Nibblers, Nukes and Noodles

Hiding summer’s age no more

No more leaves in summer sky

Turning dark on empty car lots

When summer was my only friend

I always wondered what Spanish folk called the Spanish Flu back in 1918. The Flu? Spanish Flu? Or did they go for something like French Flu the way we used to say the Italian disease or Dutch courage?

Actually, I once looked up the word for “flu” in Spanish. “Gripe” is the word. I guess it isn’t pronounced how it looks.  Ah, well it’s pointless thinking about it. Spain, that is, considering it doesn’t exist anymore.

Or any country to be fair. Well, that’s not strictly true. Iceland is still there, fishing around happily, cut off from the world.

Now Chinese flu, that’s a different kettle of fish entirely. Bingdu. The Chinese Virus, handily monikered by the Hong Kongese, who soon perished.

That was a big one. Boy, was it big. My grandfather told me that it was a punishment from God. The waste and wars, the disregard for nature caused Him to smite us beginning with the Godless communists. Funny kind of commies though, I thought, seeing as the Party had collapsed two decades prior and the even more rapacious oligarchs had taken over.

But Gramps wouldn’t be told. He said the Chinese Virus was just the beginning. And he was right, the old bugger. I read the books at the library and it doesn’t seem real. A world where we had it all and threw it all away.
The islands in Hawaii covered in plastic bottles, the genocides of the Shia peoples, the burning of books, however symbolic that was in the digital age.

Strange now, that books survive whilst the computers, phones and touchscreens are consigned to history like the Communist Party of China or Tesco-Asda.

Which is funny as that’s where I am sat right now, in my local Tesco-Asda, in the car park eating a Super Oogo Noodles pack, cooked on my portable mini-stove, on my own surrounded by decaying buildings, rusting cars and other local nibblers.

I read a lot. What they used to call dystopian fiction. My favourite will always be The Stand by a writer called Stephen King. His portrayal of a collapsing society under a manmade virus is amazing. I often dream about the characters from that book. Harold and Nadine, Stu and Glenn, Mother Abigail and the Dark Man.

The other nibblers talk about creatures they see in the night. They think a devil is chasing them around and will kill them and all the other survivors.

I know better, there is no demonic presence going to eat us. Just Mother Nature. And let’s be fair she has giving humanity an immense fucking kicking in the last few years. In a lot of ‘end of the world’ fiction there is a lot of violence over the scarcity of food and water. Not in what’s left of Britain.

After the Chinese flu came the nuclear annihilation. This wasn’t even a nuclear war, it was some of the abandoned nuclear plants going haywire once most of the population had died. Once a bunch of meltdowns occurred across the whole Northern hemisphere any semblance of normality was gone.

It was followed by a succession of other diseases that spread including the plague and Icelandic flu. This had nothing to do with the Icelanders who had closed their borders early and with great success. It was just another flu pandemic that wiped out most of the already low number of survivors.

In my city of 300,000 people it appears that only a few hundred survived. Taken as a rough estimate, it appears about 0.1% survived throughout the pandemics and meltdowns. With all the food in the supermarkets hoarded up, there is plenty to eat and drink. In fact, alcoholism is the next big killer as the nibblers spend most of their time loading up.

I can’t blame them, I spend my time reading and what good is that? Some of the youngsters speed around in supercars which looks great fun. I don’t have a licence and for some reason I’d feel bad about driving around without one, especially if I crashed and ended up with my leg hanging off and my arm flopping around twelve feet away from my body.

Am I someone who needs laws to obey? Is that the same for all humans? The nibblers could do with a firm hand to set them straight. But it won’t come from me. I actually enjoy watching them eating their packs of crisps in this weather. The silence is the big thing that marks out the post-flu world. Sound travels in a way you wouldn’t believe.

Even the nibblers in their groups often will sit in silence and awe listening to the world around them.  A Ferrari being driven into town will be heard from miles away.

The sunsets also bring people to reverential quietude, the end of pollution mixed with the remnants of nuclear fallout lead to incredible red skies with streaks that range from blue to green on an evening.

Time has barely any meaning now. It’s the early evening tonight and half the nibblers are just waking up and having breakfast. In the nine years or so since society collapsed the numbers of survivors seems to dropping. I don’t know even know if people can still have children. Thinking about it I can’t remember the last time I heard a baby’s wail. It must be five years or so.

This thought makes me immediately sad and waves of emotion hit me like no times since parents died as Bingdu ravaged my hometown. Even though I knew they were gone once they were first diagnosed (the survival rate for the infected was virtually zero) the shock when they passed within twelve hours of each other was incredible. The sense of loss made my stomach hurt for weeks and I’m getting the same feeling now.

Many of the nibblers have drank themselves to death or gone off to an isolated spot to kill themselves. I can now understand why they do this. The enormity of the realisation that humanity is edging towards oblivion bears down on me. In The Stand, the survivors work together to re-form society, compelled by higher powers.

If the survivors have learnt anything it is that the only higher power is nature itself. Deep down, we feel that humans deserved what happened to us which is a terrible, sobering realisation.

I think back to when I was a nipper. I remember my large driveway at home as a boy and racing round in my go kart. Dad would tell me to avoid the flowers on the edge of the grass while Mum would bring out ice pops, the cola ones were my favourite. Racing around enjoying the thrill of the speed and the feeling of being out of control.

Do humans have an innate, grim trait which leads us to galvanizing self-destruction?

I place the noodles down on the floor and spot a white BMW M1 in the gloam of the car park. One of the young tearaways left it here a few days ago before tearing off on a motorbike.

I walk over and examine the car. It is in great shape although the back and right hand side have a few dents. I sit in the car and turn the engine on, it thrums to life immediately. Fair play to the Germans, they knew how to build a car. Shame they couldn’t have crafted a cure for Chinese Flu.

I drive the car out of the car park. None of the nibblers acknowledge me even though we have congregated in this area for years now. Away from the not-so-maddening crowds I start testing the BMW to its limits through the deserted city streets and head for the motorway.

After leaving town the long straights of the motorway stretch out in front of me. A sign of the advancement of society many years ago, they are now the arteries of a corpse.

I speed the car up faster and faster. A voice in my head tells me not to give up but I increase the pressure on the accelerator. The trees and sky blur into one like a speeded up video and I tell myself I am driving home. Where home is for me now I can’t say right now but I think I will have an answer very soon…

by Martin O’Brien based on Autumn Tactics by Chicane.

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The Inferno of Passion

3:36, it’s cold, I know I’m growing old

With life’s best side on the downward slope

Done it before, do it again

Early morning cold taxi.

Thirty-six, I am too old for this shit.

I open my eyes and look across her bed to my right. Christ, she’s older than Bob Geldof. My head hurts and all I can hear is Roxette belting out “It Must Have Been Love” on the stereo. I snort out loud at that jarring un-synchronicity and suddenly worry that she’s woken up.

Nope, she’s sparko. Must be exhausted, poor thing. I wonder what her name is, what her story is? All I can remember is her repeatedly telling me about her forthcoming trip to Turkey. I think I replied about Bernard Matthews, scourge of the turkeys.

Actually, I couldn’t care less. All I can think of now is getting out of here and snaffling some food. From laying in the bed I gently sit up and spy my clothes in a pleasingly neat pile.

Bloody hell though, I need a piss. This means an extra complication in Mission Get-The-Fuck-Out-Of-Here. I decide to prioritise putting my clothes on first before taking a leak. I think I will reap the benefits of this plan.

I take one last look at the snoozing creature (Betsy? Pam?) beside me and edge out of the bed. My silken feet touch the soft carpet and I manage to dress in a well-rehearsed, complete velvet silence.

I look at the clock and it’s now past 3. I can feel my head begin to spin as I calmly walk out of her bedroom. Now for the tricky part. I like to shut the door when I retreat from the scene of a hasty post-coital departure. I have a little thing for not letting the door latch catch the lock or bang on the jamb.

The perfect door closure is a wondrous moment.  A fleeting glimpse of perfection like a well-executed Cruyff turn or the precision bombing of an alleged munitions site in a packed Middle East urban area surrounded by markets, schools and hospitals.

I close the door with consummate precision. I award myself an inner standing ovation and move on to Mission Take-A-Massive-Piss.

The hallway is cold, a sign that winter is coming. Never my favourite time of year. There’s enough light for me to reach the bathroom and the switch is a nice quiet flicker, not one of the those pull cords that always seem to turn on the world’s loudest extractor fan.

I sit on the john and it’s one of those pisses where you audibly exhale and say “ah, that feels good”. I finish and head to the sink to wash my hands and check I haven’t got the old bird’s make up all over my face.

Man, I look like shit. My hair is receding and my nose is blotchy with tiny blood vessels showing everywhere. My beard is turning grey on the sides and around my mouth and my eyes are bloodshot. To be honest, there’s more red in there than the white bits in my eyes. I should probably be quite concerned at Time’s harrowing effect and what is happening to my clearly rotting insides..

My skin is strange mixture of greasiness and paleness that makes me look like a confused teenage vampire. My breath smells of Jack Daniels’ arse. I spit in to the sink and it appears that he might have shit in my gob too.

Twenty years of doing this has taken its toll. I don’t know how many times I’ve quit drinking or promised myself not to go back with these old, usually married women. But I can never resist their openness and compliments. Yep, always the compliments. That’s what does it for me.

“How are you still single?”

“You’ve got really nice eyes!”

“You listen to me, unlike my hubby,”

It’s a little dance, an act. I know within a minute or two whether they like me and if they are going to cave in and take me back. Sometimes, if they really love their bloke they’ll stop and go back to their mates. To be honest, they may still love him, but they still drag me back to their gaff.

Somebody once said ‘remorse is beholding heaven and feeling hell’. I’m always fascinated by these pull factors and the animal instincts at the heart of it. People desire such short term gratification and all of society’s morality and sermonising can’t stop it. In a perverse way that’s what increases my lust to pick away at the scabs of convention.

One last look at my face. One last stare into those fucked-up eyes before I go. I used to enjoy these escapades, the chase and the sex and the getaway. Now I just feel tired; tired all the time.

I leave the bathroom and turn the light off. I don’t even bother creeping downstairs pretending I’m a cat burglar like I normally do. I just walk downstairs, swipe a cheeky twenty quid that I see on the table near the front door and put my shoes on. I hear a rumbling upstairs. A voice perhaps or a good old 180 degree bed spin.

I don’t care anyway. I open the front door and the chill of an early Sunday morning hits me. It’s nice and sobering and I check my phone which states it’s 4 on the dot.

Luckily this lass lived two minutes from town so I decide to head back to the high street. This is the bit I like, walking in the early hours. The cold air enveloping my face like a mask. The empty roads and silent houses. I imagine I’m the only human left and the thought exhilarates me.

It doesn’t last too long as soon as I hit the high street. The raucous night is coming to a close in town and the contrast is bewildering. Sirens and lights flash from ambulances and the dibble, girls in tiny dresses are sat on the street munching shit-in-a-tray whilst lads in terrible shirts are are messing about with their mates pretending to be Connor McGregor, hoping the burger-scoffing women notice them.

I head straight for the hackney cabs, bollocks to queueing with the hordes of kebab-munching leaky tosspots. I hail the nearest cab and enter in the passenger seat.

“Busy night?” I ask in the obligatory manner, after telling him my destination.

“Yeah, very busy tonight chief. Bloody non-stop, you’re my last fare though, then back home. I don’t live far from town which is handy,”

“Ah that’s not too bad,” I respond, “I’ll try not throw up everywhere then,”

The taxi driver laughs and the car speeds off to my end of town.

“Big night tonight?” he asks.

“Only a quiet one, met up with a friend. Got a few days off work to recover!”

“Haha, good stuff. I’m on holiday too next week with the wife. Can’t bloody wait, I tell you,”

“I can imagine. Going anywhere nice?”

“Yeah, a week in Turkey. Had it booked for ages,”

“Turkey eh?” I struggle to focus on the road ahead, for some reason my eyes are watering and my head is hurting. I can only croak “I hope you have a great time mate,”

“Thanks mate. Just down here is it?”

“Yeah, you can drop me off here,”

I pay the driver and for some reason I stand and watch him drive off, knowing full well where he is going. I feel empty.

I clearly need pizza.

by Martin O’Brien based on Early Morning Cold Taxi by the Who

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Journey to the Heavy South

You leave in the morning

With everything you own in a little black case

Alone on the platform

The wind and the rain

I wonder what he did?

He stands there looking out to sea, stood on the platform like a lighthouse, eyes starkly watching the drizzly horizon.

The weather is filthy, but that’s no surprise these days. The so-called “Storm of the century” five years ago was followed by three further ones since then. The portents of the society we have created?

His case gives him away. A small, black cube with a silver handle. A sight that shocks most onlookers in to embarrassment. Not me though, I’m numb to it now. I know he deserves what he has got coming. Myself and the other Watchers keep him under close watch, as we have ever since his conviction one week ago.

Some of the identities of the Convictees we know such as the ones that garrotte women in back alleys or set fire to churches. Is this man a political terrorist? We seem to be shipping more and more of those types off to the Heavy South.

The man maintains his gaze over the grey sea, waves are crashing upon the shore and seawater comes over the flood barrier onto the platform. Is he contemplating jumping in? Probably.

However, if he does 66,600 volts will penetrate his body via his neck. All four Watchers on shift have their fingers just half a second away from pressing the fizzbutton. They all try something stupid once. Rarely do they attempt a second time.

According to the shift-log this guy hasn’t tried once. He doesn’t look the type. Square-jawed, darkly handsome with close cropped grey hair. He looks a strong bugger. I’m not sure how long that will last.

The log also details his fears and phobias. This is the bit that still turns my stomach. I defy anyone who has seen what I’ve seen to not feel the same way. The Watchers are a grimly professional bunch but what awaits this bloke…

The train has slowly made its way to the platform without me even noticing. There are six Convictees and twenty four Watchers in today’s batch. None of the Convictees look well known. It seems the days of serial killers and political assassins are over. The Convictees are all men, as are the Watchers.

The only women are stood on the opposite platform. I can see them through both sets of train windows. Family members perhaps, or the oglers off to see the condemned men pay for their crimes. They all stand in silence as we all do on our side of the platform as the electric train arrives almost silently.

Six carriages – one for each Convictee. Our man finally breaks his gaze with the sea and turns and walks straight into the train. Most of the other Convictees do the same.

I glance to my right and one of the Convictees is on the floor shrieking that he doesn’t want to go. No need for the fizzbutton, two Watchers simply lift him up by his arms and carry him on to the train. A third Watcher pulls the case on board.

WIthin seconds of everyone embarking, the doors slide shut and the train quietly departs. A rather underwhelming departure when you consider where we are going and also compared to the crowds 19 years ago when the first Convictees were sent for their diabolical punishment.

I remember the day well. I was twenty-three and the second youngest of the Watchers. Due to the crowds there was twenty Watchers for just one Convictee as well as thousands of soldiers. The press called him the Demon Priest even though he wasn’t a priest, just used a lot of religious imagery in his killings and his letters to the media.

As the country had polarised and splintered crime had began to rise to record levels. After a lull of decades, mass serial killers returned to the streets. And none were worse or more gratuitous than Mark Marsh. A rather rubbish name for a renowned killer, I always thought.

Over four years thirty-three teenage girls and boys were murdered. They were always left in public places and heavily disfigured often in sickening biblical poses. As public and press intolerance of criminals escalated the Demon Priest became the most notorious murderer since Jack the Ripper. The government and police brought in ever more draconian laws. As the murders continued and became even more brazen the government brought in a radical punishment once he was caught and for any other serious criminal.

It was almost a game for the Demon Priest. His letters to the newspapers announced he had one more murder to go. The uproar in the country was at fever pitch and then it happened.

The nine year old Princess Elizabeth was found decapitated and her body placed in front of the royal palace. As the guards found her body they also saw the Demon Priest holding the young child’s head in his arms stroking her hair. Her eyes had been removed and placed on either side of his body facing the world.

Marsh was remanded in custody until the new punishment centre was built at a staggering cost. The day he departed to the Heavy South was a day completely unlike today.

An estimated three hundred thousand people had descended in forty degree heat to see the train depart. Pandemonium ensued and over six hundred people were killed in the riots, stampedes and shootings by soldiers that followed.

The Demon Priest laughed all the way there on the train. The next time I saw him three years later and all the times since he no longer laughs. Justice came to him. What about these guys here today?

It isn’t forbidden to speak to the Convictees but it is frowned upon. As group leader I have never spoken to a single one about their lives, just ordered them around.

I look at the impassive face of the man, trying to read him. It’s impossible and today won’t be the day I speak to him. The whispers around Watch Base 4 are that people who speak out against the government are the ones they are shipping away now. The threat of being sent to the Heavy South has seen crime drop to new lows.

The government may deny it but the papers are unable to find enough crime stories to print these days. They just reprint tales of the Demon Priest and others to keep the people scared of crime, encouraged by the government. I have it on good authority that there was less than sixty murders in the last year. Twenty years ago it was over eleven thousand.

We head underground and the gradient decreases drastically. We are travelling seventeen miles below ground and every time I make this journey a little part of me dies. Only five months until retirement for me and I can’t wait. Speeding ever further underground, the red lights illuminate the way.

After twenty minutes we arrive. The doors open, the Convictees disembark and see the sign, in standard railway station font which simply states: “HELL”.

The impassive man’s face is no longer the stoic countenance it once was. He is breathing heavily, although the oppressive heat might also be a contributing factor.

The entrance level is like any standard police station with strip lighting and bureaucracy to endure. The anguished screams beyond this vestibule belies the apparent normality.

Our Convictee is led to the Hellguard, a wiry woman of around thirty years.

“Log,” she says to me. I hand it over. She glances at the top page.

“Heights,” she says, and a small, pursed smile passes her lips, “I think you know where to take him.” He drops off the black case. All his possessions had earlier been destroyed. The only thing it contains is a letter containing his sentence. 1000 years here in Hell.

I’ve clearly being doing this too long. My job is to walk the Convictee to his circle where he will spend the rest of his life. The Hellguards will take him from me and will monitor to him twenty-four hours a day.

As we prepare to enter the Great Hall a sign above unsurprisingly quotes Dante and still makes me shudder when I see it: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”. So, so apt. The Convictee sees it, glances at me and we hold our gaze for a few seconds. Perhaps he can see in my eyes what is through the doors. His eyes are watering and he breaks my gaze as the doors slide open.

I keep a hand on his shoulder as we enter the new Hell. It looks like a demonic shopping centre. Nine huge ringed levels with virulently vivid colours and noise. It is quite easily the most overwhelming place in the country. It comprises about seven hundred individual cells and all the cells are open and visible to everyone.

The impassive man is sobbing now as he can see some of the sights as I walk him to the guardrail of the first ring. An old grey-haired woman is sat on a chair surrounded by what looks like thousands of squirming snakes. She is frozen in the chair as they slither round her beige leg, bleeding from multiple bites. I know she has been here over ten years..

A young lad of around twenty is being repeatedly dunked upside down into a pool of water. I tell the man almost robotically that this form of waterboarding happens to him about nineteen hours a day, every day.

Another young man is covered in a plastic spherical bubble with only his hand and feet outside. Inside the bubble are a multitude of bees. He runs around his cell screaming and collapses on the floor. The bees are stinging him repeatedly. A bunch of hellguards in protective outfits take him out of the bubble and pacify the bees.

“In an hour he will be placed in another one,” I say.

“It’s inhuman,” the man replies.

I don’t say anything but lead him up the levels. The man witnesses a multitude of abhorrent sights. Brutal sodomising of sex offenders is a common theme, a man scared of fire being in a room constantly surrounded by flames, a man being crucified upside down, a teenage lad strapped to a chair being slapped by a succession of young girls, a woman blindfolded in a room with an uneven floor full of scalding radiators.

We reach the top level where a fat male Hellguard takes the impassive man. He looks around at me.

“What will they do to me?” he asks, his voice cracking like the sound of walking on winter leaves.

Before I can ask the hellguard pushes the man off the ring. I watch him fall and hear him scream. He lands about eight metres below the bottom level. There is a safety net at the bottom and Hellguards will bring him back to the top for his punishment to be endlessly repeated. They will vary the punishments each time, tying him up or leaving him dangling for hours, if not days.

As I prepare to leave the Great Hall I head to see the oldest serving prisoner. The Demon Priest is held in a special cell behind the first ring level. Upon his initial entry into Hell his tongue and vocal cords were removed. He would no more utter his filth.

It had taken multiple experiments to find his weak spot. His love of masochism meant a lot of tests were run. This was not unique and the creativity of the Hellguards never surprises me.

During the days of testing, a strip of skin was removed from his arm leaving his bare flesh exposed. The reaction this received was manna for the Hellguards. They had found his weakness and his demeanour changed immediately from brash egotist to a very scared man.

A special germ-free, heated room was built and Mark Marsh was flayed over a period of weeks and kept under constant supervision. Despite his every attempt at killing himself by self-harming he was prevented from doing so.

I arrive at his cell and look through the window at him. He no longer looks human which befits a monster like him. By removing his skin his humanity has been stripped away. Nineteen years of this and he is beaten and broken. I always wondered if the public saw an image of this man would they say “no more”?

I head back to the train and wonder what the impassive man had done. The righteousness of what has been done to the Demon Priest has always quelled any unease I felt at the actions committed here. As the voices of despair fade I wonder if the atrocities we are committing now are the right thing to do and if there is anything we can do to stop it. Is there something I can do?

by Martin O’Brien based on Smalltown Boy by Bronski Beat

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A Dealer In Hope

London calling to the faraway towns

Now war is declared – and battle come down

London calling to the zombies of death

Quit holding out – and draw another breath

“London calling, London calling – please respond,”

For two years and seven days this message had come through the radio. For every one of the seven hundred and thirty seven days since then it has been ignored.

Only McDermott had visited London. He’s dined out on the stories ever since. Forget a pinch of salt, you need a lorry for some of the tales he has about the great floating city of the south.

McDermott claims the city is anchored to the Big Ben clock tower. When I questioned him on how a immense raft holding eighty thousand people could be attached to a crumbling 700 year old building he just said it’s symbolic and that the city is moored all across the old city. And one is actually tethered to Big Ben.

Locals lap up his stories and he can’t get enough of the attention but I’ve seen McDermott when he’s on his own sat in his garden. He looks a different man, his hands shake and his already pallid skin looks almost transparent.

Occasionally the facade will crack. After a night on the spudwine about 8 years ago he told me about the time he was setting sail back up to Bradford laden with goods he had traded for food.

As his longboat pulled away from the floating city an immense ship hoved into view against the blood-red sky. McDermott said the ship was at least fifty metres high and rather blocky and square. He couldn’t believe it could float.

When it approached their vessel McDermott saw things on the ship that rocked him to his core.

Well, I should say he heard things initially. An incredible piercing wailing that travelled across the water to his boat. His shipmates Fallon and Harris stood at the bow with him and wondered what on earth it was.

As the square ship drew parallel to theirs the three men said the noise had become intolerable, like Halifax gunpowder oil in the ears. It was hard to keep standing and your bearings too.

When they could finally focus on the ship they could see men, or creatures to be more precise, lined up and manacled around the boat.

They had no hair or clothing and their bodies were disfigured by deformities, lumps and missing body parts. And in some cases extra body parts. McDermott saw one man with a suppurated hunchback that started at the top of his head all the way to his arse.

The man stared at him and howled, pus was dripping out of sores on his bald head and running down his malformed back. Other men had arms and facial features missing and a few literally had holes in their chests.

McDermott claimed there must have been over a thousand of these pitiful creatures onboard and they were being sailed into port by around twenty tanned-skin men wearing red Napoleon hats. As the ship sailed past the noise could still be heard for 2 hours as they headed north.

McDermott had told me the story a couple of nights after Fallon had killed himself. Suicide in the isolated towns was common enough but McDermott said Fallon had never been able to stop thinking about the noises emanating from the ship. Zombies was the word he used but these men weren’t dead. Instead they were victims of the war four hundred years ago. The offspring of radiation victims.

What kind of things were happening in London? No one within 200 kilometre knows. Centuries ago, news was available immediately. Some of the books and magazines at the library show the world as it once was. 11 billion people on earth living in great nations like the United States and China that no longer exist.

Ironically it was once thought that water shortages would be the cause of the big war but in the end it was shortage of land. As the sea levels rose and the eastern coasts of China and the US began to disappear. Eventually, and no seems to know definitively who started it, a nuclear warhead was launched and obliterated the city of Moscow in a country called they called Russia.

And that was that. It was the largest war in human history and one of the shortest. The world was engulfed in flames and pandemonium and within days it was all over. The armies and the governments had been disintegrated.

Scattered populations survived the planet just kept heating up. No one knows how many people live on Earth now. Possibly a few tens of millions, maybe less than ten million.

We regressed, I can see that from the books in the library. The Burj Tower and Wembley Stadium, feats of engineering and brilliance that you don’t see now. All we see now are flood barricades. In London a city was gradually built from the materials 150 metres below the sea. McDermott said it is a wondrous sight after seeing only isolated islands as you pass what was once the Chilterns.

A land of mechanical ingenuity rising into the crimson sky and stretching out now across the old city like a tentacled, recycled monster. London has risen again, McDermott likes to say.

The total population of the five “Faraway Towns” of Northern England sits at around fifteen thousand. Bradford, Halifax, Bacup. Buxton and Sheffield and a few smaller communities in the Moors. The population is shrinking still – the unrelenting heat and poverty is too much for most people. Grafting in the fields or fishing around the polluted waters is life for virtually everyone now.

I only keep sane by reading books and believing that humans will find a way to civilisation again. Contact was lost with lawless London many decades ago. Only trading happens there now. We trade them food in return for rarer items. McDermott says that it is a dangerous place filled with rapacious, amoral thieves. Wanton violence is a plague on the city and that if he wasn’t a big strong man he wouldn’t dream of stepping on the “deck” of the city.

“London calling, London calling – please respond,”

As I have done every single day since we started receiving that message I have contemplated responding. The other members of the council urge me to reply. They have yet to supply me with a valid reason. I asked McDermott what they could want when the other members had departed.

“I’m not sure. It could be as innocent as trade contacts. Or…” his voice drifted off.

“Or what?” I replied, annoyed by McDermott’s love of dangling his knowledge on a string. My annoyance lifted though as I looked into his eyes. His eyes were moistening and his hands were trembling again.

“The people there, they…” McDermott was struggling to find the words, “they have two faces. They talk of peace but the brutality on the streets is astonishing. And when I was there, there was talk of an invasion.”

“An invasion?” I nearly fell off my stool when he said those words.

“Yeah, against the mutant men, the irradiated ones. I don’t even know where they come from, and no one there would tell me. I told you, they have two faces, they won’t help anyone. Everything has a price. Even dignity,” McDermott left the council chamber and looked close to tears.

London calling, London calling – please respond,”

I said at the last meeting if they want to talk to the Faraway Towns they will have to get in a boat and sail up to us.

Today will be no different.

by Martin O’Brien based on London Calling by The Clash.

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Then They Came For Me

Tonight I’m wound tighter than a watchspring
‘Cos when the skies are clear, the threat of rain is always here with you
Everything you say is a call to arms
With all that’s gone before my motives never felt so pure.

Can one moment change the world?

If I commit this act will the world change for the better, or for the worse?

The sun on my face feels hotter than it has ever felt before. I can feel my face burning but I can only stand up straight and face forward.

The time is near.

The instructions were clear. The President will say a certain phrase and then I shoot him.

The message was sent to my phone last night. I didn’t think about what I had to do, I could only think of Valentina and that night in Cambrils last winter.

I think back to stroking her dark hair, matted with blood. She was dying, I could see that as clear as I can see the lectern the President will speak from in a few minutes.

“‘We carry a new world here, in our hearts,’” she looked up at me and laughed bitterly as she said it, “I’m sorry,”

Despite being a soldier, I was not prepared for this. The first war casualties I had seen. My girlfriend, her mother and her father.

At university we used to talk about politics all the time. The disastrous reconquista of Gibraltar in ‘19 jolted me into signing up for the army after my graduation. She told me I was crazy to join up and I was aiding the forces of fascism.

We were in bed one summer morning, the cool breeze washing over us in bed in her apartment in Lavapiés. I said I was signing up  for  my country, our country. All she could say is:

“Their country is not my country,”

“You separatists all say that, but what does it mean? Are we not the same people inside?”

“I don’t mean me and you,” she responded angrily, sitting up in bed, her eyes burning like a rabid animal, “Can’t you see what happened to Spain? The papers are shut down for criticising the government, They lied about what happened in Seville. They lied about the peace treaty,”

“Europe is crumbling, we have to be strong,”

“It’s always the same in Europe,” Valentina laid back down into my arms, “the demagogues, the dictators. They all come out and people lap up their poison. What will happen when the Catalans claim our independence, will you shoot me?”

“Don’t be silly, they will vote no, look at Scotland and the war in Northern Ireland. We need stability and then we can start moving forward,”

Valentina didn’t say anything.

The Catalans did vote for independence and the slide towards war began.

The President said the vote was unconstitutional. The politicians were locked in talks. The European Union got involved so the President broke all ties with the remaining eleven member states. The President had left the European Union when he abolished the monarchy and declared war on Britain.

He thought Britain would be weak with all their strife in the regions but he made a huge miscalculation. The British levelled Ceuta and Melilla within hours and the Portuguese and French backed them. As the coalition moved into Spain, the Basques welcomed the French in to Bilbao and the British and Portuguese began the bombardment of Seville.

The President sued for peace and as part of the terms of peace he guaranteed any region in Spain could hold a vote on independence. The war had lasted four days but it was a humiliation for the President.

The expected announcement from the Basques regarding an independence vote never materialised and Eta didn’t restart their terrorism. It looked like they were going to allow the Catalans to go first, as they would be backed by Europe. The French said they would support Catalan independence but no one thought they would cross the Pyrenees again.

The President told us that any independence vote would need to be agreed by him before it became law. The press were forced to repeat his claims that any secession would be illegal.

And that’s when the secret killings began.

My unit was tasked with surveillance of targets across Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia. “Accidents were arranged” for high profile separatists.

Word spread and mass demonstrations sprang up across the nation. In Madrid they reckoned half a million protested but the media mentioned nothing about it. Troops were brought in to the major cities to maintain order and martial law declared.

About six months ago I went on leave to visit my soon-to-be in-laws and my world changed for ever.

Now here I am at the Presidential Palace, formerly the Royal Palace. I always loved the view over the Casa de Campo, but today I can’t even face looking at it or I know I will cry.

Here he comes. The President exits the palace surrounded by his Guard and walks towards the Plaza de la Armeria where he will give a speech demanding that the Catalan parliament backs away from its threat to declare independence tomorrow following a 64% “yes” for independence two weeks ago.

The President is short but in good shape, a real barrel-chested man. I have met him a few times and he is humourless but strangely charismatic. His intense stare is quite honestly the chilling thing I have witnessed.

We are from the same hometown of Jaén. The olive oil capital of the world, some people say. He confiscated the castle on the hill from the state-run hotel chain  and converted it into his main home, away from the dangers of Madrid.  The Wolf’s Lair, the other soldiers called it, in dark homage to Hitler’s Bavarian retreat.

Everyone in the barracks was nervous this morning. They can feel war is coming. The Gibraltar fiasco cost but a few handfuls of military casualties but full-scale war in Spain again just like 85 years ago would be brutal.

However this is a war that the majority of Spain do not want. The fanáticos have taken over all the arms of state and the heavy weaponry has been moved to strategic cities. According to the rumours shelling of the Barcelona, Tarragona and Girona will begin immediately after a declaration tomorrow. Depending on what happens next Valencia and Bilbao will be attacked.

The President is on the microphone now and beginning his address. A heavy silence  and the faint aroma of oil drift across the square – the smell of impending battle.

A battle that I hope to finish. A battle that he started against me one night in Catalonia.

I was visiting Valentina’s family at their family home in the seaside village of Cambrils. We had finished a lovely fish dinner when her mother, Pamela,  asked if I could run to the shop to buy a bottle or two of wine. I kissed Valentina on the cheek and left. Oh, to have said something to her then knowing what happened next.

I visited the shop, bought some wine and engaged in small talk at the counter with the young, female girl on the counter. I headed back down the tree-lined Avenida Adelaida with the bottles and some Haribo for Valentina. I arrived back and saw the front door was open. I didn’t think I left it open.

I walked into the hallway and saw Pamela lying face first on the floor, a halo of blood around her head. I shouted Valentina’s name and heard no response. I pissed myself, I admit it. I ran to the living room and her dad was sat in his chair with a bullet hole shot clean through his skull, it looked like a macabre bindi.

I looked around for Valentina and saw her on the floor of the kitchen. She was sat up against the cupboards. Blood was pouring out of her stomach and I almost collapsed on top of her in shock.  I held her in my arms while she said her final words.

“Don’t be sorry, oh my Valentina. Please no…”

She was right. She was right about everything.I had to get out of there or I would be next. If they knew i was here they would kill me. I could not allow that. I would kill them first.

After the massacre of the Delcamp family I contacted the Catalan independence leaders. They informed me that Valentina’s father Josep was an active member of the movement which was why he was targeted.  I started to provide information to them and it all led up to today and my one shot at saving this land.

The army had not found out about my relationship with Valentina and they thought I was an obedient soldier, a loyal Presidential man, especially being a Jiennense too like him too.

The Catalans had obtained a copy of his speech and sent it to me by email last night. The President, and myself, are  near the moment of no return.

The baking sun and the knowledge that I will soon be killed in a few seconds is making me woozy. Will I hold my nerve and assassinate the President live on television?

I think back to the times Valentina and I would sit out at the Temple of Debod drinking cans of Mahou and talk for hours. All for this fascist, bullshitting warmonger to destroy it for me and millions of others like us. My resolve hardens and I hear the President speaking…

“…and I say to the minority government of Catalonia, the people of Spain will not tolerate this any longer. They will not let this pass any longer. They will not stand idly by any longer. The time has come for the President of Spain to do his duty and unify the  land of Ferdinand and Isabella once again…”

I am just fifteen feet away from the President to his left as part of the Presidential Guard. I put my hand on my pistol and walk towards him.

“…and I say, no, no, no! There is no power in this majestic  land of Cortés, Velázquez and Cervantes that can stop me now. What the…”

The President looks round at me. He looks like a man who knows his time has come. Sheer incomprehension on his face.

¡Por la paz!” I shout. For the peace. I shoot the President three times in the chest. He crumples to the floor.

I drop to my knees and await my fate. I hear shouting and motion and mayhem but all I think about is Valentina and that Durruti quote. I feel a gun against the back of my skull.

Llevamos un mundo nuevo en nuestros corazones,” I whisper to her.

by Martin O’Brien based on Marblehead Johnson – The Bluetones

 

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The Waiting Game

They’re givin’ you the business and puttin’ on a show
You’re a million dollar man that ain’t got no dough
But critics still continue to plaster
My name and discredit my fame

Finally, the adrenalin is dissipating. A couple of Falcons has helped me calm down. That buzz from performing always stuns me. Even today three years after I “made it”. I can hear the crowd shouting my name. Even outside of Britain people know who I am and that’s what drives me on.

The thought of what has happened in those years since I won StarStruck makes my heart start to race again. I’m still here, no matter what they throw at me. I wouldn’t be in Sweden smashing another gig if I listened to their shit.

Every article, every TV show – all they do is mention the contract. The million pound contract for winning StarStruck. If they knew how hard I have worked maybe they would shut up. But probably now, it’s the British way to build you up and then knock you down. And then kick you in the ribs a few times just to make sure and say “it’s your fault I’m kicking you!”

“A deluded no-mark” I was called last week in an article on the Guardian, “eking out a living in the backwaters of Europe. It is all a far cry from 2 and half years ago on the eve of his debut album release. At the press conference TV talent show winner Taylor Alban stated without any irony or apparent self-awareness that this record could be ‘the most important album this century’. What was released was a hodgepodge of overwrought, predictable covers and self-penned mild folk-rock songs reminiscent of the most obnoxious backpacker-with-a-guitar that you ever had the unfortunate opportunity to meet on a beach in Thailand.”

I acknowledge the issues with the first album. However the problems were mainly down to the multiple producers foisted upon me and the way my manager refused to take on board my ideas. What an infuriating man! Ali Shaheed, the most musically brain dead man in London, without a shadow of a doubt. Getting rid of the buffoon was the best decision I’ve made in my career..

I told him not to release a cover for a debut single. But no, Ali said you can’t go wrong with a U2 cover and the media hype – a safe bet. Since when has music been about a safe bet? Covering The Sweetest Thing was as an uninspiring choice and I was surprised it reached as high as number four.

When my debut album sales barely crept above 15,000 the tone from the label shifted. The reminders came through that the million pound contract was dependent on sales. After the advance on the first album it now turned out that I owed the label!

I never thought I would be the one taken for a ride by the record labels. I thought my talent would see me through to where I belonged, to be ranked one day alongside people like Bowie and MJ.

The papers had a field day over the sales and people started hollering abuse at me in the street. I would walk down Stoke Newington High Street and people on a disturbingly regular basis would shout moronic stuff like “you’re shit!”, “top knot wanker!” and “you giant-headed twat!” at me.

One bug-eyed, skinhead even pressed me up against the wall outside the White Hart and told me I was scum for the way I treat people. His eyes were nearly popping out of his head. Luckily the staff from the pub came out and calmed things down and the guy ran off. But what an experience! I thought he was going to strangle me to death just for covering Vanessa Carlton.

In the end it made me all the more determined to prove people wrong. My mother said “work hard and you reap the rewards”. I try and I try but it feels like forces are conspiring against me. Here I am in Nefertiti Jazz Club in Gothenburg playing in a small cave-like venue in front of probably less than a hundred people.

Is it worth it?

It has to be. To get my message out. My second album was created using the rest of my advance money. I wasn’t giving that moolah straight back to the label, especially with their lack of faith in me. They said there will be no marketing on the record but refused to allow me to sign with someone else! Bloody hell, I know how Prince felt having no control of your destiny. They gave me a week in the recording studio and I blasted out ten of my own compositions and produced it myself as they wanted the dickhead who was responsible for my debt disaster..

I finish my Falcon and head out of the changing room back to the bar to see what’s happening. At the bar I stand next to a guy dressed up in Fred Perry talking about Sleaford Mods to some English girls. I look across the bar and see a man with a mean scowl staring at me. Getting stared at when out in public is probably the weirdest thing about being famous. People gawping at you when you’re on the Tube or having a pint at the pub.

I order another beer and then decide it’s a bit busy as the venue has morphed into a nightclub now. Madonna is on, a bit of Into The Groove. What a great song. The place has filled up since I was on half an hour ago. I notice the strange guy is still looking at me with a look of barely disguised contempt. I leave the bar and can feel him watching me as I make my way back to the changing room.

I plonk myself back in the comfy chair. Next stop, Stockholm. Hopefully sales of the new album will start picking up. Three thousand at last count. Enough to keep my head above water alongside the touring but not enough to pay the record company parasites back. I even managed a three-star review of the album in the Sun and album of the week on some French website. Zut alors!

I compare myself to the Beatles in Hamburg. These are my forty days and forty nights in the desert. My penance for dealing with the devil, or Ali as I call him. If I can just power through this tour for the next few months and save some cash to make a third album I could start becoming an established player.

Although I have no record label now. They terminated the contract after the second album was released. Bastards, they still receive their cut of sales from the current record despite putting bugger all resources into it. It makes me bloody fume.

I stand up and look in the mirror. I think I’ve aged ten years in the last twelve months. The stress of recording and touring is catching up with me. I shut my eyes and try to relax, I can feel my heart speeding up again.

I open my eyes and in the reflection of the mirror I see I’m not alone.

The guy who was staring at me at the bar is in my room. Shit.

“What’re you doin’ here?” my voice is strong but I don’t think it will if I have to ask again. He is stood in the now-open doorway.

“You don’t recognise me Taylor?” the man’s voice is soft, in spite of his hard eyes and tight, drawn mouth.

Recognise him? I don’t recall seeing him before. Unless it’s…

“You…you, you’re the guy from the White Hart!” I say, in utter surprise, it’s the bloody feller who nearly knocked my block off in London.

“That was the last time we met, yes.” The man is looking at me with more contempt than I ever imagined somebody could look at another human, “you still don’t actually remember me, do you?”

“I’m sorry,” I’m mumbling now, “Please. I don’t know, please don’t hurt me,”

“You’re not a nice person Taylor, you lie and deceive just to get your own way. We met three years ago in Shoreditch,”

“What’s your name? The last few years have been a bit manic, I’m sorry if I’ve forgotten who you are,”

The man moves from the door and stands a couple feet away from me. He doesn’t look like he’s going to plough my face in immediately. He looks calmer now.

“My name is Dan. You told me you wanted to make a record and told you I produce my own stuff. I said my friend runs a recording studio in Ealing so you could make a demo. I paid up front for the studio and new equipment which you said you needed. We texted and on the day you were supposed to come up to the studio you shafted me.”

“I can’t…I’m not sure I…” a flicker of memory is tickling the back of my brain.

“You cost me fifteen hundred quid for everything, you shit. I never heard again from you and three weeks later you were on that bag o’ shite TV show. And then you won and became Mr Big Shot and never responded to my messages or paid me back.”

And like a sea wall disintegrating under the power of a tsunami it all comes back to me.

“Oh God. I’m so sorry, if I could pay you back I would. I’ll try and get the money for you.”

“Forget the money, that doesn’t matter now. I know you’re pretty much insolvent if your puerile tweets are anything to go by. I’m going to take away what you really desire,”

“What’s that?” dizziness is striking at my core and I stumble past the man and fall back into the chair. The man looks at me pityingly, he walks back over to the door and places his hand on the handle.

“Your oh-so-precious musical career, Mr Alban,”

“Please don’t hurt me, please don’t,” I can’t believe what is happening. He’s going to close the door and murder me. I need to protect myself but what to do? I’ve never been in this position before.

“Oh I’m not going to attack you.” the man chuckles and stands in the doorway, “ I’m going to keep an eye on you. It’s very easy to do these days thanks to the internet. I know where you’ll be and what you’re doing. I’m going to empty your soul like you do to people. You are a parasite, Taylor.”

“What…what are you going to do,”

“I’ll keep you waiting, like you did to me. Then I’ll make you pay,”

The man walks out of the room and back to the bar and leaves me sat on the chair waiting. But waiting for what?

by Martin O’Brien based on Show Business – A Tribe Called Quest

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A Memento of Summer

Running down a central reservation in last night’s red dress
And I can still smell you on my fingers and taste you on my breath
It’s like living in the middle of the ocean
With no future, no past

Walking

I’m in a trance. It’s a nice feeling. This must be how bees feel when they’ve pollinated a tender flower.

If you were a fan of cheesy wordplay, you could say I’m buzzing. I’ve not had a night like that with a man before.

And now the walk home in the cool late summer morning through a cow-filled meadow. This is my favourite time of the year. There’s a natural underlying warmth to the air but there’s a fresh breeze  which catches my arms and sends a little chill through my body. The future beefburger creatures just stare at me.

I don’t know what happened to my shoes but the feel of the moist grass on my dirty feet somehow lifts me even higher. Huge trees are ahead of me and I can hear the sound of traffic beyond them.

I pass through the trees, the smell of cars and urbanity begins to hit me and a little wave of self-consciousness hits me. I’m at a dual carriageway wearing little more than the red dress I wore to his house last night.

The road is pretty quiet so I skip over the road towards the central reservation.  A lorry goes by and peeps his horn. Even the pesky pervos can’t get me down today. I hop over the barrier next to the overtaking lane and on to the grass again.

Last night was so intense, shame it ended in a big argument but that’s how these happen. He lost his head and I lost mine, I suppose. I really can’t deal with arguments and shouting and name-calling. It’s not my scene.

It was all forgotten by morning and I felt like a weight had been lifted off the ol’ shoulders. Today’s another adventure isn’t it?

Another lorry goes by and more horn-parping follows. Have they never seen a lass wander down a road at 7am on a Sunday morning? This time a car rolls by and something is shouted out the window by a funny-looking young woman. I wave at her.

The amount of people paying me attention is funny. I start skipping down the road. I’ve never felt as light as this. I have literally not a care in the world today.

I skip for what seems like hours. Who knows how long it is? I see a roundabout ahead. I’m disappointed that the long straight road is being interrupted by this big round thing.

Actually, I’m a bit tired now. Perhaps last night’s physical exertions have taken their toll on me. Pretty hungry too, come to think of it.

I arrive at the junction and look for a spot to cross. The middle of the roundabout is grassy too, and raises to a mound in the middle and it’s filled with flowers. It looks a nice place for a picnic if you’re a fan of staring at roads.

A car pulls up beside and brakes. The passenger in the car is a friendly old granny. She looks up at me and sees the state of me. She motions to her feller, it must be her husband.

He just stares at me. I hold his gaze. He has a hard face. We match eyes for seconds until his increasingly agitated wife forces him to look away. She is shouting at him. He looks back at me and drives off. Weird.

As he pulls away a white van is coming from the right hand side and rams his hatchback up the backend. The noise is pathetically small for a car accident like this. It reminds  when a bunch of cans fall off a supermarket shelf. The old timer’s car is shunted off the roundabout to the left whilst the van spins around in the middle of the road. My stomach lurches a little bit at how something so big can look lost.

I turn away from the accident and head up to the flowers for a sit down and to see what I can do about the mega- hunger that I’m feeling.

Sitting

The sounds of people shouting is knocking me out of my blissful moment. I just want to sit at the summit of this roundabout with my thoughts.

My arms are covered in his aroma. It’s wafting up and too intense a reminder of what happened last night. Another chill goes through my body and I can’t even look at my arms now.

I feel perturbed by something. It’s that old man from the car. He’s now on the road, he has a gash down his face running from his right eye to his jawline.

He’s staring at me again. I don’t like his hard face, harder then the tarmac. I look at other people who have gathered around. They are all looking at me. Twenty of them now. A police car has pulled up too.

Two male cops exit the car and are looking at me too. They’re shouting at me. Words I can’t quite grasp, I feel like I’m falling in to a trance.

I remain sat like a buddha in my flowery roundabout, cut adrift from everything. I’m so glad I still have my memento of last night. I can’t let it go. I close my eyes, trying to preserve my feelings of walking down the road earlier.

The sun is high in the sky now, it must be midday now? How long have I sat here now? I open my eyes and there must be twenty coppers here now, along with a couple of ambulances (ambulanci – is that a word?).

The old man is still there, he’s still staring at me. I can’t see his wife. Some of the police have guns. The guns are pointed at me. They are still shouting at me. Again, their words are like waves bouncing off the bow of an ocean liner.

All I want to do is gaze into his eyes like I did last night.

But as I look down at his face his eyes are no longer there. After I decapitated him I removed his judgmental eyes. Always judging me. No longer will I stand for that kind of shit.

“You’ll never amount to anything, you’re a coward, a pathetic creature” he bawled at me. He was stood in my face, sneeringly arrogant and dominant.

That was when I caught him with my elbow and he went down straight away. The way he went down antagonised me even more. He was sparked out, no movement at all.

I went to the kitchen and got the bread knife. I came back to the bedroom, drank the rest of the wine and went to work.

It took about two hours to chop it off. I suppose you never think about the practicalities of lopping someone’s noggin off. When I finally wrenched the spine away from his head I felt catharsis. It was perfect moment of the night.

So I took it with me. I’m not sure why really. I think I thought I had earned it through my labours. Looking at the blood covered face I begin to feel like perhaps it wasn’t my right to behead somebody, no matter how much they piss me off. I’ve always struggled with seeing things rationally. I can see now that some folk may think beheading someone is a slightly disproportionate response.

My arms are covered in dried blood up to my shoulders. Lucky I wore the red dress, otherwise I could have looked a right, clashing mess. What now for me?

I don’t know.

I stand up. The policemen raise their guns in unison.

I lift up the head by his crimson-tinted blonde hair and hold it aloft like it was Medusa’s head. The spectators are visibly repulsed but don’t turn to stone.

I roll the head back down the hill, where it lays to rest on the roadside.

The old man is still there. He’s still staring at me from fifty yards away. Still judging me. His face is unreadable.

I cannot handle this man staring and judging and giving nothing back.

I know I can’t reach him without the police stopping me. But I’ll take my chances.

I run at him, space and time merges together, the future and the past no longer exist.

by Martin O’Brien based on Central Reservation – Beth Orton

 

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