A LINK IN THE CHAIN

Chris R-0992 Image by Christine Renney

After almost twenty years Jack took his job for granted. He was a refuse collector, a garbage man, or at least this is what he told anyone who bothered to ask. He in fact worked at a landfill site, one of the largest in the country. He was the man on the ground, in charge of the day to day operations.
Much of society’s waste can be recycled, can be shredded and pulped and will break down and disintegrate. But much of it will not and burying this safely and as efficiently as was possible Jack considered to be an important and necessary task. He didn’t want to look at the bigger picture, hadn’t any desire to grapple with the wider implications.
He worked in the here and now and far too often he had stood as if accused, had been pulled into unwanted debate time and again. And so he had started to lie, he was a bin man and Jack wouldn’t elaborate and he couldn’t be drawn, not anymore.
Over the years, after each promotion, his wife hadn’t been able to help herself and had boasted to her sisters. But all family had been warned not to talk about work with Jack and although this had proved a little awkward at first it had soon become commonplace and was accepted.
His three daughters, now all teenagers, were thankfully unafflicted by any sort of youthful idealism. They were entirely uninterested in environmental or green issues and couldn’t care less what their dad did for a living.
Jack hardly thought about his work at all. In the mornings he rose alone and as the others slept he moved almost soundlessly from bedroom to bathroom to kitchen. When he left the house was still in darkness and seemingly undisturbed but when he returned in the evenings it was noisy and alive, the four women bickering and laughing together. Jack didn’t mind that he was excluded, taken for granted and quite happily he moved at the periphery, occasionally glancing in at them.

Jack had been on site half an hour or so at most when the two men from head office arrived. He recognised them instantly although over the years their paths had crossed no more than a handful of times and as far as he could remember neither of them had ever visited a site before. They wanted something, this much was obvious.
‘How can I help you?’ Jack stumbled, trying not to sound surprised.
They were straight talking and businesslike and pulling chairs they sat in front of his desk, and without an intro or any fanfare they told him what they wanted him to do. It was to bury a man, dispose of a corpse. They couldn’t tell him any more, only that it was important and necessary and that he had been carefully selected to perform this particular task. That it needed to be done swiftly and the employee who delivered the casket would help him but no-one else on the site could know. He would be rewarded financially and of course it wouldn’t be forgotten.
They were asking him but Jack really hadn’t any choice. Somehow he managed to agree and proffering his hand he even shook on it.

Jack couldn’t remember being at home on his own during the day before. His wife worked part-time but not today and he hadn’t any idea where she was, what she was doing or at what time his daughters returned from school. He realised that they led lives he knew nothing about and that he could so easily just go back, make the necessary arrangements, make the phone call and become a part of something. But he didn’t.
When they came home it was together, his wife was first through the door and when she saw him sitting at the kitchen table, dropping her shopping bags to the floor, she stopped abruptly and behind her his daughters stumbled.
‘What’s wrong?’ she asked, ‘has something happened?’
‘I have to quit,’ he said.
‘What do you mean? I don’t understand.’
‘I need to quit my job.’
The girls pushed their way past their mother and stepping over the shopping the four of them then stood and gaped at him.
Jack told them what had happened, what it was they had asked him to do. He put it succinctly, was as workmanlike in the telling as the men from Head Office had been earlier. When he was finished they didn’t react as he had expected they would. They didn’t question, didn’t try to make sense of it. Instead of engaging in awestruck debate they stood in awkward silence. His wife looked up, down, everywhere but at him and at last she said, ‘Jack, I really don’t think that you should have told us this. Come on girls,’ she sighed, ‘let’s go in the other room. Your father needs to be alone, he needs some time to think.’

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THE FORUM

chris-r-0048-2 Image by Christine Renney

They have always wanted to take them from us. I don’t understand why. Perhaps it is because they can’t and this is also why they have never stopped trying. They could have cut out our tongues and rendered us insensate. The mutilation would have been quick and easy but it wouldn’t have worked. They couldn’t then, and still can’t now, remove the words, at least not with surgery or through violence.
The words inside us are like a virus. The most virulent of computer viruses and no-one is able to break it. Nevertheless, I often wonder what would happen if somehow they did. Could we still function? But once, of course, we did. In the time before we began to grunt and to nod and to point, first at each other and then at the sky. But this moment must have been so fleeting as to have been almost non-existent.

We all have our monitors. The notion we might be without them is inconceivable. We carry them with us wherever we go, brandishing them wherever we are, constantly checking the word count and reassuring ourselves.
Years ago a friend of mine put his monitor in his jacket pocket, unlocked. Throughout the course of the day, as he went about his business, rummaging for small change and his keys, he inadvertently punched in some words. Hours later, when he at last looked at his monitor and checked his count it had dropped dramatically. He had lost six words, a whole sentence wasted. He hadn’t used these words to search for something on the web, or to leave a message on one of his forums. He didn’t even know what the words had been. We surmised that they must have been short, one, two, three letters at most.
Anyhow, my friend tried to make light of it.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said, ‘I still have enough, if and when I need them I’ll still have enough.’
But I couldn’t help noticing he had upgraded his monitor. It was one of those early self-locking models. We all have them now of course but back then they were very expensive.

I can access five forums, which is a lot, especially nowadays but as long as I visit often enough, I don’t need to use a word and so I make the effort to keep them active. Whenever someone does key in words and looks at something on the web they always drag it across to share it and it isn’t too long before it is on all the forums and everyone can see it. New content trickles through slowly and it is always an event. No matter what it might be it is the subject of much verbal debate and conjecture. A pop video perhaps or a baseball game or some trashy tv show from yesteryear. Everything on the web is old, there are no up to the minute bulletins and no new pop songs. I suppose that most of what we share is superficial and insignificant. Perhaps that is why we all have aliases so that out there in the ether no-one knows who anyone else is.
News reports are shared infrequently but the repercussions are far greater. The coverage is always of terrorist attacks or hate crimes, of rebellions and uprisings and military coups, of political prisoners proclaiming from inside a stark prison cell or from some poorly lit courtroom. All of this happened long ago of course but people are still passionate and quickly enraged. This is the cause of division and violence often erupts and these outbursts, these incidents, are identical to those we watch on the forums.

There is very little of the written word on the forums. It is generally videos and photographs but mostly videos. There is the original accompanying text with every share, but this somehow doesn’t count and people rarely leave messages. It takes too many words to say something clever or funny, to write something thought provoking or meaningful.
There must be so much out there on the web, from magazines and newspapers, articles and essays, poems and stories and novels. Almost everything up until that point, up until it was stopped.
Just a few months ago somebody did drag a story across, a story by a once popular writer. Most people thought it pointless to share this work when it was still in print and readily available in libraries and bookshops.
We all wanted to find something within this story, to glean something from it. But it was just a story. A good one, yes, but one of many.

ADJOINING ROOMS

Chris R-0772.jpg Image by Christine Renney

‘If, in the First Act, you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise, don’t put it there’ – Anton Chekhov

Since the disappearance Carter hadn’t ventured into his son’s room, not properly. He had stepped across the threshold, yes, but mostly when he opened the door he simply peered in at the son’s things, at all he had left behind.
His son had outgrown the room, both he and it had been at odds for years. He hadn’t even bothered to take down or replace the posters on the wall and Carter realised he was sick of the sight of them. Tired of looking up at them, at the outdated Superheroes and forgotten pop stars.
Turning, Carter closed the door, shutting himself in – the first time he had done this. He began to rip them down, scrunching the posters into unruly balls. He threw them to the floor where they promptly began to unravel and Carter kicked at them angrily.
There wasn’t anything in this room that was representative of the man who had deserted it; the one who had deserted it, the one who had turned his back on Carter and who had walked away. And because of this Carter wanted to dismantle it, to pull this room apart and he wanted to do this methodically and calmly. But already he was lashing out, sweeping the boyish things from the shelves, the old Airfix models and dog-eared paperbacks.
Opening the closet he began taking the clothes from the hangers, flinging them out into the room. His intention it seemed was to make a mess. To pile everything up in the centre and later he would bag it all up and get rid of it.
And then he spotted the sports holdall on the top shelf. Reaching for it Carter knew instinctively that there was something hidden inside. That it would be another question at least but possibly, just possibly, it would also be an answer.
He dropped the holdall onto the bed and, without hesitating, he unzipped it. It held a gun – nothing else just the gun, gleaming and immaculate. Carter was shocked and also surprised that it hadn’t been wrapped in something. An old sweatshirt perhaps or a towel. It seemed incomprehensible to him that anyone would place a gun in a bag without sufficient packing, without some sort of insulation, a bed sheet at least, better still a heavy blanket.
Carter tipped the holdall onto its side and, using his index finger, he coaxed the gun out and onto the bed. He lifted the bag, looking inside again, but it was empty. There were no bullets or a clip and no holster. Casting the bag aside, Carter knelt down beside the bed and studied it. It was the first time he had seen a gun other than in films or on television. In photographs and comics and such. Of course, it could be a replica but how would he know? Was his son the type of person who would purchase a fake gun, who would stand in front of the mirror and pretend?
Carter was wary of touching it, because he didn’t know it, didn’t understand it. He wasn’t able to take it apart and put it together again. He and the gun weren’t intimate.
But when he did lift the gun it slipped easily into his hand and it felt comfortable, natural even. And gripping it his finger found the trigger and was readying to squeeze as he pointed it at the wall. And beyond the wall was his own room, the room where he slept.

THE GIFT

The bird landed on the window ledge and began tapping with its beak against the glass. From inside the room I could hear but couldn’t see it. I moved closer and was strangely unperturbed by the fact that it was invisible. I was surprised, yes, but it was fleeting at best and I was much more concerned about what kind of bird it might be. Judging by the sound of the flapping of its wings and the squawking it was big. Probably one of the fearsome looking crows that scavenge alongside the dual-carriageway.
It was obviously in distress and I was convinced that what I was hearing were its death throes. I didn’t need to see it; I could quite easily picture it in my head – bloody and broken and writhing in agony. And I wondered if at some point during the course of its dying it would reappear and if I had been chosen in order to witness this.
I hoped I was wrong. I didn’t want to have to deal with the remains. A dead thing out there on the patio, a bloody mess of feathers. I wasn’t even sure that I could cope. But the bird was still alive and I couldn’t abandon it. Very, very carefully I opened the window, just a little, and determined I stood and I listened.
Amidst the flapping and the beating, the bird’s fractured cawing had a strange sort of rhythm, a cadence that almost resembled speech. And I realised then that it was in fact talking. It struck me also that this was the cause of its pain, of its suffering. That the effort for it to do so was so great and that every word it managed to form was taking its toll. And if the bird was dying, and I still believed it was, then it was because of the words.
I wondered how long it would take and how many more words the bird could manage to make. I abandoned it, just for a moment, searching for pen and notepad and returning I started to write, to transcribe.
The bird was flailing violently, beating its head and beak against the glass and contorting itself and out of each twisted shriek another word emerged.
I could have ended it, I should have put the bird out of its misery. I could so easily have fetched a towel, a heavy bath towel and smothered it. But I didn’t, I wanted so badly to know, to hear, what it had to say.

Sign of the Times-1110902

Image by Christine Renney

PUPPET SHOW

Sign of the Times-0272

Image by Christine Renney

Isabella courted catastrophe or, more accurately, she carried it with her, dragging it behind her on a string. Invisible and weightless, for almost fourteen years it didn’t hinder her and was benign. Only when it struck, when catastrophe bloomed, did she feels its weight.
It almost lifted her from the ground. She was standing in the lounge of her grandmother’s flat, on the eighth floor of a sixteen storey block. Seven flats below and a further eight above.
‘What is happening?’ her grandmother asked.
Isabella, struggling to remain upright, didn’t reply. She managed to grab hold of the string, it was delicate, just a thread, but it didn’t give. She wrapped it around her right wrist and then tried to trace the line, to find out where it was attached and, as she knelt down to gather the excess at her feet, it cut into her skin.
‘OUCH!’
‘Isabella, what is wrong?’, her grandmother sounded distraught.
‘It’s nothing, gran, just a power cut, you know, like in the seventies. Remember you told me all about it?’
‘No, I don’t mean that’, her grandmother said sharply.
‘What’s happening over there. What are you doing?’
‘I just stumbled in the dark. Don’t worry, I’m okay.’
Isabella stood and, with her left hand she fanned the air above her head but couldn’t reach whatever was trying to pull her up. She groaned.
‘Are you hurt? Are you in pain,’ her grandmother asked.
‘No.’
‘Then what is it, Isabella?’
‘I don’t know but it’s heavy.’
Her grandmother crossed to the window and pulled back the drapes. The block of flats opposite stood like a mighty obelisk and there were squares of light dotted here, there and everywhere.
‘It isn’t a power cut’, her grandmother said softly, ‘at least not like in the seventies.’ She could see her granddaughter a little more clearly now and she resembled a pen and ink drawing. A skinny girl buffeted in a gale.
‘I have to step outside’, she said to Isabella, ‘just for a moment. I won’t be long.’
Carefully she manoeuvred herself around the dark shapes that were her furniture. Grappling and groping, she made it into the hall, but before reaching the door at the end, she could see through the glass a dim light from the flat opposite. Nevertheless, stepping outside, she hit the switch on the wall and the landing and stairs below burst into sight.

She placed her hand at the centre of Isabella’s back, gently pushed and they began to move forward, the excess line dragging on the carpet behind them.
At Isabella’s wrist it was taught and she tried with her free hand to grab and pull at it, but it slipped through her fingers and cut into her palm. She held out her hand.
‘Look, gran, can you see it?’
‘No, not in this light.’
‘But you believe me?’
‘Of course I believe you.’
At last they reached the sofa and as she sat, Isabella managed, with considerable effort, to lodge the line beneath the wooden arm and both she and the sofa began to rise.
‘Now can you see it?’
‘Yes, I can see it,’ her grandmother sighed. ‘I’ll fetch the scissors,’ she said resignedly, ‘or a knife and we’ll cut it. I’ll set you free.’
‘Oh no, we can’t do that,’ Isabella wailed, ‘if we do, it’ll go up through the ceiling and through all of the flats or it might go down, it might fall through all the flats below, either way it’ll be a catastrophe. Anyway, it’s too late, whatever it is it has a hold of me.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I don’t know exactly but I know we mustn’t cut it and I can’t be free of it, not now.’
As Isabella spoke something began pulling at the excess line, taking up the slack. She reached down and, grasping hold of it with her right hand, she struggled to wrap it around her left wrist.
Her grandmother began to sob as, suddenly, everything seemingly returned to normal. The lights came back on and the television began again to glare and blare.