Infinite Rainbows – Dan Brotzel

People sometimes asked Rick if he travelled for his work. It was a question he kept meaning to tuck away for use at the next barbecue with the neighbours, when he always struggled to come up with new small-talk prompts that he hadn’t used at the previous barbecue.

Yes, I do actually, thought Rick. Last week I was in Doncaster and Reading. The week before it was Slough and Swindon. I’m also often in Glasgow, Bromley and Hull. Rick travelled to clients and prospects, criss-crossing the country to lead workshops and support on pitches, to attend tissue meetings and wash-ups and beauty parades and blamestorms. As a result of all this, he spent a lot of time in trains, and had come to some fixed conclusions about London stations.

He was dutifully tolerant of Victoria and its eternal building works, as one might be of an elderly mother, since it was the London station of his childhood. He was as stupidly charmed as any tourist by the faux village set-up of Marylebone. He was warily amused by Liverpool Street, with its City sass and vim, like a dad with a boisterous teenage daughter who is on the verge of eluding him forever. He was bored by Waterloo, wilfully under-impressed by the new Kings Cross, but quietly amorous of bohemian St Pancras, with her pianos and her clandestine continental connections. He was intrigued by Fenchurch Street, station of mystery, since he had never been there.

But Paddington, brash and expansive and unhelpful, oppressed him. With its perverse signposting, its absence of sightlines, its long walks between connections, its barriers at the wrong end of platforms – with its refusal, in short, to act like a proper station, Paddington could fuck right off.

At the cafe where he chose to wait for his train, queue-forming protocols had become ambiguous. A pair of bridge-and-tunnel types — two middle-aged women with silk scarves and floral luggage — stood at right angles to Rick by the counter. They had clearly got there first, but to the untrained eye it might have seemed as if they had already been served, or as if Rick was trying to get in ahead of them. One of the women flashed Rick a look of such scandalised hatred that he fell in love with her at once. He flashed back a smile of exaggerated obeisance — offering a comedy medieval mime to indicate his deference to her and her friend’s advanced queue status and nobly refraining from pointing out their eccentric positioning, which to his mind had caused all the trouble in the first place – and began plotting ways to kill them with kindness.

But no. He would not go there; he was stressed enough about the day’s workshop already.

He took a deep breath. It was easy to forget that there were people who travelled by rail for the fun of it. On inter-city trains in the daytime, after all, the world of work ruled supreme. People marked their table-top territories with the full panoply of laptops and headphones, expensive travel mugs and stationery porn. As Rick walked through the carriages, he saw people casually parsing Rosetta-stone spreadsheets, constructing lengthy passive-aggressive emails with highly politicised uses of cc-ing and bcc-ing, compiling turgid slidedecks in which the projected figures for the next Q are always somehow trending up.

And above all he heard them, braying and wheedling and bossplaining on their phones, as they dressed down junior team members, sold toasters by the thousand, discussed their chances of winning seven-figure contracts, and snarked at their agencies in heated conference calls. (‘Has Carrie actually signed off on this iteration, Jay? The user experience is about as far away from elegant simplicity as it could be, it really is.’) And they did it all with unselfconscious ostentation, Rick noted, often involving the whole carriage in their drama.

He was wearing a new shirt. Out of the packet, it transpired to be so blindingly white and starched and sharply creased as to appear the very opposite of smart — like crap fancy dress in fact. (He remembered randomly that he was still someone who didn’t know what ‘diffident’ meant.)

There was a lot riding on the workshop with today’s client, a leading global provider of something something investment solutions. They reportedly had a big budget, and an appetite to do lots more if today went well – but also, at the same time, a cheerful acceptance that if nothing got done for a very long time, that didn’t really matter either. They didn’t have a clue, as far as he could see, and they were utterly unaware that Rick didn’t have a clue. They should, in short, have been the ideal client.

Except that, rather than wallow in blissful ignorance, the client had been led to believe (not least by Rick, alas) that he and his company had the knowhow to lead them out of the wilderness. They kept deferring to his judgement, terrorising him with their childlike faith in his abilities. Rick had clearly talked far too good a game at the pitch, because here he was now, trapped in a room with a load of Senior Global Something Somethings, all of whom expected to be dazzled by the strategic brilliance of a man who had never understood what strategy actually meant.

Rick wondered, and not for the first time: Do other people really approach these meetings thinking, ‘I am a powerful agent of transformation!’ and ‘Today I will be mostly smashing it!’ and ‘Time to board the Change-Train, people!’ Rather than, say: ‘Do we have to do this?’ or ‘Can’t this all please go away?’ or ‘Would you mind counting me out?’ or ‘Wish I was dead’? (Asking for a friend.)

The warm-up hadn’t gone too badly, at least. Rick got everyone to go around and share a fact about themselves that no one else in the room knew. One woman had once shared a taxi with David Beckham, another was a secret crochet fan; the Head of Something Insights revealed that he had never tried Weetabix.

They were not long into the meeting proper before an unspoken consensus emerged that the pet phrase of the gathering would be ‘To your point.’ Every workshop has a pet phrase, Rick believed, and this one was good enough to add to his elite store of meeting staples. It was right up there with ‘What does everyone else think?’ and ‘Shall we take that one off line?’ and ‘That’s not a sentence I expected to hear today!’

Beginning your remarks with ‘to your point’ flattered the addressee that you thought their comment had been worth returning to and developing. It convinced the person who said it that they were a master of logic and joined-up thinking. And it flattered everyone by making it seem that the meeting was not actually just another cosmetic rehearsal of stale platitudes, but was instead a lively and creative symposium in which the powerful thoughts of great minds could be seen to develop and progress towards important, actionable conclusions.

But on top of all that, the very greatest thing about ‘to your point’ was that different people’s contributions didn’t need to connect together in any way at all:

‘I’m not sure if we know enough yet about who our clients are, or what their true pain points are.’

‘To your point… I really wish we’d stop using that teal colour for the background on our Twitter quote cards. I know it’s in the new brand palette, but it just looks a bit lurid to me.’

After lunch Rick began again with another mini warm-up. He got everyone to say whether they preferred Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, and to give reasons for their choice. All was going swimmingly till they got round to the Chief Something Officer, who insisted that she had never watched either and would rather talk about Mad Men Instead. Rick the mild-mannered socialist fumed. Honestly, he thought. It’s one rule for them and one for everyone else…

While Rick toiled with his meagre tools of war — his slides and his whiteboard markers and his blue-tacked flipchart sheets – he noticed that an entire aspirational lifestyle was popping up outside his client’s window. It was a Friday afternoon, and for some the weekend was beginning early. Bars spilled out onto terraces, and the balconies of loft-style apartments were suddenly full of loafing urbanites supping chilled prosecco as they gazed out over the children splashing with loud pleasure in the fountain of a bright new public square. The fountain boasted a sheer-flowing water feature whose metallic planes glinted infinite rainbows in the swoon and sheen of the afternoon’s unexpected sunburst. Paddling barefeet, a pair of young lovers kissed for the first time.

Around the square, slogans asked: ‘What are you thinking right now?’ and ‘What if you just took a moment?’ and ‘Isn’t life amazing?!’ A sign flashed up: ‘Giggle. Wonder. Breathe.’ In one corner, a police horse stood magnificently still, preening with proud muscularity as its officer brushed and stroked and sluiced it down. A small crowd of appreciative children and mums had gathered to enjoy this blessed moment.

Back in the room, the Post-It notes were wilting in the heat and dropping from the walls. Rick’s deck had got stuck on a slide which said only, ‘Strategy: Why → How’. It was a slide Rick had devised in a moment of insight many moons ago, but which now blinked back at him, blank and surly.

The sun beat into the room unpleasantly. Rick reflected that if he had set out to wear a scratchy, starchy shirt designed for the express purpose of showing up the starkest possible contrast between the non-sweaty and the now all-too-sweaty areas of his body, areas which of course spread out from under his arms but also now included a growing patch in his upper middle chest area plus, he could confidently surmise, a linear vertical stripe running down the centre of his back… well, this would have been that shirt.

No matter. One of the assembled clients – the Assistant Something Account Something – was now enjoying his sixth or seventh epiphany of the hour.

‘So I guess what you’re saying is that, essentially, in a sense, our strategy should, in a way, be, kind of, no-strategy?’ It was the young, eager one, the one who always tried too hard. He had got Rick out of several tight spots already that afternoon, because although he wouldn’t shut up and had no idea what he was saying, the rest of the group felt obliged to respect his input, even though the conversation had digressed and even regressed on several occasions thanks to him already.

‘To your point, that could be exactly what I’m saying,’ said Rick. Was he? He certainly liked the idea of the follow-up work from the workshop involving the development of a non-strategy. But just then his highly-attuned client sensors picked up a micro-grimace from a more senior stakeholder.

‘Or not?’ he added, hastily. ‘What does everyone think?’

It had turned into another classic flop-chart presentation*. But thankfully it was too late and too hot for anyone to care.

As he was making his way through the client’s security gate afterwards, Rick compiled a quick obituary of himself. He was a man who was born, assembled some garden furniture, and then — to your point – died.

In his bag, he still had the birthday card from his 45th. They were studiously low-key about birthdays in his office, and his had fallen on a weekend that year. He’d come in to find a card on his desk, and decided to see how long he could go without opening it. All day as it turned out; no one mentioned it at all. When eventually he did look, not long before home time, it was to discover that only three people had signed it. Out of spite, he deleted his comedy all-department thank-you email about how he was adjusting to hitting the big three-oh.

After a much-delayed journey home, during which he had to deal with three heated calls, a provocative text and six pointed emails from his boss, Rick arrived back in London to discover that Paddington was still there, gurning sarcastically at his crumpled suit and absurdly heavy laptop bag.

Next morning, at breakfast, he was taciturn and morose. His mind teetered helplessly on the hair-trigger of irritability. The children ignored him.

‘I don’t know why you bother to join us for these meals,’ said Lorna. ‘It’s obvious you’d rather be somewhere else.’

I can choose how to respond to this situation, thought Rick. It’s entirely within my power. I can be aggressive if I choose… Or I can be passive-aggressive.

He looked up, suddenly inspired. ‘Now that’s not a sentence I expected to hear today!’ he said. ‘What does everyone else think?’

 

* Flop-chart presentation: A presentation using pretty graphs and fancy animations to mask an absence of any real ideas or useful information.

Cabinet Of Heed Contents Link 24

Image via Pixabay

Jessie: A Pastoral – Kathryn Kulpa

Jessie’s mother always called the cows “my ladies.” She said a cow was a soft creature, with no malice. They showed malice to Jessie often enough, kicking over the pail during milking, but it was true that under her mother’s hand they stood patient as nuns. She sang to them, and sometimes Jessie swore she heard the cows sing too, soft and secret. Jessie wondered if those cows were the softest things in her mother’s life. Years of working in the sun had made a dried apple of her face, though she said her first young man had called her his lily of the valley. So fair I was, she said.

Jessie had never known that young man, and no pictures of him existed, nor any of her mother in her young beauty. Married at 17, Jessie’s mother sailed with her husband one weeping day, left Aberdeen and its misty rains forever. But that first husband died. Jessie’s father was old, older even than her mother. He didn’t sing, to cows or anyone else. She’d never known parents who were young and carefree. She’d never seen them kiss, never saw her mother put her arms around anyone except Mehitabel the cow. Jessie was only sixteen, but she’d already made up her mind: her life would have plenty of kisses in it, and none of them from cows.

 

KATHRYN KULPA is a flash fiction editor at Cleaver magazine and was a winner of the Vella Chapbook Contest for her flash collection Girls on Film(Paper Nautilus). Her work is published or forthcoming in Flash Flood, New Flash Fiction Review, Superstition Review, and Pithead Chapel. 

Image via Pixabay

Chink – Gail Aldwin

A navy sky extinguishes the day. Sitting on the balcony, Kate reflects upon her laziness. No excursions to the volcano for Kate, just a sunbed, a pile of paperbacks and the company of Robert. Still wearing his shorts, Robert stretches his legs then scratches a mosquito bite on his knee. Kate is cool in her strappy dress. She reaches for the tumbler, drains the contents then crunches a sliver of ice.‘One more before we go down for dinner?’ he asks.But he’s not even dressed. Hasn’t yet had a shower.‘No thank you,’ she says. ‘I’m fine.’‘Good.’ He sits back in his chair.What now? She waits. Irritation makes her skin prick.‘Are you going to have steak again tonight?’ she asks.‘Think I’ll ask for it blue this time.’Yes, mooing, even.From behind the mountains comes a rumble. Although Kate knows these steamy days can lead to storms, she hopes she’s wrong. Holding her breath, she clutches the armrests and counts. A flash comes before she’s reached number eight. She’s rigid in the chair but Robert gets up for a proper look.‘It’s coming this way.’ His voice is gleeful and he cocks his head. Doesn’t he know it’s ridiculous to swagger in flip-flops?‘I’ll get inside.’ Kate reaches for her bag but when she turns, Robert is blocking the doorway.‘Surely by now you can face it.’She hesitates. Does he know what she’s thinking? What she’s planning? Of course not! Robert means the lightening.‘Let me pass,’ she says.‘No.’ He grabs her shoulders and manoeuvres her for a better view. Kate closes her eyes, resists his pinching grip.‘There’s no point in struggling,’ he says. ‘You can’t be scared your whole life.’Kate breathes through her mouth, takes comfort from the steady pumping of her heart, listens to the gushes from her lungs. The crack and the searing light skewer her to the spot but she controls the trembling.‘See, it’s not so difficult, is it?’When the thunder comes again, she’s ready. This time with eyes wide open she waits for the crack and watches the chink of light brighten the gloom. A path to her future is illuminated. She can do it. She really can.

GAIL ALDWIN’s debut novel The String Games has been longlisted in The People’s Book Prize for fiction. To get to the next stage depends upon public support. If you like Gail’s writing, why not pop over and give her your vote?

https://peoplesbookprize.com/summer-2019/the-string-games/

(The competition ends 15 October 2019.)

Image via Pixabay

Suppose – B Lynn Goodwin

Suppose Hannah, age 9, closed her eyes and announced, “I have windowless eyelids”? Would she be creative or silly?

Suppose a storm made the lights flicker so hard that she retched. Would she have a fear or a brain disorder?

Suppose she saw a strip of a green “for sale” sign and wanted to touch the curly strip along the bottom edge? Would her parents say, “Don’t touch” or “Explore, Hannah, but keep your fingers out of your mouth”?

Suppose a row of goldfish wearing sneakers tap-danced their way into a dandy trap? Would Hannah crack up or try to rescue them?

“Why do we stitch our curls so tightly that the brain cannot breathe?” Hannah asked her teacher one day when she was tired of being told to sit still and pay attention.

Her teacher, wearing flats, a gray shift, and a loving smile said, “Soon you may be a polished artist or writer or brain surgeon, Miss Hannah.” She looked out the window at the leaves budding while Hannah sat up straighter When the bell rang three minutes later, she raced ahead of the others, got to the monkey bars first, and swung so high she could see a man in overalls and a woman whose bare tummy rubbed against them as the couple hugged.

Suppose she pushed her body into a boy’s like that. Somebody would be sure to call her Mama. She was about to scream at them to get a room, like her big brother did in the Walmart parking lot, but fear shut her down. Instead, she jumped off the monkey bars, raced to the fence, stared at them through a knothole. They must have felt her staring.

“Suppose you go back to class where you belong, Little One,” said the man in the overalls., striding towards her.

She stood still as his mouth came closer and closer to her knothole.

“Or would you rather I call the school?” his menacing voice whispered.

Part of her wanted to know what the school would do, but she not badly enough to double-dare him. Instead she turned away, rubbing her fingers along the seam inside her left pocket. Back at the swings, she shut her eyes and swung in windowless bliss.

 

B. LYNN GOODWIN is the owner of Writer Advice, http://www.writeradvice.com and is a manuscript coach/editor as well as an author. She won awards for her last two books, Never Too Late: From Wannabe to Wife at 62 and Talent. She loves the challenges and brevity of flash.

Image via Pixabay

Because I Couldn’t Bear – Ray Ball

Because I couldn’t bear

to let you go, I transformed
you into a small bird. I shouldn’t
have done it, but I caged
you in my right hip.

You built a nest in the dry
and brittle bramble of bone
and fascia. Sometimes,
in certain yoga poses, I can

feel you flutter against
the wrought iron of my widest
point. Sometimes, when I run,
I hear the faint acoustics

of your song beating
into my blood, and I slow
a bit so that you will rest
once more. Remain with me

to support this weight,
this internal rotation,
another season without
enough numbing snow.

 

RAY BALL grew up in a house full of snakes. She is a history professor, Pushcart-nominated poet, and editor at Alaska Women Speak. Her chapbook Tithe of Salt was just published by Louisiana Literature Press. Ray’s work has also recently appeared in Ellipsis Zine, Moria, and UCity Review.

Image via Pixabay

Cover Image by Bijou Zhou 

“Getting Along” by Bijou Zhou

BIJOU ZHOU grew up in China´s Hunan province. Having first learned painting from a local artist, she went on to receive a degree in Fine Arts, before moving to the USA to study English. She now lives in Changsha, China. Her work has appeared in Mused Literary Review.

Blueberry Muffins – Steven John

Dymphna lived with her mother in three damp, square rooms above Greasy Joe’s truck stop on the drainpipe road out of a nondescript town, the name of which mattered only to those that lived there. Greasy Joe himself, Dymphna’s father, had keeled over from his lardaceous arteries when she was twelve, and her mother had been bitter about it ever since.

From a mouth like a squeezed lemon her mother would say, “Your father fucked off and left us nothing but his arse to wipe.”

“Father didn’t fuck off Mum, he died.”

“Well that was convenient for him wasn’t it? Got him out of frying eggs for the rest of his puff,” Dymphna’s mother would say.

The red neon Greasy Joe’s sign pulsed like a bleeding heart into Dymphna’s bedroom. Her mother gave her Saturday night and Sundays off. A night and a day away from the water boiler where she made mugs of tea and coffee for fifteen hours straight. The day Dymphna had left school at sixteen her mother had said,

“You’re on drinks. I’ll do the frying,” and that was that.

There were Saturday nights, in front of her bedroom mirror, when Dymphna thought she was pretty enough. She blow-dried her long silky black hair and fluttered her eyelids at herself. There were other Saturday nights when she thought she was a flat-chested bag of bones that stank of streaky bacon. Either way her boyfriend Eddie would pick her up Saturdays, in his articulated truck, for the overnight haul to London.

After three hours on the road Eddie pulled into their usual layby and Dymphna ran over the carriageway for McDonalds and Cokes. Whilst she was gone Eddie pulled the curtains across the windscreen and laid out the blankets on the single bunk behind the wheel. When Dymphna climbed back up the steps to the cab Eddie poured two large plastic tumblers of rum and Dymphna emptied in the coke. Whilst they ate their cheeseburgers and drank their rum and cokes Eddie watched video of extreme fishing.

Dymphna rested her head on Eddie’s shoulder.

“Well this is nice Eddie, just you and me,” she said.

“You made me miss a good bit. He was on a monster fish” Eddie said and rewound.

At bedtime Eddie and Dymphna stripped off to their underwear and got under the blankets. Dymphna had in the past tried some experimentation with their love-making but there wasn’t sufficient headroom for anything that different. Eddie said that it seemed like a lot of huffing and puffing for nothing much anyway.

At five in the morning Dymphna woke to the cough of the truck’s engine and Eddie taking a piss on the front wheels. She pulled on her clothes, used the McDonald’s toilets and brought back coffee and blueberry muffins.

Whilst Eddie supervised the unload she redid her make-up in the sun visor mirror and never left the womb of the cab. On the return journey Dymphna talked about her dream to own a café by the seaside. Eddie said that was fine by him as long as he could go fishing.

“Maybe I could sell fresh fish from a corner of the café,” he said.

“And I would sell my homemade muffins,” said Dymphna.

Late on Sunday night Eddie dropped her back outside Greasy Joe’s.

“Same again next week?” he said, without stopping the engine, or taking his hand from the wheel. Dymphna leaned over and kissed him on the mouth.

Back upstairs in their damp rooms her mother lay hugging a cigarette on the sofa. She didn’t say hello or take her eyes from the TV screen.

“Had a good day Mum?” Dymphna asked.

“I changed the oil in the fryers,” she said, “whilst you’ve been out enjoying yourself.”

 

STEVEN JOHN lives in The Cotswolds, UK, where he writes short stories and poetry. He’s had work published in pamphlets and online magazines including Riggwelter, Bangor Literary Review, Fictive Dream, Cabinet of Heed and Former Cactus. He has won Bath Ad Hoc Fiction a record six times and was highly commended in 2018 ‘To Hull and Back’ competition.Steve has read at Cheltenham Poetry Festival, Stroud Short Stories, Flasher’s Club and The Writer’s Room on Corinium Radio.  Twitter: @StevenJohnWrite

Image via Pixabay

Cabinet Of Heed Contents

Kings Cross Examination – Dan Brotzel

Let us turn now to the evening of the 21st. An unusually hot Friday, even for July, as we have heard. At about 5.45pm you boarded a tube train to take you home, is that correct, Mr B?

Yes.

What route did you take? 

It was the Piccadilly line, heading north. I got on at Oxford Circus, then got off at Finsbury Park to get the Victoria line. 

Indeed. And it was at Oxford Circus that an incident took place. Do you remember coming into contact with a gentleman – Mr Jarvis, here – as he attempted to alight from the train?

There may have been a brief coming together. The train was very crowded.

Quite so, quite so! But you weren’t actually on the train at the point, were you? Or you were not supposed to be, at least. 

I’d stood to the side to let people off. I guess the momentum of the crowd carried me forward on to the train. It was hard to see if there were people still getting off. 

I see. Are you in the habit of being swept along by the momentum of the crowd?

Well, there are times when-

Have you, for instance, ever been swept under the wheels of an oncoming train by the hordes on a crowded tube platform?

Well. I mean, I hardly think-

Answer the question, please, Mr B.

I haven’t, no.

Are you aware of the protocols concerning the egress and ingress of passengers on tube trains, protocols which have of course especial sway and application at times of high peak use?

‘Please let passengers off the train first.’

Quite so, quite so. And yet you did the exact opposite…

As I’ve tried to explain-

-Leaving poor Mr Jarvis to have to fight his way out of the carriage, in order not to be stuck on the train and carried forth to another stop not his own!!

I regret this. But he did actually shove me quite roughly. 

He had to get off, Mr B! He had a gym appointment in Regent Street for 8.30! That muscle tissue won’t tear itself you know! 

I know. I’m very sorry. But I was in the way by accident. Whereas he pushed me on purpose.

And then what happened?

He stalked off.

Understandable, perhaps? And how did you feel?

I was upset. I was partly riled about having been shoved so roughly, and partly guilty at not being able to apologise. But of course, he never gave me a chance to explain, which was the worst feeling of all. 

Oh dear! Poor Mr B! Let us turn now to the morning of June 27thand to the testimony of Ms Pierce here. (And thank you so much for coming in to testify today, Ms Pierce, I now it’s not easy, the courts are not as accessible as one might wish.) So… at approximately 7.55am, you had boarded a train on the Piccadilly line, heading south.

That’s right. I was going to work.  

You were very comfortably ensconced in your seat, were you not?

No, I couldn’t get a seat at first.

That was a shame, wasn’t it, Mr B? I bet you were looking forward to getting stuck into your book. 

Well, it’s always nice to be able to sit down. That line gets very crowded in the mornings. 

Yes, of course. And you’ll stop at nothing to get a seat, will you, Mr B? And you’ll cling on to it at any price, won’t you? 

Well, I don’t think that’s entirely fair.

Let us see. Tell us what happened just after Kings Cross.

Someone stood up and gave their seat away. Only seconds after the train had left the station. 

Was that unusual? 

It was unheard of! I thought it must be a tourist, or someone very unfamiliar with the line who was nervous about missing their stop. They had a sort of fluorescent rucksack on, and a general air of panicky purposefulness. 

Any other thoughts?

Well. I did wonder if they’d spilt coffee on the seat or something. Or if they were incontinent.

Charming! But none of that worried you, did it, Mr B? What did you do next? 

I sat down. 

You pounced on the seat. Like a vulture.

Well I think I was technically nearest at the time.  

So no one else was interested in the seat at the time?

Well, there was a woman…

What sort of age?

About my age.

Did she make a move towards the seat?

I’m not sure. 

You didn’t think to give up your chance of a seat up for the lady?

I did think about it.

But you didn’t do it.

No.

What reasons did you come up with, in your own mind, to excuse yourself for your failure to extend this basic kindness to a lady in need a seat? 

I remember telling myself that women find that sort of thing patronising now. Equality between men and women makes a farce of all that old-fashioned chivalry stuff. Same as how they don’t like to be called ‘girls’ any more (or ‘ladies’ probably.) Also, I thought she was the sort of age where the offer of a seat would have been more upsetting than complimentary. Also, my back’s quite bad at the moment. And anyway, it’s dog-eat-dog on the Tube. 

I see. You went through all these reasons while you were in the process of sitting down?

Yes.

And did any of these excuses, these self-justifications, make you feel any less guilty?  

Not really. But I was also thinking of that time I stood up for a woman with a loose-fitting top on. She snarled: ‘Why does everyone keep offering me a seat? Do I look fucking pregnant or something?’ She did, of course. 

I see. But still – to return to the present case – you sat on.

My back does twinge a bit. 

More self-justifications, I see.

I’ve started doing pilates! Just once a week, but it does seem to be helping. It’s all about working on your core. 

Let’s stick to the case at hand. How many others were standing by the time the train neared Kings Cross?

About 7 or 8. 

But not you, of course. You were set up for the journey with your hard-won seat.

As I say, I think I was nearest. 

And then someone got on at Kings Cross that changed things. Or should have, perhaps.

You mean the blind woman. And her guide dog.

Quite so, Mr B. What did she look like? 

If I recall correctly, she wore a bright orange top and jangly earrings. They reminded me of the comedy Christmas tree ones my mum always wears. At Christmas. The woman’s eyes sort of fluttered. And the expression on her face was open, smiley.

So what happened next?

Nothing. She just stood there with all the other people standing.

A blind woman? Left to stand in the vestibule?

I know. But it was quite clear who should have stood up for her. 

Who?

The person in the nearest seat. The protocol is well-established. 

And who was that?

A teenage girl.

I see. And what did she do?

Nothing! She was oblivious, self-involved, headphones on, possibly asleep. Possibly foreign.  

So what did everyone else in the carriage do?

Well, we all sent out our strongest guilt-glares, of course we did. But the girl seemed to be immune to them. 

I see. So naturally, someone else stood up to offer the blind woman a seat?

Actually, no one made a move. It was all a bit tense. 

And where were you seated in relation to all this?

I was sitting opposite the teenage girl. 

So who was on the hook now, morally speaking, if the teenage girl was oblivious? Was it you?

No! I’d say it was the man sitting next to the teenage girl. A sort of bearded, geeky type, all wired up and immersed in his game of Minesweeper. Or the second season of I, Robot, I don’t know. 

You couldn’t actually see what was on his screen, could you?

No.

Have you ever actually payed Minesweeper? Do you even know what it is? 

Not really, no. 

More casual prejudice, I see. Anyway, did you all start sending guilt-glares this man’s way too?

Of course! It was getting embarrassing by now. The whole system was breaking down.  

And what did this ‘geeky type’ do? Did the guilt-glares get to him?

No! He just sort of… retreated into his beard.  

You didn’t like his beard, did you?

No, if I’m honest. 

Do you wear a beard yourself sometimes?

Yes.

And how do you feel about your beard?

I don’t like it much either. 

I see. Are you, by the way, in the habit of describing teenagers as ‘self-involved’?

Er… yes.

And people with beards as geeks?

Yes.

I see. Meanwhile, back in the carriage, the blind woman still didn’t have a seat. 

No. I did send out a few more random guilt-glares of my own, but they come to nothing.

So perhaps it was down to you now, Mr B, as the only seated person apparently aware of the situation, to make a stand – quite literally – for common decency? 

In retrospect, yes. I fully accept that I should have got up at this point. 

So you stood?

Er, no. 

You carried on sitting.

Yes. I’m not proud of this. 

And how did you justify this to yourself at the time?

Well, I was still waking up really. But I did wonder if the blind woman had already told someone that she was happier standing. I started to imagine in fact that I’d heard her tell someone this. Also, I thought that it might have been awkward for her and her dog to make their way across to my seat.

What was the distance between the blind woman and your seat?

Ooh, six or eight feet at least.

I see. And of course, you still had your book to read. 

Well, yes. I suppose so. But the atmosphere was almost a bit too awkward for reading by now. 

Still, it would have been a shame to have to lose that hard-earned seat.

I’m not proud of myself. 

Remind us, for the benefit of the court, what sort of book you were reading?

It was an account of the genocide in Rwanda.

I see. Let us fast-forward now to Warren Street, and a new development occurred. What happened? 

The seat next to me came free. 

I see. And then?

This woman with cropped blond hair and a stern expression made a big point of leading the blind woman over to this seat so she could sit down. It was a foldie, I recall. 

And what did you do? 

At that point I leapt up so the blind woman could have my seat instead, which was actually slightly easier to access than the one that had just come free. 

So you were shamed into action at last.

I suppose you could say that. We helped the blind woman to sit down, and then I offered the woman with the stern expression the free seat next to the blind woman. 

Your seat.

Yes.

And what did the woman with the cropped expression do?

She said: ‘No thanks.’ And then she said, louder and more pointed, for the benefit of me but taking in the whole carriage: ‘And frankly I’m astonished.’ I noticed a hint of Liverpudlian in her stern accent. 

I see… Stern face, stern accent: did you want to use the word ‘Scouse’ just then?

It did occur to me but I wasn’t sure if it was OK to use it. Especially if you’re not, er, Scouse.

Such delicacy! Such sensitivity! Mind you, even the guards in the camps read Goethe. So let’s recap: you have shown yourself to be callously spineless and morally bankrupt. Your offer of assistance is rightly dismissed as ‘too little, too late’ by your righteously stern fellow passenger. So now what do you do?   

Well, there was nothing for it but to sit down again. 

Back to your fascinating book about genocide?

I couldn’t read! The words swam before my eyes. I felt that people were looking at me. I didn’t want my stupid seat. It was a relief to get off in the end.  

This was at Victoria.

Yes.

Where you were about to mount the escalator… 

Correct.

…Only to look up and see the woman with the stern expression staring down in your direction.

Yes. I hadn’t realised she’d got off at the same stop. I could see she was still talking about the incident with someone. And from the set of her chin and her tautened lips, she was obviously still seething about it. 

Oh dear Mr B! Not what you wanted at all, I imagine! 

No! Plus I had on these light blue trousers paired with tan shoes. I was a bit stuck for clothes that morning, and my outfit suddenly seemed ludicrously conspicuous. Everything a shade too bright to be plausible.

Yes, I remember. It’s one of our worst, isn’t it? You must have been terrified she’d spot you.

Terrified.

And did she?

You know she did. You’re me, remember.

So what did you do?

I hung back, slinking around by the bottom of the escalator.

How did you feel?

I was burning with shame, obviously.

I see. And what did she do?

Oh, she just carried on glaring down at me. 

From her ever-ascending moral high ground.

Yes. 

Serve you right, perhaps, Mr B?

But I didn’t see the blind woman! It wasn’t down to me to stand up in the first place! Of course I would have got up if I’d realised! I was half-asleep! My back! Pilates! Don’t single me out – look at my track record! Look at all the other fucks who did nothing! And these people never give you a right of reply! Most of my mental life is spent fighting these imaginary court cases! 

The self-prosecution never rests, m’lud.

 

Image via Pixabay 

Cabinet Of Heed Contents

Four My Little Ponies Of The Apocalypse – Caleb Echterling 

And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see. And I saw, and behold, a white horse. He who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given unto him, and he went forth conquering and to conquer. (Revelations 6:1-2)

Quivering fingers poked at a snoring duvet cover. “Dad, it’s five-thirty. Can we open presents now?”

“Did you make me a double caf venti latte with an extra shot of espresso?” the duvet asked.

“Of course. We know the rules for Christmas.”

The duvet grumbled, which set off a mad dash of limbs tumbling down the stairs and into the perumba of a Christmas tree. The owners of the limbs traded slaps and pushes.

Dad sipped his latte. “Cut it out. You both know the rules. The first present goes to the winner of a double-elimination, best three out of five rock-scissors-paper shoot out. I’ll count down the start. One, two …”

“Marci can go first, Dad,” Linus said. “The rock-scissors-paper tournament takes too long. I’ll open a present sooner if I give up my spot.”

“How very mature of you,” Dad said. “Which present would you like to open, Marci?”

“The big one! The big one!” Marci dove over the pile of loot. Flecks of spittle flew from her mouth. She wrestled a rectangular box to the ground, and ripped at the Arbor Day-themed wrapping paper like a swarm of piranhas skeletonizing a goat. 

Marci held her trophy aloft. “Yay, The Four My Little Ponies of the Apocalypse. You remembered, Daddy.”

“How could I forget? You reminded me ten times a day for three months. Please share with your brother. We’re not having a repeat of last year’s Slumlord Barbie incident.”

Marci fired up a table saw to remove the protective plastic shell encasing her new toys. She tossed a white horse to her brother. “He can play with this one, but I get the other three.” 

Linus whinnied and pantomimed the My Little Pony trotting over the shag carpet. His body exploded with red bumps. “Ow, Dad, this itches.”

When he opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see. And there went out another horse that was red. And power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that people should kill one another, and there was given unto him a great sword. (Revelations 6:3-4)

“I’m tired of this pony. I want the red one,” Linus said. He swung a sack of nickels at his sister. She ducked under the incoming bludgeon, grabbed an empty whiskey bottle by the neck, and smashed off the end.

Jagged fingers of glass groped for Linus’s nose. “You want the red pony? Let’s dance, motherfu…”

“Kids, please. You know the rules. Any disagreement over who gets to play with a toy is settled by best four out of seven thumb wrestling.”

The sack of nickels fell to the floor. “Fine,” Linus said. “but I’m picking my nose first.”

The broken whiskey bottle smashed into the Christmas tree. “Fine, but I’m sticking my thumb up my butt first.”

“Fine, I’m sticking my thumb up the dog’s butt.”

“Fine, I’m sticking my thumb in Dad’s hollandaise sauce.”

“Dad,” Linus wailed, “Marci’s cheating and being gross.”

“Kids, you know what happens when you can’t agree on the rules for thumb wrestling. Best five out of nine interpretive dance contest.”

“Ugh, never mind,” Marci said. She tossed the red pony to her brother. “I’ll get a different one.”

When He opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. So I beheld, and lo, a black horse, and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts saying, “A measure of wheat for a denarius, and three measures of barley for a denarius, and see thou harm not the oil and wine.” (Revelations 6:5-6)

Marci galloped the black pony over a wasteland of torn wrapping paper. “Dad, I’m famished. Can we eat?”

Dad rubbed his palms together. “Is it time for your Dad’s extra-special traditional Christmas dinner? Go check the kitchen for the main course.”

Marci rummaged through the pantry. “Sorry, Pop. We’re all out of Funyuns.”

“Arrrrgh. How are we supposed to honor the birth of our Lord and Savior without Funyuns.” Dad snapped his fingers. “I know, let’s check the Bible. They probably have some sort of cheat sheet in there.”

Linus flipped pages. “Here we go. No seafood unless it has fins and scales.”

“Well crap. Lobster thermidor was the back up plan in case Funyuns didn’t work out. What else ya got?”

“Crickets. Says here we can eat crickets.”

“Your grandma always makes crickets á l’orange for St. Barnabas’s Day. I guess we could switch that to Christmas this year.”

“Eww,” Marci said. “Orange is icky. Can we have Owl Bourguignon instead?”

“Bad news,” Linus chirped. “Bible says owl is out. Same with ospreys. Grasshoppers are okay, though.”

“That’s my vote,” Dad said. “I got a bushel of grasshoppers at Trader Joe’s last week. Gotta use ‘em up before they go bad.”

When He opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. So I looked, and behold, a pale horse. And the name of him who sat on it was Death, and Hades followed with him. And power was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and by the beasts of the earth. (Revelations 6:7-8)

Marci untangled the pale My Little Pony from its plastic bindings. She tossed it to the dog, who woofed with appreciation before chew-slobbering the toy into oblivion.

Linus opened the fridge. A swarm of grasshoppers tumbled out with a six-pack of beer, their hind legs twisted about the bottles. Tipsy mandibles sipped the sweet nectar inside. “Gross, Dad. The grasshoppers are alive.”

“Of course they’re alive. They taste like ass unless they die a horrible, painful death as you cook them, like lobster. Or collard greens.”

“Do they scream in agony like collards?”

“Damn straight they do. The screaming is what makes them delicious. Let’s boil up a big pot of cheap beer to murder us some grasshoppers for Christmas dinner.”

CALEB ECHTERLING is currently performing in a one-person show that combines self-esteem building strategies with insult comedy. He tweets funny fiction using the highly creative handle @CalebEchterling. You can find more of his work at www.calebechterling.com.

Image via Pixabay 

Cabinet Of Heed Contents

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: