Previously Unpublished SHORT STORY

The dust has been blown away. The yellowing pages perused, and the decision made.

One of the series of short stories I wrote in the late 1990s is published for the first time below.

It's so old, you can still smoke upstairs on buses in it.

I never released it before mainly because I didn't like the title. Still don't. But I've adapted it slightly and I'm a little happier with it.

Spoiler alert: It's about a guy who used to be a baby, and it's not a laugh a minute. So if you're looking for something cheery or uplifting, best look elsewhere.

I’m not a hard man. Let me just say that. I’m not. Show me an animal in distress and I won’t eat meat for a week. Put me in between brawling blokes in a bar and I’ll buy them both a drink. Ask me if there was a war on would I fight, I would die.
            I just look hard. It’s in my face. I was born with it, people expect it of me. Expect hardness.
            My face has got worse since life got me smoking. The inhaling lines you before it kills you. Dries you out. It’s not a moist habit, smoking. But it looks hard and you need to look hard these days. Everyone’s at it, looking hard, getting hard haircuts, playing hard music in hard cars. Doing hard crosswords. Reading hardback books by hard authors featuring hard heroes.
Giving up smoking’s hard, though I’ve never tried. I can tell from the adverts and from the signs I see on buses, through restaurant windows and in parts of pubs. It’s something a lot of people want to do, smoking, me included. I’ll smoke anywhere I like, mind. In pubs, outside restaurants, on buses, and I won’t pay the fine. I’ll sit upstairs at the back of the bus where I used to as a kid. Where I smoked and passed comment on people as they came up sweaty stairs to sit down. Where I told babies’ mothers to shut it while their loved ones bawled their bald heads off. 
            Now I still sit at the back to smoke but I’m not so loud. I don’t pass comment on people because I don’t want people passing comment on me. Don’t want them sitting behind or anywhere near me, especially schoolkids, because my head’s balding. It’s beginning to look like a hairy polo. And it has a tendency to dandruff my shoulders. And kids will point this out to you. They’ll whisper and laugh and point and say dandruff and baldy, like I don’t know I’ve got shortcomings.
            If you sit at the back no one sees you. That’s the way to handle it. Prevention, not cure. From the rear you see other people’s problems, and there are plenty of them around. You get the uncontrollable shakers, the old ladies who chew air, the young men with bleach white stains on their hair, pretty girls with rashes on their faces, the neck boils, leg lumps, shoulder hair, the moles of the proles. There are so many things that can go wrong with you.
            I’m sitting at the back now, in a rush to get home, nervously smoking. No one complains on this bus, which pukes out fumes far more toxic than anything I can produce. With the concept of conductors consigned to the graveyard, no one comes near enough to a face like mine to complain. Some young suits jaded by dull work might turn round and have a look, but they see my face, calculate trouble and have the sense to turn right back round and face the front like good boys.
            I get home, having smoked five, to find my babies have been left on the doorstep and I’m angry but happy because I don’t have to face the delivery man. They always look hard, delivery men. You have to be hard to survive driving as much as they do. Cutting up or trying to kill motorists because they’ve got deadlines. You need confidence and hardness to do that because you never know how hard the drivers you’re cutting up are until their face is in your window or their fist’s in your face. So I’m not sure how to handle delivery men. I’m not sure where to sign, whether to tip. I like to see a cross where I’m supposed to sign, not just the point of a hard-skinned, broken-nailed nico-tainted finger. I like to hear the thanks when I tip. Maybe a smile of recognition that says, cheers mate, if I see you down the pub, I might shout you a half for that tip. Might help you out if you got into a bit of hardship.
            I pick up my babies. They’re soft but it’s hard opening my front door quickly. There’s three keys that have to be employed. Can’t be too careful round the estate. People with time on their hands and on their CVs, if you catch my drift. The lock that came with the door didn’t keep evil thoughts out, let alone the hard and bumfluffed acned drugged kids determined to break in. That’s why I wasted no time getting a locksmith called Jones to sort me out one of those five lever mortice deadlocks the insurance people like. Expensive, but the peace of mind and lower premiums make it worth the while.
            Safely inside I caress my soft babies, warming them with my hand and cheek because they’re still cold from being abandoned on my doorstep. It’s amazing what rubbish you get with babies these days. There are loads of leaflets, offering offers I don’t want to be offered. Discounts that don’t count. Holidays that take weeks. I put them to one side and won’t look at them later. I’m careful to put the invoice to the other side. I don’t want trouble. I’m not a hard man like I said. It’s hard getting away without paying for things these days. I’ve tried, but those big computers they’ve got, the huge hardware and sophisticated software always gets you paying more in the end.
            Now I’m here and my babies are safe, I feel guilty about rushing home. I clipped a few heels at Victoria station, tutting, swearing, muttering to myself at all the mad people who got in my way to get out.  At one stage they even forced me to raise both my arms in front of me, and walk across the concourse to platforms 15 to 19, swinging them left to right and back again like a Dalek. I clubbed a few but felt sorry for none, they should keep their distance. People moaned and tutted and looked and oyed and frowned but thought better than to mess with someone who looked like me.
            I’m taking the first soft baby out of the package and I’m nailing it on the wall. It doesn’t hang easy but they rarely do. Some of the insides spill out like intestines but that doesn’t worry me. It’ll happen sooner or later. You’re not meant to nail babies to walls, I know that. Then again people know they’re not supposed to drive faster than thirty miles an hour in a built up area, or smoke in no smoking zones.
            It takes some hammering, some straightening, a step back, a tilt of the head, another adjustment, then a nod of self-satisfaction, before it’s time to unwrap the next one. It’s hard getting things straight. I’ll have a fag thank you very much and think about it.
            The phone rings mid-thought-and-fag. I answer it but it’s only telesales. Nearly always is telesales. You can tell they’re reading from a pre-prepared script and that they know they’re being monitored by some balding adulterer in the office upstairs who’ll count the seconds they spend in the toilet. That’s why I refrain from telling them to go away until I’ve listened to them spew out their spiel. Telesales is hard. But when I’ve had enough I say ‘Go away, I’m not interested unless I’ve won any money, in which case, don’t go away. Post it to me at the address you’ve already got and then go away.’ Amazingly some of them don’t take that as a polite no. Those hard-nosed customers get my pre-prepared script which goes ‘I’ve recently had my windows double-glazed, my kitchen re-fitted and my roof re-tiled. No I’ve never thought about a facial or a weekend at a health farm because they won’t let me smoke at the health farm will they, and I need to smoke for my health so if you don’t go away now, I know people who can trace this call and I’m going to come round and bite both your arms off.’
            That usually does the trick.
            I’ve finished my fag and I’m hanging the second baby on the wall. This one goes straight up first time. It’s easier when you’ve got the first one to feed off. Just line the tops up. I notice the third baby’s wrapped badly. Some dirty hardnut’s had his hands on it. Probably been on display somewhere. In some warped warehouse where it’s been kicked about like a football by hard blokes with nothing better to do.     
            The fourth and final baby’s the hardest to unwrap. No air in it. Must have suffocated. People don’t know how to look after them these days. How to let them rest in peace. The polythene doesn’t tear easily. Though once I’ve bitten it with my teeth it tears all right, and after I’ve hammered the softie to the wall, I take the polythene and start wrapping it around my balding head because I’ve heard it helps hair regrowth. That’s what they said about rubbing banana skins or marmite into your scalp after standing on your head for fifteen minutes a day. I’ve tried them all. I’ll do anything, because losing hair is tangible evidence that my body’s dying.
And I don’t feel I’ve lived yet.
            Breathing hard now, I use the string from the package to tie it nice and tight around my neck. Don’t want air getting in. Air that other people have used and regurgitated and spat in and choked in. I then circle sellotape around my head like I’m wrapping a mummy, just to make sure.
            Now I couldn’t be happier, watching my breath condense on the bag, feeling the warmth of my own air over my head, the tingle in the scalp that must surely be the start of hair regrowth. But I’ve been here before and I’m back here again. Nothing’s changed. I’ve gone nowhere. I’m going back when I want to move on. I’m losing hair and looking like a baby again and I haven’t lived yet.

            I repeatedly crash my dying brains against the soft white baby pillows on my wall, thinking about travelling to work tomorrow and back home, back to work, back home back to work back home. Travelling forever, getting nowhere. And I’m thinking about the babies bawling and the heads balding until I’m ga ga.

Free Short Story: Vicious Circle

Vicious Circle

Danny Gibb had a U-bend scar on his face that his girl used to like. Said it gave him character. Made him look hard. But trouble attracts trouble and soon their relationship was in it. The end came the night he hit his girlfriend for the first and last time. Hard on the right side of her face which was the wrong side because it was her good side. He hit her after finding out about
         Dr Hambell, who hadn’t always had letters and women after his name. Sitting in his Harley Street practice, sipping sherry because he’s got bad news for a man whose skin graft was hard work and failed to disguise the scars. Drinking because he knows that success and failure go hand in scalpeled hand. But what the hell? The man’s appointment isn’t until 10.30 tomorrow morning. Why let that spoil tonight? Enjoy yourself. Seek sanctuary at the club, talk women and cricket with
         Gerry Spavins, who despised Australians but loved brandy. Shot a day keeps the doctor away. The season starts in April. The Windies are touring this year. Don’t fancy our chances, old boy. No slouch with the bat in his day was Gerald. Oxford vice-captain, averaged 43 as an opener. Career dreams ended by a back injury sustained delivering a stunning off-break to
         George Wallace, wicket-keeper, teetotaller, Loughborough at the time. Would go on to excel as a botanist until his death at the hands of a driver drunk on eight pints of Australian lager. A driver who ploughed into him on a country road near Heathfield, East Sussex as George examined a species he mistakenly believed to be rare. The jury of eight men and four women found
         Roger Baines guilty, quickly. He served his time and paid his fine, but never drove again. Caught cabs instead, to and from the pub where he downed the drinks the night it happened. He liked the place, no kids, no pool or pinball table. No quiz machine, duke box or women. Just old friends, pork scratchings and the landlord
         David Vine, no relation. Expert pint-puller, glass-shiner, trouble-shooter. Tell Dave your problem, he’ll give you an answer and it might not be the one you want to hear. Boxed as a boy in the rings of East London, did Dave. Nearly made it as a pro until that fateful night against that dude from Up West. Never bet against the black man they said and they were right, because
         Junior Wright had a right that decked people. It earned him local fame and small-time fortune. Childhood on the estates of Hounslow knocked him into shape, quick to get defences up and sharp to get the right out. Was destined to appear on Sportsnight until he fell for a girl who held up the square round number cards and walked round the ring with a smile, collecting stares and wolf-whistles. Short skirts and blonde she was. Strutting, some might say slutting her stuff. Good enough for page three as well as round three ding ding, seconds out. Too much, the beautiful temptress for
         Warren C, ringside and wasted with his mates from Bethnal Green. Look at the tits on that. Give me fifty if I get me ‘ands on them? Nods and smiles and go ons and he made a grab for the prize. Lager had got him thinking he could have her. But little did he know that her father was near her. Sat in the same seat every fight, keeping two eyes on his luvly daughter. Before Warren got the chance to lay clammy hands and salivating lips on her
         Charlie the father pounced and had him pinned to the ground, fist poised to hit face. F-words and C-words raining down like punches until the knockout blow. The pain came again, shooting up the left arm and across the chest, doubling old Charlie over, prompting calls for doctors in houses and screams of women and cries for help that
         Julian Thorpe, city boy, fight lover, quick mover answered. He got to the pay phone first, before the days of mobiles. He did the free three nine business, and cool as a towel wafting a face in the corner did what needed to be done. He had money on the fight. Three-figure sum. Nine nine nine. Easy money, which he had to claim back when the fight was cancelled. Can’t say he felt disappointed. One of those things, old chap. He’d make more easy money in the City on the morrow, where he traded in tailored suits and all-pink or blue striped shirts he always brought from that first class tailor on Chancery Lane, the one that
         Andy Brown tried to rob on another night when he needed money and knew of a bloke in Barking who was after some classy clothes like. Did he know anyone who could get hold of a nice drop of satin, bit posh like? Andy said yeah, course, like, smooth, but he really meant no. But not wanting to let a mate down, you know, and with a bit of experience in the breaking and the entering and the taking line of business, nudge nudge, he decided to do the job himself, and fings was going sweet as like till he was disturbed by a

         PC on patrol. City of London, quiet night, all the sirens coming from Up West along Holborn. Plodding the deadbeat as usual. Past the silver vaults, the high class off licences, the legal offices. Then just saw a trailing black leg and bovver boot disappear through a window. On to the radio quick, calling for backup. ETA five. Be done and gone by then so it’s deep breath and in there alone. Torch on, stop police. In the dark a flash of silver and cutlass motion. The shadow runs with a handful of 16 and a half-inched collars, leaving a U-bend scar for life on the face of PC Danny Gibb.

The Diamond Rush Reviews

You wait ages for one, then two come along at once...

If my Maths serves me correctly, there were 657 days between the 2nd and 3rd reviews for The Diamond Rush on Barnes & Noble. And just 10 between the 3rd and 4th.

My first novel (published in 2011) seems to be finally finding an audience. Hang in there if you've been waiting ages for a review of your book...

BOOK REVIEW: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson (Translated from Swedish to English by Steven T. Murray)

I’ve always shied away from translated novels. I mean, how do I know the translator has effectively captured the emotion and style and intention and nuance of the originator’s manuscript?

But putting all that bullcrap to one side, this was a pleasurable read, its natural flow leading to me devouring 500+ pages in a couple of weeks – amazing when you consider the previous (shorter) novel I read took me over 2 years to finish (on and off – mainly off).

I picked up the paperback tome for £2 from that sad place all novels end up - on the discount shelves. Had heard of it, of course. It’s been made into a film I haven’t seen. The author died before it was published etc.

For my taste, a little too detailed in places. I could see the author’s research notes literally transferred word for (translated) word to the page. But that’s a minor gripe.

Another, the title. Originally “Men Who Hate Women” in Swedish. Which sounds like the title to a thesis, not a novel. But the English translated title is a little misleading. As it’s not really about said decorated female – although she does feature prominently.

And an immense amount of coffee is consumed during this story, by literally everyone. Pots of it getting boiled and downed at all times of day and night.

But the main character, despite his loose relationships with women and his desertion of his daughter, is likable enough. You want him to succeed, to take down the faceless bad boy tycoon. I just hope the story I read is as close to the story Stieg Larsson intended people to read. We will never know.