companion, but with a roll of his eyes decided against it, and slumped back into the cart, steam still spewing copiously from his shell-like ears. Not for the first time he wondered if Scrote’s idiocy might actually be a carefully constructed facade put on solely for the purposes of winding he, Quentin, up, but as usual he dismissed the thought. Nobody was that good an actor. Not particularly wanting to continue the conversation, he rooted around the cart, locating a quill and a piece of parchment headed “Places we shouldn’t go back to”. He licked the nib of the quill (goblin saliva has a similar consistency to ink), and bent down to add the village of Dodge to the list. He sighed heavily.

“Now, now, what can the matter be?” came a voice from the trees. Scrote was so startled in the driving seat that he immediately pulled back on the reins and the cart slid to a halt. A figure emerged from the holly bushes, wearing a flowing robe of deep purple, lined with what appeared to be badger fur, an equally grandiose pointed hat, and carrying a long mahogany staff with strange sigils carved down the shaft, sigils which writhed and twisted in the cool forest air. It was an effect only slightly spoiled by the thin streak of bird droppings matted into the stranger’s luxurious red beard.

“Well met, my fine fwiends, on this fine mowwow!”

Quentin paused whilst he worked out what “mowwow” meant, then raised an eyebrow. “Nobody speaks like that,” he said to the stranger. “What do you want?”

The stranger strode into the middle of the road, and spread his arms wide.

“The question is not what I want, but what you want,” he said. His voice had a nasal quality to it that 
Quentin, his mood not aided by the day’s previous events, was finding incredibly annoying.

“What I want is for you to sod off,” Quentin said. The stranger blinked a couple of times, but managed to rally.

“I believe we may have got off on the wwong foot,” he managed. Scrote looked like he was about to agree and introduce himself, until Quentin shot him a murderous glance. “Don’t you dare encourage him,” the goblin told his olfactorily-offensive companion.

The stranger, evidently choosing to ignore this, held out his free hand. “My name is Wandolf,” he said, “but most people call me Godwin, because of copyright issues.”

His speech impediment really was incredible, Quentin thought; it was taking the goblin a second to actually work out what Godwin was saying, and he wasn’t quite sure if this annoying moron (or possibly mor-won) realised that his speech was so befuddling.

“Godrin?” the goblin said.

“No, no, not Godwin, Godwin,” the stranger replied. The goblin closed his eyes, hoping this was all just a fairly tedious dream, but when he opened them again, the stranger was unfortunately still there, a wide and innocent smile upon his face.

“Oh. Well, Godwin,” Quentin said, “I’m Quentin, and I’m going to go away now, before whatever’s wrong with you becomes wrong with me, OK?”

Godwin turned a delicate shade of puce, and tightened his grip on his staff. Quentin continued.

 “Before I go, though, I feel like I should let you know that you’ve got sh-hang on, is that a false beard? Scrote, look at this-this guy’s wearing a false beard!” Quentin laughed out loud, and Godwin’s face changed colour again, this time matching the bushy red beard that, as Quentin had noticed, was held on by two paper-clips secured over his ears.

 “You are being exceedingly wude, you know,” Godwin said. “It’s starting to get on my wick a little, if you must know. And I warn you, you won’t like me when I’m angwy!”

“What are you going to do, turn into a giant green monster and rip us to bits? Stupidest thing I ever heard. I’m bored now, so could you please just go away? Come on, Scrote, let’s leave this idiot alone and get out of here.” With that, Quentin turned his face away from the stranger, and his assistant cracked the reins again. After a few false starts, the horse evidently decided it might as well start going forward, and the cart started on a sedate pace along the road, leaving Godwin standing alone.

This is the point at which, in most fantasy adventures, the wizard-for that is what the stammering stranger was, if you hadn’t already guessed- smiles a secret smile, knowing they have found the hero that will save the land from evil and, more importantly, learn a valuable lesson which will make them a far better person/hobbit/green tentacle thing. However, this isn’t most fantasy adventures. As the wizard took off his large purple hat, ready to knowingly peer over the top of it at the goblins’ retreating cart, a whole flight of geese directly overhead decided it was time to lose a bit of weight. Godwin’s scream of disgust could be heard all the way back to Dodge.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Through Different Eyes: Part 3

Third and final part of the current short story! Rated R for being a bit gruesome at the end. Enjoy! (Parts one and two, in case you missed them!)

I remember his voice being quite deep, not rough but just sounding like it came from a place much further down his body than his throat. He asked about what had happened to my eyes and I told him all about it and they ran some tests and examined the place my eyes used to be and he said that he’d be able to help me. Me and Heather were so happy! I couldn’t wait to see all the things I remembered seeing before, to see if they’d changed or stayed exactly the same, even whether I’d remembered all the colours right, because it’s easy to forget exactly what red and blue look like when you’ve only seen them in your head for ten years. I was so excited at having eyes again, to be able to live a normal life, maybe get a job, talk to people again without them being all sympathetic and awkward with their breathing, and see if the picture I had of Heather was like how she was in real life, whether her eyes were the same colour as they were in my head. We got told I’d have to wait for a donor before I could get new eyes, so we flew back to England, and we waited.

Those days of waiting were really hard. Like I say, I’d managed to get used to not being able to see, but that was because there was no chance I’d ever be able to see again, other than in my own head; but now I was going to be able to, not with my own eyes exactly but I’d be able to see all the things I hadn’t seen for ten years. I was going to be able to see Heather and my friends and my mum and my dog and myself, see the sky and the trees and the sun... We were both so excited, and scared a little, because no-one likes having an operation, and I was scared things wouldn’t look like I remembered them looking, scared that I had forgotten some of the things I’d seen. But I was so excited, I could barely sleep, I just kept hoping for a donor to come along, even though I knew this was basically saying I wanted someone to die so I could have their eyes; but I really did, once or twice, really did wish for someone to die so I could see again...

I didn’t have to wait all that long, really, even if every day I had to wait seemed to last four hours more than it should, long drawn-out hours that seemed to stretch me tight and stop me from breathing properly. The call came; a young man had been killed in a car crash, he’d been speeding and had smashed his car into a tree, apparently, and so... I had my eyes. And me and Heather went to the hospital and they put me in one of those open gowns and sent me to sleep on a cold steel table; and when I woke up, it was done. I couldn’t open my new eyes at first because of the bandage round my face but i could feel them there, feel them filling up what had been empty for so long.

I remember how I felt when the bandage first came off. I could barely open my eyes, they were still swollen and sore from the operation, but I remember the light, the first light I’d seen for more than ten years. It was brighter than I’d remember light being, but then I had been in darkness for a long time, so I guess that was to be expected. I remember the wonder I felt, the kind of simple childish delight in being able to make out shapes, blurred dark ones against the backdrop of white for now, but I’d been told my vision would get better once my body got used to the new eyes. I remember the relief I felt, relief that I could live my life now on my own terms, not needing a dog to guide me round but just my own eyes, my new eyes, the sense of power and independence that surged through me. I remember the pain too, like the nail was being driven through my eyes all over again, pressing agains thte back of my new eyeballs where they’d joined them up to my brain. And I remember the fear, the fear of the new, the fear I wouldn’t like what I could see, the fear that everything would have changed so much in ten years that I wouldn’t know my own world any more. Yeah, the fear, rising up in me, making it so I almost didn’t want to open my eyes any more.

But I did, I did open them and look out at the world again after ten years, and it was amazing. I saw my mum again, for the first time since before I went blind, even; she looked older, her hair was greyer, there were far more lines on her face than I remembered... but I could see her face again, that face I’d seen looking down on me so many times before. That was a beautiful moment, the first time I saw her face again. We both cried, joy I think, relief, yeah, that too, and amazement, because I never thought I’d see again and now I could.
Now I come to think of it, I remember her looking a bit puzzled, a bit put off by my new eyes, but I guess I just put that down to surprise, because my old eyes had been brown and these were green. I know that because I looked in the mirror as soon as I had the chance and my eyes were green, a kind of pale pastel colour, quite light and a bit chalky, I guess you could say. It felt pretty odd, seeing someone else’s eyes on your face. Hell, it felt quite odd to see your face ten years older than when you’d last seen it. But it felt good, too.

It was strange, seeing light where before there’d only been darkness. It was painful at first, while my body healed from the operation and accepted the new eyes. But eventually that pain stopped, and I got used to seeing things again, used to the way everything seemed a little darker than when I was 18; I put it down to age, and to the way hospitals always seem to suck the whiteness out of everything and make every surface seem somehow grey... It felt strange, as well, that the images were coming from a different place now, from a few inches of my head rather than from points all over my body, from outside rather than in, so that whilst I could see everything, it all seemed shallower than it had been before, like pictures painted on canvas rather than pictures painted in my mind. I expected it would be a little strange, though, seeing again, and so I didn’t get too worried, just put it down to my body needing to adjust and work out what it was doing with this new sense it had been given.

Even more than my mum, the person I wanted to see most was Heather. I was so scared to see her, it was like a fist had clenched inside my chest, and I was so excited at the same time, knowing that I’d finally know if the picture I’d built of her from her smell and her touch and her taste was how she looked to my sight...I remember exactly the moment that I first saw her, first laid my new eyes on her. She wasn’t exactly like the picture in my head. Her hair was a bit lighter, her eyes a bit darker, not like leaves but like stagnant water in an old forgotten pool, and her face didn’t seem as round s I’d thought, didn’t seem so smooth… But if I looked hesitant, surprised, I don’t think she noticed, because she threw her arms around me and said she was so happy I was back and did it hurt and was I OK and we both cried a bit, which felt strange because I hadn’t cried for a long time, hadn’t been able to, and the hotness and the wetness hurt my new eyes a little; and seeing her cry meant all the other stuff didn’t matter because it was the worst thing I’d ever seen and I wanted it to stop and it had to stop and I was so, so glad when she buried her head in my chest and I couldn’t see the tears any more. And I looked down at her hair instead, the hair on the top of her head, and saw that it went a bit darker as it neared her skull and that made me feel odd, kind of disjointed, because I’d always imagined it to be one colour and now it looked like two and neither of them were like I thought her hair should be.

It was OK, though, because I knew that not everything would be exactly right and anyway it wasn’t as if I could complain about seeing my girlfriend for the first time in my life and it wasn’t like she’d changed, you know? Except… Except that, after we’d gone back home and started life again, and I started looking for a job and watching the television and I didn’t need my dog to lead me anymore because I could do it myself… Things didn’t seem right any more. I tried to read but the letters didn’t seem right, black against white not blue against black; and none of the colours I saw were quite how I remembered them, greens were always a bit darker and reds deeper and blues were always light and weak-looking, somehow, as if blue wasn’t a colour itself but a draining away of colour, the last stage before a colour faded into black… And Heather was different as well. She didn’t look how I’d imagined and she stopped sounding like I remembered, she stopped being kind in her voice and she started to feel more rough and started to feel less soft…
I started to hate seeing her, started to hate the way that I kept seeing new things about her that I hadn’t been able to see before, to see the tired lines around her eyes and the scorn that sometimes appeared on her face and the tiny blemishes on her skin, the brown marks on the white, reminders that she wasn’t stainless or pure and that when I saw her every time she changed as I noticed someone different until she wasn’t even really Heather any more, she was someone else, someone completely different to the Heather I’d known and seen in my head, because now I could see her outside my head and it was all wrong, all of it.

I started to think that the operation had gone wrong somehow, because surely sight should be something wonderful, something magical, something that you gain because otherwise they wouldn’t describe blindness as “lack” of sight but as an escape from it. And this sight felt terrible, like I was looking at everything through dark green glass, and it was only getting worse as time went on, as I saw more things and each thing I saw tore away the image I had of it and replaced it with this dark, flat drawing, just a shadow of what it used to be to me...

So I called the doctor in New York, the one who’d perfected the eye transplant, but I couldn’t get hold of him, not even his office or his secretary; the number just didn’t work at all. This didn’t make me feel much better, I’ll admit; and after I searched round on the Internet and in a couple of magazines, forcing the letters into my brain however wrong they looked, I found out that the doctor had disappeared off the face of the earth, just vanished like he had never been there in the first place, nobody knew where he was. And almost all of the people who’d had this transplant had started going mad, done things like throw themselves off bridges or run onto train tracks. One man in Houston had even killed his girlfriend three months after he’d had the operation, just taken a knife and stabbed her and then, more horrible, cut off her face and burnt it... And he’d told the police, when they came to him with his hands still covered in blood, that he’d done it because “She looked wrong”, that was the phrase he kept repeating, “she looked wrong”, and he’d thought she wasn’t his girlfriend but some kind of shapeshifter who’d taken on the appearance of her face and got it slightly wrong, that’s why he’d taken off her face, so he could see the shapeshifter underneath... And just after I’d read this, tears still wet on my cheeks, Heather came in and I looked at her and I realised that she looked wrong, she didn’t look like the Heather I knew before I had my new eyes and she was still changing, she was still getting darker every day...

I couldn’t let it get to that stage, I just couldn’t. To think I might end up killing Heather because my new eyes had made me see her differently, or maybe see her how she really was... I couldn’t do that, I just couldn’t, and even thinking about it made the tears flow again, crying so hard that my still-healing eyes started to bleed a little and the tears came out pink-red instead of clear... I didn’t tell her what was wrong, just told her I was finding being able to see again was overwhelming, which wasn’t a lie, but I knew I had to do something.

I didn’t sleep that night. I left Heather sleeping in our bed while I went downstairs and sat in the dark silence, thinking about what I should do, how I should stop myself doing anything stupid. I couldn’t understand why anyone would hurt someone they loved, why that man had stabbed his girlfriend; the only thing he’d been able to say that was coherent was that she looked wrong... And the others, that had committed suicide or gone mad, all of them... The only thing they had in common was this operation, was that they had been blind and now they saw... And they’d all decided they didn’t want to see any more, and I realised that nor did I, I didn’t want to see any more because everything I saw looked wrong and was wrong, as if by the very act of looking at something was making it warp and change and become something flatter and darker than it really was, than it had been behind my eyes... And that was the answer. The eyes. Everything had gone wrong since I’d had these new eyes, these eyes that weren’t my own, these eyes that should have been left closed on the body of that young man in the car crash and never opened again.

I could make sure they never opened again. I could make sure I never had to see again, even if as I thought that the darkness around me started to turn green as if someone had turned on night-vision goggles and I was looking through them now. I realised, now, that I was far happier being blind, far happier lacing vision than having the sight of so much that was wrong in the world displayed before me and knowing that looking at it and doing nothing to change it was making it worse.

So I went into the kitchen and I opened a draw and took out a knife, and I placed it against my left eye and I pushed so that I felt the blade penetrate, and flicked my hand and felt my eyeball detach and fall onto the floor, and then I did the same with my other eye and now I was weeping blood, pure red blood that pooled around me on the floor and felt thick and sticky on my hands as I knelt in the middle of it. And I didn’t make a sound, I just knelt there, still gripping the kitchen knife, with the pool spreading around me and the liquid pouring slowly down my face and dripping from my mouth and chin. And in the morning Heather came downstairs and found me and I heard her scream and felt her arm around me and heard her ragged breath and sobs as she saw what I’d done to myself and I smiled, because I couldn’t see her anymore and that meant that her image, the deeper image of her touch and sound and smell... that image would last forever, unsullied by the time that can only be glimpsed by prying eyes.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Through Different Eyes: Part 2

So, part 2 of the short story I started last week; hope you enjoy! (Part 1 is here)

We went to a pub she knew, the Horse and Hounds, I think; I remember it was really noisy, crowded, with that thick feeling in the air you get when there are too many people in a small space. That’s where being blind comes in useful, though, ‘cause people make room for you, move out of your way a bit most of the time; I think Heather appreciated it, anyway, we got served pretty quick. Blind man and pretty girl, huh, pretty much perfect for getting served at bars. Well, we got our drinks, made our way to the table, she led me over, actually, because I remember the feeling of her hand on my back through my coat and how it seemed to, I don’t know, kind of concentrate me in that one sensation, made the feeling of her hand all I could concentrate on for a moment... Anyway, we sat down and we started talking and we really hit it off. We talked about my eyes and my life and I asked her what colour her eyes were, and she told me they were green, and she let me touch her eyelids and I could see the green through my fingers, the kind of green you get when sun shines through an oak leaf, where you can see the life framed against the sky. And she let me feel the rest of her face and make a picture up of her...

I still remember that picture, that first picture I had of her. Funny, really; you’d think with what happened afterwards I wouldn’t remember that, but I do. I knew she was blonde because she told me; I pictured a kind of dirty blonde, that kind of almost-brown, like honey mixed with chocolate. And her face was soft, I remember that too; her nose was small, her mouth was small too, and it was so soft, like someone had soaked it in water for an hour, you know? She sounded perfect, she felt perfect; and she liked me. Can you believe that? She actually liked this blind bloke she’d just picked up off the street. She said later it was because I’d made her laugh, and she said she didn’t laugh much. I wanted her to laugh all the time, thought I could make her laugh all the time, didn’t want to do anything else. I mean, it wasn’t love at first sight or anything, hah, couldn’t be, but maybe love at first touch. I could believe that, love at first touch. And I knew that this picture of her was mine, and only mine, because everyone else would see her with their eyes and I saw her with my fingertips and my ears and my nose and so I had a picture that no-one else but me could ever see.

And she told me about her life, and how she worked in a charity shop and loved kittens and how her mom had been really sick when she was a little girl and- well, all the things you talk about when you meet a new person you like. I think we knew more about each other after that first drink than most people know about each other in their whole lives. Anyway, we arranged to meet up again, and again after that, and things just seemed to slip into place, and we were going out.

She’d come round some evenings and we’d sit and listen to the radio together or she’d read me a book, and we’d hold hands... I remember our first kiss, the first kiss I’d had in ten years, the way we were sitting at a table in the pub and we were talking and I said I loved her and felt her breath stroking my cheek so I could see where her lips were, where her face was, and leaning in as she put her hand on the back of my neck and I could see her fingers as they curled in my hair...

 It was the best I’ve ever felt in my life, just feeling the softness of her lips and tasting strawberries on her tongue. Since then I always saw her lips as being red as strawberries; that was another thing about not being able to see, it meant the picture in your head could change without the thing you were picturing having to change at all. And I did love her, as well, I wasn’t just saying it to get a kiss; I loved the way she felt when she held my hand and the way she always smelt like strawberries even after a hard day and the way she’d laugh whenever I said something stupid or not even that funny. I loved that I could make her laugh. And even though I couldn’t see her I felt like I knew what she looked like; I knew she had slender hands and she wasn’t that tall and she had dirty blonde hair and green eyes like the leaves on a tree and she loved the colour purple, because she said it always reminded her of her name.

After that, things just kind of melted into reality. She told me she loved me as well, told me while we sat stroking each others’ faces on the sofa in my flat, and it felt like I was flying above the clouds. That was my picture of love, then; flying above the clouds and seeing them red and gold as the sun came up above them... That’s one of the things about not being able to see physical things, you know, it means you can see abstracts, see things that don’t really exist except in your head. So love was like being above the clouds, and hope was like a fire burning against a deep, dark forest, and sadness was this kind of purple smoke that folded itself around things and became solid and wouldn’t let go... People who can see can’t see that, because they were too preoccupied with what they could see; or at least I was when I could see, before I went to Northern Ireland and the nail took out both my eyeballs in less than one second and changed my life forever.

Soon enough Heather moved in with me; said we spent so much time together anyway that it made sense, and anyway it would be better for me to stay in a place I knew well enough to walk around even without my dog to guide me.  And we loved each other, me and Heather, as much as we ever could, and we learnt about each other, met parents and everything, shared everything that two young people in love usually share, hopes and pains and dreams...

Maybe I should have started here, because this is where all the trouble started, really. We were sitting on my sofa, she was stroking the dog and I was stroking her hair, working out the new style she’d had done with my fingers, and she was reading a magazine with her other hand, just flicking through while we listened to the radio. Then I felt her tense up under my hand, and I asked her what was wrong, what was up. And she laughed, kind of nervously, really, there’s a little tremor in her laugh I hadn’t heard there before and didn’t like too much. I suppose that should have made me pause, but... She said there was an article in this magazine, this thing about a doctor in America who’d perfected an eye transplant. Like, you’d get a pair of eyes from someone who’d died, like an organ donor type deal, and as long as they were kept in the right conditions you could use them to replace the eyes of someone who’d lost their eyes. Obviously, we were both excited. I mean, I dealt with having no eyes, had to deal with it, but I missed it, you know? Missed being able to see new stuff properly, regretted that I’d never really seen Heather as she really was, just a picture in my mind and my fingertips... So yeah, we were excited. And I’d saved up some money, I mean it’s not like I was going to theme parks every weekend, right, and so we decided to go to this doctor’s clinic and see what he could do. Tried not to get our hopes up, because I’d lost my eyes so long ago and neither of us really understood exactly what the ins-and-outs of the operation were, and we knew it was a risky procedure but we talked about it and decided we’d give it a go. And in about a week we’d sorted some stuff out and got on a plane to America and then we were in New York and knocking on the door of this doctor and sitting down, hand in hand, in his office.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Through Different Eyes:Part One

Hey guys! So, this is another short story; there'll be three parts, and as you've probably worked out from the title, this is part one. It's much darker than the last one (ie not pure comedy, more drama), so I hope you like it; let me know what you think! 

This is a story about seeing. Or, more precisely, it’s a story about seeing again, from a different perspective. It’s about how the pictures inside your head aren’t always the same as the pictures on the outside, and how seeing things through another’s eyes doesn’t always make the world a better place. And it’s about loss, and gain, and loss again. I don’t expect you to understand why I did what I did but I feel like I should try and explain it, because it needs explaining, and it needs not to happen again.

I was 18 when I lost my eyes. I was a soldier, keeping the peace in Northern Ireland, my first taste of duty. It was my second ever patrol, just me and a group of mates walking through the streets and making sure everything was running smoothly. I guess that wasn’t really in our power to ensure, though.

I don’t really remember much of it; just a big flash, and screaming, and noise. A nail-bomb in a car parked on the street, just a shabby old car like any others; there’s no way we could have known, no way the people who lay groaning and screaming on the streets could have known. We weren’t far from the car when it exploded, sending shards of metal flying in all directions, through the air and through flesh. People say that things slow down in situations like that, but I didn’t notice that; everything seemed to speed up, so fast that nobody could react, nobody could get out of the way. One second, normal street, the next second, pain.

I remember the pain. They tell me a nail went straight through the side of my head, through both of my eyes; I suppose there’s some irony in me not seeing that coming. I remember the impact on the side of my head; I remember the flash of red and then the blackness and the sharp, unbearable agony, the unbidden scream, and the whimper for my mum. I don’t remember much after that; I guess I must have passed out. Next thing I remember is waking up with cotton sheets wrapped around me and rough material on my face, and the cool hand of a nurse on my arm and that horrible hospital smell.

I don’t want you to think I’m looking for sympathy, or anything like that. What happened, happened, and I dealt with that; wouldn’t be telling you all this if I hadn’t. But you need to know what happened, how it felt, why I did what I did, because otherwise you couldn’t understand what happened next.

Obviously I couldn’t carry on in the army, or get another job, really; most things require you to be able to see. I mean, I got enough money to cope, and they gave me a dog so I could walk about, and I got a pair of dark glasses so people wouldn’t have to see the black holes where my eyes used to be. The rest of my face wasn’t marked at all; I just didn’t have any eyeballs left, and my eyelids were always half-open so that I had two craters carved into the surface of my face. It didn’t bother me all that much; I found it hard to imagine what I looked like, really, and it wasn’t as if I could get caught out by my reflection.

I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t hard. God, the first time my mum saw me, in the hospital, and I heard her crying; I wouldn’t go through that again for anything. But I didn’t have a girlfriend or anything like that, my friends were in the army and they did everything they could to make me feel better, even smuggled in some beers when they visited me in my bed. Yeah, it was hard, but like I say, I dealt with it. I learnt to cope without sight; let my dog be my eyes, learnt to use my ears and my nose, noticed stuff I could never notice before. And I couldn’t see new things but I could remember what things used to look like, could remember colours and scenes and the way the sun used to hurt when you looked at it and how the water in the lake used to sparkle and all that stuff. I missed being able to see things, don’t get me wrong, missed it so much it used to hurt, that crushing, stifling pain you get in your chest when you lose something you’ve taken for granted. Yeah, I missed it. But, there was nothing I could do about it, so I got on with life, got on with living however I could.

I spent ten years like that, blind, but coping. I coped, adapted to how life was, got used to it even; there was a lot of pain and regret but I always had my mum and a couple of good mates and the radio to keep me occupied. I learnt to not walk too fast, to let my dog lead me, to listen to the world around. It’s amazing how people who can see don’t listen, don’t listen to how a car sounds when it’s just about to speed up or slow down, how footsteps sound different when people are moving aside for you on the pavement, how people’s breathing changes when they stiffen up ‘cos a blind man’s walking past them. But I learned to listen. It was hard, that last one. It happened a lot. People treat you differently when they think you’re different to them, when they don’t know what they can say to you, when they think if they mention the eyes or seeing stuff it’ll make you miss what you once had. I mean, I did miss seeing things, of course I did, but I missed being able to talk to people more.

But like I say, I learnt to listen, and to smell and taste and touch. And that was okay; it’s amazing the pictures you can build up in your head when you just brush something with your fingertips, how you can see the toughness of rope through feeling its roughness or see the shape of a tree through the scrape of its bark. I could see the stillness of coffee from its smell and the ripples in a river from the sound of it splashing on the banks and rocks. I even learnt to see letters through my fingers, running them over bumps and lines and seeing each letter take shape in the dark behind where my eyes used to be in spidery blue flame against the blackness. It wasn’t the same as viewing things with my eyes had been, never quite so crisp and sharp, but I thought it wasn’t all so bad, because I got to see things no other person could see while they only got to see what everyone else could see as well. So yeah, it was hard, but I coped; kept going on walks, tried to ignore the bad sounds, seeing the silhouettes of shapes in the shadows of my head, kept putting one foot in front of the other and resigned myself to doing that forever.

And then I met her. Inauspicious beginnings, I guess; my dog, usually pretty well-behaved, got spooked by something, no idea what, jumped up, pulled me over. I felt her hand on my arm and she pulled me up, asked me if I was Ok, pressed my dog’s lead back into my hand so I could feel the soft leather on the roughness of my palm. I told her thanks; I mean, what else do you say? I was-not helpless, I could have managed, would have, in the end, found the end of the lead from the pictures in my head as it scraped over the hard tarmac, and let’s face it most people would have helped and she was just the closest, but still. And I made a joke about how I didn’t see it coming; I’ve always had that streak of self-deprecation in me, I guess, and anyway, things don’t seem quite so real, quite so close, if you can make a joke out of them. And I heard her laugh and it sounded like birdsong, like the sound that makes you happy when it gets you out of bed in the morning, and I realised I wanted to hear that laugh again and again, and so I asked if there was any way I could make it up to her and- get this, to a blind man she’d just seen fallen down by the side of the road, to a guy she must have seen as helpless- she said I could buy her a drink, if I wasn’t too busy. You could hear she was kind in her voice, and I wanted to hear it again, so I said yes, and I told her my name, and she told me hers was Heather.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

My Last Date

Just a one-off recollection of the last date I went on...

All the lights were on in the town. People were talking, laughing, singing, and the birds were chattering merrily in the dusky glow of the sky. I was walking towards the pub in my best pink shirt, hair slicked back and armpits freshly washed. It was a Tuesday night, and I was on a date.

Any of you who know me will realise that this isn’t a common occurrence. For those of you who don’t know me, well, sorry for shattering your illusions of the Adonis-like figure behind these infrequent internet ramblings. Anyway, for once, I was pretty happy with myself; a girl had actually agreed to go on a date with me, and who knows what might happen...

It was a shame that the cynical, bitter, and unfortunately all-too-logical bit of me that lives in the real world wouldn’t let me forget that this was a blind date, set up by a charity (not just for me, I’m not quite at that point yet); and unless the adjective was a literal description of the girl in question she probably wouldn’t be that thrilled when a pygmy sasquatch in a salmon camp shirt walked in through the door. But hey, there was always a chance that she’d be drunk already (I’d been unfortunately detained by a catastrophic gravy spillage from which I was still wincing), so some hope remained.

As I’ve said, this was a blind date, so the only thing I knew about the girl I was to see was that she was blonde and would be wearing red. I entered the pub and pretty much immediately spotted her. My cynical side chuckled to itself evilly as I realised she looked just like Clare Balding.

I decided, however, that I wasn’t that shallow, and it was only fair to go and talk to her. That beggars can’t be choosers and that my desperate overarching loneliness was slowly eroding my soul had no bearing on this decision; it was more to do with the fact that she’d bought me a pint, so it was only polite to drink it.
After about five minutes into the conversation I was wishing it was vodka I was drinking rather than just Peroni. Yes, it was awful that JLS were breaking up; no, I couldn’t remember where I was when I heard, because it wasn’t the Kennedy assassination and I’m still not sure of the difference between them and the Jonas brothers. Still, everyone’s nervous on a first date and so, again, I gave her the benefit of the doubt, and kept drinking.

We talked for about an hour, me listening to inane chatter about the new One Direction single while the slow process of inebriation rendered her more and more attractive, before she suddenly took my hand.

“Do you want to do something really naughty?” she asked me.

I weighed up my options. On the one hand, I was bored shitless and no amount of beer could stop me thinking I was co-hosting an Olympic event on the BBC; on the other, a girl had just touched my hand.

“Yes ok whatever you say please,” I seductively whispered.

“Well, there’s this party I wanted to go to, but it might not be something you’d be in to. It’s called the Vagina Party; are you up for it?”

My throat seemed to close up so that I found it quite difficult to reply, but after a couple of false starts that made her forehead furrow ever so slightly, I managed to croak out “yeah sure I’m up for that sounds great,” and without further ado we walked out of the pub to go to this Vagina Party, with me wondering what the hell it was. It had the word “vagina” in it, which could only be a good thing, especially considering I was on a dry spell that would put Death Valley to shame; and the word “party”, whilst alien and terrifying (there was a reason for the dry spell, after all), is also generally considered a good thing, especially if you’re going with a girl rather than despondently walking in alone and hoping someone, anyone, will talk to you or even cast a glance your way. And whilst I’ve mentioned before she wasn’t rivalling the Mona Lisa as an image of classic beauty, I couldn’t help but muse about what the night might bring; a party, dancing, drinking, a girl and a guy... Maybe I’d even get a hug at the end of it.

So I was actually in quite a cheery mood as I followed the girl down a dark alley to a red-painted door through which loud and bass-heavy music played.

“This is the back entrance,” she said. “No need to pay.” I’ve never been a fan of paying to go through the back entrance, so I put up no objections.

It was only as we went through the door that I wondered what she meant when she had said “It might not be something you’d be into”; surely most guys would like to go partying with a girl, especially when the party is titled after the particular anatomical area they are interested in, so why would she think I wouldn’t be up for it?

And then I looked around and it was all made clear. This wasn’t anything like I thought it would be. Not at all.

I was the only man in the place. Literally, the only man. Every single other person was a woman, ranging from my age to much, much older, all of them dancing in front of a live, loud band which was currently banging out Electric Six’ smash hit “Gay Bar”. I saw one girl whose only attire were some strategically positioned post-it notes, another with the crotch of her trousers covered in what I sincerely hope was tomato ketchup, and one who’d gone the whole hog and literally constructed a papier-mâché lady cave which fit around her torso like the world’s weirdest smoking jacket. All my previous private jokes about the girl I was with looking like Clare Balding were immediately put into perspective as I saw two girls ferociously making out against the far wall, their armpit hair glistening in the strobe lighting. I knew now why it was called the “Vagina Party”. In the dark, cramped, low-ceilinged room we had emerged into, there was not a single penis other than my own.

Dimly, through the shock, I felt a tug on my pink shirt. Clare (she shall forever be remembered as “Clare” in my head, as the hours I spent with her discussing terrible boy bands had forever wiped her real name from my mind) wanted to go and dance. I’ve always been reluctant to dance, recognising that I look like a raccoon who’s accidentally placed a paw into a fire when I attempt to do so, but have always found alcohol helps ease my fears; and given the sobering effect of realising what this party was, I felt the need for some delicious liver poison pretty keenly.

I motioned to Clare I needed a drink, and turned to the bar in the corner just as the heavily pierced barmaid drew down the metal shutter to signal it was closed. She smiled at me, and I allowed myself to be led on the dance floor, where I was immediately introduced to two of her friends, the girl with the post-it-note dress and a plumper girl wearing so much jewellery she nearly drowned out the band as she danced. I busted out a few moves, and they were drunk enough to not immediately throw me out of the room, which I took to be a good sign; they even seemed to enjoy my impression of Michael Jackson circa 2010. Despite it all, things were actually going rather well; and about to get even better, I thought, as Clare pulled my head towards hers.

When my lips met fresh air, I first thought that I’d simply missed (it’s been a long time); but no, she’d moved her face away from mine and instead was about to shout something into my ear.

“You’re so much fun!” she said. I was definitely, definitely in here. Stay focussed, Matt, don’t screw it up now...

“I’m just sad there aren’t any guys here for you!” she continued, and then danced off to look for another of her friends, leaving me with two girls I’d just met who were dancing together like they knew each other very, very well. I looked down at my salmon pink shirt, and felt like crying. Here I was, dancing, stone-cold sober, with a bunch of girls writhing all around me, mocking me with the occasional touch on my arm when I knew I had no hope in hell of going out with any single one of them.

“So not much different from all the other parties you’ve been to after all,” the little cynical voice inside me said.